Pro nobis fabula narratur: Late Antiquity as Art and Fantasy – By Catherine M. Chin

Catherine M. Chin in the Late Antiquity and the New Humanities Forum

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The poet Christopher Logue, in his account of books 3 and 4 of the Iliad, describes the armies on the plains of Troy as follows:

       And when the armies met, they paused
And then they swayed, and then they moved
Much like a forest making its way through a forest.

This image, perfect but impossible, is one way of describing what we do when we write stories about late antiquity. Presented with such forests, it is hard not to imagine the quiet of woods, the slowness and height of trees, the sense of being surrounded by beings larger and longer-lived than oneself. It is also hard not to imagine the violence of collision between large, crowded, inhuman objects, and the idea of an inexorable, terrifying forward motion of things that should be at rest. These imaginings are tied together, and this makes the metaphor a good one, for war. The physical tension between the quiet of memory and the threat of impossibility, moreover, is also productive for talking about the past, especially a past that is infused with superhuman presence. That is the history of late antiquity.

We are fortunate that one of the most influential figures in the study of late antiquity, Peter Brown, has a gift for illuminating turns of phrase. Take, for example, Brown’s justly famous 1971 article “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” It is instructive to track metaphor through its pages. Here, the practices of Syrian holy men “were virtuoso cadenzas on the sober score first written by the ‘Great Men’ of Egypt.” “Syria was notoriously the Wild and Woolly West of ascetic heresy.” Miracles were “like good coin, summarily minted and passed into circulation to demonstrate the untapped bullion of power at the disposal of the holy man.” In demon possession, “[t]he dialogue between the possessed and the community … tends to have the stylized, articulated quality of an operetta.” These metaphors offer important insights into the social role of the holy man, but it is important to note the fundamental role that fantasy or unreality plays in making the metaphors work. They are fantasies of musical virtuosity, of enormous wealth, of the Wild West. The last is, wonderfully, fantasy about fantasy: the operetta. To read Peter Brown is to experience late antiquity through a thicket of vivid unrealities.

This is a good thing. As historians, we are sometimes afraid of unrealities, of whatever does not propose a close relationship between our words and the past events we are describing. Yet marking distance between words and events is what, paradoxically, brings the events more clearly to mind. In Anne Carson’s account of Aristotle on metaphor:

Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
when suddenly
that surface breaks or complicates.
Unexpectedness emerges.
At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong.
Then it makes sense.
And at this moment, according to Aristotle,
the mind turns to itself and says:
“How true, and yet I mistook it!”

Unexpectedness is, for Aristotle, what allows the mind to grasp ideas firmly and easily.

Aristotle was a careful observer. As it turns out, there is good neuroscientific evidence that linguistic unexpectedness triggers increased cognitive engagement. Unexpectedness in written words, for example, encourages readers to shift to a slower, more phonological mode of reading, sounding words out mentally; familiar verbal patterns, by contrast, encourage a more lexical mode, in which word shapes and formulaic structures are scanned and recognized quickly. The cognitive reason that Peter Brown’s metaphors make late antiquity seem lively is that a surprising phrase activates a different set of neural pathways than simple information does. The fantastical elements of the metaphors, their impossibility, reinforce that unexpectedness, prolonging the process of recognition and misrecognition. It may be true that exorcism is like operetta, but the work of this metaphor is at least as closely tied to the work of surprise as to its explanatory content.

Metaphor is only one kind of unexpectedness in language. Another way of confounding expectations is to vary the lengths of sentences. In typical academic prose, sentences are relatively long, usually with multiple modifiers and careful hypotactic arrangement, indicating both the complexity of the thought presented and mastery of the disciplinary conventions that constrain the thought. By contrast, short sentences get attention. They mark intellectual pivots. And so we see a masterful placement of short sentences in Brown’s article, often as the initial sentences in paragraphs. Here are some of them:

First we must find our holy man.
The desert of Syria was never true desert.
The Syrians were notable cursers.
Exorcism takes us into deeper waters.


We are perhaps unduly interested in consuls.

What we encounter here, as in metaphor, is not historically useful simply because it is true: it is historically useful because it confronts us with unexpectedness, and thus increases cognitive engagement with the materials of the past. That is how history comes into being.

Short narrative fragments also do historical work by triggering sensorimotor response. Descriptions of action, even unfamiliar action, do not merely produce mental pictures of activity, but also activate some of the same neurons that control our proprioception, the sense of our own bodies acting. Thus, Brown’s stories of holy men can reveal the social relations between participants in the story, but the stories themselves generate participation. Jacob of Nisibis “cursed laundry girls, so that their long tresses floated down the river like autumn leaves.” Alternatively, “[i]n a procession in Rome, Constantius II stood bolt upright and refrained, for a few hours, from spitting; but Simeon Stylites stood without moving his feet for nights on end; and Macarius the Egyptian had not spat since he was baptized.” Cursing, standing, spitting, watching leaves in a river: these are somatic anchors for the late ancient world that Brown prompts his readers to imagine. They force our bodies, impossibly, to exist in that world. History-writing and metaphor may be modes of representation, but they are also fundamentally experiential.

In focusing on the rhetorical effects of Brown’s work and using cognitive neuroscience to approach them, I am not trying to suggest that Brown’s writing is mere dazzle, or psychological sleight of hand. I am also not suggesting that we can recover, in a transhistorical sense, the cognitive experiences of late ancient people: our minds are not their minds. Instead, I think it is useful primarily because it is a reminder that our engagement with historical writing is always deeply physical. Awareness of the imaginative work that writing does for us, in our own time, and in our own bodies, allows us to reconsider the constitutive nature of somatically-engaged fantasy for own our task of historical world-building. We write history for ourselves. The title of this essay, pro nobis fabula narratur, is from Brown’s 1977 lecture “Learning and Imagination,” in which he urges historians to “let the imagination run.” We should attend to the ways that our imaginations can and do run. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man” was foundational for the creation of late antiquity because it deployed the unexpected, the impossible, and the bodily as modes of experience. It created late antiquity at the cognitive and somatic level. Late antiquity was not Brown’s fantasy: it was our own.

History-writing and metaphor are fundamentally experiential.

Again, this is a good thing. Attention to the ways that historical worlds are created in our minds and bodies makes historical scholarship not a task of representation, but an opportunity for somatic production. Short sentences, fantastical metaphors, and narrative bursts remain, to some extent, unexpected in academic historical writing, but this is a parsimonious repertoire of surprises. They also remain tied to the model of history-writing as representational, rather than experiential. Historical production that is more experiential might develop new forms of engagement with the past that move away from the argumentative article or monograph altogether. It is not hard to imagine historical writing that takes the form of the nonfiction lyric essay, for example, or the poetic “account” as of Carson’s Aristotle, or Logue’s Homer. Further afield, as now happens in museum curation and online pedagogy, historical production takes the form of digital, video, or sound installation, or simply artifact arrangement in spaces. We have an unfortunate and outdated habit of classifying these as types of public outreach or teaching, because we think of them as primarily representational. If we were to accept the somatic, and aesthetic, qualities of historical production with the same level of seriousness that we grant to argumentative prose, we might use these qualities to create late antiquities that are themselves newly compelling.

What might such non-argumentative production look like? Here I would like to move into a different mode, with an example of what I think is somatically and intellectually engaged storytelling that does not rely on stereotypical academic argumentation. The story I will tell is famous: Ambrose, Symmachus, and the altar of Victory. I am interested in how words can suggest the density of aesthetic, somatic, and temporal experience that the story of the altar evokes. This is how such a story might be told.

The altar of Victory controversy was about speech, and commands, and money, and weather. It was also about death, time, and God. Perhaps it is best to say that it was about the ways that speech, commands, money, and weather are inseparable from death, time, and God.

It was also about being hungry, and needing to breathe.

Dio Cassius says that in the first century before Christ, after defeating Mark Antony and driving him, along with Cleopatra, to suicide, the future emperor Augustus set up in the senate-house in Rome a statue of the goddess Victory. This statue had come from Tarentum. More than two centuries earlier, in defense of Tarentum, the unlucky king Pyrrhus of Epirus had won his eponymous victories over the Roman republic, of which he had said, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” It is a matter of conjecture whether Pyrrhus had, despite everything, placed a statue to Victory in the city he had defended. Augustus’s Victory came, at any rate, from Tarentum. In Rome, the statue was decorated with spoils from Egypt. During the celebrations in Augustus’s honor, Dio says, “an effigy of the dead Cleopatra on a couch was carried by, so that in a way she, too … was part of the spectacle and a trophy in the procession.” In front of the Victory from Tarentum, with its Egyptian trophies, there was later placed an altar at which incense was burned for the goddess, and at which senators swore oaths of loyalty. Four hundred years after Augustus, and six hundred after Pyrrhus, the altar of this Victory was removed from the Roman senate.

In 382, the emperor Gratian, twenty-three years old and a Christian, who had only a year to live, had ordered the altar to be removed. Smoke was not to rise in the senate for Victory, nor would oaths be taken with her oversight. In 384, a year after the death of Gratian, the pagan aristocrat Symmachus petitioned another Christian emperor, Valentinian II, then thirteen years old and with less than eight years to live, for the altar’s return. Among the reasons he gave, Symmachus claimed that ending the sacrifice of incense, and Gratian’s financial neglect of the gods and the temples, had caused severe famine in the year 383. In that same year, on August 25, Gratian had been murdered. Symmachus does not mention this fact. The usurper Magnus Maximus, who ordered the murder, would be executed five years and three days after Gratian’s death. This had not yet happened. In 384, Symmachus writes only: “The year’s produce was dried up by sacrilege.”

Throughout 384, Gratian remained unburied. Valentinian II was unable to recover the body from Maximus. How long Maximus would remain in power was unclear. Time had begun to run backwards. “Bushes in the forest are keeping people alive,” writes Symmachus, “and the country folk in their need have once again resorted to the trees of Dodona.” Famine pressed Italy in 383 toward the oak forests’ uncultivated crop; the acorn was, by tradition, the oldest food, gathered before gods taught humans to farm. Oak grew before history, before the difference between human and forest. The oak at Dodona, in Epirus, was the oracle of Zeus: the sounds of its leaves were God’s words. Socrates says to Phaedrus: “Oh, but the authorities of the temple of Zeus at Dodona, my friend, said that the first prophetic utterances came from an oak tree. In fact the people of those days, lacking the wisdom of you young people, were content in their simplicity to listen to trees or rocks, provided these told the truth.” Ancient oracles always told the truth. Pyrrhus, before his campaign against the Romans, had rebuilt the sacred sites at Dodona, and had consulted the oracle there. “When were oaks shaken for human consumption?” Symmachus asks. A long time ago, when humans believed what trees said.

As it happens, Dodona and its surroundings, sacred to Zeus, are subject to dramatic thunderstorms. Northwest Greece is the meeting-place for colder winds from the Atlantic and warmer winds from the Sahara. These winds, shaped and directed by mountains, create severe storms in winter, and often even in the dry summer months. The climate is good for oaks. Holm oak and cork oak, the most common Mediterranean varieties, are evergreen; their small, firm leaves adapt well to wind, to rainfall, and to drought. Oak leaves — oracles — change their patterns of light consumption in winter, and of water retention during summer. Under favorable conditions, a cork oak can live more than two hundred years, a holm oak more than four hundred. Gratian did not see favorable conditions, and died when he was twenty-four. The winds were against him. The same winds that storm over Dodona bring rain or drought to North Africa: in 382, the year before Gratian’s death, the wheat harvest in Africa had been poor. In 383, when he died, the shortages were felt in Rome. At the time of Gratian’s death, urban Rome had consumed thousands of tons of North African wheat every year for over three hundred years. Three hundred years is the lifetime of a fortunate oak. Wheat is more ephemeral.

Ambrose was bishop of Milan when Gratian died, and would later request the return of the young man’s body on Valentinian II’s behalf. Later still, he would speak at Valentinian II’s funeral. It is unclear whether Ambrose believed the goddess Victory was a demon, or whether he believed she was powerless, or that she did not exist. In 384, he wrote two letters to Valentinian II against the restoration of the altar. “‘For the gods of the peoples are demons,’ the scriptures say.” And “how can victory be a great goddess, when credit for it is claimed by a body of soldiers?” Maximus and his soldiers claimed many victories, and in the summer of 383, Gratian’s soldiers abandoned him to take Maximus’s side. In the summer of 392, Valentinian II would no longer be able to command his soldiers when he tried to lead them against invasion. It is possible that Valentinian II committed suicide in response to this failure. It is possible that he was killed on the orders of the army’s commanding officer. It is possible that he committed suicide knowing that the army’s commanding officer would be blamed for his death. It is certain that Ambrose believed that the statue from Tarentum was an idol. He also believed that the smoke that rose in the senate-house for Victory was a danger to Christians who breathed it.

Pagans and Christians agreed that demons have fine, light bodies, and live in the air. These airy creatures feed, or at least some of them do, on sacrificial smoke, and to the extent that an aerial being can get fat, it does so by attending sacrifices. Some of the light-bodied prefer to have offerings strangled, so that the breath is still inside them when they die, and the airy creature can find it more easily. Breath is many places in the world, inside and outside: almost everything breathes. Aristotle tells us that wind is the hot, dry exhalation of the earth, drawn out by the sun; rain is the wet exhalation: when it cools and condenses, it falls back to earth. This is why there is more rain in winter, and why hot winds come from the equator. Sometimes wind is trapped underground, and causes earthquakes. Harvest, famine, and stability depend on the earth’s breathing. Aristotle also tells us that animals and people breathe to cool the heat of their hearts. This is why air breathed in is cool, and air breathed out is hot. Our hearts need us to breathe. Ambrose claimed that Symmachus wanted Christians to breathe food for demons: “‘Let them inhale,’ he says, ‘let them inhale, even against their will.’”

In the summer of 384, Valentinian II, at the age of thirteen, did not restore the altar of Victory to the senate-house in Rome. Nor would he restore it in 391, when another petition was made. On May 15, 392, at the age of twenty-one, he would be found hanged in his residence. His army’s commanding officer, the Frankish general Arbogast, came under suspicion. Within a few months, the usurper Eugenius, a Christian, would restore the altar of Victory. In fall of 394, after his military defeat, Eugenius’s severed head would be publicly displayed in the victorious army’s camp. Arbogast would commit suicide.

The future emperor Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra on September 2, 31 BC. The emperor Theodosius defeated Eugenius on September 6, 394 AD. These victories occurred near the end of the campaigning season. The festival of the Armilustrium, the purification and storing of military equipment for winter, was traditionally celebrated on the Aventine in Rome on October 19. By late October, winds from the Atlantic and winds from the Sahara have begun to bring rain to the northern Mediterranean. The earth’s breathing is wet and cold. How much the earth’s breathing had changed since Pyrrhus’s victories outside Tarentum, if it had changed at all, is unknown. In his treatise on meteorology, discussing how long it takes for wet land to become dry land, Aristotle says: “the whole vital process of the earth takes place so gradually and in periods of time which are so immense compared with the length of our life, that these changes are not observed, and before their course can be recorded from beginning to end whole nations perish and are destroyed.” He adds: “of such destructions the most utter and sudden are due to wars; but pestilence or famine cause them too.”

The conceptual artist María Elena González, in her Tree Talk Series project, takes graphite rubbings of birch tree bark, with its dark, horizontal striations against white background, and turns these rubbings into long, connected player piano rolls. The dark lines of the bark become the cuts in the rolls that trigger the keys of the player piano. When played, the rolls produce a dense, inhuman music. Thus González transforms the experience of walking in a birch grove in Skowhegan, Maine, into a new physical event, and explores both what it is to be a birch tree and what it is to interact with one. How can one walk through a birch grove in Maine without walking through a birch grove in Maine? This is how.

Historians of all periods face this dilemma: how can we engage the past without being in the past? Attending to the somatic and aesthetic responses that we ourselves have to materials from the past, and elaborating those responses in new forms, might allow us to create new modes of experiencing and engaging past worlds in an intellectually rigorous and yet creative manner. This practice can lay open to us the experience we have of simultaneous temporalities, of worlds tenuously coexisting — perfect, but impossible. The appearance of an unexpected late antiquity might be, in this way, much like a forest making its way through a forest.