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Wisconsin academy review (March 1990)


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TRADITION AND INNOVATION IN LATE ANTIQUITY edited by F. M. Clover and R. S. Humphreys. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. 343 pp. $40 cloth.

In recent years scholars in many disciplines have studied the Mediterranean world in the first thousand years A.D. for numerous reasons. This superior collection of essays attempts to explicate the origins of medieval Europe and, ultimately, the emergence of the modem European state. An ancillary goal is the study of the rise and expansion of Islam as a revealed religion and as a political and social force; in both contexts Islam impressed itself on western Europe in ways that still require investigation. But the collapse of Rome, imperium sine fine, is the central issue in this scholarly enterprise. The break-up of the Roman state fascinated even the Romans of the late first and second centuries A.D. The subject takes on a greater attraction as the rhythm of that disintegration picks up in the late third and fourth centuries A.D. The pressure on Rome increased externally, while the forces of internal disintegration gained strength and even respectability. Hence the modern study of this period comes in part from the parallel with the contemporary western world.

This collection is a solid contribution to the study of late antiquity, a phrase which has diverse temporal meanings for those scholars who participated in these seminars offered at UW-Madison and the University of Chicago in 1984. In a fine introductory paper, “Toward a Definition of Late Antiquity,” Clover and Humphreys, book editors and seminar organizers, summarize the question of chronology succinctly and accurately. Their essential point is that in the Roman world a real change took place between 400 and 700, while the world of Islam was actually created between 600 and 900. Late antiquity thus would extend for five hundred years.

This first essay ensures that the reader will be acutely conscious of the question of periodization. In this context Michael Morony’s brief contribution, “Teleology and the Significance of Change,” has added relevance. Change is with mankind always; what is lost has importance to the historian as well as what has endured. Thus what may be historically significant can never be measured or predetermined.

Part II, “The Interactions of Cosmopolitan and Local Cultures,” includes three papers. John Matthews’s contribution, “Hostages, Philosophers, Pilgrims, and the Diffusion of Ideas in the Late Roman Mediterranean and Near East,” hardly takes its subject beyond 400 A.D. The chronological constraints he invokes may help define the topic, but they also mean that his evidence is severely circumscribed. Moreover, much of the so-called interaction between the Mediterranean and eastern societies was informed by the tradition created by Alexander’s conquests. Late Medieval Europe had to start all over when direct contact between east and west resumed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In addition a clear distinction between the Holy Land and the lands further east must be insisted on. The friars who went beyond Egypt and Jerusalem were exploring a mythic world, scarcely encompassed by the known universe.

I am not competent to analyze Thomas Markey’s contribution, “Germanic in the Mediterranean: Lombards, Vandals, and Visigoths.” I think it most interesting that even in such a well-attested phenomenon as Restsprache the linguistics scholar must restate the basic problem in the analysis of the evidence, continuity versus discontinuity. No such difficulty attends the subject of Fred Donner’s essay, “The Role of Nomads in the Near East in Late Antiquity (400-800 C.E.).” The conflict between bedouin and fellahin is ancient, particularly in those marginal places of the Middle East. This is probably why his paper has an inconclusive quality; the subject cannot really be documented before the Islamic era, and even then evidence is intuitive. The topic is worth exploring, but   [p. 53]   perhaps not much more can be done in the context of early Islam.

Part III, “Models for a New Present: Romania,” is balanced by Part IV, “Models for a New Present: The Qur’an.” Part III begins with a brilliant exposition by Jorg Schlumberger, translated by Clover and Thea Schlumberger, “Potentes and Potentia in the Social Thought of Late Antiquity.” Schlumberger’s philological analysis is a model of its kind; yet he takes his subject no further than Ammianus Marcellinus of the fourth century. He demonstrates that the semantic overtones of the words late antiquity reveal a new social and political order. The contribution of Kathleen Shelton, “Roman Aristocrats, Christian Commissions: The Carrand Diptych,” and its art historical counterpart, Terry Allen’s “The Arabesque, the Beveled Style, and the Mirage of an Early Islamic Art,” suffer grievously when compared to pieces by Schlumberger, Clover (“Felix Carthago”), Averil Cameron (“Gelimer’s Laughter: The Case of Byzantine Africa”), and Walter Kaegi (“Variable Rates of Seventh-Century Change”). The problem is in the discipline. The expository technique is similar; the lack of extant evidence critical; the consequent results are basically unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. There are interesting points in both papers, especially Shelton’s remarks about Christian iconography. But there must be qualitative reasons why these two papers are in substance so inferior to all that surrounds them.

Utilizing his considerable numismatic expertise and an unrivaled knowledge of late Roman and Vandal Carthage, Clover demonstrates how pre-Vandal Carthage was effectively integrated into the Vandal kingdom and thus in what way and to what degree Roman Africa continued to exert a powerful influence long after its demise. The two remaining essays both treat regions of the Mediterranean under Byzantine control; Cameron with her usual acumen unravels some aspects of Byzantine Africa and its loss. Kaegi’s contribution is problematic because of the paucity of evidence for the administration of the eastern provinces of the Byzantine world. Kaegi is conscious of this limitation and is careful to state what he believes the evidence implies but does not actually substantiate. He documents the continuity of Roman/Byzantine institutions in the eastern provinces up to the Islamic conquest.

The last two papers discuss the Islamic world. J. Lassner discusses revolution in the context of the overthrow of the Umayyads by the ‘Abbasids in the mid-eighth century A.D. Of particular interest to this reader is his insistence on the need of the ‘Abbasids to employ the past, in particular those people directly associated with the Prophet, as a paradigm for their overthrow of the Umayyids. “The ‘Abbasid Dawla: An Essay on the Concept of Revolution in Early Islam” beautifully complements the essays on the western world. To Humphreys’s paper, “Quranic Myth and Narrative Structure in Early Islamic Historiography,” I must take exception. Revisionist theories on the relative meaning and importance of Islamic historians (sic) of the pre-Fatimid period are gaining ground, perhaps because western scholars tend to ascribe to Islamic savants more than is there. I find historiography as an intellectual discipline almost completely lacking in Islamic thought until well into the nineteenth century. Despite special pleading in this essay, it is brilliantly written and as concise and precise a presentation of controversial argument as is possible.

Every paper in this book bemoans the scarcity of evidence. Yet we have here a remarkable demonstration of what can be done given an interdisciplinary approach to what at first would appear an intractable void of evidence. This volume has been expertly edited and proofread by The University of Wisconsin Press editors and offers a helpful bibliography and excellent index.

Robert C. Ross is associate professor and chair of the department of classics at UW-Milwaukee.

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