Tag Archives: gregory of tours

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.

‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?

'Green Caesar', ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

‘Green Caesar’, ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

In Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 1.18, the late sixth-century (AD, obvs) Bishop of Tours writes:

After these Julius Caesar was the first Emperor to gain jurisdiction over the whole Empire. (Trans. Lewis Thorpe for Penguin)

Thorpe’s footnote to this sentence is:

Julius Caesar was not Emperor. (p. 80, n. 63)

This little fact is one that we students and scholars of Roman history like to tote out and display to our friends and family, demonstrating our superior knowledge of the Roman world through it. What we mean is that Julius Caesar was not the first person to establish an official position within the structures of the Roman state that gave him some degree of lifelong autocratic power and ushering in an age of monarchical rule. Not that he didn’t try — hence the Ides of March.

The establishment of the Principate, and therefore the ‘Empire’ by Octavian ‘Augustus’ is one of the big watershed moments in Roman history. It is the dividing point between what we call ‘Republic’ and ‘Empire’. It’s a big deal, and worth talking about and considering a big deal — whether you count it from 31 BC at the Battle of Actium when Octavian gains sole power over the Roman Empire or from 27 when he is officially invested with the title of Augustus which emperors would use down to Konstantinos Palaiologos XI in 1453.

So, while I would say that we are in a particular sense correct in seeing Augustus as the first of something new, it need not follow that Gregory is wrong in seeing Augustus’ great-uncle Julius as the first as well.

What Gregory actually says is that Julius Caesar was the first imperator who obtained the monarchia of the entire imperium. I suppose, when we consider the various dictators and others who attempted the gain sole power of the Roman imperium in the Late Republic, it could be argued that Julius Caesar was not the first of one thing but the last of another.

But that may just be splitting hairs so much that we go nowhere.


Imperator is the term given by the Romans to a general who holds an official capacity of command in a given area or situation. Power of command in Latin is imperium. From these words come emperor and empire. Of the different imperatores, Julius Caesar, after the defeat of Pompey in civil war, established himself as the holder of sole rule (mon-archia — this word is Greek) in the lands where the Roman state held power of command (the imperium, the empire). Given that his assassination did not stop the consolidation of power in the hands of a couple of individuals — Mark Antony and Octavian — who were considered his heirs and then one individual — Octavian/Augustus — it could be argued that Julius Caesar, with his dramatic military and political activities, was the man who established the scenario in which one man could/would emerge as princeps (leading man — the term used of early emperors), as sole imperator. Had he not been assassinated, he may have lived long enough to become dictator for life and establish a constitutional way of being princeps as Octavian/Augustus did.

But he died before such could transpire, so we tend to consider Augustus the first Roman Emperor.

Now, these historical and constitutional arguments for Julius Caesar as first emperor are all well and good, if I remember everything correctly (which I may not). But there’s another reason by Gregory of Tours may have been correct in his assessment:

Everyone else seems to have thought so as well.

This November, I was at a conference about the fifth-century (AD) poet, letter-writer, and Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Sidonius Apollinaris. In the poem analysed by Aaron Pelttari’s paper, Sidonius refers to Ovid as having been exiled by the second emperor (I forget the exact wording and which poem this was — apologies!). Timothy Barnes reminded the room in question time that back in the ancient world, everyone considered Julius Caesar the first emperor, not his great-nephew Augustus.

I believe Tim Barnes, even if I cannot marshal the evidence here. But it is an interesting fact that the idea of Julius as the first emperor is not some mediaeval misreading of the evidence or a fabrication of Astérix. The ways we examine and delineate history, the demarcations we make with our own ‘scientific’ way of examining the past, are not necessarily those of the men and women who lived through it and handed on the record of the past to later generations.

While I think there are hard and fast truths in history, humility should keep us from thinking that our way of seeing the past is the only one and that we have all said truths bundled up in our hands.

A moment in Gregory of Tours illustrating canon law textual criticism

Gregory of Tours and Salvius of Albi before Chilperic I

Gregory of Tours and Salvius of Albi before Chilperic I

In his History of the Franks, (written ca. 593/4) 5.18, Gregory (Bishop) of Tours provides a lengthy description and discussion of the trial of Praetextatus, Bishop of Rouen, by King Chilperic who was accusing Praetextatus of colluding with Chilperic’s enemies and selling/giving away some of the king’s goods for his own profit. Eventually, despite Gregory testifying in the trial as to Praetextatus’ innocence, and the worthiness of Praetextatus’ testimony, some of Chilperic’s cronies trick Praetextatus into making a confession that he had colluded with Chilperic’s son Merovech to have Chilperic murdered. Praetextatus’ hope was that he would receive mercy and clemency from the king.

King Chilperic, unfortunately, was operating to please his wife Fredegund. And if a Frankish king or lord is ever doing something nasty because of his wife or mistress in Gregory’s History, he will see it through to the end, even when — as Chilperic does — he secretly admits his opponent’s innocence. Interestingly, the case does not initially begin because of Fredegund but because Chiperic hears that Praetextatus ‘was bribing people to against his [Chilperic’s] interests.’ It is only later that Gregory brings in the Fredegund connection. Later on, after Chilperic’s death, Fredegund and Praetextatus will have a run-in again.

But Gregory’s portrayal of royal women is a discussion for someone else.

The next, after Praetextatus’ admission of guilt, Gregory and the other bishops were sitting around awkwardly, having told Chilperic that they wouldn’t do anything to Praetextatus without the canons of the church (that is, the regulations concerning ecclesiastical discipline). Thus the following:

King Chilperic went home to his lodging. He sent to us a book of the canons, with a newly-copied four-page insert, which contained what appeared to be apostolic canons, including the following words: ‘A bishop convicted of murder, adultery or perjury shall be expelled from his bishopric. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 5.18, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics)

Praetextatus is accordingly sent into exile and only recalled after Chilperic’s death.

This story about the book of the canons is very intriguing. I like first of all that Gregory says nowhere whether this was a forgery, but he obviously thought so. It’s more than a little suspicious that the sought-after canon is on a ‘newly-copied four-page insert’. And Gregory says that these only appeared to be apostolic canons. He is saying without saying it that Chilperic doctored a manuscript to get the desired results — and he went straight to the source, providing apostolic canons, not ones from a church council or a pope, but the Apostles themselves.

Did Chilperic think the bishops would be deceived, or did he assume they would just give in at this point? Gregory, at least, was not deceived.

What gave Chilperic away was the fact that the quire was newly-copied. It didn’t match. It was not, as a modern person might assume, the fact that the forged text alleges to be from the apostles. This is because there is a text called the Apostolic Canons, and it was included in many canon law books throughout the Middle Ages.

Forgery is a not uncommon phenomenon in canon law. The very Apostolic Canons, or the text known as the Apostolic Constitutions, are forgeries. We have at least one forged letter of Leo the Great. In the mid-ninth century, a group of canonist-forgers known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’ forged an extensive series of papal letters from the ante-Nicene period.

The Chilperic forgery in Gregory is an egregious example of someone making stuff up simply to get his way. While that tends to lie beneath all forgeries, it is also the case that many medieval people made forgeries in the name of someone who, they believe, would have said what the forgery said … if only they had said it. And I’m fairly sure the Apostles would not have been keen on murderers and adulterers as bishops!

Finally, this story also reminds us of the fragility of the integrity not only of any text, but of compilation-style texts — by which I mean a series of canons, into which any unscrupulous character could slip in a new canon or even silently remove one and renumber it all. But not only canons, but sources such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or those trendy Jesus-sayings-sources like the Gospel of Thomas.

The job of the text critic is to engage in textual archaeology and unearth the truth about any potential interpolations and to never take a text claiming apostolic authority at face value. Gregory of Tours seems not have, either.