Monday, March 16, 2015


Angelo Di Berardino (ed.), Historical Atlas of Ancient Christianity. St. Davids, PA: ICCS Press, 2013. Pp. 478. ISBN 9781624280009. $124.95.

Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University (

Version at BMCR home site


Angelo Di Berardino, well known to students of early Christianity as the author of the Encyclopedia of the Early Church and of the fifth volume of Quasten's Patrology, has here provided Anglophone audiences with their own edition of his Atlante Storico del Cristianesimo Antico. It is also the very first book to be published by the new ICCS press, a joint venture of the Institute for Classical Christian Studies and the Center for Early African Christianity. The weighty (3.8kg) volume certainly fills a gap in the market by treating a huge subject area that is only partly covered by competitors such as the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World and the various atlases of Christian History. The need for such an instrumentum as this is defended by the editor thus, 'Christianity, in its birth and in its long history, is closely connected to geography. The study of any kind of history must take into account ancient physical and human geography.' We have no reason to disagree, and the current volume amply fulfills the expectation.

The ancient world is divided into 12 regions, each receiving a major section, beginning with Palestine and Arabia, and moving in a broadly westerly direction to finish with sections on Gaul and Britain/Ireland. Each of these broad regions is further subdivided, each sub-region first described in respect of its topography and general features, together with a brief narration of its history within the administration of the Roman Empire from the first century until the end of antiquity (usually the end date seems to be around the seventh century, but it is appropriate that no one absolute 'end-date' is enforced across the board), followed by an account of the spread of Christianity within that area. A vast amount of information and data is crammed into the space permitted each section, interspersed with numerous color photographs, often half-page or full-page, and the requisite maps.

Each of the 59 maps in the volume appears twice, once in a consolidated 'map-section' at the start of the whole book, and then again at the point in the narrative at which it is most relevant. The quality and usefulness of these maps (which the reader might reasonably be expecting to constitute the major focus of the whole work) is rather variable and does depend the user's needs and expectations. A reader hoping for an equivalent level of detail as is found in the maps of the Barrington Atlas will be disappointed. Most maps are of the 'political' type, with their focus upon cities, roads, and provincial borders, rather than topographical features such as rivers or elevations (contours are rare). Each map is crisscrossed by a grid reference system which interacts with the comprehensive index, itself also helpfully acting as a concordance of modern and ancient names for every place-name in the book.

The impression of some of these maps is underwhelming. That for North Syria (5th century), for example, accurately places each key town on a plain map of provincial borders, but without giving any sense of terrain type, elevation, or communications, the real distances between cities and the complexities of administration that were a function of these topographical features. Given that the editor stresses the value that the atlas-genre adds in illuminating precisely these aspects of the spread of Christianity, the result seems hardly to fulfill the expectation. Map 13, portraying the Syriac monasteries of the Tur 'Abdin region, is so 'zoomed-in' that the uninformed reader could not even be expected to know just where in the whole region of the East this very detailed map is meant to lie. The effect becomes just a monochrome background with some named dots on it. The map of 5th century Tripolitania fills an entire page to show to the relative locations of only seven cities.

The mix of ancient and modern place-names may confuse newcomers. Where ancient names are not known, modern ones are used (though they still appear in the index as if they were ancient); and the map of 5th-8th century Britain has only 'modern' names, so that because both Verulamium and St. Albans appear on maps, both are listed as 'ancient' names in the index. The present-day Welsh might be put out at the appearance in the index of Llandalf (sic, for Llandaff), England! A photograph on p.332 is described as the theatre at Merida (Hispania), although the same town is labeled as Emerita Augusta on the map immediately above the photograph. The information that these are one and the same is located in the text on the previous page. A little more consistency in the labeling would have been helpful for students and newcomers.

On the other hand, certain of the maps are very detailed indeed in terms of the towns represented. The map covering 5th-7th c Asia Minor is peppered with a veritable myriad of place-names which any reader of a contemporary history would no doubt find of great value in tracing events. The key regions (Italia, Hispania, Asia Minor) are afforded multiple maps to cover diachronic variation. A few maps, such as that of 5th century Crete, do clearly show the contours (albeit without a key). Especially for those using the Atlas to locate a town mentioned in a source or to offer students an overview of the geography of a region, these maps are perfectly adequate and do on the whole offer a wealth of detail in a single place that is often hard to find elsewhere.

In addition, the volume contains inside the front and back covers a map of the whole region (Ireland to Ctesiphon) with all the episcopal sees of Late Antiquity marked. An index for this map alone is also included and for a small extra sum, a wall chart version of this map may also be purchased, perhaps a useful visual aid for the lecture theatre. The nomenclature of episcopal sees is not very clearly explained – this large map marks what are called 'major episcopal sees', although these do not quite correspond exactly to archiepiscopacies or patriarchal seats. A desideratum would have been a blow-by-blow description of the administrative structure of the imperial church of Late Antiquity (including alterations over time). Tabulated information of this type would have raised what is a good volume into a genuinely world-class reference work.

The photographs are mostly of an excellent quality and constitute, of course, a major feature and the real 'pull' of the whole volume. They are very numerous and on the whole very apposite to the narrative that appears alongside. Many are landscapes of present-day visible ruins, others are of mosaics and inscriptions, coins and statues. The captions are usually detailed, well-referenced, and informative. An exception appears to be the full-page photographs at the opening of each section, which are not labeled. The reader is left ignorant of the identity of the beautiful church dome pictured on p.62, and the detail of the marble frieze on p.328.

On the whole, it is these photographs , rather than the maps, that really give the volume its overall quality of production and its draw upon the viewer's interest. I am sure that even the best-informed reader will find here sights and artifacts of which they were previously unaware; expect many holidays and visits to be planned on the basis of photographs first seen in this Atlas!

The narrative text is on the whole helpful and accurate, informed by the very wide-ranging knowledge of its editor. For those coming from the modern academic specialism of Late Antiquity, some of its discourse may appear 'old-fashioned', as notions such as 'barbarian invasions' (map 59) and 'heretics' still abound within its narrative of Early Christianity. On the whole, however, surveys of the key events and issues lie side-by-side with fascinating and unexpected snippets of detail, and the range is superb and appropriate, ensuring that the student of the spread of the Christian religion get a proper appreciation for its range beyond the Empire, treating Persia and even India, as well as Ireland and Germania.

Even though the editor is to be commended for squeezing such a vast amount of information into the space available, the downside to mass-of-data is the presence of sometimes misleading generalizations. Take for example (p.70), '[after AD70] the center of Judaism was first transferred to Jamnia and then to Galilee.' The statement (p.93) that in Syria 'local languages were much used, even until the end of the fourth century' is odd in view of the actually increasing use of these languages from that century onwards. Sometimes the reader is assumed to know certain things about early Christian figures which, for many audiences, may be assuming rather too much, e.g. p.65: 'the colony of Flavia Neapolis, home of Justin, was also established,' without further explanation regarding the identity of the second century Christian apologist, Justin Marytr. There are occasional editorial lapses such as the repetition of a whole sentence from p.73 three pages later, and inconsistencies in referencing (the books of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History being sometimes referenced with Roman numerals, sometimes with Arabic). The caption for the Madaba map states that it was discovered in 1896, the main text (on the same page) gives the year as 1897.

As one may expect, the editor is at his most comfortable from the fifth century onwards, but given the geographical and chronological range that had to be covered, one can only admire his industry and be grateful that the students of the next generation will be able to benefit from it.

The bibliographies are probably one of the most useful aspects of the whole enterprise. Each major section concludes with a relatively lengthy list for further reading (the listing for Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia runs to 3 large pages of references), organized according to the minor section headings. The most pleasing feature of this is that detailed studies, archaeological reports, text editions and academic articles are included in the lists alongside more 'general' bibliographical material such as companions and surveys. Even in the main text, specific references to editions of ancient texts are often provided. These are the sorts of features that motivate undergraduates and other newcomers to the field to move on from merely reading surveys and atlases to the point of interacting with scholarly research at a higher level, and should be warmly welcomed. Scholars from related fields will thus find these bibliographies rewarding, an excellent (not to say vital) supplement to the quick-fire narrative of the main text.

One frustration the reader encounters (which we may hope solved in future editions) is that the indices refer to the map numbers, and yet the map numbers are given alongside the maps only at the start of the book. When the maps reappear in context later in the volume the map number is missing and the index cannot be used with such great facility.

The English translation of the original Italian edition is passable, although it is a shame that the editor was not able to find a native English speaker to improve it. The English translations of Latin terms are sometimes a little unfortunate (e.g. legatus Augusti pro praetore = the legate of Augustus on behalf of the praetor). For all that the grammar is generally correct, it frequently sounds like translation-ese and this tends toward a less-than-professional feel to the final product.

That said, the book fills a gap in the market and newcomers to the field will find plenty to whet their appetites for more. They will be able clearly and quickly to follow the major contours of the spread of Christianity across the Ancient World, they will be able to find the locations of towns, cities, and provinces; and they will be able to follow up their discoveries in the research literature that is so thoroughly cited. Without doubt, an excellent and important acquisition for any library, or university course dealing in Late Antiquity or Early Christianity.

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