G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Cambridge Mass. and London, The Belknap Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 767, incl. 15 colour plates and sixty-three black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-674-51173-5. UK£34.50.
Edmund P. Cueva
Late Antiquity: A Guide To The Postclassical World is an extensive survey of AD 250-800 that treats this time period as one deserving detailed investigation rather than a quick read in order to get to more interesting times. The geographical scope of the text covers the Roman and Sassanian empires, which are covered with advances in scholarship (e.g., archaeology) in mind so as to demonstrate that there is a continuity of periods and regions that are often divided by 'barriers erected by separate disciplines' (p. xi). The text includes an introductory essay, two maps, eleven essays, fifteen colored plates, sixty-three black- and-white illustrations, and alphabetized entries on topics ranging from 'Abassids' to 'Zurvan' written by 272 scholars. The eleven essays are meant to provoke thought and to serve as guides to the time period; there is a wide range of data, but the essays are not meant to be encyclopedic. The book is broken into two major sections, essays and entries.
The first four essays deal with religion. Averil Cameron's 'Remaking the Past' (pp. 1-20) explores the appeal to tradition (citing Christian, Muslim, and pagan examples) in order that the past may be 'retold to fit the present' (p. 8). This transformation, which is charged with religious implications, is accomplished through an embellishment of the present through myth and legend and the reuse or destruction of architecture. Béatrice Caseau in her 'Sacred Landscapes' (pp. 21- 59) continues the religious theme of Cameron's essay and centers on the concepts of sacralization and desacralization, which are respectively the 'dedication of something or somebody to a divine being' and 'the violent breach of rules of behavior toward sacred things or persons' (p. 22). These phenomena, which can be manifested publicly and solemnly or as 'small private offerings' (p. 22), frequently appear when there is a conflict of cultures or even within one culture that is undergoing religious change. The burial of the dead within the city walls of Rome, something forbidden in Classical times but accepted in the Christian era, is an example of this process. The greatest sacralization and desacralization confrontations took place in Syria and Palestine. Henry Chadwick's 'Philosophical Tradition and the Self' (pp. 60-81) deals with the relationship of the mind to the body and the souls as found in Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Origen, and St. Augustine. In 'Religious Communities' (pp. 82-106), Garth Fowden examines the rise of 'religious communities' as distinct from those communities that derived their identities from common geographic, environmental, historical and economic elements. The concept of 'conversion' (p. 85) to these new communities is fundamental to the creation of the community.
In keeping with the theme of societal internal or external demarcation, Patrick J. Geary's 'Barbarians and Ethnicity' (pp. 107-29) attempts to answer the question 'What is a barbarian?'. Geary arrives at an answer by examining the principle of ethnogenesis, i.e. the way in which barbarians identified themselves as a people: 1. 'identity from a leading or royal family' (p. 108), 2. identity from 'charismatic leadership and organization necessary to create a people from a diverse following' (this approach is limited to Central and Asian Steppe peoples) (p. 109), 3. identity from 'traditions that may have informed the community' that 'were transmitted not only by a central royal family but in a more communal form' (p. 109). These are continuing processes rather than an individual historical event. The Alamanni, Goths, and Huns are among the groups considered by Geary.
In 'War and Violence' (pp. 130-69), Brent D. Shaw seeks to supply the reader with a 'reasoned understanding' (p. 130) of war in Late Antiquity. This is no easy task according to the author because obstacles stand in the way of such an understanding including written sources that contain stereotypical and schematic accounts of violence, modern misinterpretations of how fighting actually took place, and pro-Roman bias. After an exhaustive review of recruitment problems (the rise of ethnic recruits and frontier men in the Roman empire), military communication (spies and informants), cultural and environmental issues, topography, military preparedness, the connection between war and political power, finance, types of combat, the purposes of war, and warfare on the northern border of the Roman empire, Shaw notes that there were two basic changes in warfare in Late Antiquity: an evolution in the process of recruiting from ethnic groups that supplied forces for internal or civil wars and the development of a type of war that called for the total extermination of the enemy.
Christopher Kelly's 'Empire Building' (pp. 171-95) looks at the emperor in Late Antiquity and his 'effective political ideology' which was maintained without difficulty by the transition of the emperor from 'Apollo to Christ to later Roman emperor' (p. 172). This invention allowed a political and cultural unity in the later empire that favored a shift to a strong centralized type of government. Kelly's essay lays the groundwork for Richard Lim's 'Christian Triumph and Controversy' (pp. 196-218), which evaluates 'Christian unity and disunity' and the Christian attempts at resolving disputes 'before and after the reign of Constantine' (p. 199). Lim analyzes the roles of the emperor, imperial patronage, philosophy, dialectic, rhetoric, and mysticism in settling these disputes. 'Islam' (pp. 219-37) by Hugh Kennedy evaluates the impact that the rise of the Muslim faith had in the east. Kennedy wants to correct the incorrect perception that 'whereas late antiquity can be seen as part of the broader history of western civilization, the history of the Islamic world cannot' (p. 219). After noting that in the new Muslim system lower-level Byzantine administrative practices were in use, Greek was spoken, the new Muslim tax system was a modification of the old Byzantine finance structure, city-planning was traditional, and some architectural/religious permanence existed, Kennedy concludes that Islam in fact was a 'continuation of late antiquity as was western Christendom' (p. 219).
The last two essays spotlight domestic life and architecture. In 'The Good Life' (pp. 238-57), Henry Maguire examines selected 'evidence of domestic prosperity in late antiquity' (p. 238) and the images (personifications of nature, nature motifs, and mythology) used to decorate this prosperity. Maguire looks at marbles, mosaics, textiles, greenery and flowers, silver eating utensils, bathing establishments, clothing and jewelry. Nature and myth are often found in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic homes and architecture -- but only after 'the removal of elements that were deemed unacceptable' (p. 253). Forty-three black-and-white illustrations follow this essay. Yizhar Hirschfeld's 'Habitat' (pp. 258-72) employs a variety of sources (hagiographic, architectural, and rabbinic literature; papyrological, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence) for an analysis of the architecture of the typical well-to-do person and the construction of monasteries. Attention is also paid to the variations in rural and urban architecture, manor houses, growth in previously unsettled areas, and the shift from city to rural areas.
The alphabetical dictionary entries are very diverse and informative. One can find such diverse entries as 'Belts' (Bonnie Effros), 'Books' (John M. Duffy), 'China' (Donald D. Leslie), 'Contraception and Abortion' (John Riddle), 'Gnosticism' (Elaine Pagels), 'Metalware' (Marlia Mundell Mango), 'Music' (Kenneth Levy), 'Qur'an' (Alford T. Welch), and a multitude of other topics. The authors truly fulfill their intent 'to provide as wide a range of information as possible on the late antique period' (p. xii).
Late Antiquity: A Guide To The Postclassical World is a book worth adding to one's personal or institutional library. The eleven essays give a good introduction to the major issues of religion, government, war, and architecture, while the dictionary entries fill in the gaps. This is a solid and beneficial book for student and scholar alike.