428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire


This is a sweeping tour of the Mediterranean world from the Atlantic to Persia during the last half-century of the Roman Empire. By focusing on a single year not overshadowed by an epochal event, 428 AD provides a truly fresh look at a civilization in the midst of enormous change--as Christianity takes hold in rural areas across the empire, as western Roman provinces fall away from those in the Byzantine east, and as power shifts from Rome to Constantinople. Taking readers on a journey through the region, Giusto Traina describes the empires' people, places, and events in all their simultaneous richness and variety. The result is an original snapshot of a fraying Roman world on the edge of the medieval era. The result is an original snapshot of a fraying Roman world on the edge of the medieval era.

Readers meet many important figures, including the Roman general Flavius Dionysius as he encounters a delegation from Persia after the Sassanids annex Armenia; the Christian ascetic Simeon Stylites as he stands and preaches atop his column near Antioch; the eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II as he prepares to commission his legal code; and Genseric as he is elected king of the Vandals and begins to turn his people into a formidable power. We are also introduced to Pulcheria, the powerful sister of Theodosius, and Galla Placidia, the queen mother of the western empire, as well as Augustine, Pope Celestine I, and nine-year-old Roman emperor Valentinian III.

Full of telling details, 428 AD illustrates the uneven march of history. As the west unravels, the east remains intact. As Christianity spreads, pagan ideas and schools persist. And, despite the presence of the forces that will eventually tear the classical world apart, Rome remains at the center, exerting a powerful unifying force over disparate peoples stretched across the Mediterranean.


It is a mark of the best history writing that it makes us rethink what we thought we knew. Giusto Traina’s book is no exception. His idea was both simple and brilliant—to approach the period we now call “Late Antiquity” by taking just one year and presenting its events and its regional contexts in a panoramic perspective round the Mediterranean world and its appendages, from Iran in the east to Britain in the west. the year is 428 ad. We might have expected a more traditional date, such as 476 ad, the traditional date for the “end of the Roman Empire,” when the last Roman emperor in the West was deposed, or perhaps 410 ad, when Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths, an event which prompted the heartfelt questionings that are reflected in St. Augustine’s great work The City of God. Traina’s choice of 428, the year that marks the end of the Kingdom of Armenia, occurred naturally enough to a historian who is the author of many studies of Armenia in the Roman and early Christian period, but, as he tells us in his Introduction, it was only as he sought to understand the context of that event that he had the felicitous idea of making the year 428 the focus of an essay which surveys the state of the entire Roman Empire and its near neighbors.

It was an intriguing and highly successful choice. in the first place the choice of a single year subverts the otherwise often sterile debate about the “fall of the Roman Empire” (which, after all, was a historical process rather than an event, and not one that can be reduced to a single set of occurrences). Secondly, by taking a geographical and panoramic view, starting with the Kingdom of Armenia on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire, and ending with Iran, a point even further east, after a circular tour which has reached Britain, the farthest extent of the empire in the west, he encourages us to rethink our ideas about overall historical causation. How does what happens in North Africa in 428 relate to the situation in Gaul, or does it? How do the regions relate to the center, and what are the cultural interactions between imperial . . .

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