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Late Antique conference blogging, part one

14 April, 2009

Late Antique conference blogging, part one

So a couple of weeks ago, I went to a Late Antiquity conference. It was much fun, and there were some good papers. Unfortunately, I missed a few good papers, too — first because I missed my plane! and second because I decided that falling down a few steps was better than actually, you know, walking down them. But anyway, here’s a summary from my notes. If you want details on authors, e-mail me:

The first paper I heard was on Evagrius of Pontus. I only caught a bit, but basicaly the argument was that Evagrius used the image of the exiled Odysseus in talking about monastic exile, and that Evagrius’s letters were deliberately written in a ‘this contains a secret message’ kind of way, in which the intended reader would have understood three different levels of interpretation.

The seond paper was on Varro and his influence in Late Antiquity. Let’s see — we all know Augustine hates Varro, right (well, we do now!) — and that antipathy is rooted well before Civitas Dei. Anyway, Varro’s Hebdomades apparently had some effect on both of the Symmachi, especially the elder. And in general there’s an influence in the late 4th C in terms of many things numerological. Oh, but we don’t have any precise evidence that the Symmachi were inspired by the Hebdomades. Basically, I understood the argument to be that Symmachus’ original letter collection was arranged in 7 books, like the Hebdomades, and that there is other evidence to show that the number was significant to both Symmachi, and the 10-book collection of letters we know was a later compilation.

After the break, there was a very interesting paper on Glycerios and the Dancing Virgins, in which it was argued rather well that early Christians really didn’t object to dance, per se. In fact, the imagery and vocabulary of dance permeate much of early Christian writing, and there is evidence to show that virgins were considered especially well-suited to choral dance. However, in examples like that of Glycerios, who appears to have been a ne’er-do-well who led a troup of dancing virgins from town to town, we get a case where the conduct of the leader is suspect, and leads to much crankiness.

Next came one of the best papers of the conference, hands down. All about the prostitutes. Actually, it was about the shift in the perception of and rehabilitation of prostitutes as Christianity took hold. The paper argued that in pre-Christian Roman society, shame equaled social death; all prostitutes pretty much suffered this. But the focus on sin in Christianity meant that the idea of volition played an important role; one chooses to sin, and one can choose to repent and be forgiven, and be welcomed back into the fold.

This is especially problematic in a world where many prostitutes are slaves, and therefore their sins are not volitional. This situation is upsetting to many early church fathers. The presenter went on to draw parallels between Greek romances where boy meets girl, girl is cast into many misadventures, often including into a brothel, and then is rescued, virtue intact, just in time to marry the boy, and the lives of prostitute saints, where the brothel plays a part, but the prostitute is redeemed and becomes a saint. This marks a transition from the social death that accompanies shame to a partial redemption when sex is seen as a sin. I say partial redemption because all of the examples given were of women who are never really redeemed socially, and in fact seem only to regain any social status by redefining their positions by becoming anchorites, hermits, or other religious who cut themselves off from most of the rest of society. In the best example, the repentent prostitute actually dresses as a man and lives a semi-eremitic existence in the desert, so her ‘redemption’ comes at the cost of becoming a man, or the denial of her female sexuality, at the least.

The last paper of this, the second session I attended, was on athletics in Late Antiquity, and was also rather good. It compared athletics in Classical Greece, which often included people in the upper classes, and also allowed people who began fairly low on the social (and often economic) ladder to gain income and status, which could lead to political influence as well. Moreover, the focus of classical athletics was on glory and winning as intrinsic goods. However, by Late Antiquity (and Roman society), there was a decline in funding for civic games, and the financial prospects for athletes and the comcomitant reduction in opportunities for a rise in status and the chance of gaining political influence. As the benefits of participating in athletics declined, the sorts of people interested in participating also shifted — as did the goals of the games. The shift was exemplified in an increase of professional athletes who worked for money and popularity (the income could still be good, but because the games were not tied to civic life in the same way, we’re looking at merely a rise in economic status for very hard work), and games that focused more on providing spectacles for the masses.

And that’s the first installment!

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