The End of the World as They Knew It

Review of 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire, by Giusto Traina (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. pp. xix, 203. Trans. by Allan Cameron)

The end of the Roman empire is punctuated by important and well-known events: Alaric's sack of Rome in 410, which led Saint Augustine to write The City of God; the deposition of the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus in 476, which brought an end to the institution of the imperial office in the west; and the attacks of Attila the Hun, which terrorized the Balkans in the middle of the century. But what happened in the meantime?

Cover of 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire by Giusto Traina
Cover of 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire by Giusto Traina.

In this book Giusto Traina provides a narrative account of the Roman world in a seemingly ordinary year: 428. He places historical events at the center of his discussion and takes us on a grand tour across the Mediterranean, from east to west and back again. Along the way we meet emperors, generals, bishops, monks, pagan intellectuals, barbarians, pilgrims, Arabs, and Persians. While the book is mainly narrative rather than argumentative, Traina does contend throughout that the Roman empire in 428 was still a "real entity" and not a "mere concept," since it was the "key reference point" for all of our sources for the period (and so for the people to whom we are introduced). In other words, the Roman empire still mattered institutionally not just conceptually in 428, even if future events would undo all of this (which Traina admits).

Traina begins his story with the most important geopolitical event of the year: the Persian annexation of Armenia. In 428, the Persians engineered a coup which deposed the Arsacid king, Artashes IV, which fundamentally altered the geopolitical balance along Rome's eastern frontier by bringing a strategically important region firmly within the Persian sphere of influence. In this context Flavius Dionysius, commander of Rome's eastern military forces and a native of Thrace, was sent from Antioch, the Syrian capital, on a diplomatic mission. Traina argues convincingly that this mission was undertaken to accept formally the abandonment of Armenia and, possibly, to secure terms for the treatment of Christians within the former kingdom. The Great King of Persia, Bahram V, had outfoxed the Romans; Flavius was sent to accept this fait accompli.

In the next two chapters, Traina continues to follow the career of Flavius Dionysius. Once he had returned from his diplomatic mission, he was entrusted with escorting the Syrian monk Nestorius to Constantinople. The emperor there, Theodosius II (r. 408-450), had selected him as the new patriarch of Constantinople, as a means to tie more closely together the eastern and Aegean elements of his empire. From Syria, Flavius and Nestorius took the so-called pilgrim's road through Anatolia to Constantinople, which took them first into Cilicia, to the city of Tarsus, famous at the time for its association with St. Paul. From there, our protagonists traveled through the Cilician Gates, on to the city of Tyana, and then across the arid Anatolian plateau, where they stopped at Ankyra (modern Ankara). Here, Celtic was still spoken in the countryside, and the region was fittingly named Galatia (land of the Gauls in Greek). Finally, Flavius and Nestorius reached Nicomedia and then the eastern capital, Constantinople, where Theodosius II rewarded Flavius with the consulship for the upcoming year. Traina's description of these travels is remarkably vivid and captures well the landscapes, varied cultures and interesting personalities of this region of the Roman world.

In one of the most rewarding chapters of the book, Traina introduces us to the eastern Roman emperor, Theodosius II (408-450), his family, the imperial palace and the city of Constantinople. He describes all of this (appropriately) in "Byzantine" terms. The city was a Christian one, unpolluted by a pagan past, where meetings between the emperor and the masses typically occurred in the hippodrome; the monarch was "born in the purple" and responded to the spirit of the times in purposeful ways through ceremony and propaganda which portrayed him as a devoutly Orthodox emperor, but also a competent administrator of an empire; eunuchs controlled access to the sacrum cubiculum, where the imperial family resided; and powerful female figures, Eudocia (Theodosius' wife) and Pulcheria (his sister) had important roles in the administration. Theodosius II has been claimed as the first "Byzantine" emperor, and Traina shows us why with his masterful description of emperor, family, city and court.

His discussion then moves to the western empire. Here, Traina introduces us to the "two centers of power in the Western Empire," Ravenna and Rome. The former was built atop marshes and featured floating towers, moored barges and, famously, dirty water. But it also had splendid churches, with some of the finest mosaics that have survived from the late antique world. It was here that the western emperor Valentinian III ruled, under the supervision of his mother Aelia Galla Placidia. The latter, the eternal city, retained at this time its political and religious importance, according to Traina. Valentinian performed an adventus here on 1 January 426 to "inaugurate" his reign. We meet, too, the papa of Rome, Celestine (not yet a "pope," but a powerful bishop), and Rome's stodgy senators, some of whom were Christian but many of whom were still pagan, like Antonius Volusianus, praetorian prefect of the western empire in 428.

From the relatively secure confines of Italy, Traina takes us into the tumultuous world of fifth-century Gaul. This is one of the best chapters of the book because he frames his discussion within the parameters of complex topics like ethnicity, assimilation, and migrations of peoples in a very clear, readable way. He outlines the role of migrating barbarians, like the Goths, Huns, Vandals, and Saxons. And he emphasizes throughout the difficulty of identifying ethnicities within broad Germanic groupings, but also the dynamic exchange that occurred between Romans and barbarians after the latter were settled throughout the western empire. Every sort of boundary imaginable was blurred in fifth-century Gaul, and Traina brings this out well. He also details the difficulties of the central government but also regular Romans living in these provinces who often had to pay the steep taxes necessary to finance the army and the many campaigns that Aetius (and others) waged throughout Gaul.

At this point, the book begins its return to the east through Spain, Africa and Egypt. His final stop within the Roman world is Palestine. Traina describes its capital, Jerusalem, which had steadily grown more important since the introduction of Christianity in the fourth century, and where the most important Easter celebration in the Roman world took place. Traina vividly brings to life the sacred places of this holy city—the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—which created an entirely unique environment that drew pilgrims from across the Christian world. He describes the liturgical calendar as well: the Thursday vigil on the Mount of Olives, the Friday liturgy during which Jesus' suffering and death were vividly portrayed, the Saturday fast, and, finally, the reading of the story of the Resurrection at the Holy Sepulcher itself. The importance of Easter in the late Roman world cannot be underestimated and Traina has done a fine job evoking the experience of Easter in Jerusalem.

But he also leads us into a Palestinian landscape rich in monasteries which were tied to pilgrim traffic but also trade coming from the Negev, rich in vineyards and ports that connected the eastern Roman empire to the Far East via the Red Sea. We are also introduced to some Arab bishops, with names familiar even today: Abdelas (Abdullah) of Elousa, Saidas (Sa'id) of Phaeno, and Natiras (Nadir) of Gaza. Traina demonstrates that relations between Romans of Palestine and Arabs were greatly enhanced by the activities of the monasteries of this region.

The book concludes in the Persian world, itself a testament to Traina's view of a geographically expansive "world of late antiquity." Here, we learn more of the Great King Bahram V. He was well-educated at the Arab Oasis of Hira and was the first Sassanid king to be crowned by the mobodan mobad, the high priest of the magi (and so the Zoroastrian religion). Typically, this was an act performed by a secular noble. According to Ferdowsi's Book of Kings, it was also Bahram who brought back with him luli musicians from the Indus, ancestors of the Gypsies and the first attested source for their migration. The story goes as far as the Silk Road and the Indus River Valley, where Bahram was also successful militarily. A brief epilogue completes the book, in which we are told the fates of our major characters after 428.

In sum, in 428 AD Traina has written an eminently readable, stimulating book that is unique for the field of late antique studies. The book's great strength (and its focus) is its narrative-geographical format, not its argument(s). It will appeal to those interested in the decline and fall of the Roman empire, the early western middle ages, early Byzantine Constantinople, Sassanian Persia, barbarian migrations, late antique religion, and more. Anyone (scholars, history buffs, or those who know nothing of late antiquity) who wants to immerse himself in the world of late antiquity as it was in one year—its landscapes, events, and personalities—would do well to read this book.