BMCR 2005.10.12

Travel, communication and geography in Late Antiquity: sacred and profane

, , , Travel, communication, and geography in late antiquity : sacred and profane. Aldershot/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. 1 online resource. ISBN 135187764X £42.50.

The papers in this volume resulted from the fourth biennial conference on Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity, 2001. There are twelve original papers and two introductions. The book is divided into three sections:

1) Aspects of secular travel in Late Antiquity

2) Elite communication networks

3) Reconsidering late antique pilgrimage

With the exception of Claire Sotinel from Bordeaux, all the scholars come from the Anglo-Saxon world.

With a title like Travel, communication and geography in Late Antiquity: sacred and profane one might have expected that this book would contain a large number of maps. However, there is only one, in the paper by Hugh Elton, ‘Cilicia, geography and the Late Roman Empire,’ and even that is disappointing. Elton writes interestingly about two sorts of military campaigns. The first, fought by two field armies in the plains, was of necessity confined to major roads because of the difficulties in moving thousands of wagons and pack animals. In the area under discussion, he writes, this usually means the great military highway which ran through Cilicia and linked Constantinople to Antioch. There is a map of Cilicia in Late Antiquity (p6) but the great military highway does not appear: indeed, no roads are marked at all. Even the paper by Ray Laurence, ‘Milestones, communications and political stability,’ has no maps showing the sites of the milestones — although there are lots of graphs. Perhaps this says something about this book, that in spite of its promising title it is really concerned more with literary and conceptual geography than with facts on the ground.

For indeed it is the more literary and conceptual papers which, contrary to expectations, this reader enjoyed most in the book. Wolf Liebeschuetz writes on ‘The collected letters of Ambrose of Milan: correspondence with contemporaries and with the future.’ Starting from the observation of Michaela Zelzer, that Ambrose’s letters as published are structured like those of Pliny in ten books, Liebeschuetz notes that in both these cases the tenth book deals with public business. The first nine deal mainly with religious and pastoral matters. Liebeschuetz first notes that this should alert us to the importance Ambrose himself attached to such matters as opposed to political ones, which is greater than we might expect from McLynn’s ‘brilliant biography.’ He then turns to analyse these political letters, which he sees as giving a highly selected account of Ambrose’s own life, rather like Augustine’s Confessions. Perhaps a better parallel than Augustine here would be Jerome, who, as Mark Vessey has shown us, was also very much engaged in creating a persona for himself through the medium of his literary works, including his letters.1 For Ambrose was not writing an account of his own spiritual development but rather creating, in Liebeschuetz’ words, a ‘political and theological testament … the first statement of the Church’s claims on the State.’ In doing so he carefully selected which writings to include and which to re-write to present his own publicity.

The other outstanding paper dealing purely with literary concepts in this collection is ‘Pilgrims and foreigners: Augustine on traveling home,’ where Gillian Clark convincingly claims that it is too simplistic to translate Augustine’s term peregrinatio simply as pilgrimage — this would imply a different relationship of the church to late antique society. Christians were not merely pilgrims in transit to their heavenly goal, but also peregrini, resident aliens living away from home.

Singling out these two papers for their particular interest may merely reflect this reader’s personal preferences: other readers will no doubt have their own favourites and it by no means implies that the rest of the papers have no contribution to make. On the contrary, the paper by Laurence dealing with roads and milestones, criticized above for its lack of maps, raises a number of very interesting points, especially his discussion of the thesis of Isaac and Roll that milestones were set up by the military for the military as an expression of their allegiance to the emperor. Laurence’s suggestion that the situation in Italy may have differed from that in the eastern provinces, particularly because the Italian milestones were set up during periods of stability, is quite convincing. He does, however, point out that the situation in Germany, another militarized province, is somewhat similar to that in the east. Isaac and Roll further suggested that the milestones in the Palestine region were unlikely to have been of much use to the local population because they were inscribed in Latin. Laurence counters this by claiming that it ‘may underestimat[e] the nature of bilingualism’ in the local populations in the region of Palestine, who ‘may not have chosen to speak or write Latin but may have been able to identify the meaning of a milestone with its inscription in Latin referring to the number of miles from a place and the imperial titulature.’ This implies that the local population of Palestine were bilingual, in their local language and Latin. In fact, as sources as different as Jerome and the Jerusalem Talmud make clear, the two languages of the region were local dialects of Aramaic/Syriac and Greek. It was only the army and the lawyers who spoke Latin.2

A number of the papers in this collection deal with communication through letters. Scott Bradbury in his paper ‘Libanius’ letters as evidence for travel and epistolary networks among Greek elites in the fourth century,’ writes that there is no general study of letter writing in late antiquity. The papers in this volume go some way to making up this deficiency, as from the starting point of travel they expand to deal with many other aspects of the communications network over the whole empire. In doing so they raise a number of questions. Bradbury notes that Libanius’ epistolary network and the home regions of his students overlap, and adds that ‘the central artery of this epistolary network is the imperial post road running from Antioch through Tarsus, Ancyra, Nicomedia and on to Constantinople.’ JF Drinkwater in his introduction ‘And up and down the people go’ notes that the impression given by contributors like Bradbury … is of the continuing overriding importance of travel by land.’ Clearly there was no alternative to land transport between Tarsus, Ancyra and Nicomedia. But would letters between Antioch and Tarsus or Nicomedia and Constantinople always have been transported by land or would not at least some of them have gone by sea? Not everyone had access to the cursus publicus.

Bradbury also notes Libanius’ negative attitude to travel. The same picture is seen in Michele Salzman’s discussion of ‘Travel and communication in The letters of Symmachus.‘ Indeed, Salzman’s analysis of Symmachus’ attitudes to travel may even cast light on Libanius. Her careful analysis shows the rhetorical and class-related component in attitudes to travel: as a member of the aristocratic classes Symmachus displays a clear distaste for travel connected to business, negotium, as opposed to travel for pleasure, otium. The study of philosophy, of course, also belonged to otium, rather than negotium. Edward Watts discusses the allure of the great schools in Athens and Alexandria in his paper ‘Student travel to intellectual centres: what was the attraction?’

Two other papers concentrate on the picture of realia found in letter collections, rather than the rhetoric. Claire Sotinel’s paper ‘How were bishops informed? Information transmission across the Adriatic sea in Late Antiquity,’ focuses on letter carriers and the routes they took across the Adriatic. As such, it might usefully be read alongside the paper by Cam Grey ‘Letters of recommendation and the circulation of rural labourers in the late Roman West’ which concentrates on letters from elite landowners — often bishops — recommending their peasant bearers to other landowners. Grey uses the opportunity to discuss the intersection of vertical patronage relationships between aristocrat and dependant with the horizontal networks of aristocratic alliances, which are discussed by so many of the papers in this collection.

The final section of the book concentrates on pilgrimage. I have already mentioned Gillian Clark’s re-definition of the term peregrinatio. Maribel Dietz in her paper ‘Itinerant spirituality and the Late Antique origins of Christian pilgrimage’ also discusses different meanings of peregrinus, and suggests that the practice of Christian pilgrimage may have been influenced by a peculiar form of monasticism based explicitly on ascetic wandering. Noel Lenski’s paper, ‘Empresses in the Holy Land: the creation of a Christian utopia in Late Antique Palestine’ deals with the (re)construction of Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a physical manifestation of the holy by four late-Roman empresses. In doing this, Lenski suggests, they were constructing for themselves an alternative and imaginary locus of power away from the male-dominated imperial centres. In ‘Sinai pilgrimage and ascetic romance: pseudo-Nilus’ Narrationes in context,’ Daniel Caner complains that Mount Sinai has received little attention either as an early pilgrimage destination or as the background for an evolving hagiographic tradition. Although he quotes four of Philip Mayerson’s papers on the subject, he is clearly unaware of Mayerson’s alliterative collection Monks, martyrs, soldiers and Saracens (Jerusalem, 1994) which contains a further seven articles dealing with Mount Sinai.3 Such minor criticisms aside, Caner provides a useful analysis of why pilgrims may have sought Sinai and the theological problems presented to believing Christians by repeated Saracen attacks. His discussion of the expectations aroused by the romance form and their use in pointing a Christian moral is particularly convincing.

There are two indices, of persons and of geographical names. Neither is exhaustive.


1. M Vessey, ‘Jerome’s Origen: The Making of a Christian Literary Persona,’ Studia Patristica 28 (1993) 135f.

2. F Millar, The Roman Near East: 31 BC – AD 337 (Cambridge, Mass./London, 1993).

3. And see now: S Weingarten, ‘ “And this shall be a token to thee” (Ex. 3.12): Lapis sinaiticus in Jewish and Christian traditions,’ JJS 54 (2003) 1-20.