BMCR 2023.10.28

Writing history in late antique Iberia: historiography in theory and practice from the 4th to the 7th century

, Writing history in late antique Iberia: historiography in theory and practice from the 4th to the 7th century. Late antique and early medieval Iberia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022. Pp. 312. ISBN 9789463729413.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


The present volume derives from a project that poses the question, “What’s the point of history?” (“Para qué la Historia? La reflexión sobre el pasado en la Hispania tardoantigua”).[1] This question is not new; it was answered repeatedly from different perspectives over the course of Greco-Roman antiquity itself. What is innovative, however, is the region and timespan under analysis here: the Iberian Peninsula in the period of the 4th to 7th century. In this new volume, Purificación Ubric Rabaneda has edited the work of fifteen contributors from France, Finland, Italy, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom to address the aim of historiography in a time when Rome had stopped functioning as the region’s effective, supra-regional power and the Visigothic kingdom established and ultimately consolidated itself. The articles set different emphases (a diversity belied by the table of contents, which lists them without thematic structuring). The individual works cover specific characteristics of late antique Hispanic historiography (Bravo, Aulisa, Salvador Ventura); the intentions and works of individual historians, including Orosius, Hydatius and Isidore of Seville (Fear, Kahlos, Marzo, Inglebert); the legitimacy of history and its instrumentalization by both local heavyweights and the central power (Fernández Ubiña, Wood, Castellanos, Castillo Maldonado); and finally the exaltation of Christian history for the purpose of devaluing other religious beliefs (Gabrielli, González-Salinero, Ramón Teja/Acerbi).

In her introduction, Ubric Rabaneda also stresses that an innovative approach is not merely in underlining the classic differences between the pagan historiography of the Greco-Roman and Christian traditions, but especially in the inclusion of genres previously left unexamined: the records of provincial and general councils, the chronicles of bishops, saints’ lives, treatises and biographies, as well as the letters of bishops and monks, kings, papal decretals. Indeed, the chapters impress the reader through both the depth of their information and the breadth of their themes. Some chapters illustrate how the historiographies of this period attempted, on the one hand, to build on illustrious predecessors while, on the other, innovatively inserting themselves into the process of creating an ecclesiastical historiography. Immacolata Aulisa (“From Christian Historiography to the Emergence of National Histories: Spanish Historiography between Romans and Visigoths”) examines Hydatius of Lemica, John of Biclaro, Isidore of Seville and Julian of Toledo to address the dialectic between “the universalistic ambition of the old Eusebian model and the ethnic particularism of modern national histories.“ (p. 58) Laura Marzo (“Prophecies and Omens of the Fall of the Roman Empire in the Chronicle of Hydatius of Lemica”) argues that Hydatius, Bishop of Aquae Flaviae, who between 431 and 432 brought a delegation to Aetius and operated as mediator between Ibero-Roman communities and the court of Ravenna, possessed a clear sense for imperial power’s weaknesses and central authority’s inability to ward off barbarian invasions. Andrew Fear, meanwhile, views Orosius and his work as “An Iberian Patriot’s History of Rome”—the historian was supposedly well aware that he came from the best part of the best of all empires, and remained, at heart, a Ciceronian. In any case, the clerics, monks and bishops reconstructing the past were doing so in the service of the central power at Toledo, as Santiago Castellanos (“Local Powers and Construction of the Past in the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania”) makes clear. The territory’s conquest is presented as a linear progression, although we know—not least because of the excavations of the past decades[2]—that the process was in fact far more complex, and that significant cities like Córdoba had to be conquered at least twice. The existence of elites with their own patronage networks and armed forces kept monarchic authority from laying down local roots as well as, finally, preventing the development of a genuine Visigothic identity. Jamie Wood (“Bishops and their Biographers: The Praxis of History Writing in Visigothic Iberia”) supplements this perspective by focusing on the regional and local, episcopally composed historiography. His study underlines how history was written in the interests of conflicting parties, and was thus also re-written to make it useful—a praxis that frequently impacted the cult of saints, with which communities remembered their saintly past and sought to connect it to the history of the universal Church. One such prominent example is the Vitas Patrum Emeritensium, which Ramón Teja and Silvia Acerbi (“The Image of Leovigild as Arian Monarch in the Vitas Patrum Emeritensium: From Historical Reality to Hagiographic Deformation”) classify as a “hagiographic deformation”, for the Emeritensian Bishop Masona’s portrayal as a Christian martyr and the concomitant characterisation of Leovigild as a tyrant and persecutor bear little resemblance to the reality of a Visigothic king whose religious policies were marked above all by tolerance.

This collected volume is doubtlessly a significant new asset for researchers of late antique Hispania. It has been published at a moment when research into historiography is generally on the rise, and it addresses a significant desideratum.[3] The expansion of transmissions that are generally subsumed under historiography proves a decisive focal point, one that allows a researcher to deepen their own insight into historical reality, for the frankly fragmentary character of the transmitted sources makes it all but impossible to reconstruct the military conflicts and power struggles of the magnates into the decade of 560 in even rudimentary form. After this point, chronicles do offer an insight into the Visigothic kingdom’s history, but already from the perspective of a kingdom united territorially under Leovigild and confessionally under Reccared.[4]

In any case, Isidore of Seville, who represents the knowledge of his time in his etymologies, seems the person most suited to answering the question of the content and use of historia in late antique Hispania. Hervé Inglebert (“The Definitions and Uses of historia in Isidore of Seville”) expresses this very aptly. Like Eusebius of Caesarea, Isidore was convinced that scholarship and truth on the one hand and hermeneutics and the significance of the Holy Scripture on the other needed be differentiated from historia. The significance of historia was central to his etymological approach, for association alone allowed him to connect an object and its description to their origins. Yet the aim of historia was to gather, classify and prioritise matters of the past, and to then erect written monuments relating the deeds of kings and memorable events. This knowledge could, by definition, be no more than partial, for God alone was cognizant of universal knowledge and the human past, but it at least enabled the current generation to share in the experiences of those that came before.

It was precisely Isidore’s awareness of this limitation that seems to have led him to very clear ideas of what he wanted to preserve for historiography—and what he did not. At the Third Provincial Council of Seville (between 622 and 624), which Isidore chaired, Martianus of Écija was stripped of his office as punishment for a series of transgressions.[5] The episcopal seat passed to Aventius, his accuser; the judgment, however, was not unanimous. When Martianus appealed to the Fourth Council of Toledo (633), asking them to take up the case anew, Isidore cited time constraints and refused. It was only after his death that Martianus’ renewed appeal to the Sixth Council of Toledo proved successful: Aventius’ accusations not only proved false, he had, among other things, incited witnesses to give false testimony. Martianus, who had obviously fallen prey to factional struggles in Écija, was allowed to return to office. A good look at the whereabouts of the records of the Third Council of Seville throws the role of Isidore—whose intervention changed a factional episode into a problem of Church government—into a fairly dubious light: For when, in 638 in Toledo, the bishops sought to consult these documents, they had disappeared. Even in late antique Hispania, the chasm between aspiration and reality, theory and praxis, already gaped widely; thanks to this collected volume, we are now in a better position to judge it.


Authors and Titles

  1. Purificación Ubric Rabaneda: Writing History in Late Antique Iberia: Theory and Praxis
  2. Gonzalo Bravo: Para qué sirve la Historia: Principios teóricos de la historiografía hispana tardoantigua
  3. Immacolata Aulisa: From Christian Historiography to the Emergence of National Histories: Spanish Historiography between Romans and Visigoths
  4. Andrew Fear: Orosius: An Iberian Patriot’s History of Rome
  5. Maijastina Kahlos: Orosius, Barbarians, and the Christian Success Story
  6. Laura Marzo: Prophecies and Omens of the Fall of the Roman Empire in the Chronicle of Hydatius of Lemica
  7. Francisco Salvador Ventura: La dimensión política de los historiadores del reino visigodo de Toledo
  8. Hervé Inglebert: The Definitions and Uses of Historia in Isidore of Seville
  9. Jamie Wood: Bishops and Their Biographers: The Praxis of History Writing in Visigothic Iberia
  10. Santiago Castellanos: Local Powers and Construction of the Past in the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania
  11. José Fernández Ubiña: The Contemplation of the Past in the Libellus Precum of Faustinus (and Marcellinus)
  12. Chantal Gabrielli: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: The Historiography of Hispania in Late Antiquity
  13. Raúl González-Salinero: Expulsados de la Historia: El argumento histórico en la polémica antijudía hispana (siglos IV–VII)
  14. Pedro Castillo Maldonado: Consideraciones sobre la temporalidad en las Vitae Sanctorum visigóticas
  15. Silvia Acerbi and Ramón Teja: The Image of Leovigild as Arian Monarch in the ‘Vitas Patrum Emeritensium’: From Historical Reality to Hagiographical Deformation



[1] Funded by the University of Granada and the Spanish Ministry (HAR2016-75145-P, MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033).

[2] J. Martínez Jiménez/I. Sastre de Diego/C. Tejerizo García: The Iberian peninsula between 300 and 800: an archaeological perspective, Amsterdam 2018 (= Late antique and early medieval Iberia 6); cf. S. Panzram: Die Iberische Halbinsel um 500 n. Chr. – Herrschaft „am Ende der Welt“. Eine Geschichte in neun Städten, in: M. Meier / S. Patzold (Eds.): Chlodwigs Welt. Organisation von Herrschaft um 500. Internationale Tagung. Weingarten 2011, Stuttgart 2014, 449-486 (= Roma Aeterna. Beiträge zu Spätantike und Frühmittelalter; 3); C. Delaplace, La fin de l’Empire romain d’Occident : Rome et les Wisigoths de 382 à 531, Rennes 2015.

[3] For example Marasco, Gabriele (ed.), Fourth to Sixth Century A.D. (Leiden–Boston, MA: Brill, 2003); Deliyannis, Deborah Mauskopf (ed.), Historiography in the Middle Ages (Leiden–Boston, MA: Brill, 2003); Liddel, Peter, and Andrew Fear, Historiae Mundi: Studies in Universal Historiography (London: Duckworth, 2010); Feldherr, Andrew, and Grant Hardy, The Oxford History of Historical Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Ghosh, Shami, Writing the Barbarian Past: Studies in Early Medieval Historical Narrative (Leiden: Brill, 2016); Pohl, Walter, and Veronika Wieser (eds.), Historiography and Identity. Vol. I: Ancient and Early Christian Narratives of Community (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019); Heydemann, Gerda, and Helmut Reimitz (eds.), Historiography and Identity. Vol. II: Post-Roman Multiplicity and New Political Identities (Turnhout: Brepols, 2020).

[4] On this issue, see Hillgarth, Jocelyn Nigel, Historiography in Visigothic Spain, in: La storiographia altomedievale. Spoleto 1969 (Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 1970), 261–311.

[5] On this, see Stocking, Rachel, Martianus, Aventius and Isidore: provincial councils in seventh‐century Spain, in: Early Medieval Europe 6.2 (1997), 168–188; see the edition of the text by Martín Iglesias, José Carlos, El “Iudicium inter Marcianum et Habentium episcopos” (A. 638): estudio, edición y traducción, in: Habis 49 (2018), 203–231.