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 the tremendous engagements around Amida and Bezabde on the Persian frontier in 359-60 should be compared with Socrates’ less friendly record of the Emperor’s pedantic interventions in the interminable Church councils. Nevertheless, the separate narrative sections comprising the 300 or so pages of text are a major work in themselves. Time and again questions which have baffled lesser men are taken up and in a few clear sentences, backed by a wealth of evidence, solved, one may hope for all time.
But Jones’s main concern is, as his sub-title indicates, “a social, economic and administrative survey.” He ranges through the administration, finance, justice, civil service, army, the cities, church, education, and culture of the time. He has read everything and forgotten nothing. Every aspect of the Empire’s life is dealt with, always with a phenomenal grasp of detail. Few scholars could collect into a single footnote all the evidence for the salaries of Justinian’s provincial governors (p. 1159) or for the length of time needed for laws issued from the Imperial chancery to reach their destinations in the provinces (pp. 1161-2), or an analysis of the payments of various donatives to troops from 1 February to 27 February, 300 on the basis of a Chester Beatty Papyrus, Panop. 2 (pp. 1257-8). Although the author disclaims knowledge of secondary sources, the most cursory glance at the footnotes reveals that he has nevertheless absorbed an enormous amount of them. While he devotes much of his attention to facts and figures, even to working out convincingly the impact of malnutrition on provincial families (p. 1044), his survey is often enlivened by anecdotes drawn from contemporary sources.
But when the work reaches its climax in Chapter 25, “The Decline of the Empire,” the reader will be surprised to discover that Jones takes the traditional view that the biggest single cause of the decline of the empire, particularly in the West, were the barbarians: “The simple but unfashionable view that the barbarians played a considerable part in the decline of the empire may have some truth in it.” In contrast, “The internal weaknesses of the empire cannot have been a major factor in its decline.” One thinks of Piganiol’s laconic “La civilisation romaine n’est pas morte de sa belle mort. Elle a été assassinée” (L’Empire chrétien). But must this be the final verdict? It did not appear so to all contemporaries. Salvian of Marseille, for instance, has much to say about the harsh and unbending system of taxation in sapping the morale of the provincials and making Germanic conquest seem preferable to the continuance of Roman rule. Behind taxation lay the whole complex of social and economic ills. The Codex Theodosianus and the distraught correspondence of the Emperor Julian are eloquent witnesses, and nearly half a century ago another master of late-classical scholarship, Sir Samuel Dill, in his Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, collated them with the intellectual shortcomings of the time.
Perhaps the limitation of the author’s view may owe something to his deliberate omission of two important factors in the provincial life of his period. “I have little to say about doctrinal controversies, but much about the growth of the ecclesiastical hierarchy…. I ignore the two major achievements of the age, theology and law.” Law perhaps does not affect the issue of the decline of the empire, but theology did. One cannot readily understand the development of the organization of the Church unless one also considers the movements within it that the organization reflects.
The author in fact says a great deal about the doctrinal quarrels which characterize fourth- and fifth-century Church history. In the narrative section on Constantine, as well as in the detailed study he devotes to the administrative working of the Church—how much the clergy were paid, what rules governed the clerical career, the organization of the patriarchates and bishoprics—one can gather a good deal about the life and thought of the Christian empire. But somehow the reader is never quite told what made the Church tick. Why did people get excited about what appear to be matters of hair-splitting? Why were three Patriarchs of Constantinople hounded to exile and death by their opponents from Alexandria? Why did the citizens of obscure towns in the upper valley of the Mejerda in Tunisia take up arms against each other as Primianists or Maximianists? What effect did all this have on the morale of the Empire and its ability to survive mounting barbarian pressure on its frontiers?
First, the conversion of the Mediterranean world to Christianity did not just happen. How the Church emerged from the status of a cantankerous Judaistic sect of the mid-second century to a world-religion by the end of the third is a matter of proper concern to the historian. During this period large numbers of ordinary farmers in the Mediterranean lands abandoned the ancestral worship which in some cases had safeguarded their community for centuries.
Such things do not happen without profound causes. One of these was almost certainly economic. We have the word of the emperor Julian (Letter 89) writing to Theodorus, High Priest of the province of Asia in 362, that “It was the sight of their undeserved misery that led the people to despise the gods. It was not the gods, however, who are responsible for their poverty, but our own insatiable greed.” The Church was more than an institution, more even than a promise of salvation in the world beyond. Particularly in the West, it expressed deep-felt hostility to the administration of the Roman Empire and to the social systems it represented. The Old Testament showed that the ruler was not all-powerful. Saul and Solomon had to hearken to the prophets of the Lord or take the consequences. Lucifer of Cagliari reminded the emperor Constantius that a long reign did not guarantee heavenly favor. After all, King Manasseh reigned fifty-seven years! Few tirades equal in venom that of the Christian writer Lactantius against the Tetrarchy and its reforms, demonstrating that the restoration of governmental efficiency had been at the expense of the blood and sweat of the people in the provinces. In the West the provincials now replied in kind. By 340 in Roman Numidia the frustrations and antipathies felt by the Christian martyrs in their struggle against the Devil as represented by the Imperial authorities—had been extended to a struggle against extortionate landowners. The leaders of the Circumcellion “saints” were leaders of social revolution also. This was an internal problem par excellence, but the Empire could not solve it. In the end the Circumcellions were the real harbingers of doom for Roman Africa.
No wonder then the intense interest which theological controversy aroused. This was the real lifeblood of the Mediterranean world in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Church Councils were expressing theologies on which the hopes of whole territories rested. The Monophysites and Donatists really did represent the aspirations of the Egyptian and North African peoples. The bath attendants of Constantinople really were concerned that the “Son was less than the Father.” Crowds demonstrated in favor of Cyril’s doctrines at Ephesus in 431, as they might demonstrate today in favor of Civil Rights. Pelagianism may even have had something to do with the revolt of the Romano-Britons in 410. The inclusion of the political and social aspects of the theological controversies—even in summary form would have added a new dimension to the final chapter. The line of division was not between Christian and pagan but between those who accepted the Imperial status quo and those who did not. Perhaps Donatus, Commodian, and Schenute might have had their places along with Alaric and Attila as the enemies of the Imperial system.
One final reason why examination of Christian attitudes in this period is so important. The lack of curiosity about nature characteristic of the upper classes of the Empire at the height of its power, was sanctified by the aristocratic leaders of the Church. Thus Ambrose points out that “Moses in the Holy Scriptures described the things which bear on our eternal life. But he did not think it his duty to tell us how much of the air is occupied by the shadow of the earth when the sun leaves us at the close of day to illuminate the lower parts of the heavens….” (On the Six Days of Creation, vi. 7.8.) As the result of these and similar ideas the West had to wait another thousand years for its scientific revolution. The decline of Rome had its intellectual side.
But when all has been said, this work remains in a class of its own. It is one of the great monuments of European scholarship.