Prophets of doom rise for an encore

Late Antiquity
December 21, 2000

In early 21st-century Britain, it is easy enough to picture culture and society as on the verge of fragmentation. In fact, it was even reported last April that the combined membership of Britain's major political parties fell short of the membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, while attendance at church hit new lows and jury service is being side-stepped by the wilier of the middle classes. In the newspapers, traditional current affairs make way for lifestyle features, and foreign news is deemed a turn-off, although stories can be transmitted in a flash to anywhere in the world. Thus in an era of alleged globalisation, it becomes ever harder to muster a sense of the res publica , "the common weal".

Some see this atomisation as unprecedented, yet almost eerily comparable tensions were to be found in the world of late antiquity, and this fact should inspire caution in present-day prophets of doom. For then, too, the auguries for the future development of society were contradictory and often misleading. At the beginning of the 4th century, the Roman authorities were perturbed at the reluctance of provincial citizens to take on the work of curiales , serving on town councils and helping maintain civic services. So deep-seated was the reluctance to serve in the armed forces that men disqualified themselves through self-mutilation. The repeated injunctions against such draft dodging in later Roman law codes imply that the problem was endemic. Already in the 3rd century, absenteeism from temple rites at local level appeared to the authorities to be growing, and this was linked with a dwindling sense of Roman community. Some blamed the decline in attendance on the cults that forbade participation in public sacrifices to the gods and showed no sense of duty to uphold "eternal Rome". Foremost among these was, of course, Christianity, whose adherents sometimes preferred martyrdom to shedding the blood of others while serving as soldiers. Edward Gibbon famously denounced the Christians' lack of republican virtue and their self-absorption as one of the main causes of the "decline and fall" of the Roman Empire, and the figure they cut has something about it of the Moonies or Scientologists as viewed through modern officialdom's eyes. Yet their hour came in 312 when a military contender for the throne, Constantine, favoured Christianity as his personal victory cult, and instilled it in his troops with the help of church parades and thereby underpinned the political order he subsequently proclaimed from his new capital on the Bosphorus, Constantinople.

The overall effect of Constantine's "conversion" was to breathe new life into the res publica , and Late Antiquity follows a historiographical tradition reaching back to the man himself in presenting the event as a landmark. But its interpretation differs somewhat from Gibbon's. For 100 or so years after Constantine, as one of the essays puts it, "the central government (was able) to exercise a greater control over the human and economic resources of the Mediterranean world than at any time since the foundation of the Roman Empire". And if imperial hegemony gradually frayed in the west, the eastern provinces - containing the empire's wealthiest, most urbanised populations - more or less voluntarily upheld the Pax Romana for more than 300 years. Yet the very adaptability that facilitated survival embittered traditionalists and raised questions as to how much of the old learning could be subsumed within Christian thought. Thus the civil servant John Lydus bemoaned the retreat of Latin before Greek as the language of authority and lovingly catalogued antiquarian minutiae, while Augustine pondered over the question already raised by Tertullian in the 2nd century: "What had Athens to do with Jerusalem?" As Averil Cameron remarks in her essay "Remaking the past": "Augustine's answer, in The City of God , was long in coming and gloomy in its message."

To fathom the cross-currents and undertows of the "post-classical" world while throwing out lifelines to the novice is no mean task, and the three editors have risen to this challenge with flair and discrimination. Essays by 11 scholars cover various fields including religious communities, philosophical tradition and the self and Christian triumph and controversy. Other essays, such as Patrick Geary's on barbarians and ethnicity or Yizhar Hirschfeld's on habitat, formulate topics that would probably never have occurred to contemporaries, although the subject matter was familiar enough. Cross-cutting between the public domain and private lives and drawing on such sources as Egyptian papyri and archaeology, the essays present varieties of experience in a three-dimensional way and make substantive contributions to scholarly debate.

The history of ideas, spirituality and culture enjoy particularly full coverage, but war, violence and empire-building receive vigorous discussion from, respectively, Brent Shaw and Christopher Kelly. And topics that feature only briefly, if at all, in the essays, for the most part receive solid treatment in the 500 or so individual entries that follow them, forming a kind of gazetteer. Many amount to mini-disquisitions on, for example, Muhammad, Arles, priesthood and treasure hoards and dendrites - "ascetics who lived in trees (from the Greek dendron )".

The period defined as "post-classical" stretches from c. 250 to c. 800 and includes the high tide of Islamic expansion, Byzantine iconoclasm and the emergence of the Franks to dominance over what remained of Christian Western Europe. The Guide also aims, according to the introduction, "to treat as a single whole the vast geographic space covered by the Roman and the Sassanian empires" and to assess the impact of "that great arc of imperially governed societies" on regions as far apart as Scandinavia and western China.

The Guide 's extended chronological span is well constructed and offers many insights and connections. Not that this makes for simplicity or unbroken lines of evolution. A recurring theme is the experimentation, competitiveness and prolific literary output of schools of thought, cults and their supporting communities in the eastern Mediterranean: this persisted up to the iconoclast era even if, as Richard Lim states, better-organised groups of dissenters "hardened under pressure". Equally striking is the diversity of lifestyles and experience available to those enjoying personal freedom and a modicum of education and means (a minority, but probably a larger one than in any other pre-industrial society). Drastic career changes could occur, as when an intellectual decided to abandon high life at court for a monk's cell in Egypt. As Kelly notes, his response to doubters was to point to his new teacher and say: "I once knew Greek and Latin learning; but with this peasant, I have not yet mastered my ABC." Contending groups inside and outside the church invoked different written versions of the past to justify their understanding of correct belief and behaviour. The celebrated church councils are merely the tips of icebergs of controversy signifying speculation and fairly open debate as much as sheer fractiousness. Dissenting groups, such as the Monophysites, proved fissiparous virtually from the start, and in the 6th century, John of Ephesus wrote histories about the long-suffering heroes of his youth, in hopes of restoring harmony. The Monophysites were outlawed and many fell foul of the imperial authorities, yet still they aspired to general peace under the emperor. As Garth Fowden notes: "Constantine and (the Council of) Nicaea were their slogans, and they continued to pray for the emperor in Constantinople and for his illumination." This is testimony to the accommodating nature of the settlement between monotheism and imperial dominion that Constantine had brokered three centuries earlier.

But perhaps the most striking attestation of the pervasiveness of this new political order comes from archaeological evidence in Syria and Jordan and from the Umayyad mosque still standing in Damascus. Jerash's bishops, in conjunction with local worthies, built some 14 churches in the period up to 611, and even after the Arab conquest the churches continued to be used for worship. Early Muslims seem to have had no compunction about visiting and even praying in Christian churches. In the 7th century, a mosque was built next to the Christian cathedral at Sergiopolis (Resafa, in the Syrian desert), apparently in the hope of gradually winning over pilgrims visiting St Sergius's shrine there. Only in the early 8th century did the Muslims cease to share the main church at Damascus with the Christians, and the mosque then built on its site by Caliph al-Walid was decorated by mosaicists sent from Constantinople. Presumably solely through manifest reference to imperial splendour could the new regime hope to compete.

If one is to lodge a criticism, it is that the book's geopolitical framework does not quite bear out the introduction's stated aims. True, the essays often mention Sassanian might, there are many suggestive entries on peoples and places in the Eurasian steppes, and anyway the Sassanians - subject of a particularly fine entry by J. K. Choksy - are notoriously ill-served by literary sources. But while key emporia, such as Nisibis, receive due mention, insufficient sense is conveyed of the sheer porousness of the land borders between Sassanian Persia and the Roman Empire or the vitality of economic exchanges involving the eastern Mediterranean world and populations north and south of Persia on the eve of the Arabs' expansion. These are attested by finds of Byzantine and Sassanian silver in the northern Urals, coins and ceramics at Mantai in Sri Lanka and also by texts referring to the multifarious silk roads to China. That a richer panorama could have been achieved is suggested by syntheses such as David Christian's A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire (1998). Fuller assessment of how these contacts ebbed or changed course in the century and a half after Muhammad would have contributed to the debate as to what mark the real termini to the post-classical world. But, undeniably, materials for the debate are supplied in abundance, and the introduction expressly encourages readers to make their own "leaps across time and space". With its range and intellectual power, this Guide may serve as a kind of mother ship, offering "trekkers" a superb array of sophisticated navigational aids to explore new constellations. It should tempt many readers "to boldly go...".

Jonathan Shepard was formerly lecturer in history, University of Cambridge.

Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World

Editor - Glen Bowersock, Peter Brown and Oleg Grabar
ISBN - 0 674 51173 5
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 780

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