- Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity. Neighbours and Rivals
The number of modern contributions to the study of the relations between the Late Roman Empire and the Sasanian Near East has increased alongside the growing general interest in Late Antiquity. In 2001, Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter published Rom und das Perserreich, a volume essentially composed of two parts: a summary of Romano-Persian relations from the third to the early seventh century and a selection of translated primary sources with commentary. The book under review is an English translation of the German original that includes a short additional chapter on the Sasanian army and an updated bibliography, on which see below.
This is a generally good book, and one can commend both its aims and most of its conclusions. Some might dispute the value of a volume that "intends to be neither a comprehensive sourcebook nor an analytical study of Sasanian Iran" (4). But the approach chosen by Dignas and Winter—thematic rather than chronological treatment of the subject—clearly has its advantages, even if it does produce a number of repetitions. Texts translated include excerpts from canonical Roman historical sources including Dio, Herodian, Ammianus, Procopius, Lydus, Agathias, Peter the Patrician and Constantine Porphyrogenitus; ecclesiastical and antiquarian texts such as Eusebius, the Expositio totius mundi et gentium, Lactantius, and Pliny; Arabic sources such as Al-Tabari and ibn Miskawayh; [End Page 390] a few excerpts from Armenian sources; and epigraphic evidence both Roman and Persian.
The generally reliable and thorough discussions of the selected sources are useful not only for graduate students, probably the target audience, but also for experts on the subject. The authors' aim is to "illuminate the much less known Persian position" because "pro-Roman scholarship with all its ideological nuances and consequences has to be challenged and dismissed" (3). Despite the development of a more critical outlook in the years since the German version was released, this statement remains largely valid. Indeed, many scholars studying the Late Roman Empire still view events only from the Roman perspective, although this is partly because the majority of the eastern sources have been lost.
That said, Dignas and Winter themselves appear in places to be too uncritical in dealing with the bias of western sources. For instance Dignas and Winter, like most historians, believe that the Sasanians repeatedly demanded money from the Romans between 363 and 591 because they were in need of financial support. According to this view, the Persians tried from time to time to make it appear as if these payments (usually justified by claiming that the Sasanians were guarding the Caspian Gates in the name of both Persians and Romans) were tribute paid by the emperors. I have recently tried to show, in Historia 57 (2008), that this is only the Roman version of events: the sums that were paid by the emperors were far too small to be of any economic importance for the king of kings and, besides, the gold solidi were of little practical use for the Sasanians, whose monetary system was based on silver. Roman payments were not "subsidies," but were indeed tribute, a fact that the western sources try to conceal.
Winter in the past has stressed more than once the importance of the idea of legitimate rule in the dealings between the Roman emperor and the Persian king. But although one cannot doubt the existence of such an ideology in Late Antiquity, I am less certain about its effect on the way each ruler actually perceived the other. All too often, the Romans were prepared to support claimants to the Persian crown in order to destabilize the Sasanian Empire. And when in 603 Chusro II supported a pretender who claimed to be Theodosius, the eldest son of the murdered emperor Maurice, he did so only as a pretext for war (241). Just like the concept of fraternitas, the idea of legitimate rule was something that could be used when it seemed appropriate or advantageous, but was hardly a...