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  • War in Late Antiquity: A Social History
  • Bernard S. Bachrach
War in Late Antiquity: A Social History. By A.D. Lee . Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0-631-22926. Maps. Tables. Figures. Glossary. Notes. Bibliographies. Indexes. Pp. xxv, 282. $34.95.

Lee, associate professor of Classics (Nottingham), has written a useful study. He explores a limited spectrum of the "political, economic, social, and religious dimensions" of the military in the later Roman empire "from the mid-third to the early seventh century" (p. xii). The title is misleading. The focus is not on war but on the Roman army and largely on the eastern half of the empire, not the late antique era. For example, Lee fails to use the information in the western letter collections of Ausonius, Sidonius, Ruricius, Avitus, and Epiphanius in his "quantitative" study (Table 6.1). Cities such as Alexandria and Edessa, not to mention the "camp" at Dura-Europos receive more than six times the attention given to Britain and Gaul combined. Many of Lee's generalizations, often based on eastern information, lack applicability to the west, and, on the whole, differences between east and west over time are not given sufficient attention.

The value of Lee's work lies in his effort to raise important questions about the impact of the military on society. Although stylistically his "index cards" sometimes bleed through, Lee gathers a large quantity of accurate information valuable to undergraduates and graduate students, who can use it as their needs require. The inclusion of a good bibliography enhances the value of the work. Lee, however, avoids a cogent discussion of the nature of social history. His problematic extension, without a compelling justification, of "A Social History" to treat political, economic, social, and religious matters results in a collection of largely unconnected essays. This is made more obvious by the lack of an overall conclusion which makes clear the importance of social history.

Each of the seven chapters, dealing seriatim with Emperors, Military Loyalties, Infrastructure, Economic Impact, Experience of War, Soldiers and Society, [End Page 554] and Religion is of varying value. The essay on religion is the strongest, but it is necessary to emphasize that the text of Vegetius's De re Militari survives only in an edition made at Constantinople in 450. This affects the dating of the Christianization of the military sacramentum. The chapter on economy, potentially the most important, is also the most controversial. Lee attempts a "cost-benefit" analysis. While the lack of statistics potentially is crippling, Lee's unwillingness to work with the necessary basic economic concepts renders the exercise less fruitful than it might have been. Lee approaches the problem from the perspective of the imperial budget, which fundamentally ignores the way in which the primitive agricultural economy of late antique world is to be understood. The implication that the "costs of war" could bankrupt the central government and thus, as some scholars believe, caused its fall, smacks of a misleading hyper-inflation model and the vagaries of modern deficit spending.

Ninety percent of the population in the late antique era lived in a rural context. Production stemmed directly from the size of the work force. Primary focus must be on the gross imperial product (GIP), i.e. the sum of goods and services produced. In simple terms, if war affected the demographic curve negatively, production declined. If war [famine, and pestilence] did not affect the demographic curve negatively, the population increased and production increased until the maximum carrying capacity of the land was reached. The natural rate of population increase is geometric under largely unstressed conditions.

Strong evidence for the success of the late antique economy is the production of a large surplus of human and material resources. The fortification with massive stone walls of hundreds of urban centers, 100 in Gaul alone, between the later third and later fourth centuries bears witness to the availability of massive surplus resources resulting in the large scale production of military goods and services. The construction of thousands of lesser fortifications, e.g. castra and castella, provide additional evidence for such production. In a similar vein, the continuing increase in the size of...


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pp. 554-555
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Archived 2010
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