Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.11.09

Will Bowden, Adam Gutteridge, Carlos Machado, Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity. Late Antique Archaeology 3.1.   Leiden:  Brill, 2006.  Pp. xxx, 658; ills.  ISBN 978-90-04-14414-9.  €147.00.  



Reviewed by Tamara Lewit, Trinity College, The University of Melbourne (tlewit@trinity.unimelb.edu.au)
Word count: 1164 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity (edited by William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado), is the third in a series of somewhat massive Late Antique Archaeology volumes arising from Oxford conferences (a fourth, on technology, is in press and expected to appear late in 2007). It challenges the tendency of political history and the history of social relationships and structures to be written on the basis of textual evidence, usually produced by society's elites. This book sets out to explore what can be said on these topics from the evidence of archaeology. A number of chapters show the power of archaeological evidence to redress the balance of evidence in favour of non-elite groups, such as artisans, shopkeepers and villagers.

The book brings together admirably viewpoints from a wide range of institutions scattered across four continents, with contributing scholars from Britain, Italy, France, the USA, and Australia. As one would expect from a conference publication, the papers are diverse in theme, approach, and theoretical basis, only loosely grouped under the themes of 'The Roman State', 'The Emperor and his Monuments', 'The City', 'Churches and Power', 'The Middle Class', 'The Poor', and 'Socio-Cultural Change'. Unexpected inclusions are two articles on 'The Poor in Texts', which argue that the poorest of society, owning no material culture, are 'functional ghosts' appearing only as 'gaps in the archaeological record', and so can only be studied through texts, an approach seemingly at odds with the book's theme (S. Holman 'Constructed and Consumed: Everyday Life of the Poor in 4th c. Cappadocia' p 442; W. Mayer 'Poverty and Society in the World of John Chrysostom' p 466).

One of the chief strengths of the book is that each chapter links the archaeology of a specific site, region, or artefact type to broad interpretative issues such as the nature of ethnic identities (E. Swift 'Constructing Roman Identities in Late Antiquity? Material Culture on the Western Frontier'), the existence of an antique Middle Class (S. Ellis 'Middle Class Houses in Late Antiquity'), the conception of time (A. Gutteridge 'Some Aspects of Social and Cultural Time in Late Antiquity'), or the role and nature of civic identities (C. Machado 'Building the Past: Monuments and memory in the Forum Romanum', L. Lavan 'Fora and Agorai in Mediterranean Cities during the 4th and 5th c. AD', G. P. Brogiolo 'The Control of Public Space and the Transformation of an Early Medieval town: a Re-examination of the Case of Brescia'). Thus the book becomes a set of reflections on aspects of late antique social and political history, based on syntheses of archaeological evidence, rather than a collection of narrowly-focussed archaeological reports. As such it should be of great value to scholars outside the discipline of archaeology.

There is a refreshing absence of concern for the over-tired 'continuity versus decline' debate which has dogged studies of this period for some time, a debate explicitly criticised by J. Haldon, who confesses himself 'baffled as to why so much discussion has been devoted to it' ('Social Transformation in the 6th-9th c. East' p 607). A possible exception is P. Van Ossel ('Rural Impoverishment in Northern Gaul at the End of Antiquity: the Contribution of Archaeology'), who addresses the now rather dated theory of late antique peasant impoverishment and the growth of great estates.

A number of chapters point to directions for future scholarship. For example, E. Zanini ('Artisans and Traders in the early Byzantine City: Exploring the Limits of Archaeological Evidence') places himself among those who reject the simplistic interpretation of artisanal use of buildings in towns as 'squatter occupation' and looks for more effective explanations which recognise this as a significant and widespread element of late antique urban life. K. Cooper, J. Hillner and C. Leyser ('Dark Age Rome: Towards and Interactive Topography') point to the potential of digitised resources and computer databases for the study of significant cities. S. Roskams ('The Urban Poor: Finding the Marginalised') argues that a Marxist framework would provide the most useful approach to discovering and interpreting the archaeological remains of the urban poor.

A variety of archaeological sources are exploited, including coins (R. Reece 'Coins and Politics in the Late Roman World'), churches (G. Cantino Wataghin 'Architecture and Power: Churches in Northern Italy from the 4th to the 6th c.', J. Bardill 'A New Temple for Byzantium: Anicia Juliana, King Solomon and the gilded ceiling in the Church of St Polyeuktos in Constantinople'), state monuments (E. Mayer 'Civil War and Public Dissent: The State Monuments of the Decentralised Roman Empire') and, in chapters cited above, jewellery, burials, public buildings, private houses, and industrial sites, demonstrating the richness of archaeology as a source of information for political and social history. There are many helpful diagrams and illustrations. The two extensive bibliographic essays by L. Lavan ('Political Life in Late Antiquity') and L. Schachner 'Social Life in Late Antiquity') not only provide nearly 100 pages of bibliographic information organised by theme, but--as in each of the previous Late Antique Archaeology volumes--also give succinct historiographic summaries outlining the state of scholarship in each area.

Table of contents

"Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity: An Introduction," Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado

Bibliographic Essays

"Political Life in Late Antiquity: A Bibliographic Essay," Luke Lavan

"Social Life in Late Antiquity: A Bibliographic Essay," Lukas Schachner

The Roman State: From Identity To Policy

"Constructing Roman Identities in Late Antiquity? Material Culture on the Western Frontier," Ellen Swift

"Coins and Politics in the Late Roman World," Richard Reece

The Emperor and His Monuments

"Civil War and Public Dissent: the State Monuments of the Decentralised Roman Empire," Emanuel Mayer

"Building the Past: Monuments and Memory in the Forum Romanum," Carlos Machado

The City: Social and Political Change

"Fora and Agorai in Mediterranean Cities during the 4th and 5th c. A.D.," Luke Lavan

"The Control of Public Space and the Transformation of an Early Medieval Town: A Re-examination of the Case of Brescia," Gian Pietro Brogiolo

Churches and Power

"Architecture and Power: Churches in Northern Italy from the 4th to the 6th c.," Gisella Cantino Wataghin

"Dark Age Rome: Towards an Interactive Topography," Kate Cooper, Julia Hilner and Conrad Leyser

"A New Temple for Byzantium: Anicia Juliana, King Solomon and the Gilded Ceiling in the Church of St Polyeuktos in Constantinople," Jonathan Bardill

The Middle Class

"Artisans and Traders in Late Antiquity: Exploring the Limits of Archaeological Evidence," Enrico Zanini

"Middle Class Houses in Late Antiquity," Simon Ellis

The Poor in Texts

"Constructed and Consumed: Everyday Life of the Poor in 4th c. Cappadocia," Susan Holman

"Poverty and Society in the World of John Chrysostom," Wendy Mayer

The Poor and Archaeology

"The Urban Poor: Finding the Marginalised," Steve Roskams

"Rural Impoverishment in Northern Gaul at the End of Antiquity: The Contribution of Archaeology," Paul Van Ossel

Socio-Cultural Change

"Some Aspects of Social and Cultural Time in Late Antiquity," Adam Gutteridge

"Social Transformation in the 6th-9th c. East," John Haldon.

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