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Ancient World Seminar: Raf Praet & Lorenzo Focanti (Groningen/Ghent) - "Competing in the present trough the distant past: Antiquarianism as a means of urban competition in late antiquity"

When:Mo 18-01-2016 16:15 - 17:30
Where:Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (Oude Boteringestraat 38), room 130
Click to see a larger version. Poster design by Caroline van Toor.
Click to see a larger version. Poster design by Caroline van Toor.


The period of late antiquity (c. 300-800 AD) witnessed a prolific production of texts with an antiquarian attitude towards the distant past. Late antique scholars and literati conducted antiquarian research on the distant past in order to come to terms with different form of crisis and competition in their own times. In this paper, we will argue how antiquarianism was used to meditate on the problematic relationships between different urban centers in the late antique world. We will focus on 1) the cities in the Greek east and their mutual relationships; 2) the competing capitols of the empire: Rome and Constantinople.

In spite of the long crisis of the third century AD, the urban network of the Roman East maintained all its complexity throughout late antiquity. The Greek cities of Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria and Asia Minor kept building and dismantling their connections with their neighbors, and played different roles according to the political, economic and social contexts they faced. The well marked perception of a strong hierarchy between the cities, along with the possibility for them to advance or regress along the pyramid, made the competition between the different communities particularly intense. Such a competitive aptitude interested, at a higher level, Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople (330 AD). Indeed, it fueled an acrimonious debate on the true location of the heart of the empire, whether in the old Rome at the river Tiber, or in the new Rome at the shores of the Bosporus.

The first section of our paper will focus on the patria, a type of texts through which the traditional Greek particularism found new ways of expression. These works presented the origins of cities and the most attractive monument they had. According to the sources, they were written in verses and could reach a huge length. In spite of the diffusion these antiquarian works had in the eastern empire, none of them has survived. Such scanty material makes a literary evaluation of the patria almost impossible, but does not impede a historic analysis. Indeed, these works can be taken as evidence of all the elements we mentioned. They gave testimony to the movements of the cities along the urban hierarchy of the eastern empire. In particular, they show the development of the centers linked to the three capitals of the Roman east: Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. Indeed, the presence of the imperial court (and the resulting flow of taxes and supplies) put these cities at the center of extended urban networks. These urbanized areas connecting the three capitals and their hinterland have been defined by Peter Brown ‘corridors of Empire’. The centers entering these large-scale corridors had to legitimate their new position in the imperial network, and the best way to achieve the goal was linking themselves to the mythical and historical circuits of the Greek world. The patria served this purpose. While modeling the collective memory of myths, histories, and traditions of these cities, they officialized the acquainted status. Moreover, they could be the right instruments to level the excessive presumptions of a snobbish rival, or to look better in comparison to an uncomfortable neighbor.

In the second section of our paper, we will argue how, in Greek sources of the 6th century, the distant past was used to meditate on the relationship of Constantinople with Rome. The legacy of Rome was used both positively and negatively to highlight the role of Constantinople. On the one hand, authors as John of Lydia (c. 490 – c. 565 AD) and John Malalas (c. 490 – c. 570 AD) picture the cities of Constantinople and Antioch as a mirror image of the old Rome. On the other hand, these authors debate the moral legitimacy of the old Rome as capitol of the empire through a close scrutiny of the questionable character of Romulus, who founded Rome on the blood of his brother Remus.      

After studying classics at Ghent University (2007-2011), Raf Praet worked as a research assistant to the Database of Byzantine Book Epigrams (DBBE), under the supervision of Prof. dr. Kristoffel Demoen (2011-2013). Currently he is performing his PhD-research at Groningen within the context of the project ‘Finding the Present in the Distant Past. The Cultural Meaning of Antiquarianism in Late Antiquity’. The project is the fruit of a collaboration between the university of Groningen and Ghent University. Under the supervision of dr. Jan Willem Drijvers, Raf focuses on the cultural question why antiquarianism became such a popular way to deal with the distant past in late antiquity.    

Lorenzo Focanti is an Italian PhD Student of Late Antique Historiography at Gent University. Under the guidance of his supervisor, Prof. dr. Van Nuffelen, he is working to a critical edition of the fragmentary antiquarian authors of late antiquity (3rd – 6th centuries AD). Such a work is a part of the FWO-NWO project ‘Finding the Present in the Distant Past. The Cultural Meaning of Antiquarianism in Late Antiquity’. Its main purpose is a general reassessment of late antique antiquarianism, one of the most underestimated (and understudied) cultural aspects of the Greco-Roman world. The collection he is going to edit will include authors from both the Greek and the Latin side of late antiquity: he thinks it will put in light new interesting aspects of an intense moment of our history. At the moment, he is also collaborating to the ERC project “Memories of the Empire”, joining the realization of a database of the whole late antique historiographical production.