Over the weekend, I finally found a few hours to sit down with the relatively recent edited volume Quantifying the Roman Economy: Methods and Problems edited by A. Bowman and A. Wilson (Oxford 2009). The book brings together a number of different perspectives on the Roman economy in a broad response to later chapters of the Scheidel, Morris, and Saller edited Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge 2007). In my reading, the books stands in contrast to a recent work edited by M. Mundell Mango on Byzantine Trade (which I discuss here). Whereas Mundell Mango theorizes that it is possible to understand trade in the Byzantine world without necessarily appealing to wider considerations of the ancient economy, the authors in Quantifying the Roman Economy take the opposite approach and embed trade of all kinds within a theoretical and material critique of the Roman economy.
While I won’t review the entire book, I did want to point out some of its highlight to my loyal readers.
1. Bowman and Wilson’s introduction is among the best short summaries of the state of research in the Roman economy. Their considerations range from discussions of economic integration to survey of the potential of ancient economic growth and decline. They conclude their survey by focusing attention on four vital areas for analysis: demography and settlement, the agrarian economy, production and trade, and mining and metals. They argue that at present there exists sufficient evidence to support sustained analysis of these issues and that these issues can form the basis for an integrated view of the Roman economy.
2. Field Survey and Demography. Intensive pedestrian survey represents an important approach for establishing Roman settlement patterns, and these settlement patterns play a vital role in the organization of the Roman economy. In particular, the relationship between rural producers and urban dwellers structures the relationship between the primary production of food and centralized administrative, political, and population centers across the Roman Empire. As Jongman, Fentress, Mattingly, and Lo Cascio point out, the percentage of people living in both cities and in the countryside remains hotly contested. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate even the minimum and maximum productivity of the countryside required to sustain an urban population who is not engaged in primary agricultural production.
3. Peopling the Countryside. Elizabeth Fentress and David Mattingly provide valuable defenses of survey archaeology and its ability to shed light not only the structure of ancient settlement but ancient demography. Fentress argues on the basis of her intensive survey work on the island of Jerba and in the Albenga Valley that careful sampling of the landscape can provide a rough estimate of both the kinds and the distribution of sites in the countryside during the Roman period. The types of sites, ranging from urban areas to small villages and isolated farms, could then form the basis for basic demography. To summarize complex and nuanced study, Fentress argues that far fewer people lived in the countryside on Jerba than we might expect considering the potential density of urban settlement: 11% in single farms, 20% in villages, 20% in villas, and an impressive 49% in towns. She was then able to argue that the urban centers on Jerba (which is not a particularly fertile place) relied on imported grain.
In his response to the Fentress article, David Mattingly rightly offers a bit of caution by cleverly invoking Donald Rumsfeld’s category of “unknown unknowns” in intensive survey. For Mattingly, the unknown unknowns are those sites that do not manifest themselves in survey but may have a significant impact on how we understand ancient demography and settlement structure. Of course, Jerba with its light soils and relative geomorphological stability was less likely to produce the kinds of unknown unknowns than the more dynamic landscape of, say, the Rhone valley, but nevertheless, Mattingly is correct in reminding us that survey is better at demonstrating presence than absence.
4. Trade. Andrew Wilson’s summary of pressing issues with regard to Roman trade is another very useful contribution to any discussion of trade in the Mediterranean. He offers valuable critiques of evidence for trade ranging from shipwrecks to amphora and marble. In his study of shipwrecks, he uses aoristic analysis to create a more nuanced reading of Parker’s classic summary of shipwrecks by century. He shows that by plotting the possible date of “long-dated” Roman period (150 BC – AD 400) shipwreck by decade rather than by midpoint, it becomes possible to argue for a later peak in maritime commerce than Parker had estimated. In short, distributing the possible dates for long-dated shipwrecks helps to mitigate against a chronological pattern of trade biased by certain standard dating conventions.
Later in the same article, Wilson provides another useful model for understanding Roman period trade when he compares the production of certain classes of pottery (e.g. African Red Slip) to its frequency elsewhere in the Mediterranean. While such analysis is not particularly novel or innovative, he establishes quite clearly how the relationship between production and distribution is not fixed. Pottery supply represents only one aspect of the distribution of ceramics in the Mediterranean, and the quantitative gap between patterns of supply and distribution provide a useful basis for considerations of trading patterns as well as the vagaries of taste across the Mediterranean basin.
William Harris and Michael Fulford offer responses to Wilson’s contribution that expand the variables under consideration in his article to include the relationship between settlements in the Roman world and how the differences between overland and maritime trade and urban and ex-urban settlement types can significantly influence the distribution of material.
As my brief summary of this books probably makes clear, I liked this book and think it is the best single volume summary of the pressing issues and potential for using quantitative data to understand the Roman economy. As the availability of quantitative data from survey projects, excavations, and summary publications increases, scholars will need more robust models and approaches for producing synthetic analyses of trade, settlement structure, demography, and economic growth or decline. Despite the typical caveats surrounding the use of any quantitative data from antiquity, this volume has continued the optimistic trend begun with the Cambridge Economic History.
About 10 months ago, I blogged about Ann Marie Yasin’s new(ish) book, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean. I offered a quick review of it, mostly centered on a series of hastily composed observations.
This summer, I was asked to review the book for real, in a print journal, one that appears in paper, and goes to libraries. This is the first time that I was asked to review for real something I had already reviewed in the old blog.
Here’s that review:
For people who struggle to wrap their minds around the difference between a blog and a formal print publication, perhaps these two reviews will shine some light on the issue. I think that there are subtle changes in style, content, and tone. As I was writing my blog post, I considered my audience to be someone who might read the book one day. When I wrote the print review, my audience became someone who was unlikely to read the book ever.
I just finished reading Kim Bowes’ Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2008). The first lines of her introduction recounted one of my favorite stories from Late Antiquity: Pulcheria’s dream inspired excavation of the remains of 40 martyrs from Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. 9.2). Any book that begins with a example of dream archaeology is o.k. to me.
But, I’ll admit that this incident was not why I read this book. Instead, I wanted to gather recent insights into the relatively late date for monumental architecture in Greece. Bowes does not talk about Greece directly in her book, but argues for the prevalence and importance of churches associated with elite domestic contexts throughout better documented regions of the Mediterranean.
These buildings are important because they represent an architectural counterpoint to the bishop’s church which stood as a product of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the centralized authority traditionally associated with that institution. Acknowledging the widespread existence of church buildings funded by the Late Roman elite and prominently associated with both rural and urban elite domestic contexts reminds us that the spread of Christianity was not the simple, linear growth of the institutional church, but a process riven with disputes. In fact, the victory of institutional Christianity overwrote evidence for many of the disputes in the process of producing a single triumphant narrative for the victor of the church.
Bowes’ book also continues to enrich our understanding of space by reminding us of the fluidity between public and private spaces in the discourse of power in Late Antiquity. Issues of display, patronage, and both public and spiritual mediation played out over a monumental landscape produced as much by private funds and initiatives as institutional authority of the church. As a result, efforts in the law codes to suppress privately funded church buildings were as much political moves as economic ones as the institutional church sought to suppress rival spaces of power in the Early Christian landscape.
The book also contributes to our understanding of the later 5th and early 6th century boom in ecclesiastical architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Bowes does not discuss these periods explicitly – her book concludes in the middle decades of the 5th century – it may be that the boom in church building occurred as the institutional church made the final push for an exclusive claim to monumental architecture. The story the church of St. Polyeuctos in Constantinople and the rivalry between Anicia Juliana’s private church and the imperial church of Justinian is suggestive of just this kind of rivalry.
In the Corinthia, and in Greece more generally, it is exceedingly difficult to differentiate between churches associated with the local, non-ecclesiastical elite, and those constructed by bishops or under the auspices of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Evidence from epigraphy does suggest that non-church officials did build churches, but this tells us little about who controlled the church, its clergy, and the rites that took place there. There is some suggestive evidence, however: for example, groups of smaller, rural churches dot the Greek countryside – like those that throughout southeastern Attica – and many are not clearly associated with known settlements suggesting the kind of elite-controlled rural churches that Bowes has linked to villas in the West. Moreover, we know that there existed a villa-culture in Greece and that some civic power likely moved from the urban core to suburban and even ex-urban villas of the elite. It would be natural then for these buildings which already served some “public” functions to include religious space as well, although as far as I know we have no specific evidence for this function among the handful of Late Roman villas thoroughly excavated in Greece. The evidence for 6th century church building in better excavated and documented urban areas – like the group of contemporary churches located in the Corinthia – could, then, represent an institutional response to largely undocumented elite, private, rural practices.
While this all remains tremendously speculative, but it does allow us to explain how Christianity grew in Greece without evidence for monumental ecclesiastical architecture. The needs for Christian communities was largely met by church buildings associated with the traditional and increasingly rural elite rather than the new-fangled authority of the emergent, but not yet locally-powerful ecclesiastical hierarchy.
I downloaded onto my iPad – via the Kindle application – a copy of Clay Shirky’s Congnitive Surplus (New York 2010). This book has receive a good bit of attention on the interwebs, in large part because Shirky is unapologetic about the potential of the internet and particularly the potential of the internet for good. In an era where one’s status as a pundit almost depends upon a certain cynical view of the world, this book is refreshing and positive.
In short, Shirky argues that the internet provides an outlet for surplus energy that the prosperity of the second half of the 20th century has made available to us. The rise in prosperity has allowed residents of the West, in particular, to enjoy increasing amounts of free-time and leisure. Shirky contends that the number one use of this leisure time over the last 60 years has been watching television. Watching television is solitary, somewhat anti-social, and, most importantly, passive.
The rise of the internet has begun to slowly encroach on the dominance of television. Unlike TV the internet is social, provides a platform for both passive consumption and active production of media, and encourages the formation of communities with shared interests. The dynamic character of the web as a social platform functions to channel energies previously locked away in in the passive relationship between the individual and the television. The web has already begun to channel the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the West’s recent prosperity, but hitherto squandered through passive and more or less solitary leisure-time activities. Shirky’s best example of this is Wikipedia which appeared out of the many moments of leisure enjoyed by tens of thousands of individual contributors. The result is a testimony to the aggregate knowledge of global community of individuals which prior to the internet would have found a singular, intellectually substantial expression.
While this is cool thesis, it also caused me to think about a few things:
1. I am not convinced that the “cognitive” activity that Shirky associates with the internet comes directly from surplus time spent in front of the television. It’s a great idea, but a relatively unsophisticated argument. First, people always used some of their free time in productive, social ways. Whether it is membership in a community organization, work with a church or other religious group, or serving as an elected official or a volunteer, the cognitive surplus created by economic prosperity poured innumerable areas of social and community life. As the internet allows for communities to extend beyond the institutional and social confines of traditional, place-based communities, surely some of Shirky’s apparent “cognitive surplus” comes at the expense of these other, more traditional forms of community and social organization. At the same time, there are those who suggest that the rather diffuse creativity on display on the internet comes at the expense of more economically productive pursuits. The individuals who produce LOLCats for example might otherwise be watching television, but also might be reading a book, working, learning or refining a skill. I am all for these profoundly democratic expressions of creativity, but I’d be reluctant to argue that television and the internet form a kind of zero-sum dyad. The arguments for the evils of the internet, in fact, tend not to be arguments for the watching of television, but rather arguments that the internet undermines more rigorous, local, focused, and ultimately socially responsible uses of time and talent. Shirky does little to undermine these critiques.
2. The notion of channeling surplus is always appealing, but what really matters is how that surplus (cognitive or otherwise) is channelled. The downside of the unfettered and limitless nature of the internet is that it can minimize the impact of a small contribution while still giving the individual the sense of contributing to something larger. (And I say this a blogger who regularly devotes 4 or 5 hours a week launching my two-cents into the void, and with the understanding that these 4 or 5 hours could be spent polishing up a lecture, reading another, important, argument, reading a graduate student’s paper just that much more carefully, or any number of professionally and socially responsible (impactful) activities). The radically democratized space of the internet is the most efficient venue for all forms of surplus. The “eat local” movement provides a nice model here. Just eating locally produced foods is not a sure-fire solution to ecological, economic, and ethical problems facing large scale food production in a globalized economy. In the same way, the shear scale of the internet presents significant problems for the efficient use of specialized surplus.
3. Finally, this is the first book that I’ve read cover-to-cover (so to speak) on my iPad. The most interesting aspect of this experience (aside from the fact that the iPad is a very nice tool for reading a book) is that I could where other people highlighted passages in Shirky’s book. Slight, dashed underlines showed me commonly annotated passages and clicking on the passages indicated how many people underlined that particular text. Here is a great example of Shirky’s of how the internet takes the solitary act of reading and annotating a text and turns it into a global activity with numerous participants creating a running commentary. While at present (as far as I can tell) the Kindle application only allows readers to share underlining, it would be remarkable in the future for readers to share margin notes, comments, and even links to other passages in other books. The aggregate of these activities would instantly turn any book into a critical edition.
I strongly recommend Matthew Johnson’s Ideas of Landscapes to anyone interested in landscape archaeology. It is among the best books on the topic, and it does a nearly brilliant job of putting the concept of landscape archaeology in a historiographic context. Johnson’s main focus is on the emergence of landscape archaeology as a discipline in Great Britain. He begins with the Romantic approaches to the study of landscape with particular attention to Wordsworth’s famous rambles from his home in Grasmere and argues that the Romantic tradition inspired a particular kind of empiricism which privileged experience as the quintessential character of the landscape. This Romantic empiricism continues to influence landscape studies even today through the decidedly more post-modern efforts of archaeologists to present landscapes in a phenomenological terms (see for example, the approaches critiqued by John Bintliff).
Johnson goes on to point out that some of the aversion to theory among local historians derives from this same Romantic empiricism, and this has limited the ability of scholars to take conclusions formed on the basis of detailed local studies and expand them into more far reaching arguments. As I noted yesterday, the use of maps, aerial photographs, and detailed topographic plans fortified the empirical nature of landscape studies by melding to modern technologies and techniques. The result was a discipline with an increasingly fine-grained capacity for microhistory, but no more robust theoretical foundation to understand the implications of this kind of methodology. (Here he brilliantly invokes E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and Poverty of Theory by paralleling Thompson’s attention to detail and, in the latter, attack on theory to the detailed studies of local landscapes produced by contemporary archaeologists.)
In his conclusion he places landscape archaeology at the intersection of two longstanding, divergent strands in archaeology: one, the urge to document in a detailed way the intricate features visible in the landscape and the tacit empiricism implicit in that method, and, two, the need to generalize and theorize about larger problems in the develop of human society and the epistemological critiques that are central to any effort to synthesize myriad more focused studies. The former derives from archaeology’s longstanding ties to a Romantic view of landscapes, and the latter from fields like anthropology (and more recently history) which insist upon critiquing the particular. The contrast appears in the accusations that New Archaeology produces dry-as-dust, quantified, landscapes that while generalized and generalizable, lack any real sense of place.
My brief, rambling impressions do not do the book justice. So I’ll offer just a few more:
1. Johnson ties Romantic empiricism to map making to colonialism in a way that stands as an important caveat to Mediterranean archaeologists who often root their claims to local knowledge and authority in deeply impressionistic views of the landscape. At the same time, we deploy the tools of New Archaeology and produce quantified landscapes. The intersection of older impressionistic practices with the rigor of New Archaeology have allowed us to appropriate for research large areas of the Mediterranean basin, but at the same time have moved to the foreground the colonial tendency inherent in so many archaeological practices.
2. Johnson presents a particularly interesting critique of the palimpsest metaphor in landscape archaeology. While I am more familiar with this metaphor in the study of cities, Johnson discusses the role of the palimpsest in the larger metaphor of landscape as text. He suggests that the metaphor has become “too strong” and reinforced a view of the landscape as static rather than engaging with more dynamic models for textuality common elsewhere in the humanities. I’ve railed against the use of the palimpsest metaphor for years largely because the two levels of the palimpsest have no clear relation to one another. For example, a text of Plautus could be erased and the skin used for a sermon of St. Ambrose. These two texts are unrelated whereas historical landscapes are places where interaction between past and present is continuous and the memory of overwritten or erased landscapes often persist preserving the past “under erasure” for political and social goals.
3. Finally, the link between British landscape archaeology and Mediterranean landscape archaeology is a direct one and the history of the latter cannot be fully understood without understanding the history of the former. I sometimes wonder if separating Mediterranean landscape studies from its British (and to a less extent North American roots) has allowed certain sections of Mediterranean archaeology to persist with just the kind of Romantic empiricism that Johnson critiques. In fact, I find myself celebrating the more isolated and remote parts of Greece (the southeastern Corinthia and the island of Kythera, for example) for many of the same Romantic reasons that Wordsworth championed his local landscape. The isolation from the bustle of the everyday (in other words social, political, economic reality), the feeling of antiquity, and the untrammeled natural beauty. Johnson’s work will certainly give me pause.
Over the past decade or so, there has been a new wave of scholarship on the Late Antique city. These works have ranged from W. Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford 2001) or A. Wharton, Refiguring the Post-Classical City (Cambridge 1995) to a myriad of specific city studies: Haas on Alexandria, Hall on Beirut, Rothaus on Corinth, Curran on Rome, et c. It’s clear that the late ancient city has remained a source of fascination for scholars and the increased quantity of archaeological evidence available has allowed even more robust and synthetic works that have significantly revised our view of urban life in Late Antiquity
Deborah M. Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2010) fits into this tradition by focusing on one the best studied cities in the Late Antique world. The monumental efforts of F.W. Deichmann to document the architecture and history of the city of Ravenna formed a solid foundation of Deliyannis’ book which, if nothing else, summarized many of the conclusions from Deichmann’s numerous German tomes in English. In fact, the strength of this book is the massive amount of summary description of the major monuments in the city. At the same time, Deliyannis’ familiarity with the literary sources for the city, particularly, the Liber Pontificalis of Agnellus which she has translated, provided a critical textual basis for many of her conclusions.
In short, Deliyannis argued that Ravenna was uniquely positioned between East and West both politically and culturally. Nowhere is this more clear than in Its status as both a capital and a more marginal city over its long post-antique history. The result of these influences was the blend local and Mediterranean wide trends that produced a unique synthesis of Late Antique culture. The influences of the East in the Adriatic is an area of growing interest especially as we have come to recognize that the aftershocks of the various theological, ecclesiological, and Christological controversies in the East had a significant impact on Imperial authority in regions like the Balkans which fell under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Papacy, but the political influence of the emperor in Constantinople.
While Deliyannis’ book does a brilliant job bringing to light the architectural history of the city, it is disappointing that she seemed so much less interested in subjecting the people of the city of Ravenna to the same scrutiny. The was no effort in the book to consider substantially everyday life in the city. The absence of any discussion of the economy of Ravenna was particularly striking. Aside from a few comments on the presence of kilns, the vaguely described ebb and flow of imported pottery, and the tendency to re-use bricks in the construction of churches, there is no sense for how Ravenna fit into the trans-Mediterranean economic networks which so many scholars of Late Antiquity have scrutinized.
There was also almost no discussion of the local economy. Particularly striking was the absence of any discussion of the hinterland of Ravenna and its port at Classe. To be fair, Deliyannis makes clear that the marshy territories to the west of the city apparently contributed to its defense and apparently the city did not suffer from lack of water. She does not, however, discuss how the city was fed or even (and perhaps more interesting) whether the marshy land around the city provided any economic advantage to the inhabitants. This is disappointing because so much attention in recent times has focused on the relationship between cities and their hinterlands. In fact, recent work has focused almost as much on the hinterlands of Late Roman cities as on their urban cores (see, for example, David Pettegrew’s work on the near-hinterland of Corinth or Michael Decker’s recent book on the Late Antique hinterland of major Levantine cities).
Finally, it also stood out that Deliyannis did relatively little to place the city of Ravenna explicitly into the recent conversations on the urban fabric of Late Antiquity. How does the unique urban history of the city of Ravenna compare to other Late Roman cities both in Italy and elsewhere? And how does the city of Ravenna for all its unique characteristics, inform how we understand the regional politics of Italy, the Balkans, or even the Late Antique Mediterranean? This broader perspective would have added considerable significance to this already valuable contribution to the history of a city.
I just finished reading Ann Marie Yasin’s new book, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean, and it is the best recent book on Early Christian architecture in the Mediterranean. I can only admire her breadth of knowledge and ability to synthesize trends across the entire Mediterranean basin without getting mired in the chronological, liturgical, or regional quagmires that can doom large scale analyses like hers. I think the effort to focus the book around the role of saints and commemoration in the architecture and decoration of Early Christian churches was really smart.
I won’t review the book because if you’re interested in Early Christian architecture, or Late Antiquity more broadly, you’ll want to go and read it for yourself. Instead, I’ll offer 7 observations that I had as I read the book.
- I thought that the book got stronger as it went along. I did not think that the early chapters on pre-Constantinean churches or on commemorative practices carried through the rest of the text particularly well, and most of her observations in these chapters depended upon the work of earlier scholars. This isn’t a bad thing, but they stand in contrast to her really creative interpretative work later in the book.
- Chapter 3 is really good. In it, she argues that churches functioned as places of commemoration largely replacing earlier practices of civic commemoration, while carrying on many of the basic attitudes of euergetism in the Roman world. In other words, people began to commemorate themselves in churches rather than in the civic fabric. While I generally agree with her argument that donors in Early Christian space sought to position inscriptions commemorating their donations in visible places, I am not sure that she adequately explained anonymous donor texts which are not uncommon in early Christian spaces. At the same time, I am not sure that her argument for commemoration accommodated the broader practice of Christian euergetism which could include things like silver objects which contained inscriptions that we too small to be easily read by an audience. In other words, I would have emphasized texts that had seem to be directed at a divine audience (like inscribed prayers) or a more specific lay or clerical audience (depending upon the location of the text and its relation to the liturgy). These texts depended upon the church as sacred space as much a social space for the community. This doesn’t necessary contradict her argument, but perhaps offers a somewhat more subtle reading of the Christian commemorative impulse which separated it a bit more from traditional Roman practices and placed it more fully in an Early Christian context.
- Following on from point 2, I wonder whether the economics of Christian euergetism was fundamentally different from the economics of earlier Roman euergetism. In particular, I still wonder whether it pulled in a more economically and socially diverse cross-section of the population than earlier Roman practices that were bound up in specifically elite forms of expression. Can we see, in dedications to Early Christian architecture examples of the widow’s mite?
- Regional Variation. I kept thinking throughout the book that it would have been great to get a better understanding of regional variation in Early Christian architecture. While I recognize that this could be a can of worms, I found the differences between practices in the East, in say Syria, and in Italy and North Africa fascinating. Are these to be explained by variation in liturgical practices? Or do they represent long standing differences in social practices?
- Ritual. In my dissertation I was distracted by the siren-song of Early Christian liturgy. I probably still feel its pull to some extent. I’d have liked to understand more about the interaction between architecture and liturgical practices or even just ritual practices in Late Antiquity — even if it was speculative. The discussion of the positioning of martyr’s shrines and the main axis of the church, for example, would have been even stronger if we knew how the clergy and congregation would have moved in these spaces. Now, the reason why the Early Christian liturgy is a siren song is that in most cases, we don’t know how the clergy and congregation moved in liturgical space. At the same time, we can likely explain the off-axis location of the ciborium in the church of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki as the need to keep the main axis of the church open for liturgical processions; amboes also tended to be offset to the left or right of the main axis in Greek churches suggesting that processions up the axis of the church has a particularly important place in local liturgical practice. Moreover, its position next to the north aisle rail may have allowed the congregation easy access t the shrine from the aisles where they may stood while the liturgy took place.
- I liked how forcefully she makes the point that relics were necessary for the founding of churches tying saints to liturgical space. In general, her treatment of the intersection of the community of saints and the liturgy was interesting and good.
- Churches and Pagans. One thing I was surprised not to see in the book was any discussion of Christian and Pagan interaction particularly over the matter of martyrs tombs and sacred space. The most obvious incident involving this was remains of St. Babylas and the temple of Apollo at Daphne. The bones of the saint apparently disrupted the oracle at the temple causing Julian to remove them.
- I loved her section on Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (pp. 213-222). I need to check this text out, particular Augustine’s discussion of dreams and visions. I don’t know how I missed this! I thought that her dealing with Augustine’s text in the context of Paulinus’ own building campaign was useful for her argument and our understanding of the subtle differences between Paulinus’s and Augustine’s understanding of the popular veneration of saints.
So, if you’re interested in Late Antique religious history and architecture, this is a must read book!
This week I’ve been working on a review for the European Journal of Archaeology on the Y. Hamilakis and A. Anagnostopoulos’ edited volume, Archaeological Ethnographies (London 2009). The papers in the volume derive from a workshop on Poros in 2008 and focus on the intersection of archaeology and anthropological ethnography. The papers were almost all cases studies and these alternated between examples from Greece and those from World Archaeology. In general, the papers with foci outside of Greece demonstrated a greater methodological and, perhaps, theoretical sophistication, but there were numerous, clear points of dialogue between all the scholars at the workshop. It would be hard to imagine a similar dialogue between a representative sampling of scholars working within the traditional disciplinary limits of Greek archaeology and those conducting archaeological fieldwork or theory outside the Mediterranean basin.
The interplay between scholars offering perspectives from World Archaeology and those writing from a Greek perspective is stimulating and, in general, constructive. But this juxtaposition leaves little room to contrast the contexts from which these case-studies emerged. While superficially, it is clear that this alternation of context reveals the different vocabularies, intellectual traditions, and conditions of work across the world. On the other hand, this alternation avoid problematizing evidence that many of the World Archaeologists worked in places, in conditions, and on sites where they encountered radically alienated groups who were largely deprived of intellectual and physical control over the archaeological remains of their past and struggled to deploy them as a means to secure political authority in the present. For example, Colwell-Chanthaphonh’s study of the term Anasazi among the Native Americans in the southwest revealed that the words for past cultures remain layered with numerous subtexts capable of alienating and disenfranchising in the present.
In Greece, the power relationship between archaeologists and local residents is far more subtle and less visibly contested as the overwhelming power of Greece’s national identity saturates archaeological remains with patriotic significance. As Stroulia and Sutton, Forbes, and Deltsou show, the persistent and sometimes overwhelming din of archaeological nationalism belies the local conflicts, attitudes, and practices on the local level. Ethnographic practices holds out the potential to capture these dissonant attitudes toward archaeological sites and archaeologists in their communities. Sutton and Stroulia argue, for example, that the site of Nemea despite its presence on the informed tourist’s itinerary has little meaning to the residents of the Nemea Valley today. Forbes reveals that Arvanites farmers on the Methana Peninsula find little in Classical antiquity to celebrate and associate the past mainly with hardships. At the site of Sikyon, Deltsou demonstrates how official archaeological policy differed from local attitudes toward the local site. Near Kozani in Macedonia, looting practices also reveal the tension between, on the one hand, official expectations and the law, and, on the other hand, a wide array of indigenous archaeological practices that have been generally classified as looting and criminalized or subjected to extreme ethical censure. Hamilakis and Anagnostopoulos demonstrated from their experiences at the sanctuary of Kalaureia that the lines between archaeologist, local resident, and ethnographer can produce shifting hybrid identities and resist easy recourse to essential categories or positions.
The value of these conclusions are less in the specifics – after all it is unremarkable that Greeks or any groups have diverse attitudes toward the practice and product of archaeology – and more in value of ethnography as a tool to cross barriers between social groups, to articulate alternative histories, to undermine lingering colonial or even racist perspectives embedded in the practices of exploring the past, and toproblematize archaeology’s epistemological roots in modernity. Despite these ambitious goals, most of the case studies presented in this volume at least initially situate the archaeologist or ethnographer in a position of power in relation to the local resident, and this is particularly clear in the case studies from World Archaeology. Ethnography then becomes a strategy that bridges the gap between the authority rooted in modern archaeological practice with its claims to universality and localized, indigenous strategies of imparting meaning in past material culture. While few would argue that the anthropological turn in archaeological practice has contributed to a more dynamic, politically aware, and “sensuous” discipline, in Greece the focus of the ethnographic relationship between outsider archaeologist and the alienated local overlook the relationship between the outsider archaeologist and the state’s ability to articulate power on the local level, for example, or the archaeologist and the myriad mediating institutions (foreign schools, academic institutions, disciplinary bodies, scholarly discourses) that influence archaeological practice.
In other words, there is no doubt that archaeologists may productively employ ethnography reveal and ameliorate asymmetrical power relationships between the outsider-academic and the local. Ethnography can also function more broadly to document and articulate the relationship between the archaeologist and the various mechanisms of power that influence his or her work. See for example A. Loukaki’s Living Ruins, Value Conflicts and my blog post here. Archaeologists are never in complete control over their research, how it is communicated, and their relationship with the local community. “Locals” (for lack of a better word) often exploit their relationship with both foreign and Greek archaeologists for their own benefit. The state — through both the Central Archaeological Council and as manifest in its local representatives in ephorias — answers to its own logic, political concerns, and networks of power. As often as archaeologists appear to be outsiders to alienated local residents, they are also alienated themselves from the various networks of relations and strategical concerns of local residents and national (not to mention disciplinary) politics and power structures. Ethnography may enable an archaeologist to be complicit in liberating and informing local knowledge, but it could also function, in practical terms, as a counterweight to the manipulative strategies employed on all levels and to the lack of transparency within archaeology as a discipline. The deeply embedded position of archaeology within all manner of political, intellectual, and institutional networks makes it an appealing subject for ethnographic scrutiny and perhaps archaeology and ethnography will find even more opportunities to speak truth to power in these contexts.
On a snowy weekend, I managed to plow through the rest of M. Decker’s Tilling the Hateful Earth (Oxford 2009). (Get it, plow (or for my readers in the UK, plough, through… you know, like a farm plow…). Anyway. Decker’s work is the most recent installment in the recent vogue for ancient economic history over the last decade (see, for example, Horden and Purcell’s, The Corrupting Sea, M. McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy, Christopher Wickham’s, Framing the Early Middle Ages, J. Banaji’s Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity as four significant works that immediately come to mind). Decker’s book stands out in that it is neither theoretically ambitious or immensely long. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. In fact, Decker does what he does quite well. He describes and analyzes in some detail the agrarian landscape of the Diocese of Oriens.
As per my usual practice, I’ll eschew giving anything like a comprehensive review and, instead, make a series of observations:
1. The strength of this book is the detailed analysis of agricultural practices rather than a comprehensive view of the agricultural economy in the East. The information presented on various settlement types, rural structures, crops and agricultural practices will provide a nice foundation for any kind of comprehensive archaeological and historical study of this region in the future.
2. If any weakness in the detailed study of the agricultural practices did exist, it was in the area of Cyprus. Decker does not seem to have as full a command over the impressive body of material from Cyprus. In particular, he does not take into full account M. Rautman’s important studies of the village at Kopetra or any less comprehensive, but nonetheless valuable studies of Late Antique settlement elsewhere in Cyprus. This is unfortunate because the Cypriot countryside is rapidly becoming one of the best documented regions in the Late Roman East and it falls within the geographic boundaries of the Diocese of Oriens. It was particular disappointing in that Late Antique Cyprus has recently produced an impressive body of quantified Late Roman ceramic evidence which would have contributed to the author’s main argument.
3. While the detailed nature of Decker’s study was a welcome repast from the sweeping or expansive analyses common these day in the study of the ancient economy, his work did leave me wondering why such economic and agricultural prosperity occurred in the East. In places, he argued relatively persuasively against the “minimalist” perspectives on the ancient economy offered by M. Finley and A. H. M. Jones (pp. 228-229). In other words, he did not see the prosperity of the east on a macro level as being tied to administrative practices (namely taxation and other such administrative trade) and their impact of economic and social decisions on the micro level. This, of course, begs the question why he chose the Diocese of Oriens — an administrative unit — as the basic unit for his analysis. If trade really functioned according to markets, as he argues, wouldn’t it have been more effective to make an argument based on, say, market catchments for agricultural produce or even commercial networks where one could hope to detect the kind of competitive, collaborative, and responsive practices that would characterize market economies in the ancient world? This isn’t to suggest that Decker did not analyze specific market reasons, but his decision to organize his book around an administrative unit sometimes made it hard to detect the main impetus of market forces in the Mediterranean basin more generally.
4. From the perspective of my field project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, Decker’s effort to define or at least describe settlement types is helpful. While one can argue that site size definitions are not the most useful (and comparable) kinds of data for the understanding of settlement structure, his description of the features in various kinds of sites does form a useful point of departure for a more comparative approach to settlement during Late Antiquity. For example, he notes the proliferation of settlement which lacked a proper, or at least formally defined, elite, but nevertheless saw the development of some kinds of public buildings and services, churches, and even traditional practices of euergetism. This indicates that by Late Antiquity euergetism had become severed from self-promotion within the traditional avenues of civic or even imperial service. This enabled wealthy folks to give money to their communities outside both the physical and institutional confines of civic or imperial centers. While Decker does not explain why people would have done this (collective security? economic benefit? hopes of civic or imperial promotion? Christianity?), it reveals a shift in how most scholars have understood at least one component of the Late Roman gift economy. Moreover, it explains sites that did not have formal administrative or civic standing could receive both Christian and practical monumental architecture through the generosity of the local elite.
It’s a good book! Focused chapters, copious bibliography (befitting a revised dissertation), and nice maps make it a useful contribution to anyone’s library.
This past weekend, I read V.N. Makrides’ Hellenic Temples and Christian Churches: A Concise History of the Religious Cultures of Greece from Antiquity to the Present (New York 2009), and I did it graduate school style, cover-to-cover in a couple of days. The book was pointed out to me by a colleague and I immediately saw how the diachronic scope of the work might resonate with my own diachronic study of dreams as a religious phenomenon. The first part of the book is a pretty superficial survey of the interaction between Hellenic ideas and Christian ideas across the broad span of Greek history. I wasn’t overly impressed with this survey which said little that was new, but it would be a nice complement to a Greek history class in that it touches on many of the key points of conflict. In fact, class many years ago, when I taught my Greek history, which considered Greek history from the Neolithic to the Modern period, I was looking for exactly this kind of book to help me integrate and problematize the legacy of the ancient world within the modern, Christian nation. The appearance of a book like this, in English, from an American press, suggests that there might be a growing market for not only the study of modern Greece, but also the an approach to the entire span of Greek history that views understanding the modern nation-state as an indispensable part of any study of the ancient world.
The real value in this book comes from the second part where Makrides addresses some of the same that I am dealing with in my dream project. He had to find a way to explain clear parallels in religious expression overtime without falling back on tired arguments for the continuity of Greek culture. To do this, he argues that Greeks over time consciously engaged in an intertextual reading of their religious past, selecting certain modes of expression (whether Hellenic or Christian) to suit particular strategic goals. He presents these various strategies in a series of chapters which focus on the various strategies at play: Antithesis, Thesis, Conflict; Selection, Transformation, Synthesis; Symbiosis, Mixture, Fusion; Individuality, Distinctiveness, Idiosyncrasy. This chapters demonstrate an impressive ability to understand a wide range of area of religious conflict ranging from clashes between Christians and Pagans in Late Antiquity to the politics of the Orthodox church under Ottoman rule to the church’s role in modern conflicts with secularizing forces within the Greek state and society. The only thing that I really wished for was for Makrides to make more clear the link between a particular strategy and a particular situation. In other words, were there patterns in how and when Greeks (broadly construed) deployed various religious strategies through time? G. Jusdanis, Belated Modernity (Minneapolis 1991), for example, has made clear that modern Greece’s engagement with the modern was not random, but selective and strategic.
The other curious weakness in the book is the lack of any sustained conversation about archaeology. Archaeology in Greece has long played on both nationalist, but also religious impulses within Greek society. Moreover, archaeologists often express the vocation of archaeology in religious terms. Makrides acknowledges this with a quote from Yiannis Sakellarakis who considered his “higher calling ” to be “a hunter of the mystical continuity of place.” (229) Y. Hamilakis recent work The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece (Oxford 2007) dealt with some of these matters specifically.
Preserving and producing the archaeology of the Hellenic past not infrequently involved overwriting the history of Byzantine and Christian Greece. Foreign archaeologists destroyed numerous churches in search of inscriptions or Classical buildings. Major, recurring restoration projects like those on the Parthnon on the Athenian Acropolis have likewise eliminated traces of Christian antiquity in an effort to preserve an more authentic expression of a Classical ideal. As a rule, Byzantine , Ottoman, and Early Modern (19th c.) monuments, many of which remain deeply embedded within the physical and ritual fabrics of communities have far less protection from the Greek state. The physical manifestations of the conflict between Hellenic and Christian ideals within the Greek state is particularly crucial in an archaeological context because ancient, Hellenic monuments represent the most visible face of the nation to foreign visitors and in tourist, popular, and academic publications. Historically Greece has catered to the interest of foreign visitors in this regard and suppressed or overlooked aspects of Greece’s Christian identity which nevertheless played a key role in its national development.
Despite this missed opportunity, Makrides book is well worth reading! In particular, his emphasis on the persistent religious plurality in Greek society serves as a useful reminder to all states that romanticized and idealized images of a religious and culturally homogeneous past are almost always false. Greece like so many Mediterranean countries has a long history of diverse forms of religious expression both within their Christian community, but also outside of it. Thus, in his final analysis, part of the Christian and Hellenic legacy of Greece is the ability to respond to religious diversity through a variety of strategies and this is as good a thing for scholars of the past as it is for modern society.