Book Review: The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian


by Marion Kruse

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Nage. Pp. x, 294. Appends, notes, biblio., indices. $59.80. ISBN: 0812251628

Reinventing Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity

On 4 September 476 CE, Odoacer, a Germanic warlord, deposed Romulus, the puppet boy emperor of Rome. This event is traditionally taught as the Fall of Rome” as if it were an Historic Big Deal, but at the time, and for many decades after, it was hardly noticed. The city of Rome had already been sacked twice (in 410 and in 455) and had long before ceased to function as the imperial capital. There was still a perfectly good Roman emperor in Constantinople, the superbly sited and fortified capital in the East. In the sixth century, the Eastern empire reconquered Italy, maintaining a precarious hold on parts of it for another five centuries. This neglected, poorly documented period, Late Antiquity” (the old term Dark Ages” has fallen into academic disfavor) is experiencing a remarkable upsurge of scholarly interest, and The Politics of Roman Memory is a good example of this trend. Authored by a professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, this is a difficult, challenging, but rewarding book, even for readers well-versed in classical history.

An introductory chapter poses the question, “What did it mean to be Roman after Rome ceased to be part of the empire?” This question engaged members of Constantinople’s narrow intellectual elite and political class, writing in both Latin and Greek, including historians, Zosimos (“long dismissed as a cranky pagan,” wrote c. 490-510) and Hesychios of Miletus (sixth century), Prokopios of Caesarea (c. 500-570,) the poet Christodoros of Koptos, and jurists like Tribonian (c. 485-542,) who drafted the famous law codes of the emperor Justinian I (ruled 527-565). An important chapter closely examines Justinian’s abolition of the office of consul in 541. Elected annually, consuls were the highest officials of the Roman republic, but by Justinian’s time the office had dwindled to a purely honorary and ceremonial role.

A concluding chapter closely examines the rhetoric of the extensive and often tense official correspondence between the emperors in Constantinople and the bishops of Rome during this period. While Constantinople might be the sole capital of the empire, Rome still claimed primacy over the Christian world, and a series of popes from Saint Leo I (440 - 461) to Saint Hormisdas (514 - 523) were not shy about asserting the supremacy of spiritual over political authority.

The author notes (p. 221) that this book “is the first examination of the secular thought-worlds of fifth- and sixth-century authors conducted using the methodological toolset of classical philology.” Philology is the study of language in historical sources; it combines textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics. The original Latin or Greek texts of the numerous passages translated and cited by the author are thoughtfully provided in the notes.

Before tackling The Politics of Roman Memory, a reader should have a general familiarity with late Roman and early Byzantine history.




Note: The Politics of Roman Memory is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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