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Journal of Late Antiquity

I know that I am a bit late on this one, but I am still catching up from my summer fieldwork break.  I’ve spent the last few days reading over the first volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity.  As I have noted previously in the blog, Late Antiquity has gone from being “the next big thing” to a more or less established (sub)discipline in the academic establishment.  In fact, over the last decade that the number of Centers (and Centres) for Late Antique Studies, conferences and symposia, and monographs have exceeded what even a determined scholar can easily process in a year.  This is to say that the field has grown from a determined minority who could nibble around the edges of any number of well-established disciplines (e.g. Patristics, Classics (particular Roman Studies), (Early) Medieval Studies, Roman Archaeology, even Islamic Studies), to a complex transdisciplinary body of scholars capable of enjoying full meals at a specially prepared academic buffets.

It is clear, now, that the study of Late Antiquity as not simply a distinct time period — variously defined from 200-800 or even 1000 AD — but as a particular academic discourse has emerged.  The inaugural issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity seems to encapsulate the borders of this disciplinary discourse rather well.  The first four articles in the journal seek to set the stage for the concerns in the discipline at present:

A Long Late Antiquity?: Considerations on a Controversial Periodization
Arnaldo Marcone

The Rise and Function of the Concept “Late Antiquity”
Edward James

Decline, Fall, and Transformation
Clifford Ando

Barbarians, Historians, and the Construction of National Identities
Ian Wood

What do these four articles tell us about the state of Late Antique studies?  (1) We are still bothered by our ill-fitting place in traditional periodization schemes, (2) this is tied to the interesting and international historiography of the term “Late Antiquity, (3) as well as our lingering preoccupation with concepts of decline, fall, continuity, and change (and their cousin “transformation”).  (4) The problems and opportunities inherent in these concerns are most eloquently problematized in the claims made, most famously by Peter Brown, but not uniquely his, that the “Late Antique Period” marked a key watershed in the development of our contemporary ideas of political, social, and religious organization and identity.   

None of these things are bad of course, but it leaves no doubt that our field still considers the fight for disciplinary definition (even just chronological and “moral” elbow room) a vital part of any discussion of Late Antiquity even among scholars committed to the study of the period.  While the articles presented in this journal are all of good quality and are “interesting reads” it seems a bit odd that such apologetics continue to be necessary especially in a journal designed to serve a (sub)discipline that is on the brink of maturity in the academy.  The continued vitality of the field requires that we move beyond metadiscursive turf wars and move beyond continuity, change, and transformation.  (David Pettegrew and I had a good conversation about this riding the train from Athens to Corinth this summer.  He rightly pointed out that historians like to periodize…). 

As another point of departure, the study of Late Antiquity claim (and perhaps position themselves as heirs to) one of the distinct characteristics of Classical Studies (and to a lesser extent Medieval and Byzantine Studies): namely the inherently transdisciplinary character of our field.  On a practical level, scholars of Late Antiquity find homes in departments of Classics, history, religion, and art history (and archaeology).  Intellectually, the study of Late Antiquity has embraced a wide range of theoretical and conceptual perspectives drawn from intensive contact with discourses nurtured in relative disciplinary isolation.  For example, Late Antique scholars have been relatively quicker to embrace intensive pedestrian survey in archaeology, certain aspects of critical theory (e.g. post-colonial theory), and sophisticated models of religious interaction, all of which have been encouraged by the willingness of scholars of Late Antiquity to ignore disciplinary boundaries and their associated theoretical constraints.

The goal here is not to criticize what will become an important new journal for the study of Late Antiquity, but to point out that the field will soon move beyond disciplinary boundary marking and its attendant apologetics and will begin to articulate its contribution to the study of the past in different ways.  The hope of any field, of course, is to develop paradigms of thinking that will influence not just scholars working within the relatively narrow boundaries of a particular discipline, but will extend to influence how scholars (and the public) think more generally.

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Categories: Late Antiquity
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