restricted access Preface

From: 428 AD

Princeton University Press colophon
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• PREFACE • I    of the best history writing that it makes us rethink what we thought we knew. Giusto Traina’s book is no exception. His idea was both simple and brilliant—to approach the period we now call “Late Antiquity” by taking just one year and presenting its events and its regional contexts in a panoramic perspective round the Mediterranean world and its appendages, from Iran in the east to Britain in the west. The year is  . We might have expected a more traditional date, such as  , the traditional date for the “end of the Roman Empire,” when the last Roman emperor in the West was deposed, or perhaps  , when Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths, an event which prompted the heartfelt questionings that are reflected in St. Augustine ’s great work The City of God. Traina’s choice of , the year that marks the end of the Kingdom of Armenia, occurred naturally enough to a historian who is the author of many studies of Armenia in the Roman and early Christian period, but, as he tells us in his Introduction, it was only as he sought to understand the context of that event that he had the felicitous idea of making the year  the focus of an essay which surveys the state of the entire Roman Empire and its near neighbors. It was an intriguing and highly successful choice. In the first place the choice of a single year subverts the otherwise often sterile debate about the “fall of the Roman Empire” (which, after all, was a historical process rather than an event, and not one that can be reduced to a single set of occurrences). Secondly, by taking a geographical and panoramic view, starting with the Kingdom of Armenia on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire, and ending with Iran, a point even further east, after a circular tour which has reached Britain, the farthest extent of the empire in the west, he encourages us to rethink our ideas about overall historical causation. How does what happens in North Africa in  relate to the situation in Gaul, or does it? How do the regions relate to the center, and what are the cultural interactions between imperial x P R E F A C E territories and neighboring areas? But with his emphasis on a single year Traina also encourages us to focus again on chronology. One of the characteristics of the rather recent discipline of “Late Antiquity” or “late antique studies” is its broad chronological sweep, from the third century to the seventh, or even continuing as late as  .1 Some have felt that this sweep has been achieved at the expense of the diachronic perspective which is the essence of historical writing; Traina’s choice of bringing a single year into sharp focus reminds us in a salutary manner not only of the unexpected juxtapositions of history, but also of the crucial role of events, expected or not. It is all the more salutary that  is not the obvious choice of date, except perhaps for historians of Armenia like Traina himself. This is a device which in a single stroke cuts through and turns upside down the huge mass of current writing about periodization which often seems in danger of engulfing the very subject it is designed to elucidate.2 Historical change proceeds at different speeds in different regions, but events matter and so do speci fic contexts. The emphasis of Traina’s book is on simultaneity rather than on a chronological sweep, but he gives us a perspective on a whole world, not a discussion of the Roman Empire of late antiquity. The effect is exhilarating. We tend to think of history in terms of narrative—the chronological story of events. Yet when the canvas is so large as to encompass the entire Mediterranean world and beyond, it is as hard when contemplating the past as it is in the modern world to grasp the differing situations in places and regions so vastly far apart. Rather than telling a story, Traina provides some vivid and imaginative sketches of particular places, especially Ravenna, since   the “young capital” of the Roman court in the West and destined to be the seat of the Ostrogothic kings. In the early fifth century the bishop who presided over this marshy city was Peter Chrysologus (“golden orator”), and the mosaics in its churches paraded a harmonious orthodoxy personi fied by the figure of...


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