Tag Archives: chris wickham

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.

What ‘Dark’ Ages?

As promised, here is a post about what follows late antiquity (and if the debate about ending ‘late’ antiquity interests you, be sure to read the comments of the post thereon).

A week or two ago, I was at a conference about the Middle Ages. My paper was about Justinianic hagiography because I think the later bits of Late Antiquity also count as the early bits of the Early Middle Ages. Anyway, one of the people commented during a tea break that she doesn’t think the Middle Ages begin until the year 800. Another delegate remarked, ‘So you’re a believer in the Dark Ages?’

I know this is non-controversial in many circles, and has been for many years, but it is worth saying: The Dark Ages Never Happened.*

There are people who still use the term, such as an evangelical woman who once asked me if there were any Christians in the ‘Dark Ages’. Thunderstruck, I didn’t really have much of an answer; I also wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘Dark Ages’. Did she include the entire Middle Ages? I know that not everyone who uses the term includes the whole 1000-year period typically designated ‘mediaeval’, such as a friend who once remarked in a blog that Muslims dragged western Europe ‘kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages.’ Usually, when the term crops up, it means something from the Fall of Rome until sometime in the Carolingian era or the 1000s or 1100s.

No one’s really sure what the Dark Ages are, I guess; that’s a worse range of dates than we had for Late Antiquity.

The Dark Ages are imagined to be a period of internecine warfare across ‘Europe’, an age when ‘barbarians’ took over the Roman Empire and everything went to pieces. Christianity was turned into superstition (if Constantine hadn’t already done it; it all depends whom you ask). Trade disappeared. People lived brutal, hard, short lives, plagued by fear of the supernatural and of Vikings. Learning was lost, shunned even. It was a dark time in western Europe, and was saved possibly by the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ or by Islamic learning or by the Irish. Depends whom you ask.

This, quite frankly, is not exactly the case. The change from Empire to barbarian kingdoms is a gradual one, and the movement from a Mediterranean-wide economy of exchange to local economies in the West is very slow, indeed. True, the aristocracy became landed warriors, one of the hallmarks of mediaeval civilization, but they still ruled by Roman Law, still levied Roman taxes, still wrote in Latin, for a very long time.

Indeed, all sorts of Roman learning and aspects of Roman culture were preserved throughout western Europe, even in places where Roman administrative culture completely evaporated, such as Britain. How ‘dark’ can an age be if it gives us Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Adamnan of Iona, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Alcuin? How ‘dark’ can a world really be that gives us the epic poem Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas? Or Romanesque architecture and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Any survey of Early Mediaeval literature should disabuse the notion that, say, 400-1000 was a ‘Dark Age’ for western Europe. Sure, there was a lot of local warfare. This didn’t really let up until 1945, so that can’t really count against the period. Sure, there was some political instability. Sure, a lot of manuscripts were lost. And, yes, Vikings would occasionally come to raid your village. Or found Dublin. Or conquer and settle Normandy. Or become members of the Emperor’s guard in Constantinople.

Even the example of the Vikings, so archetypically ‘Dark Ages’ shows us that the image of the Early Middle Ages as ‘dark’ is off the mark.

This was a transitional period, probably more unstable than some, but not so bad. Many imperial institutions persisted. The Church kept doing her thing. Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede gave us voluminous Latin output that includes Bible commentary, saints’ lives, and the history of their peoples. Worth reading. The Insular culture gave us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other exquisite examples of book production. The continent gave us very important texts of secular and canon law as well as the beauty of early Romanesque art.

Perhaps what is darkest about this period is our ignorance of it. Most ignorant are those who still call it ‘Dark.’ Yet in many other ways, historians have far less material from this period to work with. So it is harder to illuminate this age than those that precede and follow it. Nonetheless, it is worth illuminating yourself if you can. You’ll find that the Early Middle Ages are an interesting bit of history.

So, check out these; I list only four so as not to weigh you down. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham; pub. Penguin. The introductory chapter deals with a lot of the reasons the Early Middle Ages are snubbed, and not just the ‘Dark Ages’ issue. I’m about 1/3 through, and it’s very illuminating.

Romanesque by Norbert Wolf. This is one of those wonderful introductory volumes of art history produced by Taschen, full of colour illustrations demonstrating the subject at hand. Romanesque is the style of art and architecture most common in the Early Middle Ages. It is beautiful.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, including the entirety of Beowulf. This Oxford World’s Classics volume gives the reader an initiation in the varied literature from the world of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, spells, riddles, letters, and land grants.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. This piece of Latin philosophy, written primarily in verse, is a tour-de-force of late antique/early mediaeval philosophical writing that will make the reader rethink the allegedness ‘darkness’ of the 500s.

*Neither did the Renaissance.