Rebecca Devlin, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department, used her 2015 Rothman Doctoral Fellowship to conduct further research on her dissertation entitled, “Bishops and Community in Northwestern Hispania: Transforming Roman Society, ca. 370 to 470 C.E.” In this project, Devlin explores the expanding social role of bishops after the conversion of Constantine by focusing on specific clerical communities in Gallaecia, a Roman province in the northwestern Iberian Peninsula. Devlin builds on recent trends in historical and archaeological inquiry that view the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the expansion of Christianity and the emergence of medieval society as part of a long process of social, political and cultural transformation.
With the assistance of the Rothman Doctoral Fellowship, Devlin was able to explore how bishops became important social actors and their influence expanded in the fourth and fifth centuries. Material culture, in particular settlement and church archaeology, makes the social context of episcopal patronage more clear. For example, the structural and aesthetic improvements to Roman villas like Veranes and Olmeda (north and east of Astorga respectively) in the later third and fourth centuries reveal something about the social situation after the conversion of Constantine in 312 C.E. and the emergence of bishops as new elites. Expanding rural estates became spaces for leisure and business negotiations that demonstrated elite status to business partners and dependents alike. The social context of elite display and the importance of patronage cannot be ignored as bishops rose to prominence in the fourth century.
The emergence of the episcopate in the Gallaecia shows bishops grafting themselves onto a layered Roman social structure based on imperial elites, middle men, and dependents. And an important aspect of adopting a Roman social structure was patronage. Bishops acted as patrons as Gallaecian trade networks expanded and incorporated Mediterranean-wide goods like fine ceramic wares from the Eastern Mediterranean starting in the later fourth century. As a result, bishops became important social brokers by connecting merchants and other interested parties into Empire-wide trade networks. In short, bishoprics became central points of communication and social power.
Patronage not only helps to explain the rise of episcopal influence, but also its fragility. Bishops, who were poor patrons, were frequently unpopular with the laity in their diocese. Consequently, bishops could possibly be removed from their see under the guise of theological disagreement if they were ineffective patrons. Becoming a bishop did not only mean managing the affairs of the Church, it also meant managing the affairs of the world.
This research is significant for several reasons. First, it makes clear that the distinction between the religious and the secular was fuzzy after the conversion of Constantine. Bishops occupied both worlds simultaneously. Second, it provides further case-study evidence that the dramatic decline of the Roman Empire was not a matter of abrupt and radical change, but qualified continuity. Episcopal power built itself by grafting onto a Roman social structure and utilizing patronage as a technique of Roman social power. The birth of the Middle Ages is not set against the Fall of Rome; the Middle Ages is born, at least in part, from local communities adopting Roman social structures and techniques of power. Rather than reveal decline and fall, transitional periods often reveal adaptability and continuity between cultural and social forms, between pagan Rome and a new Christian Empire.
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