Tuesday, October 21, 2014


David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395. Second edition (first published 2004). Routledge history of the ancient world. London; New York: Routledge, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 767. ISBN 9780415840545. $145.00.

Reviewed by David Neal Greenwood, University of Edinburgh (dngreenwood@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

In contrast to the Cambridge Ancient History with its chapters by multiple specialists, each volume of Routledge's History of the Ancient World series offers a narrative history by a single author. David S. Potter's widely used entry in this series, covering the period 180-395, is now offered in a moderately updated edition. Since the first edition of 2004, significant research has been published in a number of areas relevant to this period, and the updated bibliography lists new books that will be useful to students of the period. However, the new scholarship reflected in the bibliography does not consistently find its way into the text. For example, Constantinian specialists will be interested to note Potter's challenge to Barnes 2011's advocacy of Weiss' theory of Constantine's vision (pp. 655-6 note 120).1 In contrast, Wilkinson's important 2009 and 2010 JRS articles are listed in the bibliography, but their central claim that statues were melted down or re-used in a Christian context is not engaged in Potter's discussion of the Christianisation of Constantine's New Rome (pp. 378-80).2

The work is divided into five sections. The first details the state of the empire in the late second century, addressing issues of both culture and governance. Part two, 'Reshaping the Old Order', begins with the reign of Commodus and concludes with the last of the Severans, also delving into the life of the mind in literature, philosophy, and Christian theology. Part three explores the reasons behind the failure of the Severans and the construction of the tetrarchic empire from its ashes. Part four offers four chapters that provide a close study of 'The Constantinian Empire', treating religion, politics, governance, and religious policies. Part five, 'Losing Power', is a detailed study of the years of Constantius II and Julian, and a much broader look at successive rulers down to 395.

Potter's preface makes clear his interest in modern management theory, a rather unique focus that runs throughout the book, but in a positive, not invasive sense. He makes copious use of both primary source texts and numismatic evidence to tackle the evolution of Roman identity during this period. Potter's method is to select key individuals that dominated an era, including emperors, intellectuals, and religious leaders, and use them as a lens through which to examine the period at hand. This method might suggest a choppy read, but works rather smoothly in practice. He also integrates social data from literary and archaeological sources across the empire, a good example being his treatment of the brutality of military life, which was so vigorously passed on to the populace (pp. 131-4).

Potter's first edition was criticised for a number of attributes that were part of the parameters of the Routledge Cambridge Ancient History series—i.e. the lack of a survey of past research, the lack of introductory material on topics dealt with in previous volumes, and its sizeable scope and length. There is a considerable difficulty in writing a history that covers this much ground, namely that one cannot engage every opposing argument, but must render judgment and move on, lest one produce an excessively unwieldy volume. A few examples from the more controversial characters and events will illustrate this point. Following a thorough review of Diocletian's completion of the transition from the emperor as first citizen to divine ruler, supplemented by architectural and numismatic evidence, Potter examines the central figure for this period, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus. Constantine absorbed many of the trends of previous rulers and his decision to embrace Christianity affected all of his successors in different but significant ways. Potter's Constantine was ruthless, but also a leader who genuinely believed himself a tool of God. The emperor's construction at the site of Byzantium was indeed a new capital, even if later historians exaggerated the scope of the break with the past. Potter acknowledges Constantine's ban on sacrifice, mentioned by his sons in 341, but interprets this as a selective ban related to officials, divination, and imperial cult (pp. 424-5). Unfortunately, he accepts Libanius' statement that Constantine made no changes in traditional worship (Lib., Or. 30.6), in contrast to what the orator said elsewhere that sacrifice had been banned and temples sacked (Lib., Or. 18.22-3; cf. Or. 1.27). On Julian, Potter makes use of the important article by Richard Burgess establishing Constantius II's responsibility for the dynastic purge of 337. His portrayal of Julian balances both attractive personal characteristics with recognition of some thoroughly disingenuous behaviour. Potter argues that Julian directed 'a massive campaign of disinformation' at Constantius II, and his selection of Belgica Secunda as his headquarters after 357 was an indication that he was already planning to stage a rebellion (pp. 488, 491). Although Julian has received a somewhat saintly portrayal by scholars such as Browning, Potter acknowledges that Julian's policy implied an 'open season' on Christians (pp. 500-1). Julian's paganism was, if not the 'pagan monotheism' of Athanassiadi and Frede, certainly unusual, but Potter simply describes Julian as holding to 'aggressive polytheism' (p. 502).

Another notable feature of the work is the emphasis placed on the increased role of religion during this period, most notably the growth of Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire. Potter traces the development of Christianity, discussing the influence of key theological figures as well as the formulation of creeds. While avoiding partisanship, he is theologically well informed, although he repeatedly attributes language of God's creating the Logos to Hippolytus, Dionysius and Origen without reference to the texts where this occurred (pp. 208, 311). His attention to Christianity is balanced in the narrative with discussion of other groups such as the Manichees and religious Neoplatonists. Potter notes the flaw in Celsus' approach, which is that to subsume other religious leaders such as Moses into his universalising tradition, he had to force that relationship over the objections actually taught by those religious leaders. However, he maintains that in contrast to Porphyry of Tyre, 'it is not clear that Celsus knew much of anything about Christian scripture', a judgment which would surprise specialists (p. 323).3 Potter cautiously connects Macarius Magnes' Anonymous Philosopher with Porphyry, and holds that there is no evidence that he would have ever encouraged persecution (pp. 320-1).4 Synthesising religion and imperial politics, Potter argues that Manichees, Christians, and Neoplatonists all understood the power of narrative, and that each group sought to construct one to define their place in the empire, a lesson also employed well by both Diocletian and Constantine (p. 325).

Those readers willing to read this large volume straight through will be pleasantly surprised by the smooth narrative enlivened with a touch of humour. Potter refers to the degree of joy with which Egyptian provincials received the news of stricter tax regulations (p. 327). In regard to bishops in conflict with imperial authority who identified Constantius II as the antichrist, he dryly remarks that 'It was not a recipe for successful negotiation' (p. 473). Those looking merely to use the work as a resource will be pleased with the 141 pages of endnotes, although the book would benefit from a chronological table and more than five maps. Sadly, Routledge has replaced the durable buckram covers of the first edition with a case-bound hardcover, which is already proving to be short-lived on this review copy, making their price for the hardcover rather difficult to justify.

Potter brings together his interests in Roman identity and organisational management in his conclusion, which focuses on three related arguments that are threaded throughout the book. First, a culture that revered the past inhibited the empire from facing new challenges with flexibility and innovation. Second, as power centralised around the emperor, it allowed senior officials to reduce the emperor to a figurehead and build their influence and client base at the expense of his ability to project force. And third, although the hegemony of the Roman Empire was not to last, old social structures and narratives permitted local governing classes to retain their influence and authority, which had become a higher priority than the defense of the realm. A significant benefit of his study of this period is that Potter's work straddles and engages periods of great transformation, rather than allowing the work to be demarcated by it, thereby treating the Roman Empire as a continuous and evolving organisation. No treatment of a timeframe this broad will be able to avoid provoking the ire of some scholars, or seeming to lean excessively upon the shoulders of others, but Potter's unified history of this tumultuous period remains the best available.


1.   T. D. Barnes, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 74-80.
2.   K. Wilkinson, 'Palladas and the Foundation of Constantinople', JRS 100 (2009), 1-16.
3.   Contra S. Benko, 'Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the First Two Centuries A. D.', in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.23.2, H. Temporani and W. Haase, eds. (Berlin: DeGruyter, 1980), 1062-8; R. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 101.
4.   Although for well-developed contrasting views, see M. B. Simmons, Arnobius of Sicca: Religious Conflict and Competition in the Age of Diocletian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and E. D. Digeser, A Threat to Public Piety: Christians, Platonists, and the Great Persecution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

No comments:

Post a Comment