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A Database of Asia Minor

Posted On December 23, 2022 | 14:01 pm | by panox-leache01 | Permalink
Sylvain Destephen writes prosopographies of upper- and middle-class late antique Asia Minor

Sylvain Destephen, associate professor of Roman history at Paris Nanterre University, was a fellow in Byzantine Studies in spring 2022. His research report, “In the Shadow of Constantinople: (Dis)integrating Late Antique Asia Minor,” summarizes his project of compiling a prosopography of Asia Minor between the fourth and seventh centuries.

Q&A with Sylvain Destephen

What is notable about Asia Minor in the late antique period?

I’m interested in how the foundation of Constantinople in the early fourth century turned Asia Minor into a backwater of sorts. Previously, it had been a thriving region with many cities that offered attractive options for sons of wealthy and important families to become educated and perhaps gain power. But, when Constantine founded Constantinople and Constantius II turned it into the capital in the mid-fourth century, Constantinople began to overshadow the local cities of Asia Minor. I want to understand the process of how the growing social and international importance of Constantinople drained the thriving forces, talents, and ambitions of the local people in Asia Minor.

What does a prosopographic approach reveal?

A prosopography is essentially an alphabetical biographical dictionary of a group related by career, period, or social background. Writing a prosopography is like producing a database—you read through and manage all your sources and then put the data in alphabetical order. Prosopographies also produce a synthesis of the group that they’re studying: a social, religious, or institutional history of a group. We have many prosopographies for ancient and medieval history, but we have very few sources on the period after the mid-seventh century until the tenth century. Here at Dumbarton Oaks, it’s been pretty exceptional this year to connect with scholars in Byzantine Studies like Emanuel Fiano, Robin Young, Chance Bonar, Nathan Tilley, and Rong Huang, who all work on late antiquity in Greek- or Syriac-speaking areas.

Previously, I wrote a prosopography of the western half of Asia Minor between the fourth and mid-seventh century focused on members of the clergy—clerics, monks, ascetics. The people in this prosopography were all related by the fact that they were Christians, belonged to the clergy, and lived in western Asia Minor in late antiquity. I am also currently preparing a prosopography of the clergy in eastern Asia Minor.

My research here focuses on what we might call the middle class of this society, though that notion didn’t really exist in the period. I decided to shift my interest from the higher-level of society of my previous prosopographical studies to the mid-level, so people who rule the city locally. They’re not ordinary people; they’re the local nobility. The idea is to study how these people interacted with each other and particularly with Constantinople. For example, by cataloging certain individuals, their occupations, and their location through prosopography, we see the movement away from the local cities of Asia Minor into Constantinople. Younger generations of ambitious people moved to the capital because it offered better career options or broader perspective, though their parents and family remained in the local cities.

How does this modify our understanding of late antique Byzantium?

Late antiquity was a very segregated society—a tiny minority ruled the city, for which we have extensive documentation like epitaphs and narrative sources. But we have far fewer written sources on a huge majority of the population—everyone outside of this ruling minority—so it’s very difficult to get an understanding of these lower levels of society. They didn’t produce any written sources themselves as the educated elite did. If you’re interested, for instance, in the peasantry or an enslaved person, most accounts of these individuals are through the owners, masters, the rich and famous—not the people themselves. Shifting the focus away from the well-documented elite also opens up the possibility to consider the roles and mobility of women in this period and region.

May Wang was the 2020–2022 postgraduate writing and reporting fellow.