Monthly Archives: April 2012

New Late Antiquity Resource

I’m basically reblogging this from Research News in Late Antiquity. On Friday, May 4 the Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity will launch their Statues of Late Antiquity or LSA online database.

Once it’s active (it isn’t yet but part of my reason for posting this is to remember to go back and look at it) the database will be located here. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and headed by R.R.R. Smith and Bryan Ward-Perkins.

This looks like it might be pretty good. You can read more about it at the Last Statues of Antiquity Project page. The project will focus on new statuary, not renovation and appears to have the boundaries of the Roman Empire as its focus (though I couldn’t find this flatly stated – for example, based on the project descriptions, including research method, I can’t exclude the possibility that Roman-influenced statuary found outside the Empire or statuary created within the Empire but exported to other regions may be included).

Statuary and inscriptions are areas I’m just beginning to look at. The whole concept of the role public acclamation and image making played in governance of the later Roman Empire seems pretty important to me, at least in some regions. This project and database may be very useful in looking at this, particularly since the project goes beyond simply listing statues and inscriptions and will include contemporary literary references/copying as well as modern analyses.

1 Comment

Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Archaeology, Resources


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I May be Going to the Wrong Place in May

Let me begin by saying that I love Kalamazoo. I’ve been pretty open in saying that the International Congress on Medieval Studies plays a large role in my Medieval Geekiness(Geekery?) and in many ways represents the beginning and end of my Medieval year.

But the registration for the North American Patristics Conference just came in the mail and I’m having a serious case of program envy. I mentioned a few months back how appealing this looked and after visiting the Conference website I consider that confirmed. Don’t believe me? Click on the link for the program – first paragraph in the body of the page, not the link at the left (it’s a downloadable MS Word document). Those are some very interesting sessions, particularly considering what I’ve been reading about lately. I’d have trouble choosing between them but I have the same problem at Kalamazoo.

It looks to be less expensive than I had thought it would be. The early registration fee of $100 is quite reasonable and the hotel rooms are under $150/night (plus tax). I could swing it financially and since I’d only need to take two days off I probably wouldn’t even have to skip Kalamazoo (though I might need to lock away the CC if the book exhibits are as good). Unfortunately I have a program on Thursday & Friday(May 24 & 25) related to my real job which I really can’t miss. But I’m going to look pretty hard at attending in 2013.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Conferences, Religion


Tags: , ,

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus – Christian Enemy?

In 384 the Roman Senator and Prefect of the City of Rome, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus represented the Senate of Rome when it requested that the Altar of Victory be returned to the Senate House and state support for Pagan temples and ritual be restored. The Altar had originally been removed by Constantius in 357, restored by Julian, then removed again by Gratian in 382, along with funding for the temples and state cults. In 382 Symmachus represented the Senate in requesting that the Altar be restored and was not even granted an audience. Following Gratian’s death, the Senate tried again and again they chose Symmachus to represent them. Symmachus wrote an eloquent letter or relatione to Valentinian II, generally considered an outstanding example of Latin literature, asking for religious tolerance and requesting that the Altar and subsidies be restored. 1

Winged Victory statue found at Ephesus
Winged Victory statue found at Ephesus (from Wikipedia Commons)

Based largely on this event, Symmachus has come to be portrayed as a fervent defender of the traditional Roman cults and even, as his bio on says, “A leading opponent of Christianity.” 2

To a large extent (not entirely, see below), this characterization of Symmachus originated with Ambrose and was picked up by Prudentius. Ambrose seems to have been eager to paint himself as the person who went toe-to-toe with Symmachus to defend Christianity from attack. This conflict did not happen in this way and Ambrose’s counter to Symmachus’ letter in favor of restoring the Altar of Victory in the Senate and public support of state cults happened after the Senate request had been denied. 3

Prudentius, apparently writing shortly after Symmachus’ death around 403, wrote his Contra Orationem Symmachi or Reply to the Address of Symmachus in two books. In it Symmachus is described as an enemy attacking Christianity. 4 He is called a “silly pagan” and a “cunning workman” who possesses “the power of deception.” He “dares, alas! to attack our faith.” His voice is polluted with sin and speaks of “unclean monstrosities.” I could go on. 5

On closer examination, the characterization of Symmachus as an enemy or even an opponent of Christianity seems unjustified. While he does criticize some actions taken in the name of Christianity, in particular the plundering of pagan temples, he never, in what I have read, criticizes Christianity itself. While most of this characterization appears to have developed posthumously (even Ambrose’s letter was published later as part of a collection) he did have to defend himself from one accusation. Praetextatus(Prefect of Italy, Africa and Illyricum) obtained an Imperial order from Emperor Valentinian II permitting Symmachus, as Prefect of Rome, to investigate the spoliation of pagan temples and bring those responsible to justice. Symmachus was accused by an unnamed individual (Symmachus doesn’t name him but implies he is someone close to the Emperor) of imprisoning and torturing Christians during this investigation. Valentinian II wrote a public letter telling Symmachus to stop and free everyone. In response Symmachus wrote a passionate relatione explaining that he hadn’t even started his inquiry and that even Pope Damasus had written that no Christians had received any insulting treatment. If such malicious rumours against him persist then he asks (I’m sure this is rhetorical) that he be tried for his crimes. However serious this accusation may have been at the time, it can’t have stuck with him for too long as he was named Consul for 391. 6

Based on his writings and what is known of his actions, Symmachus does not appear to consider himself opposed to Christianity, however the more aggressive Christians chose to portray him this way. In fact, as Prefect of Rome Symmachus was partially responsible for the construction of a Christian church, what is today known as the S. Paolo fuori le mure. 7 He was also a friend of Christians such as Ausonius, writes letters of recommendation for Christians and asks his brother to help a Caesarian bishop whose city was unable to pay its taxes after the fisc was seized by a rebel. 8 Even Ambrose never attacks Symmachus personally, just his request, and the two exchange several letters following the Altar of Victory incident, not as friends but as a powerful bishop and powerful senator who respectfully conduct business with one another.

A closer examination of Relatione 3 (the one which Ambrose and Prudentius wrote against) shows that his argument is not so much against Christianity as in favor of tradition. The Gods of Rome have always protected her, how can they be ignored now? Disaster will result if the protectors are spurned. Already a famine has occurred, the likes of which Rome has never seen, where people are reduced to eating twigs and acorns.

In contrast to attacking Christianity, Symmachus frequently asserts that Christians (and the Emperor) should be allowed to worship as they see fit. “Of course, we can list Emperors of either faith and either conviction: the earlier Emperors venerated our ancestral religious rites, the later did not abolish them.” 9 “Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians.” 10 “Allow them [the Gods] to defend you, us to worship them.” 11

Within this, a very important passage deserves mention, as this has become one of the defining phrases of Symmachus: 12

It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe encompasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.

Symmachus does not come across, in this and his other writings, as particularly closed-minded about religion. He seems to believe (or at least he has adjusted to the reality of the new, growing religion) that people should be free to worship as Christians. However he does want the traditional support for state cults to continue. In his writings, this is to safeguard the Empire, and I have no reason to think he didn’t believe this. I’m sure various other factors play into this such as his role as a Priest, the importance of the cults being linked to his importance as an individual, and his sense of self. However he does not seem to be an opponent or enemy of Christianity, or even a rabid supporter of paganism, as he has sometimes been portrayed. From his writings, Symmachus seems more than anything to be a traditionalist. At times, this love for tradition is displayed in unexpected ways.

Shortly following the death of Vettius Agorus Praetextatus in 384 the Vestal Virgins proposed to erect a statue in his honor. Praetextatus was one of Symmachus’ closest friends and a staunch political ally. Symmachus offers his death as one of the main reasons why he asks Valentinian permission to resign as Prefect of Rome. Even so, he opposes the proposed statue. Symmachus writes to Nichomachus Flavianus stating that while Praetextatus is worthy of this honor, this has never been done before and may establish a dangerous precedent. 13 When the Emperor sent an ornate carriage for the Urban Prefect to ride in, Symmachus declines, both as he feels such opulence is inappropriate and in favor of tradition. 14

Ultimately, Symmachus’ passion for Roman tradition translates itself in Relatione 3 as passion for the state cults. I think it’s useless to try to separate the Roman religion from tradition. To Symmachus, the two will likely have been so intertwined as to be one. To him, supporting the state cults was part of what it meant to be Roman. Other religions had always existed and so he shows no opposition to Christianity, however the state must continue to revere the Gods. It was necessary for the continued health of the Empire and it was what had always been done. As an ardent traditionalist, he became an ardent supporter of the cults. 15

NOTE: I’ve used Barrow(1973) for my references to Symmachus’ relationes however an English translation of Relatione 3, about the Altar of Victory, is also available and for much less money in Liebeschuetz and Hill(2010).

Abbreviations used in Notes:

CS – Contra Symmachus
Rel – Symmachus’ Relationes

1 Relationes were official dispatches sent by Roman adminstrators to the Emperor. Some of these were simply to keep the Emperor up on what was going on but others were to ask for judicial review or to send greetings from the Senate (The praefectus urbi had a substantial judicial role and was also the titular head of the Senate). In judicial cases, Relationes accompanied the evidence and served to explain the situation more fully.

2 You can find the same language on several online sources (likely some have borrowed from each other) such as It is also present at an exhibit at the British Museum.

3 For additional details see McLynn(1994) p 264 and Sogno(2006) pp 50-1.

4 CS I, 651-5.

5 Respectively, CS II, 57, 201, 48, 673 and CS I, 636-8.

6 See Kahlos(2002) pp 95-6 and Sogno(2006) p 52 for an overview of this and Rel 21 in Barrow(1973) for Symmachus’ defense.

7 Kahlos(2002) p 93.

8 For Ausonius, see Symmachus’ Letter 1.13. In Letter 1.99 he recommends Ponticianus and in Letter 1.64 he asks for help for Bishop Clemens of Caesaria.

9 Symmachus, Rel 3.3

10 Symmachus, Rel 3.8

11 Symmachus, Rel 3.19

12 Symmachus, Rel 3.10. Kahlos(2002) pp 109-110 proposes that Symmachus was influenced by Themistius as you can find a similar message in Themistius Or. 5.68d-69a., addressed to Jovian in 364, “… while there exists only one judge, mighty and true, there is no one road leading to him …” and, “If you allow only one path, closing off the rest, you will fence off the broad field of competition.”

13 Based on references, this seems to be from Symmachus’ Letter 2.36. Kahlos(2002) pp 155-6 and Sogno(2006) pp 56-7.

14 Symmachus, Rel 4.3, “Get rid of this conveyance; its array may be more spectacular, but we have always preferred the kind whose use is the more ancient.”

15 Salzman and Roberts(2011) summarize this very well in their Introduction, pp xxxiv-xxxv.

Barrow, Reginald Haynes, ed., Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1973). ISBN: 978-0-19814-443-4.

Heather, Peter and Moncur, David, trans. & ed., Politics, Philosophy, and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-85323-106-0.

Kahlos, Maijastina, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus: A Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Finlandiae Vol. 26. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae (2002). ISBN: 952-5323-05-6.

Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. and Hill, Carole, trans. & ed., Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84631-243-4.

McLynn, Neil B., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-52008-461-6.

Salzman, Michele Renee and Roberts, Michael, The Letters of Symmachus: Book 1. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature (2011). ISBN: 9-781589-835979.

Sogno, Cristiana, Q. Aurelius Symmachus: A Political Biography. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-472-11529-7.

Thomson, H.J., trans. & ed., Prudentius: Volume I. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library (2006). ISBN: 978-0-674-99426-3.

Thomson, H.J., trans. & ed., Prudentius: Volume II. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library (2006). ISBN: 978-0-674-99438-4.


Tags: , , , ,

Conference Report: Vikings, Nosectomies, and a Saint

I’ve been horribly delinquent in my blogging lately. I’d like to say that will change in the near future but I fear this is not so. However it will change at some point. I’m equally behind on keeping up with the blogs I usually read.

On February 24 I went to campus for the second day of the Purdue Comitatus Annual Conference, subtitled, “North Atlantic Connections: Texts and Interpretations of the Medieval North.” Comitatus is a Purdue Medieval studies student group. I’ve been meaning to get to this conference for several years and the stars finally aligned so I could make it.

Based on the conference title I knew this likely wouldn’t be a program right in my wheelhouse however it was a bit closer than I expected. Most of the papers dealt with the Early Medieval Period and while the protagonists generally spoke Old English, Old German or Old Norse rather than Latin or Greek (not to say that I know Latin or Greek, just more about the people who spoke them) I was somewhat familiar with most of the topics.

Chad Judkins, a Purdue PhD student, opened with, “Writing the Viking Invasions and King Alfred’s Educational Program.” For the most part this was a continuation of the “Vikings received an overly bad reputation in historical sources” theme which has become prominent over the past couple of decades. Rather than bloodthirsty invaders in horned helmets intent on nothing more than killing folks for pleasure, it’s pretty widely recognized that their raiding was, mostly, economically motivated. Judkins expanded on this. 1

Judkins reviewed a variety of sources including Alfred’s preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alcuin and Asser. He showed that while Vikings were profoundly disliked, an economic decline seems to have been in effect well before their arrival. Alfred mentions a decline in literacy while Asser discusses how monastic life had become corrupted by wealth and was in decline prior to their arrival. As much of the destruction involved religious institutions including icons, books and churches, the ecclesiastical writers of the day will have believed both that a great deal of damage was done and that this was an attack on religion. Alfred implies that Vikings were a divine punishment, sent by God because of a decline in morality, virtue, monasticism and literacy, and Alfred is willing to use their return as a threat if this is not reversed. While this is a fairly standard type of paper, it was interesting and pointed out some specific sources I wasn’t aware of.

Next up was Phil Purser of Landers University, “Vapn-Wyf: Valkyrie Reflexes in Old English Literature.” He discussed how the Valkyrie was perceived in England and how she evolved from her Scandinavian origins. He believes that Valkyries were portrayed in three ways; as warriors, from a religious perspective, and from a contemporary popular perspective, particularly with laborers. How they were portrayed can provide some clues to their evolution from their Scandinavian origins.

As warriors, Valkyries are described as warrior women. As warrior women their role was not generally to carry a sword or spear but to provide wisdom and encouragement. He drew a parallel between Wealtheow in Beowulf and Valkyrie depictions, such as in the Old Norse verse, Eriksmal and in Danish visual representations of women resembling Valkyries bearing horns. Purser termed this as providing benevolent battle aid. 2

In religious representations Valkyries are depicted as horrible hags. Wulfstan (which I’ve not read) uses them in various ways to depict the evil of the Norse and gives them a relationship with witches. This is a distortion of the Danish Valkyrie who is something of a gatekeeper rather than a death-dealer, choosing men in their final hours for inclusion in Valhalla.

For the English working class the Valkyrie were invisible and harmful. Various charms are used to prevent or dispel their evil. Hag-shot, which is a source of mysterious physical pain is a Valkyrie affliction and flying “stinging women” were believed to cause side-stitch.

Marianne Kalinke from the University of Illinois gave a paper, “Tracking a Werewolf Through Space and Time” to discuss an example of manuscript transmission to Iceland. She uses the werewolf tale of Bisclaret to argue that this story came to Iceland directly from France rather than including a Norse intermediary. In the Icelandic tale Bisclaret is Tiòdel’s Saga. The general theme of the story is that a knight periodically disappears for several days at a time. After questioning from his wife he reveals to her that he is a man while clothed and a wolf while naked. He also tells her where he hides his clothes when he’s out wolfing it. The wife’s not too thrilled to find that she’s been spending her nights next to a wolfman and she coerces another knight to steal the clothes, trapping Bisclaret/Tiòdel in wolf form. When Bisclaret/Tiòdel doesn’t appear for some time he is declared dead and she marries the other knight. Later the king happens to come across an exceedingly friendly wolf which he takes back to his castle. To cut out several parts of the story, the wolf, while in the King’s company encounters his former wife and attacks her, tearing off her nose. As this behavior is very out of character for the wolf the wife is tortured (whole lot of things revealed about contemporary attitudes toward women but I won’t go into that here) and confesses her crime and reveals where the clothes have been hidden.

The common understanding of the original manuscript transmission has been that the story came to Iceland from an Old Norse source. Kalinke argues that it came directly from France rather than having a Norse intermediary. Her argument, which is very persuasive, at least to someone not familiar with other arguments, is based on elements of the story being common to the French and Icelandic versions and missing from the Norse version. The two elements she used were details of shapechanging and what happened to the wife when Bisclaret attacks her. I’ll focus on the wife. In the Old Norse version Bisclaret/Tiòdel tears off her clothes and leaves her standing naked in front of everyone. In the French and Icelandic versions her nose is torn off. Based on the original transmission route, she would have gone from having her nose torn off (French) to having her clothes torn off (Norse) back to losing her nose(Icelandic). Kalinke’s transmission directly from France to Iceland with a consistent nosectomy account is more logical.

There are obviously other areas to explore with this. For example, it’s possible that two versions went from France to Scandinavia and the clothes version is the only one from there which survives. But based on current manuscript evidence, Kalinke believes that a direct France to Iceland transmission makes the most sense.

Ben Wright, a Master’s student from Western Michigan University, used hagiography to illustrate Norse depictions in Early Medieval manuscripts in, “Illuminating the North: Northmen in Manuscript Pictures from Paris and Monte Cassino.” He focused on the evolution of the Life of St. Maurus. Hagiography has been one of my primary medieval interests so I’m afraid my notes do not reflect the main point of Wright’s paper.

The Life of Maurus was likely written by Odo of Cluny (Odo argued that it was written by a 6th century contemporary of Maurus) in the second half of the 9th century. In this vita the Devil is equated with Northmen and they are banished by Maurus.

What’s more interesting to me is how this vita evolved and its relative importance. Maurus ended up being used to provide additional ammo for various entities to make territorial claims. In particular a conflict between Monte Cassino and Saint-Maur-des-Fossès over control of Glanfeuil developed. In the story Maurus, a disciple of Benedict, founded Glanfeuil and his relics had been transported from there to Fossès when Odo and the monks were driven out by Northmen in 862. So Fossès had the relics. However Monte Cassino had been founded by Benedict.

In order to strengthen its claim, in 1033 Monte Cassino acquired an arm of Maurus as a relic. In 1071 Desiderius, the Abbott of Monte Cassino, had a richly decorated and illustrated book, the Codex Benedictus produced. However none of that worked. Fossès exerted control over Glanfeuil from 1058-86 however in the early 12th century Glanfeuil began to assert its independence which it achieved in 1133.

The Codex Benedictus.
The Codex Benedictus (photo from the University of Arizona)

Wright provided a slideshow which included various illustrations of how Northmen were depicted in various manuscripts and he discussed how up to 1133 Maurus had been shown as a Greek cleric (Monte Cassino would have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Empire) however after 1133 he was depicted in Western dress. This part of the presentation was good but for me the use made of Maurus in a power struggle was more interesting.

There was one final paper on the uses of humor in sagas which I won’t report on because I took really crummy notes, unfortunately (the paper and presentation were quite good). The day closed with some Old Norse readings (one of the grad students invited me to join their group – is there an unmet Ag School quota? – but I declined. I have enough trouble with Latin.)

1 A couple of months ago I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. In flipping through the channels of very bad late night television, I came across a Viking movie where everyone, except Lee Majors who was the hero, wore horned helmets. I ended up watching the second half of it simply to marvel at how bad it was. Worst. Movie. Ever. At least dealing with Medieval History. And kind of funny.

2 In Eriksmal, “I stirred the Einherjar/Bade them Rise up,/Stir to their benches/Ready their ale-horns/For the Valkeries come bearing wine/at the coming of the prince.” This compares fairly well with Wealtheow’s role in lines 612-41 and 1161-1231 of Beowulf where she serves as hostess, cupbearer, and encourages the men.


Tags: , , , , ,