17.01.17, Kreiner and Reimitz, eds., Motions of Late Antiquity

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Averil Cameron

The Medieval Review 17.01.17

Kreiner, Jamie, and Helmut Reimitz, eds. Motions of Late Antiquity: Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society in Honour of Peter Brown. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 20. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. viii, 353. ISBN: 978-2-503-54911-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Averil Cameron
Keble College, Oxford

Since the publication of The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad in 1971, Peter Brown has been the inspiration for a whole new academic field. As it has developed in the following decades, his model of late antiquity has become so established that there are now positions in late antiquity in many universities, especially in the English-speaking world, and a generation or more of scholars have made it the basis of their own work. The term "late antiquity" appears in countless article and book titles and has inspired the foundation of several new academic journals. Since he moved to Princeton University in 1986 many of Brown's own students have taken up positions in North American universities and elsewhere, and they form the majority among the contributors to the present volume. Brown is one of the most honoured historians of our day, and this is not the first volume to be dedicated to him. [1] It is based on a conference held at Princeton in 2011, when Brown held his last graduate seminar there, and testifies to the extraordinary influence he has had during his career at Oxford, London, Berkeley and Princeton.

Brown's late antiquity is generously conceived, both chronologically and geographically, ranging across the Mediterranean and as far as Sasanian Iran, and extending from the high Roman empire of the second century to the emergence of Islam. It is characterized by its avoidance of the traditional narrative of decline and fall, its emphasis on transformation as an alternative, its refusal to privilege the classical, its readiness to include religion in its scope, and its roots in social history. It does not merely focus on Christianity; other religions--Manichaeanism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam (now much emphasized in the wider literature on late antiquity) [2]--occupy a central role in this mingling of cultures, and visual and material evidence are called into play alongside texts.

Brown has often reflected over the years on his own practice, and some later publications have given more attention to the power of discourse as well as social analysis, but he remains at heart a social historian. Most of the present contributions reference specific publications by him, or themes in his work, among which it is interesting to see recurrent mentions of The Rise of Western Christendom. [3] Topics running through many of the papers in the volume include issues of identity, the relations or contrast between east and west, the importance of Syriac, religious violence, persuasion, charity and the role of wealth, and the openness of late antiquity. Nevertheless the contributors have all taken and enlarged on different aspects and themes from their own experience of Brown's writing or teaching, and in the process many show how they have developed it in their own academic careers. In all, the volume, consisting of fifteen papers and an introduction by the editors, demonstrates in concrete and specific terms a scholarly impact that has been diffused so widely that it is often now taken for granted.

In their introduction the editors, Jamie Kreiner, herself a former graduate student of Brown, and Helmut Reimitz, of the Department of History at Princeton, point to key features of Brown's late antiquity, including its move away from traditional narratives, its capacity to deal with discontinuities and changing and multiple identities (including code-switching), and its ability to draw on religion as part of social and political experience. The cultures of late antiquity were both variegated and conjoined, and the historian must pay attention to shifting relationships, and to the interplay between the universal and the local. As they argue, recent work by Brown on attitudes to wealth well illustrates how his work can offer hermeneutical tools for the study of historical change (8). [4]

Ian Wood recalls the impact on those who heard them of the famous lectures Brown gave between 1969 and 1974 at All Souls College in Oxford (though I was not in fact among his audience). [5] His approach was radical, as was his explicit debt to social anthropology; he combined religious and social history and his literary style was already arresting. It was a new way of dealing with the end of the Roman empire and provoked a "dam burst" in awareness of late antiquity. Wood concludes with a "Brownian" reading of the Grimoald usurpation in seventh-century Francia, evoking The Rise of Western Christendom and restoring religion as a main historical factor.

The same book is referenced by Walter Pohl, of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and a leading historian of the transition to 'barbarian' kingdoms in the west. Pohl reviews the reception of the European Science Foundation project on the Transformation of the Roman World, which ran from 1993-1998 and in which he was much involved. Its themes included economic history, structural factors and issues connected with barbarians and the fall of empires, and so did not all coincide with those of Peter Brown. Brown has been criticized for stressing cultural questions at the expense of such topics, but as Pohl argues, his characteristic way of zooming in to the concrete in fact represents a daring approach that focuses on the human, and which has made late antiquity come alive for scholars and students alike.

Philippa Townsend, a Princeton student of Brown, takes up Brown's use of the anthropological methods of Mary Douglas and applies them to questions about the body, cosmology and social practice in Manichaeanism. She takes her inspiration from Brown's Body and Society to make a convincing argument that Manichaean thought and practice was more complex than is usually supposed. [6]

Jaclyn Maxwell, another Princeton graduate, applies Brown's social concerns in her study of the social groups mentioned in Callinicus's Life of Hypatius, in which she argues that it is not an elite text, but was written from a "middling perspective," covering an unusually wide range of social contacts.

Damián Fernández recalls the impact made on him as a student in Argentina by Brown's Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity. [7] In considering the question of state strength or weakness in late antique Iberia he draws on Brown's insistence on the importance of techniques of persuasion in political communication in order to undercut such simple binary oppositions, and argues instead for the role played by language and ideas.

Like Volker Menze and Jack Tannous later in the volume, Daniel L. Schwartz and David Michelson both take up Brown's emphasis on the importance of the immense literature written in Syriac in late antiquity, and on the appreciation he has expressed for the "rediscovery of Middle Eastern Christianity." Focusing on Jacob of Sarug's memre On the Fall of the Idols, and the works of Philoxenos of Mabbug, each demonstrates how much can be learned from close analysis of such texts. According to Schwartz, Jacob's memre is not a call to religious violence but to moral transformation, while Michelson shows in a nuanced reading the complexities of Philoxenos's thought and its actual harmony with Cappadocian theology. A similar close reading by Volker Menze, who draws on work in progress on the text by Andrew Palmer, of the Syriac Life of the fifth-century monk Barsauma, still not published in full, reveals the complex relation in the text between truth and fiction, and the writer's willingness to resort to actual fiction in order to enhance Barsauma's reputation. Barsauma's followers represent 'the dark side of holiness' in their ruthless determination to wipe out heretics and non-Christians. Yet another so far unpublished Syriac text is the subject of Jack Tannous's paper. The eighth-century Life of Symeon of the Olives is problematic both in its manuscript history and its interpretation. The text is full of anachronisms, and Tannous argues for "textual cross-pollination," with the original version concentrating on Simeon's building activities and holiness, and later interpolations, especially the alleged debate with the Caliph al-Ma'mun, providing further justification and proof of his status, as well as a window onto the changing situation of Christians faced with increasing Islamization. From the perspective of the Latin west, Philip Rousseau, of the Catholic University of America, similarly complicates our assumptions about another well-known late antique writer by revealing the interplay of Romanitas and the "modern" in the writing of Gregory of Tours, emphasizing Gregory's sense of drama and theatricality. All these papers demonstrate the central importance of a closer analysis of the dynamics of late antique texts themselves.

Michael Maas discusses the diplomatic and cross-cultural issues raised by the fifth and sixth-century initiatives of imperial adoption and guardianship between Byzantium and Sasanian Iran; and taking his cue from the 'concreteness' of Brown's approach, Ariel López proposes a detailed agricultural schedule for late antique Egypt, drawing on monastic evidence.

Yannis Papadogiannakis also addresses the position of Christians under Islamic rule, this time in the Umayyad period. The questions asked in Anastasius of Sinai's seventh-century erotapokriseis vividly illustrate the worries and dilemmas contemporary Christians experienced, some supposing the Muslims to be "infidel new Jews" but others inter-marrying with them. Anastasius emerges as a caring pastor, and his much copied and adapted "questions and answers" as a means of affirming and shaping Christian identity in a changed environment. This is very much in the spirit of Peter Brown's view of personal relations late antiquity as being in practice flexible and fluid, despite attempts at regulation by contemporary leaders.

The final two papers turn to the west. Stefan Esders takes the example of Amandus of Maastricht (d. 676) as the starting point for a discussion of mission and forced conversion in the region of Ghent in the reign of Dagobert I (623-639), whom he sees as having been influenced by the decree ordering forced conversion of Jews issued in the east by Heraclius in 632. It is tempting to see both an equivalence and a similar motivation, although it is in fact difficult to know how far, if at all, Heraclius's decree was actually implemented. Nevertheless, symbolism mattered, as we can see from the elision in the sources between Jews and pagans (and indeed heretics). Universal mission may have been an aspiration, and apostasy was clearly a matter of anxiety, but the reality on the ground may have been very different.

The medievalist and Carolingian historian Janet Nelson recalls Peter Brown's period at the University of London and his inaugural lecture of 1977, "Learning and imagination," when he called upon students and scholars alike to "let their imaginations run" (which she calls "a high-risk strategy"). As also for Esders, Nelson's other reference point is The Rise of Western Christianity. She deconstructs standard views of the Carolingian "renaissance" to argue for the relevance of lived Christianity, and a decentring of Charlemagne that moves away from top-down interpretations in favour of an emphasis on law and local practice. This is a new look at an old subject that draws both on Brown's call to use the imagination and on his own typical eye for concrete detail.

Each of the essays in this volume demonstrates the impact of Brown's work, and often also of his teaching, while taking his insights into new territories. It is a warm and affectionate volume that vividly displays the debts of Brown's students and friends to his generous and influential presence, and to his long list of publications spanning five decades and two continents. Peter Brown's genius has been to break down old boundaries and point us in new ways. As the papers here demonstrate very well, the direction of his own historical imagination has constantly evolved in his own publications, and the essays here amply testify to its extraordinary fruitfulness and impact.

Given the above, it can only seem churlish to point out that H. J. W. Drijvers was known as Han, not Hans (65), and that Alan Cameron, and not myself, is the author of Claudian and of the article cited on Theodosius and the regency of Stilicho on pp. 184-185.



1. E.g. James Howard-Johnston and Paul Hayward (eds.), The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Essays on the Contribution of Peter Brown (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000); Andrew Smith (ed.), The Philosopher and Society in Late Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Brown (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2005); Philip Rousseau and Emmanuel Papoutsakis (eds.), Transformations of Late Antiquity (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

2. The question of whether Islam is itself a late antique religion is currently occupying many scholars.

3. Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996; 2nd ed. 2003; rev. 10th anniversary edition Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013).

4. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); cf. also idem, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 2015).

5. Peter Brown had been my PhD examiner in 1996, with Arnaldo Monigliano, but in 1995 I had taken a position at King's College London.

6. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

7. Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

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