BMCR 2007.09.23

Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices

, , Violence in late antiquity : perceptions and practices. Burlington, VT and Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. xix, 395 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0754654982. $99.95.

Table of Contents

In his clever introduction H. A. Drake offers an extended meditation on an image of violence, part of the opus sectile pavement in the basilica of Junius Bassus, which portrays a tiger munching on the neck of a rather shocked calf. This, we are encouraged to believe, provoked the editor to divide the essays into four categories: ‘real’ violence, committed by ‘barbarians’ and others; ‘legitimate’ violence, committed by those who claimed a state monopoly; rhetorical violence; and religious violence. If we were credulous, this would explain the odd placement of some of the papers (for example, Sizgorich’s would surely better be read alongside McDonough’s, Clark’s would complement that by Torallas Tovar). But the proffered framework is evidently a conceit, which creaks (‘it is, therefore, not unimportant that the tigress-calf mosaic comes from a type of setting [where] … men like Junius Bassus heard cases … associated with the administration of Roman law’) and groans (‘Radical rethinking such as that exhibited in the fifth-century Church historians … calls us back once again to Junius Bassus’s mosaic. The structure that it was housed in was adapted by Christians a century later …’) as it changes gears. This is a shame, as the ubiquity of the image that Drake discusses does invite further reflection, not only on the consonant ubiquity of violence in late antiquity.

In the course of reading the book I saw similar representations in various media, including a marble relief incorporated into the wall of the little metropolis in Athens, and in a mosaic pavement of c. A.D. 500 at Delphi, of which James Trilling once wrote ‘the curve of the stag’s neck conveys a sense of struggle and mortality far beyond the range of a more naturalistic image’. There are many similar motifs in mosaics, and also on dishes and pots. I was reminded by a passing art historian, who was evidently acquainted with the work of Henry Maguire, that a better way to interpret animal images involves exploring the meanings imputed by viewers through the ages, which may be broken down into the literal, the symbolic (and allegorical), and the magical (and apotropaic). Animals are frequently interpreted in Christian contexts as illustrating God’s handiwork (literal). They are more frequently seen as representing something more profound, for example the agnus dei or an aquiline evangelist (symbolic). But they might also be seen to serve an apotropaic function, defending or guarding something of value. Would that the hungry tiger had protected neighbouring images — of Christ and the apostles, of eight emperors including Nero, of Diana hunting a stag, and of a lion attacking a centaur — all of which were destroyed only ‘in the sixteenth century by monks who believed their glue had restorative properties’.

The authors of the papers here gathered interpreted their remit, to discuss violence in late antiquity, in three ways. The bearing of any given paper on the theme of the volume is occasionally literal (people are beaten, robbed and killed), and often symbolic (Isidore’s circumcellions and Augustine’s carnifex are ciphers). But far too frequently, alas, the sudden appearance of violence is magical but not apotropaic. Sleight of hand is employed by numerous authors to introduce violence where none has been found, usually in a contrived title and a passage crow-barred into the concluding page. This was certainly sufficient justification for (reimbursed?) travel to what must have been a very attractive conference (Santa Barbara in March), but is hardly a compelling reason for inclusion in what is a rather long collection of rather short papers. I see no compelling reason either to offer a long review comprised of short commentaries simply because the online format would allow it. But several excellent papers, referred to below, make this book worth reading, if a nearby library has purchased it.

Two of the most important papers are by scholars who did not attend the conference, but were invited to contribute after the fact to give the volume some coherence: Michele Salzman on pagan-Christian violence, and a concluding piece by Martin Zimmermann. Wolf Liebeschuetz’s elegant essay on violent barbarians and their recourse to law reminds us that Gregory of Tours is full of self-help legal retribution, and that it was always ‘the threat of retaliation by the injured that provided motivation … to accept the judgment of the court’. This counter-balances papers by Walter Pohl and Ralph Mathisen, the latter more a series of notes, that make now familiar points about the literary construction of barbarian identity. Pohl has clearly reflected on other papers in the volume, and elucidates points made elsewhere, that Romans were as violent as barbarians, and that in any case all accounts of violent acts are exaggerated. It is hard to see why Liebeschuetz’s paper is not in the ‘legitimate violence’ section, alongside an equally impressive essay by Jill Harries, where we are reminded that Roman ‘victims of violence faced a bewildering array of remedies’, but self-help was not among them. Those who employed such a barbarian tactic, even where a court would establish they had been violently and unfairly dispossessed, would face penalties. Legal process took precedence over what might crudely be considered just. Those who were punished legally might suffer terribly in gaol. Torallas Tovar draws attention to several papers she has published in Spanish on her theme, arrest and imprisonment in Egypt, where papyri provide fascinating insights.

Brent Shaw’s paper on the literary construction of circumcellions (published in a longer form in a 2004 Ashgate collection, edited by Andy Merrills), concerns not the self-violence of those who would leap from great heights or set themselves on fire, if they could not provoke strangers to kill them, but rather the mutilation of their lived reality. The reader is led through the process of construction, by ‘external’ writers, who from an African death cult create a band of wild and dangerous wandering monks, which Isidore of Seville will bequeath to the Middle Ages as a gang of ‘holy, vagrant hucksters’. Jacqueline Long is similarly astute in assessing Aurelian’s great dog massacre, at Tyana, as an episode in cultural history. She identifies ‘Flavius Vopiscus’s’ source as Dexippus. Her view of a second tale against punitive violence, Aurelian’s vision of Apollonius of Tyana, also contained in the Historia Augusta, deserves to be read carefully by those who would still ponder Eusebius on Constantine’s vision. Long might also have looked at the report that the martinet Aurelian’s preferred form of imitatio Alexandri was to inflict ‘the following punishment on a soldier who had committed adultery with the wife of a man at whose house he was lodged: bending down the tops of two trees, he fastened them to the soldier’s feet and let them fly up so suddenly that the man hung there torn in two — a penalty that inspired great fear in all.’ My favourite paper is Gillian Clark’s on Augustine’s hangman, which cleverly expands familiar arguments about justified violence beyond just war theory, showing again how Augustine’s thought developed over time.