Un-Roman Ways

Michael Kulikowski

  • 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire by Giusto Traina, translated by Allan Cameron
    Princeton, 203 pp, £16.95, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 13669 1

Dates have a funny way of imposing a preconceived analysis on the past. They can function by synecdoche: 1776 for the five years of the American Revolution, 1976 for the punk revolution and its aftermath. Or they can work by metonymy: 1789 stands for the dawn of modernity itself. When a book takes that sort of date for a title, it’s rarely more than a gimmick to spice up a familiar narrative. Choosing a date with no such obvious implications can be just as gimmicky, but it can also serve a useful methodological purpose, drawing attention to the way we process time and give it meaning. Mathematically and physically, the passage of time is neutral, any chunk of the past equivalent to any other. We give time meaning subjectively and socially: the first weeks at university in our mental autobiographies, the Second World War in the social memory of so many nations. These periods of marked time swell up and fill our understanding of the past. Picking an ‘unmarked’ date can force us to rethink the unexamined hierarchies of importance that we assign to past ages and past events. What’s more, because we tend to process the past in terms of narrative, we leave out many things that don’t readily fit into the stories we tell. By focusing on one ordinary, unmarked year, we can often make sense of the things we usually leave out because they just don’t belong; in the process, gimmick becomes useful method.

That, at least, is the theory. The approach works admirably with modern history, but whether it can be transposed to late antiquity is another matter. What would make a year ‘ordinary’ in the fifth century? There must surely have been some ordinary years, but how could we tell? True, 428 isn’t one of the biggies: Rome wasn’t sacked, as in 410 or 455; no great church council established the orthodoxies of the future, as in 431 or 451; and no one decided to rule Italy as a king for the first time in a millennium, as would happen in 476. On the other hand, we know next to nothing about so many fifth-century years that 428, with its relative bounty of evidence, is actually quite extraordinary. Sources that did not exist even a decade later allow Giusto Traina to circle the whole Roman Empire, and many of its neighbours, flitting between different narratives that are rarely joined together in the standard accounts of the period. These tend to give short shrift to one part or another of the sprawling late Roman world: the story of the fall of Rome inevitably says too little about the eastern Rome that did not fall; the rise of Byzantium and the making of Orthodoxy marginalises the West; the birth of Europe hardly ever does justice to anything south of the Alps and Pyrenees. Traina drops casually in on a series of different narratives, getting immediate and striking impact from each, while only hinting at their real complexity.

His juxtaposition of so much incongruent material offers few new insights, but it does remind one of the many overlapping stories that render the fifth century an object of perpetual fascination. We begin in the Christian Armenian kingdom which fell for good to the Persians in the year 428, its king deposed. Those Armenian clans which had traditionally prospered when Rome was in the ascendant found themselves deserted by an imperial power that could no longer afford to waste soldiers in a continual, profitless battle over Armenia. Just as today Turks, Kurds and Armenians glower at one another across mountains in which foreign powers meddle at their own risk, so for centuries had Rome and Persia (and earlier Parthia) wrangled over this uncompromising terrain. Left in the hands of more or less pliable client kings, Armenia prevented either side easy access to the other’s soft, civilian interior, the Roman Levant or Persian Mesopotamia.

But Rome could no longer afford the distraction. Too many other frontiers were bleeding away and in Armenia, as elsewhere, it made sense for the empire to cut its losses. Already by 428, the mountainous regions of the empire, whether on the fringes or deep in the interior, had begun to see the re-emergence of local powers and odd, un-Roman ways of doing things. In Anatolia, the Pyrenees, the Vosges and the Black Forest, the Welsh marches and Yorkshire moors, archaeology and the occasional literary source show us patterns of settlement and society that no longer look towards, or even acknowledge the existence of an imperial centre, as they had done 50 years before. Some of this might be explained as resistance, some as cultural drift, but in many such places, people had no choice but to change: the imperial centre had given up on them, as too hard to control and not really worth the effort.

The government had more important things to focus on. Protecting the empire required not just a powerful army, but also the favour of the heavens. So it was that the same man who negotiated the embarrassing cession of Armenia from the Roman sphere – the general Flavius Dionysius, a historical cipher despite his obvious importance – also escorted the churchman Nestorius from Antioch to Constantinople to become bishop of the imperial capital. The appointment was made in an attempt to weld the eastern provinces of the empire – with their distinctive theological leanings and penchant for violent religious unrest – more securely to the Constantinopolitan centre. The attempt failed. Nestorius, a pious, rigorous and ascetic man, was ill-suited to the rough and tumble of church office, the simultaneous virulence and opportunism of theological politics. Yet he quickly picked a fight over the reverence due the Virgin Mary in her role as Theotokos (‘God-bearer’). As far as Nestorius was concerned, that honorific title implied that God the Father had been borne by a human woman, whereas Mary had carried only God the Son. Already loathed as an outsider, Nestorius’ theological qualms put him at odds with the large, bullying monastic community of Constantinople. His episcopate lasted for three embattled years before his enemies convened the council of Ephesus. There, Nestorius’ views were condemned as heretical and he was deposed. Rather than tying the Syrians more closely to the imperial centre, regional rivalries were given new theological animus: the bitter three-way contest among Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople ran and ran until, two centuries later, Arab armies permanently sundered the East from imperial control.

In 428, however, the imperial court believed itself to be making a real effort at religious compromise. The Constantinople to which the general Dionysius brought Nestorius was by now well advanced in the enormous expansion that would make it the grandest city in the Western world for nearly a millennium. Its ideological and spiritual heart was the vast palace of the emperor Theodosius II, a man whose reluctance to engage with the outside world did much to create the hieratic artifice of dripping purple and gilded mechanical birds that most of us discover through Yeats. In Traina’s aggressively masculine narrative, it is Theodosius – a skilled manipulator of his own public image rather than the do-nothing of hostile comment – who acts, while his wife, Eudocia, and his sister, the imposing, virginal matron Pulcheria, decorate the court. This is an error. Theodosian empresses were consummate politicians, fully capable of getting what they wanted, contriving even to keep the dynasty alive through a celibate marriage when the male line failed.

Theodosius, by contrast, was an unimpressive emperor, though one who lives for us in a way few others do. The words of many Roman emperors survive – Augustus, magniloquent in his Res Gestae; Claudius, at once fustian and ragged in his speech on the Gallic senators; Hadrian, with his execrable poetry – but from Theodosius alone do we have a writing sample: an anodyne greeting, bene valere te cupimus, written by his own hand, on Leiden’s Zeta Papyrus. It will come as no surprise that this document, the petition of a bishop in remote Upper Egypt along with the imperial response, implies religious rivalries that modern eyes might regard as trifling. Theodosius, confronted with many existential threats to his empire, sought safety by caring for his subjects’ Christian faith. His and Pulcheria’s immersion in the politics of Christian theology is more than anything else the key to understanding this period.

While scholarship during the past 30 years has tended to focus on the creative vitality of late antique Christianity, Gibbon was not wrong in his assessment that the triumph of religion weakened the empire in as many ways as the triumph of barbarism did. The Roman state had always been willing to terrorise its subjects when it felt threatened, but the conversion of Constantine and his successors multiplied the potential threats exponentially. That was the necessary corollary of undertaking to ensure that people believed the correct thing, rather than merely enforcing minimum standards of public practice and good behaviour. No one would suggest that the early empire was a paradise of free expression – to be a senator and a conscientious Stoic under Nero or the Flavians was to take one’s life in one’s hands – but the number of people whose beliefs the emperors thought worth monitoring was tiny. The late Roman state possessed a larger and more efficient apparatus of surveillance and enforcement than earlier emperors had enjoyed, so its aspiration to universal orthodoxy did not seem impracticable. Constantine, an unpredictable and blustering enforcer of orthodoxy, had set the tone, and his successors became more systematically interested in the enforcement of theological correctness. Once people realised that the machinery of government could be set in motion, to devastating effect, by an accusation of heresy, the political incentive to do this was greater. Then, as theological controversy and the number of diagnosed heresies multiplied, the imperial government became ever more entangled, ever more aware of threats to orthodoxy and ever more afraid of the connection between heresy and the other threats that faced the empire. The only adequate response was repression.

Religious controversy and the cost of managing it was by no means the only reason for the shrinking of imperial horizons and the wastage of imperial resources in the fifth century. But it is a large part of the story, other parts of which emerge in this survey: pagan intellectuals forced to flee an intolerant Alexandria, giving a last Indian summer to the schools of Athens through luminaries like the great Platonic commentator Proclus; the Jewish and Samaritan landscape of Palestine transformed by the needs of the thriving Christian tourist industry; the enforcement of Christian orthodoxy as an excuse for final, doomed efforts to project imperial authority into distant Britain.

Traina knows his church history and he tells it well. The ways in which local authority prospered at the expense of imperial government are also finely drawn: he brings to life rumbustious monks and scheming bishops, but also the barbarian and Roman strongmen of the western provinces, describing them, not altogether wrongly, as trial runs for the Middle Ages. Yet as a piece of scholarship – as opposed to a breezy travel guide to 428 – the book suffers from the tradition out of which it comes. Italian work on the fourth and fifth centuries is erratic, overshadowed not just by a few real masters, like Mazzarino and Giardina, but also by many lesser figures, among whom the cult of personality – and the intense politicisation of Italian academic appointments – turns eccentric and even long since disproved hypotheses into unchallengeable dogma. Among other lapses, Traina maintains that part of Roman Hungary was peacefully ceded to the Huns for a matter of decades, and that these fifth-century European Huns were in fact identical with the Hsiung-Nu (or Xiongnu), about whom the Chinese wrote centuries earlier. Written sources for the period are filled with obscurities, often lacunose, or preserved only in fragments divorced from their context. Where that’s the case, every last remnant of a writer’s work has to be examined before conclusions can be drawn from any single fragment: so, to take just one example, it is by no means clear that Olympiodorus of Thebes, a very great historian to judge by surviving extracts, wrote as optimistic and triumphalist a history as Traina believes. Similarly, Procopius and Jordanes are sixth-century writers whose agendas, both obvious and subtle, distort their fifth-century testimony completely, to the point that much of what they say, about the West in particular, is demonstrably wrong. It is unfortunate to see them quoted without comment alongside authentically fifth-century sources.

Pleasant diversion though it is, Traina’s book remains an odd candidate for translation, its Anglophone audience hard to place. Specialists will enjoy the easy ramble through familiar territory, and the occasional introduction of a source new to them, but they will also be reminded of how many classics of Italian scholarship remain untranslated. Meanwhile, the barrage of strange names will baffle the novice, as will the wildly inconsistent maps, with their mixture of Latin, Italianised and Anglicised toponyms. Classicists and ancient history buffs, who may hitherto have found the world of late antiquity too exotically un-classical to consider, will be in for an agreeable surprise: Traina’s fifth century should seem just familiar enough to navigate easily, but also enough of a trial run for the Middle Ages to be novel, even exciting.