BMCR 1992.01.10

On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity

, On Roman time: the codex-calendar of 354 and the rhythms of urban life in late antiquity. The Transformation of the classical heritage 17. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 1 online resource (xxii, 315 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780520065666

In the year 354 A.D., a Christian aristocrat named Valentinus commissioned a distinguished Christian calligrapher to create a priceless work of art for his delectation. The resulting large manuscript, containing an illustrated calendar showing the principal festivals of the year and an assortment of useful texts (e.g., lists of consuls, urban prefects, and bishops of the city of Rome) now usually found in an almanac. The original manuscript was duplicated in an important copy in the ninth century and has since been lost; that copy in turn survived to the Renaissance when it was both described and copied repeatedly, but it is now lost itself. To judge by the copies (which include copies of the illustrations), the original was a masterpiece of impressive dimensions.

Given the state of the evidence, it is not possible to produce an ‘edition’ of the whole. Not all elements are equally well-represented by any given surviving copy, and so both text and illustrations must be studied and compared to reconstruct the original. This is frustrating and leads to problems in presentation of the evidence. The ‘historical’ texts were edited separately by Mommsen in the MGH Chronica Minora a century ago, where their bald and image-free presentation gives a very misleading impression of the context in which they appeared, while the verses that accompanied the images are standard elements in editions of Poetae Latini Minores. A study a generation ago by H. Stern attempted to link text and iconography, but the study of the late antique world of thought and images has made great progress since then and Stern’s work is now obsolete in many ways.

One substantive problem complicates studies of this fascinating document. It hails from the fourth century A.D. and gives testimony in numerous ways to the ‘survival’ of ‘paganism’. It has accordingly been a star witness in various sentimentalizing modern treatments of the end of the ancient religious sensibilities; but star witnesses are often treated in such a way as to get them to say what the summoning attorney wants to hear, and the Codex-Calendar has suffered that fate.

The first great strength then of Michele Salzman’s meticulous study is that it concentrates on setting forth the evidence as clearly and untendentiously as possible. Short of an impossibly complicated and uneconomical hyper-edition of all the manuscri pts, this is probably the most convenient and consultable form in which to show what is to be shown. The texts are taken for granted from Mommsen’s edition, but the illustrations are abundantly reproduced in clear black and white reproductions. The second great strength of the book is that it proceeds chiefly (but not exclusively) by analysis of the iconography of the illustrations to set the pieces of this artifact in their fourth century contexts more securely and more subtly than has ever been done before. (Of the 107 illustrations, about half are from manuscripts of the Codex-Calendar and the other half are comparable images from late antique sources.) The bulk of the book is analytical (roughly the first 200 pages), but there is complementary synthesis (pp. 193-246), and a substantial series of documentary appendices.

The challenges of such a text are many. A work full of ‘pagan’ imagery that presents lists of bishops and martyrs is an ambiguous document indeed. The temptation is to reduce it by main force to a pre-determined explanation: ‘pagan’ ‘survival’ with a thin veneer of Christianity is the usual cookie-cutter employed. But something more interesting is going on. An old language (or set of languages, both verbal and visual) is being re-constructed by its readers with little or no change to the signs of the language itself; and it is only patient attention to the details of inclusion and exclusion that reveals any of the process at all. A manuscript like this is a speaking voice from sixteen centuries ago; but it is most intelligible when it speaks novelties (bishop lists) and least so when it speaks old truths (images of Roman religious festivals). How were those old words and images received in the new context?

It is the merit of Salzman to have shown what can be shown and to stop repeatedly short of overinterpretation. For example, if we turn to the image of January in the Codex-Calendar, we find an image supported by these verses (from p. 79):

Hic Iani mensis sacer est, en aspice ut aris
tura micent, sumant ut pia tura Lares,
annorum saeclique caput, natalis honorum,
purpureis fastis qui numerat proceres.

Salzman’s description of the accompanying image accurately captures the flavor: “January is represented by a man dressed in a long tunic; a heavy toga is draped on top of the tunic, over his left arm and shoulder. The borders of the toga are ornamented with gems. On his head is a fur cap, out of which flows a long veil. He wears shoes or slippers. He is in the act of sacrifice, throwing incense on or pointing to flames that rise with much smoke into the air before him. The flames are in a burner at the figure’s right; behind the burner is a rooster. The male holds a trefoil-flower or leaf in his left hand. To the left of the man is a covered jar or urn on a large base.”

So far, so ‘pagan’. Salzman’s further discussion well elucidates parallels and comparanda, ranging from Gaul to Africa to Sicily, from the second to the fifth century. How does a Christian aristocrat read such a text? Direct evidence there is not, but Salzman’s thoughtful reading has seen what is missing in the totality (p. 115): “Although paganism is presented as the dominant religion in both illustrations and texts, we can nevertheless see in them the beginnings of a movement to accommodate the rise of Christianity.” For several of the months, seasonal imagery is shown to have deliberately replaced religious, and sacrificial depictions give way—as in the telling image of January—to less offensive (to Christian eyes) depictions of incense-burning. In a world in which a Christian emperor still wore the robes of pontifex maximus—which the emperor would not give up for thirty years after the Codex-Calendar’s composition, and which would somehow or other (the process is mysterious) reappear as part of the apparatus of the bishop of Rome, perhaps as early as the fifth century—the juxtaposition of old images and new religion somehow worked.

How it worked and why is a larger subject than a study of this one artifact can embrace. Salzman’s own study of the religious context of the manuscript (pp. 193-231) and her sketch of the way that lay ahead in the epilogue that follows (232ff) are suggestive and at the same time a good summary of where the consensus of current research has gotten.

The result of this study is a book that can be consulted with profit for years to come and that will give a firm footing for those who seek to link the texts and the imagery of late antiquity in the renewed quest for understanding why, when, and how the old sensibilities became—so easily, and so surprisingly—adapted to the new Christian vocabulary.

One particular topic Salzman has to leave aside but is now open for renewed approach. The natural urge, when faced with the Renaissance copies of the Carolingian copy, etc., is to work backwards, stemmatically, to the original. The more securely that base is reached, the more interesting it becomes to trace the work’s reception forwards, to see how these images were re-read and re-interpreted in the 9th and 16th centuries. Some of that work has been done in earlier studies, but it would be exciting to see it approached anew in the light of Salzman’s work.