Category Archives: Romans

Seminar CLVII: unmistakable greatness in a hidden place

Let’s not talk here about the hiatus, then; it won’t surprise those of you who know me that I have a place to do that scheduled slightly further down the list anyway… Instead, straight back on the horse with a much-delayed seminar report from 4th June 2014 (because dammit I am a year behind again and determined not to stay that way), when I was present in the Institute of Historical Research because none other than Professor David Ganz was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, with a paper called “Charlemagne in the Margin: a new Carolingian text about Karolus Magnus”.

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225.

The margin in question was an extra-large one left around a text of the works of Virgil that was made at the monastery of Saint-Amand in the modern Netherlands in the late-ninth century, that is, in the full flood of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance.1 In that prolific endeavour of cultural uplift, Virgil assumed a much larger rôle than one might expect the premier poet of pagan Rome would have in this thoroughly Christian endeavour. But not only were the scholars of the early Middle Ages quite conflicted about their inner love affair with the Latin Classics (at least at the top level; I don’t suppose people who liked The Golden Ass were quite as bothered as Saint Jerome2), Virgil’s was acknowledged to be about the best Latin that had ever veen written, and a very different sort of Latin to the Bible, the other main introduction to the written word. We are before textbooks here; the scholars of this age learnt their Latin the hard way, by starting at the top.3

Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, fo .151v

And now, the manuscript, and indeed the very page, in question, thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica! The actual manuscript is Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, now fully online (click through). The bit we’re after is in the box at the right opposite the line that starts “Agm. agens clausus…”

Probably not so many people learnt their way through the whole thing, but we have, said David, forty ninth-century manuscripts of the Æneid and almost all of them were made to be glossed, that is, to have notes, references, clarification and so forth added in the margins. These usually came from a Christian commentator of the fourth century by the name of Marius Servius Honoratus, and his gloss travelled so closely with most manuscripts that bits of it could get copied into the main text by mistake, in some cases.4 In this case, however, there is more, since as an expert palæographer David was able to say that only the Servian gloss was added by the scribes of the original text, but that several other glossators then went through parts or all of the manuscript adding their thoughts, and in this case those seem to have been particularly interested in comparing pagan and Christian religious practices. Mostly this was fairly neutral, using the Romans as an anthropological light on the Christianity of the manuscript’s era although at one point, apparently, a glossator uses a sermon of Saint Augustine which we no longer have to critique Virgil. And, on the reverse of folio 151, in Æneid Book VII, a character by the name of Clausus is explained with the words, “Sicut de magno Karolo data est comparatio: Nam adeo uultuosus erat ut non expediret interrogari ab eo qui eum numque viderat quis Karolus esset.” A very rough translation of that might be, “Comparison may justly be made to Charles the Great: for he was so terrible of aspect that there was no need for anyone who had ever seen him to ask which one was Charles.” This is interesting not least because it seems to be based on something that Charlemagne’s second biographer, Notker the Stammerer, also bases a story on, in which a Frankish exile in beseiged Pavia repeatedly tells the King of the Lombards that he will know when he sees Charlemagne, but it’s probably also the earliest reference to Charlemagne as ‘Charles the Great’.5 As David said, he was epic already…

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the sword and the cross

Perhaps, however, not yet this epic. Rest in peace, Mr Lee

This is a unique and early usage of Charlemagne’s later byname, in a rather out-of-the-way place, so in questions the topic that mainly concerned people was who it was that thought this and how many people would ever have noticed. Was this a teaching text, which many a student would have worked with, or someone’s private annotated version? Was this a private thought or a schoolroom lesson? It is, after all, only one of several sets of glosses, as you can see above, so it is at least partly a question of which glossator preceded which. At the time of address, even David’s master palæography could not determine that, and with several scribes clearly working at around the same time in the same place it would probably only be guesswork if anyone were to attempt it. At least, however, the manuscript shows how for its users Virgil was not just a dead pagan poet, but a source of insight into their own, Christian, times worth going back to again and again.


1. Still best approached, I think, via Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994); for wrangles over the term Renaissance here see John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold (ed.), Renaissances before the Renaissance: cultural revivals of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Stanford 1984), pp. 59-74.

2. I was lately reading Apuleius while off-air, in fact, in the rather ancient Penguin translation, Lucius Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, transl. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth 1950) anyway; if you know it you’ll likely agree that refinement and high culture are not its main subjects. As for Jerome, his fear of being too Ciceronian resulted in visions of angels beating him up for it, which is probably more severe than most!

3. On education and its methods the entry point is still Pierre Riché, Education and culture in the Barbarian West, sixth through eighth centuries, transl. John J. Contreni (Philadelphia 1976); see also Contreni, “The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe” in Richard E. Sullivan (ed.), The Gentle Voices of Teachers: aspects of learning in the Carolingian age (Columbus 1995), pp. 106-141.

4. See Don Fowler, “The Virgil Commentary of Servius” in Charles Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Comnpanion to Virgil (Cambridge 1997), pp. 73-78, doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521495393.005.

5. Notker, Gesta Karoli, transl. of course in David Ganz (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), pp. 45-116, II.17.

Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes': the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306″
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 1

I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We’ve already had the 2014 one! Thoughts like this flap round this entry, but completeness compels me, and besides, hey, maybe you weren’t there, maybe you were and just didn’t go to the things I did, I’ll cover it, but because it’s also huge, I’ll put the actual paper reports behind a cut.

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Last year’s conference theme at Leeds was ‘pleasure’, and perhaps I’m just a gloomy type but this didn’t engage me much, so I found myself drawn by neither of the keynote lectures that always start the conference. Instead, I made an early assault on the second-hand book fair (which only runs till lunchtime the second day, so you have to be quick) and generally tried to get the shape of the new premises, because as you may recall the previous year saw the Leeds conference finishing its residence out at Bodington and Weetwood campuses and getting ready to happen on the university’s city centre campus. As you can see from the above left, parts of that are fairly splendid, and in general it did seem an improvement. There were still rooms that had people on the floor while in others seats were empty, and to be fair the conference staff did try and swap some sessions over when this became clear, at the cost of some delay, but in general the spaces and moving between them were more comfortable and having everything on one site was worth a lot.

Entry to the Great Hall on the main camopus of the University of Leeds

Entry to the Great Hall (where, in fact, I think I never went)

My fears that the essential communality of Leeds would be lost was unfounded, too: a centrally-positioned marquee serving still-dreadful but essential caffeine proved an anchor point past which almost everyone had to pass sooner or later, and in the evenings the main bar proved a reasonable place to search people out also and also had better beer than Bodington ever had (though not than the sadly-missed Stables pub at Weetwood). So in general the move seemed OK. But, the papers! Continue reading

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople

Next in the now-thinning pile of things I went to in Oxford that I still haven’t reported here is when Dr Michael Featherstone gave a paper entitled “The Great Palace of Constantinople: tradition or invention?” to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar there on 1st May 2013. This seems to have been an update of a piece Dr Featherstone published in 2006, but it also seems to have been more dependent on the visuals than is good for my recall: my notes refer blithely to buildings with Greek names I can’t reconstruct and hang arguments off sources I didn’t note down, and so this is a fairly shaky account of what was, nonetheless, an interesting paper.1 Given that, it seems best to start with a visual from somewhere else, to wit Wikimedia Commons:

Reconstruction map of the imperial district of Constantinople

Constantinople imperial district” by Cplakidas – Image:Constantinople center.svg. Translated and added more detail. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are two important things about this map, which is ultimately drawn from the works of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener and Cyril Mango (or so the Wikimedia Commons page for the original French version says). One is that it is cumulative: you’re looking there at the work of emperors over about six centuries and a great many periods of prosperity or crisis that made architectural display or administrative rehousing seem wise. The second, and perhaps more important thing is that it rests on really very little archæology: large parts of this now lie under the Blue Mosque and not much of the rest has been dug either. So what we are essentially being asked to accept this map from is careful work to reconstruct it from mentions in historical and literary sources, and here most of all Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos’s De Ceremoniis, ‘On the Ceremonies’, part of that unlucky ruler‘s general attempt to uplift the symbolic state of his imperial government by calling on ancient precedent and tradition wherever he could find it.2 Given how much else that was old or disused he seems to have reactivated, how much of what he says about the palace can we take to have been important to anyone else or true before (or even during) his reign?

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul

The so-called Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, the biggest single reason why there is relatively little known about the imperial palace complex on top of which it was built, image from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Featherstone took the information of the De Ceremoniis and tried to unweave from it the various sources of information Constantine VII had to write it with and that we have to check it with. Constantine’s sources must have included the standing fabric of his day, of course, but also seem to have included some rather older texts, whose testimony came from times when perhaps more was standing or had not yet been rebuilt, and which may have reported uses that were centuries outdated or even perhaps no longer possible. A particular example seems to be the hall of the 19 Couches (’19 Accubita’ on the map above), in the sixth century the palace complex’s private banqueting hall (with nine couches a side and one in its apse for the emperor) but later relegated to ceremonial use only as the emperors moved their residences down the hill to the south and left the old ‘upper palace’ as a more occasional resort. By the ninth century the 19 Couches was considered to be outside the palace, because the focal point had moved so thoroughly, leaving the old buildings higher up the hill as more or less disused space, although was was remarked in questions, still with guards on the entrances (as we know from Liudprand, not least).3 Constantine VII however re-roofed it (showing what state things were in), found somewhere an account of what had used to go on in it (here we had a mention of a Philotheos, I think probably Philotheos of Selymbria though this would be a much later source for an early source if so…) and started using it for official promotions, despite the fact that as far as we can tell that was not something the building had previously housed. He also restarted chariot racing, revived a bunch of old costumes and so forth; it’s not at all clear that the Constantinople he created had ever existed before all together, however, and it must have had something of the historical film set about it. None of that makes it seem any wiser to use Constantine VII’s works (dare we say, scripts?) as guides to the ancient past…

Ornamental pier supposedly from the Great Palace of Constantinople

It’s not that there is no remnant of the palace complex now… But even this rather excellent pier, apparently now on fairly uncaring display in Istanbul, doesn’t give us a lot to go on. Image from Wikimedia Commons, though the contributor’s suggested attribution to the second century does leave me worried that it is in fact somewhere else entirely…

What we wound up with, therefore, was a picture of a kind of ghost palace, a large set of buildings constructed to earlier political agendas which subsequent ones had found expensive, impractical or irrelevant, in which occasionally spectacles might still be staged, where it was safe to do so, but whose use quickly became exceptional. Given the quality of their building, they presumably mostly stayed up, but things like lighting, access and so on must have been problematic. Dr Featherstone suggested that the worst of the damage and deterioration was probably hidden with hangings, but all of this is a kind of make-do-and-mend that doesn’t seem at all appropriate for the image we are conventionally given (not least by Constantine VII) of the glorious and ever-wealthy Byzantine Empire, especially at its absolute heart here in Constantinople. But one of the things this paper emphasised was that it was probably one of the ways in which Constantine VII was unusual that he had his heart in these old buildings; for most emperors before him, their homes down the hill had been where their heart was, and the actual government was quite possibly somewhere else entirely.

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

Writing about this now puts me immediately in mind of the above as the best parallel I have for what this might have been like. Sir Christopher Wren built this place in the late seventeenth century and for a while it was the place that trained up the bearers of Britain’s proud naval tradition etc. but when I first met it years ago, on the way to a rather nice restaurant, it was maintained but disused public space utterly devoid of a function. The creation of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site has now woken it up and stuff is going on there by way of events, conservation, visits, tours and so forth. You can find out lots more about that online, but what you can’t find out about on that official website is anything really at all about what the buildings used to do. It’s no longer relevant: they want people to come and see them because they’re still splendid, not because they were once important. But I remember wandering round the site before it was renewed, with everything dull, grey and locked up behind railings, and saying to my then-companion, “My gods, this is where the empire died and was buried, isn’t it?”

Taking the parallel back to the tenth century, did Constantine VII manage this kind of revamp, in the parts of the complex he decided were reactivable, do you suppose? Or was it, for his audiences, somewhat more like standing in a mausoleum of dead achievements he would never equal and which weren’t really anything to do with the problems of the day? Should we put Constantine VII in the same box as I have put King Charles the Simple of the Western Franks, eager to revive the traditions of his ancestors but not realising that times had changed? Or does Constantine’s dogged progress towards sole rule suggest that he knew a trick his colleagues didn’t? If so, the old palace buildings may have been part of it, but even then perhaps, then you saw them, soon you didn’t…


1. Jeffrey Michael Featherstone, “The Great Palace as Reflected in the De Cerimoniis” in Franz Bauer (ed.), Visualisierungen von Herrschaft. Frühmittelalterliche Residenzen: Gestalt und Zeremoniell. Internationales Kolloquium 3./4. Juni 2004 in Istanbul, Byzas 5 (Istanbul 2006), pp. 47-61; see now also Featherstone, “Der Große Palast von Konstantinopel: Tradition oder Erfindung?” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 106 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 19-38, DOI:10.1515/bz-2013-0003, fairly apparently this paper.

2. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall (transl.) Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012), 2 vols.

3. Liudprand visited Constantinople for the first time in the reign of Constantine VII and seems to have been exactly the kind of impressive but impressionable foreign audience the emperor wanted, as we can tell from his account in his Antapodosis. I’ve just given references to all Liudprand’s works, so I won’t do that again, but you might like to look at Constanze M.F. Schummer, “Liudprand of Cremona – a diplomat?” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 197-201.

Seminar CLXXIII: blended Burgundians

Continuing to fight the backlog, let me tell you all about the time I went to hear Erica Buchberger, now well out of Oxford, present a paper to the After Rome seminar there on 25th April 2013, a paper entitled “Romans, Barbarians and Burgundians in Early Burgundian Law”. Erica’s work at that point was, and probably still is, to clarify what it was that the ethnic terms beloved of early medieval sources actually meant, and on this occasion she was working through the two Burgundian lawcodes, the Lex romana Burgundionum and the Liber constitutionum or Lex Burgundionum, to see what they do with the three terms of her title.

The title-list of a tenth-century copy of the Lex Burgundionum in Paris, Bibliotheèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 10753

The title-list of a tenth-century copy of the Lex Burgundionum in Paris, Bibliotheèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 10753

The short answer seems to have been that these texts don’t much help: while the separation of the two texts seems to indicate a category distinction between Romans in Burgundy and Burgundians, the number of circumstances in which one’s sort of law could be chosen, associated with property or even sold with property makes a rapid nonsense of the idea that these were categories of birth. In fact, almost all the invocations of the ideas of ethnicity come up, in either lawcode, where landed property is concerned. I suppose, as I think from my notes did Erica, that this is because in land, claims of inheritance were more important than they were in everyday cases of affray or disagreement, so that one’s ancestry, from people who perhaps felt and expressed their identity as Roman or Burgundian more sharply as the two groups first interacted, would be more relevant. In that case, as Erica certainly did say, the laws are testifying silently to the ongoing collapse of the distinction, and show us many ways in which they could be crossed or avoided. She also argued that the laws were a tool working towards that combination of peoples, and there I’m less clear what the basis of her argument was: perhaps, though, that the two laws should not be seen as alternatives but as complements, applying Roman and ‘barbarian’ solutions respectively to a population who were increasingly able to see themselves as both. There were lots of questions, but almost all about the details of accommodation or case-law, and what I got from that is that Erica knows her stuff, by now not a surprise. It was good to attend this paper, as it represented the hoped-for outcome of many a piece of research: even though research ineluctably initially reveals that the question is too complex to answer simply, at the end one needs to have some answers that do help us understand better. This, now-Dr Buchberger certainly provided!


The standard editions of the Burgundian laws are the MGH ones, Friedrich Blühme (ed.), “Leges Burgundionum” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum quingentesimum Legum III (Hannover 1863), online here, pp. 497-630, or Ludwig Rudolf de Salis (ed.), Leges Burgundionum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Leges Nationum Germanicarum II.1 (Hannover 1892), online here, and there’s a translation of the Lex Burgundionum in Katherine Fischer Drew (transl.), The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad; additional enactments (Philadelphia 1972). The Lex Romana Burgundionum isn’t published in translation yet, but I know that a masters student at Kings College London has done a translation, so, who knows… ?