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22.02.15 Kramer/Pohl (eds.), Empires and Communities in the Post-Roman and Islamic World, c. 400-1000 CE

22.02.15 Kramer/Pohl (eds.), Empires and Communities in the Post-Roman and Islamic World, c. 400-1000 CE

“Empires are not an underresearched topic,” declare editors Walter Pohl and Rutger Kramer in the first sentence of their introduction. This is true in no small part because of the previous work of the contributors to the reviewed volume. The field, however, is not yet saturated and certainly will not be in the foreseeable future. The book’s strength lies primarily in showing how comparisons between different polities and societies that functioned in the post-Roman West, Byzantium, and the Islamic world can help us understand the dynamics between empires and communities within them. The comparative approach is paired throughout the volume with respect for the historical contexts, circumstances, and sources. Comparison does not serve to create an all-explanatory model, but rather to consistently historicize early medieval imperial realities. The resulting view is complex, intricate, and metamorphic. It also offers crucial insights that allow us to consider issues such as ethnicity, religious diversity, communal memory, tribalism, and violence from new perspectives.

This volume is the result of four workshops held in Vienna as part of the project “Visions of Community: Approaches to Ethnicity, Region and Empire in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (400–1600 CE).” It is readily apparent that the authors have had time and opportunity to discuss their contributions thoroughly. Unlike many collections of papers that have emerged from one-off events (conferences or workshops), the common conceptual framework is consistently maintained throughout the chapters. The recurring questions, problems, and themes, with thoughtful and sometimes unexpected cross-references, give the volume coherence, which is especially admirable considering that the topics of the contributions range from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to eighth-century Aquitaine to Yemeni poetry in the late Abbasid period.

The book consists of an introduction by the editors, eleven chapters, and a brief conclusion by Chris Wickham. Chapters Two to Five form a block within the volume devoted to a comparison between the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the west in the fifth century and the Abbasid caliphate in the tenth century. First, Hugh Kennedy examines the identities that communities assumed after the collapse of the Abbasid Empire and why, unlike in the post-Roman West, ethnically defined groups did not form states of their own. This is followed by Walter Pohl’s chapter, which reconsiders the dissolution of the Roman Empire into ethnic kingdoms in light of Kennedy’s remarks on the Abbasids. In Chapter Four, both authors summarize the main points of their comparison and show that the differences do not result from a fundamental dissimilarity between “the West” and “the East,” but from the different combinations and varieties of basically similar conditions. Ethnicity remains central to their discussions and this centrality may raise some doubts. They are expressed by Peter Webb in Chapter Five, which provides a commentary to Kennedy and Pohl’s comparison. Webb argues that we should not assume that viewing the world as an ethnically divided “amalgam of gentes” was a pattern possible to develop in every society given the right conditions. Instead, he emphasizes that it was a specifically Roman idea. The Abbasid caliphate did not fragment along ethnic lines of division because it was built on a different paradigm.

Chapter Six, by John Haldon, offers a contrast to the previous part of the book, focusing not on the fragmentation of the state but on its survival and adaptation to new conditions. It summarizes the main points from Haldon’s 2016 book The Empire that Would not Die, which show that the answer to the question of why the Byzantine Empire did not fall must include the influence of the natural environment, infrastructure, institutional cohesion, identity, and culture. In particular, Haldon demonstrates how the central authority in Constantinople was able to maintain reciprocal relationships with provincial elites based on both the reinforcement of Roman Christian/imperial identity and the recognition of local interests. The various ways in which imperial powers shaped their relationships with local elites, and the extent to which they allowed them to maintain their own identities, is a theme that runs throughout the volume.

Haldon’s discussions anticipate Chapter Nine in particular, in which Stefan Esders and Helmut Reimitz analyze how the Carolingian Empire negotiated with local elites. The Carolingian model, however, contrasted with the Byzantine. In Byzantium, Roman law was the source of unity and a clear link to central, imperial power. The Carolingians, on the other hand, tolerated and accommodated various ethnically defined laws and never attempted to replace the multiplicity of local identities with the one imperial identity. They even reinforced diversity requiring only some gestures of submission and recognition in exchange for the possibility of maintaining local traditions. Similarly, in Chapter Ten, Rutger Kramer analyzes by what means the Carolingians tried to integrate Aquitaine into their realm. The region produced across its long history many conflicted identities and its inhabitants defined themselves or were defined by others by reference to the Roman past, early Christian roots, or Basque and Gothic ethnicities. Kramer shows that the Carolingians did not attempt to quell these various modes of identification but rather to add to them another option that would allow the local elites to keep their traditions and yet be loyal to the Carolingian imperial project.

Chapter Seven by Leslie Brubaker and Chris Wickham approaches the comparison from a different angle. They focus on processions as they were practiced throughout the early Middle Ages. They note that processions typically aimed to reinforce social cohesion and remind different groups of the hierarchical structure of society, but they also had the potential to facilitate forms of popular expression and influence that were not always easily controlled by elites. The focus of Brubaker and Wickham’s discussion is Constantinople, with its well-attested various types of processions. These are compared with the “processional worlds” of Gaul, Rome and Fustat/Cairo, which generally show how differently similar social and cultural practices were used to negotiate power between political actors and groups in different historical periods.

Chapter Eight by Daniel Reynolds, in which the mobilization of the people in the cities plays an important role, is a nice complement to Brubaker and Wickham’s treatment of the processions. It also picks up motifs concerning the tangled relationships between religion, ethnicity, and minority identities as discussed in the chapters by Kennedy, Pohl, and Webb. Reynolds offers a different perspective, focusing on the Melkites and the complex ways in which they set themselves apart in the caliphate’s society. He shows that religious differences and the fact that they had their own ecclesiastical organization did not automatically produce “the Melkite identity” that stood out clearly from the Muslim majority. At the same time, being “Melkite” was subject to various processes of politicization: Muslims were suspicious of the Melkite church’s close contacts with the West and its ability to attract outside financial and political support. Melkites, on the other hand, especially intellectuals and clerics, sought to strengthen the cohesion of their community through references to the Roman past, but did not necessarily disdain loyalty to the caliphs, who, for better or worse, were sources of authority and recognition for Melkite patriarchs. Although Reynolds’ argument relates to a very specific event in tenth-century Jerusalem, his contribution will certainly be of interest to historians concerned with religious identities and their intersections with other forms of self-identification and group formation.

Chapter Eleven by Peter Webb is devoted to Yemeni identity as constructed and expressed in the poetry of the Abbasid era. It represents another approach to the problem of “empires and communities,” but themes such as reference to a fictionalized shared past, the role of literature in forming and reinforcing ethnicity, and the plasticity of identity-forming components overlap with discussions in other chapters of the book. Strikingly, Webb’s study shows that the increase in literary expressions of ethnic sentiment does not necessarily mean an increase in the importance of ethnicity in general. The exaggerated claims of poets praising “Yemeni-ness” in ninth-century poetry written in Iraq were read as parodies, as ritualized clownery, Webb argues, and they can be interpreted as signs of a progressive de-ethnicization of the Abbasid empire. Arab identity, which had been an element of elite status in the eighth century, began to lose its value in the face of the rise of Turkic and Eastern elites in the tenth century. The carnivalesque invectives between northern and southern Arabs (Yemenis) as to who were the true Arabs disarmed the meaning of the ethnos instead of strengthening it.

The final chapter of the book is Petra Sijpesteijn’s study of Egyptian elites in the first three centuries of Muslim rule. She traces how the administrative decisions of the conquerors affected the ethnic and religious composition of Egyptian society. Initially, the Arabs left much of the local administration to the Egyptian local elites who already held it before the conquest. As a result, there was little incentive for Egyptians to resist the new rule on the one hand and to Arabize and Islamize on the other. These did not arise until later in the eighth century, when more Arabs came to Egypt, settled in the countryside, and began to occupy local administrative positions. More opportunities to mix led to an increasing number of conversions. The converts, in turn, became a group that began to challenge the division between Arabs and Egyptians, especially in terms of unequal access to privileges. In the ninth century, these developments coincided with the rise of the Turkic and Eastern elites (which Webb has also already analyzed) and led to the questioning of the special value of the superiority of the old Arab elites. Eventually, the old distinction between the Arab conqueror and the conquered Egyptian disappeared and a new common regional identity was able to develop.

The volume is a very worthwhile read and I recommend it to all historians interested in the workings of pre-modern empires. The common themes recur in a variety of contexts and configurations, challenging the reader to continually rethink and question common tropes about ethnicity, identity, and the relationships between imperial governments and local communities. Furthermore, I think this is a very successful comparative history of the early Middle Ages that will hopefully serve as a model for similar attempts in the future.