09.07.09, Gwynn, ed., A.H.M. Jones and the Later Roman Empire

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Andrew Fear

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.009


Gwynn, David M., ed.. A.H.M. Jones and the Later Roman Empire. Brill's Series on the Early Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. 281. ISBN: 978-90-04-16383 6.

Reviewed by:
Andrew Fear
University of Manchester

This edited volume is a work on the history of scholarship. The "Later Roman Empire" of the title is Jones's monumental work of that name, not that of an historical period. The book is divided into two uneven sections: the first shorter section contains three essays on Jones the man and scholar, while the more substantial second section has eight pieces dealing with various aspects of The Later Roman Empire written by leading scholars in the field followed by an afterword written by Wolf Liebeschuetz. There is also an appendix which lists all of Jones's published works.

The topics dealt with in the second section are The Role of the Emperor (Michael Whitby), Running the Empire (Peter Heather), Law and Justice (Caroline Humfress), the Roman Army (Roger Tomlin), "Cities" (Luke Lavan), The Economy (Bryan Ward-Perkins), Religion (David Gwynn), "The End of the Ancient World" (Averil Cameron). A good place to begin with this volume is at the end, as Liebeschuetz's afterword serves as an excellent introductory summary to the topics discussed in the rest of the work. There is general agreement that Jones's work represents a major change, and. indeed, advance, on thought about the Later Roman Empire. Indeed, Heather in his piece rather harshly calls those who previously worked on this period "essayists."

The book would provide a good introduction to any reader coming "cold" to this field with the nature of Jones's approach to history and the tenor of this, his seminal work. Indeed, several key passages from The Later Roman Empire are independently quoted a number of times in the volume. Jones's insistence on the primacy of primary evidence and his firm focus on constitutional, administrative, and legal history are strongly underlined, as is his self-confessed partial reading of epigraphy and eschewal of archaeology.

The general tenor of the book is that Jones was a magnificent scholar of his generation but that the focus of scholarship has now changed in significant ways. Perhaps most unfriendly to Jones's approach are Lavan who worries about the "conservatism" of his approach (though why political conservatism need necessarily be wrong remains a mystery to this reviewer) and believes that when looking at urban development Jones's "overall assessment is rather one-sided" (175); and Cameron who worries inter alia about Jones's acceptance that the Late Roman Empire declined. Whitby in his section on the role of the emperor points out that modern analysis has taken on board many more informal aspects of politics, such as the propaganda value inherent in ceremonies and panegyrics than those analysed by Jones to produce a more rounded picture of the past. Importantly, he suggests that modern disillusionment with the political process has perhaps led to a more sceptical approach to ancient documentation. This may well be the case and the importance of context for historical writing is a theme which explicitly and implicitly runs through this volume.

That is not to say there is not much appreciation of Jones's work to be found here. Tomlin when looking at Jones's assessment of the late Roman Army finds some material he believes has been superseded, but sees Jones general view as sound and ground- breaking at the time of writing. Ward-Perkins, while noting that Jones's "overall conclusions have, certainly, become unfashionable" (208), sees much to commend in The Later Roman Empire not least because its evidence-based approach allowed an escape from previous "apocalyptic" narratives written mainly from sentiment rather than reference to data.

Given these notices, it is a pity that there is not an essay here which deals systematically with Jones's place in the corpus of writing on the Late Roman Empire. These issues are touched on by Garnsey, but a lengthy discussion of how we should see Jones in relation to the likes of Bury or indeed Gibbon, who remains something of a ghost at this historiographical feast, would have main an intriguing and informative addition to the volume.

One of the most interesting aspects of the volume is perhaps the sense it gives of the swings in fashion that run through the writing of history. Whitby notes (a point picked up by Liebeschuetz in his afterword) that there is more attention given to informal politics in Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire than in Jones's work and that "The breadth of Bury's approach is more in tune with the priorities of modern scholars than the narrow focus of Jones"(67). This is a fine illustration of the way that the historiographic pendulum can swing, and is swinging: the notion that the Late Roman Empire declined has begun to re-emerge in scholarly debate after being derided for many years. As Cameron states "Jones was a historian who belonged to a particular time", but so do we all and as Ward-Perkins notes The Later Roman Empire is a very great work, of immense value more than forty years after its publication. Of very few scholarly books can this be said" (209). Jones's work remains a vital part of a late antique historian's armoury and this book provides an excellent introduction to the man and his endeavours and stimulates more general thought on the nature of history.

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Andrew Fear

University of Manchester