Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew

Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew

Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew

Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew


"In the year 600, the Roman Empire was the most powerful political entity in Europe and the Mediterranean; an Augustus ruled from the capital at Constantinople, and Latin was the official language of the empire. Yet within two generations, this order had collapsed. By 650, the Levant, the Balkans, and Spain were lost; Italy was on the verge of falling to the Germans, and northern Africa to the Arabs. The empire consisted of a small territory including Asia Minor, Constantinople, a section of Thrace, a few Balkan coastal fortresses, and an ever-shrinking portion of Italy. Greek had replaced Latin as the official language; papal and Greek orthodoxy clashed; the empire's richest provinces were gone; and Jerusalem had twice fallen from Christian rule, first to the Persians in 614, and then again to the Arabs in 638. Posterity has dubbed this radically reconfigured empire the Byzantine and has distinguished it from the classical Roman Empire of the West. But the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire never ceased to think of themselves as Romans; their empire remained the Roman Empire, universal, invincible - God's chosen instrument to bring order to the world. Nonetheless, seventh-century authors sensed something was going awry, and they sought to frame a response to the situation. How could one explain the massive loss of territory and the defeat of an empire that many believed God had intended to be eternal? What assurances could seventh-century thinkers give that God had not abandoned them and that the empire and Christianity would again be victorious? And why, in the seventh century, was there a sudden and remarkable proliferation of anti-Jewish texts, most in dialogue form? These are the questions David M. Olster seeks to answer in Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literary Construction of the Jew. Drawing upon the conventions of martyrology, apocalypse, and Old Testament prophets the seventh century writers sought to place the empire into a redemptive historical cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, and restoration. Olster explores Christian reactions to the catastrophic Persian and Arab invasions, challenging long-held assumptions that divided "religious" from "secular" literature and exempted religion from contemporary social, political, and intellectual discourse. The rhetorical conventions of personal sin and salvation were transferred to a collective context - and the explosion of anti-Jewish texts turned out to have little to do with actual Judeo-Christian social or intellectual conflicts. The anti-Jewish texts, Olster argues, represent a literary response to seventh-century disaster, by which Byzantine authors could redirect the rhetoric of individual salvation into a theoretic of imperial renewal. If the Jews' role in Christian society had relatively little to do with their sudden prominence in seventh-century literature, the imagined Jew represented something for Christian contemporaries that fit well into a new pattern of apologetic. Seventh-century Christians did not need a scapegoat, they needed someone whose greater misfortunes could by comparison mitigate their own. Roman Defeat, Christian Response, and the Literacy Construction of the Jew will be of interest to students and scholars of early medieval, Byzantine, and late Roman history, and religion, literature, and Jewish and Islamic studies." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Defeat and disaster seem to inspire witnesses to weave a historical pattern to explain them. And often this explanation is their contemporaries' only solace for failed hopes. From the bad luck that plagued Thucydides' Athens to the divine will that brought the Goths to Augustine's Rome, writers have created for themselves and their audiences historical schemes to give order to a world turned upside down and perhaps to offer some reassurance to the bewildered. And few disasters have called forth a greater effort to construct a fragile historical vision of order than the collapse of the Roman Empire in the East during the seventh century.

The Roman Empire in the year 600, buffeted by barbarian invasions and blighted with institutional rot, yet remained the most powerful realm of Europe. Justinian's conquests in Africa, Italy, and Spain had made the Mediterranean a Roman lake; Roman arms contested the Danube with Slavs and Avars; and in 590, the Persians, falling into civil war, made a peace that favored New Rome. The Constantinopolitan court retained many of its Latin roots; Augustus, not basileus, was the official imperial title; and a generation earlier the poet Corippus had written panegyrics in the language of Pliny and Claudian. The court's Christianity was challenged not by the pope, who had come to Constantinople to preside over the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, but by dissidents of still Christian Syria and Egypt.

Within a generation, as shocked and demoralized east Rome lurched from one defeat to another, the imperial order collapsed. By 650, Jerusalem, the pilgrimage center of Christianity, had been twice conquered by infidels (Persians and Arabs); the Levant, the Balkans, and Spain were lost; Italy and Africa nearly were lost; and Latin and Greek orthodoxy embarked on the roads that ultimately divided them. By 700, the empire emerged as a rump holding Asia Minor, Constantinople, a bit of Thrace, a few coastal fortresses in Europe, and a swiftly contracting area of Italy. Little wonder that later chroniclers imagined that the first imperial victim of the Arab conquests, Heraclius, went insane.

So revolutionary were the social and political changes that followed . . .

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