Late antique studies is now transitioning into its middle age. This field was begotten between the late 1950s and the early 1970s with the publication of H.-I. Marrou’s revised Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, A. H. M. Jones’ The Later Roman Empire, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. During the subsequent decades the field has flourished beyond all expectations. Now it seems to be passing through a phase of retrospection, and sometimes even regret over some developments. One sign of such introspection is the series of recent books and articles celebrating the anniversaries of earlier books and articles in the field, mostly by Peter Brown. Another is the publication, or impending publication, of Guides, Handbooks, and Companions that try to survey the entire enterprise. Yet another is the recent publication of vast narrative histories that focus in particular on the transition to the barbarian kingdoms of western medieval Europe, such as Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy, Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The most impressive of these vast histories, because they combine retrospection, survey, and narrative, are the final three volumes of The New Cambridge Ancient History and the first two volumes of The New Cambridge Medieval History. Late antique studies has apparently paused for a moment to take stock of its many accomplishments.
Stephen Mitchell’s new book is another important contribution both to the study of the period and to the retrospective mood of this particular moment. Its scholarship is impeccably up to date, its coverage of its chosen topics is most thorough, and it can be recommended as the best single-volume overview of the politics, institutions, and military affairs of the later Roman empire. But it is also a disconcerting book, perhaps even a disappointing book, for what it implies about the future of late antique studies.
Despite its generous and extensive discussions, so much is missing, often, apparently, by choice. Mitchell argues that the later Roman empire, the subject of his book, can be distinguished from “late antiquity,” which covers both a longer time span and a larger geographical extent. This might be a legitimate distinction, since late antique studies has expanded to include the successor barbarian kingdoms in western Roman provinces and eastern Europe, the early Byzantine empire that developed from the eastern Roman empire, the Persian empire, and the Islamic caliphate. But Mitchell also argues that the history of the later Roman empire should highlight “the Roman state and its institutions,” in contrast to late antique studies, which has concentrated on “social, cultural, and religious themes, at the expense of political or institutional history” (5). In fact, Mitchell does include what would normally be considered social, cultural, and religious history. But by starting with this oddly artificial distinction, his chapters dramatically tilt toward a rather old-fashioned political and military approach. “This book conforms to the older pattern of late Roman history” (7). The interpretive perspective is decidedly retro, and the omissions in Mitchell’s panoramic narrative become increasingly conspicuous by their absence.
While the foundation of scholarship is state of the art, the organization of Mitchell’s discussion is quite traditional. The second chapter provides an overview of the sources, with some discussion of inscriptions and archaeology but primarily a synopsis of the sequence of historians from Eusebius to Procopius. Mitchell justifies his strong emphasis on the work of these ancient historians by claiming that it “underpins serious history of the later Roman Empire” (8), that is, serious political history. As a result, the chronological narrative in the next two chapters often replays this ancient narrative, first from Diocletian to the capture of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, then from Theodosius II to Justinian.
After this extended survey of “the events that gave an overall shape to later Roman history” (19), Mitchell includes several thematic chapters. Chapter five discusses the authority of the Roman state, including its administrative bureaucracy and the images that projected the emperors’ power. Chapter six reviews the arrival of the barbarians in the western provinces and the establishment of their various kingdoms. Chapter seven examines the transition from pagan cults to Christianity and the survival of religious diversity. Chapter eight analyzes the famous conversion experiences of Constantine, Julian, and Augustine, and then the various attempts to impose a standard Christian orthodoxy throughout the empire: “much of the controversy was driven not by theology but by politics” (285). Chapter nine discusses the political imperatives behind the supply of large cities such as Rome and Constantinople. Chapter ten provides a regional overview of the economy of the provinces and emphasizes the abiding importance of cities: “The viability of the empire may reasonably be measured by the presence or absence of city life” (364). In the final two chapters Mitchell returns to his chronological narrative of the eastern Roman empire, first surveying the problems of the later sixth century, then previewing the overwhelming pressures of the seventh century that culminated in the rise of Islam.
These thematic chapters are all excellent overviews, even if it is sometimes a struggle to stay engaged with the dense discussion. The inclusion of “a good deal of detailed information about dates and geography” (xiv), not to mention even more stray information about emperors and barbarian kings, makes the narrative a marathon at times, and other professional scholars will perhaps be most interested simply in the accumulation of bibliography.
At the same time, scholars should think hard about the value of the interpretive viewpoint and organizing framework of Mitchell’s book. Since its emergence as a scholarly field, one of the attractions of late antique studies has been its capacity for the intermingling of disparate topics and approaches. Once late antiquity had the potential to become the sort of holistic history that the Annalistes used to dream about. Politics, religion, family, culture, warfare and frontiers, literature: once it seemed possible to develop a unified field theory for all these different aspects of Mediterranean and Near Eastern society. In contrast, these days scholarship on late antiquity seems to be disintegrating in different directions. The center cannot hold, and the increasing fragmentation has led to the appearance of niche subfields that vigorously defend their turf. Two subfields in particular, one long-established and very large, the other quite new and still small, have yet to be fully integrated in late antique studies. Scholars of patristic studies have long kept themselves separate, with seemingly limited interest in the comparative studies or theoretical viewpoints that might imply that Christianity should be studied like other religions. The strongly theological and devotional scholarship of traditional patristic studies has instead become a parallel universe to late antique studies. Scholars committed to postmodern approaches, such as Foucauldian and feminist interpretations, likewise often sacrifice social and cultural contexts in favor of a reliance on transcendent ideological truths. The use of critical theory has become our new postmodern confessional history.
Neither patristic studies nor critical theory has left much of an impact on Mitchell’s survey. Instead, his pointed distinction between political institutions and religious studies threatens to widen into yet another fault line within late antique studies. It would be most disheartening if scholars of the political and military history that Mitchell identifies so exclusively with the history of the later Roman empire were to adopt a similar policy of segregation by downplaying religion and culture as separate and distinct fields or approaches. Mitchell explains his preferences by suggesting that it “is quite simply…easier to organize the teeming abundance of historical evidence within the traditional contours than it is to reconfigure the framework into completely new thematic patterns” (7). He is right to acknowledge that rulers, politics, battles, and chronology have long dominated historical interpretation of the later Roman empire. But an opportunity to offer a new survey of the later Roman empire is also an opportunity to imagine how a new history might be written. Political and military history should be yet another aspect of cultural studies, not a rival or an alternative, and the primary evidence and the ancient witnesses cannot “speak for themselves” (xiv) until they have been translated into modern interpretive paradigms. Rather than merely having its traditional contours updated with recent bibliography, the framework of late Roman studies would significantly benefit from being reconfigured into entirely new and thoroughly contemporary thematic patterns.