A Social and Cultural History of Late Antiquity

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Douglas Boin
(Wiley Blackwell Social and Cultural Histories of the Ancient World)
  • Hoboken, NJ: 
    John Wiley & Sons
    , March
     2018.
     320 pages.
     $44.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199333479.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Douglas Boin’s new book is the last in a new series of books, produced by Wiley-Blackwell, that explores the social and cultural worlds of the Mediterranean basin in antiquity. As a textbook, this book is ambitious. No other book that covers late antiquity is quite like it. It has all the usual trappings of a textbook: chapters with study questions at the end; boxed items; timelines and maps; abundant illustrations. The list of abbreviations is helpfully annotated for late antique neophytes; there are no footnotes. The writing style throughout is chatty and encouraging, making this a wonderful guide for any high school Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum or introductory undergraduate history of late antiquity class. Boin works extremely hard to make the subject engaging which, let’s face it, can be a hard sell, as the Roman Empire is a tough act to follow. Boin takes advantage of continuing interest in all things Roman in American culture and education by using the empire as a sort of reference point for late antiquity: it is a post-Roman culture only made intelligible by the empire itself, just as it is an extra-Roman culture that can only be grasped by considering how not-Roman it was. Thus, Part 1 begins with “The ‘Vanishing’ of Rome,” and Part 3 ends with 6th- and 7th-century South Asia, China, Central Asia, and ultimately, the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. 

At the same time, Boin aims to make history not just about grand political moments but intimate moments as well. This intimacy comes across from focusing on people—fairly ordinary people or, at least, those generally unknown to non-specialists—such as Rutilius Namatianus and his poetry as he flees Rome following the sack of 410 CE, or on small things: coins; clay bread molds; a silver plate adorned with the image of Constantius II. What you won’t really find here is a focus on major figures such as Augustine, Constantine, or Justinian. They are there, but set in their proper proportion to their era, as they should be. In fact, Boin is so iconoclastic with abandoning a slavish adherence to canonical figures and themes that he rejects traditional categories for late antique history such as “Church and State” and begins his section on power (chapter 4) with a subsection on Mithras and Mithraism, followed closely by a subsection on “The Material Culture of Sasanian Persia.” I applaud him. The downside is that such a book may be hard to integrate into a more traditionally scopic approach to late antiquity that one might find in more conservative survey courses. The only solution, I imagine, would be to use this book exclusively, along with judicious assignments of primary sources, for any course on late antiquity at the undergraduate level. Would this, could this happen? I am not entirely sure, but I would like it to be so.

This book does not engage religion as a separate, reified category, and properly so. Instead, most of the content here that addresses religion falls under other categories, such as within the chapter on community (which has subsections on, for example, “the Jewish community,” and Christian monastic communities in Egypt), or else in the chapter entitled “The Household and Family,” where we find sections on house-churches and church leadership as well as Jerome’s correspondence with two unnamed Christian elite women in Gaul (201-203). Even the subsection on the emergence of the papacy in Rome is tucked in under the subheading “Households and the Emergence of the Papacy in Rome.” Boin refuses to fetishize and isolate religion; more books on late antiquity should follow suit. But Boin writes as someone trained in classics, history, and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin; his interdisciplinary focus tends toward balancing macro- and micro-historical approaches and to painting the late antique world with broad, deft brushstrokes. Scholars of religion may be disappointed to find so little in their field, but there is no question that they will emerge from reading this book with a better sense of the manner in which religious identity and affiliation was only one facet of individual and community life in the late antique Mediterranean. 

A small critique I have of an otherwise very useful and well-written book is that the boxed texts can be a bit jarring, often floating and disconnected from the main text. There are a lot of them—sixty-four, in fact—divided into four sections: (1) Exploring Culture; (2) Key Debates; (3) Political Issues; and (4) Working with Sources. Of these, the “Political Issues” category seems the most diffuse and perhaps occasionally obtuse. It includes items such as “Cemetery Workers and a Guild Recruited for Mob Violence,” and “What Effect Did the Rise of Islam Have on Daily Life in the Christian Roman Empire?” At least one of the boxed items is already out-of-date: the section “Late Antiquity Found at the Start of the Twenty-First Century” (Key Debates 1.1) invokes the problematic Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment, without mention that it is now unquestionably considered a forgery. But such is the danger of trying to remain topical and current; each of our books freezes an analytical moment in time—this is true of all scholarship—while things inevitably move on. Sometimes we are right; sometimes we are wrong. We are inevitably a product of our current academic moment. 

Whether Boin’s work will help to “mainstream” our current academic moment in which many of us turn our gaze to late antiquity remains to be seen. I can only hope it does, for there is much to be gained by thinking through the monumental changes in the fascinating era from the 3rd through the 7th century and from breaking free, as Boin does, from a strictly Western historical focus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicola Denzey Lewis is Margo L. Goldsmith Chair of Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Boin is Professor in the Department of History at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of Ostia in Late Antiquity and Coming Out Christian in the Roman World.

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