BMCR 2021.04.12

Memories of utopia: the revision of histories and landscapes in Late Antiquity

, , Memories of utopia: the revision of histories and landscapes in Late Antiquity. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 284. ISBN 9781138328679 $155.00.

[The Table of contents is at the end of the review.]

This collection of essays examines the centrality of memory to the making and maintenance of utopian ideals. The editors make a strong case for the importance, and also the fragility of memory in Late Antiquity, noting that the period was marked by a ‘triad of construction-destruction-reconstruction’ (14); a process in which memories were continually made and reimagined. In their conclusion, the editors make some attempts to connect the mutability of memory to contemporary matters, such as the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Attempts to reimagine the past take (and took) place in very specific contexts; in relation to late antiquity our knowledge of the context of such reimagining is fragmentary. This book represents a thought-provoking attempt to put some of the pieces back together.

The book marries two concepts—memory and utopia—which initially seem to have little to do with each other. The word utopia was an early modern invention and has come to have strong associations with a nonexistent, and future, ideal society. Utopia existed as a concept, if not as a word, in the minds of late antique authors—retelling stories of the past was a way to approach an unrealized ideal future. Memory, by contrast, is well-established scholarly territory in the study of the Middle Ages. The importance of memory in medieval culture has been established by foundational studies such as Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory (1966) and Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory (1990), which established the processes by which medieval people trained themselves to remember, and the place of memory in their culture. Interestingly, studies of memory in Late Antiquity have focused largely on damnatio memoriae, the process of deliberate erasure of commemoration.[1] This volume thus contributes a new angle to the study of memory and commemoration in Late Antiquity.

The volume is divided into four parts. The essays in part one are centered on the links between religion, violence, and memory in Late Antiquity. Parts two and three are centered on the links between landscape and memory, through the cult of the saints and the rewriting of history. Part four offers a discussion of memory in material culture.

 The volume provides a model for the application of a range of sociological and philosophical theories to aspects of late antique texts. Given the peculiar relationship between utopia and futurity, the discussion of theories of the nature of time in De Wet’s chapter, is intriguing. The chapter links ‘pastness’, utopia, and ascetic discipline of the body, linking the mortification and destruction of the pagan body to the destruction of pagan material culture and architecture. Contributors also use theory to understand how late antique authors attempted to shape the reactions of their audience. Conant’s chapter attempts to read sources for cults of martyrs in north Africa through the lens of modern theoretical understandings of the effects of trauma. This approach would be an interesting one to apply to other early Christian martyr narratives. Writers’ attempts to reach their audience is also a feature of Mayer’s chapter on the emperor Julian’s attempts to discredit Christianity. The chapter makes interesting use of moral foundations theory to explain how the emperor attempted to evoke disgust in his fourth-century audience. Use of theory, as Mayer argues, helps modern historians look below the surface to investigate the subliminal messages late antique audiences received from what they read and heard. In sum, the use of the theory in these chapters—and the volume as a whole—opens the door to more work on the conceptualization of memory in late antiquity.

Many of the chapters discuss late antique texts in which authors reinterpret and revise memories. Neil’s chapter addresses how late antique authors themselves conceptualized memory, focusing on the ways in which bishops and other writers used vivid storytelling to impress on their audiences’ memories the eternal consequences of the actions they took in their daily lives. Memories of utopia often served narrative and persuasive functions. Bosman’s essay on Julian shows how the emperor re-remembered the piety of Cynic philosophers in order to create a moral and religious system that could compete with the attractions of Christianity. Christian thinkers did similar things, as Dunn shows in relation to Augustine’s reimagining of the Donatist-Catholic debates of 411 and 418; Augustine’s ‘alternative facts’ approach reminds the reader that utopia and memory are sometimes a matter of perspective. In some cases, it is possible to compare and contrast perspectives on the same memory across the centuries, as Bishop demonstrates in his comparison of how the poets Ausonius and Fortunatus wrote about the landscape of the Moselle.

 A number of the essays attempt to add nuance to accepted understandings of certain aspects of late antiquity, particularly Christian hostility towards pagan art and architecture. For instance, Fundic examines Christian appropriation and destruction of pagan religious sites in light of the reuse of building materials, inscriptions, and locations, as well as the high status many temples held as gathering places and centers of commerce. Jensen takes a similar tack, revisiting contemporary Christian response to pagan statues and noting the existence of non-religious motivations for attacking statues. In the fluid religious world of late antiquity, Christian thinkers sometimes found themselves caught between two competing narratives, as Jerome did with his interest in sacred geography and his deep ambivalence towards pilgrimage. His utopia, as Kamimura argues, was of the mind rather than as a physical place. Wade’s chapter also serves to complicate traditional pictures of Christian attitudes towards pagan culture by examining the use and popularity of steelyard weights with the head of Athena even after Christianity had become widespread.

A handful of contributors address utopia through a mirror darkly, focusing their examinations on ideas of dystopia. (Interestingly, the word dystopia seems not to have existed with its modern meaning of the nightmare opposite of an ideal society, for a few hundred years after the coining of the word utopia.) Strickler’s chapter how the Christian and Jewish writers sought to explain the events and changes of the seventh century through apocalyptic discourse that frequently invoked visions of dystopia while remaining hopeful for a brighter future. An ideal but unrealized future characterizes utopian thinking, so this struck me as a productive and intriguing way to approaching late antique apocalypticism. Utopianism and dystopianism also provided a narrative and explanatory tool for the writers of fifth century hagiography and their readers in later centuries. As Simic’s chapter on Byzantine hymns shows, liturgical poetry could be the medium for doctrinal arguments and polemic against other religions, a tool for understanding and responding to the present in the framework of the past.

The quality and interest of the essays was such that I found myself wishing there were more of them; and in particular, that Islamic and Jewish ideas of utopia, dystopia, and the rewriting of history had been treated more fully. (It is not the editors’ fault, but I also found myself wishing that publishers had printed better quality images, the quality of which is not always as high as the interest or importance of the photographs would warrant—see in particular p. 224 and p. 256.) The bulk of the volume focuses on late antique Christianity, with a few essays (Bosman and Mayer) focusing on late antique paganism or Christian use of the pagan past (Jensen and Fundic). Strickler’s chapter is the only one to discuss late antique Jewish texts, and Fundic discusses anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric in Byzantine hymns. There are no chapters on (to quote the book’s subtitle) ‘the revision of histories and landscapes’ in early Islam. Hopefully the excellent essays in this volume will be the start of a wider conversation about how the writers and artisans of late antiquity rewrote their past and their landscapes in order to remember their way to an idealized future.

Table of Contents

Part I: Writing and rewriting the history of conflicts
1. Bronwen Neil, Curating the past: The retrieval of historical memories and utopian ideals, 3-19
2. Philip Bosman, Julian’s Cynics: Remembering for future purposes, 20-35
3. Jonathan P. Conant, Memories of trauma and the formation of an early Christian identity, 36-56
4. Geoffrey D. Dunn, Augustine’s memory of the 411 confrontation with Emeritus of Cherchell, 57-72

Part II: Forging a new utopia: Holy bodies and holy places
5. Wendy Mayer, Purity and the rewriting of memory: Revisiting Julian’s disgust for the Christian worship of corpses and its consequences, 75-91
6. Naoki Kamimura, Constructing the sacred in Late Antiquity: Jerome as a guide to Christian identity, 92-106
7. Chris L. de Wet, Utopia, body, and pastness in John Chrysostom, 107-121

Part III: Rewriting landscapes: Creating new memories of the past
8. Bronwen Neil, Memories of peace and violence in the late-antique West, 125-144
9. Pauline Allen and Kosta Simic, Two foreign saints in Palestine: Responses to religious conflict in the fifth to seventh centuries, 145-155
10. Kosta Simic, Remembering the damned: Byzantine liturgical hymns as instruments of religious polemics, 156-170
11. Ryan W. Strickler, Paradise regained? Utopias of deliverance in seventh-century apocalyptic discourse, 171-188
12. Chris Bishop, Ausonius, Fortunatus, and the ruins of the Moselle, 189-203

Part IV: Memory and materiality
13. Robin Jensen, Spitting on statues and saving Hercules’s beard: The conflict over images (and idols) in early Christianity, 207-231
14. Janet Wade, Athena, patroness of the marketplace: From Athens to Constantinople, 232-250
15. Leonela Fundic, Transformation of Mediterranean ritual spaces up to the early Arab conquests, 251-266
16. Rajiv K. Bhola, Epilogue, 267-276


[1] Such as Charles Hendrick, History and Silence: Purge and the Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin, 2000).