Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Étienne Wolff (ed.), Littérature, politique et religion en Afrique vandale. Collection des Études Augustiniennes. Série Antiquité, 200. Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 2015. Pp. 378. ISBN 9782851212764. €48.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Éric Fournier, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, from the prestigious "Collection des Études Augustiniennes", publishes the papers presented by an impressive roster of scholars at the international conference that gave its title to the book, at Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, October 6–7, 2014. True to its international origins, the volume includes mostly papers in French, as well as several in Italian, one in German, and another in English. Dedicated to the memory of Yves Modéran, the French specialist of the Vandals who passed away prematurely in 2010, the book joins a flurry of recent publications on late antique North Africa, the Vandals, and late North African literature in particular. The Carthaginian poet Dracontius is particularly well represented in this collection of essays, which should be no surprise given that the editor, Étienne Wolff, is one of the most renowned specialists working on this North African author. Most of the chapters tackle extremely specific subjects that are, in a number of cases, relevant only to experts in the field. The lack of an overall introduction and conclusion to present each author's argument, explain its significance to the wider field and our broader understanding of the period, and indicate how they relate to one another, will unfortunately prevent non-expert readers from grasping the importance of some of these detailed demonstrations. For this reason, the book fails to meet the expectations raised by the jacket's claim that "it provides a synthesis on Vandal Africa (439–533) that was missing." To the contrary, the lack of synthesis precisely constitutes the main weakness of this book.

The volume is divided in five, uneven, parts. The first, on the political history of Vandal Africa, presents six contributions. But readers expecting what the title of this section promises will be disappointed: two focus on Procopius and the Byzantine period, one is historiographical, and another mainly literary (about Latin chroniclers' depiction of Vandal Africa). The second part, on the religious situation of Vandal Africa, includes three chapters. Part three, literature of Vandal Africa, presents four studies, including one on Dracontius. Dracontius also constitutes the focus of the last two parts. Part four presents two chapters on "Dracontius chrétien" while the last part of the book includes seven studies of Dracontius' "pagan" poetry ("Dracontius profane"). With ten studies dedicated to Dracontius out of the twenty-two chapters in the volume, this collection has a decidedly literary emphasis, which should fascinate anyone interested in the so-called "Vandal renaissance." The book lacks index and bibliography.

In part one, Konrad Vössing argues that the "difficult relationships" between the kingdoms of Vandals and Goths have been underappreciated. He divides their relationships into six periods, and argues that competition over land and resources explains the hostility between both groups despite their shared language and religion. For him, the traditional view that the Goths converted the Vandals to Christianity, which would explain their "Arian" faith, needs revision. Instead, he argues, the religious evolution of the Vandals occurred in stages during which Christian and "pagan" Vandals coexisted side by side (cf. Sabine Fialon, at 144). Through a detailed study of Latin chronicles' apparent factual descriptions of the Vandal kingdom, Bertrand Lançon astutely presents how these texts amounted to a Catholic depiction of events, conditioned by biblical texts. This explains why the dominant picture, shared by all of these authors (Hydatius, Prosper, Chronica gallica, Marcellinus Comes, Cassiodorus, Victor of Tunnuna and Marius of Avenches), is one of oppression, piracy, and anti-Catholic violence (51). Charles Guittard investigates the appearance of the Aurès Mountains in Procopius' account of the Vandalic war, which constituted a novelty in ancient literature. He argues that the picture of the massif as a locus of "resistance and dissidence" comes from later sources such as Procopius and Corippus (63). Aurélie Delattre and Vincent Zarini argue that, in the Iohannis, Corippus reflects official Byzantine views on the Vandals while also nodding to the belief of his African readership that the Moors were much more dangerous than the Vandals. In one of the most interesting papers of the book, and the only one to use archaeological material, Richard Miles sets his revision of Byzantine construction projects after their conquest of Africa within the current wider historiographical revision of the Vandal period as one of "neglect and destruction" (73). To the contrary, Miles shows that Byzantine buildings concentrated on areas previously important to the Vandals, with particular emphasis on the kingdom's royal capital of Carthage. Anis Mkacher completes this "political history" section with tracing the historiography of Vandal Africa from the early modern period to the early twenty-first century, and with emphasis on the "Catholic school," the "Germanic school," and Christian Courtois. While she presents a useful survey of earlier literature, it is unfortunate that almost none of the numerous important recent titles found their way into this chapter. There is very little discussion of any title beyond 2003. For example, Modéran, Merrills (but omitting co-author Miles), Vössing, and Jacobsen are mentioned, but only in passing in the conclusion. Important recent books by Guido Berndt, Ralf Bockman, Jonathan Conant, Leslie Dossey, Tankred Howe, Anna Leone, Philip von Rummel, and Roland Steinacher are all left out of this historiographical overview. As a result, this chapter will remain of limited use.1

In the second part of the book, on religion in Vandal Africa, Bruno Pottier responds to a recent debate (to which the present reviewer contributed) regarding the fate of "Donatists" during the Vandal period and beyond. Pottier's nuanced argument, that we should not imagine that all Donatists became either Nicene or 'Homoian' and that some probably ended up in both groups, rests on a detailed examination of sources on this complex question. It should now be read along Jonathan Conant's argument along the same lines.2 Hervé Inglebert studies divine interventions in Catholic texts, mainly comparing Victor of Vita's account with contemporary passions. It seems, however, that Inglebert exaggerates the importance of the literary genre to interpret Victor's text, especially in light of other studies in this volume that underline the hybridity of late antique literature.3 In her learned chapter, Sabine Fialon analyzes what the Disputatio Cerealis contra Maximinum can tell us about the Vandal faith. She shows that the text imitates Augustine's Contra Maximinum, responds to Vandal proselytizing, and therefore demonstrates that confessional debates continued unabated during the Vandal period.

In part three, Chiara Tommasi supports the thesis dating Martianus Capella to the Vandal period, which in her opinion illustrates the dynamic cultural life that persisted in the fifth century. Martina Venuti investigates the prologue of Fulgentius' Mythologiae to support the now dominant "separatist" thesis—the argument that Fulgentius the Mythographer and Fulgentius of Ruspe (the bishop), were two distinct individuals. Massimo Manca pursues this inquiry by emphasizing the African (and Vandalic) aspects of Fulgentius' mythographic texts, in support of the hypothesis of his "African-ness." In the last contribution of this section, Étienne Wolff reviews, in the form of an (extensively) annotated bibliography, recent scholarship relevant to Dracontius' biography. One of the most interesting debates he highlights concerns the interpretation of the poet's "profana," which he sees as a way to tackle moral and political issues through now irrelevant myths.

Sylvie Labarre pursues this specific topic in her intertextual investigation of Dracontius' take on the crimes of pagan heroes. This opens part four of the book, which focuses on the Christian Dracontius. She argues that he displays more poetic and psychological interpretations of passages found in earlier Christian writers in order to express his apologetic view that pagan heroes erred in dying for Rome rather than for God. Benjamin Goldlust analyzes Dracontius' self-presentation in the Satisfactio and concludes that he relied on ethics over pathos to support his case to be freed from prison.

Annick Stoehr-Monjou opens part five with an interesting analysis of Dracontius' epithalamia (bridal poetry) that argues that the poet subverted the traditional genre in order to present subtle criticisms of the Vandals who are responsible for his imprisonment. Angelo Luceri looks at Dracontius' alleged friends in the De laudibus Dei and concludes that intertexts from Cicero and Ovid and other literary elements obscure rather than illuminate our knowledge of the role of Dracontius's friends in his sojourn in prison, the most famous episode of his life. Bruno Bureau investigates the openings (propositiones) of four "miniature epics" of Dracontius, in order to show the poet's moral understanding of the myths. Contesting the traditional interpretation that Dracontius' ekphrasis of Cupid in his Medea is purely ornamental, Laurence Gosserez argues that it in fact expresses specific religious and political points of view. But literary analysis can suffer without sound historical grounding. For example, Gosserez deduces, from parallels to Nonnos of Panopolis' depiction of the Scythes, that Dracontius was alluding to the Vandals, and from there argues that the poet was "implicitly pleading for the innocent victims of the Vandals" (318). She adds that the foreign princess of the play must be an allusion to Eudocia. Not only is this an extremely tenuous basis upon which to construct such a wide-ranging interpretation, but the author also relies on Victor of Vita's vitriolic account as an accurate representation of the historical context from which to infer parallels with Dracontius' text. It is, furthermore, highly unlikely that Dracontius was referring to current practice when he condemned human sacrifice, as the author claims, "they [human sacrifices] were likely still practiced in Africa and in the East at the end of Antiquity" (317)!4 Returning to the safer ground of textual analysis, Lavinia Galli Milic investigates Dracontius' Romuleon 10 for its intertextual borrowings from Valerius Flaccus and Statius, concluding that the Vandal poet refashioned the traditional stories according to his "disenchanted" worldview (340). Amedeo Raschieri offers the results of his use of the open software Pede certo ( to analyze the meters of Dracontius' hexametric poetry. Finally, in the last chapter of the book, Étienne Wolff presents a Retractatio to update his treatment of the Romulea 6–10 of Dracontius from his Budé edition of these works from 1996 (vol. IV).

Such detailed, meticulous, and sophisticated analyses of poetic texts from the Vandal era immediately prompts one obvious, yet fundamental, question: what was the audience for these texts? Only Lavinia Galli Milic briefly addresses this question (326). Similarly, one wonders what the targeted audience for this book might have been. Neglecting to explain the relevance and significance of one's material to non-specialists, or to scholars from other disciplines, often limits access to such scholarship to a restricted circle of experts. Scholars of late Latin poetry will undoubtedly find much of interest in this book. Historians interested in religion, politics, or other aspects of Vandal society will find fewer items of use in this book, but what they find will be of high quality. The title and jacket lead one to expect altogether different content from what the volume actually delivers. Consequently, a more accurate title, such as "Dracontius in Context," would have been less misleading and more representative of the book as a whole.

Table of Contents

I. Politique et histoire de l'Afrique vandale
Konrad Vössing, "Vandalen und Goten. Die schwierigen Beziehungen ihrer Königreiche" (11–38)
Bertrand Lançon, "L'Afrique vandale comme objet de chronique (429–534) : la tertia pars orbis terrarum chez les chroniqueurs latins des Ve et VIe siècles" (39–52)
Charles Guittard, "L'Aurès de Procope dans l'Afrique vandale : définition, délimitation, résistance (à propos de la bataille de Baghaï)" (53–64)
Vincent Zarini and Aurélie Delattre, "Un souvenir ambigu des Vandales après la reconquête byzantine : le témoignage de Corippe" (65–72)
Richard Miles, "Byzantine Carthage and its Vandal Legacy" (73–92);
Anis Mkacher, "L'historiographie de l'Afrique vandale" (93–106).
II. La situation religieuse de l'Afrique vandale
Bruno Pottier, "Les donatistes, l'arianisme et le royaume vandale" (109–126)
Hervé Inglebert, "Les interventions divines dans les textes narratifs catholiques à l'époque vandale" (127–136)
Sabine Fialon, "Arianisme 'vandale' et controverse religieuse : le cas de la Disputatio Cerealis contra Maximinum" (137–155).
III. La littérature de l'Afrique vandale
Chiara O. Tommasi, "Martianus Capella à l'époque vandale ? Notes sur une chronologie discutée" (159–178)
Martina Venuti, "Alla ricerca di indizi 'storici' nel prologo delle Mythologiae di Fulgenzio…?" (179–196)
Massimo Manca, "Fulgence l'Africain. Aspects vandales de la littérature mythographique" (197–210)
Étienne Wolff, "Dracontius: bilan et aperçus sur quelques problèmes de sa vie et de son œuvre" (211–227).
IV. Dracontius chrétien
Sylvie Labarre, "Dracontius et les 'crimes' des héros païens : historiographie, quête du salut et drames humains" (229–242)
Benjamin Goldlust, "La persona de Dracontius dans la Satisfactio: quelques réflexions sur la posture discursive du poète" (243–257).
V. Dracontius profane
Annick Stoehr–Monjou, "Le rôle du poète dans la Carthage vandale d'après les épithalames de Dracontius (Romulea 7–6)" (259–274
Angelo Luceri, "'Notus et ignotus desunt': Draconzio e i suoi (presunti) amici" (275–286)
Bruno Bureau, "L'annonce du sujet dans les épopées profanes de Dracontius, inflexions du genre épique?" (287–302)
Laurence Gosserez, "L'ekphrasis de Cupidon dans la Médée de Dracontius" (303–322)
Lavinia Galli Milic, "Valérius Flaccus et Stace à Carthage : la matrice flavienne du Romul. 10 de Dracontius" (323–340)
Amedeo A. Raschieri, "L'utilisiation de Pede certo pour l'étude des caractéristiques métriques et prosodiques des hexamètres de Dracontius (341–354)
Étienne Wolff, "Retour sur les pièces 6 à 10 des Romulea de Dracontius" (355–376).


1.   Guido M. Berndt, Konflikt und Anpassung. Studien zu Migration und Ethnogenese der Vandalen (Husum: Matthiesen, 2007); Ralf Bockman, Capital Continuous. A Study of Vandal Carthage and Central North Africa from an Archaeological Perspective (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2013); Jonathan Conant, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439–700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Leslie Dossey, Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Tankred Howe, Vandalen, Barbaren und Arianer bei Victor von Vita (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Antike, 2007); Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa from Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari: Edipuglia, 2007); Philip von Rummel, Habitus barbarus: Kleidung und Repräsentation spätantiker Eliten im 4. und 5. Jahrhundert (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007); Roland Steinacher, Die Vandalen: Aufstieg und Fall eines Barbarenreichs (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2016); Guido M. Berndt and Roland Steinacher (eds.), Das Reich der Vandalen und seine (Vor-)Geschichten (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wisssenschaften, 2008); Guido M. Berndt and Roland Steinacher (eds.), Arianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed (Burlington: Ashgate, 2014).
2.   Jonathan Conant, "Donatism in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries," in R. Miles (ed.), The Donatist Schism. Controversy and Contexts (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), 345–361.
3.   Cf. É. Fournier, "Éléments apologétiques chez Victor de Vita : exemple d'un genre littéraire en transition," in G. Greatrex and H. Elton (eds.), Shifting Literary and Material Genres in Late Antiquity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), 105–117.
4.   See P. Bonnechère, Le sacrifice humain en Grèce ancienne (Liège: Presses universitaires de Liège, 1994), for a clear exposition of this notion as a mythic exaggeration already in ancient Greece.

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