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Bill Thayer

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John Bagnall Bury:
History of the Later Roman Empire

A capsule biography of the author is provided by an entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (q.v.), as a "work in progress", so to speak, since Prof. Bury was very much alive at the time, and although he had published a first edition of the History in 1889, the work now before you is a considerably expanded and revised version still a dozen years in his future.


The first of these two volumes might be entitled the "German Conquest of Western Europe," and the second the "Age of Justinian." The first covers more than one hundred and twenty years, the second somewhat less than fifty. This disparity is a striking illustration of the fact that perspective and proportion are unavoidably lost in an attempt to tell the story of any considerable period of ancient or early medieval history as fully as our sources allow. Perspective can be preserved only in an outline. The fifth century was one of the most critical periods in the history of Europe. It was crammed with events of great moment, and the changes which it witnessed transformed Europe more radically than any set of political events that have happened since. At that time hundreds of people were writing abundantly on all kinds of subjects, and many of their writings have survived; but among these there is no history of contemporary events, and the story has had to be pieced together from fragments, jejune chronicles, incidental references in poets, rhetoricians, and theologians. Inscribed stones which supply so much information for the first four centuries of the Roman Empire are rare. Nowhere, since the time of Alexander the Great, do we feel so strongly that the meagreness of the sources flouts the magnitude of the events.

Battles, for instance, were being fought continually, but no full account of a single battle is extant. We know much more of the Syrian campaigns of Thothmes III in the fifteenth century B.C. than we know of the campaigns of Stilicho or Aetius or Theoderic. The Roman emperors, statesmen, and generals are dim figures, some of them mere names. And as to the barbarian leaders who were forging the destinies of Europe — Alaric, Athaulf, Wallia, Gaiseric, Attila, and the rest — we can form little or no idea of their personalities; τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀίσσουσιν. Historians of the Church are somewhat better off. The personalities of Augustine and Jerome, for instance, do emerge. Yet here, too, there is much obscurity. To understand the history of the Ecumenical Councils, we want much more than the official Acts. We want the background, and of it we can only see enough to know that these Councils resembled modern political conventions, that the arts of lobbying were practised, and that intimidation and bribery were employed to force theological arguments.

Although we know little of the details of the process by which the western provinces of the Empire became German kingdoms, one fact stands out. The change of masters was not the result of anything that could be called a cataclysm. The German peoples, who were much fewer in numbers than is often imagined, at first settled in the provinces as dependents, and a change which meant virtually conquest was disguised for a shorter or longer time by their recognition of the nominal rights of the Emperor. Britain, of which we know less than of any other part of the Empire at this period, seems to have been the only exception to this rule. The consequence was that the immense revolution was accomplished with far less violence and upheaval than might have been expected. This is the leading fact which it is the chief duty of the historian to make clear.

When we come to the age of Justinian we know better how and why things happened, because we have the guidance of a gifted contemporary historian whose works we possess in their entirety, and we have a large collection of the Emperor's laws. The story of Justinian's Italian wars was fully related by my friend the late Mr. Hodgkin in his attractive volume on the Imperial Restoration; and, more recently, Justinian and the Byzantine Civilisation of the Sixth Century have been the subject of a richly illustrated book by my friend M. Charles Diehl. I do not compete with them; but I believe that in my second volume the reader will find a fuller account of the events of the reign than in any other single work. I have endeavoured to supply the material which will enable him to form his own judgment on Justinian, and to have an opinion on the "question" of Theodora, of whom perhaps the utmost that we can safely say is that she was, in the words used by Swinburne of Mary Stuart, "something better than innocent."

The present work does not cover quite half the period which was the subject of my Later Roman Empire, published in 1889 and long out of print, as it is written on a much larger scale. Western affairs have been treated as fully as Eastern, and the exciting story of Justinian's reconquest of Italy has been told at length.

I have to thank my wife for help of various kinds; Mr. Ashby, the Director of the British School at Rome, for reading the proof-sheets of Vol. I; and Mr. Norman Baynes for reading those of some chapters of Vol. II. I must also record my obligations, not for the first time, to the readers of Messrs. R. and R. Clark, whose care and learning have sensibly facilitated the progress of the book through the press.

J. B. Bury

Contents (with local links to sections)

N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Greek

Technical Details

Edition Used

The 1958 Dover Books reprint, "an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first edition" originally published in 1923. J. B. Bury died in 1927: the work consequently entered the public domain on 1 Jan 1998.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

This transcription is being minutely proofread. I run a first proofreading pass immediately after entering each chapter; then a second proofreading, detailed and meant to be final: in the table of contents above, the chapters are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe them to be completely errorfree; or on red backgrounds, meaning that the chapter has not received that second final proofreading. The header bar at the top of each chapter page will remind you with the same color scheme.

The print edition seems to have been extraordinarily well proofread: I caught the first typographical error on page 447. These few errors then, when I could fix them, I did, marking the correction each time with one of these: º. If for some reason I could not fix the error or merely suspected one, it is marked º: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the bullet to read the variant. Similarly, bullets before measurements provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles. Very occasionally, also, I use this blue circle to make some brief comment.

Inconsistencies or errors in punctuation are remarkably few; they have been corrected to the author's usual style, in a slightly yellower white — barely noticeable on the page when it's a comma for example like this one, but it shows up in the sourcecode as <SPAN CLASS="emend">. Finally, a number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, apparently duplicated citations, etc. have been marked <!‑‑ sic  in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any over­looked mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have the printed edition in front of you.

Pagination and Local Links

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is indicated by local links in the sourcecode: so far, that's just like any other text on my site. But because I've felt it useful to transcribe the print edition's original index, I've made the pagination apparent in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line p57 ): it's hardly fair to give you "pp53‑56" as a reference and not tell you where p56 ends. Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.

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