Tag Archives: late antiquity

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

Teaching Later Latin

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

Before I get going on this post, I feel obliged to state that I have loved teaching the “core” canon of Classics this year — in Latin: Horace and Ovid, in Greek: Theocritus, in English translation: Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and a variety of Greek authors for Greek and Roman Myth (Hesiod, the tragedians, Homer, the Homeric Hymns, Apollodorus, et al, et al.). Nevertheless, teaching one’s own narrower focus brings with it a special pleasure all its own.

Last term, I got to teach, as literature, a selection of Ausonius’ verse epistles to Paulinus in Latin class, and Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae in English in Latin Epic. For one week, all I taught was “later” Latin literature. I put “later” in quotation marks because very often, what we mean by “later Latin literature” ends in the Early Middle Ages, at which point Latin was still really only in middle age (ha). Anyway, it was an exciting week.

First of all, Late Antiquity is where I have been most thoroughly invested for many years now. My research may range as late as the 1400s, and my background has certainly prepared me for teaching Aeschylus or the world of Augustan Rome, but the world, history, culture, and authors of Late Antiquity are where I am most comfortable. It is a pleasure to teach from a position of being comfortable with the context and the material in a deep way.

Second, I can bring my research to bear on the texts. I can say that ‘such and such’ is a feature of later Latin without recourse to grammars or histories of Latin. I know it is because I have seen it with frequency in a number of different authors from the fourth through sixth centuries. I can comment on the piling up of superlatives, for example, as being part of contemporary courtesy. Amongst bishops, even your worst enemy is dilectissimus frater — ‘most beloved brother’.

The third point is likewise related: I got to share with people the things I have learned, and that itself is a great delight. So I talked about how the quotation from Paulinus in Ausonius, about the names of different kings, is itself an example of the jewelled style (and pointed them to Michael Roberts, The Jeweled Style). I talked about how allusion works in these authors, and the kind of learned game they are playing with their readers, especially Ausonius (referencing Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains). Teaching Claudian, I got to talk about the prefaces and what they mean poetically and metapoetically, and this was great. There was a certain amount of allusion and intertextuality throughout it all (says my wife, ‘Don’t you lecture on that all the time?).

The fourth point is pedagogical: I got to expand their idea of Latin literature. For the Latin students, they saw that grammar and vocabulary can remain ‘classical’ while style goes in new directions. They were thus given a window in both the difference and similarity of later Latin with its classical forebears. Most Latin students never read much of anything later than Apuleius (if that). Thus, they were exposed to a greater breadth of Latin than is usually on offer, and I think this will only help them, even if the rest of their lives they read nothing but ‘classical’ Latin authors.

For the epic students, it was much the same. They got to see that Latin literature doesn’t just suddenly stop. Indeed, one  of my wider aims throughout the course was tying together disparate strands of Latin and world literature. Not only did they read Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Claudian, they also had lectures talking about Livius Andronicus, Ennius, Statius, et al., and I tied in not only Latin epic’s relationship with Greek epic but also with themes in Gilgamesh and Mahabharata. In terms of reception, I brought Virgil to the early moderns. So Claudian was actually central to part of my wider pedagogy, which is: (although) Virgil is amazing (and you should know him), and these other epics area part of the same poetic tradition or human experience.

The back of my Oxford Classical Text of Ausonius boasts that there are over 100 volumes in the series. Later Latin literature, even when restricted to the later 100s to 800s, encompasses far more Literature than that. It’s worth introducing students to it.

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.

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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.