Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices
Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices is a selection of papers delivered at the fifth biennial meeting of the Shifting Frontiers Conference, which took place at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on March 20–23, 2003. The subject matter of the fifth meeting was “Violence in Late Antiquity.” H.A. Drake (the main editor) and his co-editors (Emily Albu, Susanna Elm, Michael Mass, Claudia Rapp, Michele Renee Salzman) include in the volume twenty-five papers delivered at the conference and two essays that were solicited specifically for publication in this collection (“Rethinking Pagan-Christian Violence” by Michele Renee Salzman and “Violence in Late Antiquity Reconsidered” by Martin Zimmermann). Zimmerman’s essay is the concluding entry and supplies an appraisal on the state of the question based on his own research in the field and the essays in the collection. The book has four divisions: Defining Violence, “Legitimate” Violence, Violence and Rhetoric, and Religious Violence. Each section includes a lead-subject paper from a significant researcher in the area.
A common feature shared by many collections of essays is the inconsistency of the quality of the contributions to the volume. This unevenness forces the reviewer to write the evaluation either as a critique of each individual essay, which can result in a pejorative or overlong analysis, or as an overall examination of the volume that focuses on the broad goals of the work. This reviewer takes the latter approach.
An issue that serves as the fulcrum for the collection may best be phrased as a question: was the level of violence in Late Antiquity greater than the periods that came before and after it? The current leading answer is that this age was indeed more violent. After all, how could it not be with the barbarians at the very gates? Some of the essays supply possible answers that, for the most part, contradict the current perception of this issue. Or, at the very least, call for reinterpretation, reevaluation, and restatement of the data that create the present view of the level of violence. This is not a very easy topic to address fully or compartmentally since it involves issues of the rise of Christianity, the Church and its struggle against numerous heresies, legal concerns surrounding violence sanctioned by church or state, cultural approaches, inter- and intra-communal violence, and the definition of violence.
The essays by Walter Pohl (“Perceptions of Barbarian Violence”), Ralph W. Mathisen (“Violent Behavior and the Construction of Barbarian Identity in Late Antiquity”), Wolf Liebeschuetz (“Violence in the Barbarian Successor Kingdoms”), Eric Fournier (“Exiled Bishops in the Christian Empire: Victims of Imperial Violence?”), Brent D. Shaw (“Bad Boys: Circumcellions and Fictive Violence”), Michele Renee Salzman (“Rethinking Pagan-Christian Violence”), David Riggs (“Christianizing the Rural Communities of Late Roman Africa: a Process of Coercion or Persuasion?”), and Zimmerman help best to understand the natures and levels of violence in Late Antiquity. Pohl notes that the barbarian invasions of Italy resulted in a hybridization of barbarians, bishops, and administrators that “developed a new model that was to become fundamental for the European political system; kingdoms based on Christianity, ethnicity, and a Latin political language.” (21) The perception that this may have been a more violent period is based on the natural tendency of any society to view invaders or foreigners as more violent than its own members. Indeed, Pohl, concludes with the statement that the sixth century “on the whole” was probably not any more violent. (26)
Similarly, Mathisen suggests that it was taken as a given that barbarians had a propensity for violence and that, in turn, Roman violence had to be used to keep the barbarians from being violent. In general, however, when it came to violence “barbarians were just pikers.” (34) Liebeschuetz, in a different vein, argues that the successor kingdoms were comprised of a military class that was “armed and frequently at war, and thus different from the civilian elite of the Roman Empire.” (46) The successor kingdoms were assuredly more violent. Fournier examines the relationship between imperial and ecclesiastical power and convincingly posits that the emperors would not venture beyond exile as punishment for any deposed bishop. Physical violence was not an option after Maximus’ execution of Priscillian, bishop of Avilla, on the charge of Manichaeism. Shaw reviews the customary claims made about the circumcellions by modern historians and proposes that this group has to be re-identified based not on who scholars think that they were, but, rather, on who they were not. Salzman challenges the accepted notion that Late Antiquity was more violent because of the ascendancy of Christianity; she especially takes issue with R. MacMullen’s views. In fact, Salzman writes that violent physical conflict was relatively infrequent and that focusing on violence while explaining the western Roman Empire’s conversion “seriously misrepresents the nature of pagan-Christian conflict in the fourth and fifth centuries.” (285) Likewise, Riggs discards the idea that force and compulsion were often used in the Christianization of the African countryside. Zimmerman concludes the collection by recommending a new way to interpret the reports of violence of this period: “They all deal with the disruption of order and ultimately serve the purpose of building consensus about the foundational principals of societal existence.” (357) These reports have as their goals to achieve political, ethical, moral, or religious aims. In other words, one must be careful in dealing with these texts.
These eight essays make this a worthwhile book that should be in all
research or graduate libraries. The book should provoke lively debate
and cause scholars to take a second look at violence in Late Antiquity. The
remaining nineteen essays contribute to our knowledge of that time period or
clarify certain aspects. They create a background in which one can better comprehend
the natures and levels of violence in Late Antiquity. These articles cover
such interesting topics as inns and rabbinic literature; arrest and imprisonment
in Late Antique Egypt; taxes, taxpayers and tax-collectors; St. Augustine and
just war theory, hangmen, and religiously sanctioned violence; the teaching
of rhetoric and violence; the empress Eudoxia; geography; pre-Islamic Arabic
poetry; bookburning; the use of pagan sanctuaries by Christianity; heresies
and the church response.