Recently, I’ve been reading a bit about the later Roman Empire, essentially the fourth century (284 to 430). This is a period I didn’t know much about before, so I started with this book, which is a general introduction. As far as I can tell, it’s a pretty good general introduction, too. It starts with a discussion of what came before (near-collapse, basically), a chapter on the sources for the period (not as good as we would like), and then has a series of chronological chapters. Finally, there are a few thematic chapters, covering society, the military, and the rise of Constantinople, which was refounded by Constantine in the early fourth century.
It’s an incredibly important period for world history, because it’s when Christianity went from being a marginal, sporadically persecuted sect to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, relentlessly persecuting all others. (That finished after the period of the book, when all the non-Christians had been wiped out.) It thus covers just about the only other period (other than the present day) when Christianity was both dominant and relatively tolerant. It’s interesting that this period roughly coincides with the living memory of the persecution of Christians, although I’d want a lot more evidence before drawing any causal links.
Another interesting feature of the period is the importance put on the eighteen month rule of Julian, the last pagan emperor. This is because the main source for the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, was a pagan, and devotes a large number of pages to Julian’s reign. Ammianus also seems to be fairly reliable, so we have a detailed, apparently trustworthy source for the period. It may not, in fact, have been particularly interesting or important. This happens a lot in ancient history; historians write about what sources exist for, and assume that the other stuff is less important. This isn’t as unreasonable as it might be, because people do tend to write about important things, and they tend to be preserved. This blog probably won’t exist in 1700 years time, unless I go on to be massively influential in some field, for example. On the other hand, occasionally it is pure chance; a lot of ancient material survives in one manuscript. Thus, there is always the nagging feeling that we might be missing something vital.
Still, that isn’t the fault of the author of this book. It gave me a solid framework for the period, so that the books I read later could be slotted in relatively easily. Thus, in so far as my non-expert opinion is valuable, I can recommend it as an introduction to the period.