Camping, Diocletian and The Great Persecution

Today I spent a great deal of money on some my camping supplies for my trip to America. Only fifteen more days to go! I’m super psyched now, also because on Monday I’m heading up to Reading to see Dave and to go old school at Sakura.

The featured article on Wikipedia today is on the Great Persecution, which in short was the last official persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, infamously resulting in the deaths of many martyrs particularly in the Greek East. For Christians and lovers of antiquity alike the subject remains controversial; theologians of the day exaggerated the number of Christians killed and zealously praised Constantine for the rather erroneously titled Edit of Milan in 313.  To say that the ‘pagan’ Romans were vicious heartless persecutors of Christians would be an extreme sentiment, and to argue that Constantine was a truly devout follower of Christ is itself a hotly debated subject, and yet this is how the the matter is remembered. The following discussion on the causes of the persecution and its impact are in part derived from an essay I wrote on the subject back in March for which I received a first:

Why was the Great Persecution Launched and what was its Impact on the Christian Community?

The persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire reached its pinnacle under the emperor Diocletian, although it was not a result of any recent occurrences between pagan and Christian but rather the result of years of tension and strife. One important catalyst of this conflict lay in the emphatic traditionalism of an emperor that was a self-conscious inheritor of the spiritual legacy of Romanisation.1 Diocletian saw the crisis of the past century as being caused by the infidelity showed by Roman citizens to their gods. To a degree this was a logical conclusion to contemporaries. From the empires birth an importance had been placed on compelling all to worship the gods out of respect to traditionalism and piety;2 when this respect was diminished in the third century by consequence crisis was met.

There is no doubt that the immortal gods, as always friendly towards Rome, will be reconciled to us only if we ensured that everyone within out empire pursues a pious, religious, peaceful life, and one thoroughly pure in all regards…For our laws safeguard what is holy and venerable; and it is in this way that the majesty of Rome, by the favour of all the divine powers, has attained its greatness”.3

Roman religion was embedded in the concept of pietas, the deep obligations that tied a person to their social roots. Devotion to the city, state and empire was barely separable from devotion to the gods, and it was only though a religious act that “these loyalties could be sincerely and adequately expressed”.4 The authority of the Scriptures dictates that Christians cannot partake in such rituals and since one would be putting the civic stability of the empire at risk by ignoring the formal sacraments of the Roman religion, the issue of Christianity sat at ill with the policy of Diocletian from the moment he ascended to power.5 Eusebius records that during the persecution the Roman government would consider performing a sacrifice to the gods as a formal denouncement of Christianity.6 The two were mutually exclusive. Pliny the Younger for one thought that no genuine Christian could play a part in civic rituals as they were strictly opposed to the idea.7 Tertullian, a Christian himself, concurs that this refusal was at the heart of complaints made against his faith.8 The abstinence from pagan ritual that Christians advocated was a fundamental cause of the Great Persecution.

Christianity was at this point still a comparatively young religion. Suetonius had described it in his day as a “mere impious superstition”.9 Of course, to adherents of the faith even in its early days it was much more than this but to this historian and the Roman literati it was not of subsidence to threaten the empire. However, by Diocletian’s time it had spectacularly evolved into an established centralised entity and yet maintained its youthfulness. This would never sit well in the conservative world of classical Rome, especially with regards to the traditionalism of the new Augustus. Rome respected the ancient,10 the old, even with monotheists like the Jews.11 In retrospect, this young religion was radical and consequently a danger that needed to be dealt with.

The following parable of Williams succinctly summarises the threat that Christianity posed to the stability of Rome as perceived by the emperors.12 Consider in a modern world that Rome is a small state, the Pagan gods a neighbouring superpower and the Christians a radical minority within the small state. The radical minority vocally oppose an alliance the state has with the superpower, whose patronage maintains a favourable status quo. The small state fears that such opposition will ruin their alliance and put them at risk from other neighbours. Consequently they seek to subdue the minority. Such an argument Williams argues would have been used by the likes of Galerius to justify disrupting the peace of the empire by launching the persecution.

Many cities within the empire had experienced invasion and bankruptcy during the third century. In the face of these calamities, citizens would be unable to pay for festivals, temples and sacrifices. With the demise of the traditional themes of the state religion, the civic cult found itself unable to fulfil the more personal and religious longings of the individual such as the wonder of the cosmos or the mysteries of creation and death. To satisfy answers to this, men looked towards cults with roots in the theological near-east:

Against the catastrophic realities of the third century it is tempting to see the great popularity of the mystery religions as people’s flight from civic insecurity into otherworldly promises and esoteric secret societies”.13

Persian Zoroastrianism held the belief that a universal cosmic war between good and evil was occurring on a day-to-day bases; such ideas soon became embedded in Judaism, Mithraism, Christianity and Manichaeism. Christianity saw in this ideology the daily struggle between God and Satan, Grace and Sin. Other gods and beliefs must have a place in this; there cannot be a neutral ground. Hence, Christians did not deny pagan gods but merely saw then as demonic entities. Diocletian’s anger towards Christianity and the Manicheans was due to the influence of Persian Zoroastrianism on them; Persia was the enemy after all. These affiliations did little to quell the notion that Christians had a barbarous and alien name.14 Since the barbarian is the antithesis to the citizen, the Christian was seen in an antithetical position to Roman society.15 Galerius, attributed by both Eusebius and Lactantius for being the primary instigator of the persecution,16 had built a reputation on engaging the Sassanid’s, which had culminated with a peace in 299. The subsequent launch of the Great Persecution against Christians in 303 then was in many ways a continuation of his aggressive policy to the barbaric east.

The assessment of these leaders by the likes of Lactantius and Eusebius are typical of the classical author; in their subjective narrative they have all the trappings of earlier works by such authors like Tacitus. The lamentation of the persecution however is not without merit considering the position of the historians. In the opinion of Lactantius Galerius’ hatred towards the faith originated from his barbaric mother,17 a Dacian that had fallen out of favour with the religion. This savagery consequently reached Diocletian via the medium of Galerius’ “inherent barbarism”.18 Although the proclamation of the Great Persecution will forever remain as an order of Diocletian as Augustus, the influence of Galerius on his senior was a potent factor. It would be erroneous to believe the rhetoric of Lactantius that suggested that Diocletian feared Galerius,19 although the fact remains that the elder Augustus was becoming an old man by contemporary standards when the persecution was launched, and soon became ill after.20 His retirement in 305 shows how he was unable to keep up with the demands of his reign and the conflict against the Christians; logic would dictate that Galerius’ sway over Diocletian would have increased during these final years.

Relations between Christians in the military had been particularly antagonistic during the final years of the third century. Diocletian’s advocacy for traditionalism as a foundation for civic stability was not excluded from the army; partaking in rituals and honouring the gods was critically important for a successful campaign. The story of the centurion Marcellus of Tangier, who was martyred by sword for refusing to sacrifice to the gods, has remained especially potent in Christianity. Maximilian of Thebeste, one of the first conscientious objectors, was another martyr that met his death after refusing to conscript. It is no surprise that Eusebius felt the need to comment on how the persecution began “with those brethren that were in the army”.21 The historian tells of a purge of men that had refused to observe religious rituals (he neglects to mention what rituals) along the Danube. The Christians in the army received punishment for this, although it is unknown whether they were the only minority targeted. Whether this purge was a tactical move by Galerius for the future persecution cannot be known although it is possible. Lactantius however offers a slightly different account of Christians being discharged from the military:

[Diocletian] was once sacrificing cattle and looking at their entrails for what was going to happen, when certain of his attendants who knew the Lord and were present at the sacrifice, placed the immortal sign on their foreheads; at this the demons were put to flight and the rites thrown into confusion…Diocletian then flew into a rage; he ordered that not only those who were attending the rites but all who were in the palace should do sacrifice, and that any who declined should be punished”.22

Lactantius’ colourful commentary is undoubtedly exaggerating the failure of the ritual. What is more likely is that the sacrifice went ahead successfully but the presence of the Christians coupled with their own religious sacrament angered the emperor and the haruspices, thus beginning the purge in the army. The risk posed by internal dissent in the military would anger any emperor; it is no surprise that shortly after this occurrence that the persecution was launched.

Diocletian’s misgivings regarding bloodshed in the persecution were not without merit. His preferred policy of targeting the centrality of the faith was a much more practical method of eradicating the perceived threat of Christianity. An entity cannot be threatening if it has no cohesion. The emperor’s preference of demolishing churches23 and destroying the civil rights of Christians would have successfully undermined their capacity to maintain an active administration, and furthermore would force the individual to turn back to the state for security. This was a simple solution to the Christian problem as in theory it would have given Jupiter his ritual respect and yet maintained a degree of civic peace- law and order were poignant aspects of the deity after all. In practice however violence was inevitable and would only serve to strengthen the Christian resolve. Lactantius reminds his reader of this so readily, having one Augustus say to the other “Christians…have the habit of dying gladly”.24 The impact of the persecution on the Christian community was not consistent across the empire. With only the First Edict being proclaimed the west enjoyed far fewer martyrdoms and brutalities. Africa saw the most brutal action although undoubtedly this was due to comparatively more fanatical individuals, as demonstrated by the examples above. Maximian was also more ruthless than Constantius in his purge, compelling Christians to sacrifice for the state and demanding the handing over of Scriptures.

Sporadic persecution in Spain and Italy ended in 305 when Constantius became Augustus of the west. Britain and Gaul saw limited confrontations; Lactantius claimed that only churches were destroyed.25 Eusebius denies this in the Ecclesiastical history26 but ambiguously confirms it in his commentary in the Martyrs of Palestine.27 Regardless, Constantius was a much more moderate persecutor than any of his contemporaries, with Christian authors attributing this to Constantius’ secret adherence to their faith. This is of course nothing more than highly unlikely propaganda perpetrated under the rule of Constantine.28 Truthfully, Constantius took measures with Christians only as far as what was expected of him:

Constantius prudently took nominal measures, but in practice went little further than purging his court of Christians, and demolishing some churches…Unlike Maximian, he did not interpret the demand for surrender of scriptures and suspension of worship as enforceable by capital punishment, and so nobody under his jurisdiction was executed”.29

It was in the east that the Christian community felt the greatest impact from the persecution. The tortures experienced by Christians are plentiful in Eusebius’ commentary, ranging from beatings, beheadings, imprisonment, starvation, execution by burning and even crucifixion.30 The historians respect and admiration for the martyrs is ample and would have been felt across the Christian community. What is particularly interesting is that Eusebius does not neglect any particular class in his narration; men, women and children from all walks of life are mentioned.31 One can infer from this that the persecution strengthened the communal nature of the Christian society. That is to say, Christians from more prestigious backgrounds did not ignore the plights of those from more humble origins. Suffering and miracles for Christians go hand in hand, in imitation of the torture, death and subsequent rebirth of Jesus Christ. It should come as no surprise that during the Great Persecution Eusebius records cases of miracles and divine intervention. The historian records one particular anecdote where wild animals refused to attack and kill Christian prisoners that had been condemned to death, as though they were being drawn back by “divine interposition”.32 By consequence such stories would reaffirm the belief of the individual. The value of martyrs and saints was copious to the community as they earned the faith merit in the eyes of God. Furthermore, the persecution only served to confirm the validity of the Scriptures. Eusebius comments that since the Bible specifically includes passages damning the act of sacrificing to other gods, the Great Persecution must have been foreseen and subsequently the whole ordeal had been “anciently prescribed” by God.33

Works by Eusebius and Lactantius are designed to show that God was on the side of the Christians throughout the persecution so that the community could strengthen its resolve and tenacity. It has been pointed out however by modern scholarship that during the persecution the exact number of those martyred was small, although the lamentation of the event by contemporaries leaves little doubt as to the shock that was experienced in the eastern communities.34 There is no evidence to suggest that the bravery of the martyrs encouraged pagans to adopt the faith in awe and respect, so we cannot say that the persecution caused the Christian community to find new adherents:

The courage with which numerous Christians faced torture and death made their religion noteworthy…But according to Eusebius, Christianity did not spread because of the persecutions. It spread in spite of them. Its greatest progress occurred, as he saw it, during the long periods of peace it enjoyed”.35

Christianity had indeed spread during the years of peace since the last persecution had been ended by emperor Gallienus in 260, and it would continue to do so after the Edict of Milan in 313. Peace is what the faith needed to spread, not conflict. The Great Persecution did much to strengthen the core values of the faith and the community thrived on the cases of glorious martyrdoms, whether or not they were as common as Eusebius claims. Gibbon felt that such claims were highly exaggerated, claiming that “the interest as well as vanity of the captives prompted them to magnify the merit of their respective suffering”.36 Whether deaths were small or large in number is ultimately redundant; either would only serve to reinforce the determination of a community that grew stronger every time a Christian was slew.37 The impact of the Great Persecution on the Christian community was not one that Galerius had envisioned. Yes, it shocked contemporaries and killed many but ultimately gave the rhetoricians and theologians of the age fuel from which to proclaim the authority of the sacraments of their faith more so.

1 Williams (1985: 153)

2 “Worship the divine Power everywhere and in every way in accordance with the traditions of our fathers…compel all others to honour it”. Cass. Dio 52.36

3 Codex Iustinianus 5.5.2 op. cit. Williams (1985: 162)

4 Ibid 155

5 Cameron (1993: 45)

6 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8

7 Pliny the Younger Epistulae ad Traianum 10.96.5

8 Tertullian Apology 10.1 op. cit. Rives (2005: 18)

9 “Superstitionis novae et maleficae” are the words used by Suetonius Nero 16.

10 Aurelius Victor Caesares 39.33

11 Cf. commentary of Varro in Augustus The City of God 4.31

12 Williams (1985: 173)

13 Ibid 158

14 Tertullian Apology 3

15 For commentary on Christians as barbarians cf. Antonova (2005: 76-83)

16 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 9,11 Eusebius Vita Constantini 1.57

17 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 11

18 Ibid 9

19 Ibid

20 Ibid 11, 17, 18

21 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.1

22 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 10

23 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.2

24 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 11.3

25 Ibid 15.7

26 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.13

27 Ibid The Book of The Martyrs of Palestine 13

28 Ibid Vita Constantini 1.13-17 Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum 15.7

29 Williams (1983: 179)

30 Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 8.6

31 Ibid 8.8

32 Ibid 8.7

33 Ibid 8.10

34 Cameron (1993: 44)

35 Kyrtatas (2003: 61)

36 Gibbon (1998: 348)

37 “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed”. Tertullian Apology 50


Primary Sources

Codex Iustinianus (1985) Diocletian And The Roman Recovery, ed. by Williams, S London: Batsford Ltd

Augustine (1998) The City of God Against the Pagans, ed. and trans. by R. W. Dyson. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Aurelius Victor (1994) Liber de Caesaribus, ed. and trans. by H. W. Bird, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press

Cassius Dio ‘Roman History’ William P. Thayer LacusCurtius Cassius Dio’s Roman History URL: [19 March 2009]

Eusebius ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ (1847) An Ecclesiastical History To 324 A.D, ed. and trans. by Rev. C. F. Cruse, London: John Wertheimer And Co.

Eusebius ‘The Book of The Martyrs of Palestine’ (1847) An Ecclesiastical History To 324 A.D, ed. and trans. by Rev. C. F. Cruse, London: John Wertheimer And Co.

Eusebius ‘Vita Constantini’ (2002) Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, ed. and trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lactantius (1984) De Mortibus Persecutorum, ed. and trans. by J. L. Creed, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Pliny the Younger ‘Epistulae ad Traianum’ (1990) Correspondence with Trajan from Bythinia (Epistles X), ed. and trans. by Wynne Williams, Warminster: Aris and Phillips

Suetonius (1962) The Twelve Caesars, ed. and trans. by Graves, R, London: Cassel

Tertullian ‘Apologecticus’ (2001) Christian and pagan in the Roman Empire : the witness of Tertullian, ed. and trans. by Robert D. Sider, Washington D.C: Catholic University of America Press

Secondary Sources

Antonova, S. E (2005) ‘Barbarians and the Empire-Wide Spread of Christianity’ The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries Essays in Explanation, ed. W.V. Harris Leiden: Brill

Cameron, A (1993) The Later Roman Empire, London: Fontana Press

Gibbon, E (1998) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 28 Selected Chapters, ed. by Anthony Lentin and Brian Norman London: Wordsworth Classics

Kyrtatas, D.J (2005) ‘The Significance of Leadership and Organisation in the Spread of Christianity’ The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries Essays in Explanation, ed. W.V. Harris Leiden: Brill

Rives, J.B (2005) ‘Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology’ The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries Essays in Explanation, ed. W.V. Harris Leiden: Brill

Williams, S (1985) Diocletian And The Roman Recovery, London: Batsford Ltd


Espionage, University, and Jesus

I was filling in a form today for a visa waiver scheme in the states, and one of the questions asked was whether I’ve ever been involved with espionage, genocide or the Nazi party. Can’t say that I’ve ever been asked that before during an application (or indeed ever).

For the sake of it, let’s examine the redundancy of those questions:

  • Espionage: What kind of spy, current or ex,  would admit that?
  • Genocide: Murdering thousands of innocent people isn’t exactly the activity of the common individual. Seriously, how many African warlords are applying for a visa waiver scheme in the states?
  • Nazi Party: What am I, sixty?!

Honestly though, I was always under the impression that applying for such a thing was an arduous, monolithic task. It went rather swimmingly for me however. Now all I have to do is to get some insurance for the trip and I’ll be set.

I have to admit that I’m feeling a little bit old. A-Level results were released today, and a whole new generation of teens will be going to university in September. I’m jealous! I really want to do it all again! I can remember the day I moved to Reading…Paying a ridiculous amount of JCR fees that I would never get back, getting free beer from a ‘Beer Van’ that I’m pretty sure was illegal, drinking copious amounts of alcohol in order to prepare my liver for the years to come. A friend of mine recently gave me the best advice: “Never stop drinking alcohol. The second you start doing that, your liver will begin to slack off”.

Earlier this year I read that university places were going to be reduced due to the state of the economy. That, coupled with the fact that six people are chasing every single place makes me kind of grateful that I managed to go through the process whilst the going was still good. Saying that though, those who are entering higher education now will probably graduate into a better job market than I did. I’m still confident that something will come up though. Three months working abroad will only serve to enhance my CV!

A friend of mine recently asked me…Or maybe he was just making a point, I can’t recall…how Jesus could be a Jew AND the founder of Christianity. I was kind of taken back by this since I thought this was above common knowledge. Jesus was a Jewish teacher that preached ideas that his contemporaries thought to be radical and dangerous. His followers accepted his words and felt that they could work within a traditional Jewish framework, and after Jesus died these followers set about preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. The likes of St. Peter and St. Paul are remembered as Christians.  However, they would have never have called themselves that, and if they did it wouldn’t have meant a religion outside of Judaism as it does today. Early Christian’s saw themselves as a sect within Judaism (cf. the Epistles and Acts. For a non-Christian source, cf. Suetonius) and it wasn’t really until after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE that the two began to be recognized as separate entities.

So yes, that whole paragraph went off in my mind the second my friend asked that question and I answered it with my usual swagger. However, I feel that I should have been more patient. I assumed this was common knowledge, but then again for someone who isn’t into religion or ancient history I suppose it isn’t. So for what it’s worth Paul, I’m sorry for jumping the gun! Savour the moment, because it might not happen again sometime soon.

The Gym, Bingo and More Byzantine History

My god I am absolutely knackered. I started working out today in order to get back into shape for America. I didn’t help myself (although I guess I actually did…) by walking all the way into town and then to the gym. We did about two hours of the usual lark and then finished off with some swimming, which almost killed me.

On the way home I saw some little gits messing around on the road. One dude dumped a traffic cone onto somebodies doorstep and then threw some rocks at it. Clever. I was really hoping that he would end up getting hit on the road…Or is that too much?

No, no it’s not. He deserved it and then some.

I recalled a funny little anecdote today. One day when I was about fifteen I was walking into town with my friend James on a rainy summer day. When we got to about a mile outside of the city centre the rain came down rather heavily and we took refuge under some random shelter and were soon joined by two attractive girls. Now, this was the golden age of adolescence where just talking to hot girls would earn you brownie points with your mates. So, I went to start chatting to these little lovelies- hey, they weren’t going anywhere. As I went to make my move, my buddy James just turned around to me and without any sort of shame said “shall we go to bingo tonight?”. My friends, NOTHING will make two fifteen year old girls smirk and laugh quicker. The thing is, if that happened nowadays you know it would be because my friend wanted to take the piss. With James however it was a genuine question…that’s what makes it even more tragic.

In my last post I dwelled on the legacy of Rome and how different cultures mimicked Roman Imperial titles to exert their own authority. Today I came across a refreshingly enthralling book on Byzantine history. I skimmed the first chapter and it seemed like the perfect book to introduce someone to the basic history of this medieval empire. The chapters were nicely broken down, starting with the birth of the eastern Roman Empire  and ending with the successful Ottoman siege of 1453.

Given that I have a working understanding of the subject, I was still interested in this text. If I hadn’t have been going to gym and thus short of space I probably would have bought it. For £10.99 you’re not going to go wrong, and this is coming from a guy who weeps whenever he pays more than £8 for a textbook of this size.

One thing I really liked about this book was how the author introduced it. Professor Judith Herrin tells of how one day two builders of the typical variety knocked on the door of her office in King’s College London and asked her just exactly what Byzantium was (she of course had the title under her name on the door). Herrin comments that in all her time as a lecturer she had never found explaining her topic so hard as she had to. dumb it down* into a ten minute conversation. The fact that she acknowledged that the topic only had a place in more specific and academic texts was refreshing.

*Herrin doesn’t use this phrase of course but I’m tired and unable to put it more eloquently.

Catch Up and the Legacy of Rome

I haven’t updated for a while because little has been going on! Well, I say nothing… I did get onto that America thing! Yes sir, I will be working abroad for three months In Arizona, Utah and Nevada as well as doing the tourist thing in San Francisco, LA and Vegas! I’m so psyched. My plan is to use this blog to update how things are going to save me telling the same story to my friends over and over again.

I’ve been reading up on the fall of the Roman Empire again…which isn’t saying much as I only finished studying it at Uni back in May. Either way, I’m amazed at how many different people in the closing days of antiquity mimicked Roman power in order to legitimise their own administrations to the end of justifying their authority over the Romanized areas of Europe….which essentially was all of Europe. Since 476 is traditionally viewed as the end of imperial authority in the west, our examination should start here.

Romulus Augustus, the so-called last Roman Emperor, was deposed in this year by the Ostrogoth Odoacer. Rhetorical usage of the word “deposed” in textbooks has entered public general knowledge to such a degree that Odoacer’s accension has been portrayed as a radical event, a shift from a Roman providential scheme to a Germanic* and barbaric one. This could not be further from the truth. To contemporaries, little had changed. By this time, most of the west had lived under ‘barbarian’ authority for some time- Franks in north Gaul, Visigoths in Aquitaine and Hispania, Vandals in Africa. Thus the rule of the barbarian Odoacer, in Rome, although significant on a political/ethnic homogeneous scene, meant little to the people. Odoacer helped to maintain civic harmony it seems by using a Roman title- rex– meaning king. Granted, there had been no king in Rome since the Roman Kingdom was replaced with the Republic in the 6th century BCE. Regardless, using the Latin title over a more Germanic one suggests that this new generation of elite wished their power to wear a Roman  face.

The barbarians that had occupied the remnants of the western empire did not try to impose their own customs or languages. Latin remained the lingua franca, and later involved into the Romance Languages (French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian etc).  The only real Roman province (or rather ‘ex’ Roman province) in the west to become permanently linguistically altered was Britannia, where the Angels Saxons and Jutes Germanised the local population. The legacy of Rome was largely ignored in the British Isles until the Normans arrived in 1066 and again bought our humble island into the European sphere.

The establishment of the Carolingian Empire by the Franks under Charlemagne, who styled himself as Imperator Augustus- Augustus was of course synonomous with Roman and imperial power- and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire (infamously dubbed “neither holy, Roman, or an empire” by Voltaire) clearly shows how important it was for secular powers to appear Romanized. Catholicism itself was the embodiment of the Roman Empire in the High Medieval Ages. The Pope was a powerful politician who through his papal legates administered power from the Alps to Iceland. The fact that he was stationed in Rome made him a spiritual successor to the western Empire, and his disagreements with the Holy Roman Empire were often centered on who had the authority and right to rule the Italian peninsular, the homeland of Rome.

The situation in the east was different of course due to the fact that the eastern Roman empire never fell (until 1204 and later to 1453). To distinguish between the classical and medieval age,  we call this entity the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines maintained an unbroken line of emperors until 1453, dating back to Augustus himself. They also kept hundreds of years of Greco-Roman thought alive, although Greek became the dominant language by the eight century. After the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, the west began to refer to the Byzantines as the Greeks, the Empire of the Greeks. However, the Byzantines still maintained that they were Romans and refered to themselves as such. What is more, when the Arabs arrived on the scene and began to conflict with the Byzantines they too saw them as Roman, giving them the title of the Rums– Romans. The Qur’an even has a sura called Ar-Rum.

The title of Tsar- now associated with Imperial Russia- derives from Caesar, perhaps the longest surviving title in history. Interestingly, the German title of Kaiser also shares this genesis. I read once that Kaiser is in fact the correct pronunciation of Caesar in Classical Latin but I have no idea if that’s true or not. Either way, the people of eastern Europe in the early medieval ages followed suit by using the title of Tsar. The Bulgars were doing this by the tenth century. This was especially important for them as they were often in conflict with the Byzantine Caesar.

Some historians are of the opinion that Rome fell when the west fell, and that there were no Romans after this. At university I always argued that subscribing to the thought that in 476 the deposition of Romulus Augustus meant that Rome had fallen undermines what it meant to be Roman. There was more to the empire than an emperor born from a Roman father. The empire had always been a cultural hotpot- different people unified under one banner. Certainly, this too was prominent under the Ostrogoth Theodoric in the west. In my opinion the Byzantines too were Roman. Probably not after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 or even after their defeat to the crusaders in 1204, but certianly still by the tenth century.

When the Ottoman leader Mehmed II claimed the title of “Caesar” of Rome (Kayser-i Rûm) after taking Constantinople in 1453 he was continuing a thousand year old tradition of using Roman titles to exhert imperial authority. Modern day Greece was dubbed “Rumelia” by the Ottomans under their empire. Tsar and later Kaiser remained Imperial titles with a Roman heritage until the twentieth century- that’s the legacy of Rome.

Anyway this is what has been on my mind. See, being unemployed doesn’t mean I have to stop being a little bit academic!

*Barbarians of the invasive period are too readily classified as ‘Germanic’. This implied a collective, yet it is only true in a broad linguistic scheme. It is historically anachronistic when used in reference to the anything before the seventh century. In late antiquity the term referred to tribes of the Rhine peoples- notably the Franks. Those of the Danube, e.g. the Visigoths, though Germanic in speech would never have referred to themselves as such. A lot of modern writing presupposes a homogenous Germanic identity. The disunity of early ‘Germans’ can hardly be too emphatically stressed. Tacitus’ writings are in part to blame for this. The historian presupposed that all Germanic people shared a common thought that they were descended from the same mythical figure- this was not true. The first indication of a Germanic consciousness is not apparent until the Carolingian era of Medieval Europe. Even then it was only prevalent amongst the highly learned- it was not a common thought. Conclusively, the barbarians of late antiquity were extremely fragmented. This is self evident in the records of Germanic tribesmen fighting with or for Rome against neighbours. There was never a movement of unity against Rome in all of antiquity.

My Wena, Jobs, Paronychia, Media

Bowling for Soup- my favourite band and the saviours of happiness- have released their latest music video, My Wena. Yes, this is a typical pop-punk fun-time video and it doesn’t fail to hit all the right buttons on my wena.

It’s so wrong but so right…

Anyway I can’t wait for their new album to come out; I haven’t had a new heavy dose of BFS since the Great Burrito Extortion Case came out in ’06 and quite frankly I’m hitting withdrawal. Their also touring in October but sadly they’re not coming anywhere near Gloucester and their London slot is on a Thursday which could be a problem if I had a job.

Speaking of jobs nothing has arisen on that front. I’m checking the regular websites everyday and nothing to speak of is popping up. I’m trying to stay positive; a lot of Graduate schemes with some big names open in September so I’ll be applying for them then. It’s not like I’m not doing anything with my free time. After three years I’m learning to drive again which seems easier than it did when I was 18.

I’m suffering from a pretty bad case of paronychia on my right hand, which makes typing bloody hard. Every key stroke feels like someone is pinching the end of my fingers with a hot pair of tongs…Still this summer isn’t as bad as it was in 2007. Back then I was working eight days a week at Asda which is depressing in its own right without having to distribute free water to the public. During the Great Flood of 07 as I am now calling it, I received a couple of texts from uni friends asking me how I was doing. Some of them were from people I hardly knew. It was nice. I got a text from my best friend as well  and his simply read “haha you have to swim to work, you cunt”.   .

How hypocritical is the media in this country? When Jordan first hit the scenes as a ‘humble’ Page Three model and exploded her boobs up to size triple Z these so-called ‘women magazines’ just wrote her off as another slag willing to get her tits out for gullible men right. Then she hooked up with Peter-I’m so far in the closet that I’m in Narnia- Andre and suddenly she’s a “clever business woman” who “uses her skills and energy in a productive way to make it in the world”. Then Peter and his not so mysterious girl break up and suddenly, she’d a two faced bitch again! Exactly the same with Jade Goody. “She’s a racist pig faced slob that represents the very worst of today’s world” then less than a year later “oh no, she’s dying, what a saint, Diana 2.0”. Consistency PLEASE.

Incidentally I’m disgusted that my Firefox spell-check doesn’t recognise the word ‘Narnia’. Nor, oddly, does it recognise ‘Firefox’. Fail.

Atheism and the Bible

A few years back I worked in a book shop to help to put me through University. It was manned mostly by students and as you know, a student can occasionally be a bit of a smart ass. One day we received a huge delivery of Bibles. Now, this was a brand new store that we had set-up and it was up to us to decide under what headings and categories we should put the books. So, when we got these Bibles, it was only a matter of time before someone cracked “oh, we should put them under ‘fiction’!”. Hell, it might have been me.

I have been an atheist since I was about fourteen. Before then I guess you could call me an agnostic (if we are limiting ourselves to those quaint little names) and as a young child I was, like so many, a theists that had never really thought about it. You’re not really given a choice growing up; when you’re old enough to understand the basic theology of it you’re told that there is this divine figure living in something called heaven which is paradoxically (a paradox to a child at least) above us in the sky and yet out of reach. You were probably given a colourful little book showing this ‘God’ person anthromorphised standing over two little people called Adam and Eve. This you were told was the fact, and this you accepted.

I cannot remember the time when I realised there was an option to this. My earliest memory in that respect is being at school when I was about ten or eleven, sitting around a table with a bunch of guys. One of them, a tough little SOB surprised me by asking the rather profound question “do you lot believe in God?”. I, almost instinctively, said yes. However, it made me think. Did I believe in God? Why do I believe in God? What evidence have I been given to believe in God? Fast forward a few years until I got into secondary school. This was when science really took off. We got to play with chemicals and fire and all that jazz. It was awesome. In this class I was also first told about this little thing called evolution. It made sense to me, I understood the basics of it and I passed the exam in that class with flying colours. Intelligent design was never even mentioned to me in those lessons. In retrospect, I’m glad because religious theology belongs in one classroom at school.

That class is of course Religious Education. Now, here’s a kicker. I loved R.E at school. I loved it because my teacher was incredible. He was strict, the class behaved, but he had a funny side too. The class respected him, and that says a lot. I’m not sure whether he himself was religious or whether he just taught the class because he also taught a number of other classes. Either way, our lessons with him were not tiresome occasions where we were forced to read and memorise line after line of scripture. Instead, he taught us about religion in the world today and the issues faced by those who believe in it. At no point were we forced to follow similar beliefs or belittled for being atheists. It was here that I first learnt that some in the religious community rejected the theory of evolution. He told us what they advocated instead, then he reminded us of what evolution stood for, then he told us to write a small essay saying what our own personal opinions were and why. I supported evolution and I got an A*.

I digress however. It was really due to those classes that I became confidently atheist. My later degree at university only served to strengthen this. At university however I also met a type of atheist which angered me. The militant atheist. The atheist that would turn around and say “oh the Bible is nothing more than a work of fiction that serves no purpose in a modern age built on science and engineering”.

I own a copy of the Bible (and coincidently the Qur’an). I bought this copy after I became an atheist. The militant atheist that I described above would laugh at this. “Why? You reject the theology and dogma of Christianity don’t you? What good does that book serve you or anyone else similar?”

Answer: A lot

The Old Testament teaches us the history of the Jewish people and of the Middle East dating back over thee millennia in the same sense as the Iliad offers us an insight to Greek history. If you ignore the accounts of divine intervention and basic theology what you have left is an almost chronological commentary of events that were occurring from 1,000 BCE onwards. For example, the Old Testament concurs with other sources and allows us to understand how the Jewish people were displaced from their homeland by the Babylonians, returned by the Great King of Persia Darius, and subsequently dispersed across Eurasia by subsequent Hellenistic kingdoms. Judea became a theatre of war between the Seleucid’s and the Ptolemy’s. Prisoners of war, refugees, entrepreneurs and settlers in new Hellenistic cities were among the Jews fleeing Judea. By the end of the second century, if not before, Jewish settlements were to be found throughout the eastern half of the Mediterranean.

For classicists and historians then the Old Testament offers intriguing commentary on everything from the relations of Hellenistic kingdoms to the development of the Jewish diaspora. 1 Maccabees 15.16-24 shows a Roman Consul greeting the rulers the Near-East- notably Ptolemy- and warns them, in friendly ways, to not persecute the Jews and if they have issues with them, they should take it out with Simon the High Priest so he can punish them according to Jewish Law. It is interesting as it shows how (around that time, second century BCE) the Jews were noted as living in many communities and how friendly Rome was towards them.

Moving on a bit, consider books from the New Testament. Admittedly, there is little in the Gospels that backs my point up here. But the Epistles of Paul and the Book of Acts do. The Acts in particular are intriguing as they were originally written in Koine Greek and mimicked the style of earlier Greek histories, such as Herodotus and Thucydides. It also shows influence from Roman sources as it is very subjective. Paul in the Acts preaches in Synagogues first wherever he goes as the Jews are God’s people and deserve to hear the news first. However, he is more often than not discarded and then preaches to Gentiles who are portrayed as much more open minded.

Are the synagogues only mentioned to highlight the ignorance of the Jews and the piety of the Gentiles? They are not mentioned in the Epistles at all, so we can question to what degree Paul interacted with the Jewish communities. Christian tradition holds that Paul is the author of the Acts but this seems unlikely as it seems to describe the church in the later half of the first century (50-100CE) when Christians were becoming a separate entity from the Jews. For a historian then the Epistles and the Acts offer an alternative (that is, non-Roman) source for the way Roman civil law worked in practice, the layout of the Eastern half of the empire, the way different communities interacted within the empire and numerous other aspects (too many to list here) at two different points in the first century of the empires existence.

I guess what I’m saying here in a roundabout way is that you do not have to be a Christian, or even a spiritual person, to appreciate the historical value of something like the Bible. I appeal to fellow atheists to not show such ignorance. I get enough of that from the zealous individuals who preach in the town center from the book of Revelations about how we’re all going to hell and from Christians who throw eggs at abortion clinics (ironic?!).

Oh, in the end, we put the Bibles under the philosophy section. K?

300 Sequel

MTV reported last week that a sequel to 300 is well and truly in the works, supposedly dealing with the events between the Battle of Thermopylae (in which three hundred Spartans and seven hundred Thespians fought to the last man, the latter of which not depicted in the 2007 blockbuster) and the Battle of Plataea which occured a year after the former in 479 BCE. One thing that really got to me about 300 was that there was no mention of the Battle of Salamis or the actions of the Athenian Themistocles. Athens itself is only mentioned once, when Leonidas callously describes its citizens as “philosophers and boy lovers” (erroneous in the strictest sense as Spartans too practiced pederasty). I realise there’s only so much one can fit into a 120 minute film and I’m not sure whether the Athenians are mentioned in the graphic novel or not, but still. 300 itself is somewhat of a revamp of a 1962 film called 300 Spartans, which inspired the writer and illustrator of the 300 graphic novel Frank Miller.398px-Three_hundred_spartans It’s the kind of film you might find on at 11am on channel 4 during a bank holiday weekend.  Nevertheless, in this classic Leonidas encounters the Athenian navy general Themistocles before marching to Thermopylae and the two devise a plan where the Spartans- being the best infantry force in Hellas- will engage the Persians on land and the Athenians- having the greatest navy- will launch a simulatenous attack at sea. To cut a long story short, once the Spartans learn that they have been betrayed Leonidas makes the valiant desicion to keep the Persians at bay long enough for Themistocles to evacuate the Athenians to Salamis as he knows that Athens will be the first port of call for Xerxes who is looking to avenge his father Darius for his defeat against the Athenians a decade ago at Marathon. According to our primary source Herodotus, this was actually the case. The importance of Leonidas’ actions can never be forgotten. Instead of returning to Sparta and fortifying the Peloponnese as many of his countrymen wished, the king gave his life up so that the Athenians could survive, as he knew in the long run the Athenian navy would be the key to victory for all of Greece. In 300 Leonidas is ‘patriotic’ (if we can use such a word) for Sparta; he is portrayed as being mainly concerned for the safety of his kingdom. In the 300 Spartans, Leonidas is shown as being much more of a panhellenist- that is, a lover of all of Hellas (Greece). If this element had been incorporated into 300 then I think it would have made the film something more.

Which is why I am so eager to see this sequel come through. If we get to see the events of the Battle of Salamis (where Themistocles did destroy the Persian navy and turn the tide of the war) then maybe we will see a more panhellenic side of Leonidas, who is due to return in some form (flashbacks?).

That being said, I would be content with another Sparta-centred flick. Let’s not beat around the bush, and it kills me to say this, but we loved 300 because of the action. People loved the Spartans because they were fighting machines with abs the size of mountains and had the fervour to do bitchin’ things like this:

I’ve seen that film a thousand times and that scene still gives me goosebumps. It’s so god damn epic. Plus, it gave birth to a whole new meme.



There really are countless more.

Ultimately however I will be happy with whatever direction the sequel goes. As long as it is to do with ancient Greece and warfare, the classicist inside me will rest.

More tweets than Tweety Bird

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June 2018
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