Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Andrew Zissos (ed.), A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016. Pp. xxi, 602. ISBN 9781444336009. $195.00.

Reviewed by Lorenza Bennardo, University of Toronto (lorenza.bennardo@utoronto.ca)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Due to their historical and cultural density, the 27 years between 69 C.E. and Domitian's assassination (96 C.E.) have claimed increasing scholarly attention in recent decades. However, precisely because the dynasty founded by Vespasian only ruled for a relatively short period, the very concept of a clearly defined (and clearly definable) "Flavian age" can be legitimately questioned. The volume edited by Zissos successfully demonstrates not only that the idea of a "Flavian age" is historically and culturally viable, but also that this age represents a crucial phase in the longer continuum of the early imperial history of Rome. Moreover, while it is true that our knowledge of Flavian Rome mainly derives from contemporary literary sources, this companion has the merit of moving beyond the focus on Flavian literature to "examine the Flavian age in a broader and more inclusive sense" (p. 2). Overall, the volume provides us with the economic, political, religious and cultural coordinates of a complex multicultural world, where the negotiation of racial identities plays an important role and where a new balance in the relationship between center and periphery begins to emerge.

The various aspects of Flavian Rome investigated in the book are thematically grouped into six sections (see the Table of Contents below). The number of chapters in each section varies, but their uniform length and structure maintains a balance between the topics represented. Repetitiveness is unavoidable in a series of contributions that focus on a limited timespan through a limited number of sources. However, the perspectives of the contributors vary significantly, lending versatility to the volume as it shifts from historical to cultural and literary issues, and as it alternates between a more research-oriented focus and a more didactic pace. Some practical editorial choices facilitate the reading of this book. A "Conclusion" at the end of (almost) every chapter not only summarizes the discussion but also provides suggestions for further research. The choice to append notes and bibliography to each chapter makes the volume, an elegantly crafted but heavy tome, very manageable. The section devoted to "Further Reading," following each chapter's bibliography, would have been an ideal place for providing effective introductions to essential critical literature: this space, however, is fruitfully used only in a few cases. The volume is otherwise a very approachable tool for non-specialist readers, containing "Appendixes" 1 and a detailed "Glossary of Terms and Expressions" at the end.

Part I ("Preliminary") consists of a single chapter by Hurlet. It addresses the literary, epigraphic, numismatic, iconographic and archaeological evidence available for the Roman history of the period 69-96 C.E. While establishing from the outset the primary role of literary sources for the understanding of the Flavian age, Hurlet's survey discusses the period as an epoch of conservative political discourse and conservative policies for the consolidation of Rome. In such a reading, Hurlet elaborates and expands on Zissos' presentation of the Flavian era as a "custodial age" (p. 9, in the introduction to the volume).

Vervaet's chapter on "The Remarkable Rise of the Flavians," opening Part II ("Dynasty") focuses on how Vespasian started a dynasty from a rather obscure family background. After examining the profile of Vespasian's entourage in 69 C.E. and discussing the emperor's reforms of the senatorial and equestrian orders, Vervaet shows how Vespasian fulfilled "Caesar's and Claudius' vision of a new, truly imperial aristocracy" (p. 57). Overall, Vervaet's reconstruction of the circumstances that led to Vespasian's "historic usurpation" (p. 57) provides a background for Nicols' famous assessment 2 of the "centennial legacy" left by the Flavian regime: according to Nicols, the men who contributed to Vespasian's accession and then formed the Flavians' establishment, together with their descendants, "dominated the Roman imperial government, first as advisers, then as emperors, until the death of Commodus in 192." 3

Vervaet's contribution is followed by three chapters (by Nicols, Murison, and Galimberti), each dedicated to one emperor of the Flavian house. Three more chapters (by Tuck, Wood, and Gallia) then discuss the various ways in which the Flavians legitimized and reinforced their imperial authority in Rome (by recasting their public image, by redesigning Rome, and by redefining the emperor's relationship with the Senate). While creating some redundancy, the biographical approach reflects a relatively recent scholarly interest in biographies of the Roman Emperors 4 and, in the context of the volume, appropriately prefaces the following discussion on the construction of Flavian authority.

Part III ("Empire") considers the economic (Launaro) and military (Dart) policies enacted during the Flavian age, while Flavian Judea (Brighton) and Flavian Britain (Gambash) provide case studies for investigating the role of the provinces in the developing empire. The growing importance of the provinces is a major thematic focus in this section and informs the discussion of more general questions. For example, Launaro shows that the economic policies of the Flavians secured a solid tax-generated budget, ensured peaceful conditions and confidence among imperial subjects, and ultimately succeeded in creating healthier provinces. Vespasian's famous zeal in exacting provincial tributes is an instance of such a success: despite gaining him a negative reputation among many of his contemporaries, Vespasian's policies actually contributed to increase the levels of trade and exchange, and thus the flow of money directed to the provinces themselves. While Launaro does not fail to acknowledge the costs of the economic rule of the Flavians in terms of collective and individual liberties, coercive attitudes by the government's officials, and social inequality, he also demonstrates that healthier provinces allowed Italy to enjoy its economic privileges and granted stability to the whole empire.

Pogorzelski's chapter on "Centers and Peripheries" provides a stimulating discussion of the various ways in which Flavian culture challenges Roman centrism. Pogorzelski argues that, from the reading of authors such as Silius and Josephus, a "Flavian geographical ideology" emerges in which the concepts of center and periphery shift, and even change places, according to the authors' subjective perspective. Surrounded as it is by historical analyses, this chapter is somehow unexpected, but its odd positioning adds emphasis to the discussion of multicultural dynamics, shifting boundaries and "globalization" in the Flavian world that it contains.

The focus on issues such as foreignness and racial discourse in the Roman Empire continues in Part IV ("Society and Culture") with the chapter authored by Parker. Through a close reading of literary texts, Parker argues for the "integrative capacity" of Roman imperial society. Interestingly, as showed by Parker's discussion of "the human landscape of Statius' Silvae", one way to achieve such an integration is to "positively" play down ethnic differences in exceptional foreigners who are also examples of upward social mobility (p. 287): both the slave-boy Glaucias in Silv. 2.1, and Septimius Severus in Silv. 4.5 are praised for their merits, while their racial diversity is silenced or denied.

With a rather different focus, Blake looks into the literary production of Martial and Pliny the Elder for defining contemporary concepts of aesthetic pleasure. In her reading, the aesthetic pleasure originating from ordinary things becomes the key to understanding literary products and material artifacts from the Flavian world. While integral to Vespasianic values of practicality and italicity, this "aesthetics of everyday" nonetheless provides opportunities for displaying luxury and personal power. The limited time frame of the Flavian age affects to some extent the thoroughness of Blake's argument; however, her analysis demonstrates the productiveness of interdisciplinary readings that consider material evidence alongside the literary sources.

Part V concentrates on "Literature" from the Flavian Age. The first three chapters deal with more canonical literary genres and topics (epic and history, occasional poetry, authorial voice in prose literature). The last two chapters, on the other hand, take on the difficult task of assessing topics for which the evidence is scarce or even lost. In the first of the two chapters, Dewar provides us with a careful and pleasantly written survey of those authors and texts that are lost to us except for their names and titles (or, in some cases, fragments). In the second contribution, after acknowledging that "Flavian Greek Literature" is a volatile concept due to the lack of a securely dated corpus, Kemezis demonstrates that Greek intellectuals of the Flavian age experienced the same changing relationship to the emperors (supportive first, then hostile) as their Latin contemporaries did. Analyzing Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch's rhetoric on power, moreover, Kemezis argues that the two authors display "the new rhetoric of an aristocracy in transition" (p. 460), whose members saw political participation as a dialectic between success at the imperial center and honor in their home cities. Kemezis then convincingly argues that the emergence of this "new voice" in the last part of the 1st century C.E. is not a coincidence, but it is connected to the new political, geographical and cultural conditions created in the Roman empire by the dynastic change.

Finally, Part VI of the volume, on "Reception," dedicates three chapters, all authored by Zissos, to, respectively, the impression made by the Flavian world on later ages; the unique impact of Pompeii's destruction on the modern imagination; and the "Reception of Flavian Literature."

Coming 15 years after Boyle and Dominik's volume on Flavian Rome 5, a diverse collection of essays that addressed some of the more intriguing features of the age, the companion edited by Zissos systematizes our knowledge of the Flavian period. The volume offers a more unified approach that proceeds from history to literature, and that achieves a comprehensive presentation of the subject matter. While one wonders whether the systematic approach suggests an increasingly "custodial" attitude in Flavian scholarship, there seems to be little doubt that the volume will enrich the understanding of the Flavian age for both specialist and non-specialist readers.

Authors and titles

Part I – Preliminary
1 Sources and Evidence, Frédéric Hurlet

Part II – Dynasty
2 The Remarkable Rise of the Flavians, Frederik Juliaan Vervaet
3 The Emperor Vespasian, John Nicols
4 The Emperor Titus, Charles Leslie Murison
5 The Emperor Domitian, Alessandro Galimberti
6 Imperial Image-Making, Steven L. Tuck
7 Public Images of the Flavian Dynasty: Sculpture and Coinage
8 Remaking Rome, Andrew B. Gallia
9 The Flavians and the Senate, Loránd Dészpa

Part III – Empire
10 The Economic Impact of Flavian Rule, Alessandro Launaro
11 Frontiers, Security, and Military Policy, Christopher J. Dart
12 Centers and Peripheries, Randall Pogorzelski
13 Flavian Judea, Mark A. Brighton
14 Flavian Britain, Gil Gambash

Part IV – Societies and Culture
15 Foreigners and Flavians: Prejudices and Engagements, Grant Parker
16 Women in Flavian Rome, Laura K. Van Abbema
17 Education in the Flavian Age, Yun Lee Too
18 Flavian Pompeii: Restoration and Renewal, Eleanor Winsor Leach
19 The Aesthetics of the Everyday in Flavian Art and Literature, Sarah H. Blake
20 Flavian Spectacle: Paradox and Wonder, Helen Lovatt
21 Literary Culture, Antony Augoustakis

Part V – Literature
22 Epic Poetry: Historicizing the Flavian Epics, Neil W. Bernstein
23 Epigram and Occasional Poetry: Social Life and Values in Martial's Epigrams and Statius' Silvae , William J. Dominik
24 Latin Prose Literature: Author and Authority in the Prefaces of Pliny and Quintilian, Paul Roche
25 Flavian Greek Literature, Adam Kemezis
26 Lost Literature, Michael Dewar

Part VI – Reception
27 The Flavian Legacy, Andrew Zissos
28 Vesuvius and Pompeii, Andrew Zissos
29 Reception of Flavian Literature, Andrew Zissos


1.   1. Chronology; 2. Demographic and Other Estimates; 3. Flavian Legionary Disposition; 4. Lex de Imperio Vespasiani.
2.   J. Nicols, Vespasian and the Partes Flavianae, (Wiesbaden 1978).
3.   Nicols 1978, 99.
4.   Famous examples of this interest for Flavian Emperors are Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian. (London; New York, 1992); B. Levick, Vespasian. (London: Routledge Press, 1999).
5.   See A.J. Boyle and W.J. Dominik (eds.), Flavian Rome: Culture, Image and Text, (Leiden; Boston, 2003).

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