Sunday, September 2, 2012


Johann P. Arnason, Kurt A. Raaflaub (ed.), The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. The ancient world: comparative histories. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. xiv, 416. ISBN 9780470655573. $149.95 (hc).

Reviewed by Anna Lucille Boozer, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site


The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives is an editorially ambitious project. This weighty volume covers a wide range of material in order to expose temporal, spatial and theoretical comparisons to the Roman Empire. Although some of the comparative contributions may be standard within their own discipline, Romanists have not often had the opportunity to compare such a wide range of material so easily within the confines of a single volume. Accessibility is one of its major achievements.

The book comprises sixteen chapters organized into five sections. The size of the volume therefore allows only select highlights to be mentioned more thoroughly in this review.

In the Introduction, Arnason urges that we refocus comparative approaches to Roman history towards categories particularly appropriate for comparison: states, empires and civilizations. In so doing, the editors orient their comparative framework towards macroscale perspectives on the Roman Empire and aim to examine standard themes from non-standard vantages.

The first section in this volume focuses on expansion and transformation during different stages in the Roman Empire. One of the editors, Raaflaub, focuses on the transformation of Rome from a city-state into an empire. Raaflaub embeds his own study of this transition firmly within the context of other Mediterranean world empires. A more specific discussion of theoretical perspectives and data citations within these comparisons would have aided the comparisons Raaflaub endorses. For example, what are the specific components of Central American empires that find analogues in Rome's expansion? The chapter by Flaig pursues the theme of Roman expansion primarily through analyzing and critiquing Christian Meier's Res Publica Amissa.1 The chapter co-authored by Cohen and Lendon looks more closely at a snapshot of evidence than many of the other contributions. Cohen and Lendon compare the imperial government of Rome in the first through third centuries AD to the fourteenth century Crown of Aragon to determine more subtle signs of strength or weakness between these two regimes. Their insightful analysis of the imperial and royal voices from these regimes adds colorful depth to our understanding of both. The second section explores Late Antiquity from the third-century crisis onward. The first chapter from this section, by Ziolkowski, argues that purely political and military issues brought about the third century crisis. Ziolkowski suggests that the military lost faith in the imperial purple due to increasing security concerns about barbarian threats along the frontiers. The author clearly demonstrates that the way in which the emperors handled barbarian threats impacted the military's perceptions of their power, which destabilized Roman rule. The contribution by Stroumsa maps the transformations that occurred in religious conceptions and ritual in Late Antiquity, providing contrast with the other chapters more focused on power and politics. Fowden's chapter explores diachronic change in Late Antiquity across the first millennium. This long-range perspective provides particularly strong insights into religious developments as well as the long-term impacts of empires upon later societies.

The third section examines Rome's legacy in the west, east and Islamic worlds. In so doing, the volume provides Romanists with rich comparisons of post-Roman developments across the imperial footprint. The chapter by Becher explores the Franks as heirs to the Roman Empire in both the geographic and internal constitution of their realm. Haldon's contribution explores the Eastern Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries through the lenses of elite individuals, social and economic changes, and the impact of these transformations upon the urban fabric. These themes allow Haldon to tackle the diverse components of the eastern empire in a comprehensive and fluid manner. The final chapter in this section, by Robinson, explores the Islamic Empire through integrating its geography, nomads, and religion into a comprehensive fabric of analysis.

The fourth section considers comparisons between Rome and other ancient empires, including Assyria, China, and Sasanian Iran. Liverani's exploration of comparisons made between Rome and the Assyrian Empire is a positive step toward a deeper probing of a commonly cited comparison. Despite this advance, it is clear that a closer and more data-driven comparison between these empires would prove beneficial for understanding the validity of associating these two great ancient empires together. Lowe's chapter examines the Qin and Han imperial governments, allowing Romanists to glimpse into a body of Chinese data often inaccessible due to a linguistic divide. McDonough's thoughtful contribution on Sasanian Iran provides a succinct yet nuanced introduction to this late empire of the Ancient Near East. The final chapter in this section, by Bang, takes a macroscale approach to comparative frameworks for Roman imperial history. By drawing upon later European history, Bang teases out some of the unique components of Roman rule that we often do not consider thoroughly.

The fifth section returns to theoretical concerns, looking towards the broad theoretical frameworks that inform Roman studies as well as how Roman studies have influenced theoretical perspectives. Arnason explores various methods that have been used to model Roman history and particularly the major transitional phases of Roman imperial expansion, consolidation and collapse. Arnason's macro-level exploration sums up numerous perspectives in a descriptive manner and a deeper analysis of theoretical debates would have been helpful in several instances. For example, Arnason defends the concept of 'romanization' without exploring the ample debates that have surrounded this term in recent decades and one wishes to hear more from this author on this subject. The final chapter in this volume, by Wagner, considers the impact of Rome upon subsequent European identities and developments. This large-scale perspective on Rome complements the other comparative perspectives within the volume and serves well as a conclusion to the volume

The volume is displays a high standard of presentation and proof-reading, although illustrations (including maps) are lacking. The accessible prose, lucid contextualizations, and broad geographic and temporal boundaries will ensure that this text will be a valuable aid to scholars of both the ancient Mediterranean as well as other regions and time periods. Moreover, the contributions could be used for post-graduate teaching as well as academic research by Romanists wishing to probe outside of standard historical and geographic boundaries. It is unfortunate that the volume's price places it outside of easy purchase for most students and scholars. In summation, this volume is a welcome addition to comparative studies of the Roman Empire that bring to bear a broader cohort of perspectives than commonly employed for the Roman Empire.


1.   The original publication is C. Meier, Res publica amissa. Eine Studie zu Verfassung und Geschichte der späten römischen Republik, Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1966.

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