I enjoyed Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle so much that I’m now reading a book Brown highly recommended, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, by Chris Wickham. I already like two things very much about Wickham’s approach: he covers the Byzantine, Islamic, and Eastern European worlds on a par with Western Europe, and he is resolutely anti-teleological, saying:
Any reading of the Roman empire in the fifth century only in terms of the factors which led to its break-up, of Merovingian Francia only in terms of what led to Charlemagne’s power and ambitions, of tenth-century papal activity only in terms of what led to ‘Gregorian reform’, of the economic dynamism of the Arab world only in terms of its (supposed) supersession by Italian and then north European merchants and producers, is a false reading of the past. Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap.
Here’s what he has to say about one of the things that bound the disparate halves of the Roman Empire together:
A shared culture perhaps marked the Roman senatorial and provincial aristocracies most, for it was based on a literary tradition. Every western aristocrat had to know Virgil by heart, and many other classical Latin authors, and be able to write poetry and turn a polished sentence in prose; in the East it was Homer. The two traditions, in Latin and Greek, did not have much influence on each other by now [c. 400], but they were very dense and highly prized.There was a pecking-order based on the extent of this cultural capital. Ammianus reports scornfully that senators in Rome, the supposed crème de la crème, only really read Juvenal, a racy and satirical poet, so by implication not the difficult texts; whether or not this was true, it was a real insult. Conversely, literary experts, such as Ausonius in the West and Libanios (d. c. 393) in the East, could rise fast and gain imperial patronage and office simply because of their writing – in Libanios’ case so fast that he was accused of magic – although both were already landowners of at least medium wealth. The emperor Julian in his attempt to reverse Christianization tried to force Christian intellectuals to teach only the Bible, not the pagan classics, thus enclosing them in a ghetto of inferior prose. This failed, but the assumptions behind such an enactment clearly show the close relationship between traditional culture and social status. Some Christian hard-liners responded by rejecting Virgil, but this failed too: by the fifth century the aristocracy knew both Virgil (or Homer) and the Bible, and might add to these some of the new Christian theologians too, Augustine in the West or Basil of Caesarea in the East, both of whom were good stylists.
I love Ammianus’s dig; I guess the current equivalent would be claiming a politician you disliked only reads People magazine.