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.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had 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).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed 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) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

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 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, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex 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 the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

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 (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had 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, as regards 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 also 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 Italy 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 its rapacious 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.

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 against Phocas 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 then, 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 the latter’s 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 theological nonsense. 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’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. 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.

For 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’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, 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 – territory reclaimed 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 of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) 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 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 (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, 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

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account 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 gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

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 – e.g. 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 wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found 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 the trees 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 eminent 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. A 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 modern schoolboys have even 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 as mercenaries 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. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and 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 a form 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 did something even more stupid and caved in to the pent-up frustration of many Romans with the way their country was being held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. So Honorius ordered 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 Alaric a substantial subsidy of (i.e. 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 like an idiot 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 to this demand, 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 as his own magister militum, the highest level of command in the Roman army.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the fact that North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – was still controlled by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But the newly installed emperor, Attalus, insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to negotiate with Heraclian. This envoy was, unfortunately, promptly murdered.

Alaric badgered Attalus to let him attack Heraclian, but Attalus refused to give a Goth army (Alaric’s army) permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point the former emperor Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official 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, Honorius 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 ’emperors’ 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.)

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 i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. 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 defences 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, and Orestes himself was 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, asking 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.

As it happens, 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)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

Heath Robinson’s War Effort @ the Heath Robinson Museum

To mark the centenary of the Armistice the Heath Robinson Museum is hosting this charming little micro-exhibition, which amounts to ten or so of the humorous cartoons which he drew during the Great War, along with a selection of the correspondence he received from front-line soldiers telling him how much pleasure they derived from his pictures and suggesting topics for future works.

(There are a further eight drawings to be found in the quiet room of the café situated next to the Museum, which also houses the Pinner Books of Remembrance.)

The wicked Hun

When the war began, British cartoonists, illustrators and poster-makers were pressed into service to depict the Germans as monsters, devils, baby-eaters, and the German army as an unstoppable force of terrifying Huns.

First World War anti-German propaganda poster

First World War anti-German propaganda poster

But after a while this came to be felt to be counter-productive to British morale. Many at home really began to think of the Germans army as an unstoppable horde of cruel killers, larger, better equipped and better led than the Allies.

The saintly Hun

Heath Robinson decided to take entirely the opposite approach and, building on the reputation for off-beat humour and absurdly complicated machines which he had developed in his advertising work of the Edwardian era, to draw cartoons making fun of the German army – using humour to cut them down to size, to make them appear daft or gormless, as ridiculous rather than frightening – and so beatable.

Stiff Necking our Tommies by creating a draught on the British trenches

Stiff Necking our Tommies by creating a draught on the British trenches

In fact Heath Robinson drew a surprising number and variety of humorous cartoons on the subject of the war throughout its duration. They were widely distributed via popular newspapers and magazines, and were sent directly to troops at the front. The pictures were gathered into books with titles like Hunlikely (1916) and The Saintly Hun: A Book of German Virtues (1917).

I particularly liked a picture which shows one of our lads charging a fleeing Hun in the pelting rain, when the German, to our chap’s surprise, turns round to offer our man an umbrella, the picture titled Unprecedented Gentlemanliness of a Prussian General to loan his umbrella to one of our Tommies during an advance in the rain.

Or the one showing an armed column of infantry marching from the far distance up towards the viewer but at the last minute making an unexplained detour – until you look very closely and understand the title of the picture – The soft-hearted Brandeburgs refusing to tread on a worm on their way to the trenches.

Or the cartoon of a German zeppelin floating past a rickety tower room in which a skinny spinster can be seen in a dressing gown as if about to have a bath – with the result that all the Germans in the zeppelin have gallantly averted their eyes in order to spare her maiden blushes.

The Saintly Hun by Heath Robinson

The Saintly Hun by Heath Robinson

Letters from the front

As well as comic drawings the exhibition also includes a box of facsimiles of the many letters which Heath Robinson received from soldiers both at the front and home on R&R. We visitors are invited to rummage among them and read them.

The letters express gratitude to the artist for keeping the soldiers’ spirits up in hard times, suggest comic scenarios for new pictures, or request pictures celebrating their particular regiment to hang in the mess or the trenches, to be included in regimental magazines or hung among Christmas decorations.

Letters to Heath Robinson from soldiers

Letters to Heath Robinson from First World War soldiers

Reading these letters is a humbling and moving experience. It’s hard to hold back the tears reading some of them. And they make you reflect that Heath Robinson’s pictures, in their modesty, humour and humanity, epitomised the English qualities which the soldiers were fighting for.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Widsith

Widsith is an Old English poem. Like most Old English texts it exists in just one manuscript version, in this case in the Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry compiled in the late 10th century and containing approximately one sixth of all the Old English poetry we possess. By such slender threads and accidents did this ancient literature survive…

The poem is in traditional OE alliterative verse ie the line has four beats and is divided in half; the sound of the first stressed syllable in the second half of the line sets the alliteration;  the first stressed syllable in the first half-line must alliterate with it; the second stressed syllable in the first half line may or may not; the fourth stressed syllable, ie the second one in the second half of the line, must not alliterate.

Widwith is the name of the narrator (the word means “far journey” so is more emblematic than real) and the opening lines introduce him:

Widsið maðolade | wordhord onleac,
se þe monna mæst | mægþa ofer eorþan,
folca geondferde | oft he on flette geþah
mynelicne maþþum. | Him from Myrgingum…

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had travelled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.
Often he had gained great treasure in hall…

Quite quickly the poem turns into a survey of the people, kings, and heroes of Europe in the Heroic Age of Northern Europe (300-600AD). T

  • he first section is a list of famous kings, contemporary and ancient (“Caesar ruled the Greeks”), in a very formulaic way: ‘(name of a king) ruled (name of a tribe)’:

ætla weold Hunum, Eormanric Gotum,
Becca Baningum, Burgendum Gifica.
Casere weold Creacum ond Cælic Finnum,
Hagena Holmrygum ond Heoden Glommum.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.
Caesar ruled the Greeks and Caelic the Finns,
Hagena the Holmrycgas and Henden the Glomman.

The second section contains the names of the peoples the narrator visited, in the format ‘With the (name of a tribe) I was, and with the (name of another tribe)’:

Swa ic geondferde fela fremdra londa
geond ginne grund. Godes ond yfles
þær ic cunnade cnosle bidæled,
freomægum feor folgade wide.
Forþon ic mæg singan ond secgan spell,
mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle
hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum.
Mid Gefþum ic wæs ond mid Winedum ond mid Gefflegum.
Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum.

So I travelled widely through foreign lands,
through distant countries, and there I met
both good and bad fortune, far from my kin,
and served as a follower far and wide.
And so I can sing and tell a tale,
declare to the company in the mead-hall
how noble rulers rewarded me with gifts.
I was with the Huns and the glorious Goths,
with the Swedes and with the Geats and with the South-Danes.
I was with the Wenlas, the Waerne and the Wicingas.
I was with the Gefthan, the Winedas and the Gefflegan.
I was with the Angles, the Swaefe and the Aenenas.

In the third section the narrator lists the heroes of myth and legend that he has visited:

Wulfhere sohte ic ond Wyrmhere; ful oft þær wig ne alæg,
þonne Hræda here heardum sweordum
ymb Wistlawudu wergan sceoldon
ealdne eþelstol ætlan leodum.
Rædhere sohte ic ond Rondhere, Rumstan ond Gislhere,
Wiþergield ond Freoþeric, Wudgan ond Haman;

I visited Wulfhere and Wyrmhere; there battle often raged
in the Vistula woods, when the Gothic army
with their sharp swords had to defend
their ancestral seat against Attila’s host.
I visited Raedhere and Rondhere, Rumstan and Gislhere,
Withergield and Freotheric, Wudga and Hama.

It concludes with wise words about the life of a wandering minstrel and his reliance on the patronage of discerning kings:

Swa scriþende gesceapum hweorfað
gleomen gumena geond grunda fela,
þearfe secgað, þoncword sprecaþ,
simle suð oþþe norð sumne gemetað
gydda gleawne, geofum unhneawne,
se þe fore duguþe wile dom aræran,
eorlscipe æfnan, oþþæt eal scæceð,
leoht ond lif somod; lof se gewyrceð,
hafað under heofonum heahfæstne dom.

Wandering like this, driven by chance,
minstrels travel through many lands;
they state their needs, say words of thanks,
always, south or north, they find some man
well-versed in songs, generous in gifts,
who wishes to raise his renown with his men,
to do great things, until everything passes,
light and life together; he who wins fame
has lasting glory under the heavens.

From which we can conclude that this culture liked lists. It liked lists of peoples and tribes and of the great kings and warriors that led them. No stories as such, just lists. If Widsith stands out for any reason it’s for the special pleading of the minstrel author as to how jolly successful he’s been and how well-rewarded by various wise and cultured patrons:

There the king of the Goths granted me treasure:
the king of the city gave me a torc
made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence…

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly.
Then many men with noble hearts
who understood these things openly said
that they had never heard a better song.

In fact, the whole poem could be considered a very early example of that undervalued literary genre, the CV. And like all CVs it contains some whopping fibs:

Mid Israhelum ic wæs ond mid Exsyringum,
mid Ebreum ond mid Indeum ond mid Egyptum…

I was with the Israelites and with the Assyrians,
with the Hebrews and the Indians and with the Egyptians…

So – A culture which enjoys lists of high sounding kings and exotic peoples and extravagantly inaccurate claims. I read it because three of the names in this couplet feature in the great Northern tale of the Völsungs, of Sigmund and Sigurd and Brynhild and Gudrún.

Attila ruled the Huns, Eormanric the Goths,
Becca the Baningas, Gifica the Burgundians.

Gudrún marries, then murders, Atli (Attila) king of the Huns; she is the daughter of Gifica (Gjuki) king of the Burgundians (Niflungen); she then marries Jörmunrekkr (Eormanric), her fourth husband, who murders her. Not, on the whole, a happy story. What is staggering is the power of the legends which became attached to these kings (Attila died 453, Gifica died 407, Eormanric died 375) and lived after them for so very long. The Volsung saga, the Poetic Edda, were written down in the 1200s, 800 years after these legendary kings died. 800 years accumulating depth and complexity and resonance and power!

Priscus at the Court of Attila the Hun

The Roman historian Priscus visited the court of Attila the Hun as ambassador from the Emperor in Constantinople and, miraculously, although most of he History of his times which he wrote is lost, the fragment describing Attila’s court survives. Among other things it contains a fascinating description the kind of setting in which poetry or music would have been composed and received. The party of Romans is invited to Attila’s wooden house, the grandest in the village. The guests are seated on benches lining the walls. There is a ceremony of toasting each of the leaders in order of precedence; a lot of food is served.

When the viands of the first course had been consumed we all stood up, and did not resume our seats until each one, in the order before observed, drank to the health of Attila in the goblet of wine presented to him. We then sat down, and a second dish was placed on each table with eatables of another kind. After this course the same ceremony was observed as after the first.

Then:

When evening fell torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valour in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

And after the serious songs, the light entertainment:

After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh. After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf, entered… On the occasion of the banquet he made his appearance, and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic. Attila, however, remained immovable and of unchanging countenance nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment

Tough crowd.

Related links

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

The opening lines of Widsith in the Exeter Book

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (2nd edn 1968)

Chapter 8 – Teutonic Mythology (pp 245-280)

Almost without exception the legends which were told among the ancestors of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons have not been handed down to us. Hence in any account of Teutonic mythology the Scandinavian traditions must of necessity form a major part. (p248)

The Eastern Goths converted to Christianity on contact with Byzantine civilisation in the 4th century. Hardly anything survives of their language or pagan religion. The Goths of central/northern Germany also left few records. Believe it or not the most thorough account we have of their beliefs is in the ‘Germania’ of the Roman historian Tacitus from the first century AD. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain began converting to Christianity in the 600s and were so thoroughly Christianised that from the 690s they began sending missionaries to Germany, whose work was later reinforced by Charlemagne (742-814), very effectively obliterating any records of Teutonic pagan beliefs. Thus it is in Iceland, at the remotest furthest point of Europe, only settled by pagan Norsemen from the 870s and only Christianised as late as 1000AD, that a relatively free, surprisingly well-educated population lovingly preserved all the stories, myths and legends stretching back centuries of their ancestors from the Continent, as well as composing numerous sagas of more recent Scandinavian and Icelandic heroes. This astonishing abundance of material, of sagas, poems, histories, directly or indirectly gives us a wealth of information about the beliefs of the various tribes and cultures who inhabited north Germany, Anglo-Saxon Britain and Scandinavia in the so-called Dark Ages.

The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains all this very lucidly before embarking on a detailed anthropological account of the Teutonic gods, pointing out the sociological and economic origins of different deities, referencing their counterparts in Roman or Greek or Indian mythology, but also telling the main adventures in straightforward narrative. The illustrations are good. I can’t find anywhere in the internet pictures which show in their entirety the narrow tall porch reliefs showing scenes from the adventures of Sigurd from the wonderful stave church at Hylestad in Norway.

Creation

  • In the beginning was the yawning void, Ginnungagap: vast glaciers and ice lakes from which crystallised a giant frost ogre named Ymir
  • Ymir slept, falling into a sweat, and under his left arm there grew a man and a woman, the first of the Frost Giants
  • Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she exposed a man’s hair in the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri and he begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.
  • Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin, Vili and Vé. These three brothers promptly murdered the primal giant Ymir. From his wounds came such a flood of blood that all the frost ogres were drowned except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a tree trunk (the Norse avatar of the universal myth of a few survivors of a world flood). From this couple sprang the families of frost ogres.
  • The sons of Bor carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from his corpse. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.
  • Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. They acquired human understanding and the appearance of men although they lived in the earth and in rocks. They are the dwarfs.
  • From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides. Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.
  • The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds. Then they took the sparks and embers that were flying out of the fire region of Muspelheim and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to be the stars and sun and moon.
  • The earth was surrounded by a deep sea around which coiled an immense serpent.
  • To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold and named it Midgard or Middle Earth.
  • While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman. Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask and the woman Embla. From Ask and Embla have sprung all the races of men who lived in Midgard.
  • Odin (Woden, Wotan) married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. These early gods are the members of the Æsir. They built themselves a stronghold named Asgard, the house of the Æsir. In Asgard was the great throne Hlidskjálf where Odin sat looking out over the universe, when he was not riding through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, or roaming Midgard, the world of men, in disguise. On his throne report of all the doings in Midgard was brought to him by his two ravens Huginn and Muginn, meaning Memory and Thought.
The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • For being the father of gods and the father of men, Odin is known as the All-Father. Odin sought wisdom throughout the world. Most famously he asked to drink from the spring of Mimir among the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil; but the price was his eye. Thereafter Odin is always depicted as a one-eyed man with a wide flat hat and magic spear, Gungnir.
  • The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor (Donar, Donner, the thunder god). Thor is next most powerful god to Odin. He wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, and rides a chariot drawn by two goats,  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Many Thor hammer amulets have been found across Scandinavia. I like the idea that pagans wore the in Christianised areas as a gesture of defiance.
  • The gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst which is known as the rainbow bridge. At the top, defending the entrance to Asgard is the god Heimdallr, ready to blow his horn as a warning to the gods of any attack by their immemorial enemies, the giants.
  • The nine worlds of Norse mythology subsist within the vast overarching structure of the heaven-tree, Yggdrasil. On its peak sits an eagle. Watering its roots are the three Norns, equivalent to the Greek Fates who tell the past, present and future.  Every day the Norn Urd draws water from her well to water the roots of the tree. Chewing one of its roots is the dragon Nidhoggr. Scampering up and down it is the gossipy squirrel, Ratatoskr.

The Vanir

Interestingly the Teutons have two races of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are gods of power – the AllFather Odin, the thunder god Thor, the god of war Tiu. The Vanir, by contrast, are gods of fertility, originally a group of wild nature and fertility gods and goddesses, considered to be the bringers of health, youth, fertility, luck and wealth, and masters of magic. The Vanir live in Vanaheim. There were many of them but the two principle ones were the twins Freyr, god of fertility, and Freyja, goddess of love.

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

The Nine worlds of Norse mythology

  1. In the first level was Asgard, the home of the Aesir.
  2. Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir.
  3. Alfheim, the home of the Light Elves.
  4. In the middle was Midgard “Middle Earth”, the home of the Humans.
  5. Jotunheim, the home of the Giants.
  6. Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves.
  7. Nidavellir, the home of the Dwarfs.
  8. Niflheim was to the north, inside somewhere under the ground were Helheim home of the dead was.
  9. Muspelheim was to the south, it was the home of the fire Giants and Demons.
The nine worlds of Norse mythology

The nine worlds of Norse mythology

There is no spirituality in Norse culture, no religious feeling. There is fighting, deal-making, and laconic understatement which puts a brave face on the fact we will all fail and all die. The entire cycle of stories lives in the shadow of the foretold and inevitable Last Battle between Gods and Giants when the world will go down in flames: Ragnarök. Until then men and gods alike face their doom with stoic defiance.

“The Germanic gods were never thought of as more than men of superior essence; and like men they were mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.” (p252)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Wikipedia Commons)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Sagas

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