Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 7.

G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (edd.), Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. xv + 280, incl. 2 maps, 43 halftones and an index. ISBN 0-674-00598-8. US$19.95.

Andrew Gillett
Macquarie University, Sydney

This book is a paperback version of part of the volume published by the same editors in 1999, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World.[[1]] The original Guide was comprised of an introduction; eleven essays; fifteen high-quality colour plates; almost five hundred pages of illustrated encyclopedic entries; and an index. This paperback version retains the introduction (lightly revised for reduced circumstances), the eleven essays, and a new index. It is, therefore, no longer a reference work like its parent volume but, as the new title stresses, a series of interpretive overviews of the period.

The eleven essays include: Averil Cameron on `Remaking the Past' (pp. 1-20); Béatrice Caseau on `Sacred Landscapes' (pp. 21-59); Henry Chadwick on `Philosophical Tradition and the Self' (pp. 60-81); Garth Fowden on `Varieties of Religious Community' (pp. 82-106); Patrick J. Geary on `Barbarians and Ethnicity' (pp. 107-29); Brent D. Shaw on `War and Violence' (pp. 130-69); Christopher Kelly on `Empire Building' (pp. 170-95); Richard Lim on `Christian Triumph and Controversy' (pp. 196-218); Hugh Kennedy on `Islam' (pp. 219-37); Henry Maguire on `The Good Life' (pp. 238-57); and Yizhar Hirschfeld on `Habitat' (pp. 258-72).

The tone of the volume, set by the breathtakingly enthused and magisterial introduction (penned, one suspects, by Brown), is assertive. Late Antiquity, as a defined field of research, is only a little more than a generation old: thirty-one years, if one dates from the convenient historical marker, the publication of Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity in 1971.[[2]] Late Antiquity is now well ensconced in the academic universe, and though its scholarly existence is still largely sustained by monograph series, journals, bibliographies, and reference works produced by its older disciplinary relatives -- including Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, medieval, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and oriental studies -- the field has possessed a monograph series since 1981 (edited, again, by Brown),[[3]] its own eponymous periodical since 1993,[[4]] and more recently a useful reader for teaching purposes.[[5]] The production of the first encyclopedic reference work for this relatively recent discipline in the original Guide version of this book, and equally the appearance of the collective overview of the period represented by the essays here, seem very much to be proffered as the field's coming-of-age.

Late Antiquity means different things to different scholarly and publishing communities. This is highlighted by comparing the Bowersock-Brown-Grabar volume with the recent twin volumes thirteen and fourteen of The Cambridge Ancient History, subtitled `The Late Empire, AD 337-425' and `Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425-600' respectively.[[6]] The Cambridge volumes -- which share several writers with the present volume -- primarily concern the late Roman empire of the fourth to sixth centuries, with substantial attention to the empire's western successors, the kingdoms of Gaul, Italy, Spain, and Britain. Sassanian Iran and the early Islamic Caliphate are restricted to two of the thirty-plus chapters, and post-Justinianic Byzantium lies mainly outside the chronological limits; thematic chapters largely concern only the Roman world, and do not generally integrate evidence from its post-imperial successors. In a much updated and expanded form, the two Cambridge volumes address fundamentally the subject areas of the first volume of the original Cambridge Medieval History, subtitled `The Christian Roman Empire'.[[7]]

The Late Antiquity presented under the guidance of the three Princeton University scholars in the volume under review not only has a broader chronological sweep -- ca. 250 to 800 AD, an advance of a century on the period covered by Brown's The World of Late Antiquity -- but enthusiastically promotes the inclusion of non-Roman and post-Roman (at least, post-imperial) evidence and topics; even if, in the event, non-Roman evidence proves much harder to come by. This inclusive intent is demonstrated at the outset by the gorgeous cover photograph of the interior of the cupola in the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, portraying a monumental architectural feature, characteristic of major late antique public buildings, in its most accomplished Islamic form (and a welcome change from the far-too-often reproduced Ravenna mosaics of Theodora and Justinian, which appear on both the cover and interior colour plates of the parent Guide volume). Though not all the papers seek to encompass examples of their theme from both pre-Christian Rome and Zoroastrian Iran, and the Christian and Islamic states, those that do generate some striking results (notably Cameron, Caseau, Fowden, and Shaw).

This scope is in turn a function of serious attempts to reposition study of the period away from a Romanocentric (for which, read imperialistic or western) perspective to a rounder view of the different cultures and states which appear on the historical stage of the Mediterranean and Iranian worlds in the period. Hugh Kennedy's chapter on `Islam' opens with an overview of the historical demarcation between Classical and Islamic studies, and of the potential for bridging the two (p. 219). Brent Shaw, in his discussion on warfare, lucidly draws out the `pervasive, almost unconscious, desire to share the Roman point of view' in modern historiography; `we are asked,' he adds, `to identify our problems with those of the Roman Empire' (p. 134).

Concomitant with this intent is a strong tendency for papers to view their topics from the sweeping perspective of what may be described as sociological modelling. For summary accounts of `hard' facts such as the administrative structures of late Roman government or of the Church, the reader should turn to the Cambridge volumes. The essays here offer not systematised data but fascinating deliciae illuminating broad movements: the shifting discourses of history which facilitated the adoption of quasi- Judaic pasts by citizens of the Christian Roman empire and the Caliphate (Cameron); the role of the late Roman army in the political economy of the Roman empire and, indeed, of the entire Mediterranean basin (Shaw); and the interplay of government propaganda, religious forms, and social structures which supported the triumphalism of late imperial ceremonial (Kelly). Though the breadth of approach may provide the pedant with a wealth of targets, it ought more properly to stimulate profitable debate on the nature of the period.

One substantial area of omission, however, may be mentioned: the late antique West. Very little is heard of the former western provinces after the fragmentation of the Roman empire and their reconfiguration as autonomous kingdoms. This is not an inevitable exclusion: the copious, if often problematic, sources for Gaul, Spain, and Italy in particular could well contribute to, for example, Kelly's account of the ideological and social dimensions of `empire building' (the western kingdoms shared many of the ceremonial motifs of the eastern empire)[[8]] or Shaw's discussion of the role of military affairs.[[9]] Gregory of Tours appears only once, in Cameron's chapter (pp. 14f., followed by the observation: `Even in the 7th century, it was still possible at times to think of a united Mediterranean, linked by common ties of religion and learning' -- indeed it was in the mid-seventh century that Theodore, a native of Tarsus, became archbishop of Canterbury according to Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 4.1); Isidore of Seville is not mentioned at all. The main appearance of the western kingdoms is in Geary's chapter on `Barbarians and Ethnicity' (pp. 107-29). This is unfortunate, for Geary's focus on `ethnogenesis' (tribal formation) of the new management of the former Roman West, despite its apparent anthropological modelling, perpetuates the old Germanist conception of these states as examples of a millennium-long Germanic `alternative Antiquity', deploying Latin Christian literacy and culture only as means to strengthen their ethnic identity. In fact, the few strong statements of ethnic rhetoric from the post-imperial West, in the Church councils of Visigothic Spain and some law codes of early Carolingian Gaul, are couched in stridently Biblical terms, adopting the mantle of new Israelites; they are very much of a piece with the rest of the late antique world, not products of barbarian ideology. It would be salutary to the whole field of Late Antiquity for the post-imperial West to cease being regarded as an exemplum of Germanic culture (under any euphemism), and to be studied instead as a fellow participant in the culture and politics of Late Antiquity.

This is a book, by and large, for practitioners in the area. Though clearly written, few of the essays would serve as sympathetic introductions to their topics for the uninitiated. It is a little ironic that the volume is remarkably affordable -- even translated out of US dollars, it would be quite reasonably priced for a student text. It could perhaps be set for an Honours-level course, and would be quite suitable for postgraduate coursework, but I suspect that it would be unkind to set it as an undergraduate text. Researchers in the field, however, will be delighted to add this stimulating and enlightening volume to their bookshelves.


[[1]] G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (edd.), Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Cambridge, Mass. and London 1999).

[[2]] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (London 1971).

[[3]] The University of California Press has produced thirty-three volumes to date of the series The Transformation of the Classical Heritage under the editorship of Peter Brown. E. J. Brill has brought out nine volumes to date of The Transformation of the Roman World edited by Ian Wood (this series, although primarily concerned with the early medieval West, seeks to position its studies in the broader field of Late Antiquity). The periodical Antiquité Tardive (see following note) has also published a supplementary monograph series, Bibliothèque de l'Antiquité Tardive through Brepols.

[[4]] Antiquité Tardive/Antigüedad Tardía/Late Antiquity/Spätantike/Tarda Antichità. Vol. I (Turnhout 1993-).

[[5]] Michael Maas, Readings in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook (London and New York 2000).

[[6]] Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 13: The Late Empire, AD 337-425 (Cambridge 1992); and Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 14: Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425-600 (Cambridge 2000).

[[7]] H. M. Gwatkin and J.P. Whitney (ed.), Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. I: The Christian Roman Empire and the Foundation of the Teutonic Kingdoms (Cambridge 1911).

[[8]] Perhaps the best demonstration remains Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory: Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West, (Cambridge 1986).

[[9]] Continuity of military practices from late Roman through early medieval times has been well argued in the works of Bernard Bachrach; see now his Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire (Philadelphia 2001) with full bibliography.