Finding the Medieval in Rome II: trying to be noticed in the Forum Romanum, c. 600

When I was facing my crise de confiance of the other week, one of the sillier causes was that I had processed a bunch of photos of the Foro Romano from when I was there in late 2017, and I couldn’t think of a point to posting any of them that I hadn’t made with the previous post, i. e. that we perceive ancient Rome via what the medieval (and subsequent) past chose to preserve and add to it. This has been very clear to me ever since I first saw a picture of the Foro di Nerva (I think in a paper by Chris Wickham?) with a ninth-century house’s foundations showing in it, and of course when I was actually there to see myself, it was still evident, in so far as anything is immediately evident in the thoroughly bewildering palimpsest that is the Roman fora.

A view down the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill

A view down the Foro Romano from the Palatine Hill, by your author

But as I was absorbing all the kind comments last week, for which many thanks, like something stirring from the mud at the bottom of a pond once the sunlight has reached it, a hook for the post occurred to me, and so here we are. This post is about the Column of Phocas, which was installed in the name of that Byzantine emperor (or, as he clearly saw himself, Roman emperor) in the Foro Romano in 608 CE.1)

The Column of Phocas in the Foro Romano

Yup, here it is, now minus the gilded statue of the eponymous emperor which apparently originally sat upon it and also the pyramid of steps by which it could still be approached in 1903

Phocas’s little offering here, which to his credit is still fairly visible, was the last piece of Roman imperial building in the Forum. We are now well past the time where the Roman emperors really had any role in Rome, you see. That time may really have ended in 476, when the last Western one who could access the city, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed (this is complex because there was also another candidate who could not, Julius Nepos; he died in 480); or it may have been earlier, really; it is, of course, as Phocas shows, a matter as much of someone wanting to do so as the emperors actually being able.2 But in any case, the role of patronage had kind of fallen to more local power-brokers since that point, such as the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (King of Italy for the Emperor 493-526 CE), much of whose monumental effort was nicked by Charlemagne in the early ninth century but some of whose modifications to the immense Palace of Domitian, which looms ruinously over the Forum to this day, are still identifiable.

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill, Rome

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill; according to the local signage its current state of remains is the one laid down by Theodoric

So the Column of Phocas is a real outlier. Its inscription makes it slightly less mysterious: it was not put up by order of the emperor, but in his honour, by the Exarch of Ravenna, Smaragdus, a man who owed his recall from exile and appointment to Phocas, or at least so says Wikipedia just now, though none of its indicated sources provide this information. This all makes a bit more sense if one understands that Ravenna, not Rome, had been the seat of imperial government in Italy since the early fifth century, and had been the base of this official, the exarch, for quite a lot of that time; he was supposed to be the ruler of Roman Italy on behalf of the emperor, a combined civil and military office which was supposed to make it easier to combat the encroachments of the Lombard kings and their warriors who had been pushing into Italy since 568.3 But this was, in general, working out better for Ravenna, secluded in marshland and on the near coast of Italy to the Byzantine Adriatic, than for inland and exposed Rome, and the people who were increasingly facing that reality were not really the exarchs, but the bishops of Rome, including especially famously this man, of whom we have heard on this blog before, Pope Gregory I (ruled 590-604).4

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, image by Vassilown work, licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, is renowned as one of the founding figures of the papacy and one of the very few early medieval popes about whom there is anything substantial written. As with all famous early medieval popes, that has a lot to do with the fact that only a very few’s letters survive, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have reputations for being vigorous reforming administrators, whereas the ones for whom we only have a short biography and maybe some building inscriptions are mostly forgotten or assumed to have been useless, which might not be entirely fair…5 In Gregory’s case, however, it’s a bit more than just letters that give this impression, as he also wrote some of the fundamental metatexts of Western Christianity, but it really is his letters that show him at full force (as I learnt in a different paper by Chris Wickham, which I don’t think I’ve yet blogged).6 Now, Gregory had complex relationships with the emperors. He was himself a native of the the city of Rome, and descended from senators, but had also spent some time in the imperial court at Constantinople as the papacy’s representative, under Phocas’s predecessor the emperor Maurice (ruled 578-602). During that time, Gregory was more or less unable to obtain Maurice’s help against the Lombards for Rome, and also got into a dispute over the appointment of Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, so it would be fair to say that he and Maurice did not see eye-to-eye. This only got worse when Gregory actually became pope. In the meantime, he had more or less taken over the civil administration of the city of Rome, as he saw it out of necessity and as the exarch saw it out of rebellious presumption, and was using the papal estates in Sicily to feed the city’s poor, thus more or less guaranteeing that in any contest between him and the exarch for their loyalty the citizens would line up behind the pope.7

A view down the Roman Forum towards the Curia from the Palatine Hill

It would be fair to say that now the Column doesn’t stand out much – you may be able to pick it out at the end here, next to the Arch of Septimius Severus – but it must have been even less visible among the buildings which still stood in 608.

Given all this, the fact that we have a monumental column being put up by the exarch in the name of the emperor in the absolute central imperial space in Rome soon after Gregory’s death may now seem a little more pointed. And I do suspect that this was what was going on. Wikipedia is almost certainly right to say (as it currently does):

Rather than a demonstration to mark papal gratitude as it is sometimes casually declared to be, the gilded statue on its column was more likely an emblem of the imperial sovereignty over Rome…

Of course, it wasn’t the same emperor by that time as had so offended Pope Gregory, and Gregory had indeed written very warm letters of congratulations to Phocas on his accession (the nature of which the pope was apparently able to ignore), but notice, all the same, that no column went up for Phocas under Gregory.8 In fact, though it was only four years after Gregory’s death when Smaragdus recycled various other monuments to make this one, that was already three popes, Sabinian (ruled 604-606), Boniface III (ruled 607) and Boniface IV (ruled 607-615), and Boniface IV had had to be bought off with the gift of the old and glorious temple of the Pantheon, which Boniface immediately converted into the church of Holy Mary and the Martyrs as it remains today.

Exterior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The Pantheon from outside, as it now is (or was in autumn of 2017)

Part of the interior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The interior of Holy Mary and the Martyrs needs some impossible wide-angle lens which I didn’t have to do it even partway justice. This is the only photo I took that gives any impression of the vertical space, and it’s still not right (albeit partly because of my cropping off tourist head level at the bottom)

So there are actually quite a few ways to read the Column of Phocas, and in the very little research I’ve done for this post I’ve been through several. It was, obviously, a statement of imperial involvement in the city of Rome once again, after really quite some attenuation. (It did ought to be said that Rome was still an imperial mint, as well, so the other such statement was the coinage, throughout this time, and that has to be put on the other side of the balance.) The Column may also have been an attempt by a slightly desperate imperial official to convince the people, after a decade of papal urban government and provision, that he had some power there, in the face of the recent evidence. And there are probably other ways to read it still. Either way, somehow it is still there, for the most part, and now really not very many people know who either Phocas or Smaragdus were and that this single monument represents about the last time the Roman emperors did something in Rome other than tax it or kidnap the pope to solve a theological dispute.9 But you are now among those people, so I hope it’s been a better way for you of displaying holiday photos than I otherwise had!


1. Ordinarily I would try to do better than this, sorry, but today because it’s late my main source for the actual Column is “Column of Phocas” in Wikipedia, online here.

2. We have discussed here before how the history of early medieval Rome is inadequately written, but some guide to the recent state of developments is to be found in Kate Cooper, Julia Hillner and Conrad Leyser, “Dark Age Rome: towards an interactive topography” in William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado (edd.), Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity, Late Antique Archaeology 3 (Leiden 2006), pp. 311–337.

3. For this the classic work is T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy, A.D. 554-800 (London 1984).

4. Two good biographies are Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: the life and times of Gregory the Great (London 1980) and R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge 1997).

5. One sign of what can be done with even that kind of limited material is Caroline Goodson, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: papal power, urban renovation, church rebuilding and relic translation, 817-824, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 77 (Cambridge 2010), but if there is another such for an earlier pope I don’t know about it.

6. The letters are available in translation, in full as The Letters of Gregory the Great, trans. John R. C. Martyn, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 (Toronto 2004), 3 vols, and in part online here.

7. Failing that paper of Chris Wickham’s, there’s Georg Jenal, “Gregor der Große und die Stadt Rom (590-604)” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 109–145, or relevant bits of Richards or Markus as in n. 4 above.

8. John R. C. Martyn, “Four Notes on the Registrum of Gregory the Great” in Parergon Vol. 19 (Perth 2002), pp. 5–38.

9. This happened more than once; see Judith Herrin, “Constantinople, Rome and the Franks in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries” in Jonathan Shepard and Simon Franklin (eds), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 91–107.

22 responses to “Finding the Medieval in Rome II: trying to be noticed in the Forum Romanum, c. 600

  1. It’s fun to consider what would be left of Rome if the Forces of Woke ran around destroying everything with any connection to slavery.

    • There is, indeed, probably a fairly horrible message in its ruination about what happens to empires that give up on their particular form of maximal labour extraction in favour of citizens’ rights. Engels was of course quite right to point out that the British Empire had enough other systems of labour to exploit mercilessly that it could quite well do without slavery.

  2. See the Last Statutes of Antiquity project database; http://laststatues.classics.ox.ac.uk/database/detail.php?record=LSA-1313 with photos, text, translation, discussion, and bibliography

  3. I’ve always assumed that the suggestion that the condition of, say, a factory worker in Lancashire is analogous to, say, that of a slave on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean is a symptom of appalling judgement or mendacity.

    Though the followers of Engels imposed a slave-like condition on the workers of the USSR and the Soviet Bloc even then it wasn’t remotely as bad as the system suffered by the slaves of Trinidad.

    • How do you measure such a thing? You’re trying to balance civil rights, material comfort, life expectancy, freedom from corporal punishment, prospect of betterment and a dozen other things in some kind of moral recipe where nothing is quantifiable. My preferred definitions of slavery and serfdom, which are different, would both leave out Engels’s Manchester factory workers, just because they couldn’t be sold. But the Modern Slavery Act wouldn’t. And when I read Engel’s Condition of the English Working Class, mainly what I get is that it was a miserable impoverished life that would kill you early and from which no-one was interested in providing a way out. Do we need to weigh that against anything else to understand how the imperial economy relied upon that cheap factory labour? I’m not speaking in moral judgement here, in fact I’m trying to avoid it so as to avoid relativism, but saying that Trinidad or wherever was worse doesn’t destroy the economic logic of colonial-era British industry as a system.

  4. On the sugar plantations the life of the slaves was so short that the owners didn’t even try to breed replacements. They just buried them young and bought more.

    If you insist on a measure there’s a candidate.

    • I’m not insisting on a measure! But if you are trying to argue that we can disregard the plight of the English working class in the first age of industrialisation because the plight of plantation slaves was much worse, then you need one, and maybe there you have one. I don’t quite see how your argument changes mine about the economic logic of that industrialisation, though.

  5. The English working class in the early factories were people who had chosen to give upon the miserable life of a farm labourer to earn more, or more reliable, money elsewhere. They were better placed to judge their advantage than I am or you are.

    • Certainly, which is why I rest instead on judgements of those who were there, in the form of Engels and to an extent Orwell. I don’t suppose these are neutral at all, but neither do I suppose them to have been making stuff up. And yes, the limited luxury of choice was an important difference from the state of a slave, though the terms of definition of so-called ‘modern slavery’ help blur the edges of a situation which, in theory, one could leave, but would in practice never be able to afford to; that was also how later-pattern serfdom worked…

      None of this actually affects the original contention, though, which was that because of a reliable source of socially-compelled labour industrial Britain could easily afford to move away from supporting slavery to condemning it, while maintaining thoroughly dreadful conditions for its own workforces in ways that, as you yourself are showing, could be even be justified by favourable comparison to slavery as the abolitionist movement defined it.

  6. “socially-compelled”? They made their own decisions of their own free will. Or is everything that all of us decide socially-compelled?

    As for abolition, it was a movement led by Quakers and Evangelical Anglicans. It was clearly a new religious dogma. You may argue that their success was helped by the availability of factory workers reducing opposition to their cause, though I don’t see how, given that the factory workers were in England where slavery hadn’t been seen since the Middle Ages.

    The argument seems entirely bogus to me.

    • “socially-compelled”? They made their own decisions of their own free will. Or is everything that all of us decide socially-compelled?

      Well, yes, lots of it anyway, but that’s not what I meant, you’re right. But you’re arguing as if every single worker in the factories was fresh in from some rural village they’d abandoned. But that can only have been true of the first generation of every household. As soon as you had those workers raising families, that was no longer the case, and in any case, the workers had moved in the first place because the farms couldn’t provide enough of a living for them. So they may have chosen to move, but they couldn’t really choose to leave again, even without rent and other debts holding them in place, because there was nowhere viable to go. That’s the point: no way out.

      On the second point, though, I’m not arguing that the industrial economy replaced a slave one. I’m suggesting that having found another way to indenture and constrain labour to the advantage of the rich, and indeed a source of getting rich that wasn’t fundamentally based on agriculture, rent or tax, made it ideologically possible to start disdaining the use of chattel labour. I admit, I don’t have much evidence other than the timing of the abolition movement, though maybe I could find some if I asked the right people, but I don’t think the motivation of the new workers has much effect on the argument whatever it was.

  7. Pingback: Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Motivation is, I would have thought, generally understood as a relatively ‘modern’ concept or notion. The late mediaeval revolution, in the West, by which Luther shattered the ideological domination of Catholic belief, was also the foundation of what we now loosely call ‘individualism’. The concept has no real meaning, I would have thought, if applied to earlier societies and structures of belief….

    • I would disagree, on a great many counts, but since this argument is about the eighteenth century, it’s probably thankfully irrelevant to begin that now. I can’t help wonder whether this means you think that Catholics don’t have individuality or motivation, though.

      • No; but Catholic teaching emphasises the requirement for individuals to be guided by scripture and theological teaching, as approved by church authorities ….

        • Protestantism is also pretty keen on the Scripture. Meanwhile, Catholicism emphasises the need for individuals to take stock of their own actions and responsibilities through the process of confession.

          More academically, there is a lengthy (and old) debate about when the individual ‘developed’. Your position, that it’s an early modern development, is not unusual, and neither is blaming Protestantism and thus implicitly suggesting that everywhere else only gets the idea by virtue of British colonialism. I’ve also seen it suggested that it was an Enlightenment phenomenon, linked to the Encyclopédiste movement and the French Revolution. But going the other way, there’s a medievalist controversy over whether the key point was the twelfth-century Renaissance, when Peter Abélard started arguing that people should use logic and dialectic to interrogate dogma in order to arrive at viable theology. The Protestant argument has to ignore people like Abélard, in so far as there were other people like Abélard. This is also the point when autobiography emerges as a genre (and not just Abélard’s), so there’s material from which to make the argument; it’s hard to see how you can have autobiography without a concept of the individual. And then I could point you to people who aren’t interested in when it developed but just argue that other highly personal sources, like letters and narratives in which the author features, qualify just as well as something strictly autobiographical. And no-one I’ve so far seen seems to consider whether the Romans or Hellenic Greeks had individuality, but I suppose that if the argument is that Christianity darkened human perceptions for a millennium then you can just blame Constantine I for converting everyone to dogma and skip that issue. That still involves missing out all the medieval people who tried to inscribe themselves on the world and posterity, who were unusual in doing so (or at least, in doing so and surviving) but must suffer the condescension of the idea that only Protestantism could begin modernity anyway. If you are interested in counter-examples, Abélard’s History of my Calamities is a good place to start and is online. Then we can try you on Einhard’s letters, or maybe Sidonius Apollinaris. But perhaps you will develop some rigorous criterion for how to measure individual psychological self-perception these people didn’t display. Then we can probably start having fun…

  9. Your point about responsibility and confession for Catholics was well made, but Catholics see confession as a process for obtaining divine absolution, which Protestants sometimes seize upon to expose lack of personal responsibility; childhood jibes used to be that Catholics can sin freely because they can immediately go to confession and have the guilt removed!

    • Oh, indeed, in my youth too. But, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

  10. Many say Paris is the cultural capital of Europe, but for me it´s ancient, medieval, Renaissance Rome !

    “Tully was not so eloquent as thou,
    ⁠Thou nameless column with the buried base!
    ⁠What are the laurels of the Cæsar’s brow?
    ⁠Crown me with ivy from his dwelling-place.
    ⁠Whose arch or pillar meets me in the face,
    ⁠Titus or Trajan’s? No—’tis that of Time:
    ⁠Triumph, arch, pillar, all he doth displace
    ⁠Scoffing; and apostolic statues climb
    To crush the imperial urn, whose ashes slept sublime…”

  11. “Oh, Rome! my Country! City of the Soul!
    ⁠The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
    ⁠Lone Mother of dead Empires! and control
    ⁠In their shut breasts their petty misery.
    ⁠What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
    ⁠The cypress—hear the owl—and plod your way
    ⁠O’er steps of broken thrones and temples—Ye!
    ⁠Whose agonies are evils of a day—
    A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.

    The Niobe of nations! there she stands,
    ⁠Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe
    ⁠An empty urn within her withered hands,
    ⁠Whose holy dust was scattered long ago;
    ⁠The Scipios’ tomb contains no ashes now
    ⁠The very sepulchres lie tenantless
    ⁠Of their heroic dwellers: dost thou flow,
    ⁠Old Tiber! through a marble wilderness?
    Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress.”

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