Book Review: Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity

01 May

Dignas, Beate and Winter, Englebert, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals. New York: Cambridge University Press, (2007). Pp. 364. ISBN: 978-0-521-61407-8

This is an interesting book which takes an approach that I am not familiar with, but found enjoyable. The aim of this book appears primarily to be to, “. . . assist an undergraduate and non-specialist audience, who, as we believe, are often not familiar with the majority of the quoted authors and texts, nor with the historical context. However, we are hoping that specialists on the subject also find the volume usable and readable from ‘cover to cover’.” (p 4)

The overall topic is self-evident from the title. The strategy taken by the authors is not. This book does not take a narrative history approach but rather by discussing thematic topics. However within those topics, discussions are generally arranged chronologically. The result is a book that is not a narrative, yet provides information in such a way as to offer many of the benefits of one.

There are two main parts of this book. The first is a brief narrative discussion regarding the ascendence of the Sasanians and the implications of this for Roman-Persian relationships. The various ebbs and flows of the border conflicts and periods of relative peace are discussed, ending with the fall of Persia and eventual Byzantine reduction due to the Arab conquests.

Part II comprises the bulk of the book and is titled “Sources and Contexts.” A discussion of information to be gleaned from the various sources is divided into themes as follows:

  • Political Goals
  • Warfare
  • Military Confrontations
  • The Diplomatic Solutions
  • Arabia Between the Great Powers
  • Shared Interests: Continuing Conflicts
  • Religion: Christianity and Zoroastrianism
  • Emperor and King of Kings
  • Exchange of Information Between East and West
As mentioned above, within each of these themes the discussion of issues and sources is arranged chronologically which is very helpful in helping trace the evolution of the Persian-Roman dynamic. For each theme the sources are first quoted, briefly discussed, and the section ends with a summary of what the sources have to tell us.

This is a good book which, in my opinion, achieves its aims. The sources utilized are extensive and the selections reasonably good. There is a weak point, however in the analysis. First, there is little critical examination of the texts, or much detail regarding whether the sources indicate historical reality, perception, or the author attempting to re-write history. At times the source selections and summaries also do not display the full impact of the various events on Rome or Persia.

As an example, for the peace negotiated by Jovian in 363, the discussion of that peace and treaty (pp 131-134) extensively utilizes Ammianus Marcellinus. The authors recognize that, “The majority of ancient authors judge the treaty of 363 as one of the most unfortunate treaties that Rome ever concluded with a foreign power.” (p 132) Unfortunately, you would not know this from the sources quoted and the way they are utilized. The concluding discussion offers little in how various sources treat this peace, or what their treatment says about the effect of this on Rome. Eutropius’ criticism of Jovian for not immediately reneging on the terms and returning to war as Romans had in the past is not mentioned. 1 Neither is the Paschale Chronicle’s portrayal of this treaty in terms that could be interpreted as favorable to Rome. 2 The same holds true for sources such as Sozomen and Theodoret virtually ignoring the treaty altogether. This was an important event, particularly when viewed from the Roman perspective. More attention to the contemporary impacts and attitudes of this and other events would help better communicate their meanings to the reader.

The only other criticism I have is that, for the beginner, a discussion of the details of Zoroastrianism would be helpful. There is ample information on this readily available elsewhere, however if this book truly targets those new to the topic, then a more detailed description of the specifics of this religion should have been included. There is a glossary of terms in the back of the book but the brief paragraph for this item offers virtually nothing in the way of even the most basic concepts.

This is a useful, well written resource for the non-specialist or introductory student. The bibliography is excellent as is the index of sources provided. Maps and figures are utilized well and while a few more may have helped to further illustrate the discussion, I did not find myself missing them while reading. The arrangement of the book allows issues to be discussed clearly, both from a thematic standpoint as well as chronologically. The authors deserve particular praise for being able to achieve chronological clarity in a book arranged thematically. For the specialist the value of this book is less clear. I do not consider myself an expert on the Eastern Empire yet, with the exception of some Armenian sources, virtually all of the sources used and issues discussed were familiar to me. Will the specialist find this of value? Perhaps. The arrangement of the book will help me note the sources, recall which sources relate to which events, and very likely help me find references more easily. At the same time, if a specialist has access to books such as The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, or keeps detailed notes on sources, this value will likely be reduced.

There has been a recent influx of books in English addressing the Roman-Persian dynamic. This book was written before several of these came to press however it will make a welcome addition to the library, certainly of someone just beginning his or her study of the Eastern border of the Empire, and very possibly for those with more knowledge.

1 Eutropius Breviarium, X. 17. (pp 69-70)

2 Chronicon Paschale, a. 553. (pp 42-43)

Bird, H. W., Eutropius: Breviarium. Translated with an introduction and commentary by H. W. Bird. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1993).

Whitby, Michael and Whitby, Mary, Chronicon Paschale 284-628 AD. Translated with an introduction and notes by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1989).

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