Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Peter N. Bell (trans.), Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian. Agapetus, Advice to the Emperor; Dialogue on Political Science; Paul the Silentiary, Description of Hagia Sophia. Translated Texts for Historians 52. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 249. ISBN 9781846312090. £19.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad , MacEwan University


When the political rhetoric of the reign of Justinian is mentioned we may be inclined to think first of the salacious and slanderous bombast of Procopius' Secret History. Bell makes a wider range of texts, perhaps better representative of the intellectual life of the period, available to general readers and scholars alike. Readers of the Secret History may, nevertheless, find the tone of unremitting pessimism in the introduction's description of the crisis, turmoil, and particularly repression of the Justinianic age altogether familiar. Justinian's government may have been intolerant and repressive in comparison with modern liberal democracies, but was not especially so by the standards of its own day and many a long day to come. This vision of the reign that was once taken to be the pinnacle of the Eastern Roman Empire's achievement is part of a wider hermeneutic approach. If in the past the assumption has been that most people in the sixth-century Greek world were Christians, inasmuch as they were religious at all, the indications in this book are that now the burden of proof will rest upon anyone who cares to accept uncritically a profession of Christian faith or presume Christianity when a sixth-century figure's ideological commitments are not stated. Such searching of the hearts of the long since dead can easily go astray.

Bell's work is presented in two halves. The first offers an introduction to the world of sixth-century Byzantium, the authors generally, and their dates, as well as thorough and helpful introductions to each of the works. Seldom have I seen the promise of 'accessible to the beginner, useful to the expert' better fulfilled. The reader without any background in sixth-century history or Platonic philosophy will not be at a loss and the reader well versed in either will see sources neatly traced and patterns astutely identified. The second half is composed of the translations of the three texts. These are lucid and readable without being colloquial. The accompanying notes supply a more than adequate commentary, discussing, as they do, everything from the translator's grounds for his rendering and the fontes of significant words and phrases to their implications in the court of Justinian. I will address each text, along with Bell's discussion, in turn.

Although he deals with Renate Frohne's application of Agapetus' Advice to various dates in Justinian's tenure on the throne, Bell judiciously settles on the unspecific but largely indisputable date of "near the beginning of the reign." Perhaps a sign of the excess to which a questioning of an historical individual's sympathies may lead us is offered by Bell entertaining the question, "So was Agapetus a Christian?" In an overwhelmingly Christian society a deacon of the Church should not have to write overtly theological, homiletic, or devotional literature in order to prove that his Christianity was more than nominal. Bell sensibly answers his question in the positive.

Agapetus' Advice to the Emperor, seventy-two brief, pithy, but seemingly unrelated chapters of counsel and exhortation, must strike the reader as rather platitudinous at first blush. But Bell does a very good job of showing how each piece of advice fits into the wider context of Hellenic and Christian discourse on kingship and the 'Mirror for Princes' tradition, as well as suggesting an overall pattern to the Advice. He draws attention to two particularly remarkable points. In chapter 16 Agapetus urges the emperor not only to give to the poor, but also to take from the rich. Such redistribution would have found no favour with the aristocratic classes who, according to Procopius and John Lydus, complained bitterly of the heavy tax burden which they shouldered under Justinian. Agapetus also warns the emperor (c. 35) that he who rules willing subjects rules in safety. Bell suggests that this may be the most important passage in the text. He is undoubtedly right to call it "a political maxim of universal application", but is perhaps stretching things when he says that this chapter is concerned with the legitimacy of the emperor. Bell also draws attention to the great favour Agapetus enjoyed in the courts of eastern and western Europe as long as the institution of monarchy flourished, allowing his to be classed among that select number of texts avidly read in the Greek, Latin, and Slavic spheres.

Bell reviews the arguments for references in the Dialogue on Political Science to events in Justinian's reign, but considers the senatorial interest of the work indicative of a dramatic setting at the beginning and an actual date of composition at the end of Justinian's reign. The work is composed on the model of a proper Platonic dialogue, between the astute and insightful Menas and his Dr Watson, Thomas, and not by accident. Both Plato and Cicero are important sources and authorities for the unknown author, and his object is to marry the philosophical idealism of the Greek author with the political realism of the Roman. The question of the author's ideological commitments inevitably crops up again, perhaps most understandably here in regard to the Dialogue. Bell dismisses Lesley MacCoull's arguments for Christian authorship, but his own for pagan authorship (he writes in the dialogue form; Romanus the Melode [!] is critical of Plato and Homer; neither is Cicero a Christian) are just as weak. Parts of only two of the books of the Dialogue survive. Book 4 deals with military matters and insists upon training, the role of the commander, and the importance of the infantry in a field army. Bell takes pains to show that, while the author may have no military experience, his advice, especially in regard to foot soldiers, is not merely nostalgic antiquarianism. Book 5 is concerned with how the 'philosophical emperor and imperial philosopher' might rule in the image and likeness of God. Much of the program is unsurprisingly Platonic, but there are also some striking innovations. The author prescribes a method for selecting the emperor according to justice and law which involves elections among all the classes of society. But this should not be taken as much of a concession to democracy; the disorder of the masses in the tumult of the circus factions is also roundly excoriated. In fact, the author would place the real running of the empire in the hands of the 'optimates', or senators, as magistrates and governors, rather than those of the crowd or even the emperor himself. The author further advises that the disorder occasioned by the imperial succession might be alleviated if he voluntarily retired or selected an heir. Bell's discussion and notes are erudite, but he might have treated at greater length the question of our author's knowledge of Latin (neither unknown nor at all common in sixth-century Byzantium) and the faithfulness of his citations of Latin authors, particularly as so many of them are to passages that cannot be identified among the surviving works of Cicero, Cato, or Juvenal. He would be neither the first nor the last author to arbitrarily assign an authority to a phrase of his own making.

Paul the Silentiary's Description of Hagia Sophia was composed to be recited at the rededication of Justinian's magisterial church over Christmastide, 562. Bell translates Paul's Greek verse into a readable English prose which manages to convey some sense of the poetic attainments of the original. Bell omits the passages which describe the Hagia Sophia's architectural form and decoration, which are already available in Mango's translation in The Art of the Byzantine Empire: 312-1453 (1986). Instead he presents the introductory and concluding portions which have been neglected by the art historians who have gravitated to this text, but are of real interest in this collection as an example of the rhetoric directed toward the emperor on a public occasion. In the Description, as Bell notes, the time-honoured genre of panegyric is concentrated upon the ruler's architectural achievement. In this context Paul is able to present Justinian as guided and protected by God, as the partner and fellow-worker of the Patriarch (even though the two were soon to have a violent falling out), and as the ruler who had advanced Constantinople above and beyond old Rome, 'a daughter who excels her mother.' Also noteworthy is Paul's dilation on Justinian's commendably speedy and competent response to the collapse of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in 558 which necessitated the rebuilding and rededication which offered an occasion for Paul's poem. The treatment of crisis as a litmus test for leaders has a pedigree in Greek literature which goes back to Homer, and Paul's lines are not unworthy of consideration alongside some of the best examples. Bell is once again troubled by traditional poetic forms, archaisms, and allusions to classical Greek myth and philosophy as possible signs of an adherence to Hellenism going under the mask of toeing the 'party line.' Perhaps some of these difficulties might be alleviated by an acknowledgement that by Paul's time Hellenic paideia had long since become an integral part of the lives of innumerable Christians and of the Church as a whole. Be it remembered that some two hundred years earlier one of the most irksome persecutions imposed upon the Christians by Julian the Apostate was his forbidding them to hold positions teaching Homer and the other great works of Greek letters.

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