Book review: The Empire Stops Here, by Philip Parker

THE EMPIRE STOPS HEREPhilip ParkerJonathan Cape, £25Review: Stuart Kelly

IN ONE of those peculiar publishing coincidences, there is a great deal of interest this year in the fall of the Roman Empire. Already, James O'Donnell's The Ruin Of The Roman Empire, Adrian Goldsworthy's The Fall Of The West and Chris Wickham's The Inheritance Of Rome have been published, alongside some more specialist volumes.

The topic is vast and is intimately connected to ideas of who, as Europeans, we are: the accession of Turkey to the EU, for example, is bound in with ideas of a common Roman legacy. But when did the Empire fall? Rome was not built in a day, nor was it extirpated in one. According to which historian you read, you could plump for 293 AD, when Diocletian divided the Empire into a Tetrarchy with four leaders; or 313 AD when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire; or 363 AD, when Julian the Apostate, the last Pagan Emperor died; or 410 AD, when Alaric the Goth sacked Rome; or 476 AD, when Romulus Augustus was deposed by Odoacer – and that's before we deal with the persistence of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople, which reconquered Rome and Africa in 554 AD; was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD, fell to Mehmed II in 1453, and guttered-out with the death of Andreas Palaeologus in 1503. The "Fall" of the Roman Empire, depending on how you look at it, lasted for well over a millennium.

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Philip Parker's solution to the immensity of the material is to concentrate on territory rather than history. In this magnificent and frustrating book, subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers Of The Roman World, he walks along the furthest borders of what was once Roman – from Hadrian's Wall at Carlisle, through Germany, the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, and ending in Ceuta, currently Spanish but contested by Morocco. Or as the Romans would have known it, from Britannia through Raetia, Dacia, Cappadocia, Cyrenaica to Mauretania. Of course, the Empire was never fixed to any profound degree – even starting at Carlisle means a detour up to the Antonine Wall, from Kilpartick to Falkirk, constructed around 142 AD and abandoned around 162 AD. More problematic is Dacia, in modern day Romania, which Rome held from 106 AD to 270 AD: in an early example of spin, Diocletian renamed parts of the Balkans "Dacia" after 270, as if to pretend that Dacia had not been lost, merely shifted.

Although Rome had borders they were never like Checkpoint Charlie on the Berlin Wall. Places "outside" of the Roman sphere still traded with Romans and adopted their manners and technology (look, for example, at Trimontium, near Melrose). Everything inside the limes (to use the Latin term for the border) was wholly Roman, with Roman-ness ebbing by degrees beyond the frontier. Parker's walk has to negotiate the fluctuating definitions and mostly does so sensibly, with footnotes to justify each deviation.

The footnotes, in a way, are the problem for the general reader. This is non-fiction which edges into reference. Scholarly, definitive, and judiciously precise, it sacrifices story for data. Parker is no Bill Bryson – nor would I want him to be – but the studious avoidance of the word "I" becomes almost thrawn. There are moments when German hunters, or problematic McDonalds, or guileful locals threaten to make it more of an adventure than it transpires to be. Usually, the narrative dissipates and we get back to the exact dating of the Cohors I Asturum equitata's presence near Mainhardt.

There are stories, and when Parker allows himself to not be encyclopaedic, they are wonderful: from the camp commander setting up a sundial, perhaps to chastise tardy troops, to self-harming Christian saints. There are huge personalities, like Zenobia, the rebellious desert queen, the nefarious Caracalla, and Romanian Braveheart, Decebalus. Perhaps the book should have been supplemented with an online guide: 16 pages of photographs to 505 of text and 80 of notes seems begrudging on the reader. When Parker describes certain places, I'd like to be able to see them. The "tour guide" tone – 50 km from here, on your left – never works on the printed page. On my left is my study wall, and 50 km from here is Perth.

That said, the book is studded with astonishing facts, replete with startling information. There must be countless, lost stories of strangers in strange lands, seeing these landscapes and seas for the first time. But, they are lost. I will undoubtedly use the book a great deal; but never, perhaps, re-read it.

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