Greater than Gibbon: A.H.M. Jones’ The Later Roman Empire 284-602
Edward Gibbon used it to create ‘modern’ historical writing; various German scholars nurtured it during the nineteenth century for it to then be taken on by the likes of J.B. Bury, but it was not until 1964 that the Late Roman Empire was dragged out of the shadows of its Republican and Principate predecessors. And all it took was a seminal work of such mind-boggling depth of inquiry that even now fifty years later, The Later Roman Empire 284-602 by Arnold Hugh Martin Jones still towers over the subject.
It is easy to espouse the greatness of the LRE but even now having used it frequently over the course of a decade, I still find myself truly staggered by the breadth of its interaction with myriad primary sources and a vast array of topics. At times, I leaf through its colossal notes section hoping for perhaps a couple of primary sources on an obscure person or event only to find that Jones has not only devoted three or four pages to it but also an invaluable bibliographical essay of endnotes. It even contains an extensive appendix on the Notitia Dignitatum, which itself could have been a separate work.
Almost any academic at the beginning of a work involving the Late Roman Empire will likely ask rather quickly “I wonder what the LRE has to say about this.” This shows not only how well thought off it remains as an invaluable source of information but also that it so high profile that despite not being a multi-volume reference book, an annual publication of articles or a collection of inscriptions, it has come to be recognised by its own italicised acronym.
Any historian would have every right to consider such a monumental achievement a magnum opus worthy of the dedication of an entire career. And yet, A.H.M. Jones produced the LRE on top of many other high profile works on numerous subjects – ancient economies, cities, Sparta, Athenian Democracy, Constantine, Augustus and the PLRE to name but a few.
Jones may be rightly criticised for his lack of acknowledgement of other academics or archaeology; you may question why he stopped on the eve of an empire-changing cataclysm in 602; you might even find a source that he did not consult (although it had likely not been uncovered from a desert-bound urn or the mouldy shelves of a monastic library in the early 1960s); but none of this detracts from the achievement of the LRE.
It would not be overly hyperbolic to state that the history of the study of the Late Roman Empire is divided into pre- and post-LRE. Before 1964, Late Antiquity was not a separate subject in its own right; since, it has become one of the most widely published upon periods of the Ancient World. Not many books can say that they birthed a subject. That alone puts the LRE on a par with Gibbon. What is within its pages puts it above Decline and Fall.