Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean by Jonathan Conant

Book Review by Ian Hughes

It seems obvious to modern perspectives that at the height of the Roman Empire anyone living within the bounds of the Empire was ‘Roman’. However, it is also obvious that on the boundaries the degree to which the inhabitants accepted their ‘Romanness’ is open to interpretation. Even more crucially, as the Empire decayed there arises the question of how later citizens viewed themselves, especially in those regions which came under the control of the ‘Barbarian Successor States’.

The region which may be seen as suffering the greatest dislocation is that of the Diocese of Africa. The Western parts were overrun by the Arian Vandals in 435. The Eastern parts were then conquered by the Vandals in 439 and in 442 the Western parts were returned to Imperial control. The Eastern parts remained under Vandal rule between 439 and the Byzantine conquest of 533. As a result, the Roman citizens in Africa Proconsularis and the surrounding areas began the fifth century as citizens of the Western Roman Empire, then became ‘citizens’ of the Arian Vandal kingdom, before finally rejoining the Roman Empire, but this time as citizens of the Eastern Empire.

In ‘Staying Roman’, Conant has attempted to answer the question of how the inhabitants of the region reacted to these violent changes, especially with regard to the political and religious changes to which they were subjected. To do this the book contains seven chapters, plus an Introduction and a Conclusion:

1 The Legitimation of Vandal Power
2 Flight and Communications
3 The Old Ruling Class Under the Vandals
4 New Rome, New Romans
5 The Moorish Alternative
6 The Dilemma of Dissent
7 Aftermath

In slightly more detail, the first chapter analyses the measures taken by the Vandal Kings in order to impose their legitimacy on their subjects and the wider Mediterranean world. The second chapter then traces the movement of fifty four individuals who left Africa, plus the archaeological remnants of items such as African red slip ware (ARS), in an attempt to assess how deeply Vandal Africa remained embedded within the political, social and economic fabric of the pan-Mediterranean ‘Roman’ culture.

In this chapter the reader comes up against the first difficulty faced by any attempt to use prosopographies as valid statistical entities. The fact that Conant only has access to the travels of fifty four important people, out of a population in the hundreds of thousands, clearly demonstrates that statistically such a small number has only limited potential for analysis. In addition, and as Conant accepts, caution is needed regarding the role of ‘social status in the creation of the surviving documentary record’ with the result that the sources ‘over-emphasise the presence of nobles and bishops travelling to and from Africa’ (p.69/pp.70-1). However, given the limited nature of the evidence, Conant manages to draw a number of reasonable conclusions, in some cases by relying on corroborating evidence from a prosopography of ‘over 1,900 individuals with connections to North Africa in the period from AD 439 to 700’. Conant also manages to uncover some uncomfortable facts concerning the Roman Empire, such as the (possible) selling by the Vandals of Roman citizens as slaves to people in the East.

In the third chapter Conant assesses the effectiveness of Vandal attempts to cement their rule by looking at how successful they were in reconciliating the Romano-African elite to the change in rulers. Here, Conant suggests that the Vandals were judged by ‘Roman standards’. Yet this would appear to be obvious given the fact that the Vandals quickly became enamoured of Roman lifestyles and hurriedly glossed over the fact that they had arrived as invading ‘barbarians’.

In the next chapter Conant assesses the means by which the Byzantine reconquest attempted to ‘re-Romanize’ Africa, and the problems the ‘Easterners’ faced in the attempt. There appear to have been three main difficulties. One was the fact that the conquering Byzantines were, on the whole, Greek-speakers, whereas the natives of Africa would speak Latin or their own versions of native antique languages such as Punic. A second was that Africa had followed the Western political system until the Vandal conquest, and the imposition of a new system from the East meant a third change in government– although how far this affected relations is not analyzed in any depth. The third, that the Nicene Church in Africa was a Western foundation, aligned with Rome and the old Western Empire rather than the ‘Orthodox’ East, is dealt with in Chapter 6. This would lead to some religious conflict over the next two centuries.

Possibly one of the most interesting chapters now follows, analyzing the impact of the semi-autonomous ‘Moorish’ kingdoms upon the Roman provinces. These interactions were complicated both by the Moors’ inclination to ‘rebel’, and as a consequence the interpretation by Roman writers of the Moors as ‘barbarian outsiders’ despite the fact that the Moors themselves tended to work within a Roman framework.

Chapter 6 deals with the dilemma posed by an Eastern Emperor with claims to religious hegemony faced with a Nicene Christian Church in Africa that was unhappy with the situation. Conant even ends the chapter with the trial of Maximus Confessor, a Nicene usually seen as being opposed to Imperial rule. Instead, Conant suggests that Maximus was opposed to the concept that ‘the emperor could define Christian doctrine’, rather than the Empire itself. Such reinterpretation remains at the heart of Conant’s hypothesis.

Finally, Chapter 7 has a brief examination of the region after the Muslim conquest. In some ways this is the most interesting section, as it suggests that both Christianity and a feeling of ‘Romanness’ continued long after Africa had been political removed from any last remnants of Imperial rule.

Overall, the book suffers from the same problems as all books attempting to analyze political and social trends in the ancient world: the statistical basis for the analysis is very narrow. As a result, the conclusions drawn are heavily biased, especially for the early years of Vandal rule, and at times the book can appear repetitive as the author is forced to rely on the same fragments of information in order to reach his conclusions.

In addition, the book also has a difficulty that all books following a themed approach have: namely, that the use of information from different periods means that in order to be used as the author –or the investigation - requires, the context within which the information was originally placed is either ignored or minimized, as otherwise the information may not quite follow the pattern required.

Due to the need to fit the facts into an overriding theory, some odd comments also appear in the text. For example, Conant claims that for the Byzantine reconquest of Africa Belisarius was either given or requested officers who mainly came from Thrace, as this meant that he ‘could trust them’ (p.229f). Sadly, Conant seems unaware that these same officers then caused major difficulties for Belisarius during the Italian campaign due to their disloyalty and interference in Belisarius’ plans. As a result, Conant’s hypothesis is open to question.

Yet these slight criticisms should not deter potential readers. Much of the analysis included is thought-provoking and has ramifications both for the study of the Vandal Conquest and for East-West relations after the reconquest of Africa. The book is available for c.£20/$33 at the time of writing this review, which is a very reasonable price, and, coupled with the content, makes the book compulsory reading for those interested in the breakdown of the Roman West.

Ian Hughes has a MA in Ancient History and Society from Cardiff University and is the author of Belisarius: The Last Roman General; Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome; Imperial Brothers: Valentinian, Valens and the Disaster at Adrianople; and Patricians and Emperors: The Last Rulers of the Western Roman Empire.

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