The many faces of Constans II: the seventh-century empire in non-Roman eyes

[The emperor] was driven from his capital into voluntary and perpetual exile. Constans embarked for Greece and, as if he meant to retort the abhorrence which he deserved he is said, from the Imperial galley, to have spit against the walls of his native city. After passing the winter at Athens, he sailed to Tarentum in Italy, visited Rome, and concluded a long pilgrimage of disgrace and sacrilegious rapine.1

This was how the great eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon summarised the reign of Constans II (641-668), as essentially a time of tyranny and fear, with the emperor even being driven from his capital to Italy by his people. But in the west the emperor continued to terrorise the locals, culminating eventually in his assassination in 668 (with a bucket). This is the picture we have of the emperor from sources produced within the Roman empire, from both the accounts of his contemporaries and from sources written centuries later. The question is, can we trust this narrative? As I have hinted before, there is evidence otherwise from some pretty unexpected places. Although he was hated by many, it is important to also note that Constans had his admirers, whose stories perhaps provide a very different view of the Mediterranean world in the seventh century.

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Celebrating Christmas… in the sixth century

On Christmas day 508, a Roman patrician and consul was baptised at Reims. He however was not a Roman in the traditional sense – he was instead a ‘barbarian’ king, a ruler who had, amongst other things, been recorded as personally bashing in his subordinates’ and his prisoners’ heads with an axe. He was of course Clovis I, king of the Franks and whose reign allowed the Merovingian dynasty to dominate Gaul for the next two centuries. Yet this barbarous man was also a consul, a title granted by Emperor Anastasius I of Constantinople as part of a Roman strategy to draw the Franks into a war against the Visigoths. Continue reading

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A masterclass on how not to do history

A recent opinion piece from Niall Ferguson has been making its round on the internet. Its choice of title, ‘Like the Roman empire, Europe has let its defences crumble’, just after the horrendous terrorist attacks on Paris speaks volumes not only of his political views, but also his lack of historical awareness. I’ve been told that Ferguson was a good historian when dealing with his specialty, but the things he’s written in recent years definitely seem to be more tinged by ideology than any historical rigour. The same is true here: in his own words, he does ‘not know enough about the fifth century’ and yet he still wrote with a confidence that can only mislead the reader. After all, what can go wrong with an author who boldly proclaims that he is ‘going to tell you that this is exactly how civilisations fall’? Continue reading

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Crisis or opportunity? Refugees at the end of late antiquity

Refugees have been making the headlines lately, but they have obviously existed throughout history and over the past few weeks I have increasingly realised that my own research would have to examine my protagonists not only as active players in politics and religion, but also as people who had been forced away from their homes. Wars have always caused such movement of peoples, and the conflicts of late antiquity were no exception. What fascinates me the most however is the role played by these individuals in shaping events far beyond their homelands. They, like the people who took them in or people who turned them away, were individuals with their own interests and needs. They did not conform to stereotypes and the ones that are best recorded were those who lived very colourful lives indeed. Whilst a narrative history of this period would focus on the rulers and their wars, a new perspective, by thinking in terms of both the movers and the shakers, can I think shed new light on a fascinating part of history.

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What does Tang China have in common with Anglo-Saxon England?

Over the weekend I found something rather neat in a Chinese chronicle of the Tang dynasty (旧唐书, The Old Book of Tang). According to this tenth-century source, ambassadors from the Roman empire were received in 643, 667, 701, 711, 719 and 742. This is fascinating enough and is something that has yet to be explored by Byzantinists (though I did find a few things on trade and Christianities in Central Asia that mentioned this), but what immediately jumped out for me was the mentions of embassies in 643 and 667, because these two took place during the reign of Constans II (641-668), one of my favourite emperors. Constans II had ruled in very interesting times, as he faced off against the might of the caliphate somewhat successfully, at least, until he got murdered with a bucket in 668. He however has a very bad reputation in later sources, so we instead get the image of a brutal ruler who cared little for the health of his empire. Continue reading

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Hiatus? What hiatus?

After one year of inactivity, it’s time to inject some life back into this blog! I did set myself a goal of writing something every few weeks, but it turns out that postgraduate life was a bit more packed than I had expected. I still had a great time though, even if I had to squeeze in learning Latin and Greek from scratch in there somewhere. Happily, I am able to continue my studies further as a PhD student from September, so I am still enthusiastic about having a platform where I can note down my thoughts. With any luck, this writing streak will last a bit longer this time! In the next few posts I will write about my own  interest and what I will research next year; much of it will be quite speculative, but I think writing my thoughts down will be both useful for myself and perhaps even interesting for my readers. As a brief taster, here’s a brief summary of what I did this year and what I will hopefully expand on in the future.

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Lessons from St Augustine

On this day in 430, St Augustine died in his adopted hometown of Hippo Regius. He had led a fascinating life, experiencing as a child the brief reign of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Roman emperor, and lived to a time when Christianity was firmly established – the Vandals besieging his home when he died for instance were Christians, even if they were Arian heretics.

To this day he is still a controversial figure, as I found out when several people responded with the benign bishop of Hippo’s name when asked who the worst saint in history was. This was surprising, since I can think of a few saints who allegedly ordered massacres, betrayed their friends or were just plain unlikeable (looking you St Wilfrid you grumpy git!), whilst Augustine was by any definition a moral man even before he was a Christian.

Still, I can see why some people would reach that conclusion. Looking back, I realised that I first encountered Augustine many years ago in the Cartoon History of the Universe (it’s just as awesome as the name suggests!), and the impression I got was not a positive one:

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