ICMS Session Report IV: Session 211, Social and Political Practices in Late Antiquity

23 May

Friday, May 14, 2010
Session 211
Social and Political Practices in Late Antiquity

This session took me back into my comfort zone after spending all Thursday learning about Carolingians. I also hit my stride in taking notes – it always takes me a bit to get the hang of it. In my real “nothistory” job we’re generally handed charts, graphs and datasets which presenters work from – there’s a different type of listening skill necessary here.

The first paper was by Hartmut Ziche of the University of Antilles, “Common Dynamic Trends in Late Antiquity.”

He opened with something of a historiography lesson related to the early years of the study of Late Antiquity. For this he cited AHM Jones, Averil Cameron and Peter Brown. To be honest, I zoned this part out a little bit. I’ll explain why below.

Once we were past this section, he entered into the main part of the paper. He traced the institutional development of the later Roman Empire and post-Roman Western Europe in broad terms of regional vs centralized governance and administration. This tracked as follows:

Third Century – Regional
Fourth Century to 420 C.E. – Centralized
Late 5th Century – Regional
Sixth Century – Beginning process of recentralization though without link to the East

He explained that he felt that the centralized Roman Empire was not sustainable without continuous growth. The central system of taxation was just too inefficient and things fell apart in favor of regionalization. Once growth ended in the 3rd century things fell apart with the regional Gallic Empire and a fairly loose governance structure.  He stated that the Fourth Century re-centralization was the result of military success and when military success ceased, regionalization ensued again. He believes that the 9th century collapse of the Carolingian Empire repeats the process.

Another aspect he touched on was his belief that elites existed through their function as a delegated part of state power.

This was an interesting paper but I had a few problems with it. First was that I think the concept of Late Antiquity has been around long enough that we don’t need to worry just about books written between the 1960’s and 1993. There has been enough newer scholarship and approaches that we can focus on the major influx of new work done since the turn of the century – or at least pay it some attention. Things have blossomed for the study of this period over the last decade with authors such as Wickham, Goffart, Halsall and McCormick introducing significant new research and information. Granted, Brown and Cameron remain active but they aren’t alone in the field.

My other issue was the level of detail he offered in support of his thesis of growth impacting the success of a centralized government. I don’t completely disagree with him but I am curious what he feels were the Roman Empire’s Fourth Century successes. Yes, they won some battles along the frontier but these were not accompanied by large territorial gains, or even plunder, with the exception of slaves a couple of times. There were some gains at the expense of the Sasanids but these were short-lived. And I think other theories – Diocletianic reforms, demographics, etc. – should have been addressed, at least briefly.

I know a K’zoo paper shouldn’t be expected to be a full-blown journal article but I think for this Ziche would have been better off ignoring the evolution of the study of Late Antiquity and instead focus on his regional/central trends and provide more support for his theory.

The second paper was by Matthew Mattheis of the University of Heidelberg on “Municipal Acclamations in the Late Roman City.” The title change from that listed in the Congress program is not a typo.

This paper provided a bit of a contrast to the first as Mattheis selected a defined, limited scope for his paper, stuck with it, and provided a fair amount of evidence.

Acclamations were a common phenomena from the late Roman period. They are found frequently in inscriptions as well as proceedings of local governing bodies. Matthies chose to focus on Egypt for this paper. While he didn’t state why, I’d think this was likely due to the survival of evidence. In Egypt, acclamations can be found in 40% of Egyptian cities.

Matthies believes acclamations served different purposes on different levels. For an Emperor they were a symbol of subservience by municipalities and carried indications of loyalty. They helped provide a presence in the cities of the person of the Emperor, even as Emperors visited cities less frequently.

For municipal elites and governors, acclamations enhanced their standing as Imperial representatives. The public display linking them with an Emperor gave them additional legitimacy.

The most interesting part of this paper for me was Matthies’ discussion of what function acclamations served for the populace. On occasion the people publicly acclaimed a new magistrate. This “popular” acclamation allowed the populace to voice their opinions and forward their interests over that of the local elites/curiales and express them to the Emperor. This also allowed them to provide the Imperial government with something of a gauge of how well local regions were governed.

As I implied above, I enjoyed this paper and found it useful. I was relatively familiar with other forms of public support such as panegyric and knew of acclamations but hadn’t given them much attention. Mattheis provided a good handout which he worked from which contained examples of acclamations including letters, municipal written evidence, treaties and the Oxyrhynchus papyri.

Paper number three was, “Praise and Self-Promotion in Ausonius’s Epistle 18” by Eric Hutchinson of Hillsdale College.

Anyone who has read Ausonius realizes that he is one of the more self-involved Late Roman authors and it will be no surprise that he uses this letter to Paulinus of Nola, at first glance one of praise for his friend, to also promote himself.

A combination of my poor command of Latin and the expectation that people won’t be dashing for their shelves to grab Ausonius will make this a very brief summary as I won’t reconstruct the line-by-line examination. Hutchinson provided a detailed analysis of this letter to describe how Ausonius, in his praise of Paulinus, used constructions such as stating a desire that Paulinus may gain what he already has, or that Paulinus’ name should go before his due to poetic metrics (and by inference not due to quality of writing or eminence as an individual), to enhance his own stature. While this fits the general tenor of much of the Ausonius corpus, it is important to note that at the time this letter was likely written, Ausonius had been consul so claiming preeminence is justified – it is the lengths to which he goes to do so under the guise of praising his friend which makes it interesting.

This was a good, interesting paper and I’m thankful Hutchinson didn’t subject us to one of Ausonius’ off-color epigrams.

The final paper by Kristen DeVries of Roanoke College was titled, “Bishops Universal: Caesarius of Arles, Avitus of Vienne and an Expansive Vision of Episcopal Authority.”

In this paper DeVries compares and contrasts the uses of episcopal authority of two bishops for which we have very good documentary evidence, Caesarius and Avitus. As contemporaries they provide an interesting contrast which she proceeds to describe quite well.

Caesarius used his office to attempt to reach the entire populace by developing Christian communities through a network of bishops that could reach Christians in Gaul. He believed that bishops did not have a role in developing or advancing doctrine. It was enough that a bishop could preach basic Christian truths – they didn’t need to develop their own sermons but could read those written by others. He thought the Church Fathers had covered all the ground that needed to be covered and there was no need for new material to be developed. His networks show this. While he communicated with the Pope, the bulk of the letters associated with him are to and from bishops and family members. It is important to note that the letter evidence for Caesarius is quite limited.

Not so for Avitus. We have much more epistolary evidence. He communicated at a higher level and attempted to influence the Burgundian elite. He remained friendly with the Burgundian rulers even while gently urging Gundobad and Sigismund to convert from Arianism. Avitus was willing to become involved in religious disputes including authoring a treatise against the monophysites. Avitus believed that bishops should participate in episcopal and doctrinal disputes.

This was an interesting paper. There was no time so I don’t blame DeVries for not including this however I think an examination of the results of the two approaches would have been interesting. If the two men had ever gotten into a competition, Avitus would have had much more to point to. He sent a letter to Clovis congratulating him on his conversion. He could claim at least partial responsibility for the conversion of the Burgundians to Orthodoxy. Avitus appears to have had much more success projecting episcopal power and influence (though Caesarius had the pallium).

I enjoyed this session. While I would have liked to see a more detailed examination of evidence for the first, the other papers examined individual aspects of Late Antiquity, provided a detailed analysis and really dove into the evidence in the limited time available to them.


Posted by on May 23, 2010 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “ICMS Session Report IV: Session 211, Social and Political Practices in Late Antiquity

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 24, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Good to be able to read about sessions I didn't get to. I don't know the state of discussion in the late Antique field as well as you do, but I would share your impression of the first speaker's paper that a lot of work has occurred in the last fifteen years, especially, in my compass, about the relations of élites to the state, that makes this sound a lot less than revolutionary. Also, maybe it's just me, but doesn't this:he felt that the centralized Roman Empire was not sustainable without continuous growthsound like an "I read the newspapers this morning and came up with a new pitch for my work" moment?The last paper sounds the most interesting to me, the conversion-period bishops intrigue me because they appear to us as ambassadors into a new world, even as archæology more and more suggests that the world had been that way around them for a good long time.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    May 24, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Ziche's paper was unsatisfactory for me – he tried to cover two topics without sufficient time and the first part ended up sounding like the opening few minutes of the first class of a new semester while for the second he never got into the why's and how's of the centralization/regionalization issue. Unfortunate – anything on the "Why Rome 'fell'" issue is always interesting even though it's an argument which I doubt there will ever be consensus on.The Caesarius/Avitus discussion had a lot more "legs" to it – I could have been interested in an hour-and-a-half on it alone. As examples, Caesarius' being granted the Pallium and (shortly after Avitus' death – Caesarius outlived him by 2 decades) Arles' receiving a re-confirmation and strengthening of episcopal authority – somewhat at the expense of Vienne – have a lot to say about how the two respective approaches were viewed by Rome.Avitus was so much more involved – long theological letters to Gundobad explaining (in a friendly manner) the errors of Arianism and involvement in doctrinal issues in addition to the other items mentioned above. I don't recall that he faced any censure for this but it seems to indicate which approach Rome favored. Caesarius stayed out of that – his main communications with Rome seem to have been mostly whining about how nobody pays any attention to him and pleas for help. There's an implication that activist bishops were frowned upon, however effective they may have been.


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