Tag Archives: historiography

Art does not exist in discrete boxes designated by period

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and then Thunder Bay, Ontario, I had this idea that the history of the arts was neatly compartmentalised. After mediaeval stuff, there was Renaissance, then Baroque, then Classical, then Romantic. (Which is where music history should maybe end?) My first clue that this was not so cut-and-dry was when I learned that Beethoven, although ‘Classical’ is, in certain respects, drawing us into the Romantic.

When we think about visual art, it’s pretty much the same. People didn’t stop building Romanesque churches just because Gothic had come around. Gothic-style art was not immediately engulfed by the Renaissance. And sometimes it can be hard to see where the Renaissance ends and the Baroque begins.

Not only do stylistic periods overlap, but in real life they also co-exist. This coexistence is abundantly evident in Rome, where the same church might house ancient columns, Late Antique mosaics, mediaeval mosaics and a mediaeval crucifix, as well as some Renaissance paintings and Baroque architecture and sculpture. Some places that look like the Baroque vomited all over their inside still have their wooden, mediaeval crucifices and maybe an early mediaeval Byzantine Madonna and Child. And sometimes you can find the 19th century peeking around the corner.

It’s a simple point, but an important one. The visual world of a single place and period is not restricted to its historical moment. The Colosseum is not just a Flavian monument; it persists in monumentality in Late Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, through every period of art in the Eternal City, right up until today. It does not cease to be part of the visual landscape of Rome just because modern Roman buildings are quite different.

I think this simple observation is important for historians when they start to try to take into account the visual evidence of a given period. It is important to track the changes and developments peculiar to each moment, but we also need to remember what the rest of the visual world of these people was.

For example, fifth-century Rome is not just refurbished Constantinian basilicas. It is not just the Theodosian Mausoleum. It is not just the mosaics in Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. It is also the Basilica of Maxentius, the Baths of Trajan, the Ara Pacis, the Column of Trajan, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the imperial residence on the Palatine. Rome in the 400s was still ancient Rome, and these secular and pagan monuments were the main visual displays for the populace of the City, including her bishops (‘popes’).

This means that when we look at the mosaics in the fifth-century basilicas, we need to ask ourselves what message Xystus III or Celestine I was sending into this world full of triumphal arches, secular military campaigns, pagan temples, altars to false gods. What does it mean? In this still-so-pagan visual world, is the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea up on the wall in Santa Maria Maggiore, alongside Joshua making the sun stand still in the sky in battle against the Amorites, or Melchizedek prefiguring Christ not making its own statement about the supremacy of Rome’s new religion and protector?

Finally, I think that this Classical visual culture will still have had its effect upon the Christians as they started to make themselves visible in the public spaces of Rome, or in their sarcophagi. I think it would be unavoidable, living right alongside the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, let alone the Classical sarcophagi along the roads in and out of the City.

These are thoughts that could be considered for any city and any time. What did it look like to them? What else was there besides what was new? How might this have influenced them? Did it affect Tallis to write Renaissance music for singing in Gothic churches? Who knows? We never will if we don’t ask.

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.

Seductive Suetonius

I am reading Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, in my spare time right now.* I’ve read three Caesars — Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius.

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI posted as my Facebook status the other night that when Augustus (pictured left in a cameo at the Bibliotheque nationale de France that I happily viewed) died, I was a bit sad. It’s true. Suetonius takes you on this journey with Augustus wherein you see the many things he did, allegedly to better the Roman imperium, you learn about his character, all that stuff. And when he dies, with that line about them applauding him if he’d played his part well, and then his last words to Livia — it’s a sad scene.

The Green CaesarJulius Caesar (pictured right as viewed by me at the Altes Museum, Berlin), the first of the Twelve, on the other hand — that is the death you know is coming. This is probably one of the most famous assassinations in all history, if not the most famous. Certainly the most famous ancient assassination. So when the Ides of March come, you don’t need Shakespeare to tell you that bad stuff is going to go down. Suetonius has brought us to this point of inevitability, building it up with portents, omens, soothsayers, and Caesar’s own attitude towards it all. I felt no sorrow. Just the weight of necessity.

Tiberius (left, no photo of mine since that section of the Vatican Museums was closed the day I went!) — well, no one’s sad that Tiberius dies. His biography is interesting in that it starts off with him as a pretty decent senator and member of the imperial family. And then it descends into the dark caverns of Tiberius’ appetite for wine, boys, and song (if you will), his bloodthirstiness, his neglect of the Eternal City, and so forth. So when he dies, there is almost a sense of relief. Almost as though, ‘The city can be free!’

Of course, we all know Gaius’ nickname — Caligula — so we know it won’t be so. The same is true Suetonius’ original audience, I reckon. Who among the senatorial class of the 100s wouldn’t have had the names of the infamous emperors etched into his memory?

Nonetheless, equipped with this knowledge, Suetonius seduces you into his narrative, into his tales. Well, he seduced me, anyway. I felt what I was supposed to feel with all three deaths. He painted for me the portraits he wanted to, and my subconscious was drawn into those images.

Now, I know that the truth of all three of these men is not entirely Suetonius, both in terms of nuance as well as in omissions or additions to the historical record. I’m not a dummy; I know how to read a source better than that.

But Roman historians aren’t just sources — they are writers of literature. Indeed, history is included amongst the branches of literature, not philosophy, in the ancient handbooks. And so, to look at Suetonius as a writer, I find him seductive. His story and his vivid portraits draw me in.

Tomorrow I’ll begin Caligula.

*For work I’m reading Augustine, City of God, and a whole bunch of manuscripts, so the Early Empire = not work.

Everyone is biased

Nero

A vitally important fact that we all must come to terms with sooner or later is the reality of bias existing everywhere. For some reason, many of us have fooled ourselves into thinking that our news sources and our history books are somehow magically, spectacularly unbiased — that modern investigators of the truth can look clearly and objectively at facts and set them out for all to see.

Such a mindset leads to young people being surprised or scandalised or suspicious day after day when they start to engage with the primary sources that make up our knowledge of the pre-modern world. For, you see, pre-modern authors (ancient & mediaeval, plus many others pre-‘Enlightenment’) often wear their bias on their sleeve.

When we start to look at sources for early Christianity, for example, they kick up a fuss about the bias these authors had, that we cannot necessarily trust what Tertullian says about pagans or Eusebius on Montanists. That they are scandalously biased by their own religious beliefs. Eusebius, and ‘The Anonymous’ are so clearly anti-Montanist that we can trust almost nothing of what they say! But whom else can we trust, lacking any Montanist sources?

Or perhaps it’s Suetonius or Tacitus, who often corroborate each other on details. Despite this corroboration, it is clear at times that what these men say about the early emperors is biased by their own personal histories, their own class, their own writing careers under Trajan and Hadrian. People will go to great lengths proclaiming this bias, and say that we can, therefore, not trust these narrators.

It is true. We cannot trust them.

Sadly, we can trust no one. Everyone is biased.

We think we can trust Gibbon because of his modernist show of impartiality. But we cannot; contemporary research into Late Antiquity has shown him wrong on many points relating to the relationship between Church and Empire — his own anti-Christian bias slanted his perception of the evidence.

Or if you read contemporary reviews of Syme’s classic The Roman Revolution, today’s historians observe that some of Syme’s own contemporary socio-political world has leaked through (I’m going to be a bad blogger and not hunt down that reference).

Despite how hard we try, scholars are not free from bias. Acknowledging this is the first step to helping the reader find the truth that both parties seek.

To return to the ancients, we often assume that we can trust eyewitnesses. They may not be biased, but at least — unlike Tacitus and Suetonius or Eusebius vs. Montanists — they were there. They saw and heard with their own ears and eyes. How could we doubt, for example, Sennacherib’s account of his own reign? Or Eusebius’ account of a speech by Constantine that he witnessed for himself? Or Villehardouin’s description of the Constantinople-sacking Fourth Crusade?

But the eyewitness can, apart from deliberate obfuscation, misconstrue events and misread the signs and present the ‘best’ version of the truth (which isn’t lying per se). This misconstrual, misreading, and ‘best’ version are all touched by the eyewitness’ personal bias.

It can be a cruel lesson to learn, that we are all biased.

Knowing bias, though, helps gives us insight into texts. What is Suetonius’ social background? What is his education? What is his occupation? What is his relationship to the current régime? If we ask questions about what forms an author’s bias, we can move into a deeper knowledge of the ancient world; we can form more informed opinions on the reliability of certain reports over others; more importantly, we can see what sorts of things people of Suetonius’ day and class believed true of the first 12 Caesars — perhaps even what contemporaries of those Caesars believed true.

This can bring us beyond simply trying to recount the ‘facts’ of politics and military campaigns or seeking to find the psychology of the emperors into discovering the worldview of the Romans who wrote and read these texts for themselves. A most valuable journey for all.