Archive for the ‘Late Antiquity’ Category

More in Inequality in Justinian’s Corinth

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I've begun work on revising my Corinth in Contrast paper which I delivered in Austin in the fall at a conference of the same name (for a nice overview of the conference check out David Pettegrew's Corinthian Matters blog posts here and here and here).  The conference focused on inequality among the Corinthians, and my paper emphasized the role that political and ecclesiastical tensions may have played in creating regimes of power in the region.  To do so, I focused on various methods of asserting political and ecclesiastical power in the landscape and then sought to establish spaces of resistances within these methods.  In particular, I focused on the differences between subtle, non-monumental, and "marginal" activities, and dominant forms of political and religious power.  I tried to emphasize that various less structured forms of expression many not have conformed to a narrow view of "resistance" typified by violence and concerted political actions, but rather to a kind of resistance rooted in the concept of practice. In other words, I am looking for archaeological evidence that represents far more subtle forms of agency than traditional definitions of resistance.  Good examples of forms of resistance rooted in practice are graffiti, systematic tax evasion, feigned ignorance, gossip, and other techniques that are difficult to punish, protected by a degree of anonymity, and accessible to almost any group within society.

While most of these practices are unlikely to leave an archaeological trace (although an archaeology of gossip is interesting!), it is notable that the 6th century Corinthia witnessed a systematic and monumental campaign to impose imperial authority across the region.  The goals of this effort are difficult to imagine outside of a pattern of resistance.  The ecclesiastical tensions between the Emperor and various bishops of the province of Achaia who may have resisted imperial authority by remaining loyal to the papacy in Rome, provides a potential geopolitical justification of resistance.  Moreover, we know that such political and theological conflicts could manifest themselves in popular resistance.  Most famously:

"If you ask for your change, someone philosophizes to you in the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you ask for the price of bread, you are told, "The Father is greater and the Son inferior." If you ask, "Is the bath ready?" someone answers, "The Sone was created from nothing."

Gregory of Nyssa, De Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti (trans. T.E. Gregory, Vox Populi (Columbus 1979), 3.

While the popular violence associated with theological disputes is well known, it suggests that seeming technicalities in theological language could evoke deep passions among everyday denizens of the Late Roman world. Such passion could, of course, manifest itself in more subtle ways as well as the better documented episodes of riotous violence.  Some of the everyday practices of resistance during the era of iconoclasm are suggestive.

This is a long introduction to some rather more mundane observations!

One of the least satisfactory sections of my paper had to deal with the role of imperial power on the bodies of Corinthians.   In the first draft of this paper, I imagined the impact of the imperial building policies on the Corinthian labor force. Workers from the local area would have undoubtedly contributed to the construction of the Lechaion Basilica (as well as the other 6th century churches in the area), the repairs to the Hexamilion wall and city wall of Corinth, and various other construction projects datable to the 6th century.  I suggested that some sense of identity for these workers derives from the presence of informally inscribed fish in the exterior wall plaster of many of these buildings.  It may be that this sign marked out the work of a local guild or as smaller work team and allowed the laborers to locate themselves amidst the monumental space of the 6th century Corinthia.

Over the past few weeks, I have the distinct pleasure of re-reading parts of Michael Given's 2004, The Archaeology of the Colonized (Routledge). Chapter six of this book is entitled "The Dominated Body" and Given makes several interesting observations about the place of the body is broadly construed "colonial regimes".  In particular, Given draws a case study from Roman Egypt where a "highly elaborate tax system" contributed to practices designed to dominate the body of Egyptian famers.  The center piece of his argument is a vivid fictional narrative of a visit by a family to local granary where their tax in kind was measured and certified.

This narrative reminded me of the famous(ish) passage in Procopius's Buildings 4.2.14 which describes the building of granaries throughout Greece. These granaries served to provision the soldiers that the emperor stationed there. This passages finds a complement in the Secret Histories 26.31-33 where Procopius tells us that the Emperor Justinian required the cities of Greece to fund the newly stationed soldiers in Greece, and this contingency deprived even Athens of public buildings and entertainments.  There is no reason to take these passages at face value, but, on the other hand, it is clear that Justinian had an active interest in reorganizing the logistical infrastructure of the empire with an eye toward providing supplies for his soldiers.  The presence of granaries in Greece would have visibly linked imperial policy with the collection of agricultural taxes from the local residents.  Some residents, then, would have to experience the act of delivering their crops into the imperial hands; in short, individual labor became imperial policy.

Another observation that Given offered regarding the impact of imperial policy on the body was the effect of walls on movement throughout the Egyptian countryside. He argued that many of the walls were not formal fortifications necessary, but sand fences (at best) or, in other cases, just informal markers. Both Procopius' text and archaeological evidence from the Corinthia have noted Justinian's interest in wall construction and repair.  Specifically, Justinian appears to have repaired the massive Hexamilion wall and probably the wall of the city of Corinth itself.  These two walls would have dominated passage across the Isthmus.  The individual would have had to pass through spaced marked out and defined by the non-local presence of the Emperor.

Making this all the more conspicuous is Justinian's used inscriptions tinged with ritually-charged utterances at gates to make political or theological statements.  So as Corinthian (and other) bodies passed through spaces marked out by imperial power, the walls themselves literally shouted out politically charged religious sentiments.  We know from other sites in the Mediterranean that roads, walls, and gates were common places for inscribed acclamations; in other words, places where bodies regularly passed were excellent places to commemorate other kinds of ritualized activities.  Ritual acclamations whether spontaneous or staged, then, further imbued these spaces with embodied knowledge.

As I work to revise my initially clumsy study of power differences across the Corinthian landscape, I am focusing more attention on the way in which imperial power sought to project authority into the landscape.  By critiquing the methods of projecting power, I think I am getting closer to understanding the conditions with create the kind of power differences that produce various kinds of inequality.

Icons and Space (and Dreams) in Late Antiquity

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

This week I received my annual copy of the Journal of Roman Archaeology.  It always arrives in the mid-fall when the weather has just begun to turn, and it gives me a good excuse to curl up in a comfortable chair and review the archaeology of the Roman world.  This year’s volume included a nice article by Paul Dilley entitled “Christian icon practice in apocryphal literature: the consecration and the conversion of synagogues into churches” JRA 23 (2010), 285-302 (notice no hyperlink!).

The article focuses less on the conversion of synagogues to churches and more on the role of icons in creating sacred space. Dilley draws his evidence from the oft-neglected body of apocyphal literature from Late Antiquity. These texts are typically ascribed to a Biblical figure or major bishop, but tend to be later, and generally speaking popular texts that often sought to give a contemporary tradition an august pedigree.  So when the use of icons to sanctify places begins to appear in these texts, there is real reason to think that this represents a shift in practice in the era in which they were written.  A classic example of the role of these apocryphal texts in legitimizing practices is the 6th century Laudatio Barnabae from Cyprus.  This text describes the discovery of Paul’s companion, Barnabas’s body, on Cyprus about a century earlier.  The story features the Bishop Anthemius of Salamais who has a series of dreams that lead him to the place where Barnabas was buried.  When he exhumes the body, he finds it clutching a copy of the Gospel of Matthew.  Ultimately this text comes to explain the construction of the church dedicated to St. Barnabas in Salamis, as well as explain the special privileges that the church of Cyprus held which emerged over the course of the later 5th century. Barnabas’s apostolic pedigree, the timely appearance of his body, and the presence of an autograph of the Gospel of Matthew, all helped to legitimize the church of Cyprus as an autonomous apostolic foundation.

Dilley highlights a series of similar stories which place relics or icons at the center of the founding of churches.  He also stresses that these foundation stories often include important liturgical elements which suggests that the stories do more than simply legitimize the founding of the church as a building, but link the founding of a church to annual rites celebrated to commemorate the event.  So the stories of the inventio (the discovery) of a relic, icon, or the body of a saint, has key liturgical elements that are reinforced through the rituals of commemoration in which the text plays a key role.  Processions, acclamations (kyrie eleison!), and the key role of the clergy all mark these texts as liturgical as well as simply devotional or “historical” texts.

The role of liturgy in the discovery of icons or relics is something that scholars have not necessarily fully realized.  In fact, some scholars have followed Peter Brown’s lead (.pdf) and seen icons as almost anti-clerical in that they allow for access to holiness outside of the control of the institutional church and the clergy.  In other words, there are ways that the veneration of icons and relics represent paths to holiness that end-run the clergy.  Dilley, however, has argued that stories in seemingly popular apocryphal literature not only commemorate the key role of icons and relics in creating sacred, liturgical space, but also embed this tradition within liturgical practices that tie the deeply personal holiness of the icon to the institutional holiness of the church.

As for the conversion of synagogues, I’ll admit to being less compelled by the final pages of Dilley’s article where he offers a very basic typology for the archaeological evidence relating to the conversion of synagogues to churches, but does not really bring it back to his far more provocative and exciting arguments about icons, liturgy, and the creation of Christian sacred space.  That being said, he makes a good point that the presence of icons in buildings newly converted to Churches – like the synagogue at Cagliara on Sardinia, the synagogue at Lydda, and the Pantheon in Rome – seems to be a key aspect in their consecration for Christian use by the 7th century.  This reminds me of a Coptic church I visited for Easter Vigil in Columbus, Ohio. The church had been converted from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall to a Coptic church. While the unabashedly Protestant architecture of the building remained, the presence of Coptic icons on almost every flat surface marked out the repurposing of the space.

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity

Christians in Roman Space

November 15, 2010 Leave a comment

On the strength of a BMCR review, I spent the last few days reading Laura Salah Nasrallah’s Christian Responses to Roman Art and Architecture. (Cambridge 2010).  The book juxtaposes the works of several 2nd c. Christian “apologists” (Tatian, Justin, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria) and the space of the Roman empire.  To do this, she parallels the texts with specific places within the Roman world (e.g. the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias or the Trajans forum) or specific works of art (e.g. statues of Commodus as Herakles or the Aphrodite of Knidos).  Both the texts, the space, and the works of art themselves fall significantly outside my area of expertise.  The approach, on the other hand, which assumes that texts are no more or nor less products of the same culture that produced understandable spaces and statues within the Roman world represents a significant interest to me.

In particular, I was intrigued by how Nasrallah used these texts as evidence for Christian response to the built environment of the Roman world.  Of course, this response was, to a certain extent, constructed by the author’s decision to juxtapose particular texts with particular environments (see the BMCR review for this observation), but, at the same time, the move to compare texts and monuments in a way that shed light on critical readings of built space was, to me at least, novel.  The alienated (or at least conflicted) posture of figures like Tatian when positioned opposite the imperial rhetoric of the Sebasteion is particular striking and reminds me of John Clarke’s more speculative approach to the reading of Trajan’s column in his Art in the lives of Ordinary Romans (Berkeley 2003) or some of the essays in J. Elsner’s Roman Eyes (Princeton 2007).

My impression is that Nasrallah’s use of texts was a convenient concession to traditional practices in art and architectural history and archaeology of the Classical World that continues to imagine texts as the point of departure for rigorous analysis of meaning and space.  When pushed a step further to deal exclusively with built environments in places uninformed by robust textual sources, the assumption that spaces can accommodate a wide range of viewers (including those bent on resisting, subverting, or even co-opting “intended messages”) becomes decidedly more foggy.  As the BMCR review noted, even Nasrallah moves cautiously in many cases when she enters into relationship between the act of reading a text and the act of reading a space or monument; the author is more willing to leave the texts juxtaposed than to bring out opportunities for mutual critique.

In my recent work on the monumental spaces of Justinianic Corinth (it is, on my blog, all about me, of course), I’ve had to confront a similar tension not between texts, but between monuments.  I shared Nasrallah’s assumption that it is possible to recover the resistance and critique of the built environment through juxtaposing different types of texts; for Corinth, however, these texts are not the literary (or even really epigraphical kind), but other roughly contemporary monuments.  Like Nasrallah and her authors, I have done what I can to understand the act of building as a response to particular (and maybe recoverable) activities within the physical environment. But this reading of the relationship between buildings captures only one response within a monumentalized discourse in the landscape. The ongoing dialog between experiences across the landscape continuously reinscribed monumental places with meanings and presented opportunities for resistance. The decision whether to resist, to critique, or to accept the meanings produced through the productive juxtaposition of places in the landscape returns agency to the viewer and undermines the power traditionally located in imperialist policies.

Nasrallah’s book provides a model for discerning the act of viewing within the Roman empire by expanding the notion of place to include texts which she demonstrates function according to a similar logic as monuments in the landscape.  By resisting the urge to offer definitive or rigid relationships between various more or less contemporary spaces within the ancient world, she resists the temptation to extend a valuable analysis of ways of viewing to specific acts of viewing.  In doing so, she both unpacks the act of viewing (and responding to) ancient art and architecture, and allows it to persist as an essentially ambiguous phenomenon resistant to even our most deeply positivist desire to essentialize.

Book Reviews and the Blog: A Case Study

November 3, 2010 4 comments

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.

Here’s a link to that quick review.

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:

Yasin Review Oct2010

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.

David Pettegrew’s Setting Stage for St. Paul’s Corinth Available as Podcast or Streaming Video

October 25, 2010 1 comment

For those of you who could not make it to the David Pettegrew’s 2nd Annual Cyprus Research Fund Lecture, fear not!  We have made David’s lecture available as both a downloadable podcast and as a streaming video.

Here’s the podcast.

Here’s the video.

David’s two days on campus were really exciting.  Not only did he speak to over 50 faculty,undergraduates, graduate students, and members of the community on the Thursday afternoon talk, but he also contributed to the history department’s “brown bag” lecture series on Friday.  At his Friday talk, he presented a great primer to intensive survey archaeology and discussed the ideas of “source criticism” as applied to ancient material culture.  Finally, David took a couple of hours and read Latin with some of our graduate students and undergraduates at our weekly “Latin Friday Morning” reading group.

It is always gratifying to see how much interest there is in the Ancient Mediterranean at the University of North Dakota.  So, if you enjoyed the lecture with here at UND, thanks for coming out! And if you enjoy the lecture via the streaming video or podcast, thanks for listening!  I also should thank Chad Bushy and Caleb Holthusen from UND’s Center for Instructional and Learning Technologies office for not only preparing the video and podcasts, but trouble shooting during the live webcast.

And, finally, thanks to David Pettegrew for agreeing to spend his fall break with us at the University of North Dakota. For more on his research and the Roman and Late Roman Corinthia, check out his blog Corinthian Matters.

St. Augustine and Dreams

October 19, 2010 1 comment

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have an interest in dreams and their role in archaeology, although that interest might not be very evident lately.  So after spending the better part of two weeks pouring over survey data from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I took about an hour to follow up on a citation that I culled from Ann Marie Yasin’s recent book to St. Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (On the Care of the Dead).  The text is a letter that St. Augustine wrote to St. Paulinus of Nola about whether there was any benefit to be buried near the body or memorial of a saint.  Augustine takes this opportunity to articulate a criticism of ad sanctus burials (burials near the graves of holy people, particularly martyrs) which he then expands to a general critique of claims that the dead influence the world of the living.

This is where dreams come in.  Augustine shows some concern for the stories in which dead people appear to the living particularly when their bodies are not buried properly.  Augustine, of course, knows that by challenging the authority of these kinds of visions, he runs the risk of criticizing widely held beliefs promulgated in the “writings of certain faithful men” (12).  Augustine makes clear later in the text that, among many possible episodes in Early Christian writing, he is referring here to St. Ambrose’s claim (Epist. 20.1-2) that visions (or dreams) prompted him to discover the bodies of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius in Milan (21).

The crux of St. Augustine’s argument is not whether saints or the dead appear to people, but whether they are aware that they are appearing to people or appear to people in their sleep voluntarily. He argues that the dead do not have any knowledge of this in the same way that the living are unaware when they appear in someone’s dream.  Augustine further proves his point by arguing that pious men sometimes appear in dreams and do bad things.  At the same time, pious people, like his own late mother, would certainly appear to the living when they were troubled or upset, if they could, indeed, influence the world of the living.

It seems that this text dates to the early 420s and continues a North African inclination against the authority of visions and dreams directing the faithful to the locations of buried saints.  As early as the Council of Carthage in 401 the church rejected the practice of inventio per somnia (discovery through sleep).

For more on this text, see:

A. M. Yasin, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean. (Cambridge 2009), 212-222.
D. Trout, Paulinus of Nola. (Berkeley 1999), 244-247.
H. Kotila, Memoria Mortuorum: Commemoration of the Departed in Augustine. (Rome 1992).
Y. Duval, Auprès des saints corps et âme. L’inhumation « ad sanctos » dans la chrétienté d’Orient et d’Occident du IIIe siècle au VIIe siècle. (Paris 1988).

For more on Dream Archaeology without leaving the comfortable informality of the blog, see below:

Another, Better Attempt at Dream Archaeology
Dreams in Ravenna
Dream Archaeology in the Early Christian West
Blindness, Dreams, and Relics
More Dreams, Religion, and Archaeology
More Byzantine Dreams…
Dreams, Pausanias, and Archaeology
Dreams, Inventio, and Archaeology

Categories: Late Antiquity

Romanization and Christianization

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading some basic, recent works on Romanization or the expansion of “Roman culture” across the area of either direct Roman political control or strong Roman influence.  Most of these works dealt with Western Europe and considered the relationship between the archaeological remains clearly identified as being Roman with those typically seen as “pre-Roman” or local.  Most works consider cultural change as a process and see the interaction between Roman and non-Roman representing both resistance and accommodation.  Moreover, most of these works see the term “Romanization” as problematic.  In particular, the notion of Romanization as a cohesive phenomenon functioning in similar ways across the entire area of Roman influence has done more harm than good and papered over variation in the process of cultural exchange rooted in social status, economic organization, traditions of elite display, and even Roman policies across the Empire.

The basic critique of Romanization (for lack, at present, of a better or more compact term), has clear and obvious parallels with critiques of Christianization over the past 20+ years.  In fact, the conversations about the two concepts are so parallel that it is a wonder that more obvious (than I have seen) cross-pollination between these two scholarly approaches to cultural exchange have not appeared.  I’ve come away from studying this material with the following little gaggle of observations:

1. The Viewer. Since John Clarke and Jas Elsner introduced me to the Roman viewer, I have become convinced that the act of viewing is central to the understanding the process of cultural engagement.  While it is almost old-hat now to observe that content producers (to use a nice, new media term) do not have exclusive control over how endusers view their content, actualizing this understanding in scholarship is a difficult task, especially if the enduser represents a group that has not left behind the kind of cultural material that scholars are apt to interpret (e.g. texts, monumental buildings, ceramics, sculpture, et c.).

2. Hybrids. Post-colonial critiques have seemingly cast long shadow over the process of Roman political and cultural expansion. A hybridized elite worked to bridge the gap between the political core and periphery and hybrid cultural places created space for that could accommodate both local and non-local interests.  Within the study of Christianization, the notion of the hybrid has not seen the same interest from scholars, although it seems clear that the spread of Christianity can be at least partly associated with the religious, ritual, and political interest of the political center.  The rarity of any discussion of hybridity within the discourse Christianization is, in part, a matter of terminology. Certainly scholars have understood the emergence of Christianity as a process that produced myriad hybrids through, for example, processes like syncretism.  Our relative lack of interest in the notion of hybridity may stem from a reluctance to see the process of religious change as one of imperialism or colonization.

3. Resistance. Hybrids form just one point on an increasingly nuanced ranged of potential cultural interaction in the ancient world.  The extremes, of course, are typically of greater interest to the scholar, if for no other reason than they are more likely to leave evidence.  The more pressing question, to my mind at least, ishow do we recalibrate our analytical lens to see more subtle forms of resistance to aggressive or openly hostile projects to promote social, political, or religious change. The process of Christianization took place over long spans of time and through the independent actions of multiple groups and agents; finding resistance in this context is far more than documenting the obvious occasions when Christian buildings were torched by hostile non-Christian groups.

4. Plurality. Just as being Roman accommodates many different, sometimes incompatible, forms of cultural expression, being Christian can hardly be reduced to a fixed set of characteristics. The plurality of Roman culture and Christianity both require that we expand our understanding of how these two phenomena manifest themselves in a social, political, and cultural context.  In some cases, this might involve simply qualifying what we mean when we say Roman or Christian: for example, direct Roman political control or imperial or ecclesiastical Christianity.  In other cases, we might have to reconsider the relationship between hybrid identities and forms of Roman-ness and Christianity and the way in which such identities appeared to various groups of viewers.

5. Erasure and Process. The creation of a Roman space or a Christian space in the ancient world was part of a process that involved, in part, the overwriting of earlier forms of cultural, economic, political, and social relationships.  In short, the process of Romanizing and Christianizing not only involves present forms of cultural expression, but projects these back into the past making it much more difficult for the historian and archaeologist to discover the traces of the process itself.

Even More Contrasting Corinth

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday I promised more inequality, resistance, and contrast in the Corinthia, and here at the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, I mostly deliver on what I promise.

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about these small texts:


This is the text of two graffiti discovered on a wall fragment from the octagonal baptistery at Lechaion.  Both texts are rather fragmentary.  The first text seems to ask for someone to remember a woman named Eudokia, and the second text is a plea to help the deacon Loukianos, his wife (?), and children.  Both texts conform to the long standing practice of inscribed prayers.  The texts were scratched into what appears to be the mortar of the wall.  The photograph is poorly reproduced in my photocopy of the publication and Pallas’ description of the location of the text is unclear.

These texts represent a very personal plea for aid set up in a sacred place.  This practice was a long-standing Christian tradition and similar calls for help appear in mosaic floors and inscribed on columns, liturgical silver, and ceramics from across the Mediterranean basin.  At the same time, their rather humble mode of execution contrasts dramatically with the lavish decoration present in the Lechaion basilica.  These texts were not carved into marble and positioned where an audience could experience the proximity of the individuals to the sources of ecclesiastical, ritual, and religious power.  These modest letters were scratched into a wall of the baptistery which is an unusual place for such imprecations.  The most obvious explanation for the disjunction between these texts and their surroundings may be that these texts date from the time that the octagonal baptistery appears to have functioned as a church, perhaps after the collapse of the enormous basilica to its south.  Like the graffiti documented by Orlandos on the columns of the Parthenon, the modest character of these texts represents more an eagerness to locate one’s prayers in the existing physical fabric of the building rather than a lack of resources or access to official sanction.  After all, Loukianos was a deacon who presumably could have arranged for a more official venue for his call for help.

At the same time these texts present a vivid contrast to another, better-known inscribed prayer from the Corinthia: the request for protection found at Isthmia. Unlike the modest texts incribed on the wall of the Lechaion baptistery, this text which asks God to protect Justinian, Victorinus, and everyone living according to God in Greece


As readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing, this text should probably be associated with the refortification of the Hexamilion wall by the emperor Justinian, and I have argued (as have others) that the Lechaion basilica is probably another example of imperial activities in the region.

I am not sure that I’d argue too forcefully that contrasting character of these two texts represent some kind of inequality or resistance in the Corinthian landscape, but on the other hand, the graffiti text from Lechaion is far more likely to represent an authentic local voice.  And this local voice surely did not share the same access to resources as the emperor, and this local voice may not have had the same ability to endure the the challenging years of the Early Byzantine period in Greece.

More Contrasting Corinth

September 13, 2010 1 comment

As some of you may know, I am toiling away on a paper that I will give at the Corinth in Contrast conference in Austin at the end of the month.  I’ve been looking at the way in which the 6th century, likely Justinianic, building boom in the Corinthia represented a monumentalized discourse of authority (both local and imperial, political, military, and religious) in the region.  This is a version of a paper I gave some years ago at a conference celebrating 50 years of field work at Isthmia.  In that paper, I focused on two Justinianic inscriptions; in my paper for Corinth in Contrast, I planned to focus on archaeology and architecture.

I produced a decent draft of my paper entitled “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City”, but realized that the paper had very little to do with the theme of the conference:

This conference explores the stratified nature of social, political, economic, and religious spheres at Corinth, and how the resulting inequalities are reflected in literary texts and material remains.  The analysis focuses on a specific population center (the Corinthia) over a given period of time (Hellenistic to Late Antique).

In particular, my paper had almost nothing to do with “inequality”.  This bothered me.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Revell’s Roman Imperialism and Local Identity (Cambridge 2009) with the idea models of Romanization might give me some way to access the relationship between a monumentalized discourse and social, economic, and even political inequality in Corinth.  Revell’s introduction does a nice job at summarizing recent problemizations of Romanization, and emphasizes the performative aspects of Romanization as central to way in which imperialism manifests on the local level and local practices manifest as resistance, accommodation, and ambivalence.

Despite my initial interest in performance in the way that I originally interpreted the Justinianic inscriptions, I had abandoned using this approach for a reason that I now forget (it might have to do with a particularly summary rejection of an article, but it might have just been time to move on).  After reading Revell, I began to see contrasts across the Corinthian countryside that hint at just the kind of inequality – whether manufactured as an ideological position or “real” – that would make my paper fit better to the theme of the conference and give it a more potent theoretical edge.

First, and most generally, the act of producing monumental architecture is a kind of performance.  I argue that the Lechaion basilica (and related buildings) and the renovated Hexamillion wall are buildings with projected imperial power onto the Corinthian landscape.  Corinthians themselves not only saw these buildings as intrusions of 6th century imperial theology into local ecclesiastical affairs (for more on this read over this still unpublished paper), but also contributed to the various ways that these buildings produced meaning.  Local Corinthians, irrespective of theological (or, frankly, religious predilections) surely contributed to the physical construction of the great church and the repairs to the various monumental walls Procopius reports Justinian to have funded in the Corinthia.  Building made their bodies physically complicit in the production of imperial ideology on the Isthmus.  Moreover, individuals involved in manual labor would have surrendered their bodies – if, in fact, working on imperial projects had an ideological or theological aspect – more readily than elites who could have held their bodies apart from the actual performance of imperial power.

The bodies of the work crews who labored physically to construct imperial authority on the Isthmus do leave traces. Sanders has reported that similar graffiti in the wet mortar of both the Lechaion basilica and the Panayia bath in the city of Corinth proper (and perhaps the Hexamillion wall as well) suggest that the same work crews or the same organization provided labor for both buildings.  The simple inscribed fish in the mortar of both buildings would have been probably been covered with a layer of finer stucco when the building was completed and not visible.  At the same time, the symbol of the fish seems likely to have had religious significance.  The fish had been one of the earliest symbols associated with Christianity.  While we have no idea whether these symbols were set to mark out these buildings as “Christian” (as if this was necessary for the Lechaion basilica church!) or to mark the work of a particular crew of laborers or some kind of apotropaic function that suggested either resistance or accommodation, it is clear that the laborers had agency in the act of constructing these monumental buildings and hence were capable of seeing their labor as a ideological action.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the second largest basilica in the Corinthia is the Kraneion basilica.  Roughly contemporary with Lechaion basilica, it has clear similarities in form. Both churches have numerous annex rooms, a nartex and atria (albeit Kraneion appears to have a second atria extending to the south), water features in the western atria, and a baptistery arranged to the northwest of the church.  The most striking difference between these buildings is that the naves are separated from the aisles at Kraneion by means of a series of narrow piers supporting arches.  Lechaion follows a more traditional pattern by separating the nave from the aisles by a series of columns supporting arches that spring from ornate ionic impost capitals.  At least some of the columns in this nave colonnade were imperially controlled Proconnesian marble and the ionic impost capitals are sufficiently regular in design to suggest an imperial work crew.  The absence, then, of a marble colonnade at Kraneion would have made this church stand out.  If we assume that the nave colonnade at Lechaion worked to communicate the building’s imperial funded status, then the absence of such a colonnade at Kraneion may have positioned this church as a conspicuously non-imperial foundation.  While it is impossible to do more than suggest this argument, it is striking that Kraneion is one of the few churches in the Late Roman province of Achaia that used piers in the place of the colonnade. This becomes more significant, if we assume (as I have argued elsewhere) that the colonnade in Late Roman Greece served to frame the perspective of the congregation as they watched the liturgical proceedings performed by the clergy in an otherwise empty nave.  The contrasting arrangement between these two buildings would hardly be lost on even the most casual observer especially as the Lechaion basilica demonstrates that the colonnade is a feature suited to display of wealth and control over lavish resources.  Like the fish in the mortar, the absence of a nave colonnade could represent a local response, perhaps even resistance, to the wealth and authority vested in display.

Neither of these examples explicitly suggest inequality in a modern sense fueled by a post-Enlightenment understanding of the rights of human agents as individuals.  On the other hand, these two examples (and the careful reader will observe that I do have one more, but it’ll have to wait until I get into my office this morning to check a citation), demonstrate that despite different the differing economic and social position of the actors within Corinthian society, there was nevertheless ample opportunity to participate in both acts of resistance and accommodation.

Stay tuned for more…

A new class to new students: The Fall of the Roman Empire

September 6, 2010 3 comments

Tomorrow I begin to teach 6 week class on the Fall of the Roman Empire to the local, University of North Dakota, branch of the Osher Life Long Learning Institute.  This Institute focuses mainly on teaching community members – primarily "seasoned adults" and "life long learners" – and does not offer courses for credit.  The expense is minimal and the goals of my class will be to entertain as much as educate.  I'll have to balance my tendency to go into great detail about minute events of the Late Antique world (although it is hard to understand how anyone could not care deeply about the machinations leading up the Three Chapters Controversy!).  On the other hand, I am pretty excited to offer a class to the greater community.  My grandmother took classes at a similar institution at the University of Delaware after my grandfather had died, and she seemed to really enjoy them. It will feel good to share some of my knowledge, see how my approach plays to an audience not worried about getting a good grade, and to hear what my "students" think about the end of the ancient world.

That all being said, this is the first time that I'll teach a course in my particular area of specialty on campus at UND.  It seems hard to believe that I've been here for 8 years and have yet to teach a course on the Late Antique world.  Another reason to be excited.


I have conceived of the class in 6, more or less autonomous units:

1. Introduction to the Fall of Rome
2. Politics, Popes, Emperors, and Invaders
3. Christians and Pagans
4. Cities, Buildings, and the End of the Empire
5. Archaeology and the End of the Empire
6. Rome After Rome: The Long Shadow of Late Antiquity

The course is a blatant bait-and-switch.  My focus will be less on the "Fall of Rome" as discrete political event and much more on the period of Late Antiquity.  My goal will be to convince the class that the legacy of Rome refracted through political, religious, social, and economic changes of the 4th to 8th centuries is far more important than the sacking of a city or the death of an Emperor (well, except, I suppose to the folks who lived in Rome or the family of the Emperor).  In fact, I want them all to understand that the most of the basic tensions that define modern political and religious discourse have roots in Late Antiquity.  So the Fall of Rome is less about the death of some romanticized (I couldn't resist!) ancient world and much more about the birth of a society that has strangely familiar echoes.

Wish me luck!

Categories: Late Antiquity

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