Siting the Palatine by the Potomac

The Cambridge Ancient History

December 6, 2002

In an age when marketing seems to be of paramount importance, The Cambridge Ancient History ( CAH ) arguably has to sell itself in two different markets: that of the academic professionals and their students, and that of a more general readership. At a cost of £110.00 and with more than 1,200 closely packed pages, it seems likely to have more success in the former. In recommending a book to students, I usually expect it to be readily comprehensible and clearly written with transparent use of ancient sources, comprehensive and consistent in its approach, and with suitable guidance for further reading. The CAH scores fairly well on these counts. Volume 11 is beautifully produced and represents the current thinking of leading scholars even though some sections were completed a decade ago. It is divided into parts comprising narrative history, government and civil administration, the empire (embracing frontiers, army, local and provincial administration, rebels and outsiders), Rome, Italy and the provinces, economy and society, and art and culture (including medicine and religion). Each part has a series of chapters, each subdivided into sections. So despite its size, the volume is relatively easy to consult and there is an excellent bibliography for each part. It is, however, more likely to be dipped into than read from cover to cover as a continuous history.

The accounts of individual reigns have a traditional chronological approach, with analysis of crucial issues and extensive use of footnotes. There is also a valuable chronological table at the end of the book. It is impossible to comment on every contribution, but I particularly liked C. R. Whittaker's convincing examination of the complex question of frontier areas, including the nature of Roman control, the possibility of an overall strategy and the question of why the frontiers stopped where they did. Mark Hassall's account of the army skilfully explains difficult evidence. Among the excellent studies of individual provinces, Martin Goodman has a notably lucid exposition of the complicated history of Judaea. Richard Saller provides a stimulating discussion of the hierarchy of rank in the Roman world. This was sustained by wealth, which had to be on public display to attract deference and was largely based on the ownership of property. Wealth was derived from the labour of the impoverished masses, but there were opportunities for social mobility and membership of the hierarchies of rank, and status in Rome was not "immutably fixed by birth".

There are always some difficulties with compendium works of this kind. The sheer scale of the volume may suggest that we know all that we need to know about the ancient world, especially since the straightforward presentation sometimes tends to conceal divergences of scholarly opinion and debate. It is noticeable that the ancient writers are rarely allowed to speak for themselves with verbatim quotes. When the first edition of volume 11 was published in 1936, no one had heard of sourcebooks and collections of ancient documents in translation. Now the ancient writers and other sources of evidence are more accessible to students, and they should have a greater role in the CAH . It is particularly regrettable that there is no index of sources. Furthermore, the historical reliability of the sources receives only limited discussion, and so the unsuspecting reader is left unaware of potential pitfalls.

The level of treatment is uneven. For example, Nicholas Purcell's chapter on Rome and Italy requires significant cooperation and knowledge from the reader. Malcolm Colledge's chapter on art and architecture, however, reads like a list of buildings with little analysis or explanation and few notes to guide the reader to further study. It is also strange to have this chapter without the illustrations (to be published in a separate volume) that are surely required to make it fully comprehensible. This reader was hard pressed to understand in what way Trajan's Market represented "a triumph of the most progressive contemporary architecture". Similarly, and perhaps understandably, the editors have not been able to prevent inconsistencies. Whereas Hassall speaks in terms of fixed frontiers and defence, Whittaker prefers to talk of frontiers as ambiguous zones of interaction and a more fluid military policy. More cross-references might help, especially for those who wish to follow topics across several volumes. For example, it is difficult to set Trajan's campaigns in Armenia and Parthia in their diplomatic and military context of the development of Roman foreign policy in the East from the reign of Augustus.

The volume is subtitled The High Empire , and this may reflect Gibbon's famous description of this era as that "during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous". It is worth remembering, however, that the period begins just after the violent deaths of four emperors in AD68-69 and ends with the murder of another (Commodus). Although the CAH commendably moves away from the tendency in general histories towards long narratives of wars and politics, it may go too far in divorcing the development of the empire from the character and actions of individual emperors and smoothing over the difficulties with scholarly analysis. Sir Ronald Syme, in Tacitus (1958), warned how "historians in all ages become liable through their profession to certain maladies or constraints. They cannot help making persons and events more logical than reality." In the CAH , the emperors come across as too presidential. The description of Trajan's "election" to the consulship, which was of course stage-managed to conceal his absolute control, could well be about the inauguration of the president of the US. Roman emperors were autocrats, and the irrational aspects of imperial rule could perhaps be expressed more emphatically. The reader may wonder if these are the same Romans who staged 123 days of gladiatorial games to celebrate the conquest of Dacia, denuded lands of animals for sport in the arena, and who bet with ferocious intensity on the outcome of chariot races. Though Commodus's propensity for appearing as a gladiator is duly catalogued, from the measured and stately exposition of most of these chapters it is hard to believe that the same historical material formed the basis for the film Gladiator .

The time for specialist compendium histories such as this may be past, as they give way to more general reference works that can introduce a wider audience to the study of the ancient world. Nevertheless, if this is a swansong, it is at least an impressive one. The CAH still serves a useful purpose not only as a scholarly and authoritative overview but also as a further demonstration of the variegated complexity of the imperial structure, the richness of the cultural, intellectual and social life of the Roman world, and its economic diversity.

Brian Campbell is professor of Roman history, Queen's University, Belfast.

The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume 11, The High Empire, AD70-192

Editor - Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Dominic Rathbone
ISBN - 0 521 26335 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £110.00
Pages - 1,222

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