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Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Organising the Late Antique World (6): The End

There was of course an important reason for such calculation. Could you calculate when the world would end? Many theologians said no. Mankind couldn’t try to second-guess the Almighty’s divine plan. St Augustine was one who forcefully said that you should stop your counting. Some people thought that the world would last 6,000 years, so when 6,000 years since Creation were up the world would end. Or maybe 600 years since Christ’s passion. This, as various writers said, was all theologically dubious but it didn’t stop people thinking that way.

Indeed, as long as the Roman Empire was standing and secure then there was no reason to worry that the 6th age was ending. Of course in the 5th century some people did start to worry. The chronicler Hydatius, writing in north-west Iberia in the 460s, was sure the world was ending. But not everyone thought like that and by the end of the fifth century such apocalyptic thinking had faded. The world hadn’t ended just because there was no western Emperor.

As ever, what really made a difference was Justinian declaring the western Empire to have been lost. People in the West now were living after the Roman Empire. Had, therefore, the 6th age ended? For a short period in the late sixth century it does seem that people thought the end of times was near: the fact that, as Gregory of Tours calculated, it was about 6,000 years since creation (and also about 600 years since Christ’s birth or passion) didn’t help matters. Apocalyptic thinking is very common in late 6th-century western thought. You can see it very clearly in the writings of the two Gregories: Gregory of Tours and Gregory the Great (more or less exact contemporaries). With the Great Persian War and then the Arabs this sort of idea, of living after the Empire, became common in the East as well. It is very likely that these ideas played a big part in the ascetic invasion mentioned in [a previous packge of lectures].

What if you were living at a moment beyond linear time, after the end of the last of the 6 ages of the world, when the last days were about to begin? One effect of this was probably the increase in ‘typological’ thinking. Typological thinking saw everything in the world as a ‘type’ of something from the Bible or Christian history. A prince who rebelled against his father – a new Absalom. A wise king: a new Solomon. A sinful man? A new Herod. And so on. This went beyond mere simile. It meant that particular actions or sets of actions could be expected to bring a particular outcome, based upon biblical precedent. Causation no longer worked horizontally, as the sequence of causes and effects of mankind’s actions. It came vertically, direct from God, according to the type of situation. You can see this very clearly in Gregory of Tours’ Histories, which, infamously, are a jumble of short stories with little attempt to follow a narrative thread. Gregory sees things as self-contained units where people do something and there is a consequence in terms of reward or punishment – miracles and anti-miracles if you like – and then moves on to the next story, all for the education and instruction of his readers. The moment passed, of course. These worries are not so clear in the next generation, but nonetheless the fact that one was living after the end of Rome was in place. One was now living in a time when, even if you couldn’t calculate the timing of its arrival, the apocalypse could come at any time, maybe soon but maybe not. This remained a fixture for the rest of the Middle Ages.

Organising the Late Antique World (5): The Measurement of Time

What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.

Augustine of Hippo’s famous comment on time from Book 11 of his Confessions. The nature of time has remained the subject of philosophical and scientific discussion ever since. How do with think of time? As a sequence with a beginning, middle and end? Or as a cycle, with things coming around again and again – as with the seasons? Augustine was concerned with these questions and more: could time really meaningfully exist if, as he put it the past was gone, the present fleeting and the future not yet arrived?

Obviously, how you measure time and how you see yourself in it is crucial to world views. Think of the French Revolution and its complete reinvention of the calendar, days and months, and its restarting the clock with L’An Un (Year I) in 1792, or even more bloodily – if less logically – the Khmer Rouge resetting the clock at Year Zero in 1975. During the Paris Commune of 1871 there were moves to rename the Year L’An 80 – year 80 of the Revolutionary Era. Nothing came of it; it was yet another tragi-comic aspect of the Commune. Why do Young Earth Creationists find the Darwinian revolution and the 20th advances in scientific chronology so upsetting? Not because of their belief in God – it’s perfectly possible to be a devout Christian and believe in divine creation without believing that the earth is only 8,000 years old. It’s because it takes man away from being at the centre of history and moves mankind effectively to a recent, fleeting moment, and that unpicks the hierarchical creationism that underpins their whole world-view. Time can be central to identity.

These ideas were not alien to the Roman world. Various Roman provinces had their own provincial chronology. There was, for example, the Spanish Era which continued be used throughout our period. It began in the year we think of as 38BC and appears to have been considered to represent the foundation of the Roman Provinces of Hispania. Nothing significant in that regard appears to have happened in that year, which to me at least makes it more likely that the system was set up in that year rather than retrospectively. In North Africa there was a similar Mauretanian era, which started in the year we count as 39AD. In the same part of the world the Vandals established their era, beginning in 439, in other words counting from the date of their capture of Carthage and conveniently permitting the correction of Mauretanian Era dates simply by erasing the initial CD (400). Some Romans counted the years since the Foundation of the City (Ab Urbe Condita) in 753 BC, a system popularised by Livy whose History, written up to 9BC, had that title. In the 6th century, the Gallic cities of Lyon and Vienne had competing ways of counting the years, starting with a different consul.

These weren’t the only ways in which the reckoning of time was politicised. Obviously the Republican calendar had been repoliticised at the very start of the Roman Empire with the renaming of the fifth and sixth months of the calendar after Julius Caesar and Augustus (July and August). The Romans associated each year with the names of the Ordinary consuls whose tenure began the year: Thus for example the year 428, when Germanus visited Britain as mentioned in the [previous post], was the Year of the Consulship of Felix and Taurus. Most late antique Chronicles use this as the means of identifying a year. There is no single numerical system. Otherwise probably the most common means of numbering the years was by regnal year – in other words, the Nth year of the reign of Emperor, or King, so-and-so. Another classical system counted the Olympiads, the cycles of 4 years between the Olympic Games. With all of these and the provincial eras running currently it’s not especially surprising that people often didn’t know how old they were. Regnal years began on the day when a ruler started to reign, which need not be on the day the previous ruler died. To know how old you were, you didn’t just need to know what the current regnal year was, and what the one was when you were born, but how many kings there’d been in between and how long they’d ruled for.

Time was one area where Christianity did make quite a difference. Christianity, like Judaism, believed that time began at the beginning when God created the world. So it had a fixed point at the start. More importantly, though, Christians believed that it would have a fixed point at the end, with the Day of Judgement. That was an idea not much found – or not given the same prominence – in other religions. So Christians very much saw their place in the world as on a very specific time-line, between Creation and the Apocalypse.

Basing themselves on various Old Testament and other texts, Christian thinkers thought in terms of the six ages of the world. These were:

• The First Age: Adam to Noah i.e the Antediluvian period

• The Second Age: The Flood to Abraham, ‘the father of all nations’

• The Third Age: Abraham to King David

• The Fourth Age: David to the Babylonian captivity

• The Fifth Age: The Babylonian captivity to Christ.

• The Sixth Age: Christ onwards

The seventh age would come after the Day of Judgement and would be the eternal Kingdom of God. The schema was mapped on to the Creation, with 6 days followed by the day of rest: six ages followed by the eternal rest. Roman Christians were very keen to note that the birth of Christ had taken place during the reign of the first Emperor, Augustus. Gregory of Tours an avid devotee of the cult of St Martin as we’ve seen, thought it was additionally significant that St Martin was born in the reign of the first Christian Emperor. The interest in synchronicity went back to Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea who, in addition to his Ecclesiastical History also wrote a Universal Chronicle in which the histories of different civilisations: Egypt, Greece, Rome and so on were put in separate columns alongside Judaeo-Christian History so one could see what was happening in the history of Greece and Rome at the same time as events recorded in the Bible – you could see which Old Testament Prophet was active at the time of the Trojan War, for example. This was an important way of inscribing Christian history into the history of the Empire. So there was a common idea that the Sixth Age of the World was coterminous with the Roman Empire.

At the same time, Christian thinkers were more interested than their predecessors in a single linear chronology, from Creation. From the Old Testament it was possible to calculate the number of years between the Beginning and now. Gregory of Tours thought that when he finished his Ten Books of Histories 6063 years had passed since Creation. There were other systems too. Most common in our period was the Anno Passionis, years since the Passion or Crucifixion of Christ (Anno Domini dating was invented in the early sixth century but not popularised until the eighth, largely by Bede). Unfortunately there were two systems of Anno Passionis (or AP) dating which worked out as four years apart... Sometimes in 5th-century history you get what looks like the same event repeated after a 4-year interval – largely because historians haven’t bothered to check the chronographical system being used by the different chroniclers.

It’s also, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, important to note that Late Antique people calculated things differently from us. If we are asked how many years between 2016 and 2020 we would say 4; late antique people would say five, because you’d count from the beginning of 2016 to the end of 2020. Similarly with days, which is why, as mentioned in [a previous lecture], the 4th day before 7 March is 4 March rather than 3 March (you count in this case from the end of the 7th backwards to the start of the 4th). Historians often forget this too.

Organising the Late Antique World (4): Theological Correctness gone mad: the 5th-Century World

The creation of a new, martial model of masculinity in the fourth century was one way in which the mental world began to be reorganised in the late Roman period but it is very important to note that the Emperor still remained at the centre, legitimising both forms of masculinity. Nor, as I have said, did the new forms of barbarised military identity imply an actual rejection of Roman identity. As I also mentioned, and this is very important, this new martial form of Roman identity relied for its effectiveness on the continuing existence of traditional civic masculinity as the norm against which it was measured. You might, of course, what happened to that norm once the Roman Emperor declared that the whole western Empire had been lost to barbarians and needed reconquering, but we’ll leave that to one side for now.

What seems to me to be an even more important shift – in both halves of the fifth century Empire – was a radical thinking of how one envisaged the legitimate centre of the world. Even in the fourth century it was implicitly the case that the centre remained where it always had been: in the virtuous civic Roman male, personified in the Emperor, even if the debate about how one judged yourself in relationship to that might have shifted. One of the crucial things about the fourth century, as we have seen, was the increasing role of the Emperor in defining doctrinal correctness, or incorrectness. The fifth century continued to be an age when arguments about heresy dominated politics. Not only that, they became quite important in very local politics and identity. As I mentioned in the video lecture on the fifth-century crisis in week 2, the fifth century is really the period of the Christianisation of politics.

We can see this in many, many areas. I have already mentioned, more than once, the spatial transformation of the Roman city with the appearance of saints’ shrines in the peripheral cemeterial regions and the move out to those shrines of concentrations of social and political activity. In fact sometimes those peripheral foci began to move themselves towards the centre. The church of St Martin in Tours, built under Bishop Perpetuus in the third quarter of the fifth century was actually built on what had been part of the Roman city, in spite of being the new location for the saint’s tomb. This was quite a significant move, of the city of the dead into the city of the living, even if it was an abandoned part of the latter. The city of Aquileia in north-eastern Italy was sacked by Attila and his Huns in 452 but, when it was rebuilt afterwards, what is interesting is that the old urban centre, around the forum, was left entirely outside the new city walls. The new fortifications essentially protected the cathedral.

Probably more interesting and important still is what happened in Rome in the fifth century. In some ways, 4th-century Rome is paradigmatic of a city where the Christian presence was peripheral. The story of 5th-century Rome, though, is really of the take-over of the old centre by the Christian church, whether in the construction of new churches and monasteries or simply in the donation of lands to the church. The study of the archaeology of 5th-century Rome is in many ways a really good illustration of the historiography of the 5th century overall, and of the power of traditional narratives. In 2010 I attended a conference in Rome marking the anniversary of the Gothic sack of the city in 410. Most of the speakers were archaeologists who had been working on different areas of the city. Overwhelmingly, the papers they presented to the conference discussed the ‘problem’ that wherever one looked one simply could not find archaeological evidence of the barbarian sack of the city, whether in 410 or 455 (when the Vandals captured Rome and sacked it far more seriously than the Goths had). Yet their discussions of what excavations had turned up almost invariably concerned the construction of new church buildings of one sort or another. It was very clear to me that the archaeology of Rome simply could not be fit into the old grand narrative of the fifth-century barbarian invasions, largely because the real narrative of the fifth century was about something else: the Christianisation of Roman society and politics.

This is further illustrated in other aspects of fifth-century archaeology. We have already seen [in earier lectures] the abandonment of the villas that took place across the West in the fifth century. What happened on a lot of old villa sites, especially in Italy, Spain and the south of Gaul, was the construction of churches on those sites. For aristocrats it was considered a better use of their wealth and resources – for those who still had such wealth and resources, that is – to build a centre of Christian worship for their community than to keep in a good state of repair the classical locus for the manifestation of the traditional aristocratic culture of otium and paideia.

What is very interesting is how very little of the evidence from the fifth century wants to tell that story of barbarian invasion, so beloved of historians from Justinian’s time onwards. Whether one looks at archaeological or written sources – even basic chronicle sources – the evidence from the fifth century is much more concerned with Christianity and especially with the issues of heresy and orthodoxy.

I mentioned earlier that these issues had become important even at a very local level. There are a couple of very nice examples of this. One concerns the heresy of Priscillianism in Iberia and neighbouring areas. As I mentioned in [a previous lecture], Priscillian has the dubious distinction of being the first person handed over to the secular government to be executed for heresy. But no one really knows what was heretical about Priscillian. Some of his writings survive, largely because they were erroneously attributed to St Augustine of Hippo; no one has been able to find any doctrinally suspect statements in these. The charges levelled against him are reminiscent of those thrown at the Templars nearly a millennium later: of witchcraft, of strange ritual practices – or they are standard late antique accusations such as that he spent too much time with women. The main problem with Priscillian seems to have been the sort of thing that concerned the church about some holy men: that he didn’t do what bishops told him, and that he wandered around Iberia with a crowd of followers. Once Priscillian had been declared a heretic and executed, though, accusations of ‘Priscillianism', whatever that might in practice have been, began to appear in local Spanish politics. What seems to have been happening was that some groups accused their enemies of this in order to undermine their legitimacy.

My second example concerns Pelagianism in Britain. Pelagius was a Briton but all of the debate over his teachings was conducted in the Mediterranean regions, ending with the 1st Council of Ephesus in 431. After he was declared heretical, from the 2nd decade of the 5th century onwards, we start to find accusations of Pelagianism in Britain. As with Priscillianism in Spain, the origins of the heresiarch seem to have determined where accusations of the heresy were most believable. St Germanus of Auxerre travelled to Britain in 428 after an appeal was sent to the Gallic church asking for someone to resolve the dispute. The account in the Life of Germanus really suggests though that, as with Priscillianism in Spain, this was really a dispute over local authority in Verulamium (St Albans) rather than a serious theological dispute. What these stories illustrate was that a micro level, deviation from correct teaching (orthodoxy) had somehow come to replace deviation from the standards of civic masculinity as the way in which political illegitimacy was determined.

This was true at the highest levels too. If the emperor himself was a heretic, why ought anyone to take any notice of what he said? During the reign of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy, one reason why Goths and Romans came together, and why even Catholics and Arians seem to have been able to reach a modus vivendi was because the Emperors at the time, first Zeno and then, especially, Anastasius were considered to be miaphysite heretics. Both the Arians and the Catholics agreed that this was heresy. Once the Catholic Justin I came to the throne, the seeming truce between Arians and Catholics in Italy seems to have begun to crumble.

The Goths, in Gaul and Iberia, and in Italy, were Arians, as just mentioned. So were the Vandals in Africa. Quite apart from the fact that this heretical belief seems to have been used to create an identity for these groups, the Goths and Vandals appear to have stressed their doctrinal differences precisely when they were in political dispute with Rome – sometimes going as far as to persecute the Catholics – mainly in Vandal Africa. Again, though, the issue seems to have been that it was possible to try to discredit political rivals by portraying them as doctrinally in error.

In the fifth century it seems that claims to representing the legitimate centre in terms of traditional Roman notions of virtue became less and less secure as the century wore on, partly perhaps because of the changes mentioned in the previous lecture, as well as the end of the generally-recognised legitimate dynasty. If claims could not be made on these grounds they perhaps could by reference to more overarching notions of doctrinal, theological correctness. The good Christian replaced the good Roman at the centre of the world.

Organising the Late Antique World (3): Fourth-Century Changes

In [a previous lecture], I mentioned how a new martial model of masculinity appeared in the 4th century. I alluded to it again the first element of the previous lecture package, too. This doesn’t seem to me to have had the recognition it deserves, as this was a development with really profound long-term effects.

I want to go back to this issue and discuss it in a little more detail. The barbarisation of the fourth-century Roman army has a long historiography but it has usually been discussed in terms of the numbers of actual barbarians enrolled into the army. People at the time thought that there were more barbarians in the army and it’s likely that there were. First, the army was bigger than that of the early Empire, though by how much is unknown, but the Empire’s population was not growing, so logically there was probably more need for non-Roman recruitment. Secondly, as we’ve seen, the much enlarged civil service was separated from the military, reducing a pool of 25-35,000 men or more from eligibility for recruitment. Third, the recruitment of barbarians made a lot of sense; barbarians warriors actively wanted to join up, for the rewards of serving in the Roman army and were probably better than unwilling conscripts, and every barbarian in the army was a barbarian not raiding the frontier provinces. Even so, it still seems that the great bulk of the Roman army was not made up of non-Romans.

Nonetheless, the barbarisation of the army – as we can see it in the sources - wasn’t just down to the numbers of barbarians in the ranks. An obvious point, perhaps, is that barbarian recruitment need not necessarily mean the barbarisation of the army, its practices and culture. The large numbers of non-Romans in Republican and early imperial forces had not had that sort of effect. One way forward involves returning to a list that we still have of the units in the late Roman army, called the Notitia Dignitatum. It is a sort of window (even if a rather cloudy one) on to the army at the end of the fourth century and in the early fifth. We can look at the titles of army units.

Numerous such units have ‘ethnic’ names, like Franks, Alamans, Saxons, and so on. However, two points can be made. First, they only make up a fraction of the whole and even then you’d need to ask how many were still recruited from the peoples in question by the time that the Notitia was compiled. Second, more interestingly, the barbarian ethnic names used are not limited to those of the fourth century. As well as Salii (Franks), Vesi and Tervingi (both Goths), there are Celts, Sabines, Parthians, and possibly Arcadians: non-Roman peoples from the remote and even legendary past. If the Legion of Scythae was recruited from barbarians (possibly Danubian Goths, often called Scythians by the Romans) it is interesting that it was nonetheless given a classicising name. Choosing a barbarian ethnonym for a regiment was clearly more than a simple bureaucratic record of its soldiers’ origins.

But these units have other types of name, too. More numerous than the ‘ethnic’ names are what I call ‘boasting names’: Feroces, Victores, Invicti, Felices (the ferocious ones, the victorious ones, the undefeated, the lucky ones – the last especially common), to which one might add units whose titles appear to claim their status in the front rank. Then there are some units with animal names: the Leones (the Lions), the Cornuti (the Horned Beasts). In the prestigious field army, units clearly participated in a competitive culture. Their men were boastful of their fierceness, they were like animals, they were like barbarians, ancient or modern.

This is the context in which the phenomenon of the Roman army’s ‘barbarisation’ should be viewed. The appearance of the late army looked, by classical standards, very barbarian: trousers (above all), thick cloaks, broad belts, and an emphasis on jewellery and adornment. Compare depictions of late imperial soldiers with those of barbarians on early imperial monuments like Trajan’s or Marcus Aurelius’ columns or the arch of Septimius Severus. The workshops that gilded officers’ armour were called barbaricaria, one meaning of the unit name brachiati is ‘the bracelet-wearers’, and we can see torques (barbarian adornment par excellence) in the costume of imperial guardsmen. The army’s weaponry had also shifted and now included weapons, like long slashing swords (spathae), that had traditionally been associated with barbarians. It bore draco (dragon) ‘windsock’ standards, again associated with barbarians in early Roman literature and art. Vegetius adds other supposedly barbarian items to the list, such as whips carried by officers to ‘encourage’ their troops. The Roman army’s war-cry, the barritus (a cheer that started low and swelled to a discordant climax) seems to me more likely to have modelled on the trumpeting of a barrus (elephant), but it is interesting that Roman writers thought it was barbarian in origin. Late Roman soldiers had adopted what I have called ‘barbarian chic’. What is interesting is its mix of elements from the ‘binary’ and the ‘taxonomic’ registers of Roman ethnography.

I don’t really see this as even being authentically ‘barbarian’; it is a hotch-potch of stereotypical features of the ‘non-Roman’ thrown together regardless of context or of historical veracity. One way of thinking of it would be as an equivalent of the Hollywood ‘Red Indian’ of classic westerns of the third quarter of the last century: bits and pieces of native American culture from different peoples thrown together willy-nilly and with an admixture of myth and stereotype: to make a recognisable ‘sign’ with a particular signified. A more recherché military historical example would be the ‘zouave’ regiments of the 19th-century French army. Originally recruited from Algerians they very rapidly were made up of white Frenchmen, wearing a French colonial version of what they thought North African costume was. But the zouaves themselves adopted lots of bits and pieces of North African culture and the whole gave them a very particular esprit de corps and this self-consciously created ‘otherness’ could be deployed competitively with the more traditional elite units of the French army.

Cut off from the civilian branch of service, which valorised the traditional civic masculine virtues, paideia and the aristocratic culture of otium and negotium, late Roman elite regiments (especially) constructed new identities. Braggart, barbarous, ferocious, and animal-like, they were unabashedly masculine and represented the antithesis of the civic masculine ideal with its stress on modesty and moderation. Their costume was designed to underline this. It is difficult, in my view, to underestimate the significance of this development. It created an alternative form of Roman-ness, a sort of anti-Roman-ness – in the sense that it stood in a relationship to traditional Romanitas that is similar to that (in literature) between the anti-hero and the traditional hero. Not opposed to Rome, or non-Roman, it was Roman in an untraditional and possibly jarring way. Thought about as a competing form of masculinity, it needed the original civic form in order to make its point; its rebellious stress on ferocity and martial boastfulness only makes sense against a backdrop where moderation, discipline and so on are the norm. What is valorised and what isn’t constantly flips from one to the other. Again, what we have is a form of deconstruction of the old certainties of Roman life. The space between the two is the space of contested masculinity in late Roman politics. (You could make the same point about the space between traditional civic virtue and Christian asceticism, discussed in the previous [package of lectures].)

This shift matters quite a lot. What it meant was that there was a tradition within Roman society by the fifth century of people serving in the Roman army consciously adopting a supposedly non-Roman culture and identity, strutting about in their ‘barbarian’ costume, speaking their army slang, which contained a number of words of Germanic origin, claiming a certain status within society – but without actually ceasing to see themselves as Romans. Consequently in the fifth-century crisis it was possible to navigate what would earlier have been very tricky political decisions – to make common cause with barbarian soldiers, or to serve with them in their forces. In, say, the second or third century, this would have been to turn your back not simply on Romanness but also on your masculinity and any claim to legitimate political authority. The shifts of the fourth century had made things much easier. After all, the barbarian or barbarised soldier still stood in a chain of command and legitimate authority that went up to the Emperor himself who – as we have seen – personified both forms of masculinity. We’ll come back to some of these points next week when we look at ethnicity and ethnic identity in late antiquity. Of course, in the fullness of time, the ‘barbarised’ late Roman martial model of masculinity became the root of the classic medieval form of warrior masculinity.

Organising the Late Antique world (2): Classical Ethnography (2) – the taxonomic

In the previous [post]I discussed what I called the binary aspect of Graeco-Roman ethnography, in other words, the distinction between Roman-ness and barbarism. As we saw, this was really a pretty abstract element of thinking about the world and its organisation. In this area of thought the barbarian and the Roman were both ideals, and the barbarian ‘other’ largely existed as a counter to the ideal Roman. As we saw in an earlier lecture Roman men whose behaviour did not live up to the ideals of civic masculinity could be described as barbarous, but also as feminine, or childlike, or as animal, as all of these categories orbited the masculine ideal at the centre and shared various non-Roman traits: ferocity, emotionality, irrationality. As I said in that earlier lecture, the barbarian could be rendered feminine or child-like.

It is worth remembering, however, that because the Roman-Barbarian ethnographic binary operated in a rhetorical field, it could be played with. One of the great rhetorical tropes in writing critically about the Empire was to say that even the barbarians do things better than we do. Because of the historical dimension to the Romans’ own views of their civilisation, the barbarian could be presented as a sort of noble savage, retaining pristine things which perhaps the Romans had lost on their road to the present. It could be used ironically: barbarians can have speeches put into their mouths in which they say things or voice opinions which barbarians shouldn’t have said or held.

There was, however, another element of Roman ethnographic thinking, which I call the taxonomic. In Graeco-Roman thought the world was a world of peoples: ethne in Greek; gentes in Latin. This patchwork of peoples did not start at the imperial frontier, even if, when the Romans called an emperor a domitor gentium – pacifier of the nations – what they meant was pacifier of the foreign nations. After all, the vast bulk of the Roman Empire was made up of areas that had been inhabited by peoples who had at one point been non-Roman: at one level, the Gauls, the Britons, the Spaniards, the Celtiberians and so on in the West, the Libyans and Egyptians in North Africa, the Greeks, Syrians, Judaeans, Lycians and so on in the East. Such peoples might now be incorporated in the Empire and be counted as Romans but at the same time they could be believed to retain at least some of the other characteristics that had defined them before the Roman conquest.

Here again the frontier was important. For the Romans, the frontier, the limes didn’t mark the end of the Roman world, just the end of the part that the Romans had organised and cultivated. The rest of the world was also part of the Roman world; it was just that they hadn’t got around to sorting it out yet. It was the equivalent of the line between your ploughed and fertilised fields and the bits of your land that were wild forest, pasture, moorland and so on. So the frontier was not something that the Romans felt constrained by. It was like a membrane which they could pass through but which outsiders couldn’t move in the opposite direction. So, historically, the movement of that always provisional frontier had meant that peoples who had once been barbarians were now civilised and that could happen again.

This kind of ethnography was much more descriptive and focused on things such as the physical appearance of people, the colour of eyes and hair, the way they did their hair, their costume, the ways in which they waged war, their favourite weapons and so on. It also addressed political constitutions to some extent, interesting features of diet or cuisine or particular features of family life. Some of this could be mapped onto the binary Roman-barbarian dichotomy, but the great bulk of it couldn’t. It worked in a different register; the bulk of it did not necessarily have any sort of moral content. This sort of ethnography was much more about showing a knowledge of the world.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the work the Germania which the great early Roman writer Tacitus wrote at the end of the first century AD – so about 200 years before the start of our period. The Germania has two halves. The first half is really all about the Germani (the term ‘German’ is really anachronistic) in abstract terms, as a figure of the barbarian. In much of this, Tacitus uses the barbarian as a sort of noble savage, but really none of it is about real Germani; it is a critique of the Roman Empire using the notion that the barbarians do things better than the Romans. Tacitus was a conservative who didn’t really approve of the Empire and wanted to return to the Republic. So Tacitus says the Germani choose their kings according to their nobility, and their generals according to their virtus or power -the implication is that the Romans don’t. The rulers of the Germani listen to the advice of their council of elders – for which read ‘the senate’ – unlike the Roman Emperors. And so on.

But in the second half of the work Tacitus goes on to catalogue the different peoples who live in Germania, in a way that has barely any points of contact with the first half of his text but seems instead to be making a claim to know loads about these people, but also perhaps to demonstrate that, contrary to what the emperor Domitian had said about having conquered Germania, these people remained very much unsubdued.

Ammianus Marcellinus, the greatest of the fourth-century Roman historians, and a self-proclaimed continuator of Tacitus, has several ethnographic excursuses in his work. Sometimes these concern the peoples beyond the frontiers. Probably his best-known excursus is at the start of the final book of his Res Gestae (a difficult title to translate; basically it means ‘Deeds Done’, ‘Past Happenings’, something like that) where he talks about the people who live beyond the Danube frontier, culminating in his account of the Huns. His account of the Huns is very famous but historians have generally not paid enough attention to the fact that Ammianus places the Huns at the ends of human society and thus they share all of the stock features of extreme barbarians: they have no government, no houses, barely any clothes, and so on. But Ammianus also discusses areas within the Roman Empire in ethnographic terms. A classic instance is where he talks about the Gauls and compares them with the Italians. Much of what Ammianus has to say about the Gauls is ultimately derived from early Roman accounts of the Gauls, say from the days of Caesar. They are fierce and brave and happy to serve in the army. Their women are also brave. All this, in Ammianus’ view, presented the Gauls in a favourable light compared with the Italians, who he saw as idle and cowardly – although largely because Ammianus, himself a Syrian, had journeyed to Rome but hadn’t been able to find the favour he had hoped and indeed had been turfed out of the city during a food shortage even though, as he complained, dancing girls had been allowed to remain.

In the early third century, the Roman historian Cassius Dio described the Emperor Caracalla, whom we’ve met before, and related all of his bad points to the various parts of the Empire that his family hailed from. Ausonius, the Bordeaux professor who was important at the court of Emperor Gratian, - he was a professor of rhetoric, but is best known as a poet – Ausonius mocked a Briton apparently called Silvius Bonus. Bonus is a name but it also means ‘good’ a fact that Ausonius harps on about...:

“This is Silvius Bonus.’” “Who is Silvius?” “He is a Briton.” “Either this Silvius is no Briton, or he is Silvius malus [Silvius Bad].’”

Silvius is called Good and called a Briton: who would believe a good citizen had sunk so low?

No good man is a Briton. If he should begin to be plain Silvius, let the plain man cease to be good.

This is Silvius Good, but the same Silvius is a Briton: a plainer thing—believe me—is a bad Briton.

Thou Silvius art Good, a Briton: yet ’tis said thou art no good man, nor can a Briton link himself with Good.


None of this is about Romans and Barbarians, though: it is Gauls being prejudiced against Britons. What’s crucial here is that when a Roman talks about someone as a Briton, say, or an Italian, or a Gaul, that is not necessarily radically different from when a Roman talks about someone as a Vandal or a Goth or a Frank. The latter peoples might currently be regarded as barbarian and the former as groups within the civilised Roman empire, but then that had once been true of Britons Gauls and even some Italians too.

It is really important to remember these two types of Roman ethnography: the binary and the taxonomic. Historians generally don’t and map the attitudes involved in rhetoric about ‘the barbarian’ onto Roman discussions about people described simply as belonging to a particular people. Sometimes that might indeed be implicit; sometimes inter-regional rivalry or chauvinism might be because some regions thought they were inherently more civilised and thus better Romans than others. But in my view it is usually operating in a quite different register. It may indeed be prejudiced, like Ausonius’ side-splittingly funny comments about Silvius the Briton, or it might not; but it’s a different sort of chauvinism or relationship. The confusion of the two types of ethnography really causes a lot of misunderstanding of Roman sources.

Organising the Late Antique world (1): Classical Ethnography (1) – the binary

In [these blog posts] I want to talk about cosmologies – how people thought about the world, not so much in terms of geography – or not only in those terms – but more conceptually in terms of cores and peripheries; legitimate centres and illegitimate outliers; and eventually about time and their place within it. What we’ll see, I think, is that things had changed significantly by the close of our ‘short late antiquity’

In this first lecture I want to return, not for the first time, to the concepts I discussed in [a previous lecture], on the notions of civic masculinity. There we saw that the virtuous Roman male occupied the centre of the conceptual universe. This was a very gendered structure, as mentioned, but it also mapped onto political geography. In ethnography – writing about peoples (ethne in Greek) the Romans had two ways of thinking about the world. I call the first of these ways the binary. In other words, it was based upon the opposition between civilisation and barbarism.

The notion of the barbarian had a long history, going went right back into classical Greek times. The word has a Greek origin, barbaros, which is actually onomatopoeic: the barbaroi – the barbarians -were people who burbled, people who just went bar bar bar. In other words, people who didn’t speak Greek. The development of the idea of the Barbarian in classical Athens was of course directly related to the idea of what made a good Hellene (Greek). The figure of the barbarian in Greek drama – usually either a Skythian from the steppe lands to the north or a Persian from the east – was there to represent all the things a good Greek was supposed not to be. There was a geographical element to Greek thought about barbarians. The Persians lived in a land, they said, where things were just too easy and as a result got fat and lazy and allowed themselves to become subject to tyrannous governments. What the Greeks thought made them superior was their mixture of opposites: the harsh mountains and the fertile plains, for instance. This meant they could take the best of both worlds: accept hardship but also exploit the fruits of the fertile lands, and so on.

In the Hellenistic period – that of the successors of Alexander the Great – when Greek governments ruled what had been the Persian world, Egypt and even parts of south Asia, these ideas possibly changed somewhat, although since key influential works from this period have been lost it is not easy to trace the details. Italy during the rise of Rome contained a lot of Greek or Greek-influenced states and the political vocabulary of barbarism was important in claims for legitimacy or illegitimacy. Rome, obviously was not Greek-speaking and was still conscious of the fact that that made her barbarian in Greek terms, so there was some subtle re-jigging of the terms of the debate, especially once the Republic had conquered most of the Hellenistic states around the eastern Mediterranean.

In Roman ethnography, language was replaced by conduct, morals and living by the law as the key determinants of civilisation. As we saw in [a previous set of lectures], the key definition of the civilised man (and as we saw then, it was essentially a question of men) was moderation, the ability to keep one’s bodily appetites under control (without going to the opposite extreme of complete renunciation), the capacity to keep your emotions in check; to be able to see both sides of things and make a reasoned choice. The issue of self-control was what enabled the law to reign; subscription to the law was an extension of self-control.

In Roman thinking, there were geographical and biological reasons why the Romans had managed to become more civilised than anyone else. The Romans stressed their being in the middle, between extremes, rather than having a mix of both. This extended to their place in the world. Roman writers believed that the ability to behave in a civilised fashion was the result of a happy balance of the body’s humours. If you lived too close to the sun, like the Africans, the moisture of the body was drawn up to the head, which was why Africans were very clever and cunning, but not very brave (as far as the Romans thought, anyway). If, on the other hand, you lived too far away from the sun, to the north, like the pale-skinned barbarians, the moisture of the body was drawn down towards the legs. This made these people very big and strong, and very fertile, but also a bit stupid. Of course, where the Romans lived happened to be just the right distance from the sun and so the Romans had the correct balance of humours, allowing them to be clever and brave. This is how Pliny the Elder (who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD) put it in his Natural History:

In the middle of the earth, owing to a healthy blending of both elements [fire and moisture], there are tracts that are fertile for all sorts of produce, and men are of medium bodily stature, with a marked blending even in the matter of complexion; customs are gentle, senses clear, intellects fertile and able to grasp the whole of nature; and they also have governments, which the outer races never have possessed, any more than they have ever been subject to the central races, being quite detached and solitary on account of the savagery of the nature which broods over those regions.

You can find these ideas in a string of Roman writers, stretching from Pliny through Vitruvius, the writer on architecture, and the medical writer Galen, and on to Vegetius, who wrote about military matters in the fifth century.

The way the Romans saw the whole world was largely coloured by this set of beliefs. If you read the Roman ethnographers and geographers, the further you went from the centre of the world, the more weird and wonderful things became. The people just over the border were barbarians, sure, but nothing compared to the people beyond them, and just wait til you hear about the people who live beyond them. And so on.

The further one progressed from the Mediterranean – the sea ‘in the middle of the earth, remember – the more wildly people didn’t live according to what Romans thought were the correct mores. In whatever direction you went, at the edge of the world of men, you find people who are cannibals, sleep with their mothers, sisters, fathers, pretty much anything with two legs or fewer, don’t bother with proper houses or with cooking stuff and don’t have any kind of government. The Romans thought the Irish were like this; the people in the outer islands off Scotland; people in the north of Germania, on the edges of Scythia to the North-East, and people to the south of the Sahara desert – or some of them anyway.

Beyond that there were people who were half human, half animal; people in Africa called Sciapodes who had one massive foot, under the shadow of which they slept all day, and then hopped about in the night.

As I mentioned in [an earlier lecture], though, the Romans also saw a historical dimension to all of this. Earlier Roman writers such as Propertius and Martial thought the Romans had also been barbarians once, but that they had surpassed this stage. What is interesting is that they saw that stage as happening when they discovered the law, and what that involved in particular was the limitation of sex to marriage. Marriage, the family unit, self-control and the law; this was crucial to Roman self-definition. This was the ideal that every Roman male had to set themselves against- which simultaneously meant comparing themselves to the barbarians. Just as with the Christian debate about women, this was not a two-way discussion; it rarely if ever involved any actual barbarians. This was a dialogue between Romans and Romans: we are (or ought to be) like this because they are like that. The ‘they’ are essentially a fiction – an ‘other’ – to set against the ideal ‘us’. In some ways this gave the frontiers of the Roman Empire a very particular form. When you were looking across the Rhine, as in this picture (below), you weren’t as you would be today, simply looking across from Alsace, in France, to the hills of Baden-Württemberg in Germany – you were looking from the world of civilisation – barbaricum – where the wild people were.
Photograph of landscape, looking across the valley of the River Rhine
The Rhine Valley in Alsace, looking from the Vosges towards the Schwarzwald

Organising the Late Antique World: Introduction

[The following group of posts represents more of my Short Reads on Late Antiquity. As with the others, they originate as the scripts of short, 10-minute video-lectures given to my second-year students last term. As with the others I haveposted, the texts are as read - lightly modified to make them make more sense as blog posts - and are obviously simplified and introductory. If these are of use to anyone in teaching, please do feel free to use them.]

This [group of posts] once again starts from a basis set out in [an earlier video lecture] to explores late antique cosmology - how people organised the world, not primarily in terms of geography but in terms of what they regarded as the legitimate centre and the illegitimate outside. It considers shifts in the way in which the Romans thought about the difference between civilisation and barbarism, and (preparing the ground for [the lectures on ethnicity and race]) how they saw the world as made up of different peoples. It revisits the ideas of [a previous lecture]) and the way in which religious orthodoxy became central to politcs of the 5th century, before closing withy a discussion of the measurement of time and how late antique people saw themselves located within it.  

Part 1: Classical Ethnography (1): The Binary

This [post] looks at classical Graeco-Roman ethnography and the way it conceived of the difference between civilisation and barbarism. It takes the story from the Greek city states of the 5th-4th centuries BC through to the late Roman period. This 'binary' was something that was really all about Romans and remained at the level of ideals

Part 2: Classical Ethnography (2): The Taxonomic

There was another element to classical ethnography, however, and that was what I call taxonomic. The world was made up of peoples (ethne in Greek; gentes in Latin) and these could be described in ways that didn't necessarily map on to the civilised:barbarian binary dichotomy. This dimension was much more historically situated.

Part 3: Fourth-Century Change

In this [post] I return to the creation of a martial model of masculinity within the late Roman army.  This was based around conscious adoption of aspects that were opposed to classical civic masculinity, but it did not mean a rejection of Roman-ness. This new model of masculinity provided an important resource for navigating the dramas of the 5th century and became the basis for medieval warrior masculinity. 

Part 4: Theological correctness gone mad: The fifth century

This [post] returns to the them of [a previous video lecture] by looking further at the ways in which fifth-century politics at local levels as well as higher political levels turned on issues of orthodoxy and heresy. The fifth-century grand narrative, as we have seen before, is about the Christianisation of politics. The legitimate centre changed from the good Roman to the good Christian. 

Part 5: The measurement of time

In this [post] we move from the organisation of the world in terms of legitimate core and illegitimate periphery to the place of people in time. Christianity introduced a significantly different attitude to time, as it saw a linear sequence from Creation to the Last Judgement. After the conversion of Constantine, Christians became very concerned with inserting Christian history into the history of Rome and the Empire and establishing synchronicity between Roman and Christian history.  The 6th Age of the World was thought to be coterminous with the Roman Empire.

Part 6: The End

This final short [post] lecture simply rounds off the previous one by looking how Christian measurement of time were linked to apocalyptical thinking. This became especially acute in the West after Justinian's wars and in the East after the Great Persian War and the Arab Conquests. If you were living after the Roman Empire (and thus the 6th Age) surely the end of time must be here. What effect did living after the end of linear time have on writers?