Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.06

Averil Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity 395-700 AD. Second edition. Routledge History of the Ancient World.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 300.  ISBN 9780415579612.  $39.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Bilal Baş, Marmara University (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Since the publication of the first edition of this book in 1993, “a veritable explosion in the amount of publications on the period” obliged the author to revise and expand its original contents. Hence the new edition comes with extended chronological coverage (AD 395-700 instead of 395-600), an extra chapter (“A Changed World”, pp. 191- 208, though Cameron states that she added two extra chapters, there are nine chapters in the book as compared to eight of the first edition), extended endnotes (50 pages instead of 37) and new bibliography (30 pages instead of 8). Among the reasons for this additional coverage is the new perspective of some scholars of late antiquity (among whom are the editors of the influential volume, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, 1999) who believe that the early “development of Islam belongs firmly within the world of late antiquity” (p. xi). The author revised the content of the book as well as the notes in accordance with the findings of new scholarship. She also included “substantial extra coverage to take the narrative well into the Islamic period” (pp. xi-xii). In both editions of the book, Cameron aims to provide a critical synthesis of the many key topics of the period, rather than presenting an overall narrative account of the era For those who seek for such an account she recommends Stephen Mitchell’s History of the Later Roman Empire, 2007) (p. xii).

The book consists of an introduction (pp. 1-19), nine chapters (pp. 20-207), a conclusion (pp. 208-214), notes (pp. 215-262), bibliography (pp. 263-292), and an index (293-300). The introduction consists of a justification for the periodization of the book and a survey of previous and current approaches to the period. In justifying her employment of the terms ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘late antiquity’ in the title of the book, Cameron states that she appropriated what she terms the “Brownian model” of interpreting the period. “The late antiquity model” is a highly productive approach to the period, for it both avoids the various pitfalls and dangers of the “decline and fall” model, and also adopts the critical approaches and changed emphases on the major issues of the period (p. 7). Therefore the book maintained the same general outlook in both editions. The introduction also includes the main themes of the period, among which are unity and diversity; Christianization or religious change; and the Roman economy. In the second part of the introduction, the author provides a short summary of the major historical developments of the fourth century.

The first chapter (pp. 20-38) looks at the major developments in Constantinople and the eastern empire in the fifth century. The councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon were the turning points in the history of Christianity and both aimed to solve the problems of Christology. These debates “aroused passions equal to those surrounding any political issue in the modern world, and were just as much influenced by personal, social and local rivalries” (p. 29). The second chapter (pp. 39-57) deals with the question of barbarians and their relation with the Roman Empire. Previous approaches to the topic focused on the barbarian invasions and military conflicts. The author argues that those issues were the result of a misguided “decline and fall” approach (p. 57). Instead, recent scholarship has shifted its focus to “the barbarians themselves, the impact on them of their contacts with Rome, the development of concepts of ethnicity as they came under Roman influence, Rome’s usually unsuccessful, or at least short term, attempts to deal with the issue, and the gradual emergence of discrete groups and eventually of the early medieval kingdoms” (p. 39). In addition, modern studies of migration and ethnic identity have been employed as a corrective to such old stereotypes as ‘barbarian invasion” and the contrast between the “civilized Romans” and barbarian “other” (p. 39).

The third chapter, “Christianization and its Challenges” (pp. 58-83), deals with the issue of the Christianization of the Roman world. The modern concept of ‘late antiquity’ includes, among other things, a strong emphasis on religion, on Christianization in all its forms: art, architecture, belief, practice, social organization, etc. However, scholars widely differ in their approaches to this major feature of ‘late antiquity’. Cameron discusses the “endorsement of the hostile attitude of Gibbon” as well as “a triumphalist Christian perspective still apparent in some contemporary works” (p. 58). However, in much current scholarship on late antiquity, “a cultural studies approach prevails” (p. 58). Current scholarship on religious change in late antiquity focuses on such issues as: the date when paganism finally ceases to be a real alternative; the relations between Christians and Jews and the nature of Judaism and Jewish communities in late antiquity; the struggle to define Christian orthodoxy and eradicate heresy; the separation of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches after the failure of imperial efforts to preserve church unity; and the emergence of Islam as a new monotheistic religion (p. 59).

The fourth chapter, “Late Roman Society and Economy” (pp. 84-103), deals with issues related to late Roman economy and administration. Cameron states that the old “decline and fall” explanations depended on shaky evidence, mostly derived from legal evidence (p. 84). They presupposed a steady decline in late Roman economy beginning from the time of Diocletian. However, a re-evaluation of the available evidence, including the legal evidence, reveals that it is very hard to derive a consistent picture of “decline and fall”. In addition, the contribution of the archaeological evidence has changed some of the old perceptions. In general, in late Roman economy and administration, traditionalism and change went hand in hand. The fifth chapter, “Justinian and the Reconquest” (pp. 104-127), deals with the reign of Justinian (527-65). As Cameron notes, Justinian’s reign “deserves treatment in its own right, as one of the most important and the best- documented periods in late antiquity (p. 104).” Chapter Six, “Late Antique Culture and Private Life” (pp. 128-145), looks at the issues related to culture and private life in an age which is often been defined as a time of “increased spirituality” (p. 128). Topics such as education; literary culture and philosophy; Christianity and popular culture; family and personal life; men and women; and material culture are taken into consideration. In all these issues, the Christianization of the Roman Empire was perhaps the most important dominant factor in shaping the whole society.

Chapter Seven (pp. 146-167) is about town and country life during late antiquity. In general, since most of the population worked on the land, cities were quite small and people mostly lived in the countryside. In both the West and the East, significant urban change took place before the sixth century (p. 151). Late antique cities generally preserved the features of the typical provincial cities of the Roman Empire: monumental architecture, public buildings, theatres, temples, a forum etc. (p. 152). According to Cameron, late antique cities went through fundamental changes before the sixth century. However, cities were not in a state of decline.

Chapter Eight (pp. 168-190) looks at such developments in the eastern Mediterranean, such as settlement and population; Arabs in the Near East, local cultures; language and Hellenism; Jews and Judaism; church councils and religious divisions; and the eastern frontier. The final chapter, (pp. 191-207) focuses on the eastern Mediterranean in the second half of the sixth century and the seventh century. Cameron believes that the period of ‘late antiquity’ covers the first century of Islam: “It is certainly true that the emphasis on late antique continuity into the Islamic period in recent scholarship, with the ‘break’ usually seen as coinciding with the end of the Umayyads and removal of the capital to Baghdad in the eighth century, depends heavily on a concentration by late antique scholars on the eastern Mediterranean” (207).

In the book’s conclusion (pp. 208-14), Cameron argues that the “decline and fall” model is inadequate for explaining the various changes and continuities of the late antique world. In order to reconstruct a picture of decline and fall, previous scholarship put too much emphasis on changes in late antique urbanism. Yet, the author argues, cities are always in a state of change. The major error of such an imbalanced account is that “too much emphasis is still placed on the ‘collapse’ of the Roman Empire and the ‘transformation’ of the classical world, and too little on the long-term continuities” (p. 212). Cameron takes into account the changes as well as continuities in late antique world and society in order to reconstruct a potentially more accurate picture of this historical period. Cameron’s book is a benchmark study by a leading scholar of late antiquity. Perhaps it is best described as a scholarly introduction to many of the major issues of the period. Nine chapters and their subsections present a full review of the issues studied by the range of historians of late antiquity. The author presents each topic along with the major scholarly debates and approaches to them. Notes to the chapters provide the reader with an up-to-date bibliography. Although it incorporated extra coverage and findings of new scholarship, the general perspective of the book—the ‘late antiquity’ model of explanation—remained the same in the first and second editions. Cameron thus emphasizes in each chapter the shortfalls and inadequacies of the ‘decline and fall’ model of explanation, employing in its place what she terms the “Brownian model”. The book should be a major reference tool for all kinds of historians of late antiquity and students of this period who are interested in the social, economic, military, religious, philosophical and artistic developments of late antiquity. The author displays remarkable erudition and expertise in dealing with the full range of scholarship on scholarly debates old and new.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Constantinople and the eastern empire 20
The empire and the barbarians 39
Christianization and its challenges 58
Late Roman society and economy 84
Justinian and reconquest 104
Late antique culture and private life 128
Urban change and the late antique countryside 146
The eastern Mediterranean – a region in ferment 168
A changed world 191
Conclusion 208
Notes 214
Bibliography 263
Index 293
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