Late Antiquity Dissolves – By Anthony Kaldellis

Anthony Kaldellis in the Late Antiquity and the New Humanities Forum

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Late antiquity is commonly regarded as a period, but it has increasingly become a discipline defined by a methodology. It began as a project of inclusion. Expanding almost imperially outward from its core (the later Roman Empire), the discipline of late antiquity sought to break down boundaries separating classical, early Christian, Patristic, early medieval, Byzantine, Jewish, Syriac, and early Islamic studies. It thereby created an expansive middle territory that dissolved those fields into a common laboratory for testing a set of interlinked approaches. It offered the advantage of viewing this larger world as an interconnected unit, tracing trends across languages and former disciplinary breaks. And for a time it was indeed, among the fields it aimed to absorb, the most dynamic engine for methodological exploration, experimentation, revision, and innovation. It took an era that few liked — a failing empire marked by cultural and intellectual decline, the matrix of all that the Enlightenment despised — and made it young and interesting again, prestigious, and envied. To call oneself a scholar of late antiquity was to participate in this expansive project.

In the west, late antiquity was pushed later and later until it began to nibble on the Carolingian world. As early modernity was also being extended ever earlier, gobbling up the Renaissance and later Middle Ages, it became almost possible to jump from late antiquity to early modernity, squeezing out the medieval period altogether. In the east, it left Byzantium with middle and late periods intact, but what used to be early Byzantium was now ceded to scholars of late antiquity who only happened to work on the Greek-speaking or eastern Roman parts of their own wider, more successful, and now mostly autonomous discipline. Sometimes these scholars provided half the papers at Byzantine conferences but appeared almost like visiting representatives from a different field. Byzantinists “proper,” who work on material after the sixth century, have generally not (yet) adopted the methods that distinguish late antiquity. There is a marked difference in theoretical orientation and innovation.

But expansion has stalled. Some of the new field’s limitations were baked in from the start. If late antiquity is a period, it can be defined functionally as the last in history that can be studied with the skill-sets of a classicist (who also knows early Christianity). As Ellen Muehlberger reminds us [later in this forum], the field is largely structured around authors; its main body of evidence overwhelmingly consists of the works of elite men whose outlook and literary traditions were extensions of those of antiquity. The core historical training focuses on the Roman Empire, which enables one to go farther when it comes to Byzantium, but less so in the medieval west or Islamic world. Medievalists have accordingly maintained the integrity and autonomy of their discipline. Persianists are uncertain whether the Sasanian Empire can be included in a field defined by Roman materials (whether in Latin, Greek, or Syriac, these are still Roman and/or Christian materials); and Zoroastrian society and religion are not on late antiquity’s radar. Moreover, while some historians try to view the rise of Islam against the background that late antiquity has sketched for the eastern Mediterranean, early Islamic studies is too big a field to be absorbed, and such a union would face huge methodological obstacles anyway. Late antiquity demands integration on its terms. To talk the talk, one must not be a Syriac expert who only happens to work in this period, but rather a late antiquity scholar asking distinctively “late antique” questions of Syriac materials. Some subfields are better off for this. Others, which have resisted absorption, may decide that they are not.

These are likely to remain the historical and disciplinary boundaries of late antiquity for the near future. Skirmishing on the frontier is unlikely to shift them much, but a new Big Idea might. In a stimulating recent study, Garth Fowden proposes the entire First Millennium as a new integrative paradigm. This offers heuristic advantages, although it does require making the three surviving monotheistic religions the framework for further historical research, with which not all will agree. Moreover, it is not clear whether this constitutes an expansion of late antiquity or a different paradigm altogether. It will depend on who takes it up.

Let us return to the core territories of the empire of late antiquity. The field, I claimed above, was defined as much by methodology as by time and place, and I will explain that claim below. But the methodology goes hand-in-hand with a set of topics too. The study of the later Roman Empire used to be dominated by the reconstruction of political events and institutions on the one hand and the disembodied (“view from nowhere”) study of theology on the other. With the making of late antiquity, this dead-end combination gave way to a set of more theoretically challenging “soft” topics such as holiness, authorship, gender, sexuality, group identity, worship, social relations, and private life. These were taken to be constructed and changing social forms that were — to use the field’s favorite terms of art — “negotiated” through “discourse,” and mostly Christian discourse at that.

For a while these assumptions were all the rage and came to exemplify the field, producing its most striking attractions, though good traditional history was still being written on a parallel track, especially in Europe but also in English (e.g., by Tim Barnes, John Matthews, and others). But the conflation of period with topic and approach generated pushback. By the late 1990s, historians representing more traditional areas of research (e.g., Andrea Giardina) were rebelling against the dominance of the new paradigm, and since then we have witnessed both a stream of introspective studies of the field, as it has passed into an uncomfortably self-aware phase, and a revival of narrative political and institutional history. The late Roman state is too big to ignore, and its fall in the west is back on the agenda. These studies generally do not exhibit the signature methodological traits of late antiquity, though I would not call them unreconstructed either. It helps me for heuristic reasons to think of these two approaches to the same period as distinct (albeit linked) fields: “late Roman” and “late antique,” depending both on what they study and how they study it. Many historians can be placed under one label or the other, but there are of course many who bridge them. At any rate, in this respect late antiquity, as an approach to a period, has been imploding rather than exploding, having reached the limits of its scope.

What, then, is this methodology I have repeatedly mentioned? For that is the crux of the analysis. Here I can identify only trends to which there are always bound to be exceptions and idiosyncratic variations. In fact, it is likely that no one scholar’s work perfectly exemplifies them. I have distilled them into general formulations and imperatives for the sake of conceptual clarity and discussion. And inevitably, there is a personal element to my misgivings.

First, there is an imperative to turn the sources toward the study of social and cultural history, specifically to reconstruct the ideological value systems that underpinned groups and communities. Texts, their contents, and their authors are treated as instrumental or exemplary in such broader social processes. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it can be pursued to the exclusion of other ways of reading the texts. For example, classical paideia is often seen exclusively as a productive social artifact, a function of elite identity and formation. Rarely is the ideational content of that paideia brought into the discussion. Yet men and women in late antiquity studied, say, Homer and ancient philosophy not only because they wanted to wear them as badges of elite identity and to lubricate social interactions. They — or at least some of them — were also interested in what those authors had to say, because they believed (correctly) that it was relevant to their lives and world. Nor did Homer and Plato speak to the same concerns. Lumping classical authors into a generic socially-defined category effectively precludes the existence of intellectual history in which their ideas, and disputes over those ideas, shaped later debates in different ways. Thus, we have few close readings of the intertextual relations between classical and later writers, readings that are less interested in the social dynamics behind the text and more in the sub-surface semantic politics of the text. Late antique literature has generally not caught up with the standards of Classical Studies in this respect.

Lumping classical authors into a generic socially-defined category effectively precludes the existence of intellectual history in which their ideas, and disputes over those ideas, shaped later debates in different ways.

Reading texts as expressive of groups can also cause individual authors to dissolve into the background of the social category to which they are assigned. Idiosyncratic authors are useless or annoying from this standpoint. So Prokopios has to be pressed into service as an exponent of imperial ideology; or, if he is allowed to speak against Justinian, he has to be made into the spokesman for a senatorial opposition (whose existence has yet to be proven) or imperial ideology “in general.” This is also why the field loves to use genre as an analytical category: it homogenizes authors. Many classicists instinctively read their authors as challenging and subverting their society and its ideologies, but scholars of late antiquity instinctively treat them as mouthpieces and exponents of them. Some may see this as a virtue, but it is not a debate the field has yet had.

Second, there is an imperative to break down and dissolve the polarities of past scholarship, all those binaries that appear in the sources and gave structure to later Roman history before it became late antiquity. This is often stated explicitly in programmatic terms and touted as a methodological advance. The opposition of pagan and Christian, classical and Christian, orthodox and heretic, Christian and Jew, and barbarian and Roman is replaced by a fluid spectrum of positions, views, and social attitudes that was largely shared among most groups, no matter how sharply the written sources present their differences, which were allegedly only phenomenal or aspirational. Difference, like identity, was but a discursive construct, an artifact produced by texts that ostensibly postulate essences, but we should not be fooled by them, for what they really offer are “negotiations” among ideological options floating in the common soup of the late antique mentality. I use quotations marks because few actual negotiations took place: “negotiation” is a technical term that gestures toward fluidity but is rarely defined as an analytical tool. In the political agenda of late antiquity, evidence for contact, sharing, and communication is hermeneutically privileged over that for rupture, conflict, and identity-difference, which is neutralized as an expression of the texts’ politicized and artificial “narrative.” Late antiquity is thus read as a field of competing discourses, none of which holds any “essential” existential valence.

The repudiation of “essence” and its replacement with contingent rhetorical artifice has stimulated many of the readings that make late antiquity such a fascinating and experimental field, and it is often valid: the rhetoric of our texts hardens oppositions that were more fluid in social life. But there must be limits to the scope of this approach. I am not convinced it can be taken all the way, all the time, and I read Mira Balberg as implying this in the Jewish case she presents: the alleged common background does not explain all the textual evidence before us. Yet it is indicative of the field’s priorities that it has tried to dissolve that evidence into the common soup. Also, while identities are based on narratives and other malleable cultural artifacts, this does not necessarily mean that they change easily. They are sometimes quite intractable.

Narratives are not always flimsy things (try taking one away from a group, and see how that goes). Insofar as our texts allow us to see what was going on in the streets and fields of the later Roman world, we observe widespread conflict taking place along the lines of the aforementioned polarities. And these were not merely banal struggles for resources or power among “essentially” interchangeable factions with roughly the same cultural profile. Instead, they were often stimulated precisely by differences in ideology, belief, practice, ethnicity, and identity. The “essence” of an identity is not hollowed out or exorcised when we re-label it as a “narrative,” for identities are and always have been narratives. Nor are they typically hermetically sealed off from one another. If that is the view being resisted by the field, it is a straw man.

The field also exhibits a Christian bias in the way it reconstructs the generic mentality of late antiquity, treating pagans often as a troublesome inconvenience. The breakdown of the classical-Christian polarity has been a true achievement in many respects, but just because pagans and Christians shared in classical culture on some level does not mean that the former should be treated as Christians-in-waiting, or in everything but name. This is a problem, for example, in Alan Cameron’s philologically magisterial The Last Pagans of Rome, from which one learns nothing, however, about the religion of these last pagans, about their gods or reasons for not converting to Christianity. The book assimilates them to the generic social background, which is defined in Christian terms. Christian groups and discourses are generally given priority and treated as normative with strikingly more interest and close engagement. And authors who seem to want to deviate from the fold of the Church are marched right back in and disciplined by the label “unconventional Christians,” whatever that means. The sixth century, for example, has been homogenized into a “monolithically” Christian society far beyond even the dreams of Justinian.

Moreover, viewing reality as discursively constructed makes it difficult for some scholars to step into a critical space outside or between the rhetoric of the texts. In many modern reconstructions, groups are allowed to define the terms of their own identity and exclude the discourse of rivals from impinging on their self-representation. In part for this reason, much of the field has drifted toward bishops and monks, who were masters at self-representation. Many studies take their images at face value and echoes them, producing modern re-descriptions. This has fueled accusations that the field is politically correct in preferring upbeat emic over polemical etic discourse, and caters to largely American sensibilities.

I, for one, would like to see more skepticism. The claims of our subjects’ enemies also deserve to be heard in our analyses, and if taken seriously they can lead to masterful studies such as Tim Barnes’s on Athanasius and Neil McLynn’s on Ambrose. These are critical rather than effusive or pious, and reveal the scale of deceit that went into the fashioning of so much self-representational discourse in late antiquity. But the field in general, invested in reality-as-discourse, has not fashioned instruments for critiquing discourse from the outside, for it has not decided what, if anything, lies there. Politics? Economics? Ethnicity? Conflict among rival views of the nature of God?

Third, to rehabilitate the period from an unsavory past reputation, late antiquity has pursued amelioration to the point of euphemism. The collapse of the western Empire has been re-described as a “transformation” (as if anything in history is not that), and a host of techniques has been deployed to dull the sharp edges of conflict. Note, in the perceptive analysis by Catherine Chin of the use of metaphor, the absence of negative images (“the stench of the slaughterhouse,” “the frothing rage of a rabid dog”), though one will find them in Ammianus Marcellinus, who knew that world better than we ever will.

Religious hatred that reached the level of bloodshed is frequently analyzed under the irenic guises of identity construction and discursive negotiation, as if we were dealing with merely textual communities cultivating positive role models along parallel tracks that rarely intersected. But euphemism and discursive amelioration will never fully occlude the fact that the later Roman Empire was the site of tremendous and unparalleled religious conflict, which was accompanied by what seems to be an intensification of state violence too. Where did this come from? What was driving it? Late antiquity has avoided the question, and even comes across as embarassed by it. It treats violence largely as a form of discourse, which is how privileged white academics experience it, from a distance or through the reports of others. But just because a certain kind of analysis interests us by playing to our training does not mean that it also addresses the most important issues. For more systematic attempts to grapple with this issue head-on, we have to look outside the field, to Roman historians (Cliff Ando’s Imperial Rome, AD 193 to 284: The Critical Century), or to critics of its blind spots (Polymnia Athanassiadi’s Vers la pensée unique: la montée de l’intolérance dans l’Antiquité tardive). These books show how such questions can be posed without releasing stale whiffs of the Enlightenment, and the questions are not going away; they can only be deferred.

Late antiquity has exhibited the same trajectory as the postmodernism whose fourth-generation “lite” descendant it is.

Yet so far the field has generally failed to produce public intellectuals who will speak to these issues, which have become ever more pressing during the past decade. I was personally struck by this at the Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity meeting in 2003, organized specifically on the topic of Violence. The bombs had started to fall on Baghdad mere hours before the conference began, but no one wanted to acknowledge (or much less address) that horrible, wrenching, bloody, nightmarish fact as we sat through paper after paper on monastic discourse and the textual construction of violence. When my turn came, I did say something about the bombs and the predominance of state terrorism in both late antiquity and today, but it was embarrassingly inadequate.

Late antiquity has exhibited the same trajectory as the postmodernism whose fourth-generation “lite” descendant it is. It arrived with the intention of breaking down hegemonic structures and enabling the free-play of discourse, but ended up becoming just another late modern hegemon in its own right, defining the scope and the modes of inquiry and excluding approaches that deviated from those authorized by its leading lights. Only now, when its grip on power has dissolved, and in the absence of other candidates for hegemony, may it be possible for multiple approaches to flourish side-by-side. All the questions, even the old questions, are open again.