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  • Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300-1100 ed. by Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, and Richard Payne
  • Aaron M. Moreno
Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300-1100, ed. Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, and Richard Payne (Burlington: Ashgate 2012) 575 pp.

In June of 2009, an international congress was held in Vienna, with the goal of better understanding the divergent histories of medieval Western Europe, Byzantium, and the Muslim Near East through the examination of the “political role of ethnicity and religion in the post-Roman Mediterranean.” A majority of the papers presented at this conference, in addition to a significant number of very welcome additions, were published in 2012 as Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300–1100. As the title suggests, this 550-page collection of thirty-two essays is not limited to the Mediterranean—too often a catch-all for comparative works investigating the Christian and Muslim worlds. Instead, Visions of Community evaluates varying notions of “community” throughout the entire late and former Roman empire (with two unexpected forays into the Tibetan region, and one less-surprising examination of the Sassanian world) and the historical impacts thereof. Most of submissions stay within a chronological field spanning late antiquity and the early Crusades. The term “community” is a vague one, but, as is clear from the afore-cited conference program, the organizers of the Vienna conference originally envisioned its use in an ethnic and religious sense. A significant originality of the published Visions of Community volume, however, lies in the contributing authors’ implicit and occasionally explicit evaluation of whether these potential boundaries were perceived and/or utilized by [End Page 354] contemporaries, with the result that one or both such groupings are often rejected or qualified (especially by scholars investigating areas outside of western Europe), and occasionally visions of community along regional or, broadly speaking, socio-political, lines are preferred.

Richard Payne’s “Avoiding Ethnicity” article advances the idea that the Christian elite of late antique upper Mesopotamia emphasized elements of civic, religious, and familial history as strategies not of distinction but rather inclusion into the world of the Sassanian nobility. Likewise, Hartmut Lepin recounts the efforts of the Syrian bishop Evagrius to stress (a very flexibile) Roman identity on the Byzantine frontier in the sixth century. In regards to regional communities, a common theme which seems to arise in the Byzantine world is the gradual rise in the prominence of local identities on the peripheries, at the expense of imperial ones. This proposition is hardly novel, but the questions asked in this volume can help the reader attain a deeper understanding of the process and its significance. For example, Walter Kaegi argues that the Muslim conquest of North Africa was greatly aided by the North African resentment of centralized Byzantine tax policies and reluctance to send their home-grown imperial troops to fight on distant military fronts in the mid-seventh century. In a similar vein, John Haldon suggests that the later seventh-century shift towards localism in Anatolia was greatly aided by the rise of the theme system. Interestingly, Clemens Gantner draws attention to a south-central Italian identity that was advocated by ninth-century popes in the face of a Muslim threat. Not all of the communities in the former Byzantine Empire were organized by local identities, however. As Lynn Jones demonstrates, there was a sense of Armenian ethnic identity during the period of Muslim rule— although it certainly did not lead to political unity. The Syriac Christians, another miaphysite community, also receive treatment in this volume, with Bas ter Haar Romeny making an interesting argument for a shift from religious to ethinc identity by the late twelfth century. As other contributed essays make clear, however, there were other means of communal formation in the Dār al-Islām that were often more dominant or common. As Michael Morony demonstrates, religious communities “formed the basic organizing structures” (157) in the Muslim world, and Hugh Kennedy’s thoughtful article complements this premise by revealing that intra...


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pp. 354-356
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