ElAnt v7n1 - Reviews - Interpreting Late Antiquity

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

Interpreting Late Antiquity , G.W. Bowersock, P. Brown, and O. Grabar (Cambridge MA and London, Harvard University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-674-00598-8 (paper). Pp.336.

Reviewed by David Rohrbacher
New College of Florida, USA

Between the mid-sixties and the early seventies, the period from the fourth through the seventh centuries A.D., once known as the "Later Roman Empire," came to be known as "Late Antiquity." The former term is borrowed from the magisterial three-volume set of A.H.M. Jones, which was subtitled "A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey," and which in practice concentrated most intensively on the economic and administrative aspects of the imperial and post-imperial world from Diocletian to Phocas (284-602) (Jones 1964). If, for Jones, the later empire was best understood through the sort of material evidence derived, for example, from painstaking calculations of the average number of artabae of wheat sown per arura of land (Jones 1964: 767), Peter Brown's work The World of Late Antiquity revolved around far more ethereal concerns (Brown 1971). Brown's thin volume, lavishly illustrated with color photos, drew the reader's attention to the exciting changes in the spiritual life of late antique men, and, without rehashing the well-known unpleasantries of the post-imperial west, celebrated the intellectual continuities from later Rome to Byzantium, Persia, and the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.

This wide-ranging, optimistic, and abstract approach to the study of late antiquity has been refined and supplemented in the last thirty years by Brown himself and by his followers. While some who work in the field have rejected this method (e.g. Treadgold 1994) and some have pursued different agendas (e.g., Macmullen 1997; Macmullen 1988), many have worked to integrate elements of older approaches to the period into this new paradigm. Interpreting Late Antiquity , a collection of essays edited by Brown as well as G.W. Bowersock and Oleg Grabar, is firmly in the Brown tradition, and offers a useful overview of this approach.

The essays are reprinted unchanged from the encyclopedic volume Late Antiquity (Bowersock et al. 1999), where they preceded nearly five hundred pages of entries on subjects ranging from "Abbasids" to "Zurvan" (a Zoroastrian deity). The entries, written by leading authorities, include helpful bibliography and occasional illustrations, and scholars will probably prefer to purchase the full hardback encyclopedia, especially considering its very reasonable price.

The cover of Interpreting Late Antiquity shows an interior view of the Dome of the Rock, the late seventh-century mosque which contains both Christian and Jewish inscriptions and thus serves as a useful symbol of the editors' desires for breadth and synthesis in late antique studies (Fowden 1993: 142). In the introduction, they express the hope that readers "should begin the 21st century with fewer artificial barriers in their minds, erected between periods and regions which have proved, in light of modern research, to be more continuous with each other than we had once thought" (x). They announce that the essays will treat "as a single whole" the Roman and Sassanian empire, and again that they will cover "with even-handed erudition the very different regions of western Europe, the eastern empire, the Sassanian empire, and the early caliphate, as well as many more distant societies that were implicated in the overall development of the late antique period" (x.) The editors conclude by emphasizing that the essays are meant to be provocative and to avoid the "narrative stereotypes" which they see as barriers to a proper understanding of the period (xii).

Averil Cameron's essay "Remaking the Past" encompasses a wide variety of topics gathered around her loosely defined theme. She effectively presents some of the most important developments of the late antique world: the competition between Christians and pagans over historical interpretation, the importance of Scripture for understanding the past, and the gradual shift from a linear to a religious conception of time. Her essay is at its best when she focuses on particular and novel means by which the past was reshaped in late antiquity, such as the recording of the lives of saints, the discovery and publicizing of relics, or the Islamic incorporation of Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Although she concludes the piece with the recognition that the reinvention of the past continued beyond the eighth century, perhaps she might have emphasized that the triumph of religion ensured that men of the eighth century saw little need to perform this reinterpretation in competition with pagan ideas.

"Sacred Landscapes," the essay by Béatrice Caseau, is built on another somewhat loose theme which allows the author to range widely across many subjects. She explores how objects, places, and persons were "sacralized" and "desacralized" with the triumph of Christianity in the empire in a way reminiscent of earlier work by Robert Markus (1990) and Peter Brown (1982). She discusses the building of churches, synagogues, and mosques and the concurrent destruction of pagan temples, and considers the new understandings of civic space which Christianity promoted. She also shows how Christians pioneered a new sort of mobile holiness in the form of relics, which allowed for a private and nonegalitarian enjoyment of the sacred, and how the pagan emphasis on the holiness of place remained but came to be centered upon new sites of pilgrimage, particularly in the Holy Land. Caseau devotes several pages to comparable developments in early Islam, and sees the eighth century as an important turning point for both Christians (of east and west) and Muslims, although for different reasons. The essay as a whole presents no overarching thesis, but the author ably reveals various ways in which a new sacred geography emerged as a result of momentous religious developments during the period.

Despite the apparently open-ended title of Henry Chadwick's essay, "Philosophical Tradition and the Self," the author focuses narrowly on the views of four neoplatonist philosophers and two Christian philosophers on the nature of the self. The piece is lucidly written with only a handful of footnotes and would serve as an excellent introduction to its subject for students. Although Chadwick successfully links the ideas of pagan and Christian thinkers, the limited scope of the essay still seems out of step with the expansive aims of the editors. Philosophical, scientific, and literary topics are otherwise largely absent from this collection, perhaps because such topics are not easily paralleled outside of the Roman empire.

Garth Fowden's discussion of the "Varieties of Religious Communities" is an effective, anecdotal survey of the theme which most obviously links all of the great empires of late antiquity. This is not, as the title might imply, a study of monasticism and similar practices, but of the great religions of late antiquity: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Manichaeism and Mazdaism. Fowden discusses the emergence of some of the key new ideas of late antiquity, such as the shift in religious definition from orthopraxy to orthodoxy, the closed religious community requiring conversion for membership, and the importance of the religious text. Fowden's essay is perhaps the one which most fully realizes the editors' goals, since these changes in religious culture had such important cross-cultural effects.

Patrick Geary's essay on "Barbarians and Ethnicity" explores the process of ethnogenesis by which barbarian groups came into being. Some barbarian groups defined themselves by a shared culture and history, while others might be better understood as confederations of warriors loosely bound to a charismatic leader. That barbarian "ethnicity" was considerably more contingent than modern ethnicities is exemplified by the disappearance of the Vandals after their defeat by Justinian, or by the startling rise of the Huns and the rapid disintegration of their empire after the death of Attila. Geary reveals how Roman wealth and power contributed to the creation of barbarian ethnicities through subsidies and military recruitment. He then surveys several ethnic groups of the post-Roman west with an eye to determining whether they successfully created an enduring ethnicity through law, religion, and history, or whether they were absorbed into the existing population. He does not, however, consider whether similar processes of ethnogenesis can be found on the boundaries of the east Roman, Persian, or Islamic states.

Brent Shaw's essay on "War and Violence" is the longest and perhaps the most interesting of the collection. He begins with a helpful discussion of the sources and of problems with their interpretation, an approach which would have strengthened many of the other essays in the volume. He describes the general environment of late antique warfare with a consideration of such topics as supply, taxation, and sieges. He then turns to a diachronic survey of warfare in the Roman empire, which he begins by noting that the Augustan settlement sought to move armies and violence to the frontier and to create a demilitarized, peaceful zone in the interior of the empire. This was one of the great accomplishments of the Roman Empire, but Shaw emphasizes the darker side, the creation of a "war zone" on the periphery of the empire from which new sources of violence would eventually arise. Civil war in the empire resulted in the return of warfare to the interior and brought the barbarians of the north, who were more easily exploited because of their stateless societies, into a permanent war economy. Shaw's emphasis on the importance of civil war leads him to suggest the replacement of Piganiol's verdict on the fall of the empire, "elle a été assassinée," with the claim that "elle s'est suicidée" (163). He touches only lightly on the post-Roman west, but it might be noted that the end of imperial rule did indeed result in the remilitarization of the interior and a concomitant rise in violence, a process traced, for example, by Ralph Mathisen in the case of Gaul (1993). Shaw suggests that the less-well-documented Persian empire may have undergone a similar process whereby civil war brought stateless peoples to the north into a war economy, albeit with some differences as the barbarians north of that empire were fewer in number and nomadic in nature. He sees the Arabs as the last in the series of peoples peripheral to the empires to be militarized and then turn on their sponsors, although in this case it was warfare between the Byzantines and the Persians rather than civil war which brought them into the cycle. Shaw notes that this struggle intensified to "total war" by the first decades of the seventh century, although he does not provide an explanation for this intensification. Might increasing Christianization, and the presence of religious minorities in each empire potentially loyal to the enemy state, have played a role in increasing aggression, as it had more mildly in the fifth century? One of the values of Shaw's provoking piece is the way it provides a useful definition of late antiquity as the period of time which begins with a period of civilian territories ringed by militarized frontiers and ends with the return and reintegration of military force into previously civilian spaces.

The title of Christopher Kelly's essay on "Empire Building" refers specifically to the Roman Empire. He engagingly discusses the government of the empire, first treating the emperor and the ways in which his presence was felt throughout the empire, and then discussing the bureaucracy, its workings, and its means of recruitment. He concludes that "on balance, bureaucracy helped rather than hindered imperial rule" (181), implicitly rejecting theories of Rome's fall which blame imperial sclerosis or corruption. Consideration of the strong bureaucratic state of the late empire highlights an obvious discontinuity in the heart of late antiquity, at least in the west, since it gave way to the far weaker successor states in the fifth century. The shift from imperial to post-imperial rule had significant consequences for the relationship between state and subject, which Peter Heather has recently outlined (Heather 2000). Since the editors of the volume describe late antiquity as the "Age of Empires" (viii) and discount the west as an exception, not the rule, we would expect some discussion of empire building in Persia and early Islam here. Were these empires sustained in similar ways? Michael Morony has described the bureaucratic Roman state as an example of a dead end in history (1989: 24). Given the destruction of the Persian empire and half the Roman empire in late antiquity, might not "Age of the Fall of Empires" be an equally apt phrase?

Richard Lim offers a sociologically sophisticated way to approach problems associated with "Christian Triumph and Heresy" in the next essay. Heresy is a natural result of monotheism and is exacerbated by state designation of an official religion. Lim reasonably chooses to survey common elements in doctrinal controversies, such as techniques of argumentation and the consequences of division for religious communities, but the result is occasionally bloodless and abstract without consideration of the actual theological questions at issue. He considers, among other topics, the role of imperial patronage, the use of written material such as Scripture and creeds, and popular violence. Despite the title, Lim also helpfully devotes about a page to similar developments in Zoroastrianism and Islam. This essay would serve as a good introduction for students to modern thinking on these matters, although unfortunately the frequent use of untranslated Greek and Latin words and phrases may detract from its usefulness.

Because the editors express their desire to incorporate early Islam into our understanding of late antiquity, Hugh Kennedy's essay "Islam" takes on particular importance. Kennedy begins by noting that the barrier between classical and Islamic studies has proved "among the most durable and impenetrable" (219), and one would expect that his piece would present the strongest possible case for crossing this barrier. To judge from this essay, however, in which he claims equivocally that Islam was "as much, and as little, a continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom," students of late antiquity need not sign up for Arabic lessons just yet. The essay concentrates on Syria, where continuities should be the strongest, but ends up largely revealing discontinuities. The Greek and Latin classics, for example, ceased to serve as literary and cultural touchstones. Rather, Kennedy claims that Sassanian Persia was most influential in shaping early Islamic literature and culture, and he notes also the importance of the poems and stories of pre-Islamic pagan Arabian nomads. Because the region had only been reconquered from the Persians by the Byzantines for a decade before the Muslim conquest, "the Muslims were working with a tabula rasa when it came to local boundaries" (221). Greek remained the language of administration for about a century, but "the Muslims came with their own ideas about administration and taxation and they felt no need to look to late Roman models" (222). In the use of the proceeds of taxation "there were significant differences" between the Byzantine empire and the early caliphate; in particular, the system of military finance "owed nothing to Byzantine models" (223). Kennedy rejects the simplistic demarcation between the classical and the Islamic city, and he does successfully demonstrate that the classical city had evolved significantly by the time of the Muslim conquest, so that Muslim practice here represents more gradual transition rather than sudden change (see now Liebeschuetz 2001). In the case of rural habitation, however, he contrasts the settlements of late antiquity-"largely villages inhabited by free peasants"-with the large estates and public works projects of the early caliphate (234-5). In terms of culture, governance, and finance, then, the near east was fundamentally changed by the coming of Islam. Only those who believed that the early Islamic state was completely disconnected from the past will find much in this essay to provoke serious rethinking of the traditional periodization.

Henry Maguire's essay "The Good Life" provides an archaeological survey of domestic prosperity in late antiquity and is well illustrated with forty-three black-and-white photographs. He shows both similarities and differences in the types of decorations found in the homes and places of worship of pagans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Iconoclasm in Byzantium, and the Islamic rejection of figural representation, demonstrated the unease which this lavishness of display provoked. In his celebration of luxury Maguire draws examples from across the Roman empire and over four centuries. The eliding of regional and temporal differences may encourage the reader to overestimate the prosperity of the late antique period.

The dust jacket of the encyclopedia Late Antiquity provided the names of all the essays and essayists with the exception of Yizhar Hirschfeld's on "Habitat," and this volume again fails to advertise his contribution on its back cover. Hirschfeld's fine piece provides a survey of our knowledge about aristocratic dwellings, more humble homes, and monasteries in the late antique period. He begins with a helpful review of the sources, both literary and archaeological. Through well-chosen examples, Hirschfeld then reveals the gradual shift from city to country which typifies late antiquity, and elaborates the differences in prosperity between west and east between the fifth and eighth centuries.

The collection as a whole only occasionally approaches the goals set by the editors in their introduction. The reader might be surprised by the extent to which Persia and the caliphate are drawn into the discussion in comparison to treatments of the period a quarter century ago, but in no way are the Roman and Sassanian empires treated as "a single whole," nor is the treatment of non-Roman peoples in any way comparable to the attention devoted to the Roman empire. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the essays which most wholeheartedly attempt to embrace the premises of the introduction are generally the most diffuse and least susceptible to critical analysis. Similarly, those essays which most eagerly seek to avoid "narrative stereotypes," which seems to mean narrative tout court , are also those which seem the least grounded and therefore the least convincing. The desire to draw together regions and periods once deemed separate must be accompanied by the equally important task of drawing new distinctions and demarcations if the past is to be comprehensible.

Some of the best essays in the collection treat subjects which Brown admits he had underplayed in his 1971 work, such as the importance of the state, warfare, and the post-Roman west (Brown et al. 1997). All of the essays are enjoyable to read and thought-provoking. Scholarship on the period has progressed to such an extent, however, that a collection like "Interpreting Late Antiquity" suffers from the same problems as would a collection on "Interpreting the Greeks." The attempts to encompass so much space and time at once threaten to overshadow the diversity and change which are so central to the period.

Bowersock, G.W., et al. (1999) Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, Peter (1982) Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity , Berkeley: University of California Press.

-- (1971) The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 , New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich.

Brown, Peter, et al. (1997) "The World of Late Antiquity Revisited," Symbolae Osloenses 72 : 5-90.

Fowden, Garth (1993) Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of monotheism in late antiquity , Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heather, Peter (2000) "State, lordship and community in the west (c. A.D. 400-600)," in Averil Cameron et al., eds, The Cambridge Ancient History Volume XIV: Late Antiquity , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 437-68.

Jones, A.H.M. (1964) The Later Roman Empire 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey , Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. (2001) The Decline and Fall of the Roman City , Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Macmullen, Ramsay (1988) Corruption and the Decline of Rome , New Haven: Yale University Press.

-- (1997) Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to the Eighth Centuries , New Haven: Yale University Press.

Markus, Robert (1990) The End of Ancient Christianity , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mathisen, Ralph (1993) Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul: Strategies for Survival in an Age of Transition , Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Morony, Michael (1989) "Teleology and the Significance of Change," in F.M. Clover and R.S. Humphreys, eds, Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity , Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 21-6

Treadgold, Warren (1994) "Taking Sources on Their Own Terms and on Ours: Peter Brown's Late Antiquity," Antiquité Tardive 2 : 153-9