Friday, 28 September 2012

The Decline and Fall of the Ancient Triumph

[Next week I'm off to a conference in Berlin on the triumph in the classical world - with brilliant timing I'll get back the day before term starts and I am reintroduced to normal actual work after 3 years of Leverhulme-funded thinking-luxury.  My paper has a very dull title so I have substituted a better one that I didn't think of at the time.  My argument is that although victory remained absolutely central to royal ideals and imagery, there was a crucial change between the late Roman and the early medieval western worlds.  Although key features remained (processions etc.) there was a decisive shift of emphasis towards Christian celebration prsided over by the church, towards thanksgiving rather than praise and towards Old Testament imagery.  You won't be surprised that I think that this shift took place after the Justinianic wars of the mid-sixth century! I then attempt to explain this in terms of the shift in ideological bases caused by the Justinianic wars and the end of the Roman Empire, a more Christian mode of thought in which credit for victory was not appropriately given to mortal warriors, however skilful, to a change in the 'geo-political' nature of the west and perhaps t a difference in the type of warfare being waged.  It's preliminary and doubtless needs refinement and development, but see what you think of this first sketch.
N.b.: There are typos, stylistic infelicities and dates that are wrong, all of which I haven't been bothered to correct, so don't rely on it in detail!]

Introduction

In agreeing to give this paper, I must say that I feel that I accepted something of a poisoned chalice. I placed myself in the unenviable position of trying to find something to say about, or a position to take on, post-imperial triumphal rulership that added in some way to Michael McCormick’s excellent treatment of the subject from twenty-six years ago. It is not an easy task to try and build on a book that has deservedly held the field for almost three decades. Nonetheless I will try! I will, of necessity, have to open with a brief recapitulation of some of the main points made by McCormick, but then I will suggest two slightly different avenues down which analysis might be pursued, and then – and this is related to my current principal research project – suggest that a key moment of changed in the West occurred in the generations either side of AD 600.

The Persistence of Victorious Rulership


The Agilulf plaque from Val di Nievole

One thing that certainly persisted from the classical world through late antiquity and into the early medieval period was the importance of military success to the notion of good kingship. McCormick demonstrated that very clearly. McCormick was able to assemble plentiful and impressive evidence of the continuation of kings being styled as triumphator or given other ostentatiously victorious epithets and titles; kings were addressed and praised in poetic and other works as victorious leaders; they continued to hold victorious parades, some of which still bore some trappings of imperial Roman triumphal ritual; other public rituals celebrated victories and humiliated the defeated; they were depicted visually in ways that echoed earlier Roman ideas of the victorious king. An example given is the well-known Valdinievole plate showing the Lombard king Agilulf receiving the submission of barbarous enemies and flanked by winged victories. Alas, research by Cristina La Rocca and Stefano Gasparri casts some reasonable doubt on the authenticity of this piece. But the general point stands. From the late Roman period through to the Carolingian Empire, the centrality of military success to the concept of good rulership remained a constant.

There are indeed few times and places in the earlier Middle Ages where kings were not expected to lead their armies in person and to win battles. In that sense the importance of victory might be said to have been even greater than it had been during the Empire. The penalties for failure were high. At the very end of the period that I studied in my 2003 book on warfare, the Emperor Charles III – the so-called Charles the Fat – can be argued to have lost his throne because of his perceived failures against the Vikings. It has been very cogently argued by Simon MacLean that, in the abstract, the actions that Charles took to defend his realm were no different from those pursued by previous members of his dynasty. Nonetheless, in the precise political circumstances of 888 the failure actively to defeat the Vikings in battle presented a golden opportunity to Charles’ enemies to portray him as a Bad King. Not least because the leader of his opponents, Count Odo, had been able to be presented as waging a heroic defence of Paris against the odds while Charles did nothing. Within the year Charles had been deposed and died. Over a hundred years previously, the Mercian king Æthelbald was killed at night by his own bodyguard, in an evidently shocking act of betrayal even by Mercian standards. It seems plausible to associate this with the battle, two years previously, at Burford, where Æthelbald was beaten by the West Saxons, over whom he had claimed overlordship. Again, the picture is not so simple; some evidence suggests that Æthelbald had restored his dominance over the south; nonetheless the talismanic value of battlefield success or failure remained high. If we continue our journey backwards through time towards the Roman era, we can see further examples. The defeat of the Austrasian army by the Thuringians in the 630s left Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine in tatters, and nothing illustrates this better than Fredegar’s pathetic image of the young king Sigibert III sitting, weeping on his horse at the rout of his army by the rebellious Duke Radulf. Sixth-century Visigothic kings knew better than anyone the price of failure. At least two kings appear to have been killed or deposed as a result of military failure: Theudis was killed shortly after a defeat outside Ceuta; Agila faced a revolt and lost his crown after suffering a defeat at the hands of the citizens of Cordoba.

The principal exception seems to have been the Merovingian Frankish kings between the death of Chlothar I and perhaps that of Chlothar’s last surviving son Guntramn of Burgundy in 592. Although Chlothar’s sons had commanded armies in their father’s lifetime, they rarely led military forces when they were kings, usually delegating such a role to their dukes and patricians. Yet, to examine the poetry of Venantius Fortunatus is very quickly to discover that there was no evident lessening of the importance of war-leadership in the list of kingly virtues. Gregory of Tours seems, to judge from the Preface to Book V of the Histories, not necessarily to have had a problem with external warfare as a mark of good kingship; it was of civil war, within the regnum francorum, which he disapproved. Whether or not one believes it to be sincere (and I do not), the diatribe against Chilperic at Histories VI.46 makes a similar point. The diatribe takes the standard points of good kingship in turn and flips them into their negative. Rather than being a great war-leader, Chilperic was simply a ravager and desecrator of his own lands. It would seem, therefore, that such was the success of the Merovingians in establishing themselves securely on the Frankish throne that – like the Roman Emperors in some periods, they had no need to demonstrate their martial ability in person, but could garner the laurels from any victories won by their subordinates – while simultaneously evading the negative effects of defeat. This seems to have been a short-lived phase. By the later 590s, in a development probably not unrelated to the general crisis being experienced by the Frankish kingdoms at that point, the grandsons and great-grandsons of Chlothar I had returned to leading their armies in person. This may have remained the case throughout the rest of the Merovingian period, at least where kings had come of age.

Change in Victory Celebration

Yet, if we return to Spain, we may find some instances of changes to which I would assign more significance than did McCormick. Two texts can be placed alongside each other – McCormick cited both. First we can take Isidore of Seville’s discussion of the triumph. The point I want to make (McCormick made it too) is that it is entirely cast in the past tense. This is what the Romans did. There’s absolutely no sense that this sort of thing goes on any longer. McCormick rightly pointed out that, whatever the impression given by Isidore, victory processions certainly persisted through the seventh century. Indeed they did but there is, in my view, a crucial shift. McCormick makes a slight sleight of hand; the Visigoths had a liturgy for triumphant return from war but the liturgy for the profectio belli ceremony is not about triumph. It is a ceremony for divine blessing before the start of a war. It still demonstrates the importance of victory and warfare, for sure, and it has Roman connotations, if with contemporary Byzantium rather than with the late Empire, but a triumph it is not and in that sense it contradicts Isidore not at all. Even if McCormick is right, though, and the liturgy for victorious return looked much the same, there are crucial changes to be noted.

Obviously, the ceremony is Christian, but Christian elements had intruded into Roman and post-imperial victory celebrations for some time before that. The concentration on church ritual is interesting. Certainly this looks qualitatively different from what we can detect of royal victory ritual in the later fifth and early sixth centuries, which were firmly within the late Roman tradition. Victorious kings – like Theudebert I of Austrasia when he took over the rule of Provence in the 530s – held celebrations in the circuses, like later Roman emperors. The triumphal entry into towns is referred to and, as we shall see in a moment, victorious titles of entirely Roman nature were used. McCormick was able to assemble an impressive body of evidence for these practices. As intimated, they are entirely in harmony with the victory celebrations of contemporary emperors and this is probably not coincidental. As stated, the focus on Church ceremony seems different, even if victorious kings and emperors attended church as part of earlier celebrations (as Clovis did in 507), and even if public procession remained an element of later victory ritual. What seems to me to have happened is an important shift in the relative importance of the elements. In this sense I propose that Isidore’s setting of the classical triumph in the past tense is not surprising or coincidental. The importance of victory to rulers remained; triumphal processions there still were too; but nothing that looked like a triumph. Even Clovis’ procession through Tours in 507, to which I will shortly return, which diverged considerably from the proper Roman way of doing things, will have looked, I suggest, more like a triumph than anything Isidore might have seen.

What interests me now is the particularly Old Testament emphasis. The liturgy draws upon the book of The Wisdom of Solomon as the king receives the banner and goes to war. This is interesting given the usual stress upon peace that was involved in early medieval Solomonic kingship, recently discussed at length by Paul Kershaw, but to me it seems emblematic of the shift towards the Old Testament in royal ideology that had occurred between the earlier and later sixth century. If one were to reprise the theme taken up by Daly in his important 1994 article on Clovis – ‘How pagan, how barbaric?’ – it’s interesting to compare Gregory’s treatment of the 507 campaign with what seems to be more contemporary data. Gregory describes Clovis’ triumphal return to Tours after Vouillé in terms that can be and have been assimilated into a straightforward late antique tradition. Indeed, as we shall see shortly, the procession, the distribution of coin, the acclamation, are wholly in keeping with other royal triumphal celebrations (let’s call them that) of the early sixth century. Gregory says that Clovis was thenceforth called consulus aut augustus, a phrase that most historians have been want to dismiss as a misunderstanding. I am less confident of that. In the context of the rather strange half-century between 476 and 526 it seems to me entirely possible that a Frankish king might have allowed himself to be acclaimed as augustus, just as his contemporary Theodoric of Italy allowed one of the Decii to erect an inscription describing him as gloriosissimus adque anclytus rex … victor et triumfator semper augustus. Whichever attitude one takes, one is left with the idea that this was most likely information from closer to Clovis’ own day.

On the other hand, when Gregory turns to describe a miracle that predicted the Frankish victory, Clovis’ messengers entered the Church of Saint Martin, Tours, just as the priest intoned Psalm 17:40-41 ‘you girt me with strength in war and you cast down beneath me those who had risen up against me and you gave me the backs of my enemies’ (cp 2 Sam. 22:41) – a prophecy fulfilled when the Goths turn their backs iuxta consuetudinem in battle. This Old Testament language seems to fit with Gregory’s very Old Testament Clovis. Indeed, the next miracle concerns a pillar of fire such as appeared before the Israelites (and seems to be taken from Venantius’ Miracles of Saint Hilary). ‘Giving me their backs’ seems not far removed from the reference to the calcatio colli (Deut. 33.29) in Visigothic liturgy and other seventh-century sources. It may be reasonable to assume that it comes from a source closer to Gregory’s own day (the 570s at that stage of the Histories). After the defeat of an Arian uprising in Spain in 588, the inhabitants of Mérida celebrated like the ancients (in this case meaning the Israelites, which is significant in itself) and celebrated in the open, singing the victory song of Moses. Gregory’s contemporary John of Biclar described a Gothic victory over the Franks in the same or next year in entirely Old Testament language. And so on.

Explaining the Change

What might explain this shift of emphasis? To me, this seems to fit with a range of other evidence that suggests that the traditional, Roman bases for royal (and other) ideologies had ceased to be viable after the Justinianic wars of the sixth-century. With an emperor proclaiming the West to have been ‘lost’ to barbarians, continued reference to Roman ideals and bases of authority were simply no longer as viable. New sources were sought and these were readily available in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament; long established virtues – wisdom, piety, justice, victory – could continue to be celebrated but in different language with different exemplars. In the 580s a Frankish prince was even named Samson, which might have been an attempt to recast the dynasty with its long hair in more Old Testament mode.

As part of these changes may have come a change in the ways in which people thought about victory. In 2003 I opened my book about warfare with a discussion of the fact that, for a society in which warfare played such a prominent role, there was a puzzling lack of attention to any sort of military detail in contemporary accounts of battles. This contrasted sharply with classical Greece, for example, where tactics were analogous and battle waged at similarly brutally close-quarters. At the end of a somewhat inconclusive treatment, the best that I could do by way of conclusion was to suggest that – as several early medieval writers said – whatever tactical skill one had, ultimately battle was such a lottery that the outcome could only reasonably be placed in the hands of God. This in itself suggests why there appears to have been a significant shift towards religious, ritual investment in the stages before battle compared with those afterwards, and why there appears to have been a shift from celebrating the military victor towards giving thanks to God for the judgement He made in awarding your side victory. Thus, during battles divine signs are often given – particularly to holy men – that one side has been victorious, underlining the Almighty’s role in determining victory. In the late seventh century, the Anglo-Saxon holy man Cuthbert, for example received a vision that the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith had been defeated and killed by the Picts at the precise moment of his death. In this context it seems not unexpected that it would be hubris in the extreme to publically glorify a king or commander for winning a battle when credit for the victory came from God. This was a point that Gregory of Tours made many times in the course of the Histories. Perhaps the most obvious illustration was the fate of Sigibert of Austrasia in late 575. Having defeated his brother Chilperic and hemmed him into the town of Tournai, Sigibert ignored the advice of Saint Germanus of Paris and proceeded to attend the siege and finish his brother off. While there he allowed himself to be hailed as king by the Neustrian Franks and elevated on a shield. And that was precisely the moment that he was slain by assassins sent by Chilperic.

Another possible explanation for the decline and fall of the Triumph might be sought more squarely in Roman ideas. Ammianus Marcellinus, in his well-known account of Constantius II’s triumph in Rome, expresses the view that celebrating a triumph over Romans was regarded as bad form. One feature that emerged as a result of fifth-century politics, and was underlined by the middle of the sixth century, was that no western ruler had decisively acquired the mantle of Rome in such a way that he could celebrate his wars as victories over barbarians. It’s interesting that Theoderic of Italy seems to have done this after his troops conquered Provence in 508. In the early medieval West, warfare tended to be endemic and small-scale. When major victories were won, they were celebrated, but rarely if ever did they involve the utter conquest of a people, with their king dragged in irons through the streets. The shaming of beaten rebels has Roman roots (and biblical reference points too) but it does not seem to me to be quite the same thing. In that sense, the sort of warfare that was represented by the triumph just does not seem to have existed in the early medieval period.

Whichever way one looks at it, whether ideologically or militarily, Isidore’s view is symptomatic. While victory remained of central importance to kingship, there was no longer any place for anything as antiquated as a triumph.

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