Review: Rome and Constantinople: Rewriting Roman History during Late Antiquity

This term ensures that I won’t be posting much of anything, but I decided to put up a book review to prove that I’m still alive.

Raymond Van Dam masterfully sketches out how two of the greatest cities of the later Roman Empire, Rome and Constantinople affected emperorship, imperial ideology, and history writing and how they in turn affected the cities. The central premise of this book is that imperial history had to be re-written at the end of antiquity. The city of Rome had a long and glorious heritage, but no longer looked the part as it was depopulated and falling into ruin. The city of Constantinople, on the other hand, was a grand city with an enormous population, but no real Greek, Roman, biblical, or Christian history behind it. The first chapter describes Rome and Van Dam argues that much of the grand construction was designed in a city associated with the Roman Republic and created to imitate that. However, in late antiquity the means of imperial power for emperors changed from that of “safeguarding” the Republic to appealing to the armies for power, and as such Rome itself lost some of its significance. It lost even more under the Christian empire, because the places of interest and locations of intercession with the divine were not closely tied up with the old city itself, and many of the important Christian sites were located on the periphery. Many of its civic festivals were associated with paganism as well, making association with such things in the city dangerous for emperors. The second half of the book moves on to Constantinople, a city which Van Dam argues was forced to steal heritage from sites around the Graeco-Roman world and adorn itself with Christian relics in order to create a history. However, things were noticeably different in Constantinople because it was not designed around pagan monuments and its precise lack of a Roman Republican past allowed for a creative break with that system of power for emperors. As such, churches were integrated into imperial ceremonial, and it was not even necessary that any pretenses of power be kept up: the senate was always weak and the emperor was God’s vice-regent on earth. Finally, Van Dam discusses the textual rewriting of history in Hesychius of Miletus’ world history that combines Greek mythology, Greek history, Roman history and divine intercession to firmly establish Constantinople as the New Rome. It’s a very convincing argument, although it is one that he could take a bit further by applying it to early Byzantine chronicle writing and worldviews.

While I think that this book is masterfully argued, there are a few little quibbles. For one, his cramming of all of a page’s citations into a single footnote is a bit of a pain. I would much rather individual notes behind each citation, purely because it is simply cleaner and easier to find specific references. There are a few arguments that also do not seem to be terribly convincing, or simply need a little more evidence or explanation. For example, Van Dam briefly discusses imperial involvement in the late antique doctrinal conflicts and how emperors may have chosen to side with particular theological schools associated with major cities like Antioch and Alexandria for the sake of controlling them. It is an interesting argument, although how exactly control of the theological schools in Antioch has any sort of impact on Antioch’s ability to act as a hub in defending northern Syria and Mesopotamia from the Sassanids is unclear. Another example of an argument that he may take too far is the idea of the actual concern in the east about representing a capital without Roman Republican institutions. I simply do not see how such ideas would have had much currency or relevance in the late antique Greek east, and how many people would have been aware of them. Regardless, none of these are central to his argument.

This is a very good book. It’s brevity means that you can read the entire thing in an evening, but anyone interested in the trappings of imperial power in late antiquity shouldn’t be able to put it down. Van Dam’s writing is very engaging, and his scholarship is good. Highly recommended.

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