The theme of the book is the historiographical debate on Late Antiquity and its periodization. There has definitely been a turn from Gibbon's categories of decline and fall to an emphasis on continuity and transformation in the study of the last centuries of the Roman Empire. The book is built on papers given at the 22nd International Congress of Historical science in Jinan, China in 2011, on the topic of “Late Antiquity in Contemporary Debate.” Rita Lizzi Testa, Professor of Roman History at the University of Perugia, and an author of numerous books and articles, is the editor. In her introduction she offers a rich and interesting survey of the research history and the problems of defining Late Antiquity. The book has two general themes. One is the definition of the age through periodizations or by methodological approaches. The other is to test the paradigm of transformation, not only on the history of culture, religion, and society, but also on political and legislative structures and on economic and administrative institutions (p. xxxviii).
The contributors write about various topics, but are loyal to the main themes of the book, which are illuminated from different angles. The book has four parts. It starts with “Historiography I.” The theme of the first chapter is “Empire and Aftermath,” where Clifford Ando delves into the literature of decline and fall of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment and describes important features of this literature. In the second chapter, “Crisis, Transition, Transformation: The End of the Roman World and the Usefulness of Useless Categories,” Pablo C. Diaz discusses the consequences and explanatory capacity of the terms that we use.
The second part, “Methodology: Sources and Periodization,” contains two chapters, “Transformation and Transition in the Art of Late Antiquity” (Jutta Dresken-Weiland) and “Defining Late Antiquity through Epigraphy?” (Ignazio Tantillo). In her chapter, Dresken-Weiland studies the tension between change and continuity in Early Christian art and comments on its innovative character and the slow Christianization of everyday objects. This is the only chapter that includes pictures, but her stimulating discussion of artefacts and paintings deserved a better rendering of the illustrations. Tantillo goes through the research history of epigraphic studies. He speaks in favour of searching for an overall picture and at the same time keeping an eye on differences, but stresses that only “an approach that aims at a global comprehension of changes or developments in epigraphic styles … will help to clarify the problem of periodization” (p. 71).
The third part of the book, “Case Studies,” has three chapters. In chapter five, by Gilles Bransbourg, “Reddite quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari: The Late Roman Empire and the Dream of Fair Taxation,” the author describes how “a predatory entity – the Roman Empire” (p. 81) develops into an entity with a rather sophisticated tax system and a growing aspiration for fairness. Noel Lenski's chapter, “Peasant and Slave in Late Antique North Africa, c. 100-600 CE,” is about agricultural labor organization and land tenure in the North African Maghreb over five centuries. The aim is to see whether there was a transformation. He treats the centuries separately, and notes that there was a reduction in the freedom of the farm laborers, before concluding, against Moses Finley, that there is no evidence that Roman North Africa was ever a “slave society” (p. 149). In the seventh chapter, “What is Geo-Ecclesiology: Defining Elements Applied to Late Antiquity (Fourth-Sixth Centuries),” Philippe Blaudeau applies the concept of “geo-ecclesiology,” which is inspired by the concept of “geopolitics” and earlier coined by him, to highlight ecclesiastical issues and theological strife in Late Antiquity.
The fourth part of the book, “Historiography II,” includes the longest of the eight chapters, “The Historical Path of ‘Late Antiquity’: From Transformation to Rupture,” by Jean-Michel Carrié, and “Concluding Remarks: The Birth of a New Short Antiquity,” by Hervé Inglebert. The two chapters are helpful in offering an overall perspective on the historical period (Carrié) and on drawing the chapters together and highlighting the main findings of the book. One of Carrié's main points is that there is continuity between the Early Roman Empire and the Late Roman Empire, and a rupture between the end of antiquity and the Middle Ages (p. 179). Carrié comments on “the originality of Late Antiquity in its continuity with the Roman adventure” (p. 183) as well as in its “break with medieval reconfiguration” (p. 190). He identifies different ruptures at different levels, but stresses the significance of the changes in the “world economy” of the Roman Empire and the major climatic changes during the fifth and sixth centuries.
Hervé Inglebert sums up the main results of the contributors, stresses important findings and ties them together in a way that illuminates the main themes of the book. He speaks about “chronologies of evidence,” which implies that periodization is dependent on how historical singularities are integrated into the definition of a period (p. 216–17). Taken together the papers show, in the words of Inglebert, “how modern representation, types of evidence, patterns of interpretation and knowledge of the realia all combined to build up our understanding of the past” (p. 217). Worth noting also is that all the contributors support a short periodization of Late Antiquity, reaching from the third or fourth to the seventh century. Along with this is a need not to be Romano-centric, but to integrate wider geographical areas in the study of the period.
Inglebert makes the shrewd observation that “the words used by historians are always closer to being present representations than true descriptions of the past” (p. 216). In line with this observation, questions about what the construction of our own time and our perception of self and others mean for the interpretation of the period and for what we see, could, perhaps, have received a separate chapter. How have external influences from world events as well as from contemporary global social and cultural processes played and continue to play their part in the construction of Late Antiquity?
The book is intended for specialists in the different fields of Late Antiquity, but those who are interested in historical periodizations more generally will also find the book stimulating. The chapters change between historiographical overviews and more specialized topics and are rich in examples and quotes from primary sources. The contributors are leading specialists in their fields, who, having taken stock of what has happened in the study of Late Antiquity in the last two generations, suggest where we should go now in this major research area. Late Antiquity in Contemporary Debate is a weighty contribution to the historiographical debate on Late Antiquity and might represent a new historiographical shift in the study of this period with a broadened scope, new interpretative models, and a keener eye for the variety of the sources.