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Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa

Leslie Dossey
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa
    Book Description:

    This remarkable history foregrounds the most marginal sector of the Roman population, the provincial peasantry, to paint a fascinating new picture of peasant society. Making use of detailed archaeological and textual evidence, Leslie Dossey examines the peasantry in relation to the upper classes in Christian North Africa, tracing that region's social and cultural history from the Punic times to the eve of the Islamic conquest. She demonstrates that during the period when Christianity was spreading to both city and countryside in North Africa, a convergence of economic interests narrowed the gap between therusticiand theurbani, creating a consumer revolution of sorts among the peasants. This book's postcolonial perspective points to the empowerment of the North African peasants and gives voice to lower social classes across the Roman world.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94777-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvii)
  6. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xviii-xx)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    A North African mosaic of the early second century C.E. represents male and female peasants engaged in a variety of tasks (fig. 1).¹ One man drives a donkey toward a woman who stands next to a hut. On the other side of the hut, a smith and his assistant forge tools. Several men fish from a small boat, and three others pull traps out of the water. A man in a loincloth carries small animals on a pole. In the middle of all of this activity, two well-dressed figures—the landlords—recline and drink wine from glass cups (fig. 2)....

  8. 1 Historical Overview
    (pp. 11-28)

    Roman Africa was the roughly 2,500-kilometer-long coastal plain between the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean, stretching from the Gulf of Gabes in Libya to the Moroccan Atlantic. It was separated from the rest of the African continent by the Sahara, which had become the world’s most extensive desert sometime after 3000 B.C.E. The Atlas Mountains and their subsidiary ranges caught enough moisture to make some 300–500 kilometers at the northern edge of the continent arable.¹ In eastern Libya, the desert reached nearly to the sea, and this constituted another barrier (though a passable one) between Latin North Africa and...


    • 2 Rural Consumption in Early Imperial North Africa
      (pp. 31-61)

      As we have seen, a comparison of the El Alia mosaic (early second century C.E) and the Dominus Julius mosaic (late fourth century C.E.) reveals marked differences. The earlier mosaic shows peasants in a state of abject poverty—barefoot, dressed in meager, undyed, short tunics and living in rush huts—while their landlords recline and drink wine in front of their villas. The peasants of the Julius mosaic look notably more prosperous. Their attire goes beyond anything they could have produced for themselves, and would have involved the ser vices of a dyer, a tailor, a cobbler, and a jeweler....

    • 3 A Late Antique Consumer Revolution?
      (pp. 62-98)

      Peasants’ access to commodities like fineware was weak in the early imperial period, not because they preferred their native artisan traditions (which had disappeared), but because the new Roman order had limited their ability to consume anything beyond the most basic necessities. Patterns of commodity distribution and production will change in late antiquity. The small farms and villages that had been all but archaeologically invisible during the early imperial period began to obtain datable fineware by the late fourth century. The African Red Slip industry fragmented into many microindustries, allowing fineware to be produced more locally, and therefore more cheaply,...


    • 4 Frustrated Communities: The Rise and Fall of the Self-Governing Village
      (pp. 101-124)

      A Pseudo-Augustinian treatise of the fifth century described a rustic who had bettered herself. She “used to live, according to the custom of barbarians, in the country and hills, in out of the way and remote places, in a rustic hut.” Milk, cheese, and berries had been her food. Written laws had been alien to her. But now she was an “ordinary citizen, joyful, dressed in a whitepallium.” And she ruled over that purple-clad, scepter-bearing Empire that had once been her conqueror: “I used to possess sheep and cattle, you an army. And so it is that although I...

    • 5 Bishops Where No Bishops Should Be: The Phenomenon of the Rural Bishopric
      (pp. 125-144)

      Compared to other regions of the late Roman Empire, North Africa had an excess of bishoprics, about 534 attested for Africa Proconsularis, Numidia, and Byzacena, and more than 700 for western North Africa as a whole.¹ The whole of Gaul, from the Alps and Pyrenees to the Atlantic, had around bishoprics in late antiquity. Italy, with a longer history of urbanization, had 242. Only the populous Asia Minor, with 349 bishops in the seventh-centuryNotitia episcopatuum,came close to North Africa.² If we compare the habitable land area of these regions, Africa’s number of bishops appears even more disproportionate.



    • 6 Preaching to Peasants
      (pp. 147-172)

      In his narrative of the North African rebellion of 238, the author of theHistoria Augustaincluded a speech by a decurion Mauritius to a crowd on his estate.¹ Soldiers and rustics had just assassinated an imperial procurator. Mauritius wanted to proclaim a new emperor so that the unrest would not spread. The content of the speech was ordinary enough. Mauritius urged his fellow citizens to thank the gods for defending them against that madman Maximinus (the emperor). He proposed that they give the purple to their noble proconsul Gordian instead. The people responded, “It is fitting, it is just,”...

    • 7 Reinterpreting Rebellion: Textual Communities and the Circumcellions
      (pp. 173-194)

      By the fourth century, various aspects of Roman civic life—commodities, communal structures, and public speaking—had spread to the North African countryside. How did they come to undermineverecundia,the modesty and respect that were the proper attributes of the peasant in his relations with his superiors? To answer this question, we can start with the Donatist “circumcellions,” who were accused of preventing creditors from collecting their debts, reversing the position between master and slave, and attacking imperial officials for distributing charity to the poor. Then we can compare some Catholic incidents known from Augustine’s letters—a bishop telling...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 195-204)

    The question posed at the beginning of this book was why people began to worry about peasant rebellion in the fourth century, a concern displayed in the North African case by the polemics against (or some might say the invention of) the Donatist circumcellions. The old explanations of oppression, economic decline, and overtaxation didn’t seem persuasive in light of new evidence that North Africa, like many parts of the Mediterranean, was actually experiencing an economic boom in this period. To reconstruct what was happening to rural populations, I have brought together a wide range of disparate sources, both textual and...

  13. APPENDIX. The Identifiable Rural Bishoprics
    (pp. 205-208)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 209-292)
    (pp. 293-332)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 333-352)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 353-353)