BMCR 2000.09.01

Constructing Identities in Late Antiquity

, Constructing identities in late antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. 1 online resource (ix, 262 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0203016173. $75.00.

The book consists of eleven papers by British scholars. Miles introduces the subject claiming that difference and identity are the main organising principles in individual lives as in societies. To define self and other is of course fundamental for every social collective. Individuals and groups are characterised by dominating as well as by competing and conflicting identities. The title of the book “Constructing identities in Late Antiquity” makes it clear that the contributions are not dealing with historical facts and “realities” but are looking for the motives and perceptions of defining and constructing identities through image and text in a changing society. The temporal horizon of the papers is the third to sixth centuries.

After a short introduction to the “identity” theme (the production, consummation and regulating of identities in cultures as well as the geographic, social, ethnic and cultural boundaries of the definition of the self), Miles (1-15) gives his interpretation of the main aims and results of the papers. As there is no single late antique culture it is obvious that there is no unitary late antique identity.

Tim Whitemarsh, “The Writes of Passage. Cultural initiation in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica” (16-40), interprets the love story of Charicleia and Theagenes as a rite de passage. For him, the narrative passing of the border between Egypt and Ethiopia is a highly symbolic boundary-crossing. The Egyptian part of the story, the tenderness and sweetness of the Nile, makes this part of the story more than intercultural travel story and more than a simple metaphor for narrative closure. It is itself a metaphor, an analogy of the development of the young couple’s individualities and transition to adulthood given through a complex narrative pattern. Continually evolving and challenging patterns of discourses and languages make the simple love story interesting and give different loci for cultural identities. Though W.’s reading of the story is interesting, his conclusion that Heliodorus reorders and seeks to transform the world of late antiquity in writing a “counter-hegemonic, centrifugal, anti-Hellenocentric” novel seems somewhat farfetched.

Helen Morales, “Gender and Identity in Musaeus’ Hero and Leander” (41-69), also deals with a love story. M. analyses the poem’s discursive constructions of identity with gender as the operative category. She discusses first representations of vocality: how vocal expression is perceived and socialised, esp. voice and speech as indicative of sexual status; second the performativity of sexual identity esp. the different characterisations of Hero; and third the dominant ideological interpretation so far: marriage and civic identity. M.’s results are clear: women’s social roles appear to have been characterised by their lack of speech; Hero being a virgin by day (parthenos) and a woman by night (gune) makes it easy to characterise her as part of a man’s fantasy world, love-goddess and virgin: marriage is a central part of social order; rules (i.e. chaste behaviour of a priestess) have to be obeyed. M.’s result convinces: Hero and Leander can be interpreted as an allegory of social order. It gives a negative exemplum of not living according to social rules and shows what happens if a central civic institution like marriage is ignored.

Paula James, Prudentius’ Psychomachia. The Christian arena and the politics of display” (70-94), tries to convince the reader that the fight of the virtues Patientia, Fides, Sobrietas, Ratio etc. against the vices Avaritia, Ira, Libido, Superbia, Luxuria etc. is an ideological reconstruction of the Roman imperial amphitheatre. The parallels are obvious. The staging of judicial punishment and performance of a battle are as welcome to Christian mentality as they used to be the pagan one. Not surprisingly Tertullian had already described Judgement Day similar to pagan munera performed in an amphitheatre.

Pat Easterling and Richard Miles, “Dramatic Identities. Tragedy in late antiquity” (95-111), discuss the importance and impact of tragedy (texts and part-performances) on late antique culture. A reference to tragedy — texts or characters — was one of the indicators of cultural congruity for pagan and Christian elites. Tragic texts influenced Christian writing though some Christian authors criticised the ability of tragic performances to move an audience and though they had moral objections to the “deceit” of men pretending to be women. Dramatization of biblical texts and hagiographic stories was a means for Christian authors of reaching a wider audience and to made it easier to convert pagans. Many Christian authors shared the cultural language and identity of pagan culture. Tragedy was one of the most prominent products of this culture, and even its severest critics were products of it themselves and quoted from tragic plots. The relevance of tragedy can also be seen in the material evidence of late antique mosaics with theatre masks and other symbols of stage performance even though no tragedies were performed after the third or fourth century. The theatre as assembly place and focus of civic pride and identity remained quite a long time even without theatrical performances of complete tragedies.

Gillian Clark, “Translate into Greek. Porphyry of Tyre on the new barbarians” (112-132), is not easy to summarise. Most of her paper has to do with Porphyry, Plotinus and Neoplatonism and/or with foreign languages, Non-Greeks, barbarians and the ability to communicate. In some Greek texts barbaroi are accepted as bearers of culture, Egyptian priests for example, while in others barbaroi are treated as less than animals lacking logos. The language of philosophers was Greek, not Latin, and intellectuals had great mobility. What to do with this and other subjects at which C. hints in her paper is a question C. does not answer.

Simon Harrison, “Autobiographical Identity and Philosophical Past in Augustine’s Dialogue De Libero Arbitrio” (133-158), discusses first Augustine’s thoughts about his debt to what he read (esp. philosophical texts), second how Augustine constructs cultural identity as a question, and third the role of Augustine’s reader. Though it is often claimed that the interlocutors in Augustine’s dialogue are Augustine and Evagrius, this is far from obvious. The anonymity of the interlocutors forces the reader to think about arguments and ideas without the reassurance of their authority. The same is true for the anonymity of the philosophical authorities throughout the dialogue. One of the main subjects of the dialogue, evil and sin, is treated in a way that throws the reader back on himself: God has given us free will, therefore he is not responsible for our sins. Though Augustine knows that he owes much of his thinking, his intellectual abilities and his Christian faith to his past and his education, he wants to enable the readers of the dialogue to bear their own responsibility. Thinking about the dialogue should mean thinking about and understanding the reader’s identity and his relationship to the culture he is living in.

Peter Stewart, “The Destruction of Statues in Late Antiquity” (159-189), starts with the famous act of secular iconoclasm, the riot in Antioch 387 AD and the destruction of the images of the emperor Theodosius and his family. S. demonstrates that the secular iconoclastic tradition from the late Republic onwards ( damnatio memoriae or illegal destruction) has worked mainly with the same conventions, topoi and rules of violence and disorder: chanting, toppling of the statue, mutilation, dragging and refusal of disposal. An imperial statue had always served as a stand-in for the distant and venerated ruler. In contrast to imperial times, the portraits of late antique rulers were less individualised, portraying a class member marked by his diadem. Rather than a simple riot the destruction of Theodosius’s images was an attack on empire and state. Overturning the instruments and idols of pagan cult constituted an equally fundamental victory for Christians. It shows the old religion as powerless and mockable. The destruction of the idols symbolises the fall of Evil and the rise of God’s kingdom. The secular and the Christian statue-destruction in late antiquity had a common ground in their continuity of imagery, their repertory of symbolism, their common vocabulary and common rituals of iconoclasm from which new forms of Christian iconoclasm grew. Cultural Identity in this case is very much defined through the other, the difference.

Janet Huskinson, “Women and Learning. Gender and identity in scenes of intellectual life on late Roman sarcophagi” (190-213), argues that late antique imagery of women opens up new roles for women, confusing existing gender differentiation. H.’s presentation of the development from the beginning of the third century with the rise of muses-sarcophagi, seasons-sarcophagi with women’s portraits and later the new motive of Susanna reading (not in her bath but fully clothed) follows arguments already roughly drawn by Zanker. The funerary imagery for women in the early empire idealised domestic virtues, fidelity and physical beauty and is still relevant to late antique funeral monuments. Scrolls or scroll-boxes are the accessories which could denote a woman (or man) as learned. A female orans with a male philosopher or the Good Shepherd is also typical. The combination of religious attitudes like praying, attentive listening to Christian teachers, reading the bible or Christian texts with the secular world of learning and classical motives and iconography already hints at the difficulties in interpretation. Though new female attributes and activities are expressed, this must not be a reflex of a stronger female social empowerment.

Jill Harries, “Constructing the Judge. Judicial accountability and the culture of criticism in late antiquity” (214-233), traces the different ways judges were seen and characterized. Obviously no human judge was able to be compared to the ideal judge represented by God and his judgement on the Last Day. The transmitted records show judges who do careful cross-examination of witnesses and parties to a suit, who take into account advisers’ opinions and advice, and who scrupulously observe laws and rules. A change in literary taste from the 4th to 5th century is H.’s explanation for the change from the economical style of formal acta martyrorum to hagiographic stories with lengthy speeches of oppressive and sadistic persecuting governors. A similar phenomenon—not a change in real behaviour, but in perception or taste — may be true for the many laws included in the codices which aim to restrict the abuse of power through gratia, favouritism or improper influence. It is important to note that mechanisms in Roman law to hold judges responsible for improper conduct existed from the Twelve Tables. The difference in late antiquity seems to be not that the abuses were more extensive but that the emperors were aware of such abuses. For H. one of the distinguishing features of late antiquity is the ability to discuss and criticise the abuse of power openly and to rely on accountability.

Peter Heather, author of “The Barbarian in Late Antiquity. Image, reality, and transformation” (234-258), is an expert on the western empire and late antique barbarian kingdoms. His argumentation and his conclusions are easy to follow: barbarians are always the others. Barbarian contingents for example always fight on the usurper’s, the loser’s side. As the collapse of the empire and triumph of the barbarians had to represent God’s will, it was necessary to give clues to an arrangement with the new political situation without falling back on barabarophilia. It was much easier to draw the former barbaroi as Romans. The members of the elite of the Visigoths, Francs and Burgundians did much to be perceived as Romans. Education in the classics was basic to civitas and ius and could be obtained by everyone, even former barbarians. Romanization of successor-state kings made it easier for Romans to follow the new order. A king’s attempt to receive the much-needed support from the landowners was supported by the announcement and adaptation of Roman laws on property and testamentary rights. For most late antique writers and politicians the traditional notions of Roman and barbarian did not change. What did change was a recategorisation of notions which enabled barbarians to become Roman.

The book is not an introduction to the discussion about identity and difference in historical societies. What it does is to give some examples of constructions of identities through single texts (Heliodorus — wisdom and love outside the Hellenic culture; Musaeus — law and order; Prudentius — old images with new ideology; Porphyry — mobile intellectuals loving multicultural influences; Augustine — arguments must do without authority, so learn to be yourself) or through different types of texts (tragedy — even without performance a major basis of intellectual education and Christian thinking; acta martyrorum not interested in judges but hagiographic accounts drawing pictures of cruel judges to highlight the horror of Christian sufferings) or monuments (destruction of statues to strengthen one’s own position/religion; Roman sarcophagi developing new images of learned and praying women complementary to men’s activities) in late antiquity. Different approaches, often convincing conclusions and a lot of open questions make the book stimulating.