The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395 by David S. Potter

Book Review by Ursus

David S. Potter surveys the political, military and cultural events of the Empire from CE 180-395. His work is thorough, incorporating and elucidating various strains of primary evidence. The author then places the evidence into a central thesis which he echoes consistently throughout the work – the dangers of centralization, and its effect on narratives.

A “narrative” is a particular worldview, defined primarily by its own internal system of language and symbols. A narrative is effective only to the extent that those observing those language and symbols can agree upon their inherent meanings. Reality, in a social sense, is thus constructed and subjective. If other observers can discern (or invent) a different meaning for language and symbols, an alternative narrative can be articulated. (Or so the theory goes).

The grand narrative of the early Roman Empire had been one of imperial grandeur. Augustus had promoted a worldview of tradition, peace, order and glory. For Potter, the success of the Principate lay in its lax promulgation of this narrative. The central government of the Principate was essentially passive. The provincials were allowed a certain breathing room to articulate their own narratives, so long as they did not conflict with the grand narrative of the imperial center. In other words, the central government could articulate a vision of power and order, but largely left provincials room to define and realize what this vocabulary meant for them. The idea of Romanatis took on different flavors in the various parts of the empire as local people interpreted the values of Romanatis through their own parochial experiences. This diversity of complimentary local narratives allowed the empire to remain united but flexible.

Part of the reason the center allowed the periphery to articulate its own visions of Romanatis is because the center itself was divided. The central government was a balancing act among different interest groups: the officials of the palace, the imperial guard and the army, the Senatorial and Equestrian orders, and finally the hungry plebs of Rome itself. Potter sees the office of Princeps as a glorified referee among these competing interest blocks. Thus the rulers of the early empire walked a delicate tight rope at Rome; with what little attention and power they had left, it was not prudent to demand more than lip service from the provincials. The provincials for their part were mostly happy to pay token respect to the Roman Peace, so long as they could articulate their own version – their own narrative – of that Peace. In particular, local cities were connected to the center and to each other through the mechanism of military service.

During the crisis of the Third Century, this delicate balance of power was gradually shattered. The rise of Persia and increasing barbarian raids obligated an increased role for the army. Equestrian military officers replaced the old Senatorial aristocracy as the new ruling class. The Imperial capital was no longer even in Rome itself, leaving the Senate and the plebs of Rome irrelevancies. The government was reorganized to allow greater oversight of local power bases. Power now lay with the Dominus and his court. After the Crisis of the Third Century, the central government now had increased leeway – and, in its own eyes, an increased need – to more forcefully articulate a grand narrative of Romanatis that allowed less room for local exception.

While this new centralized version of Romanatis borrowed from established Greco-Oriental grandeur, it did bring a relatively new element to the fore: Christianity. Whatever the sincerity of Constantine’s moment of truth at the Milvian Bridge, the subsequent conversion of the empire to the new religion cannot be understood outside the new paradigm. The Dominus and his court were now defining the exclusive rights to Romanitis, and Constantine’s conversion now meant that Christianity would become part of the imperial vocabulary. The only problem was that within Christianity itself there were various alternative narratives – i.e, competing interpretations of its own language and symbolism. It was thus left for the Dominus and his successors to finally articulate a definitive version of Christianity and to suppress deviant narratives. Contrary to popular belief, Constantine was not a zealot and tried to find a middle course to appeal to a broad segment of Greco-Roman society. Some of his successors were not given to such latitude.

The rest of the book concerns the post-Constantine Empire, and how a militarized central court supported by the new religion effected a new narrative of Romanatis. The new narrative was in some ways more inclusive – a former barbarian could easily become “Roman” by converting to Christianity and serving in the military. However, this new centralized narrative could prove a weakness if it were upended. The military defeats of Julian and Valens proved just that – when Rome could no longer control its borders, the West was overridden with “illegal immigrants” who infiltrated the central government. Their own internal narratives ended a unified Roman worldview. A more decentralized government, in Potter’s view, would not have been so susceptible to alien viewpoints.

Regardless of what one thinks of the postmodern jargon of narratives (and it does get annoying at times), Potter’s work attempts to tackle a worthy subject: what does it mean to be Roman? Specifically, how was this view refined among competing interest groups? Potter’s analysis provides food for thought. His notion that the Principate allowed locals to meet central bureaucracies halfway in the matter is well -taken. However, one can certainly disagree with his theories that centralization helped initiate a detrimental change in dynamics. Scholars like Peter Heather might disagree that the late Roman Empire was anywhere approaching decline before the Gothic invasions.

Nonetheless Potter’s work is a grand survey of the political, military and cultural forces of the later empire. I recommend it on that level. In particular his treatment of Constantine, Julian and Valens is insightful.

For me, Empire at Bay sparked a necessary question left unanswered: how do we moderns approach our own “narrative” of Romanatis? Perhaps that is a story whose language and symbols we need to find for ourselves.

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