Can “Late Antiquity” Be Saved? – By Philip Rousseau

Philip Rousseau in the Late Antiquity and the New Humanities Forum

I confess I’ve sometimes wondered whether we shouldn’t abandon the term “late antiquity.” I’m equally ready to admit it can’t be a serious suggestion. There does remain, even so, a confusing doubt in my mind as to what “late antiquity” really means. I agree with my colleagues who suggest it may have something to do with differing senses of period. Medieval and Byzantine historians, and even Islamicists, have been at times disturbed by an apparent late antique encroachment upon their supposed territory; and the situation has been exacerbated more recently by a growing attachment to the “early’” Middle Ages, “early” Byzantium and “early” Islam, the earliness of which is often difficult to limit or define.

During the spring semester of 2014, I gave a graduate seminar course on the concept of ate ntiquity. An unusually bright group of students, from a variety of programs, made a series of useful observations, one of which surprised me slightly — namely, that “antiquity” is almost as problematic as “late.” As a student myself in the Modern History School at Oxford during the 1960s, some of my Classics peers clearly wondered what a medievalist like myself was doing on the loose in a sphere that they still identified as Roman (albeit by the skin of its teeth). And it’s true that, although I had specialized in Classics at school, I probably did miss a lot of allusions and nuances in the sources I worked with. One has to remember also that, even in the later part of that decade, figures like Alan Cameron and John Matthews were relatively new on the scene (encouraged, of course, by the presence of giants like Syme and Momigliano). Peter Brown himself, whose Augustine of Hippo came out in 1967, was almost as young as we were.

But the point that bothered my students was that the notion of antiquity itself could have, especially on our bookshelves, a strikingly Eurocentric character. Paradoxically, therefore, an understanding of late antiquity’s effect depended on how broadly we thought of antiquity in the first place. To make sense of the lateness, we had to widen our antique lens beyond Greece and Rome or the Mediterranean world. Attention had always been granted to Persia, though most often as the “other,” a society that never quite succeeded in laying lasting claims within the classical arena. Biblical scholarship had long demanded a serious understanding of the near East, the cradle of Judaism and of the Syrian heritage. Scholars made exceptions for Egypt (as had the Romans themselves). By and large, however, it was Rome that mattered and the territories it assuredly colonized and controlled.

This issue of a Eurocentric “take” on the late Roman world now finds itself swept up into what has been termed the “ontological turn,” which I suppose is where the “new humanities” come in. More and more people are becoming familiar with this debate. It centers chiefly on a conviction that, in any one place at any one time, the people alive there and then had a sense of “reality” — a word we’re quite rightly not entirely happy with — that was unique to themselves. Indeed, more than a sense: their understanding of “that which is the case” was not simply a symbolizing reaction to a set of experiences that we otherwise share with them although respond to differently — that is, the material, anthropocentric, individualized world that we tend to suppose has always been “out there.” They (like many now) lived in a world (rather than just in a frame of mind) that was itself totally different from the world that we (whoever “we” are) experience. Actually (another tell-tale word), phenomenology, cognitive science, and quantum physics, if nothing else, have shown us what a far from enduring particularity the “out there” world is.

This means, quite simply, that what was the case, ontologically, during late antiquity has not been the case since and is not the case now. The logic behind this is rather conveniently illustrated, with extensive documentation, in Greg Anderson’s very recent article in the American Historical Review (“Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past,” AHR 120: 787-810). It leads us to ask, therefore, what was the case during a period that we can still logically think of as “late antiquity.” I have a particular view of the matter, naturally; and I would place late antiquity somewhere between the arrival of the “barbarian” settlers and the rise of Islam, although there are good reasons (to which I shall return) for moving the frame backwards to the late second century.

This is, of course, exactly the period Peter Brown describes in The World of Late Antiquity (1971), which I don’t think is an accident. I remember him saying to me then (I’m not sure that he would think so in the same way now) that late antiquity began with Aelius Aristides. The chief point that impresses me now is that the new world Brown so arrestingly described began to display its characteristic forms in the surviving relics of the ancients themselves. This was not only the period during which (later on) settler polities began and developed but also the period during which Christianity stepped away definitively from Second Temple Judaism (as did Judaism itself) and began to walk abroad in the classical and imperial world. And one last point: we have to think of “late antiquities” in the plural, because not everyone everywhere was faced with these developments in the same guise. This has the added force of making place as important as time.

During a recent colloquium at the University of Maryland, College Park, I raised with the invited speakers (particularly Patrick Geary) the possibility that we were witnessing in this period the encroachment of “peripheries,” where what had appeared formerly to be marginal to Rome’s notion of itself as a polity and culture had come to occupy central spaces of an older circumstance. This was indeed a “world turn’d upside down,” a new state of affairs that reached into the very heart of “reality.” Institutions and territories, but also attitudes, habits of mind, cultures and religious beliefs, patterns of authority and inspiration, even notions of selfhood, were not as they had been. A central ideal had been colonized, as it were, by the characteristic energies of something “other.” Of course, memory (as always, persistent but changeable) played its role: one wouldn’t have been able to recognize any shift without the comparable (if unreliable or disturbing) recollection of what had formerly been the case. The result would have been, I think, a sense of hastening unpredictability, to which one was expected to respond, tumbling forward, with inventive innovation. That was the Geist, if you like, of late antiquity.

This represents especially, I suppose, what Gibbon famously described as “the triumph of barbarism and religion,” and may explain why it occupies perhaps the best sections of his Decline and Fall. As he admitted earlier in the same paragraph (all this in the final Chapter 71), critics of both Goths and Christians “have neglected to inquire how far they were animated by an hostile principle and how far they possessed the means and the leisure to satiate their enmity.” “In simple truth,” Gibbon continued, “the northern conquerors were neither sufficiently savage nor sufficiently refined to entertain such aspiring ideas of destruction and revenge.” In the matter of Christianity — for that is what “religion” stands for here — Gibbon was equally magnanimous to its devotees: “their abhorrence was confined to the monuments of heathen superstition; and the civil structures that were dedicated to the business or pleasure of society might be preserved without injury or scandal.”

That is to introduce, however, a convenient and misleading distinction. We can detect here a very eighteenth-century separation of policy and belief that would have puzzled even the late antique. As they adjusted to an unforeseen conjunction of the two, they felt nevertheless obliged, and happy, to recognize that conjunction was still required. Yes, the aliens beyond had ventured far within the boundaries of the old Roman world. Traditional pagan cult had given way to what for many centuries had been considered an affront, even a dangerous affront, to the empire’s understanding of divinity. The inner life is always difficult of access (although Christianity was making candid reflection more available to scrutiny): the ceding of occupancy involved was probably more evident in public, in the spaces and skylines of towns and cities, in shared ceremonial especially. Temples were crumbling, churches proliferating; and the areas around them were given over to new enthusiasms. The identity of the participants, the forms of their civic choreography, bore the marks of intrusion. It is also true that those who made their accommodations or concessions found both their religious and their political principles susceptible to compromise. The character of leadership was adapted rather than diminished. All this happened within the space of barely two, certainly less than three centuries, from the definitive breach of the Danube by the Goths to the campaigns of Abu Bakr and his immediate successors. This period, no longer than the independence of the United States, we might with some justice endow with a name. I stress again that its hallmark was the capture of a cultural heartland by forces originally outside it in some sense, a capture that was allowed at the same time to be imbued by the values it ostensibly displaced.

Note that this interpretation of the matter is not merely the product in our own time of competing academic disciplines. We are sometimes a bit too ready to suppose that late antiquity, as a self-declared field, has relieved us of the tyranny of classicists, Byzantinists, historians, students of religious practice and ideas, not to mention archaeologists, philologists, numismatists, and art historians. They often play now on our court as well as on their own (look at the journals especially) — either because we “allow” them to, or perhaps better they choose to do so — but that doesn’t in itself automatically mean that they are doing something different, as if there was a way of getting under the skin of past societies that is peculiar to a late antique scholar. The distinctive quality of late antiquity is something separate from the methods we employ to observe it. I don’t share, for example, Ellen Muehlberger’s fear that we are author-fixated, entangled in a claustrophobic web of textuality. The issue of how questions are to be identified as fruitful and of how they are best answered; the notion of scholars with different skills and interests collaborating in the analysis of evidence from the same period and territorial space applies to study of any era.

More interesting, perhaps, is the question of when (if ever) the “tumbling forward” I mentioned above came to an end. Did the post-Roman world ever return to an even keel, acquire some new sense of stability and permanence? Someone less embarrassed by Eurocentricity might think of the Carolingians. An Islamicist might think of the ‘Abbāsids. Byzantium seems at least to have entered a new phase with the gradual ending of Iconoclasm. The relative coincidence of moment is significant, and I think it centers above all on the work of memory. It was at this stage, somewhere roughly 750 onwards, that post-Roman peoples began to construct a more coherent narrative of their past — a task that involved quite of lot of invention, or at least a juggling of accumulated recollections. This may be where late antiquity ends. Antiquity was in some sense leached from what might still look antique, so that it was organically composed in a different way. When people themselves begin to think differently about their antiquity, it’s time for us to think of them as being in some way less antique.

I believe that this retrospective propensity encompassed a wide range of anxieties at the time; anxieties that reached well beyond barbarism and religion. If there was something distinctive about late antiquity, it must have included a particular attitude to the formation and maintenance of social forms that deserve the name of “states” in some sense and a particular notion of what an ideal “citizen” ought to look like. Clarity on that matter may have come slowly; but it was eventually forged and recorded for a time. It also reminds us that the exercise of the historical imagination, then as now, is at heart a literary and “fictive” exercise, in the technical sense that people were not merely observing events but were constructing narratives. Catherine Chin expresses this very clearly. We can now look at the period as a species of fresco on the surface of time, and it can come to possess thereby a misleading stillness, however vividly displayed; but for each generation (in different places) it moved as in a spyglass towards the eye of the imagination. No category of experience, therefore, remained stable.

So, Mira Balberg’s Jews could never opt out of the shifting circumstances in which, at any particular moment, they found themselves; and indeed slippage applied to all traditions, whether religious or not: all changed their spots. Even “Christianity,” therefore, which seems to so many a basic ingredient of late antiquity, was never a stable notion. Whether conceived as monolithic or fragmented, orthodox or heretical, it was taken for granted as a part of “that which was the case” in constantly shifting ways. That is indeed what “transformation” (as opposed to “decline and fall” — not to mention “ancient Christianity” and its supposed “end”) is all about. (I deliberately betray at least unease in the face of Robert Markus’s famous, daring and provoking argument, The End of Ancient Christianity, Cambridge University Press, 1990.) And transformations that took place within traditions were inevitably carried along in the biggest slippage of them all, the very notion of romanitas itself.

But the story can’t end there, because we have to pay attention to the new stability as well as to the excitements that preceded it. (It was inevitably disturbed in its own fashion soon enough, of course.) Here we need to return to points I made earlier about starting late antiquity sooner and broadening the frame we place around “Antiquity” itself. Reading, first, some of the recent work of Averil Cameron — both Byzantine Matters (Princeton University Press, 2014) and Dialoguing in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2014) — has attracted me increasingly to the recognition of a long Second Sophistic that is much less inclined to see the fifth century as some hiatus in the striking combination of tradition and innovation that may give “late antiquity” its meaning. But, second, to make full sense of the “tumbling” period and the process of “invented stability” that followed it, we have to hold in our minds a whole millennium, from Augustus (and the preludes that gave him meaning) to the Capetians, the fragmentation of Islam and the effect of the Crusades on Byzantium (the beginnings and endings here have still to be clarified). Historians have already begun to do this. For those of a western bent, there was presage in the collection edited by Jennifer Davis and Michael McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies (Ashgate, 2008); and we have the adventurous experiment of Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford University Press, 2005), brought even further forward by his The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Allen Lane, 2009), and by Garth Fowden’s book last year, Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused (Princeton University Press, 2013), a beautiful sequel to his Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton University Press, 1993). Robert Wilken struck the same note in his The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (Yale University Press, 2012).

It will be argued, no doubt, that a millennium is an arbitrary envelope; but there seems to be immense value and potential in creating a space for the imagination that brings together scholars familiar at one end with the empire of Augustus and no less preoccupied at the other with late Umayyad Spain, Baghdad and its dependencies to the time of the Turks, the world of the Merovingians, Carolingians and Capetians, and the Byzantine empire of Constantine Porphyrogennetos. Coming to grips with this enlarged scenario encourages a readiness to see what Anthony Kaldellis has referred to as an “interconnected unit.” Entwined within this chronology is the gradual formation of Talmudic Judaism, the establishment of the Bible as the foundation of Christian culture, and the development of the Qur’an and associated texts — a culture enriched by Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Arabic learning. There seems very little either “late” or “antique” about that, and perhaps it’s therefore better suited to our needs.