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.

I will primarily focus on the events of the seventh century, though rest assured that similar stories can be told for the previous century as well. This particular period witnessed the ‘last great war of antiquity’ between the Roman and Persian empires, which was shortly followed afterwards by the advent of the Arab conquests; in a few short decades, the Roman empire had lost all its eastern provinces, whilst the Persian empire, long the bogeyman of the Romans, was vanquished forever and its last shah hunted down at the edge of his once vast empire. This has often been interpreted as a crisis of the most monumental kind, which certainly captures a sense of the extraordinary changes this period witnessed, but I think it missed out on how many opportunities it had also created amidst the turmoil. In Arabia, the power vacuum of the war of 603-628 provided the space for a charismatic preacher named Muhammad to spread his message, whilst in Constantinople it allowed the young emperor Constans II to test his mettle in this new ‘Mediterranean world war’ (one of these days I will finally write a post on why the much maligned Constans was in fact a very capable and influential emperor). Amidst all of that, a group of eastern monks escaped their war-torn homes and became advisers of Roman officials in the western Mediterranean.

The Persian empire won many major victories in the 610s, culminating in the seizure of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt by 619.

These monks were an eclectic bunch and I have so much to say about them since I’ve been working on them on and off for the past two years. For now, I’ll talk about the learned travellers John Moschus and Sophronius. This pair of teacher and student had first fled Palestine for Egypt as the Persians began to threaten the Roman Near East sometime after 603. They quickly associated themselves with Patriarch John (the Almsgiver) of Alexandria, an important leader of the church and effectively the ecclesiastical counterpart of Nicetas, the man given the difficult task of actually defending Egypt. The patriarch himself however came under threat as the military situation deteriorated – as the Persians drew closer to Alexandria, doubts grew of his culpability in the imperial defeat as well. In 619 John took ship to Cyprus and abandoned Alexandria, even though he was supposed to travel to Constantinople and explain himself to the emperor. His death shortly afterwards meant that there was a dire need to defend his reputation, and his friends John Moschus and Sophronius took up the task. They produced a very influential Life of the late patriarch, one that is still the primary source for many events in Roman Egypt just before the Persian occupation.

Due to his hagiographers, John the Almsgiver soon acquired the reputation of a holy bishop prone to alms-giving. This painting is by Titian from c.1550.

Moschus and Sophronius did not stop there however, as they continued on to Constantinople, North Africa, and finally, Rome. Part of the reason for this journey was in fact an edict issued by the emperor Heraclius, which placed strict limits on the amount of financial aid given to ecclesiastical refugees, of which there were many, simply because all of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt had been occupied. This law demonstrates amply the difficulties the resource-strapped Constantinopolitan government faced, but our two protagonists were a rather enterprising pair, as they instead found a patron in George, a prefect of North Africa. The same happened again in Rome, where they were received with honour by the papacy. Moschus himself later recorded a story that recalled the generosity given to easterners by Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), which must surely have had more resonance amongst new arrivals in the city who were in much direr states than their pilgrim predecessors decades earlier.

These bonds would be remembered when the Persian war ended with a surprising Roman victory and these monastic refugees returned east. Moschus died in 634, but Sophronius was acclaimed as the patriarch of Jerusalem in the same year, which he used to great effect to oppose the monenergist doctrine promoted by the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople. It was a formulation that was meant to bring about a union between the Chalcedonian and miaphysite churches within the Roman empire, a division that dated back to the fifth century, and although it had some successes, it also made a lot of people very angry. Sophronius tried to rally the other patriarchs to oppose this, but they were more open to the imperial programme of unification, which had after all achieved some success already, even gaining the approval of some ‘Nestorian’ Christians from Persia.

Emperor Heraclius and his sons. Heraclius also started the tradition of emperors having amazing facial hair.

Moschus and Sophronius’ struggles over theology have often been interpreted independently, but I think it is worth tying the events of the 630s with that of the earlier period and to look for signs of how their experiences as guests on foreign shores contributed to their later actions. The most obvious connection is the strong relationship they formed with patrons in North Africa and Italy. This is particularly important in the intensely personal world of late antiquity, when it was through your connections that you got things done. These friendships, as far as we can tell, still had an impact decades later, most prominently in the career of Maximus the Confessor, a fellow Palestinian refugee during the Persian War who returned to Africa in 641 during the Arab conquests and renewed his connections with the elite of imperial provinces in the west in order to build support against monotheletism, a reformulation of the monenergist doctrine.

I think it is also possible to argue that these monks’ experiences in exile shaped their conceptions of the Christian community. This can perhaps be illustrated by Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow (c.630), a compilation of edifying tales concerning holy men and women from across the Roman empire. Despite the stereotype of ascetics of being separated from conventional urban life, Moschus instead wrote about how holiness can be found throughout society, amongst the rich and the poor, in the army and the desert, as well as in the western parts of the empire, not just the east, where holy men had long dwelt. This is I think quite important, since there is a tendency to see the Roman empire in this period as one that was increasingly less interested in the west. I however argue otherwise. Whereas theologians had little reason to move west before the seventh century, the wars of this period did force individuals to leave their comfort zone. As a result, they familiarised themselves with the papacy and its allies; when they thought of the Christian world and its saints, their worldview was not restricted to the deserts of Syria or Egypt, but was instead far more inclusive.

Similar connections can be made from Sophronius and his friends’ willingness to draw upon help from across the Mediterranean in their later struggles. The patriarch of Jerusalem, as I mentioned above, tried to rally other patriarchs to his side over monenergism, yet he surely knew that he had little chance of persuading the patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria, since they were the first proponents of this policy, which left the patriarchs of Antioch and Rome. Of the two, Sophronius was presumably hoping for the papacy’s support due to his familiarity with the city. He was to be disappointed, since Pope Honorius was quite willing to go along with the emperor’s initiative, but once again Maximus the Confessor’s experiences a decade later vindicated his beliefs – the papacy and the Palestinian refugee community formed an enduring alliance as the struggle with the emperor heated up, which in turn led to two revolts in the west and the rebellious Lateran Synod of 649, which was perhaps the first example of the papacy directly taking a stand against Constantinople.

Sophronius of Jerusalem. Not sure why he looks so shifty here…

At the same time their ally in Cyprus, Leontius of Neapolis, made several additions to Moschus and Sophronius’ Life of John the Almsgiver, reemphasising the orthodoxy of the patriarch, even though in reality he must have been complicit in doctrinal negotiations with ‘heretics’ in Egypt in the 610s. In only two decades, the Almsgiver’s life was instead transformed into a weapon in the heated theological arguments over monotheletism; naturally; his two refugee friends were similarly transformed in this new text into trusted advisors of the patriarch, constantly rooting out heresy and standing up for doctrinal purity. Once refugees fleeing war, they now became symbols of orthodoxy amongst their fellow exiles, whose experiences had much to teach their surviving friends and students.

Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow similarly proved to be an influential work, being translated not only amongst the empire’s neighbours, like in Georgia, but also in England. This was because another member of this monastic circle, the Cilician refugee Theodore of Tarsus, had brought eastern scholarship to England on his appointment as the archbishop of Canterbury in 668. Like the others, he was forced from his homeland by the wars of the seventh century, though Theodore went far further than his colleagues. Such was his influence that the Cilician archbishop’s unexpected presence at Canterbury, in one scholar’s words, briefly transformed England into the intellectual ‘light of the west’. In the interconnected world of late antiquity, the words of a few refugees had a very profound impact indeed.

Theodore of Tarsus, the only archbishop of Canterbury born in Cilicia.

This is far from a complete survey of John Moschus and Sophronius’ legacy, and I will have much more to say about Maximus the Confessor and Theodore of Tarsus later, but it should be illustrative enough of my argument. It is I think imperative to understand these refugees as individuals. They were not a faceless mass, but each had their own stories and aspirations. We are lucky to know enough to tell the stories of a few of these unlucky exiles, but we should not forget that many of their contemporaries were simply left unremembered by history. Whilst the great and the good fought their wars and navigated the ships of state, the consequences of their actions were borne by real people caught up in these extraordinary events. Perhaps because of this unprecedented crisis, the voices of people previously left unheard did make an impact, as through the actions of a few articulate and politically astute individuals, their needs and demands were broadcast at the highest level. A world crisis it was, but it seems to me that it also provided people with new opportunities, opportunities that, if I may be so bold, contributed to the reconfiguration of the politics of the Mediterranean world in the seventh century.


For further reading, the narrative provided by P. Sarris’ Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500–700 (2011) is excellent, whilst J. Howard-Johnston’s Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (2010) provides a good survey of the sources. P. Booth’ Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (2014) is the most recent survey of John Moschos, Sophronius, and Maximus the Confessor’s lives, so it is the book to read on this topic, though older works, like H. Chadwick’s ‘John Moschus and His Friend Sophronius the Sophist’, Journal of Theological Studies, 25.1 (1974), still provides a decent overview of their careers. For Theodore of Tarsus, perhaps one of the most intriguing figures of the seventh century, M. Lapidge’s introduction in Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (1994) is the most relevant.

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