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.
My main interests are in the connections between the Byzantine Empire and various post-Roman kingdom in the West between 500 and 700, so the papers I’ve written this year all followed the same themes. One, out of two that I had to write for my degree, dealt with the phenomenon of ‘New Constantines’ in the sixth century, which was what I termed three different western writers’ comparisons of a king they admired to Constantine I. These three kings and the Constantinian comparisons used to bolster their reputation, Clovis of the Franks (Gregory of Tours, Histories, II.31), Reccared of the Visigoths (John of Biclaro, Chronicle, 91), and Ethelbert of Kent (Gregory the Great, Letters, XI.37), are all fairly well-known,  but I suggested that there might a Byzantine connection, since the emperors of the time, Justin II, Tiberius II Constantine (!!!), and Maurice, all drew upon Constantinian themes as well.  The precise connections between Constantinople and the West are a bit unclear, but I posited that the two contemporary phenomena were closely related. Whilst researching this I realised that my knowledge of Merovingian politics is pretty patchy, so I’m putting this in the back burner for now, though I am intrigued about what more work on this could result in.
I was more confident about my other paper, which was on the reign of Constans II (641-668) and how his frontier policy, particularly with regards to Italy and various Mediterranean islands, provides us with excellent evidence for his political and military acumen. Constans is an emperor with a pretty terrible reputation (he “was greatly hated by all” according to one later Greek chronicler ), partly because of his perceived failures during the long war against the Arabs and because of his ‘heretical’ stance on the monothelete controversy, which culminated in the emperor arresting one pope and mutilating Maximus the Confessor, the most prominent Greek theologian of his age. There is a recent trend towards rehabilitating his image though and I decided to go further,  using the dramatic Arab sieges of Constantinople in 654 and 668 to illustrate the degree of the success Constans achieved.  I argued that his policies from c.650 onwards went on to rejuvenate the Byzantine Empire after decades of losses to the Arabs. These gains had vaporised by 668 however, which allowed long-repressed sectional interests to once again resurface, culminating in Constans’ assassination that year, famously achieved with a bucket whilst he was taking a bath.
Writing about Constans was very exciting, since my research proposal for my PhD highlighted the theological turmoil of his reign as one of the key events that I want to examine. I hope to look at how travelling ecclesiastics, whether pilgrims, exiles or letter-carriers, linked together the very different worlds of Byzantium and the West. I have already looked at this to an extent, as I did my BA thesis on how the lives of the Northumbrian St Wilfrid of York and Maximus the Confessor, a monk from Palestine, not only paralleled each other but also demonstrated that doctrinal disputes in Constantinople and Rome had left its mark even on Anglo-Saxon England. For my PhD I will essentially take the same approach but on a bigger-scale. Focusing on the period between c.550 and 700, I will tentatively argue that western ecclesiastical history should not be studied separately from Byzantine affairs nor from the defining events of the seventh century in the Near East: the “last great war of antiquity” between Rome and Persia in 603-628 and of course the Arab conquests from the 630s onwards.
I have already turned parts of my argument from my BA thesis into a paper given at my first ever graduate conference in February, which had quite a distinguished audience and I was relieved that I emerged largely unscarred from the experience. Here’s the abstract I used, which should give you a sense of what I argued:
The seventh century proved to be a century of crisis for the Byzantine Empire. One cause was the religious furore over monotheletism, a doctrine notionally supported by the Heraclian emperors but opposed by many Chalcedonian Christians. The papacy in particular agitated against this as early as the 630s, culminating in the rebellious Lateran Council of 649 and the arrest of Pope Martin I in 653. The controversy had however extended beyond imperial borders, for Rome was not only the hub of Byzantine dissent, but also a religious centre respected across Christendom; amidst the ecclesial-political conflict between the papacy and the emperor, these connections were amplified and reinforced.
This paper will focus on the experiences of those who travelled to and from Anglo-Saxon England over the course of this dispute. Monks such as Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop went to Rome as pilgrims and brought back Roman relics and customs, whilst the Cilician Theodore of Tarsus rose to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and the North African Hadrian his right-hand man. Not only were these men prominent figures in the Anglo-Saxon Church, they can all be tied to papal politics from the 640s onwards as well, linking together two seemingly very different worlds. Taking a comparative and transnational approach, this paper will consider the role of ecclesiastical networks in facilitating this exchange of ideas and suggest that strategies of dissent first practised in Byzantium were later adapted for use in an Anglo-Saxon context, influencing in turn contemporary views on patronage and heresy.
That’s all for now, there are more posts coming soon!
1. See S. Castellanos, ‘Creating New Constantines at the End of the Sixth Century’, Historical Research, 85 (2012) for an excellent analysis of Gregory of Tours and John of Biclaro’s usage of this motif for example.
2. P. Magdalino (ed.), New Constantines: The Rhythm of Imperial Renewal in Byzantium, 4th-13th Centuries (Aldershot, 1994) covers the basics, though I personally I have a few additional thoughts about ‘New Constantines’ in the late sixth century.
3. Theophanes, Chronicle, A.M.6160.
4. There is a fairly positive narrative of Constans II’s reign in P. Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford, 2011) for example.
5. The conventional narrative still talks about the First Arab Siege of Constantinople of 674-678, but there are good reasons to think that there was a siege in 654 [S. O’Sullivan, ‘Sebeos’ Account of an Arab Attack on Constantinople in 654’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 28.1 (2004)], and that the four-year siege is instead a misrepresentation of an attack in 668 [M. Jankowiak, ‘The first Arab siege of Constantinople’, Travaux et Mémoires, 17 (2013)].