Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World: Cultural Interaction and the Creation of Identity in Late Antiquity. Edited by Ralph W. Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer . (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. xix, 378. $99.95.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 201–203, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Okamura, L. (2013), Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World: Cultural Interaction and the Creation of Identity in Late Antiquity. Edited by Ralph W. Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer . (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. xix, 378. $99.95.). Historian, 75: 201–203. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_62
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
The infirmity and collapse of western Rome still excite interest after centuries of anxious investigation. During the twentieth century, E. F. Gautier concluded that a resource-depleted Rome died of old age in Genséric, roi des vandales . Against this view, André Piganiol, in L'Empire chrétien, 325–395 , condemned Germanic predators as Rome's assassins (466). In a posthumously published classic, Henri Pirenne argued that Roman civilization survived its western governance, ending only when Muslims began to dominate sea-lanes in the Mediterranean (Mahomet et Charlemagne ). He thus perceived Roman economic institutions as prolonged until the eighth century and invoked Islam rather than Germanic peoples as the caesura between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages. Following World War II, traditional periodization about Rome and its neighbors underwent major changes. Under rubrics like Die Spätantike and late antiquity, scholars have bypassed earlier quests for nationalist origins and culpability for western Rome's fall, analyzing instead the porous geographic boundaries and the multifaceted identities among Romans and their neighbors.
Scholarship on late antiquity flourishes in North America. The present volume comprises twenty-five stimulating papers written for the sixth biennial international conference on Shifting Frontiers, hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in March 2005. To encourage greater coherence among presentations, the organizers chose to frame them within four themes: 1) “Constructing Images of the Impact and Identity of Barbarians”; 2) “Cultural Interaction on the Roman-Barbarian Frontiers”; 3) “Creating Identity in the Post-Roman World”; and 4) “Epilogue: Modern Constructions of Barbarian Identity.” As a result, the framework and its scrupulously edited papers constitute a research program applicable not only to peoples of western Eurasia but also to indigenes and outsiders in other periods. Some papers treat Roman interactions with less-familiar peoples of late antiquity; for example, Iranians during the Sasanian dynasty (S. McDonough, J. W. Drijvers), steppes-roaming Avars (E. Nechaeva), Nabataean Arabs (J. Moralee), and residents of the borderland between Roman Egypt and independent Nubia (S. Faraji). Germanic peoples, however, form the main leitmotif through most papers. How can a researcher begin to understand them on their own terms when they left no written sources? Physical remains and funerary deposits can give voice to the nonliterate dead, though their precise meaning may elude us. A comprehensive paper by P. Périn and M. Kazanski, for example, demonstrates what material evidence from Gaul can disclose about barbarian ethnicity and culture. The authors point at a distinct, non-Roman ethnic marker—namely, artificially deformed skulls. Skull deformation was practiced by nomadic Alans and Sarmatians during the first and second centuries and was preserved by Huns and associated barbarians in the early fifth century. Another non-Roman cultural practice lay beneath the Germanic sanctuary at Arras, where systematic deposits of skulls suggest a culture of human sacrifice (312–313).
This volume is illustrated by well-selected regional maps, site plans, distribution maps, and line drawings of artifacts. Although the papers address topics of professional interest to specialists, they are engaging, clearly written, and inviting to a broader readership, including highly motivated undergraduates.