The Later Roman Empire
It is now nearly forty years since Ferdinand Lot composed his masterly La Fin du Monde antique et le début du Moyen Age, covering the history of Europe in all its aspects from the age of Diocletian to that of Mahomet. This work, however, like Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, was the harvest of the classic age of European historical scholarship, the age of Mommsen, Seeck, Harnack, Paul Monceaux, and J. B. Bury, which ended with the First World War. After that, the widening of the field of research and the sheer accumulation of evidence have made the production of great all-embracing studies far more difficult.
By any reckoning Professor Jones’s monumental work will stand comparison with those of the giants of the past. In our own age it is a phenomenon. His mastery of the complicated and often nebulous and confused sources is everywhere apparent: contemporary histories, patristics, archaeology, papyri, Imperial law codes, coins, hagiography—the author is at home with all of them. He can illustrate a point as happily from a narrative preserved in the Life of an Alexandrine Patriarch as by an obscure reference in the Codex Theodosianus. The development of European history from the age of Diocletian to that of Maurice Tiberius is analyzed with unsurpassed thoroughness, yet presented to the reader in a coherent and eminently readable form. Moreover, for stamina alone—these volumes contain 500,000 words of which half are references and discussions—the author has made a unique achievement. In this work he has established a landmark in the study of the Ancient World.
There is little need to emphasize the importance of the period covered in these volumes. It witnessed the triumph of Christianity in the Mediterranean and Western Europe; the end of the Greco-Roman city state; and the rise of the barbarian kingdoms on the ruins of the Roman Empire in the West. It was the time of Diocletian, Constantine, Julian the Apostate and Theodosius, of the meteoric careers of barbarian leaders such as Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun, of clerics of the lasting eminence of Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo, of the great doctrinal controversies that broke the unity of Christendom and ultimately of Europe as well. Donatism, Arianism, Pelegianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism all emerged in this period. It produced Schenute of Atripe and Benedict of Nursa, and dominating all, providing Europe’s link between the Ancient and the Medieval worlds, the city of Byzantium, protected by the triple walls of Anthemius, but whose influence extended from Bewcastle on Hadrian’s Wall to Faras and Axum far beyond the southern frontier of the Empire.
The reader of Gibbon or even of Otto Seeck may regret that the writer devotes little space to portraiture or to drama. This is a pity, for an enigmatic and controversial character like Constantius II (337-361) can best be approached from contemporary descriptions of the dramatic events in his reign. For example, Ammianus Marcelinus’s account of the defense of Nisibis which Constantius inspired and of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.