Monday, July 22, 2013


Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xli, 1247. ISBN 9780195336931. $175.00.

Reviewed by Stephanos Efthymiadis, Open University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site


Late antiquity, a historical period whose study won independence only in the past decades and whose identity and extent are still debatable, could not be excluded from the explosive rise of Companions and Handbooks that in the last years has marked publications in the humanities. The 'explosion' of late antiquity was brought about in the 1970s mostly in response to Peter Brown's innovative interpretation and positive re-evaluation of a period which until then could not be relieved of Gibbon's stigma of fall and decline.1 The volume under review is dedicated to Peter Brown and Averil Cameron, and deservedly so. The increasing number of monographs and collective volumes which, since the 1980s, have been devoted exclusively to Late Antiquity, owes much to their published work and teaching. Both advancing upon but still honoring the approach of these leading scholars, this handbook has the so-called 'long' Late Antiquity as its domain and proposes to offer a broad understanding of late-antique cultural fields.

In keeping with a perspective of an expansive and diverse Late Antiquity, this book includes thirty-six chapters, arranged in five parts which comprise 'geographies and peoples', 'literary and philosophical cultures', 'law, state, and social structures', 'religions and religious identity', and, finally, 'late antiquity in perspective'. A preface by the editor Scott Johnson reviews scholarship before and after Peter Brown's seminal revision of what was for historians a Later Roman or an Early Byzantine Empire. The preface delineates the reasons which justify the expansion of the 'late antique phenomenon' to lands beyond the confines of the Greco-Roman world. In turn, in his introductory survey of late antique conceptions of Late Antiquity, Hervé Inglebert reminds us how Rome as a universal hegemony and power system was called into question around 300, lost much of its unity thereafter, saw a powerful Persian empire rising in the east and claiming rights of parity, and, more significantly, experienced a deep transformation which gave precedence to the religious over the political identity of its citizens. Perceived as a period between Constantine and Muhammad and as a vast geographical area extending from the Atlantic to Central Asia 'unified' by critical transformations that affected these lands, the world of Late Antiquity is thus measured not against political criteria but envisaged through the kaleidoscope of an increased and shared interest in the importance of religion. It was predominantly Christianity and then Islam that paved the way for critical changes in the political, educational, and literary spheres not only inside but also outside the Roman Empire.

If a single word can characterize a volume as dense as this handbook, it is decentralization. In the first section which surveys regions, the reader is given a guided tour across the Empire's provinces and the foreign lands affected either by the devastating migration of the 'barbarians' or the dramatic impact of religion. Chapters range, on the one hand, from the kingdoms founded on the provinces of the western Roman Empire to as far as Central Asia, the Silk Road and western China; and, on the other hand, from the Danube and Balkans to Egypt and Ethiopia. Granted, in addition to cultural variety, differences of geography and political landscape do not favor handling all of these regions in common terms and from similar perspectives. The framework of the chapters often differs greatly, either by exploring political- economical contexts (as in the chapters on the Western Kingdoms, the Balkans, Central Asia, and on Arabia and Ethiopia) or by reviewing particular fields of evidence (chapters on the Syriac and Coptic traditions). The chapters on Armenia and Egypt take a 'middle course' by paying attention both to the political and the literary spheres, whereas that on the 'barbarians' follows the long line from Tacitus' Germania to current historical interpretations of the whole issue.

Oddly, this large geographical distribution leaves out the regions which, since antiquity, constituted the backbone of the Greco-Roman world, namely Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor. The reader may legitimately wonder why Late Antiquity did not impact these provinces too or, what is more, why Rome and especially Constantinople have been omitted from a handbook pertaining to a historical period in which their role as imperial capitals and urban centers – the one in decline and the other on the rise – was significant and catalytic. It was Rome and then Constantinople that imposed policies and shaped ideas in the age between the fourth and the seventh century. Do they have to pay the price now for constantly having been in scholarly focus? Are they the victims of recent scholarship which, while marching on the pathways of chronological, geographical, and epistemological expansion, turns its back to the natural points of departure?

Constantinople and Rome are less underrepresented when one turns to literature which, to a great extent, was composed by members of the social and educated urban elites, often integrated into court circles. Part II includes important surveys of poetry (Latin and Greek) and historiography complemented by essays dealing with the fate of Hellenism and with education among pagans and Christians. As an example of the range of this section, the chapter on monastic literature does justice to archaeological and literary evidence alike. 'Physics and Metaphysics' presents a study of 'Neoplatonic doctrine' as formulated especially in Plotinus' Enneads and the chapter on travel, cartography, and cosmology gives useful coverage of a world newly envisaged through the lens of Christian pilgrimage.

Section III on 'Law, State, and Social Structures' has varied content. The chapter on 'Economic Trajectories' touches upon the significant developments that marked economic life after the Constantinian monetary reform. The positive effect of this reform was reflected in the fourth-century massive investment in rural estates in the West and the expansion of wage labor and commercial vitality observed in the urban centers of the eastern Mediterranean. The subsequent review of rural matters draws similarly positive conclusions about agricultural life in a period known for the disintegration of administrative and fiscal structures. Another chapter provides a comprehensive analysis of the institutional and social aspects of marriage and family as influenced by Christianity; similarly, with respect to the presentation of charitable activity which materialized with the foundation of hospitals in the Roman Empire. Legal developments regarding the concept of citizenship, justice and equality, as evident in the writings of Symmachus and Pope Leo I, and a presentation of the late-antique examples of Roman Law, are the subject of the next three essays. Under the title 'Communication in Late Antiquity: Use and Reuse', the final chapter of this section (which would have fit better thematically in Part II), chiefly surveys letter-writing and correspondence as widespread practices tightly connected with public and private life in the late Roman Empire.

The topics dealt with in the next section have long been at the forefront of scholarly discussion: the opposition between paganism and Christianity as developed in several terms (conflict, conversion, co-existence); episcopal leadership before and after Constantine; theological argumentation (yet here only as it concerns forgery); the intersection of sacred sites with architecture and art; worship in relation to objects carrying a holy significance. A survey of the history of the Church of the East (the one misleadingly labeled 'Nestorian'), an informative chapter on Early Islam as a late-antique religion, and a final chapter on Muhammad and the Qur'ān complete Part IV. Although thematic coherence is more visible in this section than in the previous two, additions such as a chapter treating the idea of heresy and its social implications would have been desirable.

The volume ends with three studies panoramically revisiting Late Antiquity as a universal phenomenon and cultural legacy which, when detached from its classical substratum, left its mark first on Byzantium and then on the Italian Renaissance whose thinkers drew inspiration from key textual monuments of Late Antiquity.

The range of this volume is considerable, not simply by virtue of its impressive size, but on account of the depth of discussions and the breadth of topics. All in all, the volume offers direction to an updated and refreshed image of Late Antiquity which appears mostly in its religious and cultural aspects. More importantly, it is a Late Antiquity only loosely tied to the moorings of its traditional treatment in modern historiography: the incarnations and symbols of imperial power, including its most prominent representatives (for example, Constantine and Justinian) keep a low profile in its 1,200 plus pages. Modern handbooks cannot be dry and exhaustive treatments of authors, texts, genres or historical periods. Rather, they must be selective and, as much as possible, lively and updated discussions introducing readers to the subject in a way that stimulates continued research. Compared to previous companions and handbooks dealing with the same period, this one is the most comprehensive. If read in conjunction with additional research, the gaps in this volume will be less heavily felt. At any rate, the editor must be congratulated for recruiting a large number of scholars to fulfill this task and for having made their selection not solely from the predominantly Anglophone academic world.


1.   For the expression 'explosion of Late Antiquity', see the eponymous article by A. Giardina, 'Esplosione di tardoantico', Studi storici 40 (1999) 157–180. For a reconsideration of prevailing views about the 'religious character' of Late Antiquity see Polymnia Athanassiadi, 'Antiquité tardive : construction et déconstruction d'un modèle historiographique', Antiquité Tardive 14 (2006) 311–324.

1 comment:

  1. Is it too much to hope that the marketing departments of scholarly presses will stop misusing the word "handbook" to describe volumes like this? A handbook is a concise, portable reference. This book is neither portable nor a reference. It is in fact a collection of related articles, some of them indeed surveys of facts (although I find it curious that the overview of historiography completely overlooks Zosimus), but most in the nature of essays or specialized studies. Although the book has merit, anyone shelling out $160 in the hope of acquiring a handy survey of late antiquity, or even of late antique scholarship, will be sadly disappointed.


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