The penultimate session of last term’s IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar (and yes, I am that far behind in blogging) was by Bryan Ward-Perkins on the topic of ‘Changes in material and mental culture at the end of antiquity: East and West contrasted’. It was a talk which did pretty much what it said on the tin: contrasting the different effects of the ‘Germanic’ takeover of western Roman provinces in the fifth and sixth century, and the Near East by the Arab conquests of the 630s and 640s. Bryan’s main aim was to demonstrate a simple paradox: that while there was objectively much more continuity in the East than in the West, from the subjective point of view, people in the West felt far more continuity with the Roman past.
Bryan produced some highly convincing evidence to show material continuity. For example, when the site of Anjar in the Lebanon was first seen, it was assumed to be Roman, although it was actually built by Caliph Al-Walid I in 714-715.
There are no parallels to such building in the post-Roman West; where there is building in urban centres, such as in Brescia, it’s most often fairly crude reuse of Roman walls, as happened to the Domus dell’Ortaglia (under what later became the monastery of Santa Giulia).
Nor are there any Western equivalents of buildings like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Great Mosque of Damascus, which adapt Roman styles to a very different religious purpose.
The same Eastern continuity is also seen at less elite levels: for example, the Church of St Stephen at Umm al-Rassas in Jordan, with its mosaic floor, or early C8 houses from Jerash in Jordan. Jerash also demonstrates the continued use of coinage (usage there had peaks in the reign of Justin II (565-578) and the later Umayyad period (early C8)) and the continuity of a sophisticated pottery industry. Bryan argued that there was also considerable intellectual continuity in the East, singling out the translation and absorption of Greek science and mathematics into Arab culture. (In the discussion afterwards, he also stressed the continuity of technologies of the state, such as transport systems and engineering projects).
In contrast, Bryan pointed out the extraordinary discontinuity with the Roman empire of some parts of the early medieval West, particularly Britain, which lost even wheeled pottery and coinage. Elsewhere, although there the collapse wasn’t quite as extreme, industrial production of pottery disappears, and other advanced technologies, such as mosaics, also decline in skill.
Bryan then looked briefly at the other side of the equation: the fact that the new rulers of the East used Roman technologies in the service of a completely new ideology, such as in the dramatically non-Roman and anti-Christian mosaic on the Dome of the Rock: ‘God does not beget, nor is he begotten’. In contrast, Germanic people did not have an aggressive ideology, and readily adopted Roman customs and religion. Despite all the material discontinuity, there was extraordinary cultural continuity in the West in some ways, such as early Germanic rulers making their coins look as Roman as possible.
I found Bryan’s talk a useful attempt to separate out different strands of ‘continuity’, which is something we need to consider if we’re going to get a more sophisticated handle on the question of ‘Did the (Western) Roman Empire Fall?’, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of his comments on cultural contrasts, and their reasons. Later reflections have got me thinking that maybe we need to think harder about the relationship between conquest and ideology. Hugh Kennedy, for example, raised the issue of the impact of Persian culture in the East, which became very important in the C9. (Indeed, Patricia Crone has argued for the ‘imperial trauma’ suffered by the Arabs in the C8, in which they lost their cultural identity, and drawn parallels to the Roman conquest of Greece and the Central Asian conquerors of China).
Bryan thought that such an identity could be allowed to re-emerge once a people had been completely conquered, and so were no longer a threat, and contrasted the Arab/Persian experience with the Anglo-Saxon hostility to British/Welsh culture. But Alex Woolf has shown a rather nice contrast between ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’ replacement of language during conquests/invasions, correlating with whether existing social/governmental structures were taken over. So we may need to start think even harder not just about different forms of continuity (economic, political, cultural, social), but also about what exactly it is we’re expecting there to be continuity with.