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Response to Review of Social Conflict in the Age of Justinian: Its Nature, Management, and Mediation

Douglas Whalin's review of my 2013 book on social conflict in the age of Justinian, or, perhaps better, in the 'long sixth century', was doubly welcome. Not only was it distinctly favourable (despite inevitable criticisms of style and detail, some justified), and therefore good for authorial vanity, but more importantly it recognised – and applauded – what for me was a main purpose of the book: showing, by example, the value for all ancient and Byzantine historians of exploiting concepts and frameworks which social scientists, including social psychologists, continue to put before us. We must not treat 'theory' as a noxious potion that those on the dark side might pour into their work in places like Princeton or Cambridge. However, despite the examples of Averil Cameron or Chris Wickham, for instance, and the trends I sketch in my initial chapter, this is still a far from universal infusion, certainly in Oxford. So, thank you, Douglas, very much indeed. I am particularly glad that you have endorsed the way in which, having sown my 'interpretation in the ground of social theory', I have 'nurtured it with autobiographical fertiliser'!

That does not mean I endorse all Whalin's takes on more specific arguments, even when favourable. For example, while I do indeed argue that it is often hard, even impossible, to distinguish clearly the class positions of ruling elites from their positions in the status hierarchy of the late Roman Empire, we dare not wholly lose sight of the former concept. For this seeks to clarify where groups stand in the political economy and their dynamic relationships with each other; who are the political and economic beneficiaries of prevailing economic arrangements; and, above all, who is exploiting whom?

Likewise, I too wish I had said more about other areas of conflict, including Egypt, and, above all, conflicts between the imperial authorities and the Jews. I did, however, have quite a lot to say about land-tenure in Egypt, again absolutely fundamental to the political economy and class and power-relationships – and not just by the Nile; I discuss Justinian's Edict 13 (p. 539) which tried to stop a range of administrative abuses by the administration itself ; just look at my index under 'Egypt'. But in a relatively short monograph, you cannot tackle all the subjects you might wish; if I have adduced enough material to sustain and justify a broadly satisfactory model of a wide range of social conflicts and their inter-relationships across the Empire, that must suffice for now…

One final point. I am glad that my reviewer pays special attention to my treatment of the circus, that is chariot races, and the churches (not to mention the decline of traditional, Pagan religion). My approach here rested less on sociology than on social psychology. We cannot but acknowledge the enormous political salience of the games (including theatrical performances) and of religion throughout the whole empire, yet I did not want, in the absence of any clear class linkages in both areas of activity, to reduce my account to a banal factual narrative, or to pass over the reality, however remarkable, that for many what went on in churches and circuses was of enormous existential importance. Drawing on social psychology, I developed an approach which I had already found useful in helping understand community politics (and hatreds) in Northern Ireland — one rooted in a human disposition to build group identities, capable of being both passionate and murderous (and cutting across other loyalties, in the case of the circus factions). Whalin helpfully recognises this, together with my refusal to see such passions as invariably malign or divisive. Were I to take issue with his analysis, I would argue that while there was certainly a group bonding within each faction and church, and while such loyalties might stretch across the empire, the institutional nature of the churches and the much wider scope of their activities and their ideologies, as well as the growing power of their hierarchs meant that they were sometimes far from force for unity and the common good. As historians, we must set institutions in their wider social context. But this is a relatively small criticism of a very helpful review. I only hope that other readers will reflect critically –and positively – on what I have written.