Category Archives: Romans


Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

This gallery contains 9 photos.

This is the last of the Rome 2017 photo posts, and then as promised last week, some more properly academic content will at last materialise. But right now, I hope you can forgive some more photographic antiquarianism. On the last … Continue reading


Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

This gallery contains 23 photos.

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading


Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Obviously, the subtitle of this post is not true. Not strictly. How could it be, after all, when Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 CE, and respected chief priest of it too, probably didn’t even know … Continue reading


Finding the Medieval in Rome I: ruins and cats

This gallery contains 17 photos.

Given the state of things in the UK at the moment, and with the work to get ready for term very much upon me, it’s actually quite nice that my blog backlog means I can write about and remember happier … Continue reading

Another showcase of my department (as of 2017)

I’ll try to make up for some lost time here by following fast on the last post for once. The next thing I want to record from the memory banks of 2017, after a huge conference in which my department played a small part, is a small one in which we were all of it. The theme for the 2018 International Medieval Congress (which was a huge conference organised from my department, to coincide with the Congress’s 25th birthday, was ‘memory’, and by way of trying to get the department, or at least its partly contained cluster the Institute for Medieval Studies, geared up for that, on 23 May 2017 we held a workshop on that theme of memory. This was an all-day event featuring twenty speakers, which we managed by limiting everyone to no more than five minutes. This kept everyone to showcasing one important point about how our work intersected with the key theme and no more, and was actually quite an enjoyable challenge, but it also makes a neat little time capsule of who we then were. It would be a bit daft to try to summarise five-minute papers, but it seems worth giving at least a running order and some comments arising. So this was that running order.

    Axel Müller, “Welcome and Introduction”

  1. Catherine Batt, “Mind, Memory and Penitential Psalm in Cambridge MS CUL G.I.1”
  2. Fozia Bora, “The historical digest (mukhtasar) as an aide memoire in the medieval Islamicate”
  3. Hervin Fernández-Aceves, “Del olvido al no me acuerdo: the medieval memory of Mexico”
  4. Discussion

  5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Remembering the Deeds of Guifré the Hairy?”
  6. Alan Murray, “Memorialising Virtue: Exempla in Chronicles of Teutonic Order”
  7. Trevor Smith, “Remembering the Nation’s Past: Middle English Passages in the Long Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Manuscripts”
  8. Daniele Morossi, “How Manuel I’s Good Memory Led to the End of the Venetian-Byzantine Alliance”
  9. Discussion and Coffee

  10. Julia Barrow, “Hereford Cathedral Obit Book”
  11. Melanie Brunner, “Memory and Curial Processes in 14th-Century Avignon”
  12. Joanna Phillips, “Memorialising the Crusades: History with the Nasty Bits Left In”
  13. Thomas Smith, “Constructing German Memories of the First Crusade”
  14. Discussion

  15. Iona McCleery, “Memories of Meals”
  16. Francisco Petrizzo, “The Disappeared: Memory Loss in Family History”
  17. Pietro Delcorno, “The ‘Memorable’ Armour of John of Capistran”
  18. Alaric Hall, “Alternative Facts, History, and the Epistemologies of Wikipedia”
  19. Discussion and Lunch

  20. Emilia Jamroziak, “Response”
  21. Further Discussion

  22. Alec McAllister, “Mnemonic Software”
  23. Sunny Harrison, “Between Memory and Written Record”
  24. Coffee and Cake
    Closing Discussion

So there we have seven permanent members of the School of History, two from the School of English and one from the School of Languages, Culture and Society; one from IT Services with a responsibility for us in History; two temporary members of History staff; and five of the IMS’s postgraduates. And what were we saying? Well, it’s my blog, so let’s start with me me me… I used the different ways that the half-legendary founder count of Barcelona, Guifré the Hairy, has been put to work for various political endeavours over the centuries following his demise, to argue that we had a responsibility to ensure that the control of certain memories cannot become a political monopoly. This involved a pomo syllogism so I’m not sure if I convinced even myself, but there is material there.

C19th statue of Guifré the Hairy outside the Palacio Real, Madrid

C19th statue of Guifré the Hairy outside the Palacio Real, Madrid

Catalan stamp depicting Count Guifré the Hairy

Catalan stamp depicting Count Guifré the Hairy

As for the others, you can see from the titles that we ranged from these islands and the Western Mediterranean to the Baltic, Arabia and México, as well as purely virtual space and, although it’s not obvious from her title, Iona’s case study was from Ghana, so I think our range shows up pretty well. Stand-out points for me that are still worth repeating might be these:

  • There were several examples here of things that were actually Roman being used to plug gaps in both medieval and modern memories, like nineteenth-century depictions of the pre-conquest kings of México, the medieval historical legends of Britain and of course actual ongoing Roman history in the form of the Byzantine Empire of the Komneni. I thought harder than I ever had before about this when putting together my 2015 exhibition Inheriting Rome, and I still think we could do with theorizing this reach for Rome better: my impression remains that we reach for it exactly when there is a gap that has arisen in our own memories, whether through ignorance or inconvenience of the truth, and it’s so natural that people don’t usually notice they’ve done it. But it has an effect…
  • A smaller and more obvious point but again not always remembered: we are at the end of a long chain of choices about what to remember from the period we choose to study, all of which left some stuff out. Here that was obvious from the letter Tom Smith had studied, which recorded a call to Germans to come and assist the newly-established Latin states in the Holy Land in 1100; this was probably forged, but survives largely in places from which Germans went on the Second Crusade in 1144. There’s a question there about which is chicken and which egg, that is, whether the Crusade demanded the creation of propaganda or the letter already existed and provoked that response. Our dating of the manuscripts isn’t tight enough to resolve that problem. But the other thing, which Alan Murray noted, is that the letter was apparently of no interest to keep in areas without much crusade response. Well, OK, obvious you may say, but if we start judging popular response by the survival of such texts, or just leaving out areas where they don’t occur from studies of supposedly global phenomena, problems may arise… And they’re bigger ones than just this source, too.
  • Lastly, apparently with a bit of quick work you can make Azhagi+, a software tool mainly designed for typing Tamil and other Indic languages from an English keyboard—which may already be something you’d want to know about—type pretty much combination of diacritics and letters you like… I had forgotten this till going back over my notes and now need to do some experimenting!

And that was my local academic community of 2017, many of whom are still there, and although I’m not sure exactly how well it set us up for the upcoming IMC, it was fun and collegiate to be part of and as you can see, did provoke thought as well. And the cake was excellent, which cannot always be guaranteed! So a day well spent in 2017, I think, and not the only one either.


Taking in York Minster

This gallery contains 16 photos.

At the very beginning of the period covered by the last post, April 2017, I had a relative visiting and so decided to do one of the obvious bits of Yorkshire touristing I had not yet done, which is to … Continue reading

I found this coin, 5: Roman public image regulation

I should apologise for the lack of a post last week; the time in which I had meant to write it all went on processing the photos from which I was going to construct it. These were, as you may guess from the subject line, all coins, in fact most of the coins that I selected for the first run of one of the modules I suggested that I could when I applied for the job at Leeds, a second-year option based on the social and political changes of the late antique period in the West as seen through its money. As I originally conceived it, this module was going to work using the collections in the Leeds Discovery Centre but, as you’ve heard, soon after arriving I was informed there were resources as good much closer to hand and so it ran with the materials in Special Collections in Leeds University Library instead. This year I ran it as an MA module instead for the first time, which worked a lot better, but since firstly very few of my students seem to read my blog and secondly, and more grimly, it seems very unlikely we’ll be able to run any modules based on supervised handling of objects any time soon, there seems no harm in dedicating a post to one of its teaching points, which is to what the images I have finally processed most obviously lend themselves.

Obverse of ilver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Obverse of a silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of the same coin. I freely admit that this one has nothing to do with the post, I just couldn’t read the date or mint signature and am hoping that someone who can will be reading… It’s happened before!

So, if you ever read much in the way of numismatics and coinage history for the pre-modern period, you may have met the idea that coinage is in some sense state propaganda.1 And one could debate whether that is its primary purpose or whether it’s mainly for ensuring the operation of the economy; but since to be recognised as coin it must identify an authority of guarantee, or else it’s just a round disc of metal, many issuers have indeed used that fact to say something about themselves with their money. Where it gets tricky, though, is when from there we try to extrapolate the public image policy of ancient and medieval rulers. Do we, after all, imagine that modern heads of state choose their coinage designs? Those of us who remember the first UK pound coins will remember that they had eight different edge inscriptions and a different reverse design every year, which was basically anti-counterfeiting and although the designs did have some purposes of eliciting national pride in our great achievements and heritage, I don’t suppose any of us thought the Prime Minister came up with them, let alone Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.2

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin, showing the Forth Bridge in Scotland

But when one tries the same argument on ancient or medieval rulers, one finds people weirdly reluctant to let go of the idea of royal or imperial agency. I once had a ten-minute argument with someone in the Institute of Historical Research about the coinage of William the Conqueror and the intended significance of the portrait iconography, with the other party believing that his facing portrait was a deliberate echo of Byzantine imagery which indicated William’s quasi-imperial status as now being a ruler of plural realms, and because they wanted this to be William’s initative they loudly asserted that since the coin bore his image and name, and thus directly touched his reputation, he could not have afforded not to take a personal interest. My counter-argument was more or less, “You mean he really thought he should look like this?”

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087, from Tony Clayton’s Pictures of Coins of the UK, linked through for your perusal

Y’see, I believe that someone chose that crown and the facing portrait, which do indeed look like Emperor Justinian I’s coins a bit (see below), but I don’t believe that it had to be William who chose them, still less that it was intended to be portraiture; I think the designs would have been settled at a much lower level, and I don’t think William expected it to resemble him so much as generally to look like the kind of royal or imperial figure wot belongs on a coin. But neither of us had any proof of our positions, which is why the argument went on for so long. And so the question arises: lacking any actual documentation of these decisions, as until the maybe-fifteenth century we are, can we hope to show any case where the decision about what a coin looked like really did rest with the ruler?

Obverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001 Reverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001

A halfway position has been achieved with one or two Roman imperial coinages, which is possible because Roman minting happened on such a scale that there were obviously a great many separate pairs of hands at work in the coinage and there must therefore have been some higher-level direction about what the designs should look like. This gets even truer when plural mints are involved, and long ago a scholar by the name of Patrick Bruun did a careful analysis of one sort of coin of Constantine I, the so-called Gloria Exercitus coinage (The Glory of the Army) focusing on the differences between the mints’ interpretation of the design. I won’t trouble you with the detail here and now, mostly because I can’t remember it, but the point was that only some of the details varied. Therefore, he argued, the things that didn’t must have been in the instructions sent to the mint.3

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Actually, the instructions must have been sent to the die-engravers, and they might not have been at the mint—they might even all have been in the same place and the dies distributed once carved, though that would be a bad way to cope with wastage and still avoid forgery—but the basic point holds, that we can see (a) that there were instructions and (b) roughly what they included. Even this, however, doesn’t get us as far as (c) who came up with those instructions. Did Constantine say: “I want a coinage that’s about the soldiers, man, I want to really speak to those guys, let them know that they all together support the unified Empire, so let’s have two soldiers both holding the same standard, it’ll be super deep”, or was it only the first clause or two then some artist came up with the rest and the under-secretary of the Count of the Sacred Largesses or similar went, “That’ll do, send out orders for a hundred dies in that pattern to be delivered in a month”? Can we ever know? Well, there might be just one coinage where we can, and it’s this next one.

(Top: billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972.
Second row: billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962.
Third row down: billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885.
Bottom: billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued.)
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

You will quickly note that these coins are quite similar. That is true even though they are coins of four different emperors and each struck at a different mint in a different year. Nonetheless, there they are, pretty much indistinguishable except by text. Coincidence? Strong tradition? Well, almost certainly not, because these four all ruled together. They are the four Roman emperors known as the First Tetrarchy, a college of four rulers selected by their eldest member, Diocletian (284-305) to rule with him as delegates in different parts of the Empire. Despite that geographical delegation, their edicts all went out in the name of all four emperors, their monuments often depicted all four of them together even though that probably happened only twice, and, importantly for us, all the mints of the Empire issued coins in the name all four emperors at once.4

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki, third register down; image by Armineaghayanown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reasons for this are pretty clear if you know about the so-called third-century crisis, a fifty-year run of short imperial Roman reigns brought to an end by a seemingly-endless series of military coups as frontier situations bubbled out of the control of any single ruler: wherever the emperor could not be, there a resentful army appointed their own and the result was continual civil war.5 Diocletian, whose entire military career up to his succession—in a military coup—was spent in this political environment, seems to have realised that the need was for multiple emperors, but not plural emperors as had hitherto been tried, with a ruler’s young son who could be seen as inexperienced or second-best promoted up, but four more-or-less-equally experienced military officers any of whom could stand in for any of the others.6 And that seems to be what their public image was intended to convey: the emperors are all the same, and speak together; if you have one you have them all; they can’t be turned against each other and there is always one to whom you can address yourself.

Silver argenteus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, again, this time on the reverse of a silver argenteus of Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

So I wouldn’t like to say, especially given the more naturalistic image on the coin above, that there was a meeting in which Diocletian and the others decided, “you know what we should all have? Beards and really really thick necks, like, unreal necks, OK?” The basic design details might still have been due to someone else lower down the chain, and the key thing might have been that it was easy for most die-cutters to reproduce, so, basic but characteristic. But that the same design went everywhere and every emperor struck the same coins for all four of them in his mints, I think must have been settled in such a conference between the top men themselves, and I would imagine that that being so, they probably did actually approve the designs before the dies were ordered. But this might be the only case where I’m prepared to admit that it really was the rulers’ decision…7

1. You need examples? How about Barbara Levick, “Messages on the Roman Coinage: Types and Inscriptions” in G. M. Paul and M. Ierardi (edd.), Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire (Ann Arbor MI 1999), pp. 41–60 or Cécile Morrisson, “Displaying the Emperor’s Authority and Kharaktèr in the Marketplace” in Pamela Armstrong (ed.), Authority in Byzantium (Farnham 2013), pp. 65–80?

2. Of course, the anti-counterfeiting didn’t in the end work, which is why we now have the new seven-sided bimetallic ones, but by then people were already trying to solve the problem with lasers, as so often happens nowadays: see Andrew Appleby and Thangavel Thevar, “Identification of British One Pound Counterfeit Coins using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy” in Optical Engineering Vol. 55 (Bellingham WT 2016), pp. 044104-1-044104–6, DOI: 10.1117/1.OE.55.4.044104.

3. Patrick M. Bruun, “The System of the Vota Coinages: Coordination of Issues in the Constantinian Empire” in Norsk Numismatisk Årsskrift Vol. 96 (Oslo 1958), pp. 1–21, repr. in Bruun, Studies in Constantinian Numismatics: papers from 1954 to 1988, ed. by A. Tammisto, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 12 (Rome 1991), pp. 27–36.

4. A good guide here is Roger Rees, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (Edinburgh 2004), which has a useful appendix of translated sources.

5. Here I like Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London 1999), despite the obvious case it wants to make for the brief reign of its imperial subject.

6. The alternative had been attempted by Valerian (253-260), whose son Gallienus (253-268) did OK until Valerian was captured by the Persians and he had to raise his own young sons to the purple, which ended badly for them. See for an attempt to save Gallienus’s reputation, of which there is now pretty much one per emperor, John Bray, Gallienus : A Study in Reformist and Sexual Politics (Kent Town 1997), an attack on the older Lukas de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Leiden 1976). Actually, I don’t think anyone has tried to rescue Valerian yet…

7. Actually, that’s not quite true: I’m pretty sure that Emperor Nero chose most of his coin designs, but my main justification for that belief is that he fancied himself an artist and their iconography’s often very clever, which however much I like it as an idea still isn’t proof…

I found this coin, 3: imperial violence

I had intended to follow the last post, which was quite heavy, with something lighter-weight—specifically, about three and a half grams—by picking something out of the coins photography I was still doing in late 2016 and telling its story in that way that I sometimes do. And yet, without my having planned this, it functions rather well as an epilogue. So here’s three coins…

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of the same coin, with the imagery that’s important for this post, under the legend Virtus Exercitus, ‘strength of the army’

In one of the previous ones of these posts I remarked on a well-known but still interesting fact, that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306-337) to Christianity, however loudly his biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea wanted to tell us about it, shows up almost nowhere on Constantine’s absolutely prolific coinage, which retained the pagan imagery of his immediate colleagues and predecessors. The other favourite subject, however, was by now the Roman army. And above there you see the ideal results of its operations, two unlucky captives bound below a military standard, a reasonably simple visual message to parse.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

And the reverse of the same coin, showing as you can probably see a Roman soldier skewering a fallen horseman with his spear

The three of Constantine’s sons who eventually succeeded him, Constantine II (317-340), Constantius II (324-361) and Constans I (333-350), were all, we suppose, raised Christian, and there is a bit more Christian imagery on their coins but mainly they stuck to the same theme. It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Roman army was the primary user base for new coinage, since they received it as pay, or in the case of pieces like these, as exchange for a low enough part of the value of their pay, which was made in gold, that they could actually spend it. So messages that say how great and fearsome the army was make sense on Roman coinage, but still, this imagery of violent and unequal battle and, let’s face it, death, was also the general circulating medium of exchange in the empire.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of the same coin, showing the new emperor (admittedly then operating as junior to Constantius II still) maintaining the same imagery

Now, it seems to me that this is one of those lines our culture (by which I mainly mean the Anglophone liberal one in which I currently write) has set up between the past and us; we wouldn’t put imagery of our state employees killing the state’s opponents on our money. But where does the past start that we have chosen to mark ourselves off from in the manner I was describing last post?

Colin Gill, 'King Alfred's Longships Defeat the Danes', 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600

Colin Gill, ‘King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes’, 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600, used under the Open Parliament License

Maybe not all that long ago, huh? We all know that the 1914-1918 Great War was not in fact ‘the war to end all wars’, but in 1927 the UK’s governing establishment was apparently still pretty proud of its previous wars, and of course this is still there now, part of the normal backdrop to the entry and exit of our ruling class from their place of daily responsibility. Not just them, either; the last time I was in the London auction house Spinks, there was on display there a, how shall I put it? ‘dramatic’, I think is the word, a ‘dramatic’ diorama of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made in 1979. It eventually sold for £2,100 (lot 666, indeed). And we could go on piling up examples.

Which of us in the UK can, after all, honestly say that they have never uttered a line from this film? Not many! And yet it is the same message being delivered: this empire’s army surely does (did?) kill its enemies. Obviously, it surprises no-one to say that empires rest on violence. The Romans as a people knew this, not least because their state used means like these coins to tell them so. We would not put that on coins. But you can make a lot of money passing the message all the same. Funny, isn’t it, where our scruples now lie compared to theirs?


Istanbul VIII: remains at the museum

This gallery contains 21 photos.

You may have gathered that the UK’s academics are on strike again, and more of us this time, 74 institutions where before it was 60; nothing got solved and people are even angrier now. It’s not a particularly good time … Continue reading

Frontiers Day at the 2016 International Medieval Congress

When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.

1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries

There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:

  • Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
  • Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
  • This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.

  • Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
  • Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.

The reconstructed watchtower at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

The reconstructed watchtower at l’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.

1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires

Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:

  • Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
  • Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.

  • Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
  • This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.

  • Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
  • On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.

Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!

Entrance to the citadel of Berat, in modern Albania, from Wikimedia Commons

Entrance to the remains of the Byzantine citadel at Berat, in modern Albania, with a thirteenth-century church guarding rather older fortifications. Image by Jason Rogers – originally posted to Flickr as Berat, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1710. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, III: Frankish Frontiers, Internal and External

Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:

  • Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.

  • Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
  • Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8

  • Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
  • Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.

The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…

Futbol Club de Barcelona Scotch Whisky

Still made in Scotland, sorry, doesn’t count

So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…

1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”,, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.

3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…

4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.

5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.

6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.

7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).

8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.