Seminar CCXXV: an attempted rehabilitation of the Emperor Honorius

On 28th January 2015, I was once again in the Institute of Historical Research for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, which turned out to be one of the more impressive double-acts I’ve ever seen in academia, with Graham Barrett and George Woudhuysen taking the stage with a paper entitled “Small Wars in Faraway Places under the Emperor Honorius”. I say ‘double-act’ and ‘stage’ deliberately; the paper was not just scripted but choreographed, with each speaker stepping forward for a few lines then stepping back to let the other take the spot; slick was not the word. So what was it that was being so slickly imparted?

Madrid, Real Academia de Historia, Codex 78, otherwise known as the Codice de Roda, fo. 190r

Madrid, Real Academia de Historia, Codex 78, otherwise known as the Codice de Roda, fo. 190r, showing the opening of our text in question, the De Laude Pampilona Epistula

Well, those who know Graham or have read of him here will know that he is in his normal appearance a scholar of post-Muslim Northern Spain, whereas George is a late Roman person, and the point of this paper was in something that concerned them both, a misunderstood text in the Codex Rotensis. This is a tenth-to-eleventh-century manuscript made for the court of Pamplona that contains a version of Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans, to which were then added Isidore of Seville’s History of the Goths, the Chronicle of Alfonso III in its simpler version and the Prophetic Chronicle, some noble genealogies and a bunch of ephemera, these including a Visigothic poem of praise for the city of Pamplona which, crucially for the paper, incorporates a letter of Emperor Honorius (393-423) whose rubric says that it was brought to Pamplona by an otherwise unrecorded patrician.1

A portrait of Emperor Honorius in the consular diptych of Probus, dated to 406

A portrait of Emperor Honorius in the consular diptych of Probus, dated to 406, “Consular diptych Probus 406“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The letter has, claimed our two speakers, been dismissed as unintelligible, but confrontation with the actual manuscript helps with this—and it is of course now online, which makes that a lot easier—and George and Graham interpreted it as a tax break for local soldiery, not identified but not Gauls as they were being granted the same privileges as the Gauls. There apparently follows an additional provision that actually mentions Spain and establishes a retirement fund for the soldiers addressed. In other words, it looks like an attempt to reward loyal soldiery or buy back intransigent ones. Now, I have been very cautious about how I phrase all that because despite all the preparation one thing that Graham and George did not give us was a text, or sight of one, so my notes are based only on what they told us it said.2 If they’re right, however, then this all probably fits in with the fairly recent rebellion of the prefect in charge of the Spanish army, Constantine the-would-be-III, who had also held Britain and Gaul against Rome for a while between 407 and 409. Honorius is generally held to have been unable to regain the provinces he lost in that rebellion, so this letter, if it’s correctly interpreted and its associated texts mean that it really does belong in Spain, show some attempt on his part to put things back in place.

London, British Library, Add. MS 10970

The opening of the sixth book of Zosimus’s New History, not in the oldest manuscript (Cod. Vat. Gr. 156 of the tenth century) but in a sixteenth-century paper copy that is now London, British Library, Add. MS 10970; my late medieval Greek palæography is not good enough to find you the right bit, I’m afraid, but the rest of the MS is linked through if you want to try

Now this may all sound strangely familiar to those who know their Bede, because Britain is another province which Honorius is supposed to have lost, and indeed abandoned; the sixth-century historian Zosimus mentions a letter of Honorius to the Britti telling them to look to their own defences. George and Graham therefore then turned their attention to that, reminding us that other interpretations had been offered but thinking that the letter probably was meant for Britain but has also been misread; in Zosimus’s actual Greek, sadly not (yet) digitised in its oldest version which is likewise eleventh-century, it just tells the British to be on their guard against the emperor’s enemies.3. The context here, noted George and Graham, was the deployment of the Gothic army of Alaric against Constantine, permitting the interpretation that Britain, too, was a loyal province to whom Honorius could offer nothing but words but did so hoping that they would be enough. Consequently, arguing that Britain left the Roman Empire in 410 would be misguided and we should assume that it too simply fell apart under the pressure to defend itself with whatever non-Roman forces were making themselves available.

Silver siliqua of Emperor Honorius, struck probably at Milan between 383 and 402 but found near Colchester in Britain

Silver siliqua of Emperor Honorius, struck probably at Milan between 383 and 402 but found near Colchester in Britain

I’m not, per se, against the decatastrophising of the end of Roman rule in the West here; as the speakers put it, there was no Waterloo moment, just a long series of too many problems. All the same, this is an awful lot to try and base on two letters, both of whose attribution is debatable and whose preservation context is dubious in the extreme—an eleventh-century collection of texts perhaps referring to Pamplona and Zosimus, preserved in a manuscript no older and far less directly informed, are not where one would wish to find unalloyed depictions of fifth-century imperial strategy. Questions therefore centered not least on whether other evidence could be available: Rebecca Darley asked about the preservation of Honorius’s coinage in these areas, and Graham admitted that they more or less cease to turn up after 410 but argued that the dating of those later coins may well be wrong; Wendy Davies however added that in Britain at least these late issues are found only in a very few places, like Caerleon, anyway, so in fact the coinage doesn’t really help either side of the argument except by supporting the idea that Honorius had no actual resources to commit to preserving the empire. Graham and George may still be right, however, that that didn’t stop him trying.

1. The standard edition of this text, and not the only one, is José María Lacarra (ed.), “Textos navarros del Códice de Roda” in Estudios de Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 1 (Zaragoza 1945), pp. 193-284, online here, at pp. 266-270; for further and more up-to-date references see Esteban Moreno Resano, “Cultura jurídica e instituciones cívicas entre la Antigüedad Tardía y la Alta Edad Media: observaciones a propósito de De laude Pampilona epistola” in VII Congreso General de Navarra: Arqueología, Historia Antigua, Historia Medieval, Historia del Arte y de Música volumen I, Príncipe de Viana Vol. 72 no. 253 (Pamplona 2011), pp. 193-205 at pp. 193-194 n. 1.

2. I could of course now provide you the text from Lacarra or even try and read one myself off the facsimile, but to be honest, I’ve linked you to both and it’s been quite a difficult few days, you can manage, or at least, will likely do as well as I can; I don’t find the facsimile especially easy going.

3. For those other interpretations see Edward A. Thompson, “Fifth-century facts?” in Britannia Vol. 14 (London 1985), pp. 272-274.

2 responses to “Seminar CCXXV: an attempted rehabilitation of the Emperor Honorius

  1. Michael Kulikowski’s study of the Epistula Honorii (available at takes the much less fun line that the text is just too corrupt to extract much more than that soldiers loyal to Honorius were stationed in Spain and he wrote to them.

    • Graham was critical of Kulikowski’s reading of the letter, in fact, which as he told it seem to leave out most or all rubricated text. That led Graham to suggest that Kulikowski had found it difficult to read because of working with a black-and-white photograph that would have left red text invisible or illegible, rather than the original. One can see from the fascimile how that could be a problem, though I wouldn’t want to say it must be as Graham told it. They thought their reading of the text was better-founded than Kulikowski’s, anyway. I didn’t have that reference, though, so thankyou for that also!

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