Current Assessments of Late Antiquity

(or, why we need better PR)


Since I’ve been thinking about the nature of the field of Late Antiquity lately, I was excited to see Marginalia Review of Books host an open forum on Late Antiquity and the New Humanities. I was particularly interested in the third essay in the forum by Anthony Kaldellis, “Late Antiquity Dissolves.” Kaldellis attempts to summarize the current state of Late Antiquity by looking at the prevailing methodological concerns that dominate the field and noting where he thinks thinks there is cause for concern. Interestingly, I found his summaries of the state of the field to be exactly the things I am excited about as I work in Late Antiquity.

His first note of criticism, however, is one that I’ve had some concern about. Here is the full quote:

First, there is an imperative to turn the sources toward the study of social and cultural history, specifically to reconstruct the ideological value systems that underpinned groups and communities. Texts, their contents, and their authors are treated as instrumental or exemplary in such broader social processes. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it can be pursued to the exclusion of other ways of reading the texts. For example, classical paideia is often seen exclusively as a productive social artifact, a function of elite identity and formation. Rarely is the ideational content of that paideia brought into the discussion. Yet men and women in late antiquity studied, say, Homer and ancient philosophy not only because they wanted to wear them as badges of elite identity and to lubricate social interactions. They — or at least some of them — were also interested in what those authors had to say, because they believed (correctly) that it was relevant to their lives and world. Nor did Homer and Plato speak to the same concerns. Lumping classical authors into a generic socially-defined category effectively precludes the existence of intellectual history in which their ideas, and disputes over those ideas, shaped later debates in different ways. Thus, we have few close readings of the intertextual relations between classical and later writers, readings that are less interested in the social dynamics behind the text and more in the sub-surface semantic politics of the text. Late antique literature has generally not caught up with the standards of Classical Studies in this respect.
Reading texts as expressive of groups can also cause individual authors to dissolve into the background of the social category to which they are assigned. Idiosyncratic authors are useless or annoying from this standpoint. So Prokopios has to be pressed into service as an exponent of imperial ideology; or, if he is allowed to speak against Justinian, he has to be made into the spokesman for a senatorial opposition (whose existence has yet to be proven) or imperial ideology “in general.” This is also why the field loves to use genre as an analytical category: it homogenizes authors. Many classicists instinctively read their authors as challenging and subverting their society and its ideologies, but scholars of late antiquity instinctively treat them as mouthpieces and exponents of them. Some may see this as a virtue, but it is not a debate the field has yet had.

Or, to put it more succinctly: what late antique authors think is just as important as why they think it. Of course, as someone whose research is primarily concerned with the history of ideas, this seems like common sense to me. But lately, I have greatly benefited from the type of research Kaldellis describes as swallowing up what late antique authors think. In particular I am thinking of Susanna Elm’s magnificent work, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church. While I am still primarily concerned with what Gregory of Nazianzus says, Elm’s work has left an indelible mark on my research, and I am now more attentive to how social and cultural history can help illuminate an authors ideas. But, maybe Elm is better classified as a classicist since Kaldellis seems to see Classics as not suffering from the same blindspots as Late Antique studies. Elm seems to be able to balance both social and cultural histories for Gregory of Nazianzus as well as closely reading his texts. Perhaps, however, Elm is just an exception. Or better yet, a signal that the Kaldellis’s concerns are already being addressed in the field.

I also share Kaldellis’s concern that scholars in Late Antiquity are doing a poor job of addressing contemporary issues. Kaldellis’s concern, addressed at the end of the piece, is about what insight Late Antique scholarship can bring about contemporary issues of religion and violence. Similarly, I am concerned that the advances in Late Antique scholarship are not finding their way into other related disciplines. Since I am concerned, as I said, with the history of ideas, and this for the sake of contemporary biblical and theological studies, I spend much of my time informing biblical scholars and theologians that their descriptions of Christianity in Late Antiquity are at best silly caricatures, at worst, completely wrong. Christianity is my particular concern, but I think perhaps the same could be said about other groups as well. In other words, Late Antiquity needs better PR. This is why I am so excited that Marginalia is hosting this open forum and for the contributions from all of the authors. I hope that somehow these essay’s find their way into the hands of biblical scholars and theologians. Kaldellis is concerned that the field will implode; I think the bigger concern is that the field will be trivialized.