Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.02

Ralph W. Mathisen, People, Personal Expression, and Social Relations in Late Antiquity. Two Volumes.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2003.  Pp. 298; 248.  ISBN 0-472-11245-7; 0-472-11246-5.  $55.00 (each).  

Reviewed by M.A. Claussen, University of San Francisco (
Word count: 3071 words

Ralph Mathisen's new two volume book, People, Personal Expression, and Social Relations in Late Antiquity, has as its central aim a single goal: to weave a wide range of sources from the period roughly spanning the four centuries from the reign of Gallienus to the death of Heraclius into a coherent narrative that will provide some in-depth insight into the people of Late Antiquity by "focusing on their human side: their personal interactions, their prejudices, their ambitions, their faults, their kindnesses, their successes, and their failures" (x-xi). Moreover, he promises that the developments of Late Antique society will be portrayed from the perspective of those who experienced them and made them happen. Mathisen's method of achieving this goal is to link together primary sources -- sometimes ones of considerable length -- with an analytical narrative. While acknowledging that his task is bound to be anecdotal, Mathisen believes that the results will illustrate the variety of situations people who lived in this era experienced.

After a brief preface that outlines these goals, the book begins with an introduction that outlines the limits of the book: the period of Late Antiquity, and the provinces that made up Gaul. Late Antiquity saw on the one hand the end of classical antiquity and on the other the beginnings of the European Middle Ages, but Mathisen, following such scholars as Peter Brown, argues that it was also something in its own right -- it was a period of social disruption which was occasioned by three developments: the rise of the Christian church, the disintegration of the old Roman Empire, and the establishment of the barbarian kingdoms. By examining as wide a group of people as possible, Mathisen hopes to view these developments from the perspective of the entire population. And it is here that he makes his first big point. He argues that we should not divide the population, as historians traditionally do, into elite and non-elite classes. Rather, he hopes to show how individuals participated in a variety of social circles based on education, gender, religion, ethnicity, legal and economic status, and family relations, where the degree of privilege and status are determined not only by societal perceptions, but also by their own abilities, ambitions, and interests.

The first chapter introduces us to those at the top of the Late Antique social and political pyramid: the senatorial aristocracy. While office holding defined them, it was an office holding that alternated with periods of leisure, or otium. For Mathisen, perhaps the chief occupation of aristocratic otium was the pursuit of literary studies. He shows most clearly how the pursuit of such studies was an essential part of the aristocratic ethos (a rather nebulous word Mathisen uses often) and how classical culture served to unify Roman aristocrats who otherwise were separated by rank, occupation, wealth, and distance. As some members of the aristocracy fell on hard times, literature allowed them to interact as equals in some way; even such mundane tasks as copying works for others allowed an aristocrat to participate in literary circles and to create the means to allow his own efforts to be preserved. He concludes by noting how literary endeavors served not only as intellectual challenges but as means of cementing an aristocrat's position in society.

Chapter Two looks at the lower ranking aristocrats of Late Antique Gaul: decurions or curiales, mid-ranking office holders, and some civil servants. In Late Antiquity, members of these groups found their social and economic position increasingly precarious. While many of the families these men represented disappeared, some of them were able to consolidate their power over local society. Mathisen suggests that such families, formerly thwarted by senatorial arrogance, now had a chance to bloom. But he also notes the dark side of the period: those who were unable to find powerful patrons often faced violent coercion, and there is abundant evidence for the unsettled nature of the times, with kidnapping, enslavement, and murder, and the poor and the powerless threatened on every side by lawlessness and the rule of the stronger. But, nevertheless, certain things hold: those who can show a knowledge of classical literature can often claim some place in aristocratic society, and this points to the dramatic changes in status that were possible for some.

The third chapter examines family life. Mathisen says that the family provided the glue that held society together. It remained the focus of loyalty for its members, and the status of one's family determined one's more general social position. Moreover, it is really only in the family that we can see the normal roles that women and children played. While we can usually know only very little about children, Mathisen finds some evidence: he offers the letters of Sidonius, where he mentions the illness of his child, and some especially touching epitaphs. But unlike children, women did have occasional opportunities to act independently, and their role at times could be quite substantial. While some women, and particularly widows, were legally sui iuris, this oftentimes did not count for much. Nevertheless, occasionally women were able to establish their independence from their menfolk, and a conversion to the religious life often gave them an opportunity for the sort of autonomy that was otherwise rarely available. He concludes by noting that while the transformations of Late Antiquity might not have had much effect on the lives of children, "women do seem occasionally to have benefited from the breakdown of some established institutions by being able to enjoy rather greater self-expression than in the past, especially in the choice of mates" (112).

Chapter Four is entitled "Social Turmoil: 'New Men' and Bandits, Romans and Barbarians," and in it, Mathisen pursues his belief that those who lived in Late Antiquity interacted in many different ways. He suggests that late Roman society was not as structured as our sources may indicate. The various elements in society interacted in a variety of ways, and an individual from an inferior position could prevail in some mundane activity: Romans triumphed over barbarians, clerics over bishops, women over men. Society was in flux, and the established orders were in transition. These changing circumstances opened up new opportunities for almost everyone. For instance, we see a rather regular challenging of the old elite by novi homines, who often came from the small town gentry, if not from even less privileged elements of society. For instance, in the early years of the barbarian settlements there were no formal procedures by which a Roman could obtain redress for grievances at the hands of a German, and disputes often could be settled only by direct appeal to a barbarian king. But eventually, the relations between Romans and Germans became more regularized, a process which reached its fulfillment in the issuance of the Germanic law codes.

Chapter Five describes how the religious revolution of Late Antiquity had repercussions in every corner of society. Its ramifications crossed social and cultural boundaries, and intellectual attitudes, aristocratic careers, social relations, family life, and gender roles all were affected. Late Roman aristocrats moved both in the secular world that characterized antiquity, and the new Christian and ecclesiastical world that looked to the medieval future. Mathisen begins by looking at conversions, noting that sometimes this process would involve confrontation. Sometimes the confrontation of paganism and Christianity is placed in the context of a miraculous healing, which demonstrated that Christian magic was the more powerful. In his examination of Christian culture, Mathisen notes that the growth of the church and the spread of a Christian ethos created changes and new opportunities. The latter primarily benefited male aristocrats, but there were other ways in which energetic women, too, could find fulfillment, and not only in the world of the church.

The activities of elite women are the subject of Chapter Six. By performing charitable activities, such as giving to churches, some women entered a protected field of endeavor. But women's charity had another side as well: Mathisen shows how prominent women could be subjected to great social and even political pressure to donate to causes local ecclesiastical potentates felt necessary. Others, by capitalizing on the status of their families, were able to play important roles in society and politics. In these cases, they benefited from the upheaval resulting from the settlement of the barbarians and the growing power of the church. As an example of this, he examines the careers of the women from Sidonius' family. Mathisen does a service here by collecting in one place most of the texts that refer to these women and their troublesome men, and presents a nice case study of women that made their own the cause of their husband's family, much as Terentia did for Cicero several centuries earlier. He ends the chapter by looking at a number of barbarian queens and concludes by analyzing how the changed circumstances of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages offered some women new opportunities to express themselves, enhance their status, and receive some personal satisfaction, especially through their participation in ecclesiastical activities.

Mathisen dedicates the last chapter to what he calls "inappropriate activities" by women and the lower classes of the period. Late Antique society granted its most conspicuous benefits to male aristocrats, whether Roman or barbarian. New opportunities, such as ecclesiastical offices, were soon appropriated by this elite as well. "So what was a slave, a pauper, or a woman who desired a greater degree of self-expression to do?" (211). Through a number of avenues open to them, unprivileged individuals might voice their own opinions or pursue their own ambitions. In his discussion of how women could assume leadership roles that traditionally belonged to men, he examines Genofeva, whose activities saved Paris from the Huns; but he also includes some parts of her vita under the heading "Sorceress as Saint," after describing some of her miracles and the maladies which, according to her hagiographer, God inflicted on her enemies. While some of her activities were traditionally those of holy women, others, such as organizing the defense of Paris, were usually reserved for men.

But it was mainly in the realm of the supernatural that illicit activities are reported. Observing that the practice of sorcery (which he leaves rather vaguely defined) was rampant in Late Antiquity, Mathisen notes that it served several important roles: practising illicit magic furnished an opportunity for self-fulfillment to those whose aspirations were usually thwarted in other regards; it provided a socially acceptable means of expressing controversial opinions; and it allowed the boundaries of convention to be crossed, at least temporarily. While fascination with the supernatural crossed lines of class, gender, and social and economic status, the punishment meted out to violators seems to have been rather bound by these categories: Mathisen notes that men from the elite who engaged in such activities sometimes went on to become bishops and saints. Perhaps the inappropriate activity par excellence was attacking the ecclesiastical establishment. Mathisen offers us the tragic tale from Gregory of Tours' Historiae 10.25, of the false Christ of Bourges. The chapter continues with the long, scandalous, and well-known tale of the revolt of the nuns from the Convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, taken from Gregory of Tours again. The Epilogue, after a brief introduction, is a most useful translation of the testament of Remigius of Rheims, offered without much comment, though with many very helpful notes, glossing the personal and place names in the bishop's will.

By and large, Mathisen's efforts are successful. While little in the book breaks completely new ground, he does students and scholars of Late Antiquity an important service by bringing together a great variety of primary texts, some of which are relatively unknown. For instance, Mathisen translates most fluidly a large portion of the comedy Querolus, as well as number of inscriptions. Moreover, his translation of the letter "Nisi tanti seminis" -- a text written by one aristocratic woman to another sometime between 400 and 600 -- makes this most interesting text more readily available than ever before. His translations are always accurate and sometimes beautiful. For instance, some of the grave inscriptions are quite moving. But it seemed to this reader that there were some problems as well. Because of the nature of our sources, his goal to present Late Antique society from a different perspective than that of elite men is one almost impossible to reach. We will probably never know how the lower classes in Late Antique Gaul reacted to the changing world Mathisen describes. What is more, he does not mention in any detail at least two ways in which we might have come closer to seeing this period through their eyes. His discussion of the Bacaudae is most limited and offers no primary sources, and he does not really deal with the problem of poverty. His book was already in press when Peter Brown's Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire was published, but there is little mention of the complex relationship between the poor (whoever they might be) and, for instance, bishops, that might give the reader more insight into the roles the poor could play in this changing world. In general, there is very little discussion of the impact the spread of Christianity might have had on the lower orders. And, while the first several chapters of the book bring the reader a wide variety of texts from many different sources, as it proceeds the usual suspects, and especially Gregory of Tours, come more and more to dominate his evidence. While a historian is obliged to use what sources are available, a reader might have wished the author had spent more time with less well-known material, material that he handles with great adeptness. Moreover, one wonders just how useful categories such as 'self-expression' really are for understanding the world before the nineteenth century: was there a need or a want by most people to express themselves? Is that a universal desire that transcends time and culture? Finally, the analysis of the position of women could be taken to be a little naïve. While there is acknowledgement that the literary representations of women and their roles are just that -- literary and by and large created by men -- this does not seem to affect his analysis, especially in Chapter Six, on elite women and barbarian queens.

Volume Two parallels its companion volume of translated texts accompanied by extensive discussion. It includes not only all the Latin texts that appear translated in volume one, but others as well. Included here are over 140 Late Antique texts from many genres and a wide variety of sources. Mathisen tells the reader that the collection focuses upon language and literature per se, for Late Antiquity cannot be understood adequately if one does not understand the means that those who lived then used to express themselves. After some words on Late Latin as an independent style, and not a degenerate form of its classical parent, he supplies a discussion of the genres. He then presents a brief primer of some of the grammatical peculiarities (at least compared to classical Latin) of the language of the Late Antique west; a list of rhetorical schemes and tropes typical of the writers of the period, drawn from the Rhetorica ad Herennium; a very brief introduction to palaeography and codicology; and another short primer on epigraphy. Finally, he concludes the Introduction with a three and a half page introduction to understanding Roman dates. There follows, as in volume one, seven chapters and a conclusion. This material offers the sometimes expanded Latin texts whose English translations appear in the first volume. The texts are accompanied by a bibliographic entry, which usually includes both primary and secondary material, a brief introduction, and notes, sometimes voluminous, sometimes rather scant. Occasionally, Mathisen offers an emended version of the text he is using. For instance, Text 1.7 is a letter from the priest Rusticus to Eucherius of Lyons (c. 430-51). Although the text appears in CSEL 31.1, Mathisen apparently has checked the edition against the manuscript Codex Sessorianus 77 in the Biblioteca nazionale Vittorio Emanuele. He does the same in 1.12, but his notes also indicate the passages from Vergil used by Avitus of Vienne to defend himself against the charge of barbarism. Sometimes the notes offer a literary and historical commentary. The texts themselves are presented in a clear and easy-to-read fashion.

Spelling has generally been regularized and punctuation added (the regular exception is the inscriptions, which Mathisen presents as close to the original as possible). Mathisen occasionally offers both a diplomatic edition of the original text and a version easier to read and follow. Typical of this is selection 3.29, where he presents a passage from an Auvergne formulary, which begins "mox inixit antiqua, printipium iura decreta sancxerunt...." Mathisen tenders to the reader less familiar with late Latin orthography the more appealing "mos iniunxit antiqua, principium iura decreta sanxerunt...." But despite these services, the texts themselves can remain opaque. The difficulty of writers like Sidonius Apollinaris and Avitus of Vienne is well known, and the fact that we no longer describe the style as 'precious,' as André Loyen had it, does not make the going any easier. As the volume proceeds, the texts become more familiar, perhaps because Mathisen, like most who have ploughed these fields in the past, has relied more and more on the works of Gregory of Tours. While his Latin is hardly classical, it is familiar to anyone who has worked in this period.

The book concludes with five appendices, which provide lists of emperors, most of the bishops of Rome, and the barbarian kings of continental western Europe; a very useful glossary of phrases and terms, both in Latin and in English; and finally an alphabetical list of sources. The index to the volume offers some useful introductory bibliography on the period and its language and literature, as well as a five page list of select translated sources.

People, Personal Expression, and Social Relations in Late Antiquity will give its readers a useful introduction to the social changes and transformations that occurred in this dynamic period of European history. By making such a wide variety of texts, both in the original and in translation, easily available, Ralph Mathisen makes a significant contribution, knowing as he does we cannot understand this period if we do not understand the how those who lived then expressed themselves.

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