Monthly Archives: May 2014

Some thoughts on Bede’s Ecclesiatical History

The three centuries after the fifth-century CE fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe have often 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. Today’s blog explores some of the current historiographical debate surrounding the Early Middle Ages. It examines  Bede’s eighth-century CE 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.

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

 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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.



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] 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: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 112-13.


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


[3]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.


[4] Bede, 49.


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


[6] Bede, 66.



Why a belief in Romanitas and not Christian Providence Best explains Byzantine Resiliance in the seventh and eighth centuries




(Twelfth-century representation of the Byzantine victory over the Arabs at the battle of  Palphlagonia in 863)


Many historians of Late Antiquity focus on the role that Christianity played in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires. This is due to two primary factors. First, much of what comes down to us form this era is from devout Christian writers. Indeed, since monks were the primary preservers of ancient texts this propensity should not surprise. While we do have several important secular sources from the seventh century, after 630 classicising history composed in Greek disappears for 150 years and is largely replaced by a blooming of devout Christian literature. This in my mind has created an over-emphasis on the role that Christianity and Christian values played in the early Byzantine world.

Indeed, imagine if everything that we knew about the modern world derived from bishops of the modern Catholic Church. Second, historians like Warren Treadgold believe that the American fascination with religion and 60s type holy men has played a part as well. This helps to explain why secular nations like Great Britain and Australia tend to write and focus on more traditional secular history, whilst America has embraced post-modernism and tended to focus on the role that women and religion played in these ancient societies. I am torn between two worlds educated in both the US and Australia. My first mentor Mathew Kuefler is very much a man at of the vanguard of post-modernism, whilst my PHD chair John Moorhead is cut from more traditional clothe.

This reality has given me a slightly skewed vision of the role that religious faith played in the Byzantine world. My early years were shaped by Kuefler’s innovative methodologies. I still remember the vague look of incomprehension when I told John that many ancient Romans wished to be seen as masculine. Having read everything from Ambrose and Gregory he remarked that notions of manliness and/or virtus and or andreia played little role in these Christian men’s worlds. I think over the years that I managed to show him that this assertion was not completely true. Proof too that one can miss themes when one is not looking for them.  On the other hand, he convinced me that Kuefler’s idea that early Christians’ largely rejected militarism was patently flawed. Indeed, I have recently come to believe that Byzantium had increasingly embraced militarism from the fifth century.

This brings me to my first in a series of planned blogs on the emperor Heraclius’ (ruled 610-641) use of militant Christian themes in his propaganda campaign against the Persians and the Arab Muslims. Heraclius has long attracted considerable scholarly attention.  Such attention is deserved. Not only was he the first Roman emperor to lead his soldiers into battle since Theodosius I, but his two struggles against the Persians and the Muslims have been seen as representing the true close of the classical world and the beginning of the medieval Byzantine era. The first campaign against the Persians started badly, but ultimately ended with a comprehensive victory over the Persians that few Roman emperors had ever achieved. The second war, however, led to severe defeats and the loss of important Roman territories to the Arabs. As a recent biographer has explained, however, things may not have been as bad as some historians’ insist. Historians’ view of Heraclius’ reign as an unmitigated disaster is largely anachronistic. As Walter Kagei comments (Heraclius, 314):

”Heraclius cannot have regarded his entire life and career as a total failure at the moment of his death. His Empire still stretched from the straits of Gibraltar to the edge of the Caucasus, although his armies had now evacuated Syria. After all, Byzantine armies were still resiting in Egypt and upper Mesopotamia…So however, dire the situation still looked better than it had in 610 or 612. “

Things undoubtedly grew worse in the years after his death. Indeed, Byzantium survived by the thinnest of margins. This circumstance has long shaped opinions of the age as on one of doom and gloom. James Howard-Johnstone echoes the thoughts of modern consensus when he suggests that a long series of military defeats at the hands of the Muslim armies had convinced many Byzantines that the hand of God was against them. He writes:

“Each successive defeat likewise impressed on Christians the plain truth that the Muslims were indeed agents of the Lord and that the end of time was approaching. No wonder then that the morale of the army might suddenly plummet or that a whole province might submit once there was no prospect of help form field forces. There was no point in continuing resistance from the cities, doomed as it was to failure and likely cost their ruling elites all their suburban villas, gardens, and orchards.”

I am unconvinced that the majority of Christians ever completely believed that God had abandoned them or that religious belief was the most important factor behind Byzantine failure or success. Moreover, if the Byzantines truly believed that the end of days was near, then why would they think that submitting to the Arabs would allow them to keep their wealth. In fact, if they were truly as  devout as J argues, the arrival of judgement day should have seen increased resistance on the part of Christians convinced they would soon be facing their maker.  It is more likely that the majority did not really believe that the end of days was near, but merely wanted to survive. I would agree, however, with Johnston’s further contention (Witness to a World Crisis 463) that “The main dynamic behind its (Arab-Muslims) expansion and its rooting in different habits must be religious, must surely have had its origins in the preaching of the Prophet.” Johnstone also, in my mind rightly, suggest that even after years of warfare the Persian and Byzantine armies remained potent military forces (473). Yet I would caution that not all of the ebbs and flows of Byzantine fortunes can be placed at the feet of eschatological Christian belief. Romanitas as much as fervent Christianity helps to explain Byzantine resilience. Romans both Christian and pagan had a long record of overcoming foreign foes and similar dire situations. Certainly later Byzantine historians tell such a tale.

This is not to say that religious belief did not play an essential part in shaping Byzantine attitudes. As the sixth-century historian Agathias explained, times of crisis inevitably led to an increased religiosity of Constantinople’s citizens. A religiosity, however, that quickly waned once the crisis passed. 

I would suggest that most soldiers left such religious debates to the theologians. Providence serves on the periphery. To put it more simply, it is the icing on the cake of victory. Soldiers on the field of battle have always known that men’s deed on the day of battle played the primary factor in determining the victor and the loser. American soldiers are highly religious and inspired by a similar providential rhetoric as the ancient Byzantines and Muslims. Yet they know that the deeds of soldiers in battle represent the true determinate of a victory. I still remember my days in the US Army a sergeant telling me the “commies” did not care if God was on my side. God was not watching over me, he was. One thinks that Byzantine soldiers familiar with the arbitrary nature of all warfare knew this “truth”. Indeed, it is a common them in classicising  historians and military manuals that recognize providence but recognize the essential and overriding role that men’s deeds and fate play in determining events on the field of battle.

If religious belief was the only factor in the Muslim’s triumphs and the Byzantines’ failures in the second half of the seventh century it does little to explain the Byzantine resilience in the second half of the seventh century and at the battle of Constantinople in 717-718. No one seemed to have told these Byzantines that their God had abandoned them…. So it was time too meekly give up. Surely if it was true that Arab victories served as a sign that God had turned against the Romans, Constantinople’s citizens and it armies would have cowed down to the inevitable. Instead the opposite is true, they resisted, triumphed, and survived. One suspects that a good old belief in Roman military virtues and the need to survive, and not the whims of providence represent the primary factors behind the “Romans” continued resistance and century-long battle back to relevance.

I will close today’s blog with evidence of this sentiment from the eleventh-century Byzantine history of the soldier and aristocrat Michael Attaleiates (Histories 27.11) who praised the manly virtues of his pagan and Republican Roman ancestors when faced with foreign invaders:

“For the noble Romans of that time did not strive for money and the acquisition of wealth but simply for renown, the demonstration of their manliness, and their country’s safety and splendour.”

I would suggest that similar sentiment helped Byzantines’ facedown the rampaging Arab armies in the Anatolia in the seventh century and outside the gates of Constantinople in 717-718.



Some Ancient Greek and Roman Beliefs on the Differences Between Men and Women

The past thirty years has seen a steady stream of publications devoted to
gender constructions in the Roman and Byzantine world. Given gender studies’ large
debt to the women’s movement of the 1960s and 80s, it should not surprise that
most of this work has concentrated on women.So too have some scholars begun
to consider Roman and Byzantine men as a gender category. This focus on
masculinity has raised an old issue from women’s studies concerning the vexing
question of just how androcentric these societies were. Certainly, a divide persists
within the field between those who see Byzantine woman as relatively empowered—
particularly in their roles as Christians and empresses—and those who believe that
Roman and early Byzantine societies remained “highly misogynistic” and
androcentric. In today’s blog I take a brief look at some of the “scientific”ancient reasoning for this gendered dichotomy.

Late Antique Eastern Roman physicians were primarily compilers who relied on the work of earlier intellectuals and medical professionals, so to better understand the Byzantine beliefs in the links between gender and ethnicity to virtue it is to these writings that one must turn.[1] Greek and Roman medical practitioners based much of men’s primacy over woman on biology. Although there was never one recognized medical treatise concerning the biological and the psychological differences between men and women, some generalisations may be made. Ancient doctors considered women and men to be fundamentally different. Males were the result when fetuses attained their complete potential by gathering the necessary “natural heat” to achieve a virile spirit. In contrast, females represented failed men—whereas men simmered with hot vitality—women remained liquid and cold.[2] Writing in the second-century CE, the physician Galen argued that a woman’s frigidity was the primary reason for her inferiority: “Just as man is the most perfect of all animals, so also with the human species, man is more perfect than woman. The cause of this superiority is the [males] superabundance of warmth.”[3]

The Classical Hippocratic medical treatise, On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child, presented a slightly more complicated theory of sexual difference, proposing that “both partners alike” contained male and female sperm. Males came from the stronger sperm, whilst women resulted from the weaker. Nonetheless, despite the masculine sperm’s inherent superiority over the feminine, the masculine seed could succumb to the feminine sperm and produce a girl if the feminine seed established dominance through numerical supremacy.[4] This biological quandary was readily applied at the social level, and may have helped engender the notion of a threatened masculinity in ancient Greece and Rome.

Medical practitioners saw men and women as “mirror images of the other.”The uterus functioned simply as a reversed penis, while the ovaries served as internal testicles.[5] These physical distinctions between men and women were often matched by behavioural differences based on gender.[6] Intellectuals, like the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, proposed that while masculine men displayed rationality, courage, and emotional calm, their biological opposites, women, exhibited irrationality, cowardice, and a lack of self-control.[7] While most modern scholars would consider these traits as socially assigned aspects of gender, like later Byzantines, Aristotle presumed that these behaviours represented aspects of biology. Aristotle’s scientific ideas continued to be trusted well into the Byzantine era, and one sees in the Late Antique sources the conviction that free-born Greek and Roman men often had a greater capacity than women or foreigners to exhibit the four cardinal virtues: fronhsiς – “prudence” –; – dikaiosunh – “justice” –; – swfrosunh– “temperance” – ; and άνδρεία– “manliness or courage,” that served as vital components of the principle term for “goodness” and ideal manly behaviour in ancient Greek, άρετή.[8]

While Aristotle recognized the potential for female bravery,[9] in the Politics (1277b20), he maintained “that a man would seem cowardly if he were only as courageous as a manly woman (doxai gar an  einai deilόςanhr ei outwςandreioςeih wsper gunh andreίa).”[10] In this same section Aristotle proposed that just as the virtues of dikaiosunh “justice” and swfrosunh “temperance” differed in the good ruler and the good subject, so too did the virtues of swfrosunh and άνδρεία diverge “in a man and in a woman.” Therefore though some women could display masculine virtues, men’s biological dominion over women assured that men would display “purer” forms of these essential virtues than their natural subjects, women.

The seminal Classical historian, Thucydides (c. 460 BC – c. 395 BC), adhered to the normative Greek view that women’s virtue differed greatly from men’s.[11] Still, in certain instances women could display a masculine trait like courage.  In one of the few passages of Peloponnesian War that even mentions women, Thucydides praised the courage (tolmeros) of a group of women who had joined a raging battle by dropping tiles from the rooftops onto their enemies.Despite, the historian’s admiration, however, he qualified these brave deeds by labelling them as para phusin, which is best translated as beyond their nature.” For Thucydides, as well as many of his classicising emulators, true courage and manliness remained beyond women’s reach.[12]

Much of men’s primacy over women was based upon the vagaries of chance. The direction that the semen floated to in the womb during intercourse could determine whether one developed masculine or feminine characteristics. Some Later Roman thinkers supposed that the left side of the uterus contained “feminine” traits, while the right side held the “masculine” ones. A female seed, which drifted towards the right, could therefore gain some manly characteristics, while a male seed floating to the left might capture some feminine ones.[13] This conviction helps one understand why many ancient writers supposed that one’s gender was not an absolute, but a point on a sliding scale. This malleability did not mean that a man could become a woman, only that with every sign of femininity he displayed a man risked slipping further down the ladder of gender difference —from the top rung of masculine perfection—to the lower rungs of the feminized male.[14] Though I might add, the gender ambiguity of eunuchs often challenged this notion of an “absolute divide between male and female.”[15]

Although each parent contributed to the personality and the sex of a developing baby, the father’s manly supremacy made him the dominate donor. Moral variations among men, however, could play a role in the formation of a foetus, while a manly man passed down masculine traits, an unmanly father supplied some feminine ones. If a noble woman had sexual relations with a slave or a barbarian, these “substandard” men could add their unmanly traits to the child. In certain instances, no sexual contact was needed to infect the foetus with a flawed effeminate nature. An illustration of this threat may be observed when the late fourth-century or early fifth-century CE anonymous author of the Historia Augusta tried to rationalise how the paragon of Roman manliness, the second–century Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled, 161-180), had sired the unmanly and morally bankrupt Emperor Commodus (ruled, 177-192).[16]

The author related a tale circulating amongst the upper classes, which claimed that Marcus’ wife Faustina had admitted to her husband that she had recently fallen ill because of an uncontrollable passion she had developed for a gladiator who had merely passed by her one day. Following his advisors counsel, Marcus executed the gladiator and made his wife bathe in the dead man’s blood. Our author quipped that while this solution certainly extinguished the empress’ fervour, it had the unintended effects of exposing her unborn son to the gladiator’s unmanly vices.[17] The historian concluded that this incident might reveal how “the son of so virtuous a prince [Marcus] had habits worse than any trainer of gladiators, any play actor [or] any fighter in the arena.”[18]  Despite the narrator’s personal opinion that Commodus’ flaws had resulted from the empress’ “numerous” liaisons with sailors and gladiators—he did not refute the “scientific” premise behind the gossip, which warned his audience about the threat of exposing a foetus—of even the most powerful and manly of men—to the character altering defects of inferior men. While our author’s tale may tell us next to nothing about the Imperial couple, it does reveal some Late Roman attitudes towards gender and masculinity.



Boys to Men

 While men’s superiority over women was established in the womb, it represented only the first step on a long and hazardous journey to true manliness. As we have seen, being born a biological male did not necessarily allow one to attain a complete masculine nature.  Indeed, most men had little chance of ever achieving this perfect state; Roman masculinity was tightly defined and attainable primarily to freeborn citizens who knew how to behave and dress in the prescribed manner.[19] For Roman men, however, the reverence of the universalised masculine functioned as a double-edged sword. In the real world, men consistently failed to live up to the stringent standard; the ancient sources remain littered with unmanly men giving into their passions, acting irrationally, displaying anger, and playing a passive role in society.  These moral variations among men threatened the notion of masculine supremacy.  However, instead of creating new categories of men to cover these ambiguities, writers regularly provided these unmanly men with a feminine identity. By separating the “failed” men from the remainder of men, one could maintain the connection between masculinity and virtue — if these effeminate individuals were not actually men, then one could continue to logically claim that all men were virtuous.[20] Therefore men, who acted irrationally or in any “unmanly” fashion, were not perceived to be displaying an alternative form of masculinity, but of slipping into the realm of femininity, while women who displayed “manly” courage did not represent a type of brave femininity, but were depicted as women who had tapped into the masculine.

Greek and Roman intellectuals portrayed masculinity as an achieved status, boys needed to be made into men, while girls quite often simply became women.[21] If a male came out of the womb complete, then what was to separate a free-born Roman from a slave or barbarian?  This restrictiveness helps to explain why strict protocols and training for the mind and body needed to be followed for boys to attain manhood. During his formative period, a boy needed to be surrounded by male role models, who could pass down the necessary knowledge to guide the youth towards the standards of Roman masculinity. Even an intrinsically male characteristic like andreia needed to be honed.[22] By the second-century century CE, groups of Sophists steeped in Greek rhetoric and literature regularly took on the role as the “didactic voices” of manliness.[23] The Sophists were not the only “experts” at making men in this era. A variety of training methods were available to those interested in shaping a boy’s inchoate masculinity: athletic trainers, doctors, physiognomists, philosophers, and even dream interpreters all insisted that their techniques represented the best path to manly perfection.[24]

Whichever regime one chose, the wise instructor who functioned as a conduit to ideal human virtues played a vital role in the creation of manly Roman men. This anecdote taken from the third-century CE Imperial biographer Herodian’s description of the Emperor Alexander Severus’ (ruled, 222-235)  early education, draws attention to the Roman conviction that certain educational techniques created manly men, while others, created unmanly ones. The historian presented the choices of curriculum available to Severus as a contrast between the “manly” “Roman” methods offered by the boy’s mother, Julia Maemae, and the “unmanly” approaches promoted by the Emperor Elagabalus (ruled, 218-222).[25] For Herodian—as well as many other contemporary and later writers— no emperor represented the danger of effeminized Eastern leadership as much as Elagabalus. The emperor, who hailed from a prominent family in Syria, embodied the stereotypical effeminate Easterner by dressing and acting in ways that were seen as womanly and unbecoming for any man, let alone a Roman emperor.[26] Though based upon only a sliver of historical truth, Herodian attacked Elagabalus for seeking to undermine the traditions of the Empire by filling the Roman bureaucracy with an entire entourage of unmanly protégés. He fumed that the emperor had taken men from the stage and the public theatres, and placed them in charge of “the Imperial business.” Slaves and freemen— men whom the biographer claimed had come to the emperor’s attention for perverse reasons—Elagabalus appointed as the governors of consular provinces.  Even worse, the emperor had put an actor in charge of the Roman youths’ edification.[27]  Therefore, it was perhaps only natural for Herodian to believe that Elagabalus would attempt to spread his contagion of unmanliness by interfering in his heir Severus’ education.  According to the biographer, the emperor longed to train Severus in his favorite unmanly “pursuits of leaping, and dancing,” as well as participating in the orgiastic rituals of the Mother of God priesthood to which the emperor belonged.[28] Luckily, declared Herodian, Severus’ “mother removed the boy from contact with such activities, “which were shameful and unbecoming for emperors.” She “summoned teachers of all the arts, and trained him in the exercise of self-control, introducing him to the wrestling schools and manly exercises (andrwngumnasioiς), and gave him both a Roman and a Greek education.”[29] As Herodian wrote, Severus’ training in the “manly arts” (andrwndidaskonteς) led the Roman soldiers to name the fourteen-year old, emperor, after they assassinated Elagabalus in 222.[30]

The crucial role that teachers played in guiding Roman boys from incipient to complete masculinity helps to explain why the danger of corrupt advisors leading young men astray, had long served as a rhetorical commonplace in Greek and Latin sources. Herodian summed up this peril by declaring: “Young men are easily diverted from learning moral values and slip easily into a life of pleasure.”[31] The historian went on to blame the adult Commodus’ love of the “soft” life on his flawed upbringing. Atfirst, Commodus had followed the sound guidance of his father’s (Marcus) friends: he led a disciplined life and filled his free time with “proper physical exercise.” Unfortunately, the inexperienced Commodus succumbed to the flattery of one group of depraved advisors who “reminded Commodus of the soft life of Rome (rwmhtrujhς) by telling him of the delightful pleasure to seen and heard” there, while another confidante took “advantage of his youth by relieving “him of his office by persuading him to lead a life of pleasure (τρυφαις) and drunkenness.”[32] Thus, while the depictions of Severus and Commodus may have served as tropes, they highlight the precarious nature as well as the paradox of Roman masculinity. For despite the widely held conviction that many virtues represented intrinsically male attributes, these desirable qualities rarely developed without the aid of a proper education and extreme vigilance on the part of the man who attained them.[33]


Dangers of Civilization

Herodian’s depiction of Commodus’ decline into effeminacy also exposes the Roman concern that the “luxury” of the city— and of civilization in general— could corrupt the manliness of men who had traditionally utilised the battlefield as the primary outlet to demonstrate their manliness.[34] Other evidence confirms that this anxiety had long served as a popular theme in the literary tradition. As early as the second century BCE, the Greek historian Polybius (c.200-c.118 BCE)hadwarned the Romans that universal dominion could be hazardous for Roman masculine ideals built around battle and strict living. Polybius, who had composed his history, in part, to explain Greece’s decline and Rome’s rise, illustrated that, just like the Greeks before them, the Romans remained in constant danger of succumbing to the temptation of the easy, and therefore, the effeminate life. After their victories over the Greeks, Polybius informed his readers, that freed from the battlefield, many young Roman men quickly “abandoned themselves to affairs with boys” and courtesans. In addition to these relationships, the young men listened to immoral music and indulged in extravagant bouts of drinking. The historian argued that these disgraceful traits resulted from the young men’s contact with “the moral laxity of Greek culture.”[35] By succumbing to the unmanly temptations of civilization, “soft” Roman men threatened the survival of the state. Just as active masculine men could slip down the ladder

Even a casual perusal of the ancient sources reveals the free-born Roman male’s fear that his masculine authority over women, slaves, and barbarians was not unconditional. Roman masculinity left little room for complacency; if a Roman man let down his defenses for even a moment he risked slipping into the realm of effeminacy. This dilemma meant that if a man displayed any trait that a peer might deem as unmanly, he risked being labeled as effeminate. Consequently a man, who displayed self-controlled manly courage in battle or served as an eloquent statesman in his public life, could still be labeled as unmanly if, say for instance, in his private life he cavorted with “loose” women.[36] Possessing andreia or virtus did not necessarily make one an ideal man. This point is driven home in Herodian’s condemnation of Commodus’ partaking in gladiatorial contests. While the historian acknowledged that Commodus had displayed “courage” (ανδρείας) and laudable fighting skills in these public spectacles, he considered a noble’s participation in such events as shameful, and further proof of Commodus’ unmanliness, because instead of “using his weapons to fight the barbarians” and proving “himself worthy of the Roman Empire,” the emperor had preferred to squander these virtues in a “degrading exhibition.”[37] Such frivolous displays of manly virtue were wasteful. Ανδρεία was not a quality to be squandered in the pursuit of personal pleasure or laurels, but an attribute that in most cases that needed to be utilised for the greater glory of the Roman state.

Like the Empire itself, masculine supremacy needed to be earned and protected.  Time and time again, Greco-Roman authors stressed that the ethical standards of a nation’s men represented the only thing that separated the victor from the vanquished. This manly virtue, however, remained tenuous, and the Romans, like the Greeks before them, needed to maintain their vigilance unless they too wanted to slip into the unmanly lifestyle that had destroyed the Greeks.  


[1] A. J. Brock, Introduction to Galen, On the Natural Faculties (trans. A.J. Brock, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916] ), 19. For a thorough account of Byzantine medical practices, see John Scarborough, ed “ Symposium on Byzantine Medicine,” in DOP 38 (1984)


[2] Brown, Body and Society, 10.


[3] Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body 14.6.7.


[4] Hippocrates, On the Generating Seed and the Nature of the Child 6.1-2.


[5] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 20.


[6] For instance, the fourth-century CE historian Ammianus Marcellinus saw anger as a sign of a “weak intellect” [mentis mollitia], and therefore was more prevalent in “women than men.” Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum 27.7.4.


[7]Aristotle, History of Animals 9.1. Aristotle argued that all animals displayed differences in character between males and females; though he noted that this divergence was most evident in the case of humans. He also tackled the question of whether slaves and children had human virtues. He questioned whether “natural subjects” like slaves, children or women could possess the same virtues as free men. Aristotle, Politics 1.13. On this topic, see Marguerite Deslauriers, “Aristotle on Andreia, Divine, and Sub-human Virtues,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003).


[8] McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 149. Latin writers adopted this concept of four essential virtues.  Ammianus translated these “four principle virtues” into Latin as: temperantia, prudentia, iustitia, and fortitudo. Ammianus contrasted these “internal” virtues with “external” characteristics such as: “knowledge in warfare” [scientia rei militaris], “good fortune” [felicitas], “authority” [auctoritas], and “liberality” [liberalitas]. AM 22.4.1. See also, Cicero, De Off. 1.5.15.


[9]Of course there were feminine virtues. As Leslie Brubaker points out the ideal Roman matrona was characterised by her gentleness, modesty, and “dedication to family and home; whilst, the “good empress was pious, philanthropic, humble, chaste.” Brubaker, 87. Aristotle also reasoned that animals were capable of “courage” [ανδρεία] and “cowardice” [deilian]. Aristotle, Historia Animalium 608a.


[10] Quoted in Jeremy McInerney, “Plutarch’s Manly Women,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), 324. Marguerite Deslauriers contends that many feminist scholars have unfairly attacked Aristotle as a misogynist who marginalised women in an attempt to maintain male political dominance. She contends that these accusations often simplify Aristotle’s notions of sexual difference, insisting that Aristotle believed in the essential sameness of the sexes and only viewed the female as deficient in certain male virtues. Marguerite Deslauriers, “Sex and Essence in Aristotle’s’ Metaphysics and Biology,” in Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle, ed. Cynthia A. Freeland (University Park Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1998). Despite Deslauriers’ claims, Classical and Byzantine constructions of women rarely affirm women’s’ virtue, but are usually used as a commentary on men. For this point, McInerney, “Plutarch’s Manly Women,” 324-330.


[11] In Thucydides depiction of Perikles’ funeral oration in 430 BCE, the statesman instructs his audience that “womanly virtues” [gunaikeiaς  arethς ] are best displayed by women “whom there is least talk about whether in praise or in blame.” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (trans. Charles Forster Smith, Loeb Classical Library, 5 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914, reprint 2000]), 2.45. For this continuing sentiment in Byzantine culture, Martha Vinson, “Romance and Reality in the Byzantine Bride Shows,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 114.


[12] Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 3.74.2. Dale Martin attests that para phusin, which is commonly translated as “contrary to nature” or “unnatural,” is better understood as “beyond nature.” Martin, Heterosexism, 46 n. 11.


[13] This concept is best seen in the writings of the fourth-century Christian writer Lactantius (Lactantius, De opificio de 12.12-3), who, as Kuefler points out, though not a physician, related “a belief that we can imagine was shared by his contemporaries.” Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 21. For Lacantius’ view of the human body, see Virginia Burrus, Begotten Not Made: Concieving Manhood in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 31-33.


[14] This ascending ladder view of gender was based on the theory of humors common in the medical thought of the Ancient Greek and Roman world. The theory of humors defined all humans as hot or cold, dry or moist. Kathryn Ringrose explains that Aristotle’s and Galen’s  belief in the opposition of men and women made them “inclined to see both sexuality and gender in terms of ascending ladders leading towards perfection, some of  these rungs on the ladder were biological, while others were socially determined. Because of their “coolness and dampness” women and girls stood at the bottom of this scale. Boys and adolescent males— not yet considered active males— stood partway up, whilst active adult males stood at the top. Whereas training would lead young males to climb up the ladder, soft living or a loss of masculine vitality through aging, would lead unmanly or older men to descend down the ladder of gender perfection. Kathryn Ringrose, The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 19-20.


[15]Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 19. For the range of gender identities provided for eunuchs in Late Antiquity, see Shaun Tougher, “Social Transformation, Gender Transformation? The Court Eunuch, 300-900,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 70-82; Ringrose, Perfect Servant, 2-50.  


[16] On Commodus’ reputation for unmanliness, see Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 28-9.


[17]Roman intellectuals categorised gladiators as unmanly, because—like many public performers— they had ceded dominion over their own bodies.  Since Roman masculinity was centred on the notion of control, by “subjugating himself to others for the sake of pleasuring or entertaining them,” the gladiator opened himself up for gendered prejudice because he was deemed to have relinquished this essential command over his own body. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 140-141.


[18]Historia Augusta, Marcus Antoninus 19.2-10. 


[19] On the importance of dress as a component of Roman masculinity, Mary Harlow, “Clothes Maketh the Man: Power Dressing and Elite Masculinity in the Later Roman world,” in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, eds.Leslie Brubaker and Julia Smith.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 44-69.


[20] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 29-31.  Though some scholars claim that the cinaedi (males who continued to be sexually penetrated into adulthood) constituted a distinct group of men comparable to modern homosexuals, for advocates of this position see Amy Richlin, “Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law Against the Love Between Men,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993): 523-73; Rabun Taylor, “Two Pathetic Subcultures in Ancient Rome,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7 (1997): 319-71. For a convincing refutation of these, and other attempts to translate cinaedus as “fag,” “faggot,” “fairy,’ “homosexual,” or even the more widely used “passive homosexual,” see Williams, 209-222.

[21] Anthropologists have shown how in many cultures manhood is not a status attained by entering “adulthood” but an elusive category that must be demonstrated or won. David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).


[22]As Karen Bassi notes, andreia represented “something that manly fathers seem particularly incapable of passing down to their biological sons.” Karen Bassi, “The Semantics of Manliness in Ancient Greece,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Boston: Brill), 200, 351.


[23] Connolly contends that: “The education in ars rhetorica undertaken by Greek and Roman elites was a powerful combination of body-mind training that bent all the pupil’s powers of emulation toward the goal of acquiring the habits, the look, of a manly man.”  Joy Connolly, “Like the Labors of Heracles: Andreia and Paideia in Greek Culture Under Rome,” in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), 287. A thorough training in rhetoric would allow these boys when they reached adulthood to hone the all of the arts of deportment that was required in a Roman world where face to face performance served to judge one’s manliness or unmanliness. Maud Gleason, Making Men Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), intro. 22.


[24] Despite the allegations of the Sophists, Onno Van Nijf argues that in the Roman East, Greek athletics remained an essential way to demonstrating one’s manliness, and that many Eastern Roman men continued to see athletics as the best pathway to masculine supremacy. He suggests that it was this focus on athletics that helped a second-century sophists like Philostratus to maintain “the relevance of traditional Greek culture under Roman rule.” Onno Van Nijf, “Athletics, Andreia and the Askesis-Culture”, in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity (Boston: Brill, 2003), 283.

[25]Herodian’s use of the “manly” Julia as a foil to the “feminine” Elagabalus represents a common literary device in Greek and Roman histories. Classical historians employed this topos as a means of commenting on a man’s manliness. For this theme, see Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 11-14.


[26] Herodian related the Roman soldiers’ shock when they saw “the emperor with his face made up more elaborately than a modest woman would have done, and effeminately dressed up in gold necklaces and soft clothes, dancing for everyone to see.” Herodian, Basileia historia (trans. C.R. Whittaker, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969-70]), 5.8.1. Nevertheless, perhaps because he was as an Easterner himself, Herodian actually presented a more sympathetic and understanding portrait of Elagabalus than many Western Roman and later Eastern Roman writers. Kuefler argues that many writers exaggerated Elagabalus’ sexual and moral depravity.  He further contends that Elagabalus’ championing of the use of eunuchs and his elaborate dress would not have seemed so outlandish in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 57-9.


[27] Herodian, Basileia historia 5.7. 7.


[28] Herodian, Basileia historia 5.7.4-5.


[29] Herodian, Basileia historia 5.7.5. I have altered Whittaker’s translation of   “Latin” to the more literal “Roman.”


[30] According to Herodian, Julia continued to play the domineering role in Severus’ life even when he attained manhood. The biographer indicated that Severus’ momism led to the emperor’s flawed reign, and the pair’s downfall and executions in 235. Herodian, Basileia historia 6.1.9.


[31] Herodian, Basileia historia 1.8.1.


[32] Herodian, Basileia historia 1.6.1,


[33] Connolly, 298.


[34] For the importance of military virtues in Roman constructions of masculinity from the Republic to the Late Empire, see McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 185-205; Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 37-69.

[35]Polybius, Historiae 31.25. Within his larger account, Polybius’ idealized description of his student and friend, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (185-129 BCE), provides an illustration of righteous Roman behavior. Scipio’s primary ambition in life was the pursuit of virtue. He attained this goal through a strict regime of self-discipline, and his focus on self-perfection helped differentiate himself from his rivals.


[36]On this danger, Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 142.


[37] Herodian, Basileia historia 1.15.7.


New Views on the Vandals: Were they just a well-read Ancient Outlaw Motorcycle Gang?






Reader’s of this blog will be aware of my fascination with the ways that foreign peoples like the Goths and Vandals adopted notions of masculine Romanitas to define themselves in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is rare to find a book that touches on these issues. Recently I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Andy Merrills’ and Richard Miles’ fascinating 2010 study  on the Vandals. Despite a few strange errors: e.g, describing the Generalissimo Boniface’s death in battle against Aetius in 432 as a murder; And a sure misprint that states that Marcian not Leo I was organizing the combined campaign against the Vandals in 468— the study has much to offer the scholar and general reading public unfamiliar with the giant strides made recently concerning these non-Roman peoples and their successor kingdoms. Indeed, this is the first major work on the Vandals since 1955.

Merrills’ learned discussion on the complex controversies surrounding how the Vandals defined themselves as a separate ethnic identity represented a highlight for me. Relying of the vast amount of work done in the past forty years  on Late Antique ethnicity he provides a narrative of fifth and sixth-century Vandalic history that is insightful, instructive, and at times original.

Merrils sees peoples like the Vandals as  a gens made up largely of mixed military elites rather than the vast groups of homogeneous migratory tribes favoured in the older historiographical tradition. Yes, he maintains, members of these men’s families may have travelled with them, but at the core they were a warrior band (a bit in my mind like modern outlaw motorcycle gangs). Though they created some localized mayhem when they entered Gaul in 406, they were certainly not a threat to the Empire. They had merely found a small niche in an early fifth-century Western Europe racked by civil wars. As M makes so clear during these early years these men were perceived as more of a pest than a threat even to the weakened Western Roman Empire.

M writes (49): “The Vandals, Alans and Suaves, were an army on the move, and presumably brought women and children along with them. It might have been a small army, and it might have been better at plundering than it was at fighting. But for the early years of the fifth century at least, the Vandals were defined primarily by their military character.”

Because of the fluidity of both Roman and Vandal identity, for M, the second stage of their existence upon entry into Spain must be looked at separately.

Using the latest archaeological research, M maintains that the destructive nature of groups like the Vandals has been exaggerated by both ancient and modern scholars. Indeed, Spain in this period remained a relatively thriving place. Their first victory over a Roman army in 422 represented the most important event in Vandal history. It was this victory that made them the Vandals that we study. Like, the Huns…or indeed a modern Biker gangs or Isis, this victory seems to have drawn more recruits, who quickly were absorbed into the confederation.

Opportunity, rather than necessity or long term planning, is seen by M as the primary factor behind the Vandals move into Africa. Victory was achieved not so much by might of arms, but due to the turmoil and rivalries that plagued the Roman armies defending North Africa.

Once they arrived in Africa in 429, men who called themselves Vandals quickly emerged as a new military aristocracy. It was only then, according to M, that it became a necessity for these men to develop a “distinct Vandal identity” (91). Though a shared history seemed to be an important aspect of crafting an ethnic identity in Late Antiquity, unlike the Goths, Lombards, and Franks, the Vandals never produced a work explaining this shared history. This does not mean, however, that they did not percieve themselves to be an ethnicity on par with peoples like the Goths.

Though the boundaries between those considered Romans and Vandals throughout this period could be blurry and fluid, M posits both natives and outsiders like Procopius could distinguish between a “Roman” and a “Vandal”. Language was one way. Vandalic, an offshoot of Gothic, could serve as ethnic marker, but as M points out after years of occupation those considered Romans could understand Vandalic, and more and more Vandals understood and indeed used Latin on an everyday basis.

So too, if we trust our sources, were certain types of weapons, clothing, and long-hairstyles a marker of Vandalic identity. Once again I reminded about how all these same things held to define and outlaw biker. Indeed, just like a banned or re-patched biker, M shows that Vandals getting kicked out of the clan had to give up their clothing and get a haircut. Of course this does not mean that a Roman could not become a Vandal and vica versa.

These definitions, however, were not steadfast, and M is rightly hesitant to see the Vandalic era as one of gradual decline, whereas  as Procopius told it, the originally virile Vandalic elite gradually succumbed to the soft side of Roman civilization. Here is a brief aside from my MA thesis on the process.

While associating with Roman culture could uplift foreign peoples, “civilized” living could also make them unmanly and cowardly. Procopius emphasized that the Eastern Romans’ easy victory over the Vandals resulted from the North Africans’ abandonment of the “hard” life of the barbarian for the “soft” life of Roman civilization:

For of all the nations which we know that of the Vandals is the most luxurious, and that of the Moors the hardiest. For the Vandals, since the time when they gained possession of Libya, used to indulge in baths, all of them, every day, and enjoyed a table abounding in all things, the sweetest and the best that the earth and sea produce. And they wore gold very generally, and clothed themselves in Medic garments, which now they call “seric” [silk] and passed their time, thus dressed, in theatres and hippodromes and in other pleasurable pursuits, and above all else in hunting. And they had dancers and mimes and all other things to hear or see which are of a musical nature or otherwise merit attention among men. And most of them dwelt in parks, which were well supplied with water and trees; and they had great number of banquets, and all manner of sexual pleasures were in great vogue among them.

Procopius, who indicated that the Eastern Romans had begun the reconquest of North Africa with a sense of trepidation, seemed surprised with the Vandals’ adoration of luxurious living.19 One is reminded of the earlier Greek tradition that portrayed barbarians as particularly vulnerable to civilization’s temptations. Now, however, it was the lure of Roman culture that threatened the valor of the Vandals. This description matches Procopius’ condemnation, in the Secret History,of Constantinople’s citizens’ growing moral depravity; his account of the Vandals may have served as a warning to his readership that a lavish lifestyle led to moral decay, and that only by following an ascetic lifestyle could men preserve their physical and spiritual well-being.


Historians have largely followed Procopius’ views. M rightly points out that the truth was much more nuanced.

Indeed, M’s most important point and contribution in this study is his undermining of the entire idea that the Vandals were gradually amalgamated into North African society by the process known as Romanization.

M sees the entire concept of Romanization as a simplification of a much more complicated process. M posits that while “The Vandal aristocracy of the fifth-century Africa was quite unlike anything the inhabitants of the region had ever seen before….it was still an aristocracy which had adopted more or less recognizable form”

“The most striking feature of our textual sources on Vandal identity”, he continues, “is the extent to which it was shaped by existing notions of Romanitas, and particularly by ideals of Roman masculinity. (97-98)

Okay readers of my work will know that this is a model of men’s self-fashioning that I argue for in my dissertation. Martial virtues along with more civilised intellectual virtues continued to make up a major part of Roman identity. Romanitas itself was susceptible to fluidity, and as I have suggested, more martial forms of masculinity become more prevalent from the fifth century. This is the exact opposite of what some gender scholars have argued. So perhaps this helps to explain why I like M’s conclusions so much!

M shows how Vandalic literature and art conflated classical and Vandalic military ideals; Vandalic behaviour was often very similar to Roman behaviour. Put more simply, Vandalic and Roman military elite’ behaviour was very similar long before the Vandals had ever entered North Africa. He concludes that just as the idea of a pure Vandalic identity has been rightly dismissed, so too should the concept of “Vandal Romanization” be rejected.

Another interesting point made by M is his contention that Vandalic identity as constructed in our ancient evidence seems to have been a largely masculine construct. He suggests (107):

“Definitive features of Vandalic identity were overwhelmingly masculine. ‘Vandals’ were primarily soldiers, administrators or landlords who held their land by right of male inheritance, who governed and fought on behalf of their Hasding kings and who assumed the engendered trappings of the late Roman aristocracy.

This is not say that there were no Vandal women….. only that they could easily fade away or like Procopius tells us take on another identity quite quickly.

This view, however, appears to be Vandal-specific as we do have plenty of indications of Gothic women.


Once again, I would add that like the modern biker gang, women remain on the periphery of the overall construct. So too do biker gangs adopt a hypermasculine identity, tattoos, strippers, and massively steroid enhanced physiques. Modern day Vandals indeed…..though we can only hope that these modern gang members take up bathing and classical literature that helped to define a North African Vandal!





18 Procopius, Wars 4.6.5-8.

19 Procopius, Wars 3.10.16.


History as a Weapon: Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks





(Seal of Childeric)

Today’s blog take a quick look at some of the disputes surrounding Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks,[1] composed late in the sixth century. It is one of the most important medieval histories to survive from Late Antiquity. Its value, however, as an accurate sources for Merovingian Gaul remains controversial.

The vision of the Early Middle Ages as an era of decline and pessimism continues to have “a strong hold on the European historical imagination.”[2] 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!’[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 tended to see 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]

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.[5]

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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8]

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.[9]


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.[10] 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. One finds 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.[11]


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.[12]


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![13]


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?[14]


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.[15]



[1]Gregory did not call his work, History of the Franks. This title only came into use in the eighth century CE. 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.


[2]Goffart, 231.


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

[4]Goffart, 230-1.



[5]Goffart, 117.


[6]Goffart, 433.


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


[8]Heinzelmann, 105-6.


[9]Gregory of Tours, 63.


[10]Heinzelmann, 104


[11] Gregory of Tours, 380.


[12] Gregory of Tours, 253.


[13]Gregory of Tours, 253.


[13] Gregory of Tours, 254.


[14] Gregory of Tours, 254.


[15] Gregory of Tours, 185.


Paulus Orosius: An Optimist’s View of the “Disastrous” Fifth Century

250px-Paulo_Orosio_-_Detalle 450px-Viajes_de_Orosio.svg





Paulus Orosius’ fifth-century CE The Seven Books Against the Pagans, is one of the most important histories to survive from the fifth-century. This book had been composed to compliment the seminal fifth-century Christian writer Saint Augustine’s (354-430 CE) City of God, which served 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. Despite its popularity and influence during the medieval period, modern historians have mostly dismissed it as a “poor man’s” City of God. Indeed, its optomistic vison of the fifth century has been scoffed at by historians knowing what was to come. In today’s blog I look at some of the main themes and offer some evidence on why this more optomistic vison of Christian history seems to have appealed to many Christians perhaps not so ready to dismiss the secular world as Augustine’s City of God preached.

Paulus Orosius was born sometime in the late fourth century in what is now Portugal. Although we know very little about his background, his writing reveals that he received an extensive education that involved a mastery of both Classical and Christian learning. Orosius’ native Province had suffered increased instability from severe “barbarian” attacks and incursions in the early fifth century. The Roman Empire’s increasing inability to fend off these attacks into its territory caused some within the Empire to assert that the Christianization of the Romans had led to its decline. Perhaps as a result of these invasions, Orosius left Spain in 413 or 414 and he landed near Hippo in North Africa where he met the city’s famous bishop Augustine (354-430). After Orosius returned from Palestine in 416 he met once more with Augustine and was convinced by him to compose a supplement to the third book of Augustine’s work the City of God, in which, Augustine argued that the Roman Empire had suffered many disasters long before its adoption of Christianity in the fourth century.1

Augustine most likely chose Orosius because of his familiarity with both Christian and Classical sources of history. Against the Pagans reveals that the Christian authorities felt that the best way to diffuse the pagans’ argument was by using the pagans’ own revered Classical texts and historians against them. Orosius presented an optimistic picture of his contemporary era. This attitude need not surprise.  One should remember that by the time Orosius composed his history matters had taken a turn for the better. A contemporary of Orosius , Olympiodorus, reveals that after the initial shock of its sack, Rome had made a remarkable recovery—so too had the fortunes of the Western army improved under the guidance of the future emperor Constantius III (Olympiodorus frag 26.2). This political background helps us understand what some modern scholars see as Orosius’ naïve optimism found in the history.

Certainly throughout this work Orosius attempted to show that compared to earlier periods of Roman history, the fifth-century Romans lived in a relatively golden age. For Orosius this new era had begun with Augustus’ ascension and the birth of Christ. Orosius believed that Augustus served as Christ’s counterpart in the secular world and both were responsible for the creation of a more peaceful and harmonious world. Orosius viewed the era of the republic as an age of unprecedented corruption and internal strife. In contrast, Orosius presented the early Empire as a relatively peaceful era. He suggested that, when compared to the civil wars of the late republic, the early and later Empires’ troubles were mild. All of these examples served to remind his contemporaries that Rome had faced and overcome much bleaker periods in its history.7

Orosius emphasized that even before the Empire’s official acceptance of Christianity, God was looking out for Rome’s well-being and he attributed all of Rome’s triumphs to God’s will. An example of God’s influence may be seen in Orosius ascribing the Emperor Claudius’ conquest of Britain to God’s desire: “Let Rome realize that she had part of her good fortune formerly through His hidden providence.” 7 Even Titus’ destruction the Jewish temple in 70 CE occurred because he had been sent “by the judgment of God to avenge the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”8 In this manner Orosius claimed that every Roman victory even before the Empire’s acceptance of Christianity was merely a manifestation of God’s divine plan.9 Since God is all seeing, He knew of Christianity’s ultimate triumph therefore, he laid the path for his final victory.

During Orosius’ “new golden age” only evil men’s persecution of Christians stood in the way of God’s final triumph, therefore Orosius made it a point to emphasize that the Empires’ defeats and decline had resulted directly from bad emperors attacking Christians within the Empire: “The Church of Christ has suffered ten persecutions from Nero to Maximianus. Nine vengeances, as I have called them, as they themselves do not deny, calamities, immediately followed.”10

Orosius had an equally simple explanation for the Empire’s setbacks after it had accepted Christianity. He blamed the defeats on those he described as pagans and heretical Christians:

Let the wretched and stubborn heathen take consolation in this alone, that in Christian times and under Christian ruler, such great disasters coming together at once overburdened the neck of a state already oppressed. . . .The one God handed down one faith and diffused one Church over the world. This Church He beholds; this Church he love; this Church he defends. 11


Orosius closed his history on an optimistic note, suggesting that the power of Christianity could tame the barbarians and bring about an era of peace and prosperity for the Roman world. The Empire’s setbacks, he believed, were merely God’s means of weeding out the wicked:

Those who were stubborn and did not believe in God’s Gospel, or were doubly stubborn if they had not even listened to it, and did not give way to God’s wrath, were justly caught and overwhelmed by God’s exceeding anger. And yet. Soon after this, also the barbarians, detesting their swords, turned to their ploughs and now cherish the Romans as comrades and friends.12


Orosius asserted that pagan Romans, and not the Christian barbarians, were the Roman Christians’ real enemies. He implied that the barbarian invasions served merely as God’s way of gaining additional followers:

If the barbarians had been admitted into the territory of the Romans for that reason alone [being converted to Christianity], because, in general, throughout the East and the West the churches of Christ were replete with Huns, Suebi, Vandals, and Burgundians, and with innumerable and different peoples of believers, the mercy of God would seem to be worthy of praise and to be extolled, since, even if with our own weakening, so many peoples would be receiving a knowledge of truth which, surely, they could never have discovered except with this opportunity.


Orosius concluded that the death of innocent Christians played a part in God’s larger plan to achieve a spiritual victory on earth. Through their suffering, the Christians achieved eternal life, while God gained a large new supply of new recruits.13 Orosius went so far as to suggest that Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 represented a Christian victory over corrupt pagans. Rohrbacher suggests that since both peoples were Christian, Orosius envisioned an eventual union of the Romans and Goths into a single fighting force. In Orosius’ opinion, the world was no longer divided into Romans and barbarians, but one of Christians and pagans.This vision it not so strange as some would suggest. Indeed, as the work of Jonathan Arnold on Italy at the opening of the sixth century has persuasively shown, after the “fall” of the Western Empire, Italo-Romans and Goths led by Theoderic crafted a similar notion of a revitalised Roman state invigorated by manly Goths. 14


For those interested in reading more about this interesting author see Peter Van Nuf’felen’s Orosius and the Rhetoric of History 2012 study.


1 Roy J. Deferrari, introduction to The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, by Paulus Orosius, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1964),  15-19.


7 David Rohrbacher, The Historians of Late Antiquity (London: Routledge, 2002), 185-187.


8 Orosius, 296, 289.


9 Rohrbacher, 148.


10 Orosius, 324.





11 Orosius, 340.


12 Orosius, 358.


13 Orosius, 358.


14 Rohbacher, 224. Jonathan Arnold [ Theoderic, the Goths, and Restoration of the Roman Empire 

(Ph.D diss.,University of Michigan, 2008).



Another Reason why those of us born in the 6os are tougher than today’s kids


Is that a young Vladimir Putin? No its just me as a kid. Building upon an earlier blog where I discussed why perhaps our modern-day obsession with safety is a bit overdone, I thought this photo my mom just sent me is pretty funny..

Though I wish I had been wearing some sunscreen! Pretty sure I would not be game to ride bareback these days..