The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley (1965)

Obviously the issues of women, gender, sexuality, ‘the body’ and so on have come to dominate academic discourse in the humanities over the last 30 years or so. Before it was fashionable, 60 years ago, the classicist M.I. Finley wrote a thoughtful essay on the role of women in ancient Rome, which must have seemed fairly radical in its time but has itself come to be criticised by modern feminist historians.

M.I. Finley

Finley himself is an interesting character. He was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, so was Jewish. Young Finkelstein was precociously intelligent and graduated from Syracuse University at the age of 15, and took another degree at Columbia University. He then taught at Columbia and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Marxist Frankfurt School who had fled Nazi Germany and were working in exile in America. About 1945 he changed his name to Finley, nobody seems to know why, maybe to forestall antisemitism.

Finley was teaching at Rutgers University when, in 1951, he was named by a witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a communist. He was then summoned before the committee and, when asked whether he was a communist, took the Fifth Amendment, like many other fellow travellers. J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Rutgers and, after the affair had dragged on for 3 years, Finley was eventually dismissed.

So he emigrated to Britain where he was quickly appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, and eventually rose through the hierarchy to become Master of Darwin College (1976 to 1982). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971 and knighted in 1979, becoming Sir Moses Israel Finley. He died in 1986.

The silent women of Rome

Finley’s essay has a straightforward aim: to lament the passive, repressed, largely voiceless role of aristocratic women in ancient Rome, using a number of examples, laws and situations to do so.

To start with he says that not many names of Roman-era women are remembered: the most famous woman from the period, Cleopatra was neither Roman nor Egyptian but Greek. As to Roman women, how many of them are remembered? Messalina, Agrippina, Catullus’s Lesbia, some legendary women such as Lucretia or, going way back, Dido.

[This is obviously a weak way to begin, with purely anecdotal summary of ‘famous women’ and no actual evidence.]

Obviously, most societies have been patriarchal and suppressed women but Finley asserts it’s hard to think of any other great civilised state ‘without a single really important woman writer or poet, with no truly regal queen…no patron of the arts.’

He then moves on to a more careful consideration of the evidence which he places under five headings:

  1. through the erotic and satirical poetry of the late Republic and empire, ‘all written by men’
  2. through the historians and biographers, ‘all men’ and attracted to salacious scandal
  3. through the letter writers and philosophers, ‘all men’
  4. through painting and sculpture, inscribed tombstones and religious monuments
  5. through innumerable legal texts

So Finley, with his left-wing credentials, is fully aware of the patriarchal slant of his sources and that they record ideals and stereotypes ‘formulated and imposed by middle- and upper-class Roman males.’ For his day (1965) this feels like a full-on, left-wing, feminist mindset, and you’d have thought he anticipated a million feminist plaints by lamenting that what will always be missing from histories of Rome is the voices of women themselves.

For a start, until late in Roman history, women didn’t have individual names. The names they were given were the family name with an ‘a’ added, so that a daughter of the Claudii gens was named Claudia, of the Julii gens, Julia, and so on. In this spirit sisters were given the same name and only distinguished by the addition of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’, or ‘first’, ‘second’ etc. In the case of marriage between paternal cousins, mother and daughter could easily end up with the same names. For example, Augustus’s daughter was named Julia because he and she came of the Julii clan, and her daughter (Augustus’s grand daughter) was also named Julia.

This in itself is a staggering fact, really worth stopping to take onboard. Roman women didn’t have individual names. As Finley goes on to say, it’s as if Roman society as a whole wished to emphasise that girls and women were not genuine individuals but only offshoots of male-dominated families.

In fact he goes on to point out that although the word familia is Latin it never meant to Romans what it does to us nowadays. Familia either meant all the persons under the authority of the head of the household, or all the descendants from a common ancestor, or all one’s property, or all one’s servants – never our modern notion of the small nuclear family. ‘The stress was on a power structure, rather than on biology or intimacy.’

The Roman paterfamilias need not even be a father; the term was a legal one and applied to any head of a household. Biological children were excluded if illegitimate, whereas the practice of legal adoption was very common (two famous examples being Publius Clodius Pulcher having himself adopted by a plebeian family; and Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew Octavius).

Theoretically a paterfamilias’s power over his wife, sons and daughters and son’s wives and children, over all his slaves and property, was absolute. In law it was the power of life or death. A Roman woman was rarely if ever, at any point in her life, not in the legal power of a man.

Roman legislators and lawyers devoted a lot of space to precise definitions of the status of all possible permutations of family members (in the extended sense). This was because the family, in this extended sense, was the basic building block, the foundation, of their society. Not just women had highly defined places, but children, sons, heirs, and so on. Finley explains that strict rules were enacted prohibiting certain kinds of marriage: between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen; or between a Roman of the senatorial class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freemen (former slaves).

We miss the full picture if we concentrate only on women. The Roman state sought to regulate and control all social relationships.

Finley’s essay then uses the complex family life of Octavian/Augustus to demonstrate the absolute power of the paterfamilias at arranging the lives and marriages of all those in his power; but this strikes me as not a useful example because the greatest, longest-serving emperor is just about the least representative example you can imagine, and it’s all available in any life of Augustus, anyway.

Finley then goes back a bit in time to guesstimate that the submissive role of women in the Roman state was very ancient, and certainly by the time Hannibal was defeated (about 200 BC) all the elements were in place of the social situation Augustus tried to manage.

Male infidelity was widely accepted. Husbands could have mistresses, multiple partners and illegitimate children. ‘There was no puritanism in the Roman concept of morality.’ When you think about it this follows naturally from the central axiom that all that concerned the state was the efficient management of family legal matters; beyond carrying out their legal functions and duties towards the state, what people got up to in their ‘private lives’ was their own affair.

Throughout his long rule Augustus wasn’t concerned with reforming what we, the heirs to Christianity, think of ‘morality’, so much as social order. Above all he was concerned that not enough upper-class citizens were getting married and having children. Childlessness was an abrogation of responsibilities to the state. The licentious living he saw becoming more common around him wasn’t completely reprehensible in itself, but to be criticised insofar as it indicated a dereliction of duty to the state which he saw it as his responsibility to protect and maintain. Augustus disapproved of the Roman aristocracy living debauched lives because they were spending money on themselves which they should have been investing in their children and The Future of Rome.

There was nothing at all holy about marriage, as the chopping and changing of Augustus’s own marital career and of umpteen aristocrats amply demonstrated. This explains why divorce was easy and commonplace. It was a purely legal transaction. Marriage was important because:

  • it ensured the creation of the next generation of citizens
  • it ensured the smooth transition of property from one generation to the next
  • the entire social hierarchy depended on cleanly defined lineage and descent within families, which themselves needed to be clearly defined as patrician or plebeian or knightly in order to take their place in the systems of political management and control

So marriage was really important in ancient Rome from a social, economic, political and legal point of view. But hardly at all from a moral or emotional point of view, the two ways in which we have been increasingly taught to view it over the past 200 years, maybe since the so-called Romantic revolution around 1800 began to change a lot of attitudes in favour of the primacy of personality and emotion over duty and sacrifice.

Finley has a digression about the laws of marriage governing soldiers. These kept changing, as soldiers’ terms of service were themselves changed and developed, eventually becoming so complicated it resulted in an entire specialised area of Roman law.

Having discussed the aristocracy at some length, Finley then goes on to speculate about the condition of women in the working class. We know next to nothing about them but the chances are they were a lot more free of the social codes and restrictions imposed on aristocratic women because a) they had to work, and probably helped their husbands in a wide variety of trades and b) the rapid expansion of the slave trade and the slave population after the destruction of Carthage (146 BC), along with the surprisingly generous Roman habit of freeing slaves, meant that an ever-increasing proportion of the free population was directly descended from slaves, almost certainly giving them a drastically different notions about marriage norms than the aristocracy.

Mortality was higher among women than men. It is estimated that of the population which reached the age of 15 (i.e. evaded the high infant mortality) more than half the women were dead by forty, in some places, by 35. Women were a lot more likely to die due to a) multiple childbirths without any modern medicine b) sheer exhaustion of bearing children, rearing them, and working.

Divorce was easy and men often remarried. You can see how this would enormously complicate the legal situation around heirs, property, citizenship and so on. Hence the jungle of legislation.

And yet (Finley says, swinging his train of thought into a new groove), there is evidence that aristocratic Roman enjoyed some autonomy. They attended dinner parties and certainly the many festivals and games. Many Roman writers report the stimulating conversation of educated women in mixed company. Ovid in The Art of Love gives extensive advice on how to make the best of themselves, advising women of this class to dress and primp properly, to sweeten their breath, to walk gracefully and dance well, to cultivate the best poetry. This makes them sound quite free and independent in their behaviour.

Finley comes to his final thought: How did respectable Roman women of the level of education implied by Ovid and others find outlets for their repressed energies?

1. Religion

Roman religion was very patriarchal. Traditional Roman religion was based on the household gods and public rituals and men controlled both. There was a handful of female cults, such as the women-only Bona Dea, but all religious festivals were led by men and even the famous Vestal Virgins were under the direct supervision of a man, the pontifex maximus.

A big change came with the solidification of the empire and the great influx into Rome of eastern mystery cults, many of them carrying the entirely unroman concepts of personal communion with the god and personal salvation. Although some of these gods were completely closed to women (such as the military cult of Mithras) others offered women status and agency like they’d never had before.

The most notable example of these was the cult of Isis, who subsumed a world of other goddesses and cults (and which Ovid complains about in some of his poems). One of the hymns to Isis says: ‘You gave women equal power with men.’ This explains why the cult of Isis was one of the most obstinately resistant to the rise of the new cult of Christ as the latter spread  around the Mediterranean during the later first century AD.

Christianity itself was a very mixed blessing for women. Women played a crucial role in the life of Jesus. His mother, Mary, quickly assumed cult status. Jesus was genuinely open-handed about the role of women. Take the woman her community is about to stone for adultery. Jesus saves her and shames the vengeful men.

Women quickly held office in the early church, not in ultimate power but as assistants, deacons and sacristans, assisting in ceremonies as well as taking a lead in charitable works. It was the Empress Helena who ‘found’ the true cross in Palestine and brought it back to Rome. A good proportion of the early martyrs were women i.e. women were allowed to be memorialised as martyrs, to be remembered as saints, and their relics worked just as many miracles, as men did. Here was a true holy equality.

But then, alas, St Paul. Paul thrashed out the theology of Christianity but at the expense of embedding it deeply back into the traditional Jewish teachings which Jesus had seemed to escape. In chapter 14 of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth he says:

‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’

From the floating repertoire of ancient documents indicated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Christians selected the ones which they thought best bolstered their case, assembling them into a library which eventually came to be called The Old Testament. Much of it was a reversion to a harsher, Jewish concept of the deity than Jesus seemed at many moments to believe. Over coming generations the strange and ominous legend of Adam and Eve came to assume the severity of doctrine, and became an irrefutable accusation with which hundreds of generations of misogynists could bad-mouth and shut down women.

One unintended consequence of Pauline thought was the new emphasis it put on virginity. In our times we think the obsessive importance assigned by generations of Christians to the virginity of a bride ludicrously repressive and bigoted. But if you think about it from the point of view of a 12, 13 or 14 year old girl in a Roman household, who knows she is doomed to be married off to someone she might never have met, who might be four times her age, purely as a business and legal transaction – then a new cult which rejects this bartering of women, and declares that the holiest thing a woman can do is devote her life to Jesus and eternal virginity, maybe in a community of like-minded women – you can see how in many cases this might have been experienced as a wonderful liberation from patriarchal tyranny. An escape route.

Convents began to be set up soon after the first monasteries and offered a way for women to walk out of the entire male-dominated society in a way they hadn’t been able to since Rome was founded. A huge subject but Finley’s brief discussion is suggestive.

2. Entertainments

Much smaller in conceptual terms, but still significant, was the way women were allowed to be spectators in theatres and at games. Finley tells us that gladiators became ‘pin-ups’ for Roman women, ‘especially in the upper classes’. It would be good to see the evidence for this.

3. Imperial women

Finley rather spoils the effect with his third area of female agency, by reverting to the anecdotal level of the opening of his essay, and telling us that many of the women at the top of the next few hundred years of Roman Empire ‘revealed a ferocity and sadism’ that were not often matched by their menfolk. They never held direct power, but they pulled many of the strings for their husbands and sons, brothers and lovers. Well, if feminists want strong independent women, here are some of the most ferociously strong and determined women we have any record of.

Finley tries to interpret the behaviour of this handful of bloodthirsty women as a ‘rebellion’ against the suppression of almost all women almost all the time. Unfortunately, it comes over more as a certain type of sexist stereotyping without any consideration of the fact that strong women everywhere have been subjected to poisonous character assassination. I.e. that much of what male society and its male historians wrote about them may be vicious rumours or simply untrue.

Shame. Finley was very ‘on message’ and sympathetic to Rome’s repressed women up to this very last point.

Thoughts

This is a deeply intelligent, very interesting, well-written essay. It has an elegantly arresting introductory remark about Cleopatra and then moves with a steady, fluent logic through a series of highly interesting points. Agree or disagree with his thesis, it is beautifully written.

It is very persuasive about the topics it addresses. But it can be seen that, at various points, it veers away from a strict consideration of its title; the passage on the marriage laws for Roman soldiers feels some distance from ‘the silent women of Rome’, the extended passage about Augustus and his women is interesting but can hardly be taken as representative of Roman society at large.

The anti-Finley debate

A few minutes surfing on the internet turns up the fact that Finley’s essay was contested by feminists.

The Reverend Dr. J. Dorcas Gordon of Knox College, Canada, in her book ‘Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians 7 and Cultural Anthropology’, gives a summary of the feminist responses to Finley’s essay, which she calls ‘controversial’.

According to her, there is a relatively straightforward spectrum of views, with one school holding that women in Rome lived passive repressed lives in the shadows of their fathers or husbands (the Finley view), but quite a few more modern revisionists insisting the exact opposite.

These latter are represented by Sarah Pomeroy who, in her pioneering 1975 feminist book, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’, argued that changes in Hellenistic society produced many emancipated but respected upper-class women. She argues that Roman matrons had a much bigger range of choices in their roles and lifestyles, as well as more of an influence on the cultural and political life of their society, than Finley allows.

Gordon goes on to produce pages of evidence showing women having more agency in the ancient world than the Finley side of the debate claims, evidence including history, moral anecdote and exempla, slander, funerary inscriptions.

In Hellenistic Egypt we know that women bought and sold real estate as well as movable property. We know from Cicero’s abundant correspondence that his wife, Terentia, had considerable freedom of action in the areas of finance, politics and matchmaking.

There is evidence that women, despite an explicit ban, argued their cases in the law courts, namely Afrania, wife of a senator and Hortensia delivering a speech before the triumvirs. Servilia was the long-time mistress of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus and all her contemporaries took her political influence of for granted. Cicero depicts a woman friend, Caerellia, as independently wealthy and a noted intellectual. Everyone was intimidated by Augustus’s formidable wife, Livia.

An inscription from Corinth recognises Junia Theodora who bestowed gifts of money on the city and citizens. More surprisingly an inscription speaks of a certain Hedea racing a chariot and winning at the Isthmean Games of 43 AD. Inscriptions from Asia Minor memorialise wealthy Greek women who civic and federal magistracies and priesthoods. Women with estates and all sorts of businesses were attested at Pompeii.

And so, considerably, on.

The major engine for new historical interpretations

In the end, Dorcas suggests, it depends how you interpret the evidence. Obviously that is true, but I’d go a step further to point out something obvious, to me at any rate, which is: the outcome of many debates in the humanities depends not so much on how you interpret the evidence, but on what evidence you consider; on what evidence you admit to the field of debate.

Time after time, when reading modern history books which claim to be ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ or ‘subverting established beliefs’ blah blah, it turns out that they’re not doing so by presenting startling new evidence; more often than not they are using evidence which has always been known about by scholars, but not previously considered part of the debate; things the experts knew about but nobody had considered including in the body of evidence used in this particular debate.

If the complete corpus of historical evidence can be likened to a landscape, the landscape itself rarely changes – what changes, and sometimes drastically, is which features of the landscape historians choose to pay attention to; which bits of evidence we include and prioritise.

Since you and I can never hope to acquire total mastery of all the evidence from the ancient world on this or any number of other issues (the experiences of slaves, the experiences of gladiators, the experiences of the working classes, the experience of farmers, the experiences of business men) we are, in effect, at the mercy of scholars and their changing interests. Our knowledge of ‘history’ is restricted by the ever-changing fashions for this or that kind of evidence among the historians we read.

Now almost contemporary historians are convinced that we need to be more inclusive, need to pay attention to the lives of women, or black people, or other previously excluded groups. While fine and admirable in itself, this attitude can also be seen as just the latest wave, the latest refocusing of attention and evidence which will, itself, be eclipsed by further waves in the decades to come.

In other words, nothing like a ‘true’ understanding of history is ever possible. Because the study of history covers such a huge area, and historians for decades have been expanding the fields of evidence to include previously ignored groups, any modern read is doing well if they can get a grasp on the history of a period as it is generally understood today i.e. as it is interpreted and conceived for our times by the congeries of historians of our day.

But even if you could wriggle free of the preconceptions and assumptions of our age, penetrating through the veil of how events are presented by contemporary writers is virtually impossible, because as you go further back in time you don’t encourage any kind of truth, all you encounter is previous generations of historians interpreting events in terms of the ideologies, moral values, social needs of their times, biased by all their preconceptions and prejudices.

The thing itself – the objective, ‘true’ and definitive account of events – can it ever be reached, does it even exist? I don’t think so. It’s bias, interpretation and ideology all the way back to the original sources and documents which, themselves, are (fairly obviously) biased and limited. From ever-changing mosaics of evidence historians create narratives which are acceptable to us and our concerns.


Credit

The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley was published in 1965. It was included in a collection of essays by him titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

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On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 7. The empire

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the Roman Empire, or an account of the military campaigns and battles which led to its territorial expansion, or an account of the organisation and administration of the Roman army, during either the republican or imperial eras, forget it. None of that is in this book.

Beard’s interest is in exploring themes or aspects of Roman social, cultural and political history. Hence, although the final chapter in SPQR is devoted to ‘Rome Outside Rome’ i.e. the wider Roman empire, it is nothing like a chronological history of the empire, or of the wars of conquest and putting down of rebellions which consolidated it, or a really thorough examination of Rome’s administrative bureaucracy. Instead it is an entertainingly meandering essay which considers some selected aspects of Roman rule beyond Italy. Beard starts the chapter, as usual, with a flurry of academic questions:

  • how were the cultural differences across the empire debated?
  • how ‘Roman’ did the empire’s inhabitants outside Rome and Italy become?
  • how did people in the provinces relate their traditions, religions, languages and literatures to those of imperial Rome, and vice versa?

Beard uses biographies of Roman administrators such as Pliny the Younger (61 to 113 AD), touches on the Roman attitude to religion – especially the troublesome new religion of Christianity – uses Hadrian’s Wall as an example of the limits of empire, and generally delves into other topics which take her fancy.

So, as a reader, as soon as you abandon any hope of getting a thorough or even basic chronological overview of the main events of the wider Roman empire, and settle down for a chatty meander through  some selected aspects of a fascinating subject, then Beard is an enjoyable and informative guide.

The limits of imperial expansion

Augustus called a halt to the expansion of imperial Rome following the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD in which Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions massacred by barbarian Germans led by Arminius (p.480). Fascinatingly, Beard tells us that Augustus had fully intended to extend Roman power into Germany, and had begun construction of a town at Waldgirmes, 60 miles east of the Rhine, complete with forum, statue of the emperor and all the trimmings. After Teutoburg he ordered all building work abandoned and withdrawal of all Roman forces to the Rhine and in his will instructed his successors not to extend the empire.

But they did. Claudius sent legions to conquer Britannia, which they’d seized enough of by 44 AD to justify Claudius awarding himself a triumph, although the Romans took a long time to extend their power right up to the border with Hibernia. In the east, in 101 to 102 Trajan conquered Dacia, part of what is now Romania and in 114 to 117 invaded Mesopotamia to the borders of modern Iran.

Emperors less competitive than consuls

But overall the pace of territorial acquisition slowed right down. Beard makes the interesting point that this was at least in part because under the Republic you had two consuls who competed with each other for military glory, rising to the epic rivalry between Julius Caesar, busy making a name for himself conquering Gaul in the West, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, redrawing the map of the Roman East.

By contrast, the emperors had no rivals and no-one to beat. Their only rivals were the previous emperors so they could take their time, make a few strategic ‘conquests’, award themselves a nice triumph and relax. Most of the wars of the first 200 years of empire were against internal rebellions or border skirmishes.

Governor Pliny in Bithynia

Slowly the focus of administrators and emperors switched from conquest to good administration. It’s to examine this that Beard gives the example of Pliny the Younger who in 109 was sent to become governor of the province of Bithynia along the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Next to Cicero Pliny is one of the most knowable ancient Romans because of the 100 or so letters he sent directly to the emperor Trajan, reporting back on all aspects of Roman administration, from taxes to statues, to the nitty gritty of local legal cases.

What the Romans wanted was peaceful administration, avoidance of flagrant examples of corruption, good regular supplies of taxes. They made little or no attempt to impose their own cultural norms or eradicate local traditions. Instead the East, in particular, remained a mostly Greek-speaking fantasia of different religions, gods, festivals, dress, traditions and so on.

Small number of imperial administrators

In a striking similarity to the British Empire, Beard tells us the number of imperial administrators was vanishingly small: across the empire at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators running an empire of more than 50 million subjects (p.490). So how was the empire managed?

1. The most obvious answer is the substantial Roman legions posted around the borders of the empire and Beard mentions the insight we have into one such garrison from the amazing discoveries which have been made at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall.

2. Building new settlements was another strategy. In the north and west in particular the building of Roman settlements on the classic, standardised Roman town layout was one of the most enduring legacies of empire. Roman policy resulted in ‘urbanisation on an unprecedented scale’ (p.492).

3. Also, just like the British, French and other European empires 1,800 years later, the Romans co-opted the local elites. Local rulers who came over to Rome were awarded formal titles, new Roman names, rights and privileges. They took to wearing the toga, they sent their children to Roman schools to learn Latin, rhetoric and civics. Over generations these became embedded and Romanised elites did the work of ensuring peace and lack of rebellions among their subjects.

The 1st century efflorescence of Greek literature

In the East, the Greeks didn’t need to take any lessons in ‘civilisation’ from the Romans and no Roman would have dared suggest it. Nonetheless, Beard points out that the early imperial period saw an extraordinary florescence of Greek literature, much of it addressing, skirting, questioning the impact of Roman hegemony on the Greek world. In a striking example, she tells us that the output of just one Greek writer of this period, biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 119 AD) fills as many modern pages as all the surviving literature from the 5th century BC put together, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the histories of Thucydides (p.500).

Three typical rebellions

Surprisingly, maybe, there were only a handful of major rebellions against Roman rule in the first century (although it may be that these were under-reported, as both regional governors and emperors weren’t keen to record dissent).

Anyway, Beard makes the interesting point that the three major rebellions we know about weren’t standalone nationalist uprisings of the kind we’re familiar with from the end of the modern European empires. In the three biggest instances they were not popular uprisings but rebellions by members of the collaborating class felt they had, for one reason or another, been badly treated by their Roman allies.

1. Thus the leader of the German forces in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius, was a solid ally of Rome and personal friend of the general whose forces he massacred. Modern thinking has it that Arminius was a rival for leadership of his tribe, the Cherusci, with his brother, Segeste. When a revolt began among the auxiliary troops for an unknown reason, it may be that Arminius thought he stood more chance of becoming paramount leader of his people by betraying his Roman allies (and brother) and it seems to have worked.

2. In Britannia, Queen Boadicea or Boudicca rebelled after terrible treatment by the Romans. When her husband Prasutagus died he left half his tribal kingdom to the empire and half to his daughters. But when Roman forces moved in to take their territory they ran amok among the Britons, plundering the king’s property, raping  his daughters and flogging Boudicca. Hence her armed revolt, and you can see why her tribe would rally to her standard, whose first steps were to burn to the ground the nearest three Roman towns, murdering all their inhabitants, before the governor of the province, 250 miles away on the border of Wales, heard the news, marched across country to East Anglia, and exterminated the British forces (p.514).

3. The First Jewish War or Great Jewish Revolt (66 to 73 AD) is also attributable to bad behaviour by the occupying Romans. The middle classes protested against heavy Roman taxation and there were some random attacks on Roman citizens. In response the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, raided the Second Temple (where no non-Jew was allowed to enter) for back payment of the taxes, then arrested senior Jewish figures some of whom he had crucified for disobedience. Bad idea. The rebellion spread like wildfire and pinned down Roman legions in Palestine for the next seven years.

Free movement of goods and people

Another massive effect of the Roman Empire was the free movement of goods and people on an unprecedented scale. Among the ruins of Pompeii has been found an ivory figurine from India, the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall were buying pepper brought all the way from the Far East. Vast amounts of olive oil (20 million litres per year) were imported to Rome from southern Spain and the province of Africa became the breadbasket for the capital (250,000 tonnes of grain).

Not only goods but people moved vast distances, making lives and careers for themselves thousands of miles from their birthplaces in a way that was unprecedented for most of world history before. Beard exemplifies this astonishing freedom of movement in the story of Barates who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, and built a memorial to his wife who predeceased him and came from just north of London. The point is that Barates himself, as his memorial  records, originally hailed from Syria, 4,000 miles away.

Trade and administration, imports and exports, sending soldiers and administrators to the ends of the known world, involved a huge amount of bureaucracy and organisation, many fragments of which have survived to build up a picture of the empire’s multi-levelled commercial and administrative complexity.

The people, group or ideology this free movement around the entire Mediterranean basin was ultimately to benefit most were the Christians. Familiarity with the life of St Paul shows just how free they were to travel freely and to spread their word to the ‘godfearers’, the groups who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but couldn’t become full Jews because of their lack of circumcision and/or the food and ritual restrictions, so who were an enthusiastic audience for the non-ethnic, universalising tendency of  the new religion.

It is this principle of openness and assimilation, which characterised Rome from the earliest times when Romulus incorporated members of neighbouring tribes into his nascent settlement, that I briefly describe in the next blog post.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Not I by Samuel Beckett (1972)

…. grabbing at the straw… straining to hear… the odd word… make some sense of it… whole body like gone… just the mouth… like maddened… and can’t stop… no stopping it… something she – … something she had to –
… what?… who?… no!… she!…

Remember how episodes of the American sitcom Friends were named ‘The one where….’, well, this Beckett play is ‘the one where’ almost the entire stage is in darkness except for the face of a woman, in fact just her mouth, a woman’s mouth illuminated by one tight spotlight while she declaims a fragmented panic-stricken monologue at breathless speed.

Mise-en-scène

As with all Beckett’s ‘plays’ from 1960 or so onwards, the stage directions are extremely precise, because Not I is, arguably, less a play than a piece of performance art which happens to be taking place in a theatre:

Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone. AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. See Note. As house lights down MOUTH ‘s voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds: With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient
into:

Into the ceaseless flow of verbiage coming out of MOUTH’s mouth. As to ‘See Note’, the Note says:

Movement: this consists in simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion. It lessens with each recurrence till scarcely perceptible at third. There is just enough pause to contain it as MOUTH recovers from vehement refusal to relinquish third person.

So two people are onstage, a woman about 8 feet above the stage to the right and a tall figure standing 4 feet above the stage on the left.

In my review of Breath I wrote about the importance of exact stage directions in Beckett’s plays and the sense you often have that the staging and the stage directions virtually overshadow the actual content of the plays. Not I is a classic example of this, in that there is content, the mouth does say thing of consequence and import – but it is all dwarfed by the intensity of the conception and of the extremely precise and very vivid stage directions.

Content

So what is this voice ceasely reciting at such high speed? Well, like so many other Beckett texts it is built out of the repetition of key phrases, pretty banal in themselves, which quickly accumulate a freight of meaning, ominous overtones, and which are told in a high voltage, jerky panic. The opening few lines give a complete flavour:

out… into this world… this world… tiny little thing… before its time… in a god for- … what?… girl?… yes… tiny little girl… into this… out into this… before her time… godforsaken hole called… called… no matter… parents unknown… unheard of…

It sounds like yet another deranged Beckett consciousness, an Alzheimer’s victim, feverishly piecing together fragments of memory, torn by incessant questions she addresses to herself, who? why? what? and moments of panic:

… what?… who?… no !.. she !..

There is a passage about punishment and sin, and the fact she’d been brought up to believe in ‘a merciful God’.

… thing she understood perfectly … that notion of punishment … which had first occurred to her … brought up as she had been to believe .. . with the other waifs … in a merciful . . . [Brief laugh. ] .. . God … [Good laugh. ]

She sounds like one of the old ladies from Beckett’s childhood in rural Ireland, except with a thoroughly modern hysteria, complaining about the sounds in her skull, the relentless buzzing, and then… a passage about how she couldn’t scream, some problem with screaming, screaming, which leads up to her harrowing actual screams:

… never got the message… or powerless to respond… like numbed… couldn’t make the sound… not any sound… no sound of any kind… no screaming for help for example… should she feel so inclined… scream… [Screams. ]… then listen… [Silence. ]… scream again… [Screams again.]

The frenzy of the ceaseless wording leading up to the four movements from the AUDITOR, which occur during the silences after the woman works herself up to a frenzy or short, staccato, terrified words, almost as if she’s having a seizure, a fit:

.. the buzzing?.. yes… all dead still but for the buzzing… when suddenly she realized… words were – … what ?.. who?.. no !.. she!..

She appears to be sent shopping as a girl but stands dumb and terrified giving her bag to a man who does it all for her, it takes a while to realise that this is one of about four scenarios which the flood of fragmented memories seem to be reconstructing.

But specific memories tend to be eclipsed by descriptions of the voice itself, of the experience of being hag-ridden and driven by the voice by the mouth, no  idea what she’s saying but can’t stop:

just the mouth… lips… cheeks… jaws… never-… what?.. tongue?.. yes… lips… cheeks… jaws… tongue… never still a second… mouth on fire… stream of words… in her ear… practically in her ear… not catching the half… not the quarter… no idea what she’s saying… imagine!.. no idea what she ‘s saying!.. and can’t stop… no stopping it… she who but a moment before… but a moment!.. could not make a sound… no sound of any kind… now can’t stop… imagine!.. can’t stop the stream… and the whole brain begging… something begging in the brain… begging the mouth to stop… pause a moment… if only for a moment… and no response… as if it hadn’t heard… or couldn’t… couldn’t pause a second… like maddened… all that together… straining to hear… piece it together… and the brain… raving away on its own… trying to make sense of it… or make it stop…

God, it’s a vision of intense horror, despair, astonishing intensity, a soul driven, endlessly driven on, by what she keeps describing as a buzzing inside her skull, very much the motive of Beckett’s many monologuists since The Unnameable who hear a voice compelling them to speak, think, make sense of the endless voice compelling words within their skulls, the motive force behind so many of Beckett’s skullscapes. One critic, Vivian Mercier, suggests that Not I is, in effect, a placing on stage of the prose experience of The Unnameable a dramatisation of the same terrible compulsion.

… something she had to -… what?… the buzzing?… yes… all the time the buzzing… dull roar… in the skull…

Another important element is the way MOUTH appears, in these fragmentary memories or anecdotes, to be talking about herself and describing herself in the third person, a common symptom of mental illness, observing memories of their own lives with detachment as if they happened to someone else.

In this mood she seems to be referring to herself when she talks about the tiny little thing, the wee bairn, the tiny mite, born into a world of woe, illegitimate and rejected… and then jumps to herself as an old lady, surprised at her own age:

coming up to sixty when – … what?.. seventy?.. good God !.. coming up to seventy…

An old lady, her mind completely gone, fragments of memories, trying to make sense, driven on by the incessant buzzing in her skull.

This alienation from herself rises to a terrifying climax at each of the punctuation points when she pauses a moment and the other figure on the stage makes its strange hieratic gesture. Each time the crisis is signalled by a formula of the same four words, the last of which is ‘she’, as if MOUTH is seized with panic-horror by it, the Other, herself as other, her maenad voice.

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

The final section gives a bit more biography, how she was always a silent child, almost a mute, but just occasionally experienced the sudden urge to speak and had to rush outside, rushed into the outdoors lavatory, spewed it all up. That was the root, the precursor of the plight she is in now:

… now this… this… quicker and quicker… the words… the brain… flickering away like mad… quick grab and on… nothing there… on somewhere else… try somewhere else… all the time something begging… something in her begging… begging it all to stop…

God, the horror. Beckett told the American actress Jessica Tandy he hoped that the piece would ‘work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect’ and it certainly sets my nerves jangling.

Not I

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

This is the rationale for the title, Not I. On one level the piece is not exactly a systematic ‘investigation’ but a terrifying dramatisation of the way all of us are aware not only of our ‘selves’, but of other elements in our minds which we, on the whole, manage or reject, the host of alternative suggestions, the way we are inside ourselves and yet, at various moments, are also capable of seeing ourselves as if from the outside.

This is busy territory, and over the past two and a half thousand years a host of philosophers and, more recently, psychologists, have developed all manner of theories about how the mind develops and, in particular, manages the dichotomy of being an I which perceives but also developing the awareness that this I exists in a world which is mostly Not I. In its entry of Not I the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett refers to the theories of:

  • Schopenhauer, for whom perception of the external world was always accompanied by a sense that it is not I
  • Nordau‘s theory of the development of the psyche which first defines itself but as it conceptualises and understands the external world, the I retreats behind the Not I
  • St Paul Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
  • Jakob Böhme, asked by what authority he wrote, replied: ‘Not I, the I that I am, knows these things, but God knows them in me’ (page 412)

Of these, I like the St Paul quote. If it bears any relation to this play it is the notion that I am that I am but I am not I, I am only I by virtue of another, of the Not I. Hence the shadowy Other sharing the stage.

But there’s no end to the concordances and echoes of these two words which can be found in the world’s literature and theology and philosophy – but most people are aware of there being levels of their selves, or of it being fragmented into peripheral, casual elements which we can easily dismiss, spectruming through to core elements of our selves which we cling on to and consider essential.

The Mouth’s monologue dramatises a set of four big moments which come back to her in fragments after some kind of epiphany or trigger moment in a field full of cowslips to the sound of larks. They are:

  1. being born a little thing
  2. crying on her hands one summer day in Croker’s acre
  3. being sent to do the shopping in some shopping centre
  4. in court

But really these moments serve to bring out the troubled relationship between the core being, whatever you want to call it, and those other moments, those other aspects of our personalities, everything which is ‘Not I’.

Of course in the play as conceived there is a physical embodiment of Not I onstage, namely the other figure. The way it raises its arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’ at the four moments when Mouth stutters to a horrified silence, suggests they are linked. Is the figure Death, a Guardian Angel, the speaker’s Id or Superego? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but there’s no doubting the importance of the dynamic relationship between the two figures, an I and a Not I. Or maybe two Is which both possess Not Is. Or maybe they are two parts of the same I…

The Billie Whitelaw production

Beckett’s muse, the actress Billie Whitelaw, didn’t give the piece’s premiere, but starred in its first London performance in 1973. This was then recreated in order to be filmed in 1975 and can be found on YouTube.

I think this is spectacular, what a spectacular, amazing performance, what an experience, how disorientating, how revolting the way that, after a while the mouth seems to morph into some disgusting animal, and the endless mad demented drivel, the breathless haste in Whitelaw’s voice rising to the recurrent shout of SHE!! God, the horror.

Although very sexy and feminine when she wanted to be, Whitelaw also had a no-nonsense, working class toughness about her, a strong northern accent (she grew up in a working class area of Bradford) which slips out throughout the recitation.

But her real toughness comes over in those four big cries of SHE!!, delivered much deeper and ballsier than softer actresses, and so giving it a real terror.

Once you get over the sheer thrill of the performance there is an obvious feature about it which is that it largely ignores Beckett’s stage directions. In the piece as conceived there is a dynamic tension between the speaking woman on the right of the stage and the androgynous cloaked figure to the left who responds to the four big hysterical climaxes of the monologue with the mysterious, slow-motion raising and lowering of the arms gesture.

The oddity is that Whitelaw’s performance benefited from extensive coaching from Beckett. So why did he completely jettison a key part of the initial concept? Did he realise it was distracting from the core idea of the spotlight on a ceaselessly talking mouth? Apparently so because, according to the Wikipedia article:

When Beckett came to be involved in staging the play, he found that he was unable to place the Auditor in a stage position that pleased him, and consequently allowed the character to be omitted from those productions. However, he chose not to cut the character from the published script, and whether or not the character is used in production seems to be at the discretion of individual producers. As he wrote to two American directors in 1986: “He is very difficult to stage (light–position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively.”

Staging the production presented extreme difficulties for the leading lady.

Initially Billie Whitelaw wanted to stand on a dais but she found this didn’t work for her so she allowed herself to be strapped in a chair called an ‘artist’s rest’ on which a film actor wearing armour rests because he cannot sit down. Her entire body was draped in black; her face covered with black gauze with a black transparent slip for her eyes and her head was clamped between two pieces of sponge rubber so that her mouth would remain fixed in the spotlight. Finally a bar was fixed which she could cling to and on to which she could direct her tension. She was unable to use a visual aid and so memorised the text.

Regarding selves and unselves, it is a maybe a profound insight that, although Whitelaw found is a desperately difficult role and was, after the initial rehearsals, seriously disorientated, she came to regard it as one of her most powerful performances because it unlocked something inside her,

She heard in Mouth’s outpourings her own ‘inner scream’: ‘I found so much of my self in Not I.’

Maybe we all do. Maybe that’s one function of art, allowing us to discover the Not I in all of us.

A touch of autobiography

I grew up above the village grocery shop and sub-post office my parents ran, and across the road and through some woodland was a priory which had been turned into an old people’s home which was still run by nuns, old nuns, very old nuns, in fact most of the nuns were too old and infirm to make it the couple of hundred yards through the trees up to the road they had to cross to get to the shop and some of the nuns and old ladies who could make it up weren’t too confident crossing the road, not least Miss Luck (real name) who was very short-sighted, almost blind, who would arrive at the road and just set out across it regardless of traffic, so that the first thing all the new staff in the shop were taught was, ‘If you see Miss Luck arrive at the gate from the Priory, drop everything and run across the road to help her walk across without being run over’.

And so I watch this amazing work of art, and I’m aware of the multiple meanings it can be given, from the characteristic sex obsession of many literary critics who see the mouth a vagina trying to give birth to the self (given that Whitelaw has a set of 32 immaculate-looking sharp teeth, these critics must have been hanging round some very odd vaginas); to the many invocations of philosophers and psychologists to extrapolate umpteen different theories of the self and not-self; through to the more purely literary notion that the endless repetition of the voice’s obsessive moments, insights, anxieties are a further iteration of the struggle of the narrator in The Unnamable to fulfil the compulsion, the order, the directive to talk talk talk he doesn’t know why, because he must, because they say so.

So I am aware of many types of interpretation the piece is susceptible to. But I also understand what Beckett meant when he said in an interview that:

I knew that woman in Ireland. I knew who she was — not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.

Because there were so many old, old ladies pottering across the road from the Priory or from other parts of my village, talking talking talking, babbling their way around the place in a continual stream of undertones and monologue, throughout my boyhood.

It is at the same time an artfully contrived work of avant-garde art, but also an unnervingly realistic depiction of how some people actually are. And not just some – nearly 9 million people in the UK are aged over 70, and Alzheimer’s disease has gone from being a condition few of us had heard about 20 years ago, to now being the leading cause of death in the UK.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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