Some thoughts on Peter Heather’s Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders

Wow two blogs in one day.

What follows are some of my initial thoughts on Peter Heather’s new book Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders. It is the third in a series of books on H’s views on Late Antiquity. While aimed at a broad audience Heather also has many titbits and, indeed, sometimes startling conclusions for academics. Heather engages with many on-going disputes in the field of Late Antique history. The study would have benefitted with further discussion of studies and historians that disagree with many of his main points. His bibliography is missing many important articles and recent works that are fundamental if one hopes to put together a narrative on the poorly covered fifth century. While sections of this book are interesting, particularly his chapters on the two Theoderics and Justinian’s “reconquest” of the “lost” western provinces in the sixth-century, as a whole this is the weakest of Heather’s trilogy. Indeed, as he move away from his area of expertise the quality declines dramatically. His chapters on Carolingians and the rise of the papacy are convoluted and often unrelated to his main thesis. I will, however, leave my comments to his opening chapters on Theoderic’s rise and Justinian’s wars of reconquest.

While recognizing that he was aiming at a broader audience, his Theoderic certainly seemed to me to present a portrait of a stereotypical barbarian rex that could have been found in something published a century earlier. With some exceptions, H’s narrative falls back on the old ethnic divide of “Romans versus barbarians” as an explanation to the political turmoil that beset Leo’s and Zeno’s regimes (though H claims that he follows the newer consensus that depicts these divisions as largely factional disputes). Moreover, he makes no mention of Croke and Wood’s recent articles arguing that Leo and Zeno, indeed, may have been very similar to men like Ricimer, and the two Theoderics. His Theoderic educated in Constantinople had two choices once free from Leo’s captivity: mildly submit to Roman cultural superiority, or “smash” for himself and his people a place in this world. Certainly this is a vision of Theoderic and the Goths that our Byzantine sources would have wanted us to believe. Jonathan Arnold’s recent study of Theoderic (Roman Restoration) suggests that Theoderic had been shaped by those early years in Constantinople. He was, indeed, probably much more of a typical upper-class Eastern Roman than the Eastern Emperor, Zeno, who sent him to overthrow Odovacer. His study represents a very bipolar world of Romans against barbarians, a paradigm that has been demolished by many scholars in the past ten years.  I also kept wondering where the hell was the Eastern Emperor Leo in the narrative? I think he appeared three times. With that said, Heather does however provide the reader with a lucid and fast-flowing narrative on the factional scheming that marked late fifth-century Eastern Roman politics. Following Jonathan Arnold, I would just argue that Theoderic and Leo would have shared many values and hopes for the Empire. Certainly, Theoderics move into Italy and subsequent reign is much more nuanced than H’s work suggests.

H’s views on Cassiodorus and other Italo-Romans having “to justify to the New Eastern Roman ruler of Italy why they had continued to serve Gothic kings despite their arrival on Italian soil” (55) is puzzling in light of the fact that he showed throughout his study that such propaganda had begun as soon as Theoderic arrived in Italy. The idea that as a consequence of an Eastern Roman victory, Cassiodorus gave his writings a quick rewrite and culling of his letters to ingratiate himself to Justinian is rejected by the majority of historians. Indeed, as Arnold as relates, Cassiodorus remained loyal up until Vitigis was captured and sent to Constantinople in 540 (A suggest he accompanied the Gothic king into captivity). So too has Arnold shown in his writings that Cassiodorus was only one of many Italo-Roman writers whom composed works dedicated to depicting Theoderic as the Goths as the manly saviours of Italy.

Ethnic identity in the Late Antiquity was much more fluid than Heather suggests. I certainly found his suggestion on Gothic identity incongruent. He suggests, plausibly enough, that “the lower-status (Gothic) warriors and even more the slaves had much less of a stake in their group’s existence, so that the strength of individual affiliation to the group’s identity fell off dramatically as you moved down the scale.” However, he uses Theoderic’s famous “Romanus miser” quote to back up this suggestion. Certainly this example argues the opposite. Rich Goths—one would think including many high-ranking warriors,—in this passage imitate rich Romans.

The emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) has received a great deal bad press in the past two decades. Where the older historiographical tradition mostly praised him for his reconquest of the lost provinces in the West, law code, and his example as an engaged Christian emperor, revisionist scholars have lately condemned him as a megalomaniac Christian despot. Heather’s work reflects this more negative view. Though thankfully he does not blame the rise of the Arabs in the seventh century on Justinian’s failed policies. Heather (203) goes so far as to describe the emperor as an “autocratic bastard of the worst kind.” Heather, in fact, compares Justinian to the twentieth century’s most infamous murders Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. Even the sixth-century Byzantine writer, Procopius who composed his Secret History in attempt to undermine the reigning emperor, might be surprised that such a negative description of an emperor who was largely successful in his own life time has largely taken hold in modern scholarship. While I recognise that Heather’s emotive prose is designed to appeal to a less academic audience, this is only one instance of many where H’s hyperbole undermines his duty as a historian. I also doubt that Procopius merely hoped for the Secret History to be comical.

Arnold makes the wise point that our view of the period is often crafted by both ancient and modern historians who knew that Theoderic’s bold experiment had failed. As he points out both mid-sixth century historians Procopius and Jordanes offer us an Eastern viewpoint after Justinian’s reconquest had driven the Goths to near extinction. Seen from the vantage of 511 Rome, Theoderic’s regime may have offered much hope for Italo-Romans seeking to restore the Greatness and military prowess of ancient Rome.


2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Peter Heather’s Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes & Imperial Pretenders

  1. roberthorvat

    I will have to ‘pick your brain’ in the future. I,too, have come across this book and have been hesitant to buy it. I love late antiquity and byzantine history. I am always trying and willing to learn more….

  2. mikeaztec Post author

    It is a decent study. I will share with you Jonathan Arnorld (whose book on Theoderic comes out this month ) had to say in response.

    1. Heather can be rigidly traditional at times. I’m glad his recent Theoderic is presented the way that it is, though, because it will make for an excellent contrast with the Theoderic in my book (which comes out in less than a month).
    2. I discuss the context of Theoderic’s period as a hostage in my book and suggest that it made him authentically Constantinopolitan (a kind of east Roman identity that was itself quite cosmopolitan). Leo, Aspar, Julius Patricius and his brothers, Zeno, and later Areobindus were part of this community.
    3. One can describe relations in terms of political factions, rather than ethnic ones, or –as I think I prefer- in terms of personal loyalties and rivalries. Aspar died because he messed with the wrong rival (the emperor), plain and simple. It’s a modified Croke, but a very similar position.
    4. The problem with the traditional barbarian vs. Roman paradigm is that advocates of it (like H) simply assume we know (and contemporaries knew) what a Roman was. This is absurd! Romanness was extremely complex, had a multiplicity of manifestations, varied from one region and person to the next, and was subject to change over time. I discuss this in Chp. 5 of the book, where I also discuss the miser Romanus quote. Again, H refuses to answer a very important question: what is a Roman and why can’t a Goth be one? Aspar was “Roman” enough for a diadem; so was Areobindus; so was Tarasicodissa (Zeno). How is Theoderic different?
    5. My thoughts on Cassiodorus? He was born in an Italy that was already “Ostrogothic” but that he (and his contemporaries) believed was a revived western Roman Empire. His Chronicle and fragmentary panegyrics make this point again and again; so do others, not just Ennodius. This is a theme throughout the book (another shameless plug!). No doubt the original letters collected in the Variae reiterated this point. So, did he hastily assemble and rewrite the Variae to provide an apology to Justinian for collaborating with the Goths? I don’t think so. Instead, I’d like to think that Cassiodorus assembled the Variae as a testament to the Empire that Justinian needlessly destroyed; proof to set the record straight for those who hadn’t live in Italy. He didn’t need to apologize to Justinian; he needed to explain to Justinian’s subjects that their emperor had made ANOTHER terrible mistake. I’m convinced that Cass went to Constantinople as a hostage in Witigis’ train; and, no, he didn’t update his lost history there (sorry, Momigliano!); and no, Jordanes’ Getica is not an abbreviation of that history… (not that you asked)
    6. On your last point: I suggest in the book that stereotypes are two sided. The same attribute can be denigrated or praised depending on context. Goths are “valorous” or “savage,” depending. Leo and Zeno are semi-barbarous or Roman, depending again. The same goes for Theoderic: Roman or Goth, depending, although what these terms mean varies considerably (see above and the book… yes, a final, shameless plug!


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