Late Roman Peasants

January 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

One of the best things about the holiday break is that I can make a small dent in my almost endless reading list. First on this list was Cam Grey’s Constructing Communities in the Late Roman Countryside (Cambridge 2011). This book continued a useful trend in the study of Late Antiquity by investigating economically marginal groups that scholars have traditionally overlooked. Grey studies the peasant to build a picture of rural communities during the Late Antique era. This not only resonates with longstanding interests in peasants (particularly among British Marxists) as transhistorical phenomenon, but also with the traditional questions that focus on the fate of the countryside (and by extension the economy) in Late Antiquity. Rather than emphasizing the rural basis for, say, the Late Roman economy, however, Grey explored the forms of social relationships formed by peasants (as agents!) in Late Antiquity.

As an aside, Grey’s book continued along a path first hacked out by T. Gallant in his Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece (Stanford 1991). This is one of my favorite books on ancient Greece and it works to bring together textual and archaeological evidence with global conversations about peasants in the contemporary world. While Gallant’s work is more theoretically explicit, Grey’s work continues on the trajectory that Gallant set out by looking at the complex set of social relationships that helped to manage risk and survival in the ancient world.   

This book has been out for long enough to generate some nice reviews, so I won’t add my meager musings to this chorus, but I will offer a few little observations:

1. Texts. Archaeologists usually imagine that their methods provide the key to understanding the non-elites in the premodern world.  Grey’s book is unapologetically historical and uses textual sources in new ways to sketch out a picture of the Late Roman peasant. In some cases, he does this by reading against the grain of traditional elite sources; in other cases, he uses the remarkable archive of papyrus sources from the Egyptian desert. (As a small critique, it does feel like he sometimes relies quite heavily on a small number of particularly robust papyrological sources). His approach to these texts is sensitive to genre, authorship, and regional variation. The last of these is particularly significant in that he is sensitive to the differences in peasant relations in the East and West.

2. Resistance. The elite bias of most of our primary sources and the historical interest in institutions over individuals has made the search for non-elite resistance in Late Antiquity difficult.  Grey does not provide revolutionary insights into the practices of peasant resistance, but does begin the difficult process of reconsidering elite sources by looking for ways in which dominance implies resistance, for the use of encoded transgressive acts (like demonic possession), and for the subtle negotiations that not only bond peasants to the elite, but also underscore the peasant’s role in creating their place within Late Roman society.

3. The Church and the Poor. One of Grey’s most valuable contributions was his effort to understand the role of the church in caring for the rural poor. He argues that the church was far more interested in helping individuals who had encountered a rapid change in wealth than those who permanently situated near the bottom of the economic system. This coincides well with the role of most institutions in the premodern world which were far better at providing momentary redress in a crisis than producing policies designed to redistribute wealth or mitigate endemic economical inequality. 

Grey’s book continues to open new perspectives on the life of the rural poor and the structure of rural society in the later Roman world. As archaeologists – like Kim Bowes who is also at Penn – develop more refined techniques and a growing interest in life in the countryside, Grey’s excavation of textual sources represents valuable complement (and surely at times a challenge) to a view of the ancient countryside fixated on postholes and pot sherds.  

§ One Response to Late Roman Peasants

  • Curt Emanuel says:

    I picked this book up at Kalamazoo but haven’t read it yet. I found your point number 3 interesting. At least in 6th century Gaul my sense was that the Church was interested in maintaining a certain number of very poor who received the bare minimum needed for survival from the Church. The Church wouldn’t help them improve their lot in life but kept them alive, usually added their names to lists, and used their asssistance to these individuals as a way to argue for increased support from various entities. This may agree with Grey(depends on whether he considers maintenance of the permanent underclass help) but I’ll be interested to read what he has to say about actual substantive assistance on more than a “here’s food for today come back tomorrow” basis for the newly distressed.

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