BMCR 2001.03.07

Ethnicity and Culture in Late Antiquity

, , , Ethnicity and culture in late antiquity. London: Duckworth, 2000. xvii, 343 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715630431

This book is cunningly titled. One expects a collection of papers on ethnicity and culture in Late Antiquity. Instead, one gets some papers on ethnicity in Late Antiquity and other papers on culture in Late Antiquity. Most of the papers in both categories are quite good but they engage neither one another nor a coherent larger theme. The editors do make a valiant effort to discover an underlying theme in the various contributions: in the years between 300 and 600, external changes to the Roman empire caused internal changes to ethnicity, culture, and communal identity. Ethnicity and culture are elastic terms, best not defined too closely. Culture is spoken of with reference to empire-wide categories of identity—Romans, Greeks, Christians, Jews. Ethnicity is the attribute of smaller, geographically-circumscribed communities that differ in one way or another from the dominant culture. Context is the key to all such definitions, because it is only under certain—often very rare—circumstances that active ethnic or cultural definition becomes necessary. The editors’ introduction, which broaches these and many other questions, is one of the most valuable essays in the book and an original contribution in its own right. It does not, however, impose a unity on what remains a set of stubbornly disconnected papers.

The papers, which derive from the 1998 Swansea conference on ‘Race, Religion and Culture in Late Antiquity’ cover the following subjects: John Curran on the problem of conversion in Roman history; David Noy on immigrants in late imperial Rome; John Matthews and Jill Harries with two very different approaches to law and identity in the fifth-century west; Hartwin Brandt on paganism in hagiography; Catrin Lewis on the role of the Gallic civitas in Gallo-Roman identity; Mark Handley on systems of chronological reckoning in the Burgundian kingdom; David Lambert on the barbarians in Salvian; Stephen Mitchell on local ethnicity in Asia Minor; Yulia Ustinova on identity in the late antique Bosporan kingdom; Engelbert Winter on Mithraism and Christianity; Fiona Nicks on literary culture under Anastasius; Naomi Janowitz on Jewish identity; David Milson on synagogue furnishings; Sacha Stern on pagan images in late antique synagogues; Theresa Urbainczyk on the uses of Syriac in Theodoret’s Religious History; Geoffrey Greatrex on the Roman identity in the sixth century; Hugh Elton on the Isaurians; Rachael Pallas-Brown on Roman perceptions of the Avars; and Kate Adshead on Justinian’s late conversion to aphthartodocetism.

Among these disparate efforts, some papers demand greater attention than others. Matthews and Harries are always worth reading, and here the contrasts between their positions demonstrate how fruitful the examination of law as an element of cultural identity can be. For Matthews, Roman law is a conscious part of constructing identity within the relationship of fifth-century Gallo-Romans and Goths. While treating such interpretative problems as the nature of the Code of Euric and the Breviarium, Matthews presents Roman law as the ground on which Romans and Goths could articulate a means of living together. Harries, by contrast, sees Roman law as a ‘cultural battlefield’, a mark of identity which Gothic rulers appropriated for themselves as a statement of control over their subjects. Both approaches are stimulating, though both mask assumptions that bear further discussion. For Matthews and Harries, ‘Goth’ and ‘Roman’ are reified categories, with palpable distinctions between them. Yet the nature of such putative distinctions is nowhere discussed. This fact, one suspects, leads to a second and more serious assumption: both authors believe that the natural condition of the Gotho-Roman relationship is hostility, that a perception of difference (ethnic, racial, cultural, or however the difference was defined) implies necessary mutual opposition. To a certain extent, this assumption is a function of our sources, almost all of them the work of Gallo-Roman aristocrats. Yet behind the rhetoric of opposition, both ancient and modern, there lies a reality of mutually beneficial collaboration which neither Matthews nor Harries acknowledges.

Some of the more technical papers on cultural topics are similarly stimulating. Handley’s piece on the reckoning of time brings out the genuinely anomalous incidence of consular dating within the territories of the Burgundian kingdom. Handley sets forth the evidence exhaustively (though with a certain amount of special pleading on the practice of church councils) and provides a brief but important analysis, linking the use of consular dates to the intervention of the Burgundian royal house in the imperial struggles of the the 470s and seeing it as a statement of Burgundian Romanitas. In an equally interesting vein, Lewis’s article on the civitas argues that the basic unit of identity in Gaul—from Caesar’s conquest to the post-Roman period—was neither provincial nor imperial but rather that of the civitas. The idea is attractive and probably correct: it would certainly help us make sense of the behaviour of many fifth- and sixth-century individuals whom we know. Unfortunately, the author’s use of evidence fails to prove the point. Too often, Lewis takes evidence of an individual’s office (e.g., bishop of Tours, count of Trier) as evidence of an individual’s personal identification with a civitas. Equally as important, an acquaintance with the works of Jean Durliat would have greatly strengthened Lewis’s appeal to the role of curial duties in the maintenance of a civitas -identity.

On the whole, however, the papers on ethnicity are more successful than those on culture, if only because they have a real argumentative focus. Mitchell’s piece on identities in Asia Minor is rather discursive, but all the better for it. By seizing on a variety of evidentiary categories, Mitchell shows how indigenous ethnic identities were both defined and gradually squeezed out by the universalizing cultural identities of Romanitas —or Hellenism—and Christianity. A vital contribution to the growing literature on ‘becoming Roman’, Mitchell’s piece is especially useful for its emphasis on the purely administrative interests of official imperial culture. Identities which did not correspond to the administrative boundaries of imperial government had no official existence, and, over time, the local sense of identity had to play catch up with the new reality constructed from above.

Elton’s piece on the Isaurians seems pedestrian at first but is actually quite useful: by presenting a full, rather than selective, catalogue of the evidence for later fifth- and sixth-century Isaurians, Elton is able to show that outsiders began to construct a definite Isaurian identity only after Zeno the Isaurian became emperor and thus created an interest in what it was that made Isaurians what they were. Yet at the same time Elton shows that the behaviour of groups designated as Isaurian in the sources cannot be attributed to, and was not determined by, that ethnicity. Other articles on the theme of ethnicity likewise bear close attention. Greatrex’s piece on the Roman identity in the sixth century is filled with acute observations on the details of sixth-century political history, though it retreats somewhat from the categories of ethnicity and acculturation which he and Mitchell discuss in their introduction. Urbainczyk’s analysis of the significance of Syriac in Theoderet’s Religious History is subtle and persuasive, one of the best things in the whole volume, showing as it does how Theoderet situates his own power between Hellenized and Syriac communities by carefully underscoring both the ability to deploy Greek and/or Syriac and their actual use in practice.

Just as the best papers in the volume are concerned with ethnicity so too are the worst. Both Ustinova and Pallas-Brown practise a brand of archaeological ethnic-ascription which undermines their conclusions. Ethnic ascription in archaeology selects certain elements in an archaeological assemblage as ethnically diagnostic and then posits that where these elements occur, a defined ethnic group is present. This archaeologically-defined ethnicity is equated to a linguistic group and to one or more ethnicities named by the historical sources. With the three categories of evidence linked to each other in this way, each category of evidence can be used to fill gaps in the others and extend hypotheses indefinitely. But as we should by now realize, aspects of material culture can be transmitted without the transfer of any sense of identity, while linguistic community need not imply shared perceptions of identity, still less shared material culture. Approaches that assume the intersection of ethnicity, language, and material culture—as most Central and Eastern European schools of history and archaeology still do—cannot help but distort the complexity of the historical past. Working within these rigid assumptions, Ustinova argues that the Bosporan kingdom was gradually ‘Sarmatized’ by the immigration of indigenes of Iranian stock into the Hellenic population of the Bosporan cities during the first through third centuries. The evidence of ‘Iranian’ artifacts, onomastics, and the scanty historical sources is deployed so indiscriminately as to render the conclusions irrelevant. While Ustinova believes that archaeological ascription can produce scientifically valid results and consciously deploys evidence within the parameters of the method, Pallas-Brown merely borrows the approach from the secondary sources on which she relies. The longest paper in the volume, her piece on the Avars is almost wholly derivative. A series of modern theoretical dicta are trotted out to warn us of the biases inherent in our sources, but the lessons of the theorists are alternately misapplied and misunderstood. To take just one of the many lapses: it is surely right, though by no means revelatory, to show that Byzantine sources distort the historical reality of the Avars by reference to a Classicizing stereotype of the steppe nomad as Scythian. But to then use Byzantine reports of Turkish practice as evidence for Avar practice is surely only a modern variation of the same assumption about the basic identity of all steppe nomads.

In the final analysis, this volume remains a heterogeneous collection of essays, with a common theme imposed after the fact by the editors. Nearly all the contributions will be of use to one audience or another, while a few can be read with profit by anyone with an interest in the period. Yet one structural point does hold all of these essays together, a consistent disregard for the reams of work on ethnogenesis emerging from the Vienna school and its epigones. For some—western medievalists in particular, one imagines—this will seem a grievous fault. To the mind of the present reviewer, it is a virtue, and the most compelling reason for Mitchell and Greatrex’s volume to find a wide audience. The fact that productive discussion of late antique ethnicity can take place outside the parameters set by current ethnogenesis-theory is a lesson worth learning. The volume under review is a good place for that lesson to begin.