Featured post

More Posts you might have missed on the other site

Here, in order from oldest to most recent are the not-exactly-numerous posts that have appeared on the other site in the past two and a half...

Monday 22 January 2024

Spectres of Marcus: the Roman Empire ‘between two deaths’

This time, ah - ah

Is coming like a ghost time

When I wrote Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, getting on for 20 years ago, I used a three-part organisation of the text: Part 1: Romans and Barbarians in an Imperial world; Part 2: A world renegotiated; Part 3: Romans and barbarians in a post-imperial world. I used the term ‘post-imperial’ for a couple of reasons. I borrowed it from Andrew Gillet, who had coined it because of problems with the term ‘post-Roman’. People after 476 weren’t in any sense ‘post-Roman’. Many thought they were still Romans; many were still trying to do things to look Roman; many continued to call themselves Romans (not least in the Greek-speaking east). I also thought at the time that the western Empire had ended in 480 and that people at the time knew that it had ended. I thought this partly because of arguments by Jill Harries about Sidonius Apollinaris’ letters at the time, and on the basis of some of the changes that were taking place in material culture in the last quarter of the 5th century. So ‘post-imperial’ seemed like a very good term to use for the period after 480.

I no longer think that the western Empire ended in 480, and I no longer think that people at the time thought that it had ended. About ten years ago I argued that Sidonius’ comments about the Tiber’s dwindling stream compared with the strength of the Moselle, were something that a Gallic poet might equally have written to a third-century Gallic emperor resident at Trier. The work I did on Style 1, about a decade ago (but never published) also stressed the ‘not knowing’, the indeterminacy of the period and the way that the decorative style played with traditional Roman iconography and indeed could not make its point without that.

This leaves me with a terminological problem. Neither ‘post-Roman’ nor ‘post-imperial’ now seem to me to be adequate terms for the period between Nepos’ murder and the wars of Justinian – during which I contend people did begin to realise that they were no longer living in the Roman Empire. So what do I/we call that period? If (or, as I hope, when) I do a 2nd edition of Barbarian Migrations, what do I use as the title for Part 3?

During that period I argue that western European polities (and politics) continued to operate as though the Empire did still exist and they were a part of it. By the earlier 6th century Frankish and Ostrogothic rulers displayed serious imperial pretensions. Indeed it was this that seems to have led the eastern emperors to start to promulgate the idea that the West had ended, been lost, been conquered by barbarians, in the fifth century (in 455 or 476). Politics were oriented towards the notion of an Empire, but an Empire that did not function as such in the west. It was something spectral, or phantasmic: something believed to be there and affecting people’s actions, but not there in reality. It’s in this sense that I like to think of the period between 480 and say 550 as the western Roman Empire ‘between two deaths’. In one sense, as a functioning political organisation, the Empire really did die with Nepos in 480, but in another sense it only died when Justinian declared that it was dead, 50 years later.  When I was interested in the thought of Jacques Lacan, ten to fifteen years ago, I toyed with the idea of trying to think this issue through his writing about Antigone ‘between two deaths’. In – in Lacan’s terms – the ‘symbolic’ register (loosely, the register of language and the world as it is) the Empire died in 480; in his register of the Imaginary (the world as we think it should, or ought to, be) it didn’t die until Justinian’s wars. Now, away from my books, I can’t remember whether the two deaths at stake in Antigone are in the same sequence, first in the Symbolic and then in the Imaginary, but I think there are issues to think about there, in analysing the society and politics of that period.

For now, what I want to stress is that spectral aspect of the period (again, see also my unpublished piece on Style 1 for the 'undead' Roman Empire). So I give you (and, provided no one has come up with this before, claim as my coinage) a new term for the period between c.475 and c.550:


I thank you.