A Very Short Introduction to Late Antiquity

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

I am teaching a very small readings course to a couple of very advanced students this semester. The readings focus on the archaeology and society of Late Antiquity. To supplement readings by the usual suspects (Peter Brown and his cadre of ambitious and competent students), I added G. Clarke’s new Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford 2011. It’s an odd little book full of good things and interesting omission. 

The oddest thing about the book is the almost total absence of any discussion of archaeology, material culture, or art. This is particularly odd for a book on Late Antiquity because Late Antiquity as a period originated in the study of ancient art and architecture. Scholars like Riegl and Strzygowski saw the art of the 4th-7th century as debased forms of art dating to the Greek and Roman past (much the same way as Hellenistic art represented debased forms of the Classical). Some of this critique was formal, but it is impossible to separate the formal from the social, political, and ideological. So, the absence of any sustained discussion of Late Antique art, architecture, or material culture stuck me as quite odd.

What makes this even more odd is that archaeology has played an immense role in discussions surrounding the many of the characteristic events of Late Antiquity. The conversion of temples to churches, for example, is central issue on the conversion of the Mediterranean to Christianity and impossible to understand without recourse to archaeological evidence. Clarke barely touched upon this phenomenon, and when she did, she drew upon textual sources like Jerome to support her view of the gradual abandonment of pagan cult, but the preservation of temples as a kind of architectural heritage. Not only does archaeological evidence provide a more nuanced perspective on this issue with temple conversions, neglect, and preservation in a range of contexts, but it also gives voice to practices and people who lived outside of the purview of elite textual production.

Clarke likewise omits any substantial discussion of urban change. Like the conversion of temples, urban change has represented a key contributor to our definition of Late Antiquity. Scholars have long debated whether the social and architectural transformation of cities marked a “decline” of certain civic virtues associated with the ancient world. This is more than merely ideological bickering, but depends upon how we understand the structure of society and its manifestation in the character of the urban fabric. Understanding urban change, then, becomes a central point to any discussion of how and whether Late Antiquity is distinct from its Classical antecedents. 

It is a short book by definition and design, so I can overlook that Clarke does not delve into the recent and significant debates surrounding Late Antique trade and production. One does wonder, however, whether discussion of the date and distribution of certain classes of ceramics could well inform a more robust definition and understanding of this important and difficult period. For example, if fine ware produced on Cyprus continued to circulate into the 8th century, perhaps the Mediterranean persisted as a coherent cultural zone much later than scholars have tended to expect. This has an impact on when and whether we see the fragmentation of the Mediterranean world as a hallmark of the end of antiquity and first steps in the development of distinct and independent cultural zones.

These critiques aside, the book does offer a decent overview of the major textual traditions and historical debates central to the study of the Late Antique world. It will offer relatively little to the scholar, but for a student, the length of the book, its accessible language, and its accessibility for critique make this a useful contribution to a growing list of books available to introduce Late Antiquity to both students and the general public. It will best serve as a complement to books like Stephen Mitchell’s which ground the period in a more robust discussion of material culture.

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