Simon J V Malloch

Barbarians at the Gate

Rome: An Empire’s Story


Oxford University Press 366pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Around AD 260 the Roman emperor Valerian entered upon his new, brief, and ignominious career as the mounting block of Shapur I, one of the most dynamic kings of Persia. Shapur had laid siege to the eastern cities of Carrhae and Edessa in a bid to recover those ancient territories of Achaemenid Persia then under Roman control. Valerian marched out at the head of the Roman army and was defeated and captured. The Christian author Lactantius, ecstatic at the fall of a persecutor of the faith, supplies the humiliating story that whenever he wished to mount his horse Shapur ordered Valerian to bend over and present his back. Placing his foot on Valerian’s shoulder, the king remarked on the true power relations between the empires, as opposed to the fictions of Roman propaganda. Shapur himself memorialised his triumph dramatically by carving reliefs of a bound Valerian into the cliffs of his Persian homeland. Roman generals and emperors had been killed in battle before, but Valerian was the first emperor to be taken prisoner in war.

Valerian’s disgrace is just one symbol of the crisis that gripped the Roman empire in the second half of the third century AD. Wars in the north had preoccupied Marcus Aurelius in the latter half of the second century, and the frontiers held for several decades after Commodus abandoned warfare on his father’s death in 180. Trouble soon flared up again. Goths raided Dacia and the Danubian provinces in the 240s and killed the emperor Decius during a counter-attack. Sarmatians raided Noricum, Raetia, and Pannonia in the late 250s. The Alamanni swarmed over Spain. The Heruli sacked Athens. Nor was the east immune. In the 220s the Sassanians overthrew the Parthians to gain control of the Persian empire, Rome’s greatest imperial neighbour. The Sassanians – aggressive, better organised, and more unified than the Parthians – repeatedly menaced Rome’s eastern territories. Emperors’ failure to protect provinces and cities triggered a crisis of legitimacy in a system that valued only military success: from 235 to 284 there were more than twenty emperors.

How the empire descended into chaos can be considered from a number of perspectives: increased barbarian sophistication through contact with Rome in border territories; pressure exerted by distant barbarians on those living on the frontiers that forced the latter into the empire; and Rome’s focus on the east. But what particularly interests Greg Woolf in his excellent new study is the Roman empire’s survival. Woolf rightly emphasises that instances of survival are as crucial to understanding the history of the empire as the crises themselves. His concern to interweave these moments with the Gibbonian narrative of decline and fall forms part of his general approach of concentrating on the broad patterns and relationships in the empire’s structure, institutions, and ideologies. Continuities are explored as often as ruptures and innovations. Woolf works on the broadest of canvases. He begins with a cluster of villages on the Tiber at the start of the last millennium BC and leaves off in the sixth century AD, when the story of Rome gives way to that of the Byzantine empire and the barbarian kingdoms of the west. His structural and thematic approach is a very effective means of understanding empire, and a good antidote to attempts to understand Roman history through biographies of Roman emperors and battle narratives, unfortunately still rather common.

Diocletian in the late third century and Constantine in the early fourth stabilised the empire after the crisis, and transformed it in the process. A new tax system was introduced, a new system of provincial government implemented. The citizen-emperors of the early empire were replaced by soldier-emperors such as Diocletian, who played a prominent role in bringing the third-century crisis to an end; soon the emperor would be joined by another alongside him, and two subordinate Caesars. Survival was equally dependent, Woolf argues, on a less tangible phenomenon – identity. Provincial elites had adopted the values and outlook of Rome, an identity based on customs and rituals rather than abstract concepts. The investment of the empire’s elite in the imperial project was crucial to its emergence from the crisis. The barbarian marauders offered few, if any, alternatives, and barbarians of the fourth and fifth centuries would seek to share in the empire’s lifestyle and wealth.

The empire in the west, in Woolf’s narrative, enjoyed only a partial, short-lived recovery. It was weaker than it had been before the third-century crisis, and barbarians soon loomed again on its northern frontiers. In 378 the Visigoths inflicted a crushing defeat on the eastern Roman army at Adrianople, and within 100 years Rome had lost her Mediterranean empire. The eastern emperor Justinian made gains in the west in the mid sixth century, but these were short lived. The empire suffered invasion, shrinkage, and political and geographic fragmentation, but after Justinian’s transitory successes it shrunk back to Byzantium, not to Rome. Woolf argues strongly for collapse – measured in terms of territory, population, influence, and military power – against the thesis of ‘transformation’ into barbarian kingdom and the Byzantine empire: these were new worlds, whatever their Roman inheritance, and he takes his story no further. Nor does he see Christianity, which was gradually converting the empire from the fourth century onwards, as an imperial ideology, since it was prone to schism and heresy and gave church leaders independent authority. There is something to be said, however, for it providing continuity over time as the empire became a chapter in the history of the church.

Throughout Roman history continuities are particularly apparent at the lower levels of organisation, such as in the role of the family or slavery in modes of production. Fundamental change occurred at the highest levels, and systemic collapse can be gauged by the shedding of social complexity. This was most evident in cities. They had flourished in the 200 years after Augustus, in his genius, moved Rome away from the ‘empire of conquest’ model of the late republic by consolidating institutions that were already attuned to a more sustainable tributary empire. City populations declined in later antiquity after the aristocracy retreated with their riches to their villas in the countryside. The imperial bureaucracy usurped many civic functions previously carried out by cities and their elites. Many cities and their civic institutions fell into neglect, not least Rome, whose population dwindled from the million inhabitants of Augustus’s reign to around 80,000 in the early sixth century.

Greg Woolf avoids ending on a bleak note by dedicating his final chapter to the empire’s survival across time, not in terms of the classical tradition but through the material and literary remains that provide the basis for understanding its history. New questions are constantly being asked (the chapter on the ecology of empire is particularly fascinating), and Woolf provides the latest perspectives and his own fresh ideas in a concise and eminently readable style. If studies such as this continue to be written, the future of the Roman empire looks bright indeed.

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