BMCR 2017.01.13

Osten und Westen 400-600 n. Chr.: Kommunikation, Kooperation und Konflikt. Roma æterna: Beiträge zu Spätantike und Frühmittelalter, 4

, , Osten und Westen 400-600 n. Chr.: Kommunikation, Kooperation und Konflikt. Roma æterna: Beiträge zu Spätantike und Frühmittelalter, 4. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016. 316. ISBN 9783515109420. €58.00.


The papers in Osten und Westen explain the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages as a fraying of cultural bonds, as political ties holding the Roman empire’s eastern and western regions together slowly unraveled. In an attempt to avoid modern geopolitical connotations, the editors define “east” and “west” as culturally homogeneous regions, in effect the Greek east and Latin west, as they emerged from the division of the empire following the death of Theodosius I in 395. This definition lays aside any cultural and political differences within these two regions, based on the assumption that internal differences mattered less than overall tendencies that caused the eastern and western regions of the Roman empire to diverge from each other.

The volume’s papers are arranged in five sections. The first of these, with papers by Jan R. Stenger, Matthias Becker, and Oliver Schelske, examines how fourth-century Greek intellectuals fashioned an identity for themselves in an environment of political and cultural instability. Schelske’s paper should be read first for its wider view of the era’s paradoxes: a striving for political unity, despite the empire’s division in 395 and the end of the western imperial government in 476; and an awareness of a common Roman identity and persistent cultural bonds, despite a growing trend toward mutual incomprehension. Given these paradoxes, it should come as no surprise that the papers in this section contradict one another. Stenger’s paper focuses on the identities Libanios, Himerios, and Themistios crafted for themselves, based on their mastery of Greek, the only language capable of expressing the ideals and learning of classical paideia. As true representatives of civilized humanity, they disdained the Latins who ruled the empire. Becker’s analysis of Eunapios’ Vitae philosophorum et sophistarum heightens this impression of cultural fragmentation. Eunapios’ paideia elevates him above Christians, rival pagan intellectuals with different views of paideia, and, finally, Latins. Yet Schelske argues that differences in language did not stop fourth-century Greek and Latin pagan intellectuals from joining together to affirm the superiority of classical paideia in reaction to their marginalization in an increasingly Christianized Roman empire. He suggests that differences between Greek and Latin Christians played an important part in the empire’s cultural fragmentation.

The papers in the volume’s second section analyze perceptions of “others” in a post-Roman world whose fragmentation encouraged the development of new identities. For Hans-Werner Goetz, references to Byzantium in Gregory of Tours and Fredegar reveal a gradual transformation of western attitudes toward Byzantium. For both Frankish authors, this distant imperial power had lost the ability to influence Frankish affairs, despite diplomatic contacts and occasional interventions. If anything, their ahistorical, moralizing tales about its emperors show how indistinct their perception of Byzantium was. Even so, neither author expresses the hostility toward the Byzantines evident in later centuries. Christian Stadermann finds evidence of differing perceptions of Clovis in his analysis of sixth-century Visigothic, Ostrogothic, Gallic, and Frankish sources pertaining to his victory over the Visigoths at Vouillé in 507. Most of these sources describe a struggle for hegemony in Gaul, without religious overtones; and Gallo-Roman authors disliked Clovis as an aggressor who inflicted much suffering on the local population. Decades later, Gregory of Tours based his influential portrait of Clovis on a limited number of sources written by ecclesiastics associated with the king’s court and the church of Poitiers. A shared Frankish identity linked to the unification of Gaul by a catholic Clovis emerged very slowly in the post-Roman world. In a paper that relativizes the meaning of “east” and “west,” Dmitrij F. Bumazhnov makes a similar point about the gradual emergence of new identities among Syrian Christians, or Nestorians, living under Persian rule, as they looked “westwards” to Byzantium. By the seventh century, heightened awareness of doctrinal differences arising from the Council of Chalcedon as well as accommodation to Persian rule led Syrian Christians to think of Byzantium as a source of false doctrines and the Persian king as a guardian of the true faith.

Papers in the third section examine misunderstandings among an ostensibly homogeneous group of Christian Romans, orthodox Latin and Greek ecclesiastics, whose mutual incomprehension supports Schelske’s suggestion that differences between Christians played a significant role in the breakdown of cultural bonds between east and west. Jerome and Augustine exemplify this breakdown for Fabian Schulz, albeit in different ways. Despite his extensive learning and residence in the east, Jerome remained an outsider, a Latin among Greeks, always more interested in his western contacts. Far away in Hippo, on the western empire’s periphery, Augustine had to rely on translators like Jerome for his knowledge of Greek theology. The rift between Greek and Latin Christian intellectuals emerges more clearly from Schulz’s analysis of the Pelagian controversy. Despite their joint efforts, Jerome and Augustine had only temporary success in convincing their Greek counterparts of Pelagianism’s errors. Similar evidence of failure to communicate effectively emerges from Sebastian Scholz’s analysis of Pope Simplicius’s attempted intervention in the controversy dividing Greek ecclesiastics after the Council of Chalcedon. Relying almost entirely on the emperor and patriarch for information and lacking reliable contacts outside of Constantinople, Pope Simplicius remained a frustrated, ill-informed outsider. Carola Föller argues that Pope Gregory the Great thought that the arrogance apparent in the patriarch of Constantinople’s adoption of the title “ecumenical patriarch” signaled the onset of the last days. Yet Gregory’s insistence on the need for humility rang hollow in Constantinople, where Patriarch Johannes was admired for his monastically inspired humility. The misunderstanding between pope and patriarch reveals the divergence in eastern and western monastic culture.

Papers in the fourth section, on war and conflict, suggest, rather than demonstrate, how events in the imperial center and periphery influenced each other. Papers by Anne Poguntke and Katharina Enderle discuss the turmoil caused by the empire’s political division in 395 and 476. Poguntke analyzes communications between Theodosius I’s heirs, Honorius and Arcadius, who inherited the western and eastern imperial thrones in 395, and their respective magistri militum praesentales, Stilicho and Gainas. Stilicho’s infrequent communications with Honorius left him isolated in the crisis year of 407/08, when the emperor and his magister officiorum, Olympius, brought about his downfall. On the other hand, Gainas’s frequent communication with Arcadius did not prevent his fall, after his demand for an “Arian” church in Constantinople aroused the wrath of the patriarch and the urban populace. Enderle explores the reasons for heightened apocalyptic expectations in the eastern Roman empire, ca. 500. Belief that the world would end in the Annus Mundi 6000 was certainly a factor in these expectations, but dissatisfaction with the Council of Chalcedon and the political unrest that accompanied the brief reign of an unorthodox emperor, Basiliskos, in 475/76 also fueled apocalyptic expectations. In addition, the end of imperial government in the west undermined confidence in the empire’s rulers among their people.

The two remaining papers in this section, by David Jäger and Guido M. Berndt, examine how groups and individuals on its periphery reacted to the empire’s instability. In an effort to find a more satisfactory paradigm than the neue deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte, Jäger offers a preliminary definition of a Kriegermodus, a militaristic way of life centered on plunder that emerged in the mid-fifth century as a recognized alternative to the settled Roman way of life. Jäger applies his paradigm in a brief analysis of the behavior of the Huns, who plundered the eastern Roman empire, and of the Visigothic king, Euric, who campaigned in the region of Clermont. Berndt demonstrates how Theodoric the Ostrogoth was able to put the insecurities of this way of life behind him and, through skillful exploitation of every opportunity, become king in Italy in the 490s.

The fifth section contains two papers. The first, by Tobias Schöttler, outlines various dimensions of misunderstanding, ranging from the literal to the figurative. His theoretical framework will be useful in future research on the problems of communication raised in the volume’s papers generally. In the second paper, Uwe Walter suggests several lines of inquiry to enrich understanding of relations between east and west in future studies. Examination of all kinds of communications between 400 and 600 A. D. should provide deeper understanding of the behavior and attitudes of the high-ranking men who represent the drifting apart of east and west in this volume’s papers. Future research should also test the assumption implicit in many papers that east and west were more highly integrated in the early empire than in Late Antiquity. More provocatively, future research should consider the role of the Christian church in the disintegration of the cultural and political bonds linking the eastern and western Roman empire.

The papers in Osten und Westen shed considerable light on cultural change in a paradoxical era, when alienation and misunderstanding overwhelmed Rome’s imperial culture. Apparently, few, if any, individuals realized that the shared identity and culture that supported Rome’s imperial rule were breaking down, while they struggled with difficulties communicating their views to their fellow Romans and failed to resolve persistent differences. The background of political turmoil made these problems in communication worse, although many papers avoid explicit treatment of the political and military problems which contributed to the breakdown of communications between east and west. At times, it appears as if alienation and miscommunication occurred in some kind of void. The individuals who appear in these papers had to cope with traumatic events, and more weight in the future has to be given to the question of how such events changed their sense of themselves and their culture.

In general, these specialized, tightly focused papers represent a new approach to understanding the cultural fragmentation of the Roman world and its significance in the transition from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. If anything, the volume makes this distinction between the two eras seem arbitrary, for the distinction implies that historical change occurred as a result of decisive breakdowns and ruptures. Instead these papers reveal incremental changes in identity and culture, which, after centuries, led to the permanent division of the Late Antique Roman world into an early medieval Greek east and Latin west.