Tag Archives: Late Antiquity

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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Saturday at Kalamazoo: Monks and Goths

Following breakfast Saturday morning I headed back to the exhibit area and spent an hour or so at Powell’s, finishing up my book purchasing. Then I headed for Schneider and Session 376, Contexts of Early Medieval Monasticism I: Architectural Concepts. Before I begin I want to mention that the organizers had put together a booklet which included abstracts of all three Contexts of Early Medieval Monasticism Sessions. Even though I only went to one of these, it provided me with some information which may prove useful once I finish my Early Christianity Reading.

First up was Gregor Kalas from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville presenting, “The Residences of Carolingian Abbots and the Afterlife of the Late Antique Villa.” This was a really interesting paper. Kalas opened with a discussion of the Plan of St. Gall showing how the Abbot was expected to live in his own house, not communally. This was supported by the Aachen synod of 817 where Benedict of Aniane amended the Benedictine Rule to have some separation from the community. This separation mimics the villa plan where the owner and his family live in a residence separated from the rest of the estate. Farfa and San Vincenzo al Volturno are examples of monasteries which were formerly villas. The Plan of St. Gall, with its private residence for the Abbot and a private route to the basilica seems to have been modeled after villa construction. Ultimately, Kalas believes that Late Antique villas provided models for monastery plans and that by the 9th century an abbot’s residence could be considered a less luxurious villa. An interesting factoid (to me anyway) was his discussion of Farfa where in the 8th century the abbot lived as something of a recluse but by the 9th century they became increasingly worldly, which he attributes to the evolving relationship with the Carolingian rulers where the monastery became subject to greater royal control and a reduced Papal influence. Good paper and I’m hoping what he talked about is published someplace so I can get a closer look at his evidence.

Kirsten Ataoguz of Indiana University-Purdue University-Fort Wayne (IPFW for those of us in Indiana and yes, other than in basketball Purdue and IU collaborate a LOT!) followed with, “Overlapping Contexts of the Last Judgement at the Monastery of Saint John in Müstair, Switzerland.” Now I have a page-and-a-half of notes for this one. Even so, I have a feeling this summary will suffer as much from temporal distance as any because she showed a lot of really cool images which I can’t precisely recall – oh, for an eidetic memory. Müstair is one of several 9th century churches in the Alps with a similar image of the Last Judgement. This image tells a story (in looking for images in Müstair, the Last Judgement is just a piece, though an essential one, of the frescoes in the church) showing Christ as judge. He is depicted as the gatekeeper to an apostolic city (a local apostle, Vigilius, is among those shown) and with his right hand up and left hand down shows that he will choose between the saved and damned. These images, prominently displayed in the church, are for the benefit of the laity, not the monks. Ataoguz discussed how this type of story-telling differed from very literal eastern representations. Due to the prevalence of similar images in local 9th century churches she believes it is very possible that this type of representation originated in the region. Another very good paper.

Saint John Monastery in Mustair, Switzerland

Monastery of Saint John in Mustair, Switzerland. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The final paper was by Annika Rulkens from the University van Amsterdam, “Monastic or Not? The Architecture of Rural Churches in Ninth-Century Hessen.” This was a comparative examination of the architecture of churches to support her thesis that smaller churches should be considered monastic. She believes that smaller satellite churches of Fulda and Sturm, built from the mid-eighth through mid-ninth century were modeled after the larger Abbey churches. These churches were built with the approval of the mother house and while she does not believe they were directed to use similar architecture, they chose to do so. Again, lots of images used for this paper which I don’t recall well enough to describe here.

For lunch I had the opportunity to sample the marvelous cuisine in Schneider (said menu choices consisted of pre-wrapped sandwiches – still better than past years and it provided calories) and chatted with The Cranky Professor (TCP) and ADM. Actually, ADM was working for the most part but I had a lot of fun with TCP. I had sort of a theme for the week I went with which was pretty much, “The way I do my job is very different from you,” With an emphasis on the fact that Purdue does not expect me to know how to write – we have a communications department which edits everything we put together. At the time I was in the middle of putting together a fairly short publication which seemed to be taking forever to finish (seriously – I took maybe 12 hours to write the draft, which was 95% of the end product). I’m pretty good at laughing at myself and TCP was willing to join in. I’m in the middle of a 150-page agrosecurity project right now and I dread how long that one will take.

I went Goth for the rest of the day, starting with Session 429, Early Medieval Europe II. Louis Shwartz, a Phd candidate from the University of Toronto opened with, “What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Sant’Angelo.” Michelle Ziegler has already covered this paper nicely and I don’t have much to add. In talking about why Saint Michael came to be associated with Sant’Angelo he discusses mentions of him in Paul the Deacon and believes that ultimately Saint Michael’s association with the church likely dates from Cunibert who was King from 688-700 and Liutprand who succeeded him. Cunibert was a strong promoter of Saint Michael and when Liutprand allied himself with the Papacy and converted the Lombards, this association was solidified. Good paper and be sure to read Michelle’s more detailed summary.

Erica Buchberger, a Phd student from the University of Oxford followed with, “Gothic Identity in Spain Before and After the Arab Conquest.” She believes (and I agree with her) that people identifying themselves as Goths disappeared fairly quickly after the Arab Conquests. I regret that I didn’t write down the specific sources she used however she argued that examples of people identifying themselves as Gothic is hard to find after the end of the 7th century. In narratives, Goths disappear as an entity after 754 and afterwards people may say that they were of Gothic descent but they did not identify themselves as Goths. She believes this may have been a sign of loyalty; that they were true to their heritage but loyal to their Arab rulers. However she did say that in the North Gothic identity lasted longer and can be found up to 883 in a chronicle (again, I apologize for not noting which one).

The final paper was by Helen Foxhall Forbes of the University of Leicester, “Suicides and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon England.” I recall this being a very interesting paper though it was as much about damnation overall as about the attitude toward suicides. However it is interesting that A-S sources almost never mentioned contemporary suicides but instead focused on those taking place in the past and that suicide is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon law codes. Aelfric speaks strongly against suicide and one of the Vercelli Homilies states that “Jews, heathens and suicides” won’t be saved. According to the Old English Penitential and the OE Handbook the body of a suicide cannot be sung over or buried in consecrated ground. In contrast, the Blickling Homily states that a murderer can be saved and there was an Old English belief that even an executed criminal could be saved. Aelfric disapproves of priests fighting and says that one killed in battle will not be prayed for but may be buried in consecrated ground and that he will be judged by God. Good stuff in this one.

Following this I headed to Valley II and Session 461, Sixth-Century Italy I: Representing the Ostrogothic Kingdom. I was very pleased to see the sessions on the Ostrogoths this year, in particular that they were organized by Deborah Deliyannis of Indiana University. I decided I was a fan of hers after reading Ravenna in Late Antiquity last year.

The first scheduled speaker didn’t arrive so Shane Bjornlie of Claremont McKenna College started things off with “Princeps Illiteraturs: The Political Polemic of the Gothic War and Sources for Theoderic the Great.” This paper discussed how Theoderic was portrayed after his death, primarily during the Gothic War. It was a detailed examination of the sources which, while unsurprising in content, was quite interesting and informative. As might be expected, sources such as Ennodius and Cassiodorus portrayed him as a successful ruler of a Roman province while sources associated with Justinian’s court such as Procopius and Marcellinus Comes depicted him as an illegitimate barbarian. The Anonymous Valesianus describes Theoderic’s death as being the same as Arius’ with his bowels bursting as he was relieving himself. While there wasn’t anything particularly revolutionary here, I enjoyed it because of how many sources were covered, including later ones such as Gregory the Great, Fredegar and Paul the Deacon.

Another paper dealing extensively with sources and Theoderic followed as Christine Radtke of The University zu Kõln presented, “Theoderic the Great: Auctor Civilitas, Pius Princeps, Virtuous King.” With the help of a very useful handout she covered the various ways in which Theoderic was portrayed as a legitimate Roman ruler. These included Ennodius’ Panegyricus where he is praised in a fairly standard way as a successor of the Roman Emperors. On the Senigallia Medallion (the only certain image we have of Theoderic) he is titled as Rex and Princeps, titles by which he would have wanted to be known. In Cassiodorus’ Variae, each letter shows a different aspect of Theoderic as ruler and as a whole they stress his civilitas and depict him as someone highly engaged with the past to legitimize his rule and portray him as a Gothic ruler interested in peaceful cooperation between Romans and Goths. I don’t think there was anything new, different or surprising in either of these papers but I appreciated both of them for their examination of the sources.

Following this session I headed back to the exhibit area to pick up my book purchases. I’ve gotten better at this over the years and now I rarely leave one behind. It was interesting to find that several publishers are aware of this blog and one person told me that she appreciated my book reviews, particularly when it was one of theirs. Possessing a book from Brill and folks recognizing me all in the same day? That put me in happy camper mode, a good attitude to have when I went to the Pseudo Society Session, had a sub and some beer for dinner (I’d had enough pizza for one week the previous evening) and laughed for a couple of hours. As always, I don’t report on Pseudo, mainly because you have to be there to appreciate it but all of the “papers” were good though I don’t think any make my Hall of Fame.

That was enough for me as I skipped the dance, as I do every year, and made it to bed fairly early, only rarely being woken up by the late partying which went on in the courtyard outside my window. Probably didn’t hurt that it was cold enough that said window was closed.


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Constantine, Panegyric and Conversion

I’ve been reading a collection of late antique panegyrics in Nixon and Rodgers (1994). Most of these are fairly standard though they do include some historical references not found elsewhere. The most interesting one for me (so far, I’m not done with the book) has been a panegyric in honor of Constantine delivered in Trier, probably in 313. 1

There’s a lot of historical information contained in this. It is largely an account of Constantine’s campaign against Maxentius, culminating in the Battle of Milvian Bridge and there are details I haven’t found elsewhere. But what has most fascinated me about this is that the panegyrist (who is anonymous) doesn’t seem to know what to do regarding Constantine’s religion. For those less familiar with these (I’m lumping sources titled as “Orations in honor of …” in this class as I can’t see a distinction), such speeches are generally filled with references to divinities and prior to this, including in earlier speeches in honor of Constantine, these references are to the traditional Roman Gods. As recently as 310, Constantine is referred to as divine and under the special protection of Apollo. 2

By 313 this had changed. The panegyrist expresses surprise that Constantine has ignored inauspicious omens and gone against the advice of soothsayers in offering battle. His patron God is not named and in fact the author considers him/her to be a mystery, known only to the Emperor, but clearly having dominion over lesser divinities. 3

Later the author asks, “… tell us, I beg you, what you had as counsel if not a divine power?” This nameless God, while creator of the world is also given Jupiter’s attributes, including casting thunderbolts. At the close of the panegyric this god is referred to as, “… you, supreme creator of things.” 4

The panegyric contains classical references. It is nothing like, for example, the orations given by Ambrose for Valentinian II and Theodosius. However something has changed and the (almost certainly pagan) author seems a bit at a loss as to how to deal with it. Constantine is given divine properties, but the panegyric contains a mix of attributing this divinity to the Emperor and to his relationship with this new, unnamed God. There is no story of a miraculous vision at Milvian Bridge and nothing about Constantine’s soldiers having any sort of symbol with them during the battle. In fact, the only way to equate this with Christianity is through the events of the subsequent quarter-century.

I found this panegyric fascinating. Eusebius provides a story of a sudden, extreme conversion, one which I’ve always discounted as a later invention, mostly (nothing to say Constantine didn’t have a dream or even was converted through it but he shows a lot of sympathy to the traditional gods for at least the next decade). Still, there is a distinct change in tone between the Panegyric given in 310 and that of 313. Constantine’s religious allegiance was different and this change appears to be associated with the campaign against Maxentius. Reports of this change were public enough to be picked up by an orator in Trier. Also interesting is how the panegyrist addresses it. He’s open in stating that he doesn’t know Constantine’s god but it is one who is new and different, and very powerful. Constantine is not exactly divine, but full of divinity anyway due to his relationship with this deity. It’s one of those moments of transition which show up in sources sometimes, before people have had much time to put a spin on things. Seriously cool stuff and I apologize for the brevity (new apology for me) but things are very busy right now and I wanted to get something on this out.

1 Nixon and Rodgers (1994), “XII. Panegyric of Constantine Augustus,” pp. 288-333. For this book I’ll reference the Latin verse locations as well as the pages of the English translation.

2 In Nixon and Rodgers (1994) see “VI. Panegyric of Constantine,” pp 211-53, particularly a first reference to his divinity at 1.5-2.5, pp. 218-21 and his relationship with Apollo on 21.4-21.7, pp. 248-51.

3 This combination of themes is covered at the beginning of the panegyric in Nixon and Rodgers (1994) at 2.1-2.6, pp. 295-6.

4 In Nixon and Rodgers (1994); for the initial quote, 4.1, p. 299; this god having Jupiter’s powers, 13.2-3, pp. 313-4; as supreme creator, 26.1, p. 332.

C.E.V. Nixon and Barbara Saylor Rodgers, eds., In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, with introduction, translation, and historical commentary. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-520-08326-4.


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The Danger of Historical Models

I received my first issue of The Journal of Early Christian Studies a month or so ago. I can already see that this will be an interesting and enlightening publication. The $50 I paid to join an organization I’m not qualified to intellectually contribute to and receive a journal I have free electronic access to may seem foolish but I think it will easily be worth it. The other really cool thing? (self-back-patting tangent to follow) Ten years ago, maybe even five, I wouldn’t have understood what the article authors were talking about and today I find the topics very interesting. Maybe I am actually learning something. Oh frabjous day! (love that poem, whatever it’s supposed to mean)

I’ve previously mentioned my dissatisfaction with historians (IMO) wrongly trying to fit historical events into a favorite model. We all(I’m going outside history here – this applies to all disciplines) have our pet theories about various things but just because we find a model valid and useful, it doesn’t have to be universal and there’s no need to try to shoehorn items which don’t fit into it. A few outliers does not invalidate a model or theory. Most importantly, evidence should be looked at and evaluated on its own terms, without contamination from other evidence, models or, as much as possible, our own preconceptions (this last is the hardest for me).

Ann Marie Yasin includes an article, “Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question” which calls into question, not the model itself (not completely anyway – see below) but the propensity of historians to assign an evolutionary process to a model, even when the evidence doesn’t support it. In this case, the model is the development of churches centered around the tomb of a saint or martyr. “The accepted model for the birth of Christian sacred architecture traces a line of evolution marked by successive stages of increasing monumentality: martyr’s tombs were transformed from ‘ordinary’ graves to small shrines, and then from modest cult centers to focal points of large, communal basilicas.”(63) While the specifics, including the number of intermediate steps, will vary, in essence this model states that what was once a martyr’s or saint’s tomb becomes a church with the tomb as a centerpiece.

In this article Yasin chooses to focus on three archaeological case studies from Salona, in what once was Dalmatia. Salona is useful for this purpose as, “… more recent scholarship regularly treats Salona’s burial churches as ‘textbook’ cases of martyrium development and deploys them as models with which to reconstruct the architectural developments at other sites.”(62) Salona has a fairly large number of churches housing relics, with substantial remains available for archaeological examination.

Three sites are chosen for closer examination; Kapljuč, Marusinac and Manastrine. Significant problems exist with each of these in reconciling the archaeological evidence with the martyrium evolution model. I will examine Yasin’s argument for each of these. 1

For Kapljuč, considered a focal site for the cult of St. Asterius, in essence there is no evidence that the basilica was built after the tomb – the tomb could as easily have been added after the structure was completed. In fact, the tomb may not initially have been a tomb at all. Yasin says, “Given the current state of the evidence, it is just as possible, or perhaps even more likely, that the pit was not a tomb that pre-dated the church but a reliquary deposit constructed at the time of the building’s foundation, or even added later.”(81-2) While there is evidence that Asterius was venerated at the site, the inscription stating this was added after the church was built and there is nothing to indicate that his remains were ever contained within the church.(85-6) Yasin does not disqualify the possibility that Kapljuč may have contained the remains of one or more saints, simply that there is not enough evidence either way and that applying the martyrium model, as has consistently been done, is,”… because they enable the site to mesh comfortably with, and in turn persuasively reinforce, the evolutionary structure of the conventional model for cult expansion.”(89)

Marusinac is an interesting case where historically, hagiography has been used as the authoritative source for the development of the site, rather than relying on archaeological evidence. Based on a later (possibly tenth-century) text, the area was originally the rural dwelling of a wealthy family which included a cemetery. According to the text, Asclepia, a wealthy member of the family, interred the remains of Anastasius (martyred under Diocletian at the start of the fourth century) and was later buried nearby with her husband. The martyr’s tomb inspired the development of a cemetery area around it and later his remains were translated to a church built on the site. Unfortunately, archaeology does not support this, according to Yasin, “The reading [hagiographic tradition] does not grow out of the material remains uncovered at the site so much as form the framework into which the archaeological evidence has been inserted. This triumphant, evolutionary narrative of cultic and architectural monumentalization thus prescribes rather than describes (my emphasis) the evidence …”(94). There is considerably more evidence for this site which Yasin discusses but the above is the essence of it; archaeologically, there is no basis for considering Marusinac to be a Church built due to the presence of a martyr’s relics. Instead hagiographical tradition has been used to provide a framework of development which fits with the martyrium evolutionary model. As with Kapljuč, there is not enough evidence to say with certainty that Marusinac’s development didn’t follow this model, however there isn’t enough to state that it did either.

The site of Manastrine is different from the above two because not only is there not enough evidence to support the traditional model, in this case evidence exists which contradicts it. This is the site of a large, three-aisled basilica which according to tradition was built in the mid-fifth century over the tomb of Domnio, martyred under Diocletian. Recent excavations have revealed that the portion of the basilica built over what was considered the martyr’s tomb was not the first portion constructed. Instead, the earliest built portions housed the tombs of a line of Salona’s bishops. It is possible that these tombs were constructed in some relation to the (supposed) tomb of Domnio, however this relationship is not obvious and even if this were so, one would expect the section over Domnio’s tomb to have been built first. Based on the date of construction of sections of the basilica, as well as the relative lack of emphasis placed on the (supposed) martyr’s tomb, there is no evidence for the traditional martyrium model (this does not, strictly speaking, eliminate the possibility). The construction seems to indicate that its focus was to celebrate the bishops rather than to highlight the single tomb of a martyr.(107-11)

Where this article appealed to me is that it is an example of how important it is to examine evidence independently, without preconceptions, and to not allow other, unrelated evidence to influence findings and conclusions. 2 Yasin does not specifically deconstruct the entire model, however she does infer that it is possible that with enough additional site examination, the model may be invalidated. At this point she says, “Moreover, not only does the conventional model for martyrium evolution provide an overly confident and homogenous picture of cult development, it also narrows the range of inquiry to a single trajectory. Because the model cannot account for anomalous aspects of the sites, it steers investigation away from them.“(111)(my emphasis) She believes more sites need to be examined critically without relying on this model, either to deconstruct it if necessary, or at the very least to update it and account for sites which don’t fit. 3

NOTE: OK, I’m embarrassed. I just did a search of Bill Caraher’s Blog to get the link for his review/summary of Yasin(2009) to include in note 3 and came across his discussion of this very article. So I suggest you read it and, where he and I disagree, if we do – as I’ve just spent three hours putting this post together I’ve obstinately decided not to edit mine but to post it and THEN read his – you should probably go with him. In my defense, I did mention that I was behind on reading blogs.

1 I’ll apologize for the length here rather than in the text. Initially I was only going to look at Yasin’s argument for one of the sites but this will allow me to expand on and summarize my notes. This very well may be more useful to me than readers but one of the functions of this blog is to include information I’ve come across so I can come back to it later.

2 Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965. was the first to show me that regional development must be examined independent of other regions and without preconceptions. Guy Halsall took this one step further for me in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-43543-7. He provided a statement I haven’t forgotten related to possible Barbarian settlement in Roman regions, “The archaeological data permit no association of these graves with trans-Rhenen settlers. Without assumptions based on the simplistic use of written sources no archaeologist would assume these were the graves of immigrants.”(159) Every now and then I read something which wakes me up, almost like a slap in the face. Halsall’s statement did this regarding the need to evaluate evidence on its own merits first before turning to other evidence be it textual or, as with this article, a preconstructed model. These made it on my most influential books list for those reasons.

3 If you want to go into more depth on sacred space-making two books I’d suggest are Yasin’s Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 9780521767835. This was reviewed/summarized by Bill Caraher a little while back. The other is Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5. For a review of this one, I’m going to recommend me. (No, I’m not at all pretentious!)

Yasin, Ann Marie, “Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20(2012), pp 59-112.


Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Archaeology, Hagiography, Religion


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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.

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Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Archaeology, Resources


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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.


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Semi-Random Thoughts: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Books

Now that I’m removing pain-killers from my diet I find myself wanting to post more (this may end tomorrow when I find out how much I have waiting for me at work) but I’m still having some issues sitting for long periods which is having an impact on my finishing more technical stuff such as my Cameron review. This may actually be a good thing in the long run as I’ve been scribbling notes on a pad while reclining but it’s not doing much for getting the post out. When I’m doing serious work, I perform at my best sitting upright, balanced, focused on my computer, keyboard and whatever references I’ve surrounded myself with. I don’t consider a post such as my recent one on Ambrose to be completely non-formal but it was based on, mostly, one reference and composed more of my impressions than a load of facts. For much of it I was leaning back with my keyboard on my lap. So today I’m going to throw out a few things that I’m looking into and hope I don’t bore everyone to death.

As I began looking into my Christianity reading project I decided to begin by reading a bit more on Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine, then work backwards. I’m now thinking this is the wrong approach. The primary impacts of these three are on what came after rather than their output reflecting what came before. My very rough idea of these impacts could be summed up as; Augustine impacting future doctrine; Ambrose impacting Church organization and the role of the bishop and; Jerome impacting asceticism. I am certain that the previous sentence is an extreme oversimplification however I also think there’s some truth at its core. In many ways Jerome may be the most interesting as he was something of a contemporary fringe figure who gained importance as time went on. I’m afraid that once I start reading him I’ll find myself following up with all the stuff I have on asceticism, monasticism, desert fathers, etc. This is fine but it’s not the “start at the beginning of the 5th century and work backwards” method I originally had planned.

I’ve read a bit on each of these and have more on my shelves. The question I’m asking myself at the moment is how much of their source material; their writings, letters, sermons, etc., should I read? For Jerome and Ambrose this may not be that big of a deal. There’s a good amount of source material out there but not so much that I can’t go through a fairly high percentage of it. Augustine is another issue. I’ve read his Confessions and City of God. The first seven volumes of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series consists of his material. This is several thousand pages. How much of this do I need to read? (I don’t expect an answer here) I imagine that On Christian Doctrine, his various works on will and grace, and his stuff against the Donatists will be on my list. What about On the Soul, On Patience, On Virginity, etc.? I’ll figure it out. Hopefully I won’t figure wrongly.

Kudos to my friends who are getting smarter (see footnote 1 for details). This year several of my gifts have been cards for booksellers. Yesterday I used a couple of them to order some Symmachus and Libanius. I have two more which I’m going to hold off on using for a bit but at this moment I’m looking at Macrobius’ Saturnalia and Emperor Julian. I have to come up with some pretty distinct thank-you’s so they remember this for next year. Or maybe I just need to schedule major surgery every year around Christmas.


Posted by on January 8, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Religion


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Good Resource for Late Antique Sources

I recently finished Stephen Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641. As I was reading it the thought was in the back of my mind that I might write a review but there are plenty of publicly accessible reviews out there already, ranging from people who are disappointed at the general track he took to those who are very pleased. For me, I’d say I’m fairly pleased. I have a few quibbles with areas he chose/didn’t choose to focus on and I thought he questionably used some sources but it is a good overview, shorter than AHM Jones and I think he covers most of the major issues, excepting a lack of emphasis on the last 40 years which is a bit perplexing.

The reason I want to talk about the book has to do with a small section. If you’re interested in finding English translations of sources for Late Antiquity, Mitchell’s bibliography makes a great starting point. Pages 426-9 (I have the paperback) include a wide variety of sources. What was most useful to me, in particular, was the section sub-headed “Collected Sources in Translation.” When I scan lists for books I might be interested in, titles such as, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity or Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome don’t scream “Source Collection” to me. I’m at the point where I need to find a table of contents because I may already have many of the sources in these books but that doesn’t keep this from being a very useful method of arranging a bibliography.

While I’m sure Blackwell would love it if you ran out and bought the book (the paperback isn’t too expensive), my suggestion is that if you’re interested in finding English translations of sources but don’t want to read this volume, head to a library or use Inter-Library Loan and photocopy these four pages.

Jones, AHM, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602(2 volumes). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press (1986). ISBN: 978-0-8018-3285-7.

Mitchell, Stephen, A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4051-0856-0.


Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Books, Resources


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Book Review: The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity

Frakes, Robert M., Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma and Stephens, Justin, eds., The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium and the Early Islamic World. New York: Tauris Academic Studies (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84885-409-3.

This book contains 11 essays covering a variety of topics and geographic regions. The most prominent theme, as one would expect in a book dedicated to Professor Harold Allen Drake, is that divergent religious and political entities could and did peacefully coexist during the Later Roman Empire. This theme is not universal as is obvious for a book in which one essay discusses Ireland, however it is predominant.

Following a forward by John W. I. Lee and and an Introduction by the editors, the essays are divided into four broad thematic areas, as follows:

Part I: The Image of Political and Episcopal Authority

  • 1. “The Adventus of Julian at Sirmium: The Literary Construction of Historical Reality in Ammianus Marcellinus,” by Eric Fournier
  • 2. “Butheric and the Charioteer,” by Robert M. Frakes
  • 3. “Calming an Angry Enemy: Attila, Leo I, and the Diplomacy of Ambiguity, 452,” by Michael Blodgett
  • 4. “‘Patres Orphanorum’: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop,” by Michael Proulx

Part II: The Function of Roman Tradition in Emergent Societies
  • 5. “‘Your Brothers, the Romans’: Early Islamic History as a Turn of the Classical Page in Early Muslim Thought and Literature,” by Thomas Sizgorich
  • 6. “Spiritual Landscapes: The Late Antique Desert in Ireland,” by Jim Tschen Emmons

Part III: Civic Elites in the Byzantine East
  • 7. “The World of St. Daniel the Stylite: Rhetoric, Religio, and Relationships in the Life of the Pillar Saint,” by Miriam Raub Vivian
  • 8. “Two Philosophers from Gaza”:
    “Timotheos of Gaza and the Grande Caccia of Piazza Armerina” by Frank J. Frost
    “Choricius of Gaza, Oration XIII: Religion and State in the Age of Justinian,” by Roberta Mazza

Part IV: Addressing Challenges to Sacred Texts and Rites
  • 9. “Origen on the Limes: Rhetoric and the Polarization of Identity in the Late Third Century,” by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
  • 10. “A Stranger Consensus: Daemonological Discourse in Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus,” by Heidi Marx-Wolf
  • 11. “Torah, Torah, Torah: The Authorship of the Pentateuch in Ancient and Early Modern Times,” by Paul Sonnino
  • “Conclusion,” by Elizabeth De Palma Digeser & Robert M. Frakes

In the opening essay Eric Fournier examines the welcome given to Julian at Sirmium, during the civil war with Constantius II, and how it was portrayed by Ammianus Marcellinus. According to Ammianus, this welcome was a formal adventus given by the city which would have basically amounted to formal recognition of Julian as Emperor. Fournier discusses Sirmium and whether it might have been expected to so readily support Julian. Fournier tells us that Constantius may have been born in Sirmium. Additionally, “The emperor also resided there for most of the 350’s and continually from 357 to 359.” (24) Despite this, Fournier believes Ammianus to have been basically truthful in his account. He discusses some issues, in particular Constantius helping depose Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium, which may have turned the city against him. (270 Ultimately, Fournier cautions that one must be careful in assessing Ammianus’ use of rhetoric when discussing Julian but believes that, while certain elements may be exaggerated “… the overall description of the event was not too far from what might have happened.” (29)

In “Butheric and the Charioteer,” Robert M. Frakes takes a look at the events which led to Theodosius I’s massacre at Thessalonica. This massacre of civilians was in response to the killing of a Roman General, Butheric. Frakes takes a close look at the various sources and concludes that Butheric unlawfully arrested a popular charioteer, either in response to an insult or due to homosexual jealousy. The detailed investigation of the sources is interesting as well as this closing statement, “It is insightful that no pagan source, even ones hostile to Theodosius, mentions the episode of Butheric and the charioteer, or even the massacre. To non-Christian writers, an emperor punishing his own citizens for killing a general might simply have been business as usual.” (53)

Michael Blodgett examines the embassy of Pope Leo I to Attila following the Hunnic invasion of Italy in 452 and its impact on the Huns’ decision to abandon the invasion. Through an examination of Hunnic losses due to disease and famine and an exploration of Hunnic beliefs, Blodgett believes that Leo may have been viewed as something of a shaman by the Huns and that his embassy provided Attila with the justification he needed to call off his Italian campaign, a decision he wanted to make anyway.

The essay by Michael Proulx examines methods by which Ambrose helped transform the role of bishop while revising his own role in events. In examining his Letter 30, Proulx discusses how Ambrose assigned to himself a far larger role than he actually had in the embassy to the usurper Maximus in 383, in particular his claim to be protector of Valentinian and basically fabricates a confrontation between himself and Maximus in 386. Proulx believes that rather than looking at this letter for an accurate representation of the embassies of 383 and 386 it should be looked at as a means by which Ambrose strengthened the relationship between himself and Valentinian’s court. Along with his funeral oration for Valentinian in 392, Letter 30 provided an opportunity for Ambrose to construct his image and role in the events of the late 4th century. Very interesting essay.

Thomas Sizgorich provides an essay which is absolutely fascinating to me. In it he examines how early Islam likely looked on the Romans as kindred in their struggle as monotheistic believers against the polytheist Persians. Sizgorich provides Arab sources which describe sorrow at the initial Roman defeat, as they are a people of the book. However the Arabs believed that due to their monotheism, Rome would eventually triumph. (109-10) The early Islamic texts repeatedly show respect for the Romans and attribute the eventual Arab triumph to a combination of Roman arrogance and a lack of understanding regarding their place in the course of human events.

The essay by Jim Tschen Emmons explores an area which is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. He discusses the Irish “desert” in hagiography. I am fairly familiar with this literary convention however I am not well versed in Irish hagiography. Using the Life of Martin and the Life of Antony as well as the writings of John Cassian as background, Emmons examines the Vita Aidi to discuss the use of forests and swamps as deserts in Irish hagiography.

Daniel the Stylite’s Vita is examined fairly straightforwardly by Miriam Raub Vivian. She takes us through various aspects of this life and believes that it can reveal much about Late Antique Roman society. I found this essay to be interesting but I am concerned that Vivian goes too far in accepting aspects of the vita. I’ve argued myself that many aspects of society can be revealed through this type of literature however looking at this, for example, to present an accurate depiction of the relationship between a monk and Emperor Leo may take this too far.

Essay number eight presents some difficulties in evaluating as it consisted of two sections written by different authors. Frank J. Frost opens with a brief discussion of the portrayal of tigers and griffins in a Sicilian mosaic. I suspect art historians may find more in this however other than describing the images I found little of value. This contrasts to the second part of the essay regarding Choricius of Gaza by Roberta Mazza. Choricius is a figure worthy of study and I was fortunate to pick up Robert Penella’s book on him (including translations of his declamations) this year at Kalamazoo.1 Mazza uses Chrocius’ Oration 13 to briefly examine a variety of sixth century issues including the relationship between a peripheral Byzantine territory and the imperial court. An interesting aside is the discussion of the evolution of a Byzantine festival, the Brumalia.

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser provides an in-depth view of Origen by placing his Christian rhetoric within the framework of third century philosophical debate. She briefly summarizes the discussion of whether there were two Origens before concluding that there was likely only one. Following this she examines Origen and his role as a Christian philosopher. The most significant aspect of this is that Christianity appears to be another branch of philosophy prevalent in the third century. Disagreements rooted in divergent opinions of the fundamental natures of the deity between Christians and Platonists, while sometimes vehement, come across as rhetorical, philosophical arguments. However subsequent individuals such as Porphyry and Eusebius preferred to characterize Origen in terms of black and white, depending on their respective viewpoints; attitudes which point to an increasing polarization of society as the third century drew to a close.

It is always interesting to consider whether two complementary essays in a volume are included by choice or by chance. In any case, Heidi Marx-Wolf’s essay is an excellent companion piece to Digeser’s. Marx-Wolf looks at divergent opinions regarding blood sacrifice between Origen and pagans. I was struck again by how the Christian outlook appears to be one among several philosophical branches in existence at the time. For this period, discussions among these branches were conducted in a reasoned manner, as opposed to the hostility which would develop later.

I am going to cover the final essay by Paul Sonnino in a relatively cursory fashion. This essay analyzes arguments for whether Moses authored the Pentateuch and takes us from the fifth century BC to the 17th century AD. He discusses the various arguments and uses them to contrast ancient attitudes with those of early-moderns, to the point of characterizing the former as obtuse and the latter as perverse. (265) For me, his discussion of how the ancient Hebrews contributed to historical methodology and their adherence to law and emphasis on legal documents influencing us to this day was the most interesting aspect of the essay. (242) I will need to become more familiar with the extent to which their outlooks were adopted by Rome before assessing the validity of these statements.

This is a very good collection of essays and I expect that Professor Drake is pleased. Perhaps some of the authors have moved too far in the direction of peaceful coexistence in Late Antiquity however they all provide evidence for their assertions, such that their opinions will at least need to be considered in the future. While the essays by Frost and Vivian lack analytical depth, overall the quality was very good. The essays by Digeser and Marx-Wolf provide an excellent lens through which to view Christianity as a component of the vibrant philosophical debates of the third century. Thomas Sizgorich’s examination of Islamic opinions of Rome through an examination of Arab sources is something I would enjoy seeing more of. I would have appreciated a bit more of an effort to tie the entire volume together. The introduction was brief and largely consisted of a summary of the essays while the conclusion was even shorter. With these relatively minor caveats, I believe this book is a valuable contribution to Late Antique scholarship and I recommend it to those interested in the issues discussed in the essays.

1 Choricius, Rhetorical Exercises from Late Antiquity: A Translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary Talks and Declamations, Robert J. Penella, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 978-0-521-84873-2.
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Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Books, Religion


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Reading Plan: Early Christianity

For the past few weeks I’ve started feeling like I’m actually in charge of my life. From January through mid-October I thought my job was running things. For the past month I’ve been knocking off books like crazy, have had more time to post, and have really made progress on my “to-read” stack. I’ve pretty much finished my non-religious Late Antiquity books. I have two left; Steven Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641 and James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire. Mitchell’s book comes highly recommended, including by Jonathan Jarrett, whose opinion I respect very much. I’m less certain about O’Donnell. I picked up the hardcover for under $10 at a book store (the sticker says for $9.98) which makes me question its quality. But I’ll read it and see.

Following Kalamazoo I took stock of what was sitting on my shelves to be read. At the time I knew I was going to read LA but was uncertain if I’d follow up by reading the 20 or so books I have on the Carolingians or move to earlier religious history. I’ve decided it will be religion. I’m going to start with Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome. There are several reasons for this. It’s the largest book on my to-read shelf (except possibly for Tyerman’s God’s War) and I had to work pretty hard at Kalamazoo to get it. Also, it promises to be both an overview and something of a revision. Nice way to jump in feet first, with something that, if it lives up to its billing, will either surprise me or that I’ll disagree with. From there I’ll move backwards, finishing with a review of the New Testament, particularly Paul. I’m not sure how much I’ll dive into doctrinal evolution as opposed to social impacts, Christian-Pagan conflicts, martyrology, monasticism, etc. Some doctrine is inevitable. To date I’ve not wanted to deeply explore this (reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s series about fried my brain 10 years or so ago) but I might feel different about it now.

I’ve always found it interesting how I read history. It’s probably not the recommended learning method but it works for me. I start with a time period I’m familiar with and then work backwards, trying to figure out how things evolved and developed to that point. When I go Carolingian (I have 37 on my LA/religion shelves and still haven’t received my recent Oxbow order so this may be a while) I’ll be doing the opposite; working from early to later. This will be interesting once I get there.

You may think that with 37 books I won’t be buying more until I finish what I have. Not so – if I run across a reference to something I think I need and it’s within my price range, I know I’ll buy more, and they won’t all be focusing on religion. I already know I need Libanius, Symmachus and the translation of the Panegyric Latini, among others. And I’m keeping an eye out for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series. I have a promising lead on a set but likely won’t make that purchase until after the first of the year. And before anyone tells me, yes, I know these aren’t always the best translations available but they are in my price range and some aren’t available anywhere else.

So for the next few months expect more posts focusing on the evolution of religion; particularly Christianity, but I also have some books on early Islam. I’d guess it’ll be about a 50-50 split between the Roman West and East. Should be fun.


Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Books, Religion


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