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The Roman Empire: from Severus to Constantine - Pat Southern

Book Review by Ursus

"Lucid" is how I would describe Southern's work, employing the same adjective the publisher used in the back cover promotion. David Potter's Roman Empire at Bay was an informative study of the same time period, but so packed with academic postmodern jargon that is was distracting. Southern definitely writes for the general reader, not an academic audience. The University of London graduate was educated in history and archaeology, but is quite adept at conveying the information presented by the evidence in a deftly simply manner. Such is the clarity that I believe a promising high school student could easily devour this work.

The subject under study is the violent and prolonged transition of the Principate into the Dominate. The preponderance of the book is devoted to a traditional political and military narrative of Roman emperors and their agents. While the title suggests it begins with Severus, Southern actually starts her narrative with Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Some of the problems faced by the later empire were beginning to rear their ugly heads even at the height of the High Empire. The journey from Hadrian to Constantine is an interesting one, and both the best and worst of Roman Civilization is on display during this turbulent timeframe. Of particular interest is that Southern puts her archaeological background to good use; with each reign she presents illustrations of the imperial coinage depicting the emperors and their propaganda.

The book then gives a brief but very informative overview of the so-called barbarians that faced Rome. Southern relays the fact that in the age of political correctness, one has to constantly define and redefine "barbarian" for the audience. To the Roman, everyone non-Roman was alien and therefore inferior, even though citizens of Persia could not be said to totally lack culture and history. But despite what the politically correct revisionists would have you believe, some of these groups (especially the northern tribes) were actually quite nasty and justly labeled as uncivilized aggressors by the Romans. Southern provides a study of Parthian Persia transitioning into Sassanid Persia. She also describes the three major Germanic groups: Alemanni, Franks and Goths. While there were other foreign foes of the Empire, only the Persians and the Germans had the ability to mount a serious threat in the timeframe we are discussing.

Southern ends the survey with an assessment of changes wrought by the third century. She covers politics, the military, religion, economics and social life in the cities. This section is a rehashing of the points she had consistently made during the main politico-military narrative, but it is convenient to have them in one place as a handy reference guide.

There are also a good 100 pages of footnotes for anyone who feels so inclined to check Southern's sources and search for further commentary and reading. Finally I have nothing but good things to say about Routledge as a publisher. The books are always well-crafted and well-edited. They are sturdy and neatly organized tomes.

One thing missing from this work was a survey of the cultural side of Roman life during this timeframe. Little to no mention is made of architecture, art, literature, philosophy and such. Granted, the military anarchy of the period did place a damper on cultural development. Further still, our sources for this area are sketchy. Still, something could have been said about the softer side of Roman civilization amidst all the warfare and political intrigue.

At this point I would like to summarize some of Southern's themes, and perhaps add a few of my own. What essentially is at stake here is how the system left by Augustus failed after three centuries or so and transformed into something he would scarcely recognize. The geo-political and social organization wrought by Augustus on the wreckage of the Republic was a fine enough organization for its day, with the Augustan caveat that the empire not expand beyond its boundaries as he knew them. His successors, however, largely ignored his advice, and by the time of Trajan the empire had become bloated, incorporating territories that seemed more trouble than they were worth, and bringing the empire's edge to rub against truly reprehensible neighbors.

Even with that the Principate might have endured, but upheavals on Rome's borders spelled eventual doom. The Germany and Persia that Augustus knew were more nuisances than threats; able to fend off Roman invasions, but not really able to invade Roman territory. In over two centuries, the smaller groups of Germanic tribes were beginning to federate into larger nations capable of more aggressive assaults into Roman territory; this process was beginning to occur even before the migration of the Huns greatly facilitated the trend. In Persia, the ineffectual Parthian regime fell to the Sassanids, a dynasty more ambitious and more competent in harnessing Persia's great wealth to their ends. The Empire may have been able to deal with increased pressure on one front, but a two front war with which they were now presented strained all available military and financial resources. The city of Rome, so distant from the fronts, became ineffectual and irrelevant to provincials on the border. It is not surprising then that the Empire split into the three factions, with the northwest and the southeast breaking away from the center to better guard their own troubled peripheries.

At the same time, Rome faced a shortage of competent military personnel to deal with the new threat. Augustus had not allowed the Senate any real powers, but most of his top officers who combined both military and civil power were quite naturally the rich land owners of the Patrician order. But by the time of Marcus Aurelius we find fewer Senators left with the requisite military experience to deal with threats; perhaps once the Senate was consigned to political irrelevancy, an increasing number of Senators decided it was simply more profitable to tend to their landed estates rather then enter government service. The gap had to be filled with equestrian military officers, and while this can be traced as far back as Hadrian, after Severus the military anarchy present saw the meteoric rise of martial equestrians at the expense of the landed Senate.

Italians had long deserted the legions except for the prized Praetorian guard. But two centuries after Augustus, even the Gauls, who were more or less Romanized at this point, wanted better things to do than go to war. The territory that was once Illyria was still a place where tribal and martial values endured, and became one of the backbones of army recruitment. It is not surprising that as military equestrians began to take over the government, the Illyrians who formed the bulk of the new army would furnish the future emperors.

As far as the emperors, Augustus had styled himself the Princeps, or first citizen. While always having the armies at his back, he seemed to be able to rule more by social authority than direct force. This system continually degenerated as the Principate aged. Whenever someone wanted to become the new first citizen, they had to cynically buy off either the praetorian guard or a provincial army. The dynastic legacy established by Augustus collapsed, and murder and civil war became the chief means of replacing a ruler. During the Crisis of the Third Century rulers were lucky if they ruled more than a few months.

From Gallienus and Aurelian to Diocletian and Constantine, we see a reform of the empire that sprang from the wreckage of the third century. What emerged was a system designed specifically to deal with internal and external threats. The Emperor was now Dominus (lord) rather than Princeps (first citizen), leaving no question to citizens and barbarians alike as to who really reigned. A central court (which was no longer even in Rome) filled with exotic ceremony, and backed by a guiding deity (first Pagan, then Christian), now reigned supreme.

Military command was now split from civil command (except in certain troubled provinces), leading each branch of the government to specialize in its respective sphere. This also prevented, in theory at least, any one individual from accumulating the resources necessary to overthrow the Dominus. The provinces were split into smaller entries to ensure greater oversight of resources, and reorganized into intermediate areas called diocese, who were in turn subject to large regional praetorian prefectures. The praetorian prefects who in the Principate had been king makers were now consigned to regional prime ministers, and the infamous praetorian guard was finally disbanded.

Most of the commands, civil or military, were now given to men who in the Principate would be considered equestrians. Only the most senior posts were reserved for senatorial candidates. But the Dominus could easily adlect an equestrian into the senatorial order if such were required for a vacant post. The Senatorial and Equestrian orders thus could no longer be considered separate entities. There was now simply one ruling class, specialists who operated in civil or military matters and depended exclusively on the Dominus for patronage. Constantine referred to his immediate palace advisors and delegates as Comites, or Counts, which were divided into three grades. After Constantine the ruling class would also include the Bishops of the Christian Church.

With Caracalla's grant of near universal citizenship, there was no longer a distinction to be made between citizen legions and non-citizen auxiliaries. Rather, the dichotomy was between garrison troops and a mobile field army. The garrison troops defended fortified cities and forts, while the mobile field army could be dispatched from a strategic center to whatever theatre of operation was required. The Crisis of the Third Century had taught that in a two front war fought by an increasingly mobile enemy, the standard legion formations no longer sufficed.

Finally, the populace was reorganized into various guilds, and professions became increasingly hereditary. People also became tied to the land to ensure they would farm and pay taxes. Furthermore, with the gradual eclipse of Paganism to the new religion of Christianity, the groundwork for Medieval society was lain.

The Late Empire was a different place than the realm Augustus had inaugurated, and more than one voice raised protest about alleged evils of the time. But the system that was erected seemed more viable and effective in the face of the new threats than what had preceded it. Indeed, the reorganized Greek East would continue to survive and evolve for centuries afterwards. The West was a victim of mass barbarian migrations which it could not control. Perhaps if Aurelian had never reunited the empire, the so-called Gallic Empire (consisting of Gaul, Germany, Spain and Britain) may have been better placed to deal with the invasions that threatened largely its own territory. But this is pure speculation either way.

Southern's Roman Empire is an enjoyable and informative read, and earns my recommendation. As an aside, I must mention Southern is a female - which matters to the extent that one sees comparatively few female Romanophiles, especially ones interested in the military, as Southern obviously is. I hope Southern is an example of an increasing trend in Romanophilia.

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Book Review of The Roman Empire: from Severus to Constantine - Related Topic: Decline of the Roman Empire


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