Monday, August 20, 2012


Therese Fuhrer (ed.), Rom und Mailand in der Spätantike: Repräsentationen städtischer Räume in Literatur, Architektur und Kunst. Topoi. Berlin studies of the ancient world, Bd 4. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. Pp. xx, 448. ISBN 9783110222135. $120.00.

Reviewed by Douglas Boin, Georgetown University (

Version at BMCR home site


A collection of essays always offers a welcome opportunity to survey the state of the field. This volume, which explores some of the sources relevant to the study of third- through fifth-century Rome and Milan, will prove especially pleasurable for those working in Late Antiquity: historians, archaeologists and scholars of late Latin literature alike. Edited by Therese Fuhrer, it represents the fruits of a colloquium held in Berlin in May 2009 and takes as its starting point the representation of urban space in the material and textual record of the period. It is composed of 16 essays, 15 of which are in German and all of which offer tantalizing glimpses at aspects of urban life. A brief summary of the book's structure will be followed by some remarks on the overall successfulness of the endeavor, as well as some suggestions for future research.

The book is divided into four parts. The first is organized around "The City and the Emperor" and focuses primarily on material evidence. Scholars interested in the topography and archaeology of Rome will enjoy Franz Alto Bauer's description of the late third-century Forum Romanum and Hauke Ziemssen's discussion of the Maxentian building program on the Palatine, in the Forum and along the via Appia. Recent excavations of the Domus Pinciana, directed by a French team at the Villa Medici, are summarized by Vincent Jolivet and Claire Sotinel, who situate the resulting data within the context of Rome's early fifth-century urban image. These chapters offer fantastic looks at new research on the archaeology of the Late Antique city. Annette Haug's chapter on the urban image of fourth-century Milan completes the section, providing an up-to-date survey of the landscape of that city. Part two, a shorter section on "Literary Representations," complements these papers. Felix Mundt explores the rhetorical role that Milan and Rome play in Latin panegyrics. Jan Stenger focuses on the rhetoric that lies behind Ammianus Marcellinus' presentation of Rome.

Parts three and four are organized around broader social-historical themes. The subject of the third is the idea of "Rome as a Landscape of Memories," where the past and the present interacted throughout the Late Antique period. Ute Tischer discusses Servius' treatment of Augustan cult sites in Aeneid 8 and suggests that a desire to assert the truthfulness of Vergil as an author inspired Servius' generic, literary interest in Roman topography. Ulrich Schmitzer's essay touches upon specific sites within the late Roman landscape, such as the Lupercal and the Forum of Augustus, and argues that they formed part of a "symbolic struggle over Roman topography in pagan-Christian discourse" (237) in the fourth and fifth centuries. An emphasis on the material culture of Rome carries over into the following essay. In it, Susanne Muth asks the question, "How late is the Late Antique Forum Romanum?" Studying the well- known monuments that changed the space in the later period, like the Temple of Saturn, Muth also demonstrates the resilience of many of its earlier buildings. In doing so, she nicely brings out the dialogue between past and present that was always an inescapable feature of the Forum. The letters of Sidonius Apollinaris, analyzed by Ralf Behrwald, shed light on the same process taking place in the fifth-century city.

The last section of the book explores the role of Late Antique Rome and Milan in contemporary Christian "discourse." This section is by far the longest of the collection and the most wide-ranging. It comprises six essays, including the only one in English, by Neil McLynn. McLynn's contribution, "Damasus of Rome: A Fourth-Century Pope in Context," considers how wealth and patronage shaped the social world of fourth-century Rome and suggests that the bishop was a much "more subordinate" figure (320) in his time than scholars have traditionally recognized.

Similarly, Therese Fuhrer discusses the constellation of figures, texts and buildings that make up our image of Milan. Acknowledging the rhetorical qualities of both the textual and material culture, this chapter is one of the most compelling of the collection. She suggests that against the backdrop of the theological disputes in 385–86, Ambrose used a program of church construction to help define his vision for Christian "orthodoxy." Fuhrer marshals evidence from the Confessions to show that Augustine, too, was aware of this feud at the time. "Do walls really make one Christian?" Marius Victorinus wonders, in Augustine's retelling of an episode from the life of a famous Christian convert (ergo parietes faciunt christianos? Conf. 8.2.4). The query is asked of Simplicianus, Ambrose's spiritual father, who answers in the affirmative, as if there were no other option. In Fuhrer's reading, the inclusion of this episode in the narrative of the Confessions represents Augustine's attempt to assert, ex post facto, his full ideological support for the bishop of Milan and his building program. Above all, it demonstrates how Augustine appropriated the concrete image of "church walls" to build his own vision of a "true" Christian—in the process, sweeping away any problematic aspects of his past, such as the fact that he was not a full member of Ambrose's church for most of his time in Milan.

This last section contains four more essays. Stefan Freund has gathered together 15 conversion narratives, from Paul to Minucius Felix to Paulinus of Milan's biography of Ambrose, to examine the role that cities play in each of the narratives. Rome, he suggests, emerges as a "center of pagan education...a city from which one must either physically distance oneself," as in the case of Octavius in Minucius Felix, "or internally distance oneself," as in the case of Marius Victorinus, in order to have a conversion experience (336). Milan, by contrast, often appears in texts as a spiritual beacon for Christian conversion. Hartmut Leppin's essay on "Augustine's Milan" also explores this largely rhetorical, mental image of Milan through a close reading of the Confessions. That topic is taken up again by Claudia Tiersch, who uses evidence from Ambrose's sermons to evoke a broader picture of social life in the late fourth-century city. As Tiersch shows, late fourth-century Milan included many people who continued to practice traditional Roman religion and attend the theater and games. The populace also included a sizable Jewish community. A short essay by Ernst Baltrusch provides a look at Ambrose's response to the torching of a synagogue in Callinicum (Ar-Raqqah in Syria, about 100 miles [160 km] from Aleppo) in 388.

Overall, the essays are well-argued, well-sourced and will provide for English-speaking scholars an excellent overview of contemporary inquiry, particularly in the German-speaking world. Still, none of these works claims to be the final word on its topic. Indeed, among the strengths of the collection is the way that the authors capture a sense of research-in-progress. For those whose interests overlap or intersect with those found in the volume, this book represents a good starting point for future research and point the way towards many helpful conversation partners.

As should be clear from many of the bibliographies, however, there is still room for other treatments of the same subjects. Often, the works cited only begin to scratch the surface of the relevant literature or are missing important contributions that might have nuanced the author's argument. I wonder, for example, whether the discussion of competing ritual topographies in Late Antique Rome (Schmitzer) might have benefited from consideration of the social processes of adaptation and accommodation to which Michele Salzman brought attention in her book On Roman Time (1990). It also seems rather odd to propose that Minucius Felix used the setting of Ostia to provide a more neutral place for Christian conversion (Freund), in contrast to overtly "pagan" Rome, in light of the Roman religious practices known to have persisted at the old harbor throughout the third century. Passing over for a moment recent treatments of the matter, a rough outline of Ostia's resilient Roman religious traditions has been clear for some time.1 Minucius Felix' rhetoric needs to be seen in this light, too.

The relationship between rhetoric and reality surfaces at several other points and is one that might be worth interrogating more vigorously in future works. Topics that touch upon the nature of late Roman religion, for example, provide one potential source for exploration. Might not Servius' interest in cult places like the Ara Maxima or the Lupercal (ad Aen. 8.271 and 343) tell us at least something about the nature and construction of late Roman society (Tischer)? It is true that Servius does often use the imperfect tense to refer to activities that were performed at these sites (ad Aen. 343), a point that Alan Cameron has now cited in arguing that "official Roman paganism" did not survive the fourth century.2 And yet, as Carlos Machado has shown, strands of antiquarianism can be detected in many epigraphic dedications from Rome that date to this time, and the re-erecting of statues for old gods and goddesses, with accompanying inscriptions, is evinced well into the fifth century.3 What do we do with this evidence, falling as it does outside the "official" realm of colleges and priesthoods? To my mind, a more properly-theorized approach to "religion," one that incorporates an anthropological perspective like that put forward by Clifford Geertz, might have benefited many contributors (Tiersch, Haug) by opening up new ways of thinking and talking about the nature of late Roman society.4

One final example of the tension between rhetoric and reality cannot be omitted. The question at the heart of Baltrusch's essay is the role that Christian rhetoric played in the rise of anti-Judaism. Baltrusch discusses Ambrose's appeal for clemency after the burning of the Callinicum synagogue by Christians and suggests that the bishop "had no interest in a political or legal degradation of Jews, which was certainly not a theme of his letter" (390). Consequently, Baltrusch proposes that explanations for the rise of anti-Jewish legislation in Late Antiquity need to be sought in sources other than the rhetoric of church leaders. Both as a political animal and as a social historian attuned to the ways that rhetoric shapes reality, I do not find this explanation convincing.5 His short overview of the history of synagogues in the Roman world (380–82) is also not well-documented and open to challenge.

One problematic chapter, however, does not mar a most pleasurable read. The authors of parts one and two have given excellent overviews of their research, and the rhetorical qualities of the urban spaces come out quite clearly in the discussion of literature, art and archaeology in parts three and four. These are scholars working at the top of their field.


1.   Third-century Mithras: See Scavi di Ostia 2, edited by Giovanni Becatti (Rome: Istituto poligrafico dello Stato, 1954). Third-century household shrines: See J.-T. Bakker, Living and Working with the Gods, Ostia 100– 500 AD (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1994), 32–53.
2.   A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), quotation at 168; on Servius, see also 573–80.
3.   C. Machado, "Religion as Antiquarianism: Pagan Dedications in Late Antique Rome," in Dediche sacre nel mondo greco-romano, 331–54, edited by J. Bodel and M. Kajava (Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2009).
4.   For example, see C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
5.   Baltrusch is the author of Die Juden und das Römische Reich. Geschichte einer konfliktreichen Beziehung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2002), which was reviewed at BMCR 2002.11.04.

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