Our final major project conference ‘Forced Movement in Late Antiquity’ was held at the German Historical Institute in London from 6 to 8 April 2017.

The aims and objectives of this conference were to explore cultural, social and religious transformations as a direct result of mobility within the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity and beyond. While a great deal of papers invited were concerned primarily with movement of clerics and religious groups via exile or other forms of expulsion – this is the core aim of our project that has been able to trace these movement by means of digitalisation – other speakers put the concept of spatial mobility into a greater context, analysing the ways in which individuals moved around territories, for example, as a consequence of wars or raids, to find asylum, or to explore new avenues of wage labour. Papers of either direction contextualised mobility and movement as a means of mapping the development of new communities, ideas and senses of belonging at the end of antiquity up to the early Middle Ages. Personally, I was impressed with the quality of papers, the depth of discussions and the amount of thought-provoking ideas from all participants that came together from different parts of the world.

The conference was planned and pre-organised a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, the subject of mobility and forced movement turned out to be of timely relevance in a period where movement has attracted considerable political attention. It is therefore no surprise that part of the presentations and discussions were informed by the desire to explain the past from the present. The invitation of professionals working in the wider area of movement issues, particularly during the round table discussion, strengthened this view.

A preliminary version of the clerical exile graph shows that the “Crowd in Constantinople” was right in the centre of decision processes regarding the movement of clerics. The ‘big bubble’ in the top left corner that is connected to the crowd illustrates the amount of contacts that John Chrysostom cultivated during his exile. As his is the case best evidenced, it is reasonable to assume that exiled individuals often stayed in touch with previous and new communities.

After words of welcome and the presentation of the scope and results of, and ways to use, the database (Hillner, Rohmann), the first panel started to discuss the movements of clerical exile (Lizzi Testa, Ford, session chaired by Blaudeau) in terms of procedures of expulsion in the fourth and fifth centuries, and its connection to maiestas trials, as well as the justification strategies for persecution of a large group of anti-Chalcedonians in the early sixth century. The early afternoon session discussed the ways in which individual authors fashioned their exile experience in writing (Van’t Westeinde, Hanaghan, chaired by Flower). Jerome, for one, constructed his ‘presence in absence’ and that of his network, while residing in Bethlehem ‘in exile’. Sidonius Apollinaris used his correspondence to outline his resistance against the Visigothic conquest of Spain. This was followed by a panel on ‘Barbarian’ migration (Schmidt-Hofner, Wijnendaele, Sarantis, chaired by Barry). Question discussed included the problems of migration for landholding elites in the fourth century, the transformation from imperial soldiers to warlords in the fifth century and the cultural and socio-economic repercussions of Roman exploitation of barbarian manpower in the Balkan region in the century following the death of Attila the Hun. The first conference day was nearly completed with Peter Heather’s keynote lecture ‘Barbarian Immigrants and the Roman Empire: Invaders or Refugees’, setting out a number of push and pull factors for mobility from outside the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the conference was taken to a contemporary level with the roundtable contributions by Donecker, Reis, Symonds (Amnesty International) and Wivel (Weekendavisen, author of The Last Supper. The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands), who discussed the question of who is or a was a refugee from both a historical and contemporary angle, including an engaging discussion of legal definitions and applications (picture below).


Day two set out with the questions of resettlement and extradition of refugees in Late Antiquity (Lenski, Ronnenberg, Nechaeva, Whalin, chaired by Reis). The panel analysed the questions of large scale settlements of Barbarians under Roman terms and violent exploitation, the flight of Roman female aristocrats following the sack of Rome in 410 and their impact on Church authorities, the mechanisms of extradition of war captives between Rome and Persia in the sixth century, particularly with a view to the Endless Peace treaty, and the violent uprisings by Roman loyalists against Muslim control in seventh-century Lebanon. The noon panel went on to discuss definitions and ranges of economic refugees in Late Antiquity (Marien and Pitz, chaired by Vallejo Girvéz). Main points to consider were Libanius’ different attitudes of decurial flight into the imperial service in correspondence and sermons, on the one hand, and push and pull factors in forced rural movement of coloni, on the other. Sarah Bond followed up on a number of aspects so far discussed in the second keynote lecture on the scope of digital mapping projects and new technologies for mapping real and imagined topographies in Late Antiquity, demonstrating the usefulness of digital humanities with a number of visually impressive slides (Ulrich and Engberg led the discussion for the respective keynote talks). The final session of the day (Brand, Konstantinidou, Sihong Lin, chaired by myself) explored the daily life of networks of a persecuted Manichaean community in new papyrological evidence from Kellis in Egypt. This was followed by an exploration of John Chrysostom’s extensive letter networks in his second exile in Cucusus, the qualities of relationships, the status of addressees and frequencies of communication. The final talk offered a comparative approach to seventh-century exile experiences in the east and in the west through examination of the case studies of Maximus the Confessor and Wilfried of York.

The final day first begun with a session on the fate and experiences of captured civilians, in particular women (Huntzinger, Kahlos, Fan Chiang, chaired by Fournier). Starting with the general observation that civilians rather than soldiers increasingly suffered captivity in Late Antiquity, the first paper set out to explore experiences of deportation and family separation. This was followed by an in-depth analysis of Ausonius’ poems on Bissula and their erotic, often uncomfortable, connotations in the context of wider information available for women and children as war booty in Late Antiquity. The third paper extended this view onto the experiences of women taken captive in historians such as Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius and John of Ephesus. The final panel of the conference (Vallejo Girvés, Dirschlmayer, Cohen, chaired by Mawdsley) explored the nature of space used to house refugees and asylum seekers, first concentrating on the disrespect for church asylum by political authorities, on one hand, and on the availability of church asylum for clerical exiles, on the other. The session went on to analyse the role of Roman empresses in the maintenance of ‘refugee camps’ (xenodocheia) and the different categories of visitors to such sites. The final paper discussed Liberius’ exile in the cemetery of St Agnes, as reported in the Liber Pontificalis, as a possible forgery designed to construct a specific ritual of purification, in the wider context of other bishops of Rome temporarily residing in cemeteries.

All talks were followed by question rounds. Engberg and Ulrich summarised the main aspects raised during those three days in a final, and stimulating, discussion.

The conference was accompanied by communal dinners with further ongoing debates, by a special exhibition in the British Museum on the theme of mobility and, last but not least, by beautiful English spring weather in London. A huge thanks to our kind hosts at the GHI London!