- Ritual Sites and Religious Rivalries in Late Roman North Africa by Shira Lander
Ritual Sites and Religious Rivalries in Late Roman North Africa
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016
Pp. ix + 279. $105.00.
Within the past decade, works of Paula Fredriksen, Brent Shaw, Ann Marie Yasin, Anna Leone, J. Patout Burns and Robin Jensen, Robin Whelan, Gareth Sears, and now Shira Lander, have collectively transformed the study of late Roman, Christian, and Vandal North Africa by challenging and inflecting received arguments about the litigiousness of its social, cultural, and religious landscapes. This surge in English-language scholarship, combined with the results of ongoing (if limited) studies in the field, has reinvigorated research of the history and cultural dynamics of pre-Islamic North Africa.
Shira Lander's Ritual Sites and Religious Rivalries in Late Roman North Africa stands out among these publications in three principle ways. First, the monograph foregrounds the role of space, spatiality, and spatial supersessionism ("the rhetoric of spatial contestation") in Christian discourse in North Africa; second, it integrates multiple genres of data (textual, epigraphic, and architectural) into associated reconsiderations of regional evidence. Third, Lander uses the archaeological record to read against the grain of the literary one, thereby flouting scholarly conventions that prioritize textual evidence. These features collectively produce something unusual and exciting: a historiography of space, place, and contest, among and between Christians and their neighbors in late ancient North Africa.
Lander builds her case carefully. The first half of the book scaffolds her subsequent philological, epigraphical, and archaeological analyses of North African treatments of space, its description, and its use. In the Introduction, Lander summarizes her theoretical apparatus and reviews the social, religious, and political climate of North Africa in the third through fifth centuries. She assesses the historical origins of Christians and Jews in the region and of various intra-Christian [End Page 495] disputes, including those of the Circumcilliones and the so-called "Donatist" schism. Finally, she identifies the rhetorical spatial strategies that Nicene Christians ("Catholics") deployed to distance themselves from other sects, whom they variously cast as "Donatists," "Novatianists," and "Jews."
Chapter One develops discussions of space and spatiality (emphasizing Henri Lefebvre), place (Bourdieu) and localization (particularly via J. Z. Smith), place memory and forgetting (Harriet Flower), and of religious violence (Mark Jurgensmeyer, Joel Black), to consider questions of identity/identification and difference (Gupta/Ferguson) and situate subsequent analyses of North African texts, inscriptions, and architecture. Lander assesses how connections between space and identity, as well as "the geographical and anthropological notions of place identity and place meaning," help scholars "further understand the symbolism of sacred spaces" (47) and notes that, while several scholars have recently discussed religion and violence, few specifically address "spatial violence" (62).
Chapter Two bridges two basic sections of the book in demonstrating a premise central to the arguments of subsequent chapters: that during the third and fourth centuries, North African Christians increasingly regarded certain spaces (churches, basilicas, and martyria) as holy, sacred, or "powerful" (117), and thus worthy of pride and contest. In this period, African Christians begin to monumentalize their memorials and cemetery shrines and add Christian-identifying terms and symbols to inscriptions. Using these means to claim mortuary and devotional spaces for the convocation of their human and divine assemblies, Christians transformed them into "super-symbols," powerful sites of spatial contestation.
Lander's analysis sharpens in the second half of the book, where she scrutinizes intra-Christian spatial contestation. In Chapter Three ("Internecine Christian Contestation"), Lander considers how spatial supersession and discourses of architectural dispossession increasingly served as "weapons" in rhetorical battles between Christian sectarian groups, despite Constantine's efforts to unify Christian factions through letters, legislation, and architectural programs. Lander builds on Shaw's recent work on the topic by matching rhetorical with archaeological manifestations of spatial supersessionism. To Lander, architectural changes to a cemetery church in Thamagudi, to the Basilica of Robbia in Alamiliaria, in Castellum Tingitanum (el Asnam/Orléansville, Algeria), and even modifications to an inscription marking a martyr shrine in Mascula (Khenchela, Algeria) collectively implicate the spatial dimensions of internecine competition.
The following chapters reveal distinct relationships between textual and architectural evidence...