Many chronicles of Late Antiquity, whether their authors recorded contemporary events or reflected on a recent past, are full of anguish. Ammianus Marcellinus mourns the death of Julian and the Battle of Adrianople, Zosimus decries the Empire's Christianization and crumbling institutions, John of Ephesus catalogues the horrors of the plague, Salvian finds the Huns more virtuous than his fellow citizens. It is no wonder that Edward Gibbon, Rome's first modern historian, named his account of the Roman Empire's last millennium The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Gibbon's frame so indelibly imprinted itself on the modern consciousness of this period that people seldom noticed its fundamental incoherence: A polity that takes 1000 years to “decline and fall” is doing neither. What weakened and collapsed, as Gibbon contemplated the years from the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE to the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, was less the Roman state than Gibbon's sense that the Empire could serve as any kind of model for his own political community. And to a certain extent all the accounts I mentioned above shared that same disconnection between the values of the author and the communities whose history he records.
A different way of characterizing this period, thus, is not as one of uniformity, where the “Empire” denotes a regime that embraced more or less Romanized, more or less polytheist communities across three continents. Rather Late Antiquity witnessed the building and growth of communities across the Mediterranean with different, sometimes conflicting values. Although we have long noted the growth of new monastic centers and episcopal urban dominion, we scarcely think of Late Antiquity as a time of community building because—following Henri Pirenne—we elided the distinction between “communities” and “cities.” Taken together, the articles in this issue of Studies in Late Antiquity show both the trend of community building and the tensions such developments incur.
A good place to start is with Tamara Lewit's article, “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity.” Archaeological evidence, she notes, indicates that rural communities in the eastern Mediterranean flourished between the fourth and sixth centuries, even witnessing new building, the settlement of marginal land, and energetic agricultural production. To explain this florescence during a time of natural disaster, warfare, and migration, Lewitt turns to “Community Resilience Theory,” an understanding arising from socio-economic research. The theory helps scholars identify factors that, when present within specific communities, allow them to use their resources in a way that enables them to withstand and overcome unfavorable situations. She finds that “a high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and a capacity for cooperation and technological innovation” allowed people in these rural eastern villages to continue to flourish in a time of unsettled natural and political events.
For the fourth and fifth centuries, Martijn Icks finds a certain resilience in the ideological power that the community of Rome had for three claimants to imperial power. In “Three Usurpers in Rome: The Urbs Aeterna in the Representation of Maxentius, Nepotian, and Priscus Attalus,” Icks observes how highly regarded the City was even though most emperors, after Diocletian, no longer resided there. For this reason, he argues, these three claimants to power “sought to employ” Rome's “unique prestige” in order to “strengthen their claims to the purple,” even though the community's volatile crowds and powerful aristocracy could also imperil their standing. Yet although Maxentius, Nepotian, and Priscus Attalus asserted their legitimacy as representatives of the ancient community of Rome, in doing so—and failing—they also illustrated the role that other communities now played in grounding the power and authority of the Roman head of state.
By the sixth century, although the city of Rome had not dominated the western Mediterranean for a long time, the city's cultural capital remained a touchstone for literati, wherever people still wrote in Latin. Raphael Schwitter's article, “A ‘Roman’ Wedding in Vandal Africa,” amply demonstrates this cultural continuity. The African poet Luxurius, Schwitter demonstrates, in writing the Epithalamium Fridi, a nuptial poem in praise of the Vandal noble Fridus and his anonymous bride, ably appropriates earlier models of Roman verse from Statius to Ausonius. Drawing on Scott McGill's Virgil Recomposed, however, Schwitter also explores the “triangular intertextuality” evident in the Epithalamium, i.e., the way in which Luxurius used Virgil to imitate another poet. Within this type of analysis, it becomes clear that not only does Luxurius value the Roman tradition as represented by the poets Statius, Claudian, and Ausonius, but also that a number of idiosyncrasies within Luxurius' poem are also best explained by reading the Epithalamium Fridi against the nuptial poetry of the earlier African writer, Dracontius. For Schwitter, this evidence speaks to the participation of the Vandalic nobility within a vital Romano-African community.
Finally, the article by Francesco Rotiroti reads the Theodosian Code's legislation “On Religion” as a social practice that defines and constructs the Roman political community. Focusing especially on CTh 16.1.2, in his “Religion and the Construction of a Christian Roman Polity: Insanity, Identity, and Exclusion in the Religious Legislation of the Theodosian Code,” he argues that Code constructs the Roman political community by defining those who disagree with its Christian creed as “demented and insane.” Because the charge of insanity was not merely rhetorical, but conformed to the late ancient paradigm of mental illness, so-called heretics warranted exclusion from the rights and protections normally accorded Roman citizens. Thus, Rotiroti concludes, “the boundary of the Roman polity” is not merely defined and described, but is actively constructed through the exclusion and ostracism of “the alien.”