BMCR 1994.02.13

1994.02.13, Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth

, Empire to commonwealth : consequences of monotheism in late antiquity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. xvii, 205 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691069890.

F.’s central argument in this book is that the adoption of monotheism by a political entity results first of all in an attempt to achieve what he calls “world empire” and secondly and subsequently in a different kind of unity for which he adopts the term “commonwealth.” The title of the book thus reflects both the terminology and the process he attempts to outline. Since the goal of political monotheism (or those monotheisms F. chooses to study) was “world empire,” only the Islamic state was successful and even then only for a short while; the achievement of a “commonwealth” is, in fact, a failure to achieve a “world empire” in the long term. F. is, of course, aware of this, indeed defines it as such, and discusses the eventual mutation of the early Islamic state into a commonwealth of smaller states linked by their common cultural and religious ideals, a situation that obtains until the present (see his Epilogue). For this process, he blames monotheism itself, arguing that it results in the kind of heresy that can destroy the cohesiveness of a political entity (156: “Monotheism tends to be inherently divisive because of precisely this tension it sets up between orthodoxy and heresy.”). He does not fully consider the realistic possibility that monotheism without heresy can be achieved, nor does he apparently admit that other factors, political, cultural or geographic, for example, might be given equal or greater importance than religious heresy. The failure of the central Islamic authority to hold, let us say, Spain or North Africa, might well lie in the fact that their inhabitants were culturally diverse from the Muslims at the centre and resented outside political interference.

F.’s book reveals, to my mind, too much prejudicial argumentation. The narrative, in and of itself interesting and useful at many points, is meant to support a conceptual framework that depends on F.’s definition of terms; it is also a process that in essence argues from result to origin. Perhaps the most important example of this is F.’s concept of world empire. He determines (19) that in antiquity the achievement of world empire, the orbis terrarum in Roman terms, requires control of the eastern Mediterranean basin and the Iranian plateau (let us leave aside entirely the question of the suitability of a term which is more modern than ancient). There is no self-evident reason why this should automatically be so. Rome’s emperors and their subjects, considered themselves masters of the whole world, without the benefit of the Iranian plateau. An occasional desire to control the entire region might better be considered expansionist than the result of a recognition of inadequacy as world empire without it. And Trajan, who conquered much of the territory in question, however briefly, did so without the support of a monotheistic political entity, without which, in F.’s view, the desire to conquer or build a universal empire is lacking or compromised. In short, the suggestion that control of these areas was required is an imposition of the future upon the past. F. argues that the Muslims finally achieved an Islamic world empire when they expanded to include the Iranian plateau and built their new capital at Baghdad. Because this was the only true world empire in antiquity, according to F., all other pretensions to world empire must necessarily have had the desire to include the region within their embrace.

The argument is deceptively misleading, prejudicial and leads to questionable statements about earlier periods. Constantine is said to have recognised the “East’s importance as not only bulwark but now also generator of Christian Rome’s health and identity” (4-5), as if the West did not matter much anymore and built his new capital at Constantinople. This can hardly be true. In the first place, whatever Constantinople eventually became, it was originally a military stronghold on the European shore of the Bosporus, designed to prevent the existing Roman East from following a Roman usurper across the strait while Constantine was other wise occupied (see my forthcoming book on Themistius for a fuller discussion of this view). Edessa, or a similar place, offered a much better location for the foundation of a new capital by an emperor with designs on the Iranian plateau as an essential component of world empire. F.’s own method of argument thus fails him on this point (see above on Baghdad), though, I suppose, a suggestion that the concept of the plateau’s importance was in its incipient stages (and that the link with monotheism was new) might preserve some aspects of the theory, though not of historical validity.

Similarly, the statement that after the fall of the West, “it gradually came to be accepted that Rome might still be Rome without its western half” (14) is at best selective. In the first place, the concept metes out rough justice to the plaintive cries of a Jerome, cloistered in Bethlehem, that the world had collapsed with the sack of Rome in 410 and to the efforts, most notably by Justinian, to recapture the West. That the Byzantine Empire (why have historians developed this term if Byzantium was essentially Roman without Rome?) eventually accepted its inability to reclaim the West is not an argument that the West was not important, as exemplified in the following sentences: “The important players in the game of world empire were, after all, in the East. They were Christian Rome with its capital at Constantinople, the Sasanian Empire, and the Islamic Empire. Almost all culture that needed to be taken seriously had arisen in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria-Mesopotamia, or Iran. Even Roman law could now be perfectly well studied at Beirut” (14). Quite apart from the logical inconsistency of including Roman law, which had arisen in none of the three places mentioned, but was nevertheless of great importance, there was, of course, a Christian Rome with a capital at Rome, and only one part of the “game of world empire” was played, even in antiquity, by the players mentioned. At best, the statements are selective to a time, place and definition (i.e., what constitutes the quest for a world empire). Secondly, it would be equally cogent to suggest that Rome could be Rome without its eastern half, if titular considerations are to be applied: the Holy Roman Empire in the West is sufficient guarantee of that. It is better, in fact, to raise a monument to the morbid Roman Empire and argue that neither the East nor the West was truly a continuator of Rome. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of these statements is the fact that a situation more or less suitable to the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries is transported backwards to the fourth and fifth, as if the inhabitants of the Roman Empire in the early period had preconceptualised the situation that would obtain in the future: F. addresses these points in a single discussion meant to analyse the entire period.

One further example should be sufficient to establish the point that the methodology and terminology on view in this book raises some serious questions. F. suggests that a commonwealth, as compared to world empire, depends on some shared ideals across political boundaries. Thus, the Islamic world became a commonwealth after the earlier political unity dissipated into smaller units. Similarly, he employs the concept of commonwealth to unite the Christian portions of the eastern Mediterranean basin and the Iranian plateau after the baptism of the Armenian ruler Tiridates IV no later than 314, suggesting that the “First Byzantine Commonwealth” (his term) was beginning to “emerge in the Fertile Crescent just as the Roman Empire was switching from persecution to toleration of Christianity, and a full decade before Constantine gained control of the eastern provinces and founded Constantinople” (79). This baffles: the foundation of the eventual capital of the Byzantine state would seem to be an absolutely necessary precondition for a Byzantine Commonwealth to exist, and, in any case, the term implies more political unity than ever existed. It would be more accurate to speak of a “Christian Commonwealth,” since the common ground was Christianity, not Byzantium, even at a later date. This is evident from F.’s own discussion (Ch. 5: “The First Byzantine Commonwealth: Interactions of Political and Cultural Universalism” [100-137]). That the religious basis for such a term can transcend doctrinal differences (Chalcedonians, Monophysites, Nestorians, and others) is evident from his use of “Islamic Commonwealth” for a unity that encompasses both Sunnis and Shiites (rather than “Arabic” or some other term) in the chapter on Islam (Ch. 6: “Islam: World Empire, Then Commonwealth” [138-168]).

In fairness to F., it must be pointed out that I am not one of those inclined to adopt easily the methodologies imported into the study of ancient history from the social sciences by way of modern history. For that reason, this review has concentrated on this aspect of F.’s book and could perhaps also be regarded as a comment on a trend in scholarship. A reviewer with different concerns might well adopt a different approach. Nevertheless, however much the narrative and description in works written in this way often offer useful and interesting fact and even interpretation, as F.’s book does in many places (e. g., the surveys of the Christianisation of the East, Arabia, Ethiopia and Nubia, and of the spread of Islam), too often this method of historical scholarship imposes the interpretation on the evidence, without permitting the evidence to lead to the interpretation, is required to define at length terms and words used in a manner almost foreign to the English tongue, and is disseminated in a jargon unsuitable to a branch of scholarship that was, after all, regarded as a form of literature in antiquity. F.’s book is relatively free of jargon, though such statements as “polytheists ought not to have been content with the polytheism-plurinationalism equation (as Celsus and Julian were), but to have evolved a polyarchic political philosophy too” (59) can be found. The general reader, whom F. is said, on the dust jacket, to be addressing, might well raise an eyebrow or two.

In conclusion, questions of methodology aside, F. offers much that is new, interesting and certainly correct in a manner that is generally appealing. The interaction of different cultures in the Ancient Near East is currently a popular area of research. F. has offered a valuable contribution to this field.