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Discover Late Antiquity: Sixth-century politics 1 – Justinian

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The fifth century was the century when the Roman West unravelled. By century’s end, the barbarian kingdoms were there. As a result, the politics of the sixth century is much more varied and takes a number of routes; the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals — these kingdoms are all part of the story at the outset, joined by Lombards along the way. We also have various rumblings from Scotti and Picti throughout the century, and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours come into full view by century’s end.

There’s a lot of politics in this century, for many the last of Antiquity, and in many ways the first of the Middle Ages.

Plus, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire is still around.

Let’s begin there.

Very quickly, what you most need to know is that the Emperor Anastasius, who supported the Mono/Miaphysite cause in religion, died in 518. His successor was Justin I, who had a very able and energetic nephew, Justinian. In 527 Justinian acceded to the throne when Justin died and ruled until 565.

That’s a very long time.

Like all emperors, he had to maintain domestic issues, and was involved in one of the biggest riots of ancient history, the Nika Riot of 532 that destroyed a lot of the city of Constantinople and left thousands of civilians slaughtered by Justinian’s troops. But he held onto power and continued to levy taxes and do the whole ‘Roman Emperor’ thing.

However, the most significant political act of Justinian was invading the post-Roman West. His general Belisarius invaded North Africa in 533; it had been conquered by the Vandals about a century before. Belisarius made short work of the Vandal Kingdom, and conquest came in 534. The Vandals had maintained many Roman traditions and levels of adminstration, and sixth-century North Africa produced its own poets. North Africa had been crucial to the western Roman economy, and its recovery had been the goal of the military policy of many emperors in the central decades of the 400s.

Now Justinian had it.

North Africa wasn’t enough, however. He decided Italy was a good thing to have, too. From 535 to 554, Justinian’s forces tried to reconquer the peninsula from the Goths. The city of Rome changed hands three times. Arguably, however, Italy was still being ruled by the successors of Theoderic on behalf of the Roman Emperor, so seeking to replace and supplant them was not actually ‘constitutionally’ valid. Thus argued the Goths, anyway.

These decades of campaign are what broke Italy (see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages). The economy and culture of Italy had maintained themselves in strong, unbroken continuity since 476, with the Goths respecting the Roman laws and traditions as they found them.

Italy was, in the end (554), integrated into the East Roman polity with more direct rule (and taxation!) governed from Constantinople. A governor was established at Ravenna. Cultural ties between the eastern and western Mediterranean renewed to some degree; this included the visual arts as well as theological controversy.

Assuming that Justinian was too preoccupied with western business, in 540 Khusru I went on the offensive, breaking the ‘Eternal Peace’. For the next twenty years, the Romans and Persians were once more at war in the usual manner of neither ultimately gaining much from the other for long.

Politics, of course, is not merely wars. Justinian was also involved in the realm of law — hence the Institutes, Digest, and Code(x) that bear his name (mostly the work of able lawyers, such as Tribonian). Thus was the world of the sixth-century Roman Empire regulated and regularised, and the deposit of Roman Law handed down to us.

And, also of great importance for the future, Justinian got himself directly involved in ecclesiastical affairs, turning away from the policy of Anastasius and supporting the Council of Chalcedon. It is of note that Chalcedon was universallly popular in the West, and that a Chalcedonian set out to reconquer the West. Justinian’s ecclesiastical policy was a bit mixed, and seems to have alienated the extremes of both pro- and anti-Chalcedonian Christians. But it is not insignificant that he himself drafted some of the legislation without first gaining approval of episcopal councils.

So. Justinian. A big deal in politics. But what about all those barbarians I mentioned at the beginning? Tune in next time find out!

The danger of the “Byzantine”

I’ve already commented on this blog about the pitfalls of the word Byzantine, especially in relation to the mosaic art of Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Rome. I stand by that perspective. Indeed, after a conference I was at earlier this year, I am even more deeply entrenched in my anti-Byzantine position.

One of the many difficulties besetting the use of this word is its strong association with Greek and the Eastern Mediterranean (indeed, I think of Byzantine as Greek mediaeval, or mediaeval Greek, personally). This is combined with the fact that, despite the great cultural and political ruptures of the seventh century, historians of ‘Byzantium’ and the ‘Byzantine’ Empire like to start their story with Constantine or something like that (in which case we are far enough back in time to be clearly in the Late Roman East).

Why are these two things problems?

Justinian.

I haven’t dealt with him in my ‘Discover Late Antiquity‘ series yet — not properly. Nevertheless, Justinian reconquers North Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy. His (re)conquest of Italy ran from 536 to 554. As a result, the heartland of the Roman West was reunited with the Roman East. This increases the cross-cultural exchange between East and West — traditional Italian artwork of Late Antiquity thus maintains ties with the traditional Hellenic artwork of Late Antiquity (that is, the ‘Byzantine’). Eastern craftsmen can make their way West within a united empire.

Let me now circle back to how the Hellenic, eastern-focussed use of this word and its application to art can cause problems.

In 553, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of St Mary — the Basilica Eufrasiana — was rebuilt in Porec, Croatia. As Wikipedia will tell you, this basilica ‘is an excellent example of early Byzantine architecture’. Having observed lovely photos of this basilica, it strikes me as an excellent example of early Christian architecture. Indeed, a basilica of similar style to its comrades in Rome:

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Central apse, by Wikimedia user JoJan

Nevertheless, Wikipedia is not the only source that will tell you that the Basilica Eufrasiana is ‘Byzantine’. At the aforementioned conference, one of the papers discussed the basilica’s images of female saints — all well and good. Indeed, given the fact that the Istrian Peninsula was part of the Byzantine world, I’d even be willing to grant limited use of the word Byzantine to the artistic style.

However, from being used of the art, this word began to applied to the cultural context and worldview of the people who commissioned it and used the basilica. And this simply will not do. Istria is not Greek. Istria was not Greek. The cultural worldview of the sixth-century, Late Antique people of Istria was not Byzantine.

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

Female Martyrs on triumphal arch, photo by Wikimedia user JoJan

The reason this is a problem is because the presenter kept on finding Greek sources to corroborate her interpretation of the mosaics and the artistic scheme of the basilica. However, one glance at those same mosaics will show the viewer quite a lot of Latin — because that is the language of the Late Antique Istrians.

Ecclesiastically, in fact, the Istrian Peninsula was under the archiepiscopal oversight of the Bishop of Aquileia. And, along with that bishop and some others, was among the places that, around this time, entered into schism with the Bishop of Rome over the Three Chapters (on which I’ve blogged here). Therefore, Greek canon law is not germane to any discussion of how Istrians viewed women; Latin canon law, however, is. As are the writings of the ecclesiastics of Aquileia. Nonetheless, the paper to which I am referring continually resorted to Greek, ‘Byzantine’ sources.

I can only guess that the reason was because of the overuse of this word to refer to all Late Antique art of a certain style, and a confusion between politics (yes, this was then part of the Eastern Roman Empire) and culture (but it was not, therefore, Greek).

Byzantine is a word that can be very useful. But I find that the earlier it is applied, or the farther West it journeys, the more it simply confuses matters.

Discover Late Antiquity: Sixth-century religion

Our little tour through Late Antiquity reached the end of the 400s a few weeks ago — just in time for the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, to declare on May 31:

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.

What, we all wonder, does society need?

a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward

That is to say — someone with the skills gained by almost any humanities degree. Like sixth-century history. I should have written this blog post the moment I read Charles West’s excellent piece on the subject at History Today, but I didn’t. Because work.

First, if you’ve missed the rest of this little journey, I’ve made a Discover Late Antiquity page, so you can go there to catch up on what you’ve been missing! As usual, I’m starting our discussion with religion, literature, etc. For a quick glimpse of sixth-century manuscripts, don’t forget my last post! Now that I’m done the preamble, let’s begin with religion.

Sixth-century Religion

Sixth-century mosaic of Christ, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome

Sixth-century mosaic of Christ, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Rome

The sixth-century saw the realisation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East of the final schism between Mono/Miaphysite Christians and the Chalcedonians. At the turn of the century, the emperor in Constantinople, Anastasius I, was sponsoring a document called the Henotikon that had appeased some of the Miaphysites, but in 518 Justin and then his nephew Justinian (r. 527-565) supported the Chalcedonian cause. Although some of Justinian’s actions tried to appease the Miaphysites, others only exacerbated the problem, with the result that Jacob Baradaeus began consecrating a parallel episcopal hierarchy in the Levant, Syria, and Asia Minor — this today is the Syrian Orthodox Church. At the same time, the forerunners of the Miaphysite Coptic Orthodox Christians were active in Egypt, harbouring folks like Severus of Antioch (one of the greatest theological minds of the age) when their Miaphysite beliefs clashed with imperial policy.

Part of Justinian’s appeasement tactics was the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’. The Three Chapters were the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian; and certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Because Ibas and Theodoret were reckoned orthodox by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, many — especially in the western Mediterranean — felt that the condemnation of the Three Chapters was a sly repudiation of Chalcedon. For why that is not necessarily the case, read this post.

The condemnation of the Three Chapters culminated in the Second Council of Constantinople of 553, now regarded as the Fifth Ecumenical Council by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians. Pope Vigilius was there, and after some tergiversations agreed to the condemnation. A schism erupted between Rome and northern Italy, called the Istrian Schism, and lasted until Pope Sergius I in the 600s.

On another side of the Chalcedonian debate were those Christians who rejected both the Miaphysite position and the Council, traditionally termed ‘Nestorian‘ in English. This group of Christians founded what is today known as The Church of the East. They flourished in the Persian Empire and beyond, possibly as far as Tibet in the 500s. Chalcedonians did not flourish in the Persian Empire because their support of a form of Christianity aligned with the Roman Empire was perceived as dangerous; many of them were taking refuge in what is now Georgia; the Georgian Orthodox Church is still part of the Eastern Orthodox Church with its own pre-Russian tradition.

Amongst the monasteries of the Judaean desert there also arose the Second Origenist Controversy, surrounding some of Origen’s teachings in On First Principles but more importantly the teachings of the fourth-century mystic Evagrius of Pontus. This controversy resulted in a condemnation of Origenism in a series of anathemas often wrongly attributed to the Council of Constantinople of 553.

In the Eastern Empire, the sixth century is also the century of spiritual leaders Barsanuphius and John (whom I love), their disciple Dorotheos of Gaza, and Simeon Stylites the Younger. St Sabas/Savvas of Judaea died this century. Romanos the Melodist, early Byzantine liturgical poet par excellence, lived in the 500s as well. We cannot forget Cosmas Indicopleustes, an Alexandrian Nestorian who wrote an amazing description of the world and his travels in Arabia and India; of greater philosophical precision is the Miaphysite Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponus.

Besides getting thoroughly embroiled in the argument over the reception of Chalcedon, the West saw what may be termed the ‘Arian Controversy 2.0’. The newly emergent kingdoms of the West were largely ruled by ‘Arian’ or ‘Semi-Arian’ rulers (today’s usage would say ‘Homoian’), and they would debate with the Nicene-Catholic populations — Theoderic the Great in Italy, the Vandals of North Africa, and the Visigoths of Spain were Homoian/Arians. Theoderic treated the Nicene-Catholics of Italy well and with respect; the Vandals made their lives a living hell in Africa, as we read in Victor of Vita’s (d. 535) History of the Vandal Persecutions. The Franks were Catholic, which sets them apart; their king Clovis I, on the eve of the century in 496, was baptised into the Catholic form of Christianity by Remigius, Bishop of Reims, under the influence of his wife Clotilda.

However, as Gregory of Tours in the History of the Franks (c. 590) makes clear, the ‘Catholic’ Franks were generally as impious and unholy as the pagans and Arians; they, too, looted churches and such and lived riotously unvirtuous lives. It’s worth keeping in mind when we begin to imagine Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages as special eras of great religious fervour.

In 586, Reccared, King of Spain converted to Catholicism. That’s a big deal.

St Benedict (480-547) is kind of a big deal, too. His Rule, written for his small community of 12 monks at Monte Cassino, would become the standard of western monasticism in the centuries to come. He drew upon the preceding tradition, like John Cassian of the 400s and the early sixth-century Rule of the Master.

Cassiodorus (485-585) also founded a monastery after his career in the public service under King Theoderic; he wrote all about it in his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning. His other religious writings include a commentary on the Psalms and some other exegetical pieces; he also wrote a Christian philosophical treatise ‘On the Soul.’

The philosopher-poet Boethius (480-524), besides his translations of Aristotelian works and his famous Consolation of Philosophy, wrote theological treatises ‘On the Trinity,’ ‘Against Eutyches and Nestorius,’ ‘Whether Father, Son and Holy Spirit are Substantially Predicated of the Divinity,’ and ‘On the Catholic Faith,’ amongst others.

So as not to be too much more long-winded, other important western religious figures of the century include: Caesarius of Arles, Ennodius of Pavia, Avitus of Vienne, Brigid of Kildare, Brendan the Navigator, Columba (missionary to Highland Scotland), Kentigern/Mungo (missionary to the Glasgow region), Columbanus (Irish monastic founder in France and Italy), and Pope Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604) who closes the century; I’ll save him for the 600s. None of this brings out questions of canon law and liturgy, of course, but there’s just no room!!

Kingship, reform, and the arts in the Early Middle Ages

Louis the Pious, ca. 826

Louis the Pious, ca. 826

I’ve been revising a section of my thesis where I discuss the main driving force behind the Carolingian Renaissance, and thought I’d share some of my findings/thoughts with you. The main driving force, if you were wondering, is correctio — the moral, religious, and legal reform not just of the ruling class but of the entire people. The idea is not Carolingian but Roman.

For examples of the Later Roman Imperial ideal of the princeps providing such reform, the laws in the Theodosian Code (culled from sources dating ca. 312-438) against pagans, heretics, and Jews serve as prime examples of what these emperors thought a good ruler should be up to — such laws are the stick that would promote religious reform, while the tax benefits given to orthodox/catholic clergy are the carrot. Another reflection of the good ruler’s commitment to healthy religious life is the long list of churches built and patronised by the emperors, such as St John’s Lateran and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (by Constantine) or Old St Peter’s Basilica (by his son, Constantius). The Theodosian Code is a tangible example of the secular aspect of correctio, since a ruler’s commitment to justice (iustitia) lies in the everyday as well as the sacred.

Hagia Sophia today

Hagia Sophia today

Justinian (r. 527-565) is one of our clearest examples. In the secular sphere, he sought out clarification and codification of Roman law in the Institutes and the Digest. He also sought to reintegrate the lost western provinces, not only seeking personal glory, but also following a vision that a good ruler should look out for the interests of his citizens — including those under foreign domination. In the ecclesiastical sphere, he rebuilt Hagia Sophia after its destruction during the Nika Riots as one of the greatest architectural achievements in world history. He also attempted to reconcile Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians through various laws and debates and the Second Council of Constantinople (553).

These Late Roman examples are taken up by their ‘barbarian’ successors. It was seen as good kingship not only to promulgate laws and rule by law, but also to strive for the moral and religious correction of the people. In the secular sphere, we get a few different ‘barbarian’ law codes beginning in the fifth century that help to establish rule by law.

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

Ecclesiastical reform takes different shapes in these new kingdoms. In Anglo-Saxon lands, it begins in the form of missionary enterprise, as, for example, King Oswald of Deira and Bernicia (Northumbria) inviting St Aidan to evangelise (see Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 3.3-5). In later years, we see Anglo-Saxon correctio in royal sponsoring of church buildings, church councils, monasteries, and monastic reform. King Alfred the Great sponsored correctio through the translation of ‘essential’ books into English and the training of the clergy in the liturgy.

In Visigothic Spain, St Isidore of Seville (d. 636) says that ‘he who does not correct does not rule’ (Etymologies 9.3.4); the Visigoths took this to heart, visible in the vast number of royally-sponsored church councils — eighteen councils were held in Toledo, seventeen of which come after the Visigothic conquest, the last held ca. 702 (Spain fell to the Muslims in 711).

In the Frankish lands which the Carolingians were to rule, early law codes exist such as the Lex Salica which dates to around the lifetime of Clovis I (r. 481-511), the Merovingian who united the Franks under his rule (through war, treachery, and assassination when necessary) as well as defeating his Arian neighbours and eventually ruling all of Gaul. Gregory of Tours, writing in the 590s, sees Clovis’ conquest of Arian Gaul as driven by Clovis’ religious correctio (see Historiae Francorum 2.37), and when the Burgundian Gundobad converts from Arianism to Catholicism, the bishop of Vienne counsels him not to keep his conversion a secret so that he may publicly encourage his people to religious reform and give them a good example.

However much Merovingians such as Chlotar II (r. 584-629, full power from 597) and Dagobert I (r. 623-629) may have sought correctio, the final decades of the seventh century were a time of cultural decline in Merovingian lands, and the effective power of Merovingian kings to bring about reform was rarely very strong. The results of their inability to produce real correctio in line with these ideals of kingship is visible in the paucity of manuscripts from this period generally as well as the number of reforming councils thought necessary by their successors.

The Carolingians officially supplanted the Merovingians with Pippin III ‘the Short’ in 751, although they wielded great power since Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel, who kept the Muslims out of France at the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732. Pippin and his brother Carloman were the secular sponsors of the evangelistic and reforming action of St Boniface in the 740s when they were still not officially kings — that is, they sought to fulfil ideals of kingly correctio before they had kingly authority.

Harley Golden Gospels, fol. 109r, from Aachen ca. 800-825

Harley Golden Gospels, fol. 109r, from Aachen ca. 800-825

But it is Charlemagne (literally ‘Charles the Great’, r. 768-814, sole ruler from 771, ‘Emperor’ from 800), Pippin the Short’s son, who takes things into high gear for the Carolingians. He sets about correctio in a big way — the secular law, ecclesiastical law, the activities and authority of his own royal representatives, the rights and privileges of monasteries and bishops, the text of the Bible, the text of the liturgy. All of these felt the touch of Charlemagne’s reforming zeal. He got Pope Hadrian I (772-795) to send him copies of canon law books and liturgical books, and the York ecclesiastic Alcuin, whom Charlemagne sponsored on the Continent, is associated with one of the major recensions of the Latin Vulgate Bible. The result is a proliferation of manuscripts of the Bible, canon law, and liturgy, as well as a proliferation of laws, charters, etc, so that everyone could have not only a copy but a correct copy.

Charlemagne’s success, in contrast to the Merovingians, lay in his own long reign of political stability, his own effective power to rule the Frankish lands, and his wealth. Charlemagne’s wars of conquest, especially the destruction of the Ring of the Avars in the 790s and the addition of their entire national treasury to his own, brought in the wealth necessary to fund the various aspects of correctio — an average manuscript can take 700 sheep- or goat-skins. Books are not cheap — and monasteries and cathedrals cost money, as well as the pay for the royal representatives and advisers. Without a vast treasury at his disposal, Charlemagne would not have been able to promote the reforms throughout his kingdom that occurred.

The knock-on effect of correctio, especially when combined with wealth, was the production not only of manuscripts, but of beautiful ones. And not only of manuscripts of the necessary texts for reform, but of classical texts. And not only of old texts, but of new compositions. The funding of the ecclesiastical realm meant the building of beautiful churches and monasteries and reliquaries and other forms of ecclesiastical art.

The Carolingian Renaissance did not die with Charlemagne — over 7,000 Latin manuscripts date to the ninth century. Only 2,000 exist from before then. This grand production was driven by the royal desire to rule well and make his kingdom better, not a dispassionate funding of ‘the arts’. But it did well — many texts that might have been lost were saved. Art and architecture took a new turn that would endure in Europe for a long time to come. All because kings wanted to make the world a better place.

Victor of Tonnena … what fall of Rome?

Majorian, whom Victor does mention (with a variety of spellings)

I still believe that 476 was a Significant Year in history, and many people who lived through it thought so, as well. But some time after 568, and probably before 575, Victor, Bishop of Tonnena in North Africa, put together a Chronicon running from AD 444 to 566. I read this document this morning, and I found a very interesting omission in Victor’s Chronicon.

The Fall of Rome.

The history of Rome and Italy is largely ignored, including the deposition of the Little Augustus, Romulus, by Odoacer in 476, the moment that for many of us signals the end of Western Imperial rule. In fact, Libius Severus (r. 461-465) is the last western Emperor Victor mentions. The only place in the West he gives much attention to his native Africa; indeed, Pope Leo the Great largely only figures in this Chronicon because of his role in calling the Council of Chalcedon.

Victor is more concerned with eastern secular and ecclesiastical politics, although I would have thought this interest would have drawn comment upon the western Emperor Anthemius who came from Emperor Leo I in the East; but, no. Not even the fact that, were it not for a five-day truce with the Vandals, Anthemius might have reconquered Africa.

Odoacer, c. 477

Julius Nepos isn’t mentioned, either, although Odoacer gets a mention, mostly for his death at the hands of ‘Theodore’ in 491 (should be Theoderic in 493).

Victor’s lack of care for the goings-on in Italy, Gaul, and Spain makes for some confusion. He never specifies which Goths were doing what, a fact that would leave the non-specialist in a bit of a fix on several occasions.

Why? Victor writes in Latin, after all. Italy’s not that far away. Neither, for that matter, is Spain. Why does he neglect the rest of the West and focus so much on the East?

I would argue that it’s not because 476 had no ripples but for two entirely different reasons:

  1. Justinian’s reconquest of Italy in 535-554 (which only gets a mention from Victor at the moment Narses defeats Totila)
  2. Victor’s interest in the playing-out of the Chalcedonian controversy in ecclesiastical and secular politics

Justinian, from San Vitale, Ravenna

The first of these means that not only was Italy part of Justinian’s ‘restored’ Roman Empire at the time of Victor’s writing, but reminds us that North Africa already was before 535. Thus, Victor is a Roman citizen writing about Roman affairs during that brief moment when Italy, North Africa, and a bit of Spain were reunited with the Eastern Mediterranean in Empire.

The second is more important. The West was Chalcedonian from the beginning. Furthermore, the disintegration of Roman power during the middle decades of the fifth century meant that the activities of western rulers impacted ecclesiastical politics less there than in the East. Thus, Victor is really only interested in Popes like Leo, organiser of Chalcedon, and Vigilius, supporter of the Three Chapters and, in Victor’s view, opponent of Chalcedon. The rest of the debate and schisms and what-have-you from 451-568 happened in the Eastern Empire. As an opponent of the Three Chapters (who was beaten, exiled, and imprisoned for that opposition), that was what really interested Victor, not the ins and outs of Goths and Franks in Italy, Gaul, and Spain.

I feel the need to repeat myself: The whimpering or non-existent echo of 476 in the sixth century does not mean it was unimportant. It means we need to examine all of our sources with the utmost care. It does, however, remind us that, despite the political and economic discontinuities between the two periods, there was still a sense, especially after Justinian’s ‘restoration’, that the Roman Empire endured — albeit ruled from Constantinople.

Discover Late Antiquity

Justinian I

I promise my brother, Michael, that I have a couple of fantasy-related posts up my sleeve, hopefully to appear in the next week. But first, I thought I would give you this post, the first in what I plan to be an ongoing series on the historical period of Late Antiquity. I wish to do this for two main reasons:

  1. I am on the way to being a scholar of Late Antiquity, and I think it’s a fascinating period of history, so blogging about it so that normal people can follow such discussions is a good way for me to get my mind around the various issues in the era and learn how to make history/art/culture accessible.
  2. When I asked what people wanted to read, Michael said Sci-fi/Fantasy or Other because then he would be able to understand what’s going on. Since I’m not going to turn this into a devoted SF blog, why not write posts that will help people understand the other posts that will inevitably drift through, about Ammianus or Augustine or the Fall of Rome?

So.

Although I still sort of favour old-fashioned ‘Later Roman Empire’ definitions of the period of Late Antiquity (as discussed here), I see the value of following a story for a long time. And I think the story of the Roman world to Justinian and then beyond is an interesting story, so I’ll be thinking of ‘Late Antiquity’ here as it is increasingly thought of, as running from the succession crisis of 235 to the death of the Eastern Emperor Heraclius in 641.

In terms of geographical markers, I take the Mediterranean world and western Europe to be the world of Late Antiquity, considering Persia only insofar as it impinges upon Roman imperial history. This choice arises not because the non-classical ancient world isn’t interesting but because there is too much of it, and the story of Late Antiquity becomes unwieldy otherwise.

But why should you join me to discover Late Antiquity?

First and foremost, because these four centuries of history are intrinsically interesting. People did interesting things that are fun to know and learn about. Late Antiquity includes art and poetry, war and politics, religion and philosophy, all of which are interesting in their own right regardless of when they happened to occur. Constantine built this in Rome, for example:

The Arch of Constantine, Rome

Second, from the removed perspective of 2013, ‘important’ or ‘major’ things happened in Late Antiquity. Not only did Constantine build a big, fancy arch, he also converted to Christianity, the long-term effects of which still go on today. Augustine penned some of Latin philosophy’s great masterpieces; other great Christian thinkers lived in this age, including amongst the Latins Cyprian of Carthage, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Pope Leo the Great, Pope Gregory the Great, Hilary of Poitiers, Boethius, Isidore of Seville; amongst the Greeks, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Philoponus. Important pagan thinkers of the period include Diogenes Laertius, Plotinus, Libanius, Damascius, Claudian and Symmachus. Calcidius made his translation of Plato’s Timaeus, which was influential on much western mediaeval philosophy.

Five of seven Ecumenical Church Councils occurred in this time-span. The last were in 681 and 787 (not counting mediaeval, western ones for obvious concerns of ecumenicity).

Constantinople was founded as an imperial capital. Theodosius II put together one of the earliest surviving codes of Roman law; under Justinian the greatest such project ever made occurred. Under Justinian ‘Byzantine’ architecture is truly born with Hagia Sophia, to dominate the architecture of church and mosque in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries to come. The western Empire ceased to function and exist as a political unit. The codex (books as we know them) came to dominate book production (as opposed to scrolls); in fact, the basic method of book production remained unchanged from the 300s to the invention of ‘perfect binding’ in the twentieth century, although different stages were mechanised along the way.

New polities arose in the West following the Empire’s accidental suicide, and modern nation-states like to trace their descent to these (but that’s really the story of the Early Middle Ages).

I do hope you’ll join me and discover Late Antiquity!

When does ‘late’ antiquity end?

With the purpose of keeping the wider world of Late Antiquity beyond the 21 years of Leo’s pontificate fresh in my mind as well as of becoming abreast of the literature on the field, I recently read Peter Brown’s ‘popular’ cultural history of the period The World of Late Antiquity. I also went to a very interesting day conference on Cities in the Long Late Antiquity that included papers on seventh-century Spain and eighth-century Palestine/Syria.

What this sort of thing — intrinsically interesting as it is — makes me wonder, and especially Brown’s book, is when on earth does Late Antiquity actually end? Are we still living in Late Antiquity?

The World of Late Antiquity cuts off its narrative of the cultural and political landscape of the Latin, Western Roman world in the fifth century. One must, then, assume that western Europe had by the sixth century entered that mysterious land, ‘The Middle Ages.’ Fine and well; I would probably cut off antiquity around the same place.

However, Brown follows eastern cultural and political developments well into the seventh century, into the world of the Caliphate. To be able to maintain that something of Late Antique or ‘Classical’ culture and politics has persisted as far as his book does, he takes up the thread of Sassanian Persia. If books about Late Antiquity had the world of Sassanian Persia as their centrepiece, this would be acceptable practice all around. But they do not, for Late Antiquity is the study of the last centuries of the Graeco-Roman world, the study of the Later Roman Empire (as Bury’s old but useful two-volume history terms it), the study of the later Classical world.

Me and Homer at the Kelvingrove, Glasgow

Classical Studies is consciously Mediterraneo-centric. Indeed, it is consciously Latino-Helleno-centric. It is a field of study that looks at the literature, history, culture, archaeology, languages, and so forth, of the ancient Greek and Roman world(s), conscious of the debt that our culture of the 21st-century ‘West’ owes to them, but also conscious of the intrinsic value of these ancient Classics. To be a Classicist is not to say that Graeco-Roman literature/history/culture is superior to that of Persia or the Germanic Middle Ages or classical China or Sanskrit or the Ojibwe oral tradition (although some might say as much). It is to say that these are interesting and important. We shall focus on them. You do what you like.

Now, sometimes knowledge of the cultures and histories of the surrounding, non-Graeco-Roman world can be useful to the Classicist, such as the mythologies and epics of the Near Eastern world for students of Greek mythology and epic. Or the history of the Persian Empire for the student of Herodotus. Or the world of Sassanian Persia for the student of the Eastern Roman Empire. No doubt about the usefulness of these things.

But Brown’s book spends most of its time focussed on the later Roman Empire, upon the history, culture, and literature of the empire(s) that encircled the Mediterranean Sea as its own lake. To take up the thread of Sassanian Persia to show how long and far Late Antiquity extends is to change focus. Perhaps the Persian Late Antiquity persists into the Caliphate; certainly not the Late Antiquity the book starts with, though.

Another way that Brown extends eastern Late Antiquity as far as he does is by choosing particular cultural traits and following them. This, to my mind, is as arbitrary as any other way of drawing a close to Late Antiquity. Had he chosen certain aspects of Latin literature, not only could he have extended Late Antiquity as far in the West as in the East, following sixth-century authors such as Boethius, Gregory of Tours, and Caesarius of Arles as well as Gregory the Great and the seventh-century Isidore of Seville right up to Bede in the eighth century, he could have followed certain pagan, classical traits throughout the entire Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

But we would all know that to be foolishness, for something — many things — changed at the end of the Classical world. But when on earth is that end?

Odoacer deposes Romulus Augustulus

I think we can say 476 or 480 for the West. In 476, Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer who sent the imperial insignia East and ruled as rex — king — of Italy. In 480, Julius Nepos, Romulus’ predecessor, died in Dalmatia. Whichever of these two dates you choose, the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist as a constituted political entity. Many of the resulting changes were slow to transpire, and their velocity varied from region to region. But we no longer have a Roman Empire in Rome herself. As artificial as any other closing date for Antiquity, this one is at least consciously artificial and chooses a particular event. I note, however, that a good history of Late Antiquity should probably have a closing chapter that notes (if ever-so briefly) the continuity and change that transpired in the new ‘barbarian’ kingdoms of the West.

Justinian, mosaic from San Vitale, Ravenna

In the East, I cast a vote in favour of 565. 565 is the year Justinian died. Justinian is the last Eastern Roman Emperor to have spoken Latin as his first language. He also re-edited Theodosius II’s Code and then also produced the Digest, two monumental works of Roman Law. He built the magnificent Hagia Sophia, introducing a new architecture that would influence eastern churches and mosques to this day. He succeeded in alienating the Miaphysite community to such an extent that the Syrian Orthodox Church (‘Jacobite’) was born during his reign; he also caused a schism amongst western bishops. He reconquered North Africa and Italy, maintained the border with Persia, and kept out ‘barbarian’ peoples along the Danube. At the end of his reign, the world was different, there was no going back.

565 is, perhaps, even more arbitrary than 476/480. It is, still, consciously so. Many, many classical inheritances outlived Justinian; some of them, indeed, lasted until 1453. Many things also changed, and the Justinianic changes combined with Classical continuity helped forge the world and culture we think of as Byzantine. It still, therefore, strikes me as a safe cut-off. The Classical world of Constantine was gone by 565.

And what follows Late Antiquity? What comes after the ‘fall’ of the western Roman Empire? We’ll investigate this in my next post.