Category Archives: History

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.

Everything a monk needs: My latest post on the Durham Priory Project blog

I have just posted a wee discussion of the book donation list of William of St Calais and how it includes precisely the sort of books monks need to live by the Rule of St Benedict. It’s linked below. Enjoy!

The Book Donation List Of William Of St Calais: Everything A Monk Needs?

John Magee ‘In Search of the First Medieval Aristotle’

Boethius, De musica, from Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, fol. 73v (12th c.)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural lecture of the Durham Centre for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (DCAMP), delivered by Prof. John Magee of the University of Toronto. I have long had respect for Magee since he taught me Greek prose composition and supervised my MA research on John Cassian back in Toronto, and it was a pleasure to see him in action, showing us what philology can do as well as the intimate links between ancient and medieval philosophy.

His lecture was about the text of Boethius’ elementary commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. Being fond of Boethius, as readers of this blog will know, I was happy to encounter an aspect of this Late Antique philosopher I was unacquainted with. What Magee did was use philology and manuscript studies to narrow our gap between the death of Boethius in 524 and the first manuscript of this commentary. This was done by considering references and quotations from Boethius in sources related to Cassiodorus’ monastic centre at Vivarium in Italy and by looking at traces of editorial intervention before the appearance of the manuscripts.

In short, what we see is Aristotle being read in Latin in western Europe, alongside Boethius’ commentary, between 580 and 800, and particular uses of Boethius’ translations being made in western Frankland. This is the sort of thing I like, and it inevitably made me think of Leo the Great and the period between his death in 461 and 600 or 700 when the first manuscripts with his letters appear. The methodology is the same.

It is also important because the way this Aristotle and this Boethian commentary were being used anticipates some of the developments in the study of philosophy in the High Middle Ages, such as the Logica Vetus. Moreover, we are reminded that parts of Aristotle were current in western Europe before 1123, and, in fact, were being read before we even have manuscripts that survive.

And, for those who are less interested in the history of philosophy, perhaps, this Aristotelian world also helps us see Charlemagne and his court and that Renaissance more clearly.

It was a pleasure to engage with a talk that brought into play philosophy, philology, palaeography, manuscript studies, and history — and even a moment of art history for good measure!

I look forward to DCAMP’s upcoming events.

A new cast of characters

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Since before my Ph.D., my research has focused on a largely fifth- and sixth-century cast of characters. For my Ph.D. and subsequent research, I’ve been looking at the following players amongst others: chiefly Pope Leo the Great (of course); Emperors Valentinian III, Theodosius II, and Marcian (but also various predecessors and successors, especially Justinian); other bishops such as (as they come to mind) Hilary of Arles, Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius of Constantinople, Flavian of Constantinople, Cyril of Alexandria, Severus of Antioch; Leo predecessors in Rome, especially Damasus, Siricius, Innocent I, Zosimus, Celestine I; successors, especially Hilarus, Gelasius I, Vigilius; other secular people such as Empress Pulcheria and Empress Galla Placidia; historical writers such as Prosper of Aquitaine, Hydatius, Marcellinus Comes, Evagrius Scholasticus, Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor; and monks like John Cassian and Eutyches. These are only a few of the Late Antique people in my research, let alone a medieval cast including Pope Hadrian I, Charlemagne, Lanfranc of Bec, Pope Gregory VII, Gratian, and the moderns from Giovanni Bussi in 1472 to Hubert Wurm in 1939.

Now I’m working on a project involving related manuscripts, but in a very specific context — Durham Cathedral Priory. So a new cast is emerging. The texts transmitted in these manuscripts see many of the old cast — the popes, the councils, St Augustine of Hippo — but the new, High Medieval cast is taking shape for me now.

I am beginning with William of St Calais, after a monastic career in Normandy, he was Bishop of Durham 1080/1-1096. He refounded the religious house here as a Benedictine priory to which he donated at least 49 books, listed here, and some identified in modern locations here. One book not identified in that link is the Decreta Pontificum, now Cambridge, Peterhouse MS 74 — the Collectio Lanfranci.

So Lanfranc here and in the Ph.D. After a monastic career in Normandy, Lanfranc was Archbishop of Canterbury 1070-89. Lanfranc and William were both learned men, and they both used the Collectio Lanfranci in various disputes and claims regarding law and ecclesiastical custom. Of interest is the fact that, when William of St Calais was hauled before the court of King William Rufus (r. 1087-1100) in 1088, Bishop William used Lanfranc’s collection as preparation, but Lanfranc’s denied its validity in what was a secular court over feudal law. More on that once I’ve looked at their manuscripts.

Henry V visits his father in prison (from Wikimedia Commons)

Here we have a king — William Rufus, son of William the Bastard, or Conqueror (r. 1066-1087). My working through a manuscript this week has also brought me into contact with the era of the Conqueror’s other son, King Henry I (r. 1100-35), but those particular documents were largely canon law, about the Investiture Controversy, the Concordat of Worms of 1122 and the First Lateran Council of 1023 — documents by King/Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II.

This I had recently read about in the Historia Regum of Symeon of Durham (d. c. 1130), who also wrote a little book about the history of the church of Durham and possibly even our primary source for Bishop William vs King William Rufus, the De iniusta vexacione, but my research into secondary materials has not got that far yet.

Others, more briefly: Anselm of Canterbury (who did not get along with William of St Calais), Pope Gregory VII, Gratian, Anselm’s biographer Eadmer. It is a new, medieval cast of characters, and some are more than a little colourful. People who use canon law are a varied lot, and we’ll see what I make of their manuscripts.

My new job

As you may know (since the 11 people who read this blog are my friends and family), I recently started a new job at Durham University after seven happy years of life, study, and work in Edinburgh. And what, you may ask, is my new job?

I have a one-year post-doctoral research post associated with the project ‘Durham Priory Library Recreated‘, focussing my research on Durham Priory’s collection of canon law manuscripts. I am starting my research with a canon law manuscript that William of St-Calais (Bishop of Durham, 1080-93) brought to Durham when he became bishop and refounded the religious house associated with the cathedral as a Benedictine Priory. He also started the rebuilding of the cathedral into its Norman/Romanesque magnificence in 1093. Bishop William brought 50 manuscripts with him, including the manuscript I’m initially looking at, a copy of Collectio Lanfranci, a canon law collection brought to England from Normandy by Lanfranc of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury 1070-89; this collection is a trimmed version of the collection associated with the name Pseudo-Isidore (on whom/which I turn your attention to the work of Eric Knibbs). After, or alongside, William of St-Calais’ Collectio Lanfranci, I’ll be studying the cathedral priory’s other, later, canon law manuscripts.

If canon law doesn’t float your boat, perhaps William’s Bible will.

The research project is a digitisation project bringing together in one digital place all of the manuscripts and early printed books that belonged to the pre-Reformation priory. This means not only the ones at Durham Cathedral and Durham University but also manuscripts that have gone off wandering to London, Cambridge, Oxford, etc. Besides studying the priory’s manuscripts for the creation of new scholarship, I will also contribute to the project blog and engage in public outreach — public lectures, seminars, that sort of thing — besides organising a scholarly workshop in 2018 about Canon Law in Medieval Durham.

I have already settled into my new desk and started ploughing through the material about Durham and William of St-Calais, much of which was written by Symeon of Durham (d. 1129ish). Perhaps I’ll write about him soon! I’ve also visited the cathedral a couple of times and walked down by the river and generally enjoyed living in a city with a big, famous cathedral and a castle.

It looks to be an exciting year.

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.