Tag Archives: Barbarians

Rome’s Fifth Century Grain Supply

I took a break from reading about Christianity to catch up on some things that have been laying around here a while and came across several good articles in last fall’s issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity. Among these is an analysis by Jason Linn of the city of Rome’s grain supply between the signing of a treaty between Rome and the Vandals in 442 and the resumption of hostilities in 455 after Valentinian III’s death.

Genseric_sacking_Rome_45519th century painting of Geiseric’s sack of Rome in 455 by Karl Briullov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For background, Roman cities were something of an anomaly, or at least appear that way to those of us who are interested in the Middle Ages. The Medieval city was relatively modest in size through most of the period and its population appears to have been largely supported by local agricultural production. A Medieval city with a population of 10,000 was large, one with a population of 50,000 was huge, and possibly unknown in Western Europe before about the millennium. In contrast, the Roman Empire possessed several cities with populations of over 100,000 and Rome, Alexandria(probably), and – later – Constantinople over 500,000 and, in the case of Rome at least, possibly approaching a million. These cities could not have been supported by local agricultural production, except for Alexandria due to Egypt’s fertility, but must have been part of more extensive trade networks. 1

I’ve been interested in discussions of trade networks for several reasons. Among these are as indicators of economic wealth, particularly among elites, how involved medieval people were in the wider world compared with their immediate environment, and what types (and the extent) of networks existed. In the case of Roman cities, one purpose for these networks was to provide a more basic need; to feed the population.

Some of the theories that have been proposed include that with the loss of Roman North Africa, the city also lost the annona which was basically a taxation paid in kind by agricultural areas. Instead Rome had to pay the Vandals for its grain. A related theory is that this supply was less reliable than the taxation system and resulted in food shortages in the city. Linn sets out to disprove both of these concepts.

Linn believes that the treaty of 442 was not some sort of watershed as it has often been viewed. While he believes the grain supply from North Africa did decrease, the western empire possessed enough agricultural land to make up this shortage.(298-9) He discusses this using a combination of reasoned argument, evidence related to grain production, and coinage. There are multiple sub-arguments within his overriding thesis and I’ll try to touch on some of these as I go along.

He opens by discussing the provisions of the treaty. The treaty itself does not survive, just reports of it from various sources. Without going into too much detail, Linn believes that this treaty was signed from a relative position of Roman strength. He accepts Procopius’ report that one of the terms of the treaty involved Geiseric handing over his son, Huneric, as hostage, something which would be doubtful if the Vandals were completely dictating the terms.(301) 2

The terms of the treaty have been debated with some believing that the grain shipments from North Africa represent an economic transaction and that Rome paid for what it received. Linn believes this is not supportable and that the grain was sent to Rome free of charge. He discusses Roman coin finds in North Africa and says, “Hardly any Roman coins from the mid-fifth century have been found in Carthage.”(309) Linn believes that this indicates that Geiseric possessed the ability to compel North African farmers to produce grain for Rome without financial return, possibly continuing a taxation in kind system. 3

Linn is careful to note that it is almost certain that less grain was sent to Rome than had been prior to the Vandal conquest.(306-309) Procopius indicates that much of the land allocated to Geiseric’s Vandal subjects was granted tax-free. Some land went out of production. Meanwhile, the local population level did not change substantially so a higher proportion of grain would have been required to meet local needs.

While the grain supply from North Africa would have been reduced, Linn believes that local regions such as Sicily, parts of Gaul, and Italy would have been able to make up the difference.(315-6) He also spends a fair amount of time discussing how by this time Rome had fewer mouths to feed.(317-21) I won’t go into detail on this but his two main points are that the size of the standing army was radically reduced by this time and that the population of Rome was, at most, about 500,000, substantially reduced from its height. In addition, much of the army that remained received their pay in coinage rather than in grain. 4

One additional piece of evidence which I think deserves mention is that, based on contemporary sources, it appears that Rome had enough grain to feed its population during the period. Between 442 and 455 there is evidence for a single famine, from 450-2, and this affected all of Italy, not just Rome, indicating a broader event, either due to weather or some other factor, and not a failure of the annona payment.

I enjoyed this article. Linn uses a lot of evidence, enough for you to see how he arrives at his conclusions. I have some questions about a couple of those (see footnote 4, below) but based on the evidence he provides I think his overall conclusions are on fairly solid ground; Rome was adequately fed between 442-455, grain continued to arrive from North Africa, and this was along the lines of a free payment, not something Rome had to buy.

1 Amazingly, I haven’t read anything which specifically discusses Late Ancient/Late Antique population in detail. The book I’ve seen most frequently referenced is Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., The Decline and Fall of the Roman City. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-19815-247-7.

2 Other than a brief comment Linn does not discuss the possibility that this arrangement may have been something Geiseric wanted as a precursor to his son’s possible marriage to Valentinian III’s daughter and to become, possibly, Emperor through marriage. Without some sort of textual evidence this is impossible to prove but Geiseric showed himself, throughout his career, to be an able ruler who was able to take a long-term view. I can hypothesize him thinking something along the lines of, If my son marries Eudoxia there’s a good chance he could become Emperor. It would be a good thing if he spent a few years in Rome so if and when the time comes, he’ll have learned the things he needs to so he can handle the job. I could see him thinking along the same lines when it came to making sure the grain got through – that Rome would be more willing to accept a Vandal Emperor if they couldn’t blame his father for not feeding Rome, and that by continuing the custom of free grain from North Africa, Geiseric and Huneric could demonstrate their worthiness to be rulers of the Western Empire if the opportunity arose. There’s also the concept that if Rome continued to receive grain, it would be less motivated to cross the Mediterranean and try to get North Africa back as it tried (and failed) to do in 460 and 468. As you can see from this lengthy note, I can come up with a bunch of reasons why a treaty which included free grain shipments and a “hostage” may have been exactly what Geiseric wanted. Also, I think it’s important to note that many scholars believe Huneric was sent as a hostage in 435, not 442. Linn outlines his reasons for disagreeing with them on page 300.

3 Every time I read more about North Africa in the fifth century I become a little more impressed with Geiseric. He certainly is viewed badly by contemporary sources but even these criticisms point to his ability as a ruler. Even his repression of Orthodox Catholicism in favor of Arianism, despite Victor of Vita’s account, points to an ability to do so without negatively impacting much beyond the type of service conducted at churches. He had the foresight to begin building a fleet of ships well in advance of his crossing into Africa and 25 years later the Vandals, who had just about zero experience with the sea prior to reaching North Africa, were able to assemble a fleet and sack Rome. Under his rule the Vandals went from a nothing grouping to ruling one of the wealthiest areas of the Empire and, evidently, without causing massive local disruptions, at least long-term (other than to Orthodox Christianity).

4 To be honest, Linn’s use of this last piece of evidence puzzles me. Even if the army was paid in cash rather than grain they still would have had to eat, resulting in little or no net change in total grain requirements. This and his lack of emphasis on the possibility that Huneric may have been sent to the Roman court because Geiseric wanted it that way are the two pieces of this article I have my strongest doubts about.

Linn, Jason, “The Roman Grain Supply, 442-455,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5.2 (2013), 298-321.

Victor of Vita, Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution, John Moorhead, ed. and trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0-85323-1271-1.


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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.


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The Alamanni: A Roman Myth

I recently finished reading John Drinkwater’s The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Caracalla to Clovis. I started a review a few days ago and it’s been kicking my butt (I can’t seem to really do it justice in less than 3,000 or so words) so I’ve decided to throw in the towel and compose a brief post about the Alamanni, in particular how Rome viewed — and used — them. Re Drinkwater; This was a good book with a LOT of information. He’s a bit selective in the use of some of his sources and he has this annoying habit of bringing up an issue, devoting maybe one sentence to it without summarizing arguments and throwing you to a footnote, sometimes to something which is out of print. I grew to dread anything footnoted, “Drinkwater, 1983a.”1 There are also stretches where it seems to me that he’s making a logical argument rather than one based on evidence but, while it has a few warts, overall this is a good book. I was fortunate to find a used copy at Kalamazoo this year and I’ll be using it a lot in this post.

Now I don’t have space on this blog to post anything beyond a very brief summary of all this (and historians reading this blog can take a nap during this if you like – unless you find a mistake in which case I appreciate corrections) but the Alamanni may be the single best example of how Rome created barbarian tribes and exaggerated the threat they posed for their own ends. There isn’t a single reason for this; the reason likely varied from Emperor to Emperor. One reason pretty much has to be to emphasize their own military successes and their role as the protector of the Empire and the Roman people however there were undoubtedly others. To me, one of the main reasons this was effective was because the population had been given accounts of a barbarian threat for so long that they were ready to believe that there was some massive foreign force ready to invade and destroy Rome, restrained only by the bravery and actions of Roman soldiers and the Emperor.

Brennus, who led the Gauls during their 4th century, BC sack of Rome, continued to receive mention in literary sources through the fifth century. Caesar’s Gallic Wars, while a wonderful historical source, exaggerated the strength of the barbarians for Caesar’s own purposes. Even Tacitus, who seems to have really tried to get things right, portrays various barbarian groups as cohesive entities. Beyond this there were accounts of Marcus Aurelius’ Marcomannic Wars and an Iuthungi invasion into Italy somewhere around 271.2

This is the start of the myth. For the most part, the myth holds true for other barbarians along the Rhine, it’s just that for the Alamanni, the Roman creation is even more extreme. So who, or what, were the Alamanni? This is an interesting question. Drinkwater believes they were a bunch of folks who happened to live in the region between the Rhine and Danube which was lost to Rome in the 3rd century, part of the former Germania Superior. Their arrival was as what I’d characterize as “just folks.” Scattered small bands of people arrived from various places and settled in the region over a period of time. Drinkwater says, “Whatever the original meaning of the term ‘Alamanni’ and the manner in which it became attached to a certain set of people, the lesson of fourth century history and archaeology is that there was no invasion by a single, fully fledged people or consciously related association of tribes.”3

Drinkwater thinks they weren’t much of anything, as an entity, until at least the fourth century. To this point they consisted of tribal groups capable of developing a war-party of around 600, large enough to cause some serious damage if they crossed the Rhine and raided into the Empire but not sizable enough to represent any sort of invasion threat. In contrast, Thomas Burns believes they began to form a confederacy, coalescing around the Iuthungi, in the 270’s and 280’s. Figuring out the “truth” of this is one of those interesting pieces of history which historians argue over and which I enjoy reading about.4

The Alamanni, even more than the other barbarian “groups” appear to have been a diffuse group without really answering to a central authority. Nobody knows what or how the Alamanni thought of themselves. They didn’t write any books. When they were first mentioned in light of a Germanic campaign in 213, it appears likely that you could consider Dio’s Alamanni to actually be, People who happen to live in the region the Romans call Alamannia.5

Now every Human society has some sort of social structure, formal or not. I’m not saying that these folks didn’t but based on their extremely rural settlement patterns it seems likely that for much if not all of the third, and even into the fourth century, this structure would have been very local.

As time went on this slowly changed. These small clusters coalesced into larger groups and signs of local elites appears. Settlements became large enough that local industry and craftmanship, particularly with iron, appear. During the fourth century a new type of settlement appeared on hillsites. These are only occasionally walled but seem to indicate a vertical stratification of society and the appearance of local elites. These elites likely held positions of authority and it seems that by the mid-fourth century this had become at least somewhat hereditary. It’s hard to say where in the hierarchy residents of these sites ranked — this likely varied from site to site — however it’s hard to avoid believing that they would have asserted effective control over the immediate surroundings, at least to the extent that agricultural production would have been directed towards supplying their needs. Still, even here the geographic area likely controlled by these elite centers was relatively small and could not have represented large numbers of people. 6

From a Roman perspective, the Alamanni achieve stardom during the middle of the fourth century. In 354 Constantius II attacks the Alamanni in response to extensive raiding in Gaul, resulting in an eventual peace treaty and Constantius adopting a title recognizing this victory (which was achieved without casualties). Ammianus Marcellinus notes that seven Alamanni Kings, led by Chnodomarius, band together against Julian in 357 and are able to raise a force which Ammianus numbers at 35,000 at Strasbourg.7

By now you’re probably saying to yourself, “The Alamanni were a myth? What myth? They raised a pretty big army for that time, crossed the Rhine and attacked Rome. Doesn’t sound like a myth to me.”

While not always literally true, I’m quite fond of the old saying that myths are usually distortions based on fact. In this case, that seems true. Clearly the Alamanni had become more organized by the mid-fourth century. However the simple fact (I’m giving Ammianus the benefit here) that this consisted of the banding together of seven kings says to me that they weren’t very organized. There’s no reason to believe that Chnodomarius was any sort of “super king” embodied with the right to command all of these others. If that type of kingship was inherent with the Alamanni, I think we’d have heard much more of them both before and after the mid-fourth century. It’s also apparent that, in an extraordinary circumstance, these kings were able to work together, though how well is a matter for debate – they certainly lost, badly.

Whether they attacked Rome or acted primarily out of self-defense is at least somewhat debatable, and pretty dependent on POV. By this time the Alamanni had become a pretty useful client group. Alamannia seems to have become one of the first places Rome went to find some extra troops to serve locally in the army. During the usurpation of Magnentius the Alamanni may have been used by Constantius to weaken the usurper by encouraging them to raid into Gaul. Unfortunately, if this is what happened, they didn’t stop once Magnentius was defeated. Constantius had to move into Gaul to achieve his bloodless victory (see above). Things didn’t end there though as the Franks continued attacks to the north, including taking Cologne and Alamanni began settling on the western bank of the Rhine, providing Julian, once he was given command of the Western army, with a good excuse to attack.8

In any case, by 357 the Alamanni were able to band the forces of seven kings together at Strasbourg. Here they were a threat, at least in numbers. However in the ensuing battle they seem to have been less so. Ammianus provides a fairly detailed account of the battle where it appears that the Roman force was in some jeopardy, however his casualty figures of 6,000 Alamanni and 247 Romans tells a different story.9

Julian wasn’t finished with the barbarians. He proceeded to attack Alamanni settlements on both sides of the Rhine, completely driving them out of Roman territory, and took his army through Alamanni territory, destroying settlements and crops. Of course in 361 he was declared Emperor and left the area for the civil war that didn’t happen as Constantius died.

The Alamanni still show up after this but it appears that from this point forward they are largely mentioned either as raiding into Roman territory, or as clients and allies. Rome engaged in a strategy of gift-giving and payments and Alamanni periodically served in and with the Roman army. Based on the narratives, it appears that their high point came in the 350’s. This did not stop Roman Emperors from being willing to consider military success against raiders to be significant victories. Orators continued to trumpet Roman successes. The barbarians, including the Alamanni, continued to be considered a threat looming on the borders.

Based on the sources, unless you accept that the Suebi/Suevi mentioned as crossing the Rhine in 405/6 were another name for Alamanni, they never again really threaten Rome. Their final significant mention comes in 496 or 497 when Clovis defeats them at Zülpich.10 Drinkwater believes that from about 450, in the wake of the dissolution of the Hunnic Empire, the Alamanni began a process of becoming increasingly organized which, if the process had been allowed to run its course, may have led to their forming a kingdom such as the Visigoths, Burgundians, or Franks. However for them the process began too late and Zülpich ended any chance of this happening. By 506/7 Clovis and the Franks had taken over Alamannia and they became part of the Merovingian kingdom.

Ultimately, the Alamanni were never much of a threat to Rome. They caused some trouble through raiding and Constantius may have started a process where for a brief period they began settling on Roman lands, but they were never organized to the point where they could seriously think of invading. Their one major organization under Chnodomarius amounted to a bunch of kinglets gathering their forces in response to Roman attacks. Beyond this, most of their activity consisted of warbands crossing the Rhine to engage in pillaging raids, often in response to Rome reducing their subsidies. This obviously sucked if you happened to be a raided settlement and some Roman citizens were undoubtedly killed but they were never going to take over Roman territory by force.

But folks in Rome and Constantinople didn’t know this. They were hundreds of miles from the frontier. Messages from the border provinces likely focused on what was going wrong, not when everything was fine. Most of all, depictions of barbarians in literature, triumphs celebrated for victories over barbarians, barbarians being killed during state games, and oratory, all supported the concept of a barbarian menace, only kept from Rome’s door by the valor of its leaders.

Occasionally barbarians could be a real threat. The Goths in the wake of Adrianople show this, and if Chnodomarius had won at Strasbourg things would likely have gone badly for local residents of the area, until another Roman force could have cleaned things up. For the most part though, the image of barbarians threatening Rome, or even the border provinces of the Empire, is a Roman myth until the fifth century. This is true for various barbarian groups including the Franks and Burgundians. It is particularly true for the Alamanni, a group that never really achieved the sort of structure necessary to become a real threat to the Empire.

1 In case you’re curious, this refers to, Drinkwater, John F., Roman Gaul: The Three Provinces, 58 B.C.-A.D. 260. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1983). ISBN: 978-0-8014-1642-2. Based on Amazon and Cornell University Press (using the search term, “Drinkwater”), it appears to be out of print.

2 Drinkwater, 2003, pp 70-75, argues that this invasion may have occurred in 260 and the event of 271 was more along the lines of a raid or foraging incursion, motivated by Aurelian ending subsidies which had been established following the earlier invasion. In any case, this threat evidently impressed the Roman people enough to inspire the construction of the Aurelian Walls. For an example of the persistence of the memory of the fourth century BC Gallic invasion, see Themistius, Or.3.43c, delivered in 357 in honor of Constantius.

3 From Drinkwater, 2003, p 45.

4 See Burns, 2003, p. 278 and Drinkwater, 2007, p 80. For Drinkwater, it takes his entire Chapter 3, “Settlement,” pp 80-116, to really get a handle on his position. For one thing, he prefers the terms “Elbgermanic” and “proto Alamanni” which infer that who the Romans called Alamanni were mainly “just people.”

5 Drinkwater, 2003, p 44 has a short discussion of some modern historians believing Dio’s mention of Alamanni to be a later addition by translators and explains why he disagrees with this. Cassius Dio’s Roman History 78.13.4-6 discusses the 213 campaign which consists of Caracalla running around and deciding to build forts and cities here and there which does not give me the impression that the Alamanni were capable of any sort of organized resistance.

6 Two interesting perspectives are provided here. Drinkwater, 2003, pp 100-3 believes these were rarely walled and is careful to call them “hill-sites.” He also proposes that the Romans may have assisted with the construction of some of these sites as a means of getting locals to assist with Roman security just across the Rhine. Edward James, 2009, pp 142-3 calls these hill-forts and adds some interesting details including evidence of relatively sophisticated trading activity such as the presence of scales, weights and silver ingots.

7 I’m not going to list all of the Ammianus mentions of the Alamanni. Let’s just say that they are prominent, first appearing in Book 10 of his History with their final mention in Book 27. However XVI.12 describes the Battle of Strasbourg and the subsequent campaign is covered in XVII.1. Eutropius, writing(probably) in 369 in his Breviarium, X.14, doesn’t use exact numbers but says that, “Julian, with only a modest force, overwhelmed vast numbers of Alamanni at Strasbourg …” Drinkwater, 2003, pp 238-9 believes the Alamanni numbered in the neighborhood of 15,000.

8 Drinkwater footnotes multiple sources for this; Libanius, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Zosimus and Ammianus. I don’t have Libanius but I have the other four and I’ll quote from my translation of Socrates III.1.26, “For the barbarians whom the Emperor Constantius had engaged as auxiliary forces against the tyrant Magnentius, having proved of no use against the usurper, were beginning to pillage the Roman cities.”

9 Ammianus VI.12.63 for casualties. While the number of Alamanni dead can probably be summarized as Ammianus saying, “The Romans killed a whole bunch of them,” the number of Roman dead is likely to be fairly accurate.

10 Gregory of Tours, Historiae 2.30. I’ve mentioned before (see note 15) how it seems that Gregory can’t really be trusted when talking about things which happened either a long time before or geographically distant from when and where he was however this event was so seminal to the formation of the Merovingian kingdom that it seems likely that his account is substantially true. Of course Gregory is more concerned with Clovis’ conversion than the battle itself.

Bird, H. W., trans., Eutropius: Breviarium. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1993). ISBN:978-0-8532-3208-7.

Burns, Thomas S., Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.-A.D. 400. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8018-7306-5.

Cary, Earnest, trans., Dio’s Roman History. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1961).

Drinkwater, John F., The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Caracalla to Clovis. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-19-929586-5.

Heather, Peter and Moncur, David, ed. & trans., Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-8532-3106-6.

James, Edward, Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600. Harlow: Pearson Education (2009). ISBN: 978-0-582-77296-0.

Rolfe, John C., trans., Ammianus Marcellinus: History (3 vols). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (2000).

Socrates Scholasticus, The Eccelesiastical History. Nu Vision Publications (2007). ISBN: 978-1-5954-7906-8. NOTE: This is one of these cheap OOP reprint editions which I bought a few years ago when I was poorer and not concerned with making blog posts. It doesn’t even say who the original translation was by, which is weak. I have several of these and someday I should start updating them, at least if I’m going to keep citing them.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.


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Early Medieval Law Codes and Medicine II

Warning! This Post Contains Graphic Content!!!

OK, to me the graphic content in this post isn’t as bad as in my first post on the topic, but it still has some so I thought I’d repeat the warning. I have a more serious purpose with this post than discussing a wound which would leave you unfit for anything other than the lead if Jethro Tull dusted off one of their songs to make a new music video.

In reading Lisi Oliver’s The Body Legal in Barbarian Law I was struck by her mention of several instances where a value is placed on injuries which at one time I would have considered to be pretty much an automatic death sentence before modern medicine, particularly without the availability of antibiotics to counter sepsis. Evidently, as a value which is less than a person’s full wergild is assigned to these injuries, people could sometimes recover from them. I thought I’d take a post to discuss this in a bit more detail.

Before I get started, for those of you less familiar with Germanic (sorry Goffart!) law codes, I want to give a very brief explanation of the concept of wergild. Every person in a given Germanic society is assigned a value. This value is usually equal to the amount a murderer would be required to pay the victim’s family to avoid possible repercussions, or from being “handed over” to the family. These are interesting in and of themselves as they help indicate how valuable that society considered members of a certain social class to be, as well as revealing what skills/abilities/characteristics were important. For example, in Frankish society a free woman of childbearing age had a wergild of 600, the same as that of a nobleman and three times that of a normal freeman, indicating the value of the ability to produce children. Penalties for lesser crimes are sometimes set at a percentage of wergild. For example, among the Alamanni, if someone is killed by a dog then the owner of the dog owes half the man’s wergild (though there is an interesting clause in this case requiring the dog to be hung over its owner’s door until it rots away and the owner must enter and leave his home only through that door until decomposition is complete). However sometimes the price for these penalties is a flat value. Returning to the Alamanni, if someone causes a woman to abort, he or she owes 12 solidi if the child is male, 24 if it is female. 1

This type of system has often been characterized as primitive. To me the civil court system, at least in the US, functions very similarly. In an early medieval case an assessment was made of a person’s value, how much the injury or death was worth and a punitive penalty was sometimes assigned. Items such as potential earning ability, impacts on quality of life, cost of medical care, etc., were factored in. The conflict may have been settled out of court by agreement of the two parties but if they chose the judicial route there were fairly strict criteria for selecting a judge and witness testimony was highly valued. I don’t see a lot of difference between these medieval cases and a modern lawsuit (once you accept the lack of scientific evidence available back then).

I had always been of the opinion that certain injuries from those days would have been pretty much a death sentence. After all, while they had some pretty solid herbal remedies, they didn’t have antibiotics and while they had knowledge of the general concept that clean was better than dirty for injuries, they had no concept of germs. It’s apparent that simple injuries, amputations, or even abdominal wounds which didn’t damage internal organs could be recovered from. The assignment of penalties to these wounds, at rates below full wergild, indicates that survival could be expected.

There are certain wounds I would have considered extremely serious but sometimes survivable. Among these would have been non-penetrating trauma which caused serious internal injuries and wounds which penetrated the peritoneum but did not damage internal organs. Interestingly, the former receives almost no mention in the law codes. There’s nothing pointing to, say, coughing blood because a rib punctures a lung, urinating blood because kidneys are damaged (this is particularly surprising to me because of how common it should have been) or excreting blood due to lower GI injuries. Apparently, if there weren’t visible, external signs of injury, it didn’t matter. Wounds to the abdomen do receive mention in many of the codes. The Franks have some provisions discussing if the wound doesn’t heal but continuously seeps. 2

There are some wounds mentioned by the law codes which I would have expected survival from to be extremely rare, nearly nonexistent. Two of these involve the abdomen. In one, the abdomen is cut so the internal organs spill out and must be replaced. Now folks back then had a pretty decent knowledge of anatomy and they would certainly have known to clean things up before stuffing everything back in but I would still expect this sort of injury to introduce foreign matter into the body cavity, something I understand to be pretty much a death sentence. A related wound is one to the abdomen which also damages the intestines so that excrement comes out. Again, this is contamination with foreign matter, in this case material which is loaded with bacteria. A medieval surgeon would have had the choice of sewing up the intestines with stitches which couldn’t be removed or tucking the excrement-leaking intestines back in. I probably need to read Galen or Hippocrates but I can’t imagine they’d leave the body open while the intestines healed and wait until then to close the wound. These two types of wounds are such that I would have expected near certain death, however values at less than full wergild were assessed for them, so evidently they were survivable at least some of the time. 3

The other wound category involves those to the head. And not just a head wound but those which expose the brain. Again, there are two categories. In one the brain is simply exposed. I can see how this might be survived though I’d expect this to be rare. The other involves a head injury such that the brain protrudes out of the skull. This is another I’d expect to be almost always fatal, but it is dealt with in the law codes so evidently the medievals had ways of treating it. In fact, in the Alamannic code this is portrayed as relatively common, “If, however, the brain protrudes from the wound, as often happens, so that a physician mends (the skull) with medication or silk and afterwards (the patient) recovers, and this is proved to be true, let him (the giver of the blow) compensate with forty solidi.” 4

Clearly I’m underestimating either; the ability of the body to fight off infection caused by exposure to or introduction of foreign materials or; the ability of medievals to treat such injuries. Or both. I don’t have a ton of medieval medical manuals and this isn’t something I’ve read a lot on. Thanks to Stephen Pollington(2008) I do have a few Anglo-Saxon sources. Bald’s Leechbook includes a treatment for wounds of the head where the bones are broken. The Leechbook also contains instructions for “… if one’s bowels be out …” but I suspect this refers to a prolapse. Examples of trepanation known through archaeological finds are fairly numerous so they were willing to drill holes in someone’s head if necessary. 5

Herbal remedies were also available. The Old English Herbarium suggests that, “If a man’s head be broken …” the patient should drink a concoction made of bishopswort and hot beer. Drink enough of it and I bet you would feel better. 6

This is something I need to read more on and it appears that early medieval medicine is more sophisticated than I have given it credit for. I suspect a reading of Galen and Hippocrates would be useful. I’m not sure how available these would have been to early medieval doctors however Galen’s Therapeutics to Glaucon, Hippocrates Aphorisms and a text, The Wisdom of the Art of Medicine were, among others, in circulation. I also want to get a copy of the Frisian laws. According to Oliver, they were very concerned with specifics of anatomy.

Once again, even after all the reading I’ve done, I’ve come across something which surprised me. This is really cool, happens fairly often, and if it ever stops happening I have a feeling I’ll have to find a new hobby. Of course it also leaves me with the sense of how much I don’t know but that’s OK too.

The following abbreviations will be used to identify law codes in the notes:

PLA – Pactus Legis Alamannorum
LLA – Alamannic Laws from the Lantfridana Manuscripts
BL – Bavarian Laws (from the Ingolstadt Manuscript)
PLS – Pactus Legis Salicae (Salic Law)
LSK – Lex Salica Karolina (Charlemagne’s update to the Salic Law)

1 For being killed by a dog, see LLA, XCVI.3. For abortion, LLA, LXXXVIII.1. I should also mention that when an offender was handed over to the victim’s family, general opinion is that this would usually be to serve the family as a slave until it is judged that the debt is paid, not to be killed. See Oliver(2011) pp 49-51 for a discussion of this. One of the main points of the wergild system was to reduce violence by providing non-violent means of compensation. I doubt they would have legalized turning someone over to be tortured and/or killed which would only serve to continue the violence/retribution cycle.

2 Oliver (2011), p 59 in discussing a poisoning case, “The resulting harm, in any case, would have damaged the internal organs which (except in Frisia) were not protected by law.” For non-healing abdominal wounds see PLS, XVII.7, LSK, XV.6.

3 Oliver (2011), p 129, “Frisia includes a fine for causing the intestines to spill out such that they have to be replaced.” The Alamans, LLA, LVII.57, include a fine for, “If, however, he mutilates the intestines so that the excrement comes out, let him compensate with forty solidi.”

4 LLA, LVII.7. The Alamans, LLA, LVII.6 also include compensation of 12 solidi where, “… the brain appears and a physician can touch it with a feather or a cloth …”. This is the most specific account but the Bavarians, Frisians and Franks all include compensation for injuries in which the brain is exposed. In addition to those quoted see Oliver(2011), p 86 referencing the Frisians and; BL, IV.6, V.5 and VI.5; PLS, XVII.4 and XVII.5; LSK, XV.4; PLA, I.1. Another interesting aspect to head injuries which I’m not going to cover here is that of compensation being established by determining if a piece of bone broken off was large enough to hear it strike a shield when you threw it.

5 Bald’s Leechbook, III.33 for the head and III.73 for bowels.

6 Old English Herbarium, 1.Bishopwort/Betonica.

Drew, Katherine Fischer, trans., The Laws of the Salian Franks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1991). ISBN: 978-0-8122-1322-5.

Oliver, Lisi, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2011). ISBN: 978-0-8020-9706-4.

Pollington, Stephen, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Hereward: Anglo-Saxon Books (2008). ISBN: 978-1-898281-47-4.

Rivers, Theodore John, trans., Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1977). ISBN: 0-8122-7731-7.

Wallis, Faith, ed., Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2010). ISBN: 978-1-4426-0103-1.


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Early Medieval Law Codes and Medicine I

WARNING: This Post Contains Graphic Content!!!

Now that I’ve helped increase site traffic sufficiently warned everybody, I should clarify that this doesn’t contain any nudity but there may be some items which have a certain yuck factor.

NOTE: I originally intended this to be a single post but after the length of my tangential digression I decided to split it into two parts. The second part will discuss some of my thoughts on the kinds of injuries which folks in Late Antiquity might have a reasonable prospect of surviving, some of which I would once have considered to be pretty much a death sentence. Click here for Part II.

I finished reading Lisi Oliver’s The Body Legal in Barbarian Law a week or so ago. She uses evidence from the various laws/law codes of Roman successor kingdoms to evaluate, based on the value placed on injury to various parts of the body, what the barbarians (I’ll use her terminology here) reveal regarding the importance of the physical form. For example, she takes some time to discuss what parts of the body are most important functionally vs which are most important aesthetically. By looking at whether a law assigns greater value to damage to a functionally or aesthetically important body part she can look at what’s more important to one of the barbarian groups and does this vary with social status. For example, is an aesthetic body part valued more highly for an elite female as opposed to a slave male. This is an interesting book and if the subject intrigues you, I encourage you to take a look at it.

But this is not a review of this book. As I was reading her account she discusses some injuries which, 15 years ago, I would have thought would have been an automatic death sentence before the advent of modern drugs to counter sepsis, particularly antibiotics. She also mentioned one injury which absolutely freaks me out.

I’m going to open with my gross-out tangent which really isn’t relevant to the second part of this post as the injury is neither life-threatening or fixable (back then anyway). I’m going to begin with an anecdote. In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the most important scenes – perhaps the most important – occurs towards the end of the account of Winston’s being broken by O’Brien. Winston’s had the dog beaten out of him – he’s been starved, beaten, tortured, but there’s still a piece of him, at his core, that remains intact. Leading up to this there have been occasional references to a specific room which the other prisoners say is “the worst place in the world” (I’m paraphrasing – the book’s here somewhere but I haven’t found it). So O’Brien takes Winston in there. Winston defiantly tells O’Brien that despite everything that’s been done to him, he hasn’t betrayed Julia, his lover. We’ve previously had hints (though I hadn’t made the connection to this point) that Winston is very frightened of rats. O’Brien pulls out some sort of cage device which holds some huge, starving, ravenous rats. He places it on Winston’s head and describes how, once released, the rats will go for his eyes and burrow through his cheeks to get at his tongue. As O’Brien’s about to release the catch and Winston can hear the rats scrambling around trying to get at him, Winston screams, “Do it to Julia! Tear her face off! Eat her eyes!” or something like that. The final breaking of Winston.

In thinking about this when I read it the first time (I was in my teens) I was pretty sure that the worst place in the world for me would have been being fitted with a similar helmet, but one filled with yellowjackets. Any social bee or wasp would have done but the yellowjackets would have been the worst. When I was 9 I stepped in a ground nest, got stung a bunch of times and had to be taken to the hospital. Ever since then I’ve had a pretty strong fear of bees. At one time I considered it overwhelming. I’m better now – if I see the bees/wasps I can deal with them rationally. I know what sets them off and how to behave. And I’ve been stung since and it’s not that bad. But if a sudden buzzing happens in my ear, I still have a moment of panic.

Lisi Oliver has given me a new, not place but worst thing in the world, at least for a little while. In discussing wounds to the nose she writes of Ripuarian and Alamannic laws that, “If, however, a sufficient amount has been struck off so that mucus dribbles from the stump; a fine equal to the full penalty for eye or ear is required. This legislation addresses the physical task of the nose to contain mucus.” 1

OK, I’d never once considered a wound which would expose the sinuses to such an extent that snot would be constantly running down your face. This first passage of hers was bad enough but she becomes a bit more explicit later.

In Ripuarian law, a damaged nose that can still contain mucus must be compensated for with fifty solidi, but if the stump cannot hold mucus (mucare non possit), the penalty is doubled to 100 solidi – 50 per cent of a freeman’s wergild. Certainly these rulings consider the greater degree of injury to the dribbling stump; however, it seems at least possible that in setting the assessment for the perpetual drip, the Ripuarian legislators may also have taken into account the visual embarrassment. If this hypothesis is true, the punitive surcharge would not seem to have been assessed in Alamann law, in which restitution for slicing off a sufficient portion of the nose so that mucus flows freely is a mere twelve solidi, or 6 per cent of wergild.2

That one did it for me. I’ve often found humor in folks who express a desire to have lived even a couple of hundred, let alone a thousand or more years ago. I suspect what they would (in the vast majority of cases anyway) like is to visit and then come back home. I like camping for a few days at a time but this does not mean I want to live my entire life without electricity or flush toilets. For me, the new worst thing in the world would be to have my nose sliced off so that mucus would constantly be running down my face because my sinus cavities would be exposed to that degree, and in a world without the prospect of cosmetic surgery to fix it. I suspect that this is a temporary condition and that with time my phobia will return to stinging wasps, however this was a powerful enough visual image for me that I felt it my duty to share it with anyone who reads this blog.

Feel free to thank me. ;)

1 Oliver (2011), p 93.

2 Oliver (2011), p 168.

Oliver, Lisi, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2011). ISBN: 978-0-8020-9706-4.

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, originally published in 1949. There are various editions out there including inexpensive paperbacks. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to.


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Rutilius Claudius Namatianus and His Trip from Rome to Gaul

In 417 a wealthy Gallo-Roman by the name of Rutilius Claudius Namatianus traveled from Rome to his estates in Gaul. Then he wrote a poem about his trip, De Reditu Suo. And we have some of it, a big chunk of one book and a bit of a second. Cool, right?

Unfortunately, the poem doesn’t reveal quite as much about the fifth century as either Hydatius’ Chronicle or Salvian’s book on what God was really up to then, but it has some interesting information. In particular, following the sack of Rome and Visigothic occupation of much of Gaul, it provides another window into what contemporary inhabitants of the Roman Empire thought of things. In contrast to the above authors, Namatianus does not seem to believe the world is falling apart. Quite the opposite; based on this poem he believes things have turned a corner and are looking up. Besides showing the attitude of an elite Roman during this specific time it also is a nice illustration of how quickly things were changing in the second decade of the fifth century.

The edition I read is a reprint of something that was originally published in 1907. In many ways it’s equally interesting to read what folks thought about all this a hundred years ago though I’ll save a discussion of that for the end of this post.1

As usual, a brief bio seems to be in order, and this will indeed be brief. We don’t know when or where Namatianus was born and we have no idea when or where he died. We know little of him at all actually though we do find out that his father was pretty high on the Roman food chain and Namatianus tells us that the same held true for himself. 2

From the content of the poem we learn that Namatianus has estates in Gaul and is evidently a member of the wealthy landowning class. The point of this trip is that he is going to tend after his estates in Gaul which are in need of care.

The poet provides a great deal of detail about the trip, including how far his party traveled and what they saw each day. For the portion covered by the poem (not all of it survives) this is a sea voyage from Rome to Pisa with the poem ending after they left the Pisan harbor. This was not a single long sea voyage but a series of short legs as they traveled along the Italian coast and spent each night on shore. The editor of this edition believes the dates of the surviving portion of the poem are from September 22 to November 21. 3

Many people appreciate the poem for its descriptive elements and how Namatianus portrays the various cities and landmarks he passed along the way. For myself, I’m more interested in what it says about the state of the Empire in the year 417, when this trip took place.

At that time the Visigoths, who had been living in Gaul, had recently moved to Spain where they stayed for a brief period before they received lands in Gaul through a treaty signed in 418. The Visigothic journey through the Empire to that point was a fairly convoluted one. Alaric had sacked Rome in 410, then moved to the south of Italy where he died. His brother, Athaulf, took over the leadership and moved them back north into Gaul where they remained until being driven into Spain by Constantius in 415.

Namatianus makes several references in the poem to the Goths and the damage they have caused, both to Rome and Gaul. He speaks of how his Gallic fields have been marred by war and demand his attention so he can build anew. 4

Namatianus clearly believes that Rome will recover. Early in the poem he spends substantial time praising the city, professing his love for Rome and describing how, while she has been harmed, she has recovered from greater depths than this. The Goths are a temporary setback. Rome is eternal. The Gods (there is little doubt he is a pagan) have and will continue to protect her. Her greatness has perhaps been marred a bit but this is a small setback. Rome is recovering, as are his estates. In contrast to Hydatius, Salvian and Sidonius Apollinaris, Namiatus believes that, for this snapshot in time, 417, Rome is strong and in no danger. 5

There are two other items that caught my attention. First, Namatianus hates Jews. He absolutely reviles them. They are a “filthy race” and one is “An animal that spurns at human food.” An interesting question is whether he distinguishes between Jews and Christians. I suspect he is well-informed enough to do so. This does not, of course, mean that he believes the differences between the two are substantial. He may even be using his vilification of Jews as a way to express similar feelings toward Christians. He takes the opportunity to criticize the monks of Capraria as mad and says that they are punishing themselves deservedly for evil. It’s impossible to say if his feelings towards the monks are extended to all Christians but it is certainly possible. 6

He is even more vitriolic against Stilicho. Stilicho burned the Sybilline Books. He opened the protective barrier of the Alps and allowed Rome to be pillaged. The barbarians were invited into Rome, to commit murder. Nero was horrible for killing his mother but Stilicho was responsible for the death of the mother of the world. Namatianus reviles Stilicho more than anyone or anything else in this poem. 7

There’s one other passage that interested me. In this poem Namatianus discusses various friends of his who he meets along the way. One of these is Victorinus. Victorinus was apparently the deputy for the Prefect whose authority included Britain. While this is well after Rome had abandoned Britain, evidently a Roman official continued to be assigned responsibility for it. Did this mean Rome believed it would take Britain back or was this symbolic only? I can’t say, though based on the rest of the poem it seems likely that Namatianus believed Rome could regain everything it had lost (or at least he wrote a poem which made it seem like he believed it). 8

As I noted above, I went ahead and read through the introductory section. It’s interesting to see how thinking has changed on some items over the past century. For example, Keene does not believe Namatianus would have been capable of showing warmth to a Christian however there are plenty of examples of Christians and Pagans being good friends. There were zealots such as Ambrose and the mob at Alexandria that killed Hypatia however there were also Christians who believed themselves to be advanced philosophers and didn’t behave that way. Keene also depicts the trip as extremely dangerous and the poem does not give this sense at all and at that moment in time there is little reason for it to have been. 9

I don’t believe this poem tells us nearly as much as Hydatius, Salvian or Sidonius, but it does provide some information. In contrast to the writings of the three former authors, for Namatianus Rome is still strong, her future bright. At this specific snapshot in time the threat of the Goths has been lifted, the great landowners are still prosperous and with a little work, life will continue as it always has. One wonders what a poem of his would have looked like ten years later.

1 I debated ignoring the introductory section and decided to read through it, thankfully. I also want to note that while it includes both the English and Latin, the English and Latin do not match up on the facing pages but generally you had to flip a page or two further on to find the matching Latin. This raises an interesting dilemma for notation and I’ve decided that when I reference something the line number will represent where I found the Latin and the page number will reference the English which is what I’ll quote when a quote seems called for. I hope this is clear. Seems a strange way to publish a book but there it is. While my Latin is far from strong the poem contains many proper names and references to geographic locations so I was able to keep track reasonably well, I hope. I suppose this is as good of a place as any to mention that I found this a tough read. Namatianus’ style is florid at best. He’s often called, “The Last of the Roman Poets.” Personally, I think whoever is given that title should have written a better poem.

2 For Namatianus’ father see I.579-585, p 157 where he is Prefect of Tuscany, Quaestor, Prefect of Rome and the Imperial Treasurer. For Namatianus see I.561-4, p 155 where he says, “I of old by office held control over the palace and the soldiery guarding the pious Emperor.” which would make him Magister Officiorum and I.466, p 148 where we learn that he was Praefecti Urbi or Prefect of Rome, like his father.

3 There are several interludes where, for weather or other reasons, the travelers remained in one place for several days. For a discussion of the astronomical signs mentioned in the poem indicating the dates of the trip, see the Introduction, pp 8-9. Also, at the time of this edition the journey was believed to have taken place in 416 while a fragment of the poem discovered later indicates that it took place in 417.

4 For his ravaged lands, see I.19-34, p 111. For references to the Goths see I.39-40, p 113 and a lengthy passage referencing the fall of the Goths and recovery of the earth at I.141-154, p 121. Namatianus refers to them as Getae which can be used to refer to a number of barbarian groups however he’s specific enough with his references that it seems fairly clear that he’s discussing Alaric’s and Athaulf’s Goths.

5 This theme repeats itself several times but nowhere stronger than in this opening section, I.47-204, pp 113-121.

6 For Jews see, I.380-398, p 141. For the monks see, I.440-452, pp 145-7.

7 II.41-60, pp 165-7.

8 I.493-501, pp 149-51.

9 Introduction, p 24 for Keene’s discussion of Namatianus’ likely feelings toward Christians and p 13 for his describing the trip as difficult and perilous.

Rutilii Claudii Namatiani, De Reditu Suo Libri Duo: The Home-Coming of Rutilius Claudius Namatianus from Rome to Gaul in the Year 416 A.D., Charles Haines Keene, ed., George F. Savage Armstrong, trans. London: George Bell & Sons (1907), Nabu Reprint (2010). ISBN: 978-1-1763-8714-0.


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Hydatius and the End of the World

I love these fifth century authors – they’re even better than the folks in the fourth. I’ve just finished going through the Chronicle of Hydatius. Seriously cool.

Before I get started, Hydatius was a bishop in the province of Gallaecia, in northwest Spain. He was born around 400 and died around 470. His chronicle is a continuation of Jerome’s and covers the years 379-468.

The reason I love the fifth century folks is they all have a different take on what was taking place. Now I’m willing to admit that for 85% of the people living in those days; slaves, coloni, the poor free, etc., life went on pretty much as it always had, though with a change at the top. I’m not willing to go so far as to say that nothing changed except who was at the top of the pyramid for society, social structure, the economy, etc. To an elite with a classical education, including Hydatius, this was a massive upheaval. However each of these authors has a unique perspective which is not echoed by the others.

For Hydatius, this was it. The world was ending. He wasn’t a witness to the Apocalypse itself but to the days leading up to it. Hydatius may even have had a date in mind of May 27, 482.1 He expresses a belief that he did not have long to live and wouldn’t live to see the end, but it would surely come; “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.” 2

If you’re looking for a source to support the old, tired tradition that the End of the Roman Empire was basically an invasion by a bunch of animalistic barbarians intent on rape, pillage, plunder and the destruction of all that’s good in the world, Hydatius is your man. You have your pestilence, sack and destruction of cities, slaughter of innocents, and even cannibalism. Hydatius’ picture of the fifth century is monstrous. 3

Interestingly, for all Hydatius’ belief that these are the last days, he does show some balance. He includes that during Alaric’s sack of Rome, those who hid in churches were spared. Theoderic’s sack of Bracara on October 28, 456 is horrible but “was accomplished without bloodshed.” Hydatius himself was taken prisoner by some Suevi and held captive for three months. Throughout his account, Aetius appears as someone who constantly fights and defeats barbarians. 4

So for Hydatius, life sucks, the world sucks, and while creation itself doesn’t suck, its suckiness is such that God has decided to end it. I once mentioned that I found Salvian to be rather anti-jovial in his outlook. Compared to Hydatius, he was the Good Humor Man.

So here’s where perspective comes into play. Christians had been predicting that the Apocalypse would come soon ever since Paul (by the fifth century some exceptions, notably Augustine, were showing up). Hydatius clearly believed that the signs were there. The problem is, Hydatius was a bishop of an obscure (by that time) province in Spain which became a major battleground between the Goths, Vandals and Suevi. Gallaecia appears to have been a mess. Unsurprisingly, Hydatius did not possess much of a world view. While he knows of major events such as Geiseric’s sack of Carthage, much of his account, particularly from 460 on, is focused exclusively on his home province. Were things as bad as Hydatius says? They may have been, locally. However there’s little evidence that you can broaden his account to include the entire Roman West. For all that he seems to believe it is, things were not the same everywhere. 5

It’s also interesting to consider how Hydatius’ perspective compares with other sources. Salvian, while the world sucks for him too, does not see an Apocalypse. What he believes is happening is that the barbarians are being sent as a Divine Punishment for the sins of the Romans and, to take this concept one step further, believes the barbarians have become God’s favored people over the Romans because of the latter’s sins. Sidonius Apollinaris is also an unhappy camper, particularly when the Auvergne was ceded to the Goths, but does not seem to believe in an imminent Apocalypse either. Augustine comes to not place much stock in Rome at all and believes the advent of the barbarians is (among other reasons) so Christianity can be spread among other groups and to new regions. I’ve not read Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle but my understanding is that (as might be expected) his thinking roughly echoes Augustine’s.

Hydatius is at the Apocalyptic end of the spectrum of fifth century sources. Some people certainly believed as he did and considered that the end was coming. But this outlook was not the rule among fifth century authors.

Whatever his worldview, Hydatius is an important fifth century source. For me, he’s going to fit in with Sidonius and Salvian as my favorite sources for the period where the Empire was ending. I have many of the Eastern sources including Sozomen, Theodoret, Evagrius Scholasticus, Socrates Scholasticus, Zosimus and the Paschale Chronicle. But while these all have value in recounting events, they weren’t written by authors who lived in the West. The folks who lived those days, on location, provided us with not just a record of events, but how some people, at least among the elites, may have felt about it. 6

NOTE: An interesting aside, or at least it struck me as interesting, is that Hydatius discusses the Huns leaving Italy in 452. He mentions that Aetius slaughtered many of them (that this happened is debatable – and there’s a second Aetius) and they were afflicted by “heaven-sent disasters” such as plague and famine. However Hydatius says nothing of Pope Leo’s delegation or that the Huns left because of, or even after, this meeting. This may mean nothing beyond Hydatius not having a good handle on things going on outside of Spain but it sure caught my attention. 7

1 Burgess (1993), p 9.

2 Hydatius, Introduction, 1, p 73, “… as much at the end of the world as at the end of my life …” and Introduction, 6, p 75. NOTE: The Burgess edition is a facing translation with the original Latin and the English. My notes will reference the page of the English translation. And as long as I’m including a note on notes, I don’t like using “ibid” and won’t.

3 Not sure where to start with these – if this was an academic paper or book this is where you’d see half a page of notes. For cannibalism for the year 410 we have Hydatius 40, p 83, “A famine ran riot, so dire that driven by hunger human beings devoured human flesh; mothers too feasted upon the bodies of of their own children whom they had killed and cooked with their own hands … And thus with the four plagues of sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts raging everywhere throughout the world, the annunciations foretold by the Lord through his prophets came to fulfilment.” This is the worst but, among others(there’s a wide selection), you can also see Hydatius 164, p 107, Hydatius 167, p. 107 and Hydatius 179, pp 109-11.

4 For Alaric, see Hydatius 35, p 81. For Bracara, see Hydatius 167, p. 107. For his captivity, see Hydatius 196, p 113 and 202, p 115. The portrayal of Aetius by various sources is interesting and may be worth its own post at some point. For Hydatius, Aetius almost comes across as a heroic figure, valiantly battling to save civilization until his murder.

5 For a good assessment of Hydatius’ portrayal of Spain during this period, see Kulikowski (2004) pp 197-203. It’s hard to prove a negative but I’m unaware of anything like a massive burial pit which shows evidence of human cannibalism. In fact, I’m unaware of any massive burial pit which would provide evidence for the sort of rapid depopulation during the 5th century as was once commonly believed to have happened.

6 I hope people will forgive me if I don’t include the Eastern authors in my bibliography. I’m happy to provide that information on request though to be honest, many of these are cheap reprint editions as I bought them when I was more concerned about my budget than I am now.

7 Hydatius 146, p 103.

Hydatius, Chronicle in, The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana: Two Contemporary Accounts of the Final Years of the Roman Empire, R.W. Burgess, ed. and trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1993). ISBN: 978-0-198-147879.

Kulikowski, Michael, Late Roman Spain and Its Cities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-801-879784.

Salvian the Presbyter, On the Governance of God: The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter, J.F. O’Sullivan, trans. New York: CIMA Publishing (1947).

Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius: Letters, W.B. Anderson, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-674-994621.

Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius: Poems, Letters, Books I-II, W.B. Anderson, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1996). ISBN: 978-0-674-993273.


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