Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Philip Rousseau, Emmanuel Papoutsakis (ed.), Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown. Farnham/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. xx, 345. ISBN 9780754665533. $124.95.
Reviewed by Shawn W.J. Keough, K.U. Leuven

Table of Contents

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

In this volume Philip Rousseau and Manolis Papoutsakis have gathered essays that focus on a specific dynamic, which they and the contributors suggest represents the 'essence' of Late Antiquity: "the taking on of a heritage, the variety of changes induced within it, and the handing on of that legacy to new generations." By focusing on this "mechanism that inherits, transforms and bequeaths" the contributors inevitably confront the notion of 'transformation', a notion which they favour over the traditional notion of 'decline' as characterizing Late Antiquity. Certainly the thematic focus is appropriate for this volume, a book the editors describe as a quiet birthday gift offered to Peter Brown as a token of their gratitude, respect and affection. Not only has 'the transformation of the classical heritage' been a central focus of Brown's own work, but the considerable contribution Brown has made to the study of Late Antiquity has likewise transformed the conditions under which such study now operates. The editors thus fittingly position Brown within a genealogy that extends from his mentor Arnaldo Momigliano to Edward Gibbon and includes such luminaries as Syme, Marrou, Baynes, Bury and Mommsen. In both respects this collection of essays undoubtedly succeeds; not only in honouring a scholar who "has instructed us all in one way or another", but also in contributing to a scholarly discussion that has been ongoing since Gibbon.

The opening essay by Robert Markus ("Between Marrou and Brown: Transformations of Late Antique Christianity") surveys traditions of historiography in the study of Late Antiquity since the 1950s, especially the move away from notions of decline, deterioration and decay toward the notion of transformation--"without thereby implying either any deterioration or catastrophic mutation". The recognition that Late Antiquity, regardless of its precise chronological boundaries, represents a period "with its own positive character" is seen by Markus as the generative impulse in this historiographical seachange, which resulted, among other things, in the increasing convergence and interdependence of the study of Christian history and Roman history. Following a survey describing the ways in which his own work interacted with that of Brown's, Markus identifies what he considers to be the most central and significant of Peter Brown's insights into Late Antiquity, namely, that Christianity has always been subject to innumerable factors affecting its transformation and that the historian should therefore learn to envisage "a succession of distinctive 'Christianities' spread out in time" (quoting Brown's essay "Gloriosus Obitus: The End of the Ancient Other World", in W.E. Klingshirn and M. Vessey [eds], The Limits of Ancient Christianity [Ann Arbor, 1999] p.290).

Two subsequent essays by Averil Cameron ("Old and New Rome: Roman Studies in Sixth-Century Constantinople") and Glen Bowersock ("Old and New Rome in the Late Antique Near East") address the notion of Roman identity and its transformations. Bowersock's essay examines the process by which Roman identity was transferred from Old Rome to New Rome, and demonstrates the extent to which this 'transfer of tradition and nomenclature' was sufficiently comprehensive in the Late Antique Near East to result in the increasingly pervasive loss of Rome's association with a city situated by the Tiber. Cameron's essay masterfully problematizes the notion of 'cultural identity' as it relates to Roman self-identity in sixth century Constantinople. Providing ample evidence of considerable Constantinopolitan interest and investment in 'Romanness'--knowledge of Latin, Roman tradition and Roman history--Cameron notes that it is nevertheless quite difficult to conclude what such interest and investment actually meant for the people inhabiting Constantinople in the sixth century. Cameron points to Justinian as a symbolic representation of precisely the simultaneous synthesis and tension that characterized sixth century Constantinople's reception of Roman and Greek traditions of cultural identity, concluding that there was likely both more and less interest in Roman cultural identity in the age of Justinian than is generally acknowledged, and that this ambiguous tension ought not be hastily resolved but rather the diverse contradictions of human existence ought to be given their due.

Sebastian Brock ("Regulations for an Association of Artisans from the Late Sasanian or Early Arab Period") and Sidney Griffith ("Crosses, Icons and the Image of Christ in Edessa: The Place of Iconophobia in the Christian-Muslim Controversies of Early Islamic Times") provide more detailed case studies that build upon the thematic foci of Cameron and Bowersock, taking up instances in which Roman tradition underwent a variety of transformations in the post-Roman Orient. Brock's essay focuses upon a ninth century compilation of civil and ecclesiastical laws put together by Gabriel bishop of Basra. Brock translates and introduces a section of this text entitled 'Concerning the ordering and regulation of associations of the crafts called [N]', which lists regulations for the conduct of the association and its members ranging from entrance fees, penalties levied against members whose wives disturb and disrupt the association's meetings, and arrangements for funerals. Brock's contribution is offered in the hopes that it might provoke further study on this little known text, especially in the light of its potential significance: the evidence provided by this Syriac text of "a definite link between the associations of the Greco-Roman world and those of the Arab world" goes against the traditional scholarly consensus on the matter. Griffith's essay addresses issues raised by the early dialogues and controversies between Christians and Muslims focused upon religious images. Griffith helpfully moves the focus of the Muslim position in this debate from the objective status of icons and crosses to what Christians did when honouring icons and crosses: the act of prostration was a gesture that a Muslim could not imagine being legitimately offered to anything or anyone but God. In this way Griffith stresses that Byzantine iconoclasm and Muslim 'iconophobia', while certainly related, remain "noticeably different social phenomena".

Three subsequent essays by Rita Lizzi ("Alle origini della tradizione pagana su Costantino e il senato romano"), John Matthews ("Four Funerals and a Wedding: This World and the Next in Fourth-Century Rome") and Susanna Elm ("Family Men: Masculinity and Philosophy in Late Antiquity") take up aspects of the transformation of traditional Roman values in Christian society. Lizzi's detailed and lengthy contribution examines a particular aspect of Constantine's career that has relatively little documentation in the sources, namely, his institutional and social reforms--specifically regarding the senate and the equestrian order--which radically altered the composition and size of the senate in Rome, and, in the process, radically altered the terms of political participation for its members and their relationship to the emperor. Matthews' entertaining and insightful essay compares the historian Ammianus Marcellinus to the monk Jerome by way of an analysis of their treatment of certain matters of public interest, namely, the funerals and a wedding of prominent members of fourth century Roman society. The deaths of the senator Vettius Agorius Praetextatus in 384, the Roman prefect Junius Bassus in 359, and the Christian senator S. Petronius Probus a generation later are taken up in turn, and are followed by the death of the Roman bishop Damasus and Jerome's telling of the marriage, widowhood, and death of Blaesilla, the young senatorial woman whose death mourners claimed was the result of her ascetic deprivations. Matthews' comparison of Ammianus and Jerome on these 'four funerals and a wedding' demonstrates ways that the Christian conversion of the Roman aristocracy accommodated rather than rejected the fundamental social, economic and cultural values of traditional Roman society. Elm also compares two central characters in the contest for the authority to shape culture, or paideia, in the fourth century: Gregory of Nazianzus and the emperor Julian, and articulates the manner in which each constructed their own philosophical genealogy and transformed traditional notions of paternal authority in their respective attempts to frame and occupy new models of leadership.

Two essays look to Augustine: Claude Lepelley ("Les réticences de saint Augustine face aux légendes hagiographiques d'après la lettre Divjak 29*") and Philip Rousseau ("Language, Mortality and Cult") examine Augustine's treatment of miracles and of the pagan past. Lepelley's essay opens with a statement of warm personal appreciation for the work of Peter Brown, arguing that his writings--'varia, multiplex and multiformis'--have been often misunderstood and caricatured, just as were the bishop of Hippo's. Lepelley goes on to argue that Augustine's response to the request of the deacon Paulinus (well-known as Ambrose of Milan's secretary and confidante) that he edit the acts of martyrs reveals that the bishop of Hippo clearly distinguished between the more factual martyr acts derived from official documents and eyewitness reports from more pious hagiography. Lepelley's analysis demonstrates that this distinction does not simply indicate Augustine's concern for factual integrity in the narration of historical events but rather displays Augustine's religious interest in the authentic words and deeds of the saints and martyrs, a perspective that was little pursued in Augustine's own time and subsequently. Rousseau's essay focuses upon books VI and VII of the City of God and clarifies how Augustine could simultaneously look to Varro as a forebear as much as a foe, especially when the question is viewed against the backdrop provided by the responsibilities of Augustine's episcopal oversight, pastoral aims and public liturgical performance.

Three more essays look to the role of sacred texts and the negotiations between exegesis and doctrine. Charlotte Roueché ("A World Full of Stories" ) provocatively suggests that theatrical performances in late antiquity may have drawn from a "far wider range of mythologies and stories than we have tended to imagine". Drawing on a wide range of material and literary evidence Roueché demonstrates that, as one example, "the story of Tobias would offer an excellent choice for a play," especially when the "lives and adventures of the saints" offered an exciting store of theatrical material: the Roman Empire's need for theatrical plots may well have drawn from and propagated "a new genre of stories" recounting the exploits of Christianity's heroes. Judith Herrin's essay ("Book Burning as Purification") provides a stirring description and analysis of the diverse testimonies to the burning of books in late antiquity as a means by which deviant theology was ritually suppressed in dramas of purification orchestrated by a persecuting regime or in spontaneous outbursts of censorship. Claudia Rapp ("Safe-Conducts to Heaven: Holy Men, Mediation and the Role of Writing") insightfully demonstrates the interdependence of the significance of writing, the encumbrance of sin and the intercessory power of a holy man in relation to both, even beyond the grave. Stories in which the sins of a penitent recorded in writing are miraculously erased by means of a holy man's (posthumous) intercession leads Rapp to the idea of heavenly tollgates and their gatekeepers and the Book of Heaven--whether the Book of Fate or the Book of Justice--and the written prayers of one's spiritual father intended to offer safe conduct to heaven for the deceased. The development of these traditions is insightfully analysed by Rapp in relation to the importance placed upon the holy man's intercession and the miraculous properties of writing, particularly the writing of holy men, which are almost magical in their efficacious ability to effect a permanent and binding heavenly obligation.

Gregory the Great is the central figure in two essays. Lellia Cracco Ruggini and Giorgio Cracco ("Gregorio Magno e i 'Libri dei Re'") provide a description of the fortunes of Gregory's Expositio de Libris Regum in a fascinating tour extending over a millennium before concluding with a table outlining the twenty-five citations from Gregory's work appearing in Rabanus Maurus' Commentaria in Libros IV Regum alongside parallels appearing in Paterius' Liber de expositione Veteris ac Novi Testamenti and other works by Gregory. Peregrine Horden's essay ("The Late Antique Origins of the Lunatic Asylum?") takes as its point of departure the incredulity of Gregory's preeminent biographer, Frederick Homes Dudden, in the face of Gregory's report of a priest miraculously curing a madman [mente captus] by the laying on of hands and prayer. Horden takes this report as "the earliest clear attestation in European history, if not exactly of a lunatic asylum, then of a hospital in which a lunatic was based ... as a progenitor of those fully-fledged madhouses which will loom so large in the history of mental illness." Horden's analysis proceeds by means of an extended examination of Gregory's report against the broader backdrop of the history of houses for the mentally insane, concluding with the apt recognition that, for the student of late antiquity taught by Peter Brown, "evidence of what was thinkable can be as illuminating .. as evidence of what happened."

The final two essays by Julia M.H. Smith ("Radegundis peccatrix: Authorizations of Virginity in Late Antique Gaul") and Peter Garnsey ("Gemistus Plethon and Platonic Political Philosophy") venture into territories more clearly marked by the 'transformation of the classical heritage' than the preceding. Smith evaluates Radegund of Poiters against the backdrop of late antique virginity literature, and in the process not only describes the emergence of her cult but also demonstrates the manner in which late antique and mediaeval episcopal authority is indecipherable apart from a view to its relationship to this and other examples of "non-episcopal, feminine, forms of leadership." The volume's final essay looks to the political philosophy of Gemistus Plethon, the "crypto-pagan" whose life straddled the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Following an introductory discussion of Plethon as a religious syncretist hoping to present the world with a new religion founded upon Zoroastrianism, Pythagoreanism and Platonism, Garnsey contrasts Plethon's political philosophy with that of Plato and Proclus before demonstrating Plethon's influence upon Thomas More.

This is a wide-ranging collection of stimulating essays that certainly succeeds both as an homage to its honouree and as a contribution to the ongoing discussion that he has revitalized and shaped in such significant and diverse fashion.

Between Marrou and Brown : transformations of late antique Christianity / Robert Markus

Old and new Rome : Roman studies in sixth-century Constantinople / Averil Cameron

Old and new Rome in the late antique Near East / Glen Bowersock

Regulations for an association of artisans from the late Sasanian or early Arab period / Sebastian Brock

Crosses, icons and the image of Christ in Edessa : the place of iconophobia in the Christian-Muslim controversies of early Islamic times / Sidney H. Griffith

Alle origini della tradizione pagana su Costantino e il senato romano / Rita Lizzi Testa Four funerals and a wedding : this world and the next in fourth-century Rome / John Matthews

Les reéticences de saint Augustin face aux légendes hagiographiques d'après la lettre Divjak 29* / Claude Lepelley

Language, morality and cult : Augustine and Varro / Philip Rousseau

A world full of stories / Charlotte Roueché

Safe-conducts to heaven : holy men, mediation and the role of writing / Claudia Rapp

Book burning as purification / Judith Herrin

Gregorio Magno e i 'Libri dei Re' / Lellia Cracco Ruggini e Giorgio Cracco

The late antique origins of the lunatic asylum? / Peregrine Horden

Family men : masculinity and philosophy in late antiquity / Susanna Elm

Radegundis peccatrix : authorizations of virginity in late antique Gaul / Julia M.H. Smith

Gemistus Plethon and Platonic political philosophy / Peter Garnsey

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