BMCR 2004.07.41

Confrontation in Late Antiquity: Imperial Presentation and Regional Adaptation

, Confrontation in late antiquity : imperial presentation and regional adaptation. Cambridge: Orchard Academic, 2003. iv, 181 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 1903283086

In March, 1997, the second biennial Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity Conference convened at the University of South Carolina. That conference was sub-titled “The Transformation of Law and Society in Late Antiquity.” A volume containing sixteen of the conference’s papers appeared in 2001, edited by Ralph Mathisen, published by Oxford University Press, and bearing the title Law, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity. The volume under consideration here makes available a further eleven papers read at that 1997 meeting. The cut may be too deep.

The book’s title advertises themes of imperialism, accommodation, local adaptation, and resistance in late antiquity. In some cases this seems apt, but the editor’s brief introduction reveals the volume’s rather blurrier focus: “In this volume the transformation of the Classical heritage to a Christian milieu will be traced in the attempts of the imperial government and the church to prescribe obedience to the law in contrast to regional adaptations which occurred throughout the Roman Empire and its successor states, in all their complexity and originality.” The better chapters betray their original affiliation with a conference dedicated to exploring the fertile boundary zones between law and society in late antiquity, though I doubt many cover-to-cover readers will find Confrontation in Late Antiquity redeemed on that count alone. I will use this notice primarily to alert readers to the individual topics, and in some cases arguments, of the volume’s papers.

Rochelle Altman’s “The Size of the Law: Document Dimensions and their Significance in Imperial Administration” is an inauspicious beginning. The paper has relatively little to say about late antiquity and almost no explicit bearing upon the volume’s announced themes. Joanne Noel’s “Ritual, Religion and the Law: Transformations in Architecture under the Tetrarchy” looks for parallel evidence of Diocletian’s Roman conservatism in that emperor’s legal activity and his palace architecture, particularly in the plan and details of the building identified as the Temple of Jupiter at Split. In brief compass Noel reiterates the case for seeing the tetrarchic palaces as finely articulated expressions of the new imperial ideology, which (in her terms) “facilitated Romanization.”

Two solid papers follow. Charles Pazdernik’s tightly argued “Justinian’s Novels and the Law of Succession: A Chapter in the Transformation of Law and Society, with Special Reference to Ius Naturale” isolates a specific example of legislative activity that, Pazdernik argues, facilitated Justinian’s (and Tribonian’s) articulation of a legislative philosophy that sometimes equated imitation of nature with imitation of God. Thus in Pazdernik’s view Justinian’s closure of the gap between evolving testamentary practices and the conservative legal system of succession highlights those border lands of law and society that the paper was first asked to map. Like Pazdernik, Beatrice Caseau emphasizes adaptation. “A Case Study for the Transformation of Law in Late Antiquity: the Legal Protection of Churches” charts how Christian churches evolved from community property to God’s property, acquiring the attendant rights of asylum once possessed or claimed by pagan temples. By the fifth century, imperial law, equally cognizant of this pre-Christian background, was defining and regulating this right of sanctuary. Once again, an examination of the dynamic relationship between social and legal history reveals some of late antiquity’s signature features.

John Shean’s rambling “The Church and the Duties of the Christian Soldier,” reviews select evidence illustrating the imperial church’s calculated embrace of the Christian soldier. Mary Sommar’s “Pragmatic Application of Proto-Canon Law: Episcopal Translation” moves with greater propulsion through the thickets of principles and practice, of ideals and self-interest, that thwarted any attempt to establish a single policy on the question of episcopal translation in the fourth and fifth centuries. The diversity of positions revealed in both conciliar canons and specific cases, she suggests, mirrors the very “diversity of society” in this age. Only in the more homogeneous church of the Late Middle Ages could a universal code “work effectively” (98).

Three papers focus upon the Germanic successor kingdoms. Karen Eva Carr, whose book on rural settlement patterns in Vandal and Visigothic Spain appeared in 2002 (reviewed in this journal by Michael Kulikowski, BMCR 2003.03.01), here uses artistic, literary, and legal evidence to examine ways in which the Visigothic royalty and aristocracy expressed their affiliation with Roman culture and claimed their place (across time) as Romans. Dmitri Starostine argues that the Burgundian kings saw practical as well as symbolic benefits in issuing and codifying law in the Roman manner. In the roles given to fideiussores (guarantors) in the Burgundian law code, Starostine sees the Burgundian kings simultaneously asserting their authority as the overseers’ of public peace and offering Burgundian aristocrats and power-brokers substantial and meaningful ways of participating in the “system of royal justice.” Finally Lisi Oliver offers a bibliographic and comparative linguistic survey of the term laet, which appears in a law issued by Aethelberht of Kent (ca. 580-616). The limited outcome is agreement with Fredric Maitland’s 1897 observation that the term designated a rank somewhere between slave and free.

“Duplex Ius: Conflict and Competition between Romano-Byzantine Law and Folk Law in the Balkans,” by Linda Ellis and Marius Tiberius Alexianu, stands in some ways with the three pieces just mentioned, but its span (from antiquity to the twentieth-century) and its precision distinguish it. Like Pazdernik, these authors illuminate the kind of social history that thrives in the gap between praxis (here folk legal traditions or lex non scripta) and the written law. Ellis and Alexianu trace the thread of collateral adoption practices (adopting people as “brothers”) and various legal responses to and prohibitions of it in a region of significant political and demographic changes. In doing so, among other results, they suggest how this social institution’s strategies for “self-preservation” in late antiquity and the middle ages have implications for understanding the contemporary Balkans.

Linda Jones Hall’s own rather ramshackle essay, “Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in Late Antique Berytus, City of the Roman Law Schools,” touches promisingly upon themes central to the construction of identity in the late imperial world but (in any case) is now superseded by her recent book on Roman Berytus.

Though lag-time between conference and publication is inevitable, the gap here is vast. Thus in several cases book publication makes chapters now seem inconsequential. Otherwise most papers, not unnaturally perhaps, show little evidence of development beyond their initial writing six (or more) years ago. Overall, the chapters are quite uneven in quality and the volume is not well edited. The Roman bishop Damasus is twice “Damasius” (65); we learn that the word laet is a “hapax legomona” (154). A single “paragraph” is allowed to run on for more than two full pages (80-82); another is one sentence (167). Documentation is inconsistent, and sometimes inadequate. The few low quality illustrations and photographs do little more than draw attention to their inadequacy. There is no index and no general bibliography. All of which raises questions about the wisdom and purpose of the enterprise.