428 AD An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire by G. Traina
Book Review by Ian Hughes
The study of Late Antiquity always has to face up to one overriding factor: in 476 (the traditional date), the Western Empire of Rome ceased to exist. The difficulty with reading many books on the period is that the story and analysis revolves around this pivotal date. Analysis of events prior to 476 are seen in hindsight as leading to the ‘Fall’, whilst events after 476 are interpreted as if the participants at the time knew that a major event had just occurred. Obviously, such interpretations are misleading. The vast majority of the people living at the time saw only gradual change, with only the rapid turnover of ineffectual political leaders and the now-omnipresent barbarian settlements indicating that something was going wrong.
With the publication of 428, Professor Traina has changed the analysis from Decline and Fall to that of taking an in-depth look at a single year. The year chosen appears strange until it is noted that Traina is an acknowledged authority on the history of the Kingdom of Armenia, which came to an end in that year with the overthrow of Artashes IV and the establishment of Persian rule.
The collapse of Armenia was a major event which Roman sources attempted to minimize as it reflected badly on the strength of the Eastern Empire. As a result, western scholars obsessed with events in the West have tended to overlook the Persian annexation of Armenia. Yet the choice of date is interesting: in 428 little appears to have been happening, apart from the end of the Armenian Kingdom. As far as the Roman Empire was concerned, 428 was an "ordinary year".
Traina’s strategy is to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of the Empire, starting in the east and travelling anti-clockwise around the Mediterranean in a similar manner to a travelogue. By ignoring for a large part the "high politics" of the period Traina is able to focus attention on less earth-shattering events, concentrating instead on the lesser-known sources to piece together as much information as he can with regards to 428. Furthermore, by aiming for a narrow focus Traina is able to bypass the usual question of "transformation or collapse". As a result, in the course of the reader’s "travels" it becomes clear that for many people 428 was simply another ordinary year in their life.
The translation (by Allan Cameron) is well done and the book is an easy read. The information given is clear, although it should be acknowledged that much of the associated information is included in the endnotes. This can make the reading of the book a little problematic as the reader has to constantly stop and turn to the rear of the book if they are to follow all of the notes highlighted in the text. However, as with all books with endnotes, it is best to read the book through without checking the notes in order to fully enjoy the narrative. A second reading allows for the perusal of the associated notes.
There are three or four aspects of the book which are a little disappointing, most of which cannot be blamed on the author. One is the fact that Traina has been forced to use ecclesiastical histories and hagiographies for the main reference points in the text, so at times the book can read a little more like a commentary on Christianity in 428 rather than giving a snapshot of the "empire". In his defence, Traina has noted that after the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) the Roman Empire became definitely a Christian Empire, with Emperors being forced into making policy in order to bring the Church within the Imperial remit. Therefore, the history of the Empire and of the Church are one and the same. To a point I agree with him, but I am still convinced that the Church was not yet in the dominant position implied in the Christian sources: a point shared by Traina in the book itself (p.22). There are also the stories of Christian saints and leaders promoting the destruction of pagan temples. If paganism had not continued in some strength, perhaps these stories would have had little impact at the time.
The second unfortunate aspect of the book is its length. There are only 132 pages of text (not counting the Introduction and the endnotes). When queried, the author stated that, “I did my best to collect all sources hinting at events that happened in 428. Making a larger book would have meant adding different documents, spoiling the ‘one-year-book' format”. This is understandable, and simply reflects the dearth of detailed sources throughout the period, where even forming an acceptable chronology is a problem.
A third point which is a little disappointing is the lack of a detailed bibliography. Although all of the works used and authors cited are contained in the endnotes, trawling through these to find specific authors and titles can be a little frustrating. It would have been nice of the publisher to extract this information from the endnotes to form a separate bibliography.
There is, however, one final word of warning for the potential reader: the author and the writers of most of the reviews I have seen have a good knowledge of the period in question and can appreciate the level of scholarship that has gone into the writing of this book. Yet there are passages where there are a large number of names and places which will be known to students but unfamiliar and confusing to the novice or the unwary. This is an unavoidable factor in a book of this nature: for Traina to give a detailed background and context for each individual mentioned would make the work closer to being a trilogy than a single volume. Therefore, the reader needs to be aware of this fact and have reference books to hand if they wish to fully comprehend the scale and nature of events and people.
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Yet even with these caveats, I would heartily recommend this book. The author has done the analysis of late Antiquity a service by reminding us all that the people of the times did not see events through the lens of history. Instead, the majority of them carried on with their ordinary lives despite our belief that the times were dark and chaotic. Although in the following year the citizens of Africa would learn of the crossing of the Vandals from Spain to Africa, this event had not yet happened and the book serves as a warning to us all that even in what can later be called "cataclysmic" times ordinary people simply went about their lives.