The Late Antique Countryside

I’ve been pretty intrigued by the two new-ish journals for the study of Late Antiquity: John Hopkins Press’s Journal of Late Antiquity and the University of California’s Studies in Late Antiquity.  Both have published some interesting articles over the last few years and both have made some of their content available for free (JLA here and SLA here). It feels like the former is a bit more literary in focus (which befits its editor Andrew Cain) and the latter is a bit more historical. 

Last year, SLA published a pair of intriguing articles on the Late Roman countryside and if I were ever going to offer a seminar on the topic: Tamara Lewit’s “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory” Studies in Late Antiquity 4.1 (2020): 44-75; and Sabine R. Huebner’s “Climate Change in the Breadbasket of the Roman Empire—Explaining the Decline of the Fayum Villages in the Third Century CE” in SLA 4.4 (2020): 486–518 (which is available, for now at least, for free!).

The two articles offer different perspectives on the fate of rural communities in Late Antiquity even though one considers the 3rd century and the other the 4th-6th. Lewit applies “Community Resilience Theory” to the apparent resilience of rural communities in the Eastern Mediterranean during the period often associated with a general contraction of settlement or, at very least, a political, military, and religious turmoil. She argues that many communities remained viable and in some cases prospered owing to a four-part, reciprocating capacities for (1) economic development, (2) information and communication, (3) social capital, and (4) community competence (Lewit 54). She argues that attention to these capacities has the potential to restore human actors to the Late Roman landscape and nudges back against arguments that tend to see humans as subject to the vagaries of disease, the environment, and economic forces that are beyond their control. In Lewit’s model communities find ways to work together to neutralize threats, take advantage of opportunities, and develop new strategies even amid particular volatile conditions (such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Boxing Day Tsunami). She considers the role of long-standing extra-regional political, military, economic, and religious connections, the social capital provided by the church, and technological innovations in oil and olive presses at the community level and argues that these both reflect and contributed to a capacity sufficient to overcome systemic disruptions. Lewit considers these capacities to reflect the resilience backed into the social fabric local communities which allowed the to survive even as the state failed. (The contemporary political message here is not explicit, but hardly unclear. Her arguments seem to dwell in the grey area between anarchy and idealized notions of neoliberal self-reliance. Don’t worry; we got this.)

Huebner’s article draws upon the growing body of climatological and environmental data from the Eastern Mediterranean to argue that the decline in the Fayum Villages in the 3rd century may related to the failures of the Nile floods. Using papyrological and historical evidence, she shows that communities at the “end” of various irrigation systems suffered particularly grievously in the 3rd century. Many of the villages experienced depopulation and shifted from cultivating to at least partially pastoral livelihoods. Some of the larger estates appear to have fallen into arrears or been seized. Pleas to improve existing irrigation channels and complaints that upstream villages were using too much water demonstrated the interdependence of social and environmental relations at times of particular duress.

It is worth noting, however, that Huebner’s denizens of the Fayum villages were not the helpless subjects of environmental forces that Lewit props up a straw-people in her introduction. Even if their appeals for aid or intervention were not enough to reverse the course of the 3rd century decline in the region, the willingness of the population to leave the villages suggests a kind of social resilience that is not tied necessarily to places in the landscape. It’s difficult for archaeology (or even social history) to trace the movement of populations in antiquity and to understand how relatively short-term (i.e. less than a century) and relatively regional migrations represented viable strategies to adapt to changing conditions. 

Huebner’s analysis of Fayum villages, then, did not understand them as helpless subjects, but in some cases, communities less committed to an archaeologically discernible sense of place than those investing in the monumental houses that stand on Syria’s limestone massif. In effect, the architectural remains of these villages make the resilience of those communities visible (although to be fair to Lewit, they were not the only case-studies in her argument, but just among the best known). In contrast, communities who decided to move from their homes in the Fayum may not have dissipated, but like contemporary immigrants, leverage regional networks to preserve social ties while adapting to regional challenges.

In short, these two articles offer an interesting view of how archaeological and documentary evidence allow us to speak in different ways about community resilience and how these views of the past are invariably shaped by (or at very least suggest) particular ideological positions that are relevant in contemporary society. These two articles, wherever one comes down on them, are perfect seminar fodder (for an imagined seminar).  

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