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.

Review: Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian's Wall
Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall by Nic Fields
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A comprehensive review of the Roman fortifications of the first two centuries in the area to the north of Hadrian’s wall. I was impressed by the plentiful tables, totalling not only the benefits and drawbacks of the wall but also it’s construction plan, manhours spent, garrison sizes, etc. Overall, this review stands out as a very brief but strong introduction to Rome in Scotland.

What I found missing was the political context. Though the Severian re-expansion into the north is mentioned, barely half a sentence touches on it. The Antonine and Flavian periods are covered in far greater detail, and I think if the book had restricted itself to the pre-Severian period in what it covered, it would have achieved it’s goals superbly.

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‘Roughs Castle’, Vallum Antonini

The Antonine Wall is a cousin of the more familiar Vallum Aelium, or Hadrian’s Wall. Was it a sign of imperial hubris by a man who wanted to leave his mark on the world, or an example of unintentional overextension? What did it represent to the hundreds and thousands of men who had seen the previous wall being built to the south? What did it represent to the thousands sent to serve at the very edge of their civilisation, in common contact with people who did not acknowledge the southern customs?

To Victory, the VI cohort of Nervii, under the acting command of Flavius Betto, Centurion of the XX Legion Valeria Victrix, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled its vow.

This vow was to march north and build a new wall where they thought they could draw the limit of civilisation. They were right, for a time — and are we all not right for only a certain time? It is amazing for me to think that such an inscription has preserved through nineteen centuries to come to us. We, the loyal soldiers of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “we gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled” our vow. Many others have done far worse.

Overall, it is a miracle to consider what we do and do not know. We know the names of some of the people who served here. We do not know the names of the forts (excepting one for this wall, but this point is also more generally true in Roman Britain). But, I guess, the people matter more than the places in any case?

When I visited this fort, what I thought about was how a person born in what is modern Glasgow — or near there — shared an identity, a Roman identity, with millions of people from modern Syria to Greece to what is now Morocco. These people had the theoretical rights and opportunities to make themselves into anything they wanted. I am sure in practice this was not as easy, but the simple consideration that for millions of people over thousands of square kilometres, the only language they knew was their very own Latin and the only government they had any reason to think about was their Imperial government. What a thought!

Admittedly, the occupation of the frontier that far north did not last for long. The reasons for this are of more academic interest than relevant for present considerations. Hadrian’s Wall has a similar impact to a visitor: at least if that visitor is me. But what matters more is that this monument to power has come down through time from the latter part of the second century. What have its ramparts seen? What secrets have they heard? Were people regretful to demolish it or to use its resources to build their homes?

What would a Strathclyde farmer in the 8th century have thought of this structure? Did it carry connotations of power, of strength, of survival? Or was it a monument to occupation and a despised foreign government? Again, as with so many of these mysteries that have survived ages, we can never know. All we can do is think, and to place ourselves in the shoes of the people who came before us.

‘Rough Castle’, Vallum Antonini

As with so many of these places, I would say that if you can, go and visit it. See what emotions it brings about, and what thoughts awaken in you. I have shown you mine.

For a closing thought:

I like knowing, but in cases where I cannot know, I am happy to speculate. And in cases like this, there is so much we need to speculate about. Further, the speculation leads me to regard in surprise and admiration the entrepreneurial sense of these ancient people. And, what I always wish is that more people would recognise the beauty of the mysteries ancient sites like this present all around the world. Visit them and give them a new life.

On How Mr Asimov Was Correct

I am sure that Isaac Asimov was right about a number of things, and not the least amongst these is his portrayal of General Bel Riose. Previously, it has been widely know that it can find proof in Belisarius but I saw a similar instance in the Chinese histories. Namely, while reading ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ I found note of a Ming General, Yuan Chonghuan.

This Yuan Chonghuan was executed by the Ming Emperor when the Jurchen enemies started rumours of how the General would betray the Emperor. While none of his previous actions had done anything to substantiate these rumours, the Emperor feared for his life and position — and that fear quickly allowed General Yuan to see the last sunrise of his life.

Belisarius, as we well know, was not executed but rather retired from public life after becoming too prominent for Justinianus to like him. In any case, the situation is practically the same.

There are certainly a number of other commanders who can fit into this category, but rather than look for more of the same, I’ll present a metaphor that I found in the chapter in ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’:

“Since antiquity, have there been instances in which military men have been able to perform meritorious service while there have been powerful officials at court?”
— Ryotaro Shiba, ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’, p. 443

How close and similar is this to Mr Asimov’s in-universe explanation to why the Empire’s Bel Riose would not defeat the Foundation:

“Look at the situation. A weak general could never have endangered us, obviously. A strong general during the time of a weak Emperor would never have endangered us, either; for he would have turned his arms towards a much more fruitful target. … It was the success of Riose that was suspicious. So he was recalled, and accused, condemned, murdered. ”
— I. Asimov, ‘Foundation and Empire’, p. 85

In other words, what Mr Asimov wrote in the ‘Foundation and Empire’ has a number of parallels in history, and they all substantiate what he thought of. Surely, that was the case before I knew of Yuan Chenghuan, but I was personally rather pleased at finding another example of the same.

The logic behind the actions has clearly stayed the same, but the feeling that I had when I read that part in ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ was… of literature making its way into life. And I knew well that General Yuan had lived a three centuries before Mr Asimov. Yet, it all was more alive: Bel Riose and Yuan Chenghuan breathed anew, if only for a second in my mind.

Those two could probably talk of so many things…