428 AD

I am not sure how I missed the English translation of Giusto Traina’s 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Princeton 2009), but I did. It’s a wonderful book. The book follows a circuit around the Mediterranean world in the year 428 starting in Antioch and then Armenia, before moving through the capital and the Balkans, Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Egypt, Persia and Palestine. At each stop, Traina considers the events taking place in one year, 428, with just enough attention to the connections between regions to weave a compelling tapestry to the Roman Empire in the early 5th century.

My main interest in the book – other than the lucid and engaging narrative – is Traina’s use of time and space to structure his work. It defies traditional historical notions of linear causality by collapsing dense networks of political and social relations (and texts) into a single year and then stretching this year across the Braudelian Mediterranean basin.

Time. The main argument in the book is tied to its approach to the past. Rather than unpacking a particular historical problem, Taina’s book used the concept of time to organize the events of the Roman Empire. While this might seem fundamental to the historians’ craft, in most historical works time takes a back seat to the relentless press of causality. Causality can subvert temporally proximate events, collapse or distend distances, overwrite the linearity implicit in calendars. Traina specifically considers non-linearity in history by presenting simultaneity as a way to order his work and leaving aside questions of causality. This approach reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s critique of the modern novel and how to provided a narrative tool for the kind of simultaneity required to support “imagined communities” on a global scale. Traina’s use of time to frame his work is profoundly modern.    

Space. At the same time as his modern approach to the Roman time is bracketed with a distinctly ancient concept of space. Drawing on a long tradition in the study of the Late Antique and Byzantine world, Traina is not particularly concerned with formal borders and instead explores what Obelensky and others have called the “Byzantine commonwealth” (which is, I recognize, a modern concept serving to describe an ancient conception of space).

Traina recognizes the porosity of borders and deeply interconnected world of the Mediterranean basin where social relationships, ecclesiastical politics, and historical traditions connect communities as much as the formal apparatus of the state. By ignoring any concept of formal boundaries (whether ancient or modern), Traina is able to approach the Late Roman world at a level defined by networks of relations rather than lines on the map.

This has an impact on time and causality as well, of course. Whereas Benedict Anderson’s idea of “empty time” (ready to be filled by a growing sense of simultaneity) depended upon the sense of a contracting and interrelated world, Traina’s segmented moves around the Late Roman world emphasized the discontinuities within the ancient Mediterranean even among the Late Antique elite whose shared culture Peter Brown’s exploration of paideia so famously celebrated.  If Anderson’s treatment of imagined communities evokes a world that was approaching our own, Traina’s world presented an interesting tension between time and space (and social organization) that challenged the reader to consider how fundamentally different antiquity was to our own world.

Texts and Time. Of course, to define the world in a single year, no matter how expansively, Traina leans heavily on texts. Some of those texts are contemporary with 428 and others look back. At his best, Traina weaves these texts together seamlessly bringing together hagiography, history, epigraphy, and theological into an elegant tapestry. At times, however, the view of the present and past become too neatly conflated. A hagiographic text has a very different view of the world than a history or a contemporary inscription, and, perhaps more importantly, historians and hagiographers have very different views of both the past and the present. For example, hagiographic work often conflated contemporary and Biblical time and even in pagan lives – like Marinus’s Life of Proclus – there is a tendency toward romantic elision between the past and the present that careful scholars have struggled to unpack. (For example, were sites like the temple of Asklepius and Dionysus still functioning in Proclus’s day or were the reference to these sites anachronistic?). Walking through the Palestinian countryside with hagiographic texts and pilgrim narratives intentionally superimposed the Biblical past with the present obscuring the year 428 under an overburden of memories. 

If you happened to miss the publication of this book like I did, by all means go and read it. It’s only 130 some pages and a compelling perspective on what it meant to read, write, live and travel in a single year in Late Antiquity

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