BMCR 2021.08.06

Leadership and community in late antiquity: essays in honour of Raymond Van Dam

, , Leadership and community in late antiquity: essays in honour of Raymond Van Dam. Cultural encounters in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, 26. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020. Pp. xii, 337. ISBN 9782503583235. €90,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This ‘Festschrift’ in honour of Raymond Van Dam is a joy to read. The twelve contributions are of excellent quality and almost all have new insights and perspectives to offer. As Noel Lenski observes in his concluding review, this collection of essays by students, colleagues and friends of Van Dam testifies to the impact of his scholarly work in the field of late antiquity. In his work Van Dam has concentrated on three main subjects: late antique Gaul, Cappodocia, and Constantine. The central themes of his scholarship concern the relationship between leaders and their communities in regional and local contexts, the materiality and spatiality of social relations, as well as memory and memorialization in constructing the past. The textual materials were always the point of departure for Van Dam in his creation of history. The papers in this volume all reflect Van Dam’s research interests, approaches and influence regarding the world of late antiquity.

The opening paper is by Adam M. Schor who based it on three pericanonical texts – the letters by Ignatius and Polycarp, the Traditio Apostolica and the Didascalia Apostolorum – and it reconstructs the social networks of bishops and the episcopal strategy of creating influence and authority in their own communities and translocally. Conclusions on the basis of these three texts must remain provisional but it seems obvious that leaders of Christian communities used social networking to create and enhance a commanding role.

Lisa Bailey discusses two conflicts over leadership and community in the city of Poitiers in the sixth century involving Radegund and her monastery which was located within the city walls. The first conflict concerns the confrontation between the royal nun and the bishop Maroveus of Poitiers over installing a relic of the cross in Radegund’s monastic community; Maroveus refused to officiate at this ritual. Usually, this episode is seen as a male-female conflict over authority in which Radegund prevailed. However, Bailey makes clear that the episode reveals a deeper divide concerning authority, namely that between an autonomous nunnery that was not under episcopal control and the Christian community of Poitiers overseen by the bishop. The second conflict happened after Radegund’s death when the nuns revolted against their abbess Leubovera, who was probably appointed by Maroveus, because they objected to her leadership. This disagreement also revealed the rift between an independent female monastic institution and the larger Christian community of Poitiers.

In a fascinating exposition Brent Shaw examines the trope of the guardian over the vineyard. This everyday scene of a guard watching over vineyards from a square-shaped hut placed on the top of a pole was popular in North African Christian writings and sermons at least from Tertullian onwards. A salient example is the Ps-Cyprianic sermon probably composed in the second half of the third century by a bishop of a rural community in the countryside of Africa which Shaw takes as his point of departure. The vineyard metaphor also frequently occurs on decorative ceramics (African Red Slip); the pole sometimes also has been turned into a vine-like picture symbolising Christ as the vine of life. Other images are added such as a dog chasing away a rabbit or a rooster; the canine image may be a symbol of vigilance or could be interpreted as the portent of the ‘new day’ of the coming age. Of course, the watchman over the vineyard is a metaphor for Christ who guards over his flock and chases away intruders and bad elements. The metaphor is a part of daily life also anchored in Bible passages, in particular Ezekiel 33:1-6 where it has a more military meaning. In late antiquity African bishops began to draw on this powerful imagery to define and describe their own role as overseers and guardians of their communities and the church in general, as the sermons and writing of Augustine clearly show.

Jaclyn Maxwell compares the viewpoints on social hierarchies of the pagan Libanius and the Christian John Chrysostom, both contemporaries from Antioch. It is remarkable how close their points of view were. For instance, both called on the wealthy and the powerful to support the poor and powerless, valued education, held similar views with regard to social norms, and did not question social hierarchy. In contrast, however, Chrysostom praises the choice of an ascetic and virtuous life that involved giving away wealth for the benefit of the poor, while Libanius would have the wealthy support the poor without giving up social status or making a choice for another way of life. Although Libanius and Chrysostom accessed the matter of social inequality and the distribution of wealth from different moral perspectives, both were in agreement about the toleration about social inequality and maintaining the social hierarchy.

In an interesting essay Garrett Ryan discusses the role of the governors as agents of imperial policy in restoring and maintaining not only the infrastructure but in particular the civic monumentality of cities as a way to preserve the tradition and the civic beauty of the polis. But more importantly: classicizing public spaces such as squares and monumental streets were a symbol and stage for the performance of Roman power. Ryan focuses on the cities of Ephesus and Aphrodisias from the beginning of the fourth to the mid-fifth century. Thereafter, the bishop gradually comes to decide who invests in religious buildings. Subsequently the civic grandeur of many cities went into decline also because the curial class had fewer financial means than before and did not see the advantage anymore of investing in their cities.

The primacy of Rome’s episcopal see in Italy and the Latin West depended heavily on the tradition of the presence of Peter and Paul in the city. In particular, in the fourth century, the bishops of Rome used the two apostles to advance their agenda of papal and Roman supremacy. A new medium for this was inscribed poetry, such as the epigrams by Rome’s bishop Damasus (366-384). In this poetry Peter was very prominent as founder of the church of Rome and keeper of the keys of heaven. In an excellent contribution Dennis Trout makes clear that the claims on Peter by Rome’s bishops did not go uncontested. He discusses Achilleus of Spoleto who dedicated a church to Peter in his city as well as Neon of Ravenna. Both fifth-century bishops also employed inscribed poetry to show that Rome had no special claims on Peter as the founder of the universal church.

The media of memory are of a wide variety and multidimensional as Ray Van Dam made clear in his Remembering Constantine after the Milvian Bridge. Layers of memory have obscured the historical Constantine and it is even questionable whether we are able to reconstruct a historically reliable picture of the first Christian emperor. With her excellent paper on remembering Constantina, Constantine’s daughter, Virginia Burrus demonstrates how remembrance of Constantina as an erudite virgin was created over the centuries by texts such as the Life of Constantina, composed by the Bollandists, and the so-called Epitome of the Life of Constantina as well as through buildings, in particular Constantina’s own mausoleum which was closely connected to the S. Agnese in Rome. As in the case of Constantine, layered narratives get in the way of the ‘real Constantina’. However, the question is whether this should be seen as problematic since historians in their historical analysis create their own portraits and thereby the memories of historical persons, developments and events.

Benjamin Graham and Paolo Squatriti examine the fascinating issue of the wooden roofing of the huge basilicas in late antique and early medieval Rome. They discuss the complex logistics involved in transporting the timber to the city as well as the ecology aspects: in order to maintain the roofs of St. Peter, St. John of Lateran, S. Paolo fuori le mure and other churches the popes had an interest in growing forests which furnished the wood for the large roof beams. Yet there is more to it than this. Relying on the Liber Pontificalis, Graham and Squatriti argue that roofing Rome’s churches showed the popes’ capability and legitimacy as rulers over the papal state.

In a thought-provoking paper Anthony Kaldellis examines how contemporaries were able to conceive of Constantinople as a new or second Rome. In order to understand how, in Roman imagination, the original city of Rome could be duplicated in the city of Constantinople, Kaldellis discusses quite a number of historical precedents in which Rome or the idea of Rome was transferred to other sites previous to 330 when Constantinople was inaugurated. Not all of Kaldellis’ examples are convincing and he is overstating when he argues that any Roman city had the potential to become the capital of the Roman Empire (pp. 235-236). In my view he is confusing the residential city of the emperor which, because of the presence of the imperial court, became temporarily the centre of Roman power with the idea of the capital of the empire. The city of Rome was and remained the capital even in the absence of the court because of its tradition and symbolic value. Nevertheless, Kaldellis does make clear that the idea of Rome as a place of political and imperial imagination could be transferred as is evident from the case of Constantinople which in contrast to the previous alternative Romes which Kaldellis mentions is the only city which is called new or second Rome.

The Sack of Rome in 410 has for a long time been considered as an iconic marker for the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire in the West. Modern historians no longer see the barbarian capture of Rome as a watershed moment for the fate of the empire. Shane Bjornlie discusses and analyses the textual record produced from the fifth to the eighth centuries about the event. As has been argued before, there is no single, authentic narrative about the Sack. He claims convincingly that the literary responses to the Sack of Rome are a varied mosaic of historical ‘imaginaries’ which came into being in different places and times, and for different reasons. The Sack of Rome should best be seen as a conceptual anchorage for how later generations envisioned the idea of the Roman Empire in many different ways. Moreover, Bjornlie makes the profound and challenging argument that scholars should not approach the narrative of history of the Roman Empire in general as an unbroken and linear process but as a patchwork of individualised narratives which each represent a selective communal memory.

Jonathan Arnold’s paper deals with representations of the past in Ennodius’ Life of Epiphanius of Pavia and Eugippius’ Life of Severinus of Noricum; both texts were written in Italy under Ostrogothic rule in the early years of the sixth century. The vitae and their authors have little in common, but share some common themes such as the decline of Roman power and Roman communities falling prey to barbarians. Most salient, however, is that both authors do not mention 476 as a defining moment in the history of the Roman Empire and that Italy, in spite of the change of power, remained as Roman as it ever was and preserved it Roman imperial character.

This volume is a wonderful tribute to a great scholar of late antiquity. But it is more than that. All contributions have not only profited from Van Dam’s scholarship and have built on it, but also have brought it a step further by offering new insights in topics and themes that have been a long-lasting concern of Van Dam as a scholar.

Authors and titles

Young Richard Kim & Alexandra McLaughlin, Introduction: Leadership and Community
Adam M. Schor, Abstract Social Network Modelling and the Rise of Singular Bishops: Textual Guidance from Three Urban Roman Settings
Lisa Kaaren Bailey, Leadership and Community in Late Antique Poitiers
Brent D. Shaw, Go Set a Watchman: The Bishop as Speculator
Jaclyn Maxwell, Attitudes about Social Hierarchy in a Late Antique City: The Case of Libanius and John Chrysostom’s Antioch
Garrett Ryan, The Authority of Tradition: Governors and their Capitals in Late Antique Asia Minor
Dennis Trout, Peter Beyond Rome: Achilleus of Spoleto, Neon of Ravenna, and the Epigramma Longum
Virginia Burrus, Remembering Constantina at the Tomb of Agnes and Beyond
Benjamin Graham & Paolo Squatriti, Roofing Rome: Church Coverings and Power in the Postclassical City
Anthony Kaldellis, How Was a ‘New Rome’ Even Thinkable? Premonitions of Constantinople and the Portability of Rome
Shane Bjornlie, The Sack of Rome in 410: The Anatomy of a Late Antique Debate
Jonathan J. Arnold, Hagiography, Memory, and the Fall of Rome in Ostrogothic Italy
Noel Lenski, Leadership and Community in Late Antiquity – Reviewed