Tag Archives: fifth century

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.

Discover Late Antiquity: Fifth-century Politics in the Eastern Empire

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Although I took not one but two posts to cover fifth-century Western Roman politics, I’m only going to give one on the East. Why? Because the West is more my thing, frankly.

In the East, from the death of Theodosius I in 395 to the accession of Anastasius I in 491, the Emperors are Arcadius (395-408), Theodosius II (408-450), Marcian (450-457), Leo I (457-74), Zeno (474-491). Arcadius and Theodosius II are both child emperors, thus under the sway of powers at court. In the West, this served the patricii well, resulting in Ricimer who was a kingmaker.

In 395, Alaric (whom we met in the West, where he would go later) threatened Constantinople. In 396, he and his army ravaged Greece. In 408, they entered Italy (and we all know how that went).

Alaric was not the only ascendant Goth at the time, though; in 395, the Goth Gainas, magister militum, made his way back to Constantinople with the Eastern army. Rufinus, who had been attempting to control Arcadius, was assassinated by Gainas. Another Goth, a federated general named Tribigild rebelled in 399 in Phrygia, Asia Minor. When Gainas was sent against him, they seem to have come to some sort of pact and combined forces to march on Constantinople. On the way, it seems that Tribigild was killed.

Gainas withdrew from Constantinople into the countryside of Thrace. In relatiation for Gainas and Tribigild’s activity, there was a massacre of Constantinople’s Goths. He was defeated in battle by another Goth, Fravitta, then killed by the Huns around the time of the new year of 401.

In the midst of this, Eutropius, the eunuch who had risen to the top of the heap after the assassination of Rufinus, was executed, after he sent Gainas out against Tribigild.

In Theodosius II’s reign, the Theodosian Code was compiled, being issued in the year 438. In 440, hostilities between Rome and the Sassanian Persians flared again when Yazdgard II attacked the easatern provinces. Around the same time, Attila the Hun appeared, winning victories in the Balkans and being so dangerous in 447 that he had to be paid off in gold. He would enter the Western Empire in 450.

454 saw the defeat of another Hun army at the River Nedao.

Although the family of Ardabur-Aspar did their best by being kingmakers of Marcian and Leo I (having come to the ascendancy after Ardabur’s illustrious career and the assassination of the eunuch Chrysaphius in 447), Leo I had Aspar and his sons assassinated, securing somewhat more stability. In 475, though, Basiliscus usurped Zeno’s throne. Zeno went into exile, only to return in 476. Basiliscus went into exile where he died.

In 484 Illus rebelled; Illus was a general who had originally supported Basiliscus against Zeno before changing sides to support the re-instatement of Zeno as emperor. He rebelled in an attempt to replace Zeno with Leontius. An army led by Theoderic the Amal and a certain John was sent against him in 485. The rebel forces were defeated by the empire near Hoth Seleucia; they retreated to Papurius where they successful held out for three years. In 488, the fortress was betrayed by Lando Calrissian treachery, and Illus and Leontius were killed.

The next year, 489, the Emperor Zeno sent Theoderic into Italy to deal with those who had assassinated the ‘Emperor’ Julius Nepos — as we already saw. To get into the long reign of Anastasius from 491 to 518 is beyond my mental capacity right now (kind of tired), so I’ll lump it in with the sixth century.

And so our tour of Late Antiquity has so far helped us discover:

This tour will move us into the world of the sixth century next!

Making (or constructing) history

When you sit down to read a book about history, it is not always apparent where the narrative set out by the modern authors has come from. Indeed, it often looks like a straightforward story of Person A doing Thing Y, while Person B does Thing Z in response. And no one need question if that is how things actually occurred. Or perhaps one assumes that modern history-writing is simply a pooling of different narrative accounts of the same events by earlier history writers — taking, say, Livy and cutting out all the bits that modern, rational, scientific history discounts, and giving us the ‘pure’ story of ancient Rome, simple, no problem.

Well, even if we actually had narrative sources like Livy for all of history, that still wouldn’t be the way we construct the stories you read in histories.

This morning I was reading through Chapter 1 of my PhD thesis in preparation for my upcoming ‘viva’ (viva voce examination). In this chapter, I discuss the life and papacy of Leo the Great from two perspectives: first, from sources he didn’t write, second, from his letters with a little support from the sermons. Leo’s correspondence is our best source for the events of his tenure in the Roman episcopate as well as for the middle decades of the fifth century more broadly.

Where to look for those other, non-Leo sources? A person might assume that the tantalisingly-titled Liber Pontificalis, or ‘Book of Pontiffs’ would be a good place to start. This contains biographies of all the Bishops of Rome into the fifteenth century, being added to successively over the years. However, the earliest layer of this series of episcopal biographies dates to the early 500s, so it is not contemporary with Leo, who died in 461. Still, it’s only about 50 years later. That’s not bad, is it? After all, our earliest narrative history of Alexander the Great is Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing over 300 years after the Macedonian conqueror died. But we know that there are lost sources that Curtius would have used, so we do not fear to use it.

As it turns out, though, not all narrative sources are created equal, and whoever wrote the Liber Pontificalis didn’t really know what he was talking about at this stage — since we have other, earlier sources (say, Leo’s letters!), we can judge how well this book tells the story of Leo. And even if some details might be true, others aren’t.

Where do we turn now, then? What can we do to construct our story? We turn to the contemporary sources for the history of fifth-century Rome. None of our surviving Latin sources for this period gives us a tidy narrative like Livy or Tacitus. We have to make it ourselves. For Leo, we turn to a different kind of history-writing, very different from the garbled biography of the Liber Pontificalis and the extensive histories of Ammianus and Gregory of Tours — the chronicle.

Chronicles, in case someone has misled you, are a genre of scientific history writing concerning with chronology. They are brief, annalistic accounts of major events organised by year. Here’s an online translation of the Chronicle of Jerome from 2005; you can also take a look at The Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, The Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Chronicle of Marius of Avenches, from From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader by Alexander Callander Murray on Scribd. They look non-biased (but they aren’t because nothing is), and different chroniclers have different interests. Some like to tell you about strange stellar phenomena; others will tell you about church councils; some mention great battles; others great heresies; most of them most of these things to one degree or another. The entries, I repeat, are short, and organised chronologically. The genre existed in the ancient Near East, and forms of it in the Graeco-Roman world; its origins have nothing to do with Easter Tables and, in fact, nothing to do with Christianity. Finally, longer narrative histories of the Middle Ages are obviously not chronicles; they are closer to histories such as those by Tacitus and Gregory of Tours.*

For Leo, two such chronicles are important, that by Prosper of Aquitaine, finished in 455, and that of Hydatius, written in 467. Prosper wrote in Gaul, Hydatius in northwestern Spain. From these we are able to piece together a lot of facts and information about Leo’s pontificate and the wider history of the Roman Empire at the time, although both also display a certain amount of local concern. This local concern is helpful, since Hydatius shows us the impact that some of Leo’s anti-Manichaean activities had in Spain, as well as the local context of the letter he wrote to Turribius of Astorga about Priscillianism.

Prosper is especially important because he tells us about Leo’s meeting with Attila in 452 and then his attempt to dissuade Geiseric from sacking Rome in 455. Prosper is very helpful for 455, telling us about Valentinian III’s assassination of the patrician general Aetius, then the assassination of Valentinian, the accession of Petronius Maximus, and then the Vandal sack under Geiseric, during which Petronius was killed (Hydatius says a mob did the deed). Prosper also tells us, in this year, about how the date of Easter was promoted as one date by the tenacious will of Proterius of Alexandria against the proposed date of Leo.

For Attila, we also have the sixth-century historian Jordanes whose Getica, a history of the Goths, deals with Attila in detail. More detailed and more reliable is the Greek historian Priscus, who exists only in fragments, but who went on a delegation from Constantinople to Attila in 449 (if my date is correct). Later sources of Leo meeting Attila turn it into the, stuff of legend, including sword-bearing apostles and the like.

For the Vandal sack, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the Vandal war of Belisarius is also of help, discussing the loot Geiseric and his men took. For the events of 455, the seventh-century Greek historian John of Antioch is also of assistance.

Besides Attila, Leo is best known for his role in the convening of the Council of Chalcedon and its outcome. This happened in 451, although if we had only Prosper, we’d think it was 453. Besides Leo’s voluminous correspondence surrounding the event, we have the full acts of the council, taken down by stenographers. You can, if you so desire, read a blow-by-blow account of everything that took place, including a lot of shouting and some great awkward silences. Most of the chronicles are very summary about Chalcedon, but Evagrius Scholasticus, c. 593, wrote a fairly extensive account (in case the three-volume version seems a bit much to you).

Unlike Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History or Procopius or the chroniclers, the acts of Chalcedon are not narrative history but what we call documentary evidence. That is, it was not produced after the fact to tell a story but is an official document produced at the time. Leo’s letters would count as such evidence. The wider fifth-century context of Leo’s papacy is greatly aided by such documentary evidence; Leo’s papacy is directly illumined by two imperial edicts that serve to support Leo’s own rulings in canon law, as well as some other imperial documents concerning the treatment of bishops on the road to Chalcedon, and a letter of Marcian concerning an anti-Chalcedonian monk who tried usurping the episcopate of Jerusalem when Juvenal, Jerusalem’s bishop, voted in favour of Chalcedon’s doctrinal statement.

Although it seems long, these are the genres the ancient historian has to work with, the textual evidence for the deeds of the past. This is the raw material we are given, and then we try to construct logical, coherent accounts of events out of them. One source gives some evidence; how reliable is it? Another source gives other evidence — do we trust it? A third source is corroborated by some archaeology. What about that fourth source that is late but plausible? Taking these things and teasing out the details is what the historian does. And it’s good fun.

*For more, see R. W. Burgess and Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time Vol 1.