Michael GRANT, The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire. London: Routledge, 1999. Pp xviii + 121, hb ISBN 0 415 17323 X
Review by Colm Flavin
The ?third century crisis? is the term used to describe the period lasting from 235-284 AD in the history of the later Roman Empire. It is traditionally seen as a time of crisis because of the rapid turnover of emperors, the constant threat of civil and external warfare and the dire economic circumstances of the time, symbolised by the fact that the silver content of the denarius had plummeted from 75% in 180 to 5% by 260. In comparison to the second century, which had been more prosperous for Rome, this was a crisis in almost every respect - political, military and financial. In The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire, Michael Grant attempts to plot the course of this crisis by outlining some of the reasons for the empire?s apparent collapse and then its subsequent revival.
Collapse and Recovery is neatly divided into three parts, each dealing with a specific theme (Collapse, Recovery, Away from Politics). The book contains ten chapters with an epilogue and an appendix which provides an account of the Greco-Roman civilisation that almost disappeared in the third century. In his introduction Grant calls it a miracle of history that the Roman Empire of the third century did not collapse. This assertion represents the main argument of his work which runs to just over ninety pages of actual text.
The rapid turnover of emperors was one of the main characteristics of the third century crisis and Grant identifies this immediately in his opening chapter. He accounts for each of the emperors in chronological order from Maximinus I (235-238) to Valerian (253-260), the latter having the unenviable distinction of being taken captive by Sapor I, king of the Sasanian Persians. Grant ends up quoting extensively from other sources not only during this chapter but throughout the entire book (Chapter 8 on state religion is almost exclusively five pages of quoted material). This practice leads to repetition at times; for instance in Chapter 5 (The army reconstituted) we are given the same information on two separate occasions that the base for the cavalry corps created by Gallienus (253-268) was at Milan and that their function was to serve as a mobile striking force and a military reserve. It is a brave decision to write the book in this style and in his introduction he admits that he could be held guilty of patchwork. But, from a purely personal point of view, this style is not particularly enjoyable and at times serves to frustrate the reader such as when five separately quoted passages are provided on the same topic of Aurelian (270-275) building walls around the city of Rome (p. 30/31).
The rest of his discussion on the collapse of the empire centres on the threat to it from the Germans (particularly the Goths) and the Persians, under Sapor I, in the third century. These are both useful, if somewhat short, accounts of the threat that they presented to Rome. Indeed, it is interesting to compare, as Grant does, the critical status of Rome in the third century with the stability of the Sasanians during the same period, in that between 226 and 379 only nine kings ruled Persia while there were 35 emperors at Rome (p. 19).
His discussion on the empire?s revival begins with the reign of Gallienus after the capture of Valerian in 260 (Chapter 4). He considers this point to mark the nadir of the Roman Empire since it was at this time that Postumus broke away and formed the ? Gallic Empire ? in the west. He gives a brief account of each of the emperors from Gallienus up to the sons of Carus (283-284) thus leaving us poised for the accession of Diocletian. Aurelian commands the most attention during this chapter since he was successful in managing to restore the unity of the empire. It is quite similar in style and format to Chapter 1 with plenty of fine illustrations and the only difference being that the topic has now changed from collapse to that of recovery.
Chapter 6 is completely devoted to the emperor Diocletian (284-305). His reign of 20 years brought some much needed stability and organisation to the empire in comparison to what had preceded him. Although in the previous chapter on the army Grant mentions Diocletian?s impact upon it (some may dispute his claim that Diocletian?s army consisted of 500,000 or even more) (p. 36) he does not explore in detail some of the important events of Diocletian?s reign which ?was one of the last great milestones in the history of Rome?(p. 41). There is, of course, reference made to the Tetrarchy which came into being in 293. However, he only makes the mere statement that Diocletian divided provinces into smaller units. No detail is given on this or his reasons for doing it. There is almost nothing said about Diocletian?s failed Price Edict of 302 or his persecution of the Christians beginning in 303. Any student of the period needs to be informed of these things.
In fairness to Grant he does mention Diocletian?s tax reforms in Chapter 7 (Coinage and Finance) and points out that such reforms were at great cost to the individual. Another aspect on his discussion of recovery refers to state religion and how, for a while, the cult of the sun occupied the central point in Roman religion until Christianity displaced it.
In the final part of his work Grant takes a look at matters away from politics. This deals with areas that were more of interest to upper class Romans in order to gain some relief from the depressing political and military happenings of the third century. They read the work of the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus, some became acquainted with Manichaeanism and others read works such as the Aethiopica by Heliodorus. These final chapters follow Grant?s tendency throughout the rest of the book to quote at length from other material.
There is good information in this book and it will serve as a useful introduction for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with the period. But students studying the period will require more detailed information on the specifics than what they actually get in it; for instance Chapter 6 on Diocletian as discussed above. Perhaps this should not be too much of a surprise given the brevity of the work. Nevertheless, it is still a useful contribution to the study of third century Rome and how the empire bordered on the brink of disintegration, only for it to recover albeit becoming a somewhat different empire in the process.