This blog post was written by Dominik Kocbuch, MA intern on the project in 2016-17
Late antiquity remains an elusive label. Speak to people about the ancient times – the Egyptians, Caesar or Nero, and you are bound to hear something; similarly with the Middle Ages – but late antiquity, reflecting its nascent status in historical study, remains the great unknown albeit right on our doorstep. For it is hard to deny modernity’s cultural, social, political and religious debts to that fascinating period. Can we really imagine a European legal tradition without a Theodosius to first codify it? What of our universities, curricula and education without a Cassiodorus or a Gregory the Great? Perhaps unbeknown to many, late antiquity remains a tangible presence in the professions of the Nicene Creed, a late antique religious document, recited in Christian churches every single day. The truth remains – late antiquity is a fertile historical harvest yet to be appreciated and this project has been an ambitious attempt at giving Sheffield a one-way ticket to the world of late antiquity.
My involvement with the project began in September 2016, when – as a part of my Work Placement MA History module – I was assigned to Dr. Hillner’s Migration in Faith: Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity project. Clerical exile – movement and refuge, are crucial themes explored in the project. Pertinent to the current affairs and the plight of the refugees of war in the Middle East, the project rang loud by historicising a very human phenomenon – movement, often forced by a variety of factors.
The public engagement side of the project had a very simple and yet profound aim – to expose the public to the vibrancy and energy of late antiquity. It was also to demonstrate the strength of history as a discipline and its ability to create a coherent picture of a past based on sporadic and numerically scant evidence. Co-operation between Harry Mawdsley, Lewis Dagnall and Dr. Rohmann produced a brilliant database of late antique cases of exile, which was digitised and exhibited to the public at the Festival of Arts and Humanities Showcase in the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield. Many of the stall’s visitors remarked that they had never thought the study of religion would be approached through statistics and mathematical analysis – perhaps because religion and science are so often discussed as mutually exclusive? The database’s ‘official’ launch took place at an academic conference, also organised as a part of the project, in April 2017, in the German Historical Institute in London.
Back in Sheffield, the project created a friendly and approachable space in which people could explore late antiquity. One such forum were a series of film viewings – four in total, featuring films as disparate as Gladiator (2001) and Quo Vadis (1951). The events were enjoyable, group meetings often accompanied by a good dose of popcorn and some brilliant guest-academics as discussants, such as Kate Cooper, Meredith Warren and Richard Flower. Yet, they also raised serious questions about the intersection between the late antique past and the present world. For example, our screening of Agora, with its focus on Christian violence in late antique Alexandria, coincided with a time at which today’s Coptic Christians, in many ways the heirs of Alexandria’s late antique traditions, are themselves victims of violence in this very city.
Whilst my involvement in the project was relatively insignificant compared to the monumental work carried out by the project’s founders and leaders, it was nonetheless a fantastic experience. Compiling our findings allowed me to conclude that over the course of the project, over 300 individuals interacted with the project in some way, whether by attending a film, the book club, partaking in the conference or leaving a feedback form at an exhibition. The feedback we collected shows c. 80% of our events’ attendees reporting they learned ‘a lot of new information’ and that the events ‘changed how they think’ about the early Christian Church or the Roman empire. Our public engagement activities hence served as a quick entry point into the exploration of a period that is undeniably close and yet so far away. For many, it will prove to be a platform into deeper exploration; for others, it has demonstrated the resilience of history and most profoundly, its continued relevance and the value of history as a living, modernising and fascinating science.