BMCR 2016.04.02

Shifting Genres in Late Antiquity

, , Shifting Genres in Late Antiquity. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. xv, 341. ISBN 9781472443489. £75.00.


This conference volume offers the reader several well-written, well-connected essays (in English and French), covering the topic of changing literary, artistic, numismatic, and legal genres in late antiquity. Broadly speaking, the genres covered in the six parts of the book include homiletics and disputation, ecclesiastical genres, visual genres, technical genres, and other. There is also an entire section of four papers on Procopius and literature in the sixth-century Eastern Empire. That the different parts of the book seem somewhat ill-fitting and overly general attest to the fact that ancient genres, although they did exist and were functional in the literature of the time, were not always as clear-cut as has often been assumed.

The central concern of all the essays is the tension between continuity, change, variety, and mixing in the genres of late antiquity. Geoffrey Greatrex’s short introduction provides the reader with a valuable overview not only of the chapters, but also which aspects of the status quaestionis they address. The first group of essays in the book looks at how the homily and disputation were transformed in late antiquity. Using some of John Chrysostom’s and Asterius’ homilies as examples (although there are also ample references to other authors), Wendy Mayer presents a very convincing case for understanding late antique homily as a medical treatise specifically concerned with the health of the soul. This is an excellent example of how some genres incorporated others, and were so transformed into something unique and relevant to their social and cultural context. The next essay by Tiphaine Moreau continues the investigation of genre hybridisation. A detailed account of Ambrose’s De Obitu Theodosii proves that the sermon reconfigures several genres and styles. Whereas Mayer discovers the “medical homily” in her sources, Moreau presents an equally interesting evolution of the “political homily.” The same is true for the chapter by Éric Fournier, in the book’s next section. Fournier shows that Victor of Vita’s Historia persecutionis was a blend of historiography, hagiography, and apology (the latter of which continued to function as a genre in late antiquity). Revisiting Jerome’s De viris illustribus, Colin Whiting makes an equally creative claim that the work was not so much used to convert non-Christians, but rather functioned as a type of reference guide for Christian disputes—“we might consider the De viris illustribus one of the earliest expressions of patristics as a field of study” (p. 51)—thus, a type of Lehrbuch. In the final essay of this section, Young Kim, in his analysis of Epiphanius’ Panarion, emphasises the importance of continuity within heresiological writings, a genre, due to its polemical nature, perhaps more resistant to change. At the same time, Kim does highlight subtle changes and re-orderings of heresiology in the Panarion.

All essays in Part II of the collection deal with “ecclesiastical” genres, including historiography, decretals, and apologetics. First, Philippe Blaudeau shows how Liberatus, in the Breviarum, developed a more liberal style of historiography in contrast to some of his contemporaries. Despite its title, the Breviarum is not brief but very focused and detailed, and may have been inspired by the genre of the church histories. Geoffrey Dunn traces the emergence of papal decretals from the evidence of Zosimus of Rome. Dunn reveals that the compilers of the decretals often collected and authorised different forms of literary communication, thereby creating the genre of the papal decretal. Continuing on the theme of papal literatures, Dana Viezure investigates the possible purposes and political strategies of the Collectio Avellana; most importantly, it is shown how the Ostrogoths were eliminated from the political order of the sixth century, which holds implications for late ancient Gothic historiography and ethnography. In an intriguing chapter, Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe revisits the role of the devil in the genre of ecclesiastical history. Building on the work done by Momigliano — but also essentially refuting much of it (on the basis of genre fluidity) — Lunn-Rockliffe argues that the devil and demons do not simply function as reactive or sporadic narrative devices. Instead she positions the devil as the initiator of salvation history due to the devil’s role in the temptation of Adam and Eve, proving that the devil is in the details.

The third part of the book addresses issues of artistic genres—happily, with ample illustrations. In the first essay, Mariana Bodnaruk argues that late antique aristocratic and imperial visual representations show continuity with earlier images, particularly with regard to the use of the traditional toga; but the sculptures also attest to a shift in the political relations between the imperial and senatorial elite. She concludes that “sculptural portraiture as a genre, classificatory and taxonomic, therefore worked so as to produce a distinction, designating new social boundaries through a certain type of representation” (p. 155). Christopher Doyle then guides the reader into the fascinating realm of numismatics. While grappling with issues of continuity and change, Doyle illustrates well the interaction of pagan and Christian symbols in the coinage of the late fourth-century West. Doyle notes the “angelification” of the goddess Victoria, which for Doyle is as merely one example of the representation of a Christian victory over a pagan past. In the last essay of part three, Alice Christ argues that the diptych was a flexible yet complex artistic genre, used in various contexts over various periods.

Part IV provides the reader with several essays related to Procopius, an important figure in the problematisation of late ancient genres.1 The first essay of this section, by Frederico Montinaro, investigates the two redactions of Procopius’ Buildings; this chapter shows the importance of dating the redactions and establishing their relation to the Secret History, and for making sense of Procopius’ view of Justinian. A similar point is made with regard to the Byzantine chronicle in Mariev’s chapter (see below). Montinaro’s essay proposes that dating can decisively influence the more subtle determinations of genre. This is followed by the chapter of Charles Pazdernik, who revisits Belisarius’ second occupation of Rome, as found in Procopius’ Wars 7.24-26. Pazdernik investigates Procopius’ use of the last speech of Pericles, by Thucydides as an intertext for the figure of Totila. Procopius’ allusion to Pericles thus “serves as the vehicle for an examination of character” (p. 218). Thereafter, Elodie Turquois explores the relationship between technical writing, genre, and aesthetics in the works of Procopius. Turquois shows how the function of technical writing — that is, exhibiting expertise in a wide range of topics (particularly military aspects) — can assist in understanding Procopius’ self-presentation as well as the character of his audience. The link between these aspects is the “aesthetic of hyper- visuality concerned not only with showing how things are made, but also what impressions or feelings they provoke in the viewer” (p. 231). Turquois’ paper also reads well with various papers in Part V of the volume, where the technical genre is discussed in some detail. Finally, Marion Kruse writes on “A Justinianic Debate across Genres on the State of the Roman Republic.” This paper is extremely interesting in that it shows how offices and functions typical of the Roman Republic operated, if only rhetorically, in late antiquity. Kruse demonstrates how the re-envisioned concept of Romana in the sixth century represented a “melting-pot” for various genres, functioning in a debate to give meaning the Empire’s future via its past.

Part V explores the genre of technical literature in more detail. Albeit a general overview, Conor Whately’s contribution is an important one, investigating the genre and purpose of late ancient military manuals. In terms of audience, Whately recommends a rather broad elite audience, ranging from military elites like the emperor and his generals, to a civilian elite. The purpose of the manuals was largely educational, attempting to optimise the combat utility of the military elite, while at the same time training lower ranked or aspiring combatants. Whately also states that the manuals may have served as entertainment and knowledge repositories for elite civilians. Christel Freu looks at the evolution of late ancient legal contracts, showing that there was in fact less change in this genre than in some of the others encountered in this volume. Traditional labour contracts, according to Freu, continued to function well into the Byzantine period. Ralph Mathisen’s important essay tests how closely related geographical terminology and personal identity might have been, realistically, in late antiquity—the focus falls on the terminology of natio, gens, provincialis, and civis. Mathisen argues that a sense of local identity became very important in late antiquity, and “was but one more manifestation of the centrifugal forces of localism that contributed to the fall of the empire in the west” (p. 286). Overall, the essays in this part are very accessible and coherent, and will attract a wide range of readers.

The final part of the volume looks at other individual genres. Shane Bjornlie examines “The Rhetoric of Varietas and Epistolary Encyclopedism in the Variae of Cassiodorus.” By rhetorically and politically contextualising the Variae, this essay shows how epistolary and encyclopedic genres were typically blended “as an idealized textual performance of bureaucratic culture” (p. 303). In line with numerous other papers in this volume, we again find a hybridisation of genres for a very specific political function. Sergei Mariev’s contribution on the genre of the Byzantine chronicle effectively shows that modern projections of what a genre constitutes, or is supposed to constitute, do not necessarily correspond with the conventions and expectations of ancient audiences. Most importantly, Mariev shows that the later redactors and copyists of some chronicles deliberately emended the genre by, for instance, inserting dates in order to make parodical sections more serious and perhaps more historical, probably to satisfy the audience of the time. Genre then becomes an issue relative to a work’s reception history—a point often neglected in scholarship. Edward Watts’ final essay of the volume presents an excellent analysis of “Himerius and the Personalization of the Monody.” This is indeed a welcome chapter, since the genre of the monody has been somewhat neglected in the past. Although this short chapter focuses on Himerius, Libanius also receives some attention. Watts illustrates how the fourth-century monody was transformed in relation to its classical predecessors. Unlike classical monodies, the late ancient species often placed its author, and his experience, at the centre of the monody. Such monodic personalisation would have been rather unheard of in earlier times, but it was characteristic of the rhetorical innovations that characterised late antiquity. Watts carefully shows that late antique authors did attempt to balance change and continuity with regards to literary genres (a point made throughout the volume).

In conclusion, I found this collection of essays simulating in many ways. Most importantly, it warns historians of antiquity that genre is not at all a simple heuristic tool that can be applied willy-nilly. The volume calls for the deconstruction of ancient genre in order to see its pervasive evolution as a pluriform phenomenon, influenced and often changed by means of hybridisation, reception, and modern ideological projections. It is a welcome volume indeed.


1. Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century. London: Routledge, 1985; see a full list of titles on p. 3 of Cameron’s introduction.