Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.52

Robin Whelan, Being Christian in Vandal Africa: The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 59.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 301.  ISBN 9780520295957.  $95.00.  


Reviewed by Ralf Bockmann, German Archaeological Institute Rome (ralf.bockmann@dainst.de)

Preview

This is a remarkable first book by a young scholar. It could not have been written ten or fifteen years ago - the image we have of Vandal North Africa today is so much more balanced and differentiated after the recent focus on the Vandal period and the important work that came with it. 1 Robin Whelan is very familiar with this scholarship and skillfully uses it as a basis on which to build his own arguments. Given the work of recent years, one would have thought that almost all is said and done on Vandal North Africa for the time being, but this book says something new. Whelan's topic is the ecclesiastical conflict in which two churches, one with a stronger local tradition, the other with support by the royal court, were in competition for position, influence and, ultimately, followers. One was the Nicene church of North Africa, a church that considered itself Catholic, especially after its official victory over the Donatist church. The other was the church following the so called Homoian creed (based on the councils of Rimini and Seleucia), established institutionally after the Vandal conquest of the central parts of North Africa, and labelled 'Arian' by its adversaries. 2 Whelan starts by pointing out that the major ecclesiastical conflict of Vandal North Africa still appears as a peculiarity and a factor for disruptive change. Although its main source, Victor of Vita's History of the Vandal Persecution, has been reevaluated, 3 it is still influential in the perception of the main features of the conflict. Whelan sets out to contextualise the Nicene-Homoian controversy that unfolded in the Vandal kingdom as part of the general Christian debate of the time. It is a great achievement that the author has identified and unlocked an understudied body of evidence in heresiological texts from North Africa (he gives neat tables of the main authors on pp. 43 and 48) that greatly adds to the understanding of the epoch.

The book is divided into two main parts. In the first part, called 'Contesting Orthodoxy' and comprised of four chapters, Robin Whelan reconstructs the strategies of legitimation used by both churches. The first chapter, 'African Churches', argues that the Homoian church should not be seen merely as a 'state church' of the Vandal court, and their bishops not mainly as politically motivated actors. Instead the Homoian church was in fact a valid alternative for North African Christians on religious terms. The second chapter studies the 'weapons' used in the conflict: heresiological literature in the form of tractates, florilegia and dialogues. Whelan discusses a number of exemplary texts, extracts how they worked as highly polemical texts, and illustrates which tactics writers used to defame their opponents. The following chapter specifically takes the Homoian side into view and uses the few surviving texts with Homoian background as well as carefully extracted evidence from Nicene polemics to show how the Homoian church portrayed itself as orthodox and the Nicene church as heretical. Whelan convincingly argues that the tactics used by the Homoian church, including securing the support of the state to declare their opponents illegal and impose sanctions on them, were not only basically the same as the ones applied by the Nicene church, but also that they were successful enough to make the Homoian church a serious contestant for orthodoxy. The fourth chapter examines Nicene tactics in detail. The Nicene writers linked the Homoian church to the Arians of the early fourth century while portraying themselves as members of a continuously triumphant Catholic church. Arguments used in the conflict with the Donatists were transformed to discredit the Homoian church in the current controversy. Whelan details how Vigilius of Thapsa applied different strategies when creating and editing texts that included drawing on authoritative figures from the past and incorporating them in arguments in the form of the dialogue. He shows how Nicene writers made use especially of historical recreations to declare their opponents heretical and to support their own claim on orthodoxy.

The second part, entitled 'Orthodoxy and Society' begins with a short introduction in which the author rightfully stresses that, although there were many spheres in Vandal North Africa that were purely secular, Christianity played such an integral part in state and society that it should not be considered purely on its own in a historical study. The following three chapters link the findings of the first part of the book to broader contexts of social life and politics in Vandal North Africa. In a chapter about the relations between Nicene bishops and the Vandal court, Whelan stresses that Nicene bishops effectively remained part of the elite of North Africa, even if temporarily exiled, by discussing the cases of Eugenius, bishop of Carthage in the last quarter of the fifth century and Fulgentius, bishop of Ruspe in the first quarter of the sixth century. The following chapter treats identity, aligning with current scholarship on it as as a multi-faceted and situational concept. Contrary to expectations, Whelan shows that ethnic identity did not play an important role for Homoian identity. He furthermore stresses that Nicene clerics did not often exploit arguments centering on barbarians, but instead built up their case in a more allusive way by stating that heretics had profited from the actions of impious barbarians. Interestingly and importantly, the question of 'right' Christianity was detached from the question of ethnicity in Vandal North Africa. The following chapter further explores this point, looking specifically at the Christian aspects of the representational strategies of the secular and political elite. Examining representative burials of the Vandal period (with particular attention paid to the example of Thuburbo Maius), Whelan underlines that these burials were social, not ethnic representations that were probably purposefully ambiguous when it came to their Christian affiliation. In the same sense, the poems of the Anthologia Latina show that religion did not have to be a divisive factor in social interactions of the elite of Vandal North Africa. Christian piety could be used to universally display social status by carefully avoiding statements on ecclesiastical affiliation.

The epilogue discusses 'Homoian Christianity in the Post-Imperial West' and stresses that Vandal North Africa was not an anomaly. Its Christian controversies unfolded very much like previous ecclesiastical conflicts in North Africa; in this respect (as in many others) Vandal North Africa was a continuation of late-Roman North Africa. Whelan makes the point that Vandal North Africa should not be so much considered an outlier, but rather seen as part of the larger developments in late antique Christianity of the time, as well as the situation in the Vandal kingdom in the western Mediterranean. Vandal North Africa was more confrontational in many ways than other societies, but it still seems to have been possible to be pious as well as pragmatic, as Whelan phrases it (p. 223), depending on the circumstances.

Robin Whelan's book has a clear structure, is very comprehensible and convincing in its arguments, and summarises conclusions frequently. The introduction frames the detailed arguments in the chapters and gives a helpful preview of what to expect in terms of the main ideas and arguments that are to follow. In general, the book is very well written and a pleasure to read. It is complemented by a map and helpful timeline. It is an important addition to the fields of early Christian, late antique and North African studies. Whelan succeeds in contextualising the Nicene-Homoian conflict of North Africa within the larger picture of late-antique Christian controversies, without separating it from its social implications and practicalities. There are only minor points of criticism from my perspective. More consideration could have been given to the internal chronology and the considerable changes in ecclesiastical politics in different phases of the Vandal kingdom. This is admittedly difficult, because the period of the establishment of the Vandal kingdom and the rule of Geiseric, spanning almost the first 50 years of the Vandal period in North Africa, did not produce the same amount and kinds of source material as the latter roughly 60 years. Closely connected to this is the tendency to tip the scales maybe a little too much in the other direction by slightly underestimating the political side of the establishment of the Homoian church—especially in the less well-known early phase. Although I agree with Whelan that the reduction of the Homoian church to its possible political functions should be avoided, I still think that there were practical advantages in the transfer of the assets of the Nicene church especially in the region where the sortes vandalorum that fell to the leaders of the Vandal state lay. Furthermore, more attention to the very important cult of martyrs in Africa and its appropriation by the Homoian church would have further supported Whelan's argument of the Homoian church as serious contestant for the Nicene church.

These points, however, do not diminish in the slightest the great value of the book. The author convincingly makes use of recent scholarship when it comes to material culture, archaeology, and secular literature of Vandal North Africa to contextualise his original work on the Christian literature of the period. Herein lies the book's greatest achievement: it skillfully analyzes Christian texts from Vandal North Africa that have not received enough attention but which, as Whelan masterly shows, nevertheless constitute a significant contribution to the understanding of the period. The result is the addition of a central piece to the mosaic of the image we have of the Vandal kingdom and its complex society today. The interest of Robin Whelan's book goes well beyond the confines of North Africa in contextualising the North African conflict more generally in late-antique Christianity. I highly recommend his book to anyone working on early Christianity.


Notes:


1.   The following list is not exhaustive, but gives a good overview: Merrills, Andrew H. and Richard Miles: The Vandals (Chichester & Malden: Wiley-Blackwell 2010) is the best general analysis and history of the period; Bockmann, Ralf: Capital continuous. A study of Vandal Carthage and central North Africa from an archaeological perspective (Wiesbaden: Reichert 2013) studies the archaeology; Steinacher, Roland: Die Vandalen. Aufstieg und Fall eines Barbarenreichs (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 2016) is the most recent historical work on the period in German; Conant, Jonathan: Staying Roman. Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press 2012) is especially important for questions of identity and interaction; Merrills, Andrew H. (ed.): Vandals, Romans and Berbers: New Perspectives on Late Antique North Africa (Aldershot: Ashgate 2004) contains many important articles from the early phase of the 'renaissance' of Vandal studies; Berndt, Guido M. and Roland Steinacher (eds.): Das Reich der Vandalen und seine (Vor-)Geschichten (Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 2008) is a good addition to Merrills 2004; Bernd, Guido M.: Konflikt und Anpassung: Studien zu Migration und Ethnogenese der Vandalen (Husum: Matthiesen 2007) deals specifically with questions of ethnicity, and last but not least the work of Philipp von Rummel, e.g. Habitus barbarus: Kleidung und Repräsentation spätantiker Eliten im 4. und 5. Jahrhundert (Berlin & New York: De Gruyter 2007) has redefined how the role of material culture should be viewed in late antique representation, with a special focus on Vandal North Africa.
2.   See for example the recent volume on Arianism: Berndt, Guido M. and Roland Steinacher (eds): Arianism: Roman heresy and barbarian creed. (Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate 2014). Whelan opts for the use of 'Nicene' and 'Homoian' as opposed to the more ideologically loaded 'Catholic' and 'Arian', which very much makes sense in this book.
3.   See e.g. Danuta Shanzer, 'Intentions and Audiences: History, Hagiography, Martyrdom and Confession in Victor of Vita's Historia persecutionis in Merrills 2004 (see note 1) and in general the work of Eric Fournier.

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