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13.03.13, Pohl, Gantner, and Payne, eds., Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World

13.03.13, Pohl, Gantner, and Payne, eds., Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World

Visions of Community launches from the premise that there was more than one way to steer a state in the early Middle Ages. The political profiles that coalesced in the late- and post-imperial world may have jointly inherited certain features from prior empires or cultures, but they emerged almost experimentally, as each polity went about the business of adjusting its priorities and plans to social circumstances that continued to change.

A central insight of this volume is to explain those political developments as part of the process of identification: governments, policies, and resources all hung on the open question of who was entitled to manage them, and just as importantly why they were entitled to do so. A second core insight follows the first: social identities were, to a great extent, a product of the efforts to single out and legitimize certain groups against others.

The value of the book, however, does not so much lie in an abstract (and perhaps uncontroversial) point about identity as a dynamic development with consequences for the exercise of power. The real argument, and the real excitement here, feature in the riot of examples that move across northern and eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Ethiopia, the Arabian peninsula, Mesopotamia, the Iranian plateau, and even into the Eurasian steppe--and through this sweep of societies whose boundaries shifted and overlapped continuously, it becomes clear how deeply the question of community mattered to the politics of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Group identity, the contributors continuously point out--and which Andre Gingrich's essay confirms as more or less the consensus among historical anthropologists--was relational, situational, layered. Or as Herwig Wolfram puts it in a jaunty disassembling of the gentes of the West, "Each individual could hold several passports" (105). Among any given population there were a number of possible responses to the questions, "Who are you?" and "Who are we?"

The answer depended on who was asking, and what the stakes were. For example, Monophysite Egyptians have been suspected (in the seventh century but also more recently) of cooperating with their Umayyad conquerors in retaliation against the Byzantine state, whose orthodoxy they did not share. But as Bernhard Palme concludes from the papyrological record, this was not what happened. Doctrinal differences were less pronounced in the Egyptian hinterland than they were in the cities, and in any case there would have been few representatives of the Chalcedonian apparatus on view in provinces: the state officials were mostly local Egyptians themselves.

In a similar way, as Catherine McKenna shows, the inhabitants of Wales could have emphasized Romanness or Christianity as a meaningful identity for themselves, but they didn't: instead they centered on the richly ambiguous concept of Cymry, which could refer either to all Celtic-speaking inhabitants of Britain or to the Celtic-speaking inhabitants of Wales specifically. Even soldiers had their pick of affiliations. In Walter Kaegi's analysis of seventh-century North Africa, we meet resident populations of the Maghreb who are also Byzantine soldiers, Armenians, and Christians, but the Byzantine "face" of this group began to fade when the Umayyads turned out to better accommodate that mix of identities and interests.

Identity was equally "situational" to outside observers. Back in Byzantium, Ralph-Johannes Lilie has noticed that the state tended to downplay the differences between its subjects, including Armenians and Muslims and on occasion even Paulicians, if only in the case of military recruitment. Clemens Gantner demonstrates that the pope artificially identified the "Saracens" as a single enemy, but he only did so after unassociated groups of Muslims started making small-time raids on the peninsula--and in a mirrored operation, the pope began to think about "Christians" more inclusively. Less polemically, identification could change with more information: as Daniel König shows, the more Arabic geographers and historians researched the history of the Roman Empire and its fracture into successor states, the more subtle their view of Europe and its many polities and peoples became. The same was true, Przemysƚaw Urbańczyk points out, in the case of Arabic writers' conception of the Slavs (Ṣaqāliba) and the Rūs (Rūsiyya): as their familiarity with eastern Europe changed, along with changes to the Slavs' and Scandinavians' own situations, so did their labels.

It was also possible to consciously reactivate identities in entirely new contexts. Hartmut Leppin shows that this was the case with Evagrius of Antioch's effort to detach Romanness from the Roman state, and Wolfram Drews traces how after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism "the people of Israel" remade themselves into a religious community that was bonded through the family rather than through the polity. Outsiders transplanted names and identities too. Wolfram Brandes follows the scriptural tradition of Gog and Magog as it fed into the eerie stories that Greek writers told about the "black magic" of the Huns (491), and these accounts recurred in Syriac legends of Alexander the Great, only to be applied afresh to the Byzantine city of Pergamon during the Arab siege. Alexander Beihammer finds that the Byzantine view of the Seljuqs drew upon categories and concepts that hailed from a number of different literary and ethnographic traditions. The Arabs did the same thing with the Vikings: in Ann Christys' terrific phrase, this was "portmanteau ethnography" (455), a compiling of preexisting identities in order to account for something new. There was pragmatic value in such portmanteaux. As Ian Wood shows, the right blending of models could mean the difference between a monster and a man--no academic exercise for western Europeans, who were trying to size up their next-door neighbors on the Baltic.

Another way of thinking about identity, closely related to its relational character, is to define it as a "strategy of distinction" (to borrow a phrase from another collection edited by Walter Pohl, along with Helmut Reimitz). In this interpretive framework, identity is a solution to some problem or goal. This is not to suggest that identities were never rooted in reality--as Jan Retsö argues in the case of the Nabateans and Arabs, for example, even the ancients' imprecise nomenclature could not entirely obscure the fact that the two groups were actually different. Rather: to highlight identity as a strategy of distinction is to draw attention to the overwhelmingly functional character of naming and agglomerating. Hadrian certainly had a strategy, Fritz Mitthof argues, in issuing a series of coins featuring the provinces. Almost every province (plus Alexandria and Nicomedia) got its own coin, and Hadrian singled them out in order to draw them in: distinction, in this case, was a way to set the provinces on equal footing and thereby de-limit the Roman imperium--metaphorically and literally, as the coins circulated around the Empire. Stefan Esder's study of the oaths of loyalty that were sworn by subjects of the Umayyad caliphs and the Frankish kings unveils a similar guiding logic: the advantage of an oath, from the rulers' point of view, was that it was capable of "neutralizing" other obligations and identities in the service of political incorporation (359).

Some strategies of distinction were even more overtly competitive. Lynn Jones offers the case of the Bagratuni-Armenian kings, who distinguished themselves as being doubly invested by both an Abbasid official and the katholikos of the Armenian church, in order to set themselves apart from other Armenian dynasts. Or take King Kālēb of Aksum (Ethiopia): George Hatke follows Kālēb's attempts to present himself as only the most recent Aksumite ruler to campaign in South Arabia, a profile the king posited as claim against Byzantium's interest in the area. This was not the only strategy Kālēb had up his sleeve. When it came to establishing his presence in South Arabia, it was his Christianity but also his Romanness that he chose to highlight instead: he built churches with the same Marmaran marble that the Romans used for theirs, the very same marble that would sheathe the Hagia Sophia.

There was a close connection, then, between identity and interest, and at times the difference was indistinguishable. Guntram Hazod uses identification, integration, and cooperation almost synonymously: imperial Tibet, he explains, was forged from common interests in the Silk Road, Buddhism, an itinerant court, and a rotational succession system between different lineages. To identify as an empire--to exist as an empire--was to recognize a shared investment in all those systems.

And yet, although identity was situational and strategic, it depended upon a claim to authenticity in order to succeed. Identity required its bearers' conviction that it centered on something essential. And one of the most potent forms of such a conviction was ethnicity. In Walter Pohl's illuminating definition, the critical aspect of ethnic identity was its special ontological status as an unshakeable essence, "an ingrained common nature" (10). Ethnic identity therefore appeared to be more fundamental a grouping than other possible identities because it seemed to be bound through blood.

As Helmut Reimitz points out in his paper on the historians of early medieval Gaul, the importance of ethnicity--or more precisely the importance of ethnic identity as a form of social orientation--waned and waxed over the centuries. And as Reimitz and many contributors make clear, ethnic identity was rarely enough on its own to stand as a vision of community. John Tolan, for example, shows how Latin exegetes built a composite concept of "the Saracens" that depended in large part on identifying them as descendants of Hagar, thereby tracing their lineage not only to the Arabs but also to the Ishmaelites of the Old Testament. And Steffen Patzold presents the contrapuntal development of the Carolingian community as both a kingdom of the Franks and a people of God, two different but complementary efforts toward social consensus.

In his concluding remarks Chris Wickham wonders whether ethnic identity so broadly defined under Pohl's rubric is still worth calling ethnic identity (how to name the name?), and he suggests that the extent of its usefulness could become clearer through more focused comparisons--what differentiates civic identity from ethnic identity and so on. One analytic advantage already on view in this volume when it comes to the designation "ethnic" versus any other kind of identity is that it describes a particular rhetorical move, one that claims the "primacy" (Pohl again, 10) of a communal bond on the basis of its having a history. In other words, what the studies of ethnic identity draw out with particular force and clarity--but which was not unique to ethnic identification--is that identities needed to be seen as "real" rather than selective and discursive in order to hold, and that one of the most powerful "realities" a group could have was a past: the notion of historical continuity had the potential to legitimize what was actually selective and unprecedented.

One sees this dynamic at play in Bas ter Haar Romeny's assessment of the (West) Syrian orthodox community, who gradually and carefully developed a sense of ethnic identity through their histories; and it emerges too in Richard Payne's analysis of the noble lineages and landscapes that certain Persian subjects developed as alternative sources of prestige, in contrast to traditional Zoroastrian values. Payne's title, "Avoiding Ethnicity," anticipates Wickham's question in its own way: Syriac hagiographers and Persian historians may have avoided ethnicity, and yet their texts took a cue from the kind of work that ethnic argumentation required. What was fundamentally different about ethnic identity, compared to other claims based on history and heritage?

If identity was a strategy and a selection, however, that choice was never entirely free of constraint. It was not only affected by preexisting knowledge and self-interest. More profoundly, a community's options were restricted by the distribution of power, by the material and political resources that were available to it. In her remarks at the 2009 conference that preceded this volume (published here as a conclusion to the collection), Leslie Brubaker suspected that the participants had underplayed this issue. And even in published form the presence of constraint here is quiet, although not necessarily dormant. Not so in John Haldon and Hugh Kennedy's contribution, which makes the point most forcefully: soldiers who served the Byzantine and Umayyad states had common interests that informed their identities, but those interests were shaped by the structures of military life. When patterns of recruitment or stationing changed, so did they.

As for the effects of identification, the place of power is much clearer here. Michael Morony's look at the shift from territoriality of law to personality of law--something that happened both in the western successor states as well as former Sasanian lands--is a reminder that certain strategies of identification (either ethnic or religious, in this case) could be game-changers. Similarly Mischa Meier demonstrates how the use of history to create an identity had as much potential to limit available strategies as it did to advance them: the Coptic poet Christophoros, like many of his contemporaries, sketched out a profile for the Isaurians, but he did this only to celebrate the emperor Anastasios' victories against them. The Isaurians were literally "history" (284). Hence the link, on view throughout the volume, between identification and control: to name something was to hatch a plan for it.

Pohl explains in his introduction that one of the driving questions behind this volume, and behind the Wittgenstein project on ethnic identities that helped generate it, was to better understand why the strategies of identification in the western kingdoms, Byzantium, and the Islamic world diverged. As Wickham notes, that comparative posture is somewhat muted here, Morony's and Esders's pieces excepted. But the entire collection still has an unambiguous point to make in the service of the larger question, which is that the identities that different polities deployed were not so much starkly different forms of allegiance as they were different forms of emphasis, calibrated to (and inhibited by) contexts whose variations would reward further comparison.

Even a review this long reproduces the problem of identity in miniature: it highlights certain unifying features of the collection while bypassing almost all its subtle details. It is that subtlety which brings us much closer to the worlds of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages: for all the identities that were drawn in these centuries, they were so often porous and heterogeneous that one reaches a point where (as Haldon and Kennedy stress) the concept of "society" itself seems to reach its limits. One of the pleasures of this volume is that it maintains a productive tension throughout between these two views, between the bounded and the unlimited--both equally vital to understanding the period.

Readers can find the full list of contributions at Ashgate (