Monday, April 14, 2014


Averil Cameron (ed.), Late Antiquity on the Eve of Islam. The formation of the classical Islamic world, 1. Farnham; London; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2013. Pp. 520. ISBN 9781409400707. $225.00.

Reviewed by Kenneth G. Holum, University of Maryland (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This book appears in an ongoing series republishing seminal articles and chapters on the formative period of Islam, defined as roughly 600-950 C.E. The objective is to overcome the "compartmentalization" by disciplines that has affected this and many other fields. A leading scholar will edit each volume, selecting works that have stimulated research and defined understanding. In this case, Averil Cameron ranks as supremely qualified for the task, and she has brought together a group of essays that few will hesitate to approve.

The volume begins with Cameron's bibliographical essay "Late Antiquity on the Eve of Islam," followed by thirty pages of titles representing the cream of scholarship: first edited and translated literary sources, then general works on the sixth century. Then follow studies of military subjects, religion, and visual art, and a group of essays on regions that the Muslim conquerors would soon threaten or inhabit, from Asia Minor to Egypt. Finally titles are included on Sasanian Persia and the Arabs before Islam. It is striking that most essays here postdate 1990, representing the ingenuity and productivity of recent and current scholarship. Cameron judges on the basis of this vast and rich literature that "some aspects at least of the emergence of Islam no longer seem so incomprehensible" (xxxvii). A broad consensus prefers "Late Antiquity" to "Early Byzantium" for the pre-Islamic centuries, perceives both underlying Mediterranean unity in the manner of Horden and Purcell and continued prosperity in the East right up to the conquest, and downplays the Battle of the Yarmuk in 636 as a sharp break. Scholars have focused on identity as a conceptual tool and on related issues of language diversity and translations. Although insisting that material culture is essential to understanding the transition to Islam, Cameron shows relatively little interest in the prosperity and transformation of Mediterranean cities, evident in numerous excavations of urban sites in recent decades, and not much more in the Late Antique countryside, so important for illuminating the economy and demographics. Instead she addresses religious change in the sixth and seventh centuries, drawing attention to discussion of "religions of the book," of an alleged pervasive monotheism, and of issues within Christianity like the persistent debate about the divine and human in Christ, the cult of the saints, apocalypticism, and the veneration of images. Nevertheless, she refrains from proposing these as a specific historical context for the emergence of the Qur'an.

Andrea Giardina's provocative essay "Explosion of Late Antiquity," first published in Studi Storici in 1999 and translated competently for this volume, challenges the heuristic utility of the term "Late Antiquity." Tracing the concept to the art historian Alois Riegl's reaction (1901) against "decadence," Giardina suspects that "strains" of modernity, as Peter Brown put it, account for its current attraction, "as in some unaccustomed overture" (3). In Brown's wake Late Antiquity has become virtually a separate discipline, of which the "lifeblood" is sociocultural processes represented in "sketches" lacking genuine periodization—hence the "expansionism" or even "elephantiasis" of Late Antiquity with boundaries ultimately pushed back to the second century and forward to the tenth. Even the "fall of the Roman Empire" itself is reduced to an epiphenomenon! 1 In Giardina's view, historians need to stop treating imperial constitutions, for example, as "a molten mass of self-referential discourse" and return to the value of such documentation for understanding institutions and politics. Attention to the fundamental structures of Late Antique society, to its "morphology," will permit meaningful comparison in a chronological framework of what came before the Muslim conquest with what came after it.

The next essay, Chris Wickham's classic "The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to Feudalism" (Past and Present 1984), is perhaps the kind of "morphological" study that Giardina had in mind—though Wickham employs a Marxist understanding of fundamental structures. Focusing not on the East but on Italy and Francia, Wickham explains with exceptional clarity the transition from the "ancient mode" of extracting surplus production through taxation, mediated by cities, to the "feudal mode" of landlords extracting through rents. In the West the barbarian invasions enabled landowning aristocracies to withhold taxes, leading to the extinction of the state, but the same did not occur in the East, even in lands seized by the Arabs. From the material perspective, therefore, the end of antiquity, in the West more than in the East, represents a sharp break with the past.

There follow two event-focused essays. Geoffrey Greatrex, "The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal" (Journal of Hellenic Studies 1997) brings under a microscope the best-known urban riot of Late Antiquity that nearly brought Justinian down in 632. Drawing together influential studies of urban mobs (Eric Hobsbawm) and the Roman circus factions (Alan Cameron, Charlotte Roueché), he lays bare a series of events that corresponded well with established typologies of urban violence, except perhaps for the emperor's notoriously supine response to provocation. The broader significance is the occurrence of circus faction rioting and similar unrest in cities throughout the eastern Empire, and of course the implications for understanding the limits of imperial power. A second focused study is Dionysios Stathakopoulos, "The Justinianic Plague Revisited" (Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 2000). This is not, however, an innovative interpretation but an analysis of plague historiography since the early nineteenth century, helpful but not especially influential, and it seems somewhat out of tune with the rest of the volume. Meritorious is its skepticism about the monocausal view that the plague by itself accounts for alleged demographic and economic regression in the century before the Muslim conquest. As other authors in this volume agree, the evidence suggests relatively quick recovery after recurrent plague outbreaks. 2

Next in line is Peter Sarris, "The Origins of the Manorial Economy: New Insights from Late Antiquity" (English Historical Review 2005), which makes a good pairing with Wickham earlier in the volume. Sarris proposes that the bipartite manor characteristic of Carolingian Francia, consisting of serfs working both small plots in return for rents and the landlord's demesne, actually went back to the emergence of a new "aristocracy of functionaries" in the fourth century. These were imperial officials, sometimes senators of Constantinople or Rome, who maintained their local ties in the cities and provinces of both East and West, using their powers of patronage to amass large estates. This phenomenon is first clearly visible in sixth-century Egyptian papyri, consisting of both small plots in synoikia cultivated by bound peasants that the Codes called coloni adscripticii and the "self-working land" or autourgia on which the peasants owed labor. The resemblance between the Apion estate of sixth-century Egypt and the Carolingian manors suggests a continuum from the former to the latter, and ingenious reinterpretation of well-known texts like the Life of Melania and Salvian's De gubernatione Dei makes the hypothesis more than plausible.

The continuity that Mark Whittow has in mind in "Ruling the Late Roman and Early Byzantine City: A Continuous History" (Past and Present 1990) is of the new aristocracy itself, but the focus is on the cities, not the countryside. Taking issue with J. H. W. Liebeschuetz and others, Whittow denies that the well-documented decline of the local councilmen, the curiales or bouleutai, meant the end of the Classical Mediterranean city. Drawing especially on hagiography and archaeological evidence, including concentrations in the cities of precious metals, he asserts prolonged prosperity, and that a new elite, in effect Sarris' "aristocracy of functionaries," continued to uphold the polis in the fifth and sixth centuries while redirecting competitive civic patronage from maintaining bathhouses and gymnasia to funding churches and charitable institutions. This essay meshes well with the archaeological evidence that Clive Foss assembled in "Syria in Transition, AD 550-750: An Archaeological Approach" (Dumbarton Oaks Papers 1997). Focusing on the northern Levant, 3 and on both the cities and their attributed hinterlands, Foss documents general continuity and sustained prosperity right through the conquests of the early seventh century. Cities did suffer grievously from earthquakes, plague, and from Persian attacks (Antioch 540, Apamea 573), but reconstruction confirms vitality, while excavation and survey of rural and village landscapes like the limestone massif in the north and the plain of Batanea in the south yielded little evidence of depopulation and deterioration until well after the conquests. At Epiphaneia/Hama, for instance, continuity is visible in both city and countryside. What ultimately led to "ruralization" in cities like Apamea was less the destructive onslaught of Persians or Muslims than the flight of traditional elites who preferred not to live under the new rulers. Construction of mosques transformed Bostra into a Muslim center, but Christianity also flourished there until the great earthquake of 749 when the city "vanishes from history." 4

Michael Whitby, "Recruitment in Roman Armies from Justinian to Heraclius (ca. 565-615)" (The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, ed. Averil Cameron, 1995), likewise points in the direction of continuity, doubting that a collapse of Roman military capacities led to the loss of the Levant to the Muslims. Conscription continued. Barbarian recruits made reliable soldiers. Plague outbreaks did not permanently reduce military strength. Generally, discipline remained sound. Instead the culprits for the loss were civil wars and the Roman lack of familiarity with the new and energetic enemy. The next essay supports this hypothesis. In "Heraclius' Persian Campaigns and the Revival of the East Roman Empire, 622-630" (War in History 1999), James Howard-Johnston first evaluates the complex sources for the "last great war of antiquity" in 603-630 that began with the Sasanian conquest of Egypt, much of Anatolia, and the entire Middle East. Then he reconstructs a narrative of victorious offensives in 624-625 and 627-628 culminating in the overthrow of the Shah Khusro II, the withdrawal of Persian forces from Roman territory, and the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem. The Armenian chronicle of Moses Daskhuranatsi provides evidence for the emperor's "northern" strategy and his critical alliance with the Kök Turks. Sound financial management, deft arousing of religious fervor, and the emperor's ingenious strategy defeated the enemy despite inferior Roman resources.

Two brilliant studies on religious topics complete the volume. Henry Chadwick, "John Moschos and His Friend Sophronius the Sophist" (Journal of Theological Studies 1974) remains authoritative on the travels and enthusiasms of John, author of the Leimonarion or "Spiritual Meadow," a compendium of 219 anecdotes about ascetic men and women. Widely circulated and translated, the text advanced these ascetic achievements and miracles as support for the Chalcedonian Christology. Sophronius receives less attention. He arrived in Jerusalem with John's coffin in 619 or 634, was elected bishop, and composed celebrated anacreontic odes on Christian feasts, Jerusalem's holy places, and the Muslim attacks. Gilbert Dagron's "Holy Image and Likeness" (Dumbarton Oaks Papers 1991) provides context for impending iconoclasm. Breaking with the ancient tradition of eikonismos, in which established physical features authenticated a portrait or other representation, the icon reversed the process. As Dagron summarizes, "it is no longer the image that resembles the saint, but the saint who resembles his image . . ." (427).

The work included here remains influential, but one might nevertheless question the volume's purpose. It is not for undergraduates! Apart from Cameron's essay, the bibliography, Giardina's translated article, and a blow struck against "compartmentalization," these articles are readily available, in libraries and online. What accounts for the stiff price, to be paid mainly out of overstretched library budgets, is less the book's utility, one suspects, than the publisher's profits.


1.   See, however, Peter Heather (2006), The Fall of the Roman Empire (Oxford), and Brian Ward-Perkins (2005), The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford).
2.   More recently Lester K. Little (ed.) (2007), Plague and the End of Antiquity (Cambridge).
3.   For the southern Levant see e.g. Kenneth G. Holum and Hayim Lapin (eds.) (2011), Shaping the Middle East: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in an Age of Transition 400-800 C.E. (Bethesda, MD), missing from Cameron's bibliography.
4.   For innovative approaches see A. Asa Eger (2013) "(Re)mapping Medieval Antioch: Urban Transformations from the Early Islamic to the Middle Byzantine Periods" Dumbarton Oaks Papers 67, 95-134.

1 comment:

  1. I've always been fascinated by the wholesale acceptance of Islam and the rejection of Christianity by ordinary people in many of the newly conquered lands, but not one mention here of that peculiar phenomenon. Was it the Islamic "message", an economic twisting of arms, the force of arms... or what?