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Sunday, 24 January 2021

The Not-so-natural world of Late Antiquity (5): Queer Late Antiquity?

 The final element of this [group of posts] takes up the strands of the argument in the previous to underline how sexual categories in late antiquity were very different in late antiquity not only from those of today but also from what one might initially have expected.

Sex between men (typically, as across many historical periods, sex between women receives very little discussion) is seen in some sources – like some of the penitentials – as something a young man might experiment with. One of the penitentials only starts to penalise such activity (among monks) once a man had turned twenty. In late antiquity men spent a long period of socialisation between legally coming age and being considered fully adult. In Merovingian Gaul, this was a process that might take fifteen years or more. This was quite different from the socialisation of women, which generally came about all at once, at puberty. A woman had her first period, got married (she might well have been betrothed long before – we know that girls could be betrothed as a young as eight) – married to a man probably considerably older than her – and started having sex and having children. Pretty brutal stuff really. There were, of course variations on this pattern across time and space but the general pattern was pretty consistent.

Anyway, during that long period of socialisation, a man typically spent a great deal of time in the household of another man and, at least among certain social strata in a retinue or following, with other young men. There is evidence indeed of gangs of young men not in the service of an older man. It is well attested across society that in those contexts, homosociality can blur into homosexuality and same-sex love, though it’s worth remembering that the latter two categories aren’t necessarily coextensive. None of that necessarily meant the existence of what we might recognise as a gay identity. There’s been debate since Foucault’s day about his suggestion that gay identity was a modern creation; it’s probably a lot more complex than that – as ever. The point I want to make is that same sex sexual activity was not always automatically thought of as wrong or deviant. It’s worth making the point that the term sodomy did not acquire its narrow meaning of anal sex until much later, in the twelfth century. In our period, the church described as sodomy any sex, basically that wasn’t between man and wife, for the purpose of having children, and in the missionary position (hence the name) – as in Brundage’s diagram. Anyway, it seems to have been accepted that a man might experiment sexually with male partners but that he ought to grow out of this. Some thinkers have called this sort of attitude teleological heterosexuality: ‘normal’ heterosexuality will inevitably be the outcome in the end.

At this point I want to mention what is known as Queer Theory, something to some extent associated with Judith Butler, whom I mentioned [in the last blog post]. Again I am going to have to be brief. What queer theory is – extremely basically – is a theory that seeks to challenge the automatic assumptions of heteronormativity in order to flag up instances where such norms are troubled or subverted, where they don’t fit into the usual narratives of love, sex, marriage, reproduction and the family. Some thinkers have pointed out the knots that scholars – especially medievalists – have tied themselves in to deny that the evidence really suggests same-sex love or desire. Some people have extended the notion of queerness far beyond that; others say that that’s not really queer theory. I am going to use it in quite the narrow sense.

I want now to talk through some cases, which are all from sixth-century Merovingian Gaul, that might make the theory just discussed a little more concrete, in a late antique context.

My first example takes us back to the issue of young men and concerns graves 6 and 8 of the sixth-century cemetery of Ennery in modern Lorrain, just north of Metz. This was a double-burial (in spite of the separate grave numbers) containing one skeleton accompanied by some weapons and costume accessories – a belt set – and one without but with some other objects. The two bodies had been placed with the arm of one resting on the arm of the other. The initial excavator thought it was a burial of man and wife, but in fact it is the grave of two young men, one around 20 and one in his late teens. Their different grave goods reflect that; Frankish men weren’t generally buried with weapons until they were 20. Artefactually both are masculine, though, nonetheless. So what did the double burial mean, with the linked arms? There is a huge range of possible answers and there’s no time to go through them all. Ultimately, we don’t know – although there are a number of burials like this, of two men known from Frankish Gaul. The linked arms surely represent some sort of bond, possibly familial but also very likely emotional. We’ve seen that the bonds between young men in a household could be very close, emotional, loving, sexual. More interestingly, perhaps, though, is the possibility that even if this meant something quite different, it might have nevertheless been read like that by the people watching at the funeral, opening a different reading, perhaps a subversive reading, by people excluded from the world of warriors. We’ve seen that the likelihood of sexual relationships between young men was well known and apparently generally tolerated. Even if the ritual was meant to say something quite different, it might be read a different way, and the space between those readings – the space of deconstruction – would be the space of discourse about masculinity and male sexuality.

Developing that, we might note the story of the feud of Sichar and Chramnesind, recounted by Gregory of Tours in his Histories. It’s a story well-known to students of medieval violence but at one point Gregory says that Sichar and Chramnesind became great friends, so close that they often dined together and shared a bed. Now there’s a raft of po-faced medieval scholarship that argues that men sharing beds in the middle ages was perfectly normal and there was nothing funny going on there. No siree. They were all men. Well ... yes. But at the same time, maybe no. As we have seen, sexual relations need not define an identity; there was a huge flexibility in the interactions between sex, sexuality and gender.

My second example concerns a holy woman called Monegund, whose life is also told by Gregory of Tours. Monegund lived an enclosed life but she had a little garden that she used to attend. One day while she was there, says Gregory,  a woman was able to watch her from a neighbouring rooftop: “she gazed upon her importunely, filled with worldly desires”, and consequently went blind until Monegund healed her. It was interesting when I discussed this at a conference, to see how determined people were to dismiss any suggestion that there was anything Lesbian going on here. Oh no. They didn’t do that sort of thing back then. Maybe there wasn’t, but also, maybe there was. That reading of the text was surely as available to Gregory’s readers as it is to us. The other interesting thing about that story is its implication that women shouldn’t be doing the looking and desiring. As we’ve seen, the emphasis on female clothing in Monegund’s day seems to suggest that they were supposed to be the people being looked at.

Another interesting story, also from Gregory of Tours’ work, this time from his Histories relates to the tribunal that was held at the suppression of the Revolt of the Nuns of Poitiers – an interesting tragicomic story but one which I will have to leave to one side. Several bishops, including Gregory, tried the leaders of the rebellious nuns who levelled various charges against their abbess. One was that she kept a man in the cloister, dressed up as a woman, so she could have sex with him when she wanted. Then one of the rebels’ leaders says ‘there he is’ whereupon, says Gregory, a man stepped forward, dressed in women’s clothing. He said, though, that he only wore women’s clothing because he couldn’t do man’s work, and had never even met the abbess. The bishops accept his story and move on to the next charge. This is strange story and I have written about in three articles, because I keep changing my mind about it. What do we make of it? Bishop Gregory makes no comment on the man’s choices; how significant is that? What did he mean when he said he couldn’t do manly work? Did he mean that he was impotent, which is how the modern translator understands it? Or something more general? The term he uses, opus virile, usually means men’s work in the fields. But it has to be interesting that a man who thought he couldn’t live up to some sort of masculine standard – that might very well not have been sexual, felt he had to dress up as a woman. And people seem to have been fine with that. And that’s suggested by a burial (no.32) from the Frankish cemetery of Ennery, of someone in their 40s, with the sorts of grave-goods that would be typical for a woman in her 40s, but who, according to the skeletal data, was a man. Again, what do we make of that? The person was buried in the communal cemetery just like everyone else suggesting that if she had been a biological male who lived their life as a woman, people were happy enough to recognise that in her funeral.

What I hope I have demonstrated in this [blog post], as in the others in this [group of posts], is that a lot of what you might think of as natural categories or ways of categorising didn’t always apply in late antiquity. The late antique world can be very unexpected.

The Not-so-Natural World of Late Antiquity (4): Sex and society

 In the remainder of this [cluster of posts] I am going to talk about another way in which people divide up the world, which might seem natural but which isn’t on closer inspection, and that is sex, gender and sexuality.

It is still commonly believed that gender is the social construction placed upon the biological binary of sex. Indeed this lies at the heart of one of the most current and most heated political issues. This is much more complicated, however, than the idea of a natural sexual binary will allow and, as we’ll see, issues that are nowadays often presented as natural and eternal, often with some sort of vague reference back to our historical heritage, were actually seen in very different ways in the past. Again, a closer investigation of how the people of late antiquity thought about the sexual categories of their world permits a different view on the modern world.

The first, preliminary point that must be made concerns gender. It is still often thought that gender history means the history of women; it doesn’t, even though I have made this week’s discussion group about women. Women’s history and gender history are quite different. If you have never had cause yet to read it, then I recommend you read Joan Scott’s classic article on ‘gender as a useful category of historical analysis’, even though it has nothing to say about our period. Gender history is about the construction of the categories of masculine and feminine; it’s relational; it allows us to see masculinity, as in the Roman world, constructed not simply against femininity but also – and sometimes perhaps more importantly – against lesser forms of masculinity. Sometimes, as we’ve seen the construction of gender is not a binary, with a separate feminine and masculine poles, but what one might call monopolar, with a single focus: the masculine. We can see this in the classical Roman world. The creation of new models of masculinity in the fourth century – martial and then ascetic -  shook this up in such a way, I have argued, that in the sixth century, as the classical civic masculine ideal faded, it left separate feminine and masculine ideals – a more binary system. In turn, I have suggested, in the seventh century there was a return to something more like the monopolar Roman system but with the crucial difference that the dominant form of masculinity was martial – warrior masculinity – rather than civic. This is manifest in some of the things that I have mentioned already, such as the shift in the focus of investment in decoration and adornment from items of female dress to elements of male costume. There were shifts in the gendering of religious identity too. It’s possible that, as I have argued in an article that has appeared very recently, that gendered ideals in the Christian sphere moved in different directions from those in the secular sphere, so that for example, female and male religious ideals were described in essentially similar terms in 6th-century western hagiography, at a time when there was more of a binary separation in secular terms, and then separated out into distinct male and female ideals in the seventh century, as secular gender norms were returning to a more monopolar set of ideas. There were all sorts of shifts, and regional variations, in the way that power was gendered.

The most important thinker to challenge the traditional ideas of the separation of sex and gender as ‘natural’ and ‘social’ respectively, was the American philosopher Judith Butler, who I think is a really interesting and important thinker. Her classic works on this topic were Gender Trouble, published in around 1990, followed by Bodies that Matter a few years later. There’s no time in a ten-minute or so lecture like this to do anything like justice to this work so I will have to simplify; I do recommend Butler’s work to you; it’s not easy if you’re not used to reading philosophy (well, it wasn’t to me when I first read her, when I hadn’t read much if any philosophy) but it’s a lot easier than some, and she does tend to make the same point several different ways, so if you just persist it will become clear.

One of the key points that Butler made was that while biological sex might, in some ways, be seen as a binary or at least as having two opposing poles, the ways in which human bodies possess the physical or genetic features of the male or female sex are very much messier than that. It’s not the case that all males possess each and every one of a range of features and that all females possess each and every one of an entirely discrete set of scientifically-observable features. That is probably only true in a relative minority of cases. There is a whole gamut of combinations between those extremes and in the middle things can be very mixed indeed. There were two points that Butler made to develop this. One was that the science of sex was sometimes every bit as socially contingent as the science of race, or that it was enormously influenced by the gendered norms of the societies in which the scientists worked. This has been shown to be the case over and over, in all sorts of cases. Sometimes there have been absolutely horrible cases where people have had intrusive surgery to make them conform to the sex that they were declared to be at birth.

Butler’s other point was that, since sex was not – in every single case – something that emerged clearly, naturally, independently, from the physical body and manifested as the simple membership of one of two categories, the sexing of people was as much assigned as anything else. She cites the example of the midwife holding up the new baby and saying, ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’, arguing that in a sense this is a performative: a statement that creates what it describes. After that, we all experience our bodies via a set of social norms and expectations; there’s no point where we can go back and experience our lives as pre-sexed. So in that sense, sex was very much like gender, rather than being the natural, scientific rock on which the latter was founded. A lot of people still don’t want to accept this but the case doesn’t seem to me to be contestable.

Sex, sexuality and gender interact with each other in an enormously wide range of ways, in Late Antiquity as well as today. We might actually be surprised – given what are regarded as supposedly ‘medieval’ attitudes, let alone those which we are sometimes told are normal or natural about the wide breadth of the things which late antique and early medieval people appear not to have regarded as ‘wrong’, let alone ‘unnatural’. Some of these I will come back to in the next [blog post]. For now I want only to think about sex and sexuality.

The ways in which sexuality, in the sense of one’s choice of sexual partners, related to other aspects of late antique identity was quite different from now. As with race, some of the modern ideas about sexuality, norms and deviations, rather than being age-old, are quite recent and, in particular, many belong to the modern period’s obsession with supposedly scientific organising and categorising.

One of the problems with late antique and medieval sex is the nature of the evidence. On the one hand there are Christian treatises on the topic, which as we have seen, by the end of the fifth century were stressing virginity and abstinence over chastity and restraint; we’ve also seen that in ascetic thinking, sex was seen as a temptation but not simply in itself but as part of a wider range of issues of bodily self-control. We have also seen how by 600 these sorts of ascetic ideas were coming to be applied to secular society. On the other hand, and this is truer for the periods before and after late antiquity there is evidence for dirty jokes, bawdy songs and the rest, or in our period a sort of reverse interpretation of the penitentials’ obsession with sex which saw it as evidence that all this was going on all the time. As one scholar has said, one has the impression on the one hand that ‘medieval people’ were incredibly frustrated and hung up about sex, or on the other hand that they were obsessed with it; that everyone was constantly at it. The problem is that it’s like what judging modern sex would be like if the only evidence we had were the sermons of southern US fire-and-brimstone evangelists on the one hand and hard-core porn on the other. I don’t think medieval people were either incredibly frustrated and sex-starved or that they were incredibly sexed up; boringly perhaps, I think they had an incredibly average amount of sex.

One way in which the post-enlightenment mania for scientific (or pseudo-scientific) categorisation impacts upon our ways of seeing is in the way that heterosexuality has been established as a norm and homosexuality as a deviation. In fact heterosexuality and homosexuality were defined and classified at the same time. Then a whole set of ideas about psychiatry and identity were built on that.

Things were much more complex in late antiquity and the early middle ages and I will develop this point in the next video lecture. In the meantime I will leave you with this diagram from James Brundage’s Law, Sex and Christian Society which illustrates the thinking about sex that is manifested by the penitentials. There are some superficially curious aspects about the penitentials’ attitudes to sex. It took me many years, as a godless social historian, to figure out why oral sex earned a higher penitence than sex with, say, a goat. The answer is that a goat (in early medieval thought) didn’t have an immortal soul that you could corrupt with your disgusting sexual practices. The penitentials, by the way, don’t specify what the penalty was for having oral sex with a goat; perhaps that was considered to be its own punishment.

The Not-so-natural world of Late Antiquity (3): Late Antiquity was not white

 The Romans did not assign any paramount importance to obvious bodily – somatic – features in the way they drew up the world. Yet they were every bit as racist and prejudiced, and every bit as murderously nasty, to the people they did define as inferior. What we might identify as their racial schema was very different from that of the modern world. Two things can, I think, emerge from that, which I call hope and vigilance. There is an element of hope, in that it shows that the world is not somehow naturally divided up into races on the basis of skin colour; in other words, there is nothing eternal or essential about modern racial categories, which in turn means there’s absolutely no reason that we have to continue to live with them, or why they can’t be abolished. That’s one half of why I call this [group of blog posts] the not-so-natural world of Late Antiquity. But the other point is vigilance. The Romans might not have been especially interested in skin-colour or other somatic ways of dividing the world but they had their own prejudices and racial schemas which could be every bit as bad. In other words, it’s not very much use abolishing one form of prejudice if you’re just going to replace it with another.

This raises an important issue which we have to discuss. There has been much debate about how the issues of race, and of racism, are to be confronted in responsible or committed scholarship. In Europe and North America, the early middle ages in north-west Europe, and elements of its culture, have been appropriated by Far-Right nationalists and white supremacists.  Indeed they have been for over a century.  Some have suggested that the correct response is to point out the fact that there were people whom we might now consider as 'black' or as People of Colour active in places like Britain and elsewhere.  This is certainly true – and it is certainly a valid, pragmatic response in the modern context – but it is also problematic and, in my view, it isn’t historically or politically radical enough. It’s been argued that the way to deal with western racism is to abolish whiteness. This has been wilfully misread as calling for some sort of race war or extermination of ‘the white race’; it doesn’t mean that. It means you can only abolish a categorisation by abolishing the notions that have been placed at its hierarchical centre, against which everything else is judged. When did the Roman way of organising the world come to an end? Essentially when the concept of the civic male was removed from its centre, or abolished if you like.

It is not difficult to populate the northern shores of the Roman Mediterranean as far as Hadrian’s Wall or the Rhine-Danube frontier with what modern people might classify as people of colour. People from North Africa moved all over the Roman World. What’s now Tunisia was one of the most important and central parts of the Roman world; it was rich and productive; North African products like the – to late Romanists at least – famous African Red Slip Ware are found all across the Mediterranean, east to west, round the coasts of Spain and France and as far as the Irish Sea. The African church was an intellectual power-house. Saint Augustine of Hippo was a North African. North Africa and Egypt were the bread-baskets which provided Rome and Constantinople with most of the grain to feed their huge populations. Carthage and Alexandria were possibly the next two biggest cities of the Empire. There were contacts with sub-Saharan Africa, mostly to East Africa via the Nile valley but also in the West – even if the latter contacts were not as great as later. You can quibble about minor issues. Were the numerous late Roman regiments of cavalry called mauri or Moors really recruited from North African Moors? In my view mostly not, at least by the fourth century, but this doesn’t affect the main point. Africans were everywhere in the Roman Empire, and important within it.

There is no doubt that the general public ought to be made more aware of this. Not just to stop people claiming or accepting that the Roman Empire was only made up of ‘white’ people but as a way of stopping people from thinking that Roman history is only for white people. Historically, western Europe and Africa have not always stood as opposed continents divided by a great sea, but have, for centuries, perhaps millennia, also been part of a shared world linked by the Mediterranean. [Indeed before the seventh or eighth century, the Maghreb was much more a part of a shared world with Iberia, Italy and the south of France than part of the same world as sub-Saharan Africa.] This was never truer than during the Roman Empire. This is important.

Nonetheless, were one to do this, one would still be left – no matter how hard one tried – with the inescapable fact that the great bulk of the inhabitants of the Empire’s European provinces were not, by modern European standards, people of colour. They would, in modern European terms, be white. People of colour would still be a minority. The current binary – and that sense of majority and minority – would be eternalised

Now, the Romans themselves didn’t see the inhabitants of North Africa as different from themselves in any significant somatic sense. They didn’t see North Africans as Aethiopes - dark-skinned Africans. When they commented on the appearance of the North African Moors, the Mauri, the ancestors of the modern Berbers, it was their curly hair that they commented on. Some people have tried to argue that North Africans like Augustine were ’black’ and other people (with rather less justification) have tried to deny this and claim that he was ‘white’. The truth of the matter is that we have no idea what he looked like; it’s reasonable to suppose that a modern American would see him as a person of colour. But it’s also reasonable to suppose that a modern inhabitant of the Mediterranean regions, especially in North Africa, wouldn’t. Many, maybe most, modern Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians do not regard themselves as 'black' and can react quite angrily to the suggestion that they might be – even if this attitude can sometimes be grounded in their own, differently racist, attitudes towards sub-Saharan Africa/ns. Anyone who has visited North Africa knows that, in terms of actual skin colour there is a range of skin-tones from very dark to very pale (as there always has been). That spectrum continues, without a break, on the other side of the sea. People in Spain, Sicily and Italy might now make what they see as a colour-based distinction between them and their North African neighbours but this is entirely cultural.

This is the heart of the issue. If one takes a colour chart and defines people within a certain part of that spectrum as ‘people of colour’ according to modern, especially according to modern American, categories, you are naturalising, eternalising and essentialising a categorisation that is social and contingent. Because not everyone sees the world now – let alone in the past – according to that schema, you are colonising the past every bit as much as old Europeans did when they made everyone in antiquity white, and scrubbed statues and so on to prove their point. You’re still imposing a modern, western view (even if it’s a different one from before) on the Mediterranean as a whole and North Africa in particular. This isn’t decolonising the past. We need a more radical solution. The issue is not about who was white and who was black or ‘of colour’; these are all modern categories that didn’t apply in the Roman world. I don’t want to use that point just to sweep the issue under the carpet, though. We can use it much more creatively.

Here I return to phenomenology and my critique of materialisms. People don’t engage with other people in their unmediated materiality, any more than they interact with anything else like that. People are categorised, as we’ve seen, in all sorts of ways, and categories work as signs. When a modern racist sees a black person, he sees a sign with a particular signified; when he sees a white person, he sees a different one. A Roman presented with people who looked exactly like both of those people didn’t see either of those things. A Roman saw a pale-skinned northerner and a North African with, perhaps, a slightly darker skin than his or her own as signifying very different things. Very different indeed, and with very different relationships to his or her way of ordering the world, its cultural capital and its power relations. They saw people differently; in phenomenological terms, people were presented in entirely different form. Recognising that the northern half of the Empire contained many people who wouldn’t now be seen as ‘white’ doesn’t change – in a way – the balance of power or the fact that people are still implicitly being contrasted with ‘whiteness’. But ‘whiteness’ can safely be abolished from the Roman world. The Romans didn’t see themselves as white (certainly not as ‘pale-skinned’). How Romans saw self and other was entirely different: if you went back in time and showed a Roman man a picture of, say, David Lammy in a toga, or Naga Munchetty in traditional Roman dress, and me with a top-knot wearing trousers and asked who he thought looked the most different or ‘other’, compared to himself, he’d say me, and if he said Naga it would be because she’s a woman. When Hadrian, an African abbot who lived in southern Italy, accompanied the new Archbishop Theodore (who himself came from Tarsus in modern Turkey) to Canterbury about a generation after the close of our period (it was Hadrian’s 3rd trip to England, by the way) no one remarked upon their skin colour. Whatever it might have looked like to us, they didn’t see it. It was much more a sign of worrying otherness that Theodore spoke Greek and might introduce Greek church customs!

Late Antique people didn’t look like us in either sense – in the way they looked out and saw their fellow people, or in the way they looked to the people looking at them. We need to embrace the radical possibilities that this permits. What kinds of modern people portray the people of late antiquity can’t be a question of historical accuracy. The past is other. As I said it looked different, and it looked differently. If I were casting a film set in the late Antique west I would like to have all sorts of people play the parts in a way that underlined the difference, but also the categories that late antique people have – have Gauls played by south Asians, Spaniards by East Asians, Barbarians by white people, Italians by African-Caribbean actors. It’d possibly make the Daily Mail self-combust but that’d only be a side-benefit. It’d bring home the idea that the late antique European/Mediterranean past doesn’t belong to any modern group any more than any other. It’s open to everyone. I’d really like to see that one day.

The Not-so-natural world of late antiquity (2): Race in Antiquity

As argued in the previous lecture, we can think of race as a sub-category of the general phenomenon of ethnicity. In racial theory the ‘other’ is conceived of as inferior on scientific or natural grounds, which go beyond the simple rivalry or chauvinism of neighbouring ethnic groups – however nasty and murderous the latter might be. We have seen that in the Roman world view, discussed in Lecture Package 4, element B – which has been the spring-board for many subsequent lecture package elements since – the Roman male’s distinction from and superiority from the barbarian was based around a pseudo-biological set of ideas that argued that the geographical location of the Roman meant that his bodily make-up enabled him to be a superior human to the barbarians who lived round about. As we saw, the latter was assimilated with the feminine – subdued barbarian populations were represented as a woman – and as we saw the feminine in Roman thought was simply a lesser or incomplete version of the male. Or they could be likened to children – in other words people who had simply not reached a stage of maturity or education. The parallels between this and 19th-20th-century European and American imperial attitudes are pretty clear.

The barbarian was, however, not only equated with the sub-masculine but with the sub-human, likened to animals. As we saw in [the last lecture package], at the extremes of the world, the Romans indeed thought that barbarians began to shade into animals. If you went too far south of the imperial frontier in Africa, for instance, you would encounter the Blemmyes who according to Pliny the Elder had no heads, just a face in the middle of their chest, satyrs (half man, half goat) and the Sciapodes with one big foot that I mentioned before; far north of the northern frontiers there were supposedly people with dogs’ heads. Some of these ideas had a very long life. The Blemmyes were still thought to be like that by thirteenth-century English map-makers, despite the fact that by then the Blemmye kingdom had been a dangerous enemy bordering Roman Egypt and its citizens well known to have proper heads just like everyone else.

These attitudes could become absolutely horrific in practice. Because the barbarians were thought to be wild and akin to animals, it was considered appropriate to throw captured barbarians – of whatever rank – to be publicly torn to pieces by wild beasts in the arena. Periodically, if it was deemed that a group of barbarians on the frontier needed to be taught a lesson then the army would be unleashed upon them with orders to attack their settlements and leave nothing they found there alive: everything – men, women, children, livestock, poultry, dogs, cats, whatever – was to be killed. No distinction was drawn between the barbarians and their animals. The Roman’s construction of the difference between the civilised Roman and the barbarian was entirely socially constructed – had no actual basis in reality – but it could nevertheless be turned into a terrifying reality for the people that one Roman writer described as ‘having nothing human but their limbs and faces’.

This is a very important point. I argued that race, like ethnicity, is a social construction; that it has no actual scientific basis; that whatever scientific or pseudoscientific arguments are adduced are there to justify the a priori categorisation. That is absolutely indisputable. But the important point is that that does not stop racial or ethnic conflict being among the most vicious; more importantly it does not stop people defined as inferior according to some sort of somatic (i.e. bodily/corporeal) feature from living every day of their lives with the very real weight of oppression. They experience it day in and day out in their very inhabitation of their bodies, no matter how high they rise in society. To those people, the essentially fictive nature of race is small comfort.

I would like to explore two points in this [post]. The first is to ask how the Romans – and indeed their non-Roman soldiers – could treat non-Romans in this brutal, even genocidal fashion and yet at the same time have non-Romans reach the very highest ranks in society and have Romans happily serving under them, or joining army units with self-consciously barbarian identities or cultures. Closely related to that is my second question: can we make a distinction between the racialised and non-racialised elements of Roman attitudes towards non-Romans. Partly this is because, as I made clear in the previous lecture, I think it is important not simply to replace ‘ethnic’ with ‘racial’, to fold all sorts of chauvinism or prejudice into the category of the racial, which has been done in some recent work on our period (which isn’t to say that the latter isn’t interesting and thought-provoking: quite the opposite). There is, in my view, an important qualitative difference between the two, as I argued in the [last blog post]. I won’t necessarily have a clear or coherent answer.

To answer the first, I am going to refer to Slavoj Žižek’s first (and best) book, The Sublime Object of Ideology. Žižek points out that racist thinking lies entirely in the order or register of the Imaginary: this is one of Lacan’s three registers and is the one that concerns ideals about how the world really is or should be. This in a sense is why it can be entirely incoherent. It’s also why ‘the other’ can be seen as good at some things while being represented as generally inferior. The inferior other can be viewed as what Žižek (again following Lacan) calls ‘the subject presumed to enjoy’; in other words, the other is somehow good at all the things the person wishes they were good at, or is allowed to do things which the person thinks they are themselves barred or prevented from doing. Now, the vast bulk of Roman ‘binary’ ethnography, discussed in [a previous video lecture] can be seen in this light. Indeed I argued in a conference paper that a lot of modern thinking about the late antique barbarian can also be seen in that light too.

The thing is, though, that the order of the imaginary doesn’t deal with everyday lived realities, even if it reflects upon them. That is the business of the order of the symbolic: the world of language, signs and symbols, social structures and so on. Now, in Žižek’s view, and I find this compelling, the reason why, on the one hand, an individual can hold violently racist views about a group of people and yet at the same time have friends from that group, even be married to one – why the famous line that ‘I can’t be racist; I have black friends’ is possible – is precisely because these two aspects of their lives operate in different psychoanalytical registers. In a way, the taxonomic level of Roman ethnography is that which operates in the sphere of the Symbolic. The ‘other’ is a figure of the Imaginary; it doesn’t actually exist as a real person. As we saw, it’s really there as a yardstick against which to judge Romans; or it is a constitutive outside, to use the phrase I used in the last lecture package. If compelled to deal with barbarians as actual people, Romans had to switch to the Symbolic register – unless, and we can see this in all sorts of persecutions – those people can somehow be prevented from being seen as actual other people. Actual barbarians, even actual barbarian groups can be grasped within the taxonomic level, like peoples within the Empire: I hate barbarians but you/your people aren’t really barbarians, not like that other lot. You have doubtless heard of the equivalents of this... So, eminent non-Romans are often never mentioned as having barbarian roots. There are, for example, no references to the Vandal parentage of the general Stilicho until after his fall from power in 408. At that point, all the usual anti-barbarian rhetoric was wheeled out to damn him as a public enemy. As one historian said, had he died of natural causes in around 406 he would have gone down in history simply as a Roman general with a funny name.

The second question is more difficult to answer. Did barbarians experience life within the Roman Empire as racialised minorities? Part of the issue here is the extent to which one might instantly be recognised as a non-Roman. It’s difficult to see somatic features like skin or hair colour as determinant in Roman ethnography. Sub-Saharan Africans – Ethiopians as the Romans called them – would probably usually be visibly different, but so too would people from the far north: the people the Romans considered to be pale-skinned and fair-haired. If anything, in most of the Empire there was possibly more prejudice (as far as I can see) towards the latter than the former. Things were possibly very different in Egypt, where there was a long history of chauvinistic treatment of the peoples of the upper Nile: Nubia - Sudan. There is an important discussion in Black Skin, White Masks, by the great Francophone, Martiniquais psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, where he talks about how the black man feels himself in the gaze of the white man all the time and internalises all the white man’s expectations of what black people are supposed to be like; feels he has to behave in a particular way. Did non-Romans experience something like this inside the Empire? It’s something to think about and probably deserves much closer attention.

The Not-so-natural world of late antiquity (1): The difference between race and ethnicity

To discuss race in the current world means, alas, to take a political position. I say ‘alas’ because I just don’t think this ought to be an issue that could be dismissed as partisan. To me it’s an issue of basic humanity, but there we are. That’s where we find ourselves.

The first thing I want to discuss in this lecture package is the difference between ethnicity and race. Back in the mists of time, when I was a child, it was commonly believed (and it still is believed, though less commonly) that ethnicity was a sub-set of race. In the same way that it used to be thought (and still is, etc.) that gender was a social construction built on the scientific, biological reality of sex, it was thought that ethnic identity was a social construct built upon a scientific, biological reality of race. This was just a then-current version of a set of ideas that had been developing since the Renaissance and which gained particular impetus (ironically perhaps) during the Enlightenment. To illustrate this we need a brief and very simplified history of European ideas of race since about the 15th century.

The encounter between Europeans and (to them) new worlds at the end of the middle ages made Europeans think about the (to them) new peoples they’d met. Some of this was not a whit different from classical Roman ideas about the barbarian and that wasn’t really surprising. Many writers on the theme drew heavily upon ancient Greek or Roman authors. Tacitus’ Germania was rediscovered at about the same time and – quite apart from providing (entirely ironically) a stimulus to northern European, German nationalist ideas, and a German renaissance – also presented some models about how one might write about the noble savage. 16th-century authors such as Montaigne wrote about the peoples of the New World in similar fashion, as ‘noble savages’ and indeed used this to critique their own society in much the same way. Also as with the Romans though, there was a more malign strand that saw such peoples as inherently inferior and as practically sub-human. This received an added dimension from Christian thought. Though there were Christians who saw the (to them) new peoples as deserving to be treated in a good Christian fashion, in some Christian thinking, these peoples pushed to the edge of the world had been shunted there from, I assume, the Garden of Eden on account of their greater sinfulness. Clearly, this sort of thinking inevitably led to displacement, enslavement and genocide and it would be sadly incorrect to think that any of that sort of hierarchical creationist thought has entirely gone away. Clearly, too, it was part and parcel of the development of the transatlantic slave trade. I pause briefly to remind you that there were always people at the time who voiced the idea that these things were morally and ethically wrong, on a number of grounds. There was always a choice. There is always a choice.

What happened at the Enlightenment, and Foucault would see this as part of the enlightenment mania for classifying and categorisation, was that this hierarchy of the peoples of the world – something perhaps in a way akin to the Romans’ taxonomic ethnography, note the similarity between these views and the classical idea that people further away from the Mediterranean were inherently more barbaric – this hierarchy received a sort of (and I stress ‘sort of’) scientific basis. This was the period when scholars like Linnaeus were dividing the natural world into genera, species, sub-species and so on. So it was felt that humans could simply be categorised similarly into races, species of the genus homo sapiens.

There are a couple of absolutely crucial things that must be stressed about this. The first, and I can’t underline this enough, is that this was entirely socially contingent. It was defined by people who by then saw themselves as white Europeans as a justification for a racial hierarchy with them – white European males – at the top, justifying their conquests, enslavement and exploitation of other peoples. Just as in exactly the same way as the Roman concept of civilisation received what it thought was a scientific justification in terms of the moisture and the humours of the body, distance from the sun and so on, to justify the position of the Roman male at the top of the hierarchy. Racial categories are not neutral scientific observations, let alone a sort of disinterested categorisation of things that are different but the same – apples and oranges within the category of fruit, say – things that are different but not qualitatively ranked.

The entire – still very much-existing – western system of race is predicated on the idea that the white man is at the top of the pile. Taking any subject position with reference to that schema – any subject position at all – acknowledges that that system was set up that way. Black, African-Caribbean, African American, Asian, south or east Asian, subject positions which are taken up as ‘people of colour’, BAME or whatever, within social systems dominated by the western system of racial categorisation are nonetheless taken up with reference to, or interpellated into, a racial hierarchy and categorisation set up by white men. That’s not – let me make this absolutely clear – to say that those subject positions accept the sort of natural superiority of white people that enlightenment thinkers took for granted; it is a recognition of a position within a hierarchy set up to disadvantage them, in which – structurally – they don’t have the power. I accept that there might be those among you who are going to find this set of ideas difficult to accept, challenging or even offensive, but I am not going to apologise: a historical education is there to challenge the way you see the world, as a provocation if you like, a provocation to rethink your ideas – so if we accept that racism is a relationship of power – prejudice plus power as I think Reni Edo-Lodge calls it in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – then there simply cannot be reverse racism, anti-white racism. It’s an oxymoron. It’s like saying that Jewish people who are maybe suspicious of, or even prejudiced against, Germans on the basis of the holocaust are somehow guilty of reverse anti-semitism. All prejudice is bad but not all prejudice is the same and not all prejudice is racism. Some black people might be prejudiced against white people but think about it. If a black person is prejudiced against me because I am white (rather than because I am an asshole, which would be fair enough) then that is probably because they see me as representing a group which, first, historically, has oppressed people of colour for the past 500 years and, secondly, as representing a group that is structurally set up – unlike them – not to be disadvantaged on the basis of the colour of their skin. I am not saying that any prejudice is good, but that’s not a prejudice that comes from a position of power. On the other hand, if I were prejudiced against someone just for being black, my prejudice would come from a very different place. I hope you can see, and understand, that.

The second point is that the science of racial categorisation is based around the categorisation, not vice versa. If I decide that sub-Saharan Africans are a different race from white Europeans, I will be able to find genetic and other scientific differences between those categories. But the same would be true if I established up a system of racial categorisation on eye-colour or hair-colour that would similarly yield ‘scientific’ differences. Race is about categorisation and the person doing the categorising has the power. Again, just as in the classical Roman ways of categorising the world.

So, we come to the point that contrary to the views I mentioned at the start, if anything, race is a sub-set of ethnicity. Ethnicity isn’t naturally-occurring either but the world is made up of groups, as we’ve seen, that see themselves as sharing some sort of identity and as being different from the others. With race, some of those ‘different’ groups have been sorted again into those which are ‘naturally’ inferior, less civilised, less intelligent, lazier, even if perhaps naturally better at some things (remember: the Romans thought that Africans were more cunning than they were, and that northern barbarians were stronger and fiercer).

I think it is very important to maintain that distinction. There is a qualitative distinction between ethnic prejudice, ethnic chauvinism and so on – which can operate very much on an equal or at least reciprocal, tit-for-tat, plane, and actual racial discrimination, which is entirely predicated on an imbalance of power rendered supposedly ‘natural’. Now, a lot of this has been contemporary, and you might note the influence of some aspects of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is now apparently not to be used in state-funded education in the UK – which is why I just mentioned it – so you might see it as political. If it is, I don’t apologise, but I don’t think it ought to be a matter of partisan politics at all. I don’t understand how the recognition of injustice is partisan, just as I don’t actually see CRT as a theory – it seems to me more like a series of analytical, factual observations. If you do see this as political, partisan bias, you might want to have a bit of a sit down and do a little critical thinking about your world-view. Remember: history isn’t meant to be comfortable. If it is, you’re doing it wrong. Anyway, in the next lecture I want to pursue these points with a specific focus on late antiquity.

The not-so-natural world of Late Antiquity: Introduction

[This post introduces another group of five posts, each of which is the script of a short, 10-minute video lecture that I prepared for my second-years last term. These are more of my 'short reads on late antiquity'. Please remember their original context as undergraduate lectures: they are all short and simplifying, possibly over-simplifying. That said, I hope they might be interesting, especially in the current situation where the idea that teaching the pre-modern world is somehow a less interesting alternative to teaching about race and sexuality and 'decolonising the curriculum' has been propounded by the management of the University of Leicester as a smokescreen for their cuts. What follows is the introduction to the five-lecture package that I put on the students' 'Virtual Learning Evironment'.]

One of the main purposes of History is to challenge what we are told about how the world is, what is 'natural', what is 'the way things are', what is 'simply human nature'.

You can read my thoughts on this issue here.

In this lecture I want first to continue yesterday's theme by looking at a sub-category of ethnicity, which is 'race', to show that the racial categories of the modern world are neither natural nor eternal.  From there I am going to look at another set of categorisations that we are frequently told are natural/unnatural: to do with sex, gender and sexuality to make a similar point.  We are often told that there is a natural sexual order, or 'natural' categories, and that other categories are socially constructed or, alternatively, even unnatural, or signs of modern liberalism.  I want to show that this is very far from being the case.  En route we will see again how 'unexpected' the world of late antiquity, and the sixth century in particular can be.

Content Warning: The video lectures for this lecture package might well contain ideas and discussions that you could find uncomfortable. I am afraid that that is the way that history is.

Element A: The difference between race and ethnicity. In this first element I want to talk generally about how race is defined and how racial prejudice is different from, say, ethnic prejudice or rivalry. Racism is a relationship of power, The 'science' that suports racial categorisation - whether in ancient or modern contexts - is designed to support the system of categorisation; the categories do not emerge from the science.

Element B: Race in Antiquity. This video lecture moves on from the basis of the previous one to look at how race and racism might have existed in the Roman world. It makes the point that, even though race is not natural, its effects are felt as being very real. How did Romans square their racial attitudes, which could be absolutely murderous, with the fact that barbarians could rise high in Roman society? I try and answer this with reference to Slavoj Žižek’s book The Sublime Object of Ideology, which I have referred to before. Finally I ask whether barbarians in the Empire experienced life as a racialised minority. The Romans didn't assign great importance to physical, bodily (somatic) markers but did Barbarians internalise the Romans' ideas about them? I can't answer this but it is worth thinking about.

Element C: Late Antiquity was not white. I use this video lecture to propose a solution to a problem that has excited a lot of interest recently, ultimately about how one stops the late antique and medieval past from being appropriated by white supremacists by looking further into the issue of how Romans saw the world. Returning to phenomenology I argue that Romans didn't see people in the same way we do, so that the issue of modern categories of skin-colour didn't arise. This permits a radical solution which I hope will stop people thinking that the late antique past only belongs to particular people, according to what they look like, and opens it to everybody.

Element D: Sex and Society. In the second half of the Lecture Package I look at the ways in which sex and sexuality were categorised in late antiquity. In this video lecture, after a brief discussion of the schematic construction of masculinity and femininity, I use Judith Butler's work to unpick the idea that 'gender' is the social construction based upon a scintific or natural 'sex', to argue that the reality is much more complex and that in practice sex is as social constructed as gender (n.b. this does not mean that natural, biological signifiers of male and female sex somehow don't exist; that's a common misrepresentation of this argument). Finally I look briefly at some medieval attitudes towards sexual practice.

Element E: Queer late antiquity? This video lecture follows directly on from the previous one by thinking about the relationships between sexuality and identity and at how complex and diverse these were in late antiquity. It argues that late antique people were much more tolerant of a wide range of sexual behaviours and lifestyles, in a way that might surprise us. After a brief discussion of what is known as 'Queer Theory' I talk through four examples from 6th-century Gaul that illustrate how queer late antiquity could be.