Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius by R. Malcolm Errington

Book Review by Ian Hughes

In 395 the Roman Empire was divided between the brothers Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. It was never reunited in anything but the loosest sense. Until the late-twentieth century historians used the date of 395 as the major cut off point in the history of the Empire: understandably, as after 395 the West went into terminal decline and within three generations had disappeared. This was the accepted analysis until historians such as R. Malcolm Errington published an alternative chronology for the division. In addition, there was debate as to whether the Empire and the Emperor simply reacted to events rather than attempting to influence them by proactive policies, either at home or abroad.

Published in 2006, ‘Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius’ provides a compelling argument that the old theory concerning the division of the Empire was incorrect, and attempted to analyse whether the Empire was reactive or proactive.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One (‘Actors and Events’) gives a chronological narrative. Chapters titled ‘Emperors and Dynasties’ and ‘Foreigners and Frontiers’ describe and explain the people and events that were to affect Imperial policy between 363 (the death of Julian) and 395 (the death of Theodosius). This is a fairly straightforward overview, outlining the principal events that affect the attempted investigation.

With the reader having an idea of the major activities both inside and outside the Empire, Part Two (‘East and West’) analyses the political developments that took place, especially with regards to internal appointments and overall policy (‘The Government’) before looking in much greater detail at the processes involved in both West (‘Rome’) and East (‘Constantinople’).

In this way Errington is able to demonstrate that to all intents and purposes, and despite Imperial propaganda constantly promoting the concept of Imperial unity, the West and the East separated without any real hope of reunification during the reigns of the emperors Valentinian and Valens, who became Emperors in 364. By describing and analysing the divergence of policy in these two emperors and their successors, and by tracing the development of separate bureaucratic centres in both East and West, it is clear that Errington is correct in his hypothesis that East and West separated thirty years prior to the date previously accepted. He also posits that the Empire was reactive, rather than proactive, in its relations with the ‘barbarians’ along the frontiers, as well as only reacting to internal problems rather than attempting to forge forward-thinking policies for its citizens.

The third part of the book (‘Religion and the State’) is possibly the most rewarding for the uninitiated, although it does have its problems (see below). Errington splits the section in two, with one chapter on ‘Julian’s Successors’ and the other on ‘Theodosius’ - the longest chapter in the whole book. This is in some ways understandable: it is relatively easy to describe and analyse the attitudes of the many emperors who ruled, especially in the West, between 364 and 379, whereas the conflict between Theodosius and the non-Nicene Eastern Christians as he asserted Nicene dominance in the East, plus the friction between Theodosius and Bishop Ambrose of Milan – including the well-known episode of Theodosius’ ‘penance’ for the massacre in Thessalonica – all need close analysis in order to understand the full implications for the Empire after 395.

To his credit, Errington manages to extract a large amount of information for these chapters, not only by a direct comparison of the religious policies of Valentinian and Valens, but also in revealing the policies of Gratian, Magnus Maximus, and Valentinian II. This allows for a further comparison of these Western Emperors with Theodosius I, the Emperor acknowledged as finally bringing Nicene Christianity to the fore in the East. As part of these discussions he reveals that the relationship between Nicene Christians and members of other factions, as well as between Christian and noon-Christian, was much more flexible and cooperative than had been previously thought, especially by those relying upon Church histories and the accounts of the destruction of Pagan religious sites.

Included in the chapter on Theodosius is an extremely interesting examination of the relations between Theodosius and Ambrose of Milan. This clearly demonstrates that our knowledge of events is filtered through the reminiscences of Ambrose himself, and are thus deserving of scepticism. Furthermore, many of the deeds and miraculous events surrounding this ‘most Christian’ of Emperors are also investigated, with some revealing conclusions being drawn.

Yet the book is not without a few small problems. One of the most confusing is that throughout the section on religion Errington describes the advice given by high-standing Christian bishops, especially Ambrose, as ‘biased’. To most modern readers this will be obvious and not need emphasis. Yet it must have also been obvious to even a moderately intelligent, mature emperor – for example Theodosius. Yet rarely does Errington accept that the Emperors were aware of this bias and so fails to take this into account in his analysis.

In addition, throughout the book Errington makes excellent use of the sources available and ensures that the overall thrust of his hypothesis is adequately supported. However, it should be accepted that on a few occasions he allows his preconceptions to colour his analysis. For example, he accepts that Valentinian’s war against the Alamanni was reactive rather than proactive, as depicted in the literature of both the ancient world and more modern times. Yet a closer analysis of the episode brings this into doubt and suggests that Valentinian was acting proactively, creating a war with an enemy who couldn’t win in order to boost his own political standing by delivering the military victories demanded of successful Emperors.

Another small complaint, and one that could have been eliminated, albeit with difficulty, is that the number of influential political and religious figures who took part in these events is high and after a while the high number of names can easily confuse the reader. As a consequence, unless the reader is already highly knowledgeable of the people and events they may find some of the descriptions and debates confusing, especially with regard to the third part of the book, on religion.

Despite these small caveats, this book is compulsory reading for anybody studying the history of Rome between the fourth and fifth centuries. This is made possible by the fact that, unlike many ‘specialist’ books, many readers will be able to afford the book.

At the time of writing it is priced at c.£30/$35 (£25/$30 for Kindle). Hopefully, this will help Errington’s work to reach a large number of people, because it deserves nothing less.

Tell us your opinion - Submit your Review - Buy the book!

Get it now!

Union Jack Imperial Policy for the UK