Thursday, November 15, 2012


Clifford Ando, Imperial Rome AD 193 to 284: the Critical Century. Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 256. ISBN 9780748620517. $50.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Graeme Clarke, Australian National University (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a volume written specifically for the Edinburgh series, under the General Editorship of John Richardson, on the history of Rome from its beginnings down to AD 565 (in 8 volumes). The series is designed for "students and all who are interested in the history of western civilization", presenting "an accessible and challenging account of Rome across a millennium and a half of its expansion and transformation".

As such, this volume is perfectly pitched for its intended English-speaking student audience (all technical terms are explained or translated), providing that requisite account of third-century Rome which is both "accessible and challenging".

Writing the Third Century does provide special challenges – impoverished and unreliable historical sources; a bewildering list of pretenders, usurpers and short-lived emperors; break-away kingdoms in both the west and the east; porous and threatened frontiers along with rapacious armies; widely different regional histories and economies; and a delicate balancing act of maintaining simultaneously a viewpoint both at the macro-level imperial government and at the micro-level provincial administration. And how to end up, after a century of all this tumultuous history, with both major transformations and deep continuities.

Ando tackles those challenges by having a series of basically narrative chapters, couched at the imperial level, interspersed with a number of broad thematic studies. Thus the chapter on the Severans is followed, appropriately, by "Law, citizenship and the Antonine revolution"; the chapter on Maximinus to Philip is followed by one on "Religion"; the chapter on Decius to the death of Gallienus is followed by a chapter on "Government and governmentality". And all are supported with judiciously chosen documentation. Ando himself acknowledges that these chapters on changes in legal, political, economic and social culture do not always follow seamlessly the sequential narrative of imperial politics, but they are intelligently placed where they are located, and ultimately lead to a balanced historical overview of the entire century. The intended "student" is, indeed, very well served.

Certainly those thematic chapters are models of clarity in exposition, solidly grounded in local and imperial law, and Roman religious traditions (as one might well expect from Ando's many publications), brilliantly perceptive and written with some refreshing verve ("This is all humbug"; "At least when the last of the third-century emperors died, no one else's blood was shed for him, nor, it is likely, any tears"). "Students" are not the only ones who will benefit richly from close reading of these chapters.

Chronological tables and a generous guide to further reading conclude the book.

Altogether Ando has provided a great service: an intelligent, balanced and readable general account of the third- century, admirably designed for its intended audience.1


1.   It is just a pity that one or two of the figures are poorly reproduced, notably figure 1, reduced to an almost unreadable size, and figure 10, obscure in its detail. It is also a pity that some passing glance was not given to the intellectual and scholarly life that continued during the third century – no word of Origen, for example, only a passing reference to Plotinus, though the jurists do figure.

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