The Center of the Late Antique World

I read with some interest the first volume of Studies of Late Antiquity. (And I realize that the volume came out some months ago, but, I had a hectic spring!). 

From the introduction by the editors, the goal of the journal is to situation late antiquity in more of a global and transdisciplinary perspective. That seems like a noble undertaking and more or less consistent with both longterm trends in both ancient history and archaeology as well as in the study of Late Antiquity. It is appropriate then that Mark Humphries offers a reflective essays that seeks to place Late Antiquity into the narrative context of world history. The article is available for free along with the entire first issue of the journal. 

Humphries argues that the position of Late Antiquity shapes its place (literally in some way) within the narrative of antiquity or the Middle Ages. The location of Late Antiquity between these two major narratives has focused attention on the West and its centers, in particular, Rome. This explains, to over simplify, why the “fall of Rome” in 476 continues to attract so much attention. It is both an ancient center and the heart of Medieval Europe and it becomes a kind of synecdoche for the ancient world.

The article would be great for an undergraduate class on Late Antiquity because it examines critically debates that shape the so-called master narrative over the past two decades as scholars have tried to understand the “end of antiquity” in the context of deconstructing the West and western traditions. In light of this trend, Humphries article does a nice job of showing how the work of the ancient historian presents futures from the past. Opening up the study of Late Antiquity to more global perspectives offers new ways to contextualize events like the fall of Rome and the reposition the Late Antique world and the futures it implies.

At the same time, Humphries perspectives on Late Antiquity rings a bit hollow for anyone who regularly does archaeological field work that focuses on Late Antiquity. The world that my research occupies, for example, does not really intersect with the master narratives centered on Rome or even Constantinople. The small world of my research has a center somewhere in the southern Aegean between the coasts of Cyprus and the Peloponnesus without much concern for affairs in major Late Roman centers. I suspect that many archaeologists similarly deal with such “small worlds” that offer another avenue to destabilizing master narratives. While transregional events and institutions regularly intersect with lives on Cyprus and in the Peloponnesus, the responses to these influences were consistently local.

It would be a fun exercise (in results, if not in process) to plot the places mentioned in my scholarship, David Pettegrew’s scholarship, R. Scott Moore’s scholarship and our other colleagues and to set this plot against the places mentioned in, say, a list of 25 books (or articles) that we have found influential and inspiring over the last several years. This would provide a rough geographical map of our intellectual world. For a start, we could compare our worlds with a map of the places  places present in our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, but the wider potential for mapping scholars “small worlds” is intriguing.

P.S.

There are two design issues that I don’t entirely enjoy. First, as a journal that will have a more significant digital circulation than paper circulation, not having either linked endnotes that would allow a reader to go to an endnote and back to the text is a real drag. If you’re not doing linked notes, then stick with footnotes so a digital reader doesn’t have to scroll through a document to find a citation. Secondly (and more superficially), I don’t love the sans serif subheadings in the journal. They seem too much of a break with the otherwise staid serifed text block.

One other issue, that readers of this blog might suspect. The price of this journal has tempered my enthusiasm a bit. For a journal professing to offer global perspectives on Late Antiquity and to push Late Antiquiters to cross disciplinary boundaries, the price of the journal (which is by no means particularly exceptional) would tend to reinforce a kind of parochial discipline. After all, an academic journal that costs $75 per year for an individual subscriber is unlikely to be an appealing investment for someone outside the field of Late Antique studies or at a university outside of the U.S. where research support, funding, and library access might be more limited.

At some point soon, we need to stop creating new subscription based journals.  

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