Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Rita Lizzi Testa (ed.), Late Antiquity in Contemporary Debate. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. Pp. 280. ISBN 9781443843089. $90.95.

Reviewed by Dennis E. Trout, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This collection of papers began life at the twenty-second meeting of the International Congress of Historical Sciences held at Jinan, China, in August 2015. The volume's editor, Rita Lizzi Testa, designed a session meant to address the current debate over the "chronological definition" and "geographical context" of Late Antiquity (viii), issues that Hervé Inglebert's concluding remarks characterized as the "two big problems of late-antique studies" (215). In fact, only half of the papers in this volume (Ando, Díaz, Tantillo, Carrié, and Inglebert), apart from the introduction, deal explicitly with matters of periodization and definition (although none seriously treat geography). Only two of the book's ten chapters (Ando and Lenski) were originally composed in English, but all appear here in that language. The choice is understandable; the translations, however, are sometimes sufficiently stilted to be distracting. More thorough proofreading might have rectified this and also eliminated typographical errors. Surprisingly, there is not a single map or cross- reference. The few images included are of poor quality. There is no index.

Lizzi Testa's introduction surveys Late Antiquity's modern history, galloping across a sprawling terrain—Gibbon, Marrou, Mazzarino, Momigliano, Jones, and Brown—and highlighting turning points. Pirenne, the Annales school, Foucault, the cultural turn, mentalité, and the new materialism all get their due. A good graduate seminar primer, the essay foregrounds the difficulty that the volume sets out to address: Late Antiquity is an academic field of remarkable power and popularity, yet despite (or because of) this success, fundamental questions about the field's definition have only become more contentious. Recent disputes over Late Antiquity's temporal and spatial boundaries express deeper disagreements over the structures—social, political, economic, artistic, or more broadly cultural—that analysis should privilege and over the proper balance of continuity, creativity, and catastrophe that should inform conceptualization and narrative. If most scholars are likely to agree on the period's late third-century origins, the timing and nature of its end, as Lizzi Testa emphasizes, is more problematic. Economic, social, religious, and cultural histories may move to different rhythms and change beat in different moments, a fact the papers collected here illustrate.

Three chapters directly heed Lizzi Testa's summons. Clifford Ando's "Empire and Aftermath" executes a provocative re-framing of the issue of beginnings and endings by reexamining "decline and fall" in the works of two eighteenth-century authors, Montesquieu and William Robertson. If "our" Late Antiquity is methodologically "robust," Ando concedes, it is nevertheless woefully "narrow" when set against the Roman and post-Roman worlds imagined by these two Enlightenment historians. For them—ruminating on the relationship between empire, virtue, and freedom; and accepting the Roman Empire's destruction as prerequisite for their own post-imperial Europe —it was Republican empire-building that activated the potentiality of decline. The seeds of Rome's "fall" were sown in the second century BCE, in the incompatibility of civic virtue and violent domination. For Ando, however, the more disconcerting narrowness of contemporary studies lies in circumscribed ambitions. Content to retreat "into the study of particulars," we fail to employ history as "a form of critique" (2). It is, I believe, primarily the potential contributions of historians of the Roman Empire to contemporary international relations that Ando laments. Perhaps rightly so, given the tenor of political discourse since Ando wrote this piece. On the other hand, some historians of late antiquity—whose concerns have been gender, sexuality, and spirituality—may call foul.

The Empire's "fall" (in a more restricted sense) is also the focus of Pablo C. Díaz's "Usefulness of Useless Categories." His goal is to assert the continuing legitimacy of "crisis" and "fall" for writing the history of late antiquity. The "major crisis of the Western Empire" (21), in his telling, unfolded between the years 405 and 411, precipitated by the movement of "barbarians" through Italy and the western provinces. Strategic incompetence was to blame, the loss of tax base and territory the result (25). Thereafter the withering of loyalty left large landowners free to parlay with the "emerging barbarian powers" (27). By the sixth century, despite continuities, "everything had changed" and the world was a much grimmer place (29). Though hardly novel, Díaz's argument exposes one of Late Antiquity's fundamental dilemmas, the fact that the western empire's disappearance and Late Antiquity's heyday overlap. This issue is also at the heart of one of the volume's most engaging pieces, Jean-Michel Carrié's "From Transformation to Rupture." Carrié's is an essay of considerable sweep. Privileging, but not blindly, economic and social structures, Carrié identifies the end of the ancient world (and thus of its final stage) with the collapse of the "world economy" that had been the Empire's "fundamental originality" (199). Anticipated by the dislocations associated with the fifth-century fall of the western empire (and fall it did, hard, at the hands of German invaders), and then the Justinianic Reconquista, plague, and climate change, the final "rupture" arrived with the loss of Syria and Egypt to Islam in the early seventh century (199). In short, "the passage of the ancient world into a definitively new world took place in the seventh century" (200). Pirenne got the timing right, Carrié observes, but the reasons wrong. Carrié's Late Antiquity also begins with rupture, the innovative political, administrative, fiscal, and military structures created between 285 and 330, transformations that responded to the third-century crisis and laid the foundations of a "new empire," the ancient world's distinctive final phase (178 and 183).

The first paper in the Methodologies section yields less than it promises. Although a useful epitome of Jutta Dresken-Weiland's important work, the chapter skirts the questions targeted by the volume. Billed a "tour d'horizon on Christian images" (52), it offers only a limited survey of private (not public) Christian (not non-Christian) art between ca. 200 and 400 CE. Funerary contexts and images on "everyday" objects dominate, with an exclusive emphasis on content (not style). The vague concluding claim that after the fourth century, due to changes in funerary practice, "Christian images would have their places in churches and on liturgical objects" (52) is undercut by the catalog of almost any recent exhibit of late antique life. Questions of periodization are central to Ignazio Tantillo's essay. Tantillo distinguishes between the contribution made by Latin and Greek epigraphers. The latter, notably through Louis Robert's work on verse dedications and Charlotte Roueché's on Aphrodisias, have isolated telltale traits that can define a field of late antique Greek epigraphy extending from the late third century to a moment of "sharp fracture in epigraphic practice around CE 600" (66). In the Latin west matters are blurrier. Practical decisions made in the nineteenth century (Mommsen and de Rossi), long before there was a "late antiquity," set the turn from the sixth to the seventh century as the terminus for assemblies of ancient Latin inscriptions (and endorsed the segregation of "Christian" texts). This boundary long remained "uncontested" (60), queried primarily by medievalists. Only recently, as inscriptions gain ground as monuments as well as texts (68), have scholars begun to refine their sense of late antique epigraphy's peculiar forms and content. In this movement towards a more "global comprehension" of epigraphic development, Tantillo sees signs that epigraphy's weight will help tip the balance toward Late Antiquity's "short periodization" (71).

The Case Studies section contains three papers. Gilles Bransbourg offers a lucid survey of eight centuries of Romans "expressing their fiscal views," particularly their "aspiration for fairness" in taxation (105). He traces the story of the Empire's evolution from a "predatory entity" in the mid-Republic (80) to a close approximation of a "consensually accepted state" following the promulgation of the Constitutio Antoniniana and the fiscal reforms of Diocletian and Constantine (92). Bransbourg aims at showing how close that approximation was by re-examining several papyrus archives. These reveal surprisingly equitable tax assessment and extraction across social categories in sixth-century Egypt. In the "fiscal doctrine" and "tax philosophy" he identifies, Bransbourg finds "one of the main legacies of Late Antiquity in the field of political economy" (105), whose origins he locates in the Tetrarchic and Constantinian period. Noel Lenski offers another longue durée study, querying "the relative importance of free, bond, and slave labor in generating surplus" in the estates of the African Maghreb (114). Rejecting recent arguments asserting the predominance of slave labor on fourth- century estates (Jean-Michel Carrié and Kyle Harper), Lenski amasses evidence for "long-term dependent or semi-dependent tenants" as the "primary cultivators" on North Africa's "large and medium scale estates" (120). This system, he argues, prevailed (with some variation and reliance on slavery) from Carthaginian times through the sixth century. Like Bransbourg, Lenski does not explicitly link his conclusions to the volume's "big" questions. Nevertheless, here, too, the Constantinian age emerges as a "watershed" (132), albeit a low grade one, by virtue of its promulgation of laws that, by creating the bound colonate, reduced distinctions between free and slave labor—even though Africa remained "a land of agricultural tenancy with relatively self-assertive peasant labors" (149) until by the late sixth century, prior to the Arab conquest, the system had unraveled. Alas, the reader is left to imagine the discussion between Bransbourg, Lenski, and Carrié, whose studies both overlap and differ in fundamental ways. In the section's third paper, Philippe Blaudeau seeks to clarify the concept of "geo-ecclesiology" with which he has elsewhere tried to "highlight the precise dynamics of ecclesial issues" (168). The discussion is dense and theoretical and addresses specific charges that geo-ecclesiology is either too reductive or too focused on "political effects" at the expense of "doctrinal or religious content" (163) to have full explanatory power. The paper makes little attempt to speak to the volume's announced themes.

The book ends with Hervé Inglebert's "Birth of a New Short Late Antiquity," which conveniently sorts the volume's contributions to the "debate" about time and space into four categories: conceptual terminology (e.g., crisis and decline), "non-literary" media (e.g., images and inscriptions), new "hermeneutic patterns" (geo-ecclesiology), and "historical singularities" (taxation, rural labor, and a kind of discourse analysis). Most importantly, Inglebert concludes that the themes selected for discussion, admittedly short on "religious and cultural trends" (218), all favor a "short" Late Antiquity, one that synchronizes the disappearance of the late Roman state with the rupture of Late Antiquity's defining social and economic structures (218). As have Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, Inglebert explains (218-21), these papers argue for a "New Short Late Antiquity," reaching from the late third century to the late sixth or early seventh, equivalent to the old chronology (think, e.g., A.H.M. Jones) bookended by Diocletian and Heraclius though boasting a broader evidential base and embracing once marginalized lands (e.g., Central Europe and parts of the Sassanian Empire). This is a world, and a period, resting on "Roman power and Roman peace" (219), not on the vibrant cultural and religious experiments of the Long Late Antiquity sketched by Peter Brown's World of Late Antiquity. Can the two be reconciled? Perhaps, but Inglebert's potential resolutions, in part, return us to the quagmire of decline, transition, and transformation. Maybe that's fine. Mucking around there inevitably forces us to confront the big questions.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Rita Lizzi Testa
Chapter One: Clifford Ando, "Empire and Aftermath"
Chapter Two: Pablo C. Díaz, "Crisis, Transition, Transformation: The End of the Roman World and the Usefulness of Useless Categories"
Chapter Three: Jutta Dresken-Weiland, "Transformation and Transition in the Art of Late Antiquity"
Chapter Four: Ignazio Tantillo, "Defining Late Antiquity through Epigraphy?"
Chapter Five: Gilles Bransbourg, "Reddite quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari: The Late Roman Empire and the Dream of Fair Taxation
Chapter Six: Noel Lenski, "Peasant and Slave in Late Antique North Africa, c. 100-600 CE"
Chapter Seven: Philippe Blaudeau, "Geo-Ecclesiology: Defining Elements Applied to Late Antiquity (Fourth-Sixth Centuries)
Chapter Eight: Jean-Michel Carrié, "The Historical Path of 'Late Antiquity': From Transformation to Rupture"
Concluding Remarks: Hervé Inglebert, "The Birth of a New Short Late Antiquity"

No comments:

Post a Comment