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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.

When does ‘late’ antiquity end?

With the purpose of keeping the wider world of Late Antiquity beyond the 21 years of Leo’s pontificate fresh in my mind as well as of becoming abreast of the literature on the field, I recently read Peter Brown’s ‘popular’ cultural history of the period The World of Late Antiquity. I also went to a very interesting day conference on Cities in the Long Late Antiquity that included papers on seventh-century Spain and eighth-century Palestine/Syria.

What this sort of thing — intrinsically interesting as it is — makes me wonder, and especially Brown’s book, is when on earth does Late Antiquity actually end? Are we still living in Late Antiquity?

The World of Late Antiquity cuts off its narrative of the cultural and political landscape of the Latin, Western Roman world in the fifth century. One must, then, assume that western Europe had by the sixth century entered that mysterious land, ‘The Middle Ages.’ Fine and well; I would probably cut off antiquity around the same place.

However, Brown follows eastern cultural and political developments well into the seventh century, into the world of the Caliphate. To be able to maintain that something of Late Antique or ‘Classical’ culture and politics has persisted as far as his book does, he takes up the thread of Sassanian Persia. If books about Late Antiquity had the world of Sassanian Persia as their centrepiece, this would be acceptable practice all around. But they do not, for Late Antiquity is the study of the last centuries of the Graeco-Roman world, the study of the Later Roman Empire (as Bury’s old but useful two-volume history terms it), the study of the later Classical world.

Me and Homer at the Kelvingrove, Glasgow

Classical Studies is consciously Mediterraneo-centric. Indeed, it is consciously Latino-Helleno-centric. It is a field of study that looks at the literature, history, culture, archaeology, languages, and so forth, of the ancient Greek and Roman world(s), conscious of the debt that our culture of the 21st-century ‘West’ owes to them, but also conscious of the intrinsic value of these ancient Classics. To be a Classicist is not to say that Graeco-Roman literature/history/culture is superior to that of Persia or the Germanic Middle Ages or classical China or Sanskrit or the Ojibwe oral tradition (although some might say as much). It is to say that these are interesting and important. We shall focus on them. You do what you like.

Now, sometimes knowledge of the cultures and histories of the surrounding, non-Graeco-Roman world can be useful to the Classicist, such as the mythologies and epics of the Near Eastern world for students of Greek mythology and epic. Or the history of the Persian Empire for the student of Herodotus. Or the world of Sassanian Persia for the student of the Eastern Roman Empire. No doubt about the usefulness of these things.

But Brown’s book spends most of its time focussed on the later Roman Empire, upon the history, culture, and literature of the empire(s) that encircled the Mediterranean Sea as its own lake. To take up the thread of Sassanian Persia to show how long and far Late Antiquity extends is to change focus. Perhaps the Persian Late Antiquity persists into the Caliphate; certainly not the Late Antiquity the book starts with, though.

Another way that Brown extends eastern Late Antiquity as far as he does is by choosing particular cultural traits and following them. This, to my mind, is as arbitrary as any other way of drawing a close to Late Antiquity. Had he chosen certain aspects of Latin literature, not only could he have extended Late Antiquity as far in the West as in the East, following sixth-century authors such as Boethius, Gregory of Tours, and Caesarius of Arles as well as Gregory the Great and the seventh-century Isidore of Seville right up to Bede in the eighth century, he could have followed certain pagan, classical traits throughout the entire Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

But we would all know that to be foolishness, for something — many things — changed at the end of the Classical world. But when on earth is that end?

Odoacer deposes Romulus Augustulus

I think we can say 476 or 480 for the West. In 476, Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer who sent the imperial insignia East and ruled as rex — king — of Italy. In 480, Julius Nepos, Romulus’ predecessor, died in Dalmatia. Whichever of these two dates you choose, the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist as a constituted political entity. Many of the resulting changes were slow to transpire, and their velocity varied from region to region. But we no longer have a Roman Empire in Rome herself. As artificial as any other closing date for Antiquity, this one is at least consciously artificial and chooses a particular event. I note, however, that a good history of Late Antiquity should probably have a closing chapter that notes (if ever-so briefly) the continuity and change that transpired in the new ‘barbarian’ kingdoms of the West.

Justinian, mosaic from San Vitale, Ravenna

In the East, I cast a vote in favour of 565. 565 is the year Justinian died. Justinian is the last Eastern Roman Emperor to have spoken Latin as his first language. He also re-edited Theodosius II’s Code and then also produced the Digest, two monumental works of Roman Law. He built the magnificent Hagia Sophia, introducing a new architecture that would influence eastern churches and mosques to this day. He succeeded in alienating the Miaphysite community to such an extent that the Syrian Orthodox Church (‘Jacobite’) was born during his reign; he also caused a schism amongst western bishops. He reconquered North Africa and Italy, maintained the border with Persia, and kept out ‘barbarian’ peoples along the Danube. At the end of his reign, the world was different, there was no going back.

565 is, perhaps, even more arbitrary than 476/480. It is, still, consciously so. Many, many classical inheritances outlived Justinian; some of them, indeed, lasted until 1453. Many things also changed, and the Justinianic changes combined with Classical continuity helped forge the world and culture we think of as Byzantine. It still, therefore, strikes me as a safe cut-off. The Classical world of Constantine was gone by 565.

And what follows Late Antiquity? What comes after the ‘fall’ of the western Roman Empire? We’ll investigate this in my next post.