BMCR 2020.12.16

The politics of Roman memory: from the fall of the Western empire to the age of Justinian

, The politics of Roman memory: from the fall of the Western empire to the age of Justinian. Empire and after. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. Pp. viii, 292. ISBN 9780812251623 $65.00.

Kruse’s book analyzes the politics of memory of the Roman past in the texts of Zosimos, Prokopios, Christodoros of Koptos, Ioannes Lydos and some of the Justinian’s Novels. The chronological arc covered by the book runs from the rise of Zeno (474) to the end of the Gothic war (554). After a methodological introduction — which explains the use of philology to analyze the texts and defining fundamental terms such as “history” and “memory” — the book consists of six chapters and a conclusion. In the first three chapters, Kruse focuses on authors from Zosimos to Jordanes and their approach to the Roman past, with particular attention to their narrations of the Roman respublica and its legacy. The titles of these chapters describe the themes through which Kruse analyzes these authors (“Myth-history”, “Cultural Identity”, “Administration and Reform”). The fourth chapter is the turning-point of the book insofar as it is dedicated to a crucial moment of post-Roman history: the abolition of consulship by Justinian. The Illyrian emperor becomes the “main character” in the following chapters, which are configured as a Justinian-centric narrative. In chapter four it is the emperor himself who speaks, through his jurist Trebonian, in the Novels. The chapter is two-sided: on the one hand, we hear the hegemonic demands of Justinian; on the other, the answers of the authors previously presented. The diversity of tones and arguments to counter the emperor in his drift towards autocracy makes the end of the consulship “an ideological Rorschach test for sixth-century authors” (p. 146). The fifth and sixth chapters are set in Italy during the Gothic war. In chapter five, Kruse shows the difficulty that authors like Prokopios had in harmonizing a traditional sense of Romanness with the harsh reality of the military conquest of Rome by Belisarios. This chapter provides a conclusion for the dialectic discourse concerning how to be Roman in an empire without Rome. To further support Kruse’s idea of a New Rome “in opposition to the Romans of the West” (p. 184), Kruse dedicates the last chapter to the relationship between the Papacy and the imperial court. For the first time in the book, a text from the West appears as the subject of discussion: the papal Letters. The Pope’s responses to the eastern court’s use of the Roman past provide us with a precise synthesis of the dialectic process underlying the entire book.

This monograph poses a number of important questions, in part because it treats a highly complex period, in part because of its ambitious targets. The main aim of the book, explicated in the first pages of the introduction, is to answer one of the key questions of Late Antiquity: how did Romans manage the transition from a state centered on the city of Rome to a Roman Empire absent Rome? Although a large number of volumes attempt to answer the question, Kruse’s monograph stands out for its fresh perspective on the appropriation of the Roman political tradition. Rather than the use of the Roman past at the courts of western post-Roman regna or by the Papacy, Kruse focuses on the use of history by emperors, historians, jurists, antiquarians and poets of the Eastern Empire. In this respect it fills a vacuum in recent scholarship, which for fifty years has focused on the reconstruction of post-Roman identities in the former Western Empire. One of the first questions posed by Kruse in the Introduction reflects the scale of the issues faced by the author: “how could an empire be Roman without the city of Rome?” (p. 3). Subsequent pages show how the eastern emperors from Zeno to Justinian came to terms with the transformation of New Rome into the only, imperial, Rome.

The book aims also to undermine the image of a prematurely Hellenized Constantinople through the accounts of the main intellectuals of the 6th-century Eastern Roman Empire. The author points out the importance of the myth-history of Old Rome for intellectuals such as Zosimos, Ioannes Lydos and Prokopios. In Kruse’s view, Byzantine Hellenization did not take the form of a reversion to pre-Roman models, but rather of a syncretism of Greek and Roman myth-historical examples. In fact, the continued relevance of Roman history for the identity of the East is one of the focal points of the volume. The author examines the texts of the imperial jurists and the literary production of the main authors of the sixth-century Constantinople to outline the strategies of defining Romanness after the fall of the western Empire in 476 and during the Justinian’s reconquest of Italy.

The work is presented as a “literary and intellectual history” (p. 6) of the post-Roman transition, as perceived from eastern Roman intelligentsia. Fundamental to its purpose is the definition of “history” and “memory” and their use in the political debate. The author underlines many times the importance of the use of past for the construction of the imperial identity in the East. The category of “usable pasts” (p. 7) is certainly one of the most interesting employed by Kruse. Instead of focusing on wars and intrigues of the rulers of the Roman East, the true battlefield of the 6th-century political narratives is the control over historical memory. In this context, the choice of rehabilitating authors long relegated to the intellectual fringes stands out. Too often overshadowed by the political figure of Justinian, authors like Lydos and Prokopios are shown operating within the boundaries of a mainstream historical and political thought. Kruse thus sheds light on an eastern Roman intellectual movement centered on Constantinople (the city, more than the imperial court) and focused on the development of historical narratives that supported the Roman identity of eastern Romans. Justinian, who voices his political positions through the Novels, turns out to be a touchstone for the eastern authors. One of the most striking goals of the volume is to emphasize the role of Justinian not only as a historical agent, but also as a writer of history. The intellectuals examined constructed their works in conscious response to the emperor’s assertions as to the canons of classical historiography.

Kruse also effectively emphasizes the importance of the authors citing and modifying the texts of classical tradition. For example, Zosimos’ reference to Polybios and Prokopios’ Vergilian quotations are not “Byzantine mannerism”, but late antique forms of reinvention of tradition. Christodoros’ change of the classical ethnic names reveals hegemonic claims of the Greek world against the former Romano-Italic rulers. In the same way, Belisarios’ discourses reported by Prokopios are full of grammatical tricks that suggest a subordinate role for the newly-conquered Old Rome. Through the careful philological analysis of these texts, Kruse identifies passages that lead from the managing of the post-476 transition to the affirmation of Justinian’s autocratic power. There is no doubt that the philological analysis undertaken by Kruse is the right method to explore late antique texts, full as they are of references and quotations. It is the only way to understand the ideas of the authors and their socio-political background. All the intellectuals in the book are, in fact, analyzed in their context. This work has long been done with the “barbarian narrations” of the West, following the “Linguistic Turn”. The application of the philological analysis to the texts of the late-fifth- and early-sixth-century eastern Roman authors contributes to making them less isolated and very much meaningful than before. Analyzing different authors through the same lens allows Kruse to identify a network in which apparently different texts communicate with each other. The main goal of this approach is to enable the late antique scholar to have a broad and complete perspective on the intellectual scene of the new imperial capital. Kruse sheds light on how intellectuals and bureaucrats perceived their relationship with the Roman past and how they have built their place in the present, Rome-less, world. Kruse accomplishes this in a brief monograph, considering the range of texts and themes that are covered. This monograph can be extremely useful for both the expert scholar and the student seeking answers for a such debated century of Late Antiquity.