Thursday, March 3, 2016


Mischa Meier, Steffen Patzold (ed.), Chlodwigs Welt: Organisation von Herrschaft um 500. Roma Aeterna, Bd 3. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014. Pp. 622. ISBN 9783515108539. €89.00.

Reviewed by Mary Alberi, Pace University (

Version at BMCR home site


Originating in a conference held in Weingarten in 2011, the papers in Chlodwigs Welt examine the exercise of authority—one possible translation of "Herrschaft," another being "dominion"—ca. 500 A.D as a practical exercise in survival for many rulers, on all levels of society, after imperial government ended in the west in the late fifth century. The papers in this collection adopt a variety of methods to explore the often subtle effects of this event: the transformation—or decline—of imperial institutions, the lasting significance of imperial ideology, the emergence of new kingdoms and how their rulers forged legitimate regimes, regional variations in the exercise of authority, the adaptation of urban and local aristocrats to very changed political conditions, and much more.

Chlodwigs Welt is organized into five sections. The editors' introduction summarizes each paper's findings, considering each region separately. The actual arrangement of papers, however, encourages another approach, comparing the way rulers with equivalent power coped with change, region by region.

The first section of Chlodwigs Welt concentrates on Clovis, who is assumed to be a paradigmatic figure for this era. Bernhard Jussen suggests that the absence of imperial government in northern Gaul brought structural change, as aristocratic Gallo-Roman bishops, whose status no longer depended on imperial office and ritual, assumed regional authority. The conversion of Clovis, who was fully acclimated to the bishops' political culture from an early age, merely eased his integration into the political structure they had created. Matthias Becher proves Gregory of Tours' chronology of Clovis's reign is reliable, despite his obvious bias. An early conversion in 496 gave Clovis an advantage, as the only catholic king, in a regional struggle for hegemony over all of Gaul. After his victory over the Visigoths in 502, Clovis's faith allowed him to consolidate his authority over a greatly enlarged Frankish kingdom. This new political situation caused uncertainty about the nature of his rule, however. Utta Heil detects this uncertainty in Bishop Avitus of Vienne's letter to Clovis. Rather than confirming Clovis's evident belief that God rewarded his conversion with victory, Avitus emphasized the virtues proper to a Christian king of the Franks as a more reliable source of authority. The discussion of Clovis in these papers suggests that a reevaluation of the importance of his conversion may be needed.

Papers in the second section of Chlodwigs Welt suggest the end of imperial rule in the west destabilized imperial rule in Constantinople and encouraged the pope to develop claims to universal authority. According to Hartmut Leppin, the divergence in provincial and metropolitan views of religion and culture in panegyrics offered to Emperor Anastasios by Procopius of Gaza and Priscian of Caesarea give the impression of "two empires," rather than one. Rene Pfeilschifter confirms this impression. Although it forestalled military coups, the emperor's nearly permanent residence in Constantinople nevertheless isolated him geographically and politically. Once accepted by Constantinople's imperial officials and population, an emperor was relatively secure but severely limited in his ability to accommodate provincial interests, especially in religious matters. This deep political fissure explains the lack of resistance to the Arabs in the provinces in the next century. Wolfram Brandes contends that Justinian incited the Nike riots to ruin senatorial opponents politically and fund his building projects with their confiscated property. Whether this is so or not, Brandes reveals Justinian's determination to secure his imperial dominion within Constantinople. For Mischa Meier, the end of imperial government in the west in 476 affected rulers everywhere. In the absence of a western emperor, new kings sought legitimacy from Constantinople, for, ideologically, at least, the emperor alone conferred the legitimacy they needed. In Rome, popes claimed universal authority as the head of a church, which they equated with God's city. The most radical among them, Gelasius I, challenged the eastern emperor's intervention in doctrinal matters as inappropriate to a layman, a member of the church, subject to papal authority. The western emperor's overthrow damaged the prestige of the imperial office, making emperors in Constantinople more vulnerable to rivals. Hanns Christof Brennecke's paper questions the extent of papal influence. Contemporary emperors and kings ignored Pope Gelasius I's claims to universal authority, while his successors shied away from his extreme pronouncements. Overall, these papers give an impression of ideological ferment and political disarray in the two imperial centers.

Papers in the third section compare new forms of authority in different regions, highlighting the importance of military rule in a new era. According to Julia Hoffmann-Salz, eastern emperors still relied on regular troops to defend their empire's southeastern frontier against the Sassanids. But Anastasios and Justinian bolstered these forces with troops recruited and led by powerful Arab leaders. Although sources call these Arab commanders kings, they never extended their authority to large federations, nor did they act independently—until the next century. Hans-Ulrich Wiemer contradicts the prevalent assumption of continuity between the regimes of Odovacer and Theodoric in Italy. Unlike Odovacer, Theoderic benefited from sharing his troops' ethnic identity and reaching an accommodation with the emperor in Constantinople. Stefan Esders attributes Clovis's success as king to pacts made with potential rivals. Allowing Roman soldiers to keep their privileges, military traditions, and law let them believe they were serving both Roman and Frankish interests. Over time, the Frankish kingdom's administration was militarized, marking a real break with Rome's separation of civilian and military affairs.

Section four highlights some of the limitations on the new forms of authority characteristic of post-imperial politics. Stephanie Dick traces the changing meaning of "rex" from Childerich's to Clovis's day. The Roman tendency to call the commanders of Frankish groups settled along the imperial frontier in Toxandria "kings" gives a false impression of the extent of their power. Acting within the framework of local Roman administration, Childerich combined Roman military office with leadership of his Frankish troops. But association with Rome also enhanced his and his men's status as Franks, reinforcing Childerich's authority. Clovis capitalized on his father's legacy of a kingship synthesizing Roman and Frankish elements after Roman imperial authority lapsed in Gaul. Even so, Roman notions about the extent of royal authority offended some Franks, and there was nothing inevitable about the development of Frankish kingship under Clovis. Ian Wood asks whether the Gibichungs were really Burgundian kings, since they tended to emphasize their titles and status as high-ranking Roman officials up to the 520s. This self-identification may indicate that the end of the Roman empire in the west held little significance for them. Anne Poguntke finds evidence of the restoration of imperial authority in Constantinople by examining the emperor's control of his subordinates, the magistri militum. Mid-fifth century magistri intervened in a wide range of government affairs and even threatened emperors. But by 500, emperors were able to regulate the behavior of their magistri, a sign of resurgent imperial authority. Karl Ubl considers the Lex salica an innovation on the part of the Frankish king, without reference to Roman military or provincial law. The Lex salica contains a coherent system of heavy fines punishing the disruption of public order, as the king deliberately created a written law, to address the concerns of the Frankish elite by regulating their private conflicts.

The fifth section of Chlodwigs Welt turns to Roman cities, showing that these remained vital centers of political authority for their leading men as well as kings and emperors. According to Sabine Panzram, Visigothic kings were slow to win the loyalty of the highly Romanized urban aristocracy of Spain's cities, still oriented toward their imperial past and its traditions. In the later sixth century, Leovigild reoriented the loyalties of urban aristocrats to his regime, which offered them a substitute Rome modeled on imperial rule in Constantinople. His successor Reccared controlled the church after his conversion to catholicism in 589. By his time, the leading men in Spain's cities were bishops with close ties to the king's government. Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner argues that the rise of government by "notables" in western cities originated with the collective action of urban curiales and local landowners against the rising power of the defensor civitatis, whose powers of patronage threatened their traditional authority. This institutional change, however, was not a clear break with the past. In Gaul, that break came with the end of imperial government, which undermined the position of the defensor and allowed the bishop to take his place. Steffen Patzold challenges the prevalent assumption that ca. 500 bishops in Gaul were members of the senatorial aristocracy. A few of these high-ranking men could be found in metropolitan sees, but many bishops, especially south of the Loire, were members of local urban or regional aristocracies. Patzold suggests that future studies should consider the careers of individual bishops against their local backgrounds, whatever their rank. Avshalom Laniado argues against the idea that the replacement of curial municipal administration by an administration of "notables" was a symptom of urban decline in early Byzantium. The sources identify these "notables" as ktetores, that is, landowners and consequential individuals of varying status. Despite this institutional change, Byzantine imperial government still assigned, and sometimes compelled, these "notables" to perform the administrative tasks formerly handled by the curiales. Finally, Sebastian Brather emphasizes the difficulty of using archaeological methods to identify local lords in Frankish society. Graves that can be plausibly dated to ca. 500 vary significantly, and interpreting whatever is found in these graves is extremely difficult. He suggests archaeologists must pay closer attention to social and regional contexts in interpreting these finds.

Of course, this brief summation cannot convey the full range of important new insights and provocative ideas found in these papers; nor can it do justice to their richly detailed exposition and extensive scholarly apparatus. Taken together, however, the papers in Chlodwigs Welt offer a nuanced description of a particular period, in which "Herrschaft," as a practical matter in a post-imperial world, combined "late antique" and "medieval" methods of governance. The collection as a whole demonstrates convincingly that accurate assessment of continuity and change in this period depends very much on interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to describing the political order of different regions in a rapidly changing world. These approaches yield important results when, as here, studies are focused on a discrete time period, for this concentrated viewpoint allows a reader to probe deeply into the era's complexities and paradoxes. Chlodwigs Welt provides a model for future studies and a powerful argument, should one be needed, against the artificial separation of "Late Antiquity" and the "early Middle Ages" into two distinct eras.

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