Book Review: The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity: A Political and Military History


by Hugh Elton

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xxii, 378. Illus., maps, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $29.99 paper. ISBN: 1108456316

The Long “Decline” before the “Fall”

Prof. Elton (Trent University) takes a look at the fate of the Roman Empire during the nearly four hundred years from the “Crisis of the Third Century” (A.D. 235-284) through the final decades of the Western Empire (A.D. 410- 476), the survival and revival of the Eastern Empire in the late fifth and sixth centuries, and which was very nearly destroyed in the mid-seventh century by the Islamic tide that swept away the Persian empire and reduced the Roman domain to what we now call the “Byzantine Empire”.

Elton uses a chronological framework to give the reader a reign-by-reign account that integrates personalities – Roman and otherwise – in the political, administrative, military, economic, dynastic, demographic, constitutional, and religious trends and events as they unfolded. He punctuates his narrative from time to time with chapters offering overviews of military trends and developments across a century or so. This is very well done, and the narrative moves rather smoothly.

Elton offers interesting observations on the rise of Christianity and is surprisingly generous to two of the most poorly-regarded Western Emperors, Honorius (r., 395-423) and Valentinian III (r., 425-455). He also makes a number of interesting conclusions, perhaps most notably that during this period decision making came to be characterized by specialist committees debating issues for final adjudication by the emperor, who was in effect serving as a sort of “chairman of the board”, albeit an all powerful one.

The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity will prove rewarding reading not only for the specialist, but also the layman with an interest in late Antiquity.


Note: The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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