Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.45

Philip Rousseau, Jutta Raithel (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Ancient History.   Chichester/Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.  Pp. xxiv, 709.  ISBN 9781405119801.  $200.00.  

Reviewed by Gerard O'Daly, University College London (

The study of late antiquity has been richly productive since the 1970s, and this Companion of the Noughties is the latest in a number of books to take stock of work done, and work still to be done, in an area where scholarship is continually expanding in range and diversity.1 This book is part of a well-established series, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World (covering Greece, Rome, the ancient Near East and Egypt) that, in the publisher's words, is 'designed for an international audience of scholars, students, and general readers'. It consists of forty chapters written by individual scholars (authors and titles are listed at the end of this review). The editor, Philip Rousseau (working here with the assistance of Jutta Raithel), has himself made several distinguished contributions to late antique studies:2 in the preface he briefly surveys scholarship (mainly English-language) since the late 19th century, an appetizer for the more detailed discussions of Part I, and a signal that one of the book's cardinal themes will be a self-critical examination of the ways in which the history of scholarship on late antiquity determines our approaches to the field. The preface also describes the genesis of the volume. Potential contributors were asked to propose the topics, rather than being commissioned to write on pre-determined themes. The design of the book grew from this scheme, and therefore its range of topics is selective, even if generously so. It is not a work of reference in the traditional sense: Rousseau compares it to a journey in the company of enthusiastic experts guiding the reader through their favourite areas. By including many younger contributors, and others in mid-career, enthusiasm, and a sense of the excitement of the (as yet) unexplored, are guaranteed: in many cases, the contributers draw on their recent major publications.

There is an opening chapter (Mayer) on the potential hazards of dealing with the evidence, and the inherited baggage of definitions, classifications, and perspectives that influence scholarship in this area. Then follow five groups of essays, each introduced by a brief anonymous (I suspect the skilled hand of the editor) overview of their scope. The first group (Part I) examines attitudes to, and narratives of, late antiquity (including demarcations of the period itself) from the Byzantine period through to modern scholarship. Part II focuses on issues of geography, communications, urbanism, archaeological evidence, gender, family, and attitudes to the dead. Part III deals with forms of representation: texts and artefacts, oratory, orality, exegesis, letter-writing, historiography, later Latin, and Coptic. Part IV discusses empires and kingdoms in, and impinging on, the later Roman world: it includes such topics as legal codification and practice, concepts of the 'barbarian', the rise of the Frankish and other Western kingdoms, Syria and the Arabs, and the early Caliphate of the 7th and 8th centuries. Part V considers 'the sacred', chiefly Christianity and Judaism, with essays on religion and the state, bishops and monks, secularization, pagans in the Christian empire, and Jewish-Christian relations. There are several black-and-white illustrations and maps, and a massive 100-page bibliography of works cited in the individual chapters.

How well does this format work? Most of the chapters presuppose familiarity with the political, social, and religious landscape of the period: 'general readers' will struggle, though specialists in cognate areas such as medieval and Renaissance studies will benefit from the themes treated and state-of-the-art methodologies employed. And what precisely is meant by 'late antiquity' in this volume? Among specialists a common starting-date is the accession of the emperor Diocletian in 284 CE (and the beginnings of administrative reforms that, among others, divided the empire into eastern and western sectors), and the dust-jacket blurb of the Companion concurs with this. The same blurb gives 'the end of Roman rule in the Mediterranean' as the end of late antiquity. This is usually dated to the early 7th century, the period of the Arab Muslim and other conquests of much of the empire.3 Readers of the Companion are left to find out for themselves just how late is late antiquity. In practice, few of the chapters have anything to say about the pre-Constantinan period, and most do not venture in any detail beyond the end of the fifth century. That is not necessarily a bad thing: a focus on the fourth and fifth centuries is probably the most rewarding way of trying to understand the fundamental changes that characterize the later Roman Empire. And the vagueness about an end-date (which would in any case be arbitrary) allows the inclusion of a revealingly incisive chapter (Markham, chapter [hereafter 'ch.'] 32) on the early Caliphate of the 7th to mid-eighth centuries as a form of reception of Roman late antiquity. But a chronological table relating events and persons in the empire to the world beyond its frontiers (and thus strengthening one of the commendable themes of the book) should have been included: its absence makes orientation difficult for the non-specialist.

To stay with non-specialists: Mayer's ch. 1 is too complex an 'approach' to late antiquity for all but the expert or the research student. Her aims are laudable: our assumptions about the evidence (the integrity of the texts, dates, the significance of material evidence) should be questioned. Most of the contributors share her healthy skepticism. But there would have been a case for putting her chapter at the end of the volume, as an analysis of the methodologies employed by individual contributors, and giving users instead an accessible thematic overview at the outset of the topics and issues to come (though this is to some extent provided by the introductions to the various sections). Nor am I sure that it was sensible to place the five chapters on subsequent views of late antiquity from Byzantium to the modern period in Part I (ch. 2-6). These are rich, condensed discussions by authoritative scholars (Rebenich in ch. 6 is particularly informative and wide-ranging on European and American research of the 19th and 20th centuries), but their placing insists unnecessarily, in a volume of this scope, upon reception-history as a prerequisite of informed communication of current discourse about the ancient past. The specialist reader will love these chapters and benefit from them. But we have to wait a hundred pages, until Part II, for our first refreshing contact with a narrative that engages directly with current historical understanding of the late antique period. Fortunately, ch. 7 (Humphries) is one of the best, on the geopolitical context of the later empire, showing how local and global perspectives are more illuminating than a focus on the Mediterranean. Other particularly successful chapters in Part II include: Trout (ch. 12) on the role of inscriptions in shaping public memory and civic identity in 5th century Narbonne and Tours, 6th century Carthage, and 8th century Lombardy; Evans-Grubbs (ch. 14) on change and continuity in attitudes to marriage and the family in the christianized empire; and Rebillard (ch. 15) on late antique Christian dying, burial, and commeration of the dead, an innovative account that insists upon the non-involvement of the Church in these traditional and local family matters (bishops could exhort moderation in funerals and burials, possibly had some control over certain burial places, and regulated conduct of rites at martyrs' tombs).

Part III has nine chapters on texts and images: as with the other parts of the book, I am selective here, focusing on discussions that seem particularly worthy of note. Cribiore (ch. 16) uses the example of Libanius to illustrate the rhetorical education of the governing elite in 4th century Antioch, with an interesting brief speculative account (pp. 237-8) of the extent of the study of Latin in a Greek city (necessary at this time for entry to Roman law school). Haines-Eitzen (ch. 17) has important comment on orality in late antique culture, and on the kinds of book (including miniature biblical amulets) in circulation. Pollmann (ch. 18) gives an eminently accessible account of biblical exegesis in Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, and the 6th century John Philoponus, stressing its diversity and (contrary to much later opinion) legitimacy as an open-ended interpretative tool. It is a pity that neither here nor in Graumann (ch. 36) is there much about that 3rd century exegetical giant Origen.4 Harley (ch. 21) uses a detailed discussion of the 5th century crucifixion-resurrection narrative series on the Maskell Passion ivory panels to illustrate an emergent Christian iconography against the background of traditional Roman imperial art conventions. Burton (ch. 22) makes the technicalities of linguistic changes in later Latin intelligible, not least by including some informative analyses (pp. 335-9) of passages of high artistic as well as postclassical prose. Choat (ch. 23) discusses the wide use of Coptic in late antique Egypt; it was used not exclusively or even predominantly in monastic contexts (women used it for letter-writing), but is an interstitial product between cultures, religions, and other languages.

Part IV starts with a lively discussion by Humfress (ch. 25) of the gradual infiltration of Christian influence into Roman legal practice, and includes a section on the role of defixiones (curse tablets) as formally acceptable petitions for justice (pp. 387-90). This part also offers illuminating discussions of the Other in Roman constructs, as in concepts of the 'barbarian'. Gillett (ch. 26) uses Jordanes' Getica, a mid sixth-century inventive history of the Goths over the previous two millennia, to explore ethnic typologies, but he also considers instances where different overlapping ethnic identity markers are employed (pp. 394-5). Halsall (ch. 27) examines the saturation of the Germanic regions east of the Rhine by Roman imperial influences, and the gradual growth of Roman influence in Ireland from the fourth century onwards. Vanderspoel (ch. 28) discusses the rise of new kingdoms (the Franks in Gaul, and similar developments in Britain and North Africa) in or on the fringes of the later empire. The interaction of Jew and Christian in Syria is analysed by Shepardson (ch. 30). Points of connection and permeability between the two religions, identified in newer research, correct assumptions of early Christian separateness: as in many other chapters of the Companion, narratives ancient and modern of orthodoxy and imperial uniformity are challenged here. A number of the chapters in this part of the book put into detailed practice the change from a 'centralized' focus on issues in the late Roman world that Humphries advocates in ch. 7. Thus Cook (ch. 31) considers the Arab conquest of Syria in the 7th century, and later developments there in Muslim co-existence with Christians, Jews, and others. Marsham's contribution (ch. 32) has been mentioned above.

If continuity and change is a theme of the Companion as a whole, this is particularly the case with the essays in Part V. Christianization is, not surprisingly, the dominant form of the 'sacred' discussed here, but (a welcome corrective to some earlier scholarship) changes in late Roman paganism (ch. 38) and in the Judaism of late antiquity (ch. 37) are also discussed. Lim (ch. 33) analyses secularization by focusing on public shows and spectacles, which were detached in the post-Constantinian empire from sacrifice and religious cult, and so continued, but as a part of a common civic culture, for Christians as well as pagan traditionalists like the senator Symmachus. The category of the 'secular' (like 'pagan') was a consequence of Christian demarcation, influencing attitudes to pagan cult statues and temples, as well as the literary classics. But the overall picture of Christian-pagan interaction is unclear, as McLynn (ch. 38) shows. Some temples were attacked and destroyed by Christian fanatics through the fourth century, but paganism survived, at a popular level, and in elite figures such as Symmachus. McLynn repeats his well-known and persuasive view that the epistolary 'debate' of 384 between Ambrose and Symmachus is an invention of Ambrose, who embedded Symmachus' appeal to the emperor for the maintenance or restoration of traditional cult in a polemical confrontation of his own devising: there is no evidence that Symmachus ever believed that he was fighting the cause (lost, losing, or whatever) of paganism. Boundaries could be blurred, or might not have existed. Gaddis (ch. 34) shows this to be the case in relations between Church and state, in pragmatic politics that even influenced the decisions of Church councils and the presentation of their decisions. And Lizzi Testa (ch. 35) uncovers similar complexities in the roles of late antique bishops.

Each chapter concludes with a bibliographical note that draws critical attention to the literature on specific topics. This is valuable, and particularly helpful when contributors give guidance on recommended texts and translations of the source material (as in ch. 24, 25, and 29); regrettably not all do so, and this omission is sometimes serious (as in ch. 8 and 35). It is a pity that some general information on English-language translations of the ancient texts is not provided independently of the individual chapters.

Given the editorial policy outlined above, it is not surprising that there are gaps. There is no detailed discussion of government and administration, though there is renewed recent interest in these areas.5 There is no treatment of the Greek and Latin poetry of the period, apart from occasional use of poetry as source material in historical contexts. Philosophy is almost entirely absent, though there is an able discussion of aspects of theological argument by Graumann (ch. 36).6 That said, the Companion maintains a generally high level of expertise and informed analysis throughout: the contributors have been well chosen. Production and editing are excellent, and there is an intelligently constructed index. Those looking for a more accessible and comprehensive overview will find it in Swain and Edwards,7 but researchers and specialists cannot afford to neglect this richly rewarding book.

Authors and Titles:

Preface (Philip Rousseau, Catholic University of America).
1. Approaching Late Antiquity (Wendy Mayer, Australian Catholic University).

Part I: The View from the Future.
2. The Byzantine Late Antiquity (Stratis Papaioannou, Brown University).
3. Late Antiquity in the Medieval West (Conrad Leyser, University of Oxford).
4. Cities of the Mind: Renaissance Views of Early Christian Culture and the End of Antiquity (Mark Vessey, University of British Columbia).
5. Narrating Decline and Fall (Clifford Ando, University of Chicago).
6. Late Antiquity in Modern Eyes (Stefan Rebenich, Universität Bern).

Part II: Land and People.
7. The Shapes and Shaping of the Late Antique World: Global and Local Perspectives (Mark Humphries, Swansea University).
8. Mobility and the Traces of Empire: Blake Leyerle (University of Notre Dame).
9. Information and Political Power (Claire Sotinel, Université Paris XII Val de Marne).
10. Mediterranean Cities (S.T. Loseby, University of Sheffield).
11. The Archaeological Record: Problems of Interpretation (Olof Brandt, Istituto Pontificio di Archeologia Cristiana).
12. Inscribing Identity: The Latin Epigraphic Habit in Late Antiquity (Dennis E. Trout, University of Missouri-Columbia).
13. Gender and the Fall of Rome (Kate Cooper, University of Manchester).
14. Marriage and Family Relationships in the Late Roman West (Judith Evans-Grubbs, Washington University in St. Louis).
15. The Church, the Living, and the Dead (Éric Rebillard, Cornell University).

Part III: Image and Word.
16. The Value of a Good Education: Libanius and Public Authority (Raffaella Cribiore, New York University).
17. Textual Communities in Late Antique Christianity (Kim Haines-Eitzen, Cornell University).
18. Exegesis without End: Forms, Methods, and Functions of Biblical Commentaries (Karla Pollmann, University of St. Andrews).
19. Tradition, Innovation, and Epistolary Mores (Jennifer Ebbeler, University of Texas at Austin).
20. Verbal and Visual Representation: Image, Text, Person, and Power (James A. Francis, University of Kentucky).
21: Christianity and the Transformation of Classical Art (Felicity Harley, University of Melbourne).
22. The Discourse of Later Latin (Philip Burton, University of Birmingham).
23. Language and Culture in Late Antique Egypt (Malcolm Choat, Macquarie University).
24. Late Antique Historiography: A Brief History of Time (David Woods, University College Cork).

Part IV: Empire, Kingdom, and Beyond.
25. Law in Practice (Caroline Humfress, Birkbeck, University of London).
26. The Mirror of Jordanes: Concepts of the Barbarian, Then and Now (Andrew Gillett, Macquarie University).
27. Beyond the Northern Frontiers (Guy Halsall, University of York).
28. From Empire to Kingdoms in the Late Antique West (John Vanderspoel, University of Calgary).
29. Rome and the Sasanid Empire: Confrontation and Coexistence (Jan Willem Drijvers, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen).
30. Syria, Syriac, Syrian: Negotiating East and West (Christine Shepardsonm, University of Tennessee-Knoxville).
31. Syria and the Arabs (David Cook, Rice University).
32. The Early Caliphate and the Inheritance of Late Antiquity (c. AD 610-c. AD 750) (Andrew Marsham, University of Edinburgh).

Part V: The Sacred.
33. Christianization, Secularization, and the Transformation of Public Life (Richard Lim, Smith College).
34. The Political Church: Religion and the State (Michael Gaddis, Syracuse University).
35. The Late Antique Bishop: Image and Reality (Rita Lizzi Testa, Università degli Studi di Perugia).
36. The Conduct of Theology and the 'Fathers' of the Church (Thomas Graumann, University of Cambridge).
37. Defining Sacred Boundaries: Jewish-Christian Relations (Naomi Koltun-Fromm, Haverford College).
38. Pagans in a Christian Empire (Neil McLynn, University of Oxford).
39. 'Not of This World': The Invention of Monasticism (Daniel F. Caner, University of Connecticut).


1.   Comparable surveys in English: G. W. Bowersock, P. Brown, and A. Grabar (eds.), Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999; P. Garnsey and C. Humfress, The Evolution of the Late Antique World. Cambridge: Orchard Academic, 2001; S. Swain and M. Edwards (eds.), Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Peter Brown's hugely influential The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), was perhaps the first book in English to include the since much-used 'late antiquity' in its title. Its influence is considerable on the chronological and thematic range of the book under review, though many of the chapters show how much scholarly discourse has advanced in the interim.
2.   Most recently The Early Christian Centuries. London: Longman, 2002.
3.   Historians often favour deaths of emperors as demarcations of the end of late antiquity: for A. Demandt (Die Spätantike: Römische Geschichte von Diocletian bis Justinian 284-565 n. Chr. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1989) it is 565 (death of Justinian), for Jones (note 5 below) 602 (death of Maurice), for Mitchell (note 5 below) 641 (death of Heraclius), whereas all three begin with 284. Brown (note 1 above) has a programmatic subtitle.
4.   On Origen's exegesis see the outstandingly original and provocative study of J. D. Dawson, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
5.   See especially C. Kelly, Ruling the Later Roman Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004; S. Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire AD 284-641: The Transformation of the Ancient World. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, two books that, in radically different but equally challenging ways, take up topics often neglected in Anglophone scholarship (not least because of the influence of the agenda set by Peter Brown's writings: see Rebenich, pp. 90-2 of the book under review) since A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284-602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey. Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1964.
6.   On philosophy there will soon be available L. Gerson (ed.), The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, announced for 2010.
7.   See note 1 above.

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