A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641 by Stephen Mitchel

Book Review by Joe Medhurst

Stephen Mitchell, an Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter and a Fellow of the British Academy, provides an exceptionally clear and detailed account both of the march of events and of the structures of the Empire from the accession of the emperor Diocletian in AD 284 to the death of Heraclius in 641, using the latest scholarship to reveal the massive political and military transformations in Rome’s western and eastern empires that led to its decline and gave way to the emergence of medieval and modern Europe and the Islamic world.

It is an excellent reference work containing everything necessary for understanding and initiating research into late antiquity, considering the sources for the period. It includes chronological tables, maps, and charts of important information help to orient the reader. It gives a full narrative of political and military events, discussing the upheaval and change caused by the spread of Christianity and the barbarian invasions of the Huns, Goths and Franks.

The book contains thematic coverage of the politics, religion, economy and society of the late Roman state in a traditional style. After the introduction provided by the first chapter, the second chapter moves on to provide an overview of the sources, with some discussion of inscriptions and archaeology but primarily a synopsis of the sequence of historians from Eusebius to Procopius. Mitchell justifies his strong emphasis on the work of these ancient historians by claiming that it "underpins serious history of the later Roman Empire", that is, serious political history. As a result, the chronological narrative in the next two chapters often replays this ancient narrative, first from Diocletian to the capture of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, then from Theodosius II to Justinian.

Next we have several thematic chapters. Chapter five discusses the authority of the Roman state, including its administrative bureaucracy and the images that projected the emperors' power. Chapter six reviews the arrival of the barbarians in the western provinces and the establishment and nature of their kingdoms. Chapter seven examines the transition from pagan cults to Christianity and the survival of religious diversity. Chapter eight analyzes the famous conversion experiences of Constantine, Julian, and Augustine, and then the various attempts to impose a standard Christian orthodoxy throughout the empire. Chapters nine and ten consider economic questions and their connection to political motivations by looking at the imperatives behind the supply of large cities such as Rome and Constantinople and then a regional overview of the economy of the provinces, emphasizing the abiding importance of cities.

In the final two chapters Mitchell returns to his chronological narrative of the eastern Roman empire, first surveying the problems of the later sixth century, and Justinian’s attempted revival, then previewing the overwhelming pressures of the seventh century to provide a detailed analysis of the complex reasons for Rome’s decline and eventual fall,—including the catastrophic world-wide outbreak of bubonic plague in 542, the failure of the state to maintain its tax revenues, the 7th-century eclipse of Roman power after a final war with the rival Persian Empire of the Sassanians, and the emergent influence of Islam in the Arab world.

Its scholarship is impeccably up to date, its coverage of its chosen topics is most thorough, and it can be recommended as the best single-volume overview of the politics, institutions, and military affairs of the later Roman empire. However, the narrative is extremely dense and can be an effort to get through and is a limited to be a reference and bibliographical source.

Joe Ward Medhurst was born near London in 1981. He studied Archaeology for his bachelors, and later a masters in Ancient history. Since 2002 he has taught English, geography and history in the UK, China and Italy where he now lives.

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