The Interesting Times of Leo the Great’s pre-episcopal career

I wrote the following as I revise my Ph.D. dissertation into a book, but I have decided to excise it as extraneous. Nonetheless, I think it is material of interest, especially to the general reader (such as I assume reads this blog?), so I hope you enjoy it. This was a first draft, sort of stream-of-consciousness, and therefore It is a bit rough, and many more writers and events could have been added, but since I am cutting it out of the book, I’ve not taken the effort.

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The years of Leo’s life before his accession to the Roman episcopate saw the ongoing dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire as well as intermittent civil war between the empire’s generals. The Vandals had been in Spain since around 410, and when they were driven out, they crossed to Africa. From 429 to 439, they conquered Roman North Africa, taking Carthage in the final year and defeating various Roman armies on the way. In 440, the Vandals raided Sicily. They had been driven out of Spain by Visigoths and Suevi, working in alliance with the Romans. Both of these groups began taking control of Spain, the Visigoths also taking power in southern Gaul. In 436, the Visigoths besieged Narbo but did not take the city. In 439, the Suevi, in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain, expanded their power base, coming to control most of Spain by 441. In 446 was the last Roman campaign in Spain, now divided by Visigoths and Suevi. In Gaul, besides the land being appropriated by Visigoths, a group called the bagaudae rebelled in Armorica in 435. Saxon pirates raided the northern coast of Gaul. Britain was already lost for all intents and purposes by 410. Besides these losses and engagements with non-Roman military groups, western generals were themselves frequently at odds during the reign of Valentinian III. Valentinian’s reign itself began as an eastern campaign to supplant the usurper John.

This image of a troubled early fifth-century West in decline is a persistent one that is not untrue. To demonstrate the social impact of the economic and political hardship of the western Empire in these decades, the work of Salvian of Marseilles, written in the early years of Leo’s pontificate has frequently proven useful, discussing the oppression of the weak and poor by the rich and powerful. Some of Salvian’s observations can be borne out by the letters of Leo the Great, in fact. Alongside this, aristocratic culture in Gaul, Italy, and Spain continued despite the worsening political climate. Gaul is particularly rich in sources for this ongoing aristocratic culture of living in villas, writing letters to familiares; this life is portrayed in the Eucharisticon of Paulinus of Pella. The latter half of the century will see some notable collections of letters, especially that of Sidonius Apollinaris, but also Ruricius of Limoges and others. Therefore, when we want to consider the state of the Roman Empire in the age of Leo, we need to consider not only the important disaster narrative and sources such as Salvian, but also the works of the more comfortable classes, such as Paulinus and Sidonius. Neglecting either will create a distortion. Somehow, both must be kept in mind.

Salvian is not the only ecclesiastical writer in Latin of the first half of the century, and social, economic, and political crisis does not always equal cultural stagnation. Restricting ourselves to the reign of Valentinian III, we cannot miss the fact that the giant of ancient Latin Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, died in 430. In 426 he published his masterpiece De Civitate Dei contra paganos and added material to De Doctrina Christiana and De Trinitate—these three works comprise a sort of Augustinian trilogy. Augustine is not the only Latin Christian writer active in the first decade and a half of Valentinian’s reign. Before leaving Africa, the two immediately pre-Vandal bishops of Carthage, Aurelius and Quodvultdeus, should not be overlooked. Aurelius had been a main figure in the Pelagian Controversy and died around the same time as Augustine; various of his letters survive. Quodvultdeus was a more active writer, producing a particularly fine commentary on the creed. Quodvultdeus was deported by the Vandals in 439 and died in Italy.

In Gaul, the early years of Valentinian’s reign saw two major figures in early Latin monasticism, John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins. Both of them had some relationship against Nestorianism and thus with the story of Leo and theology. But they were both more focussed on the internal, spiritual life. Cassian’s work, for example, is an adaptation for a Latin audience of the spiritual theology of Evagrius of Pontus. Gaul at this period, in religious terms, is most famous for asceticism on the one hand and the predestinarian debate on the other. These two movements within Christian thought are related, for the question cannot escape the person dedicated to a life of askesis, discipline, whether that discipline is what saves him or her, and whether that discipline is itself a product of grace or the ascetic’s own will. To what degree, that is, are we responsible for our own morality and discipline, and to what degree is it the work of God? John Cassian, in Conf. 13, came down somewhere in the middle, seeking—perhaps unsuccessfully—to argue something that allows for both. Prosper of Aquitaine was also active in the predestinarian debate in Gaul as well as being a lay promoter of asceticism himself. Another notable Gallic writer whose career overlap with Leo’s pre-episcopal career include Faustus of Riez (abbot of Lérins, 433-459, bishop of Riez 459-495), who was yet another ascetic involved in the predestinarian debate.

Italy was not unproductive, either. Peter Chrysologus was bishop of Ravenna from 433 to 450. He has left a significant corpus of sermons, and his name alone tells us the esteem he held as a rhetorician, a conscious adaptation of the famous Antiochene preacher, John Chrysostom, who was always well regarded in the Latin West.

Leo’s predecessors in the Roman see dealt with Pelagianism and Nestorianism, both of which figure in Leo’s correspondence. The Pelagian controversy had involved Innocent I and Zosimus, and Celestine I (422-32) obtained a condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Celestine’s involvement in the Nestorian controversy has recently been argued to have been more independent than previously thought. The standard narrative most of us know is that Cyril began his anti-Nestorian campaign and enlisted Celestine to join him. Celestine supported Cyril at Ephesus and obtained an ecumenical council’s condemnation of Pelagianism in turn. However, George Bevan has recently demonstrated, through a close analysis of the documents associated with the Nestorian controversy, that early in 430, Celestine had already called a local Roman synod and condemned Nestorius before Cyril contacted him. Why was Celestine anti-Nestorian? There is a possibility that it was simply a matter of the dossier being sent to him being quite condemnatory, providing all of the scandalising statements that make Nestorius seem to teach that Christ is two persons. It is also possible that Nestorius was perceived as being himself tainted by Pelagianism. Not only is this a connection that John Cassian makes in De Incarnatione contra Nestorium, but Nestorius’ friendliness with Theodore of Mopsuestia was known in Rome, and Theodore was himself tainted by Pelagianism because of his own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius years previously. When both factors are taken into play, it comes as no surprise that Celestine acted independently of Cyril. It also turns him into an agent in Mediterranean geo-ecclesiology and not a passive observer and responder to the agency of others.

Xystus III (432-440) was Leo’s immediate predecessor. He witnessed the ongoing progress of the Nestorian debate after Ephesus, and letters he sent to Cyril and other eastern bishops after the reunion of Cyril with John of Antioch in 433 show us that the bishop of Rome was still taking an interest in these faraway events. Moreover, his rededication of the Liberian Basilica as Santa Maria Maggiore in a prominent location on the Esquiline Hill also demonstrates his commitment to anti-Nestorian, Ephesine Christology, for the rallying cry of anti-Nestorian polemic was the term Theotokos, God-bearer, usually Latinised as genetrix dei.

This is the context when, in 440, Xystus III died while Leo was on a diplomatic mission to Gaul to reconcile the general Aëtius and Albinus, Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls.

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When does the year start?

I’ve blogged here a couple of times about ancient time-reckoning, once about consular formulae, and another time about indictions. Today, I was looking through the collection of sermons preached by Leo the Great, subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. Leo’s sermons were published by him as a collection and they were organised by which feast of the Christian year they were preached. Leo is a thematic, not expository, preacher. The collection begins with the commemoration of his accession to the Roman episcopate on 29 September 440, with sermons from 440, 441, 443, 444, and 445. It ends with the September fast, with sermons spanning 441-458, which is almost his whole career as bishop of Rome. They are organised in order of when they occur in the year.

What does this have to do with dating?

Well, the indiction cycle starts on 23 September. So Leo’s sermon collection takes you through a full liturgical year — starting with the indiction.

One would expect one of two other situations. Either Leo would begin with Advent, since that is currently when the western liturgical year begins, or he would begin with 1 January since that is when the Roman civic calendar begins with consuls taking office. After all, he dated his letters by consular year.

There may be something here. On the other hand, maybe he started the collection on 29 September since that is his accession date.

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-century Roman East

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

Our tour of Late Antiquity, having reached the sixth century, has considered the trans-Mediterranean legacy of Justinian, the sixth-century West, sixth-century religion, and sixth-century manuscripts. We also looked at the death of the Senate, an important event of the sixth century. Today, we look East.

Now, in the preceding century, the Western Roman Empire had found itself being chopped up, sliced and diced, and bereft of an emperor. The Eastern Empire persevered and endured. The century opened in the reign of Anastasius (r. 491-518) who had already got himself involved in ecclesiastical politics (usually simply maintaining his predecessor’s policy) but was largely neutral in the Chalcedonian-Miaphysite dispute, and put down an Isaurian revolt, and reformed the coinage. His religious neutrality is parallelled by a chariot neutrality. Chariot racing was a big deal in the Later Roman Empire, and the two main teams were the Greens and the Blues. Anastasius backed neither. This is a power play to keep himself aloof from their riots, violence, and disorder.

502-505 saw war with Persia which ended in a truce. In 511, Anastasius was explicitly behind the Miaphysites. As a result, Vitalian, an army officer in Thrace, rebelled in 511-12. Like most religiously-motivated turmoil, dissidence, and violence, Vitalian’s motives were a mixture of religion (he supported Chalcedon) and military discontent. Vitalian rebelled again in 513, and again in 515 — in 513 he was willing to back down when Anastasius made some favourable religious promises. In 515, Vitalian suffered a military defeat.

In 518, Vitalian was a contender against the dynamic duo of Justin-Justinian.

We’ve already discussed Justinian’s reign (527-565).

Justinian was succeed by Justin II (565-78). Justin tried to keep things calm on the religious front in ways similar to Justinian. He also provoked a war with Sassanian Persia in 573. Tiberius is made Caesar, and he succeeds Justin II as Tiberius II (578-82).

Besides war with Persia, the rest of the century will see the coming of the Sclavenians (Slavs) to the Balkans, raiding as far as Athens and Corinth. Although they will ultimately never leave, the Avars who turn up around the same time will find themselves devastated by Charlemagne over eight years, ending in 791. You never know the fate of a kingdom in the late and post-Roman world, no matter if it’s been around for a few centuries.

582-602 sees Maurice on the throne. Maurice did his best to maintain stability on the military front. Some see his overthrow by Phocas in 602 as the real end of things, and that Heraclius (610-41) inherited all of Phocas’ problems plus the rise of the united Arab world under Muhammad. Despite some spectacular successes in his Persian War, Heraclius saw enormous, ultimately permanent, losses of territory to the Arabs in Palestine and Egypt in particular. And that’s where we’ll end the world of Late Antiquity for now.

What is remarkable, of course, is that even in these years of drawn-out war with Persia, Sclavenian and Avar invasions, military revolts of one sort or another, besides the loss of some of Justinian’s gains in the West, is the ongoing artistic, religious, cultural world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Something to think about. Twilight of supremacy does not mean the end of civilisation. Not always.

Late Roman History and Canon Law

Last week, I had blood taken. As the nurse extracted it, and I looked the other way, she made small talk, presumably to keep my mind off the grotesque and bizarre occurrence underway. She asked if I was on my way to work (it feels like a triumph when people no longer assume I’m a student), and I said sort of, that I’m an academic and can work anywhere with a book and my laptop, and that I was headed for a café afterwards.

She asked what my research was.

I said that I research Durham’s medieval manuscripts of canon law.

I think her response was something of a crestfallen, ‘Oh,’ — that sounds boring, being the subtext.

I said that it’s can actually be very interesting. For example, when you read late antique papal letters, interesting questions come up: What do you do if someone who had been captured by barbarians comes back to Roman territory and finds his wife has remarried? Leo the Great (pope, 440-461) says that the first marriage stands (Ep. 159).

The nurse seemed unconvinced and wished me a good cup of coffee. Probably the least interested/impressed person I’ve ever told about my job.*

Sometimes, when I tell people the story from Leo’s letters, they respond, ‘Well, of course, the man wins.’ In fact, the same case came up during the episcopate of Innocent I (pope, 401-417), only in Innocent’s case it was a woman returning from captivity. He also ruled in favour of the first marriage — precedent for Leo in 458.

Now, there are important and interesting things going on with the canons of marriage here, I can assure you, including their relationship to Roman law and the development of sacramental theology.

However, those are not what I’m thinking about when I try to prove to people that canon law is interesting. Rather, I’m thinking: Hey! Look, canon law tells us about normal people! ‘Normal’ people are often voiceless in our sources, aren’t they? And, if we imagine canon law as merely a body of regulations, then we see only the bishops and councils. But why does Nicetas of Aquileia write to Leo about these cases, anyway?

Here we meet ‘normal’ people — the people of the Roman Empire who are having to put the pieces back together after the barbarians have left town. In this case, men who were legally (or presumed) dead return to Romania and have to fight for their legal privileges. This displacement of persons by barbarians is not uncommon — in other cases, we learn of people carried off as children who do not know whether they were baptised before their abduction by barbrians (see Leo I, Ep. 167).

In the case of Aquileia, I imagine that the displaced men presumed dead were carried by Attila in 452. The people who were abducted as children, mentioned in Ep. 167, have returned to Narbonne around 458. Are they victims of the Battle of Narbonne, 436/7? That would account for their return home as adults. I am not certain.

But here, in these two little incidents, canon law texts are giving us the human face of the Later Roman Empire and the post-430 disruptions that were occurring in people’s lives in western Europe. This is what makes canon law interesting.

*Medievalists, including one fellow who researches scholasticism, often act as though they are in awe of anyone who dares touch canon law with a ten-foot pole, given its complexity.

Gratian’s Decretum both fills and creates a need

Tree of consanguinity (13th-c, not a Durham ms; do not know which ms)

This week, I spent some time analysing three of Durham Cathedral Library’s canon law manuscripts, C.II.1, C.I.7, and C.III.1. All of these are from the late twelfth or very early thirteenth century. Sadly, none is yet digitised. They are all manuscripts of Magister Gratian’s so-called Decretum, a canon law collection put together around 1140 in Bologna (original title: Concordia discordantium canonum — Concord of discordant canons). They all include glosses — marginal commentaries keyed to individual words in the main text. C.II.1 and C.I.7 have the same base gloss.

The University of Bologna, where Magister Gratian taught, has a strong claim to being Europe’s first university (as we understand the term), and where the scholastic study of both Roman and canon law was born in the 1100s. With the rise of the university comes the need for textbooks. We all know this today — as an undergraduate, I used Wheelock’s LatinGreek: An Intensive CourseA History of the Roman People, all books designed specifically for teaching, for the classroom (the schola in medieval terms; thus scholasticus, thus ‘scholasticism’).

Gratian’s Decretum is that textbook for most of the rest of the Middle Ages, although as the body of papal legislation ramps up in the 1200s, it becomes necessary to supplement Gratian in the classroom with the new laws. Gratian offers the reader a systematic setting forth of church law. He begins with what many call the ‘Treatise on Laws’, a discussion of what natural and customary law are, what their domains are, what justice is, whether laws can be unjust, and what the sources of authority in law are amongst other concerns.

The Decretum as most people used it from the 1150s on, then systematically treats different sub-areas of canon law. Following the scholastic method, Gratian lays out for the reader different opinions from various authorities (councils, popes, church fathers) and seeks a way through them where they differ, finding the concordia of the book’s title. When the authorities themselves do not naturally create a resolution, Gratian will give his own.

The result is a massive compendium of canon law covering most of what one needs to know in the mid-1100s. It is much larger than, say, the Decretum of Burchard of Worms from the early 1000s (having held manuscripts of both, I can attest to this fact). Nevertheless, Gratian’s Decretum fills the need for a canon law textbook, a need keenly felt, given how quickly it was dispersed and how full its dominance really was. Take note that canon law is the one subject taught at all medieval universities and that some of the cathedral schools, such as that of Lincoln, closed because they did not offer canon law. A textbook such as this had a wide audience and great potential.

It fills a need.

I think also, however, that it creates a need. With a text suited to the methods of the twelfth-century classroom becoming widely available, more people would be able to become more deeply acquainted with the broad range of church legislation that Gratian had compiled. It became the set body of esoteric knowledge needed to become a professional in canon law. With everyone teaching it and learning from it, anyone who wanted to make a case in an ecclesiastical court or through a written plea/appeal or simply who wanted to get a job done in compliance with church law, would have to have either someone versed in canon law at hand or be that person him’erself (usually him, this being the Middle Ages, but not always).

Thus, by its very popularity, Gratian’s Decretum created the need for Gratian’s Decretum. We don’t have four copies in Durham for no reason. No matter how good Ivo’s Decretum or Burchard’s or the Panormia attributed to Ivo was, without the particulars of law as set out in Gratian’s Decretum, one would be at a disadvantage in the brave, new world of burgeoning canon law and the growth of the western church as a legislative institution.

So everyone got a copy.