Tag Archives: later roman empire

The Interesting Times of Leo the Great’s pre-episcopal career

I wrote the following as I revise my Ph.D. dissertation into a book, but I have decided to excise it as extraneous. Nonetheless, I think it is material of interest, especially to the general reader (such as I assume reads this blog?), so I hope you enjoy it. This was a first draft, sort of stream-of-consciousness, and therefore It is a bit rough, and many more writers and events could have been added, but since I am cutting it out of the book, I’ve not taken the effort.

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

The years of Leo’s life before his accession to the Roman episcopate saw the ongoing dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire as well as intermittent civil war between the empire’s generals. The Vandals had been in Spain since around 410, and when they were driven out, they crossed to Africa. From 429 to 439, they conquered Roman North Africa, taking Carthage in the final year and defeating various Roman armies on the way. In 440, the Vandals raided Sicily. They had been driven out of Spain by Visigoths and Suevi, working in alliance with the Romans. Both of these groups began taking control of Spain, the Visigoths also taking power in southern Gaul. In 436, the Visigoths besieged Narbo but did not take the city. In 439, the Suevi, in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain, expanded their power base, coming to control most of Spain by 441. In 446 was the last Roman campaign in Spain, now divided by Visigoths and Suevi. In Gaul, besides the land being appropriated by Visigoths, a group called the bagaudae rebelled in Armorica in 435. Saxon pirates raided the northern coast of Gaul. Britain was already lost for all intents and purposes by 410. Besides these losses and engagements with non-Roman military groups, western generals were themselves frequently at odds during the reign of Valentinian III. Valentinian’s reign itself began as an eastern campaign to supplant the usurper John.

This image of a troubled early fifth-century West in decline is a persistent one that is not untrue. To demonstrate the social impact of the economic and political hardship of the western Empire in these decades, the work of Salvian of Marseilles, written in the early years of Leo’s pontificate has frequently proven useful, discussing the oppression of the weak and poor by the rich and powerful. Some of Salvian’s observations can be borne out by the letters of Leo the Great, in fact. Alongside this, aristocratic culture in Gaul, Italy, and Spain continued despite the worsening political climate. Gaul is particularly rich in sources for this ongoing aristocratic culture of living in villas, writing letters to familiares; this life is portrayed in the Eucharisticon of Paulinus of Pella. The latter half of the century will see some notable collections of letters, especially that of Sidonius Apollinaris, but also Ruricius of Limoges and others. Therefore, when we want to consider the state of the Roman Empire in the age of Leo, we need to consider not only the important disaster narrative and sources such as Salvian, but also the works of the more comfortable classes, such as Paulinus and Sidonius. Neglecting either will create a distortion. Somehow, both must be kept in mind.

Salvian is not the only ecclesiastical writer in Latin of the first half of the century, and social, economic, and political crisis does not always equal cultural stagnation. Restricting ourselves to the reign of Valentinian III, we cannot miss the fact that the giant of ancient Latin Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, died in 430. In 426 he published his masterpiece De Civitate Dei contra paganos and added material to De Doctrina Christiana and De Trinitate—these three works comprise a sort of Augustinian trilogy. Augustine is not the only Latin Christian writer active in the first decade and a half of Valentinian’s reign. Before leaving Africa, the two immediately pre-Vandal bishops of Carthage, Aurelius and Quodvultdeus, should not be overlooked. Aurelius had been a main figure in the Pelagian Controversy and died around the same time as Augustine; various of his letters survive. Quodvultdeus was a more active writer, producing a particularly fine commentary on the creed. Quodvultdeus was deported by the Vandals in 439 and died in Italy.

In Gaul, the early years of Valentinian’s reign saw two major figures in early Latin monasticism, John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins. Both of them had some relationship against Nestorianism and thus with the story of Leo and theology. But they were both more focussed on the internal, spiritual life. Cassian’s work, for example, is an adaptation for a Latin audience of the spiritual theology of Evagrius of Pontus. Gaul at this period, in religious terms, is most famous for asceticism on the one hand and the predestinarian debate on the other. These two movements within Christian thought are related, for the question cannot escape the person dedicated to a life of askesis, discipline, whether that discipline is what saves him or her, and whether that discipline is itself a product of grace or the ascetic’s own will. To what degree, that is, are we responsible for our own morality and discipline, and to what degree is it the work of God? John Cassian, in Conf. 13, came down somewhere in the middle, seeking—perhaps unsuccessfully—to argue something that allows for both. Prosper of Aquitaine was also active in the predestinarian debate in Gaul as well as being a lay promoter of asceticism himself. Another notable Gallic writer whose career overlap with Leo’s pre-episcopal career include Faustus of Riez (abbot of Lérins, 433-459, bishop of Riez 459-495), who was yet another ascetic involved in the predestinarian debate.

Italy was not unproductive, either. Peter Chrysologus was bishop of Ravenna from 433 to 450. He has left a significant corpus of sermons, and his name alone tells us the esteem he held as a rhetorician, a conscious adaptation of the famous Antiochene preacher, John Chrysostom, who was always well regarded in the Latin West.

Leo’s predecessors in the Roman see dealt with Pelagianism and Nestorianism, both of which figure in Leo’s correspondence. The Pelagian controversy had involved Innocent I and Zosimus, and Celestine I (422-32) obtained a condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Celestine’s involvement in the Nestorian controversy has recently been argued to have been more independent than previously thought. The standard narrative most of us know is that Cyril began his anti-Nestorian campaign and enlisted Celestine to join him. Celestine supported Cyril at Ephesus and obtained an ecumenical council’s condemnation of Pelagianism in turn. However, George Bevan has recently demonstrated, through a close analysis of the documents associated with the Nestorian controversy, that early in 430, Celestine had already called a local Roman synod and condemned Nestorius before Cyril contacted him. Why was Celestine anti-Nestorian? There is a possibility that it was simply a matter of the dossier being sent to him being quite condemnatory, providing all of the scandalising statements that make Nestorius seem to teach that Christ is two persons. It is also possible that Nestorius was perceived as being himself tainted by Pelagianism. Not only is this a connection that John Cassian makes in De Incarnatione contra Nestorium, but Nestorius’ friendliness with Theodore of Mopsuestia was known in Rome, and Theodore was himself tainted by Pelagianism because of his own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius years previously. When both factors are taken into play, it comes as no surprise that Celestine acted independently of Cyril. It also turns him into an agent in Mediterranean geo-ecclesiology and not a passive observer and responder to the agency of others.

Xystus III (432-440) was Leo’s immediate predecessor. He witnessed the ongoing progress of the Nestorian debate after Ephesus, and letters he sent to Cyril and other eastern bishops after the reunion of Cyril with John of Antioch in 433 show us that the bishop of Rome was still taking an interest in these faraway events. Moreover, his rededication of the Liberian Basilica as Santa Maria Maggiore in a prominent location on the Esquiline Hill also demonstrates his commitment to anti-Nestorian, Ephesine Christology, for the rallying cry of anti-Nestorian polemic was the term Theotokos, God-bearer, usually Latinised as genetrix dei.

This is the context when, in 440, Xystus III died while Leo was on a diplomatic mission to Gaul to reconcile the general Aëtius and Albinus, Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls.


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.

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.

Indictions (more Roman dating; still not Ovidian)

You may be thinking, ‘Gee, dating by consuls sure was fun. How else did Romans write the years in dates?’ Let me tell you, if consular dating is your bag, you’ll love indictions. I was reminded of the ancient Roman indiction cycle recently, since my current research has brought me up against Pope Gregory VII (pope, 1073-85), who uses this system in his letters, thus:

Data Rome VIIII. Kalendas Maii, Indictione XI.

Given at Rome, 8 days before the Kalends of May (24 April), in the eleventh indiction.

One may quickly jump to the conclusion that this is some medieval popery. After all, doesn’t Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604), who comes after The End of Ancient Christianity use indictions as well? Aha, but what sort of man was this first Pope Gregory? Gregory the Great was a Roman aristocrat of senatorial descent who owned a villa on the Caelian Hill, had spent time in the imperial court of Constantinople, and who acted as though Gaul was part of the Empire, not an independent, Frankish kingdom.

Not the sort of guy to go around using new-fangled dating systems.

However, the consulate was gone by Gregory’s day (the last consul was Basilius in 541). But the consulate was not the only way to write a year. Nonetheless, people did not universally and immediately start writing things Anno Domini according to their favourite paschal tables and systems of computus. They did keep using some of the older systems, and the indiction gains greater prominence at this time, at least from what my own, informal glance at the evidence shows.

Two questions, then: What on earth is an indiction? Who used them?

The indiction can be very unhelpfully explained as a fifteen-year cycle for late Roman taxation purposes. It was instituted by the Emperor Constantine (possibly originally developed by Diocletian, r. 284-305), and definitely in use in Egypt (whence come so many useful papyri for this sort of thing) by 313. What this means is that the emperors declared what the average valuation for taxation would be for the next fifteen years. The fifteen years themselves form the indiction. The very first indiction, proclaimed in 313, was backdated to 1 September 312. Every 1 September, every 15 years, a new indiction started, with the start of a new fiscal cycle for the imperial administration.

When used in dates as the Gregory VII quotation above, the word indiction actually refers to one of the fifteen years of the cycle. Thus, if people had been using the indiction in this way in 312 (which I’m pretty sure they weren’t), then ‘first indiction’ would refer to 1 September 312 – 31 August 313. Then the second indiction would begin, and so on for fifteen years. Then the cycle starts again with the new fiscal term.

One of the things this reminds us of — and it’s something I like to point out — is that Constantine, like Diocletian before him, was a reformer and shaper, and he would have been a big deal even without converting to Christianity. Indeed, perhaps his ability to think outside the conventional Roman box is part of why he threw his lot in with the Christian god.

One more small but important note is that, due to an error, in the medieval West, indictions began on 24 September. This must make chronology fun for people who look at Latin-Byzantine relations in the Middle Ages!

Anyway, that, in short, is what an indiction is. I’m probably imprecise in one or more ways; hopefully Richard will correct me in the comments.

People who use indictions to write dates:

A few Latins: Popes. Popes also used consular formulae in letters whereas such dates don’t survive for other letters. So the papal chancery is a big deal, whatever you think about institutional religion. Bede. No surprise, given that he wrote a text call On the Reckoning of Time. Cassiodorus in the Variae; I’ve not checked his historiography.

A few Greeks: Evagrius Scholasticus does sporadically, but not as his main means of dating. Theophanes Confessor.

In Syriac, at least Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, it seems.

Lots and lots of other people do, but I really don’t have time to hunt them all down.

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?


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!