Saturday, October 24, 2009

428 AD by Giusto Traina

The examination of people belonging to different and distant worlds like King Artashes of Armenia, Euthymius and Vortigern within the same work almost seems the kind of expedient that would be used in the popular novels of Christian Jacq or film scripts for a particularly fantastic sword-and-sandal movie. But this is one of the characteristics of Late Antiquity: the imperial crisis and the arrival of new peoples were responsible for bringing the various and previously hidden elements of a complex and multi-ethnic world to the surface.

King Artashes was the straw man whose "plunge without restraint into licentious pleasures" incurred the hostility of the local potentates, who organized what can only be called a Fronde with the support of the Persian Empire. After years of trying the Sassanids finally succeeded in overturning the balance that kept the King of Armenia in a position above the other noble families, over the objections of the catholic patriarch of the Armenian Church. The centuries-long Armenian question, which had so often led to conflict between Rome and Persia, ended with this lasting blow to the prestige of the Empire, in spite of its military superiority over the Persians and the attempt in 428 , by Flavius Dionysius, to limit the damage by negotiating guarantees for the Christian communities.

Euthymius himself was a native of the most westerly regions of Armenia and was fifty years old when, in 428, he established his monastic foundation in Palestine, halfway between the Holy City and the Dead Sea, not far from the road to Jericho. This was not a site that lend itself to the isolated life of an anchorite. A biography of the saint recorded the sojourn of as many as four hundred pilgrims on their way from Jerusalem to Jordon who decided to take a detour. Domitian, the steward of his laura, told Euthymius of his concerns: how was such a crowd to be fed? The monastery's scarce resources- bread, oil, wine- were multiplied 'miraculously' and this definitively established Euthymius's fame. He attracted monks and virgins from all over the Empire, including many from the cream of the senatorial aristocracy which thus provided 'charisma' and large endowments.

The official demobilization of Britain occurred around 410, but it was not entirely abandoned. The Imperial court (then centered at Ravenna) decided to discontinue its control of Hadrian's Wall and the western borders, but continued to garrison the forts to defend the eastern and southern coast known as the Saxon shore. The administration of Britain was trusted to a leading figure in the local Celtic aristocracy, who had been romanized to some degree: the semi-legendary figure of Vortigern (Welsh Gwrtheyrn, meaning 'highest lord'). The medieval chronicles of the 9th century claim that 428 was the date of an epoch-making event for the island: Vertigern was supposed to have summoned Saxon mercenaries to assist him in defending the country from attacks by the Picts and the Scots. The Angles and the Saxons were more interested in a romanized territory, took over, and forced the Celts to abandon their lands and move to their current territories of Wales and Cornwall. However,in the near future, new anthropological perspectives may well make it possible to clarify further the problems of the "Dark Ages" in Great Britain .

Whatever the variety and complexity of the voices of the Roman world in the 5th century, and their evident conflicts-whether imperial or foreign- the empire remained the key reference point. Subsequent events would undermine this view and accelerate the centrifugal tendencies in the Mediterranean, but in 428, Rome, although a little less eternal, was still very much a real entity and had not been reduced to a mere concept.


  1. For many years, the most distinguished Athenian school was the so-called Academy, which was more appropriately defined as the Neoplatonic school. Many of its exponents came from Alexandria, where a climate on increasing Christian intolerance (typified by the dramatic killing of Hypatia during mob violence in 415) had forced the school to move to a more welcoming Athens. Leonitus himself may have had to leave Antioch for similar reasons. The first "successor" to be master and reside in Athens was Plutarch, who was very old in 428 and was assisted by his disciple Syranius of Alexandria and above Proclus, the author of important commentaries on various works by Plato and on Aristotle's "On The Soul." We are talking then of an Athens that was a center for private teaching, with a group of international students and another external group of listeners.

    The presence of Neoplatonists in Athens helped keep paganism alive in the city and the surrounding regions. The leaders of the Neoplatonic school were not simply teachers, as they presented themselves as spiritual leaders and constituted a reference point for all Athenians and not just their own disciples. Partly because of this, the local Christian community had not gained the necessary prestige to compete with the great pagan teachers. A master like Plutarch held a special authority which derived from his hieratic wisdom of the ancient magical and theugic rites that made it possible for the Neoplatonic master, like the Persian and Chaldean magi, to communicate with the divine, invoke daemons and create horoscopes and calenders.

    The Neoplatonists became the most important players in the pagan "resistance" In order to defend traditional cults from Christian attacks, they did not hesitate to abandon, at least in public, the vegetarian diet they had originally adhered to, and to take part with other pagans in the cruel sacrifice of animals. However, the persistence of traditional cults was not restricted to Athens and exclusive intellectual circles. In Greece, as in many other regions of the empire, paganism survived in many different forms. More over, monasticism was a great deal less developed in the Balkans, and could not influence the process of Christanization as it had done in Syria and Anatolia.

    This situation guaranteed, for a period at least, the coexistence of pagans and Christians, whose religious activities could occasionally fuse together. One interesting example came from an archaeological dig at the "Spring of the Oil Lamps" in Corinth, on the site of the ancient complex of the Sanctuary of Asclepius. It was close to a natural spring where the pagan faithful placed thousands of votive lamps between the end of the 4th and the middle of the 5th century, in spite of the fact that Christians had chosen the area for a burial ground. Other lamps were found among the ruins of the temple but the most striking feature was that many of them had wordings of Christian inspiration scratched on their surfaces. Typically these invoked the protection of the "angels who live in these waters"- angels who must have been a Christian interpretation of the ancient cult of nymphs, documented by pagan inscriptions of the same era that had been found on the same site.

  2. In Athens, Proclus continued to teach Platonic philosophy until his death in 486. The Academy would not be definitely closed until Emperor Justinian in 532. The Platonists had to leave the Roman Empire for the more tolerant Sassanid (Persian) territories, which had already provided refuge for the followers of Nestorius.

    "428; An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire" by Giusto Traina, professor of Greek history at the University of Rouen, Princeton University Press, 2009

  3. By the way, the legend of "Shangri-La" (in the western tradition via "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton), but first assimilated by the Tibetan Buddhists- the myth of the Hidden Valley populated by immortals, a refuge from Life's hardships that existed outside of time- originated in this period in a Taoist author's book "Record of Peach Blossom Valley" (Tao Yuanming)- about what later came to be called AFGHANISTAN- published in 427 AD.