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13.09.31, Conant, Staying Roman

13.09.31, Conant, Staying Roman

Staying Roman is the revised publication of Jonathan Conant's Harvard dissertation. The book fits well into a current stream of monographs published on Late Antique North Africa in the broadest sense. The author concentrates on the Vandal and Byzantine periods, as the subtitle indicates. Three chapters each are dedicated to these two periods, with a seventh chapter providing a short but gainful perspective on the post-Byzantine developments. Concentrating on the question of identity, on what it meant to be "Roman" in different contexts in North Africa between the 4th and 7th centuries, Jonathan Conant's book has a unique approach. Identity is a phenomenon not easy to grasp, however, the way it is done here, combining the wider discourse as reflected in the texts with data for individual behaviour (prosopographical material for an impressive number of 1,900 individuals underlies the study), is very worthwhile.

The introduction clearly sets out the main questions that form the red thread in the analyses that follow: what was "Romanness" in late antique North Africa, how were politics, culture and religion linked, how did foreign elements affect "Romanness" and what role did Mediterranean-wide exchange play, both physically and intellectually (14)? The first chapter deals with the problem of legitimation of Vandal reign. The main difficulty was that the Vandal kings had to address very different audiences: the emperor, other kings of successor-states, and their local subjects in Africa as well as their army with a predominantly non-African background (20). The author carefully discusses the diplomatic strategies of the kings, including their marriage policy as well as the royal representation that was modelled on the imperial style, with Carthage as important reference. He points out that the Vandal elite was mainly a military elite but that it shared a similar lifestyle with the Romano-African elite, as expressed in the literary work of the period (53-55). The imperial style of representation, pride of Carthage and congruent fondness in lavish lifestyle illustrate the fact that, according to the author, "the Vandals seem to have found Romanness in Africa" (66). The next chapter takes the part of the population into focus that did not mingle as easily with the new political ruling class. Jonathan Conant traced the ways fifty-four individuals took after having been expelled from Africa or having left on their own initiative, especially during the periods in which the Vandal religious policy favouring the "Arian" church over the African-Nicene church took more extreme measures. However, Conant is not interested in individual stories, but rather in the more general tendencies readable from the data. Apart from Italy, the politically more secure eastern part of the Mediterranean, especially Constantinople, was the main goal of the refugees. In general, cultural contacts of North Africa within the Mediterranean apparently did not suffer in the Vandal period. Carthage remained an important centre, but apart from that, Africa itself was "an interlocking patchwork quilt of 'small worlds'", as Conant aptly states (97). The third chapter dealing with the Vandal period in North Africa considers the fate of the Romano-African elite. The author points out that also after the establishment of Vandal rule, it was possible to obtain a decent education, and make a good living owning land and doing business. Many Romano-Africans had careers in the Vandal kingdom. However, the religious differences remained a constant obstacle for a full convergence of different parts of the elite. As Conant carefully states, calling oneself "Roman" in the Vandal kingdom might have had dangerous connotations, when understood politically (186).

With the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal kingdom, a new perception of "Romanness" came to Africa. As Conant points out, for Procopius, the Byzantines were the "Romans", whereas the "Libyans" merely had Roman origins (196). Most of the source material refers to the early Byzantine period, when the new provinces were administratively organised by Justinian. Conant shows that the high civil and military officers characteristically came to Africa with experience on the especially endangered eastern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, and often belonged to circles close to the emperor himself. These leading officers were not very assimilated, probably mainly communicated in Greek, and usually kept strong relations with Constantinople. On the other hand, the main body of soldiers, the limitanei that had to defend the forts at the frontiers, were locally recruited. Apart from their military duties, they cultivated the land around the new settlement foci. In general, eastern troops seem to have been quickly integrated into society. Although Greek names became more popular in North Africa in the Byzantine period, they constitute only a very small number in the epigraphic material--Conant discusses an exemplary collection from Haïdra (247-248). Chapter 5 is called "The Moorish alternative" and extends the perspective beyond Byzantine contexts. For 6th c. authors like Procopius and Corippus, the "Moors" were the real "barbarians" they also needed from an ideological point of view. As Conant shows, the term maurus had been used in a more differentiated way in late Roman North Africa. In the time of Augustine, it referred to the inhabitants of the Roman provinces of Mauretania, who were separated from the people living in the deserts and mountains considered "barbarians." The chapter is a very good illustration of how the ascription of the term "barbarian" depends on the perspective of the ascribing. The epigraphic material discussed by Conant and other data, like the spread of Christianity in Numidia and Mauretania, show that frontier regions existed that were culturally mixed, but always contained "Roman" elements. The last chapter dealing with the Byzantine period takes the problem of dissent into focus. Conant constitutes that the autonomy of the African church posed problems. The African elite still was connected within the Mediterranean, but the urban elite had considerably changed with the transformations in the topography and organisation of the settlements over the course of Late Antiquity. Nevertheless, as Conant argues convincingly, local town notables identified themselves with the Byzantine Empire, including the bishops (338-340). The author rightfully states that Africa was successfully integrated into the Byzantine world (353), in spite of the serious religious conflicts of Maximus the Confessor and his African supporters with the imperial government and the rebellion of the exarch Gregory in the 7th c. (359). In the seventh and last chapter, "Aftermath," Conant characterises the transformation from Byzantine to Islamic-Arabic rule as in many parts similar to the earlier ones, to Vandal and to Byzantine rule, as a gradual process with continuity in many spheres of society (362). Although the African church clearly did not remain powerful and ceased to exist as a larger organisation, Christian communities survived noticeably into the 11th and 12th centuries, in some regions beyond. As the author notes, not the Byzantine period, but the Islamic period provides the key to the understanding why Christianity did not survive in North Africa (370).

Addressing many important and long discussed questions, "Staying Roman" is a very worthwhile read not only for North Africanists, but for researchers interested in Late Antiquity, the early Byzantine period and the Early Middle Ages in general. Jonathan Conant traces cultural affiliations and underlying ideologies, using a vast amount of source material. He is able to show the longevity of the concept of "Romanness," as well as its situational dependency. Conant argues clearly throughout the book. Every chapter sets out the important theses at the beginning, followed by careful analyses sometimes with illustrative tables of data, and regular summaries. "Staying Roman" is not only intellectually stimulating and an important contribution to the field of study of Late Antique North Africa, it is noticeably well founded and at the same time a pleasure to read.