- Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa by Leslie Dossey
With this book, Dossey provides a highly innovative approach to the changes that occurred within rural society in Roman North Africa during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries AD, including such phenomena as Donatism and the so-called Circumcelliones. She places these in a much wider perspective—that of the condition of the rural population of the African provinces of the Roman Empire: the [End Page 107] “peasants” and their emergence as a self-confident consumer group within the African economy—based on an impressive variety and wide spectrum of archaeological, literary, and patristic evidence.
The book consists of three sections. After a historical overview (chapter 1), “The Making of the Peasant Consumer” (chapters 2 and 3) offers a reassessment of the archaeological material, specifically of rural settlements, arguing that recent field surveys “primarily reflect an increase in the availability of the commodities used to locate and date settlement—fineware, amphoras, cut stone, and so on—to populations that had been previously excluded from their consumption” (p. 69). In other words: these surveys do not bring to light the emergence of new settlements, but make existing ones increasingly visible. Dossey believes that, initially, peasants’ access to these commodities was low, “because the new Roman order had limited their ability to consume anything beyond the most basic necessities” (p. 62). Rather than a rapid “Romanization,” social constraints reduced their participation in the market. An increased use of fineware (African Redslip—ARS), as well as of other goods, was the result of a consumer revolution and not of a demographic change. This, in turn, was a consequence of the third-century crisis. Regional industries, as well as the circulation of coinage, were stimulated by the disruption of the relationship between center and periphery. A breakaway from the centers of imperial power boosted regional development. The power of the local decuriones diminished; they were replaced by absentee senatorial landlords. This shift, supposedly, allowed for the development of rural workshops and markets, causing an increase in peasant consumption. The new lords of the manors cared less for such a rise of the rural peasantry and their increased quality of life. Dossey seems to turn away from existing views of the continuity of municipal life in the African provinces in late antiquity.
In “The Struggle for Community” (chapters 4 and 5), Dossey deals with the cessation of municipal administration from the reign of Diocletian onwards, and the struggle of the North African villages and estates for the establishment and/or maintenance of their local community as a res publica. Emperors no longer promoted rural communities to a municipal status, and yet these communities continued to desire a communal recognition. According to Dossey the proliferation of bishoprics (more than 700 in western North Africa, p. 125), particularly rural ones, in the fourth and fifth centuries ought to be regarded as a direct consequence of the desire of rural populations to seek self-government. Their unusually large number, helped by the issue of Donatism, was another expression of the vibrant political activity of the African peasantry.
“Preaching and Rebellion” (chapters 6 and 7) deals with the African Church, in relation to the developments in the countryside. Rural unrest during the fourth and fifth centuries was a direct result of the entry of Christian clerics into the rural communities: “Christianity allowed rural populations … to participate in the wider cultural trends of their time, although in regionally specific ways” (p. 201). The so-called Circumcelliones should be regarded as an exponent of the spread of Roman and Christian values amongst the rural peasantry of the African provinces. [End Page 108]
Dossey presents a wealth of both existing and new evidence, challenging traditional views in placing different accents—a marvelous and most valuable book.
Loyola University Chicago