Monthly Archives: January 2014

Representations of Power and Imperial Manliness in the Reign of Theodosius II


There has been a surge of interest in the past few years around the reign of Theodosius II. Here is my take on this crucial reign:


On a summer day in 450, the forty-eight year old Eastern Roman emperor, Theodosius II died of injuries sustained in a horse riding accident. Having reigned since his father Arcadius’ death in 408, many contemporary Eastern Romans had never known another ruler. Such an end represented a somewhat ironic demise for an emperor better known by most modern historians for his ineffectual rule, monkish character, and prominent role in contemporary Christological debates, than for a zest for the active life.[1] This paper looks at the various ways imperial propaganda, and in particular, some fifth-century ecclesiastical historians, promoted Theodosius II as the leader of both the Roman state and the increasingly powerful Christian Church. It will challenge the view found in much of the modern scholarship on the reign that supposes that the fifth century witnessed a major shift away from martial virtues as an essential component of imperial propaganda.








The Pious Emperor

Similar to many upper-class Romans of the time, the emperor and his family were dedicated Christians.[2] One sees evidence of this devotion in the literary and the visual sources from the reign.[3] This emphasis is certainly found in the writings of the Eastern Church historians whose literary genre flourished during the emperor’s reign.[4] One specialist on the period remarks that many of the fifth-century ecclesiastical historians’ descriptions of Theodosius II appear more characteristic of a Late Roman holy man, bishop, or monk than that of an archetypal Late Roman emperor.[5] For example, Socrates, whose generally fair and balanced account provides us with the best narrative of the reign, informs his readers that the imperial family ran the palace like a monastery. He even suggests that the emperor wore a hair-coat—typical of extreme Eastern ascetics—underneath his royal garb and dedicated his days and nights to prayer, fasting, and study of sacred texts. Seemingly reneging on an earlier promise (HE 1.1.2-3) not to cross the line from historian to panegyrist, Socrates extolled what he saw as the emperor’s “Christian” virtues:

He evinced so much prudence, that he appeared to those who conversed with him to have acquired wisdom from experience. Such was his fortitude in undergoing hardships, that he would courageously endure both heat and cold; fasting very frequently, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays; and this he did from an earnest endeavour to observe with accuracy all the prescribed forms of the Christian religion.[6]

Here we find all of the characteristics of the standard bishop or holy man.[7] Throughout his history, Socrates created an image of Theodosius II as a model leader of both the Church and the State. Theresa Urbainczyk has recently illustrated how highlighting the ascetic authority of the emperor allowed Socrates to link the “unity of the Empire and the unity of the Church”. Having the emperor conform to his vision of the attributes of an ideal bishop allowed the historian to promote to his readers the “controversial” idea that the emperor represented the dominant, and indeed, the “rightful”, leader of the Church.[8] This stance by Socrates contrasted sharply with that of his fellow Church historians, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Rufinus, who frequently supported the idea of the bishop as the primary authority in ecclesiastical affairs. Despite this rhetoric, however, the emperors maintained their dominant role as the leader of the Church throughout Late Antiquity.[9] 

        Sozomen presented a slightly more conventional portrait of Theodosius II as a quintessential Christian Roman emperor and man. In an introduction dedicated to the emperor, and most likely recited in front of the court in Constantinople, Sozomen’s account quite naturally veered from historical to unabashedly panegyric.[10] The resulting impression of Theodosius II differed little from encomiums dedicated to the emperor Augustus four and a half centuries earlier:  He was courageous, militarily successful, devoted to God, sexually restrained, philanthropic and benevolent.[11] In comparison to Socrates, who made only passing mention of the emperor’s martial qualities, Sozomen claimed that Theodosius’ days were filled with military training, physical exercise, and state affairs, while his nights were spent in study.[12]

Though men had trained the young emperor in arms, horse riding and letters, Sozomen attributed Theodosius’ Christian piety and manly deportment to the upbringing and influence of his pious sister, Pulcheria. Amalgamating the traditional “womanly aristocratic” virtue of sisterly devotion, with the newer Christian emphasis on celibacy,[13] the historian applauded the emperor’s elder sister for devoting “her virginity to God”, and helping to guide “Theodosius into piety” by showing him the wisdom of constant prayer, respect for the clergy, and honouring the church with a steady stream of  “gifts and treasure”.[14]

Although piety had always been one of the imperial virtues, Socrates and Sozomen, like other Christian sources from the period, emphasise this quality and the emperor’s other Christian qualities such as charity over the emperor’s more “traditional” virtues such as courage, wisdom, and prudence.[15] In addition, following Old Testament precedents and contemporary hagiographical motifs, the Church historians, tended to attribute the military victories of orthodox emperors to the power of piety and prayer.[16] We see evidence of this view in Sozomen’s declaration that “Piety alone suffices for the salvation of princes; and without piety, armies, a powerful empire, and every other resource, are of no avail”.[17]

        Few modern scholars have been able to resist the temptation of seeing in such depictions a moving away from traditional marital virtues such as courage or manliness toward more Christian notions of extreme asceticism and piety. Since I will spend the remainder of this essay rebutting aspects of these arguments, what follows are brief summaries, and a few initial comments and criticisms of some of their main claims. Theresa Urbainczyk’s view is typical. She writes: “The Church became aware of the incongruity of celebrating military prowess in a Christian emperor and preferred to stress more Christian qualities….The change in emphasis would have also have had imperial approval”.[18] Kenneth Holum proposes that this change in Christian imperial ideology had emerged in the reign of Theodosius II’s Grandfather, Theodosius I. He points to Christian literature surrounding Theodosius I’s victory over his Western rival, Eugenius, at the battle of Frigidus in 384 as evidence of this new ideology: “In that battle, contemporary authors stressed, the soldiers’ weapons had accomplished nothing at all. Theodosius had accomplished nothing at all. Theodosius had mastered Eugenius through piety alone, his tears and prayers”. According to Holum, in the reigns of his sons, Honorius and Arcadius, this Christian imperial dogma became more pronounced. He concludes: “The new ideology owed much to the old, but the personal qualities on which victory depended had been transformed, from strategic ability and brute military strength to the emperor’s Christian eusebeia”.[19] Peter Heather, too, points to a change in imperial ideology in the reign of Theodosius I. He argues more plausibly, however, that this emphasis on piety in the speeches of the court-propagandist, the Hellenic philosopher Themistius, represented a means to deal with changing political realities and military setbacks at the hands of the Goths in the years after Adrianople, as much as a real and permanent shift in imperial ideology.[20] I agree that this stress on the emperor’s “Christian” virtues, and the apparent rejection of the typical Roman adulation of brute force, seems to have been a response to Theodosius’ rather embarrassing failure to crush the Goths in 381, as well as the ensuing incorporation of many of these “barbarian enemies” into his armed forces. Before these defeats, Themistius had, in fact, gone to great lengths to promote Theodosius’ warlike qualities, and had expressed in typical jingoistic and militaristic rhetoric, the emperor’s need for revenge against the Goths for the setback at Adrianople.[21]

Nevertheless, there are problems with all of these approaches. First, examinations of the literary and visual sources that have survived from the reign of Constantius II (ruled 337-361) reveal that an imperial reliance on Christian virtues and imagery as an essential aspect of imperial propaganda was not a Theodosian innovation. Despite the largely negative portrait found in Ammianus, Constantius deftly balanced his military role with Christian engagement.[22] Secondly, it is surely hazardous to rely largely on Christian writers’ versions of battles like Frigidus and their visions of “pious” Roman emperors, as Holum does, as firm evidence of a cultural shift away from martial virtues as a key component of imperial ideology. Historians must take care when relying on ancient sources with a Christian rather than a historical agenda. As Alan Cameron warns, ecclesiastical history operated “on a theological rather than a historical plane”; secular wars and military victories were only of interest for the ecclesiastical authors “for the light they cast on the piety and orthodoxy of the victors”.[23] This motive helps to explain why these Christian sources emphasised the bloodless and miraculous nature of Theodosius I’s victory at Frigidus against the supposed pagan elements of Eugenius’ forces.[24] It was only natural that these Christian sources, depending on Old Testament precedents (Joshua 6.20) as well fourth-century trends in Christian hagiography and panegyric, would highlight the pivotal role that the “hand of God” played in the triumph of the “orthodox” and “pious” Theodosius, while marginalising both the numbers and the military qualities of his soldiers. Such a view probably had imperial approval. For Theodosius I and his heirs, a hard-fought contest between two rival Christian emperors heading evenly matched Roman armies of a similar religious makeup was perhaps better explained as a bloodless and providential triumph over a numerically superior Western army intent on re-establishing pagan worship.

Though I would not deny the worth—and indeed the absolute necessity—of using Christian sources in helping to reconstruct secular events in the murky late-fourth and fifth-century, some care must be taken. Certainly, to proclaim the end of the relevance of the emperor and his soldiers’ “brute military strength” as a key component of the Empire’s well-being and as a key aspect of imperial ideology on such slanted evidence, as Holum does, is hazardous. Two Late Roman sources less favourable to Theodosius I, Eunapius and the Christian historian, Philostorgius (a Church historian who opposed Theodosius I’s Christological position), portrayed Frigidus “as just another triumph of the stronger over the weaker”.[25] Therefore, the marginalising of martial virtues and the trumpeting of Christian values promoted by Late Roman Christian and imperial sources may simply represent the demands of one’s literary genre and/or a response by imperial ideology to military setbacks and civil war.


(Base of a statue of Theodosius II Hebdomon Constantinople, image from


We have evidence that Theodosius II sought to present himself as the face of Roman military victory. In a similar fashion as Justinian I in the next century, Theodosius II seemed to know the importance of claiming “the credit for military successes”.[26] His religious devotion and his belief in providence certainly did not keep him from commissioning equestrian monuments of himself to commemorate “his” victories over the Persians 420/21 and the Huns 441/2.[27] In fact, it was this image of Theodosius II as the protector of the Eastern Empire and the driving force behind the “triumphs” over the Huns and Persians that served as prominent themes in Olympiodorus’ secular history and the early Byzantine ecclesiastical histories of Theodoret, Sozomen, and Evagrius.[28] So too after the death of the Western emperor Honorius in 423, did Theodosius present himself as the West’s protector.[29] Military matters represented a major area of focus for Theodosius throughout the 440s. It is clear that Theodosius hoped to wipe away the shame of losing most of North Africa in the 420s and 430s by once again taking the fight to the Vandals. A major Hunnic invasion of the Eastern Empire in 442, however, forced the Eastern emperor to recall his fleet that was, with cooperation of his junior Western counterpart Valentinian III, planning a major invasion against the Vandals in Africa.[30]

Without a doubt, military success represented an essential component to the ideology of both the state and the Church in the Christian Eastern Roman Empire of Theodosius II.[31] By his reign, it had in fact become difficult to separate the two. Though exaggerated for rhetorical effect, the famous quotation from a sermon from 428 by the newly elected bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, highlighted this intimate connection between “orthodoxy” and military success: “Give me King, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Aid me in destroying heretics, and I will assist you in vanquishing the Persians”.[32] Further evidence of this view is found in a letter from the bishop of Cyrus Theodoret to Theodosius’ general, the Alan Aspar, promising “to implore our good Lord” to guard the Empire and make it a terror to its enemies.[33]  Therefore, it should cause little surprise then that the younger Theodosius, who sought to justify and glorify his leadership of the Church and the State, would have supported the creation of ideologies that portrayed him as both a model religious and secular leader.

 The increasing juxtaposition of Church and state affairs that marked the politics of the Theodosian age is reflected in the writings of many contemporary Christian sources. In opposition to Holum’s and Urbainczyk’s conclusions about Christian writers growing tendency to marginalise militarism, a wealth of evidence is found in their writings applauding the Roman emperors’ and their soldiers’ military prowess. One example should suffice. In the following passage, the fifth-century Christian poet Prudentius celebrated the Emperor Honorius’ “Christian” Roman army’s victory over the Goths:

To lead our army and our empire we had a young warrior mighty in Christ, and his companion and father [-in-law] Stilicho, and Christ the one God of both. It was after worship at Christ’s altar and when the mark of the cross was imprinted on the brow, that the trumpets sounded. First before the dragon standards went a spear-shaft raising the crest of Christ. There the race that for thirty years had plagued Pannonia was at last wiped out and paid the penalty.[34] 

As Michael Whitby aptly points out, “It is too easily forgotten that the Christian God was chosen by Constantine as a God of Battles, and that there are plenty of exempla of heroic warriors and much smiting of enemies in the Old Testament – Gideon, Samson, David, and Maccabees”.[35] Indeed, the seminal  fifth-century Christian writer Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) used the example of David to reassure the Roman military commander Boniface that God valued the endeavours of Roman soldiers, and supported what the bishop described as just wars.[36]

This pro-martial sentiment represented a common theme in many Christian writings of the time. Sharing a view espoused by their model Eusebius, Sozomen, and Socrates made it clear in their histories that the well-being of the Church remained linked inexorably to the military successes of the Roman armies. Yet, Socrates and Sozomen included information on secular matters seemingly unlinked to Church affairs in their accounts. Socrates, in particular, knew that this inclusion set this history apart from his model Eusebius (and in some ways his contemporaries like Theodoret).[37] This gradual move away from purely Christian histories is not so strange considering that these ecclesiastical historians lived in a different age than their historiographical model. By the time these men composed their histories, the Christian Roman Empire was nearly a century and a half old; paganism was a spent force, and Christian symbolism and iconography were an important part of Roman military ideology. Whereas Eusebius’ history had been largely a tale of the Christian Church’s fight against its external enemies, and in particular the “prosecuting” pagan Roman emperors, the fifth-century ecclesiastical historians concentrated on the battle against “heretics” within, and the integral relationship between the success of the Roman armies and the success of the Church.[38] To varying degrees, these ecclesiastical historians provided details on secular and military affairs and the actions of brave soldiers, and even provided accounts of “brave” Roman citizens taking up arms against foreign invaders.[39] This inclusion was no accident. Socrates explained he included such formerly taboo topics for two primary reasons. First, and most important, as he put it, “when public affairs were in turmoil, those of the Church were in turmoil”. He continued by justifying his emphasis on the life and deeds of Roman emperors. He wrote, “I continually include the emperors in history since from the time they became Christians, the affairs of the Church have depended on them”. Last, and perhaps most revealing, he thought (or perhaps hoped) that his reading audience would tire of an endless rehashing of doctrinal disputes.[40]

Due to the loss of much of the secular literature from the fifth century, our portrait of Theodosius II derives mostly from the relatively abundant Christian sources that survive from his reign. This skewed ratio has probably tilted our view towards the “Christian” Theodosius II somewhat.[41] Priscus, one the few fifth-century secular historians besides Olympiodorus to provide us with some details on his reign—albeit in a negative fashion—says very little in the fragments that survive about the emperor’s piety, and nothing about the Christological views of the imperial regime.[42] Instead, he voiced his concerns that Theodosius’ cowardice and lack of marital virtues had caused him to prefer to pay off the Eastern Roman enemies instead of facing them in battle.[43] In what survives of his work known as Byzantine History, Priscus created a portrait of Theodosius II and his ministers as unmanly fops. Though we lack around two thirds of the text, It appears that the career diplomat had constructed the conventional binary contrast comparing the unmanly vices of Theodosius II and his generals and eunuch advisors with the more typically martial and masculine ideals displayed by the emperor Marcian’s (ruled 450-457) military background and his strong diplomatic stance against the Huns.[44]

The fact that the fifth century produced at least five other secular histories should serve as an important reminder, that in contrast to the West, historical writing continued to be a viable literary genre in the East. Judging from their fragments and their sixth-century successors, these works appear to have focussed on military affairs and the manliness of war. We are told that Candidus’ lost history focused heavily on the future emperor Basiliscus’ military “successes and failures” in Africa.[45] Malchus’ history appeared, as well, to concentrate on the military reigns of Leo I, Zeno, and Basiliscus.[46] Indeed, with the exception of Anastasius I (ruled 491-518), Theodosius II’s fifth-century successors had all begun their careers as soldiers.[47]

Secular sources continued to portray military setbacks, not as acts of Divine retribution, but primarily as failures of courage and manliness. Priscus, for instance, blamed Leo I’s failed campaign to recapture North Africa from the Vandals in 468 largely on its commander the future “usurper” Basiliscus. In Priscus’ telling, Basiliscus—either through treachery or through cowardice—failed to act decisively, and therefore allowed the noble and valiant Roman soldiers to suffer a disastrous defeat at the hands of Vandals. [48]

The disappearance of much of the secular historiography from the fifth century should always be remembered when we try to determine the extent of this era’s focus on Christian virtues or a larger societal rejection of martial virtues and traditional masculine ideologies. Indeed, imagine our view of the sixth century if the complete accounts we have from Procopius, Agathias, and Theophylact had disappeared or come down to us only in fragments like all of their fifth-century counterparts. The balance of the surviving sources is such as to give a false impression of a dramatic shift in the fifth century away from an imperial, as well as a larger societal, ideology of masculinity based, in part, on martial virtues.




[1] See especially Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), 101,130, Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 87, Kathryn Chew, “Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II,” Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2 (2006): 207-227.


[2] A discussion of the imperial family’s religious devotion is found in Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 35-36 and Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 300. For a different perspective, see Theresa Urbainczyk, Socrates of Constantinople (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 33. I would suggest that Theodosius, like his grandfather, was a sincere and devoted Christian.


[3] Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 101. Later critics of the reign tried to turn this pious reputation on its head by focusing on the sexual politics of the imperial family, see John Malalas, Chronicle 14.3-8, 14.19.


[4] The first half of the fifth century represented a fecund period of ecclesiastical history.  In the Eastern half of the Empire, no less than five Greek authors continued the Church history of Eusebius.  For some of the reasons for this abundance and popularity, see Alan Cameron, “The Empress and the Poet: Paganism and Politics at the Court of Theodosius II”, Yale Classical Studies 27 (1982): 269-70, Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 164-75.


[5] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 145.

[6] Socrates, HE 7.22.


[7] As Conor Whately (pers. comm.) has pointed out to me, an ability to endure hardships like hot and cold courageously had long been part of the rhetoric of the emperor or commander as ‘commilitones’.


[8] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 164-176.Urbainczyk contends as well (Socrates,158-9) that Socrates’ ascetic image of Theodosius II served, in part, to counter Julian’s lingering reputation as an ideal “philosopher-king”.


[9] Indeed, this reality serves as evidence on the danger of using rigorist Christian writings as evidence of “reality” in the Late Antique world. On this topic see, Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2103), 309-320.


[10] It was expected that historians would exaggerate the virtues and exploits of living emperors, See, e.g. Agathias, Histories preface, 18-20. However, I must add we do find in Eunapius and in Procopius (Wars 1.24.39, 2.28.38-44, 7.1.30) criticisms of living emperors.


[11] For the use of a similar combination of virtues in literary depictions of the emperor Augustus, see Coleen Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 65. On the “minor modifications” imposed by Christianity on these standard imperial virtues, see Lesile Brubaker, “Sex, Lies, and Texuality: the Secret History of Prokopios and the Rhetoric of Gender in Sixth-century Byzantium”, in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 86.


[12] Sozomen, HE 9.1.


[13]Michele Renee Salzman, The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 162-63.


[14] Sozomen, HE 9.1. For the traditional role that imperial women played in imperial affairs, see S. Cristo, “Some notes on the Bonifacian-Eualian schism”, Aevum 51 (1977): 165.


[15] For piety as an essential imperial virtue from the reign of Augustus, see Conway, Behold the Man, 45-6, 51, 59. For the increased focus on this virtue in the reigns of “”child-emperors” like Honorius, Theodosius II, and Valentinian III, see Meaghan McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013),43, 117, 126, 213, 277, 280, 319-21.


[16] Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 96-99.


[17] Sozomen, HE 9.1. Cf. Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992),134-35.


[18] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 146. She does, however, leave open the possibility that this emphasis was taken out of necessity since Theodosius II had no military virtues worth mentioning.


[19] Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 50-1.


[20]Peter Heather and David Moncur, Politics, Philosophy and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius, TTH 36 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 261-62.


[21] Cameron, Last Pagans, 98-101.


[22] See e.g., Michael Whitby, “Images of Constantius”, in The Late Roman World and its Historian: Interpreting Ammianus Marcellinus, ed. Jan Willem Drijvers, David Hunt (New York: Routledge, 1999), 77-92.  


[23] Cameron (Last Pagans, 103-09) disputes this “pagan” revival, and contends that the wind miracle was the gradual “invention” of later Christian writers.


 [24] S. G. McCormack, “Latin Prose Panegyrics”, in Empire and Aftermath: Silver Latin II, ed. T. A. Dorey (London, 1975), 169-72.


[25] Cameron, Last Pagans, 111.  Eunapius, frag. 60.1, Philostorgius, HE 11.2.


[26] On Theodosius’ equestrian monument in Hebdomon just outside the capital, see Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 110. For the rather inconclusive outcome of these wars, yet the relative prosperity of the Eastern Empire at the close of Theodosius II’s reign, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 62-83.


[27] A.D. Lee, “The Empire at War”, in CCAG, ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 343-45.


[28] Olympiodorus, frag. 43.1-2. Theodoret, HE 5.7.4-10, Sozomen, HE 9.6.1, Evagrius, HE 1.19.  The pagan Olympiodorus’ history composed around 427 was dedicated to Theodosius II. For Olympiodorus’ possible close relationship with Theodosius II and the Empress Eudocia, see Warren Treadgold, “The Diplomatic Career and Historical Work of Olympiodorus of Thebes”, The International Historical Review 26 4 (2004): esp. 714, 723.


[29] Indeed, Theodosius may have hoped originally to have ruled as a sole Augustus. See, Mathews, Western Aristocracies, 377-81.


[30] A full discussion on Theodosius attempts to present himself as the manly protector of the  Western half of the Empire is found in McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule, 264-65.


[31] For this point, see Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 39.


[32] Socrates, HE 7.29.5. Socrates, in fact, used this speech to criticise Nestorius for his hardline against those the bishop considered heretics.  Socrates portrayed many of the disputes that disrupted the Church and the fourth and the fifth centuries as a waste of time.


[33] Theodoret, Letter 139 (trans. Jackson).

[34] Prudentius, c. Symmachus 2 II. 709-14, quoted in Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001),131.


[35] Michael Whitby (pers. comm.).


[36] Augustine, Letter 189. Augustine composed his City of God chiefly as a rebuttal against pagan assertions that the Christianization of the Empire had led to the barbarian invasions and the Goth Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 CE. Though he largely dismissed in this work the importance as well as the long term impact of events in the secular world, as the example above shows, his political writings frequently took a far more pragmatic stand.


[37] Socrates’ prefatory comments to open book six suggests that some of his early readers had been critical of his heavy focus on secular matters.


[38] Urbainczyk, Socrates, 150.


[39] For just a few examples, Sozomen, HE 7.4, 9.5, 9.9, Socrates (HE 5.1) provided a vivid account of the citizens of Constantinople taking up arms to defend the capital against the Goths.


[40] Socrates HE pref. 5.5. This emphasis on secular events may suggest a less devout Christian audience than one might suspect.


[41] Hence Millar’s masterful account of the reign relies heavily on the Church historians and the Acta of the Oecumenical councils held during Theodosius II’s reign.


[42] See, for example, Priscus, frag 3.1: “Theodosius, who succeeded his father Arcadius as Emperor, was unwarlike [ἀπολεμος] and lived a life of cowardice [δειλία]. He obtained peace by money, not by fighting for it.


[43] This paradigm was observed long ago by E. A. Thompson, who revealed that Priscus approved of anyone or group of peoples who took bold stands against barbarian peoples.  E.A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 189.

[44] Priscus, frag. 5.18-20.


[45]Candidus, frag. 1


[46]Malchus, frags.  Contra B. Baldwin’s claim (Dumbarton Oaks Papers
Vol. 31. (1977); 89+91-107) that Malchus’ history sought to criticize the rampant militarism of Leo and Zeno’s reigns, while critical of these reigns, far too little remains of the history remains to make such a sweeping conclusion. Indeed, if Baldwin’s thesis is true, it seems strange that Malchus would have made such an effort to portray Zeno as unwarlike and cowardly (e.g. frag 5).


[47] See, e.g. Priscus, frag. 5.15.


[48] Priscus, frag. 53. 


The First Byzantine Emperor? Some recent work on the Reign of Leo I (ruled 457-474)

This a paper that I am working on for a conference later this year. It deals with the very important but very neglected Emperor Leo I. This is a draft of the introduction and the abstract.

An understanding of the reign of Emperor Leo I (ruled 457-474) is crucial for anyone attempting to comprehend the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, one prominent Byzantinist goes so far as to credit Leo and his successor Zeno with rescuing “Byzantium from becoming a plaything of the barbarians.”[1] Yet as this same scholar has pointed out, the crucial reign of arguably the first Byzantine emperor has received far less attention than it deserves. In fact, as far as I know, one finds no major recent studies on this seminal fifth-century emperor.[2] This void may be contrasted with the relative abundance of recent scholarship on the ineffectual fifth-century Theodosian emperors[3], and Leo’s successors Zeno and Anastasios.[4]

We may attribute some of this neglect to the paucity of sources available to scholars. Unlike the fourth and the sixth, many of the crucial events in the fifth will remain unknowable. Yet other more “correctable” reasons may be provided. I would suggest that a recent focus on the role of women and the role of religion in the early Byzantine Empire has turned many scholars away from these soldier-emperors. The dominance of military men in the politics of the day serve as inconvenient reminders for those who suggest that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views on imperial leadership based on martial qualities. [5]  So too has a relative disdain in some academic circles for military history, biography and traditional narrative history played a part in this neglect.

Yet, even more traditional “military and political” historians have largely left Leo on the sidelines in their reconstructions of the crucial events that shaped the third quarter of the fifth century.[6] There have been exceptions. Recent important articles by Brian Croke and Philip Wood, for example, have shed needed light on the internal politics and “propaganda” surrounding Leo’s regime.[7]

Moreover, a tendency to skip over the events of the latter half of the fifth century is not just a tendency of modern scholars. Byzantine historians seemed uncomfortable creating an in-depth narrative describing an era that had led to the loss of the majority of the Empire’s Western territories.[8] So too did the non-martial Anastasios appear to have wanted to marginalise and disassociate himself from the military reigns of Leo and Zeno.[9]

This paper first summarises, and then addresses some of the issues raised in the recent scholarship. It also seeks to place Leo’s military regime within the context of Byzantine historiography. More precisely I will suggest that these reigns serve as evidence that the early Byzantine Empire continued to embrace martial virtues as key quality of both imperial leaders and men more generally. Leo’s military regime provides important clues for a historian trying to uncover how martial virtues shaped both ideals of leadership and masculinity. The dominance of the politics of the day by men whom draped themselves in martial manliness serve as an important reminder that Byzantine rulers like Leo I, and indeed fifth-century Eastern Roman society as a whole, continued to embrace martial virtues and representations of the soldier’s life as essential aspects of both imperial leadership, and masculine self-representation.

[1] Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1997: 847.

[2] Bury’s  History and Stein’s Histoire du Bas Empire somewhat embarrassingly remain the most in-depth accounts.

[3] E.g., Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982). Kathryn Chew, “Virgins and Eunuchs: Pulcheria, Politics and the Death of Emperor Theodosius II,” Historia: Zeitschrift fϋr Alte Geschichte 55, 2 (2006): 207-227; Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Hagith Sivan, Galla Placidia: the Last Roman Empress. Women in antiquity.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011); Meaghan McEvoy, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367-455 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] F. K. Haarer, Anastasius I: Politics and Empire in the Late Roman World.   Cambridge:  Francis Cairns, 2006. Add Zeno study.

[5]  Mathew Kuefler (The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) for example, avoids these fifth-century military regimes in his study on Late Roman masculinity. Though following a more traditional narrative approach, so too does McEvoy in her commendable study on late Roman child-emperors, largely avoid discussing the reigns of these fifth-century soldier emperors. The large number of soldier emperors, in fact, undermines some of her more sweeping suggestions (e.g., 327) concerning the prominence of child-emperors in the Byzantine period.

[6] E.g., Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders (London: MacMillan, 2103), where Leo is only mentioned in passing in Heather’s reconstruction of the events that led to Theoderic’s seizing of power in Italy.

[7]Brian Croke “Dynasty and Ethnicity in the Reign of Leo I and the Eclipse of Aspar,” Chirion 36 (2005): 147-203; Philip Wood “Multiple Voices in Chronicle Sources: The Reign of Leo I (457-474) in Book Fourteen of Malalas,” Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 4. No. 2 (Fall 2011): 299-314

[8] Warren Treadgold, Byzantine Historians, 102.

[9]Malchus frags. 1, 2, 3. As Treadgold points out (Byzantine Historians, 105), Malchus was probably countering, or at least providing an alternative to the work of his contemporary the Isaurian born historian Candidus, which also covered the reigns of Leo and Zeno. John Malalas’ sixth-century portrait is more nuanced, mixing negative (e.g. 14. 41, 42, 44, and positive (e.g.14.39, 45) views of Leo. Procopius, however, provides a far more positive “tough guy” representation of Leo (add). The tenth-century Suda (267) that preserved some of Malchus’ history also seems to preserve a more favourable view who, in the scribes, telling ruled the Empire with “effective ferocity”.

How Dark were the Dark Ages? Some New Views on the Histories of Gregory of Tours, Fredegar, and Bede

The three centuries after the fifth-century fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe have long been bleakly described as the “Dark Ages.” In accordance to this historiographical tradition, it has been argued that the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, and the subsequent rise of successor “barbarian” kingdoms, brought about both the decline of civilization and the triumph of superstition over rationality.[1] In the past forty years, however, historians have begun to question this paradigm. At the vanguard of this movement, Peter Brown’s, The World of Late Antiquity (1971), presented a more optimistic vision of the breakup of the Roman Empire. Instead of seeing this period as an era of decay, leading to the “backward” Greek Byzantine Empire and the barbarised kingdoms of Western Europe, Brown and his followers present Late Antiquity as a complex period of cultural germination. These researchers have argued that developments in this era—particularly the intellectual growth and spread of Christianity—have helped to shape the modern as well as the medieval world. Because of the increased focus on this era, in the past forty years, the period known formerly as the “Dark Ages,” has become somewhat ‘brighter.” Scholars have reworked the model of Western Europe gradually crumbling into ignorance as the Empire retreated to the East and “barbarian” peoples flooded into the West. In the past few years, however, several studies have questioned this more optimistic vision of the end of the Ancient World and the advent of the Early Middle Ages. So too have these works criticised what they see as an over-reliance on the newer historical methods preferred by social historians (e.g. Heather; Ward-Perkins).

This essay explores some of the current historiographical debate surrounding the Early Middle Ages. It examines three histories from this era: Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks,[2] composed late in the sixth century, the Chronicle of Fredagar with its continuations, compiled by several authors in the seventh and the eighth centuries, and Bede’s eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. By understanding, how these Early Medieval historians depicted this era, a greater understanding and appreciation of this important period may be achieved.

All three of these sources contain vital information about the early formation of individual states in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Gregory of Tours’ writings and Fredegar’s chronicle provide historians with nearly a continuous historical record of Gaul, from the decline of Roman rule in the fifth century, to the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in the eighth century. Bede has long been venerated as the first “English” historian, and his work provides valuable insight into the important centuries after Britain became separated from the Roman Empire.[3]

With the paucity of written sources available for the Early Middle Ages, Gregory and Bede have often been seen as representing the dying embers of Classical civilization. In, Narrators of Barbarian History, Walter Goffart suggests that scholars have long used Gregory’s Histories as proof of an increasingly turbulent and violent world. He adds that Gregory’s “boundless faith in miracles is deemed to show that the Gaul he lived in stood closer to the Haitian hinterland than to the fellowship of decorous Christians.”[4] Fredegar’s work is often portrayed as a feeble attempt to follow the great Christian chroniclers of the past. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill claims: “Fredegar knows that the golden age lies behind, and the end of the world not so far ahead.”[5] Like Gregory and Fredegar, Bede described the history of a former Roman Province that had been taken over by “barbarians.” While scholars have generally been unanimous in their praise of Bede’s writings, most, like Patrick Wormwald, have seen Bede as an anomaly in an increasingly uncivilized world.[6]

Gregory of Tours

This vision of the Early Middle Ages as an era of decline and pessimism continues to have “a strong hold on the European historical imagination.”[7] The following passage from Gregory’s introduction to the Histories has often been used as proof that the bishop recognized that he lived in an era of decline:

In fact, in the towns of Gaul the writing of literature has declined to the point where it has virtually disappeared altogether. Many people have complained about this, not once but time and time again. ‘What a poor period this is!’ they have been heard to say. ‘If among all our people there is not one man to be found who can write about what is happening today, the pursuit of letters is dead in us!’[8]


Moreover, Gregory’s work was the first historical composition to be produced in Gaul in one hundred and fifty years.  Goffart claims, however that this decline in historical literature had less to do with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the arrival of the Franks, and more to do with Christian writers’ rejection of historical writing.[9]

A growing body of research suggests that Early Medieval writings like, Gregory’s and Bede’s, must be seen as literary creations first, and as histories second, if at all.  Goffart, for example, maintains that treating Bede’s and Gregory’s writings as purely historical works is a mistake. He writes: “history was the medium of the writings not its goal.”[10] I would agree that to appreciate Gregory or any other Early Medieval historian, one must understand the author’s purpose.

Martin Heinzelmann argues that Gregory set out to judge the moral behavior of his own society, thus limiting his description of people to “those who behaved with a Christian social morality, and those who did not.” In this way, Gregory was able to avoid the charge that he was following the pagan literary tradition by glorifying “famous men.” Consequently, despite its appearance as a historical work, Histories follows the same model as his hagiographical writings.[11] By combining the miraculous history of the saints with contemporary events, Gregory hoped to reveal to his audience that God’s grace was present in their own age.

Like previous Christian writers, Gregory often simplified history as a battle between good and evil. Heinzelmann asserts that Gregory’s Histories followed the historical example found in Orosius’ History Against the Pagans. He writes: “His [Gregory] division of his work into books and chapters; the moral and didactic value he attributed to events; and the emerging role of the rex-king or emperor-in history.”[12]

The Histories served as Gregory’s tool for preaching. By showing his readers that history was cyclical, Gregory was able to argue that both “bad times” and “good times” were temporary:

A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad. The inhabitants of different countries keep quarreling fiercely with each other and king’s keep on losing their tempers in the most furious way. Our churches are attacked by the heretics and then protected by the Catholics: the faith of Christ burns in many men; but remains lukewarm in others.[13]


Despite his interest in the secular world, Gregory hinted that a “perfect” world was only available in the afterlife.

This did not mean, however, that Gregory felt that the spiritual battle on earth was not one worth fighting. In fact, Gregory’s Histories stressed that, in order to achieve harmony in the secular world, Gaul’s bishops and the Frankish kings needed to get along.[14] Gregory’s scathing description of many of the Frankish leaders provides evidence that the Franks and the local bishops struggled to achieve political supremacy.

Throughout Gregory’s work, “evil” Frankish kings refused to cooperate with Christian leaders. We see an example of this theme in his negative portrait of king Chilperic (ruled 561-584):

There was nothing that he hated so much as he hated the churches. He was perpetually heard to say: ‘My treasury is always empty. All our wealth has fallen in the hands of the Church. There is no one with any power left except the bishops. Nobody respects me as King: all respect has passed to the bishops in their cities.’ With this in mind, he made a practice of tearing up wills in which property had been bequeathed to the bishops. He trampled underfoot the royal decrees of his own father, thinking that there was no one left alive who was interested in seeing that they should be carried out. It is impossible to imagine any vice or debauchery which this man did not practice. He was always on the watch for some new way of torturing his subjects. Whenever any were judged guilty of some crime or other, he would have their eyes torn out of their head.[15]


Since bishops like Gregory were incapable of standing up to the Franks’ military superiority, perhaps, the church leaders condemnation of violence served as a means to both, shame Christian Franks, and win the support of the local population. If this is the case, then Gregory’s interest in secular history may merely be his attempt to protect his Church’s autonomy.

Nonetheless, Gregory did not entirely reject the Franks use of violence. He differentiated between unjust internal conflicts and just wars against “foreign” enemies. Gregory warned the Franks that their greed and propensity to engage civil war would ultimately lead to their destruction:

It gives me no pleasure to write of all the different civil wars, which afflicted the Frankish people and their rulers. . . . The Franks ought, indeed to have been warned by the sad fate of their earlier kings, who, through their inability to agree with each other, were killed by their enemies.[16]


Gregory did not condemn all warfare. He praised Clovis’ ability to lead the Franks to victory over their enemies. He wrote:

Just think of all that Clovis achieved, Clovis the founder of your victorious country, who slaughtered those rulers who opposed him, conquered hostile people and captured their territories, thus bequeathing to you unquestioned dominion over them![17]


In Gregory’s vision of history, the Franks led by righteous leaders would cease fighting each other and harassing the local clergy, and take on their rightful role as protectors of the Church and people.

According to Gregory, however, the contemporary Frankish leaders were a sorry lot. Gregory claimed that, in contrast to Clovis’ austere life, the current Frankish peoples had become consumed with a love of luxury. According to Gregory, this obsession caused the Franks to covet their neighbors’ goods, which, in turn, led to civil war:

Your homes are full of luxuries, there are vast supplies of wine, grain and oil in your store-houses, and in your treasuries the gold and silver are piled high. . . . Why do you all keep on stealing from each other? Why do you always want something, which someone else possesses?[18]


Gregory concluded his harangue against the Franks by alluding to Orosius’ description of the rise and fall of Carthage. He claimed that Carthage had risen because of its unity and then collapsed because of its disunity. Gregory suggested that by working together, the Frankish kings and the Church’s bishops would receive God’s grace, and, therefore, live in peace and flourish.[19]


Despite many historians’ attempts to represent Bede as the first “English” historian, Dominic Janes argues that Bede’s Ecclesiastical History must be seen primarily as a tool for “spiritual instruction.” Janes’ emphasizes that, at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, Bede indicated that he had “given his life to the study of Scripture.”[20] This Biblical vision of history is apparent throughout Bede’s writings.

Bede believed that the spiritual and the physical weakness of the Britons had caused the fall of Roman Britain. He claimed that the Britons “were untrained in the science of war,” and, as a result, had to rely on the Angles and the Saxons to protect them from marauding Picts and Scots. Bede blamed the Britons’ defeat on their lack of faith, claiming: “Many were compelled to surrender to the invaders; others, trusting in God’s help where no human hand could save them, continued their resistance.” Bede lamented, however, that these stouthearted Christians were the exception, and he asserted that the, “Lord’s flock and Pastors” had abandoned Christ, and, like the pagans, given “themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence.” Bede concluded that the Britons’ sinfulness had evoked God’s wrath, and he proclaimed that the treachery of the Anglo-Saxons had “been ordained by God as a punishment for their [Britons] wickedness.”[21]

Bede venerated the Anglo-Saxons. Mary Garrison claims that this adulation followed examples found in the Old Testament. She declares that Bede depicted the Anglo-Saxons as “God’s chosen people, even when, as pagans, they attacked Christian Britons.” Bede’s vision of history “allowed no room for the British as the elect, despite his admiration for some British saints.”[22]

According to Bede, Britain’s isolation from the “true” Roman Church had long hindered the island’s spiritual development. Bede illustrated how this separation from the center of Christianity had allowed the Britons to fall into heresy. An example of this tendency towards sin may be seen in Bede’s description of the rise of the Briton Pelagius at the end of the fourth century CE. Bede remained aghast that the Britons had supported Pelagius, permitting him to spread the “heretical” notion “that man had no need of God’s grace.”[23]

Bede’s distaste with the Celtic Church is apparent in his writings.

Bede described how the Celtic system of Christianity, based on monasticism, had gradually declined, and was replaced by the highly centralized Roman Church in Britain.[24] Bede condemned the Britons for their failure to convert the Saxons, yet, he argued that this oversight was all part of God’s larger plan: “But God in his goodness did not completely abandon the people [the Saxons] whom he had chosen, for he remembered them, and sent this nation more worthy preachers of truth to bring them the faith.”[25] Therefore, Bede’s image of the Anglo-Saxons might have less to do with his need to create a “national” history, and more to do with his desire to show the battle for supremacy between the Celtic Church and the Roman Church.

Fredegar and his continuers

Unlike Gregory and Bede, Fredegar and his continuers were chroniclers. Fredegar borrowed heavily from previous Christian historians such as, Eusebius, Jerome, Gregory, and Isidore. However, despite these limitations, Fredegar did not merely copy these sources, but constantly inserted his own material.[26] Many of these additions are crucial for modern historians’ understanding of Gaul’s history in the sixth and seventh centuries CE.

Fredegar’s work demonstrated that the Franks wanted to promote their links with Classical world. Fredegar remained interested in the affairs of the Byzantine Empire and Thrace, and he took time to describe many of the political developments in the area of the former Roman Empire. It was Fredegar who first mentioned that the Franks, like the Romans, were descended from refugees from Troy. Therefore, when Fredegar described the inability of seventh-century Byzantine Empire to protect the Christian world from foreign invasions, he may have been attempting, as well, to promote the Franks as God’s new selected people.[27]

The chronicles’ eighth-century continuers had a much more provincial view of history. They were mostly concerned with the internal affairs of the Frankish kings. Rosamond Mckitterick asserts that the continuers’ primary goal was to glorify the ascendance of the Carolingians in the eighth century CE, and show how their rise signified the arrival of a new “golden age.” By linking their historical account to Fredegar’s chronicle, these Carolingian writers sought to justify the emergence of Carolingian dynasty at the expense of the Merovingian rulers.[28]

Like Bede with the Anglo-Saxons, the chroniclers emphasized that the Franks were God’s chosen people. Mary Garrison claims that the eighth-century Carolingians used history as a means of creating a link with the biblical past. The Franks grafted their history “onto an ancient and sacred past . . . . To its users, it affirms a belief in the abiding presence of God in history, a continual making of the present is not merely a re-enactment, but also in a sense a fulfillment of words and events in the Bible.”[29]

Unlike Fredegar, who portrayed the dispute between the Saracens and the Byzantines in political terms, the continuers described the eighth-century battle between the Saracens and the Franks in Gaul as a religious struggle. They argued that, during their invasion of Southern Gaul, the Saracens had focused on destroying as many Christians and Christian Churches as possible. According to the chronicle, luckily for the defenseless Christians, Charles Martel, “a mighty man of war, stood his ground, and “utterly destroyed their [Saracen] armies; scattering them like stubble before the fury of his onslaught; and in the power of Christ he utterly destroyed them.”[30] In contrast to the Byzantines, the Franks were depicted as the protectors of the entire Christian world. The Franks had replaced the “Romans” as God’s chosen people, and for that reason, it became their duty to protect Western Europe from the infidels.

A close examination of the Early Medieval sources reveals that modern historians must reevaluate their description of these centuries as years of decline. All of the writers examined in this essay shared a Christian vision of history. Gregory, Fredegar, and Bede attempted to describe their worlds in Christian terms. Each followed examples found in the Old Testament, and envisioned an ideal Christian state guided by virtuous Christian kings and pious martyrs. This model had a lasting impact on European history. In the Early Medieval world the existence of martyrs, saints, and miracles served as proof of God’s hand in contemporary events. Like the virtuous men and women of Classical literature, the martyrs and saints served as heroic examples for all Christians to emulate. By placing their worlds in a Biblical context, these writers sought to reassure their readers that God remained interested in their world. These works, however, must not be seen as early attempts of nationalistic history. These writers lived in a Christian world and followed Biblical models of history. While the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons could be described as God’s chosen people, the notion of a France or an England was still a long way off.



[1]Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History A.D. 550-800: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 230.


[2]Gregory did not call his work, History of the Franks. This title only came into use in the eighth century. Therefore, when referring to Gregory’s work, I will follow Goffart’s example, and refer to it simply as Histories. Edward James, The Franks (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 17.


[3]Goffart, 235.


[4]Goffart, 230-1.


[5]J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, introduction to The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar: with its continuations, by Fredegar and continuers (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960), 10.


[6]Goffart, 237.


[7]Goffart, 231.


[8]Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin Books, 1974), 63.


[9]Goffart, 117.


[10]Goffart, 433.


[11]Martin Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, trans. Christopher Carroll (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2001), 102.


[12]Heinzelmann, 105-6.


[13]Gregory of Tours, 63.


[14]Heinzelmann, 104


[15] Gregory of Tours, 380.


[16] Gregory of Tours, 253.


[17]Gregory of Tours, 253.


[17] Gregory of Tours, 254.


[18] Gregory of Tours, 254.


[19] Gregory of Tours, 185.


[20] Dominic Janes, “The World and its Past as Christian Allegory,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2000), 112-13.


[21] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo-Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 54-5.


[22]Mary Garrison, “The Franks as the New Israel? Education for identity from Pippin to Charlemagne,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),  157.


[23] Bede, 49.


[24] Leo Sherley-Price introduction to, A History of the English Church and People, by Bede, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 22.


[25] Bede, 66.


[26] Hadrill, 9-11.


[27]The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar: with its continuations, (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1960), 54.


[28]Rosamond Mckitterick, “Political Ideology in Carolingian Historiography,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 169-70.


[29]Chronicle of Fredegar, 117.


[30] Chronicle of Fredegar, 91.


My thought on the The Carolingian Renaissance

IDe Carlo Magno, the ninth-century monk Notker the Stammerer juxtaposed truths and invention to depict the achievements of the Frankish king Charlemagne. For the biographer, Charlemagne’s revival of formal education represented one of his greatest achievements. This essay examines both the political and religious significance of the movement, as well as its achievements and limitations. In addition, it will explore the notion that the Carolingian renaissance was not a spontaneous event, but had its roots in the classical past and the early middle ages.

Notker opened his work by suggesting that the Frankish renaissance represented a revival of the greatness of Ancient Rome:

He who ordains the fate of kingdoms and the march of centuries, the all-powerful Disposer of events, having destroyed one extraordinary image, that of the Romans….raised up among the Franks the golden head of a second image, equally remarkable, in the person of the illustrious Charlemagne.

 We must understand, however, that Charlemagne and his contemporaries’ vision of the ideal Rome state was not based on that of the pagan empire ruled by Augustus, but that of a “holy” Roman empire led by Christian emperors like Constantine  and Justinian.[1] Consequently, the resurgence of learning under Charlemagne must be seen as his attempt to recapture the level of scholarship attained in the fourth and fifth centuries by Christian teachers such as Augustine and Jerome. Moreover, the Carolingian renaissance was just as indebted to sixth and seventh-century writers like Cassiodorus, Isidore of Seville, and the Visigothic men of letters who had continued the classical literary style. Therefore, the Carolingian renaissance was not a spontaneous event, but the culmination of years of scholarship, that had begun in the classical world and continued through the early middle ages.[2]

The first half of the eighth century was a difficult time for Frankish Gaul. Because of a threatened Arabic invasion, centers of ancient learning like Aquitaine had found it necessary to appeal to the Franks for military assistance. This request led to the political domination of these areas by the Franks, and ultimately the disappearance of these cultural centers. In the rest of Gaul, there was a sense that the Frankish clergy had fallen into barbarity. His education reform represented Charlemagne’s way of correcting this decline.[3]

In order to conduct this literary campaign, Charlemagne needed books, teachers, schools, and eager pupils. Furthermore, he realized the need to recruit scholars from outside of his realm. This anecdote by Notker, though simplifying the process, captures the spirit behind the revival:

Two Scots from Ireland happened to visit the coast of Gaul in the company of some British trader. These men were unrivalled in the knowledge of sacred and profane letters, at a time when the pursuit of learning was almost forgotten throughout the length and breadth of Charlemagne’s kingdom and the worship of God was at a very low ebb….In the end the news was carried by onlookers, who certainly found them remarkable and maybe wrong in the ears of King Charlemagne himself, who was always an admirer and a collector of great wisdom.

 The monk continued his story by relating how Charlemagne’s court, with its patronage of learning, became a center for intellectuals. Eminent scholars like the Englishman Alcuin became the emperor’s teachers and confidants. Notker portrayed Alcuin as a man “skilled in all branches of knowledge,” but emphasized that he had served as “a pupil of Bede, that priest of great learning, himself the most accomplished interpreter of Scripture since Saint Gregory,” This acknowledgement of Bede’s academic prowess illustrates the significant role that the Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks played in the Carolingian renaissance. As a result of these cultural exchanges with the Mediterranean community, by the end of the seventh century these monks had re-established links with the late antique cultural program.

    Despite Charlemagne’s best efforts, Notker revealed that the emperor feared that perhaps no amount of study would allow his clergy to match the early Church fathers’ acumen: “If only I could have half a dozen churchmen as wise and well taught in human knowledge as were Jerome and Augustine.”  One sees Charlemagne’s impatience and drive reflected in this quotation, which illustrates that the renaissance was driven, in part, by a sense of intellectual inferiority. Notker, nonetheless, believed that Charlemagne had initiated an academic renaissance, and exclaimed, His [Alcuin] teaching bore such fruit among his pupils that the modern Gauls or Franks came to equal the Romans or the Athenians.”

In order to achieve his educational and political goals, Charlemagne made sure that his reform was egalitarian. According to Notker, for Charlemagne when it came to learning, the wealth and the nobility of the aristocracy often served as a hindrance to intellectual achievement:

But you young nobles, you, the pleasure loving and dandified sons of my leaders, who trust in your high birth and your wealth, care not a straw for my command or for your own advancement; you have neglected the pursuit of learning and have indulged yourself in time-wasting follies and in the childish sport of fine living and idleness.

In sharp contrast, the children of the poor and the “middle-class” “brought [Charlemagne] excellent composition, adorned more than he could ever hope with all the subtle refinements of knowledge.” By educating the middle and the lower classes the emperor did more than establish a newly educated elite, his training of these individuals directly challenged the aristocracy’s authority. By creating a system where ability, and not birth, was essential, Charlemagne produced a large cadre of men both loyal and dependent upon his support. Consequently, the educational renaissance functioned as both a political and a religious movement to glorify its architect, Charlemagne.

The curriculum in these schools was based on a mastery of classical Latin. Scholars such as Alcuin, who had learned Latin as a foreign language, focused on eliminating uncouth speech and verbal mistakes. It also meant that the Carolingians would base their reform on classical and not contemporary Latin. To mispronounce a word or to use a wrong case ending would reveal one’s ignorance. In a transformation based on a reform of the Latin languages, it was inevitable that pagan as well as Christian writers would be used as literary models. Monastic, cathedral, and court scriptoria labored to provide Carolingian Europe with the necessary text for serious study and worship. Librarians and teachers built up their collections and continually sought out new books. Monasteries, such as Fleury and St. Martin, had been involved in copying books since the seventh century.[4] Indeed, Books lay at the heart of a Carolingian education, and the ninth century saw over 50,000 of them produced. Many of these books were works by classical pagan authors and their survival was a direct result of Charlemagne’s educational reform.

Though this educational restructuring revolved around grammar, young men studying for the priesthood were also expected to know, rhetoric, dialectic, mathematics, music, and astronomy. The early Church made these pagan texts acceptable for the Carolingians. There remained limits, however, to this rebirth of classical literature, and it essential to understand that for most Carolingians wisdom and learning were never an end to themselves, but only tools with which “to arm the soldiers of Christ and allow them to penetrate the mysteries of Scripture and lead Charlemagne’s people to paradise.”

The extent of this renaissance was also limited. Charlemagne had a sharp and inquisitive mind, but his intellectual achievements were modest, and like the majority of the population he was illiterate.  Notker illustrated the basic levels of education attained by the majority of the population when he stated, “that all those in the palace became excellent reader, even if they did not understand what they read.” The difficulty of living up to Charlemagne’s expectation may be seen in Notker’s story about the monk who had entered the choir and attempted to lip-sync his way through mass. Instead of condemning the man, Charlemagne praised his singing and gave him a pound of silver. This anecdote illustrates that for Charlemagne effort counted and that when it came to his educational reforms, not everyone was expected to excel.

Charlemagne’s need to correct what he perceived to be his Empire’s educational deficiencies led him to attack the problem of ignorance with the same determination with which he conducted his military campaigns. Although the Carolingians’ primary goal was to achieve the reform and the correction of their society, his ultimate achievement was a renaissance. This revival was not a sudden occurrence; indeed, classical learning had not just come to a screeching halt when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. Writers such as the early Church fathers, Augustine and Jerome, as well as the sixth and seventh century authors Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville, who had continued the classical tradition, served as models of acumen for the Carolingians to emulate. Therefore, the renaissance must be seen as the by-product of the Christian reform movement that sought to restore not only the greatness, but also the morality of the Christian Roman Empire under the “new” Romans, the Franks.




[1] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, 135.

[2] John G. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance”, in Warren T. Treadgold, ed. Renaissances before the Renaissance: cultural revivals of late antiquity and the Middle Ages 1984:59-60.

[3] The best introduction concerning the rise of the Carolingians remains Pierre Riche, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, trans Michael Idomir Allen (Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania Press, 1993).

[4]I follow the lucid depiction of this process found in Rosamond Mckitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1989).

Goths, Romans, and Lombards: Some Recent Thoughts on Creating Identity in Early Medieval Italy

This essay was originally composed in 2002. At that time notions of ethnic identity were all the rage in late Antique studies. Modern notions of ethnicity and nationhood certainly make it difficult for us to understand how peoples in Late Antiquity identified themselves. Then, like today, identity was a complex construction. Attempts to find steadfast Germanic or Roman traits have simplified notions of identity in this era. What follows are some of my thoughts on this topic.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire is often dated as 476 CE.[1] In that year a group of “barbarian,” soldiers deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus, and proclaimed a strongman, Odoacer, king.  Although recent scholars have disputed the importance of this event, the date is significant in that another Western emperor would never again reign in Rome. Often the successors of these Roman rulers are simply called barbarians, or grouped as various “Germanic” tribes such as the Ostrogoths and the Lombards. This essay explores how two different non-Roman historians represented the past to their peoples: the Gothic historian Jordanes’ sixth-century work, the Getica, and the eighth-century Lombard historian Paul the Deacons’ History of the Lombards.

The purpose and value of these types of histories has created a sharp divide among contemporary scholars. Walter Pohl explains that scholars have used two “conflicting modes” of interpretation when examining the early histories of barbarian peoples:

One school has brought together an impressive stock of ethnographic and mythological parallels to prove the basic authenticity of the material in these histories even where it is legendary. Others have argued for the more or less fictional character of these texts.[2]


Both Jordanes’ and Paul’s history may be considered as origin stories. However, their role as accurate historical accounts, which built a sense of shared ethnic identity for the Goths and the Lombards, continues to evoke considerable debate.


The self-proclaimed Goth, Jordanes, composed the Getica around 551 CE.  Recent disputes concerning Getica has centered upon both the extent of Jordanes’ input into the work, and its purpose.[3]  Some scholars suggest that the Getica merely mimicked Cassiodorus’ history and served primarily to promote the Goths as a legitimate “people”. Jordanes admitted that his work was an abbreviation of Cassiodorus’ now lost chronicle.[4] Herwig Wolfram argues that Jordanes borrowed heavily from Cassiodorus’ Origo Gothica.[5] He contends that this indebtedness is reflected in the Getica, and that Jordanes’ writing reveals Theoderic’s attempt to create an origin myth for the Goths. This history could be used to promote his Amal dynasty and to build the heterogeneous Goths into a gens.[6] Johan Webensteinerr supports Wolfram’s claims, asserting that nearly every sentence in the Getica can be traced stylistically to Cassiodorus.[7]

Some historians, however, conclude that the Getica reflects Jordanes’ viewpoint, providing a picture of the political environment in Constantinople in the early 550s. Walter Goffart contends that the Getica closely echoed Justianic propaganda. According to him, Jordanes served in Justinian’s court. He suggests that Jordanes’ description of the marriage of the Ostrogothic woman Matasunthatha to Justinian’s cousin Germanus, in 550, helped to undermine Ostrogothic resistance in Italy. Goffart believes that the Getica had a clear political and gendered message. “It invited the Goths to cease resistance, but also gave encouragement to those who worked in Constantinople for a modus vivendi” between feminine Goths and masculine Romans.[8] Such a gendered account turned contemporary Gothic propaganda on its ear. Indeed, it echoes some of the views and themes found in the histories of Jordanes’ contemporary, Procopius.[9]

Patrick Amory rejects “Goffart’s literary reading of the Getica as an allegorical love story between (feminine) Goths and (masculine) Romans, written by a pseudonymous author for the emperor.” Amory, however, agrees with Goffart that Jordanes must have been an Eastern Roman writer—claiming that the author was a Byzantine military official. Amory alleges that the Getica represented a “classical man’s attempt to explain a changing world.  The work of Jordanes exemplifies the widening gap between ethnographic description and the newly visible diversity of the former Roman Empire.” According to Amory, “There is no reason to think that Jordanes thought of the [Byzantine] conquest of Italy as anything other than a good thing, despite his pro-Amal remarks.” Amory believes that the creation of the Getica was “an attempt to reconcile ethnography with the disappearance of a Mediterranean-wide political and cultural unity.”[10]

I would suggest that Amory overemphasizes the Getica’s links with classical Roman historians and a fading classical past. Amory’s rejection of the Goths as a genuine ethnicity has caused him to ignore any evidence of ethnogenesis in the Getica. In fact, Jordanes’ vision of the Goths follows similar pro-Gothic models found in the fifth-century Christian historian Orosius, and the seventh-century Iberian historian Isidore of Seville. Like these historians, Jordanes attempted to show how the Goths had traveled the long road from barbarity to civilization. The Getica served as a plea to both Goths and Romans to end their conflict and unite for a better future.

Evidence of this theme may be observed in the Getica’s focus on the Romans’ and Goths’ political relationship. Jordanes described the negative as well as the positive exchanges between the two peoples. Jordanes credited the ecclesiastical writer Orosius— not Pliny or Tacitus—for his geographical introduction. He proclaimed that the Goths, like many northern barbarians, had “burst forth like a swarm of bees into Europe.” At first, it was the Goths’ fighting prowess that had brought them to the Romans’ attention. Jordanes suggested that Rome depended upon the Goths’ martial manliness for its survival. He wrote: “Now it had long been a hard matter for the Roman army to fight against any nations whatsoever without them. This is evident from the way in which the Goths were frequently called upon.”[11] The notion that the Goths had achieved their right to rule because of their fighting abilities was a theme that would be used again by Isidore of Seville to explain how and why the Visigoths had defeated and driven the Romans out of Spain.[12]

Yet Jordanes, who praised the Goths for their fighting prowess, needed to explain how the Goths had been defeated and subjugated by the Huns. While he recognized that the Huns were “fiercer than ferocity itself,” he suggested that the Huns were not necessarily better warriors than the Goths, but “by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom they did not really surpass in war.”[13]

The Goths and the Romans, in Jordanes telling, shared a symbiotic relationship. The Goths association with the Romans helped them “restrain their barbarous customs.” Under the influence of the Romans, the Goths learned ethics and logic, attributes, which Jordanes argued, “made them skilled in reasoning beyond all other races.” Jordanes believed that the Goths had become a “civilized” people, “the Goths no longer as strangers and pilgrims, but as citizens and lords, began to rule the inhabitants, and to hold their own right all over the northern country as far as the Danube.[14]

This development, according to Jordanes, had created two choices for the Goths and the Romans: they could fight each other to the detriment of both peoples, or join together and rule the world. “Bad” emperors, like Valens, had attempted to destroy the Goths, both by war and heresy. Following other pro-Gothic historian, like Isidore and Orosius, Jordanes argued that the emperor Valens had “tricked” the Goths into accepting Arianism.[15] Jordanes blamed the Goths’ Arianism on an “evil Emperor,” suggesting that under a “benevolent Emperor” this error could be eliminated. This passage also indicates that Jordanes disapproved of the Goths continued rejection of orthodoxy.

Jordanes laid out the Goths’ and Romans’ long political relationship as a series of missed opportunities. Jordanes argued that “good” Roman emperors nurtured an amicable relationship with the Goths. He praised the Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-395) as a “lover of peace and the Gothic race.” Theodosius’ respect for the Goths led to an alliance between the two peoples, and together they defeated the usurper Eugenius. This chance at unity, however, dissolved due to Theodosius’ heirs’ incompetence. After Theodosius’ death, the emperor’s sons’ “luxurious living,” and failure to grant the Goths their customary gifts, had led to the Goths’ abandonment of the Romans.[16]Throughout his account Jordanes used certain Emperor’s villainy as a means to justify Gothic attacks and seizures of Roman territory.

Jordanes’ depiction of the Romans’ and Goths’ mid-fifth-century joint effort to defeat the Huns represented another lost opportunity for the two peoples to work together. Only unified were the two gens capable of defeating the powerful Huns.  Again, however, a disagreement between some Roman and Gothic generals destroyed their mutual trust. Jordanes lamented: “Thus while human frailty rushes into suspicion, it often loses the opportunity of doing great things.”[17]

Torn apart once more, Jordanes emphasized that the fifth-century Goths had been enticed to seize Roman territory in Spain and Italy. He attributed these attacks on the teetering Western Roman Empire and the detrimental prying of the Vandal king, Gaiseric into Roman affairs.[18]He indicated that Theoderic had only hesitantly led the Ostrogoths into Italy in 489. Theoderic had only invaded Italy at the bequest of the emperor Zeno, whom had asked the Goth to “become ruler over both the Goths and Romans.” According to Jordanes, Theoderic was merely protecting Italy for his superior in Constantinople. Indeed, Jordanes pointed out that in Theoderic’s will, he commanded his people “to love the Senate and the Roman peoples and to make sure of the peace and good will of the Emperor of the East, as next after God.[19] This view closely follows propaganda from the Ostrogoths that, in the view of Jonathan Arnold, since the reign of Theoderic had sought to promote the Goths as new Romans, and their Kings as Western emperors.[20]

Reflecting Justinian’s propaganda, Jordanes claimed that this bond between Roman and Goth was broken by Amalasuintha’s “murder” at the hands of her cousin Theodahad.[21] Almalasuintha’s death marked the end of the “true” Ostrogothic dynasty. Jordanes does not even mention the Ostrogothic King Totila or his numerous victories over the Romans. Instead he proclaimed that the emperor Justinian had at last conquered the Goths. This defeat was a good thing for the Goths, because it not only restored Italy to its rightful rulers, but finally united the Goths and the Romans.[22]

Jordanes’ responsibility or motivation for writing the Getica may never be fully known. However, the Getica’s conclusion reveals Jordanes feeling on ethnogenesis:

And now we have recited the origin of the Goths, the noble line of the Amali and the deeds of brave men. The glorious race yielded to a more glorious prince and surrendered to a more valiant leader Justinian and his consul Belisarius shall be named and known as Vandalicus, Africanus, and Geticus.[23]


With the end of their military struggle in Italy, the Getica served as a reminder to both the Goths and the Romans that by working together, the two peoples could merge as one, and thus protect the Roman Empire form “true” barbarian invaders.

History of the Lombards

Paul’s motive for creating his history also remains controversial. Pohl proposes that the Lombard’s need to create a common ethnic identity became more important after the Lombard kingdom lost its independence at the hands of the Franks. He explains: “In the Lombard period Italy was a country of multiple ethnic and political identities. Lombards and Romans, Greeks and Franks became integral parts of a political universe that could not define itself as a clear-cut ethnic identity.”[24]

Goffart suggests that Paul’s primary purpose was to place the Lombards in a Christian setting. By depicting the Lombards as good Christians, Paul also achieved his secondary aim of promoting good relations with both the conquering Franks and the papacy in Rome.[25] This view is reasonable. Paul often portrayed the Franks favorably; this passage demonstrates that they had become the protectors of the Christian world:

At that time the nation of the Saracens, passing from Africa in the place, which is called Septem, invaded all of Spain. Then after ten years they came with their wives and children and entered the province of Aquitaine in Gaul so as to inhabit it. Charles, indeed, had a quarrel with Eudo, prince of Aquitaine, but they joined together and fought by common consent against the Saracens. The Franks attacked them and killed three hundred and seventy-five thousand of the Saracens.[26]


Goffart also argues that Paul wanted to expel the Byzantines from Italian soil.[27] Paul frequently depicted the Byzantines as heretics, intent on constantly interfering with the papacy in Rome:

Then Paul the patrician sent his men out of Ravenna to kill the pope, but the Lombards fought against them in defense of the Pope. . . At this time the emperor Leo burned the images of saints placed in Constantinople and ordered the Roman pontiff to do the like if he wished to have the emperor’s favor, but the pontiff disdained to do this thing. Also the whole of Ravenna and Venetia resisted such commands, and if the pontiff had not prohibited them they would have attempted to set up an emperor for themselves.


Paul described the on-going political turmoil in Italy as an ideological and political struggle between the diverse power bases on the peninsula. By portraying the Lombards as the popes’ protectors, Paul was attempting to ally the Lombards with the papacy as well as the invading Carolingian armies.

Paul’s entire work, thus, must be seen in the context of eighth-century Frankish historiography. Mathew Innes convincingly shows that in the eighth century, “intellectuals began to sense a more radical discontinuity between their world and that of Rome.” Charlemagne saw himself as a ruler “of the peoples who had replaced the Romans in the west. . . .This in turn led to the possibility of viewing the gentes that had succeeded the Romans as rulers in the west.[28] Paul’s description of the Lombards’ invasion of Italy may have served as a way for the Lombards to show that they were members of this new wave of rulers.

Nevertheless, Innes rejects, I believe rightly, the notion that the Lombards or the Franks recognized each other as similar “Germanic peoples.” He argues that by the seventh century the Franks preferred to see themselves as descendants of Troy. Innes argues that this origin legend arose out of the interaction of the Roman and Frankish populations in Gaul. The Franks wanted to be seen—not as the ancestors of fifth-century barbarian invaders— but as “new” Romans.


Modern notions of ethnicity and nationhood make it difficult for us to understand how peoples in Late Antiquity identified themselves. Then, like today, identity was a complex construction. Attempts to find steadfast Germanic or Roman traits have simplified notions of identity in this era. As Amory argues, a Goth or Lombard could be a Catholic as well as an Arian. Peoples who considered themselves as Romans, Goths, or Lombards could also share hairstyles and dress.[29] Indeed, as Jonathan Arnold has shown, the “Gothic moustache” worn by Theoderic and Theodahad may not have been as significant an ethnic marker as traditionally believed.[30]

Yet, we should not go too far. Maria Kouroumali has rightly criticized Amory and others for “falling into the trap of modernizing the past.” As she maintains, “It should be kept in mind that most people in those times (the sixth century) were distinguished either by the home of their father or their birthplace.”[31] One finds in the sixth-century sources of Cassiodorus, Procopius, and Agathias that Romans and Goths in the fifth and sixth centuries certainly could tell each-other apart. Pohl, concludes, as well, that by the seventh century, people in Italy considered themselves as the heirs to triumphant “Lombard” invaders.[32]  Moreover, we must not see Goths, Romans, and Lombards as homogenous groups. As Peter Heather has noted recently, “affiliation to the group’s identity fell off dramatically as you moved down the social scale.”[33]

Even today, an individual’s notion of identity has many levels. One may rapidly shift an allegiance from one ethnic group to another. This malleability makes it difficult to understand ethnicity in the modern world, and may help to explain why historians continue to struggle to understand how Early Medieval historians, like Paul and Jordanes, attempted to do the same for their own peoples. Humans, indeed, seem to have an innate way of pointing out difference that frequently defies scientific or historical explanation.













[1] E.g, Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle 476.2 (26). Though, as Brian Croke (101) points out, Marcellinus represents largely an Eastern perspective. Cf. Jonathan Arnold’s (2014) convincing arguments, suggesting that the rule of the Gothic rex Theoderic (ruled493-526) was represented by contemporary Italians as an imperial restoration.

[2] Walter Pohl, “Memory, Identity and Power in Lombard Italy,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 9-10


[3] Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History A.D. 550-800: Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 21.


[4] Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, Trans Thomas J. Dunlap (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 15.

[5] Jordanes, The Gothic History of Jordanes, trans. Charles Mierow (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1915), 51.

[6] Wolfram, 3-18.

[7] Quoted in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 306.

[8] Goffart, 97-106. A position that Goffart latter backed away from (2005, xviii).

[9] For the Goths and Italo-Romans’ long campaign to paint Theoderic and his heirs as manly “ Romans”, whilst painting the Eastern Romans as unmanly “Greeks”, see Arnold (2014); Stewart (2013, ch.5). I would like to thank Jonathan Arnold for sharing his views in a paper “Manly Goths, Effeminate Romans” that he shared with me before publication.

[10] Amory, 292-303.

          [11] Jordanes, 52-3.

[12] Isidore of Seville, (prologue).

[13] Jordanes, 85-6.

[14] Jordanes, 90.

[15] Jordanes, 88, 112.

[16] Jordanes, 92

[17] Jordanes, 120.

[18] Jordanes, 103.

[19] Jordanes, 138-139.


   [20] Jonathan Arnold [ Theoderic, the Goths, and Restoration of the Roman Empire (Ph.D diss.,University of Michigan, 2008), 75]goes so far to say “Theoderic’s reign…constituted much more than simply a king along the same lines as other ‘barbarian’ kings of the West. He was a Roman emperor, acknowledged as such by his own subjects and presented as such, though in a deferential and conciliatory manner, to the East.” Cf. the more restrained views found in John Moorhead, Theoderic in Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 77-78


[21] Procopius (Secret History 16.5) claimed that Theodahad had murdered Amalasuintha at Theodora’s behest.

[22] Jordanes, 141-142.

[23] Jordanes, 142.

[24] Pohl, 21.

[25] Goffart, 402.

[26] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, trans. William Dudley Foulke (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1915, reprint, 1974), 287.

[27] Goffart, 411.

[28] Mathew Innes, “The Carolingians and the Germanic Past,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 200), 235.

[29] Amory, 412.

[30] Jonathan Arnold, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache,” Journal of Late Antiquity 6 (Spring 2013): 152-83. Contra Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: oxford University Press, 2005), 73.


[31] Maria Kouroumali, “The Justianic Reconquest of Italy: Imperial Campaigns and Local Responses,” in War and Warfare in Late Antiquity, 2 vols (Brill, 2013), 970-71.


[32] Pohl, 23.


[33] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (Oxford: Macmillan, 2013), 28.

From Triumphant to Suffering Jesus: Visual and Literary Depictions of the Crucifixion, 300-1200


Fourteen years ago I wrote an article for a seminar I was taking at SDSU on the twelfth-century Renaissance. I loved it, and, indeed every seminar that mathew Kuefler taught (indeed, I would happily attend seminars until the day I die).  In my humble opinion, It was the best paper I wrote in grad school and I enjoyed researching it immensely. Indeed, unlike the vast majority of my old papers, when I read it years latter I did not cringe.

I have  a bad habit of keeping most of my old papers…. good and bad. When I first moved to Australia in 2004 my computer blew up and I lost all of my word files. Luckily I had kept this paper. I copied parts of it onto my computer, and then once I began my PHD dissertation forgot about it until some asked me about it for a project we were thinking to do together. Unfortunately the original paper had been thrown out, so I was stuck with the inferior newer version. Having finally had the time to revisit some of these papers I posted it on my academia edu site with a warning that these were not my published papers, but merely grad essays. Imagine my horror when I logged on yesterday to find that….a fine website…..had provided a link for its readers. Though not a viral sensation like much on the web these days it received about 400 hit in six hours. I quickly fixed a few typos and grammar, but I am sure it is not perfect…..Oh well, unlike this blog, at least it is getting read, which takes me to the pain of peer review where usually two bitter scholars take months to ponder on the worth of your article…If accepted,  the author then waits at least another year for the arcane journal to publish your work, meaning much that comes out that I have written, I have forgotten about or moved on. Peer review does have the benefit of improving and vetting work, but most serious scholars doubt the long-term viability of this system. The problem is I know that I could easily write narrowly focused articles on arcane topics that appeal to the upper-crust of academia….I have written and published some of those. But I find writing to a brader audience to be more enjoyable and stimulating. Since I have no tenured agenda to meet…having a good job outside the gilded cage of academia…has given me the freedom to pursue both avenues…yes Mr. Frost I choose to take both the path to the right and the left. As my old prof. David Christian used to say, if you can not sum up something complex into a ten-page essay, you should choose another topic… So here is my very quick take on a complicated topic.


The twelfth century was a period of significant development and change in the religious and secular world of Western Europe. One area of transition occurred in depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. In both writing and art, the triumphant living Christ of the early Middle ages, was transformed into the dying, suffering, and yet majestic savior of the twelfth century.[1] This essay examines images and written sources from the fourth to the twelfth centuries, and seeks to determine how the twelfth century renaissance and reformation—based on the discovery of the individual— influenced this evolution. Furthermore, the essay will explore how the increased concern with Christ’s anguish and humanity heightened intolerance and contributed to the persecution of twelfth-century Western European Jews.

An analysis of this shift in the depiction of Christ has many of the same advantages and disadvantages of Penny Schine Gold’s analysis, in The Lady and the Virgin, of twelfth and thirteenth-century artistic representations of the Virgin Mary. As Gold asserts, many obstacles stand in the way of the modern historian when they attempt to interpret medieval imagery. Art, being non-verbal, is seldom accompanied by any literary interpretation, complicating one’s ability to comprehend the deeper meaning, attitudes, and values contained in the image. It is difficult, indeed, to determine how quickly shifts in theological attitudes were transmitted in these art forms.[2]

These difficulties aside, I would agree with Gold that art provides a powerful representation of medieval values and beliefs. Religious art relied heavily upon a repetition of themes; thus major changes in art forms can reflect important developments in religious ideology.[3] Therefore literary sources may be utilized to provide supplemental support for the analysis of visual art.

One more caveat before proceeding. Tracing the change from the triumphant Christ of the early Middle Ages to the suffering Christ of the twelfth century does not suggest some sort of linear progression.  All periods of historical transition, whether in literature, politics, or in art, are obscure in their origins, and new movements are seldom a sudden occurrence, but reach back to an earlier time.[4] Even when a new form overtakes the old, in many areas, the earlier style continues to be presented as a powerful form.

By the twelfth century, in both literature and art, the form of the suffering Christ was supplanting the form of the conquering Christ. Colin Morris suggests that this change occurred, in part, because the role of the individual had gradually increased in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This development was a direct result of this era’s intellectual revival and the creation of a more “complex” society in Western Europe.[5] The triumphant form of Christ had prevailed in the less complicated societies of seventh to tenth-century Western Europe. By the seventh century, political disunity and a reduction of trade made Western Europe largely devoid of cities. Literacy remained the preserve of the clergy, and the bonds of society were personal and tribal.[6]

Because of the reasons given above, in these warrior cultures the image of Christ victorious dominated. Morris explains:

The stress during the first thousand years fell upon the victory which God had won on the cross, a victory which overcame the devil’s hold upon men, opened all mankind to the action of God’s grace and established Christ’s lordship over the world.[7]


In the first thousand years of the Church’s history, the figure of the dead Christ was almost never shown. Christian tradition seemed reluctant to portray Christ as a suffering man, preferring to emphasize his divine power. One may provide another reason for this hesitance. The Roman Empire had long admired martial virtues as the primary components of an ideal Roman male’s identity, which helps explain the lack of interest in Christ’s suffering for a religion that was focusing on converting a population that venerated the deeds of military men.[8]


(plate 3 )


Although the earliest surviving examples of the crucifix, comes from the late sixth century (e.g., plate 4), the cross itself, without a representation of Christ, had become a significant Christian symbol early as the second century.


(plate 4)

After the emperor Constantine’s (ruled, 306-337) conversion to Christianity in 312 the Roman army began to use Christian symbols and offered prayers to the Christian god before battle. Further use of military metaphors can be observed in plate 5. In this sixth-century mosaic from Ravenna Italy, Christ is dressed in the typical military garb of a Late Roman general or emperor.


(plate 5)


Certainly sordid details of Christ’s crucifixion were not a topic that generated much description or discussion in Late Antiquity. Christian writers such as the fourth-century “father” of ecclesiastical history, Eusebius, tended to ignore the details of the crucifixion, concentrating instead on His rebirth, and focusing on the “treachery” committed by the Jews in Christ’s condemnation. The same is largely true as well for the fourth and fifth century Church Fathers from both halves of the Roman Empire.[9]

We have evidence that non-Christians criticized the religion for the unmanly death of its savior. The seventh-century Armenian historian, Sebeos, for example, revealed that the Muslim commanders accepting the surrender of parts of the Eastern Roman Empire scoffed at the protective power of Christ and the cross. The historian wrote:

I shall provide you with as many soldiers as you wish, and take tribute from you as much as you are able to give. But if you do not, that Jesus whom you call Christ, since he was unable to save himself from the Jews, how can he save you?[10]

Such derision helps to explain why Christian missionaries made a point of emphasizing Christ’s triumph to potential converts among the warlike foreign peoples who would have had a difficult time accepting the pacifist Christ of the New Testament. The God of the Early Medieval Christian missionaries was not the gentle savior of the New Testament but the often vengeful powerful God of the Old Testament.[11] These realities, along with early Christians’ reluctance to depict Christ’s image, may have promoted the popularity of imageless crosses in early Christian period. However, by the sixth century the hesitancy to depict Christ’s image declined significantly and despite the paucity of surviving examples images of Christ triumphant upon the cross became more popular.

The gradual conversion of Western Europe also eroded the early Church’s emphasis on the individualistic nature of Christianity. One no longer made a deliberate choice to become a Christian by interior change (repentance) and an exterior change (baptism an acceptance of Christ as Lord. By the tenth century neither of these experiences was necessary. It required no personal choice to become a Christian, nor did one find himself or herself to be a member of a community distinct from society as a whole.[12]

Western Europe also experienced an increased emphasis to the Old Testament. The rural societies of the early middle ages found it difficult to relate to the early Church Fathers who mostly lived in the cities of the Late Antique Roman Empire. The kingdom of Israel—not the Roman Empire—became the model society by which the rural Western European communities compared themselves. The Frankish Kings created a “Davidic Kingship,” a doctrine by which warrior monarchs served as God’s representatives on earth— rewarding the pious and punishing the impious. The Carolingian Kings promoted order through obedience, and the belief in symbols and rites, giving little concern for reason or reflection. Within this world, the individual was limited to accepting his or her role within the hierarchy. Christ and king were promoters of stability and victory, providing little need to contemplate the individuality of Christ or his suffering.[13]

By the tenth century, however, we begin to see the first examples of a new type of crucifix which emphasized Christ’s anguish.[14] This movement gathered momentum in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Giles Constable suggests that the transition from the triumphant Christ to the suffering Christ was linked to eleventh and twelfth century Church reforms and social developments. This period of consolidation and change, created the need for reformers to protect themselves against both clerical and lay opponents. Jesus presented a focal point around which the reformers could rally, in doing; the reformers emphasized Christ’s humanity which increasingly became an object of devotion and imitation.[15]

In Historia calamitatum, the twelfth-century philosopher and teacher Peter Abelard revealed how an intimate relationship with Christ could provide comfort when one was threatened by the outside world:

While I was continuously harassed by these anxieties and as a last resort had thought of taking refuge with Christ among Christ’s enemies, an opportunity was offered me by which I believed would bring me some respite from the plots against me; but in taking it I fell among Christians and monks who were far more savage and wicked than the heathen.[16]


Constable argues that the notion that one had a personal connection with God through their relationship with Christ created a feeling of self-awareness and inwardness. Reformers attempted to model their lives on the Gospel, fleeing to the isolated regions of Europe. In this escape from the secular world, the reformers focused on their love of Christ, which increasingly became an internal rather than an external relationship.[17]This sense of a direct relationship with God had been less prevalent in the early middle ages, when many monks and nuns were given to monasteries as children and religion was more of a communal experience.

During this period, individuals tended to view God as a powerful King who commanded conformity and obedience from his subjects. This is not to say that for most twelfth-century Christians’ religion represented a purely internal event—the reform movement itself promoted a profound spirit of mutual cooperation and support. The group ideal reflected the strong bonds of external friendship and love among “brothers” who recognized the greater good of the abbey over the individual. Thus it is important to note the reverence of both an internal and external relationship with Christ for these reformers, just as we see the coexistence of both triumphant and suffering portraits of Christ.

Medieval devotion to Christ was often based on intense emotion and sensuality. The twelfth-century Christian felt no need to separate religion and piety from sensuality and sexuality. Medieval monks felt the embrace of Christ and smelled his scent. Nuns, and even monks, metaphorically became “brides of Christ” and their relationship could appear to the modern to be that of two lovers. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a twelfth-century abbess and writer, aptly illustrated this “sensual” relationship in O dulcissime amator:

Now we call on you, our husband and comforter,

Who redeemed us on the Cross.

We are bound to you through your blood

as the pledge of betrothal.

We have renounced earthly men

And chosen you the Son of God

O most beautiful form.

O sweetest fragrance of desirable delights

We sigh for you always in our sorrowful banishment!

When may we see you and remain with you?

But we dwell in the world,

And you dwell in our mind;

We embrace you in our heart as if we had you here with us.[18]


Hildegard creates lines of poetry that make one almost smell and taste Christ, such intimate language, in the contemporary world, is usually reserved for lovers. Caroline Walker Bynum suggests that twelfth-century women used extreme fasting as a means to identify with Christ’s suffering on the cross: “Filled with Christ the recipient was simultaneously crucified with his agony.”[19]

This is not to say that all of these “brides of Christ” thought only of Jesus and abandoned love in the secular world. Abelard’s former lover, and secret wife, the abbess Heloise, lamented in a letter of self-revelation to Abelard that he was her only true love:

But if I lose you (Abelard) what is left for me to hope for? What reason continuing on life’s pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you denied even the joy of your presence, which from time to time could restore to myself.[20]


Abelard admonished Heloise that “It was he (Christ) who truly loved you, not I. My love, which brought us both to sin, should be called lust not love.”[21] He attempted to convince Heloise that her suffering should be compared to Christ’s:

Are you not moved to tears or remorse by the only begotten Son of God who, for you and all of mankind, in his innocence was seized by the hands of impious men, dragged along scourged, blindfolded, mocked at, buffeted, spat upon,. Crowned with thorns, finally hanged between to thieves on the Cross, at the time so shameful a gibbet, to die a horrible and accursed form of death? Think of him always, sister, as your true spouse, and the spouse of all the Church.[22]


For Abelard, the love of Christ, being non-sexual, made the ideal relationship. By comparing their misfortune to Christ’s torment on the Cross, he discounted the relevance of their own pain and, finally, their relationship.

It was not only the religious reformation that created this increased emphasis on the Christ’s individuality and humanity. The twelfth-century intellectual renaissance launched a revival in classical learning that helped stimulate of new areas in various intellectual study, including philosophy. These developments created the need for rational thinkers to use their mastery of logic to understand Christ and their faith. Anselm of Canterbury seemed particularly interested in Christ’s sacrifice:

But he speaks of the will of the Father, not because the Father preferred the death of his son to his life; but because the father was not willing to rescue the human race, unless man were to do even as great a thing as was signified in the death of Christ. Since reason did not demand of another what he could not do, therefore, the Son say s he desires his own death. For he preferred to suffer rather than the human race be lost; as if to say to the Father: Since thou dost not desire reconciliation of the world to take place n any other way in this respect I see that thou desires my death; let thy will, therefore, be done, that is, let my death take place, so that the world may be reconciled to thee.[23]


Anselm presented Christ in an internal conversation with himself logically thinking out his decision. Anselm’s Christ appears very human, and the philosopher’s construction seems patterned on his own personality. Christ’s rational choice makes his death all the more terrible for both the twelfth-century and the modern reader.

Empathy with Christ’s suffering, however, had a more sinister side, and might, in part, be used to understand twelfth-century Western Europe’s growing religious intolerance. The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed the first widespread attacks on Jews on the continent; and it seems clear that an increased emphasis on the Jew’s role in the “murder” of Christ played a role in these pogroms.[24] The twelfth-century writer, Thomas of Monmouth portrayed this feeling of contempt for the Jews in his description of a supposed ritual crucifixion of a twelve year old Christian boy:

Thus while some of these enemies of the Christian name were reveling in the spirit of malice around the boy, some of those present decided that he should be fixed to the Cross in mockery of the Lord’s passion. And they did it as if to say, just as we condemned the Christ to suffer a shameful death, so let us condemn the Christian, so that, uniting the Lord and His servant in like punishment, we may turn our back upon them in the pain of His reproach that they attribute to us.[25]


The desire to understand Christ’s suffering created a young martyr who was able to experience Christ’s pain. Compassion for the suffering Christ, internalized, mutated into a more intense hatred of the Jews.

Some Church leaders attempted to control this murderous passion, which ironically, they had helped unleash by preaching the Second crusade. The following letter, addressed to the people of England by Bernard of Clairvaux shows him attempting to control these attacks on the Jewish peoples:

I have heard with the great joy of the zeal for God’s glory which burns in your midst, but your zeal needs the restraint of knowledge. The Jews are not to be persecuted or killed or even put to flight. Ask anyone who knows the Sacred Scriptures what he finds foretold of the Jews in the psalm: ‘Not for their destruction do I pray,’ it says. The Jews are the living word of Scripture, for they remind us always of what the Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere living witness to our redemption.[26]


Bernard attempted to protect Jewish lives throughout Western Europe, yet, the increased emphasis on the “crime” committed in Christ’s death made attacks on them inevitable. In addition the Crusades had allowed many Europeans to visit the lands depicted in the New Testament, making these long past events seem somewhat more contemporary and real. The twelfth-century emphasis on the suffering of Jesus reflected changes that were the result of reformation and renaissance. Medieval Christians’ compassion for Christ’s suffering, however, evoked both love and murderous passion.




Plate 6




1. Rinnagan Cross, eighth or ninth century Ireland. Christ on the cross flanked by angels.


2. Courajod Christ, second quarter of the twelfth century, poly-chromed wood, 155 x 158 x 30 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


3. Basilica of Santa Sabina.  This fifth-century image shows Jesus with two thieves. The three figures are standing on the ground with their arms outstretched, the elbows slightly bent. Nails are visible in the hands, but we find only the suggestion of crosses.


4. The earliest surviving full image of the crucifixion from the sixth-century Rabbula Gospels.


5. Mosaic (c. 500 Museo Arcivescoville, Ravenna) of Christ depicted in military attire of a Roman emperor. He bears a cross and holds the Gospel showing the passage John 14:6 “I am the way the truth and the life.”


6. 3 Puy-de-Dôme Christ on the Cross, twelfth century, wood, h: 158 cm. Musée National du Moyen Âge – Thermes de Cluny, Paris, France.











[1] Some beautiful representations of these images are found in Oleg Zastrow, Crosses and Crucifixes: Treasures from the 8th to 19th Centuries (2009). For some recent studies on the theology behind these images, see Celia Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2001); Richard Viladesau, The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] Penny Schine Gold, The Lady and the Virgin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 44-45.

[3] Gold, 44.

[4] Charles Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century 15th edition (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1970), 29.

[5] Colin Morris, the Discovery of the Individual (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 140.

[6] Morris, 20-21. Though an early medieval collapse of literacy has been disputed, see Rosamond Mckitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[7] Morris, 139.

[8] For the links between military virtues in the Roman Empire, see, Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); M.E. Stewart, The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the early Byzantine Empire (PhD Diss. Queensland University, 2012).  For early Christians attempts to portray the crucifixion as a noble and manly death, Coleen Conway, Behold the Man: Jesus and Greco-Roman Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), esp. 70-78.

[9] See e.g., Andrew Bain, Four Interpretations of Biblical Crucifixion Narratives in the Latin West, c. 350-430. (PhD Diss., Queensland University, 2007).


[10] Sebeos, History 50.169 (trans. Thomson).

[11] For example in the Life of St. Nino the Georgian peoples are convinced of the Christian God’s superiority after God answer St. Nino’s prayers by sending a hurricane to terrify the locals by smashing their city walls as well as their local pagan idols. Anonymous, The Life of St. Nina Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia with the Service, (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1988).

[12] Morris, 23-4.

[13] Morris, 24-5.

[14] Morris, 23.

[15] Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 261-3.

[16] Abelard, Historia calamitatum in The letters of Abelard and Heloise trans Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 94.

[17] Constable, 261.

[18] Hildegard of Bingen, “Causae et curae, and other excerpts of Hildegard’s writing,” in The Writings of Medieval Women, ed. And trans. Marcelle Thiebaux (New York: Garland, 1987), 341.

[19] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast Holy Fast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 188-19.

[20] Abelard and Heloise, 129.

[21] Abelard and Heloise, 153.

[22] Abelard and Heloise, 151.

[23] Anselm, “Curs Deus Homo,” in Basic Writings trans. S.N. Deane, 13th ed. (La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1988), 210.

[24] For a lucid analysis of Western Europeans’ growing intolerance towards those considered as dangerous others from the tenth century, see R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).


[25] Thomas of Monmouth, “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” in Medieval Hagiography: an Anthology, ed. Thomas heads (New York: Garland, 2000), 52.

[26] Bernard of Clairvaux,  “Letter to England to Summon the Second Crusade, 1146,” in The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. Bruno Scott (London: Burns Oates, 1953), 6.