Tag Archives: late antiquity

Two Fulgentii for the price of one

In my latest post for the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog, I discuss the insufficiencies of the old Durham Cathedral catalogue and point out the library’s manuscripts with works by Fulgentius. Both of him. Enjoy!

Sorting out your Fulgentii


Late Roman History and Canon Law

Last week, I had blood taken. As the nurse extracted it, and I looked the other way, she made small talk, presumably to keep my mind off the grotesque and bizarre occurrence underway. She asked if I was on my way to work (it feels like a triumph when people no longer assume I’m a student), and I said sort of, that I’m an academic and can work anywhere with a book and my laptop, and that I was headed for a café afterwards.

She asked what my research was.

I said that I research Durham’s medieval manuscripts of canon law.

I think her response was something of a crestfallen, ‘Oh,’ — that sounds boring, being the subtext.

I said that it’s can actually be very interesting. For example, when you read late antique papal letters, interesting questions come up: What do you do if someone who had been captured by barbarians comes back to Roman territory and finds his wife has remarried? Leo the Great (pope, 440-461) says that the first marriage stands (Ep. 159).

The nurse seemed unconvinced and wished me a good cup of coffee. Probably the least interested/impressed person I’ve ever told about my job.*

Sometimes, when I tell people the story from Leo’s letters, they respond, ‘Well, of course, the man wins.’ In fact, the same case came up during the episcopate of Innocent I (pope, 401-417), only in Innocent’s case it was a woman returning from captivity. He also ruled in favour of the first marriage — precedent for Leo in 458.

Now, there are important and interesting things going on with the canons of marriage here, I can assure you, including their relationship to Roman law and the development of sacramental theology.

However, those are not what I’m thinking about when I try to prove to people that canon law is interesting. Rather, I’m thinking: Hey! Look, canon law tells us about normal people! ‘Normal’ people are often voiceless in our sources, aren’t they? And, if we imagine canon law as merely a body of regulations, then we see only the bishops and councils. But why does Nicetas of Aquileia write to Leo about these cases, anyway?

Here we meet ‘normal’ people — the people of the Roman Empire who are having to put the pieces back together after the barbarians have left town. In this case, men who were legally (or presumed) dead return to Romania and have to fight for their legal privileges. This displacement of persons by barbarians is not uncommon — in other cases, we learn of people carried off as children who do not know whether they were baptised before their abduction by barbrians (see Leo I, Ep. 167).

In the case of Aquileia, I imagine that the displaced men presumed dead were carried by Attila in 452. The people who were abducted as children, mentioned in Ep. 167, have returned to Narbonne around 458. Are they victims of the Battle of Narbonne, 436/7? That would account for their return home as adults. I am not certain.

But here, in these two little incidents, canon law texts are giving us the human face of the Later Roman Empire and the post-430 disruptions that were occurring in people’s lives in western Europe. This is what makes canon law interesting.

*Medievalists, including one fellow who researches scholasticism, often act as though they are in awe of anyone who dares touch canon law with a ten-foot pole, given its complexity.

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

My latest post at the Durham Priory Recreated Project blog is about the various different Late Antique texts found in the priory library. In many ways, medieval Christianity is just a 1000-year reception of ancient Christianity. Enjoy!

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1, by R. C. Blockley

The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and MalchusThe Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire: Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchus by R.C. Blockley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is volume one of Blockley’s study and edition/translation of Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus, and Malchus, four Greek-language historians writing in the fifth-century (although early stages of Eunapius may have been published in the later 300s). These historians only survive for us in fragments — quotations by later, Byzantine, authors, or use by other late antique and ‘Byzantine’ historians (not always with attribution).

They are important because the fifth century is a century of fragmented knowledge and history. So we need all the sources we can get. They are also important because they represent a particular genre of history writing of which we have but little from this era of Graeco-Roman history.

Blockley divides this volume into two parts: The Historians and The Fragments. In the first part, each historian is introduced in turn, providing plausible dates of publication, his background, what the original contours of the history would have been, what he was like as a stylists, what he was like as a historian, what we think his main concerns were, his relationship to Christianity, and how we know this; from what I can tell, the bibliography was up to date at time of publication (1981). These chapters are followed by a discussion of what ‘classicising history’ is and how we should classify these historians — not as ‘pagan’ (not all of them are) nor as ‘secular’ (that, too, is misleading) but as ‘classicising’; they are consciously writing in the tradition of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius.

Part two is a discussion of the same material from the other direction — what are the sources for our fragments, how do we know these fragments are from these historians, and then a brief summary of what each fragment includes.

This is a highly useful book, readable, fairly brief, and a good introduction to the sources edited and translated in volume 2.

View all my reviews

Justinian and (late) Roman continuity

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The Codex Justinianus (henceforth CJ for convenience) is one of the volumes of what, by the High Middle Ages, people call the Corpus Iuris Civilis, along with the other juristic/juridical/legal works of Justinian, the Digest (or Pandects), the Institutes, and Justinian’s own Novellae Constitutiones — these being the new constitutions that post-date the other work. CJ is itself an anthology of excerpts from imperial laws arranged thematically; some laws thus get themselves included multiple times. They date from Hadrian (r. 117-138) to Justinian (r. 527-565).

The Digest is the opinions of jurists where the laws conflict, a reality made manifest by CJ. It is mostly Ulpian (c. 170-223) and Paulus (2nd/3rd c. AD) The Institutes are the work of the Roman jurists, largely Gaius (108-178), mostly from the High Imperial period. These are texts that discuss how to apply the law in different cases. 

The Corpus Iuris Civilis demonstrates to us the fact that the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople (but poised to [re]conquer Africa and Italy), did not simply imagine itself to be the successor to ancient Rome but, in a very real way, was. Justinian’s consuls stand in a direct succession that saw itself receding back to Brutus in 509 BC and the foundation of the Republic. And Justinian’s desire to consolidate and clarify law, something attempted in the third century (Codex Gregorianus and Codex Hermogenianus) and fifth century (Codex Theodosianus), but not with as much staying power as Justinian’s work (esp. not the former two).

Thus, in CJ, Justinian does not restrict himself with the world after Constantine, as Codex Theodosianus had. He does not think only in terms of life in Constantinople. He sees that Roman law, taught in Beirut and applied in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, is a living body of laws that reach back to the days when an emperor resided in the Eternal City herself.

Because of this vision, I would argue that Justinian’s Novellae, despite some novelties that arise because of shifting circumstances, are themselves a natural outflow from the living tradition of Roman law. I will write more about living tradition someday soon, but it is an important idea to keep in mind when we look at the Roman and mediaeval (and all pre-modern) worlds. The process, content, and conceptualisation of the Novellae exist alongside the rest of the Corpus, alongside centuries-old laws in CJ, resulting in something that somehow is an outworking of that older tradition.

Late Antiquity is still antiquity, and Justinian, even as he forges a brave, new (‘Byzantine’) world, is part of antiquity. The world is shifting and transforming, yes — but it always has. Hadrian’s world is not Augustus’, Alexander Severus’ is not Hadrian’s, Diocletian’s is not the Severans’, Theodosius I’s is not Constantine’s or Diocletian’s, Justinian’s is Theodosius I’s — but they are all linked together by various traditions of the Roman world, including law.

Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

View all my reviews

Languages of Late Antiquity

A job was recently posted advertising a ‘Professional Specialist in Languages of Late Antiquity.‘ Being a Latinist and Late Roman Historian, I took a look at it. It seems that Latin and Classical Greek are not languages of Late Antiquity:

Mastery of Syriac is a prerequisite, and facility in one or more of the other languages of late antiquity, especially Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, or classical Arabic, is also expected.

Now, I have nothing against Syriac specialists, especially the likes of Sebastian Brock or my friend Crystal Lubinsky. And I even spent a few sessions with Crystal studying Coptic. Moreover, I appreciate the expanded world of Late Antiquity that takes note of the cultural, politcal, and economic influences between the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean world and its neighbours, or between Greek and Latin culture and the local cultures it co-exists alongside.

There is a non-Greek/Latin-speaking world within the Roman Empire, most notably with Coptic in Egypt and Syriac in Syria-Mesopotamia, but undoubtedly some Armenians and Arabic-speakers in the Eastern mix as well. And, of course, the world beyond the frontiers is mostly non-classical (but there is a Hellenic Asian world out there, too!).

But Greek and Latin are languages of Late Antiquity as well. The fourth century sees what Peter Brown calls a ‘second golden age’ of Latin literature, for example. And Latin remains the administrative language of the Roman Empire for a long time. The great Late Antique hymns of Romanos the Melodist were composed in Greek. And even if we go for a ‘long Late Antiquity’, John of Damascus, living under the Caliphate in Damascus in the 700s, wrote in Greek. Greek and Latin are major languages of Late Antiquity.

Furthermore, the East is not the only place one can go hunting for non-classical ‘languages of Late Antiquity’. What of Gothic, not only beyond the Roman Empire, but within? We have Gothic Bibles, lectionaries, liturgical texts. Some people think one of our purple codices, a Latin Bible with a Gothic gloss, was the property of Theoderic. Gothic is as much a language of Late Antiquity as the languages of the East. And, frankly, Ethiopic literature really gets going around the same time as Anglo-Saxon (although our earliest texts in Ge’ez are older), so … how many worms can come out of this can?

In the end, what this job actually wants is a professional specialist in Afro-Semitic and Near Eastern languages and literatures in Late Antiquity. Which is totally fine, and well worth their time. But it’s much more specific than a professional specialist in languages of Late Antiquity and admits more clearly of the diversity of the Late Antique world, from Syriac, Coptic, and Greek in the East to Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin in the West.