Kristina Sessa

CUP (2018) p/b 250pp £21.99 (ISBN 9780521766104)

It is a long time since such titles populated the school library shelves, and seeing this available for review conjured up hours spent with Carcopino and Cowell. It also moved one to wonder if such a title could be fulfilled anymore, not just because some modern historiographical theory casts doubt on the viability of such a text, but because, however you define it, Late Antiquity is big, in most dimensions. So wisely S. has confined herself to AD 250-600, before and after which the same historical models do not sit comfortably, and, where necessary, to a binary East/West division of themes. And all that being the case, the book works.

First, the shape of the text. It is aimed at upper school early undergraduate level, and is unashamedly didactic in its approach. It opens with a general overview of the period and advice on how to use the text, with particular reference to the further reading sections at the end of each chapter. There are notes and an index at the back.

Subjects covered include rural and urban life, the household, the presence of the state in daily life, the life of the mind and body, and religion. It would be quite impossible not to cover elements of these aspects of life pre-AD 250 if we are to understand the post-AD 250 political and social environment, and readers should be prepared for this. Though agriculture may remain basically the same (the route from field to plate is not going to change much in antiquity), how it was exploited certainly did change. The primary responsibility of the field was to pay the rent. Any grain left over was mostly for personal consumption. Because profit margins on grain were so low, farmers took a ‘just enough’ approach, unless the state was leaning on them for contributions to the annona, or the landowner had the benefit of scale. Slave owning becomes less attractive, and migrant labour accounts for the highly seasonal work. Especially in the West we find peasants seeking out landlords who will set aside zero-hours contracts and provide services and protection as well as employment. Tenants could be registered to work to generate taxes, and were entered on the municipal tax rolls. They became tied to the land, as were their children. To be in this colonate brought advantages, like increased security, but often at the price of land bondage, if not slavery.

The army, of course, maintained its military and policing roles, but morphed, sometimes quite radically, to meet the changing needs of imperial protection. In both structure and population, the Late Antique army does not look much like the Republican or early Imperial. Cities changed too as they came under similar and other pressures. In the West we see cases of walls going up, public spaces becoming neglected, church building, intramural inhumation and garbage disposal. Aqueducts are replaced by wells and cisterns. The East seems to have fared better in this period with more examples of personal patronage (take a look at Ephesus). Rome, of course, was transformed by religious patronage.

But in Late Antiquity, two aspects of life were assured: taxation and religion. In the case of the latter, S. focuses on Pagans, Christians, Jews and Manichaeans. What might be a surprise is that, though Manichaeans and Pagans were pretty rigid about where they stood and what they did to be properly religious, Christians were happy to decorate the same house with a mixture of Christian and pagan imagery (mosaics with Bacchus were a favourite), and indulge in pagan literature, while the synagogue might contain an astrological mosaic alongside other permitted iconography. But perhaps it is not so surprising to see (apparent) elements of paganism in Christian practice (what could generically be called ‘magic’), when in our atheistic environment we might still implore God or Christ, or when the wholly theistic Victorian might have expressed surprise ‘by Jove’.

Though some of this material will be familiar from other sources, there is still much of interest here.

Adrian Spooner

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