Monday, February 21, 2005

Ruling the Later Roman Empire

here is michael kulikowski's review of christopher kelly's book Ruling the Later Roman Empire. here are the first two paragraphs:

This book has been awaited since Kelly's contribution s on the subject to the Cambridge Ancient History and Bowersock, Brown and Grabar's guide to late antiquity. Very much a book of two parts, Ruling the Later Roman Empire deals chiefly with the administrative and bureaucratic elites of the late empire, first through the prism of the De magistratibus of John Lydus, then through three long chapters on the symbolic and actual meaning of late Roman bureaucracy and its contrast with the early empire. Kelly's sources are familiar, at least until the short epilogue in which he adduces sermon literature envisaging heaven in imperial terms. His approach is expository and analytical, resolutely traditional: the shrine of Bourdieu is by-passed without modish genuflection, and a topic seemingly made for thick description does not get it. All of which is to say that, to those for whom such things matter, Ruling the Later Roman Empire will seem woefully under-theorized.

But the book is conceptually modern in other ways. Kelly is laudably unwilling to surrender administrative history to German dissertations and gigantic French th├Ęses exhaustively cataloguing the legal minutiae of individual departments. Instead, he searches to find the personal and affective side of Roman bureaucracy, with great success: this is a fundamentally humane book. Kelly can show imaginative feeling both for an invented ageing bureaucrat, gasping with relief when the emperor insists on promotion strictly by seniority, and for canny operators slowly weaving intricate webs of shadowy power and perquisites. Time and again, the book conjures the image of a late Roman Sir Humphrey Appleby, ranging self-interestedly through bureaux every bit as tiresome as the Department of Administrative Affairs, lacking only a sense of humour to complete the picture.

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