In Search of Late Antique Popular Culture

This project sets out to investigate popular culture in Late Antiquity, focusing largely on the Latin West.

It aims first to define the nature of popular culture in the Roman world, and then to investigate how this popular culture was both co-opted and challenged by the Church in Late Antiquity, through the study of a wide range of source material, including both literary texts and material artefacts. My research will seek to show that in the emergence of a new, Christian popular culture, we can identify a significant aspect of the cultural transformation from the classical to the early medieval world.

The project so far

The project moves outwards from a fascinating case-study: the city of Arles in the age of its most famous bishop, Caesarius (502-542), a snapshot era often seen as emblematic of the cusp between the ancient and medieval eras. Caesarius tirelessly aimed for the wholesale reform of his flock: his scope was wide taking in attitudes, activities, behaviour and habits, even body language, as well as beliefs. In Caesarius’ sermons we can track something of the scope and vitality of late antique popular culture. We learn of gossiping, drinking, singing and dancing, carousing and even cross-dressing (in the case of the fascinating festival of the Kalends of January). What the bishop was aiming at was the reform, or even assassination, of popular culture, and its replacement with a new Christian culture. The extent to which figures such as Caesarius were successful is a key focus of the enquiry.

Caesarius’ sermons are crucial (if problematic) historical sources, which can be read with, and against, other evidence from the period, most significantly that of material culture. In terms of artefacts, including ceramics and a wide variety of “amulets”, the material culture of the late antique Mediterranean provides a rich seam of images and themes that both complement and confront the ecclesiastical picture. While on one hand the period sees a striking contraction in terms of the range of iconography available, there is much to be gained from in-depth study of new iconographical themes. The project will also survey the transformation of the sites of traditional popular culture, most famously theatres, circuses and amphitheatres.

Collaboration and Dissemination

In July 2012 an international conference ‘Locating Popular Culture in the Ancient World’ will bring together a range of scholars from all the over the world, representing a diverse range of subjects, interests and approaches, to explore the challenges of investigating a field ignored by traditional classical scholarship. This conference will result in an edited volume, representing the best and most innovative work on ancient popular culture, and is designed to set an agenda for future research. In Spring 2013 a symposium on Caesarius and his world will bring together a number of experts in the field, to exchange ideas and to help provide a richer picture for the study of late antique Arles. The final and major output from this work will be a single-author monograph, currently entitled ‘In Search of Late Antique Popular Culture’.

Dr Lucy Grig

Head of Subject Area; Classics

  • School of History, Classics and Archaeology
  • University of Edinburgh

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