David Potter's book on Constantine is at first a little hard to pin down. It's not really a biography, and despite the title, only about half the bookDavid Potter's book on Constantine is at first a little hard to pin down. It's not really a biography, and despite the title, only about half the book is about the reign of Emperor Constantine, with the first half being a grounding in the crisis of the third century, and Diocletian's reign (and depicts the Tetrarchy as being far less a far-sighted idea than I've seen elsewhere), and then shows what Constantine's place in the Imperial court was before his self-appointment to the rank of Augustus.
Through it all, the book is a slightly dry recounting of Roman government from Diocletian through Constantine's death. There is a lot of attention paid to, and things read into, surviving official correspondence. Knowing what the person Constantine was like is probably impossible with the surviving sources, and Potter doesn't try. He sketches in the outlines, but doesn't go for a lot of color. The thrust of the narrative presents the early fourth century Empire as the world in which Constantine existed, and what his conversion to Christianity really meant.
And the answer is 'not a lot'. Potter's interpretation of Constantine's faith is (understandably) as something that evolved over time, and doesn't necessarily bear a strong resemblance to faith as it is understood today. His reign was not the dramatic conversion of the purpose of the Empire that it is generally presented as (especially in Christan sources). Instead, Potter shows that Constantine's legislation shows a very evenhanded approach, retaining traditional practice (as he saw it) where possible, while integrating Christian belief into it.
He also admits that Constantine leaned towards promoting Christian administrators, which one would figure would promote the process of the Roman Empire becoming a 'Christian' Empire, but such long-term results are not looked into. Given Potter's emphasis on the somewhat heterogeneous composition of the the empire and its government, I'd like to see what he has to say about the reign of Julian, and if it comes off as controversial at the time as it gets presented in hindsight or from hostile Christian sources....more
I've generally been liking Osprey's turn towards specialized subjects in their Elite line, and this is no exception. The book takes a look at what isI've generally been liking Osprey's turn towards specialized subjects in their Elite line, and this is no exception. The book takes a look at what is known of Roman sieges from the fall of Carthage to the siege of Cremna (no, I hadn't heard of it either). The bulk of the book is taken up with recounting what sieges we know something of, and points out the large number of cases where the Romans simply stormed the town as fast as possible (as opposed to the usual impression that every Roman siege was a big, lengthy production such as at Alesia). Along the way, there is some reconsideration of the archaeology at Numantia and Dura Europos.
There's no strong theme to the book, but it makes a good survey of the subject. I wish more attention had been given to Dura Europos, as only a couple parts of the fortifications are shown in diagrams and illustrations. On the other hand, apparently there's no good theories as to just what happened (and in what order) there, and it is a large site, so presumably a detailed look could take up most of the book without saying anything conclusive. There's also reproductions of some older (18th and 19th century) diagrams of some of the sites with short critiques....more
As of about AD 200, the Roman Empire was by far the most powerful state within its known world, and had been for over two hundred years. Three hundredAs of about AD 200, the Roman Empire was by far the most powerful state within its known world, and had been for over two hundred years. Three hundred years later, the western half of the Empire had ceased to exist, and the remaining part, while still powerful, no longer held the clear advantage over its neighbors that the earlier empire had. Adrian Goldworthy's How Rome Fell is technically a re-examination of how this came about.
However, while this thesis is talked about at the beginning of the book, and then discussed at the end of the book, there's no real reference to it during the book. Instead, it is just a general history of those three hundred plus years. However, it is a very good history of the period, and I think this would be a great place to start for someone wanting to study Late Antiquity. Not only is it generally well-written, but it spends a fair amount of time showing how little we truly know (about the population, economy, actual size of the Roman army in many periods...), and exploding old certainties.
The concluding chapter is also short on certainties, but long on thoughtful commentary about the various ills of the Empire. The main conclusion is that the Empire weakened itself through interminable civil wars. Worse, the reaction to these civil wars was to attempt to remodel the Empire to protect emperors from assassination and rivals, and fail. One of the points that Goldsworthy proposes as key, is the removal of the vestiges of political power and importance from the Senate. When senators stopped being the primary pool to get new emperors from (when the chancy business of dynastic succession fails), the pool of candidates actually became larger, more dispersed, and impossible to control.
His thoughts on the separate fates of the Western and Eastern Empires mostly come down to geography. Among other effects, the various tribal leaders to cross the frontiers had nowhere else to go than the Western Empire. There were no comparable threats to most of the Eastern frontier, and that part that did have power tribal confederations was the Danube. Thrace and Greece were not places they could get very far in, they couldn't cross the Bosphorus to Asia Minor, and that left... the Western Empire. In addition, most of the rebellions and usurpers came from the western provinces, why is not clear, but it may just be success breeding more attempts.
And then there is the quasi-subtitle (only seen on the title page): Death of a Superpower. Goldsworthy equates Rome as a superpower in that there was no other entity that could come close to matching it's size, wealth, manpower, or ability to project power. (Well, China would be an exception, but since it had no way of getting at the Empire, or any of its neighbors, it is ignored.) The final epilogue (and much of the introduction) talks about the inevitable parallels people try to draw between the Roman Empire and the United States, and dismisses many of them. But he does meditate a bit on the problems of bureaucracy, and the dangers of any institution forgetting what its primary purpose is.
Circling back to the content of the bulk of the book, it is a well done survey of the period, and an excellent place to start if you are not well aware of the history of those three to four hundred years. It is less useful to those who have studied the period (I found most of the book familiar ground), but it is still a good single reference book, and there will be some new touches for most people....more
A pretty good discussion of how the Roman Army worked in battle from the Marian reforms through most of the Empire. It's about as solid as anything onA pretty good discussion of how the Roman Army worked in battle from the Marian reforms through most of the Empire. It's about as solid as anything on such a detailed subject can be at this distance. It mostly takes the normal scholarship (guesses) and lays it all out quite well. Sadly, even though the Romans wrote a lot, details of this sort were almost never mentioned, possibly because the authors assumed everyone would know exactly was being talked about.
The problem is that this has all been said before. Previous Osprey books on the Roman military have had all the same basic discussion. This volume does enhance the discussion by giving example after example of Roman battles, and showing how the understanding of Roman tactics applies to them. A nice touch is an all-too-short mention of how the aggressive tactics of this period gave way to defensive tactics in the late Empire....more
Like the first two, it's good but very much a specialist's book. If you're interested in lots of terminology (warning: thanks to the period, terminoloLike the first two, it's good but very much a specialist's book. If you're interested in lots of terminology (warning: thanks to the period, terminology switches from Latin to Greek to Latin again very suddenly!), and a run down of just what evidence we have for the forms and colors of Roman military costume of the fifth through seventh centuries.
In short, it's effectively a scholarly journal paper, but much better illustrated. If you need the reference on the subject, it's very valuable (and will take some prying apart to get truly useful data from—I'd have to check, but I don't think this is quite as well done as the first two, which were by a different author), but if you just have an interest in things Roman, this isn't for you....more