Why the VCLA?

Alexander Skinner, 20 May 2017

History has a way of getting hijacked, none more so than the history of empires and religions. For the public understanding of Late Antiquity, this is a challenge. The period is shaped, to a great extent, by the fall of two vast empires – Rome and Persia – and the rise of two major religions – Christianity and Islam. These are easily misunderstood.

For example, in autumn 2015, in the wake of the ‘Paris attacks’, there was an intensification of public and political alarm in Europe about the number of refugees fleeing into EU territory from the Syrian cataclysm. Against this background, Mark Rutte – Prime Minister of The Netherlands, which would assume the EU’s rotating presidency in January 2016 – explicitly linked ancient and modern circumstances, according to the Financial Times (Peter Spiegel, ‘Refugee influx threatens fall of EU, warns Dutch PM’, Financial Times, 26 November 2015):

“As we all know from the Roman empire, big empires go down if the borders are not well-protected,” said Mr Rutte in an interview with a group of international newspapers. “So we really have an imperative that it is handled.”

But as those who are experts in Late Antiquity know, this is a gross simplification of a complex problem. One need only read a volume such as Contested Monarchy: Integrating the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century AD (2015), edited by Johannes Wienand, to be conscious of the permanent fragility of imperial authority; or to read Kyle Harper on ‘The Environmental Fall of the Roman Empire’ (Daedalus 145 [2016], 101-111), to know that the natural world presented no less a challenge – and no less evolving a challenge – to the Roman Empire as did its longstanding neighbours, the ‘barbarians’. But all of this said, what some analogies between modern refugees and the migrations of the fourth and fifth centuries miss most seriously is the account, by the fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae, 31.4.8-31.5.8), of the catastrophic mistreatment of migrant Goths by local Roman commanders in 376. Things turned sour for a reason.

This is only one example of an issue on which the quality of public understanding could be improved. But it is not only the public understanding of Late Antiquity that needs to be addressed. There is also the fact that scholarship in the field is carried out on all six settled continents of the globe. Much of this work is done in universities, a handful of which have ‘centres’ (or other less formal gatherings) that bring together specialists in Late Antiquity from across different departments. Elsewhere, researchers may be more isolated exemplars of the field. Other work is done outside universities, for example by heritage professionals based in museums. Wherever one is, there is a constant need to be aware of a wider world. The VCLA aims, over time, to encourage wide-ranging networks and unexpected collaborations, especially where national boundaries and continental divisions may be bridged.

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