Resilience in Antiquity

There have been a few articles recently on resilience in the ancient world (e.g. here, herehere, et c.) and considering the looming social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus, this work feels particularly timely.

Last week, the new volume of Studies in Late Antiquity appeared and it included an article by Tamara Lewitt titled “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory.” It offered a particularly clear application of community resilience theory to the Late Roman world as a way to understand why some areas rebounded from the disruptions of the 6th centuries. Historically, historians and archaeologists have argued that the plagues, earthquakes, military activities, political and theological instability during the 6th century had a lasting social and economic on Eastern Mediterranean communities. More recently, however, archaeologists, in particular, have shown how communities not only survived these difficult times, but prospered. 

In some ways, an emphasis on community resilience is a useful response to scholars who have increasingly sought to understand large scale changes in the Late Roman world as shaped by non-human actors such as disease and climate and environmental change. A number of recent articles have sought to re-assert the role of human agents in Late Antique. I tend to find this line of argument vaguely misguided, but in the case of Lewitt’s article it offers a clear point of departure for her consideration of community resilience.

Lewitt argued that five things allowed for ancient communities to rebound for various disruptions: “high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and capacity for cooperation and technological innovation.”

She then draws upon archaeological data to demonstrate how the most resilience communities shared many of these features. Of particular interest to me was the role of the church which not only served as a nodes in larger communication networks, but also as institutions around which social capital accumulates. Lewitt suggests that the bonds created through shared support of the local church, for example, created pathways to pool resources during times of crisis. As an contemporary example, she notes that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans rebuilt more quickly after Katrina because they relied on close social bonds.

Years ago, I was interested in how Christianity introduced new forms of giving. Unlike the elite euergetism that characterized Classical antiquity and relied upon the generosity of a few very wealthy patrons who competed with one another for status, the church promoted a model of charity that applied to all Christians and led to individuals of even modest means contributing to the construction and decoration of churches as well as to other charitable ventures. This new vision of charity would have undoubtedly led to new forms of social organization that may have led to greater community resilience.

The other interesting observation is that communities with greater economic equality tend to be more resilient than those with great divisions in wealth. Lewitt looks at the relative size of houses in the deserted villages in Syria to argue for social and economic equality in those communities. Once again, Lewitt notes that part of the challenges facing recovery in New Orleans was the deeply uneven distribution of wealth which made cooperation and collective action more difficult. It almost goes without saying that it is very difficult to track economic and social equality in the ancient world other than at the very ends of the spectrum. Moreover, it seems that villages and rural settlements, especially in Greece and Cyprus, seem to have been abandoned whereas urban areas proved more resilient. If we understand smaller rural communities to have less social and economic diversity, then we might expect these communities to be more resilient than the evidence tends to indicate. That being said, this is not fatal to Lewitt’s arguments, but it does beg for an explanation for why certain kinds of resilience ultimately failed. 

It is interesting to see how this plays out around the world as we attempt to recover from the economic and human impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lewitt’s regular appeals to data from the recovery after Hurricane Katrina provide a modern point of comparison for resilience in antiquity. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide another. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s