Monday, 2 April 2018

Review: People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 by Patrick Amory

The 1997 book 'People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy' by Patrick Amory  is one of many books to tackle the issue of identity, especially ethnicity,  in the 'transition' from the late Roman west to the early medieval period. Amory attempts to tackle this issue through two main lens: by looking at the relationship of individuals to a given community and by examining the often poltically motivated ideological tools that could be used to shape these ties. Amory's approach is ultimately insightful and at times highly nuanced, coming to the conclusion that the boundaries between 'Roman' and 'Goth' were far from static. however there a number of gaps left by the scope of his work.

The first chapters, as of reading now, discuss many themes and issues that will be familiar to those who have studied early medieval ethnicity before. The historiography of ethnic interpretations, the complexity of  labels such as 'Roman' and 'barbarian', are all issues you expect to be present and they certainly are. Therefore, while not always covering new ground, the beginning of the book acts as a useful preamble to the rest of Amory's arguments. The opening section of the book is also aided by a list of vocabulary, which is of a great benefit in what can often be a highly theoretical work.

Amory's initial argument is that Theodoric tried to perpetuate different ideologies on ethnography. Using sources, such as Cassiodorus' Variae and the Edictum Theoderici, he shows that this often over time. Theodoric's civilitas ideology consisted of promoting the idea of  the 'Romans' and the 'Goths' as two harmonious peoples. The 'Goths' being defined by military status, the 'Romans' being civilians. However, in the 520s this changed to an ideology of Gothic superiority, based on strength and the legitimacy of the Amal dynasty. He argues this may have been a a result of the the political upheaval in this part of his reign, such as his actions against Albinus, Pope John and Boethius. Under Theodoric's successors, ethnographic propaganda varied between these two ideas.

The argument here is made better by the point that the promotion of an ideology does not necessarily reflect reality. The changes shown in the texts show an attempt to change ethnic thought, but do not actually represent it in reality. This approach avoids any problematic assumptions with the sources. However, Amory could have made it more clear how these texts with ethnographic connotations were disseminated. Only throwaway references to studies on early medieval literacy, such as those by Rosamond Mckitterick, tackle this problem. It would have been good to see more space dedicated to this, particularly within the context of sixth-century Italy, when it forms an important part of his argument.

Amory also shows how the ideologies of the Gothic kings was only one of many competing discourses in sixth-century Italy. One was the idea of renovatio, the idea of a return to to a golden past, as promoted by the Emperor Justinian. Naturally, this took on the most importance during Justinian's attempt to reconquer the Italian peninsular and it aimed to appeal to the sensibilities of conservative Roman aristocrats. These competing ethnographic ideas could used be used politically by both sides in the context of the Gothic Wars.

                                          Theodoric the Great, as depicated in a medallion.

The other dichotomy tackled by Amory in this book is that of the Arian-Catholic divide. The traditional assumption is that Arianism was inherently 'Gothic', whereas 'Catholicism' was 'Roman'. A large amount of space is dedicated to undermining  the idea that these divisions were anything as simple as the labels suggest. For example, although some Popes may have been driven by an idea of a universal Christian Empire, the day-to-day practical implications of this were often affected by the working relationship the Papacy had with the Arian Ostrogothic Kings. Amory also suggests that individuals could change and adopt their 'faith' to suit political circumstances, as such the 'Arian' and 'Christian' divide were as fluid as other ethnographic ideologies in sixth-century Italy.

One of the other major parts of the book, and perhaps the most impressive, is the massive prosopography attached to the appendix. This is a study of all people who can possibly be identified as a Goth in sixth-century Italy- 379. Outside the work of Procopius, there are only a few people directly named as 'Goth'. Therefore, Amory approaches this section with the flexible criteria found in the rest of the book. This could be problematic for those wishing to use it as a simple factual resource, however as Amory suggests it is reflective of the numerous meanings 'Goth' actually had for various people and groups.

The prosopography also must be understood in the wider content of Amory's work. As a study of 'Gothic' individuals, it cleverly connects to the wider arguments of the book about identity and community by showing the wide range of individuals that can be classed under the aforementioned label. 

There are also a range of other articles attached to the appendix, which all relate to the wider theme of identity in Ostrogothic Italy. Including an inquiry into Gundila's property, which swapped hands during the Gothic Wars. An essay that expands on the 'Germanic' culture as a scholarly construct adds to some of the discussion found earlier in the book. The rest of the appendix covers some of the evidence that is noticeably absent in the main section of the book, such as archaeology and dress. All of these are insightful and well placed here as they are relevant, but not critical to the main thrust of Amory's arguments. 

                                        The mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna

To conclude, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy is a valuable contribution to discussion about early medieval identity. Its argument that identities such as 'Gothic' and 'Arian' were more complex in reality than how they were portrayed in ethnographic propaganda is persuasive. However, the scope of the work also leaves a couple of unanswered questions, for example how were ethnographic texts disseminated and is it possible to measure their effectivness? Such issues are critical to some of the points made in the book and it would have been good to see more time spent on them. Nevertheless, the book is a nuanced addition to the wide range of scholarly works on early medieval identity.

No comments:

Post a Comment