Review: The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, Kenneth W. Harl

Rating: 4 out of 5

I really enjoyed this one — there was a lot of in depth knowledge, and the steppes have not been my speciality in any way thus far. If there is anything for me to throw against this, then there were some lapses in coverage insofar as I am aware — although perhaps because they don’t qualify as either “barbarians”, “empires”, or “of the steppes”. Continue reading “Review: The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, Kenneth W. Harl”

Review: The Storm Before the Storm, Mike Duncan

Rating: 4 out of 5

I enjoyed this narrative throughout though I was a bit surprised about the beginning — it felt more disjointed and forced in order to belong to the Republic’s story, and though it no doubt bears a very important part in how the later first century developed, it would have (perhaps) made more sense to have a separate book describing that period. There is definitely enough source material to warrant that. Continue reading “Review: The Storm Before the Storm, Mike Duncan”

Brough Castle

Brough was an interesting and imposing locale. That the site has been occupied in one way or another since the Roman period (if not before, naturally, as we really do not know all too much about these times) is one fact of interest here — the visitor can recognise why this site has been so relevant, however. A high ground with a good commanding sense of all surroundings and the Romans must have thought so as well to site a milecastles here on the York-Carlisle road. Continue reading “Brough Castle”

Pevensey Castle (Norman)

The Norman keep, located within a larger Roman-era settlement, is another one of the places which I managed to visit at a very poor time. Namely, as I described in the article that dealt with the outlying Roman structures here, English Heritage had kindly closed the castle for exactly when I was visiting. Oh well, for me this meant that I did some off-roading. Firstly, the only good photo I got of the towers in by the gatehouse:

Pevensey Castle

So, I got to walk around the two flanks of the castle shown on the photo here, go up the drawbridge to the closed gate, snap a quick photo through there, and then wander around the fort for the rest of my time in this place. What I noted, however, was that a track led through to the left of the drawbridge (exiting the castle) and I followed it down and through the ditch.

This carefully executed manoeuvre allowed me to observe some of the areas restricted for normal access although the view didn’t really expand on what can be found inside this place. Yet, the seaward wall in itself, in that state of disrepair it finds itself, was quite an interesting sight.

Seaward wall

And literally none of that interest comes through here, nor does the sense of height from the bottom of the ditch around the motte. Yet, perhaps, this did instil in me the sense which I did not have thus far for most motte and bailey type castles where I had not always considered necessary to circumambulate the structure in question. It is pretty obvious that walking around a place should expand one’s understanding of it, but this was definitely helpful here where so much of what was actually present was out of my range.

Anderitum, Litus Saxonicum

I’ll start with an admission that I spent far less time here than one could have. Not only was the English Heritage owned and operated central Norman keep (to the right of the view here) closed due to winter (or mid-week winter?), but my attempts to think about this place were mostly confined to crossing this expanse and then investigating the aforementioned keep in more detail.

Why? Because I hadn’t done my research! If I had known that Anderitum had a glorious history as, to begin with, one of the Saxon Shore forts, and only later ended up as the centre of the (Anglo-)Norman culture, I might have paid more attention to things I (probably) missed or, at least, didn’t explore as fully as I should have.

An inside view to Anderitum

As it was, the few things I noted inside this building was that one of the gates was called ‘the Roman West Gate’ and that there was a cannon emplacement from the Civil War period. Both of these I explored in some detail, but perhaps without the historical context which makes these places all the more visit-worthy.

And, yet, the sense from this place was very similar immediately to another Saxon Shore fort I have visited in the past — Gariannorum — which I have mentioned plentifully in the past. The walls looked similar and something about the general structure here made me immediately think of that place (also, above other Roman places such as Venta Icenorum though it would seem that Anderitum had a trading presence and indeed was more than a fort).

Overall, well worth a visit though I guess that as the millennia have left their marks, one must know which bit interests them or take the time to explore the Roman, Norman and Civil War periods in similar detail.

Abdication of Justin II

One of the strengths of Mr Gibbon (Chapter 45) is his propensity to draw up images from the very moment the original events happened. The abdication of Justin II is exactly one such event.

What makes it so wonderful for me to hear the lamentation of the abdicating monarch is his realisation of all he could have done better in his responsibilities for the people. Hence, the speech with which he greets his successor, Tiberius, is colourful in both wisdom and elegance.

This, I feel, is one of the moments where one realises how fully absolute power corrupts. Justin failed to avoid it and he fell into darkness. He, however, also realised the full extent of the troubles with the people swinging behind a new person, and he managed to extricate himself from that situation. For all that he has experienced, he does not wish Tiberius to go down the same route…

“You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honour them, and from them you will derive honour. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, [and he pointed to his ministers,] who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendour of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.”

Gariannorum, Litus Saxonicum

The system known today as the Saxon shore forts was a Roman defensive system for the coast of what later became East Anglia. Not much is known about the full extent of the fortifications, and even less remains. However, one of the few remaining stations is what is known as Burgh Castle, possibly identified as Gariannorum.

Firstly, one must keep in mind that the East Anglian shoreline has changed considerably in the last few thousand years. Great river deltas have disappeared, to be replaced by new ones further south or north. This has happened both in present North Norfolk as well as at the River Yare. The Burgh Castle area is one of the affected zones, with a former site of a very good port having been replaced by an intertidal zone less suitable for marine traffic.

Indeed, it is possible that the present Caister-on-Sea was located on an island, connected to other local stations (Burgh Castle and Reedham) by the water. Venta Icenorum (Caister St Edmund) was a great port by the same influence, with the river there being considerably deeper and wider than it is now. The site at Caister St Edmund is similarly interesting, though the Burgh Castle one is perhaps more reminiscent of the past glory with the ruins being considerably better preserved.

The fact that approaching the site, all that one sees are the walls, still standing strong after 1600 years, is enough to create a impression. Of course, later fortifications have also been positioned there, with the Normans building a castle of their one as well as monastic efforts by the early Christians. The Norman ruins, however, have not sailed through the time as well as the Roman stonework.

Overall, then, what a place: the sheer accessibility and scale of these ruins makes one want to visit, even if the site itself is relatively empty of plaques and explanations. The missing information, however, allows for imagination. What was here before? Who was here before? Can your mind’s eye picture the ships about to dock at the wall that is no longer there? Is a turma riding out for a patrol of neighbouring region?

Any of these things could have happened, any of these will have happened at some point in the past. And it is up to us to imagine life here as it was then.


What was ‘today’ in Eastern Rome?

The question “What was a person thinking of as ‘today’?” in the Eastern Empire, as I asked over here on History SE, can have several possible answers depending on the era we live and the general circumstances at play in the imperial realm.

The simplest idea that the Western world has of the Ad Urbe Condita (from the original founding of Rome) is mostly an earlier, Principate, fiction that was used more commonly for ‘official’ dates than accurate timekeeping. Marcus Terentius Varro’s work–the author of the presently accepted calculation for the founding of the City–was accepted as gospel by Claudius for propaganda. Hence, it is unlikely many people in the empire ever thought of their present day in terms of how long after the founding of the City it was, lest it was a celebration of some kind, and I have no reliable information of these being continued in Byzantium/Constantinople.

The other early form of timekeeping was consular offices. In the Republic, it was common for years to be known as the “Year of Consul 1 and Consul 2”, in imitation of regnal years. Justinian I, however, abolished the practice of annual consuls. With the influx of repeating consular years (‘the first consulship of …’, etc), this method must have been more for recordkeeping rather than timekeeping in ordinary life. Similarly, when consuls were not appointed, the years were given in terms of how soon after an established consulship these took place. I cannot imagine many people thinking in these terms either, especially given the following few options.

The official calendar of the Empire (Etos Kosmou) between 988 (the 28th Year of Basileios II’s reign) and 1453 was the Creation Era, dated backwards to start at 1st September, 5509 BC. While 988 is when it was adopted by the Imperial government, earlier usage for religious purposes within the church was common ever since the 7th century. Local offshoots and earlier versions of the Etos Kosmou, such as the Alexandrian Era, existed at times, but would not have been as common throughout the empire (not to mention that Alexandria was lost forever in 641 AD, not including the occasional reconquests in the decades after).

Three of the more important methods of timekeeping have not yet been covered. These are the Julian calendar, regnal years (mentioned briefly above in relation to consular years), and the Indiction. The regnal years clearly must have been an important part of most peoples’ lives within the empire, especially as they followed previous Hellenic traditions of the eponymous archon (of Athens). Therefore, I would say foremost that most people always knew in what year of their Emperor’s reign they lived in.

This answer requires qualification: after 988, with an official reckoning adding power to the Church’s, it is not impossible that many people thought in both systems, but especially in the Church’s version. This is likely to be the case especially in periods where the Eastern court politics saw a variety of people take the throne in quick succession, in which case most provinces may have even been quite unaware of any changes in leadership. This is additional to Justinian I making the use of regnal years mandatory in 537 AD.

The Julian calendar would have been more common in some provinces, no doubt, especially due to the prevailing church influence. Hence, it is not unlikely that especially in the 4th to 7th century, plenty of people would have reckoned their time (year at least) based on Gaius Julius Caesar’s re-alignment of the traditional Roman calendar. However, it seems this gradually fell out of touch both with the increasing use of the Etos Kosmou as well as regnal years and the Indiction cycle gaining traction.

The Indiction was a 15-year cycle which also began on September 1st. Again it was Justinian I who decreed that all documents must be dated in this system. Indeed, based on the nature of this system, I feel that the vast majority of people would have been most familiar with this system. Even if the emperor’s name had changed, the tax collector would probably arrive on time. Hence, I think that for the duration of the Eastern Empire, this would have been the most likely answer to get from the majority of people, the Etos Kosmou being the second at least after the 10th century.

This is a copy of my own answer on History SE; an answer which I put up as I felt the present options there did not sufficiently answer my query. In a hopeful future, I will carry out more research on this topic to determine better sources and a more consistent narrative.

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