Monthly Archives: August 2017

Review of Motions of Late Antiquity: Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society in Honour of Peter Brown

Once again, I must apologise for my lack of recent posting. To keep everyone updated, it looks as though I will finally get to publish my book on Procopius. Since the contract has not been signed, I cannot reveal the publisher yet, but the tentative title is Masculinity, Identity & Power-Politics in the Age of Justinian: A study of Procopius. The editor, who approached me initially was very happy with my fingers crossed I will start on the draft next month. I am also preparing a proposal for an edited handbook for Routledge on Gender and Identity in Byzantium…once again nothing finalised, but the editor approached me about this one as well and I have two very good co-editors in mind so stay tuned on that front. To prepare myself for this project I have been immersing myself in recent work on Late Antiquity and Byzantium…I am constantly amazed about how many bright scholars there are in our field.  What follows is a draft of one of three reviews I am writing at the moment. I was working under a strict-word limit so forgive me for the lack of depth…I already had to cull 200 words.

It has been nearly fifty years since the publication of Peter Brown’s trailblazing, The World of Late Antiquity (1971). It is fair to say that this work—which emphasized cultural germination in a period (200-800) long remembered for decay—played an essential part in establishing Late Antiquity as its own unique historical epoch.

Yet, Late Antiquity has experienced some recent growing pains. Detractors have countered Brown’s more optimistic vision of the break-up of the Western Roman Empire. Establishing clear spatial and temporal boundaries for the field also continues to spark debate.

Into this disputed arena arrives a second festschrift for Brown. Based on a conference held at Princeton to honour Brown in 20ll, the seventeen essays in this volume offers readers keen insights into an assortment of regions, time-periods, and methodological approaches.

Following an Introduction by the editors, which does an excellent job recounting Brown and his disciples’ numerous contributions to the field,  the opening chapters respond to some of the criticisms discussed above. Ian Wood suggests that late antique scholars should focus less on the ‘creation’ of modern Europe, and take a global approach by turning their attentions Eastward to developments in Byzantium, Persia and the Muslim world.

Leaning heavily upon Brown’s Through the Eye of the Needle, Walter Pohl downplays the economic and political ramifications of ‘Rome’s fall’. He posits instead that economic decline and social transformation in the West is better explained by shifting attitudes amongst Romans and non-Romans Christians towards wealth. In the post-imperial West, money flowed away from the secular elites and into the coffers of a Church, more interested in salvation than trade. I was left wondering, if this was true, then what about the Byzantine East? I also question how heavily the secular elites in Western Europe followed these rigorist Christian tenets on wealth.

As one would expect in a volume dedicated to Brown, a number of chapters deal with late antique religious practices.

Philippa Townsend uses Brown’s, The Body and Society, as a pivot to question the standard contention that the Manichaean’s cosmological dualism was matched by their ‘social dualism’.

Utilizing the fifth-century Life of Hypatius by Callinicus as a window into late antique views on class, Jaclyn Maxwell examines the author’s attitudes towards a wide social spectrum of guests who visited his rural monastery. Callinicus, Maxwell concludes, did not favour either rich or poor, but judged the guests as distinct individuals.

Daniel Schwartz uncovers a similarly even- handed approach in his source, the metrical homily, On the Fall of Idols, by Jacob of Sarug (c. 451-521). Schwartz concludes, that Jacob preferred a ‘persuasive and moral approaches to Christianization”, rather than the violent approach frequently condoned by more rigorist Christians.

Volker Menz, however, focuses on the much more violent Vita of the mid-fifth century presbyter and Miaphysite, Barsuma. As a member of a threatened sect, the Miaphysites, the author of the life was far less interested in presenting Barusma as a converter of ‘Jews, pagans, and Samaritans, but as someone who purified the Holy Land by eliminating his enemies (p. 244).’

Reflecting the recent revolution in Syriac studies and Middle Eastern Christianity, David Michelson resituates the late fifth-century Roman monophysite Philoxenos of Mabbug within an older tradition of Cappadocian theologians.

Ariel López applies modern knowledge about the Nile’s seasonal currents and flooding patterns to shine light on core “truths” concerning voyages, famine and premature death to be found in late antique Egyptian hagiography.

Michael Maas turns to the complicated rivalry between two late antique agrarian empires, Byzantium and Persia. Rather than highlight discord, Maas examines instead potential collaborations in the fifth and sixth centuries. Bucking standard consensus, he takes seriously the mid-sixth Byzantine historian Procopius claim that on his deathbed the Roman emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408) had asked the Persian emperor Yazdgrid I (r. 399-420) to act as guardian for his young son, Theodosius II (r. 408-450).

Several chapters examine the shadowy rise of post-imperial worlds in the East and the West. Drawing on a letter by the Gaul Sidonius Apollinaris (476) and a later inscription from a little-known bishop, Zeno of Mérida (483), Damián Fernandez highlights how these authors’ portraits of the Visigothic king Euric (c. 440-478) offer insights into these authors’ attitudes towards the Eurican monarchy, but just as importantly explain how Euric and his backers saw themselves in a post-Roman Iberia.

Philip Rousseau, posits that while Gregory of Tours lived in a ‘new’ age, his thought-world and moral compass—both as a historian and as a bishop—remained firmly rooted in the ‘ancient practices and edifices’ of a vanishing Roman world.

Following Brown’s call to break down boundaries between West and East, Stefan Elders argues provocatively and convincingly  that Amanda’s of Maastricht’ missionary activity in the Frankish kingdom and beyond in the 620s and 630s must be understood from the wider vantage of late antique politics at a time when the Merovingian and Byzantine courts allied. Pointing out the similarities between Amandus’ forced baptisms with East Roman imperial tradition, Elders suggests that Amandus worked under the auspices of the Merovingian king Dagobert, rather than the papacy in Rome as is commonly supposed. This was my favourite chapter in the book.

Shifting to the late antique Muslim East, Jack Tannous’s chapter on the Life of Simeon of the Olives (c. 750) highlights the difficulties of uncovering accurate details about Christians living under Muslim rule when our sources are few and flawed.

Yannis Papadogiannakis, on the other hand, sees in the seventh-century erotapokriseis by Anastasius of Sinai a day-to-day guidebook for Christians living under Muslim rule.

Janet Nelson chapter concludes the study by revisiting the contested notion of a Carolingian renaissance through the historiographical lens of law.

Overall, the disparate approaches found in this study reveal the fresh perspectives that late antique scholars can offer. Yet, their somewhat disjointed vision of the age also points to some continuing challenges.

As many of the contributors to this volume comment, Peter Brown is a uniquely gifted linguist, writer, and historian. Some of Late Antiquity’s current malaise may indeed be attributed to the difficulty for the new guard to match Brown’s brilliance as both a synthesizer and story-teller.