Monday, March 25, 2019


Philip Matyszak, Sparta: Fall of a Warrior Nation. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018. Pp. 165. ISBN 9781473874725. £19.99.

Reviewed by Philip J. Smith, McGill University (

Version at BMCR home site

Philip Matyszak has published several volumes of ancient history geared primarily toward the general reader, and this volume fits quite well into that category. The book is well organized, his style is clear, vivid, and entertaining, and he ably draws his readers seductively down the path toward his rationale for the fall of the Spartan state.

That being said, it is somewhat discomforting that at the outset of the book, prior to any arguments being presented, he makes sweeping statements which may bias the less knowledgeable reader (e.g. "As we follow Sparta's attempts to maintain the hegemony of Greece after the Peloponnesian War, the intellectual sterility of the state is revealed as never before...", p. ix). This is followed by direct praise of the Athenian state.1

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the Spartan state after the battles of Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC. His first point concerns the "surprising" behaviour of the Spartans when they appeared, at the height of their reputation and military prowess, to reject the leadership of the Hellenic League (and hence of the Greeks). He then states that the Athenians, who were more "enterprising" were happy to accept the mantle of leadership. Matyszak does ask why they acted in this manner – and his answer is that Spartan domestic policy, specifically the resources and attention necessary for the continued subjugation of the Messenians, largely dictated its foreign policy. He goes on to note an interesting rationale for Sparta's creation of the Peloponnesian League: "basically formed to protect Sparta from those states which made up its membership…" (p. 6), rather than a form of Spartan imperialism. I am not convinced, however, that the Spartans lacked an imperialistic vision for the Peloponnesian League. Could it not rather be that Spartan imperialism was more localized – i.e., that the Spartans recognized the limitations of their sphere of influence? Control of the Hellenic League would have required an imperialistic involvement outside of this locale.

Chapter 2 attempts to identify the beginning of the end for the Spartans. One cause, according to Matyszak, concerned the civic structure at Sparta, which was basically a series of checks and balances – two kings from two different families, plus the Ephorate – designed to avoid autocracy. When there was instability among these parties, this contributed to tarnishing Sparta's reputation among Greeks after the Persian War. An example he provides is how the divergent avenues pursued by Pausanias (regent for the Agaid king Pleistarchus during his minority), and Leotychides (the Eurypontid king), together with the lackluster performance of the Ephors, all led to the Athenians being able to rebuild their city walls, despite Spartan opposition and without Spartan retribution.2 Chapter 3, which is a brief overview of the fall of Pausanias, serves as a concrete example: it illustrates that the actions of the two kings and the ephorate resulted in "irritated and confused" allies who had begun to view the Athenians as the better leaders, albeit with misgivings.

Chapters 4 through 7 discuss Spartan leadership before and during the Peloponnesian War. One of the author's first topics is the major earthquake throughout Laconia in 464 BC, which caused not only widespread economic damage, but also an "inevitable" helot revolt. During this period, according to Matyszak, the Spartan king Archidamos had introduced more diplomacy into the Spartan body politic, which resulted in the capture of Mt. Ithome from the helots via negotiation rather than military force. He subsequently spends some time outlining various battles, alliances, etc., which were drawing Spartan attention away from Laconia, employing titles such as "Battle of Tanagra, late 460s", "Congress of the Allies". His main source for this period is Thucydides, who was somewhat contemporary (e.g., he could at least have interviewed people who had participated in some of these activities). Also included in his discussion is the Spartan reaction to the Megarian Decree, which was perhaps more typical of them: "Sparta wants peace. Stop oppressing other Greeks, and peace will happen." (p. 42). Spartan diplomatic patience had expired.

The Archidamian War is described inasmuch as it relates to Spartan missteps, e.g., the unsuccessful siege of Plataea, Sparta's inability to counter the Athenian plan to avoid direct military confrontation and use their navy. The only partially bright spot in this period was Pylos, where Sparta managed to keep Athens to a stalemate. There was, however, one serious negative issue arising from the Pylos campaign – the stranding of some 400 Spartiates on the island of Sphacteria. Matyszak makes a major point that one of the main causes of the fall of the Spartan state was its constantly diminishing numbers of Spartiates – full Spartan citizen hoplites – which eventually reached the point of no return. I must admit to some puzzlement at the statement Matyszak makes concerning these "vanishing Spartiates": "The reasons why this should be so have been hotly disputed by academics in a debate which has lasted considerably longer than the Peloponnesian War itself. There is no space here to examine the various theories and counter-arguments." (p. 57). I would have expected at least a summary these hotly disputed reasons. Moreover, he then says that, since there is no space for that discussion, he will "take Plutarch at his word (while accepting that there are reasons for doubting him" (p. 57). This is an unsatisfactory solution. If Plutarch offers one of his major arguments for the outcome, the reader should have been presented with more detailed discussion.

Chapter 7 outlines the well-known stalemate between the superior Spartan army and the superior Athenian navy, as well as the vagaries of Persian funding for both sides. The War eventually ended, owing in part to the Spartan fort at Decelea preventing Athenian access to their silver mines, as well as the success of the single great Spartan admiral, Lysander (and the Spartans' Persian backers, which included Cyrus).

Chapters 8 through 10 describe in more detail the circumstances which led to the rather abrupt decline in the Spartan state after the end of the Peloponnesian War. Matyszak points out several reasons: decline in the number of Spartiates, 3; Spartan acceptance of Persian funds, which reduced their reputation for "unflinching honesty and integrity"; Spartan armies becoming paid mercenaries outside Laconia and the Peloponnese; their handing over of the Ionian cities to Persia; the unlawful seizing of the Cadmeia in Thebes by Phoibidas; the stunning Theban victory at Leuctra; the dismantling of the Peloponnesian League and the creation of the Arcadian and Achaean Leagues, which further curtailed Spartan influence; the invasion of Laconia in 370 BC; the Theban enforcement of the independence of Messenia; finally, Spartan misreading of the rise of the Macedonian kingdom. The Battle of Megalopolis in 331/30 BC accelerated the severe decline in the number of Spartiate hoplites available to the state. Indeed, he states that after the Lamian War of 323/22 BC, "Sparta was the last remaining fully independent state in Greece, although its people had to face up to the bitter fact that this was mainly because they were not deemed worth the effort of conquering" (p. 130).

Chapters 11 and 12 summarize the attempts made by Spartan kings in the late fourth and third centuries BC to reform the Spartan state, e.g., Agis IV, Cleomenes III, and finally Nabis. None of these efforts proved fruitful. One characteristic remained, however, since even though the Romans under Flamininus eventually defeated Sparta and, at the death of Nabis in 192 BC, the Spartan state ceased to exist in an independent manner, the Spartans still proved that Laconia was the home to "some of the best and most stubborn warriors in Greece".

There follows an Epilogue in which Spartan influence in modern media, including computer games, is noted, as is, Spartan influence on Nazi philosophy. I am unsure of the value of this Epilogue.

Overall, this book is a good introduction to this particular topic for a generalist audience and it is well written (indeed I applaud the fact that the author eschewed the use of endnotes), albeit with some orthographic errors, e.g. "Megaran". It is disappointing, however, that there is only a thin bibliography and that more detailed discussion of pertinent issues is omitted. Even though this book is directed to the general reader, it would have been beneficial for there to have been fuller discussion of some of the most important points, if not in the main text, then at least in explanatory footnotes.


1.   Other gratuitous examples, just from the Introduction, include: "…Sparta offered only a mindless conservatism combined with an amoral militarism…", p. x; and "…study of a downward social spiral and an object lesson in the dangers of short-sited chauvinism", p. x.
2.   "According to Thucydides, the Spartans showed no anger at [Themistocles'] speech. Instead they merely commented mildly that their suggestion had been intended as being in the best interests of Greece as a whole." (p. 17).
3.   He calculates the number of Spartiates after the Battle of Leuctra thusly "It has been estimated that before Leuctra there were around 1,400 Spartiates…Some 400 of these had fallen at Leuctra. If proper Spartan procedure were to be followed the surviving 300 in that army should now lose their citizenship…This would leave the city with a grand total of 700 Spartiates – somewhat less than the 10,000 that Sparta could field in its prime. This was so unacceptable that Agesilaus decreed that 'the laws should sleep for a day'. The 300 survivors kept their Spartiate status and the question of systemic reform to address the underlying problem was ducked yet again." (pp. 111-112).

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Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou (ed.), Aristotle – Contemporary Perspectives on His Thought: On the 2400th Anniversary of Aristotle's Birth. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. 385. ISBN 9783110564174. €129,95.

Reviewed by Robert Mayhew, Seton Hall University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles in this volume are listed at the end of the review]

In May 2016, 250 scholars from 42 countries and five continents traveled to the University of Thessaloniki to celebrate the 2400th anniversary of the year of Aristotle's birth. The event (the World Congress Aristotle 2400 Years) was organized by Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Aristotle Studies. The total number of participants and attendees approached 600. The volume under review contains revised versions of twenty of the invited papers. A selection of the other presentations is being edited by Sfendoni-Mentzou, and will appear as Proceedings of the World Congress Aristotle 2400 Years.

In the space available, I can do little more than give a brief indication of the subject matter of each essay, with occasional elaborations and more specific evaluations.

The volume is divided into five parts. Part I is Philosophy of Nature, subdivided into Physics, Biology, Psychology, and Meteorology. There are two essays under the heading Physics. Heinemann's "Aristotelian Supervenience" seeks to answer the question "What is Aristotelian about Aristotelian Supervenience?" (as modern discussions of Aristotelian supervenience—a counter to Humean supervenience—often have little to say about the content of Aristotle's works). I do not know the contemporary literature on supervenience that well, but in answering this question Heinemann devotes a lot of space to Physics 1-3, and I found that material quite insightful. Sfendoni-Mentzou's "Aristotle's Dynamic Vision of Nature" is a defense of Aristotle's philosophy of nature in response to the common view that, in light of Newtonian physics, the Humean rejection of metaphysics, and later trends, it was a failure. She sketches—in quick succession—her take on (inter alia) continuity, infinity, potentiality, time, and nature. But her most interesting, extended, and (I expect) controversial discussion concerns what she sees as the relevance to contemporary physics of Aristotle's conception of prime matter.

There are two essays under the heading Biology, both of them excellent. In "'For a Human Being Reproduces a Human Being'," Lennox examines this oft-repeated statement of Aristotle, and argues that by considering each instance in context, one encounters "some distinctively Aristotelian theses about biological generation: it is goal-directed, and both the initiator of biological generation and its goal are identified, in distinct ways, with the formal nature." In his brief concluding section (with the terrific subtitle "Aristotle Resurgent"), Lennox sketches the relevance of his subject matter to contemporary philosophy of biology. In "Aristotle's Generation of Animals on the Separation of the Sexes," Lefebvre provides an excellent account of Aristotle's explanation of the usefulness of the male (in GA 2.5) and (at greater length) his explanation of the separation of male and female (in GA 1.23 and 2.1). Lefebvre connects these discussions to Aristotle's hylomorphism and conception of the inequality of the sexes.

There are three essays under the heading Psychology, though the first of these—Calvo's "On the Notions of Ψυχή and Ζωή in the Aristotelian Biology"—could have been placed in the previous section. Calvo argues that there is a tension between, or a difficulty reconciling, Aristotle's conception of the soul in its biological context, and his explanation of it by means of such metaphysical concepts as entity, essence, matter and form, and potentiality and actuality. This shows, he argues, that there is a similar problem reconciling or explaining the relationship between Aristotle's conceptions of ψυχή and ζωή. Bos's "Aristotle on Life-Bearing Pneuma and on God as Begetter of the Cosmos" is a brief but useful introduction—for those who do not know it—to his idiosyncratic take on Aristotle's conception of soul, pneuma, god's nature and role in the universe, etc.1 In DA 2.6, Aristotle writes that "We speak of an accidental object of sense where, e.g., the white object that we see is the son of Diares" (418a20-1). Polansky and Fritz's "Aristotle on Accidental Perception" discusses the kinds of accidental sensibles and the ways in which they are accidental, and the importance of accidental perception, beginning with the account in DA 2.6, but going beyond it to other texts and other important issues (e.g. common sensibles).

The sole work placed under the heading Meteorology2 is Tassio's "Mechanical Properties of Solids in Aristotle's Meteorologica." This is not so much an essay as a highly useful enumeration and description of the material properties discussed in Meteorology 4: πηκτόν (apt to solidification), τηκτόν (apt to softening by heat or dissolution by water), μαλακτόν (malleable by heat), τεγκτόν (apt to softening by water), etc.

Part II is Philosophy of Human Action, subdivided into Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics. There are two essays under the heading Ethics. In the brief but excellent "Extended and Embodied Values and Ideas," Scaltsas provides answer the questions: "to what are the 'external goods' external"? and "where is the goodness of 'external goods' seated"? Dragona-Monachou's "The Relevance of Aristotle's Views of Ethics and Medicine to Bioethics" is a brief survey of previous literature on the subject—over a dozen essays, chapters, and papers are mentioned—aiming to show that "Aristotle is present today not only in ethical or moral debates, but also in bioethical ones." I didn't find this the most convincing way of establishing Aristotle's contemporary relevance in this field.

Both essays in the section of Politics deal with democracy. Reading the first half of Pellegrin's "Aristotle and Democracy," one might conclude that it is mistitled, as he discusses oligarchy as much as democracy, and comes to conclusions that are not specifically about democracy. But after discussing the ways in which democracy and oligarchies have both good and bad elements, and pointing out that they are in a sense two sides of the same coin, he goes on to argue that democracy is both better according to Aristotle and more central to his political philosophy. In "Aristotle and the Democracy of the City-state," Contogeorgis wants to correct the longstanding errors of a number of thinkers concerning the relationship between the deviant democracy and the corresponding proper πολιτεία (i.e. the polity) in Aristotle's political philosophy.3 On his view, "in order to understand Aristotle's view on democracy, one must start from his fundamental views on the correct πολιτεία, as he calls it, and from the anthropocentric phase that people of the city-states of that time experienced." I do not quite get the last phrase of this line (and a number of others besides), but I think the gist of his approach—which may be worth taking—is in effect to view πολιτεία as the correct version of democracy, rather than democracy as the deviant version of πολιτεία.

There is one essay each under the headings Rhetoric and Poetics. In "Aristotle and the Dialectic Turn of Rhetoric" (one of my favorites in the volume), Rapp makes clear the close affinity between rhetoric and dialectic, which he claims represents a turn away from earlier conceptions of rhetoric and toward a new approach to the subject, which makes rhetorical argumentation central to the τέχνη of rhetoric (a fact not fully appreciated by scholars of rhetoric and the Rhetoric). In a brief (four-and-a-half-page) piece entitled "Aesthetic Judgment according to Aristotle's Politics, Moutsopoulos presents "three irrelevances in Aristotle's Politics" the "unimportance" of which "reveals the everlasting brilliance of his mind." They are related to Aristotle's claim that οἱ πολλοί together are better (aesthetic) judges than a single person.

Part III is First Philosophy, subdivided (unnecessarily, I think) into Ontology (the first two essays) and Theology (the third). In "What is Aristotle's Metaphysics?", Berti argues that the standard interpretation of the Metaphysics—namely, that it is concerned with ontology and theology—goes back to Alexander of Aphrodisias, and is in fact wrong. After sketching the history of this interpretation, he argues for an alternative: the main concern of the Metaphysics is neither ontology nor theology, but the science of first causes. Couloubaritsis, in "The Complex Organization of Aristotle's Thought," similarly offers a new interpretation, one that rejects "reducing Aristotle's work to an ontology," instead focusing on the neglected themes, as he puts it, of henology and agathology. In "Interpretation Problems in Aristotle's Metaphysics Λ," Pentzopoulou-Valalas claims that Metaphysics Λ "is by no means a theological treatise."4 She surveys previous interpretations of the infamously cryptic sentence καὶ ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις, and then presents her own interpretation. The entire essay is 6½ pages long, with roughly two pages devoted to her own interpretation, so it should come as no surprise that I found it in need of expansion.

Part IV (Theory of Thinking, with a single subsection, Epistemology) is one of the highlights of the volume. It consists of two essays. Aristotle in the Sophistici Elenchi claims: "There is a certain kind of τέχνη which is not of the same sort as are those τέχναι which are able to prove things" (11, 172a39-b1). Bolton's "Two Conceptions of Practical Skill (Τέχνη) in Aristotle" is an illuminating discussion of these different kinds of τέχνη. In 1992, McKirahan translated Posterior Analytics 2.19, 100a12-14 (οἷον ἐν μάχῃ τροπῆς γενομένης ἑνὸς στάντος ἕτερος ἔστη, εἶθ' ἕτερος, ἕως ἐπὶ ἀρχὴν ἦλθεν), a passage which has long troubled scholars, thus: "As happens when a rout has occurred in a battle and one man has stopped, another stops and another until it reaches the original position."5 In "'As in a Battle When a Rout has Occurred'," McKirahan argues that his translation and understanding of the line—and at least fourteen other renderings of it, included in an appendix—are implausible. He argues at length and persuasively that it should be rendered (I am including more context here): "So the states come from perception (as happens when a rout has occurred in a battle and one man has stopped, another stops and another) until one reaches a principle."6

The volume ends with one essay in Part V (Aristotle in History of Philosophy): Moran's "Aristotle's Conception of οὐσία in the Medieval Christian Tradition." It is a pity that this is the sole essay on the reception of Aristotle, as (its quality aside) it is not a good fit with the rest of the collection and with the idea that this volume contains contemporary perspectives on Aristotle's thought. I believe there were a number papers on Aristotle in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance presented at the conference; Moran's contribution would likely have been a better fit in the other volume Sfendoni-Mentzou is editing (mentioned above).

Clearly, the essays in this collection cover much of the vast range of Aristotle's philosophy and science, and many of them do deal with the contemporary relevance of his thought (as one would expect from the volume's subtitle). Although I liked some essays more than others (in some cases because of how persuasive I thought they were, in others owing to my own scholarly interests), I would say the overall quality is quite high for a conference proceedings, though I thought a few were too brief for the subject they were covering and needed to be developed further. I encountered a few typos, most of them part quite minor.7

Authors and titles

Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou: Preface
Gottfried Heinemann: Aristotelian Supervenience: Potentialities and Powers in Aristotle's Definition of Change
Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou: Aristotle's Dynamic Vision of Nature: A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective on Contemporary Science
James G. Lennox: 'For a Human Being Reproduces a Human Being': A Mundane, Profound, Aristotelian Truth
David Lefebvre: Aristotle's Generation of Animals on the Separation of the Sexes
Tomás Calvo: On the Notions of Ψυχή and Ζωή in the Aristotelian Biology
Abraham P. Bos: Aristotle on Life-Bearing Pneuma and on God as Begetter of the Cosmos
Ron Polansky and John Fritz: Aristotle on Accidental Perception
Theodossios P. Tassio: Mechanical Properties of Solids in Aristotle's Meteorologica
Theodore Scaltsas: Extended and Embodied Values and Ideas
Myrto Dragona-Monachou: The Relevance of Aristotle's Views of Ethics and Medicine to Bioethics
Pierre Pellegrin: Aristotle and Democracy
George Contogeorgis: Aristotle and the Democracy of the City-state
Christof Rapp: Aristotle and the Dialectic Turn of Rhetoric
Evanghelos Moutsopoulos: Aesthetic Judgment according to Aristotle's Politics
Enrico Berti: What is Aristotle's Metaphysics?
Lambros Couloubaritsis: The Complex Organization of Aristotle's Thought
Teresa Pentzopoulou-Valalas: Interpretation Problems in Aristotle's Metaphysics Λ. The Case of the Sentence: καὶ ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις
Robert Bolton: Two Conceptions of Practical Skill (Τέχνη) in Aristotle
Richard McKirahan: "As in a Battle When a Rout has Occurred"
Dermot Moran: Aristotle's Conception of οὐσία in the Medieval Christian Tradition: Some Neoplatonic Reflections


1.   See e.g. his The Soul and Its Instrumental Body. A Reinterpretation of Aristotle's Philosophy of Living Nature (Leiden 2003). Of course, idiosyncratic does not mean incorrect.
2.   This subject-heading is misleading, as Chemistry would arguably be a better description of what Aristotle is doing in Meteorology 4.
3.   In a footnote, he names over 25 of these thinkers, including Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, John Rawls, and Jürgen Habermas.
4.   I was thrown by this remark, as the opening line of her essay (on the previous page) is: "Book XII (Λ) presents Aristotle's theology."
5.   McKirahan, Principles and Proofs (Princeton 1992).
6.   I think it is worth considering whether later Peripatetic uses of this analogy tend to support or count against McKirahan's interpretation. See Theophrastus, De vertigine 9.75-76 and [Aristotle], Problemata 18.7.917a31-32 and 26.8.941a11-13.
7.   A half dozen examples: Devine → Divine (ix), tyran → tyrant (199), commented it → commented on it (245), alining → aligning (258), Charmidis → Charmides (p. 273), in few → in my view (?) (280).

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Sunday, March 24, 2019


Alex Imrie, The Antonine Constitution: An Edict for the Caracallan Empire. Impact of Empire, 29. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xv, 175. ISBN 9789004368224. €94,00.

Reviewed by Lydia Schriemer, University of Ottawa (

Version at BMCR home site


Precious little is known about the motivation behind the promulgation of the Constitutio Antoniniana (abbreviated here as CA), and as a result this topic has already been the subject of considerable study. Based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, Alex Imrie's monograph examines the CA and seeks to offer a comprehensive assessment of the motivations for extending the franchise to all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. He justifies his work by saying that the many previous studies have taken the CA outside of its cultural and historical context and have only assessed it against individual motivating factors. He argues that this has resulted in an exaggeration of the importance of such individual factors and maintains that his study will, for the first time, bring together all potential factors in order to make sense of the CA itself, within its proper context.

The book contains an introduction, five body chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix. The introduction begins by discussing the research goals and moves on to provide a brief literature review that notes that research on the CA can be divided into roughly three areas: the Giessen papyrus, the effects of the edict, and the rationale behind the edict. He concludes that the area of study that remains the most controversial is that of Caracalla's motivations in promulgating the edict. He divides the possible motivations into two groups: practical and propagandistic.

Chapter 1 provides both the historical and the literary context for the CA. The first half of the chapter sketches the major historical events that happened in the Empire between the death of Commodus at the end of 192 and the promulgation of the edict in 212. This time span is appropriate because the author discusses the Severans' rise to power throughout the volume. The second half of the chapter discusses the literary evidence for the period in question and for the CA itself. The CA does not feature prominently in extant contemporary sources, and those that do mention it do so often erroneously and only in passing. Of these, Cassius Dio bears particular scrutiny since he was an eyewitness. Here too, the CA is mentioned only briefly and only as part of Dio's critique of Caracalla's financial circumstances. Despite Dio's bias, Imrie advocates for a judicious use of his Roman History. He emphasizes that the relative lack and unreliability of contemporary works on the edict and its effects ought not to deter modern scholarship on the subject.

Since brief contemporary mention of the CA can also be found in the works of Ulpian, it is in this context that Imrie brings up the crucial question of the emperor's role in the formulation of edicts such as the CA. He shows that Caracalla was unorthodox in his judicial role, moving beyond legal precedent, and acting more independently than his predecessors. He concludes that Caracalla himself was thus likely the driving force behind the CA and not his jurists. The argument is not convincing, however, both because of the lack of available evidence (a perennial problem) and because it is only possible to establish that Caracalla would have at least approved of the edict. There is, however, no reliable method of demonstrating Caracalla's personal influence on any of his legislation or iconography. Although Imrie does accept that the edict was likely conceived by Caracalla, the appropriate support for this hypothesis is thus simply not available. The weakness of this argument is unfortunate, because the remainder of the book rests on the assumption of Caracalla's personal involvement in, and therefore his personal motivations behind, the CA. Chapter 1 concludes with an examination of the one major contemporary source for our knowledge of the CA: the Giessen papyrus (P.Giss. 40).1 Imrie proposes that its style and contents are also indicative of Caracalla's personal influence in its creation. He further suggests that, since the edict was promulgated at a critical point in Caracalla's reign, directly following the assassination of Geta, the CA can be seen to address short-term legitimacy issues as well as more long-term financial and military goals. He develops these suggestions in the following four chapters.

In chapters 2 and 3, Imrie examines the two practical rationales for the CA that are most commonly discussed. Beginning with the fiscal rational, he scrutinizes Dio's accusation that the franchise was extended simply to extend the taxable population. A more long-term perspective is necessary here, however. Severus' building program, his military reforms, and his manipulation of the coinage are salient predecessors to Caracalla's tax reforms, numismatic debasement, and creation of the antoninianus. In this context, Dio's suggestion, in concert with the references to taxation in the Giessen papyrus, seems convincing. Nevertheless, Imrie insightfully notes that since the imperial coffers were apparently not terribly strained at this point, the CA must have had a further motivation. Turning to the "military rationale," Imrie prioritizes the continuity between Caracalla's military policy and that of his father. He proceeds to discuss the influence that the CA would have had on the army in terms of legionary recruitment. Since the basic requirement to be a legionary was citizenship, the CA would necessarily have opened up the pool of eligible candidates for military service. With increased enlistment and increased pay, Caracalla would have needed increased cash. He suggests that, as with Severus, Caracalla's financial issue of was one of liquidity, linked to the need to pay soldiers. Thus, the two practical rationales, the fiscal and the military, are inextricably linked.

Following his examination of the practical rationales, Imrie proceeds to discuss in chapters 4 and 5 what Caracalla's propagandistic reasons might have been for issuing the CA. He focuses primarily on two topics: imitating Alexander and securing the Empire. The first point uses literary comparison to discuss Alexander the Great's influence on the CA. He concludes that this association is impossible to prove, although certain Alexander-inspired literary tropes do indeed seem to be present in the CA. He keenly notes, however, that the desire for a "brotherhood of man" is a problematic topos that cannot be securely attributed to Alexander at all and is thus not a valid point of comparison here. In the same vein, the sources that mention Caracalla's obsession with Alexander are challenging, particularly because of the paucity of media, such as coinage, epigraphy, portraiture, and sculpture, that support these claims. Instead, Imrie concludes that Caracalla's interest was part of a tradition of Roman emperors seeking inspiration, a militaristic image, and even legitimacy from association with Alexander.

Beyond the mild Alexandrian tropes, the CA also seems to serve a further propagandistic purpose. Imrie's argument that the CA served to bolster Caracalla's public image and legitimacy in a politically fragile time is convincing, because of its indirect relationship to Geta's murder. He argues that Caracalla's legitimacy was strengthened in three distinct ways. First, the religious ideology in the CA portrays the enfranchisement as an act of piety, while re-inventing the events surrounding Geta's death. Caracalla frames the CA as an act of thanksgiving worthy of the consensus of the entire Roman world. Second, Imrie suggests that the generosity of the entire edict serves to establish Caracalla's character in a positive light, which would certainly have been necessary after the brutal murder of his own brother. He then neatly draws on numismatic evidence to support these first two strands of ideology. Third, he proposes that the extension of citizenship made all new citizens beholden to Caracalla personally in a type of reciprocal exchange relationship. Undoubtedly, Caracalla could have expected an increase in tax revenue as a result of increased enfranchisement, but Imrie argues that such a show of imperial beneficia would also have traditionally been associated with goodwill and loyalty on the part of the recipients. While the evidence here is slim for such a patron-client relationship, it is clear that Caracalla promulgated the CA because of what he stood to gain from it, whether that be tax revenue, an increase in military enrolment, or increased loyalty.

A brief, four-page epilogue summarizes the conclusions and ends with a call for further, more nuanced work on the contexts of the CA, particularly on the life and reign of Caracalla. Following this, the appendix contains a reconstructed text and translation of the Giessen papyrus with notes. Since this papyrus is at the root of much of the scholarly debate surrounding the CA, Imrie provides his own version of the text. From the accompanying apparatus criticus, it is apparent that this version is heavily based on the ten previous editions and offers no new readings. Nevertheless, the decision to accept one reading over another is well defended in the notes on the basis of Imrie's own reading of the papyrus.

In conclusion, this book is a good introduction both to the CA and to related scholarship. Chapter 1, on historical and literary contexts, makes the topic accessible and interesting to a broad audience of specialist and non-specialist readers alike. The discussion of the practical rationales in chapters 2 and 3 is comprehensive and summarizes, with added nuance, the general state of scholarship on the matter. These chapters approach Imrie's broad question of intention by looking at two of the practical effects of the edict and suggesting that they in turn were likely motivations for its creation. The discussion of the propagandistic rationales in chapters 4 and 5 is slightly more challenging, with chapter 4 being a literary comparison and chapter 5 a discussion of Caracallan ideology. Since the effects of propaganda are hard to quantify, these two chapters rely solely on a discussion of intention. Imrie seems to recognize this challenge, at least in practice, with the result that chapter 4 compares the CA to common Alexandian tropes in literature and chapter 5 discusses the role that the CA might have played in Caracallan ideology and propaganda. Imrie's portrayal of all these potential rationales suggests that Caracalla would have had all these factors in mind when he subscribed the edict, which does seem unlikely. Rather, based on a nuanced discussion of intention and effect, Imrie might have been better served to discuss the propagandistic intentions alongside the likely fiscal and militaristic effects of the edict. These chapters would also have benefited from a brief discussion of propaganda and its place in the Roman world. That being said, the addition of numismatic evidence to this volume is a welcome inclusion that adds considerable depth. As Imrie concludes on the basis of his foray into the Caracallan world, much work remains to be done on this deep and complex topic.


1.   The most recent edition is P.Giss.Lit. 6, published in 1994.

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David Alan Parnell, Justinian's Men: Careers and Relationships of Byzantine Army Officers, 518-610. New approaches to Byzantine history and culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. xi, 228. ISBN 9781137562036. €85,59.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Buchanan, University of Findlay (

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David Alan Parnell's book builds on both his PhD. dissertation, Justinian's Men: The Ethnic and Regional Origins of Byzantine Officers and Officials, ca. 518-610, submitted to Saint Louis University in 2010, and his subsequent research on the ethnicity and military and social careers of army members during the age of Justinian I, defined as the period of the reigns of Justin I through Phocas. The thesis of the book is that an officer's social relationships with other officers, the men assigned to him, and the emperor were as least as important as the officer's rank or position. To develop this thesis, Parnell has divided the book into nine chapters, including an introduction and conclusion.

Chapter One, the Introduction, establishes the methodology for the book. Parnell uses the principal contemporary historians and chroniclers of the period, including Procopius of Caesarea, Agathias of Myrina, Menander Protector, Theophylact Simocatta, Marcellinus Comes with his anonymous continuator, and John Malalas (p. 7). He then employs social network theory to evaluate the social issues and relationships that affected the operation of the army, in a matrix of different relationships ranging from professional to family contacts.

Chapter Two addresses the structure of the Byzantine army in the sixth century. Parnell's principal source is the Notitia Dignitatum, supplemented by material from his primary sources. He divides the Byzantine army into two divisions, the field armies (comitatenses) and the frontier armies (limitanei), supplemented in many areas of the frontier by non-Roman soldiers serving under their own officers under treaty to the Empire (foederati). He then uses the Strategikon of Maurice, supplemented with Justinian's legal code and other primary sources, to describe the ranks and positions within the army. After discussing the various scholarly positions on the nature of recruitment, Parnell concludes that it was largely voluntary. He also argues that soldiers generally advanced through the ranks based primarily on length of service, while officers advanced partly on merit and partly on personal interest and recommendations from their superiors, including the emperor.

Chapter Three discusses the ethnic identity of Roman army officers, and how that identity affected the careers of the officers. Parnell begins this chapter with a careful discussion of recent scholarship on the meaning of identity, and in particular, ethnic identity, in the sixth century CE. He then seeks to develop rough statistics for the percentage of Roman and non-Roman men who served in the military during this time. To do this, he has created a database of 772 men documented as having served in the army, using his primary sources plus a few additional literary sources and material derived from The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (PLRE). This database itself is not included in the book, but he uses it to assess the ethnicity of these men, primarily using their names and any descriptions given in the sources, augmented by information on their family if available. Using his criteria, he finds that roughly seventy-six percent were likely Roman and twenty-four percent were likely non-Roman. He also concludes that while the Byzantine army was roughly thirty percent non-Roman from 518-540, the percentage increased slightly to thirty-six percent from 541-565, and then fell to roughly eighteen percent from 566-610, perhaps as a result of decreased recruitment from non-Roman areas and an increasing identification of former non-Romans as Roman. Romans were slightly more likely to hold the highest ranks, while non-Romans held many of the command ranks below that level. Parnell's conclusion is that the Roman army was still uneasy about non-Roman general officers, although it accepted many senior non-Romans into the army, and indeed into general officer positions. However, cultural identity was not a significant restraint on career advancement or relationship building for non-Romans.

In the fourth chapter, Parnell discusses the effect of any relationship between officers and the emperor. He gives several examples to demonstrate that Justinian I at least tended to appoint people with whom he was familiar and whom he regarded as loyal and competent to hold the position of general. Thus, family members and members of Justinian I's personal guards were more often selected for senior positions. Furthermore, Justinian I was inclined to forgive his generals for abuse of their authority or incompetence if they were personally loyal to him. He was even willing to forgive some indications of disloyalty if he thought that he could trust them in another position. Parnell reminds us that officers were often competitors and sometimes usurpers of emperors. The conclusion of this chapter is that emperors were most concerned about their own longevity in their position and had to balance the general competence and popularity of officers against the possible threat that they posed. This balance explains much of the interaction between officers and emperors.

The fifth chapter addresses the social networks of officers. Parnell starts from two related arguments; the first is that, although an officer's relationship, if any, with the emperor was most important, his secondmost important relationships were with other officers because they provided support in an often unclear bureaucracy; the second is that the social networks of officers were critical to the functioning of the army because they encouraged cooperative behavior and sometimes supplanted the official hierarchy. In support of these arguments, Parnell cites discussions of army factions in Agathias and Procopius. For example, he dissects the social networks of Belisarius and Narses in Italy in 538-539 as reported by Procopius, and concludes that the mutual suspicions of these factions was a factor in the losses that occurred. He also concludes that the networks permitted generals to exert control over the army through the cooperation of junior officers. As a result, the generals carefully explained the reasons for their decisions to their subordinates to maintain cooperation. Parnell acknowledges that factions within armies were also common in antiquity but argues that the problem was more serious in Justinian's time because generals were operating in western areas outside of the military bureaucracy of the eastern Mediterranean, and so the factions substituted for an unclear hierarchy in an army far from the imperial government.

Chapter Six deals with the officers and their families. Parnell looks at the incidence of nepotism in the army and concludes that while many families had several generations of members in the military, there was little evidence that senior officers procured official military positions for their sons or younger relatives. Emperors used members of their own family in official positions, and Justinian in particular employed cousins, nephews, and in-laws as generals. However, although multiple family members might serve in the military, they rarely shared the same position, and the emperors maintained personal control over the appointment of officers to senior positions, thus preserving authority over the military. Parnell then considers the impact of wives and children on members of the military, largely using Procopius' description of the impact of Antonina on Belisarius and the desertion of Illyrian soldiers to protect their families from a Hunnic invasion. He concludes that soldiers with families placed a high degree of importance of them and would balance their needs against imperial needs, notwithstanding the disapproval of historians such as Procopius.

In Chapter Seven, Parnell discusses the relationships between officers and their soldiers. He begins this chapter by noting that there is limited evidence in this area because while historians would identify principal generals, they rarely identified lower-ranking soldiers except as part of a larger homogenous group. While acknowledging that speeches in classical histories may have little to do with what was actually said, he discusses speeches to soldiers to convince them not to sack the local population and speeches to soldiers dividing booty as examples of the interaction between officers and their soldiers. Then he addresses reports of individual soldiers who were praised for good conduct, reports of individual soldiers given specific missions and reports of soldiers who were criticized for misconduct. Finally, he addresses reports of soldiers who had grievances against their officers, for example, for failure to pay them regularly. He concludes that officers rarely had personal relationships with soldiers, although there were mutual expectations of good leadership and good execution, and of regular payment and fair division of booty.

The eighth chapter discusses public perceptions of the army. The record is scant, so Parnell uses his sources' discussion of various desertions and mutinies to support his conclusion that desertions were often caused by monetary concerns, especially when pay was late, or survival in the face of an enemy of greater numbers. He further argues that the public, while appreciating the physical security that local soldiers brought, was probably also wary of them because of enforced billeting, extortion of more food supplies than authorized and other abuses. Parnell concludes this chapter by noting that the sixth-century army was generally successful and professional, even in the face of periodic delays in pay, and that Justinian's loyalty to his senior officers generally resulted in continuity and opportunities for professional growth. He also states that civilian government and society remained vibrant without demanding major changes to the military or rebelling against it, evidence of a general acceptance of the military by the public.

The ninth and last chapter is a short conclusion that sums up the conclusions of the previous chapters and reinforces Parnell's argument that the sixth century was a diverse vibrant world in which friendships, alliances, and various collective strategies were used to encourage social and financial success.

In summary, the strength of this book is that it uses social network theory plus an in-depth analysis of the literary sources to assess the impact of social relationships behind military operations and the often-fraught relationship between general officers and emperors. In this regard, this book adds significantly to the scholarship in this area. In addition, there are very few typographical errors.1 A weakness of this book is that, with a handful of exceptions, it relies largely on Anglophone scholarship. European scholars such as Jean-Michel Carrié, Fritz Mitthof, Bernhard Palme, Giorgio Ravegnani (except for his 1998 book on Byzantine soldiers in the years of Justinian), and Constantin Zuckerman are not cited, nor is Giovanni Ruffini, who wrote in English about social networks in Byzantine Egypt, a comparable period.2 Another weakness is that the book relies almost entirely on literary sources, except for the epigraphic, archaeological and numismatic evidence incorporated into the PLRE. I also found the chapter on ethnic identity to be problematic because of the relatively small number of people identified in the sources, the bias of the sources towards senior generals and notorious incidents, the difficulty with using names as an indicator of ethnic identity, and differences in how the various sources described their subjects. That said, this book is easy to read and is useful not only for understanding the relationships between the military and the imperial government in late antiquity but also for a source for military history in general.


1.   As a rare exception, the speech of Pharas the Herul, is shown in Chapter 3, footnote 45, as from Procopius, Wars book 4, chapter 4, section 15, whereas it is at book 4, chapter 6, section 15.
2.   Giovanni Ruffini, Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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Friday, March 22, 2019


C. T. Hadavas, Ancient Greek Epigrams: A Selection. Lexington, KY: C. T. Hadavas, 2018. Pp. xxxiv, 144. ISBN 9781727440225. $12.95.

Reviewed by Floris Overduin, Radboud University Nijmegen (

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This reader contains 85 epigrams, selected by the author as reading material for students at the intermediate level of their study of ancient Greek literature. The author's concern for useful study material has already been exemplified by similar readers on Lucian, Aesop, Euripides' Cyclops, and less common texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, or the Pinax of Cebes. A collection of Greek epigrams is a sensible addition. Earlier anthologies of Hellenistic and Imperial Greek poetry, such as those by Hopkinson1 (not mentioned in the introduction or in the bibliography) offer excellent sections on epigram, but they are both aimed at more advanced students, and their epigram sections are of limited scope within their larger respective projects. A dedicated and inexpensive reader is therefore to be welcomed.

The setup of Hadavas' reader is diachronic, starting with Simonides and ending with Diodorus in the first century CE, and divided over four chapters: (i) Late Archaic and Early Classical Epigrams, (ii) Early Hellenistic Epigrams, (iii) Later Hellenistic Epigrams, and (iv) Epigrams of the Early Empire. This division gives the impression of a clearly delineated, yet fairly evenly spread choice of material. Within the chapters, however, the balance is very much towards the core Hellenistic material. The first chapter only contains eight epigrams, whereas the second chapter contains thirty nine poems, the bulk of which is formed by Callimachus (twenty three epigrams). The third chapter, although labelled 'later Hellenistic' (twenty eight poems), only consists of Meleager and Philodemus, augmented only by a single epigram of Archias. The final chapter, although divided over six poets, only contains ten poems. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this selection — all poems selected are valuable in their own right, and one need not be surprised by the predominance of, e.g., Callimachus — it is not overly ambitious either. Considering the limited attention paid to later epigram, the volume could have been called 'Hellenistic epigram', as Hellenistic poets make up eighty percent of this reader. Not only is their no room for relevant later poets such as Lucillius, Nicarchus, Strato or Leonides of Alexandria (not to mention Palladas), the selection of Hellenistic material itself is also somewhat surprising: Anyte is present with six epigrams, but Nossis is absent. Against twelve epigrams by Meleager, there is only one by Posidippus (and none from the Milan papyrus). Leonidas of Tarentum — not a minor poet — is included only three times; Asclepiades five. Without stressing the point too much, and conceding that it seems unfair to judge a book by what it is not, one can conclude that the selection was not essentially designed to be representative or to offer a broad palette of Greek epigram through the ages. The author does, however, point out that, although his selection is a personal one, he has made sure all of the four main epigrammatical domains (sepulchral, dedicatory, erotic, epideictic) are represented in this reader (p. vii).

What does this reader offer? The 34 pages of introduction cover the very basics of the development of the genre, a 'how to read an ancient Greek epigram section', a 'very short history of the texts', a very short section on influences, overviews of the poets treated in this volume, a three page list of 'rhetorical/literary figures and grammatical terms', a short bibliography of texts and translations, six pages on meter, and the obligatory list of abbreviations (with the interesting 'C-to-F' for 'Contrary to Fact'); some abbreviations are, however, missing from the list, such as 'intran.' on p. 13. It is odd that Nisetich's translation of Callimachus is listed in the main 'bibliography' and not in its 'translations' section. It also would have been useful to list all books mentioned in the introduction in the bibliography, many of which are absent. The rhetorical/literary figures list is elementary, but helpful. I very much doubt, however, that the inclusion of pluralis maiestatis (p. xxii) is appropriate for the epigrams treated here; 'poetic plural' may be as far as we can go. All in all, what we get is a bit of everything: the three short paragraphs on influences are too short to really be helpful (but serve as a place to park the useful references in the notes), but the six pages on meter are not to be complained about. It is also convenient that each poem is given a brief descriptive title in the table of contents, which makes it much easier to find what one is looking for. For an intermediate reader, the student could do worse.

After the introduction, it is time for business. The author's choice to present one epigram per page is attractive; for longer epigrams two facing pages are reserved. Ease of use and legibility have been given attention. The author did not refrain from listing multiple references, so that Callimachus' epigrams can instantly be traced by both their AP number and their place in Gow & Page, in addition to their number in Pfeiffer's edition, which is much more user-friendly than an appendix with comparative numeration. Slightly less convenient is the fact that the epigrams are numbered per author, rather than continuously: "1. Posidippus" is followed by "1. Callimachus".

The Greek text is followed by all of the poem's vocabulary beyond the very basics (presented alphabetically), and then the commentary per line, which mainly deals with grammatical or syntactical issues, or hints at possible translations, although points of style or context are sometimes included too. Often the author quotes solutions from earlier commentators (Sider on Philodemus is frequent) or editors (Fain). For points of grammar the student is often referred to Smyth. Sometimes (as on p. 88–89 or 94–95) vocabulary and commentary are swapped, presumably to avoid sections going over the page.

After that, further additions vary per poem. Sometimes a fourth delineated text block is added with a brief running commentary pointing out issues of style or aesthetics. These blocks may contain points of interest as explained by the author, but sometimes they contain large citations from dedicated scholarly publications, such as Alexander Sens' commentary on Asclepiades, Livingstone & Nisbet's introductory volume to Greek epigram, or simply an entry from the OCD (as in the case of ἡταῖραι on p. 89). Alternatively the fourth text block prints a literary translation, ranging from 1793 to 2005. One gets the impression that the choice of translation is rather arbitrary: is it included (if it is given at all) simply because it was available, whether old (1911, 1889) or more recent, or did it happen to be on the author's shelf? Or are they meant to be playful examples of what a literary translation may look like? If translations are deemed useful, then why not include one for each single epigram? Conversely, why are some epigrams given a purposeful stylistic treatment and a translation (or even two), whereas others are given a translation only, and yet others no further treatment at all, lacking the fourth text block with either translation or additional stylistic commentary? The leading principle here, as the author makes clear, is that translations and the like are only included if they do not inhibit the epigram's treatment to stay on one page, or on two facing pages, fitting besides or below the Greek text. Additional translations are compiled in the appendix, 'on account of spatial constraints' (p. 133).

The line-by-line notes to the epigrams, primarily intended for basic reading, are overall very useful, short when then can be, long if this is what the text requires. The indebtedness to Gow and Page is obvious, as the author often picks out one or two useful remarks from their commentaries. As observed above: to have all you need on one page (or two facing pages) is very convenient, and attention has been paid to a pleasant page layout. The author is also to be praised for not glossing over difficulties of interpretation, always trying to make the best of it, even when the Greek is particularly elliptical or elusive. This is particularly welcome at the intermediate level, when a student still often lacks the experience or the confidence to decide what may be meant. The author's approach ensures that the student's doubts will be based on the difficulties of the Greek, not on his own lack of knowledge.

Overall, this is quite a nice volume. For students of intermediate Greek, it offers lots of basic instruments for reading, for a very modest price. The brief introduction touches on many relevant aspects and references are up-to-date and to the point. The somewhat conservative choice of poems, despite my reservations, ties in with general idea about the canon of Greek epigram, and the author is to be credited for not leaving out the more difficult poems.

Typesetting and printing is overall decent, apart from a glitch on p. 24, where the top half of a complete line has been erased; a blank line is missing in the bibliography on p. xxiv. There are a few minor mistakes in proofing, although the Greek itself appears to be correct: 'stong' (p. 3) for 'strong'. 'Geoghagen' (p. 12) should be 'Geoghegan', as printed correctly on p. 14. Aithiops (p. 49, cited from Nisetich, where it is printed correctly) should be Aithiopis. 'beingthat' (p. 114) lacks a space. Somewhat unconventionally, words lemmatized are taken from the Greek text complete with their gravis accent, rather then taking the acutus accent, as is common practice for oxytone words in isolation.


1.   N. Hopkinson, A Hellenistic Anthology, Cambridge 1988. N; Hopkinson, Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period, Cambridge 1994.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Lukas de Blois, Image and Reality of Roman Imperial Power in the Third Century AD: The Impact of War. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. x, 312. ISBN 9780815353737. £115.00.

Reviewed by Jane Sancinito, Oberlin College (

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Whether in legal, military, political, or economic matters, there can hardly be a scholar more qualified to venture an opinion, let alone produce a definitive statement, on the situation in the third century CE than Lukas de Blois. In this volume, de Blois has carefully assembled the work of decades into a comprehensive treatment of imperial power in this challenging period, including a new and convincing argument regarding the positive influence of bureaucratization on the imperial system. The monograph is structured around notions of different kinds of power, drawing explicitly from the theoretical framework of Michael Mann.1 It considers, in turn, both the true state, and representation, of imperial power through Mann's lenses of economic, military, political, and ideological power.

Following the introduction, chapter two, "Wars," offers one of the best summaries, if not the best, currently available for the political and military events of this period. De Blois is careful in his use of source material and uses this chapter to establish his parameters for defining the "crisis of the third century."2 In the chapter, de Blois maps out the crisis as a period of escalation (231-249), the crisis itself (249-268), and a time of recovery (268-284). He sees the earlier, Severan period as more stable, politically and militarily, but rightly acknowledges the changes in imperial representation and policy made by the Severan emperors.

The three chapters that follow address different sources of imperial power and form a natural trio. Chapter three assesses economic sources of power, looking most carefully at taxation, the productivity of imperial domains, mining, and coin debasement. It is perhaps in this chapter that the book most directly earns its subtitle, "the impact of war," as de Blois addresses the decline of the empire's tax base and agricultural productivity as a result of military events. The literary sources of this period paint a bleak picture of the state of things. Though de Blois addresses the biases of these sources to an extent in his Introduction, and more specifically in the notes, in the main text he occasionally seems over-ready to accept the reports of doom and gloom and to treat issues like attempted tax-evasion, which occurred in all periods in the Roman Empire, as particularly serious in the third century without further elaboration. 3 He is more measured in his treatment of mining and the imperial domains, for which he openly admits that our data is too insufficient to paint a full picture (p. 155). De Blois treats the infamous debasement of the century and eventual inflation accurately and with care, without blowing the matter out of proportion to the other economic challenges of the period.4

The fourth chapter, on military and political sources of imperial power, offers the strongest arguments in the book, regarding the struggle of emperors in this period to retain control of the army as it became more and more challenging to guarantee victory and adequate logistical support. His most powerful arguments follow this section and track the steady transition of political and administrative power in the empire from senators to career bureaucrats in military and government positions. In the latter case, particularly, he argues that this shift in practice became the saving grace of the Empire. He is clear that senators retained social power, and that they actually gained authority in Italy in the absence of the emperor, but argues that the professionalization of administration increased imperial stability and offered emperors more skilled and experienced candidates when they sought to appoint governors or other important officers. De Blois also makes an interesting argument that, despite increased financial liabilities and greater insecurity of the borders, locals in provincial and war-torn areas seem to have responded with displays of greater loyalty to the imperial center. He attributes their behavior to the mounting evidence that, without the empire, chaos was imminent. He rightly recognizes the paradox of such a statement (p.204), but makes a strong case for the importance of imperial unity for local populations, even as they became disenchanted with the growing burden of supplying an empire engaged in constant warfare on multiple fronts.

The fifth and final chapter turns to ideological sources of imperial power. It is here that the "image" of the title becomes literal as de Blois considers the visuals of imperial representation alongside the rhetoric of eunoia and good imperial behavior. It is also in this chapter that de Blois directly addresses the potential distance between "image and reality," and its consequences. He covers a wide range of sources that were significant tools for developing and maintaining ideological power, including panegyrics, coin iconography and legends, imperial titles, dynastic claims, portraiture, and divine associations. He argues that while these ideological sources of power had long histories and could often be claimed with minimal effort, if the projections of ideological power did not align with reality, they could not be used to compensate for weakness in imperial power on other fronts.

De Blois concludes that there was a general decline of traditional forms of imperial power in this period, leading to, in the main, short term, stop gap solutions that had serious ramifications in the years that followed. While he sees benefits in some of the measures, in particular the increased reliance on an experienced bureaucracy and the military reforms of Gallienus, he recognizes that the overall trend was toward greater dependency on the military, which often ruled the emperor more than the emperor ruled it, particularly if the emperor could not demonstrate personal military prowess and ensure victory for his troops.

The book has a generally clear style, though the reader does occasionally get bogged down in detail. This is felt perhaps most heavily in the second chapter, where the naturally dizzying historical events are not helped by de Blois' tendency toward long paragraphs, the publisher's restriction of maps to the front of the volume, and the general use of chapter endnotes for citation. The latter two restrictions make the use of the book in hard copy challenging, but will prove significantly more so to those who prefer to do their reading digitally. The text is free of obvious error and the bibliography is free of major omissions.

De Blois has crafted a fascinating approach to the third century that makes the most of his undeniable expertise. The book will be of interest to any who wish to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the period, have an interest in imperial power, or to specialists in the period's political, military, economic, or ideological history.


1.   Mann, M., The Sources of Social Power I: A History of Power from the Beginnings to AD 1760, Cambridge 1986.
2.   De Blois addresses this complex topic in his introduction (I.4 Status quaestionis). His approach mostly considers the opinions of the contemporaries as his justification for the label of "crisis," though he duly addresses the historiography of the field, including its debts back into the 19th century. De Blois is current with the argument that rejects the notion of a widespread and comprehensive crisis (mostly supported by archaeological findings, of which, it must be admitted, de Blois makes rather limited use), but he argues in chapter two that the burdens of warfare and political upheaval elsewhere would have been partially borne by regions that were not directly in the line of fighting. Thus, he contends that, even if some areas were free of conflict and direct destruction, there were still prices to be paid for being part of an interdependent empire.
3.   This is most true with de Blois' use of petitions and religious texts. For the former, there are several works on the social implications of legal texts that might have been useful, such as Bryen, A., Violence in Roman Egypt: A Study in Legal Interpretation, University of Pennsylvania 2013 and Connolly, S., Lives Behind the Laws: The World of the Codex Hermogenianus, Indiana University Press 2010, whom de Blois includes in his bibliography, but makes little use of. For the latter, de Blois' reading on the state of traditional religion is undeniably correct, but there is more that might have been done with early Christian sources in this period. The view of this population on what makes a good emperor is very interesting, as would have been de Blois' thoughts on them.
4.   That said, De Blois makes no statement about hoarding or the scale, growth, or decline of monetization in this period. The issue of debasement needs to be tied to the number of coin users and how they were using the money they had. In general, and fairly naturally for his main argument, de Blois focuses on urban situations and assumes that imperial pronouncements were met with obedience, even in a time that saw frequent usurpations. Thus, he rightly reads P. Oxy. 12, 1411 (p.161ff) as a sign that some had been rejecting imperial coinage, but does not state whether he has any reason to believe that this order was obeyed. If even some were no longer accepting coinage, but soldiers were still predominantly paid in coins, there are serious implications. Most of these would support de Blois' overall argument of the decline in economic power experiences by the emperors of the third century, but they are not explored in this volume.

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Dominik Berrens, Soziale Insekten in der Antike: Ein Beitrag zu Naturkonzepten in der griechisch-römischen Kultur. Hypomnemata, Band 205. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht Verlag, 2018. Pp. 459. ISBN 9783525310533. €100,00. ISBN 9783647310534. ebook.

Reviewed by Jula Wildberger, The American University of Paris (

Version at BMCR home site


Dominik Berrens provides a sensible, down-to-earth exposition of ancient ideas about and presentations of those insects that correspond, more or less, to what we call bees, wasps, and ants. The genus term "social insects" derives from Aristotle's definition of "political" animals at the beginning of the Historia animalium (p. 38). He covers the Greek and Latin textual tradition from the beginnings to late antiquity, including the Septuagint and the New Testament, but does not discuss art, material culture, or epigraphic and papyrological evidence. The merits of this monograph are its comprehensiveness and its thematic organization. In my view, whenever critical decisions are made, Berrens shows good judgment. His translations are reliable and, as far as I could judge, he is generally well informed as much as one might expect with such an overarching and interdisciplinary subject.1

Berrens introduces his work as a contribution to our understanding of ancient "concepts" (Konzepte), in the sense in which this term is used in the disciplines of linguistics and cognitive science (1.1.1, pp. 11-14), but himself realizes the limitations of such terminology (p. 13) given that, e.g., it is not clear who the human bearers of those concepts might be or to what degree a highly sophisticated literary or rhetorical artifice can be treated as testimony for concepts shared across a society or social class. Sometimes Berrens observes systematic differences between Greek and Roman authors and the corresponding cultures, e.g., that only Roman authors use military vocabulary to describe the beehive (p. 268), but apart from distinguishing sources, he does not systematically address the importance of the wide chronological and geographic range of his material.

What he gives his readers is a thorough and detailed overview of the facts mentioned in the ancient texts, the origin of such ideas, terms, topoi, and images, as well as their use and tradition in different contexts, genres, and key authors. He compares the assumptions of ancient authors with the understanding of modern biology (an overview is given in section 1.4), often suggests explanations for mistaken beliefs, and shows how ignorance in one area, e.g., procreation, could reinforce or lead to false beliefs in another area, e.g., gender or species. As two further sources of greater or lesser accuracy Berrens identifies anthropomorphism and the degree of practical interest in these animals. Insects were perceived as human-like and exemplary in their sociability and cooperation and thus often interpreted in human terms. Thus, when Aristotle associates the sting of bees with a weapon and thus masculinity, this prevents him from identifying stingless drones as male and worker bees as female (p. 218). In addition to such epistemic anthropomorphism, as it were, Berrens also describes deliberate anthropomorphism as a literary or ideological choice.

The structure of the book is thematic. After the introduction (chapter 1), Berrens discusses ancient concepts of Art ("species" or "kind") and clarifies how far removed ancient terminology is from our modern understanding of genetically defined species. Distinctions could be made by a variety of criteria. Bees were regarded as three different 'kinds': the queen, the workers, and the drones, which should be identified with the so-called thieves and were sometimes treated as different species, an alien intruder the bees had to ward off. Accordingly, conceptions of bees and drones differed significantly. In contrast to the proverbially lazy and useless drones, characteristic of bees were highly organized, monarchic societies, some degree of intelligence, active food production and storage, hard and shared labor, and both physical and mental purity. Berrens recommends that we refrain from trying to identify modern species with ancient kinds, e.g., when trying to find counterparts for the animals referred to with different words for 'wasps' in Greek and Latin. Because of their appearance, wasps were more closely associated with bees to which they were regarded as inferior (less organized, e.g, and more aggressive). As concerns ants, the ancients counted a number of animals, some of them fabulous, under the names murmex and formica respectively, probably including spiders and even Pantherinae. The paradigmatic type, however, corresponds to the small black Mediterranean ant of the genus Messor that builds its colonies in the ground and is a grain-gathering herbivore. In contrast to that of bees, ant society was regarded as leaderless (anarchos), but highly cooperative and structured. Another key difference was the fact that ants collect and store but do not produce food, a difference explored, e.g., by Vergil for the contrasting bee and ant similes for the Carthaginians in the first and the Trojans in the fourth book of the Aeneid (pp. 247-250). The third and fourth chapters cover ancient theories about the procreation and ontogenesis of social insects and bougonia, the spontaneous generation of bees from the carcasses of oxen. Berrens rejects the theses that The Greeks encountered bougonia as a common occurrence in Egypt and North-Africa or that there was a confusion with larvae of Eristalis tenax. Instead of venturing an explanation of his own, he points to assumptions of ancient natural science that would have made such a process seem much more plausible than it appears to us nowadays. The findings in chapter 3 form the basis for chapter 5 on the gender of social insects. Here Berrens recommends distinguishing between assumptions about biological sex and social gender based on characteristic roles, such as defense (masculine) or care for the young (feminine). Among the various sources, he finds only one author (Arrian in the Discourses of Epictetus, p. 235) who clearly identifies the queen bee as female. The social femininity or masculinity of that animal varies, and its masculinity is most pronounced when it is described as leading the swarm (e.g., pp. 243, 272f.). The chapter also concerns remarks about gendered attributions of insect features to women (the name Melitta, for example; purity and virginity in Christian texts, section 5.2) and men (in the case of the name Murmex, p. 231). Chapter 6 on society discusses imagery pertaining to all social insects (their appearance as a mass or swarm of individuals and military imagery), much of which amounts to tracing the reception of similes in the epic tradition, and then the three types (bees, wasps, and ants) separately. Anthropomorphism appears as a ubiquitous feature in most of the texts and is particularly pronounced in the Roman and later imperial authors. The authors stress the bees' devotion and subordination to their king, but in ants their devotion to each other. The last two chapters address the role of social insects in religion and divination and their role as "providers of imagery for the production and reception of literature" (chapter 8).

A fine-grained table of contents facilitates quick access to relevant passages. Nevertheless, an index rerum in addition to the index of cited passages would have been helpful because sometimes topics pop up in places where one would not necessarily expect them even though their position makes sense within the flow of the argument. For example, mourning bees are discussed in a section on their purity and cleanliness (2.3.4) and the topical reference to bee-rich Hybla in the section on poetic bee imagery (chapter 8, p. 375). The summaries at the end of each chapter remedy this lack to a degree since they follow the sequence of presentation and mention at least all the major topics covered.

Probably in order to keep chapters reasonably self-contained and to mention all facts relevant to a theme, the account sometimes becomes a bit repetitive for those who read the whole book from cover to cover. Another disadvantage of the thematic structure aimed at displaying generally shared concepts is that it downplays Berrens's achievements in addressing generic conventions and matters of source criticism, tracing traditions, and explaining variations with reference to the particular aesthetic or ideological agenda of individual authors. A chapter summarizing his findings in this respect would have been useful in its own right but also with a view to the question of concepts. Berrens discusses how seminal literary texts can generate ideas and impact even technical writing, e.g., when Columella's assertions about swarming are shaped by Virgil's fictions about a civil war among bees (p. 262), while careful neutrality in Aristotle's scientific account may be distorted through anthropomorphic attributions of male kingship roles by authors such as Pliny the Elder (p. 270). One of my favorites of this type is Berrens's plausible explanation for the variations on the theme of gold-digging giant ants in Northern India (section 2.10). He rejects attempts to find a factual basis by identifying those mysterious ants with some kind of rodent or scaly anteater. Instead, he shows how the Greek tradition originates with Herodotus (3.102-5), who may have heard a version of a local story and to whom the idea of ants the size of a fox or a dog would not have seemed so implausible, given that everything in India appeared larger than life (pp. 130f.). He shows further how the original account was transformed in Hellenistic traditions, when Greek authors had learned about a feline predator "ant" (murmex); how it served as inspiration to the Attic comic poet Euboulos for dreaming up "Gold-digging ants on Hymettos" (2.10.3); and how this, in turn, gave a Second Sophistic lexicographer (Harpocration) explaining Pl. Resp. 405b3f. the idea to invent an Attic tale about the matter.

In sum, this is a useful book for whoever is interested in social insects or in texts featuring these animals. It conveniently brings together disparate sources and literature and may show many avenues for further research. Berrens definitely succeeds in demonstrating a central thesis of his work, that researching ancient discourse about social insects "always reveals something about ancient ideas concerning human beings and their society too."


1.   Berrens has read widely on the subject, but I believe that I observe a certain underrepresentation of French secondary literature, such as (to name just two book-length studies): Gilles Tétart. Le sang des fleurs: Une anthropologie de l'abeille et du miel. (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004), or the classic by Raymond Billiard. Notes sur l'abeille et sur l'apiculture dans l'antiquité. (Lille: Le Bigot, 1900).

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019


Josef Wiesehöfer, Sabine Müller (ed.), Parthika: Greek and Roman Authors' Views of the Arsacid Empire = Griechisch-römische Bilder des Arsakidenreiches. Classica et Orientalia, 15. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017. Pp. xiii, 312. ISBN 9783447107648. €78,00.

Reviewed by Leonardo Gregoratti, Durham University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Twenty years ago, in 1998, J. Wiesehöfer published the fundamental book Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse. At that time, most scholars working on the Parthian Empire agreed on the idea that the Arsacid state, one of the most important political powers of Western Asia that managed to challenge Rome's dominion over all the civilized lands, was still shrouded in the shadows of history. Since then, remarkable work has been undertaken by the many researchers who were inspired by Wiesehöfer and all the specialists who contributed to that book.

The lesson of Das Partherreich has been understood and positively welcomed. Scholarly approaches towards the Parthians changed radically due to the now evident need of finding and interrogating all the sources at our disposal beyond the Classical ones. Nowadays, though still providing most of the information on the Arsacids, Greek and Latin authors are seen as just one group of the sources that should be taken into account in order to provide a reliable representation of the Parthians and their historical role.

With this collected volume, Parthika, Greek and Roman Author's Views of the Arsacid Empire, after twenty years of progress and transformation in the field of Arsacid studies, Josef Wiesehöfer and Sabine Müller go back to the origins of the discussion on the Parthians: the Greek and Roman authors and the information they provide. The volume presents papers that discuss well-known authors like Flavius Josephus, Trogus, Tacitus and Arrian, but its original contribution consists of the attention given to local Parthian historians, more obscure and lesser known intellectuals like Isidoros of Charax and Apollodoros of Artemita. The work of these two Greek authors, subjects of the Parthian Great King, would be entirely lost if it was not for the few and scanty references by later authors.

M. Olbrycht's contribution, Greeks in the Arsacid Empire, functions as a remarkable introduction to the whole topic. Through a detailed and comprehensive investigation concerning the presence of Greeks and Greek cultural elements in Parthian society, culture and art in the cities and satrapies of the empire, the author warns about the risks of overrating the importance of Greek culture for the Parthians. Many Greeks lived under the Great King's rule while preserving their culture and lifestyle. They did not live in isolated communities, but played a relevant role in Parthian society and administration, becoming a fundamental component of the Arsacid state. On the other hand, the Arsacids had a genuine interest in Hellenic culture, an interest that resulted in the adoption of various Greek cultural elements, but never lead to a Hellenization of Parthian leadership.

A series of connected contributions follows. They all focus on the few extant fragments from the work of the historian Apollodoros of Artemita. Artemita was a city under Parthian rule located east of Seleucia on the Tigris. J. Engels, Strabon aus Amaseia und Apollodoros of Artemita, discusses Strabo's interest in Parthian history and territory and the possible use of Apollodoros' information in his lost monumental historical work. The author notes that most of Strabo's references to Apollodoros' work refer to the history and geography of eastern regions well beyond the Mesopotamian area. Apollodoros thus was an important source for what concerned the peripheral satrapies of the Parthian empire, Caucasus as well as Central Asia. K. Nawotka, Apollodoros of Artemita: beyond New Jacoby, discusses the possibility of identifying other fragments of Apollodoros' work elsewhere in Strabo's Geography. According to his opinion, the geographer's description of Margiana and the passages where he expresses a balanced point of view between Rome and Parthia as universal superpowers denote the influence of the Greek author from Artemita, an assumption that according to Nawotka can shed light on the chronology of Apollodoros' life and work. S. Müller's contribution, Apollodoros als Historiograph parthischer Geschichte brings us back to the sad reality. The scanty information on Apollodoros and his cultural identity does not allow going beyond the level of speculation concerning the role he played in other authors' works (in particular Pompeius Trogus) and his reputation and value among those who followed.

M. Schuol's contribution, Isidor von Charax und die literarische Gattung der stathmoi, opens the section dedicated to the Parthian Stations by Isidoros of Charax. Enlarging the scope of investigation through analysing the tradition of stathmoi and itineraria within Greek and Roman literary culture, she situates Isidoros' work in the more general context of the ancient geographical descriptions. Drawing a geographical space indicating routes and distances can of course be useful in order to plan military operations, but this does not exclude other purposes like trade, communication and travel. Considering the Parthian Stations only as a sort of invasion plan would mean limiting the function of the work and reducing the influence it had on later,comparable works of the imperial period.

U. Hartmann's contribution discusses the same topic, Die Parthischen Stationen des Isidor von Charax: eine Handelsroute, eine Militärkarte oder ein Werk geographischer Gelehrsamkeit?. The scholar provides an extraordinarily comprehensive overview of Isidorus' work and its main problems, including an excellent and detailed bibliography. The contribution, which constitutes a small treatise on Isidorus in itself, analyses the work and the information available on the author in detail to conclude that nothing seems to suggest a main commercial purpose for the Characenian geographer. Hartmann also questions the identification of Isidorus with another geographer, and fellow citizen, mentioned by Pliny: Dionysius of Charax, whose work constituted a source of information on Parthia for Augustus' oriental policy and for the activity of C. Caesar on the eastern frontier (Plin., N.H., VI, 141). This identification has in fact lead to the characterization of Isidorus' Parthian Stations as a sort of military vademecum in case of a conflict with the Arsacids or, as has been proposed, a practical guide to invade Parthia. According to Hartmann, the simplest and most probable solution consists in situating Isidorus (and Dionysius as well) among the Hellenic authors inspired by a genuine interest in the geographical exploration and the promotion of knowledge about Eastern lands, an interest largely shared by the Roman audience after Carrhae.

S. Hauser, Isidor von Charax Σταϑμοὶ Παρϑικοί – Annäherungen an den Autor, den Routenverlauf und die Bedeutung des Werkes reaches a similar conclusion on Isidorus' work. Hauser's contribution questions the route traditionally accepted as the access point to upper Mesopotamia basing his considerations and corrections on the actual distances given in the text. Due to the fact that Isidorus' text is probably a summary of a larger work by one or more different hands, a strictly philological investigation of the codices available and their lectiones would be necessary to estimate the reliability of Isidorus distances' and therefore of Hauser's contribution.

R. Schmitt' linguistic remarks on Isidorus' place names, Isidors Stathmoi Parthikoi aus Sicht der Iranischen Toponomastik, provide interesting elements able to shed new light on the eastern portion of the itinerary. An example is the name Βαζιγράβαν, where according to the text there was a Parthian "customs station". Schmitt proposes to interpret the Greek term τελώνιον as an incorrect attempt to translate the Iranic original name that indicated more generally a place where tributes where collected.

E.S. Gruen's contribution on Flavius Josephus, Josephus' Image of the Parthians, opens the section of the volume dedicated to the perception and the role of the Parthians in authors whose historical works are better known and better preserved. In Josephus' narration, the Parthians remain a secondary historical entity: they come into the scene only when the Arsacids play a role in the history of Jewish communities. Sometimes Arsacid kings are portrayed as positive rulers, sometimes as despotic tyrants. The Parthians are seen at the same time with sympathy or contempt. Gruen concludes that this dual characterization is the result of Josephus' lack of interest in the Eastern empire. Pompeius Trogus/Justin's dichotomy concerning the Parthians, culturally connected to the Scythians, but also victim of tyranny and corruption, according to S. Müller, Das Bild der Parther bei Trogus-Justin, fits well with the authors' idea of the inevitable decadence of empires. M. Heil deals with Tacitus, Die Parther bei Tacitus. Unlike the Romans, Tacitus never sees the Parthians as a people. The Parthian empire is a composite structure where different political entities co-exist under Arsacid rule, therefore, Heil observes, it would be better to speak of an Arsacid empire. Finally, C. Lerouge-Cohen, L'image des Parthes chez Arrien. Réflexions sur quelques fragments attribués aux Parthika, discusses some of the fragments that Roos attributed to Arrian's Parthikà. Fragment no. 1 on the origins of the Parthians and the Arsacids clearly reveals, according to the author, a Greek Mesopotamian origin. The story of the two brothers, Arsaces and Tiridates, who rebelled against a Seleucid despotic master, was conceived among those "Arsacid" Greeks who were in good terms with the Crown for an audience that shared similar cultural characteristics and political sympathies. Lerouge-Cohen then discusses fragment no. 20 about Parthian armour and weapons. The author convincingly suggests that it should not be attributed to Arrian, but to a later author, possibly Eunapius, a source the Suida often uses and who wrote about the Sassanids referring to themselves as Parthians.

In conclusion Parthikà is a volume of great interest for any scholar of the ancient world and for those working on Parthia and on the sources about the Parthian world in particular. The most interesting element is the serious debate among scholars concerning the two lesser known authors: Apollodorus of Artemita and Isidorus of Charax, whose works, though in large part lost, still play a relevant role in our knowledge of the Parhian world.

Table of Contents

I Überlegungen zu Apollodoros von Artemita und Isidoros von Charax
Marek Jan Olbrycht , Greeks in the Arsacid Empire
Johannes Engels, Strabon aus Amaseia und Apollodoros aus Artemita
Krzysztof Nawotka, Apollodorus of Artemita: Beyond New Jacoby
Sabine Müller, Apollodoros als Historiograph parthischer Geschichte
Monika Schuol, Isidor von Charax und die literarische Gattung der stathmoi
Udo Hartmann, Die Parthischen Stationen des Isidor von Charax: eine Handelsroute, eine Militärkarte oder ein Werk geographischer Gelehrsamkeit?
Stefan Hauser, Isidor von Charax Σταϑμοὶ Παρϑικοί – Annäherungen an den Autor, den Routenverlauf und die Bedeutung des Werkes
Rüdiger Schmitt, Isidors Stathmoi Parthikoi aus Sicht der Iranischen Toponomastik

II Bilder der Parther bei Josephus, Trogus-Justin, Tacitus und Arrian
Erich S. Gruen, Josephus' Image of the Parthians
Sabine Müller, Das Bild der Parther bei Trogus-Justin
Matthäus Heil, Die Parther bei Tacitus
Charlotte Lerouge-Cohen, L'image des Parthes chez Arrien. Réflexions sur quelques fragments attribués aux Parthika
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Walter Scheidel (ed.), The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. 280. ISBN 9780691162560. $35.00.

Reviewed by Benoît Rossignol, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (

Version at BMCR home site

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

L'interdisciplinarité est enjeu important, et croissant, des études sur l'antiquité. Pour être fructueux, le dialogue disciplinaire suppose une connaissance minimale entre les parties prenantes. Les sciences de laboratoire considérant la matérialité du passé peuvent sembler occuper à cet égard un rapport particulier : une grande partie des spécialistes de l'antiquité peuvent les connaître mal et sont issus de formations parfois éloignées de leurs paradigmes. Enfin, elles ont connu dans les dernières décennies, et connaissent encore, des évolutions rapides tant pour ce qui est des résultats que pour ce qui est des méthodes et des procédures expérimentales. Ces constats expliquent en partie que Walter Scheidel ait voulu procurer dans le volume ici présenté, un guide et en même temps un bilan des apports de ces disciplines à l'histoire romaine. Ce faisant, il fournit aussi un instantané capturant l'intrication croissante de l'histoire et des disciplines scientifiques de laboratoire. En conséquence, l'ouvrage est marqué par le contexte actuel de la science : la rapidité et la constance avec laquelle de nouveaux résultats paraissent, l'émiettement grandissant des spécialités, l'inflation énorme des connaissances pouvant décourager toute synthèse personnelle, traditionnellement chère aux historiens. Entérinant cette situation, Walter Scheidel invite cependant à ne pas abdiquer, à garder la tête froide face aux nouveautés, à résister à la tentation du sensationnalisme lorsque l'on présente la dernière découverte ( p. 8 « remain circumspect and resist the ever-present temptation to oversell the latest findings »), définissant finalement une position ambitieuse pour les historiens qui peuvent se placer au centre d'un carrefour interdisciplinaire. Pour explorer les rapports entres les sciences du monde physique et les recherches en histoire romaine, le volume qu'il a dirigé est divisé en sept chapitres allant du climat aux études génétiques, en passant par la botanique, l'archéozoologie et l'anthropologie physique.

Avant d'envisager brièvement chacun de ces chapitres, il faut souligner que l'ouvrage nous semble tenir son pari. Sans sacrifier les discussions, sans masquer les limites, sans oublier la complexité de certaines questions, il prend la forme d'un volume introductif de taille très raisonnable, où les articles présentent les différents domaines scientifiques toujours sous une forme abordable et claire. L'histoire romaine est l'intérêt principal de l'ouvrage, le spécialiste ne manquera pas de trouver des discussions de cas parfois passionnants. Bien sûr, le lecteur n'y trouvera pas d'exposé systématique de l'histoire romaine et la répartition des exemples et des cas est très hétérogène dans le temps, dans l'espace et dans les populations concernées : c'est la conséquence logique et légitime du but et du sujet de l'ouvrage. En outre, l'exposition des méthodes est telle que la lecture de l'ouvrage sera profitable à bien d'autres que les seuls pratiquant de l'histoire romaine. C'est particulièrement vrai pour le dernier chapitre, consacré aux enseignements de la génétique sur l'histoire des populations surtout à partir des études génétiques dans les populations contemporaines, afin d'en reconstituer l'histoire dans la longue durée. Son propos concerne de fait toute l'histoire du bassin méditerranéen. De même dans le chapitre précédent le lecteur croise Ramsès III et bien des éléments du chapitre sur le climat pourront éclairer l'histoire du monde grec ou du Proche-Orient. Ces divers chapitres sont de taille raisonnable et assez variable, allant d'une petite vingtaine de pages jusqu'à cinquante pour le chapitre consacré aux dents et aux restes osseux. Certains chapitres se complètent particulièrement bien comme les deux chapitres consacrés à l'ADN (chap. 6 et 7) ou ceux portant sur les os (chap. 4) et la croissance humaine (chap. 5). Prétendant seulement à une honnête culture scientifique générale, le recenseur ne saurait évidemment discuter chaque point des diverses contributions sur des domaines scientifiques aussi pointus et divers. Là où il a pu juger plus en profondeur, il a pu constater l'excellente tenu de fond du volume.

Le chapitre sur l'histoire du climat fourni une synthèse claire et complète sur un domaine qui a vu des bouleversements considérables dans les dernières années et n'est pas sans écho avec les préoccupations de nos sociétés contemporaines. Si des travaux récents, en partie par les mêmes auteurs, ont aussi abordé la question, sous un format parfois proche,1 l'article reste utile même pour les familiers de la question, notamment par le bilan procuré pour les spéléothèmes et en ce qu'il cherche à intégrer les dernières données.2 Les auteurs soulignent à juste titre que l'ampleur des données nouvelles procurées par les sciences physiques n'empêche pas les sources écrites, certes insuffisantes, de rester précieuses. Le résultat principal est bien sûr la coïncidence de la prospérité romaine avec une phase climatique particulièrement stable (p. 18), mais le bilan méthodologique reste prudent : l'exploration des relations entre le climat et les sociétés du passé ne fait que débuter, et comme ailleurs en histoire ancienne « the devil is in the details » (p. 39).3 Nos connaissances se sont multipliées, il reste à les intégrer rigoureusement dans toute leur complexité.

La question de l'analyse des restes botaniques et de leurs enseignements est traitée dans le riche chapitre deux à la construction claire et agréable à suivre, fortement soucieuse de questions historiques. C'est la base agraire des sociétés antique et de l'empire romain, en même temps que ses défis quotidien, qui peuvent être révélés par les restes végétaux. On ne signalera qu'un point sur lequel un lecteur trop hâtif pourrait glisser : la mention de grains de café retrouvés dans une épave (p. 65) illustre, en général, la variété des découvertes et des identifications que permet l'archéobotanique, et il faut préciser que le naufrage de Sadana, qui sert d'exemple, date du XVIIIe siècle.

La discussion sur l'archéozoologie suit logiquement la présentation de la botanique. S'appuyant particulièrement sur l'exemple du site de Sagalassos, l'exposé formule aussi des remarques plus larges sur la question de la datation en archéologie classique et sur l'usage du C14. Le lecteur trouvera aussi des réflexions sur la taphonomie, et des pistes sur de futures possibilités, en particulier à partir d'études histologiques (p. 112) ainsi qu'un vibrante conclusion sur la scientificité et l'importance d'arriver à une reconstruction partagée du passé (p. 115, en corrigeant la note 78 en « McGovern 1995 : 82 »).

La plus longue contribution du recueil concerne les os, les dents et l'histoire faisant rentrer de plein pied le volume dans le difficile domaine de la démographie humaine. Se concentrant justement sur les questions qu'il faut se poser (p. 126), il n'esquive pas les difficultés et s'attache de manière remarquable à marquer les limites de nos connaissances et de nos méthodes tout en insistant sur l'importance de la standardisation dans la collecte des données et dans la terminologie. Il pointe aussi les évolutions dans la discipline, en particulier, pour la paléopathologie, le passage du cas exceptionnel à la saisie de communautés entières. Jugeant que l'avis de décès de la paléodémographie est grandement exagéré, l'article est un plaidoyer pour reconsidérer nos ambitions et nos attentes à la hauteur du faisable en même temps qu'un appel optimiste à en tirer les conséquences méthodologiques : les études peuvent être riches d'enseignement si elles se font à partir d'un groupe bien identifié. Il faut pratiquer des comparaisons appropriées et se rappeler que la démarche critique est aussi importante que le suivi des progrès techniques.

Le chapitre suivant, traitant de la croissance et de la stature des individus, est fortement complémentaire et procure des enseignements méthodologiques très similaires, insistant sur le besoin d'approches plus nuancées et sur l'importance de la standardisation. C'est à une approche holistique de la stature des adultes qu'il faut parvenir à partir d'une compréhension biographique et en refusant l'uniformitarisme qui permettrait pour n'importe quelle population donnée de passer par la même formule de la longueur d'un os long à la stature complète d'un individu.

Les deux derniers chapitres concernant l'ADN sont les plus courts du volume, mais le domaine couvert, et les données collectées, semblent appelés à progresser rapidement. Le chapitre consacré à l'ADN ancien retrace l'historique des recherches et expose les bases biologiques de la question. Il énonce clairement les problèmes soulevés par certaines études en raison de leur taille notamment et le lecteur trouvera une explication claire des limites que rencontre l'étude génétique de la famille de Toutânkhamon. L'ADN n'est pas cependant que celui des humains, et l'article documente aussi les connaissances sur la génétique d'autres habitants de la planète avec qui nous devons parfois cohabiter pour le pire, comme le bacille de la peste. Le lecteur verra que l'usage de l'ADN ancien pour explorer l'antiquité est encore limité : bien des découvertes sont sans doute devant nous.

Le dernier chapitre enfin se consacre aux enseignements tiré des analyses de l'ADN des populations contemporaines, focalisant le propos en particulier sur le chromosome Y. Comme le chapitre précédent, il utilise des sigles (SNV, mtDNA, TMRCA...) moins familiers au spécialiste de Rome que CIL ou ILS ; un petit glossaire aurait été peut-être appréciable. Plus fondamentalement, il parcourt l'état d'un champ scientifique qui a été transformé dans les toutes dernières années et explore le temps profond des populations humaines, où bien des incertitudes subsistent. Combinant l'isolement des îles et la connectivité de la mer, la Méditerranée rassemble les deux forces en apparence opposées de la diffusion et de la dérive génétique. La haute résolution des études ouvre des possibilités qui sont esquissées, mais la prudence est nécessaire : c'est à juste titre que l'article rappelle qu'assimiler un haplogroupe à une migration « is an overly simplistic model ». S'il faut se garder de mesurer les gènes comme à une époque nos prédécesseurs pouvaient mesurer les crânes, on ne doit pas récuser les enseignements apportés par ces plongées dans nos ancêtres. Elles interrogent aussi nos identités contemporaines et nos représentations.

Terminons en signalant la très grande qualité de production du volume (nous n'avons relevé que le pathologique « paleopatholgoical » en p. 193). Même si Walter Scheidel prend acte, dans son introduction, de l'obsolescence programmée de bien des données face à la progression des sciences et des publications, le volume est d'un intérêt remarquable. Déployant un éventail large de problèmes et d'exemples, il constitue une introduction solide et peut-être moins éphémère qu'il n'y paraît. Il pourra intéresser nombre de spécialistes du monde antique et même stimuler des étudiants avancés, et si enfin l'accumulation des données et les transformations des méthodes de laboratoire diminuent son usage, il restera un témoignage historiographique important et un appel à réfléchir à la construction de nos connaissances.

Table des matières

W. Scheidel : Introduction
K. Harper, M. McCormick : Reconstructing the Roman Climate
M. van der Veen : Archaeobotany: The Archaeology of Human-Plant Interactions
M. MacKinnon : Zooarchaeology : Reconstructing the Natural and Cultural Worlds from Archaeological Faunal Remains
A. Sperduti, L. Bondioli, O.E. Craig, T. Prowse, P. Garnsey: Bones, Teeth, and History
R. Gowland, L. Walther: Human Growth and Stature
N. Tuross, M.G. Campana: Ancient DNA
R.J. King, P.A. Underhill: Modern DNA and the Ancient Mediterranean


1.   En particulier M. McCormick et al., « Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire : Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence », Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 43-2, 2012, p. 169-220, ainsi que les contributions concernant le climat dans W.W. Harris éd., The Ancient Mediterranean Environment between Science and History, Leyde, New York, 2013.
2.   Notons pour le lecteur que la légère correction apportée en 2015 à la chronologie des carottes glaciaires n'impacte pas la figure 1-5 car le travail de 2007 à partir duquel elle est construite intégrait une marge d'erreur suffisamment robuste.
3.   J. Scheid, « Éloge du détail. Réflexions sur la recherche dans les sciences de l'antiquité », in S. Mokni, M. Sebaï, Institutions municipales en Afrique proconsulaire, Sfax, 2017, p. 121 sq.

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