Category Archives: Classics

Any of my posts that relate in sufficient degree to the Classical World and my study thereof.

Men, persons, humans

Thor: A person who is not a human

Since the Old English use of man to mean ‘a human being’ has been largely co-opted at this stage in the history of English to mean ‘a male human being’, many people have rightly sought new, gender-neutral/inclusive nouns to refer to individual human persons.

The most common solution is person/persons (or people). However, this does not work in all cases, since in some domains, human beings are not the only persons potentially under discussion. The realms that come to mind in this regard are theology, mythology, and science fiction and fantasy. In the last dual category of genre fiction, Star Trek calls us earthlings humans (pronounced by Quark the Ferengi as ‘humahns’). Obviously, many non-humans in Star Trek are persons — Odo and Hu, just to mention those who’ve already made an appearance on this blog. But all humanoid species and many non-humanoid species in Trek are persons. Even Q, the space fairy.

I am actually less certain about fantasy, since I do not read a lot of new fantasy. In Tolkien, the human species is populated by Men with a capital ‘M’, reflecting both the archaic nature of the language and its cadence as used by Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s own era.

In mythology, one has a variety of non-human persons. The concern here arises for translators and philologists who want to discuss literature in the Classical tradition. How do you render anthropos and homo? It cannot be person, since by current English usage, gods, demi-gods, centaurs, et al., are also persons.

Similarly in theology. In Christian theology, God is a Trinity of Persons, so it is actually imprecise to use person where a few decades ago one would have used manMankind also runs into similar problems, often solved by humankind, a word I dislike; much better to say humanity, I think. One place where this is a difficulty is Genesis 1, where God speaks of making, in older translations, ‘man in our image’. Andrew Louth circumvented this danger in Introducing Eastern Orthoodox Theology by consistently rendering (from Greek, not Hebrew) anthropos as human kind until he had to bring the discussion to the singular.

Many current English translations of the Bible and ancient Christian literature seem to think person is a perfect synonym for anthropos. Or, in the case of new translations of the Nicene Creed, cut men out altogether, ‘who for us and for our salvation’. Loses some of the theological potency; us what?

One of the books that is consistent in using one solution to the problem is Greta Austin, Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. She consistently always refers to human beings using the substantive humans. This works. It is not as common as it should be, although I see it every once in a while. The philological objection is, of course, that human is an adjective, not a noun. But adjectives are frequently nounified when necessary, and this maintains the linguistic precision of the Latin text under discussion as well as the theological context of Burchard.

Perhaps not a breakthrough or deep or illuminating, but it is important for us to keep in mind not only why we may wish to shift our lexicon away from something, but also to consider where we are turning. Precision and accuracy are important, and person is often too imprecise for accuracy in language.



Last week, my father-in-law and I started the new year right with a New Year’s Day trip to Vindolanda Roman fort and Hadrian’s Wall. Here I am at Vindolanda:

And here I am at Hadrian’s Wall:

Vindolanda excited me because it is a fairly well-preserved Roman fort, and it is the source of some very remarkable archaeological finds. There were Roman forts at Vindolanda from about the year 85 (all these dates are AD), around the time of Agricola (made famous by Tacitus’ work of the same name) until the Romans left 395? 410? Three main forts have been found, but they estimate that as many as nine were built on this spot.

The first thing that should be said of Roman forts in Britain: Most of them are little more than waist-high foundations. They have excavated some parts of Vindolanda more deeply than that, but this is mostly what you will see. This is the case of the other Roman remains I’ve seen here, such as Bearsden, Cramond, Chesters, and Corbridge. I have seen nothing Roman as spectacular as Ostia Antica or Pompeii in Britain.

Here’s a shot of Vindolanda:

Vindolanda is not right on Hadrian’s Wall but about a mile to the south on the Roman military road with the mediaeval name of the Stanegate. I’ve visited another Roman fort on the Stanegate at Corbridge. Like Corbridge, Vindolanda had a civil settlement, or vicus, connected with it as well. When you approach Vindolanda from the West today, you pass through the vicus on your left, and a few military buildings on your right — the military buildings include some of the praetorium from the Severan fort (so, c. 200).

The buildings of the vicus are long and narrow because, apparently, you were taxed based upon the amount of streetfront you took up. One of the last buildings before you reach the walls of the fort is the tavern. Somehow that makes sense — a place for both civilians and soldiers, after all. They suspect that it would have had some upper floors for rooms.

The wall of the fourth-century fort isn’t bad:

They are still excavating inside the walls. Here you’ll find the usual suspects, such as the granary with its raised floors to keep the grain dry:

And the strongroom in the principia (HQ), which is underground in the small temple where the standards of the legion would have been stored along with the image of the emperor.

Of interest is the temple to Jupiter Dolichenus (Dolichenum). Jupiter Dolichenus is a cult popular with soldiers. He is an adaptation of a god from ancient Syria (now southeastern Turkey), and he turns up at a number of places in Britain. This is a reminder of the varied nature of the people living in Britain under Roman rule. The Dolichenum was destroyed in the later fourth century, presumably as a result of Christianisation and the closure of public temples and the rescinding of public funds for non-Christian religions.

Of interest were the foundations of some round houses of the Severan era. At that time, there was a rebellion, and these houses are built in local fashion, so it is supposed that they were built to house Roman sympathisers who were targeted by their neighbours.

And there was a bath house, as always. I like hypocausts:

Eventually the Romans left, but Vindolanda seems to have been inhabited until the ninth century. So I find myself interested in post-Roman Vindolanda: Who lived here? What various changes did they make besides a church in the praetorium? What artefacts did they leave behind?

For it is for its artefacts that Vindolanda is chiefly famous. And, amongst these, the Vindolanda Tablets are the famousest. Vindolanda’s site preserves an extraordinary quantity of organic material — shoes, wooden tablets, animal bones, etc. The shoes took me by surprise:

There was also a room full of cow skulls in the museum, but I didn’t take a photo. All of your expected pottery is there, too — Samian ware and the like.

I was most glad, however, to see the Vindolanda Tablets. These are wooden tablets covered in writing. Some are letters, some are inventories, some are requests for requisitions. There are comments about beer, about roads, about the local populace. There is a birthday invitation. They are wonderful, and they are one of the greatest finds in twentieth-century British archaeology, for texts can add flesh to the bones dug up by archaeology.

After Vindolanda, we walked part of Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads Roman fort. Here’s a photo of the stunning countryside with the Wall running along that crag in the distance:

The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1, by R. C. Blockley

The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and MalchusThe Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus by R.C. Blockley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is volume one of Blockley’s study and edition/translation of Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus, four Greek-language historians writing in the fifth-century (although early stages of Eunapius may have been published in the later 300s). These historians only survive for us in fragments — quotations by later, Byzantine, authors, or use by other late antique and ‘Byzantine’ historians (not always with attribution).

They are important because the fifth century is a century of fragmented knowledge and history. So we need all the sources we can get. They are also important because they represent a particular genre of history writing of which we have but little from this era of Graeco-Roman history.

Blockley divides this volume into two parts: The Historians and The Fragments. In the first part, each historian is introduced in turn, providing plausible dates of publication, his background, what the original contours of the history would have been, what he was like as a stylists, what he was like as a historian, what we think his main concerns were, his relationship to Christianity, and how we know this; from what I can tell, the bibliography was up to date at time of publication (1981). These chapters are followed by a discussion of what ‘classicising history’ is and how we should classify these historians — not as ‘pagan’ (not all of them are) nor as ‘secular’ (that, too, is misleading) but as ‘classicising’; they are consciously writing in the tradition of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius.

Part two is a discussion of the same material from the other direction — what are the sources for our fragments, how do we know these fragments are from these historians, and then a brief summary of what each fragment includes.

This is a highly useful book, readable, fairly brief, and a good introduction to the sources edited and translated in volume 2.

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Please do textual criticism on something other than the New Testament

If you did Septuagint criticism, you could work on the Vienna Genesis! LOOK AT IT

A friend recently directed my attention towards the Tyndale House Greek New Testament. It’s not a bad idea, as far as editions go. They try to determine what the actual first-century spelling or pronunciation of the words at hand was and then use it, rather than a levelled-out, standardised, modern-Classical Greek spelling. This will please those of the ilk who like to see Cristus in medieval Latin instead of Christus. It is also, apparently, designed simply to be read, which is a fine idea as well. From what I’ve read on their blog, it seems that sound philology lies behind this edition of the Greek New Testament. It seems that Dirk Jongkind (whose work on the scribal habits of Sinaiticus I’ve actually read) and team should be pleased.

So you can go buy it and put in on the shelf next to your copy of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 28th edition, (both of which have about the same text) and Michael W. Holmes’ SBL Greek New Testament. (I guess, after making sure the world had a third edition of Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers, Holmes felt there weren’t enough New Testaments?)

I shouldn’t be snarky. I should, as a (Latin) text critic be happy to see the science itself flourish and get publications.

Except, I wonder — is this evidence of textual criticism flourishing and getting publications?

Or do all of our promising Greek scholars with an interest in ancient Christianity find themselves beating to death the text and mss of the New Testament with no new major ms finds for years? I think the reason why NT textual criticism is innovative is twofold: 1. They have way too many mss and frags to deal with. 2. There are so many of them (scholars, that is).

Anyway, the point of this rambling rant is: Could you please divert your skills and resources and attention to something else? I, myself, am working on texts that haven’t been edited since 1753 (the letters of Leo the Great), for the most part, but also a couple that haven’t had any work done since 1723 (Coustant’s edition of the popes before Leo). This afternoon, I was looking at Durham Cathedral Library, B.IV.17, a twelfth-century copy of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms. Now, Burchard hasn’t been edited since 1748, but he’s at least had some very interesting textual criticism done since they found his autographs.

Those texts are Latin, I realise. But if the Greek Bible is of interest to young minds, brimming with linguistic knowledge, wouldn’t it be nice to see the Septuagint get some of the love? We have that German Bible Society edition, but that’s not fully and truly critical, and La Bible d’Alexandrie is not yet done, from what I can tell. This is the Bible Paul of Tarsus read, people; the Bible of Justin Martyr, of Clement of Alexandria, of Origen, of Athanasius, of John Chrysostom, of the Greek priest next door. From a purely academic standpoint, this is a hugely significant text in need of a lot of work. I know people are working on it, but they seem mostly to be French or German.

And what about the texts of the people who helped forge Christianity? The Apostolic Fathers aren’t the only ante-Nicene texts that could do with some sprucing up. And even if one stuck to the Apostolic Fathers, they only have three editions, not 28. Consider Clement of Alexandria, turn of the third century; Sources Chrétiennes lists the following if his texts as not even having someone to work on them: Canon EcclesiasticusHypotyposeis, letters, De pascha, and several fragments. Anatolius of Laodicea (d. 280-90) has no one lined up for De decem primis numeribus. If you had the inclination, you could go through their list and see who else they haven’t finished. There are many. Moreover, just because someone has an edition in Sources Chrétiennes or in the Corpus Christianorum doesn’t mean it’s any good; I heard a rumour about a recent text of something by Origen (which I forget now) being worse than Patrologia Graeca.

And why should we, as scholars, invest in Patristic textual criticism rather than the New Testament? Not only because the New Testament has probably been overanalysed and done to death, but also because knowledge is good. Philology and philosophy and theology and history rest, to a large degree, on the texts we read them in. If those texts are bad, we are missing some of the nuance, some of the beauty, some of the philosophical accuracy, some of the historical detail. Besides that, all those New Testament manuscripts people like to read are contemporary with or later than the Greek Fathers who need work done on them. Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are post-Constantinian. Claromontanus is sixth-century. P45 is from around 250 — so contemporary with Origen and later than Clement of Alexandria. These are the writings and beliefs and ideas of the people who copied out the texts that transmitted the New Testament. Getting to know them and their world should really be part of the same intellectual enterprise as getting to know the New Testament.

And if you’re good enough at Greek and wanting to branch out, maybe give some pre-Christian Hellenistic texts some love. They need it, too.

Or if your Latin is up to it, I know of a few popes who need some work. 😉

Justinian and (late) Roman continuity

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The Codex Justinianus (henceforth CJ for convenience) is one of the volumes of what, by the High Middle Ages, people call the Corpus Iuris Civilis, along with the other juristic/juridical/legal works of Justinian, the Digest (or Pandects), the Institutes, and Justinian’s own Novellae Constitutiones — these being the new constitutions that post-date the other work. CJ is itself an anthology of excerpts from imperial laws arranged thematically; some laws thus get themselves included multiple times. They date from Hadrian (r. 117-138) to Justinian (r. 527-565).

The Digest is the opinions of jurists where the laws conflict, a reality made manifest by CJ. It is mostly Ulpian (c. 170-223) and Paulus (2nd/3rd c. AD) The Institutes are the work of the Roman jurists, largely Gaius (108-178), mostly from the High Imperial period. These are texts that discuss how to apply the law in different cases. 

The Corpus Iuris Civilis demonstrates to us the fact that the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople (but poised to [re]conquer Africa and Italy), did not simply imagine itself to be the successor to ancient Rome but, in a very real way, was. Justinian’s consuls stand in a direct succession that saw itself receding back to Brutus in 509 BC and the foundation of the Republic. And Justinian’s desire to consolidate and clarify law, something attempted in the third century (Codex Gregorianus and Codex Hermogenianus) and fifth century (Codex Theodosianus), but not with as much staying power as Justinian’s work (esp. not the former two).

Thus, in CJ, Justinian does not restrict himself with the world after Constantine, as Codex Theodosianus had. He does not think only in terms of life in Constantinople. He sees that Roman law, taught in Beirut and applied in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, is a living body of laws that reach back to the days when an emperor resided in the Eternal City herself.

Because of this vision, I would argue that Justinian’s Novellae, despite some novelties that arise because of shifting circumstances, are themselves a natural outflow from the living tradition of Roman law. I will write more about living tradition someday soon, but it is an important idea to keep in mind when we look at the Roman and mediaeval (and all pre-modern) worlds. The process, content, and conceptualisation of the Novellae exist alongside the rest of the Corpus, alongside centuries-old laws in CJ, resulting in something that somehow is an outworking of that older tradition.

Late Antiquity is still antiquity, and Justinian, even as he forges a brave, new (‘Byzantine’) world, is part of antiquity. The world is shifting and transforming, yes — but it always has. Hadrian’s world is not Augustus’, Alexander Severus’ is not Hadrian’s, Diocletian’s is not the Severans’, Theodosius I’s is not Constantine’s or Diocletian’s, Justinian’s is Theodosius I’s — but they are all linked together by various traditions of the Roman world, including law.

Indictions (more Roman dating; still not Ovidian)

You may be thinking, ‘Gee, dating by consuls sure was fun. How else did Romans write the years in dates?’ Let me tell you, if consular dating is your bag, you’ll love indictions. I was reminded of the ancient Roman indiction cycle recently, since my current research has brought me up against Pope Gregory VII (pope, 1073-85), who uses this system in his letters, thus:

Data Rome VIIII. Kalendas Maii, Indictione XI.

Given at Rome, 8 days before the Kalends of May (24 April), in the eleventh indiction.

One may quickly jump to the conclusion that this is some medieval popery. After all, doesn’t Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604), who comes after The End of Ancient Christianity use indictions as well? Aha, but what sort of man was this first Pope Gregory? Gregory the Great was a Roman aristocrat of senatorial descent who owned a villa on the Caelian Hill, had spent time in the imperial court of Constantinople, and who acted as though Gaul was part of the Empire, not an independent, Frankish kingdom.

Not the sort of guy to go around using new-fangled dating systems.

However, the consulate was gone by Gregory’s day (the last consul was Basilius in 541). But the consulate was not the only way to write a year. Nonetheless, people did not universally and immediately start writing things Anno Domini according to their favourite paschal tables and systems of computus. They did keep using some of the older systems, and the indiction gains greater prominence at this time, at least from what my own, informal glance at the evidence shows.

Two questions, then: What on earth is an indiction? Who used them?

The indiction can be very unhelpfully explained as a fifteen-year cycle for late Roman taxation purposes. It was instituted by the Emperor Constantine (possibly originally developed by Diocletian, r. 284-305), and definitely in use in Egypt (whence come so many useful papyri for this sort of thing) by 313. What this means is that the emperors declared what the average valuation for taxation would be for the next fifteen years. The fifteen years themselves form the indiction. The very first indiction, proclaimed in 313, was backdated to 1 September 312. Every 1 September, every 15 years, a new indiction started, with the start of a new fiscal cycle for the imperial administration.

When used in dates as the Gregory VII quotation above, the word indiction actually refers to one of the fifteen years of the cycle. Thus, if people had been using the indiction in this way in 312 (which I’m pretty sure they weren’t), then ‘first indiction’ would refer to 1 September 312 – 31 August 313. Then the second indiction would begin, and so on for fifteen years. Then the cycle starts again with the new fiscal term.

One of the things this reminds us of — and it’s something I like to point out — is that Constantine, like Diocletian before him, was a reformer and shaper, and he would have been a big deal even without converting to Christianity. Indeed, perhaps his ability to think outside the conventional Roman box is part of why he threw his lot in with the Christian god.

One more small but important note is that, due to an error, in the medieval West, indictions began on 24 September. This must make chronology fun for people who look at Latin-Byzantine relations in the Middle Ages!

Anyway, that, in short, is what an indiction is. I’m probably imprecise in one or more ways; hopefully Richard will correct me in the comments.

People who use indictions to write dates:

A few Latins: Popes. Popes also used consular formulae in letters whereas such dates don’t survive for other letters. So the papal chancery is a big deal, whatever you think about institutional religion. Bede. No surprise, given that he wrote a text call On the Reckoning of Time. Cassiodorus in the Variae; I’ve not checked his historiography.

A few Greeks: Evagrius Scholasticus does sporadically, but not as his main means of dating. Theophanes Confessor.

In Syriac, at least Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, it seems.

Lots and lots of other people do, but I really don’t have time to hunt them all down.

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.