BMCR 2020.04.45

Cities and the meanings of late antiquity

, Cities and the meanings of late antiquity. Brill research perspectives. Ancient history. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 112. ISBN 9789004422605. €70,00.

This book is a concise introduction (92 pages of text) to the history of cities in the later Roman empire, to some of the changes that they experienced, and to the challenges that their experience poses to the optimistic view of this period known as “late antiquity.” The book is being published simultaneously as a slim, overpriced paperback and as an issue (2.4) of the new journal Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History. This journal aims to provide accessible up-to-date introductions to major topics of research. The book has no index and, in his online CV, the author lists it among his peer-reviewed articles. In the past, a book-length article of this kind might have appeared in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt.

Cities and the Meanings of Late Antiquity is accessible and well-written. It is the result of extensive research, its coverage is broad, and it explains its basic concepts well. Many different kinds of city appear in it, from both the west and the east. The topics that Humphries discusses, he discusses well. The book’s problems lie rather in what it omits, which in some cases may be more important than what it includes. The book has two points of focus, namely the cities themselves and how they feature in debates over “late antiquity,” especially the problem of “decline.” Humphries defines a context for debate by positing a tension between the field of late antiquity, which looks at this period optimistically, and the fact that many cities seems not to have fared well during it, giving credence to notions of decline (ch. 1). Humphries approached the problem largely through the material evidence (monuments, temples, churches, walls, and the many findings of archaeology), and so his discussion of decline focuses primarily on this aspect. He surveys advances in our knowledge of the late Roman cities, especially those of archaeology (ch. 2), and surveys evolving perceptions and definitions of a city from the period (ch. 3). The thematic topics that he then examines include the presence or absence of the imperial court from various cities (ch. 4); the urban economy and its relation to the countryside (ch. 5); religious change and conflict, including the rise of the bishops and the modes by which they restructured civic life (ch. 6); and, finally, how the material city was used as a theatrical backdrop for the performance of status and identity, which contains the most evocative and lively pages in the book (ch 7).

Many important topics are not covered, such as the socioeconomic strata and hierarchies of the urban population, the presence and activities of the imperial bureaucracy below the level of the court itself, the destruction of many cities by the Huns in the fifth century and by the Persians in the sixth and seventh centuries, and the changing leadership of the cities (apart from bishops, but even they are not discussed from an administrative-legal point of view). The entertainment guilds (also known as “circus factions,” viz. the Blues and the Greens) are not mentioned. The omission of three of these topics – the changing leadership, the entertainment guilds, and the barbarian raids in the east – reflects the book’s silent bias in favor of the fourth century. It occasionally jumps forward to discuss cities in the post-Roman world, but largely omits important developments that occurred in the centuries in between. In giving privilege to the performance of identity and to Christianization over changes in leadership and barbarian raids, the book sides with the paradigm of “late antiquity” over that of “the later Roman empire” (which focuses more on institutions and events). It is telling that a book whose purpose is to interrogate the paradigm of late antiquity implicitly endorses it in some of its fundamental choices. To give another example, Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2005) is included in the bibliography but its thesis that local economies were fundamentally impacted by the imperial state’s redistributive system, and then by its collapse, is not discussed.

Humphries is not uncritical of late antiquity (the field, not the period). He defines it as an upbeat perspective on the period (4-9) and poses the experiences of many cities as a challenge to it: “the evidence suggests … real upheaval and dislocation alongside continuity” (1). Humphries does not try to bury that evidence under a pile of euphemisms (“transformation,” “negotiation,” and the like). Some cities did well in this era, but others did not. The book clearly outlines the parameters of change and continuity. However, as one of Humphries’ main goals is to engage with the historiography of decline, he should have tackled the issue of changing leadership, because it was central to the thesis of the most influential book in the field, J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford 2001). Liebeschuetz believed that the marginalization of the curiales by imperial title-holders and big landowners (who had used their imperial positions to amass large properties) destroyed the last vestiges of the “classical” city. This meant a loss of local autonomy and the rise of privatized city government. As Humphries’ book is an invitation to discuss decline in relation to cities, I would like here to push back against Liebeschuetz’s interpretation: the rise of an imperial local elite can just as well be interpreted as the forging of closer ties between cities and the central government in Constantinople and their integration into a common state. What did Liebeschuetz think the old curiales were anyway? They were just the richest men in town at the time when they were dominant. Well, now there were even richer men: it stands to reason that they should take over. I see no reason to weep for the curiales or to nostalgically lament the passing of long-since departed “autonomy.” This was not a world of city-states anymore, but Romanía.

I will abuse Humphries’ invitation even further and suggest that “late antiquity” is not just a more upbeat way of looking at this period. It is that, to be sure, but it also has methodological and disciplinary priorities. Late antiquity tends to use anthropology and the cultural-studies wing of sociology to discuss a specific set of topics, including religious communities, private life, holiness, group narratives, the body and gender, and identity (hence the city appears here as a stage for the performance of identity). Late antiquity purposely flouts the barriers and priorities of formerly different disciplines in order to create a common pool of discussion that is dominated by its own interests and skill-sets. That was (and still is) a great experiment, but it does come at the expense of, say, philology, paleography, intellectual history, theology, institutional history, political narrative, and the like. Those approaches are allowed into the club only if they learn to talk the language of holiness, identity, etc. There are methodologies and skills at stake here, not just positive vs. negative views of the period, and it impacts the choices of this book in specific ways: neither Liebeschuetz nor Wickham were “doing late antiquity” and so they are not foregrounded, although their work is crucial for the developments of this period. These methodological priorities are a “meaning of late antiquity” too.

So what did happen to cities in this period, materially speaking? This question will stop most scholars of the period in their tracks (I get that feeling when Europeans ask me, “So what do Americans think of x?”). Thirty or even twenty years ago, a lifetime might have sufficed to survey the known archaeological data and form some kind of impression. That is now quite impossible. A small fort could be built with the massive tomes that regularly appear on this topic and the mounds of data that are published in archaeological reports in a dozen languages. One can sift through them and look for specific items (statues, latrines, inscriptions, re-uses of theaters, retail shops, and the like), but “the” experience of “the” late Roman city recedes further away with each excavation, report, and edited volume. Humphries is brave to take this on and does a superb job of selecting his evidence carefully in order to represent the range of transformations that took place across a variety of urban landscapes. Cities is valuable chiefly for this: as an attempt to come up for air, gain perspective, survey the field, and see whether any general conclusions have emerged.

They haven’t, really. Humphries candidly admits that, at this stage, any attempt to find patterns and dominant trends (apart from the most obvious that we knew already without need for more archaeology) “are open to challenge from particular pieces of evidence, not to mention new discoveries” (8). Everything “has become increasingly problematised” and “new approaches have provoked more questions than answers” (15). He admits that his own selection is also subjective. In fact, the problem is even more serious, as one discovers when trying to use those putative “particular pieces” of archaeological evidence in order to write a general history of this period. One scholar’s evidence for, say, a barbarian attack on a city is almost invariably reinterpreted by another scholar as evidence for an earthquake or fire. What one scholar views as the occupation of public spaces and their conversion into vendor stalls is seen by another as proof of economic growth and vitality. “Particular” items of material evidence often turn out to be, just like the textual evidence (and more so sometimes), an interpretive construct.

The end of the book explicitly disavows unified interpretations, grand narratives, and metanarratives (82-89). Any one of them can be given superficial plausibility through the biased selection of material. If we refuse that temptation, all we have left is “a multiplicity of diverse and often overlapping micronarratives” (86), the tale not “of one city, or even of two, but rather of thousands” (89). But why stop there? Each city had more than one tale, as many in fact as it had people, and each of those people would have had many tales to tell, not just one. This is a tale of potentially countless millions of “overlapping micronarratives.” Increasing fluidity is methodologically favored to prevail in our current epistemological environment, which is slanted against generalizations. (To Heraklitos’ dictum that one cannot step into the same river twice, Kratylos responded, “Not even once.”) But what does this mean for us? What method do we have for coping with thousands of “micronarratives”? Is there a good argument for compiling more of them (each one contested and uncertain) when we have passed the point of being able to process those that we already have? In the current state of the field, new findings pose “more questions than answers” (15), but it is not clear that a field can subsist on questions alone. For one thing, it is difficult to justify funding for digs and books that will produce only more questions and problems, without offering an idea of what an answer might look like. This is perhaps the fundamental dilemma posed by this volume: methodologically, what must we do to start tilting the balance toward answers and constructive paradigms, while respecting the interpretive advances of the past generation?