Friday, 24 May 2019

Samuel Cohen: The Rhetoric and Reality of “foreignness” in Late Antique Roman Polemical Texts

The Roman church had no official policy towards migrants and other outsiders in Late Antiquity. This should not be surprising. “Foreigner,” “migrant,” and “refugee” are concepts rooted in modern assumptions such as the nation-state and have no direct analogues in the ancient Mediterranean where borders – both internal and between political units – were permeable and mobility was the norm. That discrimination based on place of origin was not habitual is not to say that outsiders were always welcomed in late antique Rome, where social structures were grounded in a complex system of reciprocal patronage networks that were not easily accessible. This ambivalence towards outsiders is reflected in the representation of Greeks, North Africans, and Jews in late fifth- and early sixth-century papal letters and polemical works suchas the Liber Pontificalis, theDocumenta Symmachianaand Laurentiana, and the Romanpassiones martyrum. In these texts, Greeks could be described as wise theologians and sophistic dissemblers; North Africans were preeminent defenders of Christian orthodoxy and Manichean heretics. Roman Jews, who belonged to a community, which had existed for centuries by the fifth century, could be described as ‘insiders’ and as the consummate non-Christian ‘outsider.’ This paper will suggest that these radically different portrayals were shaped by Roman ethnographic discourse, Christian universalism, and heresiological rhetoric, mediated through changing social and political circumstances, and the proclivities of individual authors.

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