Tag Archives: leo the great

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.

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When does the year start?

I’ve blogged here a couple of times about ancient time-reckoning, once about consular formulae, and another time about indictions. Today, I was looking through the collection of sermons preached by Leo the Great, subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. Leo’s sermons were published by him as a collection and they were organised by which feast of the Christian year they were preached. Leo is a thematic, not expository, preacher. The collection begins with the commemoration of his accession to the Roman episcopate on 29 September 440, with sermons from 440, 441, 443, 444, and 445. It ends with the September fast, with sermons spanning 441-458, which is almost his whole career as bishop of Rome. They are organised in order of when they occur in the year.

What does this have to do with dating?

Well, the indiction cycle starts on 23 September. So Leo’s sermon collection takes you through a full liturgical year — starting with the indiction.

One would expect one of two other situations. Either Leo would begin with Advent, since that is currently when the western liturgical year begins, or he would begin with 1 January since that is when the Roman civic calendar begins with consuls taking office. After all, he dated his letters by consular year.

There may be something here. On the other hand, maybe he started the collection on 29 September since that is his accession date.

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.

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.

The Edinburgh Conference on Late Antiquity

The daffodils are out!

The daffodils are out!

This past Thursday and Friday, I was attending the Edinburgh Conference on Late Antiquity for Postgraduates and Early Career Researchers. It was an engaging time, and I applaud my colleagues and friends who put it together — Alison John, Fraser Reed, and Audrey Scardina. They received over 80 abstracts and had to whittle that number down to 40, although originally planning for 24 — this resulted in some parallel sessions. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

They chose wisely.

Indeed, when I think on the papers, I was really only bamboozled by two of the more archaeology/material culture papers, but not because the arguments and content were poor but because of the breakneck pace at which data of a sort I — as a more literary historian and philologist — don’t typically deal with was presented. Only one paper seemed more of a summary of evidence than an argument; this is a fate that befalls many when they give 20-minute papers — 20 minutes is sometimes enough to do nothing more than present all the data you have! It is an art and a skill to hone and, essentially, shrink an argument to fit the allotted time.

My only other critiques would be one paper needlessly spending over half the time on theory whose application seemed like common sense to me, and another that used different textual evidence to interpret some art than I would have, myself.

I was pleased to hear papers by two of my friends, Doctoranda Belinda Washington, and Doctorans Fraser Reed. I’d never quite got much grasp on what Fraser’s urban archaeology of Late Antique Thrace looked like before, so his paper, skilfully reduced from 40 to 20 minutes, ‘Gate Complexes as Indicators of Urban Character in Late Antique Thracia’, was most welcome. Belinda does research on imperial women of the same period I look at papal letters — also, her paper, ‘Gut Instincts: The Description of Eudoxia’s Death by Pseudo-Martyrius’, involved maggots and rotting flesh, so I was in.

Papers covered archaeology, art history, architecture, politics, literature, education, poetry, religion, epistolography, myth. The time range was as early as the late third century to as late as the seventh. Papers dealt with East (as far as Georgia) and West (as far as Gallaecia [that was my paper]), Latin and Greek and Syriac and Coptic authors, northern archaeology and Mediterranean archaeology, sarcophagi, domes, letters (as texts and as objects!).

And any conference with at least one paper on Gregory of Tours makes me happy.

I came away wanting to spend more time with Priscian, Donatus (the grammarian), the Panegyrici Latini, Ennodius of Pavia, as well as to revisit John Rufus’ Plerophoriae more deeply — and his Life of Peter the Iberian in the first place. I also met a bunch of new people, and I hope to keep these contacts open as our careers progress.

My own paper, ‘Picking Up the Pieces After the Barbarians Come to Town: The Letters of Leo the Great as Sources for the First Generation Unde Post-Roman Rule’ was well-received. I discussed Leo, Epistle 15, to Turribius of Astorga and why Turribius felt it necessary to write the pope on an essentially decided issue. Roger Collins agreed with my main argument (win!); one of my fellow early career scholars thinks there were more Priscillianists than I do.

Overall, a good conference. Glad I went.

Discover Fifth-century Politics II: The West from 423 to 500ish

Today’s post will include THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Fall_of_roman_empire_(1964)Picking up the narrative where we left it last time, at the death of Honorius. 423 was somewhat disastrous, with a usurper named John taking the throne, only to be deposed by an eastern army sent by Theodosius II to elevate Valentinian III, nephew of Honorius and son of Constantius III, to the purple. Valentinian was another boy emperor, and the leading figure at the start of his reign was his mother, Galla Placidia. Later, power would be negotiated by generals, as it had been under Honorius’ reign. What the empire needed to recover and survive was strong leadership, and western child emperors failed to provide this. (Gross generalisation — hopefully the rest of these posts make that clear!)

Spain, for example, was never really reintegrated into the Roman Empire. The final barbarian group sent in to clear out Rome’s enemies was the group called the Visigoths. They established themselves in Spain and southern Gaul and eventually became one of the successor states when there was no empire anymore in the late 400s. In 468, one Spanish bishop named Hydatius had this to say in his Chronicle:

having been undeservedly elected to the office of bishop and not unknowing of all the calamites of this wretched age, I have subjoined <an account of> the frontiers of the narrowly-confined Roman Empire that are doomed to perish, and, what is more lamentable, <an account of events> within Gallaecia at the edge of the entire world: the state of ecclesiastical succession perverted by indiscriminate appointments, the demise of honourable freedom, and the downfall of virtually all religion based on divine instruction, all as a result of the domination of heretics confounded with the disruption of hostile <barbarian> tribes. Such then are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors <to include an account of> the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them. (Intro. 6, ll. 50-57, trans. Burgess, p. 75)

In ch. 38: The barbarians who had entered Spain pillaged it with a vicious slaughter.

Meanwhile, in the 420s, having been driven out of Spain by clever military action, the Vandals under King Gaiseric moved on to North Africa, which they took piece by piece, despite negotiating treaties with Roman generals along the way. By 439, they had taken Carthage, and all of North Africa was a Vandal kingdom to last until Justinian’s invasion 100 years later. They were in a strong enough position not only to engage in piratical activity in Spain, but also to take Sardinia, and, in 455, to follow the Gothic lead in sacking Rome, which they pillaged mercilessly and took off Valentinian III’s widow and daughter in the booty. Hence vandalism.

Gaul, modern France, was also disappearing—southern Gaul was under effective control of the Visigoths, despite any formal arrangements as yet. Burgundians had been settled on the Rhine with Worms as their capital. Northern Gaul, such as Brittany, had basically risen up in insurrection against the faraway and powerless empire and was being ruled by its own aristocracy. Elsewhere in northern Gaul, the Franks had moved in—mind you, they claimed to be ruling with Roman titles, something most barbarians did. Roman power was failing all over the West, but everyone kept claiming to have power sent from on high. And the generals were too busy fighting each other to keep any invaders out with armies that were too small, despite their enormous paper strength.

Up to 455, the General Aetius was the leading power behind the throne. A Roman, he had spent time as a hostage among both Vandals and Huns, and used his contacts amongst these groups to the Empire’s advantage by allying them to Rome. However, his actions were as short-sighted as everyone else’s; if Aetius wasn’t busy fighting off Huns, Goths, or Vandals, he was engaged in civil war against other generals.

Leo and Attila by Raphael

Leo and Attila by Raphael

In 450, Attila invaded the Western Empire after a long career in the East where he had wrought devastation and extracted money. In 451, Aetius defeated Attila in what has been called one of the most significant battles in ancient history, in Gaul at the Catalaunian Plains. However, since Aetius spent as much time fighting civil wars as Huns, Rome was never able to exploit any measure of stability he may have gained for the empire in 451. Attila and his Huns proceeded to pillage northern Italy taking notably Milan and Aquileia, ppl moved to Venice (legend), until an envoy including Pope Leo the Great convinced them to turn back in 452, an event immortalised by Raphael and commemorated on Pope Leo’s tomb:

IMG_2367It is likely that Attila and his army needed to regroup and were weakened by sickness. Attila died shortly thereafter in 453, and the Huns were no longer a great power. However, in 455, Valentinian III became afraid that Aetius would make a bid for power, so assassinated him with his own hand. Soon, Aetius’ men assassinated Valentinian.

The short-lived emperors come next. The next emperor was Petronius Maximus, from one of the leading aristocratic families of Rome. He lasted two and a half months before being killed in the Vandal sack. Then a Gallo-Roman aristocrat, Avitus, was emperor. His policies were a bit more wide-reaching, trying to reincorporate the Gallic aristocracy into the political life of Italy and making good terms with the Visigothic King Theoderic, but his actions only served to infuriate the short-sighted Italian aristocrats, so our next barbarian generalissimo, Ricimer, went to battle against him and deposed him.

Ricimer set up Majorian in 457, a potentially helpful emperor who tried to dislodge the Vandals from Africa. Eventually, Majorian tired of Ricimer’s control. So, in 461, Ricimer raised Severus to the purple. Emperor Leo I in the East refused to recognise Severus. Severus died in 465, possibly poisoned by Ricimer. Ricimer ruled without an emperor for 18 months before Leo appointed Anthemius in 467. Anthemius may have stood a chance had he been emperor decades earlier. However, things had been spiralling downward for too long; although he headed a combined East-West force against the Vandals in Africa, when he made an ill-advised five-day truce with the Vandals, they built a fireship and subsequently destroyed the large East-West coalition fleet. Anthemius’ ultimate failure was secured. Three more nonentities followed Anthemius, the last Romulus Augustulus. The final generalissimo was Odoacer who decided that he had no need of a puppet emperor and deposed Romulus, who went to live in a monastery. The insignia were sent East, and Odoacer was formally ruling Italy under the Eastern Roman Emperor’s authority.

Now, there was still, however, a western emperor kicking around in Dalmatia, one Julius Nepos, still officially recognised by his Eastern colleague. In 480, he was murdered, possibly due to Odoacer’s connivance.

Eight years later, in 488, Theoderic ‘the Great’ was commissioned by the Eastern Emperor Zeno to do battle with Odoacer and take Odoacer’s place as patrician and ruler of Italy. Theoderic had been making a small amount of trouble in the East until then, but also making himself useful. Zeno thus made him useful and got him out of his direct territory. Theoderic defeated Odoacer after a three-year struggle. He was master of Italy.

It has recently been argued that at this period and up to the accession of Justin I in 519, Theoderic viewed himself as a new Western Roman Emperor. He certainly acted like it, visible in the Anonymus Valesianus. But most of his story in Italy belongs to the sixth century, not the fifth.

In southern Gaul and Spain, the Visigoths were busy forging a kingdom in these decades. In northern Gaul, the Franks were consolidating their power. They would eventually rule all of Gaul in the 500s; as a kingdom, the Franks are first united under Clovis in 511. Various things are shadowily transpiring in Britain — we get nary a glimpse, but amidst the swirl of later legends and teleological readings of archaeology, we can see that Germanic persons are slowly gaining a foothold in the 400s, and that perhaps this century, perhaps the next, battles between them and the Romano-British leaders would lead to Arthurian tales.

Breathlessly, then, the West reaches 500.

****

Much in these two posts comes from Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West: 376-568. See also his Worlds of Arthur (my review here). The rest comes from my mind or notes from a lecture I delivered, and I cannot at present recall all of my sources!

Venezia: A unique history

IMG_6004My wife and I just spent a lovely weekend in Venice. Venice is a place unlike any other — a carless city full of narrow streets, narrow canals, wide canals, and piazzas. The early medieval history of Venice as (faultily) portrayed by the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus ( sole emperor 913–920 [under regency] and 945–959) demonstrates its uniqueness.

Attila’s destruction of Aquileia is part of the foundation legends of Venice, as we see in this emperor’s De Administrando Imperio 28:

Of old, Venice was a desert place, uninhabited and swampy. Those who are now called Venetians were Franks from Aquileia and from the other places in Francia, and they used to dwell on the mainland opposite Venice. But when Attila, the king of the Avars, came and utterly devastated and depopulated all the parts of Francia, all the Franks from Aquileia and from the other cities of Francia began to take flight, and to go to the uninhabited islands of Venice and to build huts there, out of their dread of king Attila. Now when this king Attila had devastated all the country of the mainland and had advanced as far as Rome and Calabria and had left Venice far behind, those who had fled for refuge to the islands of Venice, having obtained a breathing-space, and, as it were, shaken off their faintness of heart, took counsel jointly to settle there, which they did, and have been settled there till this day. (Trans. R. J. H. Jenkins)

To this day, one can see a large stone chair in front of the cathedral on Torcello that is called the throne of Attila. That a nomadic warlord would have carried with him such an item is unlikely in the extreme.

"Throne of Attila" (seen by me in Venice 2 years ago)

“Throne of Attila” (seen by me 2 years ago)

It is incumbent upon me as a historian of Late Antiquity to tell you that Attila did not get as far south as Rome, let alone Calabria. He was still in northern Italy at the River Mincius when he was met by a delegation from the emperor, the senate, and the people of Rome, consisting of Avienus, who was of consular rank, a former prefect Trygetius, and ‘the most blessed Pope Leo.’ (See Prosper, Chron. 1367)

Anyway, I must say that I am not convinced by the Attila story for the foundation of Venice. For one thing, it does not come up in Paul the Deacon (d. 799), who lived in the region, let alone our much earlier sources such as Prosper and Hydatius (Attila’s contemporaries) or Jordanes’ Getica (c. 551) — and wouldn’t we have expected some mention of this depopulation of Aquileia into the lagoon in Leo’s letter to Nicetas, Bishop of Aquileia, from March of 458, some seven years after the alleged flight to the lagoon?

However it happened, and whenever it happened, people moved from the Italian mainland to the islands in the Venetian lagoon in the Early Middle Ages. By the 900s, the story had spread abroad that they moved there during the invasion of Attila. Whenever it happened, we cannot rule out the desire to escape war and terror as a motive for moving to the islands.

Back to Constantine VII.

He goes on to tell us that King Pippin of the Franks tried to subdue the Venetians, but was unable to defeat them, although in the end they agreed to pay him a tribute which, says Porphyrogenitus, was steadily decreasing over time. When Pippin claimed dominion over them, the Venetians said that they wished to be servants of the emperor of the Romans, not of Pippin. In modern terms, this is the Byzantine Emperor, who was constitutionally a successor of Augustus.

This story about Pippin and the Venetians shows us the state of the Venetians in history, poised between East and West, situated in the Adriatic — speaking a Romance language but having many economic and political ties with the Eastern Roman Empire. This is exemplified in their style of art, called ‘Veneto-Byzantine, on which I blogged after my first trip to Venice. As well, in the 1400s and1500s, Greek and Slavic refugees from the Balkans came to Venice and settled there.

Mosaics from Santa Maria Assunta, island of Torcello, Venice

Mosaics from Santa Maria Assunta, island of Torcello, Venice

IMG_6026The Serenissima Republica had many, many mercantile contacts in the East. This was why they sacked Constantinople in 1204, bringing back the porphyry tetrarchs and bronze horses and a variety of other things — to settle their bill. Medieval Venetians also absconded with the body of St Mark from Alexandria. You will also find relics of St Anthony the Great in Venice (I forget where) — as well as the bodies of St Athanasius and St Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, (in the church of San Zaccaria). The first resident Jews in Venice — home to the original Ghetto — were Levantine merchants. Venice — the West looking East.

Indeed, their eastern empire once included Crete and Cyprus, giving rise to a Byzantine-style icon of the pieta (a Western visual motif) by Theophan the Cretan that I saw in the Benaki Museum in Athens. Their glass production was based on sources materials from their mainland conquests in Italy and their Eastern Mediterranean conquests and contacts — with the best materials, they made the clearest glass throughout the Renaissance and Baroque, producing many exquisite items.

The story of Pippin exemplifies this attitude — for much of the ascendancy of Venice, they were detached from wider western politics but embroiled in those of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus goes on to tell us that the Venetians selected their first doge from the most noble man among them. At first, his residence was at a place called ‘Civitanova’, but

because this island aforesaid is close to the mainland, by common consent they moved the doge’s residence to another island, where it now is at this present, because it is at a distance from the mainland, as far off as one may see a man on horseback. (Trans. R.J.H. Jenkins)

Again, we see tenth-century stories reflecting the future history of Venice as a maritime power, whose Arsenale would produce one sailing ship per day in the 1600s. Furthermore, we see the doge, who was the head of state in Venice, elected for life. Venice was a Republic; towards the end of her independence, the doge would yield little to no power, but he was still the doge, and his palace next to the Basilica San Marco was the centre of secular power (ecclesiastical power was pushed away to San Pietro di Castello, which was the cathedral until 1807).

I am not sure where ‘Civitanova’ was, nor where the doge’s residence was in the 900s. It must have been somewhere further in than it is now. For one thing, there is no way you can see San Marco from the mainland, even without all the buildings in the way. For another, early Venice was further in for the most part. That is why the most spectacular mediaeval mosaics are on Torcello, because Santa Maria Assunta was the original cathedral; that’s also why Attila’s throne is there, no doubt. However, there are apparently ninth-century floors at San Zaccaria, which is not far from San Marco, and a church has stood on the site of San Pietro di Castello since the 600s, apparently. Nonetheless, something tells me that in Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ day the doge’s residence was closer to the mainland.

Venice is a fascinating city with a rich history of mercantile trade, shipbuilding, the arts, culture, religion, theft, war, murder, and more. And so much of it feels like it rings out to us from Constantine Porphyrogenitus, showing us that Venice was already on her trajectory in the 900s.

And even if you didn’t know this stuff, I’d recommend a visit. We had a blast, let me tell you!

(Here’s another post I once wrote about Venice.)