BMCR 2020.12.02

Vergangenes verhandeln: spätantike Statusdiskurse senatorischer Eliten in Gallien und Italien

, Vergangenes verhandeln: spätantike Statusdiskurse senatorischer Eliten in Gallien und Italien. Millennium-Studien zu Kultur und Geschichte des ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr., 79. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xi, 418. ISBN 9783110643275 €109,95.


Tabea L. Meurer’s book Vergangenes Verhandeln enriches a long tradition of research on late antique Roman elites in Gaul and Italy, and presents itself as a welcome contribution to questions regarding the (self-) definition and (self-) perception of senatorial elites.[1]  With few exceptions, the distinctive factor of historical knowledge has received little attention within micro studies of late antique senatorial aristocracies and Meurer aims to narrow this gap.[2] Thus, her research focuses on the discursive aspects of various historical references for ascribing or affirming status. She regards her book as a ‘cultural-historical study on the constitution of elites and memory culture’ (p. 11) and takes on a comparative approach based on a combination of memory studies and social theory in order to arrive at a “communicative-constructivist understanding of elites” (p. 39). She considers characteristics of status (e.g., education, family background, career) as being in a constant process of negotiation and interpretation. She inquires which characteristics concerning historical references are recognizable, to what extent and when these characteristics lose their value, and what role did secular or clerical contexts play in discourses of rules and status. As representative examples, she builds her investigation in five chapters around C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius and Magnus Felix Ennodius (Chapter 3&4, micro-level), without neglecting the macro-level of the western Roman elites (chapter 2). Each chapter follows a similar structure by summarizing the state of scholarship and presenting various case studies in regard to the importance of historical references in different forms of communications. This is particularly helpful for readers unfamiliar with the theoretical foundation, historical background, or individual case studies.

In her introductory chapter, Meurer demonstrates critically and convincingly, why epigonism and escapism served as explanatory models for the narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire and why we must overcome them. Additionally, she proposes a theoretical angle for her work, in which she combines memory studies (Maurice Halbwachs, Jan and Aleida Assmann, Jörn Rüsen, and Pierre Nora) with discourse analysis from Michelle Foucault and social theory of Pierre Bourdieu. Through memory studies, she defines references to the past as historical knowledge of education and orientation (“historisches Bildungs- und Orientierungswissen” p. 16), which serve as a guiding function that Meurer names “Historische Fundierung” (p. 39) (in the following: historical foundation). She argues masterfully for its importance in the constitution of elites since it offers various tokens (like offices, wealth, honorary decorations, etc.), in the process of negotiating status and recognition.[3] She completes her introduction by offering a short background on the historical developments in Gaul and Italy from the fourth to the sixth century in which she rightly exposes the limits of the term “aristocracy” and prefers to speak of “senatorial elites”.[4]

In the second chapter she lays the foundation for her case studies and explores past references as a political and cultural resource in the western part of the 4th century. She divided the chapter into two parts, by a) examining the canonization of historical foundation for imperial-senatorial communication and b) discussing the use of historical knowledge of education and orientation in the status discourses of the senatorial elites. In the first part of this chapter, Meurer employs a combination of literary (panegyrics and historiography), archaeological (Forum Traiani and Forum Romanum), numismatic (coinage propaganda), and epigraphic (urban Roman inscriptions) sources to illustrate the importance of a historical foundation in the communication and consolidation of imperial power, especially for civil war victors. Meurer splits these historically grounded consensus facades into three discursive dimensions that provide the structural framework for the other chapters: patterns of meaning in the communication between emperors and senators, patterns of meaning in intra-senatorial communication, and patterns of meaning in spatial communication. Building on this, she examines in the chapter’s second part the communication of Ausonius, Symmachus, Pontius Merobius Paulinus and Paulinus Pellaeus. Whereas Ausonius and Symmachus serve as examples for classical senatorial discourses, both Pauliniwere researched with the background of a new Christian-ascetic nobilitas. She concludes that historical foundations were flexible tokens that actors could use to negotiate their own as well as a collective status. The author further recognizes that with the spread of the ascetic movement in the late fourth century, sanctitas and humilitas must be added to the already existing tokens (pp. 161f). Even though the examples fit well with her theoretical frame and Meurer does not aim for completeness in the selection of her caste studies, a more transparent justification of her choice for this chapter would have been desirable.

The third and the fourth chapters focus both on how the actors, Sidonius Apollinaris and Magnus Felix Ennodius, used historical foundation in their various communications with their peers as well as with emperors at different stages of their lives.

For Sidonius, she elaborates that he instrumentalized his panegyrics to not only address the respective emperor but to also address the Italo-Roman elites through common historic knowledge. As for his letters to other members of the Gallo-Roman senatorial elites, in distinguishing between Sidonius as a political actor, as a vir literatus spending his time in otium rather than with negotium and as a bishop with new ideals balancing sanctitias and nobilitas, Meurer demonstrates in a sophisticated way that Sidonius used divergent tokens of historical foundation according to different life phases of his political participation. Even if Meurer addresses the problematic of dating Sidonius’s letters (p. 172), I would have wished for more consideration regarding the letters’ narrative time, the time the letters were possibly written, and the time the letters were possibly published, to strengthen her line of argumentation.[5] Examples of Ruricius of Limoges and Alcimus Avitus serve as an overview of the development and transformation of the semantics of historical foundations in Gaul up to the 6th century CE. One especially notes how the progressive disintegration and the shift of the senatorial elites to clerical careers led to changes in the importance of historical educational knowledge for status discourses so that this knowledge became a silent feature of distinction in the 6th century. The strength of her chapter on Sidonius lies in her curiosity to explore the Ciceronian influence, as one token of historical knowledge, on Sidonius. As the first scholar to deeply investigate this impact, she proves how Sidonius embodies his exemplum.

At this point, she turns her focus to Ennodius and Ostrogothic Italy. After an in-depth analysis of his communication with younger aristocrats from Rome, with members of the senatorial elites of his age, and his communication in a clerical political context, she compares Ennodius’s use of historical foundations with Cassiodorus. Finally, she researches the correspondence between Ennodius and Theodoric, whom he presents as a new Trajan. Like Sidonius, Ennodius used tokens of historical foundation within status discourses, depending on the context and the addressee of his correspondences. As a dominant token of historical foundation, he focuses in his writings on historic educational knowledge, he highlights more contemporary examples than past ones, and equates humilitas/sanctitas with nobilitas. The comparison with Cassiodorus allows Meurer to conclude that Ennodius relativized the importance of pride of origin and historical knowledge and encouraged young aristocrats to follow contemporary models. However, through the communication with members of the senatorial elites of Rome, the correspondence of Ennodius simultaneously offers a different perspective, since origins and ancestry seemed fundamental for the distinction of senatorial elites in Ostrogothic Italy. Thus, a closer look at the writings of Ennodius enables Meurer to not only recognize differences between Gallo-Roman and Italian senatorial elites but also to query whether recurrent references to ancestral pride are as important for senatorial actors in northern Italy as they were for urban Roman elites. She concludes that historical knowledge of education and orientation did not lose its importance within status or emperor discourses in Ostrogothic Italy.

Finally, Meurer summarizes that in different phases of their lives and depending on their target group, different actors use diverging tokens to negotiate and establish their status. This leads her to conclude that there exists not one late Roman Gallic or late Roman Italian senatorial aristocracy. Instead, we must take on different perspectives in order to recognize various facets of their negotiation of status and reputation on both the individual and the collective levels. Even though Meurer has worked out fundamental differences between Gallic and Italian elites, she demonstrated that historical education had an integrative and connecting function (p. 357). “Historische Fundierung” as part of status discourses offered a wide range of interpretation, allowing actors in a time of disintegration and instability to define themselves.

In general, the book presents a masterful analysis for specialists in the field of senatorial self-perception and self-representation that draws upon theoretical as well as research-historical approaches to gain new cultural-historical insights. The reader receives a new perspective on Gallic and Italian aristocracies from the 4th–6th century and an ambiguous picture on the genesis and self-constitution of elites through historical knowledge.

It would be desirable for Meurer’s approach to be expanded in future research in order to incorporate more case studies identifying further differences and commonalities among late Roman elites. Additionally, it would be worthwhile to investigate the potential of historical knowledge for the exclusion process of different people within various groups in the late Roman west.


[1] Meurer offers an overview on pages 3–11 (generally), 29–35 (on status and constitution of elites). Although research on the western aristocracies, especially on Gallo-Roman or Italian elites never really stopped, a high peak in research is visible in the last years, like Marie Roux, Le devenir de l’administration civile en Gaule et en Hispanie de 284 à 536 après J.-C. : transformations des institutions romaines, mises en place des royaumes romano-barbares et mutations des élites (Thèse pour obtenir le grade de Docteur), Paris 2014 (unpublished); the Tübinger SFB Projekt 923 (since 2015) „ordo renascens: Bedrohung und re-ordering der römisch-italischen Senatsaristokratie im 5. Jh. n. Chr.“; Muriel Moser, Emperor and Senators in the Reign of Constantius II. Maintaining Imperial Rule Between Rome and Constantinople in the Fourth Century AD (Cambridge Classical Studies), Cambridge 2018; or Hendrik Hess, Das Selbstverständnis der Gallo-Römischen Oberschicht. Übergang, Hybridität und Latenz im Historischen Diskursraum von Sidonius Apollinaris bis Gregor von Tours (RGA 111), Berlin/Boston 2019. It is in the nature of every book that newer literature published after the print version was submitted could not be incorporated.

[2] Exceptions are Michele R. Salzman, Elite Realities and Mentalités. The Making of a Western Christian Aristocracy, Arethusa 33,3, 2000, 347–362; Sigrid Mratschek, Creating Identity from the Roman Past. The Construction of History in the Letters of Sidonius. In: J. A. van Waarden/G. Kelly (Hrsg.), New approaches to Sidonius Apollinaris. Late Antique History and Religion 7 (Leuven 2013) 251–271; and not included by Meurer but with strong references to the past: Mauricette Fournier, Annick Stoehr-Monjou, Représentation idéologique de l’espace dans la lettre I, 5 de Sidoine Apollinaire : cartographie géo-littéraire d’un voyage de Lyon à Rome, Belgeo 2.2014.

[3] At that point, she integrates Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of capital and La Noblesse d’État in her theoretical framework.

[4] However, the question will be if “senatorial elites“ can be proven as a valid replacement for aristocracies, when transmitting Meurer’s approach to actors, who never were members of the senatorial order.

[5] Cf. recently Michael Hanaghan, Reading Sidonius’ Epistles, Cambridge 2019; as well as contributions in this regard in Gavin Kelly/Joop A. van Waarden (eds.), The Edinburgh Companion to Sidonius Apollinaris, Edinburgh 2020.