BMCR 2023.04.09

Civic identity and civic participation in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

, , Civic identity and civic participation in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cultural encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 37. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 447. ISBN 9782503590103.

Open Access

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


In recent decades there has been no shortage of studies of the transformations and traumas experienced by Roman cities during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The current volume, however, is deeply refreshing in its more focused examination of civic identity and participation between the third and eleventh centuries. As the two editors acknowledge in their introductory essay, scholars have long been dubious of the relevancy of both these phenomena to the post-Roman Mediterranean, due both to an “idealization” of classical democracy as a model for civic engagement, and to the common assumption that the promulgation of the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 had the effect of undermining local citizenship (16-18). Both the editors and their contributors, however, start from the premise that civic identity and popular engagement could and did take on forms that did not always conform to an early imperial model, and consequently they only rarely frame their analyses in terms of a simplistic – albeit traditional – dichotomy of continuity verses discontinuity.

A brief first part of the volume consists of two essays meant to contextualize later developments through a reconsideration of the civic identity and participation in both the Western and Eastern Mediterranean prior to the fourth century. Clifford Ando’s contribution calls into question the very notion of an overriding “imperial” citizenship; instead, he argues that “the mechanics of Roman citizenship at the most fundamental level…were insistently local affairs… Roman citizenship was always mediated, in ways that varied from place to place and time to time, by local institutions” (41). A similar conclusion is reached by Cédric Brélaz in his study of Greek city-states. Brélaz argues that under Roman imperial rule, the residents of these cities maintained localized identities and even to a certain extent administrative autonomy. While local elites may have enjoyed an outsized influence on decision-making, and the Greek cities of the imperial era by no means enjoyed a pure democracy on a classical Athenian model, Brélaz nevertheless argues persuasively that “the people were still a crucial actor in the political arena, and civic participation was an essential element in the proper functioning of local institutions as well as in public life as a whole” (80).

The regional studies contained in Parts II (“Local Identities, Civic Government, and Popular Participation in Late Antiquity”) and III (“Rephrasing Citizenship”) comprise the bulk of the lengthy volume. Despite the geographical and chronological breadth of the two sections, the individual essays – as well as the two sections as discrete units – are closely linked in reference to the major themes identified in the introduction. While two initial essays, by Anthony Kaldellis and Avshalom Laniado respectively, focus on the Eastern Mediterranean, the bulk of the essays concentrate on the West. Kaldellis’s study looks at Constantinople specifically, whose residents, he argues, maintained their identity as a corporate populus Romanus. He suggests furthermore that the ability of the people to influence political and ecclesiastical policy (through, for example, public protests or acclamations) not only was recognized, but sometimes even encouraged, by authorities. Laniado, for his part, in arguing that even with the decline of municipal councils urban elites (or “notables”) were encouraged by the state to participate in local assemblies, nevertheless cautions that the imperial government never “attempted to encourage, let alone impose, popular participation in municipal decision-making, except through acclamations” (135; italics mine).

This recognition that public displays of the people’s will and religiosity can be considered meaningful forms of civic participation is echoed in a number of the subsequent essays focused on the Latin West. Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira’s essay on North Africa, for example, looks in detail at acclamations, which he argues “became in Late Antiquity an indispensable element for the legitimation of any authority, secular or ecclesiastical,” while still cautioning that this trend was by no means reflective of any sort of gradual democratization of late Roman urban politics (146). Pierfrancesco Porena similarly identifies games and spectacles as civic unifiers in Italy itself up through the fourth-century, but nevertheless posits that a fifth-century “crisis of the clientele urban identity,” prompted citizens to redirect their “emotional participation” from secular authorities and institutions towards the Christian faith and its representatives (181-3). Similarly attuned to discontinuities is Michael Kulikowski’s study of Iberian cities. Kulikowski observes a “contraction” of urbanism that began while the peninsula was still under Roman administration, while nevertheless cautioning the need not to overstate the extent of urbanism prior to this downturn. By the late sixth-century, contemporary sources largely downplay civic administration and identity, and instead “frame social relations and affective identifications almost exclusively in terms of the relationship of the king to his people and his followers” (207). While, by the beginning of the seventh century, Iberian cities retained their importance for the assessing of taxes, and episcopal leadership and cults of sanctity continued to provide some semblance of shared community, otherwise these cities had lost much of their earlier administrative significance.

Part III begins with a particularly fascinating study by Ralph Mathisen, which mines the available epigraphic evidence for the vocabulary used to communicate personal expressions of identity in Late Antiquity. As Mathisen observes, during this period “regional-cum-ethnic” indicators came to predominate, and specific vocabulary including gens, natio, origo was utilized to express an individual’s geographical and/or familial origins, without direct or indirect reference to traditional imperial administrative divisions. In contrast, individuals rarely cited their Roman citizenship in expressions of self-identification. Whereas Mathisen focuses on self-identification, Peter Van Nuffelen’s subsequent essay considers “the people” in relation to justice, perceiving in this period a predominant socio-legal framework in which “people and ruler are co-constituted in a relationship of justice” (254). This framework had secular as well as ecclesiastical application, and Van Nuffelen perceives it also underlying episcopal elections. Similarly attentive to the relationship between the urban community and its episcopal leadership is Els Rose, who recognizes in the sermons of Caesarius of Arles a religious understanding of citizenship, and like Mathisen examines the bishop’s use of a consistent vocabulary in the framing of identity. She argues that Caesarius consciously infused “core terms of Roman citizenship (civis, civitas, patria) and classical co-occurrences (patriaviavita) with new, Christian meaning” as a form of Christianization rather than “de-romanization” (290). The final essay in Part III, by Stefan Esders and Helmut Reimitz, in turn examines the legal pluralism of the Merovingian kingdoms that eventually absorbed Caesarius’ civitas. This pluralism, they argue, reflected an evolving conception of social identity grounded in divisions between gentes. Nevertheless, they caution vis-à-vis the seventh-century Ripuarian Law specifically, “As much as the framing of this legal status looks ethnic and therefore might be read as being based on descent, it was still the territory, district, or jurisdictional sphere in which one was born or came to live that defined one’s legal status” (314). Consequently, they identify a Roman, rather than Germanic, influence on the articulation of an individual’s legal status.

The studies contained in Part IV, while retaining the same thematic focus as the preceding two sections, shift their attention to subsequent centuries. Mathieu Tillier’s essay is the one contribution to address the Muslim world, and suggests that urban identity was not a concept inherited from the Roman Empire, but rather developed gradually within an Islamic context. He notes that funerary inscriptions prior to the ninth century typically only identified an individual’s geographical place of origin in cases of immigrants, prioritizing instead tribal membership. But beginning in the early ninth century, Tillier perceives in both epigraphic and literary sources a shift in practice, as ironically “the imposition of external domination increased the sense of local belonging” (356). Marco Mostert’s examination of German episcopal towns with antique roots argues for a shift beginning in the late tenth-century away from urban identities largely shaped by local ecclesiastics to identities grounded in shared legal rights and privileges. A final full-length essay by Gianmarco De Angelis, which examines Italian cities prior to the emergence of communal regimes in the High Middle Ages, echoes Mostert and other contributors in identifying religious leaders as sources of civic identity. More broadly, he argues for the “vitality” of urban life in the early medieval period, and civic identity as “a shared sense of belonging to a unitary space, although articulated in patterns of neighborhoods shaped by physical and symbolic elements” (410). A brief final essay by Claudia Rapp serves as an explicit postscript to the collection, while offering a salient cautionary note about modern efforts to define individual identity when ultimately such identities not only were multifaceted, but also “relational,” i.e. “affirmed in ever-changing contexts, in response to ever-changing needs and challenges” (418).

The editors must be congratulated for producing a lengthy volume that manages to balance on the one hand a considerable breadth in its geographical and chronological coverage, and on the other a set of consistent themes that unify its contents. This is not to say that the contributors all arrive at the same conclusions, but only that they largely begin by asking similar questions. So, while the quality of the individual essays is uniformly strong, they are arguably most effective not as discrete compositions, but as parts of a broader historical project that engages critically with earlier historiographical models. The result is a stimulating, multifaceted reflection of urbanism during a transformative era, in which new and diverse forms and expressions of vertical and horizontal relationships alike redefined communal life for city-dwellers across the Mediterranean World.


Authors and Titles

Introduction — Cédric Brélaz and Els Rose

Part I. Local Communities, Citizenship, and Civic Participation in the Early Roman Empire (1st-3rd Century CE)
Local Citizenship and Civic Participation in the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire — Clifford Ando
Democracy, Citizenship(s), and ‘Patriotism’: Civic Practices and Discourses in the Greek Cities under Roman Rule — Cédric Brélaz

Part II. Local Identities, Civic Government, and Popular Participation in Late Antiquity
Civic Identity and Civic Participation in Constantinople — Anthony Kaldellis
Social Status and Civic Participation in Early Byzantine Cities — Avshalom Laniado
Informal Expressions of Popular Will in Late Roman Africa — Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira
Urban Identities in Late Roman Italy — Pierfrancesco Porena
Cities and Civic Identities in Late Roman and Visigothic Spain — Michael Kulikowski

Part III. Rephrasing Citizenship
Personal Identity in the Later Roman Empire — Ralph Mathisen
A Relationship of Justice: Becoming the People in Late Antiquity — Peter Van Nuffelen
Reconfiguring Civic Identity and Civic Participation in a Christianizing World: The Case of Sixth-Century Arles — Els Rose
Legalizing Ethnicity: The Remaking of Citizenship in Post-Roman Gaul (6th-7th Centuries) — Stefan Esders and Helmut Reimitz

Part IV. Expressions of Civic Identity in the Early Middle Ages
Urban Populations in Early Islam: Self-Identification and Collective Representation — Mathieu Tillier
Urban Culture in the Early Medieval West: The Case of the Episcopal Towns in the German Kingdom — Marco Mostert
Elites and Urban Communities in Early Medieval Italy: Identities, Political Initiatives, and Ways of (Self-) Representation — Gianmarco de Angelis
Citizenship and Contexts of Belonging: A Postscript — Claudia Rapp