The Collapse And Recovery Of The Roman Empire, by Michael Grant
The third century was a period of remarkable stress for the Roman Empire, and as someone who reads a lot about Roman history , it was pretty obvious that I would be interested in turning my attention to this particular period. And this book is a pretty good work to look at for that period. For one, the book is short (at just over 100 pages) and so it will not tax the patience of the author. Perhaps it is best to view this book as an introduction to an obscure and often-neglected part of Roman history, namely the part between the peak of the Roman Empire during the “good emperors” and the following recovery under the Severan emperors of the early third century and the revival of Roman fortune under Diocletion and Constantine, and then to use this book as encouragement to read other books that cover the same subject matter in greater detail if one prefers. If one is interested in the economic crisis of the times or the instability of government or the issues of internal and external relations, there are plenty of places this book will encourage one on in terms of reading material.
This work is divided, like Gaul, into three parts. The first part of the book, divided into three short chapters, looks at the collapse of the Roman empire (I) under the internal loss of stability and the frequent overthrow of Roman emperors (1) under the pressure of military defeats against the Germans (2) and Persians (3) on the frontiers. The author then looks at the recovery (II) of the Roman Empire towards the end of the third century through a variety of strong emperors (4) who reconstituted the army and allowed it to hold its own against its opponents (5) and who increased central control like Diocletian (6) with reforms in coinage and finance (7) and efforts to reform the state religion (8). The third part of the book then looks at life away from politics (III) by looking at philosophy and personal religion with a focus on Plotinus (9) and the fiction of Helopdorus (10), after which the book contains a short epilogue and a lengthy appendix that sets the third century within the larger and more comprehensive sweet of Roman history that the reader may not know but which is important in understanding the time period in question.
There are a few elements of this book that are particularly interesting. The author’s comments about Christianity are those of a scholar and not (lamentably) a believer, and the author seems somewhat interested in both mystery religions as well as sun worship as worthy challengers to Christianity, and not someone who is afraid to point out aspects of heathen practice that were (and are) part of Christianity even to this day. The author also talks about one of the more poignant aspects of third century Roman society that is important and relevant in our own lives, and that is the way that the survival of the empire as a whole was combined with a great loss of liberty on the part of the people of Rome in the face of massive internal and external pressures. Regimes that are thought of as being threatened with destruction can sometimes find the strength to survive at the cost of the well-being of ordinary people, but those costs are likely to be very heavy indeed, and we would do well not to put such strain on our societies that they are tempted to seek survival at our expense, something that could easily happen in much of the west right now in the face of our own internal and external pressures and the general crisis of legitimacy that exists in our political orders.
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