Post-Roman Transitions by Walter Pohl and Gerda Heydemann
Book Review by Ian Hughes
Both the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the successor ‘Barbarian Kingdoms’ have been the subject of much scholarly debate. However, this has tended to focus on the political events at the highest levels. A subject that has received far less attention is the reaction of the ‘Romans’ living in the new kingdoms to their loss of Roman status, and how their self-identities changed to meet the demands of a new world. ‘Post-Roman Traditions’ contains twelve papers, each dealing with the self-perception and fluidity of identity of individuals in a world where changing political boundaries and affiliations were the norm.
On the whole, history books can be divided into two camps: books aimed at the academic market, and those for the general reader. Without doubt, this book belongs in the former category. Throughout, references are made to works by other authors with which the reader is assumed to be intimate, and, as a result, of the 580 pages in the book over 100 pages are given over to bibliographies. Furthermore, the final two articles are in German and Italian respectively, a factor which many Anglophones will find annoying, as the majority will only be able to read one of the articles at most. Finally, and conclusively, at the time of writing the book costs £95/$165. This places it far beyond the means of the average reader and may result in the contents not becoming known to the general public for several years.
This is a pity, as despite the academic tone the articles in the book range from good to excellent, with all of them being thought-provoking. Focusing on the period from the Fall of the West to the Merovingian era, by which time the majority of the medieval kingdoms had come into existence, the theme of the book is identity, and especially how individuals and communities reacted to the loss of their status as Roman citizens, and how the change to a ‘Germanic’ identity was accomplished. Therefore there are articles covering, for example, the Burgundians, the peoples of Spain, the West Saxons, and the Vandals.
With this in mind it is worth including the ‘Contents’ of the book:
Section 1: Scripts for Identity — Resources of the Past
Who is Allowed to Pray for the King? Saint-Maurice d’Agaune and the Creation of a Burgundian Identity - Albrecht Diem
Patria, peregrinatio, and paenitentia: Identities of Alienation in the Seventh Century - Alexander O’Hara
Religiones and gentes in Isidore of Seville’s Chronica maiora - Jamie Wood
Adventus, Warfare, and the Britons in the Development of West Saxon Identity - John-Henry Clay
Arrivano i barbari a cavallo! Foundation Myths and Origines gentium in the Adriatic Arc - Francesco Borri
Tuscans as gens? Shaping Local Identities and Communities in Early Medieval Tuscany - Marco Stoffella
Section 2: Romanness and Otherness — Signs of Distinction and their Ambiguities
Who Were the Romans? Shifting Scripts of Romanness in Early Medieval Italy - Maya Maskarinec
The Fading Power of Images: Romans, Barbarians, and the Uses of a Dichotomy in Early Medieval Archaeology - Philipp von Rummel
Remembering the Warriors: Weapon Burials and Tombstones between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages in Northern Italy - Irene Barbiera
Who is the Barbarian? Considerations on the Vandal Royal Title - Roland Steinacher
Die Wahrnehmung der nichtfrankischen Volker in der merowingerzeitlichen Historiographie - Gerald Krutzler
Scritture nazionali e aree culturali: le epigrafi tra forme, contenuti e trasmissioni testuali in Italia e nell’Europa altomedievale - Flavia De Rubeis
The major difficulty faced by the reader, apart from the scholarly nature of the papers, will be the fact that the diverse nature of the peoples and time-span covered may result in some of these papers either being of little or only passing interest to the non-academic, or of them covering areas with which the reader is non-conversant. Nevertheless, the book will be of great interest to anybody fascinated in how people coped with the change from being citizens of an empire that at one point covered territory from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, to that of being citizens of small, regional powers based upon non-Roman invaders.
Obviously, a reader’s interests will determine which of the articles appeal, but even reading those which may not at first sight tempt can provide the reader with thought-provoking ideas. Possibly the most obvious, but usually the least regarded, of these is that even before the ‘End of Empire’ many ‘Romans’ had lost faith in the Empire and transferred their loyalty to much smaller, parochial entities, in many cases focused around religious centres – hence the importance of local religious elites.
Yet the diverse nature also helps to highlight the difficulties being faced by diverse peoples, so allowing comparisons between both contemporaries and those of different centuries. As a result, concepts specific to a single paper can be used to inform reflection upon others. This cross-referencing is an extremely useful tool, in that it can highlight possibilities not previously considered.
In addition, some of the papers help to address further specific issues. An example of this is the paper by Francesco Borri, which analyses the foundation stories of the ‘Adriatic Arc’. This includes that of Venice, and in so doing helps both to dispel any myths which still survive, as well as exploring the creation of such stories in their context. The Fall of the West and the rise of the barbarian kingdoms had a deep and profound impact upon the psyche of the individuals living at the time.
Yet there is one great hurdle to overcome for the reader: this is an ‘academic’ rather than a ‘popular’ book, and so aims to question some of the ‘accepted’ theories concerning Late Antiquity, and is a prime example of the changes taking place in historical interpretation. Nowhere is this demonstrated more than with the paper by Irene Barbiera. Barbiera’s analysis of burial archaeology challenges the standard differentiation between ‘Germanic’ and ‘Imperial’ warrior graves. This is an important paper, in that it demonstrates that the accepted distinction between the two is nowhere as clear cut as previously believed. The consequences of the analysis could be widespread, as it challenges the accepted norm of Romano-barbarian relationships, and of their archaeological interpretation. Yet this paper is not alone. The other papers can be seen as just as important to new research, as their interpretations may give a new context in which to analyse the Fall of the West and the Emergence of the Middle Ages.
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To conclude, this book is very highly recommended to any students of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire or of the early Middle Ages. One of the great difficulties when writing for a general audience is the time-lag between the formation of historical theory by academics and its transmission to the general reader, and sadly the high cost of this book and its scholarly nature mean that it is likely to be available only to academics with access to specialist university libraries, so exacerbating the situation.
This is a shame, as its contents are thought-provoking, and it is recommended that anybody interested in the period attempt to gain access to a copy of the book, as the topics discussed and the conclusions arrived at are deserving of a wide audience.