Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2017) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

This blog is no longer updated, for any queries, please contact project leader Eivind Heldaas Seland

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Petition without Response: Diplomatic Language in the Christian Apologists

'a rescript from Hadrian in Justin Martyr's 1 Apology, in the medieval manuscript Parisinus graecus 450, fol. 239
(Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By Birgit van der Lans

The Easter break – when Norwegian cities depopulate but the traditional Påskekrimi provides for some excitement – gave me opportunity to write a few words to introduce myself and my research on this blog. For about two months now I have very much enjoyed being associated with the NeRoNe project, after moving from Groningen to Bergen to join the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion" as a guest researcher. The coming year I will be working on a project (funded by a contribution from the Niels Stensen Fellowship) on the roles and expressions of religion in the diplomatic networks of the early Roman Empire.

Birgit van der Lans joins the
NeRoNE group as a guest-
researcher for 2016.
When we think about ‘diplomacy’, we associate it with international relations, with foreign affairs and with a professional diplomatic service to negotiate relationships between autonomous nation states. In the context of the Roman Empire – as Fergus Millar has made clear – the distinction between external diplomacy and internal affairs is less appropriate. The relationship between Rome and the local polities that had become part of the Empire was managed by a system of ‘internal diplomacy’ in which the emperor and other Roman officials received embassies and responded to the countless demands and requests by very different types of subjects.

Just like contemporary diplomatic practice is no longer the exclusive terrain of nation states, the social agents who took part in diplomatic exchange were diverse: besides cities, provincial councils or client kingdoms, embassies were dispatched by local religious associations, ethnic communities, and the ‘world-wide’ organisations of athletes and theatrical performers. City magistrates, high priests presiding over different sorts of associations and skilled rhetors were selected as envoys and amassed prestige by acting as brokers. Diplomatic connections were formed by such travelling persons, but also by the exchange of written documents: petitions, honorific decrees and imperial rescripts were copied, circulated, archived and displayed by interested parties.

This complex administrative system can be analysed as a social network with nodes, hubs, edges and clusters and flows. I think that the network perspective helps us to understand change and continuity in the imperial administration, but I will be looking mainly for the religious practices, concepts and agents that constituted – or impeded – diplomatic relations.

My chronological focus will be on the Hadrianic-Antonine period, when Christians began to participate in diplomatic networks – or at least claimed to do. From the second century onwards we hear of several Christians - Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Athenagoras of Athens, among others – who addressed petitions to the emperor and used diplomatic forms and language to package ‘apologetic’ writings, in which they defended Christianity against accusations of atheism, incest and cannibalism. I suspect that the activities of these new diplomatic agents, who can be placed among other ‘intellectual’ diplomats associated with the Second Sophistic, offer a fruitful entry point to understand the intersection of religious and diplomatic networks in this period.

I hope to give some updates on this blog about developments in research and other planned activities – starting with my first talk for the research group "Ancient History, Culture and Religion" this Thursday (the 31st). A few days later I will travel to Canada for 6 weeks of research at York University, where I will be working mainly on the diplomatic activities of Greco-Roman associations, and a talk for the Ottawa Early Christianity Group. When I come back to Bergen, the Påskehare is long gone, but the 17. Mai celebrations will soon offer the next occasion to explore Norwegian traditions.