Ancient History & Civilisation


The Nature of the Evidence


1.  Christian sources

2.  Hagiography

3.  Panegyrics

4.  Secular historical writing

5.  The church historians

6.  Chronicles and digests

7.  Legal and administrative sources

8.  Letter collections

9.  Inscriptions

10. The material world

The history of the later Roman Empire depends on a copious and diverse range of written and non-written material. It would be futile to try to identify and characterize the entire spectrum of sources for the period. The quantity and variety of the written material alone far exceeds what is available for earlier periods of Graeco-Roman antiquity, such as classical Athens or late republican Rome, and archaeological remains of late antiquity, which of course overlie earlier levels on classical sites, are also extremely prolific, although they remain understudied. The overall extent, especially of the written material, is simply too wide to encompass. More importantly, the sources are not an inert mass of potential information, waiting to be quarried, but yield different answers to different questions. The approach to the history of the period not only determines the range of sources that are examined but also the way in which they are interrogated. The following selective survey is inevitably an individual one.

The Problem of Christian Sources

The written sources in particular are difficult to interpret, not least because the categories and genres to which they belong are substantially different from those for earlier periods of Roman history. Most of this new literature is Christian. This survives in prodigious quantity, including works of hagiography, church history, sermons, and theological discussions, which correspond to little that survives from the pagan tradition. Much of this Christian literature is transparently and unabashedly partisan in the way that it portrays the world of late antiquity. Few Christian writings make allowance for the existence of pagans and their place in the world, still less for the substance of their beliefs. This poses a problem for interpreting all Christian sources and relating them to their wider context.

Pagan writings are much more sparsely represented than Christian ones, especially because Christians were not interested in copying and reproducing work in genres that lay outside the Christian tradition. Christians disseminated their own literature but had an interest in suppressing the products of pagan culture. We may see this in the preservation of mainstream historical writing. Three large-scale church histories written in the middle of the fifth century by Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret survive in their entirety, and we even have extensive fragments of the historical work of the Arian Philostorgius. On the other hand only highly selective excerpts are preserved from the secular historians of this period – Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus – even though the last two of these were certainly themselves Christians. The one surviving pagan historical narrative from late antiquity, by Zosimus, is missing part of its second book, which may have been suppressed by copyists as it must have contained a strongly anti-Christian view of the persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century.

Some pagan writings are preserved, especially from the time of Julian and from Roman writers of the late fourth century, and the pagan philosophical tradition is also represented. But these were theoretical treatments that give little indication about the vitality of paganism on the ground. Pagan authors of the later fourth century were discreet and unassertive in the face of Christian orthodoxy. Prominent pagans, such as the political orators Themistius and Libanius, and the leading Roman senator Symmachus, adopted an eirenic approach and wrote pleas for mutual tolerance between themselves and their Christian counterparts. Most writers of panegyrics avoid the issue. By the fifth century the game was almost up, and the only substantial pagan literary products to survive, apart from works of philosophy, are Eunapius' Lives of the Sophists, comprising short biographies of several leading pagan intellectuals of the fourth century, and Zosimus' truncated history.

The large discrepancy in the survival rate of Christian and pagan literature from late antiquity makes it difficult to assess the relative importance of the religious cultures throughout the period, and to trace the speed of Christian progress and pagan decline. The problem is compounded by the nature of the literature that does survive. No writers of the period undertook to provide a balanced and non-partisan account of the rise of Christianity in relation to pagan polytheism. The secular historical writers of the fourth century were either, like Aurelius Victor or Eutropius, conventionally indifferent, or, like the militantly pagan Eunapius (in the form preserved for us by Zosimus), scathingly hostile to Christianity. Neither these writers nor Ammianus Marcellinus, whose views on Christianity were more complex, have much, if anything, to say about the extent and influence of the Christian community as a whole. Subsequent historical writers in the secular tradition up to the sixth century, even though almost all of them were Christians themselves, presented Christianity as an epiphenomenon, rather than as a central feature of their times. Even so, the growing domination of religious ideas and institutions within the fabric of social life as a whole leads it to occupy a larger place in the later narratives.1

The problem is even more acute when viewed from a Christian perspective. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History and his Life of Constantine relate early fourth-century history exclusively from a Christian viewpoint, and it is almost a matter of accident that these works sometimes provide a glimpse of the wider pagan or secular environment. The same is true to a lesser extent of the church historians of the fifth century, who were embedded in a culture which was almost completely Christian. However, the integration of church and state had advanced so far by the time that they were writing, that their work inevitably contains important information about state affairs in general.

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