Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.12
Jonathan Conant, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700. Cambridge studies in medieval life and thought: fourth series, 82. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 438. ISBN 9780521196970. $99.00.
Reviewed by Eric Fournier, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The book under review is Jonathan Conant’s revised dissertation, an erudite study of how the “fall of Rome” affected Roman identity in late antique North Africa. It explores the continued participation of North Africans in the pan- Mediterranean culture of Late Antiquity beyond the political disintegration of the Roman empire. The central question this book aims to answer is: “what happened to the idea of being Roman in North Africa after the successive Vandal, Byzantine, and Islamic conquests?” The answer: Roman identity became dissociated from its political component, which “eased the empire’s disintegration” (377). Conant’s main contribution is his meticulous tracking of North Africa’s wide connections to the rest of the Mediterranean by tracing the movement of people, objects, and ideas through an impressive array of sources.1 Defying historiographical niches, Conant’s study is an interesting mix. It is Brownian in the sense that it proceeds from the observation that Roman identity continued to matter through the eighth century and beyond. But it is Jonesian in its methodology, relying, noticeably, on a prosopography of “over 1,900 individuals with connections to North Africa in the period from AD 439 to 700” (14; unfortunately not included in the monograph).
The book comprises an introduction, six full chapters (the first triad on the Vandal period, the latter on the Byzantine period), a shorter “aftermath,” a conclusion, a bibliography, an Index, and several figures, maps, and tables.
Conant presents his methodology in the Introduction, which includes a section on “conceptualizing Romanness.” For him, Roman identity is mainly political. Indeed, while he acknowledges recent scholarship that emphasized cultural elements of Roman identity, he insists that “cultural assimilation was not a prerequisite of Roman citizenship” (4). Instead of “Romanization,” Conant emphasizes the interconnectedness of the Mediterranean culture. But he replaces the traditional interpretation with a view that is still largely Romanocentric, that of the sources, which probably explains his conclusion, that Roman identity was mainly political.
Chapter one (“The Legitimation of Vandal Power”) argues that Vandal kings were largely successful in addressing and convincing four principal audiences of their political legitimacy. For Conant, Vandal rulers sought the approval of Roman emperors, fellow barbarian rulers, Romano-African subjects, and their barbarian followers. Bishops, however, seem to be an important omission from this list. Connections to the imperial family, titles, use of purple, diplomacy, triumphal ideology, legislation, public works, and redeployment of “imperial” cult were key means of legitimation for Vandal rulers eager to appear as successors of Rome in North Africa. Overall, despite specific markers of ethnic identity that distinguished them from their subjects (military status and symbols, clothes, physical appearance, and diet), Conant insists, and rightfully so, that Vandal and Romano-African elites became increasingly blurred in their interests, aspirations, and outlooks. “In the Vandal kingdom, high culture was Roman culture” (55).
In chapter two (“Flight and Communication”), Conant examines Vandal Africa’s connections to the rest of the Mediterranean by tracking the movement of people and objects across the Roman sea. This is based on fifty-four African travelers he was able to follow. He notes two major moments of displacement, connected to the disturbances caused by the Vandals (439-50 with the conquest and 480s-500s because of the Vandal “persecution”). The bulk of these travelers were bound to the eastern Mediterranean and Constantinople in particular. Rome was a second destination of importance. The patterns for circulation of goods and people were largely similar, except for a trade connection between Africa Proconsularis and eastern Spain. Internally, Vandal Africa was fragmented, with a coastal zone still connected to long-distance Mediterranean routes, in contrast with the hinterland (beyond fifteen kilometers from the shore), where short distance travels were the norm. Culturally, Conant argues that the circulation of letters, books, saints’ cults and personal names illustrate Vandal Africa’s enduring connections: “Africa remained remarkably well integrated into the larger Mediterranean world in the fifth and sixth centuries” (128).
Chapter three (“The Old Ruling Class under the Vandals”) considers the reaction of Romano-Africans to Vandal power and the use of “Romanness” and its changing meaning in this reconciliation process. For Conant, reconciliation became possible with time, as the violence of the conquest receded from memory. “But it is doubtless significant that such cultural accommodation as took place did so on Roman terms” (141). Thus Vandal kings were judged according to Roman standards, and whatever acceptance occurred is to be explained by the Vandals’ increasing Roman look. This blurring of identities prompted Victor of Vita and other writers to react negatively to the Vandals, in order to protect eroding boundaries. The Vandals provided new opportunities to their subjects, but mainly to older (fourth century) elite families and parvenus who displaced traditional elites. The dating of inscriptions and manuscripts according to Vandal regnal dates indicates that the Vandal kings’ subjects accepted their authority “remarkably quickly” (157), and this acceptance increased with each generation. But whereas Vandal subjects conferred them political legitimacy, they expressed their opposition religiously. Vandal rulers attempted to impose their Christian confession through an Arianizing policy, and Nicene bishops strongly resisted to what they perceived as a persecution. This led African laymen who accepted the political legitimacy of Vandals to hide their “Romanness,” for its perceived association with the empire. In turn, the door was open for Nicene writers to monopolize the definition of what it meant to be Roman in Vandal Africa.
In chapter four, the first of the Byzantine triad, (“New Rome, New Romans”), Conant analyzes the way Byzantine rulers “re-Romanized” Africa. He argues that sixth- and seventh-century emperors achieved this by using members of the elite from all over the empire to rule Africa, and especially by selecting individuals with “intimate connections to the emperor” (197). This contrasted with Egypt, where men of local origins dominated the administration. In Africa, Byzantine rulers typically selected experienced men from the military borderlands of the empire (Balkans and Armenia). The transition to using men of African origins occurred comparatively late, in the 540s. The names of known Byzantine individuals in Africa reveals “a certain ‘Byzantinizing’ of African society” (211), but the sample is not wide enough to be statistically meaningful, and might simply reveal a fashion rather than a significant trend. Military, imperial, and local connections mattered most for appointments to the administration, which is parallel to Byzantine Italy, but different from Egypt. The other conclusions of this chapter should not surprise: the Byzantine administration represented a “minute fraction” of the population (241), they spoke Greek rather than Latin, and were concentrated in cities. Overall, because of the sources’ limitations, Conant concludes that “the effects of the Byzantine occupation on the structure of African society are therefore difficult to gauge” (250).
Chapter five (“The Moorish Alternative”) is especially interesting, for its consideration of a potential rival to Byzantine power in Africa. Adding a group that did not succeed in establishing its legitimacy in late antique North Africa complicates the picture, and thus enriches it, by adding another competing form of identity to the mix. This enticing perspective is limited, however, by the preponderance of Roman sources for our knowledge of the Moors. Indeed, our understanding of Romans-Moors relationships is governed by Justianian’s ideology of re-conquest that former territories and Roman culture must be restored to the grandeur of past centuries. Conant identifies two main characteristics of Moorish rule, their use of Roman forms of power, and their acknowledgment of Byzantine authority. Here, as elsewhere, he finds “a certain Romanized political identity” (280) and a fluid use of competing forms of identities, in this case Roman and local or Moorish. Whereas Roman literary sources highlight difference and change, his analysis of inscriptions emphasizes continuity: aristocrats obtained ecclesiastical rather than secular offices, for example. But such continuity brings more questions: why were Roman sources “so reluctant to acknowledge that Romanness?” (297) For Conant, the revolts that Roman authors considered as hostile to the empire were in fact political strategies: “violence frequently seems to have been deployed in the North African hinterland with the strategic goal of forcing the imperial administration to acknowledge and redress grievances” (298).
In the final full-length chapter (“The Dilemma of Dissent”), Conant analyzes the forms of opposition to the empire, in particular the theological conflicts that pitted the African Nicene episcopate against Byzantine emperors. For Conant, however, these conflicts indicate not hostility to the empire but integration “into the political, cultural, and mental structures of the Roman world at large on the eve of its collapse” (306). Byzantine rulers legitimated their authority in Africa by presenting the conquest as the return of Rome and the triumph of orthodoxy. The chapter also includes another section on the movement of people and objects to emphasize the continued connection of Africa to the wider Mediterranean culture. It closes by considering the trial of Maximus Confessor, who, Conant argues, was not opposed to the empire, but to “the notion that the emperor could define Christian doctrine” (356).
The “aftermath” considers the fate of Christian communities after the Muslim conquest through the 11th century and asserts the similarity between the different conquests considered in the book as well as Africa’s continued connection with the eastern Mediterranean.
In the end, this is a fascinating study on an equally fascinating topic, but on two accounts this already strong book could have been improved. First, it seems that the discussion of Roman identity/ies could have been bolstered by considering a wider array of scholarship from several disciplines that have developed a more theoretical framework within which to discuss such a complex topic. Conant’s use of “Romanness” seems often vague and a more specific framework in which to cast his analysis of Roman identity and its change over time would undoubtedly have benefitted from such scholarship. For example, Conant concludes that “Politics, high culture, and religion became the axes of Roman identity in fifth-century North Africa, and remained so through to at least the beginning of the eighth century” (374). While this seems like a sound conclusion, it is unclear how this is different from, say, Roman identity in the second century. Undoubtedly, a more thorough discussion of Roman identity would have led to a more specific definition of “Romanness,” and to more nuanced conclusions on this central point. Similarly, Conant’s reading of the sources would sometime benefit from a more critical analysis of the texts’ point of view. A first example is his acceptance, at times, of Victor of Vita’s thesis of persecution (e.g. 161; this is surprising because Conant is very aware of this author’s agenda: e.g. 156, 170, and 180). His reading of inscriptions constitutes a second example. If epigraphy might reveal individuals’ claims to be “Roman,” it would at least be worth asking whether these people might have had any reason for doing so. Is it possible that Romano-Africans living in a borderland might have meant to convey a particular message to a Roman/Byzantine audience through the traditional medium of inscription? If so, how does it affect our understanding of Roman identity in this period?
But while Conant’s discussion of identity and “Roman-ness” could have been bolstered by the use of a theoretical framework and his use of primary sources suffers on occasion from a lack of criticism, Staying Roman is an important study. Its meticulous combing of sources and the wealth of information it contains, his use of recent archaeological studies, in addition to its important thesis, will make it an incontournable for any student of North Africa, Late Antiquity, or the question of identity in any historical period.
1. Following the path-breaking model of M. McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900 (Cambridge: University Press, 2001).