Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Roald Dijkstra, Sanne van Poppel, Daniëlle Slootjes (ed.), East and West in the Roman Empire of the Fourth Century: An End to Unity? Radboud studies in humanities, 5. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Pp. ix, 183. ISBN 9789004291928. $120.00.

Reviewed by Craig Morley, University of Liverpool (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The internal unity of the Later Roman Empire is the source of frequent examination. For example, Pabst's Divisio Regni: Der Zerfall des Imperium Romanum in der Sicht der Zeitgenossen (1986) offered valuable insights into how fragmentation and unity existed simultaneously. Indeed, as is correctly pointed out in the introduction to this volume by the three editors, the Roman Empire abounded with different forms and degrees of internal unity and disunity: religious, cultural, social and political. It is the aim of the book under review here—the end result of the conference, 'An End to Unity: East and West in the Fourth Century', held at Nijmegen in 2012—to join in this discussion by focusing 'on the unity of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, with a particular concentration on the fourth century' (1).

The book is divided into two parts, 'Geo-political Developments' and 'Unity in the Fourth Century: Four Case Studies'. Part one focuses on the geo-political factors that affected Roman unity in the fourth century, while also addressing wider concepts and issues. Part two presents four case studies from which those concepts and issues addressed in part one can be seen in practice. These papers seek to show how unity was perceived and thought about by fourth-century Romans.

Hervé Inglebert's opening chapter sets the stage for the discussions on Roman unity in the following chapters. He highlights the complexity of the term 'unity', demonstrating that it can have different and often contradictory meanings. The malleability of the term, therefore, creates difficulties when attempting to identify how unified a vast entity like the Roman Empire was. In this regard, Inglebert's major contribution is the identification of a framework or control, against which the different levels and degrees of unity in the Roman Empire can be judged and analysed. In this framework 'unity' is broken down into three parts: unicité (the political indivisibility of Roman imperium); unité (relations among the different parts of the empire/rulers); unification (the sense of shared Romanness). Applying Inglebert's framework to other aspects of Roman unity, in the fourth century and beyond, will help to inform and guide future investigations on the topic.

David Potter's chapter on Roman power is one of the most interesting contributions in this volume. He opens his chapter by discussing the ancient milieu in which Roman ideas about state power developed. The case is made that the Romans perceived state power primarily in terms of revenue and manpower. However, in making this point Potter also indicates that the Romans believed no matter how much revenue and manpower a state could muster, these resources were always liable to be undermined by cultural and moral factors. This point is certainly borne out in the fact that culture and moral virtue were regarded as essential factors in other aspects of Roman thinking, such as, for instance, racism1 and legitimate and effective leadership (as seen in the biographies of Suetonius). As such, further elaboration on how such beliefs had, or did not have, a direct effect on the use of Roman power could have provided a further perspective to this discussion. Modern theories have been employed effectively in helping to understanding Roman power in similar studies, for example, Eckstein's Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome (2006). In a similar vein Potter uses modern theories of relative decline to analyse the waning of Roman power. He argues that the emergence of new powers, such as northern federations and the Sasanian Empire, did not significantly alter the balance of power and result in an equalising of Rome's power with those of its neighbours. Rather, he argues that internal interests, disunity and political division were the underlying causes of the decline in Roman power in relation to its neighbours. This is certainly true, as the political partition of the Roman Empire among and between co-rulers throughout the fourth century resulted in the division of the financial and manpower resources that made up its power. Thus, although the Sasanian Empire was no match for the power of the united Roman Empire, as can be seen in its struggles to defend against Julian's invasion in 363 (until his untimely death), it was able to force Constantius onto his back foot when he only had the resources of the eastern provinces to call upon.

Giusto Traina's contribution on the geography of the empire emphasises the fact that notions of geography, particularly ideological notions, were important for the Romans in understanding both the size and success of their empire, as well as its internal unity. Traina's use of both literary and visual sources illuminates the fact that, although the Romans were aware of the different geographical regions that made up their empire and the administrative differences among those regions, they considered them as an indivisible whole. Thus, Traina's paper underlines the growing contradiction between an imperial ideology and propaganda anxious to portray unity and the administrative reality of an empire increasingly politically divided along geographical lines.

Josef Rist's chapter uses the Council of Serdica (343) to analyse the dis/unity of the Church. Although not doubting that the fiasco at Serdica played a fundamental role in an east-west split of the Church in fourth century, Rist argues that the formation of this split was more complex than traditionally believed. He highlights in particular the support granted to the exiled eastern bishop, Marcellus of Ancyra, by western bishops, many of whom spoke Greek, not Latin, to show that it was not simply a matter of a wholesale disagreement between eastern Greek-speaking bishops and western Latin-speaking bishops. Rist's chapter is important in underlining that division in the empire did not always adhere to the neat geographical lines imposed by modern historians. In doing so, the chapter also further underlines the complexity of analysing the concept of Roman unity.

The next chapter, Jan Willem Drijvers's 'The Divisio Regni of 364', deals with the question of unity from 'an administrative and political viewpoint' (p. 83). The focus of Drijvers's attention is the partition of the Roman Empire between the brothers Valentinian and Valens in 364. In this chapter he explores the formation, development and nature of this power-sharing regime. This approach is important in highlighting the differences between this power-sharing regime and others. For example, Drijvers shows that it was the army, or officers in the army, not Valentinian himself, who wanted the promotion of a co-ruler, unlike the more famous power-sharing examples of Diocletian's tetrarchy and the Theodosian dynasty. Drijvers's chapter is particularly valuable in the wider discussion of unity and political division in Roman history because of his realisation that with the exception of the division of 395—to which one could also also add the tetrarchy— the composition and organisation of political partitions of the empire between and among co-rulers have not been investigated. Indeed, in the fourth century the Roman Empire was more often divided among co-rulers than it was ruled by a single emperor. In this regard, Drijvers helps to shed light on the fact that throughout the fourth century, political partition was the norm for Roman rule, not the exception, and that the various partitions did not all follow the same formula.

Gitte Lønstrup Dal Santo's paper shows how the promotion of concordia and unity through imperial propaganda and patronage had lasting effects on real feelings about the unity of the empire, as well as expressions of it. She traces the spread of the cult of Sts. Peter and Paul from Rome (titulus Apostolorum) to Constantinople (The Church of the Holy Apostles) and Ravenna (Ecclesia Apostolorum). By showing that these churches were built as sister churches of one another and as part of the Theodosian dynasty's attempts to promote concordia and unity in their dynasty and across the empire, Dal Santo excellently illustrates how imperial patronage and propaganda could, and did, have a real effect in spreading shared customs, religious ideals and a sense of Romanness across a politically divided empire.

Sofie Remijsen's paper takes a different approach to the topic by dealing not with a certain aspect of one dynasty, but with a ubiquitous aspect of Greco-Roman culture: games. Before the fourth century there was a clear distinction in the nature of and prestige awarded to games and the participation in games between the Roman West and Roman East. However, in the fourth century attitudes in the East began to mirror those in the West. Of the reasons suggested by Remijsen for this two stand out: the decline of the elite's inclination to sponsor events in their home cities as their interests shifted towards the imperial court(s) and the bureaucracy and the establishment of new imperial residences in the East from the time of the tetrarchy onwards (particularly Nicomedia, Thessalonica and Constantinople). When constructing these new residences the emperors were keen to construct circuses next to the imperial palaces, with important consequences for the culture of games in the East: namely, that as the races and games held in these circuses were attended by the emperors, they became more popular at the expense of other cultural forms. Taken together, these two factors suggest that political developments in the fourth century, such as the rise of the East and political partition, stimulated internal cultural unity. It must be noted, however, that this was most likely accidental and not the intended purpose of these political decisions. Remijsen's paper again highlights the contradiction between the political disunity and partition of the Roman Empire with its increased cultural unity.

The focus of Shaun Tougher's paper is that of eunuchs and the role they played in Roman unity, with the emphasis placed on the poet Claudian's two attacks against the chamberlain of Arcadius' eastern court, the eunuch Eutropius. In these works Claudian stresses the contrast between the masculine West and the effeminate East, as represented by the position and power of Eutropius in the eastern court. However, as Tougher points out, despite the poet's assertions, eunuchs had been a defining part of the Roman world since the time of Augustus and played important roles in the West throughout the fourth century. Thus, as Tougher puts it, as a defining feature of the Roman Empire, the eunuch was a symbol of Roman unity, not division (p. 161). In the wider scope of Roman unity Tougher emphasises that, despite Claudian's attacks on the effeminacy of Eutropius and the East, the poet does not envisage or propagate a permanent east-west split, but rather viewed the contemporary division as temporary. This reinforces the widely held view that for contemporary Romans imperial unity was still regarded as the normal state of affairs.

Like Tougher, Christian Gnilka investigates what another poet, Prudentius, and his work can tell us of contemporary Roman thought and belief on the unity of the empire in the fourth century. In this regard, Gnilka considers two main themes within Prudentius' work, Christianity and concordia, as essential components in the poet's idealised views of Roman unity. It is made clear that Prudentius believed that a unified Christianity was the key to unity within and throughout the Roman Empire itself. Again then, this reinforces the conclusion that unity, not disunity, was what fourth-century Romans believed in, despite the political realities of the period.

The underlying features of this book, its chronological focus on the fourth century and its structure, make it essential to anyone interested in understanding the internal unity of the Later Roman Empire. Its focus on the fourth century allows insights into the maintenance of a sense of shared Romanness across the empire at a time when it was increasingly divided politically between two or more emperors. Likewise, its structure permits discussion on wider thematic issues alongside the investigation of how these issues and ideas worked on the ground.

Authors and Titles

'Introduction' / Roald Dijkstra, Sanne van Poppel and Danielle Slootjes
'Les discours de l'unité romaine au quartième siècle' / Hervé Inglebert
'Measuring the power of the Roman Empire' / David Potter
'Mapping the new empire: a geographical look at the fourth century' / Giusto Traina
'Die Synode von Serdika 343: Das Scheitern eines ökumenischen Konzils und seine Folgen für die Einheit der Reichskirche' / Josef Rist
'The divisio regni of 364: the end of unity?' / Jan Willem Drijvers
'Concordia apostolorum — concordia augustorum. Building a corporate image for the Theodosian dynasty' / Gitte Lønstrup Dal Santo
'Looking at athletics in the fourth century: the unification of the spectacle landscape in East and West' / Sofie Remijsen
'Eunuchs in the East, men in the West? Dis/unity, gender and orientalism in the fourth century' / Shaun Tougher
'Kaiser, Rom und Reich bei Prudentius' / Christian Gnilka.


1.   Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, 2004).

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