Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.41

Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, Potestas populi: participation populaire et action collective dans les villes de l'Afrique romaine tardive (vers 300-430 apr. J.-C.). Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité tardive, 24.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2012.  Pp. 378.  ISBN 9782503546469.  €75.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Anna Dolganov, Princeton University (


The central aim of this complex and ambitious study is to illuminate the historical role of the urban populace in the cities of Late Roman Africa from the turn of the fourth century CE to the Vandal Conquest.

As Magalhães argues in his introductory chapter (17-26), despite a wide variety of evidence for what appears to be a growing importance of "the people" and popular participation in the life of the Late Roman city (think of the Late Roman evidence for popular elections, acclamations, urban riots and violence, etc.), our understanding of this phenomenon is hampered by inadequate models in a scholarly tradition that is still dominated by top-down approaches to ancient society. Dissatisfied with current interpretations of popular violence by ancient historians ⎯ as an epiphenomenon of elite conflict, or as an intermittent rupture of the status quo fomented by specific groups ⎯ Magalhães seeks to vindicate an independent agency for the plebs urbana, and to examine the rationality and logic of popular action. In line with classic studies of crowd behavior by historians of early-modern Europe, Magalhães sees this logic as emanating both from the nature and motivations of the groups involved, and from the broader culture that shaped their goals, expectations, and modes of collective behavior (Magalhães explicitly avoids the term mentalité, opting for "culture" instead). Taking his inspiration from the work of E. P. Thompson and others, Magalhães seeks to write a history of the African plebs urbana "from below," pressing the ancient evidence as far as it allows.

The study is divided into three parts. Part I (chapters 1-4, pp. 29-155) seeks to locate and identify the plebs urbana in the archaeology of African cities, and to put together a picture of the physical, social and cultural environment in which these urban groups lived, worked, socialized and acquired their habitus through formative experiences ("expériences constitutives"). Against this backdrop, Part II examines the role of the plebs urbana in ecclesiastical elections (chapters 5-7, 159-223) while Part III looks at episodes of urban violence (chapters 8-10, 227-297). Parts II and III draw chiefly upon the sermons and letters of Augustine.

In chapter 1 (29-41), Magalhães begins by considering the terms plebs and populus, which have a broad semantic range in our sources. However, Magalhães notes Augustine's consistent association between plebs and the urban working classes, many of whom belonged to collegia (professional associations). It is this socio-professional class of urban workers ⎯ including bakers, dyers, potters, fullers, founders, metalsmiths and shop and tavern-keepers ⎯ that Magalhães identifies as the core of the African plebs urbana. Magalhães takes an emphatic stand against the "Finley School" and the Weberian model of the ancient city as a "consumer city" lacking its own productive base, where the urban economy (and by extension urban society) was driven by the wealth and consumption of the local landowning elite. Instead, in line with post-primitivist trends in Roman archaeology, Magalhães emphasizes the importance of urban production and commercial activity that catered to local, regional, and imperial markets. Thus, the urban working classes of Africa were not merely serving the local elite; on the contrary, Magalhães argues that they were, to a significant extent, both socially and economically independent of the elite. This socio-economic argument is an instrumental part of M's overarching effort to recuperate an independent historical agency for the plebs urbana.

In chapters 2 and 3 (43-123), Magalhães examines five important urban sites (Carthage, Timgad, Sabratha, Leptiminus, Meninx) where productive and commercial activity is attested in the Late Roman period. While pottery kilns are mainly found in suburban areas, Magalhães also locates craftsmen within the city ⎯ for instance, in two large complexes of insulae near the waterfront of Carthage, where hydraulic basins and cisterns have been found. Although (as Magalhães emphasizes) we cannot know precisely how such spaces were used, for Magalhães it suffices to speak generally about craftsmen living and working together in discrete areas throughout the city. The "textile quarter" in Timgad (where 17 of the known 22 fulleries have been found) and the vicus argentariorum (the street of the silversmiths/bankers) at Carthage are discussed as examples of a craft traditionally occupying a specific neighborhood. Magalhães warns against the facile notion that urban properties owned by wealthy individuals and rented out to tenants and craftsmen (as the insulae-complexes at Carthage appear to have been, with well-attested parallels at Ostia and Karanis) produced relations of social dependence. Magalhães generally encourages us to move away from the idea that the ancient city was dominated by the vertical power-networks of the urban elite. Instead, he urges us to consider the horizontal ties and forces of cohesion that would have bound members of the urban working classes who lived and worked in the same areas, and who (as comparative research suggests) would have been motivated to pool resources and cooperate to promote their common interests.

In chapter 4, Magalhães gives a synoptic survey of the variety of contexts (the baths, the games, streets, markets, taverns, professional associations and, of course, the church) in which urban populations came together to socialize and participate in the life of the city. Magalhães criticizes what he calls "functionalist" interpretations (by Paul Veyne and others) of popular acclamations as staged events that ultimately served to reinforce social boundaries and traditional power structures — on the contrary, such "efficient control of the urban masses was merely a dream of the authorities" (148). Instead, Magalhães argues, a careful reading of Augustine's sermons shows that "the people" who gathered in Christian basilicas (many of whom were the same people who cheered in the theater and rioted in the streets) were hardly diligent performers of a scripted social role: they were rowdy and insubordinate, occasionally to the point of violence, and even the charismatic authority of a bishop was often not enough to control the situation.

Against the backdrop of his thick description of urban environments in Late Roman Africa in Part I, Magalhães proceeds in Parts II and III to analyze the role of "the people" in specific events, mostly reported by Augustine.

In chapter 5, Magalhães examines a report of proceedings from 320 against the bishop Silvanus of Cirta disputing the legitimacy of his election in 307. In the document, an opposition is made between the populus supporting Silvanus (allegedly including arena-workers, prostitutes and rustics) and the cives and populus dei ⎯ "the citizens" and "the people of God" i.e. the legitimate congregation of the city. Magalhães suggests that this discursive opposition between citizens and rustics may have corresponded to a keenly felt distinction between the core citizenry of Cirta and the mass of immigrants and rural migrants who lived or worked in the city. More dubious, however, is Magalhães's attempt to reconstruct precisely what happened at the elections from what is clearly a very tendentious and one-sided account. It would have been more productive to analyze more closely the logic of the account itself, and to consider in greater depth what was at stake in the African church in this tense period (on which now see Brent Shaw's 2011 study).1

In chapter 6, Magalhães discusses Augustine's election as co-bishop by the congregation of Hippo in 391, and the failed attempt of the Hipponenses to secure the ordination of the super-rich senator Pinianus as priest during his visit in 411. The Pinianus episode is recounted by Augustine in a letter to Pinianus' mother Albina, who was incensed that Augustine had allowed her son to be mobbed by his congregation simply because they wanted his money. Augustine insisted that his congregation had acted of its own accord, and that he could not control them. Magalhães takes these statements seriously, and argues that the mass of people in the basilica were collectively (and more or less spontaneously) pushing for their interests. As in the previous chapter, more critical attention should have been paid to the rhetorical complexity and slipperiness of Augustine's account. Nevertheless, Magalhães's discussion ⎯ bringing in important details, such as the embargo on African wheat in 409-410, which likely caused financial panic and broad discontentment at Hippo ⎯ cogently contributes to our understanding of the events.

In chapter 7, Magalhães discusses two further cases of ecclesiastical elections where popular demonstrations played a key role. In the first case, a certain Honorius, a small-town bishop and member of an aristocratic family, launched a veritable electoral campaign and won massive popular support in his bid for the bishopric of Caesarea in Mauretania against the wishes of the local clergy. Clearly, Magalhães argues, the will of the people was a force to be reckoned with: so ferocious were the popular demonstrations in favor of Honorius that the local bishops ended up involving the primate of Carthage, as well as Augustine himself, in the elections. The final outcome is unknown. The second case involves Augustine's designation of the priest Heraclius as his own successor at Hippo. As the people acclaimed Heraclius, Augustine had their cheers recorded as documentary proof that the candidate had obtained popular approval, in order to preclude future strife in his church. Here again, the consent of "the people" was instrumental.

In chapter 8, Magalhães discusses an act of vandalism that took place in 401, after a newly arrived governor of Africa had authorized the gilding of the beard of a statue of Hercules (presumably requested by the pagan officials of the city). The Christian community perceived this as a provocation, especially since imperial laws were progressively shutting down pagan cults. In the night, the gilded beard was "shaved" off ⎯ a calculated act of derision that fell short of actually destroying the statue and violating the law. Magalhães perceptively analyzes this incident as an act of symbolic resistance against the traditional dominance of the pagan elite. Magalhães then discusses a riotous occasion when a Carthaginian banker (argentarius) sought to convert to Christianity, which was perceived as a shameless attempt to promote his political career. Facing the ire of the congregation at Carthage, Augustine was finally able to persuade them to chant their approval of the new convert.

In chapter 9, Magalhães discusses an outbreak of violence that occurred in the town of Calama after the Christian clergy had tried to interfere with a traditional pagan festival. The clergy had advance-notice of new imperial legislation prohibiting pagan cult, so they took it upon themselves to stop the pagan procession (Magalhães attributes the initiative to the pro-active bishop Possidius, who, like Augustine, had labored long and hard to repress the Donatists in his city and to create a unified Catholic community). Magalhães interprets the violent reaction of the parading crowd (leading to the death of at least one Christian) as an escalation of long-standing tensions between the two groups, and as the result of built-up resentment against Possidius' interventionist methods. Thus, Magalhães argues, this episode of popular violence had a social and political logic, and was not merely an accidental rupture of the established order.

Finally, in chapter 10, Magalhães discusses an episode of non-religious violence, where pagan and Christian groups collaborated in the lynching of a hated and corrupt imperial tax official. Although Augustine speaks of the "undisciplined mob," the act appears to have been well-planned, since the attackers had mobilized their family members and slaves. We gather from Augustine's sermon that the people performing the deed saw themselves as exercising a kind of popular justice, after formal complaints to imperial authorities had failed. Thus, Magalhães argues, this act of violence was not random or irrational, but was a true instance of collective action, and a calculated escalation of the ongoing dialogue (which routinely took place through popular acclamations) between the urban population and the imperial authorities.

This study has many merits. It is clearly and lucidly written, with careful and sensitive readings of the sources. Especially commendable is Magalhães de Oliveira's ability to place a wide variety of sources (archaeology, epigraphy, papyri, legal sources and Christian texts) in dialogue, which often yields vivid and compelling historical arguments. Although one can object that the archaeological evidence is lacunose, and its interpretation controversial, and that we can only have a very indirect sense of Augustine's audience from his sermons, the sheer fact of bringing these bodies of evidence systematically together for the first time makes for an innovative and thought-provoking contribution. But the rapprochement can also be misleading, in privileging specific, archaeologically visible groups. In the second half of the volume (especially in the concluding chapter), Magalhães occasionally attributes motivations to "the people" as if "the people" were the professional groups (craftsmen, shopkeepers, etc.) that he identifies in the first half. Naturally, the masses that gathered at the games, in the forum, and in the basilica featured people from all walks of life, including scribes, doctors, notaries, lawyers, students of rhetoric, day laborers, military men — and, of course, women! Urban landowners (only a small part of whom belonged to the curial class) have also been rather unceremoniously written out of Magalhães's picture.

Some surprising bibliographical omissions include Kanyang 2000 on bishops and their congregations, and Georg Schöllgen's work on Tertullian and Carthage, which likewise employs archaeology and epigraphy to identify Tertullian's urban audience. Fundamental omissions include Clifford Ando's 2000 study of communicative action in the Roman imperial provinces, which is directly relevant to chapters 4 and 10, and Caroline Humfress' 2007 study of the Late Imperial legal system and its instrumentalization in Christian conflicts, which is directly relevant to chapters 8 and 9 — in fact, the vibrant legal culture of Late Roman Africa is a dimension that is entirely missing from Magalhães's study. The reader will notice that chapters 8 and 10 remain essentially identical to the earlier versions published as articles in Antiquité Tardive in 2004 and 2006. A useful English abstract of the book will be appreciated by non-francophone readers.2

This study tackles an important subject, and it is well-worth reading, not only for the questions it asks and the solutions it offers, but above all for the questions and problems it opens up. It emerges indirectly, but powerfully from this study that "the people" had an important structural role in the Late Roman city. The nature of this role, and how, exactly, it was changing in an increasingly Christian world, are some of the key questions that remain for the author and others to address.


1.   Brent D. Shaw, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge 2011).
2.   Jean-Anatole Sabw Kanyang, Episcopus et plebs: L’évêque et la communauté ecclésiale dans les conciles africains (345–525) (Frankfurt and Bern 2000); Georg Schöllgen, Ecclesia sordida? Zur Frage der sozialen Schichtung frühchristlicher Gemeinden am Beispiel Karthagos zur Zeit Tertullians (Münster 1985); Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2000); Caroline Humfress, Orthodoxy and the Courts in Late Antiquity (Oxford 2007).

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