Thursday, September 6, 2012


Mark Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: Travel and Mobility in the Late-Antique West. JRA Supplementary Series 86. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2011. Pp. 167. ISBN 9781887829861. $69.00.

Reviewed by Félix Racine, University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site

Mark Handley's book collects the epigraphic evidence for travelers in the late antique western Mediterranean (excluding the city of Rome, a somewhat atypical place). Although this is by no means the first study of late antique travelers recorded on stone, it is the most comprehensive and far-reaching.1 In it, the author gathers and analyzes 567 inscriptions recording 623 foreigners and travelers from the late third to seventh centuries, providing rich and compelling material for future discussions of late antique travel, communications and trade.

This study's most significant contribution is unquestionably the appendix listing known inscriptions recording travelers and foreigners, broken down by region. Each entry provides the relevant bibliographic information as well as known biographic details pertaining to travel. As far as this reviewer can tell, the author has missed nothing of significance among published late antique inscriptions as of the date of publication. Chapter 2, "Defining foreigners and travellers", sets out simple methodological guidelines which should help scholars expand Handley's corpus in a controlled way when assessing newly published inscriptions. The selection criteria are fairly conservative: the only inscriptions considered are those explicitly identifying individuals as peregrini (or some equivalent), specifying places of origin, means of travel or occupations necessitating travel. Next to these safe criteria, the author also considers the use of local calendars outside of their regions of origin and the appearance of the Anglo-Saxon runic script outside of Britain as indicative of travelers or foreigners. These choices are reasonable but open the door to subjective analysis: the use of the Egyptian calendar on Carthaginian graves (Handley's #364, 365, 367), for example, may very well indicate first-generation immigrants or travelers, but they may also betray the presence of an Egyptian community that clung to certain traditions. On the whole, however, Handley's selection criteria are excellent and lead him to adopt a minimalist view of who can be identified as a late antique traveler. We may accept his conclusions regarding the extent of late antique travel as safe low estimates.

Following these methodological considerations, the remaining chapters deal with the question of who travelled, why, and where, as well as possible changes in travel patterns over time. Chapter 3, "Who travelled", analyzes travelers by gender, age, status and occupation (with more attention given to church and state officials). Some of these categories yield the kind of evidence one would expect from the epigraphic record: travelers of senatorial rank do not predominate as they do in the literary sources, soldiers are well represented, and governmental officers are found predominantly in the period preceding the breakup of the imperial administration in the fifth century. The analysis of travelers' age and gender offers interesting new insights. Handley records 92 female travelers (140 with the Roman evidence factored in), a useful corrective to the usual view of late antique travel as a male activity (except for some cases of pilgrimage). Evidence for the age of travelers is more limited but equally interesting: David Noy's epigraphic evidence for a young, male emigration in late antique Rome is not replicated in the western provinces, where Handley's corpus shows a peak of commemoration of male travelers in their 50s while there are no teenage female travelers. Handley is right to see this data point not as an indication of the age of the travelling population but rather of the age of travelers who were still identified to their homeland by those setting up commemorating inscriptions. This is something we should take into account when considering the corpus and figures compiled by Handley. Although travel and information about travel can be recovered from inscriptions, this depends on the commemorand's place in his or her community; on communities' immigration memory; and on the interests and worldview of commemorators. Handley generally keeps his focus on travelers rather than on these questions (which are admittedly not straightforward), but they nevertheless bear on the interpretation of his data.

The short Chapter 4, "Why travel?" is a case in point. Handley examines six motivations for travel recorded on the minority of inscriptions that do so: the retrieval of corpses for burial, pilgrimage, movement of soldiers, exile or refuge, ecclesiastical business and immigration. These categories are useful to think with but also hide different contexts for recording travel. For example, graffiti of pilgrims were deliberate acts on the part of travelers and sometimes reveal pilgrims' origins, unlike epitaphs of peregrini, which reflect commemorators' views of pilgrims and are on the whole more vague about their origins. Cultural factors and esprit de corps may also explain why soldiers' travel is fairly well-attested in late antiquity (p. 57), and why soldiers account for a sizeable portion of those whose bodies were recorded as being transferred for burial (table 4.1, pp. 53-54). Contextual nuances such as these would enhance our understanding of Handley's corpus, but they do not take away from the important data analysis offered by the author. The variety of evidence presented in Chapter 4 is vivid proof that, despite military disruptions in the period, a sizeable amount of travel not motivated by crisis took place. Immigration, in particular, shows no discernible patterns but reveals some small-scale provincial migration not tied to military troubles (p. 60).

Chapter 5, "Origins and destinations" looks at Britain, Gaul, Spain, Italy, Africa and the Balkans as origins and destinations of travelers, outlining patterns of connectivity between each region. This is followed by an examination of the epigraphic presence of Easterners within the Latin half of the Mediterranean. Some important arguments are built and discussed here. First, Handley's regional survey shows conclusively that some regions' relative isolation in late antiquity, especially Gaul, may have been more of a literary construction than a reality on the ground. Travelers between each region are attested, but Italy (even with the Roman evidence factored out) emerges as the main destination. The author's attempt to study shifts in the identity of travelers by looking at recorded places of origins yields mixed results, in part due to a slippery use of the concept of identity: although the evidence presented most often reveals identities ascribed to travelers by commemorators, Handley treats it as pertaining to travelers' self- identity. This would remain a mere problem of terminology were there not more serious implications for the analysis. Let us take for example Handley's contention that civitas was not the central focus of identity of late antique Gauls.2 This he justifies by pointing to epitaphs of Gallic travelers outside of Gaul, which refer to commemorands' hometown, province, civitas, or Gaul itself (p. 67). But what this really shows is a foreign commemorator's choice of terms to describe Gauls, with the more precise terms betraying greater familiarity with Gallic geography. Gallic travelers within Gaul were usually commemorated by a reference to their civitas, and this was the term Gauls seem have to preferred when thinking of other Gauls. Identity, in other words, was more imposed than carried.

The epigraphic evidence for Easterners in the West is voluminous and forces us to re-assess our knowledge of pan- Mediterranean travel in late antiquity. A significant portion of recorded travelers, 251 out of 623, come from the East, with Syria providing the biggest contingent. This is connectivity on an unsuspected scale, and not solely of the economic kind: a sizeable number of recorded Easterners were not engaged in trade and cannot be linked to any commercial context. This is a much needed corrective to the usual assumption that the presence of Easterners in the West could be taken as clear indications of long-distance trade. What is more, Handley successfully shows (some) eastern migrants seeking inclusion in their new communities through the patronage of churches and participation in the ecclesiastical life. This isa useful corrective to the common view that Easterners sought exclusion from local communities.

Chapter 6, "Change over time", does not so much trace the evolution of travel in late antiquity as the evolution of the number of recorded inscriptions attesting travel. The evidence shows a peak in travel toward the end of the fourth century—showing up as an increase in epitaphs of travelers in the early fifth century—and a steady decline from the sixth to the eighth centuries.Handley argues (pp. 103-5) that this decline in traveler epitaphs is more a factor of the decline of Christian inscriptions in this period than evidence for an end of travel. What is more, the early-fifth century peak in epitaphs of travelers is mainly due to a massive influx of Easterners at this time, with travel across the western Mediterranean remaining constant yet low from the fourth to the seventh centuries. The data shows no significant trace of crisis-driven travel in the fifth-century West, nor is it indicative of travel motivated by the military crisis in the East in the seventh century. Handley does not speculate on the reasons behind the early fifth-century peak in Eastern travelers, and scholars will surely want to attempt analysis of this noteworthy phenomenon in the light of literary sources for the period.

The conclusion draws together some of the preceding analyses and offers some considerations on the relationship between the epigraphic evidence for travel and recent scholarship on late antique travel. If nothing else, this is the part of the book that will interest readers the most, because of the dialogue Handley opens with other approaches to the late antique evidence. Despite some insightful but limited convergence between the epigraphic and archaeological record, the author sensibly rejects the idea that the idiosyncratic movement of individuals can be used to refine our understanding of large-scale economic structures known especially through ceramic patterns. Handley ends with some cautious thoughts on the significance of his corpus of travel inscriptions for the thesis of Horden and Purcell, McCormick, and Wickman on the decline of commerce in late antiquity. This is rather quickly dispatched, but offers a number of promising leads for exploring late antique trade as only one aspect of travel, accompanied and enabled by a constant movement of individuals and exchange of information between locales.

Dying on Foreign Shores is a most welcome addition to the growing scholarship on late antique travel and communication. In particular, scholars still hesitant to delve into the epigraphic record will find here an easy access point into this body of evidence, thanks to both the book's clear presentation and its extensive bibliography. Others will no doubt want to revisit Handley's conclusions or recombine the evidence following their interests, especially in areas such as politics or the economy, where intersections with the literary or archaeological record can be found. But the present volume will no doubt remain vital to discussions of late antique travel in years to come. I, for one, am glad to have it.


1.   A. Avraméa, "Mort loin de la patrie: l'apport des inscriptions paléochrétiennes," in G. Cavallo and C. Mango (eds.) Epigrafia medieval greca e latina: ideologia e funzione (Spoleto, 1995), 1-65 and D. Noy, Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers (Cardiff, 2000) are in their own rights important previous studies of the epigraphic evidence, albeit with a different scopes and interests.
2.   For a statement of the view of civitas as central to Gallic identity, see C. Lewis, "Gallic identity and the Galliccivitas from Caesar to Gregory of Tours," in S. Mitchell and G. Greatrex (eds.), Ethnicity and Culture in Late Antiquity (London, 2000), 69-81.

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