Friday, September 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Andrew Cain, Noel Lenski (ed.), The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity. Farnham/Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. xiv, 464. ISBN $124.95. $9780754667254.
Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork


This volume consist of papers that were originally delivered at the seventh biennial Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity Conference held at the University of Colorado at Boulder in March 2007, and the editors and contributors are to be congratulated on the prompt publication of the same. The volume begins with an introduction by Noel Lenski wherein he reviews in brief recent critical work pertaining to the definition of the key concepts of 'power' and 'religion'. He then summarizes each of the essays that follows under their sub-theme and carefully establishes their relevance to these key concepts. There follow 28 essays gathered into 8 different groups of 3 or 4 essays each under some sub-theme. The editors have been careful to ensure that the term 'power' is explicitly present in each of these sub-themes, beginning with 'Religion and the Power of the Word' and ending with 'The Power of Religion in the Communities of the East'. The essays are all in English and have been contributed by both relatively junior and more well-established scholars from 9 different countries. They usually run between 10 and 14 pages each, although that by Lizzi Testa is twice as large as any other. There is no discernible logic—geographical, chronological, or of any other nature – to the order of the sub-themes. Furthermore, some of these are so vague as to cause one to suspect that they have been conjured up simply in order to lend a strained cohesion to an otherwise disparate group of contributions. This is particularly true of the last two groups of essays under the matching sub-themes 'The Power of the Religion in the Barbarian West' and 'The Power of Religion in the Communities of the East'. In contrast, other sub-themes group together essays that are closely connected in content and do obviously belong together. This is particularly true of the second sub-theme, 'Power Over the Divine: Porphyry, Iamblichus, and the Struggles for the Philosophical Tradition', containing 3 essays dealing with Neoplatonic thought of the late third and early fourth centuries, and the fifth sub-theme, 'Constantine and the Power of the Cross', containing 3 essays dealing with alleged visions of the cross in the fourth century.

The title of this volume may strike some as dangerously vague when used of almost any period in the history of any culture, let alone of that relatively large stretch of European and Near Eastern history commonly referred to as Late Antiquity which saw such important religious and political change. Fortunately, the Late Antiquity in question here is not the 'long' Late Antiquity, or not quite as long as it might have been at least. Hence the period covered extends from the Neoplatonic thought of the late third century until the death of the East Syrian catholicos Ishoyabb in 659 rather than until the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750, for example, as has sometimes been preferred. In reality, however, Payne's paper on the persecution of heretics by Ishoyabb remains an isolated example of intrusion deep into the seventh century, and the bulk of the papers remain firmly focussed on developments c.300-600. Furthermore, the vast majority of the essays are really concerned with the relationship between Christianity and power. The exceptions are the 3 essays on Neoplatonic thought and that by Lizzi Testa on the role of the pagan colleges of priests at Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. There is nothing about the exercise of power by or within other religions such as Judaism, Manichaeism, or early Islam. Hence the contents of this volume are not nearly so scattered or disjointed as one might have feared upon first reading its title. Nevertheless, the range of topics covered will stretch the interests and expertise of most scholars of Late Antiquity.

The titles of most essays are relatively self-explanatory, although one should be careful to note that Huebner's essay on the venality of offices in the later Roman empire is concerned with ecclesiastical rather than secular office, and that Young's paper on the imagery of personal objects in Merovingian Gaul actually focuses rather narrowly on plate-buckles. Many of the essays tend to adopt an overview of a particular theme or topic over a set period rather than focus narrowly on the interpretation of one particular incident or piece of evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it probably makes them more useful for teaching purposes. This is certainly true, for example, of Evans Grubbs' paper on infant exposure or Drijvers' paper on alleged appearances of the cross in the fourth century. However, the essays do not always survey quite so much as their vague titles might suggest in some instances. Hence Elton's vaguely titled essay really focuses on the effort by Theodosius II to force the pro- and anti-Nestorian groups within the church back into communion once more c.431-33 and what this tells us about the working of imperial government more generally. Similarly, Grig's essay on the symbolism of the Capitolium in Late Antiquity focuses rather more narrowly than its title suggests on the evidence from the fourth and early fifth centuries alone. Perhaps partly as a result of this survey-approach, however, there is very little that is truly new here, whether the new interpretation of old evidence or the addition of new evidence to an old debate. For example, in his exploration of Ammianus Marcellinus' treatment of Christianity in his description of the Persian war 359-60, Weisweiler argues that 'the traditional alternatives of bias or impartiality are insufficient to grasp the wit and sophistication of his treatment [of Christianity]' (p. 384) as if one could not be both biased and witty or that no-one had spotted the irony or humour in Ammianus' subtle attacks against Christianity beforehand. This is simply untrue, and Weisweiler is nowhere near as innovative in his approach as he imagines himself to be. Few of the papers really have a clear and well-defined argument as such, the most noteworthy exception being that by Lizzi Testa who argues at length against Alan Cameron for the continued public activity of the colleges of priests at Rome during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. On other occasions, the subtlety of the argument escapes me. Hence when James begins his essay by rejecting an older explanation as to why Gregory of Tours thought it worthwhile combating Arianism in his history of the Franks, that 'it was a way of displaying his own theological credentials and proving his orthodoxy' (p. 327), I am puzzled by his eventual conclusion that he did so in order to prove to his flock that 'they had a bishop who knew his mind, and who knew his Bible, and who was certain in his defence of orthodoxy' (p. 338).

Not all essays within this volume will be of equal interest to every reader, and personal research interests will probably sway judgements concerning the relative value of the various contributions. However, the great value of a volume such as this is that it affords one an opportunity to explore an area within the broad field of Late Antiquity that one might not have ventured into otherwise. In my case, I found Young's paper on the imagery of plate-buckles in Merovingian Gaul particularly interesting in this respect. In this, he argues that the artists or patrons responsible for the imagery on these buckles exercised their own power to decide what features of various sacred traditions, Christian and non-Christian, to include within this imagery, despite the ostensibly Christian nature of these objects. Here I feel that he could have strengthened his argument by being a little more critical of some of the alleged Christian features of his main object of discussion, the so-called Landelinus plate-buckle. For example, the alleged halo about the head of the horseman (identified by some scholars as the Christ of the Apocalypse) seems suspiciously like a rather wild head of hair rather than a halo. Futhermore, he accepts the interpretation of the horseman's alleged fangs as inspired by Rev. 19:15 ('From his mouth darts a sharp blade to strike the pagan nations'). But why two fangs rather than one? Rather than being fangs, they seem to me to represent the sides of an open mouth, shouting or straining to speak. As for the claim that the big ears on the horseman symbolise vitality and power, they strike me as nothing other than the product of a poor artist struggling to depict normal ears.

Probably the least convincing paper is that by Mathisen. In this, he explores the political and religious significance of a mosaic which the barbarian general Ricimer paid for in a church at Rome which Gregory the Great later dedicated to St. Agatha. In particular, he suggests that an inscription beneath a depiction of a seated Christ reading SALUS TOTIUS GENERIS HUMANI was intended to be read in reference as much to Ricimer as to Christ. This far-fetched idea essentially rests on the misinterpretation of the monogram on the small-bronze coinage issued by Libius Severus and of the inscriptions on some contemporary lead tesserae, all alleged to show Ricimer's imperial pretensions. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the monogram on the coinage of Libius Severus actually reads the name of Severus in a combination of Latin and Greek letters, not the name of Ricimer, that is, that the apparent Latin C is actually a lunate sigma.1 While Mathisen acknowledges my paper in his footnotes, his claim that I suggest that the portrait on this particular coin represents Ricimer rather Severus directly contradicts my actual argument and raises doubts as to whether he has really read my paper at all. As for the lead tesserae, it seriously misrepresents the evidence to claim that they cite 'Ricimer on equal terms with the two domini nostri' (p. 322), and the claim that 'it would not take much of a stretch of the imagination to read the inscription as salvo domino nostro Ricimere' seems to me to involve a great deal too much of imagination.

In conclusion, this is a highly enjoyable collection of papers, and most readers will encounter something new to them, even if it may not strike experts in that particular field of Late Antique studies as particularly new or exciting. The essays are generally thought-provoking, if not always entirely convincing.


1.   D. Woods, 'A Misunderstood Monogram: Ricimer or Severus?', Hermathena 172 (2002), pp. 5-21.

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