What did transnationalism look like in late antiquity?

by Mike Norris

A framework for comparison

Transnationalism is a recent field of study, well suited to an age in which large scale and complex movements of people and ideas take place and are observed and analysed.  The methodologies involve many disciplines, including statistics, political science, economics, constitutional law, sociology, and linguistics.  Can such methodologies be applied to the field in past eras, without systemic errors due to the analysis of historic events in terms of modern values and ideas?  This leads to another question: what framework is needed to define transnationalism in a particular time and place, when terms used today and their interrelationships cannot be applied?  To answer this, we must see whether a valid comparison can be made using concepts that were meaningful in that time and place. 

Specifically, the place in question is northern Italy and the time is the 4th century. 

A nation or nation-state is defined as a geographically bounded sovereign polity ruled in the name of a community of people who identify themselves as a nation.  A key factor in the definition is the relationship between citizens and the nation-state.  Weber defined such a relationship and, together with Klingemann and others, argued that any identification by the community of itself as a nation belongs in the political sphere.  Without a political space in which binding solutions can be achieved, the state and its citizens do not form a nation.[i]  Others, such as Mau and Taylor, see the nation as a container, a bounded geographical space, where political, social, and economic relationships are confined.[ii]  The Roman empire was bounded geographically – though borders were at times porous – and as a single polity.  People within the empire, and even those outside, had valued Roman citizenship since the time of the republic.  The Antonine Constitution, issued by emperor Caracalla in 212, declared that all free men in the empire were to be given Roman citizenship.  Now that it was available to all, though, its value began to diminish, and by the 4th century, the associated benefits had all but evaporated.  Roman culture still had a cachet among the upper strata of society.  Well into the 5th century, there was nothing incongruous in a good Christian, even a bishop, valuing Greco-Roman literature and being familiar with the gods of the pagan pantheon.  The unparalleled power of Rome is evinced by the similar styles of its culture that were adopted in all parts of the empire by such disparate peoples. From the spoken language to the architecture of the urban landscape, from styles of dress to systems of agronomics, the hallmarks of Roman culture were ubiquitous.  However, the adoption of an empire’s material culture does not necessarily mean the acceptance of its identity or its hegemony.[iii]  In general, though, people identified with their province or region, as well as having more precise loyalties to family and tribe.  “Belonging to Rome, remaining Greek” is how Kremydi-Sicilianou described the attitude of people in Macedonia under the hegemony of Rome; a person might have been a Roman citizen, but her ethnicity would be Greek – she would identify as Greek.[iv]  

To summarise, disparate people located throughout the empire might have been able to say, as Cicero did, “civis Romanus sum.”[v]  That did not override their ethnicity, their sense of belonging to a group or groups with which they had an affinity, such as a common origin, language, or shared traditions.  Migrants from one province of Rome to another maintained such identities and were often reminded of them.  Racial and religious distinctions were evident, as were animosities towards and between different groups.[vi]  We will now look at one such migrant, subject to the vicissitudes of living far from his native land, but also an agent of change to a new identity that transcended all boundaries – ethnic, cultural, and political.

Verona on the river Adige (MN)

Zeno of Verona

It is a Sunday in January 363 and we are in Verona.  A city of about 25,000 inhabitants, its mixed racial profile reflected its strategic position; it lies at the junction of major north-south and east-west roads in northern Italy.  Merchants, farmers, soldiers, and others knew these roads and knew Verona as a garrison and trading centre.  Zeno, bishop of the diocese, gives his weekly sermon to a congregation including many newly converted Christians.  Today he celebrates the feast of a martyr.  The Church at this time is in an expansionary phase.   Under the emperor Constantine in 313, the Edict of Milan had recognised the Christian faith as a valid belief system.  By 380, the Edict of Thessalonica effectively made Christianity the state religion, to the exclusion of all others.  In the intervening years, the official toleration was metastable, subject to outbreaks of violence and persecution of Christians by pagans, and vice versa.  The Roman empire was ruled as two separate territories, east and west, and many functions were devolved to regional and local level.  Nevertheless, a single polity prevailed: a Roman citizen could be from Egypt or Britain, from Spain or Greece, and would enjoy the same rights as his fellow citizens.[vii]  The Church was institutionalising, using many of the structures of the state, including the dioceses and archdioceses.  In the still fraught period between recognition as a religion to recognition as the religion, the Church made use of the preceding years of repression.  It recruited role models from the many Christians killed for their faith under various bouts of imperial persecution, which continued into the 4th century.  There were several such martyrs in the Verona area, including Firmus and Rusticus from nearby Bergamo; the church of San Fermo still stands by the river Adige in Verona.  But today, for his sermon, Zeno’s choice is completely unknown to the congregation – Arcadius, a martyr from a remote corner of the empire in north Africa. He describes in gory detail the trial of Arcadius, and his steadfast refusal to renounce his faith as he was slowly dismembered.[viii]

Why did Zeno pick Arcadius as his subject?  In the following century, after the Vandal invasion of north Africa, many Christians and their clergy fled northwards to Italy.  They took with them their memories of and devotion to local martyrs.  These often took root as cults in the new domicile.[ix]  But apart from exceptions like Cyprian of Carthage, there is no evidence of such cults in Italy before the 5th century.  Specifically, there is no evidence of an organised cult for Arcadius.[x]  Yet the death of Arcadius, as conveyed in a highly dramatic and colourful register, suited Zeno’s purpose as an inspiring sermon, an exemplary tale of devotion, sacrifice, and steadfast faith.  The story is all too familiar to the bishop as he too is a native of north Africa, in fact from the same area around Caesarea in Mauretania.  As a young Christian growing up in the region, he would have heard the story of Arcadius told and retold until he knew it by heart.  His parents would have been contemporaries of the martyr and may have known him.  The cult of Arcadius was part of Zeno’s lived experience.[xi]

Zeno, bishop and angler (MN)

Verona and Caesarea are almost 1500 km apart.  While they were both part of the single polity of the Roman empire and not located in separate nations as such, they are different lands, inhabited by their own races of people, with their own traditions and cultures.  Zeno used the cult of Arcadius to situate his congregation in his native land as recalled from his formative youth.

The bishop and his congregation were citizens of a single state with a distinct polity.  There were differences between regions and, given the ethnic mix throughout the empire, differences within regions.  By the time of Zeno in the 4th century, local variations were more prominent; different styles of material culture were more visible.[xii]  These were not nations in the modern sense, but races originating from different parts of the empire – and beyond – and living and working together.  In two sermons to the newly baptised, Zeno noted their multiracial composition:

Why are you standing there, you who are of different origin, different in age, sex, and class?  Hurry to the font, the sweet womb of the ever-virgin mother!

The unbroken fasts in which you atoned in holy devotion, the sweet vigils of the night, brightly lit by its own sub, the life-giving font of foaming liquid in which you bathed in the hope of everlasting life, all these are now over for you, as you, different in age, different in race, now brothers, now born together, have now risen.[xiii]

In another sermon, delivered to the general congregation, Zeno made explicit the universal nature of the Church, its openness to all races:

It was not for no reason that God called it the great city: for in the future the peoples of all races (gentium) should believe in Christ and the whole world should become one city for God.[xiv]

Zeno underscored the catholic or universal nature of the Church.  He likens it to a great cosmopolitan city where people of all nations live together in peace and in common worship of Christ.  This echoes the New Jerusalem of the bible and prefigures Augustine’s City of God.[xv]  That Christian salvation was open to all was a doctrine debated since the 2nd century.  Origen supported the idea, and in the 4th century it had proponents such as Gregory of Nyssa, although Gregory of Nazianzus was more sceptical.[xvi]  The Church’s enemies often cast Christians as a Jewish sect, so it was important for Zeno and other churchmen to make it clear that Christianity was a complete break from Judaism, and universalism was a clear product differentiator.[xvii]

At another level, Zeno, in commemorating Arcadius on 12th January, was drawing attention to the day itself as part of the sanctorale.  This is part of the Church calendar that celebrates the feast days of martyrs and saints.  It runs concurrently with the temporale, which comprises the main seasons of Easter and Advent.  The Church calendar was being populated with the feast days of cult figures from all parts of Christendom.  Zeno’s choice of Arcadius made clear that the sanctorale was not parochial, nor diocesan, but universal or catholic.  It was independent of boundaries within and beyond the empire.

Elsewhere in the sermons, Zeno related the martyrdom of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were condemned to death in a furnace by king Nebuchadnezzar, as described in the Book of Daniel.[xviii]  Through this biblical story, the bishop transcended space and time, and positioned local and native martyrs in timeless scripture.  In the sermon, he identified the sources of divine and secular power as God and the “barbaric king”, respectively.  Their antagonism was played out in the trial and condemnation by the king, while their miraculous survival demonstrated the clear supremacy of divine over secular.  The king here, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, is described as “barbaric” in these sermons on the three martyrs.  This begs the question of the attitude to a non-barbaric king or emperor.  The Church is universalist, makes no distinction on the basis of race or religion, and so cannot apply the term “barbaric” to any king or emperor.  Here Zeno was silent on this point, but elsewhere he conceded that church and state need not always be at odds.[xix]

In a sermon to the newly baptised, Zeno gave the first Christian explanation of the zodiac.  He acknowledged that people were interested in their horoscopes and gave them his own interpretation of the twelve symbols of astrology.[xx]  As far as possible, he substituted familiar Christian icons for the traditional signs of the horoscope.  Thus, Aries the ram became the lamb of God, Virgo is replaced by the virgin Mary, through a process of scriptural indemnification.  Other signs were rendered innocuous or flagged as more to be ridiculed than feared – they were generically mollified.  Zeno reminded his congregation that, newly baptised, they had all been reborn on the same day, in the same place.  As Christians, they share a new identity, transcending boundaries of class, race, ethnic origin, and free from the arbitrary fate as set by astral symbols.


In conclusion, we have seen how Zeno made explicit the diversity of peoples within the empire.  He referred to different races, sexes, ages, and classes and said that all are welcome within the Church.  He exploited his own all-too-visible “otherness”, his lived experience as a migrant, and the practices of his native Caesarea in Mauretania as part of his cultural baggage.  In his sermon on the zodiac, the bishop showed how the sacrament of baptism gave converts a reset, in the form of a rebirth that was always auspicious, whatever their original biological birth sign.[xxi]  Christians could celebrate a new birthday rather than worrying about the vagaries of the signs of the zodiac.[xxii]

The bishop’s sermons show us how diversity could be used and otherness transcended in an era which saw a rebalancing of spiritual and temporal power.  With the institution and the liturgy of the Church as framework, a new inclusivity was prefigured and spoken of as something worth striving for, as one of the benefits of the Christian faith.  However, this note of solidarity rang hollow and was not to last, even within the tenure of Zeno in Verona.  As the new monotheism became a monopoly of belief, it veered towards the exclusionary, defining as “other” all those who did not adhere to its rigid doctrines.  First, the Church regarded Jews as beyond their definition of universal.  They had been God’s chosen race, but their treatment of Christ meant that they were now deselected.[xxiii]  Second, the Church opted for uniformity rather than diversity in the variants of doctrine it supported.  The norm was defined by the bishops in council, deviants were branded as heretics, and Christian churchmen reserved their greatest hatred for fellow-Christians.  In this way, the Church eschewed doctrinal diversity and took the more constrained route that led to the east-west schism of 1054 and the Reformation in the 16th century.  As for Zeno’s attempt to Christianise the zodiac, this had no traction at all, and the symbols known since before the time of Christ persist to this day.

Finally, the nation is one of several ways of defining collective identity, and one that still has meaning and power.  In the age of the superstate, the multinational, and mass migration, national identity still resonates, and features at flashpoints of violent conflict around the world.  As we have seen, though, the terms nation and ethnicity are ambiguous and not necessarily etic – they cannot be generalised or historicised across time and space.  So rather than use predefined terms or textbook nomenclature, we can build up and analyse narratives of identity from the categories and contexts used by agents such as Zeno.  We must also allow for cases in which identity is not a category which yields much to analysis. 

Mike Norris (University College Dublin)


[i] (Weber, Roth, and Wittich 2013, 389), (Klingemann and Fuchs 1995, 419 – 420)

[ii] (Mau 2010), (Taylor 1994)

[iii] (Whittaker 2009, 199)

[iv] (Kremydi-Sicilianou 2005).  Whittaker makes the point that at the Roman frontiers, ethnicities could overlap.  In the province of Mauretania, at the south-west limit of the empire, ethnic boundaries were not always contiguous with the frontier, with some people of the same identity inside and others outside the empire. 

[v] “I am a citizen of Rome” (Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.147)

[vi] (Isaac 2004; Drake 2011)

[vii] The Constitutio Antoniana  of 212 ordained that all those living in the empire were entitled to the rights and obligations of Roman citizenship. (Cameron 1993, 9)

[viii] (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 19).  The rhetoric of the sermon is very expressive and somewhat contrived.  It belongs to a genre called passiones martyrum. (Barelli 1980)  Zeno’s account of the martyrdom of Arcadius is more rhetorical and bloodthirsty than his usual style.  It may be his own template for hagiography or it could be taken from an earlier version of the martyr’s passio.  In either case, it served his stated purpose of commemorating the deeds of Arcadius, and of inspiring people towards the reward of heaven.  See (Dekkers and Gaar 1995); (Ruinart 1869, 466); (Saxer 1994, 56)

[ix] (Conant 2010)

[x] (Beltrán Torreira 2010)

[xi] Liesbeth Corens underscores the importance of saints’ days for those remote from their native land in helping to preserve memory of their ancestors. (Corens, Sponholz, and Waite 2014), (Corens 2019)

[xii] (Cameron 1993, 9), (Roberts 2016, 151 – 152)

[xiii] From sermons (I, 55) and (I, 24), delivered to catechumens respectively before and after baptism.  (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 55), (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 24.1)

[xiv] (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 34.9)

[xv] Ezekiel, Revelation 3:12, 21:2

[xvi] (Bauckham 1978, 48)

[xvii] Emperor Julian the Apostate referred to Christians as Galileans, deprecating them as regional and sectoral.

[xviii] This topic was an annual feature in the sermons, a frequency which suggests association with dates or seasons in the Church calendar.  The fire and the survival of the three young men might symbolise the purification of baptism and the resurrection, respectively, and thus indicate Easter, which commemorated the resurrection and was also the season in which new converts were baptised and confirmed as Christians.  However, annotations in the Rheims manuscripts of the sermons give other associations.  Sermon (I, 11) was given on the feast of saints Firmus and Rusticus (of Verona), while sermon (I, 31) was delivered on the first Saturday in March.

[xix] (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 38), (Zeno and Banterle 2008, II, 27; I, 11),  Daniel, 3.20-27.

[xx] (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 38)  This is the sermon in which the bishop recruited the state to his purpose of dismissing any arcane genethlialogical practices.  Rather than condemn soothsaying and fortune-telling, he hinted that there would soon be a law against such activities.  In fact, there were already prohibitions, so perhaps Zeno was signalling even tougher measures.

[xxi] In the early Church, confirmation took place at Easter and immediately followed baptism, indeed was an integral part of the first sacrament.  Easter is a moveable feast and can occur on a range of possible dates.  All, however, are within the zodiacal periods of Pisces and Aries, both of which are benign signs under the Christian dispensation, according to Zeno.  They had also been auspicious signs since the earliest known records of astrology in Chaldean times; Aries was associated with rebirth, with the vernal equinox, and with wealth through the production of wool, while Pisces was also connected to the notion of abundance. (Bouché-Leclercq 1899, 130-132, 147-148)

[xxii] This notion depended on birthday and baptism being largely independent of each other, a circumstance which did not survive beyond the centuries of conversion in Europe.  A similar concept, the name-day (onomastico in Italy, fête du prénom in France, navnedag in Denmark, именни дни in Bulgaria, névnap in Hungary, etc), in still a feature of life in many countries to this day.

[xxiii] Zeno himself makes this explicit in several sermons; see (Zeno and Banterle 2008, I, 3; I, 37.1; I, 61)

Mike Norris (University College Dublin)

Further reading

Barelli, U. 1980. “L’Arcadio di Zenone. Contributo alla conoscenza del latino di Zenone Veronese.”  Atti e Memorie della Accademia di Agricoltura, Scienze e Lettere di Verona XXXII (6):139 – 149.

Bauckham, Richard 1978. “Universalism: a historical survey.”  Themelios 4.2:47 – 54.

Beltrán Torreira, Federico Mario. 2010. “Propaganda y martirio en el África vándala: el caso de Arcadio y sus compañeros.”  Habis 41:313 – 331.

Bouché-Leclercq, A. 1899. L’Astrologie Grecque. Paris: Ernest Leroux.

Cameron, Averil. 1993. The Later Roman Empire. London: Fontana Press.

Conant, Jonathan P. 2010. “Europe and the African Cult of Saints, circa 350900: An Essay in Mediterranean Communications.”  Speculum. 85 (1):1.

Corens, Liesbeth. 2019. Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe: Oxford University Press, USA.

Corens, Liesbeth, Jesse Sponholz, and Gary K Waite. 2014. “Saints beyond borders: relics and the expatriate English Catholic community.”  World (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014) 25:38.

Dekkers, Eligius, and Emil Gaar. 1995. Clavis patrum latinorum. Steenburgis: In Abbatia Sancti Petri.

Drake, H. A. 2011. “Intolerance, Religious Violence, and Political Legitimacy in Late Antiquity.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79 (1):193-235.

Isaac, Benjamin. 2004. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity: Princeton University Press.

Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, and Dieter Fuchs. 1995. Citizens and the state. Vol. 1. New York;Oxford;: Oxford University Press.

Kremydi-Sicilianou, Sophia. 2005. “Belonging to Rome, Remaining Greek: Coinage and Identity in Roman Macedonia.”

Mau, Steffen. 2010. Social transnationalism: lifeworlds beyond the nation state. Abingdon, Oxon;New York, NY;: Routledge.

Roberts, John Willoby. 2016. The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World.

Ruinart, Thierry. 1869. Acta martyrum : P. Theodorici Ruinart opera ac studio collecta, selecta atque illustrata. Ratisbonae: Sumptibus G.J. Manze.

Saxer, V. 1994. “Afrique Latine.” In Corpus Christianorum: Hagiographie, Vol. III., edited by G. Philippart, 25-95. Turnhout: Brepols.

Stepanich, Martin F. 1948. The Christology of Zeno of Verona. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Taylor, Peter J. 1994. “The state as container: territoriality in the modern world-system.”  Progress in Human Geography 18 (2):151-162. doi: 10.1177/030913259401800202.

Weber, Max, Guenther Roth, and Claus Wittich. 2013. Economy and society: an outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Whittaker, Dick. 2009. “Ethnic discourses on the frontiers of Roman Africa.” In Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition, edited by Ton  Derks and Nico  Roymans, 189 – 205. Amsterdam University Press.

Zeno, di Verona, and Gabriele Banterle. 2008. Trattati. Edited by R. Ravazzolo. Rome: Città Nuova.

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