BMCR 2020.09.28

Historiography and space in late Antiquity

, Historiography and space in late Antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 248 p.. ISBN 9781108481281 $99.99.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection of papers originated in a conference called ‘Historiography and Space in Late Antiquity’, held in January 2015 in Ghent, Belgium, and apart from the papers by conference participants, it also contains studies by scholars who received a special invitation to contribute (p. ix). It features seven separate studies, following an introductory essay by the volume’s editor. The major theme of the volume is said to be an exploration of ‘what happened to the imperial representation of space in late ancient historiography’, where space is understood ‘in the sense of geographical space mediated through narrative’, with the aim of using ‘historiography as a lens through which to study what happens to the imperial representation of space in a world where that empire is losing its grip on the Mediterranean’. Overall, ‘the crucial question’ for the authors is ‘where is the centre located?’ (p. 3). As for the intentions, that much is clear. However, the majority of the papers seem to be–at least in this reviewer’s opinion–only loosely centered around the collection’s leading idea.

In the first chapter, Anthony Kaldellis analyses the place of Constantinople in eastern Roman narratives from the fourth through the sixth centuries. After noting that fourth-century narratives conspicuously downplay or entirely omit the city and its role, he detects a change in fifth-century eastern authors, who might have even identified Constantinople with the entire eastern Empire by using the term ‘Byzantine’ as an archaizing denominator. Finally, the sixth century saw the rise of a historical tradition centered on Constantinople, which is proposed to have resulted from the demise of the western Empire, as well as the political-ideological needs of the eastern court to bolster its relationship with the Constantinopolitan populace.

Peter Van Nuffelen explores the relationship of four writers, one with a western outlook (Hydatius) and the other three with an eastern one (Jordanes, Procopius, Andronicus), with what he terms the ‘edges of the world’. Whereas Hydatius locates himself on the periphery of the world, purportedly to position himself as inferior in both the literary and moral hierarchy, the other writers show their geo-historical (Jordanes, Procopius) or geo-theological interest (Andronicus) in faraway lands as means to assert the Empire’s civilizing influence and its geographical and moral centrality.

Tim Greenwood dwells on late antique notions on what constituted ‘Armenian’ space, identifying three main interpretations of how it was constructed: social (as the land occupied by an imagined community of Armenians), political (the lands once encompassed by the Arsacid kingdom), and geo-ecclesiastical (the network of episcopal sees and religious houses under the spiritual authority of the Catholicos). He first examines which geopolitical and administrative status Armenia was given in Sasanian Persia, and he then proceeds to outline the ways in which the Romans asserted control over their Armenian provinces and what the consequences of those actions were in terms of cultural practices–suggesting that Roman Armenia was a silenced place. Finally, he tackles in much more detail how his selected Armenian narratives, which were produced in Persian Armenia and date from the fifth through seventh centuries, conceptualized this Armenian space, especially in its relation to Sasanian Persia. Greenwood concludes that in the Armenian narratives Armenia was represented as distinctive and autonomous.

Mark Humphries undertakes to investigate the perspectives of the late sixth/early seventh century Spanish chronicler John of Biclaro on the two specific geo-political areas around which the chronicler’s narrative is structured: the eastern Empire and Visigothic Spain. As a sort of a prolonged introduction, Humphries first briefly surveys the history of the Christian chronicle genre up to the early seventh century, with a focus on the Latin chronographic tradition, and then presents John of Biclaro’s life and methods in composing his chronicle, with a special reference to his chronological frameworks centered on imperial and Visigothic regnal chronologies. The two central sections inspect the thematic and geographical aspects of both the imperial and the Spanish narratives. To this end, Humphries provides a tabular representation of entries dealing with these narratives based on their thematic and geographical distribution (pp. 97-8), as well as two graphs, one presenting the geographical distribution of the entries and the other the percentage of imperial and Spanish affairs on an annual basis (p. 102), which is the paper’s most welcome statistical feature. However, Humphries here seems to give too much attention to recounting the Chronicon’s representation of political-military affairs, especially its portrayal of Leovigild’s reign (pp. 104-6). He gets back on track with his analysis of ecclesiastical affairs related to the Visigothic transition from the Arian heterodoxy to the Catholic orthodoxy, although even here he includes a survey of the Chronicon’s entries on imperial affairs and its portrayal of Reccared’s reign. He concludes that John of Biclaro used his ecclesiastical narrative to promote the idea of ‘a spatial translation of the home of orthodoxy from the empire under Justin [II] to the Visigothic Kingdom under Reccared’, which is interpreted as a straightforward ideological shift that endorsed the Visigoths as ‘taking up the mantle of the Roman Empire’ (p. 110).

The collection’s next two papers are devoted to ecclesiastical histories of West Syrian provenance dating from the sixth through ninth centuries. Hartmut Leppin examines John of Ephesus’s writings (not only his Church History, but his Lives of Eastern Saints as well, even though the latter only summarily) with the aim of detecting and scrutinizing the church historian’s perspective on what is termed political and ecclesiastical spaces both inside and outside the Roman Empire (notably, only its eastern part, since, as Leppin himself admits later in his text, ‘the West is virtually absent’, p. 128). The paper starts with a concise analysis of how Christian Greek historiography constructed political and Christian spaces that are said to be its two principal layers of spaces (p. 114). This is followed by a brief survey of John’s life and work (curiously, without mentioning his Lives of Eastern Saints), before passing on to the two central parts of the chapter, where Leppin examines which regions and cities of the eastern Empire most attract John of Ephesus’s attention, among which Constantinople looms large, as well as what the church historian has to say about areas outside the eastern Empire. In the latter case, Leppin devotes much attention to John’s mentions of various foreign peoples as well as to the church historian’s treatment of the Lakhmid Arab king al-Mundhir. The paper’s last chapter is intended to give an overview that presents John as a Romano-Syriac historian, while, at the same time, as, in essence, a Miaphysite-biased ecclesiastical politician who sought to have his co-religionists come to terms with the Roman Empire (p. 132).

With his examination of West Syrian historians, Philip Wood goes much further than Leppin in both scope and analytical depth, setting as his principal objective the exploration of ‘the way that historians structured their work around a specific geography and how changing events gave a regional focus to a genre that, in theory, described a universal church’ (p. 136). Using the twelfth-century Chronicle of Michael the Syrian as a witness to earlier West Syrian ecclesiastical histories, Wood first focuses on how Miaphysite historians imagined their Christian world of patriarchates centered on Antioch and Alexandria as the two axial points of their ‘geo-ecclesiology’ (p. 145, n. 35; the term is borrowed from Philippe Bladeau), and includes in this geographical imagination the missionary efforts as well, noting that, in contrast with the centrality of missions in John of Ephesus’s Church History, the Miaphysite historians of the early Abbasid period neglected the subject. Wood then turns to the Chalcedonian historians, who remained attached to the Mediterranean world and tied to the emperor longer than the Miaphysites, thus preserving the Justinianic model of patriarchal pentarchy as their ‘geo-ecclesiology’. Wood also identifies monasteries as additional ‘geo-ecclesiological’ loci of the West Syrian Miaphysite world, which continued to gain importance as the eastern Roman Empire shrank ever more, while noting that some other territories were passed over in the chronicles’ narratives, giving the impression that they were of no significance.

The collection’s final paper by Scott Johnson endeavours to explore the absence of the pilgrimage genre in Syriac. He first surveys the existing tales of pilgrimage contained in hagiographic narratives of West and East Syrian traditions as integrated accounts and finishes his essay with a set of pointed questions aimed at a possible solution to the conundrum, while briefly touching upon the topic of location and space in late antique Syriac literature.

Without a doubt, each study in this volume presents a piece of fine scholarship in itself, even though some certainly carry more weight or offer more food for thought than the others. In that regard, this is a welcome collection. On the other hand, I cannot shake the impression that some contributors felt almost compelled to fit their papers into the collection’s overarching subject, while simultaneously wandering off from the the central theme that is set forth in the Introduction and infusing their analyses with content that makes navigating the text somewhat cumbersome and obfuscates the main focus. One conspicuous departure from the principal theme is the volume’s final paper, since it deals with the pilgrimage genre, and the Introduction states that ‘other forms of representing or experience space, like travel and urban space, figure only marginally in this book’ (p. 3). Therefore it may be argued that–to a point–quite disparate papers have been woven together for this collection. Finally, it is a pity that the volume’s editor did not try to tap into the spatial-turn debate, which would have surely enhanced the interpretative approaches utilized here, as I believe that the collection’s papers might have benefited from the third-space methodology (if I may confess it was precisely the prospect of this that attracted me to the volume in the first place and what first popped into my mind when I saw the collection’s title). Other theoretical models and methodological avenues might have proved equally rewarding in some instances as well, such as post-colonial literary criticism.

One final note: with the price set at 100 US$ (75 £), the volume is brazenly overpriced.

Authors and titles

‘Introduction: From Imperial to Post-Imperial Space in Late Ancient Historiography’, Peter Van Nuffelen
‘Constantinople’s Belated Hegemony’, Anthony Kaldellis
‘Beside the Rim of the Ocean: The Edges of the World in Fifth- and Sixth-Century Historiography’, Peter Van Nuffelen
‘Armenian Space in Late Antiquity’, Tim Greenwood
‘Narrative and Space in Christian Chronography: John of Biclaro on East, West and Orthodoxy’, Mark Humphries
‘The Roman Empire in John of Ephesus’s Church History: Being Roman, Writing Syriac’, Hartmut Leppin
‘Changing Geographies: West Syrian Ecclesiastical Historiography, AD 700–850’, Philip Wood
‘Where Is Syriac Pilgrimage Literature in Late Antiquity? Exploring the Absence of a Genre’, Scott Johnson