Douglas Boin

Wiley Blackwell (2018) p/b 285pp £34.50 (ISBN 978111907680)

This is the first of a series of ‘social and cultural histories’ of different periods in the ancient world, the rest still to be published. Designed for classroom use, the series’ aim is to ‘illuminate the social and cultural history often obscured by political narratives’. 

This book covers the third to seventh centuries AD, and is framed as seeking to demolish the commonly-held myth that Rome somehow simply disappeared during the fourth century, to be replaced by a completely different entity, Constantinople. On the contrary, it is argued, ‘Rome’ as a culture and civilisation was still very much alive and thriving when Islam appeared on the scene. To make this case, themes are explored in successive chapters with titles such as ‘power’, ‘worship’, ‘social change’, ‘law and politics’, urban life’, ‘community’, ‘household and family’, ideas and literary culture, ‘geography’. It is a wide-sweeping overview of how the Roman empire actually worked, bringing into play all the evidence one can gather from literary and other texts and what B. persistently calls ‘material culture’ (i.e. physical evidence of all kinds). Historical events are brought in mainly as explanation where needed to clarify this broad picture; it is preceded by some initial chapters about how to ‘do’ (and not to do) history, and how we should define Late Antiquity.

There is much interesting detail in this book, and most readers will find something in it that is unfamiliar to them. For instance, the interaction between Rome and Sasanian Persia was not simply one of conflict between two clashing empires: artefacts, as well as the popularity of Mithras, suggest that not everything from the East was considered hostile, and that there was plenty of lower-level cultural interchange. By the sixth century, there is evidence of contacts made as far as India and Sri Lanka. At a more detailed level, how many will have heard of Proba, a late fourth century female poet who recycled lines culled from classical poetry to create a popular ‘mash-up’ full-length poem on the life of Jesus?

Any account of this period must deal at some length with religious conflicts. B. takes a carefully detached position, and, rightly, cautions against taking too uncritically what is said by partisans. The picture emerging is that Roman society was remarkably tolerant of different beliefs (as can be seen in the juxtaposition of their temples in site such as Ostia), and that both between and within beliefs there was greater complexity than may appear on the surface. The insistence of the emperors Decius and later Diocletian on imposing the obligation of sacrifice, leading to the persecution of Christians, was an attempt to ensure that Roman citizens, by now a very diverse bunch, remained united in loyalty to the idea of Rome and ‘Roman values’. When Constantine and Licinius in 313 (the ‘edict of Milan’) granted Christians freedom to worship, it was still to be in a socially acceptable manner, and Christianity was not being declared the state religion. It often seems more likely that polemics and denunciations by Christian writers were directed against fellow Christians rather than attempts to convert others (in which, from their style, they would be unlikely to succeed).

The occasional pinch of salt may also be needed for some of B.’s own more sweeping assertions. On p. 47, for example, he says that ‘According to a majority of biblical scholars … Paul’s ‘Second Letter to the Thessalonians’ was not written by Paul’, but ‘composed after Paul’s death … by someone pretending to be him’, and then goes on to speak of this pseudepigraphy as a proven fact. This is a highly questionable overstatement. Even a glance at Wikipedia shows that as many scholars support Paul’s authorship as question it. The New Jerusalem Bible (published 1986) says that, if 2 Thessalonians were a forgery, it is ‘hard to explain why this should have been done’, and adds that the two letters are not contradictory but complementary, the earliest authorities accepted them both as written by Paul, and this is a more obvious explanation of the similarity between them. One cannot help wondering if B.’s concern to be a dispassionate, unaffiliated historian has unconsciously coloured his view of this controversy, and if so, of how many others?

The book is written for students. Within each chapter there are boxed items describing in detail something referred to in the text, separately listed in the contents pages; this device, common enough in books of this kind, make it harder to read but, perversely, may help one’s concentration. Each chapter has exam questions at the end. A timeline, a list of sources with their abbreviations, and a glossary are provided. Altogether, it is a helpful overview of a period when important changes were happening about which we would love to have more evidence.

Colin McDonald

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