(p. xi) Preface: On the Uniqueness of Late Antiquity
(p. xi) Preface: On the Uniqueness of Late Antiquity
In the year 845 c.e., in a monastery scriptorium in the northwest corner of Ireland, some 3,748 explanations of Latin grammatical points in the language of Old Irish were added by a pair of scribes to a precious manuscript of the Institutiones grammaticae (Elements of Latin Grammar) by the late antique scholar Priscian (Hofman 1996; Stokes and Strachan 1901). These represent some of the very first instances of an important vernacular tradition in Europe and testify to the vibrant intellectual culture of early medieval Ireland (figure 0.1; Law 1982). The Old Irish scribes were working in a far-flung corner of the former Roman world—really just outside of what was the Roman world at its greatest extent. Their exemplar, Priscianus Caesariensis, had written his influential Latin grammar during the reign of the emperor Anastasius I (see frontispiece) in the Greek milieu of the sixth-century capital of Constantinople, three hundred years prior and half a world away (Averil Cameron 2009; Kaster 1988, no. 126). Constantinople and Ireland are two strange bedfellows, in the ancient world as much as today; yet such boundaries as existed were crisscrossed again and again during Late Antiquity, perhaps even more so at the end than at the beginning, despite the old “Dark Ages” chestnut. Cliché or no, this story is one of intellectual transmission; that is, to quote a recent popular history (Cahill 1995), whether or not the Irish actually “saved” ancient civilization, these scribes were participating in it fully.
Half a century earlier than these Irish scribes, a different sort of real-world diglossia was put on display in central China. In 781 c.e., a large stele was set up, inscribed with both Chinese and Syriac inscriptions, to commemorate 150 years of East Syriac (aka “Nestorian”) Christian presence in the T’ang capital of Xi’an (figure 0.2). The stele describes on its main face, in elegantly worded (and even more elegantly carved) Chinese, the arrival of the bishop “Aluoben” in 635 c.e.—who may not have even been the first Christian missionary to visit the court (Thompson 2009)—and the emperor’s enthusiastic approval of the new religion of Da Qin, “from the West” (Malek 2006; Winkler and Tang 2009). Along its sides, the stele evocatively lists, in both Chinese and Syriac, the names of all the Christian bishops of the region for 150 years, from Aluoben to the time of the inscription (figure 0.3; WALKER; Pelliot 1996).1
(p. xii) Both the Old Irish Priscian glosses and the Nestorian Monument fall well outside the purview of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788), the standard early-modern touchstone for students of Late Antiquity. Gibbon defined his subject (innovatively, including Byzantium) around the (p. xiii) Mediterranean Sea and, specifically, around the portion of that world under the dominion of the Roman state. This state—from the time of the emperor Constantine (307–337) to the fall of Byzantium in 1453—centered on the eastern imperial capital of Constantinople, the institutional successor to Augustus’ Rome, in the middle of an ever-shrinking and, in Gibbon’s view, ever-degenerating Byzantine empire. For Gibbon, the bulk of six volumes chronicling the long degeneration of the Rhomaioi—“the Romans,” as the Byzantines called themselves—further (p. xiv) proved his initial point: ancient civilization never saw a higher point of achievement than at the very beginning of his history, amidst the pax Romana of the Antonine emperors in the second century c.e.
Not until the twentieth century was this model substantively problematized, specifically, in the slim book Mahomet et Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne (1937), who included the Frankish foundations of Europe and the Islamic caliphate as part of an expansive Mediterranean inquiry. His study focused on the continuity of trade networks and regional identity—subjects hardly touched upon by Gibbon—during the ostensibly cataclysmic events of the sack (p. xv) and ultimate fall of Rome to the “barbarian” Goths in the fifth century (410 and 476) and the capture of much of the eastern Roman empire by the Arabs (630s). For Pirenne, and contrary to Gibbon, the continuity between antiquity and Late Antiquity during these cataclysms was clear in the West: “Romania” remained a unifying force until Charlemagne, around 800. However, the rise of Islam in the East marked a true break with the Greco-Roman world. Spain and North Africa (not to mention Egypt and Syria), long within the orbit of Rome, now looked east for guidance. Thus, despite Pirenne’s revision of Gibbon—with new questions and new conclusions for the West—the picture of the East was largely the same disaster that Gibbon had chronicled to death. Islam constituted a different world, a foreign culture and religion, with a separate linguistic identity and disruptive patterns of trade and settlement: ultimately, Islam was responsible for the destruction of the Roman Mediterranean. Moreover, in terms of geography, chronology, and subject matter, strictly cultural events like the Old Irish Priscian glosses and the Nestorian Monument were outside the framework of Pirenne’s Mediterranean-centric political and economic argument.
Later in the twentieth century, Peter Brown—soon after a thorough, conservative revision of the late Roman narrative by A. H. M. Jones in The Later Roman Empire, 284–602: A Social Economic and Administrative Survey (Jones 1964)—abandoned altogether the related concepts of decline, fall, and catastrophe, and focused instead on cultural history, taking his cue from a new interest in anthropological models, versus the political or economic models still dominant at that time. Brown was a pioneer in this approach, especially in his The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (Brown 1971), which expanded even Pirenne’s purview by including the lands of the Sasanian Persian empire and by extending the chronology in the East beyond the Islamic conquest. Brown argued for a cultural continuity across the ruptures of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, both West and East, pointing to the similarities of expression among Jews, Christians, and Muslims (as well as Zoroastrians and Manichaeans) in the realms of society, religion, and the arts. These vibrant, hitherto undervalued similarities across time, space, and language continue to offer, for Brown and many others, an argument for the unity and uniqueness of the period. Brown’s scholarship thus set a course for the instantiation of Late Antiquity as a category unto its own, and the impact of his approach can be seen throughout the present book.
The examples of the Old Irish Priscian glosses and the Nestorian Monument would therefore slot nicely into Brown’s new way of thinking about the period, though neither fit the specific timeline, nor even the much broadened geographical scope, of his narrative in The World of Late Antiquity. In fact, in both cases—the glosses and the Monument—the vibrancy of late antique culture is on display at a historical moment when many still today, even those most devoted to sharpening or expanding Brown’s model, would consider antiquity to be well and truly over. So, why trot them out at the beginning of a volume on Late Antiquity? To underline the fact that the specific boundaries of (p. xvi) our discipline, both chronological and geographical, are still up for debate. While most can agree that these cultural events come near the chronological end of the late antique period—even if early Abbasid Baghdad, around 800, is subsumed under Late Antiquity, for which Brown himself has argued elsewhere (Bowersock, Brown, and Grabar 1999, vii–xiii)—much less often acknowledged is the fact that such extraordinary cultural events as these, drawing directly on the Mediterranean inheritance of antiquity, appear at the extreme West and extreme East of the known world (Ireland and China). Furthermore, in line with Brown’s oft-cited (though unpublished) dictum (“Late Antiquity is always later than you think!”), it could be noted that soon after these two examples the picture of far-flung ancient inheritance came to appear more normal, once cultural groups such as these gained a more permanent seat at the table of recorded world history. Not least was the Icelandic world, which would awaken suddenly in the literary consciousness of the West, producing the pagan heroes of the Old Norse sagas while also converting to Christianity along the way (Strömbäck 1975; Cormack 1994). The East Syriac Christians would eventually meet imperial persecution in China from 845 on, just at the time when the Manichaean Uighurs were losing their empire and suffering persecution themselves (Mackerras 1973). By 1000 c.e., the date when Iceland converted to Christianity en masse, more than 500 East Syriac documents had been translated into Chinese, of which a not inconsiderable number came through the unlikely intermediary of the Turkic Uighur language (Baum and Winkler 2003, 49).
The point of offering this vision of the future-past is that these later worlds, although beyond our scope, nevertheless held a claim, direct or indirect, on the legacy of Late Antiquity. It is surely no coincidence that stubborn ancient divisions, such as the previously unbridgeable gulf between the Mediterranean basin and central China, were already being broken down by East Syriac Christians at the very same time as the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632; cf. Shoemaker 2012). In the wake of Brown’s attempt to bring early Islam into the conversation, the precise structural or ideational relationship between Islam and the end of Late Antiquity has proven itself to be a persistent and compelling problem, and one that is still primarily conceived of in religious terms (HOYLAND; Shoemaker 2012). In a monumental series of books, Irfan Shahîd has provocatively tried to link the success of Islam with a preceding non-Islamic Arabization of the Roman Near East (Shahîd 1984a, 1984b, 1989, 1995–2009). That may explain (for some) the Islamic Arab conquest of the Levant (cf. ROBIN and Millar 2009), but what about Central Asia, North Africa, or southern Spain? Presumably, these were very different societies without the least hint of prior Arabi(ci)zation (for North Africa, see Kaegi 2010). The solution to this problem largely rests in fields that still need to be tilled: recent research, including groundbreaking chapters in this book, make it clear that, from the sixth to eighth centuries, the interstitial regions between the West, the Middle East, and the Far East became crucially important. Because these regions—namely, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Danube, Spain, North Africa, and, not least, Asia Minor—all (p. xvii) emerge as vibrant microcosms of their own in the medieval period, built directly upon the foundation of Late Antiquity, the transitional period of, roughly, 500 to 800 c.e. now appears more important than previously recognized for defining what Late Antiquity as a whole was really about.
Of course, these regions had all been important before at various times during the preceding millennium, though principally as breadbaskets for their contemporary overlords, be they Greeks, Romans, Persians, or Huns. In Late Antiquity, however, these regions changed into essential spaces for the movement of ideas and the creative interaction of religion, people, and goods. They became places where it was possible, even encouraged, to break down barriers and structures, within the frameworks of the ancient Persian, Greek, and Roman empires (INGLEBERT; HALDON; Fisher 2011). Trading groups such as the Sogdians rose to prominence as cultural enablers for exchange (DE LA VAISSIÈRE), adopting the Syriac Estrangelo script for their prolific east-Iranian lingua franca (Dresden 1983). The detritus of Heraclius’ wars with the Sasanians (622–630), on both sides of the fight, as well as the squabbling of the Christian Mediterranean majorities within the empire, were factors that offered in the seventh century a structurally weak resistance to the Arab armies (Howard-Johnston 1999; 2010). However, that same structural weakness was productive of creative possibilities hitherto unknown. It was a fortuitous calamity that could provoke the flourishing of Hellenistic-Umayyad art at Quṣayr ‘Amra (Fowden 2004) or the development of an “obsessive taxonomy” of late antique philosophy (SMITH) that proceeded hand in hand with changes to Greco-Roman secular education (WATTS) and (equally so) early Christian education (RUBENSON). On the central Asian side, the cultural and political situation of Late Antiquity provided fodder for the continued expansion of Manichaeism and Buddhism (Tardieu 1988); on the western European side, Late Antiquity formed the basis of the legal, ecclesiastical, and cultural achievements of the Carolingians (McKitterick 1989).
Recent, magisterial contributions to the question of what happened over time to the infrastructure of Late Antiquity have centered on trade, commerce, and the role of production (McCormick 2001; Wickham 2005; Shaw 2008). The OHLA does not eschew debates about economic structures (e.g., BANAJI), but a book such as this is arguably not the best venue to survey archaeological reports or present the results of complicated scientific analyses. Different approaches have been required, such as exploring what the agrarian experience was like in Late Antiquity (GREY), examining the institutional and legal bonds of cohesive families and communities (HARPER; HARRIES), and elucidating the manifold connections between identity formation and legal status (MAAS; MATHISEN; UHALDE). Rather than isolating archaeology or economic theory from the day-to-day lives of late antique individuals by generalizing across the board, the chapters of the OHLA show a willingness to experiment with new combinations of evidence and theory in an attempt to understand the smallest moving parts of Late Antiquity.
(p. xviii) At the same time, this book is not a “history of late antique private life” or a “people’s history of Late Antiquity,” even while such a book remains a desideratum (cf. Patlagean 1977; Ariès and Duby 1987, vol. 1; Burrus 2005; Krueger 2006). Instead, elite categories have a prominent place—poetry, philosophy, art, architecture, and theology all play their part—though these subjects often appear in different roles from what the word elite traditionally suggests (adumbrated by Averil Cameron 1981, §1; Brown 2000). The relationship of the viewer or venerator of a late antique icon to the wealth of associations (social, intellectual, religious) conjured therein, or by the icon’s setting, is complex, and this complexity speaks in microcosm to universally relevant engagements between humans and the natural and supernatural worlds (PEERS).
Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the late antique experience is taken up from a number of perspectives: from the designation of certain lands, sites, or buildings as newly holy (YASIN; S. JOHNSON); to the dynamic (i.e., nonepigonal) quality of late antique poetry in its relationship to earlier models (AGOSTI; MCGILL); to the robust tradition of historiography that set a precedent for all subsequent medieval historians, both East and West (CROKE); to the prominence of seminal themes—such as the seemingly antithetical topics of apocalyptic (GURAN) and the late Latin miscellany (CELENZA)—in the reception of Late Antiquity as an identifiable period among premodern societies.
Critical to any formulation of Late Antiquity’s uniqueness is its role as the chronological container for the initial process of self-definition within Christianity: during this period, both the Semitic and Hellenistic primal elements of the religion were vying for attention and qualifying their relationship to one another (WOOD; A. JOHNSON). Yet, during Late Antiquity this competition was asymmetrical, since Hellenism was equally the patrimony of late paganism, and thus Hellenophile Christianity had to vie with insiders as well as outsiders (SMITH; Bowersock 1990; Chuvin 2009; Alan Cameron 2011). This cultural and linguistic competition does not seem to have been as strained before Late Antiquity—witness the easy intercourse between Christian bilingual (Syriac and Greek) scholars at Edessa around 200 c.e., such as Bardaisan and his school (Drijvers 1984, §1)—and it does not seem to have been so at the end of Late Antiquity either, when the “assimilation” of Greek linguistic superiority was assured among Syriac philosophers and translators (Brock 1984, §5; Ruzer and Kofsky 2010). Thus the intense competition over (and against) Christian origins—among Latin writers as well (Courcelle 1969; Maas 2003; Humphries and Gwynn 2010)—remains one of the most compelling reasons to view Late Antiquity as a definable period and a unique field of study unto its own.
Several other topics that could be considered definitive of Late Antiquity take center stage in the OHLA. There is, for instance, the emergence of the hospital as a locus for the growing societal concern about health, disease, and the duty of the Christian state toward the sick (HORDEN). The religious fluidity of the period seems today to have produced more cultural innovation than it did anxiety, especially once the old-guard “pagan reaction” is balanced by the evidence of a (p. xix) much more gradual process of Christianization in the fourth to sixth centuries (MAXWELL; Alan Cameron 2011; cf. Dodds 1965). Riding the incoming tide of Christianization was the office of the bishop, which, although prominent in the Church from the early second century on, took on an expanded societal role within and above the curial structure of the late Roman city (GWYNN). Of course, aside from all the lasting local change a bishop or patriarch could effect, his contribution to the ecumenical doctrines of the Church was what garnered him special blessings or damnatio memoriae among subsequent generations. None of the so-called heresiarchs of Late Antiquity (Origen, Arius, Apollinarius, Priscillian, Pelagius, Nestorius, Eutyches, et al.) could possibly compete with forged documents (WESSEL). Such forgeries were used by all sides throughout Late Antiquity, and this habit set a precedent for later, more infamous forgeries, such as in the Donation of Constantine about 800 c.e. (Bowersock 2007). While admittedly a case study of the process of conciliar theology, forgery nonetheless speaks precisely to the unprecedented value that Christian creeds and anathemas held in late antique society as a whole.
Connected to the promulgation of correct belief in Late Antiquity was the conversion of indigenous people groups at the margins of the empire. The western kingdoms that arose in the fourth century, eventually supplanting the Roman empire in the later fifth, often took sides in the doctrinal debates as a means of distinguishing themselves from one another (O’Donnell 2008, chapter 1). Political savvy such as this cannot legitimately be labeled “barbarian” by any standard and especially since the kingdoms found success on exactly the same playing field—that is, the dense network of city, town, and countryside—that their late Roman counterparts had known in the fourth century (KULIKOWSKI). The subjects of violence and rupture in Late Antiquity are perennially important to studies of the western theater and have resonance in the questions of self-definition and collapse that recur throughout the OHLA (MAAS; MATHISEN; MAXWELL; UHALDE; Kelly 2009). Even while the debate over violence in Late Antiquity is evolving, scholars have already produced stimulating treatments that attempt to take in the Christian East and Islam as well (Drake 2006; Watts 2010; Sizgorich 2009). A notable area of exciting work is Greco-Coptic Egypt, where the dichotomy between the upper Nile (with its intractable pagans, Jews, and Christians) and a Mediterranean-savvy Alexandria often breaks down upon close inspection (BOUD’HORS; PAPACONSTANTINOU). Egypt was a cohesive yet very complex region in Late Antiquity, and the massive corpus of surviving Coptic literature is only now receiving the devoted care it deserves (e.g., Emmel 2004). Likewise, the cache of late antique papyri from Egypt continues to grow and continues, proportionally, to affect our understanding of the everyday social, pedagogical, and religious practices of eastern Late Antiquity (Bagnall 2009; 2011; Luijendijk 2008; MacCoull 2009).
On the subject of pedagogy, there is, of course, an argument to be made for the applicability of the modern handbook genre to the study of Late Antiquity. While the late antique world in this book offers the reader a remarkable number (p. xx) of diverse topics and locales—stretching widely from central Asia in the east, to Ethiopia in the south, to Spain and Ireland in the west, and to Scandinavia in the north—the period can, nevertheless, be recognizably depicted as an era of centralization, consolidation, and compilation (Inglebert 2001; Vessey 2003). On the surface, this view may seem to privilege intellectual or political history, but the metaphor of consolidation can speak equally well of ruptures and transitions in society, politics, economy, religion, architecture, and so on. To buttress such an image of consolidation, one might want to add the quick corollary that, despite the geographical expanse of the period, the Mediterranean Sea was an established, even primal, point of centralization around which late antique microcosms participated in a shared ecology, both physical and metaphorical (Horden and Purcell 2000). Is there a way to talk about the smallest moving parts of Late Antiquity without losing track of unifying metaphors that make the period comprehensible to fellow historians within and outside the field?
The OHLA attempts to stretch the possibilities of unifying metaphors while also questioning the value of overused systematic frameworks. Thus, it assumes from the beginning the inherited necessity of problematizing chronological norms, no matter whether the “catastrophist” or the “long” Late Antiquity should arrive closer to the truth (Marcone 2008; James 2008; Ando 2008; Ward-Perkins 2005; Averil Cameron 2002). Quite apart from one’s answer to the question of when the ancient world ended, the problematization itself is valuable and contributes substantially to the field, particularly when so many authors from differing professional backgrounds tackle the question in the same book. This book does not accept any single chronological span as necessarily authoritative, though I as editor provisionally offered “Constantine to Muhammad” to the authors (cf. INGLEBERT). Of course, in the end, almost none of the authors subscribe to this exact span, extending it earlier and later as their arguments require. It is important that few, if any, authors in the OHLA consider this span too long.
On the other hand, what the OHLA does not accept as negotiable is the geographic breadth of the subject, as already mentioned. If there is a notional center to this diversity, it is the rigorous insistence on geographical frameworks that do not privilege the borders of the late Roman and early Byzantine empires. The authors in the OHLA certainly do, from time to time, accept political borders for the examination of unifying structures, namely, military or bureaucratic (GILLETT; HALDON), but the intra-Roman narrative of Gibbon has largely been abandoned in every quarter of the field, even among those whose focus is the boundaries of these empires themselves (Millar 1993; 2006; Isaac 2000; Dignas and Winter 2007; Stephenson 2000). Of course, boundaries are more than political, and, for the sake of expert analysis, traditions, languages, and regions have been parceled out to specialists in these subjects. This has resulted in cursus academicae from across the spectrum: plenty of authors in the OHLA may not even self-identify as “late antiquists,” a fact that testifies to the broad appeal of the subject and the expert work being done in numerous adjacent fields.
(p. xxi) On this basis, the geography covered here could come as something of a surprise to readers from outside the academic practice of Late Antiquity, particularly, readers from neighboring disciplines such as Classics, Medieval/Byzantine Studies, Renaissance Studies, and other fields that have (a traditional) Late Antiquity as part of their patrimony. To be specific, when compared to previous scholarship, the center of Late Antiquity in this book has demonstrably shifted toward the east and the north, to the degree that the loci of the (formerly Mediterranean-shaped) ellipse are now Seleucia-Ctesiphon (WALKER) in the East—or dare we say Sogdiana? (DE LA VAISSIÈRE)—and the Danube Valley (CALDWELL) in the West. Some readers might think that this is Late Antiquity askew, having moved disproportionately along two different axes. While there is still certainly an oikoumene, there is no recognizable mare nostrum. In recent years, scholars have considered the value of the Mediterranean—so well studied, since Fernand Braudel at least, as a living phenomenon—as a cipher for other “oikoumenical” regions of the world, but this is ultimately an analogical approach to the problem, even if a “Saharan Mediterranean Desert” could perhaps mean something concrete (Abulafia 2005). Intriguingly, the real-world bodies of water central to the OHLA are rivers instead of seas: the Euphrates-Tigris and the Danube were, at various times during Late Antiquity, definitive of imperial boundaries, yet, at other times, they were innocuously well inside or well outside the Roman empire. Ultimately, the status of these rivers as boundary markers between peoples and states, for a limited amount of time in any case, was less significant in the longue durée than the innumerable transactions (cultural, linguistic, economic, and otherwise) that took place across or around them.
For both its geographical and chronological spans, the OHLA is surprisingly synoptic and synchronic, especially given that Late Antiquity, as a field of study, has so often been defined by debates over the breadth and length of the subject. Thus, recent studies such as Deborah Deliyannis’s Ravenna in Late Antiquity (2010) and Giusto Traina’s 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (2009) resonate with the approaches taken in the OHLA because each is a circumscribed topic, geographical or temporal, though with universal relevance for Late Antiquity. Both of these examples generally eschew atomism yet will universalize or theorize only on the basis of close reading. In the OHLA, diachrony prominently appears in surveys of specific categories (e.g., BOUD’HORS; ROBIN), but the analysis of individual problems and texts often precedes and directs the diachronic surveys.
It has recently been observed in a review essay for the inaugural volume of the Classical Receptions Journal that general collected volumes appear now to be the standard scholarly venue to discuss the methodological remit of Reception Studies as a discipline (Güthenke 2009, 104). The essay quotes the following summary from a volume in that field:
Taken as a specific subgenre of the general category of “collected volumes,” the modern handbook genre regularly struggles to offer that “valid-feeling” something to its audience, largely due to its superhuman calling of presenting a conspective view of an enormous subject to a reader who will naturally want to know more and, particularly, to know the details of how such conclusions were arrived at. For the OHLA, this is doubly difficult because the discipline of Late Antiquity is still comparatively young, having been born out of the work of H. I. Marrou, A. H. M. Jones, Arnaldo Momigliano, and Peter Brown only in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (Brown 1988; 2003; Gwynn 2008; Averil Cameron 2003; Straw and Lim 2004). Moreover, the discipline as it exists today is not nearly as institutionalized as Classics is. Instead, scholars from a number of disciplines must intentionally choose to work on Late Antiquity because of their interest in the material, rather than from an institutional imperative, such as teaching a set canon of classical texts. In other words, the model for the discipline is completely different from that of some of its neighbors, and, from an institutional point of view, one might be justified in saying that Late Antiquity does not exist at all as an autonomous unit.
In place of the comforting illusion that even if times change antiquity no longer does, comparison of histories of scholarship or any series of studies around a single object reminds us of just the opposite illusion (or is it a fact?), (p. xxii) namely that antiquity is changing all the time, from generation to generation and from scholar to scholar. Such vertigo is hard to bear for long. And yet one wants to believe that the more reflexivity that gets built into one’s discipline, the greater the chances there will be of arriving at … what? A truer picture of antiquity? Or of the discipline itself? There is something uncontroversially valid-feeling about knowing how we know what we know. (Porter 2008, 470)
However, as the reader of the OHLA will soon discover, there is a passion among practitioners of Late Antiquity for their material that is almost unparalleled. This passion derives, I would suggest, from the vitality of the period itself and from the productive ways in which survivals from Late Antiquity—texts, sites, coins, icons, and more—have been used and reused to form narratives of the period that are often virulently at odds with one another. Of course, much is at stake, not least the early history of the Christian Church, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, and the rise of Islam, Byzantium, and the medieval West. Late Antiquity is certainly one of the most important hinge periods for the history of the civilizations of Europe and the Middle East and even, as this book claims, Central Asia as well.
So, how does the OHLA avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of reflexive vertigo, on the one hand, and anodyne synthesis of accepted opinion, on the other? I began the process of organizing the book and commissioning chapters by asking the contributors to be “experimental” and try to incorporate their current research where appropriate. The goal was to try to make this handbook as cutting edge as possible while still following the design of the well-established and authoritative Oxford University Press series. In other words, although I was intentional about not making it a dictionary or a reference work, we still needed to cover the ground of Late Antiquity. As a result, the contents are comprehensive in a somewhat different manner from other handbooks. Some topics are shared (p. xxiii) between multiple chapters and do not receive a chapter of their own: for example, there is no single chapter in this book on Sasanian Persia; however, it is thoroughly covered by a combination of DE LA VAISSIÈRE, GREENWOOD, and WALKER. (A reader would be advised also to consult recent full-length studies on the Sasanians, such as Dignas and Winter 2007 and Pourshariati 2008.) Likewise, there is no explicit chapter on late antique warfare, though the topic is dealt with as part of larger arguments by GILLETT and HALDON. (One would want to seek out Lee 2007 for a dedicated treatment.) Most gallingly to historians of religion will be the absence of a chapter on the Jews in Late Antiquity, though Judaism in its late antique instantiations is discussed repeatedly throughout the book, for instance by ROBIN and WOOD. (Katz 2006 provides a comprehensive guide to the subject.) Thus, from such examples it should be clear that not every subject that could be isolated and discussed on its own—even subjects as towering and germane as, say, Augustine or the city of Constantinople—will receive the sustained attention they have garnered in other quarters.
However, the intention of presenting a vibrant, up-to-date image of Late Antiquity as a whole—an image that pushes the field forward while also providing a road map for newcomers—has, if I may say so, been admirably fulfilled by the thirty-seven contributors to the OHLA. Our goal was to produce a handbook that scholars and students would actually want to purchase, read, digest, and argue with. This was accomplished in certain cases only by leaving old constrictive paradigms in the dust and assuming new models from the start (e.g., BANAJI; HARPER). In other cases, this goal was accomplished through challenging received paradigms directly (e.g., MAAS; SHOEMAKER). And in still other cases, the vision was achieved through case studies that analyze specific questions with universal relevance (e.g., GREY; HORDEN; WESSEL).
Our hope is that this book will be used alongside, and in conversation with, current narrative surveys of the period, such as the comprehensive and perennially useful Cambridge Ancient History, volumes 13 and 14 (Averil Cameron and Garnsey 1998; Averil Cameron, Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby 2000). This is true also for the burgeoning number of handbooks, companions, and topical introductions to the period: Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (Bowersock, Brown, and Grabar 1999); Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire (Swain and Edwards 2004); A Companion to Late Antiquity (Rousseau 2009); Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction (Clark 2011); The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Lenski 2006); and The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Maas 2005). Of course, there are numerous other companionesque books that could be mentioned here that do not have “Late Antiquity” in the title but that border the subject from various points of view: these and the books just mentioned all appear often throughout the chapters that follow.
A final set of comparanda that should be noted are the neighboring volumes of the Oxford Handbook series, such as the Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies (Barchiesi and Scheidel 2010), the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (p. xxiv) (Harvey and Hunter 2008), and the Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (Jeffreys, Haldon, and Cormack 2008). All three of these books touch on subjects and themes that are germane to Late Antiquity and should be consulted when they provide focused coverage on a given subject, even as that subject may appear in an ancillary role in the OHLA (e.g., the Roman army, early Christian Christology, or Byzantine sigillography). However, a brief glance at these books side by side will immediately demonstrate the perhaps puzzling fact that the word “Studies” is absent from our title. As explained earlier, this book takes a somewhat more experimental approach to the subject and should not be considered a disciplinary manual in the way that these other handbooks are understood. This aberration arises from the specific goals of the present editor and authors, but it also comes from the state of the field of Late Antiquity. There are still vibrant debates, critical to any definition of an Oxford Handbook, over what constitutes precisely the time frame and subject matter of Late Antiquity. These debates are integral to each chapter of the OHLA and cannot be said to be settled at this stage in the development of the field. Thus, if this book is to be used as a manual in any way, it should be used as a manual for developing a taste for the fundamental joys and recurrent challenges of studying Late Antiquity as a unique subject in its own right. The OHLA can in this way serve as a milestone, or perhaps an Ebenezer, for the (still freshly minted) uniqueness of Late Antiquity. The wide variety of scholarly pursuits on display in this book are a testament to the significance of Late Antiquity to the Humanities in general, though that same variety shows how many opportunities still remain for scholars and students, from every humanistic corner, to consider afresh the defining elements of Late Antiquity for a new generation.
Abulafia, David. 2005. “Mediterraneans.” In Rethinking the Mediterranean, ed. William V. Harris, 64–93. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:
Ando, Clifford. 2008. “Decline, Fall, and Transformation,” Journal of Late Antiquity 1: 31–60.Find this resource:
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(1) . I use uppercase names in the Preface to point to the authors of chapters in the Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (hereafter OHLA). Other references can be found in the Works Cited.