Tag Archives: averil cameron

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

Immigration and the Fall of Rome

There was a recent Twitterstorm involving a UKIP backer millionaire by the name of Arron Banks, Dame Averil Cameron, and Prof. Mary Beard, OBE (full details on Buzzfeed). The Tweet that started it said:

True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration.

Dame Averil Cameron — author of the excellent and recently-updated The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD 395-700 the first edition of which, alongside her volume The Later Roman Empire, was my Late Antique textbook in undergrad — weighed in against Banks, soon joined by Mary Beard. Cameron tweets:

Since when has this been true? Terribly out of date idea, what has he been reading?

Of course, the answer to Dame Averil’s question is that he studied Roman history in school. Which is all fine and good, but doesn’t necessarily give you the knowledge and chops to hold your own against the likes of Cameron and Beard.

Finally, before I get to my own thoughts, a Tweet from Banks:

yes sacking Rome nothing to do with the down fall ( eyes to sky )

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Let’s take the sack of Rome as our starting point. I’m wondering which sack of Rome Banks has in mind — or if perhaps he has in mind both the sack of 410 by Alaric and the Goths or 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals. This is a good starting point for addressing the idea that the (western) Roman Empire fell because of ‘immigration’, I think.

First: Does sacking Rome lead to the fall of the Empire?

Short answer: No.

Medium answer: Still no. The western Roman Empire is still intact for decades after the first sack and well entrenched in her problems by the second.

For people who argue that ‘immigration’ caused the Fall of the Roman Empire, what the sacks of Rome really are is emblematic — the psychological shock that struck hearts from Orosius in Spain to Augustine in Africa to Jerome in Palestine. And, of course, they were wrought by immigrant barbarians.

Let us, for the moment, concede that the barbarian migrations are the cause of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Certainly, anyone must concede that the new kingdoms to arise in former western provinces under the rule of Vandals, Suevi, Visigoths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Ostrogoths, are founded by persons of non-Roman culture and from non-Roman nations (usually Germanic and from across the Rhine-Danube frontier). And certainly these peoples in their Voelkerwanderung had something to do with the loss of imperium by the Roman West.

But is an army under the command of a man who calls himself a king really a group of ‘immigrants’? Whether Late Antique ethnicity is almost purely performance, as argued by Guy Halsall in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, or whether there is something deeper to it, I agree with Halsall that these groups are primarily military, not national — even if Peter Heather is right in his counter-argument that Alaric’s Goths are direct, biological descendants of the Goths who killed the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

All of them come to Roman territory seeking fame and fortune — within the existing structures of the Roman polity. They do not actually turn up wanting to conquer Rome, dismember her empire, or seize all her land. These things ultimately happen because of the failure of the Roman government to negotiate with them successfully and give them their rights.

The Roman Empire had met barbarians before. She had met barbarian warlords, kings, and warbands. And they had even settled on Roman land. The Roman Empire could deal with immigration; it was an incredibly diverse place, and people from one end of the Empire could travel to the other and maintain their home traditions. Thus we see shrines to Jupiter Dolichenus on Hadrian’s Wall, for example, let alone the Anatolian worship of the Persian god Mithras everywhere from Musselburgh in Edinburgh to Dura Europos in Syria.

The Roman world in Late Antiquity included speakers of Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic (the latest form of the Egyptian language), Arabic, Armenian, Gaulish, and no doubt Gothic. It had a flexible system of culture and economy; this is one of the great hallmarks of the Romans, was it not? Roman culture is never ‘pure’ — it starts off a little bit Italic, a little bit Latin, a little bit Etruscan, a little bit Greek. It shifts and reshapes itself everywhere its legions, its proconsul, its Praetorian Prefects, go. There is no great cultural monolith of ‘the Romans’.

And its borders are always porous. As David Breeze (who wrote the book on Hadrian’s Wall) argues, Hadrian’s Wall is not to keep the Caledonians out but simply to monitor traffic between Britannia and Caledonia. When the Picti do finally band together in 367, yes, it serves a purpose (but it also gets overrun). Similarly, people cross the Rhine and Danube. The Romans had bridges over them! Sure, our main image of the Rhine frontier is the one in Ammianus, of Julian burning down the homes of the Alamanni. But that’s not ‘normal life’. The desert peoples of North Africa were also part of this Roman system — indeed, some of the Berbers in the post-Roman period saw themselves as the continuators of Roman culture. In the East, it was  not the ‘immigrant’ groups like the ‘Saracens’ (as our sources call them) or Arabs who cause the real problems, but the acutal military endeavours of the Sassanian Persian Empire — another political force with a real army.

If we concede that barbarians cause the Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s not because they are ‘immigrants’. It is because they are highly organised groups of soldiers whom the Roman officials are unable, and often unwilling, to appease or treat humanely. And sometimes, they are actually invaders who come to conquer Roman land and settle it for themselves.

Armies and immigrants are not the same thing.

And it is not immigration that led to Roman military failures against the barbarians, either. That was due to poor planning, bad weather, civil war, sheer exhaustion, and so forth. Not immigrants.

Thus, ultimately, even if we want to put the weight for the Fall of Rome on the barbarians, to unproblematically call them ‘immigrants’ is to completely miss the mark in determining who they were and what they were doing when they entered Roman territory.

(But then, I’m a foreigner, aren’t I? So I, an immigrant, would say this.)