Tag Archives: emperor majorian

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.

The Enormity That Was Rome (seen in the Consularia Constantinopolitana)

Roman Forum

Yesterday I read R W Burgess’ edition of the fifth-century Consularia Constantinopolitana (which he notes is a misnomer; it’s a Descriptio Consulum that is primarily — not entirely — western in origin). This is a document that is mostly a list of every consular pair from the first consuls of Rome in 509 BC up to the year AD 465 when the final redactor/editor of the document presumably ran out of source material.

Along the way and with increasing frequency after Constantine, other events are inserted — but not nearly so many as, say, in a Chronicle, and not with nearly so much detail. These are sort of the markers as we use them in real life. We may not necessarily remember what we did in 2003 or in the third year of Jean Chrétien’s time as Prime Minister, but we remember ‘The year Hale-Bop appeared,’ or, ‘The year my brother’s dog died.’ (Those events do not line up with the dates above.)

Anyway, it’s a fun document and pretty quick if all you’re doing is reading it (and seeing that Majorian’s consulship fell in AD 458).

What struck as I was looking at the first full, two-page spread of the consular list was how many consuls there were. Now, the enormity of Rome is exaggerated by the fact that consular terms are only a year in length, so every year theoretically gets an entry, and some years get more than just their consuls. But, still. It’s a lot of history.

974 years, in fact.

Add 11 more, and you go up to the deposition of the last western emperor in 476. 985 from the foundation of the Republic to the establishment of the first ‘barbarian’ kingdom in Italy.

That’s a long run.

Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara, from 2600s BC, almost 2000 years before Rome was founded

I guess it’s not as long as the 2000 years of Egyptian history from the First Dynasty to the start of the Third Intermediate Period (3100-1100 BC; I stop us there since said Intermediate Period lasted a few hundred years and the next dynasty wasn’t Egyptian but Nubian — cool timeline here). But it’s a very long span of time.

Indeed, it’s almost as long as our next major human-constructed historical era, the Middle Ages. In that period, Rome goes from a major power in central Italy to the major power of Italy, the major power of the western Mediterranean, the only power in the Mediterranean, and then stretching beyond until oceans, Germany, Persia, and the Sahara get in the way (gross oversimplification) — and then back to one major (or should we say MAIOR?) city in central Italy.

The triumph of Roman Imperium is, in fact, how long she was stable. The Roman Empire is one of the few expansionist empires that made the ‘happy’ transition from expansion to stabilisation.

Anyway, in this 985-year period what do we get? We get (as things come to mind) the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Ammianus, Claudian, Sidonius, Leo, the mosaics in the side chapel at Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Augustine, Hadrian’s Wall, Plautus, Terence, and more, more, more. Some of the greatest works of western literature, some of the West’s most brilliant minds, some of her greatest statesmen and generals, some of her greatest art come from the 985-year rule of Rome.

Rome was big and around for a long time. So when you look at your puny, young nation-state, do not expect life to always go on as normal.

Note: It seems the Roman Senate was still active in the city’s affairs at least until 603. This gives the Senate a lifespan of well over 1112 years.