Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World by Ralph W. Mathisen

Book Review by Ian Hughes

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.* Nowhere does this oft-quoted opening line apply more than to Late Antiquity. For many years modern historians attempted to view the events surrounding the ‘Fall of Rome’ within the context of their own times, and in the twentieth century drew comparisons with the collapse of the European empires that had dominated the world. Yet the complex nature of the Fall and the bias of the historians resulted in many erroneous conclusions being drawn.

Over the past 20-30 years historians have been slowly unravelling many of these mistakes – a factor made more difficult by the fact that many of these had become accepted as truth. Yet, as usual, popular acceptance of these debates has lagged behind academic theory. Part of the difficulty has been that new work is almost always published in ‘academic’ texts and journals that are hard to access by anybody without access to a University library.

The book under review is a case in point. As this review is being typed, the cost of the book is £84/$150, and even the Amazon paper-free Kindle edition costs £80/$121. Obviously, it is aimed directly at the ‘academic’ market and is more likely to be found on the dusty shelves of a University library than those of even the most dedicated ‘amateur’ historian. In some ways this is a shame, as the book has some thought-provoking articles covering a wide range of topics and dates. On the other hand, the scholarly nature of the book may make it difficult for even dedicated non-specialists to fully grasp some of the more convoluted arguments contained within its pages.

This is a shame, as there is much to like about the contents. The book contains papers from the “Sixth Biennial Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity Conference” held at Urbana-Champaign in 2005, augmented by a few additional contributions. The period covers ranges from the Diocletianic persecutions to the archaeology of the Merovingians, as can be seen below:

Introduction, Ralph W. Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer

Part I Constructing Images of the Impact and Identity of Barbarians

A. Literary Constructions of Barbarian Identity

1. Catalogues of barbarians in Late Antiquity, Ralph W. Mathisen
2. Augustine and the Merciful Barbarians, Gillian Clark
3. Reguli in the Roman Empire, Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval Germanic Kingdoms, Steven Fanning
4. Were the Sasanians Barbarians? Roman Writers on the “Empire of the Persians”, Scott McDonough
5. A Roman Image of the 'Barbarian' Sasanians, Jan Willem Drijvers

B. Political and Religious Interpretations of Barbarian Activities

6. Banditry or catastrophe?: History, Archaeology and Barbarian Raids on Roman Greece, Amelia Robertson Brown
7. John Rufus, Timothy Aelurus, and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Edward Watts

C. Imperial Manipulation of Perceptions of Barbarians

8. Imperial Religious Unification Policy and its Divisive Consequences: Diocletian, the Jews and the Samaritans, Yuval Shahar
9. Hellenes, Barbarians and Christians: Religion and Identity Politics in Diocletian's Rome, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
10. Barbarians as Spectacle: the Account of an Ancient “Embedded Reporter” (Symm. Or. 2.10–12), Cristiana Sogno

Part II Cultural Interaction on the Roman/Barbarian Frontiers

A. Becoming Roman: Movements of People across the Frontier and the Effects of Imperial Policies

11. The ius colonatus as a Model for the Settlement of Barbarian Prisoners-of-War in the Late Roman Empire?, Cam Grey
12. Spies Like Us: Treason and Identity in the Late Roman Empire, Kimberly Kagan
13. The “Runaway” Avars and Late Antique Diplomacy, Ekaterina Nechaeva

B. Becoming Roman: Social and Economic Interchange

14. Captivity and Romano-Barbarian Interchange, Noel Lenski
15. Barbarian Raiders and Barbarian Peasants: Models of Ideological and Economic Integration, Hartmut Ziche

C. A New Era of Accommodation

16. Kush and Rome on the Egyptian Southern Frontier: Where Barbarians Worshipped as Romans and Romans Worshipped as Barbarians, Salim Faraji
17. Petra and the Saracens: New Evidence from a Recently Discovered Epigram, Jason Moralee
18. Elusive Places: a Chorological Approach to Identity and Territory in Scythia Minor (2nd–7th centuries), Linda Ellis
19. Barbarian Traffic, Demon Oaths, and Christian Scruples: (Aug. Epist. 46–47), Kevin Uhalde

Part III Creating Identity in the Post-Roman World

20. Visigothic Settlement, Hospitalitas, and Army Payment Reconsidered, Andreas Schwarcz
21. Building an Ethnic Identity for a New Gothic and Roman Nobility: Córdoba, 615 AD, Luis A. García Moreno
22. Vascones and Visigoths: Creation and Transformation of Identity in Northern Spain in Late Antiquity, Scott de Brestian
23. Identity and Ethnicity in the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul, Patrick Prérin and Michel Kazanski
24. Text, Artifact and Genome: the Disputed Nature of the Anglo-Saxon Migration into Britain, Michael E. Jones

Part IV Epilogue: Modern Constructions of Barbarian Identity

25. Auguste Moutié, Pioneer of Merovingian Archaeology and the Spurlock Merovingian Collection at the University of Illinois, Bailey Young and Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey

Although the contents list is very long, it clearly demonstrates that, whatever a reader’s specific interest within the bounds of ‘Late Antiquity’, there is something here for everyone. On the other hand, it also outlines one of the main problems of any analysis of ‘Late Antiquity’: its longevity. Late Antiquity is usually accepted as lasting from the rise of Diocletian in AD 284 to the end of the Western Empire c. 476. During this period huge changes in the political and religious spheres make analysis difficult, especially when the evidence is spread over the whole of the period, so making change difficult to pinpoint.

Turning to the papers themselves, these are typical of academic papers from all periods. Some are wide-ranging in terms of chronology, but all are focused upon specific topics of interest to the authors. However, the main factor common to almost all is that they seek to question previously held paradigms. These range from the nature of barbarian settlements, to the possibility that Roman literature masks the attitude of the majority of Romans to barbarians, to the possible uses of DNA to trace the origins of people in places such as Britain and Spain in order to evaluate the nature and impact of barbarian invasions.

All of the papers can at least place doubt into the minds of readers as to the validity of long-standing preconceptions, and as such they are all valuable in their own right. Yet there is a caveat to this statement: unless the reader is well-versed in, and has a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of, Late Antiquity then some of the papers are going to be of little or no interest. Furthermore, the intense focus of some of the papers on ‘special-interest’ topics - such as that on the Avars, which focuses on the use of language in an ancient text and the possible ramifications – means that they are likely to be read quickly and then forgotten about by the majority of non-Classicists.

The question remains as to whether the book is to be recommended. The answer is Yes. Although some of the papers will be of interest to only a relatively small number of readers, the width of subjects on offer means that everyone interested in the period should find something here of value. Sadly, the high cost of the book means that it will not be read by individuals with a limited income and who will therefore miss out on an update of ‘current’ thinking amongst academic historians. As a result, their understanding of the period will lag behind those of more affluent means.

*Hartley: The Go-Between

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