- Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa
The subaltern and disempowered are notoriously difficult subjects of study for scholars of premodern societies, mainly due to the lack of concern for their existence in the dominant literary sources penned mostly by members of the elite. Leslie Dossey has succeeded, against such odds, in producing an important study of North African peasants in Late Antiquity. But this is not a history of peasants, rather an essay on the transformations that affected them during this effervescent period. Her main argument is that the condition of rustics improved in the fourth and fifth centuries through a greater access to Roman commodities and ideas previously available mainly in cities, which caused social, political, and ideological tensions between lower and upper classes. Thus she explains away the stereotypical view of peasants as “rebellious” found in most sources of the period (p. 5). This perception, she argues, was the view of the elite in reaction to the peasants’ transgression of boundaries that had traditionally divided peasants and city-dwellers in Roman culture until the third century. And while this argument and the details of its demonstration are geared toward the student of Late Antiquity and of North Africa in particular, the themes of the book should appeal to a broader audience. Indeed, scholars interested in acculturation and integration, imperialism and colonialism, socioeconomic inequalities and relations between social classes, to name only a few prominent themes, will find fascinating comparative material in this book.
Dossey spins the following story: the Roman conquest of North Africa reduced the level of material comfort that provincials had enjoyed under Carthage’s dominion. Romans made sharp distinctions between the life and comfort level—visible through the remains of their material culture—of towns and country, between elite landowners and their peasant subjects. This situation began to change during the third century, and by the fourth and fifth century, peasants seem to have gained an unprecedented level of prosperity and to have “urbanized” the countryside by gaining access to “Romanized” material comfort and ideas through Christianity. This led to social tensions because, in Dossey’s view, the rustics were crossing socioeconomic, political, and ideological boundaries that elites were trying to maintain. In other words, when the peasants blurred the distinction between their lower socioeconomic status and the higher status of their masters through what has been labeled “Romanization,” the elites reacted negatively [End Page 673] to these changes that affected the status quo and their privileged position in society. These tensions took different forms, including the infamous circumcellions during the religious conflicts that plagued North Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries, the so-called Donatist controversy.
In addition to the conventional literary sources, Dossey deploys an impressive variety of sources to support her argument: recent archaeological surveys, pottery, glassware, architectural remains, coins, mosaics, manuscripts, and episcopal (often anonymous) sermons. While the section relying on archaeological material (part 1) is based on secondary studies, Dossey often reads the evidence against the grain to provide original insight and criticize previous methodologies. A case in point is her use of the archaeological surveys to study patterns of consumption rather than those of production and distribution (pp. 31–32). Additionally, the nonspecialist will find in these chapters a convenient summary of recent archaeological surveys of the North African landscape scattered in a wide array of journals and published in a variety of languages.
Following an introduction and the useful “Historical Overview” (pp. 11–27) of North Africa from the end of the Punic period and the Roman conquest to the Byzantine reconquest, the book is divided in three parts, respectively dealing with what Dossey calls the peasants’ “consumer revolution” (part 1), the fate of self-governing communities (part 2), and the wider implications of episcopal sermons to peasants (part 3). A conclusion sums up the main points of the book, followed by a valuable appendix listing “The Identifiable Rural Bishoprics” (pp. 205–207), copious notes (pp. 209–292), a bibliography, and a useful detailed index (pp. 333–352...