- 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire
Originally published in Italian (2007) and recently translated into English, this book by Giusto Traina provides a fascinating look at a single year during the [End Page 468] closing decades of the Roman Empire. The concept of focusing on a single year is not uncommon for years marked by major events. But Traina's approach is unusual for a year in late antiquity and for one when the most significant political event to occur was the fall of the kingdom of Armenia. However, by focusing on a relatively obscure year Traina has managed to write a book that provides a helpful glimpse of "ordinary" life near the end of the Roman Empire.
Traina begins the book by discussing the end of the Armenian dynasty. He notes that by removing Artashes from the throne the Persians were hoping to draw the region away from Christianity and back toward Zoroastrianism. The fall of the kingdom also had a psychological impact on the region. Although the Roman Empire was still militarily superior to the Persians, the empire was unable to prevent the fall of the kingdom, and this blemished the empire's already flagging reputation.
Chapters Two and Three examine the roles played by early fifth-century bishops, monks, and Saracens and the relationships between major eastern cities such as Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Traina spends a fair amount of space tracing Nestorius's journey on the Pilgrims' Road from Antioch to the eastern capital. The value of this narrative lies in the opportunity it provides for discussing the various cities along the eastern Mediterranean that Nestorius passed through on his journey of almost eight hundred Roman miles.
Chapter Four focuses on the city of Constantinople and its newly installed bishop, Nestorius. In the early fifth century, Constantinople was growing rapidly both in size and prestige. As Traina points out, although the head of the city's diocese did not yet hold the title of patriarch or archbishop, "everyone knew that this episcopal throne had the same importance as Saint Peter's in the West" (27). Constantinople was quickly establishing itself as the leading Christian center of the eastern empire. Yet Nestorius's position as the de facto head of the Christian East was far from secure. Within a year of his election, Nestorius's theology was under serious attack. And just a few years later he would be deposed at the Council of Ephesus.
Chapters Five and Six discuss the gradual decline of Rome and the rise of Ravenna as an important center of power in the Western Empire. In 428, Rome was still a vital symbol of the empire, but political power had largely shifted to Ravenna in the West and Constantinople in the East. Traina also points out that, although the church fathers of the period often used triumphal language when speaking about the spread of the Christian faith, paganism was still alive and well in the empire.
In Chapters Seven and Eight Traina sees traces of a proto-medieval viewpoint developing among critics of the empire such as Salvian of Marseille, even as the Vandals were preparing to invade northern Africa. He notes that Christian authors during late antiquity and the middle ages frequently, but incorrectly, portrayed the Vandals as exceptionally destructive. Traina suggests that the Vandals were no more violent or "barbarian" than most contemporary groups in the region.
In the remaining chapters Traina completes his sweeping counterclockwise tour of the Mediterranean by discussing events and people connected to Egypt, Jerusalem, and Persia. In 428, Cyril of Alexandria stood strongly opposed to [End Page 469] heretics, Jews, and pagans alike. But while Christianity had made enormous progress in Egypt, pagan religions had not disappeared along the Nile Valley. In many places, paganism had simply gone underground. Throughout the main text, Traina resists the temptation to interpret every event in light of where it was heading. But in the epilogue he helpfully ties together...