- Literary Territories: Cartographical Thinking in Late Antiquity by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
Scholars of late antiquity have a double responsibility, an apparently paradoxical task, when they have to explain the relationship of their sources to classical antiquity. As classicists with a long view, we have to demonstrate the difference Christianity did not make, while also clarifying how Christian doctrines developed and what real difference Christianity did in fact make. As Johnson puts it, “in many ways late-antique thought is a challenge to classicists precisely because it uses the same toolkit and yet comes up with very different answers to perennial ancient questions” (137).
According to Johnson, “[i]n Late Antiquity, the inhabited world, the oikoumenē, became a thematic metaphor for literary endeavor and was especially prominent in the aesthetic of encyclopedism that characterizes much late-antique writing” (1). Encyclopedism, like the thinking behind cartography, is a way to organize the world: “[L]iterature in Late Antiquity operates in the same way that a map operates. These two intellectual tools are engaged in ‘the same project’: the codification and interpretation of the world.” However, knowledge and its representation are inevitably imprecise despite the semblance of order offered by such tools of organization. This applies to the encyclopedia but also, according to Johnson, to cartography and geographical knowledge. Just as the encyclopedia is an arbitrary construction arranged by the alphabet, so also the map is an order imposed, “and one can see the order, even where not explicitly stated, through its effects on the reader” (10).
Chapter 1, “Pilgrimage and Archive,” argues that the works of Pausanias in the second century and the Christian pilgrim Egeria in the fourth have a “shared aesthetic of the ‘archive.’” Despite their similarities, Egeria points to new trends and she “is a linchpin of this project, standing as she does between the ancient tradition of travel literature or ‘sacred tourism’ and the full-fledged Christian pilgrimage genre” (27). Numerous examples of the “archival aesthetic” are then offered in chapter 2, “An Aesthetic of Accumulation,” which provides a classified survey of texts in which “the shape of the physical world became a fundamental literary metaphor for the organization of knowledge itself” (29). According to Johnson, “The world in literary form became a container for the archive of knowledge of the past.” He later underlines the big picture significance of his survey when he claims that “when this aesthetic of accumulation is recognized as a creative force in late-antique, Byzantine, and medieval literature, the old juggernauts of ‘decline’ and literary epigonality lose much of their power” (60).
Chapter 3, “Locus Amoenus/Loca Sancta,” examines the late fifth-century Life and Miracles of Thekla. Looking back to Homer and Herodotus, Johnson underlines how geographical knowledge can be “a structural element in the ‘poetic anthropology’ of all literature and thought” (62). In this chapter, he offers “close readings of a series of miracle tales in which the geographical framework of the story is central to how they are written” (63). The rooting of Thekla in Seleukeia, vis-à-vis both the universal and the regional, helps to “orient the reader in relation to the work and allow him or her to enter into the reality of miracles which the author is trying to describe” (66).
Chapter 4, “Apostolic Geography,” focuses on Christian topographical literature and the contemporaneous increase in writing on the apostles in the fourth and fifth centuries. In chapter 5, “The Westwardness of Things,” Johnson [End Page 289] discusses the geographical emphases of two ninth-century East Syrian (“Nestorian”) authors. Both Thomas of Marga and Isho‘denaḥ of Basra rooted their histories of monasticism in the movement of monks between East and West. Johnson emphasizes that “the role of geography in the formation of Syriac genres” needs to be better appreciated in its relation to “the assumptions of author and audience about the shape of narrative and the tradition of writing as they are revealed in the text itself” (129).
Johnson concludes with a brief discussion...