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Samaritans, Regional Coalition, and the Limits of Imperial Authority in Late Antique Palestine

Matt Chalmers

University of Pennsylvania

The Samaritans, today a small minority in Israel, were an important and active part of the Mediterranean world from at least the second century BCE through the eighth century CE (for overviews see Crown 1989; Pummer 2016). Under the Emperor Zeno in 484, at least according to our main sixth-century sources (Procopius; Malalas; Chronicon Paschale) the Samaritans revolted (see Crown 1986-7; Di Segni 1998; Sivan 2008). The group rebelled twice more, under Anastasius (ca.529CE) and Justinian (556CE; see Procopius; Cyr. Scyth.; Malalas) Linked to this potential for significant unrest, three novellae target the group: Novel 45, Novel 129, and Novel 144.
Novellae are imperial issuances, in response to specific problems of governance, and thus an exercise in the demonstration as well as articulation of late antique imperial power. Previous scholarship knows these novellae dealing with the Samaritan question exist. But by and large they have received detailed commentary largely from scholars of Jewish Studies or Samaritan Studies, particularly by those particularly interested in Roman law (Juster 1914; Crown 1974; Linder 1987; Rabello 1987; Rabello 1997; Van der Horst 2002; Zsengellér 2016). The usefulness of these novellae for considering larger questions of imperial power and its limits has therefore remained largely unarticulated. The change in legal position exhibits remarkable ambivalence, and the effects of provincial circumstances on the issuances, ranging from coalition between Samaritans and the bishop of Caesarea, to imperial admission of failed enforcement.
This paper, therefore, uses these novellae to think through how local and regional coalition could function to resist imperial power in a way that disrupts scholarly accounts of a post-Theodosian (or post-Constantinian) empire as more effectively “Christianized” because the emperor was Christian (e.g. Lim 1999; Sarris 2013). It also draws on recent work complicating the concept of “identity” (Brubaker and Cooper 2000; Malešević 2006; Yuval-Davis 2010) to interrogate how far our accounts of imperial power in practice rely on tacit claims about the religious identity of groups, like “Christian” or “Samaritan.” How salient were such identities in a politicized context? How much are judgements about the identity of a group even directly connected to the exercise of the emperor’s issuances? In this way, it extends recent scholarship on the intermittence of Christian identities (e.g. Lieu 2004; Perkins 2009; Rebillard 2012; Dohrmann and Reed 2013; Frankfurter 2017) to consider the transience and complexity of “Samaritan” or “Christian” identity even in the high-stakes context of revolt and the maintenance of imperial power.
This paper will have three parts. First, I briefly introduce Samaritans, as an ethnos, in their late antique eastern Mediterranean context. I also give an overview of the novellae in question. Second, I examine the display of imperial power in the novellae—what are the novellae doing (or attempting to do), and how is this function similar or distinct to other such displays? Are these unusual novellae or are they not? And third, I scrutinize how far these novellae, even while an inscribed, displayed, prominent exercise of imperial power, simultaneously show the limitations of imperial force in the face of local coalition. A deviant “religious” identity, even of a rebellious group, still ended up wiggling out of legislative grasp. What does this tell us how local constituencies found ways to work with and around imperial rule? And what does it tell us about the historiographical limitations for modern scholars of narrating imperial force as if it could compel “religious” or “Christian” behaviour?

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Where Does it End?: Limits on Imperial Authority in Late Antiquity

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