Tag Archives: fall of Rome

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

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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

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7


1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…

Big books, high praise and tiny queries

(Written substantially offline on the East Coast main line between Edinburgh and Newcastle, 23rd May 2011.)

My current job is quite luxurious, there’s no point in denying it (and you know, I don’t exactly mind). One of these luxuries is somewhat enforced, however, which is: time to read. This is a luxury, no mistake, because I sorely missed it in the previous job, where I could only spare the time to read up for my own papers; now I can read more, but, on the other hand what I have to read is now also dictated not just by what I’m working on but by what I’m teaching, where I really do have good reasons to get current quickly because I have to tell other people to read it. So, since arrival, I have been attacking this problem.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of Guy Halsall's Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Cover of John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society

Quite a lot of the books I have got through have been really quite large. I don’t mean so much the multi-authored exhibition catalogues and conference proceedings the Continental scholarship, especially, generates, like Jordi Camps’s edited Cataluña en la época carolingia that’s been in my sidebar, well, possibly since I started the blog—and every now and then I take in another of its informative little papers—but single-author syntheses. Among these there are two I thought it was fairly urgent for me to get a hang of, Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007) and John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005). The reason for the latter will be obvious: my idea of the scholarship of the man I’m standing in for was a decade behind the times and since then he’d written something that was now on every reading list in the subject. Guy’s book, meanwhile, I’d bought on a whim in the CUP bookshop a few years before, probably after hearing him present somewhere but maybe just on the basis of what I knew of his work, which is now of course much easier to know about, and because of a sneaking suspicion that it probably should be on a lot of reading lists, and it just took me a while to make it urgent: sorry, Guy! But Guy’s book is 616 pages long, and John’s 624 (gloss, heavy), so this was a bit daunting; I knew when I picked these things up that I would be living with them closely for a while. (There’s also another very obvious extremely large book of wide-ranging comparative focus that has defeated scholars as least as bibliovoric as me, temporarily I’m sure, which I am now taking on properly rather than just reading via the index, and that invites comparisons in what follows, but if they occur at all they will have, in justice, to wait till I’ve taken it all in.1)

There are obvious limits to what I can say about these books: both these (all three of these) scholars’ goodwills are important to me, in so far as I have them I want to keep them and so you would probably expect what follows to be basically praiseworthy, and so indeed it will be (although it has been a pain to phrase because of implicit comparisons – I apologise if any offence remains to be taken, it is not intended) but that’s because I think they are good, I have no need to pretend about this. My adulation will be very slightly tempered below with some tiny points of query, but I think the first thing to make clear is that it was or is worth reading all of these books. I actually enjoyed the reading of Guy’s; I picked it up each time genuinely wanting to know where it would go next, as opposed to simply wanting to know what was in it. It may be that he was conscious that his book was in a series of supposed textbooks, and so wrote deliberately clearly, and if so it pays off, he is admirably lucid and the reading goes quickly. John’s is slower going because there is so much information on every page that one keeps being caught up by footnotes and going, “really? where? <flip flip flip page> Wow that sounds interesting. Hang on, where was I?” (Guy’s is by no means short of information but John has little local details that distract. This may only really affect English readers though.) Also, and this is just my weakness really, Guy’s chapters are shorter and more divided up: beyond a certain amount per lump I do find that my brain creaks trying to hang on to it all, and here Guy is kinder. (I’m conscious that I myself fail on this assessment; sorry about that.)

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Roman ruins at Volubilis, Morocco, old Mauretania

Both of these books also offer very big interpretative answers to substantial historical questions. Guy is of course offering an answer to to the great question about the fall of the Roman Empire, and he is far from the only person doing so; the only reason his book isn’t on more reading lists, I would guess, is that most people who set them read Peter Heather’s almost equally large tome that narrowly preceded it into the shops and then felt they had all the answer they needed for the moment. Many will know that Guy and Peter do not agree about many things: Guy is scrupulously polite in his references here, however, indicating disagreement where necessary but never without respect, and certainly the opposition is not silenced but acknowledged and engaged. The big difference between Guy and his opposition for me, and the one that means I prefer Guy’s take, is that for him archæology is crucial. Archæological evidence is given at least equal billing throughout his book and it substantially underpins his argument, which is, basically, that even in economic and military crisis Rome was still a sufficiently potent political force that it warped and changed the cultures at its borders and offered them opportunities of engagement and enrichment that drew them in towards it, while at the same time its military and aristocratic culture was increasingly affected (and I use that word both transitively and intransitively) with supposedly-barbaric overtones. No-one, however, wanted to fell the Empire; they wanted to control it. It was competition between such ambitious members of a military élite that overlapped the Empire’s borders which did the whole thing in.2

In the course of this, Guy raises several important issues about assumptions people make about barbarian identities, not least that they are detectable in burial styles and that they are incompatible with Roman identities. The most interesting examples of counters to these that he provides, for me, are the facts that the Visigoths only started doing furnished burial with grave-goods once they were in Spain, so it can hardly be an imported ethnic practice—he argues that instead it represents, here and in other places, competition and insecurity among élites that Romans as well as others could employ for status display (pp. 342-346 for Spain and more generally at pp. 27-29 and per people thereafter)—and the weird and oddly loyalist imperial dignities claimed by the Moorish rulers of the western edges of Roman Africa, left on their own by the Vandal takeover as ostensibly legitimist rulers who would never again recognise a higher authority (pp. 405-410). I don’t know where else you could go for someone writing in English who makes these populations part of the wider story of Empire.

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing

All Saints' Brixworth, usually held the oldest Anglo-Saxon Church substantially standing, from Wikimedia Commons

John’s book is also part of several wider debates. Most people are probably familiar with John’s work because of the ‘minster hypothesis’, an argument he started in the 1980s about the organisation of the early Anglo-Saxon Church which now has a Wikipedia entry, and which holds that it was substantially or entirely built round collegiate churches with priests operating out of a shared base ministering to very large mother-parishes, and that there wasn’t really any other kind of Church organisation than that before the tenth and eleventh centuries. This `minster’ category included both gatherings of priests and gatherings of monks; John held and holds (pp. 2-5) that there was no functional difference except in wealth until the age of reform.3 This book represents the deep background that makes such a picture of the Church in early Anglo-Saxon England plausible. (He doesn’t deny the occasional existence of smaller-range churches, especially in zones where the British Church might have survived into Anglo-Saxon control, but doesn’t think them significant.) He has a case, at the very least: it’s impossible to deny that with this much detail thrown behind it, pulled from legislation, place-names, charters, narratives, archæology and topography, and this level of detail means that even if you don’t yourself buy the case, or indeed if you’re actually interested in something else, there’s still stuff in here that’s relevant to you. An example: a highly-touristic friend of mine said, on a visit to mine while I was reading this book, that he’d been in Kidderminster the previous week, which he gathered had “roots in your period”; I dimly remembered having read as much, figured the name was a give-away and was indeed able to check John’s index and show my friend a date of first record (736), the Old English place name (Husmerae) and a picture of the charter where it and the incipient church first occur (Sawyer 89),4 which was nice.

From this book, then, could start dozens and dozens of local history enquiries, and equally many have been incorporated and assimilated into it. There are also, either side of the big argument about the shape of the Church, absolutely fascinating chapters about the conversion (pp. 8-78) and the social function of the parish church (when we have some; pp. 426-504), both a bit more informed by foreign scholarship and indeed social anthropology than the more structural chapters, but because of that all the more engagingly humanistic, showing a lively compassion for the everyday member of a community and an almost combative willingness to consider the unusual and see if it makes more sense with the evidence than arguments of long tradition. What John achieves with these chapters is to demonstrate how flexible, adaptable and individual such traditions might be, and how we might do better to talk in terms of changing religious practice than of converting people. So, whether or not you come for the argument, stay for the people: this book is full of them, and John’s writing is always prepared for them to do something odd or opposite to the usual interpretation of the evidence. It is, really, a very rich volume.

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

The Ruthwell Cross, now in Ruthwell Parish Church (ironically?)

It seems almost rude, therefore, to wish that there was even more in it,5 and indeed I would probably have groaned to find it as I was reading, but with it all inside my head in some way, I still want to know what John thinks about some areas he doesn’t have space to cover here. Some of these are questions hanging from his argument, and I actually hope to have his help in tackling them separately later, so I’ll not go into detail now, but they include the significance of Roman sites to the Anglo-Saxon kings—owned but unused?—the possibility of non-church religious foci like standing crosses occupying the small parish rôle, and the actual management of the ministry in a minster landscape. All of these strike me as areas where John’s book indicates that we don’t yet have good answers, and that is another value it has but I wonder if he has answers anyway for which there just wasn’t space here.

As for Guy’s book, that leaves me with fewer questions, not least I admit because I know his subject in much less detail and so am just readier to accept what look like careful well-founded answers. I do really like his recharacterisation of the ambitions and mores of those implicated in the Empire’s break-up, and I really like his use of archæological evidence as part of that. But, on the Continent I work much later and I don’t have the kind of acquaintance with the material to query someone who so obviously does. It’s only when Guy deals with England, my long-lurking secondary interest, that I have enough of a grasp to wonder if his argument doesn’t get a bit fragile this far away from Rome. I don’t just mean his challenging reinterpretation of Gildas’s chronology, which is set aside in an appendix (pp. 519-526), but, well, really just one thing: quoit brooches. These are made to bear an awful lot of weight in his interpretation of sub-romanitas in southern Britain (pp. 236-237 & 316-319). I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the book where he would allow that one type of dress item holds a fixed archæological significance (in this case, (post-)Roman military organisation) over a hundred and fifty years of change, they are here almost his only evidence for such a survival and I’m not sure I buy it. At the very least, at the end of that period the fact that this was an old type of artefact must have meant its meaning differently to what it did when they had first been current wear among soldiers in the island. Maybe I have him wrong here: I’m sure he will say if so, but to me this implies that we might better think of more disruption to identities and organisation earlier in Britain than he suggests, and I don’t see why it should damage his argument for the rest of Europe at all if Britain, as so often, refuses to fit comfortably in with it.

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

Second- or third-century Roman quoit brooch

So yes: big books, high praise and tiny queries. But the queries are only tiny, and the books’ impact is much greater than them; I humbly commend these works to the readership. I already own one and am happy about this; I will have to own the other. May there be more whence these came!


1. I ought perhaps to worry about his reading this, which I know he does, and finding out that I haven’t yet properly read his magnum opus, but firstly I’m sure the fact that I cite his earlier work avidly but not this one had been noticed and in any case I’ve by now given up assuming I have any information that he hasn’t already found out. If he didn’t have two eyes I’d be looking for ravens, I tell you.

2. I’m conscious that I’ve rephrased fairly freely here and that I may be emphasising things a bit differently to Guy, but I do want to point out that the fact that I can do this belies the particularly bone-headed Amazon review of this book that maintains that it has no argument. The book’s argument is set out at the beginning, the end and most of the discussion between is directed to it so I can only presume that the reviewer didn’t spot it because they were only prepared to see the argument they already believed.

3. The debate before this can be pursued through J. Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; and D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

4. Blair, Church, pp. 102-103 & fig. 14.

5. And it reminds me infallibly of the first time I ever saw Stuart Airlie presenting a paper, one in which he said while discussing the inadequacy of the treatment of his subject by some recent Sonderforschungquellenschriftarbeit-type monster, “And isn’t that always what you think when a new six-hundred-page German-language monograph bang on your subject area lands on your desk? `Oh, it’s just not big enough!'” This reassures me that I may not be confessing awful scholarly inadequacy by occasionally enjoying it when a book is short.

Seminar LXXI: Villa Magna revisited

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna. Always start posts like this with skeletons!

A while back now I blogged a paper that Caroline Goodson had given at the Institute of Historical Research in London about a site in Italy where she was working and where it seemed likely that they had found a room in which two Roman emperors had enjoyed a drink together and one later written about it. Caroline‘s been a friend and/or teacher of mine since I was still doctorising, so when she came to Oxford this term with an update I made sure I was there to hear. She presented it at the Medieval Archaeology seminar on 1st November 2010, and the title was simply “Excavations at Villa Magna”.

Portal of the church at Villamagna

Portal of the church at Villamagna – observe the many different sorts of stonework

They’ve come a long way since 2007, when they had basically uncovered the Roman villa and some confusing floors elsewhere on the site and just begun on the cemetery in front of the Church, from which in the end more than five hundred separate bodies have now come. They’re now therefore able to say, assuming that I can correctly interpret my notes and that I understood right when I wrote them, that the church, which is extremely mixed-up in its surviving fabric as the illustration above makes clear, goes back in some parts to a point somewhere between the fifth and sixth centuries and was being modified almost as soon as it was up and running. Similarly over the course of this period, what had been a portico to this villa that had a semi-industrial wine production centre elsewhere on the site briefly became the home to that production—probably using, as it turns out, the same dolia that the team had presumed stolen from the earlier location—but was very soon after emptied out again, after which the roof collapsed. The building was then partially cleared and huts built, inside the still-standing walls. These were in their turn demolished for what seems to have been fortification in the fifth-to-sixth centuries but the area, which stands close to the slowly-filling cemetery, was being used for settlement and burial again by the eighth-to-ninth centuries.

[Edit: the below image changed and various alterations made (and indicated) thanks to input from Dr Goodson herself!]

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

In the tenth century this place became a monastery, and a monastery whose charters have been published.1 This, for me, would be the interesting bit, except that the three founders of the monastery appear to have been Anagni citizens of no great importance, so guessing how they had got hold of this site, which had been an imperial villa and then a papal possession is utterly obscure. (In conversation afterwards with Caroline I decided that what I thought most probable was that these were vassals of the bishop of Anagni, who would probably have got the site from the papacy some time before, but since I have not actually seen the charters or read any of the literature this can only be the most arrant and careless hypothesis.2 Comparing these charters with those of Anagni, if any survive there, might prove interesting, all the same.) On the other hand, while the question of succession and foundation and patronage may be the most interesting bit for me, the excavators and team generally are probably more interested in the site as a whole, where the monastery lasts as a set of structures till about 1400 but which also has several other zones, including a late Antique building they’re identifying as a barracks, a later castle (inevitably) and of course the old villa. The latest report on their excellent website [has even more stuff in it, so, if] you want to know more, therefore, look at the site! Because what they are looking at here is succession, but of a slightly broader sort than the narrow who-controls-the-means-of-production way I would usually think; what we’ve got here is a succession to the ancient world, in which an imperial property becomes something like a modern French château, a fortress, a village, a monastery and then a village again.

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

This change of worlds was also brought out by a question of Lesley Abrams‘s at the very end, about the origins of goods showing up as finds evidence. Caroline said that there was Byzantine and North African material showing up until the seventh century, Sicilian and Constantinopolitan until 700, and thereafter the economy of the site seems to have gone almost completely local, making its own pottery, not even getting goods from Rome, and doesn’t really reconnect until 1296 when the monastery was suppressed. Chris Wickham (also present, unsurprisingly) has written about this kind of change as seen in pottery but an actual site with things you can see on it shows maybe even more clearly how small these places’ worlds, that had been pan-Imperial, quickly got, and how local any kind of power and influence must have been.3 Here, three unknown citizens from Anagni with a land-grant can become bigshots in a site where emperors once drank. It’s not quite the kind of ‘end of civilisation’ that Bryan Ward-Perkins (also present…) has written about, not least because here the buildings went on for a while in various configurations, but it’s a fairly major set of changes that this kind of study lets us put together as part of a bigger story.4


1. Published as, I learn from the project’s website’s full bibliography, C. D. Flascassovitti (ed.), Le Pergamene del Monastero di S. Pietro di Villamagna (976-1237) (Lecce 1994).

2. From that same bibliography I learn that, until this project’s report comes out, the works of reference would be M. De Meo, S. Pietro di Villamagna presso Anagni: una villa romana si trasforma in abbazia, Quaderni di architettura e restauro 2 (Rome 1998) and G. Giammaria (ed.), Villamagna, Monumenti di Anagni 3 (Anagni 1999). The team’s provisional reports can however be found here.

3. Chris’s point of view could be found, among other places, in his “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98.

4. Most obviously B. Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford 2005).

Seminary LXIV: when in Ravenna do as the Romans do

The last of last term’s seminar reports, and probably the last substantive post before I try and fly the Atlantic with only a commercial airliner to help me, ‘is presented herewith, I mean thusly‘. The occasion was Andrea Augenti, presenting at the last Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the term with the title, “Rome and Ravenna from late Antiquity to the Early Middle ages: an archæological perspective”. He first set out something of a stand against political archæology, something to which Rome has frequently fallen victim. (I don’t just mean the way they recently found Romulus’s grave here, or whatever it was, or the kind of anti-medieval Classicism discussed by Charlotte Roueché at Ephesus (I do know that’s not in Rome, but the same agendas have been at work) but rather more substantial things: did you know, for example, that Mussolini had one of the of the seven hills of Rome cut through to link his government buildings to the old Imperial Fora? The further we get from World War II the harder it gets to believe that Mussolini was actually real.)

Archaeological map of the Ravenna area

Archaeological map of the Ravenna area

With this much clear, Dr Augenti proceeded by comparing Rome and its sibling capital Ravenna, on three scores: palaces, churches and houses. There are some obvious ways in which any comparison is unfair, of course: yes, both cities were capitals of Italy at one or other point, but this doesn’t alter the fact that Rome is far larger, 1200ha to Ravenna’s 166ha if you’re comparing the area within walls. It’s not so bad if you remember, as we were urged to, that Ravenna at its peak should also include the port of Classe and the populated suburban area that linked that to the actual city, giving it an area of more like 350ha, but the two aren’t really at the same level however you cut it. Despite that, they show some definite parallel trends in evolution.

Reconstruction of the Forum of Nerva as constructed (in the reign of Nerva)

Reconstruction of the Forum of Nerva as constructed (in the reign of Nerva)

On the score of palaces, for example, similar things happened in both cities after the Ostrogothic takeover: while a number of palaces and public buildings in particular locations—in Rome, the Palatine—remained operational, a number of others were converted to other uses: some became necropoloi, some were broken into private housing or just left to fall into ruin. The Forum of Nerva above, famously because it’s been dug fairly recently, was filled in with fairly large-scale town-houses in wood, with garden plots and a road for their owners to reach them on. This is much harder to get reconstruction images of… Similarly, in Ravenna, the most important buildings continue as royal residences, but others are effectively given up to private use or disuse.

The current state of the Forum of Nerva, partly reconstructed

The current state of the Forum of Nerva, partly reconstructed (but to when?)

As for churches, here again there is parity in quality while Rome continued to have the edge in quantity, naturally enough. Both cities saw a spread of church-building after the toleration of Christianity, unsurprisingly, and in the fifth and sixth centuries also, perhaps because of the existence of two Christian sects running in parallel for much of that time. Then that all stopped, and there was very little building of churches until the tenth century, which is as we know when it was at generally. But there is a big difference: the churches from the fifth and sixth centuries are huge temple-like affairs, but from the tenth they are tiny private Eigenkirchen.* Much changed about monumentality and the expression of piety in this time. This change is, however, one that Rome and Ravenna shared.

Third-century stele of Valeria Maria, from San Vitale di Ravenna

Third-century stele of Valeria Maria, from San Vitale di Ravenna, now in the Mueso Arcivescovile

The big difference arises in housing, although not straight away. Both cities experienced a long period at the beginning of the early Middle Ages in which rebuilding or adapting was far more common than building anew. In Rome, new construction began again in the seventh century, but Ravenna had by that time been hit by Lombards and was no longer a capital of any kind; it was instead resuming its previous existence as a middling entrepôt and bishopric, rejoining the urban ‘main sequence‘ while Rome continued as a supergiant. This was the point at which Ravenna dislimned once more into three settlements. It’s not however that there was no building at all going on here. Indeed, that may not even be the case in several other cities which seem to fit this pattern, because eighth-century contexts at Ravenna carefully excavated have thrown up a particular kind of domestic building, a sort of rectangular house with a central partition running most of the way across it, like a capital E with the right-hand side closed over (in some font where the middle limb doesn’t reach the far side, which I now realise isn’t what I’m composing this in). These crop up a lot, but have not been dated this early before; so the digging at Ravenna may explain a lot and cause a few periods of apparent stagnation in other cities’ archæological records to fill up. Nonetheless, they’re scrappy, basic, and wooden, and in both Rome and Ravenna found in the harbour districts overlying previously industrial facilities. Change, again.

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna, in which a city under threat from the Lombards makes a statement about its loyalties

As you can probably tell even from this dry write-up, this was a paper full of information and not without humour, but all humour was put aside for the conclusion, in which Dr Augenti took to task perspectives in which the changes visible in the archæogical records of these two cities are viewed as decline. It’s probably easiest just to copy my notes here:

Decline prob. irreversible…. But whose decline anyway? This is just a similarity index for our own times, isn’t it? Better? For whom? why don’t they build grand if that’s so great? Times change, priorities change; best to keep all past as a foreign land. They build what they need, and we need to understand, inc. the bits that ‘decline’ as well as ‘progress’.

Dr Augenti apologised for his poor English, which was quite unnecessary as he was perfectly understandable, but if any proof of that were needed it would have been found in the current of heartfelt agreement that murmured around the room in response to this speech. The Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, by long tradition, does not applaud at the end of papers; occasionally visitors who don’t know this start clapping anyway. This time it was the regulars. This man speaks the truth, or so at least many of us felt. It was a good paper to close a term’s program with.


* The description of the large sixth century churches led to one particularly good sidetrack. Apparently Ravenna has a number of enthusiastic amateur archæologists, but the crown among these goes to a man who sets out to locate sites armed only with his copy of Agnellus of Ravenna’s Liber pontificalis and a metal dowsing rod. Dr Augenti was understandably sceptical when this man claimed to have found an unlocated church which would have been the largest in Ravenna in Agnellus’s time, and therefore somewhat astonished when that was exactly what the ground-penetrating radar revealed. It has now been dug, although it was badly ploughed up, and the dowser’s convictions amply borne out. I’m not sure if we need more or less of that sort of outcome…

Two seminars, two cities, part 1: Seminary XL with Peter Heather

Tuesday 3 February was a rather busy day for London-range early medievalists. The afternoon had Peter Heather speaking to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title, “Predatory Migration and the First Millennium”, and then the evening saw Wendy Davies (for it is again she) asking, “What Can We Say About Local Priests in Northern Spain before the Year 1000?” in front of the London Society for Medieval Studies. Although Britain was at that time suffering considerably from its rulers’ conclusion that it’s not economical to avert the loss of billions of pounds of revenue by giving local authorities enough money to keep some snowploughs about the place, meaning that transport was heavily disrupted when prolonged heavy snowfall occurred, it was just about possible to manage both… But I’ll blog them separately, as there was little connection between the two and comments may be less confusing that way. So here’s Peter’s first and Wendy’s will follow.

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned Professor Heather here in the past as being someone unafraid to imagine large-scale population movements in the early Middle Ages, which somewhat sets him apart from his contemporaries who have often feared that all numbers in medieval sources are exaggerated (because, for example, if that really is a barbarian army coming across the steppe, are you hanging round to count them?), that they indulge in literary tropes related to origin myths in which peoples move en bloc without losing any of their identity—tropes that subsequent work on ethnicity has problematised—and lastly because modern migrations just don’t look like this. The old-style ‘age of migrations’, the ‘invasion hypothesis‘, presupposes population movements that are deliberate (as opposed to unplanned flight), aggressive (that is armed, ‘predatory’) and closed; that is, that the Sueves were still Sueves when they’d reached Galicia from Darkest Germania, because they had neither shed many people to local populations as they passed nor taken in so many as to dilute their identity or material culture. To a generation or more of scholars this has seemed very unlikely to have occurred very much, if at all.

Peter, who was in part plugging a new book called Empires and Barbarians which must be continuing the theme of his last one in this respect, laid these planks of the counter-argument out (and I wouldn’t like to say there might not be others, but these certainly exist) and conversationally but thoroughly jumped on them until he felt that they were broken. Part of this involved a saving strategy, mind: he agreed that many supposed invasions were not what they are cracked up to be, but because we can tell this from, for example, Ammianus Marcellinus’s descriptions, then when Ammianus does say that a full-scale migration of a people with predatory intent was afoot, as he does of the Gothic revolt in 376, we ought to take him seriously in that case too. Ammianus also describes the refugee Alemans as a people being made up of lots of separate bands of followers briefly united under one ruler, and Peter compared that to the shifting Viking warbands that made up the Great Army five centuries later. Peter pointed out that such a combination of elements must have been very hard to maintain, and that no-one would do so without some kind of plan in mind, although questions forced him to concede that that plan might well no longer be the one that the ‘people’ had had in mind when they had set off. Lastly he explained the difference compared to modern migrations, so fluid, open and multivalent with a composition of small bands of individuals or families, as being one of economic determinism. Nowadays, he argued, immigrants can not only amass the capital to move by themselves but can expect to be economically able to sustain themselves alone when they arrive at destination, because there are many jobs and a specialised economy and it is possible to access wealth in many ways. In late antiquity on the other hand, he argued, while you can certainly find work, you can’t individually find wealth because, apart from loot that you can only keep if you go away again, wealth is land and land needs many people to run and still more to roust its previous occupants. If you intend to take land, he argued, better bring an army.

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

I’m okay with this as long as it’s allowed to represent an extreme case. I think it is, yes, arguable that the Goths in 376 formed themselves into a confederacy whose express object was to take land in the Empire by force where the Huns couldn’t reach them and that to this end they moved en masse with women and children (for which Peter had textual support too) to make it so. On the other hand, it was certainly possible to find a livelihood on your own terms in the Roman Empire as a small-scale immigrant: look at all the legislation about waste land needing farmers. It may have been harder to find a bit of waste to call a new home under the Empire because of the claims of the state than it was, well, on the Spanish March of the Carolingian Empire (hem hem), but people did move in in small numbers without fighting, I’m sure. So there is some reason that the Goths don’t break up and try that which is bigger than simple economic necessity, and I don’t think that Peter has saved the invasion hypothesis. He’s just made the (special) cases where we ought to allow it more explicable, and therefore defensible. No small thing; but between that and the lively disagreements over DNA evidence that also emerged in questions, he may have to argue a bit more yet.