October 20, 2003

Burns combines readability, research on Rome

By Eric Rangus

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."

Burns succeeded.

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 wasn’t Roman.

"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 these people."

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 rule.

"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 of data."

For instance, Chapter 6, "The Barbarians and the ‘Crisis’ of Empire," outlines the usefulness of coins as a tool for study.

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.