Antiquated Power Play

In late 2016, the Journal of Late Antiquity published a special issue on "Landholding and Power in Late Antiquity." The six articles in the issue covered a wide swath of topics on what journal editor Noel Lenski called "a subject of tremendous importance in all periods of antiquity." Lenski joined us for a Q&A to look closer at the subject.

The idea of "land holding and power" has played a role in society forever. How important is it to look back on the topic through history to help us in today's world?

If we accept the Marxian notion that human history is fundamentally the story of the distribution of material resources, there could be no more important subject than landholding and power. This applies whether we focus on the unequal distribution of real estate in today’s highly technologized urban environments or the control of landed resources in the late ancient countryside.

Just as Manhattan, San Francisco, London or Shanghai represent loci of value and sites of economic competition in the contemporary economy, so too the landed estates of Lower Egypt, central Italy or Asia Minor generated the capital as well as the prestige that drove the acquisition and maintenance of wealth and power in late antiquity. Knowing how elites concentrated their wealth in antiquity can shed light both on the strategies used for amassing monetary and political capital and for assessing what forces could disrupt these arrangements to the benefit of competitors. Late-antique land tenure can thus help us learn more about how, where, and why humans assign, amass, and appropriate value.

The special issue came out of a 2014 conference. How difficult is the process of winnowing down papers from an event into a journal issue?

The Journal of Late Antiquity has worked hard to seek out and publish quality material. The papers in this volume were selected from a range of over twenty presentations at the meeting of the International Late Antique Network Conference in New York in 2014. They were chosen both for the significance of their scholarship and for their close adherence to the theme of landholding and power. All were then carefully reviewed, reworked, and revised. This represents time and effort, all of it well spent in the service of seeing the best new work into publication.

In the introduction to the issue, you talk about the challenges of editing an issue with so many papers written by non-native speakers of English. How important was it to have that diversity of viewpoints represented in the issue?

Ancient studies are in many ways dominated by European scholars, who work with this material as part of their national heritage. It is thus extremely important to bring our European – but also our many international – compeers into the discussion of Late Antiquity. Far too often, the work of those who tend to publish in languages other than English see their work neglected by Anglophone scholars. JLA is committed to providing access to the work of these fine researchers, even if that means translating or heavily editing texts composed by non-native speakers.

How can the journal help continue this conversation beyond the publication of this issue? 

JLA has matured over the past decade into the premier English-language journal on Late Antiquity. It has made an effort to guide the field not just through the publication of high-quality scholarship but also through a conscious effort to bring cutting edge methodologies and innovative questions to the fore. This should continue even as the journal works to increase its circulation, to attract younger scholars to publish in its pages, and to offer a respectable and reliable venue for the work of more experienced researchers.