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Book Review: 428AD: An Ordinary Year At The End of the Roman Empire by Giusto Traina

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The “end of the Roman empire”: it is a popular topic, with some big questions around if: why? How? when? They’ve been some excellent, illuminated books written on it – I reviewed one of them recently – but what tends to disappear in these accounts is the real lived experience of the people of the period. They can’t have been, in their own minds, living through the end of empire – they were living their lives, dealing with the local upsets, expecting the empire which in human timeframes had gone on “forever”, to continue. It’s to attempt to get at something of that lived reality that Giusto Traina has written 428AD: An Ordinary Year At The End of the Roman Empire.

He had to find some way to choose the year, of course, and he selected this one because it marked the end of the Kingdom of Armenia, which just happens to be the author’s special subject. That’s a good start, because it gives him a entirely different perspective to authors traditionally fixated on Constantinope, Rome or Ravenna (the new western capital). Indeed, the perspective here is as broad as could be, for he follows an ancient rhetoric tradition, taking the reader on a journey around the empire, a rough circuit of the Med and beyond, extending even into the Sassanian empire, which that year seized the previously independent Armenia, and along the Silk Road.

He also tries not to look forward, to view the trajectory of everything as heading towards fragmentation and collapse, which of course it wasn’t: something seemed at the time to be coming back together quite nicely after the disaster of the sack of Rome in 410. And although the sources seldom allow us to get down to fine detail, he notes that for most people, these events were irrelevant to their time:

“…the life of a typical community as governed by liturgical and civil calendars and, of course, the ubiquitous seasonal rhythms of the rural economy. For many intellectuals of the time, the calculation of time seemed an inappropriate concern, whose elimination was prompted by the anxiety of the times…the man who was buried in Apamea of Syria in a Christian sepulchre dated to the early fifth century must have requested the ancient pagan motto that appears on its threshold… “Are you rushing? – I am. And where are you rushing? – To this place.”

One man who had no choice but to rush in 428 was Flavius Dionysius, with whom we start our journey. He is starting out from Antioch, HQ of the Roman army in the east, leading an important and complex diplomatic mission to meet a Persian delegation. But he’s suffering facial paralysis. (Traina suggests this might have been stress-related, since he had a difficult task, for a military man – to accept a fait accompli – the loss of independence of Armenia to Persian rule – it had been an important buffer between the two eastern giants.) As Traina explains we only know about his mission because of this, for it is recorded in the life of Simeon Stylites – the famous pole-sitting monk (the stump of his final pole still survives outside Aleppo). The modern author has had to put together the details, for no other western source records the mission, and none pay attention to the fall of Armenia, which Traina suggests reflects embarrassment that a Christian land had been abandoned to its fate.

Flavius is handy for Traina, for no sooner was he back from this tough job than he had another delegate task, to escort the Syrian cleric Nestorius from his monastery to Constantinople, a journey that also allows the author to explore the tensions and developments of the church of the time. Simeon was an outstanding, in more ways than one (his column, from which he never descended, was 9 metres high when Flavius visited – it eventually went to 16), but he represented an extreme of religious ascetism that, Traina says, helped to cement the identity of Syria, which had been an uncertain border province, while shocking the more established regions.

That brings our journey to the heart of the eastern empire, Constantinople, and Traina visits the royal palace, where interestingly, two women were at the heart of politics. One was Pulcheria, the sister of Emperor Theodosius II, and his spiritual guide. The other was his empress, Eudocia, who was from a family of pagan intellectuals and only converted upon marriage, and had a reputation as a protector of heretics. (They had a parallel in the Western empire, the 40-year-old Aelia Galla Placidia, mother of the child emperor, a woman of uncommon political experience, who had briefly been empress in the West, was exiled to Constantinople, taken hostage after the sack of Rome and taken by the Visigoths back to Gaul, where she ended up marrying King Ataulf, who was shortly after murdered, when she returned to Ravenna.)

As is typical, in any historical court where women have importance, historiography has tended to slander Theodosius as weak: Traina doesn’t agree. He says that the emperor and his advisors clearly took a decision to create a different idea of sovereignty: “a profoundly religious sovereign who bordered on becoming an ascetic…Prophyrogenite represented a pure state of royalty, which had been conferred upon him by his untarnished childhood… removing all temptations from courtly circles and doing so with the gentleness and purity that typified him”.

It was, not, however, simple. Traina explains the new direction of government – increasingly absolutist and centred on the emperor, trials lost their previous public connotation and “started to be held in the secretaria, secluded rooms that were hidden by gates and curtains, and were open to the public only at specified stages of the trial”. Control extended throughout society:

The social implications of the developments are illustrated by a law passed on 21 April, 428, which intended to curb the exploitation of prostitutes and made provision for the expropriation of procurers and the loss of their powers over the young women. In the most serious cases, they could be punished with exile or forced labor in the mines. At first site, the law would appear to be a simple measure to protect public morality against procurement in accordance with Christian values. In reality, the situation was more complex: the law was no so much directed against professional pimps as against citizens who, driven by poverty, sold their daughters’ bodies.” The law of 428 was part of a wider project to control social order and aimed to repress all forms of ‘barbaric promiscuity’, often on the margins of society, with the intention of safeguarding the kosmos, the imperial order, against its enemies.

This is primarily a journey in its time, but Traina does draw out some really important developments for the future, notably in the Balkans. He notes that with Theodosius II having three years before placed his nine-year-old nephew Valentinian III on the throne after defeating the usurper John, the project of moving toward reunification was proceeding, and one part of that was, paradoxically, drawing the line between the two empires, which could prevent future conflict. Traina explains that the Illyria sector, what we would today call the Balkans, which had been considered a single geographic and strategic unit, was split in two along the river Drina, which “now led to a cultural separation even in political terms — and that ongoing separation was between the Latin-speaking regions and the Green-speaking ones”.

Visiting Gaul, split between the imperial provinces that saw their capital as Arelate (Arles), and the Visigothic Kingdom centred on Toulouse, Traina finds a proto-medieval viewpoint in Salvian of Marseille, a radical critic of the empire who saw Roman civilization as reflecting a lackluster paganism and praised the barbarians for being uncontaminated by practices such as theatrical shows and circus games. He notes that for Christina monks, the Roman practice of regular bathing at public baths, was eld in contempt and condemned as a symptom of sin and lasciviousness.

Briefly hopping over the Britannia, Traina says the rapid changes on many sites there, which saw a trend towards simpler, more rudimentary lifestyles, may not have been caused by immiseration, but rather a conscious adoption of a more austere, frugal and Spartan way of life.

Having toured through Spain, North Africa and Egypt, Traina lands in Jerusalem at Easter, where we meet a fascinating family, Melania the Younger, her husband Pinianus, and her mother Albina, who had been living their since 417. After the death of their children these rich aristocrats had sold off their land. Imitating her grandmother, Melania the Elder, who in 372 left Rome for extreme monasticism, setting up a monastery on the Mount of Olives,, the site where her granddaughter also finally settled.

In her convent, Melania devoted herself to intellectual activities, such as the transcription and reading of sacred tests. This approach was typical of most aristocrats who found urban life indecorous and disreputable, and preferred to withdraw to country estates, as Melania did first – before taking her final decision. But as Andrea Giardina has pointed out, it was only isolation in a relative sense:
These religious communities of saintly women..were constantly under the scrutiny of the entire Christian world: under the eyes of the local people, of pilgrims, of the faithful who flocked to Palestine from all over the earth, and to whom these wonderful tales were told of aristocratic ladies who abandoned their gilded palaces for humble convents in the Holy Land.

After such austerity, Traina then finally ventures into eastern luxury, and military might, with the Sassinid monarch Bahram, celebrated as a great hunter, who had, legend has it any way, seven wives from “the seven continents of the world – India, Byzantium, Khwarezm (central Asia), the land of the Slavs, the “West” (Germanic kingdoms), China and Iran. Bahram was at this time contesting with the Huns for the great trade route we know as the Silk Road, which was in a state of flux, with the ancient splendor of Bactria in northern Afghanistan losing ground to a group of merchants from Sogdiana, in eastern Iran, who were to found Bukhara and Samarkhand in Central Asia before eventually merging with the Huns.

This is a huge, sweeping journey, one any reader would love to be able to undertake. But if I have one serious complaint about this book, it is its brevity. At a scant 132 pages one flies through the empire like an uncomfortable spirit. There’s a lot packed in, but often you are left longing for more detail. There’s an extensive scholarly apparatus to direct you to more reading, but most casual readers, like myself, are unlikely to go that far – but I’d like to know more – like to read a 400-page version of it. But then again, it is hard to criticize an author who leaves you wanting more.

And Traina does at least finally, if very briefly, follow up the fate of his main characters. Flavius continued as a faithful envoy; Nestorius was disgraced and his followers labeled heretics, consequently fleeing into the Sassanian empire and beyond to Mongolia, China and Indonesia; Theodosius died age 50 after falling from his horse; Pulcheria eventually forced Eudocia into a convent, and after her brothers death legitimized the accession of General Marcian by marrying him (although in a celibate union), and today’s she’s revered as a saint.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.