It is not uncommon for academic books written
by professors, especially history professors, to be a little—muddy.
Thomas Burns’ first book, The Ostrogoths: Kingship and
Society, was called "an exemplary work" and its scholarly
bent "very impressive" by a peer reviewer in the American
Historical Review. However, such praise was not unanimous.
Take, for example, Burns’ late father.
"‘Tom, I tried to read your book three times,’"
said Burns, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History, quoting his
father while recalling a conversation they had shortly after the
book was released in 1980. "‘And I just couldn’t
get past the third page.’"
"I thought to myself instantly," Burns continued. "No
one would ever try to read a book of mine more than my father. And
he couldn’t do it. So I swore I would never write a book that
only six people on earth could read again."
His next three monographs, including his latest work, Rome and
the Barbarians, 100 B.C.–A.D. 400, have been featured
selections by book clubs. Rome and the Barbarians, released
earlier this month by the Johns Hopkins University Press as part
of its Ancient Society and History series, is a featured selection
in not one but three book clubs: the History Book Club, the Discovery
Book Club and the Reader’s Subscription Book Club.
"It really goes back to this confession by my father, ‘I
cannot read your book, and I have tried,’" Burns said.
"I thought, ‘This is crazy. I have a story to tell, and
I’m going to provide all of the information and the style
so that anyone can read my book, not just scholars.’"
The story Burns tells through his new book is one he has researched
for 11 years. Over the book’s 461 pages, he chronicles the
constantly changing relationship between the Romans and the peoples
they encountered as they expanded their Empire—the "barbarians,"
a loosely defined term that doesn’t necessarily speak to a
group’s lack of culture; it simply was applied to anyone who
"Anyone could be called a barbarian," Burns said. "The
truly primitive people—they probably fit the definition of
culturally inferior, but that’s precisely what Julius Caesar
and the other Romans wanted you to think. They justified their conquests
by stating that they were bringing a higher level of culture to
Where a good deal of previous work paints a black-and-white picture
of the Romans and the "barbarians" as enemies, Burns’
book is focused on the gray areas of the relationship. Non-Romans
served in the legions, intermarried with Roman citizens, lived among
the Romans and in many cases became citizens after years of living
in the western provinces (Great Britain and the Rhine and Danube
rivers served as Rome’s frontier during this time) under Roman
"What’s really taking place is the creation of a multicultural
society along the frontiers," Burns said. "The gray area
is what emerges from archaeological materials. If you have two or
more peoples’ basic products coming together despite differences
in their names or ethnic backgrounds, that would suggest a new society
is being built."
Researching the book took Burns to some interesting places. He covered
the wide variety of previous research as well as the ancient writings
that are available. Burns also worked on excavations of a Roman
watchtower in Germany and a Roman villa (specifically a middle-income
farm) in Hungary. In all, material dug up from three excavations—the
earliest being in the late 1970s and all involving Emory students—made
it into the book.
Burns’ previous writing covered the Roman period after A.D.
400, so with this book, he was breaking new personal academic ground.
"It took me several years to retool in this earlier period,"
he said. "But I had been nibbling at doing that because I excavate.
This book allowed me to use the wisdom I had obtained by excavating.
Every time I move from one period to another, I also consciously
try to introduce the student reader and professor to a new type
For instance, Chapter 6, "The Barbarians and the ‘Crisis’
of Empire," outlines the usefulness of coins as a tool for
Johns Hopkins’ Ancient Society and History series, of which
Burns’ book is a part, introduces academics as well as nonspecialists
to selected topics on the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Works
emphasize comparative and other nontraditional research approaches.
Rome and the Barbarians is the 24th book in the series.
"I’m very pleased that I am a part of this program and
even more pleased that it’s done," Burns said.