Unlike modern nationalist movements whose origin stories usually link “nations” to seemingly pure ethnic groups in an ancient past, late ancient narratives of identity followed the Classical tradition in often hooking their heritage to a specific mythical, semi-divine founder. An obvious example of this practice is the story in Livy and others about Romulus, who ascended to the heavens after founding the city of Rome. Late ancient philosophical schools had a similar convention, imagining a “chain of Hermes” that connected eminent figures such as Proclus1 through a golden string of links to the god and thus to divine wisdom. Equivalent is the Christian notion of apostolic succession in bishops like Irenaeus of Lyon, who assert that the truth of their teachings rested on their participation in an unbroken line of community leaders reaching back through the apostles' first successors and ultimately to Christ.
In this issue of Studies in Late Antiquity, all of the articles as well as the exhibit review engage with the idea of connection to human or material touchstones that function as the beating heart of a given community. For example, picture how the restored ruins of the Colosseum serve as an icon of the city of Rome. Michelle L. Berenfeld's review of the recent exhibit, Colosseo: Un'icona, in Rome shows clearly “how the Colosseum has been a magnet for imagined identities,” from the center of ancient martyrdom for early Christians to the symbol of Rome's centrality to the modern nation of Italy.
Of course, even Rome's legendary history is more complicated than a single monument can convey. And haunting Rome's ancient hills, the ghost of Remus exposes the fraternal strife that may underpin a community's claim to legitimacy through one authoritative, divinely connected founder. Two articles in this issue develop this theme. For example, Paul Robertson, in “The Polemic of Individualized Appellation in Late Antiquity: Creating Marcionism, Valentinianism, and Heresy,” shows clearly how late ancient Christians such as Eusebius of Caesarea challenged the authority of certain teachings by linking them to human founders. In designating groups Marcionists or Valentinians, these “heresiologists” denied their rivals the label “Christian,” severing the chain of apostolic succession in the process. We too risk perpetuating that polemic (and so implicitly maintaining these links and factions), Robertson cautions, by unreflectively referring to such groups in our scholarship.
Heresiologists denied communities membership in the body of Christ based on information manifest through ink scrawls on a papyrus page or words pronounced by human bodies. Bodies themselves became evidence for the legitimacy of religious communities in Adam Bursi's article, “A Holy Heretical Body: Talha b. ‘Ubayd Allāh's Corpse and Early Islamic Sectarianism.” Here, rival communities used narratives about the state of a martyr's remains to distinguish true teachings from false. In this case, Sunnī narratives depict Talha b. ‘Ubayd Allāh “as a saintly martyr whose body lay incorrupt in his grave” and so as a true Companion of the prophet. Shī'a accounts vilify him, however, portraying him in death as “a decaying corpse disintegrating in the dirt,” and so denying his link to the divine.
Pilgrimage routes, whether traced by late ancient Muslim worshippers to a Companion's tomb or Christians travelling to the pool where they believed Jesus healed the blind, are also human chains connecting communities to the divine. The way these routes wend through a city can also reveal the shifting power among a city's resident groups. For example, Yana Tchekhanovets' article, “Recycling the Glory of Byzantium: New Archaeological Evidence of Byzantine-Islamic Transition in Jerusalem,” explores the transformation of a major Christian pilgrimage route into an industrial zone during the Umayyad period. In particular, she shows how luxurious marble veneers and pieces of bronze liturgical vessels became raw materials for limekilns and metallurgical workshops. These remnants reifying the presence of early Christian pilgrims serve also as threads tying the street's new commercial inhabitants to a former time.