Making (or constructing) history

When you sit down to read a book about history, it is not always apparent where the narrative set out by the modern authors has come from. Indeed, it often looks like a straightforward story of Person A doing Thing Y, while Person B does Thing Z in response. And no one need question if that is how things actually occurred. Or perhaps one assumes that modern history-writing is simply a pooling of different narrative accounts of the same events by earlier history writers — taking, say, Livy and cutting out all the bits that modern, rational, scientific history discounts, and giving us the ‘pure’ story of ancient Rome, simple, no problem.

Well, even if we actually had narrative sources like Livy for all of history, that still wouldn’t be the way we construct the stories you read in histories.

This morning I was reading through Chapter 1 of my PhD thesis in preparation for my upcoming ‘viva’ (viva voce examination). In this chapter, I discuss the life and papacy of Leo the Great from two perspectives: first, from sources he didn’t write, second, from his letters with a little support from the sermons. Leo’s correspondence is our best source for the events of his tenure in the Roman episcopate as well as for the middle decades of the fifth century more broadly.

Where to look for those other, non-Leo sources? A person might assume that the tantalisingly-titled Liber Pontificalis, or ‘Book of Pontiffs’ would be a good place to start. This contains biographies of all the Bishops of Rome into the fifteenth century, being added to successively over the years. However, the earliest layer of this series of episcopal biographies dates to the early 500s, so it is not contemporary with Leo, who died in 461. Still, it’s only about 50 years later. That’s not bad, is it? After all, our earliest narrative history of Alexander the Great is Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing over 300 years after the Macedonian conqueror died. But we know that there are lost sources that Curtius would have used, so we do not fear to use it.

As it turns out, though, not all narrative sources are created equal, and whoever wrote the Liber Pontificalis didn’t really know what he was talking about at this stage — since we have other, earlier sources (say, Leo’s letters!), we can judge how well this book tells the story of Leo. And even if some details might be true, others aren’t.

Where do we turn now, then? What can we do to construct our story? We turn to the contemporary sources for the history of fifth-century Rome. None of our surviving Latin sources for this period gives us a tidy narrative like Livy or Tacitus. We have to make it ourselves. For Leo, we turn to a different kind of history-writing, very different from the garbled biography of the Liber Pontificalis and the extensive histories of Ammianus and Gregory of Tours — the chronicle.

Chronicles, in case someone has misled you, are a genre of scientific history writing concerning with chronology. They are brief, annalistic accounts of major events organised by year. Here’s an online translation of the Chronicle of Jerome from 2005; you can also take a look at The Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, The Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Chronicle of Marius of Avenches, from From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader by Alexander Callander Murray on Scribd. They look non-biased (but they aren’t because nothing is), and different chroniclers have different interests. Some like to tell you about strange stellar phenomena; others will tell you about church councils; some mention great battles; others great heresies; most of them most of these things to one degree or another. The entries, I repeat, are short, and organised chronologically. The genre existed in the ancient Near East, and forms of it in the Graeco-Roman world; its origins have nothing to do with Easter Tables and, in fact, nothing to do with Christianity. Finally, longer narrative histories of the Middle Ages are obviously not chronicles; they are closer to histories such as those by Tacitus and Gregory of Tours.*

For Leo, two such chronicles are important, that by Prosper of Aquitaine, finished in 455, and that of Hydatius, written in 467. Prosper wrote in Gaul, Hydatius in northwestern Spain. From these we are able to piece together a lot of facts and information about Leo’s pontificate and the wider history of the Roman Empire at the time, although both also display a certain amount of local concern. This local concern is helpful, since Hydatius shows us the impact that some of Leo’s anti-Manichaean activities had in Spain, as well as the local context of the letter he wrote to Turribius of Astorga about Priscillianism.

Prosper is especially important because he tells us about Leo’s meeting with Attila in 452 and then his attempt to dissuade Geiseric from sacking Rome in 455. Prosper is very helpful for 455, telling us about Valentinian III’s assassination of the patrician general Aetius, then the assassination of Valentinian, the accession of Petronius Maximus, and then the Vandal sack under Geiseric, during which Petronius was killed (Hydatius says a mob did the deed). Prosper also tells us, in this year, about how the date of Easter was promoted as one date by the tenacious will of Proterius of Alexandria against the proposed date of Leo.

For Attila, we also have the sixth-century historian Jordanes whose Getica, a history of the Goths, deals with Attila in detail. More detailed and more reliable is the Greek historian Priscus, who exists only in fragments, but who went on a delegation from Constantinople to Attila in 449 (if my date is correct). Later sources of Leo meeting Attila turn it into the, stuff of legend, including sword-bearing apostles and the like.

For the Vandal sack, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the Vandal war of Belisarius is also of help, discussing the loot Geiseric and his men took. For the events of 455, the seventh-century Greek historian John of Antioch is also of assistance.

Besides Attila, Leo is best known for his role in the convening of the Council of Chalcedon and its outcome. This happened in 451, although if we had only Prosper, we’d think it was 453. Besides Leo’s voluminous correspondence surrounding the event, we have the full acts of the council, taken down by stenographers. You can, if you so desire, read a blow-by-blow account of everything that took place, including a lot of shouting and some great awkward silences. Most of the chronicles are very summary about Chalcedon, but Evagrius Scholasticus, c. 593, wrote a fairly extensive account (in case the three-volume version seems a bit much to you).

Unlike Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History or Procopius or the chroniclers, the acts of Chalcedon are not narrative history but what we call documentary evidence. That is, it was not produced after the fact to tell a story but is an official document produced at the time. Leo’s letters would count as such evidence. The wider fifth-century context of Leo’s papacy is greatly aided by such documentary evidence; Leo’s papacy is directly illumined by two imperial edicts that serve to support Leo’s own rulings in canon law, as well as some other imperial documents concerning the treatment of bishops on the road to Chalcedon, and a letter of Marcian concerning an anti-Chalcedonian monk who tried usurping the episcopate of Jerusalem when Juvenal, Jerusalem’s bishop, voted in favour of Chalcedon’s doctrinal statement.

Although it seems long, these are the genres the ancient historian has to work with, the textual evidence for the deeds of the past. This is the raw material we are given, and then we try to construct logical, coherent accounts of events out of them. One source gives some evidence; how reliable is it? Another source gives other evidence — do we trust it? A third source is corroborated by some archaeology. What about that fourth source that is late but plausible? Taking these things and teasing out the details is what the historian does. And it’s good fun.

*For more, see R. W. Burgess and Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time Vol 1.

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