A Fragmented Field?

Interesting observations on the state of ‘late antique studies’ from Raymond Van Dam in a review of Stephen Mitchell’s recent History of the Later Roman Empire:

Late antique studies is now transitioning into its middle age. This field was begotten between the late 1950s and the early 1970s with the publication of H.-I. Marrou’s revised Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, A. H. M. Jones’ The Later Roman Empire, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. During the subsequent decades the field has flourished beyond all expectations. Now it seems to be passing through a phase of retrospection, and sometimes even regret over some developments. One sign of such introspection is the series of recent books and articles celebrating the anniversaries of earlier books and articles in the field, mostly by Peter Brown. Another is the publication, or impending publication, of Guides, Handbooks, and Companions that try to survey the entire enterprise. Yet another is the recent publication of vast narrative histories that focus in particular on the transition to the barbarian kingdoms of western medieval Europe…. Late antique studies has apparently paused for a moment to take stock of its many accomplishments.

He continues with a more specific criticism of Mitchell’s vision of late antiquity:

…scholars should think hard about the value of the interpretive viewpoint and organizing framework of Mitchell’s book. Since its emergence as a scholarly field, one of the attractions of late antique studies has been its capacity for the intermingling of disparate topics and approaches. Once late antiquity had the potential to become the sort of holistic history that the Annalistes used to dream about. Politics, religion, family, culture, warfare and frontiers, literature: once it seemed possible to develop a unified field theory for all these different aspects of Mediterranean and Near Eastern society. In contrast, these days scholarship on late antiquity seems to be disintegrating in different directions. The center cannot hold, and the increasing fragmentation has led to the appearance of niche subfields that vigorously defend their turf. Two subfields in particular, one long-established and very large, the other quite new and still small, have yet to be fully integrated in late antique studies. Scholars of patristic studies have long kept themselves separate, with seemingly limited interest in the comparative studies or theoretical viewpoints that might imply that Christianity should be studied like other religions. The strongly theological and devotional scholarship of traditional patristic studies has instead become a parallel universe to late antique studies. Scholars committed to postmodern approaches, such as Foucauldian and feminist interpretations, likewise often sacrifice social and cultural contexts in favor of a reliance on transcendent ideological truths.

These are good points. And perhaps what is true for ‘patristric studies’ and ‘critical theory’ in this case is also true to some extent for archaeology. The kind of political history that Mitchell mainly presents is rarely compatible with the type of material that archaeologists dig out of the ground. To be fair, Mitchell has wide experience with fieldwork in Asia Minor and includes more archaeological material in his book than some other historians would. But there is still a discrepancy and at times uneasy dialogue between the ‘top view’ of his historical narrative and the ‘bottom view’ of the archaeology. From this perspective, late antique archaeology potentially faces the danger of being sidelined from the mother discipline of ‘late antique studies’. The challenge, then, is for everyone in the field of ‘late antique studies’ to think at multiple scales and to critically revisit old paradigms – in much the same way that the field was originally formulated. A good example that it is possible to integrate the two approaches in a coherent narrative is found in Neil Christie’s recent book on late antique Italy (2006). As Van Dam concludes in his review of Mitchell’s late antique history:

…an opportunity to offer a new survey of the later Roman empire is also an opportunity to imagine how a new history might be written. Political and military history should be yet another aspect of cultural studies, not a rival or an alternative, and the primary evidence and the ancient witnesses cannot “speak for themselves” (xiv) until they have been translated into modern interpretive paradigms. Rather than merely having its traditional contours updated with recent bibliography, the framework of late Roman studies would significantly benefit from being reconfigured into entirely new and thoroughly contemporary thematic patterns.

Neil Christie. 2006. From Constantine to Charlemagne. An Archaeology of Italy, AD 300-800. Aldershot: Ashgate.

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