Tag Archives: Pamplona

Seminar CCXXV: an attempted rehabilitation of the Emperor Honorius

On 28th January 2015, I was once again in the Institute of Historical Research for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, which turned out to be one of the more impressive double-acts I’ve ever seen in academia, with Graham Barrett and George Woudhuysen taking the stage with a paper entitled “Small Wars in Faraway Places under the Emperor Honorius”. I say ‘double-act’ and ‘stage’ deliberately; the paper was not just scripted but choreographed, with each speaker stepping forward for a few lines then stepping back to let the other take the spot; slick was not the word. So what was it that was being so slickly imparted?

Madrid, Real Academia de Historia, Codex 78, otherwise known as the Codice de Roda, fo. 190r

Madrid, Real Academia de Historia, Codex 78, otherwise known as the Codice de Roda, fo. 190r, showing the opening of our text in question, the De Laude Pampilona Epistula

Well, those who know Graham or have read of him here will know that he is in his normal appearance a scholar of post-Muslim Northern Spain, whereas George is a late Roman person, and the point of this paper was in something that concerned them both, a misunderstood text in the Codex Rotensis. This is a tenth-to-eleventh-century manuscript made for the court of Pamplona that contains a version of Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans, to which were then added Isidore of Seville’s History of the Goths, the Chronicle of Alfonso III in its simpler version and the Prophetic Chronicle, some noble genealogies and a bunch of ephemera, these including a Visigothic poem of praise for the city of Pamplona which, crucially for the paper, incorporates a letter of Emperor Honorius (393-423) whose rubric says that it was brought to Pamplona by an otherwise unrecorded patrician.1

A portrait of Emperor Honorius in the consular diptych of Probus, dated to 406

A portrait of Emperor Honorius in the consular diptych of Probus, dated to 406, “Consular diptych Probus 406“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The letter has, claimed our two speakers, been dismissed as unintelligible, but confrontation with the actual manuscript helps with this—and it is of course now online, which makes that a lot easier—and George and Graham interpreted it as a tax break for local soldiery, not identified but not Gauls as they were being granted the same privileges as the Gauls. There apparently follows an additional provision that actually mentions Spain and establishes a retirement fund for the soldiers addressed. In other words, it looks like an attempt to reward loyal soldiery or buy back intransigent ones. Now, I have been very cautious about how I phrase all that because despite all the preparation one thing that Graham and George did not give us was a text, or sight of one, so my notes are based only on what they told us it said.2 If they’re right, however, then this all probably fits in with the fairly recent rebellion of the prefect in charge of the Spanish army, Constantine the-would-be-III, who had also held Britain and Gaul against Rome for a while between 407 and 409. Honorius is generally held to have been unable to regain the provinces he lost in that rebellion, so this letter, if it’s correctly interpreted and its associated texts mean that it really does belong in Spain, show some attempt on his part to put things back in place.

London, British Library, Add. MS 10970

The opening of the sixth book of Zosimus’s New History, not in the oldest manuscript (Cod. Vat. Gr. 156 of the tenth century) but in a sixteenth-century paper copy that is now London, British Library, Add. MS 10970; my late medieval Greek palæography is not good enough to find you the right bit, I’m afraid, but the rest of the MS is linked through if you want to try

Now this may all sound strangely familiar to those who know their Bede, because Britain is another province which Honorius is supposed to have lost, and indeed abandoned; the sixth-century historian Zosimus mentions a letter of Honorius to the Britti telling them to look to their own defences. George and Graham therefore then turned their attention to that, reminding us that other interpretations had been offered but thinking that the letter probably was meant for Britain but has also been misread; in Zosimus’s actual Greek, sadly not (yet) digitised in its oldest version which is likewise eleventh-century, it just tells the British to be on their guard against the emperor’s enemies.3. The context here, noted George and Graham, was the deployment of the Gothic army of Alaric against Constantine, permitting the interpretation that Britain, too, was a loyal province to whom Honorius could offer nothing but words but did so hoping that they would be enough. Consequently, arguing that Britain left the Roman Empire in 410 would be misguided and we should assume that it too simply fell apart under the pressure to defend itself with whatever non-Roman forces were making themselves available.

Silver siliqua of Emperor Honorius, struck probably at Milan between 383 and 402 but found near Colchester in Britain

Silver siliqua of Emperor Honorius, struck probably at Milan between 383 and 402 but found near Colchester in Britain

I’m not, per se, against the decatastrophising of the end of Roman rule in the West here; as the speakers put it, there was no Waterloo moment, just a long series of too many problems. All the same, this is an awful lot to try and base on two letters, both of whose attribution is debatable and whose preservation context is dubious in the extreme—an eleventh-century collection of texts perhaps referring to Pamplona and Zosimus, preserved in a manuscript no older and far less directly informed, are not where one would wish to find unalloyed depictions of fifth-century imperial strategy. Questions therefore centered not least on whether other evidence could be available: Rebecca Darley asked about the preservation of Honorius’s coinage in these areas, and Graham admitted that they more or less cease to turn up after 410 but argued that the dating of those later coins may well be wrong; Wendy Davies however added that in Britain at least these late issues are found only in a very few places, like Caerleon, anyway, so in fact the coinage doesn’t really help either side of the argument except by supporting the idea that Honorius had no actual resources to commit to preserving the empire. Graham and George may still be right, however, that that didn’t stop him trying.


1. The standard edition of this text, and not the only one, is José María Lacarra (ed.), “Textos navarros del Códice de Roda” in Estudios de Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 1 (Zaragoza 1945), pp. 193-284, online here, at pp. 266-270; for further and more up-to-date references see Esteban Moreno Resano, “Cultura jurídica e instituciones cívicas entre la Antigüedad Tardía y la Alta Edad Media: observaciones a propósito de De laude Pampilona epistola” in VII Congreso General de Navarra: Arqueología, Historia Antigua, Historia Medieval, Historia del Arte y de Música volumen I, Príncipe de Viana Vol. 72 no. 253 (Pamplona 2011), pp. 193-205 at pp. 193-194 n. 1.

2. I could of course now provide you the text from Lacarra or even try and read one myself off the facsimile, but to be honest, I’ve linked you to both and it’s been quite a difficult few days, you can manage, or at least, will likely do as well as I can; I don’t find the facsimile especially easy going.

3. For those other interpretations see Edward A. Thompson, “Fifth-century facts?” in Britannia Vol. 14 (London 1985), pp. 272-274.

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

[Edit: a correction has reached me from one of the organisers of this conference, so please note alterations in the first paragraph. Otherwise, this stands as it did when first posted in June 2015.]

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing[Edit:] They secured some really big-hitting speakers, without assistance too, but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty’: Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.