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13.03.10, Sarris, Empires of Faith

13.03.10, Sarris, Empires of Faith

By the end of the fifth century the settlements of groups of barbarians had ended Roman rule throughout the old western empire, including the regions of Britain, Gaul, Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Although northern Europe was permanently lost to Roman rule, during the sixth century the eastern emperor Justinian successfully reconquered the regions around the western Mediterranean and reestablished imperial rule in North Africa, Italy, and eastern Spain. During the seventh century Arab armies took over the southern Mediterranean from the Taurus Mountains through Syria, Egypt, and Africa, and in the early eighth century conquered almost all of Spain. Under the later Roman empire the Mediterranean had been split between Latin-speaking West and Greek-speaking East; now, in the post-Roman world, it was divided between Christian-ruled North and Muslim-ruled South.

Peter Sarris' new survey of early medieval, early Byzantine, and early Islamic history highlights precisely this transitional period of the sixth and seventh centuries. The narrative is impressively wide- ranging and extends far beyond what might be expected from a volume in a series about the history of medieval Europe. At the beginning of the period the Ostrogothic king Theoderic in Italy and the Frankish king Clovis in Gaul combine to form one convenient chronological bookend (Chapter Three). Sarris then discusses the eastern Roman empire and its interactions with the Persian empire on its eastern frontier (Chapter Four), the Avars on its northern frontier, and the barbarian kingdoms in Europe on its western frontier (Chapter Five). The missions sponsored by Pope Gregory the Great provide an opportunity to discuss the spread of Christianity in the new barbarian kingdoms of western and northern Europe (Chapter Six). Sarris returns to the Near East with Heraclius' campaigns against the Persian empire, which the emperor represented as a Christian Holy War to restore the relic of the True Cross to Jerusalem (Chapter Seven). The Islamic Holy War of the Arabs sets the stage for the political fragmentation that marked the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East during the seventh century (Chapter Eight). At the termination of Sarris' period the Merovingian heirs of Clovis are still around to be included in the other bookend. But by now they are competing for attention with Bulgar khagans in the Balkans, Lombard kings in Italy, Visigothic kings in Spain, and Anglo-Saxon kings in England (Chapter Nine). One strength of Sarris' survey is the vast geographical coverage from Ireland to the caliphate.

Sarris' book raises several questions about how to write such comprehensive surveys. One issue is the problem of periodization. Starting in ca. 500 has disadvantages for initiating a historical narrative. The most obvious losses are Constantine and the expansion of Christianity in the Roman empire during the fourth century and the migrations of barbarian groups into the Roman world during the fifth century. Christianity and barbarians were the two topics that Edward Gibbon highlighted in his vast compendium of late antiquity, and discussion of their early phases is necessary to introduce subsequent developments. And in fact, the first two chapters in Sarris' narrative cover precisely the fourth and fifth centuries; twenty- percent of the narrative is hence introductory.

Ending in ca. 700 is also somewhat awkward, because it leaves several narrative threads hanging. At the end of the seventh century the Merovingian kings were still ruling in the Frankish kingdom (and there is no entry for "Carolingian" in the index); the Visigothic kings were still ruling in Spain; the eastern Roman empire was still maintaining a presence in Ravenna; and the Islamic caliphs were still ruling from Damascus. Momentous changes were looming. In the early eighth century the caliphate reached its western limit, first by initiating the conquest of Spain in 711, then by having its advance into western Europe halted two decades later by Charles Martel and the Franks. In the mid-eighth century the Carolingian royal dynasty replaced the Merovingian dynasty and the Lombards captured Ravenna. Imminent changes in the Byzantine and Islamic worlds were also relevant to Europe. During the eighth century the controversy over iconoclasm upset the Byzantine empire. In the mid-eighth century the transition to the new ruling dynasty of the Abbasids coincided with the move of the capital of the caliphate to Baghdad in the heartland of the old Persian empire. The contours of the medieval European, Byzantine, and Islamic worlds emerged during the eighth century, and extending the narrative would have allowed more satisfactory resolutions.

A second issue about survey books calls attention to decisions about the content to be included. Other recent surveys have focused on particular themes or approaches. Neil Christie's The Fall of the Western Roman Empire highlights the contributions of archaeology. [1] Julia M. H. Smith's Europe after Rome highlights comparative ethnography by discussing social and cultural topics such as literacy, families and demography, and lordship and labor. [2] Finally, Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages highlights the medieval economy. [3] These books have all offered excellent overviews of their chosen themes. The title of Sarris' book would seem to suggest a focus on religion, and the chapter on religion and society in the age of Gregory the Great does review conversion, bishops, asceticism, and saints' cults. But religion is not a main theme, and instead most of the chapters consist of straightforward narratives of political and military events. As a result, Sarris provides a remarkably traditional account, certainly informed by the most recent bibliography, but still rather top heavy with its meticulous accounts of the deeds of emperors, kings, and aristocrats.

The one topic on which Sarris occasionally digresses is the economy. In the Roman empire he claims that taxes were collected largely in coins rather than commodities such as grain. To meet the fiscal demands of the state and acquire coins, farmers hence had to sell their produce in markets. "The result was a major wave of monetary expansion and a dramatic increase in the volume of trade" (27). This model sets up Sarris' subsequent discussion of the more limited use of coinage in the successor barbarian kingdoms in the West and the return of a barter economy (75), and a similar contraction of the monetary economy in the Byzantine empire during the seventh century (303). This model of taxes and trade, coinage and markets, is seemingly self- evident, but in fact deeply problematic. Sarris emphasizes the sellers of produce; the difficulty is imagining the buyers at these markets. Wickham's model is more plausible. In antiquity most people were peasants, growing their own food and with few disposable resources. Only the state had the resources to purchase produce at the level necessary to pay taxes in money. The state's adoption of money taxation was hence largely an accounting device. In a survey book these sorts of interpretive possibilities should be identified as problems with alternative resolutions, rather than being subsumed into an omniscient master narrative.

A final issue about survey books is the intended audience. Some overviews are aimed primarily at other scholars, including graduate students. The characteristics of such professional accounts include detailed narratives, extensive annotations, and elaborate bibliographies. The Cambridge Histories and the Oxford Handbooks are outstanding examples of grand surveys intended for other scholars. Other overviews are intended for undergraduates or the general reading public and hence try to be more friendly by including more illustrations, more maps and charts, and less scholarly apparatus. It is not readily apparent what audience Sarris is trying to reach. His narrative is probably too detailed to be attractive as a textbook for undergraduate survey courses, and too focused on political events to appeal to the wider interests of other scholars.

In the end, it is worth reflecting on the future of single-authored large narrative surveys of particular historical periods. For pedagogical purposes, the expectations of undergraduates have shifted considerably over the past decade. Assignments of long, dense readings might be a challenge, and the screens on which they read are getting smaller and smaller. For research purposes, the big Handbooks and Companions aimed at other scholars typically rely on contributions from many specialists, writing about their specific interests. Perhaps the outcome should be for individual scholars to split the difference by writing short surveys, which professors can then supplement with translations of ancient texts and which other scholars will appreciate for their concise insights.



1. Neil Christie, The Fall of The Western Roman Empire: An Archaeological and Historical Perspective (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).

2. Julia M. H. Smith, Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History, 500-1000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

3. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).