Tuesday, July 16, 2019


M. C. Bishop, Lucius Verus and the Roman Defence of the East. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2018. Pp. xv, 197. ISBN 9781473847606. £19.99.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Keith, University of Chicago (trkeith@uchicago.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


In this monograph, M. C. Bishop has set himself an ambitious goal: to rehabilitate the reputation of Lucius Verus, who has long lingered in the shadow of his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Marcus Aurelius. In particular, Bishop wishes to challenge the accepted view, based largely on the Life of Verus within the Historia Augusta (HA), that Verus was a dissolute playboy who made little or no material contribution to Roman military success in the East prior to his untimely death. What has resulted from Bishop's inquiries could perhaps best be described as two books which have been somewhat uncomfortably combined into one. The first is an examination of Roman military activity in the Eastern Empire and the Roman-Parthian wars; this is superb. The second is a biographical/historical study of Verus himself, and while it is certainly not without its merits, it is rather more problematic.

Bishop's background is in Roman military archaeology, and where the details of Roman warfare are concerned, he knows his subject matter backwards and forwards. Chapter 4 of the monograph is devoted to a compelling analysis of the various campaigns Rome waged against Parthia from the late Republic on, considering how military and political objectives shaped Roman success or failure in the region, and, in particular, how the kingdom of Armenia often served as a cockpit over which the two great empires clashed, as putting their preferred candidate on the Armenian throne was the only real method either power had of gaining material advantage over the other. Bishop pays careful attention to matters of equipment, logistics, tactics, strategy, and the like. His account (Chapters 6-7) of the Parthian campaign carried out under Verus' aegis is fully convincing, and this reviewer has no doubt that, as Bishop would argue, the strategy and skill of the Roman army in that campaign has been underestimated by historians. The stage-by-stage analysis of the campaign that Bishop offers, and especially his prosopography of the various commanders involved in the effort (pp. 83-89), will be invaluable to students of the Roman military.

But the question remains: to what degree was Lucius Verus himself responsible for Roman success against Parthia? Here we run into the central difficulty of the book. Bishop wishes us to set aside the Historia Augusta's portrayal of Verus as lazy, devoted to hedonistic pursuits, and little interested in the details of matters military. He accuses the HA of bias (pp. 12-14); in this he is surely right, as no serious student of the HA would argue that it is an impartial source, or one that can be taken at face value. But by and large, Bishop's solution to the source-critical problem he faces is simply to replace negative value-judgments in the HA with his own more positive value-judgments, without adducing meaningful supporting evidence. It is as if, having decided that Verus was a man of diligence and a capable commander, Bishop feels free simply to dismiss the HA's claims to the contrary. His favored method of analyzing the text is a distinction between "fact" and "opinion": "facts" presented in the HA are generally taken at face value (a perilous approach in and of itself), while "opinions" the author of the HA offers are dismissed simply qua opinion (literally struck through, in the case of Appendix 2, "Redacting the Historia Augusta") and replaced with Bishop's own biases.

This is not to say that Bishop is necessarily wrong. Certainly there is room for doubt whenever the HA takes it upon itself to blacken the character of an emperor, especially one, like Verus, for whom we have so little in the way of other evidence to complicate the picture. And Bishop's ultimate conclusion (pp. 130-32), that the author of the Life of Verus deliberately downplayed Verus' positive traits and exaggerated his negative ones to please Commodus, may well have some truth to it. But so much of his case rests upon speculation and assumption that even if he is right, the matter at hand still must be counted, to cite the Scottish legal verdict, "not proven."

Making matters more difficult is that Bishop sometimes uses the HA in slightly naïve fashion when it does bolster the case he wants to make. For example: he makes much of the fact that the Life of Marcus Aurelius credits both Marcus and Lucius Verus with aiding the victims of a Tiber flood "by their own personal care and aid" (p. 71; HA Marcus 8.4-5). For Bishop, this is a sign that Verus was more active and engaged in civic matters that the Life of Verus will allow; but surely it is better taken as a topos of how good emperors ought to behave, reaching back as far as Augustus' boast in the Res Gestae that he refurbished collapsing buildings in the city. Again, while Bishop may be right in his conclusions, the methods by which he reaches them are dubious.

To give more weight to Bishop's character-rehabilitation attempt, one would need to begin with a much more detailed source-critical analysis of the Life of Verus, viewed within the context of other Lives that might bear on it (e.g. Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus Pius, Commodus) and other writers dealing with the period, such as Cassius Dio. One would then need to turn to epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence as well to see how much of the HA's account can be substantiated and where it may fall short. To be fair, Bishop does briefly summarize the relevant sources (literary and otherwise) in Chapter 2, but afterward he does little with them, other than excerpting them where needed to flesh out his narrative of the Parthian campaign.

The book would also be strengthened by greater attention to detail. There is a frustrating pattern of errors in Latin (notably the recurrent use of "Ad Marcus Caesarem" instead of the correct "Ad Marcum Caesarem" in the endnotes) which a diligent editor should have caught. Errors of fact also occur from time to time; notably, Octavian was Caesar's great- nephew, not nephew (p. 66), and the work Bishop identifies as the Panegyric to Constantine is in fact the Panegyric to Constantius (p. 128). I doubt, too, whether either the Romans or Parthians would have seen Tiridates' placing his crown at the feet of Nero's statue as a "bizarre ceremony" (p. 55), since the connection between visual representations of the Emperor and the symbolic power of the Emperor himself was well-established by that point in Imperial culture. And finally, while the plates in the center of the volume are a helpful addition, they are unnumbered, yet Bishop refers to them by number in the text; trying to count to find the correct plate is irksome.

For those who wish to understand how the Roman commanders fighting under Verus achieved success in the East, Bishop's book can be heartily recommended. Where his goal of rehabilitating Verus' posthumous reputation is concerned, Bishop has laid some interesting groundwork, but a great deal yet remains to be done. This monograph is not the final word on the subject, but, at best, a fresh beginning.

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