BMCR 2002.04.07

Interpreting Late Antiquity. Essays on the Postclassical World

, , , Interpreting late antiquity : essays on the postclassical world. Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. xiii, 280 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0674005988.

This book is a reprint of the first, non-alphabetical, part of Late Antiquity. A Guide to the Postclassical World, published for the first time in 1999, and reviewed in BMCR 2000.03.14. It would be pedantic and superfluous to redo the work of the reviewer, who has provided short outlines of the eleven articles concerned. I intend rather to add a few reflections of my own.

The title of the book deserves attention. Obviously the various authors intend to ‘interpret’ what was going on in their specific domains of late antiquity. On the basis of the relevant evidence they want to elucidate and to explain, indeed to understand the patterns and the structure which can be detected in sacred landscapes, philosophical reflection on the self, war and violence, ideals of beauty and comfort, etc. No ‘readings’ here or similar trendy and quickly worn out terms, but scholarly articles, in which the authors bring to light what they regard as vital and essential. Curiously, the eleven contributions are not called ‘studies’, which the publishing house may have found dull and unappealing, but ‘essays’. As far as I know, this is a general term, which is used to denote any composition in prose. Since none of the pieces has any poetic flavour, the word ‘essay’ is right in itself, but for the readers of BMCR it is perhaps useful to mention that the articles comply with high standards and provide much necessary material for those readers who wish to go deeper into a subject.

Remarkably, none of the pieces deals explicitly with the role and function of literature in late antiquity. The same holds true for education and learning. Of course, late antique authors and scholars and their writings appear on many pages and so does their place in the culture and society of their days, but in this collection the methods and views of modern historical, behavioural and social sciences take prime place in the interpretations. This adds to the value of the book for those who are concerned with typically philological and literary themes, whereas readers with little experience in these fields may feel somewhat deprived.

However, the preceding section should not be understood as a complaint. One cannot get everything simultaneously. Nevertheless, there is one absence which in my opinion is definitely disappointing for all readers. All our insights are based on primary evidence. This is a truism which in collections of the present type should receive due attention. In this respect Interpreting Late Antiquity is deficient. The ‘educated public in general’ (p.ix) — and whoever may belong to this enviable elite — is left in the dark. There are many references in which the primary material of whatever type appears as basic or crucial, but one dearly misses an overall ‘essay’ on the modern methods with which such data are handled, both in their own specific sense and, more important, in their interdependence. It could be objected that e.g. literary and historiographical sources will be taken for granted by any educated reader. Such an objection is justified as long as it is assumed that these readers are also fully aware of the need to ‘filter’ the information provided by such sources. The same can be said about the archeological findings. As to inscriptions and papyri, I am convinced that it is indispensable to describe the immense debt (post)classical studies owe to the editors of such sources and to the specialists who know to handle this type of evidence. In my experience even many classicists do not entirely realize that without this material we would know next to nothing about ‘Kultvereine’, military and civil careers, demography, financial affairs, binding spells, local government, to name but a few sectors of Greco-Roman society. Only one of the eleven authors provides a survey of the sources used. In the essay ‘Habitat’ (p. 258-272) Yizhar Hirschfeld describes the various types of evidence that are available for a sketch of “dwellings and domestic life in late antiquity”. It is a succinct but enlightening description, which makes the reader understand how such a sketch can be achieved and also how gaps in the evidence are of direct consequence for our knowledge and understanding. The other contributions would have gained in value by similar sections, and if all these had been supported by a general article on sources, the title of the book would have been even more justified.

The book contains little in the way of polemic or doxography. There are many helpful references to scholarly work in the notes, but the views which are set forth are not the subject of any sustained discussion with others. This is worthy of note in at least one crucial case, viz. the chronological demarcation of late antiquity. On p. ix of the ‘Introduction’ it is stated: “The essays in this volume … share the frank assumption that the time has come for scholars, students, and the educated public in general to treat the period between around 250 and 800 as a distinctive and and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own”. Such a demarcation does not appear out of thin air — it can already be found in the second editor’s The World of Late Antiquity (London, 1971) — but it is not a communis opinio, witness e.g. the Preface of vol. XIV of the Cambridge Ancient History, covering the period 425-600 A.D., published in 2000. In this preface the editors explain their adherence to A.H.M. Jones’ decision to close his The Later Roman Empire (Oxford, 1964) with the death of the emperor Maurice in 602. Band 4 of the Neues Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, which is devoted to Spaetantike (Wiesbaden, 1997) follows the periodization of A. Demandt, Die Spaetantike. Roemische Geschichte von Diokletian bis Justinian, 284-565 n. Chr. (Munich, 1989). In the only contribution specifically concerned with Islam, Hugh Kennedy concentrates on greater Syria and finally concludes: “The transition from the world of late antiquity to that of early Islam was gradual and multifaceted. Society and culture in the area changed slowly but markedly between the 4th century coming of Christianity and the fall of the Umayyads in 747-750” (p. 235). Such a phrase does not tally entirely with the chronological argument developed in the introduction. Moreover, in a fascinating part of his paper Kennedy deals with the transformation of the ancient eastern towns from broad colonnaded streets to narrow crowded suqs. Is not this a clear sign of a farewell to the past? Although the first phase of Islam crops up in most of the other contributions, one cannot resist the impression that some authors, who are not fully in tune with ‘Pirenne redivivus’, feel more at home within the traditional narrower boundaries of late antiquity.

Religion kept its privileged place, both in the private sphere and the public domain. These were the centuries in which orthodox Christian doctrine gradually gained the upper hand. In his ‘Christian Triumph and Controversy’ (p. 196-218) R. Lim explains how the often intricate controversies were further complicated by political and other vested interests, but he also warns against the assumption “that the disputed ideas served merely as excuses for Christians to engage along established lines of civic factional rivalry”. It was also a battle about contents, and this resulted in the flourishing of catenae, collections of erotapokriseis, florilegia and their like. Mud-slinging and demonizing opponents could be no less effective, in the rousing of popular feelings. On the other hand, the traditional polytheistic cults were not dead and done with, but they suffered from the lack of “self-consciously distinctive beliefs about the divine world”, as Garth Fowden phrases it on p. 88. Only philosophy could in a way compete with ‘scriptural religions’, Iamblichus’ “summa of polytheistic belief and cult” (p.86), wrongly called De mysteriis Aegyptiorum, being its apogee. But the gods manifested themselves elsewhere too, for instance ‘on domestic furnishings’ in the houses of well-to-do Christians and in the literature which they read, as is pointed out in Maguire’s paper ‘The Good Life’ (p. 238-257, with illustrations). The author thinks that “these pagan motifs should be read as embodying ideas of plenty and good fortune”. Here one almost hears Saint Lawrence speaking: tunc pura ab omni sanguine/ tandem nitebunt marmora./ stabunt et aera innoxia,/ quae nunc habentur idola, “then at last will her marbles shine bright because they will be cleansed from all blood, and the statues that stand in bronze, which now she thinks of as idols, will be guiltless” (Prudentius, Peristephanon 2.481-484 with H.J. Thomson’s translation). This is too good to be true. It is the mere survival of the pagan gods which is of prime importance; the various pious, allegorical and moral interpretations of their presence are secondary, both during late antiquity and since.

Even a superficial look at the history of late antiquity leaves the impression of the huge impact of military matters. The large essay on ‘War and Violence’ (p. 130-169) by Brent Shaw fully bears out this impression. “The army was … by far the largest organization of the Roman state”, and its expenditures “took about three-quarters of the total state budget”, and this without any advance in technology, not to mention any spin-off of the latter for civil utilization. Sheer size and violence, often of an appalling nature, are typical of the operations. In comparison with this the intelligence apparatus contributed very little where external wars were concerned. But then, as Shaw emphasizes more than once, internal wars loom large on the pages of late antique military history. Owing to the incomplete state of the evidence, which usually looks at the world from the Roman point of view, this history still has many gaps.

Shaw’s paper testifies to a high degree of professional learning, as do those of his ten colleagues. In fact, a considerable familiarity with late antiquity is required to benefit fully from what is offered in this collection. However, this is perhaps an underestimation of the expertise of the ‘educated public in general’. Be this as it may, the above will have expressed my respect for these instructive and inspiring examples of scholarship: it was a good idea to publish the best part of Late Antiquity as a separate book.