BMCR 2021.12.04

Late-antique studies in memory of Alan Cameron

, , Late-antique studies in memory of Alan Cameron. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, 46. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xxxii, 321. ISBN 9789004449367 €125,00.


This volume of  papers celebrates the life and work of Professor Alan Cameron FBA (1938-2017), the Anthon Professor of Latin Literature and Language at Columbia University until his retirement in 2008, and most of the papers have their origin in a conference held in his memory there in October 2018. The papers are preceded by a list of his publications from 1963 to 2020. This reveals his staggering productivity, while the frequent references to these publications in most of the papers that follow confirm their quality and enduring relevance to many ongoing debates. There is no effort at thematic unity here beyond the fact that all except one of the papers discuss various aspects of Late Antiquity, although with a distinct focus on the period from the late-fourth to the mid-sixth centuries AD (see the table of contents below): Franklin’s paper dating the production of the lost Farnesianus manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis to the mid-ninth century is the exception.  The papers are not formally grouped together in any way and there is no obvious logic to their order, so I will simply discuss them in the order that they occur.

The opening paper by Lizzi Testa surveys Cameron’s contribution to understanding the situation of the senatorial Symmachi at Rome during the late-fourth and early fifth centuries from a paper on the circle of Ammianus Marcellinus at Rome published in 1964 to a chapter on the correspondence of Symmachus published in 2016. However, this is no panegyric, and the author takes Cameron to task on several occasions, ending by criticizing his interpretation of some ivory diptychs as funerary diptychs on the basis that ‘there is no explicit evidence for the distribution of diptychs on funeral occasions’ (p. 10).  In the next paper, Watts takes inspiration from Cameron’s frequent drawing together of textual and artistic evidence to attempt the same. He argues that Themistius’ use of numismatic metaphors and nautical imagery in a panegyric that he delivered to Constantius II in 348 suggests that he was inspired in his search for an original angle to his topic by a coin-type depicting the emperor standing in a ship steered by Victory that had only just begun to be struck in that year. This paper is illustrated by a poorly preserved specimen of this type which obscures the fact that Watts mis-describes it (p. 18) when he says of it that ‘a phoenix sat at the front of the ship’ (it actually stood on an orb in the emperor’s hand). While this paper raises some interesting issues, I remain to be convinced of its argument, not least because the key passages in the oration compare the emperor to a helmsman steering a ship, which is not what he actually does on the coin.

In the third paper, Kulikowski returns to the controversy concerning the date of the Historia Augusta. The tone is one of exasperation as he summarizes the debate, including Cameron’s invaluable contribution to the same, and carefully tries to explain to the non-Anglophone world why this text must have been composed between Aurelius Victor completed his Caesares in c. 360 and Jerome completed his Vita Hilarionis in c. 392. His main argument is convincing, but his final discussion of the nature of the fourth-century source at the root of Zonaras’ text, which the author of the Historia Augusta may also have used, is less persuasive. In particular, he overstates  his case when he claims that it is ‘patently impossible’ (p. 37) that a complicated Latin source lies at the heart of John Zonaras, just because all the other Latin sources that entered the Greek tradition were simple texts, breviaria or consularia: improbable perhaps, but not impossible. Next, Lenski analyses what bishop Ambrose of Milan thought about slavery, how its existence influenced his thinking more generally, and what he did as a leading bishop and pastor in order to mitigate the worst excesses of its operation in practice. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of Stoic teaching about slavery as transmitted by Philo of Alexandria upon the thought of Ambrose.

There next follows a run of three papers dealing with Late Antique poetry. In the fifth paper, Kelly re-examines a passage of the De Reditu Suo where Rutilius Namatianus bitterly criticizes monasticism as he notes the presence of monks on the island of Capraria off the Tuscan coast. He detects a hidden reference to the distinguished Roman noblewoman Melania the Younger—famed for selling the family estates and devoting the proceeds to the promotion of monasticism—in the claim that the monks suffered from innards swollen with black bile, that is, melancholia. Strongly supported both by the wider context and by the habit of Rutilius in engaging in such coded allusion to his contemporaries, this argument is convincing. In the next chapter, Gullo draws on a number of epigrams in the Greek Anthology by Gregory of Nazianzus, Christodorus of Coptos, and Agathias Scholasticus to demonstrate their contributions to Homeric exegesis, specifically the debate concerning the meaning of certain very rare terms in Homer’s works. Fournet continues the Homeric theme in the next paper when he offers new editions of three poems by Dioscoros of Aphrodite based on infrared photography of a papyrus roll first published in 1916.  All three poems were composed in dactylic hexameters and all have a strong Homeric theme in that two are ethopoiai that make Homer the speaker and the third is an encomium in honour of Homer’s poetry. Fournet also provides a detailed commentary and analysis of each poem.

Two richly illustrated papers with a strong art-historical aspect follow. Franklin investigates where the lost Farnesianus manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis—one of the oldest witnesses to the papal chronicle extending to the life of Pope Sergius II (d. 847)—was copied. She uses the evidence for the text as preserved by Lucas Holste (d. 1661) and the evidence for the physical characteristics of the manuscript as preserved by Francesco Bianchini (d. 1729) to argue that it was probably copied at Rome during the second half of the ninth century. Her paper is richly illustrated with eleven colour figures, and seems convincing. Chen takes the reader back to the beginning of Late Antiquity in a paper containing twenty-one colour figures. She draws attention to the fact that the numismatic evidence suggests that King Warahrān II (r. 274-93) was influenced in the depiction of his family by the medallions of the emperor Philip the Arab (r. 244-49) and argues that the decision of Diocletian (r. 284-305) and his colleagues to omit imperial women from the coinage and other forms of artistic propaganda may have been in part at least in reaction to the new Sasanian emphasis on imperial women and that the disappearance of imperial women from Sasanian artistic propaganda after the reign of King Narseh (r. 293-302) may have been a reaction in turn to the Roman emphasis on the capture of Narseh’s wives in their propaganda following their stunning victory over the Sasanians in 298. She ends, however, without explaining why the Sasanians continued to ignore royal women in their artistic propaganda long after 298: as a consequence her overall argument remains incomplete, so that the reader must defer judgement as to its persuasiveness.

The next three papers continue the historical rather than literary emphasis, but without the art-historical aspect. Salzman examines the political contexts of the laws against simony, that is, the sale of church office, by the emperors Leo and Anthemius in 469 and Glycerius in 473, as well as the interventions against simony by the Ostrogothic kings Theoderic and Athalaric and argues that such legislation or intervention was a sign of political weakness rather than of strength: she contends that weak rulers attempted to win the support of a senatorial elite concerned at how churchmen were treating its gifts to the church by demonstrating a similar concern about clerical venality. Next, Cribiore examines the competence and professionalism of stenographers during the late fourth and early fifth centuries, drawing heavily upon the records of various church councils, particularly the council of Carthage in 411, and the evidence of sermons, particularly those of Augustine of Hippo, to conclude that stenographers have been unfairly vilified in many cases, whether due to prejudice or false expectations. Finally, Harris asks three questions about the ancient hospital: did Roman hospitals exist prior to the fourth century AD? Why were there not more hospitals for civilians, apart from slaves, before the fourth century? And what inspired the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries to found hospitals? The answer to the first question is yes, but that some peculiarly restrictive definitions of what it means to be a hospital has led to the exclusion of the key evidence. The answer to the second question is that the educated classes realized that hospitals for civilians suffering from disease, as opposed to soldiers suffering from battle-wounds, would likely act as centres for contagion, killing more than they would save. Finally, there is no single answer to the last question, although the effort to discredit and replace traditional pagan healing shrines may have played a role.

The last two papers return the reader’s attention more directly to the work of Alan Cameron once more. Roueché begins by describing how he came to write two of his early monographs, Porphyrius the Charioteer (1973) and Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome (1975), inspired by the discovery of new inscriptions in honour of Porphyrius at Constantinople, then notes how many inscriptions relating to the circus factions have been discovered in the East outside of Constantinople since, appending a list of seventy-eight new inscriptions with some basic analysis as to the type of inscription and where they were found. Finally, Averil Cameron assesses the contribution made by her former husband to Byzantine studies, although I am not sure what the point of discussing a lengthy, unpublished paper on the foundation of Constantinople is (pp. 270-71) except to tantalize those of us who do not have access to it. One can only hope that it is published somewhere in due course.

This is a worthy memorial to one of the greatest scholars of Late Antiquity. While the wide-range of interests on display will probably deter many from buying it for their personal libraries, it certainly deserves a place in the library at any institution where the history and literature of Late Antiquity are taught.

Authors and titles

1. Alan Cameron and the Symmachi (Rita Lizzi Testa)
2. Fel Temp Reparatio and Themistius’ Oration 1: the story of an iconic coin and a career-defining panegyric (Edward Watts)
3. The Historia Augusta: minimalism and the adequacy of evidence (Michael Kulikowski)
4. Ambrose thinks with slavery (Noel Lenski)
5. Rutilius Namatianus, Melania the Younger, and the monks of Capraria (Gavin Kelly)
6. Late Antique Homeric exegesis in the Greek Anthology (Arianna Gullo)
7. Returning to the wandering poets: new poems by Dioscoros of Aphrodite (Jean-Luc Fournet)
8. The lost Farnesianus manuscript: uncial capitals for the bishops of Rome (Carmela Vircillo Franklin)
9. Late Antiquity between Sasanian East and Roman West: third-century imperial women as pawns in propaganda warfare (Anne Hunnell Chen)
10. Simony and the state: politics and religion in the Later Roman Empire (Michele Renee Salzman)
11. Stenographers in Late Antiquity: villains or victims? (Raffaella Cribiore)
12. Three questions about the ancient hospital (W.V. Harris)
13. Celebrity and power: Circus Factions forty years on (Charlotte Roueché)
14. Alan Cameron and Byzantium (Averil Cameron)