Tag Archives: pope leo the great

Dating in ancient Rome

First, no — this post is not about Ovid’s elegiac how-to guide Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Being a Lover’), entertaining as that volume is. Rather, it is about how ancient Romans wrote what day, month, and year it is. We all think that writing a date is a fairly simple, straightforward task, whether you write 9 July 2017 in the UK or July 9, 2017 in Canada, or 09.07.2017 or 2017.07.09. However you slice it, a modern date is a pretty tame creature, even if the engineers get up in arms about how other people choose to write it numerically. It wasn’t so straightforward in the ancient world.

The topic has been at the heart of the past week of mine at work, as I looked through papal letters and imperial laws from the pontificate of Leo the Great (440-461) on the one hand and the reigns of the Emperors Majorian (457-61) and Leo (457-74) on the other. And yes, there are letters between the two Leos (Leones!), addressed: ‘Leo episcopus Leoni augusto in domino salutem.‘ — ‘Bishop Leo to Emperor Leo, greetings in the Lord.’ One such letter from Leo to Leo (Ep. 165) is dated thus:

Data decimo sexto kalendas Septembris, Leone et Majoriano Augustis coss.

Given on the sixteenth day before the kalends of September when Emperors Leo and Majorian were consuls.

I don’t have all my notes with me, but I suspect that in the manuscripts that probably looked more like, ‘Data XVI kal. Sept, Leone et Maiuriano Augg coss‘. We would write that as 17 October 458. The basic elements of a Roman date are all there.

Rather than writing the day of the month by which number of day it is, as 17 October, ancient Romans counted backwards from three different days — the kalends (first of the month), the nones (sometimes the seventh, sometimes the fifth), or the ides (sometimes the 15th, sometimes the 13th). Usually, the ides fall on the 13th. However, in March, July, October, and May the ides fall on the 15th day. Nine days before the ides come the nones, thus either the seventh or fifth.

Wait, you say. How is the seventh nine days before the fifteenth? Isn’t it only 8?

Ah, well here’s where we move along to the next part. Not only are you counting your days before one of these three specially-marked days of the month, as a Roman, you count inclusively. Therefore, it is not simply the difference as in arithmetic they taught you in Grade 1. The current day and the day you look ahead to are both included. So the number becomes one greater than anticipated.

This was even a bit weird for the Romans on the day before, so rather than saying that the final day of a month was two days before the kalends of the next, they simply said, ‘pridie’, ‘the day before’ (in essence).

I can assure you I spend a lot of time counting backwards on my fingers or writing the days of the month out to be sure I get the inclusive reckoning right whenever I convert a number into the modern system.

So, today is 9 July 2017. The ides of July are the 15th, so to day is 7 days before the ides of July.

So at least Romans had a way of reckoning dates that they agreed on.

What about years? Well, in 458, people had made a few calculations of their own as to when what we would call the BC or BCE to AD or CE crossover occurred (that is, the birth of Jesus). They were also largely united that what we now call 753 BC was the foundation date of Rome. Some people writing chronicles would actually date things from the creation of the world as calculated in Genesis. Others didn’t. In 457, Victorius of Aquitaine decided to start his Easter Tables (for reckoning when Easter had and would fall) with Year 1 as the crucifixion  — which he dated to our AD 28. This is perfectly logical, since there was no Easter before that.

Anyway, our dear friend Dionysius Exiguus, the bilingual monk from Scythia who did a lot of work on canon law and his own Easter tables, wasn’t around for about 75 years yet, in 458. His Easter Tables and related matter are what set the AD/BC turning point as we know it, as he dated the nativity of Jesus to AD 1 (there is no year 0). And his numbers for the years were not suddenly adopted as the standard way of telling which year it was. I don’t know how long that took, but it was a secondary aspect of his work.

Regardless of what number of year it would have been, not everyone agreed, and not everyone numbered the year. Then how did you know which number of year it was in ancient Rome?

The consuls.

The consuls of Rome were originally the highest-ranking magistrates, elected from the Senate. There were two consuls every year, and they originally had particular powers and authority in terms of proposing and passing laws. Obviously, with the arrival of the emperors with Augustus, they lost most of their real power.

One thing that they always did, however, was give their names to the year. Thus, one could refer to the consulship of Cicero and Hybrida (63 BC). There is a big list of all the consuls here. This way of naming years was not unique to the Romans. The Athenians also did it, naming years after the magistrate called the archon.

Naming the year becomes one of the biggest functions of the Late Antique consul. And people would put together big, unofficial lists of consuls to keep track of the years, sometimes with events slotted in.

This practice can have numerous ramifications for all sorts of things, of course. That’s why I’m taking an interest in it, particularly the year 458. Not that we have time to deal with my research now.

Anyway, I thought I’d share with you one of those small yet distinctive ways in which we and the Romans differ.

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Victor of Tonnena … what fall of Rome?

Majorian, whom Victor does mention (with a variety of spellings)

I still believe that 476 was a Significant Year in history, and many people who lived through it thought so, as well. But some time after 568, and probably before 575, Victor, Bishop of Tonnena in North Africa, put together a Chronicon running from AD 444 to 566. I read this document this morning, and I found a very interesting omission in Victor’s Chronicon.

The Fall of Rome.

The history of Rome and Italy is largely ignored, including the deposition of the Little Augustus, Romulus, by Odoacer in 476, the moment that for many of us signals the end of Western Imperial rule. In fact, Libius Severus (r. 461-465) is the last western Emperor Victor mentions. The only place in the West he gives much attention to his native Africa; indeed, Pope Leo the Great largely only figures in this Chronicon because of his role in calling the Council of Chalcedon.

Victor is more concerned with eastern secular and ecclesiastical politics, although I would have thought this interest would have drawn comment upon the western Emperor Anthemius who came from Emperor Leo I in the East; but, no. Not even the fact that, were it not for a five-day truce with the Vandals, Anthemius might have reconquered Africa.

Odoacer, c. 477

Julius Nepos isn’t mentioned, either, although Odoacer gets a mention, mostly for his death at the hands of ‘Theodore’ in 491 (should be Theoderic in 493).

Victor’s lack of care for the goings-on in Italy, Gaul, and Spain makes for some confusion. He never specifies which Goths were doing what, a fact that would leave the non-specialist in a bit of a fix on several occasions.

Why? Victor writes in Latin, after all. Italy’s not that far away. Neither, for that matter, is Spain. Why does he neglect the rest of the West and focus so much on the East?

I would argue that it’s not because 476 had no ripples but for two entirely different reasons:

  1. Justinian’s reconquest of Italy in 535-554 (which only gets a mention from Victor at the moment Narses defeats Totila)
  2. Victor’s interest in the playing-out of the Chalcedonian controversy in ecclesiastical and secular politics

Justinian, from San Vitale, Ravenna

The first of these means that not only was Italy part of Justinian’s ‘restored’ Roman Empire at the time of Victor’s writing, but reminds us that North Africa already was before 535. Thus, Victor is a Roman citizen writing about Roman affairs during that brief moment when Italy, North Africa, and a bit of Spain were reunited with the Eastern Mediterranean in Empire.

The second is more important. The West was Chalcedonian from the beginning. Furthermore, the disintegration of Roman power during the middle decades of the fifth century meant that the activities of western rulers impacted ecclesiastical politics less there than in the East. Thus, Victor is really only interested in Popes like Leo, organiser of Chalcedon, and Vigilius, supporter of the Three Chapters and, in Victor’s view, opponent of Chalcedon. The rest of the debate and schisms and what-have-you from 451-568 happened in the Eastern Empire. As an opponent of the Three Chapters (who was beaten, exiled, and imprisoned for that opposition), that was what really interested Victor, not the ins and outs of Goths and Franks in Italy, Gaul, and Spain.

I feel the need to repeat myself: The whimpering or non-existent echo of 476 in the sixth century does not mean it was unimportant. It means we need to examine all of our sources with the utmost care. It does, however, remind us that, despite the political and economic discontinuities between the two periods, there was still a sense, especially after Justinian’s ‘restoration’, that the Roman Empire endured — albeit ruled from Constantinople.

Why on earth does my research matter?

Sometimes it can be hard for PhD students (or academics in general, I imagine) to explain to normal people why our research matters. Of course, my research often needs no justification in the academic circles I travel in. People who work with popes or the Later Roman Empire or mediaeval canon law or manuscripts or the Church Fathers say, ‘Fantastic! I’m so glad someone’s doing that.’

Nevertheles, sometimes engineers are curious about my research.

So why does tracing the relationships amongst manuscripts with Pope Leo I’s letters, creating some sort of stemma (family tree), and ultimately a new critical edition, matter?

First, the manuscripts and the family tree are important. They show us who was reading Leo, what they were reading, and where. They show us how people were using Leo — papal letters are not as straightforward as, say, epics (not saying Vergilian TC is easy, mind you), being reconfigured and excerpted in various ways for various reasons almost every time they survive. This helps us understand better the world of the scribes, of the monks, of the movers and shakers of ecclesiastical history and intellectual history to the end of the Middle Ages.

Understanding Leo’s manuscripts in particular will also cast light in two important directions. First, we will gain insight into the early years of the transmission of papal correspondence to posterity, the ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ and habits of the scribal tradition. Second, we will gain insight into how the so-called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, whence come many collections and manuscripts of canon law (and thus of Leo’s letters, which are the raw material for canon law), which was occurring from the late eighth to late ninth centuries and touched on much more than canon law — understanding this corner of it, however, will cast light on the whole as we better see how Leo and the papal decretals were treated and transmitted by Western Europe’s scribes as history moved towards the Central Middle Ages.

These two aspects of understanding the manuscripts help us understand the past better. They fill in corners of the darkness of our understanding. They help put faces and moments and material objects (books) to the events that shaped the mediaeval church, a highly powerful institution that looms large over the transmission of all western intellectual history, papal, Christian, and otherwise.

For me, that would be enough. For car engineers, the question of, ‘Why?’ may still loom.

So we go a further step back. Leo’s letters cast light on Leo, on the early development of western canon law and the papacy, and on the events and theology surrounding the Council of Chalcedon in 451 — at which council his delineation of two-nature Christology was approved as official within the Empire, and is still accepted by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants. Leo is, thus, important for those interested in those three traditions (whether Christians or interested persons), as well as for those interested in the non-Chalcedonian traditions (the ‘Miaphysite’ Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, as well as the ‘Dyophysite’ (aka ‘Nestorian’) churches).

And whether you believe or even care about Late Antique Christology, Leo is an important player in the history of ideas and the fragmentation of Christendom in those years, and is important for the centuries that follow through the course of intellectual history (this is also true when we consider Rome and her relations with Constantinople). Finding out his ipsissima uerba is an important task, then.

If that leaves you unconvinced, think about this: The last edition of Leo’s letters is flawed. Even when the Ballerini made good editorial choices, their notes leave much to be desired. It is important for us who study ideas to be transparent, to know where these ideas, these words are found. Is a variant reading a conjecture from the editor? If it’s from a manuscript, which one? Knowing these things will enable the reader to better evaluate the author’s ideas.

In the end, if we want to go beyond these reasons as to why my research matters, all I can think of is: It furthers our knowledge of several important moments and movements in the history of ideas, of canon law, the papacy, Christian theology, Latin epistolography, and more.

And knowledge is worth having.

Justifying that brings us to philosophy, but, in fact, so will the question, ‘Why a better car?’