Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.50

David Brakke, Deborah Deliyannis, Edward Watts (ed.), Shifting Cultural Frontiers in Late Antiquity.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2012.  Pp. xi, 286.  ISBN 9781409441496.  $119.95.  

Reviewed by Richard Flower, University of Exeter (

Table of Contents

This volume is the latest from the Shifting Frontiers conference series, in this case presenting revised versions of twenty papers from the eighth instalment, held at Indiana University in 2009.1 As David Brakke’s brief introduction makes clear, the titular frontiers are to be interpreted in numerous ways, emphasising various late- antique peripheries: ‘the borders of empires, of social classes, of public and private spaces, of literary genres, of linguistic communities’ (1). The collection therefore discusses various forms of literature, as well as epigraphic, artistic and archaeological material, while the geographical span is broad, although with a particular focus on the eastern empire and North Africa. Nonetheless, the centre is alive and well within these explorations of the margins. Those readers who relish the display and depiction of imperial power will not find themselves disappointed here, with excellent chapters on Ammianus Marcellinus and the Constantinopolitan column of Arcadius by Jan Willem Drijvers and John Matthews respectively. Similarly, the central figure of Augustine of Hippo is the subject of perceptive discussions by Jennifer Ebbeler and Gillian Clark. Some of the papers do contain references to others elsewhere in the volume, but they remain, primarily, discrete explorations of particular issues.

The first four chapters, gathered under the title of ‘Shared Intellectual Space’, all concern the Middle East. They open with David Michelson’s fascinating exploration of Philoxenos of Mabbug, the early sixth-century bishop who presided over a new Syriac translation of the New Testament. Michelson deftly outlines Philoxenos’ concern that translation might involve interpretation (and thus misinterpretation), which led him to produce an extremely literal text which kept as close as possible to the original, giving readers of Syriac access to Scripture, but allowing ‘the Greek text to dictate its own linguistic terms’ so that those who knew no Greek ‘could use a text which for all extents and purposes was the same thing, incomprehensible statements and all’ (21). This is followed by Ellen Muehlberger’s neat argument for the essential thematic unity of the hymns of Ephrem Syrus, as opposed to the traditional division between his ‘historical’ works on the sufferings of Nisibis and his ‘literary’ works, which include imagined dialogues between Death and Satan. This analysis is informed by Julia Kristeva’s conception of the ‘abject’, although it does not seem to me that this is required for Muehlberger’s thesis to work.2

Kathleen Gibbons turns the clock back further to the start of the third century and Bardaisan of Edessa’s Book of the Laws of the Countries, in which he put forward a theory of human autonomy in opposition to Marcionite theology and astrological fatalism. The resulting explanation of human behaviour as the interaction of fate, natural constitution and individual choice allowed Bardaisan to argue that Christians were ‘free to act against the social norms of their particular societies with respect to those customs that define them as Christians’ (45). Gibbons therefore neatly illuminates Bardaisan’s construction of Christianity in ethnographic terms. This first part of the book is rounded off by Anne Kreps’ exploration of the changing uses of the Hebrew term am ha-aretz, which seems to have taken on a similar meaning to paganus in late antiquity. This chapter presents a number of interesting ideas, although it is somewhat difficult to follow for a non-expert.

The second quartet is titled ‘High and Low Cultural Negotiation’ and opens with a brief and highly informative piece by Hal Drake on medieval legends concerning the discovery of the True Cross. As well as comparing these to the account by the sixth-century author Alexander the Monk, Drake astutely explains how this tale, in which the wood of the cross appears at significant moments throughout biblical history, presents the preordination of the Crucifixion in a manner comprehensible to a wider audience.

The next pair of papers looks at two very different fourth-century writers: in analysing the final books of Ammianus Marcellinus, covering the reigns of Valentinian I and Valens, Jan Willem Drijvers demonstrates lucidly how the historian criticised the imperial brothers and their political culture for lacking the crucial qualities of honour and paideia which characterised his own conception of imperial rule; meanwhile, Cristiana Sogno tiptoes carefully through the minefield of the Historia Augusta, highlighting how the biographies written under the pseudonym of Flavius Vopiscus claim that their supposed artlessness acts as a guarantee of their reliability, in contrast to historians and panegyrists, ‘who both privilege verba over res’ (84). As Sogno notes, this plays with the claims of accuracy made by contemporary historians while also paralleling the rhetoric of many fourth-century Christian authors. These themes of imperial power and self-positioning are also picked up by Charles Pazdernik’s chapter on late-antique imperial courts as places where skilful politicians could walk (or claim to walk) the fine line between excessive libertas/parrhesia and abject sycophancy, in order to further their own or the state’s interests.

The book’s third section brings Augustine to the fore. Jennifer Ebbeler suggests that, in terming his communications with Donatists as litterae pacificae, Augustine was alluding not to the letters which welcomed former schismatics back into communion, but rather to the libelli of forgiveness given out by confessors in the Decian persecution, as well as to the efforts of Cyprian of Carthage to bring this practice under episcopal control. This therefore allowed him to cast himself as the combined successor of these third-century Christian heroes, who were important to Catholics and Donatists alike. In contrast, Gillian Clark gives us an Augustine who was not striving to control the script tightly, since he did not prescribe a scriptural curriculum for new Christians. Clark goes on to survey other ancient authors, concluding that, in contrast to the attitudes towards key texts among late-antique Platonists, ‘Christian leaders did not offer their people a preferred sequence for reading the scriptures’ (160). For Clark, this recognition by Augustine that one could not police the reading habits or thoughts of every believer is a small example that runs counter to ‘the claim that Christianity transformed a tolerant pluralist culture by means of a totalizing discourse of repression’ (163).3 These discussions also serve to remind us of the variety of attitudes within Christianity, and even across the writings of a single bishop.

After Raymond Capra’s brief exploration of what he identifies as ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ influences on the poetry of Dioscoros of Aphrodito, James Francis provides the first chapter to examine visual material, in this case as presented in late-antique texts. Moving through Homer, Lucian and Philostratus to arrive at Ammianus, Julian and Athanasius, this clear discussion examines literary equations of living people with images, as used by both pagans and Christians. Kate da Costa then opens the ‘Material and Popular Culture’ section of the volume with a detailed exploration of Levantine ceramic lamps. A small number of these bear depictions of faces, which da Costa identifies as Greek-style theatrical masks and thus as representing ‘foreign’ culture, in contrast to the majority of Levantine lamps, which do not conform to a ‘Mediterranean’ style. This local preference is notable, but perhaps it might be too bold an assertion to claim that these lamps ‘reveal a significant expression of cultural resistance’ (167). Leslie Dossey also provides a reading of archaeological material as an indication of social change, offering the intriguing hypothesis that the sub-division of some late-antique domestic buildings may have resulted from changing attitudes towards privacy, with each married couple now wanting their own cubiculum. Dossey does not dismiss other explanations for this domestic phenomenon, but instead comes to the reasonable conclusion that ‘to characterize the subdivision of houses and villas merely as “squatter” habitation would be a mistake’ (197). This paper could therefore have wider implications for competing narratives concerning the end of antiquity.

The next three chapters find us back in the familiar surroundings of the late-antique city. Sofie Remijsen advances a clear and convincing argument that the higher-status, ‘professional’ athletes of the classical world disappeared by the late fourth century, being replaced by two distinct groups: rich amateurs, who competed in the remaining great competitions, and lowly entertainers, who appeared in circus games, as attested at Oxyrhynchus. John Matthews then gives a richly illustrated reading of the lost helical frieze on the column of Arcadius in Constantinople, which depicted the expulsion from the city of the Gothic commander Gainas in 400 and which is recorded in detail in a collection of sixteenth-century sketches. Matthews concentrates on the decorative scheme on the prominent south face, concluding, amongst other things, that the city of Constantinople itself was frequently depicted there, as ‘the central character in its own story’ (223). This section ends with Jinyu Liu’s case studies of the late antique fora in Cuicul and Praeneste, including speculations on the religious affiliations of some honorands in the latter city.

The volume concludes with three regionally-focused papers: Eric Fournier looks at rebaptism of Catholics by Homoian Vandals, as described by Victor of Vita; Guido Berndt provides an informative history of the Suani, a northern Caucasian people who found themselves on the front line between the superpowers of Rome and Persia; and Christine Delaplace reinterprets the Visigothic ‘conquest of the Auvergne’. For Fournier, the Vandals’ use of the practice of repeated baptism, so closely associated with the Donatists, formed a way for these two groups to ‘consolidate their political hatred of Catholics’ (254). This is possible, although it is notable that Victor did not take this opportunity to complain that the Donatists had allied themselves with ‘Arian’ heretics, as Athanasius had done with the rigorist Meletians in fourth-century Egypt.4 Perhaps, rather than being a deliberate anti-Catholic move, rebaptism represented either the assimilation of a peculiarly African religious practice by incoming Vandals or its retention by Donatists who converted to Homoian Christianity.

Delaplace’s re-reading of Sidonius plausibly characterises Euric’s takeover of the Auvergne not as an expansionist act during a power vacuum, but rather as part of the civil war between Ricimer and Anthemius. The Goths therefore become part of the ‘legitimist’ camp, supporting the emperors Anthemius and Julius Nepos, while Sidonius Apollinaris, the self-styled defender of Romanitas, was allied with the Burgundians against them. The battle in 471, in which Anthemius’ son Anthemiolus was killed fighting the Goths, may still be more of sticking point that Delaplace acknowledges, but nonetheless this fascinating hypothesis deserves further consideration.

With such varied topics, it is hard to identify a single theme that could bring together Philoxenos of Mabbug’s translation anxieties, honorific statues in an Italian forum, Vandal rebaptism and Egyptian circus performers. The volume does not, however, make any grand claims about the thematic unity of its chapters, so it would be churlish to complain about its absence, especially since few people except editors and reviewers sit down and read conference volumes from cover to cover. Nonetheless, the question of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture pervades not only the four chapters gathered under that rubric, but also a number of other contributions, particularly those by da Costa, Dossey and Remijsen. While these pieces all employ, redefine or disrupt these terms according to their individual agenda, the cumulative effect of their treatments of this topic keeps the reader engaged with these difficult concepts. Like the label of ‘pagan’, these distinctions are recognised as problematic (hence their placement within the protective frame of scare quotes), but also as possessing too much meaning and utility to be abandoned entirely. We know that there was no rigid divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, between the pleasures, concerns and ideologies of ‘the elite’ and ‘the masses’, and yet we are simultaneously aware that it would be equally unsatisfactory to homogenise the cultural products and experiences of an empire, a region or even a single city, or to fail to recognise distinctions and disagreements within any individual ethnic or religious identity. This volume does not offer a clear way out of this quandary (nor does this reviewer), but the twenty chapters bear witness to the complexity and richness of late- antique societies and the many possible avenues for their interpretation.5


1.   For some earlier volumes, see 2010.09.31, 2007.09.23, 2005.10.12, 2004.07.41 and 2003.01.23.
2.   J. Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l’horreur: essai sur l’abjection, Paris, 1980.
3.   For the phrase ‘totalizing discourse’, see Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: the Development of Christian Discourse, Berkeley, 1991, 220.
4.   Athanasius, Ad episcopos Aegypti et Libyae 23.3.
5.   I noticed a few typos, a couple of which stood out: in the title of Guido Berndt’s chapter, ‘Caucasus’ is misspelt as ‘Causasus’, while on page 225 there is a rather unfortunate description of the forum as ‘a locale for epigraphic display and exhibition of pubic portraits’.

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