Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

‘It’s not difficult to get a Double O number if you’re prepared to kill people.’ (p.64)

The casino in question is in the fictional French town of Royale-les-Eaux, just north of Dieppe, near the mouth of the river Somme (p.34), based on the holiday resorts of Deaville and Trouville – ie not the sunny south of France

James Bond is an agent for the British Secret Service. Their offices are in a gloomy building overlooking Regents Park. Its head is ‘M’ (p.14) whose personal secretary is Miss Moneypenny (p.23) who ‘would have been desirable but for eyes which were cool and direct and quizzical’. Bond has a Double O number because he has killed in the line of duty: to be precise, a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm (p.64 and p. 142).

Bond Biography

Bond lives in a flat in Chelsea. His only personal hobby is ‘one of the last of the 4.5 litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers’, a battleship convertible coupé which he bought in 1933 (p.36). He is given penetrating awareness of everything around him, especially other people’s appearances, particularly women (eg the page-long description of Vesper Lynd pp.38-39).

Vesper thinks Bond looks like a cold, ruthless version of the popular singer and pianist Hoagy Carmichael (p.40), though when Bond himself looks in the mirror he sees cold grey-blue eyes, and a vertical scar down his right cheek, not much like Carmichael (p.57). Asleep, when the warmth and humour have left his eyes, Bond’s features relapse ‘into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.’ (p.13) He is a ‘harsh, cold’ man (p.151).

Le Chiffre

Bond has been sent to Royale-les-Eaux on a mission. The man known as ‘Le Chiffre’ has risen from being a Displaced Person after the War, to become one of the KGB’s top agents in France and undercover paymaster to the 50,000-strong communist-controlled Trade Union of Workers of Alsace, on the border with Germany and therefore an important fifth column if war with Russia breaks out. He is controlled by KGB ‘Leningrad Section III’.

Le Chiffre is a clever man, a cunning strategist, a cool gambler. But he has made a bad mistake. He embezzled a big sum of funds from the Union – funds ultimately belonging to the Russians. With them he bought a chain of a dozen or so brothels and porn shops. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the French government passed a law banning both brothels and porn. He lost the lot. In fear of what will happen when his Soviet paymasters find out, le Chiffre travels to Royale-les-Eaux (which has become a notorious high-stakes gambling centre) and, in the time-honoured fashion of embezzlers who need to pay back their funds, is hoping to get lucky in the casino and win back the money.

The mission

Bond’s mission is to beat le Chiffre at the gambling tables. To humiliate a major Soviet agent and the large communist union he manages, probably leading to le Chiffre being eliminated by his own side, an organisational and propaganda victory for our side. The execution would be done by SMERSH, the Soviet execution agency – a word formed by joining two Russian words smyert shpionam Death to spies! (history & overview given on pages 21 and 147).

Bond has been handed a large amount to gamble with and the ‘cover’ of being a playboy millionaire inheritor of a large fortune in Jamaica. He is helped by Mathis, an agent from the French Deuxième Bureau, and Felix Leiter, from the American CIA (full description page 53).

A connoisseur spy

‘I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink.’ (p.61)

Bond is a connoisseur of good food and drink, of guns, cars and women. Rereading Casino Royale it struck me that:

  • In previous literature, this level of connoisseurship was restricted to aristocratic characters, and not a usual characteristic of the special agent genre, as embodied by John Buchan, Bulldog Drummond or the ordinary bloke heroes of Eric Ambler. One element of Bond’s success is combining the visceral excitement of the spy thriller – traditionally thought of as a pulpy or low genre – with a level of upper-class connoisseurship previously restricted to more high-brow literature.
  • Bond really enjoys the things he likes, and Fleming manages to convey this enjoyment very powerfully. There are not that many stereotypical thriller scenes (one bomb goes off, there’s a very long card game, a car chase and an extended torture scene). What dominates the text is Bond’s supremely sensual enjoyment of what he likes: food, cigarettes, fast cars, fancy drinks, looking at a beautiful woman in expensive clothes.

Bond’s likes

In fact, the word ‘like’ crops up frequently. ‘Bond liked to make a good breakfast’ (p.28): in this instance, half a pint of iced orange juice, three scrambled eggs and bacon, and a double portion of coffee without sugar, followed by the first cigarette of the day, ‘a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street’.

The pleasure of good food

When he orders paté de foie gras he makes sure it comes with a porcelain pot of very hot water to dip the knife in so it will cut through the paté more easily (p.45). He gives the barman at the casino very precise instructions to make him a cocktail from – three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken very well until it’s ice-cold, then garnished with a large thin slice of lemon-peel. ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.’ (p.51)

He has one large dinner with the woman assigned to assist him on the mission, Vesper Lynd, which is described in loving detail: Vesper orders caviar (Bond ensures it comes with plenty of toast, always the issue with caviar) then plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes soufflés, and for dessert fraises de bois with a lot of cream; while Bond shares the caviar starter before moving on to a very small tournedos, underdone, with sauce Béarnaise and a coeur d’artichaut, and then (surprisingly) half an avocado with a little vinaigrette for dessert. And champagne to drink, Bond thinks the Taittinger 45, though the sommelier tactfully suggests the Blanc de Blanc Brut 1943 might be more appropriate. Wow.

The pleasure of gambling

During the long scene in the casino where Bond battles Le Chiffre at baccarat, Fleming explains the rules with crystal clarity so that even a non-gambler like myself gets drawn into the exciting battle of wills. Not only explains what’s at stake, but conveys the enjoyment.

‘Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures round the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of card-rooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried attention of good servants… He liked being an actor and spectator… Above all he liked it that everything was one’s own fault…’ (p.47)

The pleasure of BDSM sex

When, after pages of the very long card sequence, Le Chiffre finally loses all his money (and thus Bond’s mission is complete) Bond is fantastically relieved. He cashes his checks and tokens in at the casino bank, then takes Vesper for a drink. Coming down off the tense high of the card game, he imagines having sex with Vesper, but not vanilla sex; rather, sex which involves domination and pain, tears and ecstasy.

He wanted her cold and arrogant body. He wanted to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his. (p.98)

Later, he repeats the same feeling only that, knowing Vesper better, and having become more intrigued by her mystery, he imagines the sexual act with deeper intimacy and fervour.

And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape. Loving her physically would each time be a thrilling voyage without the anticlimax of arrival. She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed. (p.167)

Where it is clear from the context, and from the descriptions of his deepening feelings for Vesper, that the word ‘rape’ is used in a BDSM context, meaning the agreed, permissive role-playing of violent or aggressive domination and submission, which is designed to take its participants to higher levels of sensuality and intimacy. Emphatically not the backstreet violence, the ugly violation of actual real-world rape.

The pleasure of driving a fast car

But before this can happen, Vesper is kidnapped by Le Chiffre’s people and Bond gives chase in the Bentley. Although there are technical descriptions of rear-wheel drives and superchargers and so on, what comes over most in this car chase is the sheer physical pleasure Bond gets from driving a superbly engineered car with supreme skill.

The baddies wait on a bend and lace the road with anti-tyre nails so that Bond’s lovely Bentley crashes at high speed and he is pulled unconscious from the wreckage, taken in the baddy’s car, along with the unconscious Lynd, to an isolated farmhouse and there tortured by Le Chiffre.

The masochistic pleasure of being tortured

Le Chiffre cuts away the seat of a cane chair and has Bond tied naked to it so his genitals are hanging down through the gap. Le Chiffre then proceeds to beat his genitals very hard with a domestic carpet beater until Bond is unconscious with pain, covered in sweat and there is a pool of blood under the chair from his damaged body. As he does so Le Chiffre’s eyes look at him ‘almost caressingly’ (p.120).

Linked to the S&M vision of sex with Vesper, this gross torture scene is part of the sensual world the book inhabits, a world of physical pleasures and terrifying pains. The horrifying torture is the mirror image of the cold showers, the slick grooming, the smooth shaves and bow ties which precede the fine dinners.

It reaches its climax when Le Chiffre, mock sorrowful that Bond has not revealed to him the location of the vast cheque of his winnings (which, understandably, he wants to steal) takes out a big kitchen knife and advances on Bond to emasculate him. ‘Say goodbye to it, Mr Bond’ (p.127). Presumably this means Le Chiffre is going to cut Bond’s penis off.

Le Chiffre had earlier assured Bond that this wasn’t the kind of ‘romantic adventure’ in which the hero is rescued by magic. But in fact it is. As Le Chiffre advances to castrate Bond, a mysterious voice sounds in the gloom. It is an agent of SMERSH sent to terminate him for his stealing of the KGB funds, which Russia has, after all, found out about. ‘Phut’ goes the silenced gun and Le Chiffre falls dead. The SMERSH agent whispers in Bond’s ear that, unfortunately, he has no orders to kill him, but he sadistically carves the Russian character for the first letter of Spionam into his right hand, and departs.

The pleasure of recovery

Out of a fog of anaesthetics Bond surfaces in a French hospital. The police had found his crashed car, searched nearby houses and discovered him and Vesper with the corpses of Le Chiffre and his henchmen. The doctors are (of course) amazed at Bond’s superhuman powers of endurance and, indeed, recovery. Miraculously ‘he’ will heal – ie his testicles, which you would have thought would have been mashed to pieces, will be restored to good working order. What is more restful and pleasurable than lying in a hospital bed, doped with local anaesthetic, being ordered to do nothing, think of nothing, and just be fed and watered day and night?

Vesper’s betrayal

The novel could have ended about here, when Bond – surprisingly – tells Mathis, who’s come to visit him in hospital, that he’s going to quit his job. In a couple of pages of schoolboy philosophising he says it’s getting harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Well, don’t fight for principles, Mathis advises him; fight for the people you love and against the people who are threatening them.

Bond is worried he won’t have healed enough to have sex with Vesper (or anyone) so is sensitive when she visits him in hospital. After visiting every day for a week or more, Vesper says she has found a quiet little boarding house down the coast and arranged for them to stay. They drive there with basic belongings and begin what should be an idyllic beach holiday. There is a sensuous build-up with swimming from the deserted beach, an immaculate home-made French dinner, and then passionate love-making.

But almost immediately Vesper becomes tense and nervous. Next morning Bond catches her making a secretive phone call which she unconvincingly lies about. She is convinced someone has followed them to the boarding house, and when a passing commercial traveller stops for lunch, she tenses with fear.

They continue the days of sunbathing and nights of good food and sex, but Vesper cries half the time and is irreparably sad. There is one last night of love before which Vesper insists on getting tipsy, and then the terrified patron wakes Bond early the next morning (it is the respectable 1950s, so Bond and Vesper had been given separate rooms). Bond rushes down to the hall to find Vesper dead in her bed. She has committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

Next to her is a farewell letter in which she reveals that she has been a double agent working for the Soviet MWD for years, ever since the Russians got hold of her Polish RAF pilot lover. The Russians promised he’d be safe if she spied for them. And so for years – years, Bond reflects bitterly, during which he has been gallivanting round the globe like a schoolboy adventurer bumping off cartoon baddies – the real traitor has been working in the heart of his organisation, quietly copying top secret files and sending their contents to Moscow.

Vesper admits that she betrayed every detail of the Le Chiffre mission to Moscow, including Bond’s cover story and aims. In the casino, she distracted Leiter so Le Chiffre’s would-be assassin could come close to killing Bond, with a silenced concealed gun. And, she reveals, her kidnap by Le Chiffre was all a put-up job to entrap him. Vesper goes on to say she genuinely fell in love with Bond but didn’t want to betray her Polish lover, and when she stopped regularly messaging her Paris contact, she knew they would send someone for her, someone from SMERSH. Which explains her irrational fear of the ‘commercial traveller’. So now she’s taken the only way out of her hopelessly tangled, compromised plight.

The bitch is dead

Bond crumples up the letter, all sentiment for her evaporated. All this time she was a spy doing her country inestimable damage. And he had grand-standed in front of Mathis, saying he was ready to marry Vesper and quit the service because he was all confused about the morality of spying. Not any more.

The novel ends with his determination to combat the fear which stands behind all the Soviet agents, the whip hand of SMERSH itself, the instrument of terror which keeps the whole system running. He phones the hot line to London to leave a coded message, that agent 3030 was a double all along. Yes, he said ‘was’ – because ‘the bitch is dead now.’

If Bond was cold and heartless before, he is even colder and more heartless now. If he was wavering about his job and his role, this mission crystallises his determination to shake himself out of it, and take the fight to the enemy.

Thoughts

This is an excellent kick-start to what turned out to be a never-ending series of fictions about the cold, pitiless, sensual, cruel connoisseur spy. All the key ingredients are here, including the final determination to fight the foe forever. And Bond may indeed go on forever…

This first book establishes the narrative pattern: Bond combats one big, central baddy, preferably in exotic foreign locations, where he displays his connoisseur-like enjoyment of the finer things in life and survives numerous physical attacks, before the plot intensifies, he falls into the baddy’s clutches and endures sadistic levels of punishment, before just about defeating the enemy, all accompanied by a sexy lover whose initial coldness he triumphantly overcomes.


Credit

Casino Royale published in 1953 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1978 Triad Grafton paperback.

Related links

Other thrillers of 1953

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books – ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history – the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates things and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy i.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy i.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

  • Ethnogenesis The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.
  • Britain and Ireland A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Norwich has written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

The Early Centuries is in 18 chapters which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) ie up to the time of Charlemagne (crowned 800 AD in Rome). The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still see and visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople upon the small Greek city of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Empire was under pressure from invading barbarians beyond the borders, leading to a series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to Ravenna, thought to be more defensible behind a network of marshes.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and during the reign of Theodosius (379-395) the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (by 410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes were settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can however be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically regarding the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was in the end so self-defeating. Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed it to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack. The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople. Nice. Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of their great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious logical problem. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

The East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ set of beliefs, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’. And hence, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘there is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – reclaimed territory from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands cut off his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started here, or here, or here: with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (ie allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc). But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast was lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

It’s beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which does what it says on the tin and mentions the political changes purely as background to his main theme, the evolution of Christian theology and debate.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – eg in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians who had him declared a saint find tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in them who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. Clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many contemporary schoolboys have heard of them.

The sack of Rome The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on. Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. Disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was by way of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then unleashed the Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes in a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum. The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to please be left with control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened he announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West) The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet rulers in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy. In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece. Handy.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474 Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus ie ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ ie did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus. More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asked to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining. I do, but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West. By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)

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Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (2008)

The full title is Attila the Hun: Barbarian Terror and the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Kelly is a fellow at Corpus Christi College Cambridge and it shows in this book, which carefully weighs the existing written accounts of the Huns alongside the latest archaeological evidence to give a sober, untheatrical account of the historical background to the advent of the Huns and the rise to power of their legendary leader.

Sources

To start at the end, there is a very useful appendix detailing the 22 or so classical and early medieval authors who make any reference the Huns, long or short, giving you the opportunity to search for translations online.

As to the Huns, they left absolutely no written accounts of their lives or culture: they were illiterate nomads from central Asia. The one and only Hun word we know of is strava because Priscus uses it to describe the funeral ceremonies held for the dead Attila. Otherwise we are entirely dependent on the written records of their enemies.

Sieving the sources

Kelly shows how one of our two most important sources, Ammianus Marcellinus (our only written account of the Huns before Attila), like so many ancient and medieval authors, based his accounts on previous similar accounts of ‘barbarians’. Kelly shows how Ammianus copied elements from the account by the famous Greek historian Herodotus in his History (430s BC) of the Scythians, a non-Greek, horse-riding warrior race from north of the Black Sea. This was how Roman authors and their audiences expected barbarians to be.

So the historian must assess how much is ‘true’ and how much is repetition of the kind of topoi – clichés if you like – handed down in the literary tradition: ie you have to pick through all the written accounts very carefully, weeding out the handed-down, the rumour, the fantasy and the made-up, before you establish the tiny kernel of fact. If any.

So what is Kelly’s book like?

Comments

A commenter on Amazon made a shrewd point: there is surprisingly little about Attila in this book about Attila. For the book is overwhelmingly about the Romans – about Roman emperors and generals and administration and power politics from the 370s when the Huns first arrived, to the 450s when Attila abruptly died. This is for the reasons stated above – that the Huns left no written record, a very sparse archaeological record, and what we know about them comes from their interactions with the Empire. We only have half the story.

The book convinces you that everything about the build-up, about Attila’s reign, and then the aftermath of his death, is fully and completely recorded and assessed. But that turns out to be a tremendously complicated story of Roman alliances, deceits, of cheating generals and scheming emperors and even scheming emperors’ wives, with a long central section about a scheming emperor’s eunuch. Lots and lots about the Machiavellian politics of the two Roman imperial courts – disappointingly little about Attila himself.

Key questions

So, for example, neither Kelly nor anyone else can answer some simple questions:

Where did the Huns come from? Kelly spends a chapter discussing the Huns’ origins and considering at length the theory that they were descendants of the Xiongnu, Mongolian nomads who established an extensive empire in the 3rd century BC, only to reject the theories and conclude – as almost everyone else is forced to – that our best guess is they came from the Great Plains of Kazakhstan.

As they migrated west they found themselves cramped into a smaller area (the Hungarian Plain, itself flat and featureless) with less resources, less acreage for their thin, hardy horses, and fewer settlements to plunder. So after a while they realised it was better to extract ongoing tribute from these places rather than raze them to the ground: they developed a policy of terrorising the inhabitants to extract tribute. Thus arriving in Hungary forced the Huns to change their loose social structure, to become more settled and organised, which led (apparently) to the coalescing of clan leadership. It is against this background that Attila emerges. And all this is no more than intelligent guesswork…

Why did the Huns arrive? They first appear in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (330 – 391) who says they arrived in the 370s. The terror they spread with their policy of total devastation terrorised the Gothic tribes who had lived just across the Danube  for generations, to plead with the Roman authorities to be allowed to cross the river into the Empire. But what pushed the Huns out of Kazakhstan? Why did they migrate west? No-one knows.

The Battle of Adrianople

Kelly gives a detailed account of the build-up to the fateful Battle of Adrianople 378 AD. The Goths were pushed by the newly arrived Huns towards the Danube and then begged the Emperor Valens to flee to safety across it. Valens gave permission but then the management of 80,000 Goth refugees was badly handled: settlement and food for them were slow in being organised. Mounting discontent toppled into war when the local Roman officer invited the Goth leader, Fritigern, to peace talks, then tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed and Fritigern returned to mobilise his fighting men among the various tribes of Goths, along with some Huns who had crossed the border, into a sizeable force. The Emperor Valens, irritated at having to cancel a campaign he was waging in the East against the Persians, marched back to Constantinople where he was booed at the Imperial Games, and set off north to the city of Adrianople in a vengeful mood. He had asked the emperor in the West, Gratian, to send forces, and Gratian was making his way to rendezvous with his fellow emperor – but slowly.

Arriving early at Adrianople early, his scouts telling him the Goth army was only some 10,000 strong, and his own impatient mood prompted Valens to decide take the Goths on with his eastern army alone. It was exterminated. There is a detailed account of the heat which exhausted the waiting Romans and the fires which the Goths lit to blow smoke downwind into their faces and then, while the leaders were still discussing some kind of truce, skirmishing broke out among the impatient troops which escalated chaotically – thus denying the Romans the advantage of their traditional discipline and order. Some 20,000 Roman soldiers were slaughtered along with Valens himself, burned to death in a farmhouse where he had taken refuge. It was the biggest Roman military defeat in 700 years, throwing the East wide open, and bringing home to everyone the power of the invading ‘barbarians’.

Priscus’ mission

Part three of this four-part book retells in considerable detail the one and only account of Attila we have from personal experience, that of Priscus of Panium who was chosen to accompany Maximinus, the head of the Byzantine embassy representing Emperor Theodosius the Younger (ruled 408–450) which travelled across the Danube and into the heart of the Hun empire to meet Attila.

Kelly uses Priscus’s eye-witness account to critique the stereotyped hearsay of Ammianus and to draw some obvious conclusions, namely the Huns were more civilised than the Romans had been led to believe. Priscus was impressed by Attila’s palace beyond the Danube, as well as the quarters for his queen who supervised the creation of sophisticated tapestries. Slowly he realises that Attila is no psychopathic barbarian but a cunning strategist.

A calculating man

What emerges from Priscus’ account (which itself only survives in fragments) is Attila’s cunning and the extent to which he engaged in normal diplomacy. Like anyone else who’s heard of Attila, I assumed his horde raped, pillaged and burned their way indiscriminately across Europe, but this isn’t quite true or is only part of the truth. Attila undertook several incursions into Roman territory – into the Balkans in 441 and 447, then into Gaul in 451 where his rampage was stopped at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, and then south into Italy in 452, until he reached the gates of Rome.

However, after each of these campaigns he withdrew back to his strongholds across the Danube. Ie he never set out to conquer and take control of Roman territory. Kelly’s book makes clear that the incursions were carried out to spread terror and thus increase his main aim, to bolster his negotiating position with the emperors, forcing them to pay him off with ever-bigger tribute/bribes/pay-offs. Successive Roman emperors handed over staggering amounts of gold to Attila and also – a subtle Stalinist touch – he always insisted that any Hun refugees in Roman territory were also handed back to him, to be executed in short order. No Hun was to be allowed to create an alternative power-base or become a client of the Romans.

Kelly sums up Attila’s policy neatly as a protection racket on a grand scale.

Attila’s death

The last 40 pages of this 230 page book describe in minute detail the manoeuvres and machinations of the final emperors who faced him – Valentinian III (Western Emperor 425 to 455), Theodosius (Eastern Emperor 408 to 450) and Marcian.

As with the rest of the book, you need both a family tree and to have been keeping notes to remember which member of which imperial family was conspiring against who and why, let alone the network of barbarian rulers who by now had seized enormous tracts of the western empire – the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Spain, the Franks in Belgium, all of them potentially making alliances with any of the others against any of the others – it is like a permanent, super-complex game of Risk. And right in the thick of it, Attila abruptly died in 453.

One account has it that he stayed up late drinking in his palace on the night of his wedding to another wife (nobody knows how many wives he had) and the next morning his bodyguard found him dead in her bed. If the sources can be believed, he appears to have had a nosebleed and, drunken and unconscious, drowned in his own blood. Or did his new wife poison him? Or did his bodyguard kill him? Various theories and rumours survive in our ancient sources and, once again, you have to choose the one you think most plausible, in the full knowledge that they might all be fictions.

Aftermath

History doesn’t stop. The new situation threw all the players the book has described in such detail into a new matrix of strategic possibilities. The Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Spain, the Franks in Belgium, the western Roman emperor, the eastern Roman emperor – all had to reconsider their plans and alliances now a key element in the geopolitical situation had been removed. Briefly, Attila’s three sons – Ellac, Dengizich, Ernak – fell into civil war, were killed, overthrown or defeated in battle and the empire built up by this cunning, calculating man collapsed, leaving absolutely no trace behind except the permanent weakening of the Roman Empire and a fearsome reputation.

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Early Medieval Art by Lawrence Nees (2002)

Part of the Oxford History of Art series, this large-format, glossily-printed book has 244 pages and 138 illustrations, many in colour, of late antique and early medieval art. The text is intended as an overview of the visual arts, excluding architecture, of the Early Middle Ages 300 to 1000. It proceeds in broadly chronological order, but is divided into general topics – The Roman Language of Art, Earliest Christian Art, Conversion, Art for Aristocrats, Endings and Beginnings, and so on.

Challenges

Nees faces a number of problems:

Art books are harder than history books A historian such as Peter Brown can range freely over words and ideas and be as general or specific as he likes. An art historian must be able to show us the works – the evidence – to back up his commentary, ideas, theory. General comments must be backed up by examples from the limited objects which have come down to us. Also, although he is covering (a very large) historical period, he doesn’t have the space to explore historical ideas in any depth – his brief is the art of the period, and so the historical introductions to each section tend to be brief and sketchy.

Patchy evidence Nees is doubly challenged in this respect because what survives of early medieval art is so patchy. He uses the word ‘class’ a lot to refer to a group of works which demonstrate the same style or craftsmanship or subject matter; but then routinely goes on to say that this or that work stands alone, in a class of one. This thing has survived; it’s beautiful but we don’t know who made it or where or what tradition it came out of or any background at all and, so far as we know, nothing really followed it. Frustrating.

Narrative helps us assimilate art Working through the book you begin to appreciate that a lot of art books (and exhibitions) work by making comparisons which allow the construction of interesting narratives. Take the recent massive exhibition at the Royal Academy about garden painting. The curators have gathered several hundred paintings of gardens from a 40 year period and this allows them to analyse the works on show in great detail, distinguishing different themes or ideas or presentation of the garden, showing how the garden was presented in the many late-19th century different styles, showing how the approach changed and evolved over time, specifically in the work of the core artist, Claude Monet, and so on. The garden exhibition is an example of the way that detailed stories – about ‘Monet the genius’ or ‘the garden in symbolist art’ or ‘the garden as personal haven’ etc – help us make sense of, assimilate, and enjoy the works on display. Having a lot of specimens a) makes complex stories possible b) allows comparisons and contrasts c) which then generate insights and so d) allow us to figure out what we like.

Bitty Early medieval art lacks this range; what has survived is fragmentary. So Nees can’t avoid his book often feeling patchy. Maybe this is why he chose chapters based on topics rather than a straight chronological structure, because pure chronology would reveal the big big gaps where we have no examples, whereas an arrangement by topic allows him to bring together the surviving works, no matter how distant in time or space.

Nees goes into great detail about most of the examples featured but this immersion in minutiae made it quite difficult sometimes to remember which topic we were meant to be considering, or to remember if there were any general points I was meant to be bearing in mind, supporting the individual examples (generally, no).

Detailed analysis The great strength of the book is Nees’s detailed analysis of the 120 or so pieces chosen for the book. The text mostly proceeds from close analysis of one artefact to close analysis of the next and time after time Nees brings an eagle eye to the clarification and explication of detail in what we’re looking at, whether it be an ivory carving, funeral stele, triumphal arch, chair, crown, coin or belt buckle. He makes comparisons (where they’re possible) and slowly we accumulate a sense of how Roman topoi were recycled by Christian and non-Roman artists as the centuries passed and European society changed out of all recognition from the days of the Empire.

The art

Nees is clearly an immensely knowledgeable enthusiast for the art from this neglected period, and his detailed analyses of the 120 or so artefacts illustrated in the book are always stimulating and insightful. But somehow it left me stone cold. Oddly, I felt much more enthusiasm for the art of this period from reading a book by the historian Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity. Brown was able to set the scene, explaining the big political picture for each distinct period in this long era, and then outlining the social trends and changes affecting it. Against this comprehensive background he could then select a handful of examples of art which embodied each period. A memorable instance was his reference to the rise in importance of eyes in art during the 4th century, giving the reader several illustrations – which then sensitises you to the vividness (or not) of eyes as they appear in all the remaining works.

Nees proceeds at a much more granular level, looking in detail at one painting, or stele, or fibula, before going on to compare it to another, very specific, one. The book amounts to a sequence of very specific exhibits and this eventually gives it an almost random feel, like offerings at a jumble sale: here are some old coins, a belt buckle, a damaged crown, some paintings from a catacomb, the arch over an early church.

There are themes here – the chapters are given thematic titles – but somehow the themes were hard to grasp and remember. Instead, like an exhibition at the British Museum, what you remember is the beauty of individual works. My highlights include:

  • Illustration from the Aachen Gospels made for Otto III about the year 996 – note the white eyes
  • Scene from Column of Marcus Aurelius Beheading prisoners, Rome 170-180 AD –  note the severed heads at the bottom
  • The Velletri sarcophagus – note the ‘figural’ ‘registers’, the main, upper one, showing the labours of Hercules, the pediments above it supported by female caryatids, the entire register supported by crouching Atlases, the lower register showing Bible scenes, starting on the left with Adam and Eve.
  • Ivory diptych of Rufius Probianus – around 400 AD. Nees points out the military standards in the background of each upper image, and the way the scribes are poised ready to take down his words.
  • Projecta casket – late 300s AD. A text engraved into the lid says ‘Secundus and Projecta, live in Christ’, yet all the iconography is pagan, from the winged cherubs or putti, to the scene of Venus rising from the waves.
  • Ivory diptych of Consul Boethius 487 AD – the consul holds the mappa, a kind of bean bag he throws to the ground to begin the Games; note the bags of money at his feet to be distributed to the people and the palm leaves ready to be awarded to victors in the Games.
  • Ivory diptych of Stilicho and Serena 400AD. As usual Nees is excellent at highlighting details like the prominent fibula or pin worn by father and son, the fact that the general, Stilicho, is wearing a military style cloak (a chlamys) covered with small medallions, and the tiny figures of the joint emperors Honorius and Arcadius in a medallion on his shield.
  • Sword and scabbard mounts from the tomb of Childeric AD 482, Childeric being one of the first kings of the Franks. Note the cloisonné work ie the silver-gilt partitions between embedded blood red garnets.
  • Basilica of San Apollinare Nuevo in Ravenna, built at the command of Theoderic king of the Ostrogoths (454-526) Note the three registers, with a parade of women then the three magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus on the bottom, full length of saints between the clerestory windows, and scenes from Jesus’ life alternating with trompe l’oeil, painted alcoves in the uppermost register.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore 430-440. Despite many later additions, this is the original impressive size of this huge church, built in the reign of Pope Sixtus III.
  • Icon of the Virgin and Child, Santa Maria in Trastavere 705-7AD. Graceful. The clarity of the eyes looking at you. Compare and contrast with…
  • Virgin and Child from the Book of Kells, the oldest image of Mary in a western manuscript. Bad, isn’t it? What worlds apart were late 7th century Rome and 8th century Ireland.

Anglo-Saxon art

Carefully reading Nees’s commentary, and taking the time to identify all the elements he analyses in each work, I began to develop a feel or taste for what – at first sight – sometimes seemed the rather amateurish-seeming paintings or carvings from the period.

But then these tentative likings were totally eclipsed when I came to the section about the works which seem to me head and shoulders above anything else from the period – the stunning pieces found in the Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. I was blown away by these as a student studying Anglo-Saxon culture and language, and have loved them ever since:

The clasps combine beautiful geometric cloisonné work, with northern pagan-style zoomorphic (ie animal-shaped) patterns. The belt buckle is a brilliant example of the use of interlocking decorated lines which appear to be an abstract pattern until you look closer and see eyes and maybe beaks at the end of some of them: they are highly stylised depictions of animals, turned into threads which can be infinitely interwoven.

Altogether these works seem complete, utterly confident, totally finished, in a way most of the other artefacts in this book don’t. They seem totally professional – they still bear up today in a world super-saturated with crafted objects – and, for me, completely outshine almost all the other, often rather amateurish, works of the period.


Nees’s prose style

Quotation marks

Nees is a great user of speech marks, using them for quotes (fair enough) but also extensively to call into question words and ideas, or to highlight that they are contested or debatable terms, or to emphasise that he is aware that they are debatable terms. The text is littered with the liberal use of quote marks including: ‘limitation’, ‘symbols’, ‘caught’, ‘natural symbolism’, ‘death’, ‘god’, ‘church’, ‘houses’, ‘borders’, ‘putti’, ‘new men’, ‘wedding hoard’, ‘tribe’, ‘age of the saints’, the ‘cult of images’, ‘desire’, ‘icons’, ‘iconic’, ‘portraits’, ‘individuals’, ‘likeness’, ‘true image’, the so-called ‘Shroud of Turin’, a ‘translation’, ‘diverged’, ‘narrative’, ‘innovation’, ‘ornaments’, ‘peoples of the book’, ‘illuminated’, ‘painted’…

After a while you realise that merely putting ‘speech marks’ around a ‘word’ as if to give it a sense of heightened ‘meaning’ or intellectual ‘rigour’ becomes pretty ‘tiresome’ and doesn’t, in the end, add anything at all to your understanding.

Nees is particularly keen to point out that he is not one of the old fuddy-duddies who think it is a ‘fact’ of history that Rome ‘declined’ and then ‘fell’ to the ‘barbarians’. He repeats that we must get away from this terrible old way of thinking in the introduction and regularly throughout the text. But

a) Any serious history of the period stopped thinking that thirty years ago
b) On the other hand, the Western Roman Empire was invaded repeatedly by armies of people who were illiterate and outside Roman civilisation: the Roman Empire did eventually collapse. No amount of fancy speech marks and attitudinising can really hide that fact.

The point comes to a head around page 80 where he refers to barbarians numerous times, sometimes as ‘barbarians’ (emphasising that he is aware that the very term is highly debatable) but lots of other times just as plain old barbarians, without the scare quotes. It is as if there are two texts or two authors at work, one who is highly attuned to the necessity for politically correct phraseology and keen to emphasise his sophisticated scepticism about the shocking old cliches about ‘barbarians’ and so-called ‘tribes’ and so-called ‘northern art’ — and one who just has to get on and describe the actual works of art before him, and discovers there is no adequate alternative terminology to describe the invasions of the Roman Empire by, er, barbarian tribes.

This schizophrenic attitude is, by itself, quite an interesting learning to take from the book.

Art critical jargon

At several points Nees writes dismissively of other authors’ shocking use of art historical jargon, as if it’s a terrible folly which he rises above.

That word ‘iconography’ is entirely appropriate here, and also contains a warning. The term is common art-historical jargon for the subject-matter represented in works of art, derived from the Greek for ‘writing in images’. (p.29)

Tut tut, whoever uses such awful jargon? But it’s an ironic comment because Nees himself uses the jargon of art criticism and, especially, of modish literary theory quite freely. Of a hunting scene on a painted plate:

Space and time are suspended in favour of a heroically signitive image. (p.65)

‘Signitive’? Describing the wonderful hinged clasps from Sutton Hoo, he writes:

The rectangular fields have a continuous over-all pattern that may be seen as interlocking addorsed step-pyramids in two different sizes. (p.112)

‘Addorsed’? He tells us that Theoderic built a ‘domical tomb’ for himself at Ravenna. ‘Domical’? As well as these specialist terms, Nees also uses buzzwords from post-structuralist literary theory, from the theories of Foucault and Barthes and Derrida, which were becoming widespread in the 1980s when I was a student and have gone on to become the common currency of various critical ‘discourses’. For example, pictures rarely show things, they ‘code’ and ‘encode’ messages which the viewer has to ‘decode’ (This refers to the structuralist and narratological theory of how meaning is created by language – but taken out of context, or presented to readers who are not familiar with post-structuralist theory, it just sounds grandiose and, ultimately unnecessary. What does ‘decode’ say that ‘read’ or ‘interpret’ doesn’t – except to emphasise that the priofessor is up on the latest continental theory.)

There’s regular use of the word ‘other’, one of the buzzwords of post-structuralist theory, originating, as I understand it, in the structuralist psycho-analytical theory of Jacques Lacan (1901-81). Here is an example of how Lacan uses it:

The analyst must be imbued with the difference between Other and other, so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other.

In the hands of modish Anglo-Saxon academics or journalists, however, it is emptied of its highly specialist psychoanalytical meaning and just becomes a modish way of referring to groups or tribes or people who are outside the power structure or cultural context you’re describing. Instead of saying that so-and-so people, tribes, groups, cultures had different traits or practices or customs, it sound much grander, more ominous and impressive to say that the ‘barbarians’, the pagans (or whatever you like) are ‘the other’ or, grandest of all, ‘the Other’.

Monasteries were constructed as holy places, deliberately ‘other’ rather than normal… (p.129)

The development of what has long been termed ‘barbarian art’ needs to be seen in relation to Rome, not in the Romantic historiographical tradition in which the ‘barbarians’ (especially Germans) were entirely Other, and in some almost mystical way pure, untouched by Rome. (p.74)

You can see how that second sentence would be improved by removing ‘entirely Other, and in some almost mystical way pure’, or recasting the thought to make it clearer that so-called barbarian art, instead of representing a completely alien tradition, was often deeply influenced by Roman art.

Accompanying the tarting-up of really very banal statements goes Nees’s habit of explaining very obvious things – for example, he usefully tells us that Jesus was a Jew, that the area where Jesus was born and preached is known as ‘the Holy Land’, and that the word pope comes from the Latin papa, meaning father. Surely the kind of person who is reading the Oxford History of Early Medieval Art can be expected to know that. So in some places he is extraordinarily patronishing, yet in others leaves highly technical terminology entirely unexplained.

The combination of the art critical jargon, the unexplained technical terms, and his sometimes ponderously old-fashioned style (things aren’t shown, they are ‘put forth’, objects in paintings are never ‘on’ a table or altar, they are always ‘upon’) results in a rather effortful read. A shame, because his insights into all the works on display are always detailed and illuminating.


Terms of art

These are some of the technical terms I learned about:

  • adlocutio: An address by a general (usually the emperor) to his massed army and a general salute from the army to their leader. It is often portrayed in sculpture, either simply as a single, life-size contraposto figure of the general with his arm outstretched, or a relief scene of the general on a podium addressing the army. Such relief scenes also frequently appear on imperial coinage. (Wikipedia)
  • adventus: A ceremony in ancient Rome, in which an emperor was formally welcomed into a city either during a progress or after a military campaign, often (but not always) Rome. The term is also used to refer to artistic depictions (usually in relief sculpture, including coins) of such ceremonies. (Wikipedia)
  • Bracteate: A bracteate (Latin bractea, a thin piece of metal) is a flat, thin, single-sided gold medal worn as jewelry that was produced in Northern Europe predominantly during the Migration Period of the Germanic Iron Age. (Wikipedia)
  • Cloisonné: decorative work in which enamel, glass, or gemstones are separated by strips of flattened wire placed edgeways on a metal backing.
  • Diptych: Any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. In Late Antiquity, ivory notebook diptychs with covers carved in low relief on the outer faces were a significant art-form. The ‘consular diptych’ was made to celebrate an individual’s becoming Roman consul, when they seem to have been made in sets and distributed by the new consul to friends and followers. Others might celebrate a wedding, and so on. We possess several dozen of these diptychs survive and they are among the most important surviving works of the Late Roman Empire. (Wikipedia)
  • Fastigium: in Architecture, the ridge or gable end of a roof.
  • Fibula: A brooch or pin for fastening garments, in a wide variety of patterns all based on the safety-pin principle
  • Medallion: a round or oval frame (often made of stucco) which contains a plastic or pictorial decoration of a façade, an interior, a piece of furniture or equipment. (Wikipedia)
  • Pyxis: a small round box made by carving the outside of a complete section of an elephant’s tusk.
  • Register: like the different storeys of a building, Nees uses register to refer to different levels of a frieze or painting divided into separate ‘floors’ or compartments.
  • Stele: A stele (Latin) is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, very often for funerary or commemorative purposes. (Wikipedia)
  • Strigillation: Repeated closely spaced S-shaped flutes, commonly enriching the sides of Classical or Neo-Classical sarcophagi.
  • Tetrarchy: The Rule of Four; instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire, the Tetrarchy lasted until 313, when internecine conflict had eliminated most of the claimants to power, leaving Constantine in the East and Licinius in the West. (Wikipedia)

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The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown (1971 2nd edition 1989)

Peter Brown has been a leader in the study of the late Roman / Early Medieval world for 50 years. His works in the 1960s and 70s are credited with bringing a new coherence to the study of the period, and a new attitude which sees it not as a story of inevitable decline and fall, but as a period of surprising vigour and innovation – as a much more complex, rich and fascinating period. He helped to bury the term ‘Dark Ages’ – which is now generally deprecated – and bring about the renaming of the period as the ‘Early Middle Ages’, generally defined as 500 to 1000 AD.

The World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 as an extended essay or meditation on the earlier part of this period, from roughly 250 to 750 AD. It was published by Thames and Hudson under the umbrella of their Library of European Civilisation series. It is some 220 pages long, in a large format paperback, with 130 illustrations, a chronology and map – adding up to a well-written, visually stimulating and beautifully packaged book.

And it is extraordinarily accessible and interesting right from the start, throwing out ideas and insights on every page.

Structure

The structure tells the overall story:

Part One: The Late Roman Revolution
I Society
II Religion

Part Two: Divergent Legacies
I The West
II Byzantium
III The New Participants (Islam)

Society Between 245 and 270 every border of the Roman Empire was breached by its enemies, the Persians in the east, Goths in the north. Communication between provinces broke down and the army produced up 25 emperors in 47 years. The prolonged crisis gave rise to a military revolution which remodelled the leadership of the Empire: the old aristocrats were banned from military service and leadership of the Empire became more militarised, taken from the new men who had risen through the ranks.

Thus the Emperor Diocletian, who set his stamp on the Empire from 284 to 305, came from a lowly family from modern Yugoslavia. The Army almost doubled in size, to 600,000, making it the largest organisation in the world, and more than doubled in cost (one of the dominant themes of surviving documents from the period is everyone complaining about the high tax burden: land tax had trebled in living memory by 350 AD). Emblematically, the new emperors aren’t depicted wearing the flowing toga of the leisured aristocracy of the early Empire, but wearing military outfits, generals’ costumes.

The old view was that these new men, these arrivistes, represented a decline from the leisured aristocratic class of the 1st and 2nd centuries, with its balanced prose style, its exquisite classical monuments etc. The modern view is that the late 3rd century re-organisation of the Empire led to rejuvenation and a burst of creativity in the 4th. The new style in art and mosaics is not a ‘decline’ from earlier classicism – it is a new, more expressive mode. On coins and monuments artists refer to this age as Reparatio saeculi, the Age of Restoration.

The greatest example of this comprehensive re-organisation of the Empire was the Emperor Constantine’s decision to divide the Empire in two, the West to continue being ruled from Rome, the East from the new capital city he built over the existing Greek town of Byzantium and named after himself, Constantinople. The new city was officially consecrated in 330 AD. This division of the Empire into East and West, along with Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalising Christianity in 313, were the two greatest legacies of the late Roman Empire to the rest of European history.

Religion Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this new creativity was the surge in religious thought. Brown points out that Christianity didn’t experience steady growth from Jesus’ death to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (312). It simmered underground before undergoing a surge in growth during the troubled late 3rd century, alongside other exotic beliefs, such as the popular Mithraism, and varieties of Gnosticism.

Again, conservative historians used to see the spread of these eastern religions as a falling-off from the purity of classic Roman paganism: the modern view is to see them as creative responses to the new political and social conditions. And Brown points out that a new generation of arrivistes – ie men who didn’t hail from the close-knit traditional Roman families – changed the intellectual world as much as the military: Plotinus from Upper Egypt, Augustine from North Africa, Jerome from Stridon, John Chrysostom from a clerk’s office in Antioch.

Provincialisation The Age of Restoration, in the West especially, saw a social movement towards the rise of enormously wealthy landowners: the dominance of super-rich, provincial patrons who indulged in a more private lifestyle (Brown points out the abrupt falling-off in public dedications of buildings after 260). This new leisured class lived in big villas, decorated with fine mosaics which indicate the presence of wall paintings, tapestries and hangings.

For those lower down the scale, the petit bourgeoisie, businessmen and merchants, the Age of Restoration offered a world of new stability and greater mobility: I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of the empire and the tremendous cultural uniformity across such a vast area: Brown has a lovely paragraph describing how bureaucrats working at the border with Scotland in the rainy north or at Dura on the Persian border, both lived in villas built to the same plan and decorated with the same images, drinking from goblets, eating off plates produced to the same styles.

The new religious beliefs offered:

a) a framework of belief and living and practice for people below the level of the provincial aristocracy, of the big landowners
b) continuity and stability – bishops and their congregations became increasingly well organised for the collection of alms, the distribution of charity, for helping in difficult times

Brown is insightful about how the new popular religions, especially Christianity, offered ‘instant wisdom’, without the lengthy and intensive study required by the traditional training of the aristocratic class. The processes of ‘revelation’ and ‘conversion’ offered quick access to new mind-sets, complete with pithy practical ethical guidelines.

Angels and demons Pagans believed the world was alive with spirits operating under a variety of gods and demi-gods. Brown claims the biggest intellectual change in this era was the arrival of demons, angels and demons, and the master of demons, the devil. Although historians range far and wide in their analysis of the rise of Christianity, Brown points out that almost all contemporary accounts claim the new holy men, the saints and martyrs, had the ability to perform exorcisms and cast out evil demons. This more starkly black and white view of the universe, and the notion of the earth as a battlefield between God and his army of saints and the devil and his legions of demons – this sounds like the start of the Middle Ages right there, so it’s striking to have it located so early.

Monasteries Brown makes an issue of demons as representing an intellectual turning point, but I’d have thought the invention of monasteries was as much or more important, certainly in terms of social organisation. The first monk (from the Greek μοναχός, ‘monachos’, meaning ‘single, solitary’) is generally considered to have been Anthony, who around 270 left his village in Egypt to go into the desert and live by himself. Word of his piety spread and villagers brought him food if he would pray for them. Others followed his example, some living in very loose communities of solitaries and anchorites. Within two generations the movement was widespread across the East and went on to become one of the dominant forms of social organisation throughout the Middle Ages.

And it is in the East that all this takes place: the new Christian movements, the most radical Christian thinkers, the most important frontiers, the new capital city Constantinople, all this happens around the Eastern Mediterranean where passionate Greek-speakers are reviving pagan traditions, spinning them out into new neo-Platonic mysticisms, conducting ferocious intellectual battles against the newly invigorated and confident Christians: all of this happens east of Rome.

The turning point

Into what, by now, Brown has convincingly portrayed as a complex balance of numerous social, political, economic and military, religious and cultural forces, came a generation of military disasters. It started with the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Roman Army was soundly thrashed and its emperor, Valens, killed by the Goth army led by Fritigern. In 406 other Goths crossed the Rhine border and spread throughout the thinly defended Gaul and into Spain. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself.

Brown points out that the sack of Rome in 410 was caused by the blinkered chauvinism of the old Roman aristocracy. They had earlier given Alaric and his Vandals permission to cross the Rhine frontier to escape from marauding Huns; but they then allowed them to be mistreated by provincial governors and when Alaric marched towards Rome, haughtily refused to buy him off with subsidies.

The Imperial government had already moved to Milan before the sack of Rome and now moved to the more easily defended Ravenna – but having lost so much territory and tax revenue, it was virtually bankrupt between 410 and the dismissal of the last emperor in the West in 476. Brown points out how the growing sense of threat and then the advent of catastrophe, is linked to a wave of religious fervour: at the end of the 4th century there was a wave of anti-pagan repression (eg in 382 Gratian disestablished the Vestal Virgins, in the 390s the Emperor Theodosius effectively banned pagan religion and made Christianity the official religion of the empire). This new chauvinism included an ominous new development – attacks on Jewish communities for deliberately rejecting Christ’s revelation.

The decadent West

The Western Empire fell because it was decadent. If the East was made up of hundreds of coastal cities and towns in a tight web of maritime commerce, and similar webs of fierce philosophical and religious argumentation, the vast areas of Gaul and Spain and Britannia were only thinly defended and, in the century preceding the collapse, had become the playgrounds of a handful of fabulously wealthy landowning families. Their ideal was otium, a life of leisured scholarship, inviting each other to stylish dinner parties or recommending each others’ sons or nephews for posts in the powerful Catholic hierarchy. When the Goths invaded in the 400s, they found huge expanses of lightly defended territory, ideal for seizing and settling.

Brown makes the point that it was the very snobbery of the Latin landowners which helped isolate the incoming barbarians and ensured they would set up their own free-standing kingdoms. He compares and contrasts with the Chinese who were comprehensively invaded by Mongol barbarians yet within a few generations had completely assimilated them so that the new rulers were almost indistinguishable in style and culture from the conquered.

Roma aeterna is a creation of the heady but impotent patriotism of this age, created by the writers and senatorial poets of the late 4th century. In the same way, the growing cult of St Peter in Rome was a conscious Christian counterblow to the survival of paganism and the triumph of the barbarians. Together, nostalgic pagans and Christians helped to create the myth of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’.

Attila the Hun 434-453

Attila ruled a vast confederation of Hunnish tribes from 434 to 453. They formed the first barbarian empire the Romans had to confront the Romans learned they couldn’t be withstood by full frontal military attack. Instead the Huns forced the emperor in the East to devise cunning strategies for buying other barbarian allies to forms alliances against them.

The ongoing tribulations of the fifth century saw a significant shrinkage in the Latin cultural domain: fewer schools or libraries or centres of learning, Latin shrank to become the badge of a small aristocratic elite. Local ties and local affections became steadily more important, replacing the distant emperor in Ravenna, let alone the immeasurably distant emperor in Constantinople. Thus local saints and the chief local organiser, the bishop, grew in importance.

After the last emperor was removed from Rome in 476, coins continued to be minted in Rome but no longer showing an emperor’s head, instead showing symbols of Roma invicta. This represented the dawning of a romantic ideology of Rome, a nostalgia for old power. The Catholic Church in the West became increasingly beleaguered outposts of learning in seas of barbarism, transforming its officials into an isolated oligarchy. The privileged libertas of the old aristocracy, the confidence to bestride the vast territory of the empire, passed to the new cosmopolitan elite, the bishops.

Justinian 527-565

The Emperor Justinian emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in the book. He had been eastern emperor for a few years when the Great Nika Riot broke out in Constantinople, the masses sacking the city, burning and looting. It appears to have spurred Justinian to carry out sweeping reforms, improving city morals, raising the emperor and his entourage to semi-divine status, cutting away dead traditions, focusing power on himself and his advisers. This far more centralised administration, characterised by poisonous and intricate palace politics, was his chief legacy to his successors, and gives its meaning to our modern usege of the word ‘byzantine’, referring to a formidably complex bureaucracy.

Hand in hand with the reforms in the Eastern Empire went aggressive military campaigns: against the Aryan heretics in the West, then in 533 he sent an army to Africa which conquered it in one quick campaign. Thus emboldened the army proceeded to Italy where in 539 it drove the Ostrogoths out of Rome and in 540 his general, Belisarius, entered Ravenna.

However, events in the east brought this progress to a grinding halt. In 540 the ruler of the Persian empire, Khosrow I Anushiruwān, broke his truce with Rome and attacked into Roman territory, sacking Antioch, then strolling home, devastating towns and cities as he went. In response Justinian stopped the Western campaign in mid-flow, stripped the Danube of its defences and undertook a punitive attack in the East. But the campaign was hampered by severe setbacks: 542 saw the outbreak of a devastating plague which recurred throughout the decade and, having denuded the Danube defences, he left them exposed to attack, so that in 548 Slavic tribes carried out their first invasion across the river into the Balkans until they threatened Constantinople itself.

His conquest of the West was left unfinished, while his defence of the East split his forces and required permanent attention. For the rest of his long reign Justinian was tied up in endless struggle to keep the barbarians at bay. His general, Belisarius, was accompanied on his campaigns in the West by the historian, Procopius of Caesarea (500-554), who went on to write a history of The Wars. But it is symptomatic of the times that Procopius is better known for his scandalous Secret History, which gives a lurid account of Justinian and his court. (It was these copious sources which the novelist and poet Robert Graves used to create his historical novel, Count Belisarius.)

The start of the Middle Ages

The disasters of the mid to late 500s saw a hardening of borders. For the first time Constantinople began to seem the isolated, beleaguered beacon it would remain for the next 900 years. This was accompanied by an inner, cultural hardening, with increasing persecution of ‘heretics’ and Jews. Brown says it was now, in the late 500s, that you see the emergence of the Total Christian Society which characterises the Middle Ages.

In the West the secular élite vanished. The Book stops being a workaday manuscript and becomes a precious Codex, highly decorated and valued in itself. The classical past becomes perceived as irreparably separate and gone. One aspect of this is it was a great age for fakes and forgeries as authors filled in blanks in the Christian record, creating the documents, the histories and letters which ought to be there, which Paul ought to have written and Peter should have dictated.

In the East Christ rises above being a mere human to become Christ Pantocrator, the All-Powerful, his image overshadowing the emperor in increasingly hieratic iconography. Throughout Christendom, the relic and the holy grave oust the living holy man. There is a great turn to a large and authoritative Past. Part of this was the continuing rise of the bishops; as the old secular landed aristocracy vanished, it left bishops in every urban centre as the focal point of their dioceses, as the main organiser, as the sponsor of literacy and learning. It was they who rallied populations against the barbarians and when, in the 630s, the Muslims conquered, it was the bishops who emerged as representatives of their populations.

In the early 600s Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II ‘Aparvēz’, took advantage of the weakness of the Eastern Empire to attack and seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619), and got as far as the walls of Constantinople itself in 620. At Jerusalem he had seized a relic of the True Cross. The Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610 to 641) responded aggressively, buying alliances with neighbouring nations then counter-attacking deep into Persian territory, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and marching south along the Tigris to sack Khosrow’s great palace at Dastagird. After this humiliation, Khosrow was murdered in a coup led by his own son. But the damage was done – this Persian War devastated territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, the populations and economies of Antioch and Alexandria were decimated. Though nobody knew it at the time this made them ripe for attack a generation later by the rampaging Muslims.

Islam

Brown’s brilliant, thought-provoking, vivid and insightful account ends with 20 pages on the rise of Islam, the eruption of Arab war bands into the Middle East and then a sophisticated account of how the Arab/Bedouin version of Islam was co-opted by the Persian empire under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its height in the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and the establishment of Baghdad as a centre for art and learning. It is an important part of the story, heralding the end of the Mediterranean as ‘our’ lake and, in coming centuries, pushing the surviving Christian kingdoms into the north and west of Europe, creating the geographic concept of ‘Christendom’ which – in the secular form of the European Union – arguably lasts until this day.


A Late Antique chronology

Living in England and being interested in English history from the Roman through the Saxon and Viking periods, I tend to think of the Dark Ages in North European terms. This book is a powerful reminder of the Eastern-ness of the Roman world. It hardly ever mentions Gaul, Britain only once or twice. Instead, by the 500s and the rule of Justinian, the barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, north Africa and Italy were well-established and ‘Late Antiquity’ means the Eastern Empire. Thus Brown doesn’t mention the Vikings, Charlemagne or Alfred, heroes of the north, because they are outside and after the era of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a lot earlier, and a lot more eastern.

284 to 305 Emperor Diocletian, typical new man of the period, rises through the ranks to become emperor and reorganise the Roman Empire.

313 Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine decriminalises Christianity
325 Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea to define Christian doctrine
346 The first Christian monastery was founded in Egypt by St Pachomius
376 Visigoths under King Fritigern appeal for permission to cross Danube into Roman territory and settle
378 Visigoths forced into revolt by famine and excessive taxation, leading to –
378 The Battle of Adrianople (9 August) Eastern Roman Army led by Valens destroyed by Gothic forces led by Fritigern
379-395 Theodosius, the last emperor to rule over West and East, institutes reforms which include the banning of pagan religion ie Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire
395 Partition of Roman Empire into West Roman Empire (Honorius) and East Roman Empire (Arcadius), ruled by a Tetrachy of four rulers (an emperor and assistant for each half)

410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric
434-453 Attila ruler of the Huns and an empire which stretched from Holland to the Caucasus
455 Vandals raided Rome
476 September 4 – Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army) deposes the last western Roman emperor, ruling the Western Roman Empire as King in his own right
486 Franks conquered the Seine and Loire valley

507 Frankish King Clovis converted to Catholicism taking his people with him
524 Execution of philosopher and statesman Boethius at the order of Ostrogoth King Theoderic
526 Death of King Theodoric
529 Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy
529 Justinian closed the Academy at Athens, founded by Plato in 347 BC
535-553 The Gothic War – Byzantine invasions, and finally conquest of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
568 The Lombards leave their homeland in the western Pannonian plain and, under King Albion, arrive in Italy

600s Persian armies under Khosro I seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619)
620s The Emperor Heraclius counter-attacks forcing the Persians to an exhausted truce
622 Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, the event known as the Hijra marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar
632 Death of Mohammed
635-38 Middle East falls to the Arabs
670-95 Africa falls to the Arabs

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