Tag Archives: later roman empire

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!