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Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Some time ago someone got me a copy of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History: 152 popular myths exploded, 2nd edn. (Stroud 2009), as a present. Their reasoning was that as a historian I ought to enjoy it, and eventually I read it and my reactions were sufficiently mixed that I thought a review might be in order. That is, after all, a form of appreciation of a gift, right? It’s made me think…

I have to make some kind of disclosure beforehand, which is that the authors tackle nothing earlier than the eighteenth century and mostly British and European episodes, with some US ones and recent global politics salted over the meat. That despite, I don’t think I’m just ragging on them here from the perspective of the ignored medievalist; they picked that period and area because it’s the one they know, they say early on (p. xv), and indeed their currency with the debates seems pretty clear (though of course, I’m a medievalist, so they could probably fool me pretty easily). And they have a reasonable preface about the different ways in which people can be wrong about history: factual error, uncritical adoption of myth or legend (the one without historical foundation, the other with) and controversy of interpretation leading to an as yet unjustified opinion. At the least, this is thinking work, and I’m not unfriendly to such books, as my occasional mentions of the key medievalist one will have shown.

One does have to wonder about the title, though. As far as I can see, the authors have chosen their particular misapprehensions to combat largely by meeting them as school or college examiners (p. xv), and fair enough, but very few of them meet their own definition of ‘myth’; indeed, ‘Popular Misunderstandings’ is only one of the thirteen chapters, while in the case of some topics like the Carbonari, the Tonypandy Massacre, the Speenhamland system, Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in 1967, the origins of the word ‘dole’ (which they get wrong, because of not knowing their ancient history) or the Ems Telegram, I doubt that there is any really ‘popular’ opinion to correct; some of these things were unknown to me, and I am a historian who tries to talk to his modernist colleagues every now and then and so on. Probably only someone who has examined history A-Levels in the UK for a long time is familiar with everything in this book. Neither, often, do these ‘popular myths’ wind up ‘exploded’; some of them are sustained, most of them are conditioned or qualified and a few outright rejected, but even in those cases the reasons that people have understood incorrectly are also usually set out and seem reasonable in their own terms. So I think the publishers probably have some blame to bear for deciding what would be on the cover of this book and how little relation it might bear to the contents. This is not History debunked: this is, I think, two experienced teachers claiming a right to decide what History is.1

Despite that, the contents often seem pretty good, though not always and the bad cases are worrisome as we’ll see. The balance is about forty-sixty between cases where the authors think that the jury must remain out (so that the ‘popular’ misapprehension is that there is an accepted answer) and cases where there is an answer and it’s not the one the authors think is popularly held. Each controversy is set up with a short summary rubric then the facts as we know them are set out and the changes in historians’ interpretations or the reasons for popular misapprehension exposed. It’s usually clearly and pithily written and it sounds authoritative, though it would take a lot of work to dig up the evidence on which they base their conclusions; there is a decent-looking bibliography (pp. 437-441), thematically organised (and mostly recent) and separated into a reading list and a reference list, the latter apparently being the support for the authors’ judgements but hard to link back to them. Despite that, the book would make a good update for someone who studied modern history a generation ago, I think, though that person might then want to read more than or differently from what he or she is set here.

That reader would need to be more neutral than the authors, indeed, whose own prejudices and interests sometimes loom very large in their writing. This is in part evident in the selection: one or both of them clearly have interests in military history and there is an awful lot of ‘great men’ stuff. But again, I don’t mind that. More problematic are the judgements made in such cases. Is it really a historian’s job to answer such questions as “Talleyrand: was he guided by principle or personal advantage?” (pp. 41-43: the latter, so no explosion here), “The Last Tsar: a vicious tyrant?” (pp. 53-56: thoughtless more than vicious), “How Deserved was the Reputation of President Reagan?” (pp. 205-208: undeserved but deliberately promoted), “Edwardian England: a golden age?” (pp. 179-181: not for anyone below gentry level), “Hitler: dictator or dreamer?” (pp. 319-322: a man without workable plans or the brains to realise that but with the will and opportunity to oppress those who threatened his attempts to bring them about anyway, so, both?), “Disraeli: the father of modern Conservatism?” (pp. 376-379: no!), “The Papacy: was it soft on Fascism and Nazism?” (pp. 398-402: yes but for the sake of survival) or, most of all, “Did Tony Blair betray British Socialism?” (pp. 420-426: socialism already long dead in Britain, sez they)? I could pick many more, and they’re all matters of opinion, as if a historian’s proper job is to guide society’s moral verdict on its architects or attackers. We do, of course, exist partly to make people feel better about things, I admit that, even if another part of our point is to make people question everything, but these potted verdicts are so inherently subjective that I would expect any reader who can follow them to realise that there’s nothing authoritative about them and that one really doesn’t need a historian to reach them.

This is especially worrisome when the authors’ own prejudices come out. They are in general pro-Britain although only in the twentieth century, where all its politicians have apparently done the best they can with limited information except maybe Blair (an absurd topic to include, given that we have only heard most of the evidence while this post has been in draft, six years after the book was even revised)! One of the authors at least, however, is acutely contemptuous of the USA, and this comes out especially in another of these worrying subjective verdict cases, “‘McCarthyism’: did the end justify the means?” (pp. 66-70). Here I’ll quote the most egregious bit (p. 69):

“Could the same phenomenon recur in American affairs? There is little doubt it could. The political leadership of the USA and the bulk of the American nation remain intensely patriotic in their feelings. They are starry-eyed to the point of mawkishness in their love of their homeland, whether or not the ideal qualities for which they regularly lay their hands on their hearts are as evident in their lives as they imagine. It is their firm belief that foreign states are deplorably feeble and cynical in not sharing their shining patriotic vision. To them, a clear-sighted grasp of America’s national interests, a single-mindedness in their country’s interests and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country are absolute imperatives, producing the same gut impulse to ‘save America’ as it did fifty years ago against communism. In this sense the McCarthyite spirit lives on, whatever may the ‘unseen enemy’ that seems to threaten thair sanctified vision of themselves.”

Now this is not history-writing; it’s not even journalism. It’s just defamation, and directed against an individual it would be actionable. What is it doing between covers of a book written by people who believe they are correcting misapprehensions with empirical expertise, and who can write in that same book (p. xi):

“… the borderline between error and deliberate misrepresentation is uncertain and often blurred. Sometimes what originated as a simple error has achieved a certain permanence in people’s minds because it seems appropriate – a myth perhaps even more appropriate than the truth…”?

One wants to use phrases involving words like “mote” and “beam” here, but perhaps the good old Wikimedian protest is still the best one:

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007, http://xkcd.com/285/


1. The book’s cover and online blurb both say, “Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley are history professors and authors of history textbooks.” The latter is easy to substantiate, but I can’t get anything out of the web to show the former. Odd?

The quiet return of the ruler of all

Long-term readers may remember a post from when I was teaching on medieval views of the Apocalypse, in which I looked at some charters from St-Pierre de Beaulieu that mention the end of the world every now and then, and then stopped doing so somewhere around the year 1000. I’m still interested in that kind of inverse evidence for a phenomenon, in which what we can actually see is concern stopping, and I think that last year I found another sort. Consider: in 843 the Synod of Constantinople, under the Empress Theodora as regent for her son Michael III and Patriarch Methodios, relegalised the veneration of images of heavenly persons, or icons, in the Byzantine Empire.1 Meanwhile, at some point between 842, when Theodora’s husband Theophilos died and she assumed the regency for their son, and 856 when she demitted the regency, the gold coinage of the Empire began to show a portrait of Christ on it, and it would continue to feature either Him, the Virgin or a saint, and often more than one, from then on until the empire’s final end in 1453.2 This was, therefore, the beginning of something big, and it seems to have begun with the end of the condemnation of icons.

Gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

One I couldn’t source from the Barber Institute’s collection, alas, a gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

This is not true in a way, because it didn’t quite begin here. You may even remember a very similar-looking portrait on the Barber Institute coins of Justinian II’s first reign (685-695) which I told you all about in March 2015. It would be very neat to be able to say that the promotion of Iconoclasm by Emperor Leo III meant the removal of Christ from the coinage, but it won’t work: for one thing, we are as you may remember no longer sure that Leo III really did very much about icons one way or the other, and for another and more important thing, it was Justinian II’s initial successor Leontius (695-698) who removed Christ from the coinage, not Leo III (717-741). Justinian restored a slightly different portrait of Christ to the coins in his second reign, but that was stopped by his immediate successor Philippikos (711-713). Leo and his descendants certainly did change the coinage, but mainly by putting themselves on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it has frustrated a number of scholars who have hitherto accepted the idea that Iconoclasm was an all-consuming state policy which divided the whole empire that not only does the coinage not show any other trace of this almighty schism, but the coins of the supposedly pro- and anti- parties don’t even really differ.3 So why should the reappearance of Christ, supposedly distinguished by his long hair and Gospel Book as the Pantokrator, ruler of all, already, be connected either?

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Well, whether or not Iconoclasm had been a big deal under Leo III, it had certainly become one by 843. The whole issue had provoked a three-way theological dispute with the papacy and the Carolingian Empire and become a casus belli for several coups (because, like bullying someone for whatever makes them different, any excuse will do for that perhaps, but it became effective propaganda).4 This is the spirit in which our principal written sources for the controversy were written, and the whole reason why our perspectives on Leo III and his son Constantine V are so warped by them.5 Thus, whether or not the removal of Christ from the coinage had been for theological reasons or just to make it clear that Justinian II and all his policies were now gone, for those that knew those coins—and someone obviously had some of them coins at the mint to copy—it would have been seen as theologically motivated by 843. This is how I am trying to get away with arguing that the changes to the coinage in 695 and 711 were not to do with theology and that in 842×856 was, but if you will accept it, it’s another of these cases like the Beaulieu apocalypse charters, in which our sources only expose that something was a concern once it ended!

Triumph orthodoxy


1. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 447-452.

2. I met this fact for the first time while reading Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner & ed. Italo Vecchi (Lancaster PA 2007), where the issues of 843 are discussed p. 30 and illustrated p. 76, but I don’t by any means accept Füeg’s close dating of the issue, for which there is no firm basis.

3. Frustration evident in Philip D. Whitting, “Iconoclasm and the Byzantine Coinage” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingham 1971), pp. 158-163. On the actual coins see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 150-187, but even he performs this same double-think, in which the coinage is unchanged by the advent of Iconoclasm but Irene’s changes to it must be explained in its light, not in the light of her having murdered her son the emperor (p. 158) and Theodora’s restoration of Christ to the coinage (p. 178) is also an Iconodule move. Only the latter seems justified, and even that underexamined.

4. For the Western side of the story see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm and the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009).

5. This is the basic argument of Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era. The sources in question are accordingly discussed in John Haldon & Leslie Brubaker, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era: the sources. An Annotated Survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001). See also Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol 2012).

From the Sources XIII: a Who’s Who of the tenth-century Caucasus

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, image from Wikimedia Commons

Let me return for one last post—for now, at least—to the De Administrando Imperio of Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (913-959).1 I’ve described already how rambling and personal this text can be as one gets closer to Constantine’s own recollections, and how sharply tuned to its purpose it can be beneath that exterior when one presses. At times, the two things coincide, and this is sharpest of all in the sections that cover the disputed and often-autonomous territories at the east end of what is now Turkey heading into the Caucasus, what is now Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan and was then Armenia, Lazica, Iberia and a number of other small polities whose number scholars in Baghdad, at least, considered impossible to count.2 These were areas where by the tenth century, after a long period of stand-off diplomacy, the Byzantine Empire had found it more and more possible to take a direct military interest, which was as Constantine wrote unbalancing local power relations left, right and centre.3 Imperial intervention for one side or another regularly increased the local instability, and it is in this section of the De Administrando Imperio that one really sees how it was done. This was where the kind of mind Constantine had, which could track tiny details of interpersonal relations for dozens of people and work out where a well-aimed gift or sanction would split them out, was exactly the right tool for the job, and having the statecrafter himself to tell you about it is really illuminating.

Map of Armenia and its neighbours in the early- to mid-tenth century

Map of Armenia and its neighbours in the early- to mid-tenth century. By www.armenica.orgwww.armenica.org, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12515076

We begin in the middle of an account “of the country of Taron”, which in the time of Constantine’s father Leo VI was ruled by one Krikorikios (Grigor, or, as we might put it, Gregory).4 Krikorikios was essentially a vassal of the Sultan of Baghdad at this point, but was also contending for the rule of Taron with his cousin Ashot Arkaïkas, and at an uncertain point he managed to capture Ashot’s sons in battle. Ashot wrote for help to Sembat, Prince of Princes of Armenia, and Sembat wrote for help to Emperor Leo. Leo sent a couple of embassies, and with the second one, led by one Constantine Libos, brought Krikorikios’s brother Apoganem (or Abu Ghanim, it’s mixed-up out here) and the two prisoners to Constantinople, honoured Apoganem with the imperial rank of protospatharios and got to keep the kids at the capital. This is where we enter the story:

“After this the said Constantine spent some time in Chaldia, and was then commissioned by imperial mandate to go to Taron and take Krikorikios, prince of Taron, and come to the imperial city; and this he did. When this same Krikorikios had entered the city protected of God, and had been honoured with the rank of magister and military governor of Taron, he was also given for his residence a house called the house of Barbaros, now the house of Basil the chamberlain. He was, moreover, honoured with an annual stipend of ten pounds in gold and a further ten pounds in miliaresia, making twenty pounds in all. After some sojourn in the imperial city, he was escorted back again to his country by this same protospatharius Constantine.

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo VI and Constantine VII, struck at Constantinople between 908 and 912, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4812

This weighs two-and-a-half grams, so ten pounds of them would pile up a bit… Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo VI and Constantine VII, struck at Constantinople between 908 and 912, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4812

“After this, Apoganem came once more to the emperor, of blessed memory, and was advanced by him to the rank of patrician; and he was also permitted to take to wife the daughter of the said Constantine; and on this ground he asked for a house as well and he too received the house of Barbaros, without a golden bull. After receiving the emperor’s bounty, he then returned to his country, with intent to come again and complete the celebration of his marriage; but no sooner was he escorted back to his country than he ended his life, a few days afterwards. His brother Krikorikios sent letters asking that he might come to the imperial city and receive from the hands of the holy emperor the stipend granted to him and sojourn for some while in the city protected of God. Thereupon he proceeded to demand for his residence the house which had been set aside for his brother, and the emperor, of blessed memory, handed it over to him, both because he had lately submitted himself and in order to excite in other princes of the east a similar eagerness for submission to the Romans; but he issued no golden bull making a deed of gift of this house to him.

Chrysobull of Emperor Andronikos II to the church of Monemvasia from 1301, Athens, Byzantine and Greek Museum BXM000534

About three hundred years too late, but, this is one of those golden bulls the text keeps going on about, a chrysobull of Emperor Andronikos II to the church of Monemvasia from 1301 (Athens, Byzantine and Greek Museum BXM534), made of four sheets of parchment glued together

“Several years later, when the emperor Romanos, of blessed memory, had laid hold upon the sceptre of the empire of the Romans, this same Krikorikios reported that he had not the means to keep the house of Barbaros, but demanded that he should receive in its stead a suburban estate in Keltzini, either that of Tatzates or some other, whichever the emperor directed, in order that, when the Agarenes should make an incursion into his country, he might be able to send thither his personal relatives and substance. The emperor, who did not possess an accurate knowledge of the facts, and supposed that the Taronite held the house of Barbaros in virtue of an imperial golden bull of Leo, of blessed memory, gave him the suburban estate of Grigoras in Keltzini and, of course, took back the house; but he too issued no golden bull in favour in respect of the suburban estate.

Modern Erzincan, Turkey

Modern Erzincan, Turkey, central town of the old province of Keltzini where Krikorikios wanted his estate, a lot further from the capital but within plausible fleeing range of Taron all right

“Thereupon Tornikis, nephew of the Taronite and son of the late Apoganem, wrote to this same emperor:

«The house of Barbaros was presented to my father by the emperor Leo, of most blessed memory, but after my father’s death, because I was under age and an orphan, my uncle, in virtue of his authority, took possession of his house, always promising that when I should come of age, I should take over the paternal house; and now, as I have learned, my uncle has given this house to your imperial majesty, and has received in exchange for it the suburban estate of Grigoras in Keltzini.»

“And because of these imperial gifts bestowed on the prince of Taron, envy towards him was implanted and grew up in Kakikios, prince of Basparaka [Gagik Ardzrouni prince of Vaspurakan], and Adranasir, the curopalate of Iberia, and Asotikios [Ashot Erkot], the prince of princes [of Armenia], who wrote to the emperor grumbling at the cause whereby the Taronite alone enjoyed an imperial stipend, while all of them got nothing.

«For what service – they said – is he performing more than we, or in what does he help the Romans more than we do? Either, therefore, we too should be stipendiary as he is, or else he too should be excluded from this largesse.»

The emperor Romanos, of blessed memory, wrote back to them, that the stipend in favour of the Taronite had not been granted by him, that it should now lie with him to cut it off, but by the emperor Leo, of most blessed memory; nor was it right that what had been done by former emperors should be undone by their successors. However, he wrote to this same Taronite informing him that the said parties were vexed and offended. He replied that he could provide neither gold nor silver, but promised to give, over and above the gifts regularly sent, tunics and bronze vessels up to ten pounds in total value, and these he did give for three or four years. But thereafter he reported that he could not provide this tribute, and demanded either that he should receive the stipend gratis as in the time of the emperor Leo, or else that it should be cut off. And so, that it might not cause offence to Kakikios and the curopalate and the rest, the said emperor Romanus, of blessed memory, cut it off. But to console him, as it were, he afterwards honoured his son Asotios, when he came to Constantinople, with patrician rank and entertained him munificently before sending him home.

“On the death of the magister Krikorikios [in 929], Tornikios [Thornik], son of Apoganem, reported that he heartily desired to come and behold the emperor; whereupon the emperor sent the protospatharius Krinitis, the interpreter, who brought the said Tornikios to Constantinople, and the emperor advanced the same Tornikios to the honour of patrician rank. He put forward his claims to the house of Barbaros, and having heard that his uncle had resigned his ownership of it on receipt of a suburban estate in Keltzini, declared that his uncle had no power to effect an exchange in respect of his paternal inheritance, and demanded that he should be given either the house or the suburban estate, failing which, he was for resigning both to the emperor, so that his cousins might not have them. Therefore the emperor, since the old Taronite was now dead, resumed the suburban estate but did not give the house in exchange for it, because, as has already been stated above, no golden bull had been issued in respect of any of these transactions.

Genealogy of the various princes involved here, taken from Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962 repr. Washington DC 2012), p. 161

Genealogy of the various princes involved here, taken from Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962 repr. Washington DC 2012), p. 161

“After this, the late Pankratios, eldest son of that magister Krikorikios the Taronite, came to the imperial city and was advanced by the emperor to the dignity of patrician and was also made military governor of Taron. He asked that he might also be given a wife from among the ladies related to the imperial family, and the emperpr gave him to wife the sister of the magister Theophylact. And after his marriage he made a will, in which he stated: «If children are born to me of this women, they are to have all my country for their ancestral inheritance.» Thereupon he asked the emperor that he might be given the suburban estate of Grigoras for the patrician lady, his wife, to reside there, and after he death this suburban estate should revert to his imperial majesty. The emperor sanctioned this too, and after presenting him with many gifts, sent him with his wife away to his country. Now, the sons of the magister Krikorikios, the same patrician Pankratios and the patrician Asotios, greatly vexed and oppressed their cousin, the patrician Tornikios, who, finding their aggressiveness unendurable, wrote to the emperor to send a trustworthy servant and take over his country, and conduct himself and his wife and their child to the emperor. The emperor sent the protospatharius Krinitis, the interpreter, to take him and conduct himself and his wife and their child to the emperor. But when Krinitis arrived in that country, he found that Tornikios had already departed this life, having devised before his end that all his country should be subject to the emperor of the Romans, and that his wife and child should go to the emperor; and to her, on her arrival, the emperor gave for her residence the monastery in Psomathia of the protospatharius Michael, formerly collector of Chaldia. The said Krinitis was sent back again by the emperor to take over the country of Apoganem, that is, the portion of the patrician Tornikios. But the sons of the Taronite, the cousins of the deceased, sent back a demand that they should give up Oulnoutin [now Ognut] and retain the country of their cousin, for they were quite unable to live if the emperor were to occupy their cousin’s country as his own. The emperor, yielding to his own goodness of heart, fulfilled their request and gave them the country of Apoganem, their cousin, and himself took Oulnoutin with all its surrounding territory. The whole country of Taron was divided in two, one half of it being held by the sons of the magister Krikorikios, the other half by their cousins, the sons of the patrician Apoganem.”

I realise that this is not easy to follow, and I bet it wasn’t at the time either. I can easily picture Romanos’s face when each of these cousins turned up demanding that they should have the estate he’d just been given back by someone who seemed to own it. Problems he didn’t have at sea! But nonetheless, the end result is that the empire, without at any point going to war or even, apparently, more than the implicit use of force presumably involved in escorting all these ambassadors, wound up with a frontier town deep into what had been foreign territory and no tributes to pay. How?

Almost the only image I can find of Ognut as it now is is this rather odd little video promoting a dead website, which suggests that the place may not now be quite what it was in Constantine's days...

Well, none of this would have worked without that very dense family tree, it seems clear. The problem was that there were too many Taronites competing for too little Taron, and Leo had cleverly inserted the empire into this as a source of support, with the result that since the various princes were already in competition they quickly came to compete for that support too. The first generation of princes we’re talking about were fighting with their cousins; by the time we get to the end their own children are all fighting each other. The stakes were small and blood was, apparently, high. It didn’t therefore really matter that the support was very little material use to them, as we can see; indeed, it could apparently cost them more than they could afford in the barely-mentioned but presumably usual tribute arrangements that paid for this promotion. It was worth being an imperial patrician back home in Taron all the same, presumably, even if all it meant was that you had the evidence of having friends in the highest of places. Of course, once all your cousins were also patricians that wore off also, but maybe you could get some symbolic capital out of owning a nice house in Constantinople or a manor in Mesopotamia even if your other cousin was, for now, the recognised governor. When Krikorikios gave the estate in Keltzini back to Romanos, Tornikios was thus cut out of the competition; no wonder he made a stink about it, what did he now have to lose? And he was sufficiently desperate, and apparently sufficiently unable to reach any kind of modus vivendi with his cousins, that even a guarantee that the emperor would not give them stuff was enough to buy his loyalty right up to the contrary end where rather than let his cousins have it (and deprive his son) he would rather hand his whole province over to the empire. That is the kind of enmity you can use! The emperors, both Leo and, once he got a grasp of the situation, Romanos, thus roped these princes into something like a card game in which the dealer was able every now and then to take a card from their hands and make them carry on without it. They don’t seem to have fancied their chances challenging the casino bouncers, and so the house won.

All of this seems quite a lot like the kind of pacts with individual princes, declarations of protection and interventions in defence of its own interests that extended the British power in India; the end of the Maratha Empire has some especially relevant-looking parallels. The difference is, of course, that whereas those deals were negotiated by various officers of the East India Company, this is a lot more like the King (or Queen) of England playing host to the Maharaja at Windsor Castle and lending him a small chunk of Yorkshire to call home in the cricket season. The emperors themselves were deeply involved in this interpersonal network, not least because as Romanos found if you didn’t stay at least passingly familiar with it things went sideways, but also because that connection to the emperor was actually what the Byzantines primarily had to offer; we’ve already seen that it wasn’t about money, and I suppose that the various offices only meant what they could be made to mean once you were back in Taron. It meant keeping the whole web of relations not just present but past in your head, but Constantine was obviously good at that, and wrote it down for his son because he thought his son would need to be good at it too.

The other part of it that interests me is these high-powered ambassadors knitting it all together, not just grand dignitaries but people whom the emperors could send, presumably as I say with a small but powerful contingent of troops, into what is essentially a city under siege to get the ruler’s family out; again, parallels from the British involvement in Southern Asia spring to mind and I wonder what stories could be told about Constantine Libos and Krinitis and what kind of men they were.5 Doubtless our imperial author could have told a few such stories, and it’s annoying in a way that he did not, but there is, you have to admit, plenty to go on here already…


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, new edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967, repr. 1993).

2. Stephen Runciman, “Cc. 43-46/165″, in Romilly J.&ngsp;H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 156-180, at p. 158: “The Caucasian nations to the north and east, of which Mas’udi says that ‘God alone knows the number’…” Runciman gives no citation, but if you want to hunt it down there’s a translation of the first book of al-Mas’udi’s Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems online here and at the moment Wikipedia gives links to the full edition and French translation.

3. My grip on the historical context is all coming from Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c. 500-1492 (Cambridge 2008), here especially Shepard, “Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)”, ibid. 493-536 and Tim Greenwood, “Armenian Neighbours”, ibid. pp. 333-364, the latter of which the author appears sportingly to have put online here, although a lot of the detail in the commentary comes from Runciman, “Cc. 43-46/165″.

4. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c. 43, whence also translation quoted below. Ordinarily in these posts I provide a text of the original to go with my translation, but since the DAI is online I figure you can just go and look there. Names in square brackets are modern Armenian or Turkish, transliterated into English as per Runciman, “Cc. 43-46/165″.

5. Ibid. pp. 162-163 & 165, suggest that some such stories could be told: there is apparently enough in Theophanes Continuatus to explain that Constantine’s byname, which Runciman renders as ‘Lips’ but I have changed to try and minimise confusion, means ‘son of the south wind’ and comes from an event at the dedication of a church he built, for example, and there are some data on a man who may be the right Krinitis. Still: Constantine would have known more…

Ethnogenesis for every occasion

I now want to turn back for a post to the text I was reading at about this time last year, the De Administrando Imperio of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. I’ve already said something about the composite and confusing nature of this text, but I want here to look a little bit more closely at some of its internal contradictions, and that with particular regard to the variation it offers in national origin myths.1 This is clearest in the Balkans, and the interpretation of Constantine’s information there is a tricky matter, as is almost anything in the Balkans really. One can see why this is with no trouble: since 1918, and then again since 1992, there have been a number of different recognised nationalities there competing for space with each other and for either freedom or support from bigger powers to help them in that competition. Explaining all this has naturally enough resulted in work to establish the roots of the nationalities concerned in their desired home area, and Constantine seems to help with this as the stories he provides seem to testify, if not to actual events (though some would claim that they do), at least to long-established beliefs available to a tenth-century enquirer about what had happened when these various peoples arrived centuries before.2

Wikipedia map of early Serbian settlements in the Balkans

For example, this Wikipedian map claims that it is ‘mostly according to the De Administrando Imperio’, but I bet that you could construct another that would make Croatia the bigger territory, also ‘mostly’ on the basis of Constantine’s information…

In particular, our ailing emperor is the first source we have to use a word that is cognate to the modern ‘Croat’ for some of these people, and to distinguish the area inhabited by such Croats from other areas inhabited by Slavs. (He is also, I should say, fascinating about the innumerable separated ex-Roman peoples who were left along the coast by the Byzantine retreat, and their journey into ethnicity is one I would like someone to do more with–but of course, they became part of other people’s identities in the end, so don’t get their own history.3) It’s not just Balkan scholars who have leapt at this text, of course: scholars of the Russians and Hungarians, all working without the aid of home-grown historical writing this early, have also seen in Constantine’s apparent lack of editing some hope that the materials he preserved represent the authentic popular memory of authentic Slavic, Rus’ or Magyar informants, even if sometimes passed through Greek-literate intermediaries.4 Efforts to push back the date of the information he records may also have the same ultimate motives; thus Francis Dvornik developed a complex hypothesis about the Balkan material by which reports from officials dating from no later than 912 were compiled around 944 by Constantine and then combined with a newer but Slavic (and “truer”) story about the origin of the Croats around 952, all from clues within the text.5 I’m not going to say he was wrong, either, but really all we can say for sure is that Constantine had all the material he used by 952.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS grec. 2009, fo. 3r

The opening page of the earliest mansucript of the De Administrando Imperio, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS grec. 2009, fo. 3r. The thing on the left is some tables from the Letter of Pythagoras to Laïs, which was later bound into the same codex.

He was also presumably not working without some editorial purpose, but sometimes it is very hard to perceive. He gives three accounts of the arrival of the Croats in the Balkans, in fact, none of which fully agree and one of which is internally self-contradictory. In the first place, he tells us that all was peaceful south of the Danube till the Romans crossed it one day in a spirit of adventure and, finding “unarmed Slavonic nations, who were also called Avars”, there, raided them fairly thoroughly and then garrisoned the Danube so as to go on doing that, whereupon the Slavs (“who were also called Avars”) decided that this had to stop, apparently armed themselves, ambushed a Roman detachment and then got through the frontier pass at Klis under their captured standard, whereafter they sprang upon Salona and established themselves there, and all the Romans of the land fled to the coastal cities where they remain.6 Now, not only do we know that this is not true—Slavs served in the Avar military effort but the peoples are distinguished fairly consistently by Roman authors, Salona took years to fall, in the seventh century (whereas Constantine later says this happened 500 years before his date of writing in 952!), and so on—but Constantine had different information too, in the form of the Chronicle of Theophanes that he quotes extensively and, indeed, from whose author he even claims descent.7 But this is the story he tells this time, and although several morals can be seen in it it’s hard to know exactly which one Romanos II was supposed to take from it: that the Balkans were lost because of Roman greed? that the Slavs are fierce, cunning and capable of deceit? or that modern-day Kotor, Dubrovnik, Split, Trogir, Rab, Bekla and Osor were all places that could still be claimed as Byzantine possessions?8

The bit that follows immediately doesn’t make this much clearer:

“Since the reign of Heraclius, emperor of the Romans, as will be related in the narrative concerning the Croats and Serbs, the whole of Dalmatia and the nations about it, such as Croats, Serbs, Zachlumi, Terbouniotes, Kanalites, Diocletians and Arentani, who are also called Pagani… But when the Roman Empire, through the sloth and inexperience of those who governed it and especially in the time of Michael from Amorion, the Lisper, had declined to the verge of total extinction, the inhabitants of the cities of Dalmatia became independent, subject neither to the emperor of the Romans nor to anybody else, and, what is more, the nations of those parts, the Croats and Serbs and Zachlumites, Terbouniotes and Kanalites and Diocletians and the Pagani, shook off the reins of the Empire of the Romans and became self-governing and independent, subject to none. Princes, as they say, these nations had none, but only ‘zupans’, elders, as is the rule in the other Slavonic regions. Moreover, the majority of these Slavs were not even baptised, and remained unbaptized for long enough. But in the time of Basil, the Christ-loving emperor, they sent diplomatic agents, begging and praying him that those of them who were unbaptized might receive baptism and that they might be, as they had originally been, subject to the empire of the Romans.”

Of course Basil II obliged, and his rather messy wars of conquest in the area are overlooked, as indeed is the earlier mission to these areas under Saints Cyril and Methodius.9 At one level the immediate political point of this is obvious: all these peoples are ours, by their own decision, and they owe us both liberty and Salvation, the latter no doubt having implications about authority over the local churchmen. But the claims made on the way are really curious: the whole area was in Byzantine hands until the reign of Michael II (820-29)? and became that way under Heraclius (610-41)? Most modern histories would regard Heraclius’s as the reign in which these areas were lost!10 Furthermore, Constantine seems to know that at some other level, because after a long run through the topography and history of the ‘Roman’ coastal cities, which is to me what this chapter is really about, he finds another way in the next chapter. First he retells the story about the Avars (definitely them this time) hitting back at Roman raiders and getting into Roman territory under false colours then taking Salona with the same trick. Then he goes on:

“Only the townships on the coast held out against them and continued to be in the hands of the Romans, because they obtained their livelihood from the sea. The Avars, then, seeing this land to be most fair, settled down in it. But the Croats at that time were dwelling beyond Bavaria, where the Belocroats are now. From them split off a family of five brothers, Kloukas and Lobelos and Kosentzis and Mouchlo and Chrobatos, and two sisters, Touga and Bouga, who came with their folk to Dalmatia and found the Avars in possession of that land. After they had fought one another for some years, the Croats prevailed and killed some of the Avars and the remainder they compelled to be subject to them. And so from that time the land was possessed by the Croats, and there are still in Croatia some who are of Avar descent and are recognized as Avars. The rest of the Croats stayed over against Francia, and are now called Belocroats, that is, white Croats, and have their own prince; they are subject to Otto, the great king of Francia, of Saxony, and are unbaptized, and intermarry and are friendly with the Turks. From the Croats who came to Dalmatia a part split off and possessed themselves of Illyricum and Pannonia; they too had an independent prince, who used to maintain friendly contact, though through envoys only, with the prince of Croatia.

'Dolazak Hrvata na Jadran' ('The Coming of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea'), painted in 1905 by Oton Iveković (d. 1939)

‘Dolazak Hrvata na Jadran’ (‘The Coming of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea’), painted in 1905 by Oton Iveković (d. 1939) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. This, we might regard as a positivist reading of our source…

“For a number of years the Croats of Dalmatia also were subject to the Franks, as they had formerly been in their own country; but the Franks treated them with such brutality that they used to murder Croat infants at the breast and cast them to the dogs. The Croats, unable to endure such treatment from the Franks, revolted from them, and slew those of them whom they had for princes. On this, a large army from Francia marched against then, and after they had fought one another for seven years, at last the Croats managed to prevail and destroyed all the Franks with their leader, who was called Kotzilis. From that time they remained independent and autonomous, and they requested the holy baptism from the bishop of Rome, and bishops were sent who baptized them in the time of Porinos their prince.”11

So are you following? These people, who the previous chapter had been Byzantine subjects since at least 641, have now been independent ever since they threw off Frankish rule, in what is presumably a reference to the rebellions against Louis the Pious and his régime in Pannonia of the 820s.12 They were also baptised by Roman missionaries at about that time, but last chapter were still pagan in the reign of Basil II (886-912). Interestingly, they move as a family group with hangers-on: this really is something like a tribal migration as Constantine tells it, and that seems to be because whoever was telling it was aware of a family of princes with particular claims to the over-rule of connected peoples. In other words, where the previous chapter looked like a statement of a Byzantine political position, this looks much more like a Croat one, although it presumably still had a use for Constantine. My guess would be that this was the abrogation of any claim the Franks might make to the control of these people, voided by illegitimate brutality, just rebellion and right of combat. So again we can see a purpose, but then there is a third version…

“The Croats who now live in the region of Dalmatia are descended from the unbaptized Croats, also called ‘white’, who live beyond Turkey and next to Francia, and have for Slav neighbours the unbaptized Serbs. ‘Croats’ in the Slav tongue means ‘those who occupy much territory’. These same Croats arrived to claim the protection of the emperor of the Romans Heraclius before the Serbs claimed the protection of the same emperor Heraclius, at that time when the Avars had fought and expelled from those parts the Romani whom the emperor Diocletian had brought from Rome and settled there, and who were therefore called ‘Romani’ from their having been translated from Rome to those countries, I mean, to those now called Croatia and Serbia. These same Romani having been expelled by the Avars in the days of this same emperor of the Romans Heraclius, their countries were made desolate. And so, by command of the emperor Heraclius these same Croats defeated and expelled the Avars from those parts, and by mandate of Heraclius the emperor they settled down in that same country of the Avars, where they now dwell. These same Croats had at that time for prince the father of Porgas. The emperor Heraclius sent and brought priests from Rome, and made of them an archbishop and bishop and elders and deacons, and baptized the Croats; and at that time these Croats had Porgas for their prince.”13

So, in this version it’s not at all clear who controls the territory into which our migrants, again with a named prince, move. It’s waste, because the Romani have moved out; it’s Roman, because the Slavs come to Heraclius to get their permission to settle; it’s Avar, because the Avars have to be chucked out of it… But the important thing is that it’s Heraclius who decides, both on the settlement and on the Christianization; the pope’s rôle is reduced to ancillary of the emperor, and the mission of Cyril and Methodius is again apparently just too embarrassing or compromised to mention. This, alone of the three, looks like a fudge to match the previous stories and Byzantium’s claims to the contrary with the chronology of what actually happened, as far as we can tell, that the area fell under local control after Heraclius pulled out the troops to fight against Persia and that the papacy sent a mission into Dalmatia in the year of Heraclius’s death, although to recover relics and ransom captives rather than to convert Slavs.14 These may indeed have been things that were remembered at Split, which later claimed to have been made an archbishopric at about this time.15 The point, again, would seem to be that whoever was in control here it certainly wasn’t the Franks, but the papacy’s relegation to imperial auxiliary, actually truer than you might think given that Pope Martin I was imprisoned for some time in Constantinople for non-cooperation with the emperors, might also have had a special bite by the point where control of the Balkans and its bishoprics was once more on the Byzantine agenda.16

The cathedral of St Domnius, Split

The cathedral of St Domnius, Split, potentially source of a lot of Constantine’s confusion but itself also a testimony to the complexities it was trying to reconcile: the octagonal nave began as the mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian (284-307), who was of course a persecutor of Christians…

So what is to make of all this contradiction? Obviously there were different stories in circulation by the tenth century about what had happened in the seventh, which is not surprising. As we have them here, however, all of them can be read as serving a Byzantine political agenda: in the first case, the uninterrupted claim to the coastal cities of the Romani is the key, no matter what else it means admitting, but it is also worth asserting religious sponsorship of the Slavic peoples in those cities’ ecclesiastical orbits; in the second place, the key point is probably that any claim that the ‘Franks’ (which by Constantine’s time was the Ottonians for all functional purposes) could raise over the northern Balkans had been voided by their ancient conduct and the Croats’ brave resistance; in the third place, the point is that the peoples of this area hold their lands by imperial concession and that their Christianity ultimately also has such an origin. This probably makes it dangerous to assume that any of this stuff is reaching us unspun; Constantine may indeed have had local informants informing his sources, but what we have here is a selection of material to a purpose; you have to assume that if it had not served that purpose it could have been adjusted to do so.

But, you may say, it’s still a contradictory mess. How could Constantine put this stuff together and expect it all to work? Well, it works to its purpose, doesn’t it? If we think he was actually interested in recording the history of these peoples, we’re probably right, but this selection of the material he had was not being made for that purpose, but to underpin Byzantine diplomacy. This is a lot clearer in a much earlier part of the book that deals with how to handle excessive demands for treasure from barbarian ambassadors (apparently a common problem). Compare the above and the claims I have argued they probably support to this:

“Should they ever require and demand, whether they be Chazars, or Turks, or again Russians, or any other nation of the northerners and Scythians, as frequently happens, that some of the imperial vesture or diadems or state robes should be sent to them in return for some service or office performed by them, then thus you shall excuse yourself: «These robes of state and the diadems, which you call ‘kamelaukia’, were not fashioned by men, nor by human arts devised or elaborated, but, as we read in secret stories of old history, when God made emperor Constantine the great, who was the first Christian emperor, He sent him these robes of state by the hand of His angel, and the diadems which you call ‘kamelaukia’, and charged him to lay them in the great and holy Church of God, which… is called St. Sophia; and not to clothe himself in them every day, but only when it is a great public festival of the Lord… Moreover, there is a curse of the holy and great emperor Constantine engraved upon this holy table of the church if God, according as he was charged by God through the angel, that if an emperor for any use or occasion or unreasonable desire be minded to take of them and either himself misuse them or give them to others, he shall be anathematized as the foe and enemy of the commands of God, and shall be excommunicated from the church… And mighty dread hangs over them who are minded to transgress any of these divine ordinances. For one of the emperors, Leo by name, who also married a wife from Chazaria, out of his folly and rashness took up one of those diadems when no festival of the Lord was toward, and without the approval of the patriarch put it about his head. And straightway a carbuncle came forth upon his forehead so that in torment at the pains of it he evilly departed his evil life, and ran upon death untimely….»”17

That, judging by the wife, would be Leo IV (775-780), whose wife Eirini (797-802) was famously from Khazaria and apparently counted as one of his bad decisions, but obviously real history is not the concern here; what is concerned here is what sounds both impressive enough and ancient enough to shut up your peremptory barbarian visitors. There are I think, after putting this post together (it was originally supposed to be about migration, would you believe?), that we have to see the various Croat origin myths in the same way. Yes, so they contradict each other; who cares? You’ll only be using one of them when you need historical backing for the claim of the moment, choose the one that fits! This text is not a set of historical accounts, for all that it is often used as one; it is a grab-bag of historical justifications for claims the emperor might need to make in negotiations. “Oh no: we appoint the archbishops of Salona, no matter what this new pope may say. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.” “The Croats? Yes: valuable subjects! Did you know that the Bulgars have never ever defeated them? The Christ-loving Heraclius was right to let them settle in the Empire after the Franks betrayed God’s trust over them.” And so on. None of it has to be true; it had to be useful, and could have been crafted to be so. This goes some way to redeeming Constantine from some of the charges of boozy slapdash editing I was vaguely raising last time, perhaps, and makes us think harder about what his use for history really was. The pity for us is that as I have been saying for many many years, to use history is pretty much the same as to misuse it…


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, new edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967, repr. 1993).

2. Critical appraisals in Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66, and John V. A. Fine Jr, When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans: a study of identity in pre-nationalist Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia in the medieval and early-modern periods (Kalamazoo 2006), pp. 23-26. For a more traditional reading see Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36” in Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio: a commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 93-142 at pp. 93-101. Curta provides references to more modern pro-national readings of the text. As with some of the Catalan issues with which I work it’s rather uncomfortable here that all the voices denying these modern nations their ancient roots write in English (although not always only in English) and the pro-national opposition stays in the local languages, but some indication of the market for the old-fashioned reading might be found in the existence of K. Y. Grot (transl.), Izvestiya Konstantina Bagryanorodnogo O Serbah I Horvatah I Ih Rasselenii Na Balkanskom Poluostrove (n. p. 2013).

3. I’ve no idea what’s good to read on these coastal cities, but a quick search brings information to me on these: Ivo Goldstein, “Byzantine rule on the Adriatic (in Dalmatia, Istria and on the Western Adriatic): possibilities for a comparative study” in Acta Histriae Vol. 7 (Koper 1999), pp. 59-76; Ivan D. Stevovic, “Byzantium, Byzantine Italy and cities on the eastern coast of the Adriatic: the case of Kotor and Dubrovnik” in Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog Instituta Vol. 39 (Beograd 2001), pp. 165-182, DOI: 10.2298/ZRVI0239165S (no longer maintained); and Nenad Fejic, Dubrovnik (Raguse) au Moyen-Age : espace de convergence, espace menacé (Paris 2010).

4. Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 96-101, 112-114 & 118, esp. 114; Gyula Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42” in Jenkins, Commentary, pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, esp. 146, does the same thing for Hungary and Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid. pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42, esp. 42, does it for the Rus’.

5. Dvornik as in n. 4 above, “truer” at p. 101.

6. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  29, ll. 13-49.

7. See Curta, Making of the Slavs, pp. 139-140; Fine, When Ethnicity Did Not Matter, pp. 22-23. Constantine’s claim to be descended from Theophanes is at De Administrando Imperii, c. 22, ll. 77-82.

8. These cities are all named in Greek ibid., c. 29, ll. 50-53; I take the Croatian names from Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 106-110.

9. On Basil II see Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the governance of Empire (976-1025) (Oxford 2005); for Cyril and Methodius I’m kind of still going on Alexis P. Vlasto, The entry of the Slavs into Christendom: an introduction to the medieval history of the Slavs (Cambridge 1970), and there must by now be something better, but I don’t know what it is. Any suggestions?

10. Summary of recent debates is available in Mitko B. Panov, “Reconstructing 7th century Macedonia: some neglected aspects of the miracles of St Demetrius” in Istorija: Journal of History Vol. 47 (Skopje 2012), pp. 93-115.

11. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  30, ll. 60-90.

12. My understanding here comes largely from the Royal Frankish Annals as presented in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125 with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa. 818-823, topped up with Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

13. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  31, ll. 3-25.

14. On the dating of the withdrawal, see Curta, Making of the Slavs, pp. 169-189. The papal mission is mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, but I learn that from Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 125-126, and haven’t been to look.

15. Ibid.; this time the source is held to be reflected in the thirteenth-century History of Split by Thomas the Archdeacon, apparently published as Thomas Archidiaconus, Historia Salonitana, ed. Franjo Racki, Monumenta spectantia historiam Slavorum meridionalium (Scriptores) 26.3 (Zagreb 1894), but again I’ve not been to look and Thomas surely had his own agenda.

16. The easiest study on Pope Martin I’s troubles is probably Bronwen Neil, “Commemorating Pope Martin I: His Trial in Constantinople” in Studia Patristica Vol. 39 (Leuven 2006), pp. 77-82. On the situation in the Balkans in Constantine’s era see now Jonathan Shepard, “Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)” in idem (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020 at pp. 503-518.

17. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  13, ll. 24-66.

Merchants in clerics’ clothing

Sorry: marking, a conference overseas and the finality of the semester’s teaching have kept me too busy to be active here; it’s not really catching up, is it? Still: if you were keeping an obsessive eagle eye on what I say on this blog, which presumably only I actually do, you might have noticed that by taking some affable and underresearched swings at David Bachrach’s recent book a few posts ago, I have moved into the posts promised in my catch-up post of last July that even now hangs at the bottom of the sticky announcement posts on the front page, and the new step towards Byzantium is also part of that. While reading Constantine VII, however, I was also reading the work of Mark Handley, a long acquaintance of this blog, and you can see from the catch-up post that I had high praise for it, and one tiny niggle.1

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales, though not material for Mark since there’s nothing there to identify the deceased as non-local.2

The praise must come first, of course. Mark makes almost of all his contentions almost inarguable by virtue of having a well-managed database of evidence, in this case of inscriptions from right across the late Roman and early medieval Mediterranean, from which he selects those dealing with people who are identified in some way as being out of place, foreign, or else merchants or travellers, a sample of 621 people overall, and he uses this to test the many generalisations that are out there about such groups, like the predominance-to-exclusion of Syrians (or Jews) in Mediterranean maritime trade of the period, about directions of travel and foci of movement and so on. Some surprising things come out of this: for example, the largest sample of such inscriptions outside of Rome itself comes not from one of the other big maritime entrepôts but from Salona in the Balkans, which Mark admits he himself had not expected.3 Quite a lot of things come out of it that conflict with the views of other scholars too, and they get deliciously definite rebuttal in the extensive footnotes. I really do recommend this book as a scholarly read, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But of course, it being me, I do have a niggle.

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor, again out of Mark’s compass but one of these things that I have actually seen

The niggle is in some ways a danger of database work as much as anything else. Obviously to make it usefully sortable, searchable and organisable you want your data as atomised as possible, and this makes fields that contain more than one sort of data difficult. If one has categories into which a datum, be that a person or whatever, needs to be fitted, it is sometimes hard to let it go into more than one category; otherwise it winds up getting double-counted. Perhaps something like that explains this:

“Secondly, the evidence gathered here firmly indicates that many Syrians, and indeed others from the East attested in the West, were not engaged in commerce. Many 5th-c. Syrian solders were commemorated at Concordia; two Syrian priests are known from Salona; a Syrian sub-deacon is known at Tomis; Flavia Marthana, a nun from Antioch, is commemorated at Bolsena; a Syrian primipilarius is known in Gigen; and the woman Eusebia from Syria had lived in Trier 15 years before she died in 409. A Syrian lawyer was commemorated at Kallatis, and a Syrian stone-worker at Sofia. We should not add a ‘dot’ on a map to indicate a Syrian ‘trader’ when Agnellus of Ravenna states that the first 16 bishops of Ravenna were Syrian, when a Syrian autocephalous bishop attended the second council of Seville in 619, or when the Syrian Johannes helped Gregory of Tours with some Greek texts. Not all Syrians in the West were traders.”4

You may be wondering what needs explaining here, since this is pretty obviously methodologically right in summary, and many of these people are clearly not traders. But were none of them? You see, this puts me in mind of a story from Catalonia, as so many things do. In 1018 the chapter of Barcelona received a substantial bequest of cloth from a Flemish merchant called Robert who had fallen ill at the city while on a voyage, and made an emergency will for the good of his soul before dying, this largely at the behest of a Barceona canon by the name of Bonnuç. This actually got the chapter into trouble, because a few days later Robert’s brother turned up to reclaim the goods, and in the end the canons had to pay him off to be allowed to pray for his brother’s soul and keep at least some of the bequest. But the interesting thing from our immediate point of view is that Bishop Æci also made a gift of cloth for the merchant’s soul, and he had bought that cloth from none other than Bonnuç, who suddenly appears to have been Robert’s contact in the city, at least by the time Robert’s final deal was closed.5 So does Bonnuç go into our notional database as a cleric, or as a trader?

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Clerics are in general a potential problem with this sort of categorisation, in fact. As a sometime numismatist I think rapidly of Bishop Eligius of Noyon, Saint Eloy, who was a goldsmith before he came to the Church and who seems to have continued to dabble thereafter.6 And at roughly the same time, as Mark himself notes:

“Gregory of Tours, Hist. 7.30 and 10.25, record a Syrian merchant Euphronius at Bordeaux and another Syrian merchant Eusebius becoming bishop of Paris, respectively.”

The latter is actually 10.26 and Gregory says no more about the guy than that he was a merchant and a Syrian by race (“negotiator genere Syrus”), and that he was elected by bribery.7 Do we know anything else about the guy? I don’t think, in any case, we should assume that this precludes him nonetheless being in holy orders, or indeed precludes him continuing trading once appointed. The more I look at the Catalan Church the more I see deacons with day-jobs being involved members of the chapters of cathedrals precisely because of those day-jobs, and yet the more I look at churches in other areas the less unusual the Catalan one seems to be.8 Mark may have accidentally provided me with more evidence for this! I’m sure that in outline and in most of his detail he’s right, and I don’t by any means want to restore the Syrian people’s historiographical monopoly on early medieval sea travel, but it is as I say the devil of database work on people that they won’t stay in the categories we set up for them.


1. M. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-Antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).

2. It is V. E. Nash-Williams (ed.), Catalogue of Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff 1950), no. 214, for those that care about such things.

3. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 97, with detail pp. 78-82.

4. Ibid., pp. 83-84, with the copious references to inscriptions in his appendix cruelly elided here.

5. The documents are now best printed as Josep Baucells i Reig, Àngel Fàbrega i Grau, Manuel Riu i Riu, Josep Hernando i Delgado & Carme Batlle i Gallart (edd.), Diplomatari de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona: segle XI, Diplomataris 37-41 (Barcelona 2006), 5 vols, online here, doc. nos 121 & 125. The canonical study is Philippe Wolff, “Quidam homo nomine Roberto negociatore” in Le Moyen Àge Vol. 69 (Paris 1963), online here, pp. 129-139.

6. Bishop Dado of Rouen, Vita sancti Eligii, ed. Wilhelm Levison as “Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis” in Passiones vitaeque sanctorum ævi Merovingicarum, ed. Bruno Krusch, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902, repr. 1997), online here, pp. 669-742, transl. Jo Ann McNamara as “Life of St. Eligius of Noyon” in Thomas Head (ed.), Medieval Hagiography: an anthology (New York City NY 2000), pp. 137-168, a fuller version without notes online here.

7. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 84 n. 104. The source is Gregory of Tours, Libri decem historiarum, edd. Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison as Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1937-1951, repr. 1992), transl. Lewis Thorpe as The History of the Franks (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

8. See Paul H. Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: Tradition and Regeneration in Medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here, pp. 21-25; cf. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 122-125.

Learning from an ailing emperor

The last two posts have involved rather a lot of me getting things wrong in a more or less embarrassing fashion, including about stuff I’ve either taught or written about. Obviously the thing to do next is to start giving opinions about a text written in a language I don’t even read, right? In fact, that might even be safer since at least here I know roughly how much I don’t know… But I have been meaning to write about this since the run-up to the Leeds International Medieval Congress last year, and my current somewhat shaky form isn’t going to stop me. So I want to introduce you to the work known as De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII (913-959).1

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, image from Wikimedia Commons

You see, last academic year I was under a certain amount of social pressure to identify as a Byzantinist, what with the second-best Byzantine coin collection in the world (so it has been claimed) in my charge. I was also trying to get people to participate in a grand effort of comparison of medieval frontiers, and needed to come up with something for a Leeds session on that subject. And so I thought that it would be potentially interesting to compare what my speciality medieval magnate, Count Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993), did with his frontiers to what a completely different but roughly contemporary polity, which given my immediate circumstances should most obviously be the Byzantine Empire, did with some of its. And having declared such an intent, the obvious next step was the De Administrando Imperio.

Now, there are lots of things about this text that struck me and I want to write about at least a couple, without anticipating the actual paper too much since I have every hope that a version of it will some day go into print.2 But to say anything useful about what the De Administrando says it seemed more and more to me that the first step was to understand what it is, which should be simple but isn’t. What it immediately appears to be is a manual of statecraft by a Byzantine Emperor, written for his son and future successor Romanus II (959-963). In fact, firstly not very much of it is explicitly about the administration of the Empire and secondly quite a lot of it is not by Constantine VII.3 I’ll try and explain…

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871; Constantine is the little one on the left

In the first place one has to understand Constantine’s own life situation.4 He was son of the successful Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) but was only two when Leo died, so although he succeeded he did so alongside his uncle Alexander (912-913), who kept his nephew mostly excluded from power during his short reign. Once Alexander was dead Constantine’s mother Zoe became leader of a regent council, but was for one reason or another unable to hold onto that status and the admiral of the fleet, Romanus Lecapenus, more or less took power in 919, marrying his daughter Helena to Constantine in that year and then assuming co-emperorship in 920.

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Over Romanus I’s long and more or less successful reign (920-944) power was shuffled and reconfigured again and again, it seems, with his own sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine becoming co-emperors alongside and indeed in front of Constantine VII, in terms of how they were presented in public display and on the coinage.5 Another of his sons, Theophylact, became Patriarch of Constantinople in 933, although far too young. Christopher, who seems to have been the intended heir, however died in 931, and after that Romanus seems to have accepted that his other sons would not be able to keep Constantine VII from power, and returned him to a more obvious rôle. Constantine was spared the bother of a contest, however, because in 944 Stephen and his imperial brother decided they’d waited long enough, kidnapped their father and deposed him and when they returned to Constantinople the people rose against them and demanded that Constantine VII take sole power. Usurper father and rebels sons all died as monks, although Stephen outlived both Constantine VII and Romanus II. It’s a messy story.

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959 but let’s be honest, could be earlier too; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

What it all means for us, however, is that until 944 Constantine VII had a lot of time on his hands, and he seems to have spent a lot of this buried in books and the archives of the imperial palace. By the time he came to the throne he had a better idea than most about what the empire had been and some strong ideas about what it should now be, based not least on a series of treatises he had written, of which the De Administrando was only one.6 But he proceeded by compilation, pulling in materials of all vintages, so that the empire he reconstructed, and in the case of his book on imperial ceremony even enacted, was an empire that had never quite been, not all at once.

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII, by Hxseek at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6342264

This applies no less to the De Administrando, but this raises particular excitement for scholars of the areas that he covers. These are, more or less, the frontiers with non-Islamic powers: it starts with the Pechenegs and the various other peoples who can affect them, including Rus’, Bulgarians and Turks, then talks at length about the way the Rus’ get to Constantinople, briefly about how to constrain the the Khazars, then goes off for many chapters into a reprise of the early history of Islam, largely retold from the Chronographia of Theophanes, all of which seems to be leading up to the point at which the ‘Abbasids lost control of al-Andalus to the one Umayyad they’d failed to kill, ‘Abd al-Rahman I. But that, 756, is as far as that thread goes and then he moves onto recent diplomatic relations within Italy, a matter of much more current concern as Romanus was married to a daughter of King Hugh of Italy (924-947). After that he proceeds more or less geographically, giving a historical ethnography of the various Roman and Slavic peoples of the Balkans, moving into the Caucasus and then appending a series of anecdotes about treaties and the manning of the imperial fleet. He finishes with two legends from Cherson.

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

From this you can see that if there was really an overall plan for this work, it was not adhered to very well. This has been explained by suggesting that Constantine had actually already nearly finished a different, more ethnographical work hypothetically known as the De Nationibus, and then before the final edit recycled its material willy-nilly into his new project for his son.7 But lots of that material is not only not his, but not reconciled at all with the other components of the work, which has suggested to many people that what we are getting here is nothing less than palace archival material copied without alteration, and often (it can be argued from the language used) based on or even actually being reports by local officials or informants from the areas concerned. This opens up for scholars of the early Slavs or the Rus’ the irresistible possibility that Constantine has preserved for them the earliest written records from their chosen peoples of study, and so there is great resistance to any suggestion that this is in fact a compilation of Constantinopolitan pseudo-history, selected by Constantine to justify baseless claims to imperial suzerainty of areas he couldn’t actually affect.8

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

And yet it sometimes seems as if it must be, because Constantine turns up so strongly as an authorial voice, which was the the thing that I liked best about reading the text. He starts the first chapter with a clear agenda:

“Hear now, my son, those things of which I think you should not be ignorant, and be wise that you may attain to government. For I maintain that while learning is a good thing for all the rest as well, who are subjects, yet it is especially so for you, who are bound to take thought for the safety of all, and to steer and to guide the laden ship of the world… I conceive, then, that it is always greatly to the advantage of the emperor of the Romans to be minded to keep the peace with the nation of the Pechenegs and to conclude conventions and treaties of friendship with them and to send every year to them from our side a diplomatic agent with presents befitting and suitable to that nation, and to take from their side sureties, that is, hostages and a diplomatic agent, who shall be collected together under charge of the competent minister in this city protected of God, and shall enjoy all imperial benefits and gifts suitable for the emperor to bestow.”

And he goes on with what is essentially a catalogue of people whom the Pechenegs can be induced to attack instead of the empire or who as allies of the empire may make the Pechenegs think twice before leaving their homeland open to attack by setting out against the empire. But it’s not long before that takes him onto ambassadorial routes to these people and then, apparently, he remembers this excellent account he has of bringing boats down the Dniepr from Kiev, and we’re off.9

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I's and Constantine VII's rule

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I’s and Constantine VII’s rule, from Wikiwand

Although a lot of the material can thus be explained as things it is useful for an emperor to know, some of it seems to have a bigger purpose, of presenting imperial claims in areas that lay well beyond the empire’s current control. On the former side there’s the intricate account of the recent politics of the Caucasus, important because almost all the rival potentates there had appealed for imperial support at some point and might do so again, always opening up opportunities for imperial expansion by force majeure. On the latter there are the quite dubious and much-debated claims about imperial Christianisation of the Balkans, which can be made into currently-relevant political statements but are at the least very odd ways to do that.10 Both of these cases are going to get their own posts, so I’ll not say more just now; instead, I’ll just add that not only do some sections, especially that on the Islamic conquest of Spain, not obviously serve any agenda beyond antiquarianism, but some are much more obviously personal. The little section on the imperial fleet—not the navy proper but a squadron maintained to carry the emperor and his officials in suitable style—is perhaps the most touching of these, where Constantine describes some of the men he remembers commanding the imperial galleys:

“When Podaron became vice-admiral, the protospatharius Theophylact Bimblidis was appointed protospatharius of the basin, who was nephew of the protospatharius John, surnamed Thalasson, and he lasted for a few years of the first reign of Constantine the Porphyrogenitus, the Christ-loving sovereign. On his death, since Michael the elder aforesaid [in a part not quoted here] was grown very old indeed and had given many long years of service as steersman, he was honoured with the rank of protospatharius and was also appointed protospatharius of the basin. And when the emperor embarked on the galley in the basin and set out either upon a progress or somewhere else, that good old man, ever memorable for his seamanship, would take his stand amidships of the galley, inspiring and urging the oarsmen of the galley to pull and row more bravely and manfully, and at the same time instructing the steersmen of the day how to manage the rudders and steer the imperial vessel when the winds were blowing distemperately. Well, he died….”11

I like this bit not just for the sheer irrelevance of Constantine’s genealogical detail—Romanus could surely get no benefit from knowing whose nephew an official of forty years before was—but because despite the third-person narrative, it’s clearly Constantine’s own memory we’ve got here, and it tells us that somewhere within the forty-five-year-old emperor who had spent much of his life as a virtual prisoner, albeit in a huge palace, was still the boy who had got to ride around on that galley and watch the elder Michael boss the sailors around in grand style.

Some of Constantine’s memories are less generous, and in particular, and understandably, he has almost nothing good to say of Romanus I Lecapenus. His words vary from lengthy accounts of why Romanus’s policy had been misguided, especially in areas where Constantine was now doing better, to straightforward character assassination:

“The lord Romanus the Emperor was an idiot and an illiterate man, neither bred in the high imperial manner, nor following Roman custom from the beginning, nor of imperial or noble descent, and therefore the more rude and authoritarian in doing most things … for his beliefs were uncouth, obstinate, ignorant of what is good, and unwilling to adhere to what is right and proper.12

One could certainly argue that this had a political purpose, since two of Romanus’s sons were still alive and, indeed, one Patriarch of Constantinople at the time of writing and might still have been seen as threats, and it’s an odd thing so thoroughly to insult your son’s grandfather in a work you’re giving to that son. This is not the only place where Constantine seems to have thought this work might have a wider audience, but on the other hand the contents could have been considered sensitive and the repeated addresses to his son make a specific audience also seem to have been intended.13

Gold solidus of Emperor  Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

One is left to wonder if Constantine really knew what he was doing with this work, or if it was even really finished; it seems not to have been edited, as said, its chapter headings don’t always match its contents and Constantine seems to refer here and there to things he’s failed to say in other sections.14 One explanation of the state of it might be that the single surviving manuscript, which was copied in the second half of the eleventh century, was made up from something that was still a working copy, with notes and materials laid in that were never supposed to be part of the final version. The scholarship is pretty clear that the text was finalised in 952, however, because that is a date actually given as current at one point in the text and was the year of Romanus II’s fourteenth birthday, when he might have been considered to have come of age, and the opening proem not only names the author, in the first person, and the recipient, but gives a summary of the contents that seems to match the order of what we have.15 In other words it looks as if this is something like what Constantine meant it to be, although if so one wonders if our copy was made from the final version, if Constantine had in fact read over that version or if he was really working at full power. Later sources suggest that Constantine drank too much wine, and there is something about the way this text proceeds that does remind me of one knowledgeable but ageing alcoholic I knew well in his declining years.16 But if the De Administrando is, in fact, just badly put together, what does that do to our attempts to divine its various deeper political and intellectual purposes? Maybe they have also to be assumed to be not very well put together. And can we trust such an author to have reported or copied his sources accurately? These are questions people probably don’t want to deal with, as they threaten to diminish how much we know, but what mainly strikes me all the same is how very human Constantine comes across in his attempt to compile his uniquely imperial wisdom.

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967), online here.

2. Though should you really care and need a citation, that would be J. Jarrett, “De Administrandis Marcis: the 10th-Century Frontier with Islam, seen from Barcelona and Byzantium”, paper presented in session ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Beyond the Reconquista’, International Medieval Congress, 9th July 2015.

3. Also, it’s not called the De Administrando Imperio, in as much as it’s in Greek and it doesn’t have a title in any of the manuscripts, but this is what its first editor called it in an era when it was still considered necessary to give Greek texts a title of reference in a ‘proper’ language…

4. I base my account here mostly on Jonathan Shepard, ‘Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)’ in idem, The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020, at pp. 503-518. I was working at speed when I put that paper together…

5. On the coinage, which has probably been assigned too precise a chronology on the assumption that its iconography precisely reflects the shifting balance of power in the reign, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 172-188. The finer chronology proposed by Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history (Lancaster PA 2007), goes well beyond the demonstrable. I’d give page references but, really, you could say that of the whole book. Even he, however, has to admit (at p. 39) that Constantine struck solidi with both sole and accompanied portraits at the same time, which if it could be done obviously undermines the whole chronology based on who’s on the coins. This really should have been obvious from the copper-alloy coinage already.

6. Others: Costantino Porfirogenito, De Thematibus, ed. Agostino Pertusi, Studi e Testi 160 (Città di Vaticana 1962); Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), transl. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall, Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012).

7. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, “General Introduction”, in idem (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Adminstrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 1-8.

8. E. g. Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid., pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42; Jenkins & Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, ibid. pp. 93-142 at pp. 96-101, 112-113 & 118, or Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42“, ibid., pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, all arguing for local informants behind Constantine’s material on the Rus’, Slavs and Hungarians respectively; cf. e. g. Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the lower Danube region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66.

9. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, cc. 1-6, 7, 8 and then 9 respectively, section quoted from c. 1.

10. Ibid. cc. 29 & 31-36, all of which attribute a major role in the pacification and the Christianization of the relevant people of the Balkans to Emperor Heraclius, presumably to challenge any Frankish claims to control of either the peoples or their churches (clearest in c. 29) but picking the emperor who actually largely lost these areas on which to pin the relevant claims.

11. Ibid. c. 51.

12. Ibid. c. 13, though it needs to be clear that this is not Constantine giving voice to his actual thoughts, but part of an excuse he suggests offering by way of excusing the fact that although Romanus I married his grand-daughter to a Bulgarian prince, the foreign embassies with whom Romanus II might be dealing were absolutely not going to get a Byzantine bride to take home for their master. Still, he wrote it for his son to say about his son’s grand-dad…

13. Romanus II is directly addressed in ibid. Proem & cc. 1, 13, 43 & 46, but cc. 26 & 30 both seem to be addressed more generally. For the argument of sensitive contents, see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction” in ibid., pp. 1-14 at pp. 13-14.

14. Chapter headings that don’t match chapters: ibid. cc. 9, 10, 51 & 52. Confusion: in ibid. at one point in c. 27 Constantine explains the Duke of Naples’s title in Byzantine terms but never actually refers to him by it; in c. 40 ideas are dropped and picked up again after a paragraph of digression; one could go on.

15. Date: ibid. c. 45; address: ibid. Proem.

16. Obviously I’m not going to name my example, but for Constantine see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction”, p. 9, where the emperor’s drinking is excused without identifying the source of the accusation.

What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

I feel a little bad about returning to David Bachrach’s book Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany with my claws still out after his generous and lengthy responses to my previous critiques. I’m going to do it anyway, of course, but I feel it more necessary than usual to stress to the readership that I use this blog primarily as a platform on which to look clever, and that someone else’s work gives me the chance to do so is not necessarily an indictment of it. Indeed, the first two substantive chapters of Professor Bachrach’s book are possibly the clearest narrative of the politics of the Ottonian realm under Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973) that I’ve read anywhere, militarily-focused or otherwise, and the whole book does the English-reading population of historically-minded people a favour by making the Ottonians more available to us.1 But every year I have a fresh cohort of first-year students who don’t really understand what I mean by critical use of primary sources, and those same first two chapters provide me with some really good object examples.

Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, showing a contents page from Widukind of Corvey's Sachsengeschichte

A contents page from the oldest manuscript of Widukind of Corvey’s Sachsengeschichte, Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, here p. 190 (apparently)

The crucial source for much of what Professor Bachrach sets out is the so-called Sachsengeschichte of Widukind of Corvey, written up in 968 and then edited after Otto I’s death in 973, and very lately translated into English by none other than the well-known firm of Bachrach & Bachrach, indeed.2 Widukind was a monk but seems to have been unusually interested in military campaigns, so the first object lesson for my notional students: just because someone is religiously-inclined does not prevent them having good information on secular matters! You have to go further than that and establish, if you can, what bees this particular author has in his or her bonnet about such things. Now, as I say, Widukind is very often the key testimony for Professor Bachrach’s account but the trouble is that sometimes he is flatly contradicted by other sources. Let’s work through an example.

Roman walls built into later structures at Regensburg, Germany

I’m not sure how much of Regensburg’s medieval walls are left but here is some Roman work that obviously must still have been there at the time we’re writing about… Photograph by Lance Longwell

Even by 921 King Henry I was not accepted by all his German subjects, and one particular hold-out was the duchy of Bavaria, then under one Arnulf. Henry had hitherto been occupied trying to arrange peace on his western borders but with that done was able to turn his attention to Bavaria, where Widukind tells us he laid siege to Arnulf at Regensburg and that Arnulf, realising the game was up, surrendered and terms were reached.3 Well, so far so good, but this is only one version of events. The Italian diplomat, gossip-monger and courtier of Otto I, Liudprand of Cremona, writing in the period 958-962, instead records that Henry and Arnulf met with armies on the battlefield but concluded the truce there rather than fight.4 And if that weren’t enough, another text records that Henry invaded Bavaria but was driven out by the forces of an unnamed city, with terms being reached after that.5 Now, I have all these references from Professor Bachrach himself who diligently records them in a footnote, but what he doesn’t give is any reason why we should accept Widukind’s version over the other two. One might meanly suspect that it is because Widukind alone mentions a siege and Professor Bachrach has hung his historiographical hat on the importance of sieges in the warfare of the period, as we have seen.6 I’m sure it is in fact otherwise, but what could we do instead?

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand's Antapodosis now in Münich

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand’s Antapodosis, now Münich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6338, image from Wikimedia Commons

There are several ways this could be resolved, although none of them are conclusive. I think that the anonymous Fragmentum de Arnulfo duce Bavarie can probably be ignored; its purpose was to glorify Arnulf, so it had no interest in recording his defeat, but more importantly its version offers no explanation for Arnulf actually making terms, which he evidently did as Henry went away and Arnulf was willing to fight alongside him on the eastern frontier in later years.7 Liudprand is harder to dismiss, however; he was writing earlier than Widukind and with access to Otto I’s court and anyone there who might have had memories of these campaigns, and his obvious interest in praising the Ottonians (as compared to his previous employer, King Berengar II of Italy) still didn’t lead him to give Henry a decisive victory as did Widukind.8 In some senses both are telling the same essential story: Henry brought an army and Arnulf decided it wasn’t worth fighting. The difference is that Liudprand thought that was best set in the field and Widukind saw it at the city walls, and at least implies the fighting which Liudprand denies. We don’t know why but it is possible that Widukind was making a literary choice, in which case Professor Bachrach has a problem to deal with.

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Can we get any other angles on Widukind’s historiographical preferences? Yes, we can. In 928 Henry I was busy dealing with the various Slav groups on his eastern border. First among these, because they had raided his territory a few years before and because they stood in the way of any major campaign in the middle Elbe region, were a group called the Hevelli who were centred at what is now Brandenburg, where they had a fortress.9 Professor Bachrach’s account is clear and concise, so let’s use that:

“Widukind, who is our best source for this war, makes clear that Henry’s campaign against the Hevelli involved several subsidiary military operations before the urbs at Brandenburg itself was captured. He stressed that the German forces wore out the Slavs in numerous battles (multis preliis fatigans) over a lengthy period.93 It was only after he had sufficiently isolated Brandenburg that Henry deployed his army in a close siege of the fortress. Widukind draws attention to the fact that by the time Henry actually began direct operations against the Hevelli princely seat, the coldest part of the winter had arrived. As a result, the army was forced to camp on ice (castris super glaciem positis).94 Ultimately, Henry captured Brandenburg by storm, after besieging the stronghold for some time.95

“93 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.
“94 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35. In describing the siege and capture of Brandenburg, Widukind alludes to Cicero’s speech against Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Cicero, In Pisonem, 17 reads, “exercitus nostri interitus ferro, fame, frigore, pestilentia.” Here, Cicero was listing the causes for the casualties suffered by Piso’s troops when he served as governor of Macedonia. Widukind paraphrases here listing only hunger, arms (literally iron), and cold as the causes for the casualties suffered by the defenders of Brandenburg.
“95 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.”

There’s quite a lot that can be read between the lines here, it seems to me. One is Henry’s determination in pursuing the campaign, which may well be what Widukind wanted to illustrate: the king presumably hadn’t meant to be campaigning still in the dead of winter, which would have been nearly as difficult for his troops as for the defenders and was an occasional cause of mutiny in the Byzantine world.10 It looks rather as if siege was his last resort after trying to beat the enemy decisively in the field had failed several times. Even then, he seems to have waited before risking an assault. Presumably at each stage he hoped for a surrender that the Hevelli weren’t willing to offer. That, at least, seems as fair a reading as one that makes it all strategic wearing down of the enemy; who would have planned to make their army camp on ice? (Though that does suggest that perhaps the fortress was unreachable previously because of surrounding water—as indeed above though the Ottonian forces presumably didn’t camp on the moat—in which case Henry probably didn’t start out meaning to besiege it.)

Portrait bust of M. Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, no less

But you saw the footnote, right? Object lesson number two for the notional students: always glance at the footnotes. Perhaps more important than the campaign’s duration is the unexpected presence of this guy in the text, this of course being Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator and politican of the first century B. C., and with him arrives a possibility unsettling for someone wanting to read Widukind straight here, to wit that he had a written model in mind for how this situation should be described that was nothing to do with what had happened. For most history undergraduates in the UK I guess that this methodological problem is first opened up to them when briefly studying Charlemagne, because they will be set to read Einhard’s Life of Charles and if their teacher’s any good, will then be faced with the fact that Einhard borrowed almost all of his description of Charlemagne from Suetonius’s Twelve Cæsars, in order to make Charlemagne truly the image of his Roman imperial predecessors.11

Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)

Silver denier of Charlemagne, struck at an uncertain mint in 812-814, Künker sale 205 (March 12 and 13, 2012), lot 1405, now in a private collection

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

The good ones will then work out, of course, that if Einhard was picking descriptions from twelve different emperors to describe one, the best reason for him to select the bits he did was probably because they actually fitted Charlemagne—it’s like my bit about formulae mentioning dovecotes in charters, most probably used because the property in question actually had a dovecote. Maybe the same thing was happening here, so that Widukind had a historical story to tell and saw how perfectly the Cicero quote could fit it. We can hope so, especially since there seems to be no other lifting from Cicero in the story. But one does have at least to think about it. Now, I’m sure that Professor Bachrach has thought about all these questions, for the very simple reason that he’s put the evidence that provokes them in his own footnotes! But I wish he’d had space also to explain how he resolved them in favour of Widukind’s accuracy each time.


1. David Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014), pp. 14-69.

2. Widukind, Res gestae Saxonicae, ed. & (German) transl. Albert Bauer & Reinhold Rau as “Die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind von Korvei” in Bauer & Rau (edd.), Quellen zur Geschichte der sächsischen Kaiserzeit (Fontes ad historiam aevi Saxonici illustrandam), Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 8 (Darmstadt 1971), pp. 1-183, (English) transl. Bernard S. Bachrach & David Bachrach as Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, translated with an introduction and notes (Washington DC 2014).

3. Widukind, Res gestae, I.27; Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 20-21, citing Widukind at p. 20 n. 38.

4. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, ed. Paolo Chiesa in Chiesa (ed.), Liudprandi Cremonensis Opera omnia: Antapodosis, Homelia paschalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Medievalis 156 (Turnhout 1998), pp. 1-150, transl. in F. A. Wright (transl.), The Works of Liudprand of Cremona (London 1930), pp. 27-212, II.21, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

5. Fragmentum de Arnulfo Bavariae, ed. Philipp Jaffé in Jaffé (ed.), “Annales et notae S. Emmerami Ratisbonensis et Weltenburgenses” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) XVII (Hannover 1861, repr. 1990), p. 570 of pp. 567-576, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

6. Thus also ibid. p. 22 where Adalbert of Magdeburg, who describes a siege at Metz in 923, is preferred over Flodoard of Reims who describes a different sort of campaign by the German king. They both make it look as if their preferred king won, of course, and maybe there’s something going on where Flodoard focuses on the invading king as a general force of unjust destruction and Adalbert has him single-mindedly focused on the target, Bishop Wigeric of Metz, who had attacked a royal estate. That’s only my speculation, though, and doesn’t settle the question.

7. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 29-30.

8. On Liudprand’s agenda, see Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West c. 850 – c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30. March – 1. April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119-143, repr. in Leyser, Communications and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), 2 vols, I, pp. 125-142, but in searching out that reference I find also the very relevant-looking Antoni Grabowski, “‘Duel’ between Henry I and Arnulf of Bavaria according to Liudprand of Cremona” in Roman Czaja, Eduard Mühle & Andrzej Radziminski (edd.), Konfliktbewältigung und Friedensstiftung im Mittelalter (Torún 2012), pp. 387-400, which I have not seen but seems worth mentioning.

9. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 27-28, quote below on p. 28.

10. As under Maurice in 592: see Andrew Louth, “Justinian and his Legacy (500-600)” in Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2007), pp. 99-129 at p. 127.

11. See Matthew Innes, “The classical tradition in the Carolingian Renaissance: ninth-century encounters with Suetonius” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 3 (New Brunswick 1997), pp. 265-282.