Category Archives: Ancient World

Christian historiography vs Christian historiographers

Entering Late Antiquity, the ancient historian must come face to face with the Christian religion. Many classicists and ancient historians are not comfortable with Christianity as subject matter; one young Latinist I met referred to himself as ‘allergic to Christianity’. Yet this period of transition from Classical to Medieval has a great many Christian sources, growing in quantity and significance over the centuries.

One of the new Christian things of Late Antiquity is history writing. There is not really any Christian history writing (or ‘historiography’) before Late Antiquity, although elements of historical note work their way into other Christian works, of course — especially acta of martyrs. In particular, the genre of ecclesiastical history does not exist before Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339). Late antique Christians also write other historical works; Eusebius wrote a chronicle, a Life of Constantine, and a work with a certain amount of history for its polemical point, On the Preparation of the Gospel.

Besides the fifth- and sixth-century continuators of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Chronicle (as well as those works’ Latin translators, Rufinus and Jerome), other texts of history writing by Christians include Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (written ca 313-16); Sulpicius Severus’ Chronicle (ca 403 — an account from the origins of the world to 400); Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (418, of like scope to Sulpicius); and, later (at least by the 500s), more ‘national’ histories, such as Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, Jordanes’ Getica about the Goths, and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards.

Alongside these, descended from lives of martyrs come the various texts of saints’ lives, with varying degrees of relationship with ancient historiographical norms. We also have some biographical texts, such as the Liber Pontificalis that gives brief biographies of the bishops of Rome, originally composed in the 520s.

(I’m sure I’m forgetting other texts just now.) We also have what is often called ‘Classicising’ history — most notably by Procopius in the court of Justinian, who, I think, is considered a Christian (although I, personally, would be interested to see if there is a case for his religion being traditional Samaritan). Among the fragmentary historians mentioned last post, Malchus was said by Photius to be favourable to Christianity; this is not really the same as being a Christian, though. Eunapius and Olympiodorus were pagans, and I do not know if we know Priscus’ inclinations. Again, I do not know about the religion of the Latin fragmentary Sulpicius Alexander (late 300s) and Renatus Profuturus Frigeridus (early 400s).

Anyway, sometimes people want to find some unifying thread amongst the Christian historiographers, trying to argue for something that makes ‘Christian’ history writing distinct, unique. Style? No, they are too diverse, from the very classical Procopius to the less classical Gregory of Tours. Themes? Once again, not really; Procopius writes about wars, buildings, and terrible things Justinian did, whereas Orosius covers pretty much everything and Gregory of Tours just the Franks.

Perhaps divine causation? While this may not be the most prominent feature of ancient ‘pagan’ history writing, it is not equally present across the board in these historians. So, once again, no.

In fact, I do not think you will find anything that unites late antique Christian historiography. This is because I do not believe that such a thing exists.

There are Christians who are historiographers, or historians, or whatever you wish to call them.

But their style, their content, their themes, are determined by their texts’ genres.

Thus, to take one example, that which makes a chroniclechronicle has nothing to do with Christianity. Christian events take up more space the later a chronicle goes, but that is true with all late antique history. A chronicle is not determined by what sorts of events its author deems fit for inclusion. It is determined by its chronographic outline/obsession and the brevity of its entries. Indeed, there are pre-Christian chronicles, so clearly Christianity has nothing to do with what makes a chronicle.

Christianity does unite the Ecclesiastical Histories, of course, but Eusebius set the path for the genre, and various other features distinguish them from other forms of history writing. They include divine causation, they include extracts from primary sources, they are concerned with the battle against heresy, they are concerned with Christian authors and thinkers. These main features persist in Bede’s eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People where he also brings in evangelisation as a major accompanying theme.

Orosius, on the other hand, is strongly obsessed with divine favour and divine causation, but has a variety of other things going on. His universal history became a very popular model for the Middle Ages, and it is certainly influenced by his Christianity, but I am not certain that it is the defining characteristic of the world history.

However, it is to be admitted that Procopius does allow for divine causation; thus the argument that late antique ‘Christian historiography’ has as a uniting thread such causation. Perhaps my issue, then, is not with the answer but with the question itself.

It simply strikes me that to lump these authors’ heterogeneous works together due to similarities of religion and time period is to start to lose a sense of what makes an ecclesiastical history, an ecclesiastical history; a chronicle, a chronicle; a world history, a world history; ‘classicising’ history, ‘classicising’ history; an epitome, an epitome; a saint’s life, a saint’s life; a national history, a national history.

The differences are, to me, more important. Any similarities must arise less from there being such a thing as ‘Christian historiography’ as simply attributes common to the late antique Christian mindset.

The Fragmented Fifth Century

The other day, I slipped downstairs to borrow a copy of Christine Delaplace, La fin de l’Empire romain d’Occident from my boss/colleague/former PhD supervisor. While I was there, mid-chat, I picked up Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of the West and scanned his index for ‘Majorian’ and ‘Leo, emperor’.

‘I’m becoming obsessed,’ I said. ‘Most people don’t even address the question of the relationship between Majorian and Leo.’

Our chat went on to a discussion of his intended trip to follow Rutilius’ Namatianus trip up the Italian coast, as detailed by the Gallo-Roman aristocrat in his 418 poem, De Reditu Suo.

That morning I had been at the National Library of Scotland doing more research on the question of Majorian and Leo, looking at C.D. Gordon’s The Age of Attila. Gordon’s book is a fascinating (and dangerous) idea and illustrative of why so few people address questions like East-West relationships in the mid- to late 400s, or how consuls are promulgated and recognised, etc. The Age of Attila covers the years 395 to 498. After an introductory chapter describing the state of affairs at the death of Theodosius I in 395, Gordon proceeds to give translations of the fragmentary classicising Greek historians who give us narrative accounts of fifth-century Roman history. He arranges them in a logical order and then stitches the narrative together with his own words to fill in the gaps. The translated passages are italicised whereas Gordon’s passages are not. You can see why it is both fascinating and dangerous.

The reason Gordon did this is because we lack for the fifth century something we take for granted for the Early Empire and the Peloponnesian War — a traditional, narrative history, in either Latin or Greek.  For the fourth century, we have a good portion of Ammianus Marcellinus. For the age of Justinian (r. 527-65), we have Procopius. For the sixth-century Franks, we have Gregory of Tours. For church history, we have three fifth-century historians who end in the 430s, and then a sixth-century historian who takes up their narrative.

But all of our traditional narrative historians from the fifth century survive only in fragments. After Gordon’s 1960 venture, all the surviving fragments of Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus were edited and translated by R.C. Blockley in The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire in 1983.

How do we fill in the gaps left by these fragments? Through careful use of other historiographical genres, saints’ lives, documentary evidence, inscriptions, coins, and even such items as sermons. The big historiographical genre for the 400s is the chronicle.Chronicles are great for what they do — they give you the series of years all organised chronologically with major events under each year. They are very helpful, and a lot can be gained from them. But they are not narratives proper, and thus a lot of questions cannot be answered no matter how carefully you read them. A lot questions are not even hinted at in many chronicles.

In Latin, we have three overlapping chroniclers — the ‘Gallic Chronicle of 452’, Prosper of Aquitaine (455 final edition), and Hydatius (468), as well as sixth-century chronicles that had access to other sources we have lost, such as Victor of Tunnuna (c. 565), John of Biclar (up to 589), as well as the eastern Latin writer, Marcellinus comes (534 last edition). We also have Greek chronicles, many of them a lot later. These we can combine with Consularia, lists of consuls, and other computational genres that have to do with time, like Easter tables and the like.

One historiographical text that helps us out in the fifth century is the so-called Chronicle or Chronographia of John Malalas. This is not a chronicle like Prosper, et al., but that doesn’t make it uninteresting or unhelpful. Taken with the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the narrative of Basiliscus’ reign/usurpation is fleshed out, for example.

And so, alongside such texts, we also have saints’ lives. One such text that is helpful for Constantinople in the 470s, just mentioned, is the Life of Daniel the Stylite in which we learn some on-the-ground perspectives on the usurpation of Basiliscus (475-6). These require their own way of being handled, of course. Nonetheless, they can give us valuable information about social life and the views of non-episcopal Christians, even when they do not address political life.

Other evidence? Imperial laws edited into the Codex Theodosianus (438) and the Codex Justinianus (529, 534), other imperial laws such as the Leges novellae of Theodosius II, Valentinian III, Majorian, Marcian, Severus, and Anthemius drawn from various sources. We have papyri from Egypt that document all sorts of things, including shipping invoices as well as taxation. Letters from popes, other bishops, rich aristocrats, et al., further enrich our fragmented vision of the 400s, along with poems and inscriptions and coins and sermons and theological treatises and ascetic treatises and philosophical tractates and the acts of church councils and probably a range of things I’ve forgotten at the moment.

It’s a lot of evidence. Far more than almost any other period of ancient history. But because it exists in the short chronicles or redacted laws or fragments of papyrus or documents that aren’t concerned with things we want to know — or the aforementioned fragmentary historians — straightforward questions (‘Did the Emperor Leo acknowledge the Emperor Majorian? How did Majorian respond?’) are not always easy to answer.

That’s what makes it frustrating and fun all at once.

Dating in ancient Rome

First, no — this post is not about Ovid’s elegiac how-to guide Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Being a Lover’), entertaining as that volume is. Rather, it is about how ancient Romans wrote what day, month, and year it is. We all think that writing a date is a fairly simple, straightforward task, whether you write 9 July 2017 in the UK or July 9, 2017 in Canada, or 09.07.2017 or 2017.07.09. However you slice it, a modern date is a pretty tame creature, even if the engineers get up in arms about how other people choose to write it numerically. It wasn’t so straightforward in the ancient world.

The topic has been at the heart of the past week of mine at work, as I looked through papal letters and imperial laws from the pontificate of Leo the Great (440-461) on the one hand and the reigns of the Emperors Majorian (457-61) and Leo (457-74) on the other. And yes, there are letters between the two Leos (Leones!), addressed: ‘Leo episcopus Leoni augusto in domino salutem.‘ — ‘Bishop Leo to Emperor Leo, greetings in the Lord.’ One such letter from Leo to Leo (Ep. 165) is dated thus:

Data decimo sexto kalendas Septembris, Leone et Majoriano Augustis coss.

Given on the sixteenth day before the kalends of September when Emperors Leo and Majorian were consuls.

I don’t have all my notes with me, but I suspect that in the manuscripts that probably looked more like, ‘Data XVI kal. Sept, Leone et Maiuriano Augg coss‘. We would write that as 17 October 458. The basic elements of a Roman date are all there.

Rather than writing the day of the month by which number of day it is, as 17 October, ancient Romans counted backwards from three different days — the kalends (first of the month), the nones (sometimes the seventh, sometimes the fifth), or the ides (sometimes the 15th, sometimes the 13th). Usually, the ides fall on the 13th. However, in March, July, October, and May the ides fall on the 15th day. Nine days before the ides come the nones, thus either the seventh or fifth.

Wait, you say. How is the seventh nine days before the fifteenth? Isn’t it only 8?

Ah, well here’s where we move along to the next part. Not only are you counting your days before one of these three specially-marked days of the month, as a Roman, you count inclusively. Therefore, it is not simply the difference as in arithmetic they taught you in Grade 1. The current day and the day you look ahead to are both included. So the number becomes one greater than anticipated.

This was even a bit weird for the Romans on the day before, so rather than saying that the final day of a month was two days before the kalends of the next, they simply said, ‘pridie’, ‘the day before’ (in essence).

I can assure you I spend a lot of time counting backwards on my fingers or writing the days of the month out to be sure I get the inclusive reckoning right whenever I convert a number into the modern system.

So, today is 9 July 2017. The ides of July are the 15th, so to day is 7 days before the ides of July.

So at least Romans had a way of reckoning dates that they agreed on.

What about years? Well, in 458, people had made a few calculations of their own as to when what we would call the BC or BCE to AD or CE crossover occurred (that is, the birth of Jesus). They were also largely united that what we now call 753 BC was the foundation date of Rome. Some people writing chronicles would actually date things from the creation of the world as calculated in Genesis. Others didn’t. In 457, Victorius of Aquitaine decided to start his Easter Tables (for reckoning when Easter had and would fall) with Year 1 as the crucifixion  — which he dated to our AD 28. This is perfectly logical, since there was no Easter before that.

Anyway, our dear friend Dionysius Exiguus, the bilingual monk from Scythia who did a lot of work on canon law and his own Easter tables, wasn’t around for about 75 years yet, in 458. His Easter Tables and related matter are what set the AD/BC turning point as we know it, as he dated the nativity of Jesus to AD 1 (there is no year 0). And his numbers for the years were not suddenly adopted as the standard way of telling which year it was. I don’t know how long that took, but it was a secondary aspect of his work.

Regardless of what number of year it would have been, not everyone agreed, and not everyone numbered the year. Then how did you know which number of year it was in ancient Rome?

The consuls.

The consuls of Rome were originally the highest-ranking magistrates, elected from the Senate. There were two consuls every year, and they originally had particular powers and authority in terms of proposing and passing laws. Obviously, with the arrival of the emperors with Augustus, they lost most of their real power.

One thing that they always did, however, was give their names to the year. Thus, one could refer to the consulship of Cicero and Hybrida (63 BC). There is a big list of all the consuls here. This way of naming years was not unique to the Romans. The Athenians also did it, naming years after the magistrate called the archon.

Naming the year becomes one of the biggest functions of the Late Antique consul. And people would put together big, unofficial lists of consuls to keep track of the years, sometimes with events slotted in.

This practice can have numerous ramifications for all sorts of things, of course. That’s why I’m taking an interest in it, particularly the year 458. Not that we have time to deal with my research now.

Anyway, I thought I’d share with you one of those small yet distinctive ways in which we and the Romans differ.

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.

Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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Whither the Senate?

The Curia (or Senate house) on the right. Roman Forum, my photo

The Curia (or Senate house) on the right. Roman Forum, my photo

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture about the Senate of Rome in Late Antiquity (as part of my undergrad course, ‘The Bishop and City of Rome in Late Antiquity’). I began with a quotation from the famous Pope Gregory the Great (590-604):

Where is the Senate? Where is the people now? Their bones have wasted away, their bodies have been consumed, every rank of secular offices in her is extinguished. Her entire unity is boiled away. But daily swords, daily countless troubles press upon us few who have remained thus far. Therefore it is said, ‘Also place that emptiness upon the live coals.’ For because the Senate is gone, the people has perished, and, moreover, amongst the few who remain griefs and groanings are multiplied daily, Rome, now empty, burns. Yet why do we speak these things about men when, with the ruins increasing, we also see that the buildings themselves are destroyed? Thus it is fittingly added about the now-empty city, ‘It grows warm, and its iron turns to liquid.’ For now the aula itself is consumed, in which previously both flesh and bones were consumed, because after the people have left, the walls also fall. But were are those who once rejoiced in her glory? Where their processions? Where their pride? Where the frequent and immoderate joy? –Homilies on Ezekiel 6.22

This is one of the great, famous quotations people use to demonstrate the horrors of ‘Dark Age’ Rome — Lombards are at the gates! Everything’s going to Hell in a handbasket!

But my research, beginning as it did with Gregory, couldn’t fail to notice the arrival of the images of the Emperor Phocas (602-610) and his wife:

In the sixth indiction, on the twenty-third day of November in the time of our Lord and Blessed Pope Gregory, Phocas and Leontia Augusta were crowned in Septimus in the palace which is called Secundianas, and the Emperor Maurice was killed with all of his male children [the text lists them all, as well as other male relatives and civil servants slain]. Then came the image [lit. icona] of the abovementioned Phocas and Leontia, Augusti, to Rome on the seventh day before the Kalends of May [that is, 26 April], and it was acclaimed in the Lateran in the Basilica of Julius by all the clergy and the Senate: “Hear, O Christ! Life to Phocas Augustus and Leontia Augusta!” Then the most blessed Lord and Apostolic Pope Gregory commanded that image to be place in the oratory of St Caesarius within the palace.

column-of-phocasThis event occurred in 603. It is inserted into the Register of the letters of Gregory the Great at the beginning of Book 13. Phocas also erected the last imperial monument in the Roman Forum, a tall column (pictured to the right).

When you search the works of Gregorius Magnus in the Library of Latin Texts – Series A with ‘senat*’ almost all the references you get are to senators. It would be unwise to assume that such people actually sat in the Senate and enjoyed any deliberative function as had Cicero or Symmachus. Gregory says:

Valde quippe nobiles considerat, quos senatores uocat. -Moralia in Iob (CCSL 143A) 20, 16.

Of course, one considers greatly noble those whom he calls senators.

Senators in Late Antiquity are mostly aristocrats. They held magistracies, and those at Rome even met in the ancient Senate House — the Curia — but many people of this rank lived outside of Rome, for they were extraordinarily wealthy landowners. I heard it said once that almost of all of North Africa belonged to 10 men at one point. That is real wealth.

Gregory also has a memorable phrase in the Moralia:

Curiam cordis –Moralia 35, 20.49

Senate House of the heart.

Returning to the two passages with which we began, they are easily reconcilable. If you want a long history of the Senate, you say that Gregory was using hyperbole. On the other hand, it is entirely likely that the ‘Senate’ of the anonymous note from his Register is simply the Senators as a body — not actually people with any deliberations and power.

It is this latter that is more likely. As Chris Wickham notes in Framing the Early Middle Ages:

the senate as an institution cannot be traced for sure past 580; the curia building itself was transformed into a church shortly after 625.-Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, 206

Tom Brown, in his book Gentlemen and Officers cites the final operations of the Senate as being in 578 and 580 when it requested reinforcements from Emperor Tiberius II to aid Italy in the fight against the Lombards (pp. 21-2).

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

I would previously have said that between 580 and the transformation of the Curia into the church of S. Adriano by Pope Honorius (625-638) the Senate had mysteriously vanished. However, considering its lack of any activity in the intervening decades, and the fact that Gregory assumes the Curia to be abandoned, it is my opinion, following Brown, that it ceased to have any function between 580 and 593.

This is how we make sense of our two conflicting pieces of evidence from Gregory — put them in a wider context.

Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-Century West

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

We’ve talked about Justinian. What of the West from 500ish to 600ish? Well, it’s a dangerous place to visit. While such a statement could be taken literally, I mean it figuratively in this instance. You see, the emergent polities of post-Roman western Europe are often seen as the precursors of their medieval and even modern successors. Visigoths in Spain, Franks in Gaul, Anglo-Saxons in Britannia, Picti in Caledonia. The French Republic celebrated Clovis, the Merovingian King of the Franks (d. 511), on a postage stamp (I own a copy).

Last time we saw how Justinian recaptured Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy, thus reuniting parts of the western and eastern Mediterranean divided for more than a century. The rest of the West does not join in the Roman imperial fun.

Gaul

Gaul is dominated in this century by a people group called the Franks — I recommend reading their story in Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, from c. 595. Their king at the turn of the century was Clovis, who was descended from a fifth-century Frankish leader named Merovech; his dynasty is called Merovingian and will last into the 700s. The two most important factoids about Clovis: 1. he unites the various Frankish groups into a single kingdom; 2. when he converts to Christianity, he chooses Catholicism, not Homoian/Arian Christianity. As a third thing to take away, let it be noted that both he and his father claimed to hold titles and offices within Roman administration and acknowledged the headship of the faraway Emperor in Constantinople. Clovis also conquers various parts of southern Gaul previously under Visigothic rule.

Later Franks do the same, in fact. By century’s end, Gaul is theirs, and they are pushing increasingly further into Germania. This trans-Rhine world of the Merovingians is highly significant. Previously, because of the Mediterranean focus of Rome, Germania was barely ever taken, most of it not at all. Now the Merovingian Franks are taking over various parts of the trans-Rhine world and incorporating it into their kingdom and administrative system, bringing with them Catholic Christianity, their own coins, taxes, and laws. Germania is thus moving from the hinterland to becoming an integrated part of the European world, politically, culturally, religiously.

Sources: One of the best for the period, besides Gregory of Tours, is the anthology From Roman to Merovingian Gaul by Alexander Callander Murray.

Hispania/Spain

The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

I’m the sort of person who would normally say, ‘Spain’, in these conversations, but the piece of Mediterranean geography I’m referring to is the whole peninsula, including Portugal. The Visigoths were the main force in Hispania this century, and they were busily consolidating their power. They were remarkably successful at it, given that the topography of the peninsula tends more towards fragmentation than centralisation. The Visigoths maintained Roman book culture, taxation, and military traditions. They used these to fund battles against the Franks in Gaul.  They also hosted a lot of church councils in Toledo starting this century (which only had two, the Second [527] and Third [589]). At the Third Council of Toledo, King Reccared I of Hispania and Septimania, oversaw the adoption of Catholic Christianity within his realms — hitherto, the Visigothic kingdom had been Homoian/Arian.

Sources: I’m less of an expert on Hispania, but primary sources worth looking at are John of Biclaro’s Chronicle and Isidore of Seville’s History of the Kings of the Goths, both of which are translated by Kenneth Baxter Wolf in Conquerors and Chroniclers in Early Medieval Spain.

Britannia, Caledonia, Hibernia

At the northern edge of the Roman Empire was Britannia; to the North was Caledonia (modern Scotland), and across the Irish Sea was Hibernia (Ireland). Some of the contenders for King Arthur are alleged to have lived in the sixth century. On the whole King Arthur issue, see my review of Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur. In the 500s, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britannia are taking shape and forging themselves into polities. There is little, if anything, Roman about the pagan, Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons. Gildas, writing either early or mid-century, says:

Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent… (ch. 27, trans. J.A. Giles)

Without a lot of archaeology, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this century is largely unhelpful, sadly. What it does show, however, is that we are still in what might be termed the ‘migration period’ in Britannia. The mingling of Germanic and Romano-British that would produce Anglo-Saxon culture was ongoing.

Of course, the thing that had the greatest impact on Anglo-Saxon politics occurred at century’s end. Here is how it is told by Bede in ch. 66 of The Reckoning of Time (often excerpted as the World Chronicle, as in the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People):

In the thirteenth year of the reign of Maurice and the thirteenth indiction, Gregory, the bishop of Rome and outstanding teacher, assembled a synod of twenty-four bishops at the tomb of the blessed Apostle Peter, to make decisions concerning the needs of the Church. He sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. Aethelberht was soon converted to the grace of Christ, together with the people of the Cantuarii over whom he ruled, and those of neighbouring kingdoms. [Gregory] gave him Augustine to be his bishop and teacher, as well as other holy priests to become bishops. However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life. (trans. Faith Wallis)

Britannia’s neighbours were also divided. Eire was an assemblage of small kingdoms that had a variety of different relationships, as we see in the Chronicle of Ireland. Palladius and Patrick had already brought Christianity in the century before. In the thick of dynastic struggles, in fact, a young Irish nobleman named Columba was to take refuge in Pictish lands, bringing Christianity to their kingdom and settling a monastery on Iona. Columba died in 597, and Adomnan’s Life of St Columba is worth a read.

All over Britain and Ireland, small kingdoms were vying for power, and coalesced towards century’s end in the smaller states that would shape the character of the 600s — see Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, 157-160.

Italy

Finally, let us return to the Mediterranean world. One would think that Justinian would be the end of this story, that we could just dust our hands and say, ‘Italy = Byzantine.’ However, if we were to do that, we’d have to use definition 5 or 6 of ‘Byzantine’ at Dictionary.com:

5. complex or intricate …
6. sometimes lowercase characterized by elaborate scheming and intrigue, especially for the gaining of political power or favor …

First, we have to acknowledge the growing local power of the Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy. I mean, the Pope. In Rome. Things for him are complicated because of his continued support for the Emperor in Constantinople, but the tendency of the Exarchate based in Ravenna to interfere in Roman affairs.

Also, the Lombards. They invade northern Italy in 568 and stick around until 774. In the 590s, their invasions push South towards Rome. Italy is not so simple, all of a sudden!

Italy in 572

Italy in 572

Thus, we have Ostrogoths under Theoderic in 500. The coming of the East Romans in 535; final conquest of Italy by Justinian’s forces in 554. Then we have the coming of the Lombards in 568. They proceed to push ever further south. By Lombard King Alboin’s death in 572, Italy has been carved up into different spheres of ‘Byzantine’ and Lombard influence.

Sources: For the closing decade, most definitely the letters of Gregory the Great. I can’t just now think of where else to look for the Lombards besides the eighth-century History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon. For the early 500s, a most invaluable source are the Variae of Cassiodorus.

Well, I know it was longer than usual, but here you have it. The disconnected, fragmented, post-Roman West. New kingdoms forming, asserting themselves, gathering taxes, fighting each other, entering into diplomatic relations with each other, sharing missionaries with each other. It’s a brave, new mediaeval world.