Category Archives: Discover Late Antiquity

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.

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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.

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.

 

Discover Late Antiquity: Sixth-century politics 1 – Justinian

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The fifth century was the century when the Roman West unravelled. By century’s end, the barbarian kingdoms were there. As a result, the politics of the sixth century is much more varied and takes a number of routes; the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals — these kingdoms are all part of the story at the outset, joined by Lombards along the way. We also have various rumblings from Scotti and Picti throughout the century, and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours come into full view by century’s end.

There’s a lot of politics in this century, for many the last of Antiquity, and in many ways the first of the Middle Ages.

Plus, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire is still around.

Let’s begin there.

Very quickly, what you most need to know is that the Emperor Anastasius, who supported the Mono/Miaphysite cause in religion, died in 518. His successor was Justin I, who had a very able and energetic nephew, Justinian. In 527 Justinian acceded to the throne when Justin died and ruled until 565.

That’s a very long time.

Like all emperors, he had to maintain domestic issues, and was involved in one of the biggest riots of ancient history, the Nika Riot of 532 that destroyed a lot of the city of Constantinople and left thousands of civilians slaughtered by Justinian’s troops. But he held onto power and continued to levy taxes and do the whole ‘Roman Emperor’ thing.

However, the most significant political act of Justinian was invading the post-Roman West. His general Belisarius invaded North Africa in 533; it had been conquered by the Vandals about a century before. Belisarius made short work of the Vandal Kingdom, and conquest came in 534. The Vandals had maintained many Roman traditions and levels of adminstration, and sixth-century North Africa produced its own poets. North Africa had been crucial to the western Roman economy, and its recovery had been the goal of the military policy of many emperors in the central decades of the 400s.

Now Justinian had it.

North Africa wasn’t enough, however. He decided Italy was a good thing to have, too. From 535 to 554, Justinian’s forces tried to reconquer the peninsula from the Goths. The city of Rome changed hands three times. Arguably, however, Italy was still being ruled by the successors of Theoderic on behalf of the Roman Emperor, so seeking to replace and supplant them was not actually ‘constitutionally’ valid. Thus argued the Goths, anyway.

These decades of campaign are what broke Italy (see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages). The economy and culture of Italy had maintained themselves in strong, unbroken continuity since 476, with the Goths respecting the Roman laws and traditions as they found them.

Italy was, in the end (554), integrated into the East Roman polity with more direct rule (and taxation!) governed from Constantinople. A governor was established at Ravenna. Cultural ties between the eastern and western Mediterranean renewed to some degree; this included the visual arts as well as theological controversy.

Assuming that Justinian was too preoccupied with western business, in 540 Khusru I went on the offensive, breaking the ‘Eternal Peace’. For the next twenty years, the Romans and Persians were once more at war in the usual manner of neither ultimately gaining much from the other for long.

Politics, of course, is not merely wars. Justinian was also involved in the realm of law — hence the Institutes, Digest, and Code(x) that bear his name (mostly the work of able lawyers, such as Tribonian). Thus was the world of the sixth-century Roman Empire regulated and regularised, and the deposit of Roman Law handed down to us.

And, also of great importance for the future, Justinian got himself directly involved in ecclesiastical affairs, turning away from the policy of Anastasius and supporting the Council of Chalcedon. It is of note that Chalcedon was universallly popular in the West, and that a Chalcedonian set out to reconquer the West. Justinian’s ecclesiastical policy was a bit mixed, and seems to have alienated the extremes of both pro- and anti-Chalcedonian Christians. But it is not insignificant that he himself drafted some of the legislation without first gaining approval of episcopal councils.

So. Justinian. A big deal in politics. But what about all those barbarians I mentioned at the beginning? Tune in next time find out!

Discover Late Antiquity: Sixth-century religion

Our little tour through Late Antiquity reached the end of the 400s a few weeks ago — just in time for the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, to declare on May 31:

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.

What, we all wonder, does society need?

a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward

That is to say — someone with the skills gained by almost any humanities degree. Like sixth-century history. I should have written this blog post the moment I read Charles West’s excellent piece on the subject at History Today, but I didn’t. Because work.

First, if you’ve missed the rest of this little journey, I’ve made a Discover Late Antiquity page, so you can go there to catch up on what you’ve been missing! As usual, I’m starting our discussion with religion, literature, etc. For a quick glimpse of sixth-century manuscripts, don’t forget my last post! Now that I’m done the preamble, let’s begin with religion.

Sixth-century Religion

Sixth-century mosaic of Christ, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome

Sixth-century mosaic of Christ, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome

The sixth-century saw the realisation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East of the final schism between Mono/Miaphysite Christians and the Chalcedonians. At the turn of the century, the emperor in Constantinople, Anastasius I, was sponsoring a document called the Henotikon that had appeased some of the Miaphysites, but in 518 Justin and then his nephew Justinian (r. 527-565) supported the Chalcedonian cause. Although some of Justinian’s actions tried to appease the Miaphysites, others only exacerbated the problem, with the result that Jacob Baradaeus began consecrating a parallel episcopal hierarchy in the Levant, Syria, and Asia Minor — this today is the Syrian Orthodox Church. At the same time, the forerunners of the Miaphysite Coptic Orthodox Christians were active in Egypt, harbouring folks like Severus of Antioch (one of the greatest theological minds of the age) when their Miaphysite beliefs clashed with imperial policy.

Part of Justinian’s appeasement tactics was the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’. The Three Chapters were the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian; and certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Because Ibas and Theodoret were reckoned orthodox by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many — especially in the western Mediterranean — felt that the condemnation of the Three Chapters was a sly repudiation of Chalcedon. For why that is not necessarily the case, read this post.

The condemnation of the Three Chapters culminated in the Second Council of Constantinople of 553, now regarded as the Fifth Ecumenical Council by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians. Pope Vigilius was there, and after some tergiversations agreed to the condemnation. A schism erupted between Rome and northern Italy, called the Istrian Schism, and lasted until Pope Sergius I in the 600s.

On another side of the Chalcedonian debate were those Christians who rejected both the Miaphysite position and the Council, traditionally termed ‘Nestorian‘ in English. This group of Christians founded what is today known as The Church of the East. They flourished in the Persian Empire and beyond, possibly as far as Tibet in the 500s. Chalcedonians did not flourish in the Persian Empire because their support of a form of Christianity aligned with the Roman Empire was perceived as dangerous; many of them were taking refuge in what is now Georgia; the Georgian Orthodox Church is still part of the Eastern Orthodox Church with its own pre-Russian tradition.

Amongst the monasteries of the Judaean desert there also arose the Second Origenist Controversy, surrounding some of Origen’s teachings in On First Principles but more importantly the teachings of the fourth-century mystic Evagrius of Pontus. This controversy resulted in a condemnation of Origenism in a series of anathemas often wrongly attributed to the Council of Constantinople of 553.

In the Eastern Empire, the sixth century is also the century of spiritual leaders Barsanuphius and John (whom I love), their disciple Dorotheos of Gaza, and Simeon Stylites the Younger. St Sabas/Savvas of Judaea died this century. Romanos the Melodist, early Byzantine liturgical poet par excellence, lived in the 500s as well. We cannot forget Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Alexandrian Nestorian who wrote an amazing description of the world and his travels in Arabia and India; of greater philosophical precision is the Miaphysite Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponus.

Besides getting thoroughly embroiled in the argument over the reception of Chalcedon, the West saw what may be termed the ‘Arian Controversy 2.0’. The newly emergent kingdoms of the West were largely ruled by ‘Arian’ or ‘Semi-Arian’ rulers (today’s usage would say ‘Homoian’), and they would debate with the Nicene-Catholic populations — Theoderic the Great in Italy, the Vandals of North Africa, and the Visigoths of Spain were Homoian/Arians. Theoderic treated the Nicene-Catholics of Italy well and with respect; the Vandals made their lives a living hell in Africa, as we read in Victor of Vita’s (d. 535) History of the Vandal Persecutions. The Franks were Catholic, which sets them apart; their king Clovis I, on the eve of the century in 496, was baptised into the Catholic form of Christianity by Remigius, Bishop of Reims, under the influence of his wife Clotilda.

However, as Gregory of Tours in the History of the Franks (c. 590) makes clear, the ‘Catholic’ Franks were generally as impious and unholy as the pagans and Arians; they, too, looted churches and such and lived riotously unvirtuous lives. It’s worth keeping in mind when we begin to imagine Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages as special eras of great religious fervour.

In 586, Reccared, King of Spain converted to Catholicism. That’s a big deal.

St Benedict (480-547) is kind of a big deal, too. His Rule, written for his small community of 12 monks at Monte Cassino, would become the standard of western monasticism in the centuries to come. He drew upon the preceding tradition, like John Cassian of the 400s and the early sixth-century Rule of the Master.

Cassiodorus (485-585) also founded a monastery after his career in the public service under King Theoderic; he wrote all about it in his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning. His other religious writings include a commentary on the Psalms and some other exegetical pieces; he also wrote a Christian philosophical treatise ‘On the Soul.’

The philosopher-poet Boethius (480-524), besides his translations of Aristotelian works and his famous Consolation of Philosophy, wrote theological treatises ‘On the Trinity,’ ‘Against Eutyches and Nestorius,’ ‘Whether Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Substantially Predicated of the Divinity,’ and ‘On the Catholic Faith,’ amongst others.

So as not to be too much more long-winded, other important western religious figures of the century include: Caesarius of Arles, Ennodius of Pavia, Avitus of Vienne, Brigid of Kildare, Brendan the Navigator, Columba (missionary to Highland Scotland), Kentigern/Mungo (missionary to the Glasgow region), Columbanus (Irish monastic founder in France and Italy), and Pope Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604) who closes the century; I’ll save him for the 600s. None of this brings out questions of canon law and liturgy, of course, but there’s just no room!!