Monthly Archives: August 2011

Readings on the Roman Empire I: Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire

I’m just back from a week in KC and completely exhausted (when I restore myself I’ll respond to some of the comments that have been posted over the past few days). It’s not because I over-partied or anything (did party a little but not much) but because of ice. Yup – ice in August. My hotel room was situated near the elevators, which was great, I thought. Between myself and the elevators were only a utility room for housekeeping and the vending alcove. And then there was the bane of my existence, the ice machine.

I’m a light sleeper. I’ve mentioned before how, when I drive, I bring a small fan with me for white noise (I flew this time). When someone filled their ice bucket, the resulting sound reaching my room (at least when my head was on the pillow) resembled the primordial roar of a beast intent on destroying whatever had dared to approach its lair. There had to be an echo factor. And when it recharged, it produced more of a warning growl as if it was within its burrow. Tuesday and Thursday nights must have been the party evenings (Thurs. was the last night). I think I woke up six times Tues. and four or five times on Thurs. Fortunately, I managed to restrain myself before I ran into the hallway to confront whoever was agitating the ice machine beast (the thought entered my mind more than once as I woke in a soporific haze). At least, based on the evals & questions, my presentation was well-received and my booth received a lot of traffic. But next time I’m housed next to an angry vending machine, I’m asking to change rooms.

As is my usual custom, I took something to read which I wouldn’t feel compelled to take copious notes on. This was William A. Johnson’s Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-19-517640-7.

This is a good book. What Johnson set out to do was explore and discuss elite literary culture during the Roman Empire from the late 1st century BC into the early 3rd century AD. He used detailed examinations of sources in a case-study format to illustrate the characteristics of literary elites and their peers which formed a restricted, (relatively) closed social circle in the Empire.

Issues discussed include; what were the characteristics of this culture; who were considered members; how might one gain admittance; what type of hierarchy existed within this circle; what were acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of members and; how did members of this circle view themselves and the circle?

I found this to be an interesting and informative book. I knew this literary group existed and that membership in it was fairly restricted, however I was less familiar with specifics such as how a student who was not considered “experienced” might be viewed if he chose to comment on a reading (rather than raising a question), or how a literary elite might respond to a perceived threat or challenge to the group.

I have always known that I must become fairly familiar with and knowledgeable about the Roman Empire to learn about the 4th century and beyond, including the transition to the Medieval Period in Western Europe. This book is very beneficial to me for this purpose. As I finished it, I find myself with a few issues I would like to explore. The continuation of classical literary culture beyond the ending of the Empire is one of the characteristics of Late Antiquity. Ralph Mathisen has argued that the end of this culture can be viewed as an endpoint for Antiquity. I’m familiar with most of the Late Antique “players” and have many of their writings, in translation. I’d like to look into how they continued to view themselves. My sense is that, as their numbers dwindled, they became more open to new admissions to their group, but were unable to find individuals capable of joining.

Another interesting comparison is the contrast between this and Carolingian Literary Culture. I don’t think there’s much of an argument that this existed in the late 8th and 9th centuries. How does this compare with the Roman culture? Was it as restrictive? Were the hierarchies and patterns of acceptable behavior as strict? Most importantly, I think, is; How did members of the Carolingian literary culture view themselves and it? I don’t believe there’s much (any?) evidence for direct continuity between them and the Romans. Did the Carolingians believe there was? Did they view themselves as recreating the Roman culture or did they recognize that this was something new? Did they recognize it as something at all or was this simply an aspect of their environment? Right now I have 22 books on the Carolingians on my “to-read” shelf. I have a sheet of paper with issues I want to be sure to explore tucked in there. The above questions have been added to it.

I don’t have the knowledge to provide a detailed review of this book however I found it useful and an enjoyable read. It’s fairly pricey but if you can find a copy in a library, it’s definitely worth a look.

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Posted by on August 13, 2011 in Books, Education and Literacy


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Public Library Books

You may remember that earlier this year an individual was looking to buy some medieval history books to donate to his local public library and was soliciting suggestions for what to get.

Those books have been bought and are in place. Some pretty good ones too – I doubt if many public libraries have a copy of Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages. I have one correction to the original post – the request about the books did not come from a librarian but from a young man who wanted to improve the selection at his local library in Nevada. Pretty cool.

The Books. Photo used by permission.

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Posted by on August 6, 2011 in Books


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Review: Romans, Barbarians and the Transformation of the Roman World

Ralph W. Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer, eds., Romans, Barbarians and the Transformation of the Roman World, Surrey: Ashgate (2011) Pp 379, xix. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6814-5.

This useful book evolved from the Sixth Biennial Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity Conference held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in March, 2005. The essays contained in the book are, to a large extent, those given at the conference. They are, of course, updated and revised and some additional essays have been added.

This volume contains 25 essays. Attempting to review these, even in a cursory fashion, is impractical for a blog review. Instead I will attempt to provide an overview of the volume, while focusing on a select few essays.

A list of the essays is as follows:

Introduction, Ralph W. Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer

Part I: Constructing Images of the Impact and Identity of Barbarians

A. Literary Constructions of Barbarian Identity
1. Catalogues of Barbarians in Late Antiquity, Ralph W. Mathisen
2. Augustine and the Merciful Barbarians, Gillian Clark
3. Reguli in the Roman empire, Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval Germanic Kingdoms, Steven Fanning;
4. Were the Sasanians barbarians? Roman Writers on the ‘Empire of the Persians’, Scott McDonough
5. A Roman image of the ‘Barbarian’ Sasanians, Jan Willem Drijvers

B. Political and Religious Interpretations of Barbarian Activities
6. Banditry or Catastrophe?: History, Archaeology and Barbarian Raids on Roman Greece, Amelia Robertson Brown
7. John Rufus, Timothy Aelurus, and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Edward Watts

C. Imperial Manipulation of Perceptions of Barbarians
8. Imperial Religious Unification Policy and its Divisive Consequences: Diocletian, the Jews and the Samaritans, Yuval Shahar
9. Hellenes, Barbarians and Christians: Religion and Identity Politics in Diocletian’s Rome, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
10. Barbarians as Spectacle: the Account of an Ancient ‘Embedded Reporter’ (Symm. Or. 2.10–12), Cristiana Sogno

Part II: Cultural Interaction on the Roman/Barbarian Frontiers

A. Becoming Roman: Movements of People across the Frontier and the Effects of Imperial Policies
11. The ius colonatus as a Model for the Settlement of Barbarian Prisoners-of-War in the Late Roman Empire?, Cam Grey
12. Spies Like Us: Treason and Identity in the Late Roman Empire, Kimberly Kagan
13. The ‘Runaway’ Avars and Late Antique Diplomacy, Ekaterina Nechaeva

B. Becoming Roman: Social and Economic Interchange
14. Captivity and Romano-barbarian Interchange, Noel Lenski
15. Barbarian Raiders and Barbarian Peasants: Models of Ideological and Economic Integration, Hartmut Ziche

C. A New Era of Accommodation
16. Kush and Rome on the Egyptian Southern Frontier: Where Barbarians Worshipped as Romans and Romans Worshipped as Barbarians, Salim Faraji
17. Petra and the Saracens: New Evidence from a Recently Discovered Epigram, Jason Moralee
18. Elusive places: a Chorological Approach to Identity and Territory in Scythia Minor (Second-Seventh centuries), Linda Ellis
19. Barbarian Traffic, Demon Oaths, and Christian Scruples: (Aug. Epist. 46–47), Kevin Uhalde

Part III: Creating Identity in the Post-Roman World

20. Visigothic Settlement, Hospitalitas, and Army Payment Reconsidered, Andreas Schwarcz
21. Building an Ethnic Identity for a New Gothic and Roman Nobility: Córdoba, 615 AD, Luis A. García Moreno
22. Vascones and Visigoths: Creation and Transformation of Identity in Northern Spain in Late Antiquity, Scott de Brestian
23. Identity and Ethnicity in the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul, Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski
24. Text, Artifact and Genome: the Disputed Nature of the Anglo-Saxon Migration into Britain, Michael E. Jones

Part IV Epilogue: Modern Constructions of Barbarian Identity

25. Auguste Moutié, Pioneer of Merovingian Archaeology and the Spurlock Merovingian Collection at the University of Illinois, Bailey Young and Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey

As is evident from the titles, these essays cover a broad range of topics. Even so, it is impossible to cover everything. I would have liked to see more information on economic systems. Ziche’s essay is the only one which addresses this in any depth, and even this is from the perspective of Roman attitudes toward barbarians and how they might impact economic systems, not the systems themselves. The majority of the essays are written from the perspective of what Romans and barbarians thought of the “other.” This is a very useful course of inquiry however the reader should not expect this volume to discuss what was happening so much as the opinions of the players, largely Romans (where far more evidence exists), regarding what was happening. This focus involves a great deal of analysis of textual source material.

There is not one essay I consider to be bad, or of poor quality. This is rather remarkable with this many titles. I will focus on a few which piqued my interest however this should not be taken to reflect on the quality of the others; it is simply a measure of my interests and where a particular essay showed or taught me something I found valuable.

Disparaging passages about the barbarians are a common theme among authors of Late Antiquity. Galla Placidia is described as disgracing her heritage in marrying a barbarian king. Claudian reserved some of his most critical remarks regarding Rufinus in describing him as a barbarian sympathizer. Others, such as Jerome, Salvian, and Prosper of Aquitaine considered the barbarians to be a source of great destruction and hardship. In “Augustine and the Merciful Barbarians,” (33-42) Gillian Clark opens with a notable passage from Prudentius’ Contra Symmachum in which she states, But Roman and barbarian stand as far apart as quadruped from biped, or as dumb from speaking …. (33) She then proceeds to discuss Augustine’s writings regarding the barbarians and how he portrayed them differently.

For Augustine, barbarians can be considered a sign of God’s mercy. While he describes them as savages, one step above animals, in City of God he stresses how, during the 410 sack of Rome, they allowed citizens to take refuge in Christian shrines. He credits God with allowing Alaric, a Christian (Augustine neglects to mention an Arian) to take the city, rather than the pagan Radagaisus. Radagaisus would have enacted unrestrained slaughter while Alaric is described as, “mild in slaughter through the love of God.” (36)

An interesting contrast between Augustine and other Christian authors, in particular Orosius and John Chrysostom, is explored in this essay. Augustine does not appear to consider the barbarians beyond their impact on Rome and their symbolic role as merciful punishers. As Clark says, “As in Rome in 410, so in City of God: the barbarians appear, do some damage, and go away.” (41) Orosius considers the barbarians to be an opportunity to expand Christianity and convert a multitude of others. For him, “… the purpose of the barbarian invasions was to fill the churches.” (38) Chrysostom lists numerous barbarian groups who now subscribe to Christian philosophy. Augustine is not so hopeful. The barbarians are a tool of God, not potential allies and Christians.

In Constantinople on April 12, 409 a law was issued in the names of Honorius and Theodosius regarding the terms under which the Sciri would be settled in the Empire. In, “The ius colonatus as a Model for the Settlement of Barbarian Prisoners-of-War in the Late Roman Empire?” (147-60) Cam Grey explores this text, its meaning, and its implications in developing a more generalized model of barbarian settlement.

Grey explores the status of coloni as stated in laws. They were settled as tenants, usually farmers, under the supervision of a landowner and registered even to a particular field. (151) There were various restrictions on coloni including prohibitions on their alienating property or moving. (151) Even though much of the language discussing coloni is harsh and restrictive, they are explicitly referred to as free and given certain rights and privileges. (152) Prior to the issuance of this law, coloni are known and mentioned in various laws and agreements, however the specifics of their tenure varies substantially with different situations. These agreements generally share three characteristics; dispersing the barbarians so they do not represent a cohesive threat; the prospect of future military service and; coloni being subject to taxation. (157)

The 409 law may represent a new stage in these arrangements. While the law contains the three elements mentioned above, it created a new, explicitly stated private relationship between the settled tenant coloni and the landowner. (159) Grey recognizes that these arrangements may have been customary prior to 409, however this is their first appearance in a text. He sees the placement of responsibility for coloni with private individuals as, “another example of a [Roman] preoccupation in the legislation of the period with control and limitation on the behavior of potentially threatening, liminal groups in society.” (160)

In, “Barbarian Raiders and Barbarian Peasants: Models of Ideological and Economic Integration,” (199-219) Hartmut Ziche explores Roman and Greek stereotypical attitudes towards barbarians and how these stereotypes relate to reality. Stereotypical perceptions of barbarians are not new. They are portrayed as smelly, wild, violent, unkempt, skin-clad, etc. Late Roman sources seem to place barbarians in one of two categories; as raiders or peasants. (200) Once settled, this distinction eased and barbarians disappear from the sources as they are transformed from barbarian settlers to Roman peasants. (202-3). This creates a significant difficulty in assessing the economic impact of barbarian peasants as, based on the sources, they become indistinguishable from native peasants.

Ziche discusses several sources discussing the prospect of settling warlike barbarian invaders in Rome as peasants. In 4th century sources, barbarians are not natural peasants and unsuited to farming. They must be treated harshly and watched carefully. However some sources, such as Themistius, believe that while barbarians are not suited to farming, “… they will in time stop being barbarians and then also become peasants.” (211) During the 4th century the contributions of the barbarians, once settled, to the Roman economy receive virtually no mention.

This begins to change in the fifth century. While the stereotypes continue, authors such as Salvian and Sidonius mention, indirectly, barbarian contributions. (214-6) Ziche believes it possible, and I consider it likely, that this resulted more as a result of the authors being forced to accommodate barbarians and “make the best of it” rather than a true change in their perspectives. The alteration of Roman and Gallo-Roman opinions is largely found beginning in the sixth century.

Throughout this essay, Ziche uses other, often archaeological, evidence to show that the contributions of barbarians to the Roman economy were much more substantial than the sources indicate. However the most interesting conclusion in the paper is that the opinion (at least among source authors) of barbarians and the stereotypes used in sources changed very little even into the last days of the empire.

Part III of this book is excellent. In, “Vascones and Visigoths: Creation and Transformation of Identity in Northern Spain in Late Antiquity,” (283-97) Scott de Brestian examines the consensus that “… the Basques of the High Middle Ages were the descendants of the Vascones that appear in peninsular and Frankish sources of the sixth and seventh centuries, who in turn were ethnically identical to the Vascones of the Roman period.” (286) Brestian considers this to be largely a creation of nationalistic and racially motivated perspectives and that when textual and archaeological sources are examined closely the creation of the Basques should not be seen in this manner. While the roots of the Basques may be the product of a confluence of events beginning with the end of the Roman Empire, the continuity of “… ethnic traditions that had existed since time immemorial.” (297) is insupportable.

Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski in, “Identity and Ethnicity in the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul,” examine burials and other archaeological evidence, including pottery, to discuss the acculturation of new barbarian arrivals into the lands of the Roman Empire. While they note some exceptions and in particular the growth among barbarian elites of “… what might be called an ‘international’ barbarian culture resulting from their widespread experiences. …”1 (308) they do not hold with the view of Peter Heather and others that the arrivals represented cohesive ethnic groups, or that whatever ethnicities did exist long survived their settlement in Gaul. They argue that archaeology shows the migrations not as an invasion but that this should instead be viewed as a process of integration.

The final essay I will discuss is Michael Jones’ “Text, Artifact and Genome: the Disputed Nature of the Anglo-Saxon Migration into Britain.” There are two aspects of this essay which I find interesting. One, which I will gloss over with a single statement, is that Jones does not believe that currently available DNA evidence supports a theory of massive Anglo-Saxon migrations. What I found fascinating was his discussion of the type of DNA evidence necessary to draw any real conclusions. Currently, most of this work has been done by examining the DNA and genetic patterns of modern inhabitants of different regions and attempting to work backwards to reach conclusions regarding settlement and migration patterns. He believes that there are inherent methodological flaws with this approach and that it “… can inform but not answer the question of the nature of the Anglo-Saxon migrations.” (339) Instead he believes that archaeologically recovered DNA is the only reliable genetic evidence which should be used to reach any sort of conclusions regarding the migrations. “If and when large samples of DNA recovered from both eastern Britain and the continental homelands before and after the Anglo-Saxon migrations can be compared, we will be in a position more confidently to assess the genetic changes associated with the Anglo-Saxon migrations.” (339)

This is an excellent book. The editors are to be commended for the variety of subjects addressed and the quality of the contributions. As I stated above, there is not one essay which I consider weak, a rather remarkable statement. There are another eight essays which I believe are as worthy of discussion as those I chose to mention, and remember that even this statement is based on my primary areas of interest. This book is a welcome addition to the study of Late Antiquity and one which I am certain I will refer back to regularly.

1 I want to be clear that they do not consider this to be associated with ethnic origins. “One should not be surprised that the material culture of this princely barbarian caste was very international in flavor, and that the splendid artifacts from their graves or the treasure finds of the period usually do not betray the geo-cultural origins of their owners.” (308)


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