Conference report ‘Forced Movement in Late Antiquity’

Our final major project conference ‘Forced Movement in Late Antiquity’ was held at the German Historical Institute in London from 6 to 8 April 2017.

The aims and objectives of this conference were to explore cultural, social and religious transformations as a direct result of mobility within the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity and beyond. While a great deal of papers invited were concerned primarily with movement of clerics and religious groups via exile or other forms of expulsion – this is the core aim of our project that has been able to trace these movement by means of digitalisation – other speakers put the concept of spatial mobility into a greater context, analysing the ways in which individuals moved around territories, for example, as a consequence of wars or raids, to find asylum, or to explore new avenues of wage labour. Papers of either direction contextualised mobility and movement as a means of mapping the development of new communities, ideas and senses of belonging at the end of antiquity up to the early Middle Ages. Personally, I was impressed with the quality of papers, the depth of discussions and the amount of thought-provoking ideas from all participants that came together from different parts of the world.

The conference was planned and pre-organised a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, the subject of mobility and forced movement turned out to be of timely relevance in a period where movement has attracted considerable political attention. It is therefore no surprise that part of the presentations and discussions were informed by the desire to explain the past from the present. The invitation of professionals working in the wider area of movement issues, particularly during the round table discussion, strengthened this view.

A preliminary version of the clerical exile graph shows that the “Crowd in Constantinople” was right in the centre of decision processes regarding the movement of clerics. The ‘big bubble’ in the top left corner that is connected to the crowd illustrates the amount of contacts that John Chrysostom cultivated during his exile. As his is the case best evidenced, it is reasonable to assume that exiled individuals often stayed in touch with previous and new communities.

After words of welcome and the presentation of the scope and results of, and ways to use, the database (Hillner, Rohmann), the first panel started to discuss the movements of clerical exile (Lizzi Testa, Ford, session chaired by Blaudeau) in terms of procedures of expulsion in the fourth and fifth centuries, and its connection to maiestas trials, as well as the justification strategies for persecution of a large group of anti-Chalcedonians in the early sixth century. The early afternoon session discussed the ways in which individual authors fashioned their exile experience in writing (Van’t Westeinde, Hanaghan, chaired by Flower). Jerome, for one, constructed his ‘presence in absence’ and that of his network, while residing in Bethlehem ‘in exile’. Sidonius Apollinaris used his correspondence to outline his resistance against the Visigothic conquest of Spain. This was followed by a panel on ‘Barbarian’ migration (Schmidt-Hofner, Wijnendaele, Sarantis, chaired by Barry). Question discussed included the problems of migration for landholding elites in the fourth century, the transformation from imperial soldiers to warlords in the fifth century and the cultural and socio-economic repercussions of Roman exploitation of barbarian manpower in the Balkan region in the century following the death of Attila the Hun. The first conference day was nearly completed with Peter Heather’s keynote lecture ‘Barbarian Immigrants and the Roman Empire: Invaders or Refugees’, setting out a number of push and pull factors for mobility from outside the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the conference was taken to a contemporary level with the roundtable contributions by Donecker, Reis, Symonds (Amnesty International) and Wivel (Weekendavisen, author of The Last Supper. The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands), who discussed the question of who is or a was a refugee from both a historical and contemporary angle, including an engaging discussion of legal definitions and applications (picture below).


Day two set out with the questions of resettlement and extradition of refugees in Late Antiquity (Lenski, Ronnenberg, Nechaeva, Whalin, chaired by Reis). The panel analysed the questions of large scale settlements of Barbarians under Roman terms and violent exploitation, the flight of Roman female aristocrats following the sack of Rome in 410 and their impact on Church authorities, the mechanisms of extradition of war captives between Rome and Persia in the sixth century, particularly with a view to the Endless Peace treaty, and the violent uprisings by Roman loyalists against Muslim control in seventh-century Lebanon. The noon panel went on to discuss definitions and ranges of economic refugees in Late Antiquity (Marien and Pitz, chaired by Vallejo Girvéz). Main points to consider were Libanius’ different attitudes of decurial flight into the imperial service in correspondence and sermons, on the one hand, and push and pull factors in forced rural movement of coloni, on the other. Sarah Bond followed up on a number of aspects so far discussed in the second keynote lecture on the scope of digital mapping projects and new technologies for mapping real and imagined topographies in Late Antiquity, demonstrating the usefulness of digital humanities with a number of visually impressive slides (Ulrich and Engberg led the discussion for the respective keynote talks). The final session of the day (Brand, Konstantinidou, Sihong Lin, chaired by myself) explored the daily life of networks of a persecuted Manichaean community in new papyrological evidence from Kellis in Egypt. This was followed by an exploration of John Chrysostom’s extensive letter networks in his second exile in Cucusus, the qualities of relationships, the status of addressees and frequencies of communication. The final talk offered a comparative approach to seventh-century exile experiences in the east and in the west through examination of the case studies of Maximus the Confessor and Wilfried of York.

The final day first begun with a session on the fate and experiences of captured civilians, in particular women (Huntzinger, Kahlos, Fan Chiang, chaired by Fournier). Starting with the general observation that civilians rather than soldiers increasingly suffered captivity in Late Antiquity, the first paper set out to explore experiences of deportation and family separation. This was followed by an in-depth analysis of Ausonius’ poems on Bissula and their erotic, often uncomfortable, connotations in the context of wider information available for women and children as war booty in Late Antiquity. The third paper extended this view onto the experiences of women taken captive in historians such as Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius and John of Ephesus. The final panel of the conference (Vallejo Girvés, Dirschlmayer, Cohen, chaired by Mawdsley) explored the nature of space used to house refugees and asylum seekers, first concentrating on the disrespect for church asylum by political authorities, on one hand, and on the availability of church asylum for clerical exiles, on the other. The session went on to analyse the role of Roman empresses in the maintenance of ‘refugee camps’ (xenodocheia) and the different categories of visitors to such sites. The final paper discussed Liberius’ exile in the cemetery of St Agnes, as reported in the Liber Pontificalis, as a possible forgery designed to construct a specific ritual of purification, in the wider context of other bishops of Rome temporarily residing in cemeteries.

All talks were followed by question rounds. Engberg and Ulrich summarised the main aspects raised during those three days in a final, and stimulating, discussion.

The conference was accompanied by communal dinners with further ongoing debates, by a special exhibition in the British Museum on the theme of mobility and, last but not least, by beautiful English spring weather in London. A huge thanks to our kind hosts at the GHI London!

Book announcement

My new book has just been published with De Gruyter. The title is “Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiqity: Studies in Text Transmission”. It has recently been endorsed by Forbes Magazine:


As Dirk Rohmann has written in his new book, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, early Christians often spoke of books as a kind of body that demons could inhabit. What better way to kill these demons than to burn them? (Sarah E. Bond, Forbes Magazine, 26/09/2016)


Here is a short summary:


It is estimated that only a small fraction, less than 1 per cent, of ancient literature has survived to the present day. The role of Christian authorities in the active suppression and destruction of books in Late Antiquity has received surprisingly little sustained consideration by academics. In an approach that presents evidence for the role played by Christian institutions, writers and saints, this book analyses a broad range of literary and legal sources, some of which have hitherto been little studied. Paying special attention to the problem of which genres and book types were likely to be targeted, I argue that in addition to heretical, magical, astrological and anti-Christian books, other less obviously subversive categories of literature were also vulnerable to destruction, censorship or suppression through prohibition of the copying of manuscripts. These include texts from materialistic philosophical traditions, texts which were to become the basis for modern philosophy and science. This book examines how Christian authorities, theologians and ideologues suppressed ancient texts and associated ideas at a time of fundamental transformation in the late classical world.


It took me quite a while to write this book, and I hope it sheds new light on an important question that to my mind has so far been understudied. I would like to quote a major passage that I find key to approaching the subject:


To Christian authors of Late Antiquity, the philosophers were wrong, for example, when they posited evolution, originating from the clash of atoms, instead of creation out of nothing. These Christian authors attributed many opinions of ancient philosophers to a demonic, devilish counter-world. For example, they considered natural forces, recognised by certain philosophers, as demonic because natural forces explained the movement of material objects without God. The atoms too were demonic as being independent entities, uncreated matter, impartible, moving automatically and by cohesion in varied order composing the objects of the material world, without divine providence. Other questions of doctrinal importance included predictions on the movement of the stars, the singularity, duration, size and shape of the universe and whether it was a miracle of creation or something that can be explained mathematically; whether human beings were informed about the material world through the various senses (for example, through optics and acoustics) or through the ideas of the soul. The various opinions of the philosophers could cause heretical thinking and had done so in the case of many heretics. Christian authors condemned much of the material which became the basis for modern philosophy and science as magical and heretical because it conflicted with the world-view, or universe-view, that they were promoting. (p. 22)




You can find a google preview here.

Second Advisory Workshop in Sheffield, 8th of January 2016

Our second advisory board workshop took place here at the Humanities Research Institute in Sheffield on the 8th of January. As with last year, we were pleased to host a number of distinguished scholars, working on databases, the late antique clergy and/or social network analysis from countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK.

In the first part of this workshop, we had the chance to become acquainted with a range of complementing projects currently undertaken throughout Europe. Margarita Vallejo Girvès (Alcalá) presented some of her own work on exile, both secular and clerical, up to 711 AD, including a data collection for internal use, compiled by herself and her research group. It concentrates on dates and exile types rather than on relationships of people in exile, which is central to our own research question on clerical exiles. Stanislaw Adamiak (Warsaw) gave an insight into a database project on presbyters in the Early Church, including translations of pertinent texts, currently ongoing as a team project at the University of Warsaw. Bryan Ward-Perkins (Oxford) directs a Cult of the Saints project, including a database on early saints. His presentation focused specifically on the smell of dead saints. It included useful insights into tagging and categorisation of key words.

In the late morning session, Julia Hillner and myself presented the current state of our own database, currently comprising around 250 exile cases, roughly the same amount of locations and 500 people or groups in total. We introduced the current search surface (including a highly developed map search involving several layers) and the admin version of the database model, along with the research questions pertinent to this project.

After lunch, all of the participants kindly tested the current state of our database search function. In the process, we received valuable feedback, for example, concerning free-text categories to browse and considerations on the possible target group of these search tools.

Our guest-speakers concluded the day with a diverse range of topics on social network analysis, which is central to, and informs, our own research questions. Our own Julia Hillner gave a paper on social networks associated with exiles, including a range of quantitative approaches to identify and analyse these, ranging from the reconstruction of ‘real’ networks to that of ‘imagined’ ones. Máirín MacCarron (Sheffield) talked about her project on mapping interpersonal relationships in early medieval hagiographies, with special emphasis on the role of women. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (Vienna) presented sophisticated slides of computerised social network graphs related to conflict in the medieval Byzantine world. All presentations that day included time to discuss and to ask questions.

We were delighted to invite the group to two communal dinners, involving internal discussions on research questions, and we all look forward to the next meeting of this kind to be held this time at the University of Halle (Germany).

Oxford Patristics Conference August 2015

The Seventeenth International Conference on Patristic Studies was hosted in Oxford in August 2015. Our research group presented the Clerical Exile project in the afternoon workshops on three consecutive days in the Examination School. Our workshop presenters (Jennifer Barry, Jakob Engberg, Eric Fournier, Uta Heil, Julia Hillner, Harry Mawdsley, Hiltrud Merten, Dirk Rohmann, Jörg Ulrich, Margarita Vallejo) arrived from five countries (Denmark, Germany, Austria, the USA and the UK – this is all in alphabetical order). Workshop 1 focused on methodological approaches, while workshop 2 and 3 concentrated on specific topics in a chronological order.


Primarily attended by Theologians, the Oxford Patristics conference is huge compared to similar events for Historians or Classicists. This surely has to do with the fact that Patristics and late antique studies in general are pertinent to a range of academic disciplines. It may also show that Patristic Studies are comparatively well funded. More than seven percent of contributors reportedly arrived from Germany (this statistical information reportedly came from a publishing house that was represented at the conference).

Given the number of workshops and short communications presented at the conference, it inevitably was difficult to work through the schedule. The conference program was also structured according to location rather than time, and workshops were listed separately. It is obvious that any conference of this size poses significant challenges for its organisation. Some of the talks seem to have been cancelled on short notice, but again I found that the application process, the range and arrangements of topics was open, transparent and covering a diversity of topics and presenters. The conference locations were well chosen and provided a suitable atmosphere for this event.

While I for one, primarily as a classicist and historian, found some of the topics presented of great interest, I also felt that other topics were of much greater interest to an audience with a specifically theological education. This made it somewhat difficult for me to navigate through the panels. Nevertheless, it is clear that the coming together of so many scholars led to many illuminating chats during and outside conference hours and it also gave the opportunity to meet again several scholars whom I have last met somewhere else in the UK or overseas.

Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity XI

The biennial „Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity“ is the largest conference for the history of Late Antiquity in North America. This year’s meeting, the eleventh of its kind, took place at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, IA. Iowa City is perhaps a fairly unusual place to host a big conference, but the University of Iowa frequently attracts visitors from around the world. The city is located in the middle of crop fields, which Iowa is best known for and has the typical size of an American college town. As a college town, it includes a town centre close to the campus (which covers most of the city) and a massive American football stadium – perhaps the most obvious building in town. To give some practical travel advice, the nearest international airport in Cedar Rapids does not always indicate the gate number either on a screen or through public announcement, but you can ask the captain to verify that your plane is about to take off, in case you are not a local or otherwise unaware of the specific gate assignment routine (while this is meant to be funny, I do admit I got nervous this time considering that I had two immediate connection flights).

Iowa City has also been awarded the UNESCO city of literature status as the second city of this kind after Melbourne, Australia, and along with Edinburgh, Scotland. This is largely due to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a university program in creative writing that has the nation’s largest number of Pulitzer prize-winning alumni, as well as to other literary events that often take place in the local book shop. The university has a number of representative buildings, as it has acquired the former governmental area, after the city ceased to be the capital of the state of Iowa, including the Old Capitol building, where one of the conference’s keynote lectures took place.

Presenters often arrived from international destinations, including South America, Canada, the UK and Europe, Asia and Australia. The theme of this year’s conference was the transformation of poverty, philanthropy, and healthcare in Late Antiquity. Recurring themes included snake-metaphors, Epiphanius’ Panarion (besides obviously important authors such as Augustine and Ambrose) and infestation by worms as divine punishment. While many papers stressed the role of the Christian church in providing welfare and healthcare to the poor, others argued that voluntary poverty was used a literary topos in the sources as wealthy Christians regarded their property indifferently rather than renouncing it altogether. Ramsay MacMullen’s interesting keynote talk, for example, suggested that Christian medical practitioners in Late Antiquity did often exorcise demons rather than cure diseases according to the ancient state of the medical art (a topic that I have addressed from a different angle in my talk as well). As always, the conference offered a plethora of interesting questions to apply to the history of Christian medicine, and beyond, for example, in the fields of Christian theology, late antique material culture and social history. I am therefore grateful that the Learned Society Fund awarded me a travel grant.

How to identify (and to cure) an error in the database

Following our advisory board workshop and the valuable feedback we received from the participants, we have recently been able to finalise the database, thanks to the successful work by our project’s Digital Humanities Developer, Matthew Groves.

As one can expect, there were numerous considerations that surfaced only once the database was at a stage where I have been able to create the first prosopographical entries. Thus, the HTML-based designer system allows different methods of entering data, such as a multiple-choice format, a multiple-entry one, a free text option as well as the possibility to choose from, and add to, several lists. This naturally leads to further questions, such as of how to define the differences between unknown and n/a (say, if it’s a special category that is applicable to few cases only, and there really is no information extant in the sources to answer that question at all). How to deal with a data entry system that requires one to enter a numerical time-span, when all we can really say is that at some unknown moment in time someone writes a letter addressed to someone else. All this is completely independent from the difficulties in the interpretation of the sources. The combination of these considerations naturally required different review sessions.

In this context, a hilarious obstacle occurred that for several days delayed completion of the database. While entering more and more data for a given exile case, at one point a message popped up and kept on preventing the data from being updated to the system: ‘An error has occurred during the creation of item “Eusebius of Vercelli”’. After extensive investigation, we found that the message came up every single time when I tried to update the field ‘Religious affiliation’, with its associated content (‘Nicaean’), and that this had caused the database to reject the new data as erroneous. It can’t be that the database is heretical, can it?

At any rate, we are scheduled to explore the possibilities of visualising the early database content soon and are therefore convinced that at this stage there is want for further clarification and assurance that we are still on the right way.

Vienna trip

New Blog written by Harry Mawdsley:


On the 11th of December, the project’s Sheffield contingent – Julia, Dirk and I – travelled to Vienna for the “Linking the Mediterranean” international workshop. The theme of the workshop, as implied by its title, was regional and trans-regional interactions during late-antiquity 300-800 AD. Given the persistent academic debates concerning the impact of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, there was much scope for discussion. And so, eagerly anticipating the conference papers, we arrived at Manchester Airport (very!) early that morning.

After a relatively straightforward journey, notwithstanding our slight confusion when navigating the Viennese transport system, we reached at the hotel by the afternoon. This gave us a few hours to do a spot of sightseeing before the evening’s keynote speech. It was my first time in the city and I was impressed – the architecture was ornate, grandiose and, above all, imperial.

We arrived at the academy building at around five o’clock. Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins opened proceedings by introducing his current research; a major five year project that will investigate the origins and development of the cult of the saints. Like our Clerical Exile project, it will produce a searchable database freely available online.

On Friday morning we were feeling more rested and ready for a long day of a discussion. A wide variety of topics were addressed by the speakers, the full programme can be found here; The followers of our project’s twitter feed were provided with a running commentary as I dutifully tweeted from the audience. In the second session Julia herself presented on the relationship between exile and monastic confinement during the fifth and sixth centuries. Far from indicating shrinking political horizons, Julia instead argued that the growth of monastic confinement represented a new method of social control. These issues will receive fuller treatment in her forthcoming book – Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity – but it was great to hear Julia give the first paper linked with the project.

The papers continued on Saturday, including one from our Sheffield colleague Dr Katie Hemer who works within the Department of Archaeology. Using stable isotope analysis to examine the remains from an early medieval cemetery, Katie had found surprising evidence for population movement from the Southern Mediterranean to Western Britain. This brought out one of the central themes of the workshop; rather than a collection of static, parochial societies, the post-Roman west was a highly inter-connected world in which goods, ideas and individuals moved across large distances and political borders. Of course, this is something that I hope to demonstrate in my own research on exile in the barbarian successor states.

By the afternoon the conference had concluded; our gracious host, Dr Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, then gave us a highly informative tour of the city. There was even time to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where we marvelled at the impressive late-antique collections as well as at the (surely exaggerated?) prognathism of the Habsburg portrait busts.

After a final night in the hotel we were ready to depart. During the journey home I reflected on the last few days. It was the first conference that I had attended, and before arriving I felt slightly intimidated at the prospect of meeting so many distinguished academics. However, these feelings were soon overcome due to the friendly atmosphere, and the genuine interest showed by fellow attendees in my own research. The conference itself was highly stimulating, with the speakers approaching the issue of connectivity from a variety of disciplines and approaches. This made the experience truly worthwhile, and I returned to Sheffield with a renewed enthusiasm for our own project. For that I owe thanks to everyone who made the event possible, in particular its organiser Dr David Natal.

Developing a database

It is always important to think about the foundations before a project gets started.

I think this holds true for the categories upon which we want to build our database. Perhaps the topic of Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity appears to be straightforward. Who was exiled, where did they come from, where did they go. Obviously, this is not what we’re trying to do in the next couple of years.

It is clear that our methodological approach towards Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity is informed by recent trends of network theory. In this context, much has been made out of sociological theories. Drawing on these theories, scholars are trying to apply interdisciplinary approaches to historical network analysis. Alluding to popular culture, historical network analysis is thus often compared to the Facebook of the Middle Ages, of Victorian Britain or of whatever period we are talking about. Scholars have therefore developed a wealth of categories in order to give a nuanced view of what network theory can contribute to our historical knowledge.

However, our source basis for antiquity and late antiquity is a very different one compared to more recent periods. While in most cases, the evidence and known information are scant, there are other examples, such as the exile and pertinent correspondence of John Chrysostom or the many exile cases of 355/6 (surrounding the condemnation of Athanasius), where we have a plethora of extant information. In consequence, we need to be clear that in many cases many of the available categories are void.

Another problem is the obvious problem of source bias that is inherent to, say, Christian polemical texts. Can we really believe an ancient Christian author claiming that his dogmatic adversary is an obsessive-compulsive thief of church property and a promiscuous, covert practitioner of paganistic orgies? On the other hand, prosopographical study requires us to be accurate in relation to the accounts given by our sources. While we therefore think it is best practice to account for who said what in which context, we are nevertheless aware of the bias that is inherent to ancient, particularly to religious, texts – but are likewise happy to leave it to others to draw these conclusions.

Once the database is up and running, I’d be curious to find out if our chosen system does justice to the problems that we have so far encountered in applying network theory to the study of late antiquity.


Welcome to our blog ‘The Migration of Faith: Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity’!

Late antique clerical exiles and their companions seem to have been everywhere in the late Roman empire, travelling, talking to people, writing letters, and often causing havoc, as such influencing a wide range of cultural, political, religious and legal developments in this period. We think therefore that in our project there will be something of interest for everyone fascinated by late antiquity! Continue reading