Just in time for what has been insistently declared, despite the resistance of the pedants, to be the new millennium, a handsome and informative book appears, to enlighten us about that long, difficult, and often neglected period, the postclassical world. It runs, the editors declare, roughly from 250 to 800 CE. Those centuries have received their undying definition from the masterpiece of Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That title does not conceal a moral judgment—the fall of the Roman Empire, evidently, was a bad thing. As Gibbon famously declared,
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [that is, 96-180 CE].
And as he said again, much later in his history:
Whatever prejudices may be suggested in favour of Barbarism, our calmer reflections will ascribe to the Romans the superior advantages, not only of science and reason, but of humanity and justice.
We, by contrast, live in an age which is unhappy about making moral judgments, especially about other periods or other cultures; and we are, in many ways, prejudiced in favor of Barbarism—at least as opposed to imperialism. Gibbon goes on to say:
The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.
We are even better placed to appreciate that remark, now that we have witnessed the rise and collapse of the European empires, come and gone in a mere couple of centuries. Rome did last a very long time, being dominant in the Mediterranean world from about 200 BCE to the first sack of the Eternal City by a barbarian chieftain in 410 CE, and continuing to exist, with more or less power and dominion, in Constantinople (“New Rome,” “Rum” in the language of the Muslim neighbors who coveted it), until the capture of that city by the Turks in 1453.
The West has traditionally been both surprised and also sorry that Rome fell. Surprised, perhaps, in part because of the extraordinary success of the Romans in constructing buildings so imposing that they almost look timeless, and because of the power of their propaganda, which really does radiate the self-confidence of an empire that would last a thousand years: propaganda both visual, in statues and mosaics and triumphal arches, and also literary—the Aeneid of Virgil, the Roman Odes of Horace, the Histories of Livy and Tacitus. Sorry, because of a sense that a culture both higher and also more congenial was overwhelmed and replaced by something uncouth, violent, difficult to grasp, and hard to find sympathetic; by societies obsessed with religion in ways that are remote from us, and producing art and literature which need a lot of apology and defense from their modern admirers.
Thus we find, in the Journals of the novelist Anthony Powell, the late Harold Macmillan, after dinner in Oxford, saying that he found it impossible to know what medieval people were like.
He remarked that one would have no difficulty talking to Cicero, “if he came into Pratt’s” [a London club]. I allowed that Cicero might well have been a member of Pratt’s, otherwise full of young Praetorian Guardsmen….1
That is not a feeling that one could readily have about Saint Jerome, or about Stilicho the Vandal. No gentleman’s clubs for either of them, and no sense that one would find them or their conversation immediately simpatico.
Sometimes it can almost seem as though the moderns wished that the Roman Empire still existed and still ruled them, and that the myriad cults of classical paganism, the gods and goddesses, the temples and the blood sacrifices, had never been replaced by Christianity. That must surely bring us up short. Those uncouth barbarians are our ancestors; the states which they established are the direct ancestors of the nation-states of Europe. It was the Christians who sailed to the New World, and who produced the Jesuit missionaries and the Pilgrim Fathers. And, of course, we now look with a more wounded sensibility at the dark side of the classical world: at the slaves, and the imperial conquests, and the gladiators fighting and dying in those huge amphitheaters, which with their vast bulk still astound the modern tourist, and which made medieval men think they must have been the work of magicians, or of demons.
The period covered by Late Antiquity is in fact formative for the modern world, and the various kinds of continuity and discontinuity between it and the present are a fascinating study. The format of the book is unusual. The first third consists of a set of extended essays, the work of eminent scholars in the field, on eleven general topics: from “Remaking the Past” to “The Good Life.” The choice is well made, though it would be possible to think of alternative topics with a claim to this favored treatment. What is not present is a narrative or chronological account of the period or of aspects or elements of it. Many readers, I suspect, would have been grateful for something of the sort, in a period so long, so crammed with events, and so confusing.
The second and longer part is an “Alphabetical Guide,” a very substantial book in itself, ranging from Abbasids to Zurvan (“Zurvan, a divinity of time and fate, is attested to both as a minor entity in Zoroastrianism and as the high god of Zurvanism…”). There is some entertainment to be found in considering what’s in, what’s out. An English reviewer notes with chagrin the absence of an entry for Britain, which after all was a part of the empire and quite an important one, in pointed contrast with the presence of entries both on Ireland and on Irish, Old. Ireland, after all, was never in the empire at all. Let us turn again to Gibbon, who says of the revolt of Carausius in Britain, who in the 280s CE declared himself emperor:
When Britain was thus dismembered from the empire, its importance was sensibly felt, and its loss sincerely lamented. The Romans celebrated, and perhaps magnified, the extent of that noble island….
In line with modern interests, Homosexuality is in (Gibbon, by contrast: “I touch with reluctance, and dispatch with impatience, a more odious vice, of which modesty rejects the name, and nature abominates the idea”). Eunuchs, on the other hand, are out: a topic of little contemporary interest, but in the period very prominent and much more discussed, since many of them held high official positions (Gibbon: “The eunuchs, the increase of whose numbers and influence was the most infallible symptom of the progress of despotism,” and “If we examine the general history of Persia, India, and China, we shall find that the power of the eunuchs has uniformly marked the decline and fall of every dynasty”).
Nudity is in, and we duly find Contraception and Abortion, but another line of interests is less fortunate: there are no entries on Animals, Hunting, or Cavalry; Slavery, Torture, and Taxation are in; but Scholarship, Science, and Technology are out. One could go on with such games, but overall it must be said that the entries are well chosen in subject matter and well informed, lucid, and informative in content; and the book has some very fine colored illustrations, among them objects that have seldom or never been published.
There are two striking photographs of the large silver plate—more than two feet across—that is the centerpiece of the notorious “Sevso treasure.” This fabulous cache of late Roman silver, totaling fourteen pieces, has been the subject of complex and baffling claims and counterclaims since hesitant and evasive reports of it began to circulate in the early 1980s. Three countries—Lebanon, Yugoslavia (now succeeded by Croatia), and Hungary—have all claimed that it was discovered in their territory and illegally exported. Four men, it is alleged by the Hungarian authorities, have been murdered to cover up the export.
An English aristocrat (and his fifth wife); forged documents; an international auction house prohibited from holding a well-publicized sale; a huge cast of exotic characters on the fringes of the art world; a possible price of $100,000,000; allegations of fraud and murder: the tale of the Sevso treasure has everything, and it is by no means over. It is still not clear who has the legal title to the silver, which is still, it seems, in Sotheby’s vaults. It is of stunning quality, elaborately decorated and inscribed. Let us hope that one day it will be on public display somewhere.
Less sensational, but not less fascinating, are the mosaics recently found in Jordan, which date from as late as the eighth century CE. They show a stylized representation of “the holy city” (Jerusalem), and a grove of fruit trees that once included human figures, hacked out later in obedience to a decree—probably Islamic, though there were Christian ones, too—forbidding the representation of living figures. Both are, at that very late date, inscribed in Greek. A mosaic dated to the sixth century, which adorned a hospital in Syria, depicts the she-wolf suckling Romulus and “Roas”: the ignorance of Remus’ name suggests that in this case the story of Rome was already fading from memory by the year 511 CE.
Each generation needs to look anew at the past and to ask it fresh questions. We observe at once that the Middle East is far more central in this conception of Rome than used to be the case, and indeed that the rise and establishment of Islam is an important topic. By 800 CE much of the classical world, and indeed of the Christian world too, was under Arab rule and destined for conversion to Islam. The list of places lost to Christendom includes Egypt, where monasticism was invented; Syria, land of saints and churches; North Africa, where Augustine had been one of three hundred bishops; and the great cities of Alexandria, where Athanasius won the battle for the doctrine of the Trinity, and Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians, and even Jerusalem itself.
Recent work by archaeologists has greatly illuminated this region. Such entries as those for Caesarea, north of Tel Aviv, and for Madaba, in modern Jordan, site of fascinating mosaics, including a famous map of Palestine and northern Egypt, are among many which will have much to teach all but the professional. On a larger scale, such chapters as those on “Sacred Landscapes” (by Béatrice Caseau, of the Collège de France) and “Religious Communities” (by Garth Fowden, of the National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens) draw most of their examples from the East. As well as Islam, the Jews receive a great deal of attention from many of the contributors.
Reading Late Antiquity one has a sense of the tearing down of barriers which have divided what should be a seamless web of the past. History does not in reality confine itself to neatly separate areas and departments—Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Coptic, Arabic, Germanic—in the way that universities do. The classical world was from the very beginning in contact with other cultures, and it had important debts to some of them, especially the ancient societies of the East (see Martin West, The East Face of Helicon2 ). That is no less true of its late period. That realization, replacing the rather sterile classicism which sometimes seemed to deny that the classical world of Athens and Rome had any important contact with outsiders or owed anything to them, is a great step forward. The editors are to be congratulated on the breadth of their approach. But it is a general rule that we never get progress in an absolutely pure form, untainted by loss; and there are moments when the reader feels that what is in danger of being lost in this new perspective is a sufficient familiarity, of the kind that the old-fashioned classicists took for granted, with the classical tradition itself.
Thus in the chapter “Sacred Landscapes” we find heavy emphasis on the idea that the Christian religion differed fundamentally from that of the pagans in regarding dead bodies (those of the saints and martyrs) as sanctifying and protecting, rather than polluting, the places in which they were buried; and also in the belief that relics and bodies were portable, had value, and could indeed be stolen or abducted. Thus the men of Bari, in southern Italy, stole the remains of Saint Nicholas from Myra in Asia Minor, so that the saint has two titles and is sometimes imagined to have been two separate men. The Venetians stole the bones of Saint Mark from Alexandria, concealing them, according to legend, under a load of pork, so that the disgusted Muslims would not look too closely.
All that is indeed different from the cult or the conception of the great deities of Olympus; but it very closely resembles, in a way that cannot be coincidental, the hardly less important and widespread pagan cults of the heroes, whose bones were talismans protecting the fortunate community that possessed them. Herodotus tells us, writing in the fifth century BCE, how the Spartans found, secretly acquired, and brought home in triumph the bones of Orestes, son of King Agamemnon, and used them to support their claim to be that great king’s heirs. The Athenians, not to be outdone, found some huge bones on the island of Scyros, declared them to be those of Theseus, the greatest Attic hero, and brought them with terrific hoopla back to Athens. Sophocles’ last tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, turns precisely on this point: the cities of Athens and Thebes compete for possession of the bones of Oedipus, who in death will defend his fortunate hosts against the other city in time of war: as the aged hero says of himself, “My cold corpse, sleeping and hidden, shall one day drink their hot blood.” That utterance is indeed not a very Christian one, but warrior saints who appeared after death to lead their friends in battle are a commonplace: Santiago (Saint James) is an obvious example.
Again, Patrick J. Geary, of the University of Notre Dame, at the opening of his interesting chapter on “Barbarians and Ethnicity,” asserts that “barbarians were a Roman invention.” So far from that being true, the word barbaros, a Greek one, which meant simply “saying ba ba,” (or “blah blah,” as we might say)—people whose utterances made no sense—was originally applied by the Greeks to the Romans themselves; so notoriously that the Roman comic poet Plautus, writing about 200 BCE, can use it of his own productions: “Philemon wrote the [Greek] original, Plautus turned it into Barbarian” (Philemo scripsit, Plautus vortit barbare [Trinummus 19]). The Romans saw the joke on themselves: they were the barbarians.
Brent D. Shaw, of the University of Pennsylvania, in a distinguished chapter on “War and Violence,” quotes a couple of passages from the Byzantine historian Procopius, which are
not, like most of Procopius’s accounts of sieges and set battles, dependent on rhetorical devices and images adopted from earlier historians. Such realism in the description of combat is unusual.
The passages describe in detail wounds suffered by warriors in battle. But the descriptions, striking as they are, bear a close resemblance to the wounds which are frequently described in the battle scenes in Homer’s Iliad, and consequently in the work of later epic poets, including Virgil. Procopius has left the conventions of classical historiography, as far as he has done so, only for the adjacent field of high classical poetry.
The task of understanding a late and sophisticated period, the heir of many centuries and of many traditions, is a vast one. The pendulum of scholarship is swinging back from the classical to the Oriental pole. Such examples as these perhaps suggest that there is a risk of its swinging too far. Classical religion and literature remain vitally important for this period, however much we are now learning about Anatolian churches and Syrian synagogues. And the Northerners who took Rome, conquered Gaul and Spain and Italy and Britain, and who ultimately gave rise to the dominant nations of the modern world perhaps risk being eclipsed by the more literate and articulate peoples of the ancient East.
What were the central differences between the world of classical antiquity and that of the barbarians who destroyed and replaced it? We can set out an instructive list of opposites of principle. Thus classical culture was based on the city: not only great cities like Athens and Rome, but the network of quasi-self-governing cities that made up the Roman Empire. The Goths and the Vandals, the Alemanni and the Franks, and the other units that came into existence and went out again, as a successful or charismatic leader came to attract a horde of followers to his victorious standards, were based on the tribe and, within the tribe, on kinship groups. The tribe was led by kings with hereditary right, based on a long genealogy going back into the mists of heroic myth. The classical city was ruled by magistrates, in principle elected: even the Roman emperors had to go through a process of ratification (increasingly formulaic) by Senate and people, and the emperors never succeeded in making the empire a hereditary one. From the beginning they found it convenient to have a bodyguard composed of Germanic tribesmen, whose loyalty was personal, to them alone, not to the Senate. That was a custom which fundamentally contradicted the nature of the classical city.
It followed that where the ancient city had citizens, the Germanic tribe had henchmen, followers, the ancestors of the feudal subordinates of later Europe. The city had elections; the tribe had hereditary right. The elected magistrate was responsible to the electorate, and could be prosecuted for misconduct when he left office; the tribal king was absolute, and (as in much of the third world nowadays) he lost power only by death—which might be by defeat in battle, or by assassination, or by both. The citizen did not go about armed, and the assembly of Greek free men in the agora, or of Roman citizens in the Forum, was unarmed; the assembly of the barbarians was of warriors carrying their weapons, a Wapentake, in the old English word, with which we can compare the German Waffentraeger. Applause or dissent in the classical assembly was by shouts or hisses; in the tribal assembly, men banged on their shields with their weapons.
The city had law courts; the tribe had on the one hand the ordeal and on the other, intimately linked to it, the duel. Classical citizens and aristocrats had long ago abandoned the custom of personal combat with social equals. That was simply impossible. When poor Mark Antony, after losing the Battle of Actium, in his desperation issued a public challenge to Octavian to fight him in single combat, Octavian felt perfectly confident in laughing at him, remarking dryly that he had many other ways to die. You prosecuted an enemy, you stood against him for promotion and honors, but you did not fight him; that was for gladiators. It is indeed a curious reflection that it was out of the question for a pagan gentleman to duel, although his gods expressed no particular view on that matter; but when the Christian religion added its repeated ban on dueling to the prohibition of the criminal law, it became nonetheless, in practice, compulsory for the European—and even for some of the American—upper class.
The classical city strove to eliminate the blood feud; it based its procedures on a written code of laws and a written constitution. The tribe relied on the memory of the elders, and the blood feud was a sacred duty. To the books which were one of the defining marks of Greco-Roman civilization the tribe opposed orality; to the poems of Homer and Virgil, studied by everyone at school, the tribe opposed the illiterate bard; to written histories, the poetical and cloudy memory of the sagas.
The ancient city was marked by impressive buildings, in marble if the community could afford it, but in any case of clearly defined and classical style. It possessed colonnades for the citizen to take the air without discomfort from the heat; it boasted a theater for the performance of the masterpieces of Greek drama, and an odeum, rather smaller, for musical recitals. Everywhere there were temples, their stone roofs supported by elegant marble columns, the petrified and stylized representatives of the trees which formed the sacred groves in which the barbarians adored their gods—with, so the polished city dweller loved to hear, horrid rituals of human sacrifice.
In the arts, whether visual or verbal, ordered and increasingly standardized forms and conventions marked the city as belonging to the international community of civilized mankind. As the modern tourist still finds, all the way from Portugal to Iraq the ruins of classical cities exhibit a uniformity of style unmatched in any later period, even in our own increasingly standardized age. Those cities, with their massive buildings and calculated display of wealth and sophistication, at once intimidated the barbarians and incited them to desire their treasures. In a later day Prince Blücher, who commanded the Prussians at Waterloo, said when he was shown the sights of London: “Was zu plündern!” “What a place to loot!” It was the age-old response of the Germanic warrior to the peaceful opulence of the city.
The Romans were famous for their straight roads, their self-discipline, their military science; they confronted a world of the limitless forest, inhabited by men of enormous size, violent in emotion and action, drinking themselves into insensibility, rushing into battle with a terrifying attack which, if resisted, might turn as suddenly into panic. The classical world struggled, in part and at certain periods, out of the grip of superstition and into the clearer air of rational procedures and scientific thought.
These opposites, at best schematic and oversimple, become much less clear-cut as we advance from the early empire into late antiquity. The ideal of the city is increasingly extinguished by that of the kingdom; partly, as Gibbon loves to insist, because the citizens have become soft. They have in fact ceased to be citizens and become subjects, and their privileges, for those who have any, are precarious; it is revealing that now for the first time free men become legally liable to torture, hitherto reserved for slaves. The free man has turned away from public duty to individual pleasure or to obsessive religiosity. Above all, he refuses to fight for his comforts and his way of life, preferring to rely on mercenaries recruited from the outside world:
While the republic was guarded, or threatened, by the doubtful sword of the Barbarians, the last sparks of the military flame were finally extinguished in the minds of the Romans.
Late Antiquity does not draw this or other morals from its history; that is not the modern way. But the reader may be reminded (“our calmer reflections”) that we, too, enjoy comforts and privileges envied by the millions outside the West who do not possess them. To defend them, we rely not on barbarian mercenaries but on high-tech weapons. They are not without their perils.
One last great change remains. “My theme,” said Gibbon, “is the triumph of Christianity and Barbarism.” What difference did the conquest of the empire by the new religion make? Gibbon blamed it for the decline of civic and martial spirit. His account is exquisitely subtle in its choice of absurd and unedifying aspects and incidents in the history of the Church, or churches, for there were many heretical ones. If we were to try to press the question of the effects of Christianity, we should certainly find in them, to say the least, a dramatic departure from the mental world of the classical city and of the early Roman Empire. In both sexuality and religion we see momentous changes.
The classical Greeks exercised naked, and they filled their cities with splendid representations of the naked body; after some resistance, they succeeded in converting the Romans to this taste, and Roman emperors had huge nude statues of themselves erected—not, of course, representing the disappointing reality of their actual naked bodies, but showing them in the splendor of perfect heroic nudity. Napoleon was represented by the sculptor Canova in the same way: a twelve-foot statue, heroically naked. After Waterloo the price of such Napoleonic memorabilia fell sharply, and the Prince Regent, with a pretty sense of humor, presented Canova’s statue to the Duke of Wellington, who had to stand it in the stairwell of his London house.
The Christians were not at ease with the naked body. Nakedness in art was banished for a thousand years, and Byzantine representations of Adam and Eve look as if the artist had never seen a person of either sex with no clothes on. At last the Renaissance began to emulate the aestheticism of antiquity. In other ways, too, the Christians found the sexual attitudes of classical paganism abhorrent. Virginity became a cult, and the repulsive notion that husband and wife should compete with each other in sexual abstinence was preached by saints and acclaimed by the faithful. It is fair to add that in this late period of the classical world some of the same symptoms are to be found among high-minded pagans, too: the pagan philosopher Porphyry opens his life of his master Plotinus with the sentence that Plotinus “always seemed ashamed of being in the body.” Fear of sensuality was in the air.
The pagan gods exacted respect, but they did not interfere much in the mental lives of their people. Speculation about them, their relationships, and their amours was rife among the poets, common among philosophers, and not forbidden among the people; but it was very far from being engrossing, and there was no notion that a slip in respect for the gods might condemn you to eternal punishment. Early Christianity, obsessed with the fine details of speculative theology, was extremely different. Flaubert’s amazing creation La Tentation de Saint Antoine is of course not mentioned in Late Antiquity, but it might serve as a corrective to it which would not be wholly unhealthy. Flaubert imagines his poor saint, clearly not very intelligent, beset by all the heresies. The Patricianists, Paternians, Sabellians, Apollinarists, Menandrians, Arians, Theodotists, Sethinians, Gnostics, Ophites, Manichaeans, Saturnians, Valentinians, and swarms of others crowd around his desert retreat. They too, they cry, no less than the Catholics, have their scriptures, their ascetics, their martyrs, and their saints.
The scene is grotesque and terrifying; but so was the mental world which made possible such an explosion of religious craziness. It is of course hard for a book written by modern academics to convey that sort of atmosphere. Our urbane style is, inevitably, inadequate to some kinds of subject matter. Charles Kingsley’s rather overheated novel Hypatia, culminating with the beautiful female philosopher being torn to pieces by a Christian mob which also destroyed the remains of the great Library of Alexandria, is another attempt to do imaginative justice to the violence and bizarreness of the period.
Late Antiquity keeps to a very high standard of scholarship and it will please a wide range of serious readers. Still, it has comic moments concealed within it. Richard Lim, of Smith College, writes a very helpful chapter on “Christian Triumph and Controversy.” In the course of it he mentions “Gregory of Nyssa’s famous observation regarding the widespread culture of questioning in late 4th century Constantinople,” giving in a footnote a reference to Volume 46 of Migne’s Patrologia Graeca. That is all very well; but not everyone knows this famous observation, nor can every reader easily track such a reference to such a source. If they do, however, they will find something utterly remote both from the modern and from the classical world. Saint Gregory complains of “slaves who have run away from some handicraft a day or two ago and come out as self-taught dogmatic theologians, who talk impressively about incomprehensible matters”:
Everywhere in the city is full of it, the alley-ways, the streets, the squares; the men who sell clothes, the money-changers, the food sellers. If you ask about the rate of exchange, you get a lecture on the Created and the Uncreated. You ask the price of a loaf of bread, and you are told by way of reply that the Father is superior, the Son subordinate. You inquire whether the public bath is a convenient one, and he replies that the Son was made out of nothing….
June 15, 2000