BMCR 2024.02.25

The Collectio Avellana and the development of notarial practices in Late Antiquity

, , The Collectio Avellana and the development of notarial practices in Late Antiquity. Giornale Italiano di Filologia - bibliotheca, 31. Turnhout: Brepols, 2023. Pp. 672. ISBN 9782503588360.

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


The Collectio Avellana (hereafter: CA) is one of the best known yet most under-exploited and poorly understood surviving corpora of late-antique material. This collection of 244 letters and documents, exchanged between clergymen, emperors, and officials between the fourth and sixth centuries CE, preserves a considerable amount of information about the interactions between church and state actors. In some cases, the collection provides better evidence for certain incidents than survives elsewhere—the banishment of bishop Liberius of Rome, in 355, comes to mind—but it also attests to affairs not known from other sources, such as the emperor Anthemius’ suspected leniency towards ‘heterodox’ gatherings in Rome and his performative promise to prevent their occurrence.[1] The distribution of these communications across the fourth to sixth centuries further adds to the corpus’ utility. Owing to the temporal spread of its entries, the CA is a fantastic medium through which to analyse the development of social customs, the shifting relationships between church and state authorities, and the parties and concepts which impacted on both.

The volume under review is an attempt to nail down details about the CA and also track a single element of late-antique life. Comprised largely of papers delivered at a conference in Spello, Perugia in 2019 and influenced by much of the earlier work done under the aegis of the romantically named La Banda Avellana, this edited collection centres itself around notarial practices used in Late Antiquity.[2] Between a lengthy introduction and a brief conclusion, this volume is comprised of twenty-three chapters, divided unequally into four sections. Interesting insights abound, but the volume’s length (570 pages from introduction to conclusion) necessitates that only a brief overview be provided here.

Part One focuses on the CA’s compilation, which Lizzi Testa in this volume and elsewhere attributes to Cassiodorus.[3] Porena supports this thesis by arguing that the presence of certain documents in the CA are consistent with Cassiodorus’ efforts to support Vigilius, bishop of Rome 537–555, and concluding that the compilation’s first version was probably composed sometime in the late 530s/540s in Rome. This conclusion is qualified by Paolucci, who asserts that multiple copies of the CA circulated at the same time and that the version which we use was not necessarily the most prevalent one available in the sixth century. Focusing on the scribal subscriptions used to sign off on other similar collections, Paolucci underlines the ‘pre-editorial’ status of the CA, which, like many compilations, could be reordered and re-edited by individual archivists and scribes. Somewhat anomalous in this section is Mari’s contribution, an analysis of CA 103, the minutes from a synod held in 495 readmitting a bishop, Micenus of Cumae, to communion. While not overtly tied to the section’s theme, this chapter does point towards the levels of editing each entry in the CA could undergo and raises the question of how much the compilator/s subsequently altered the letters they collected. Returning more explicitly to the theme of the CA’s compilation, Ammirati briefly considers the models the original editor/s used to plan the CA, with the assertion that the collection is distinctive in some respects, but largely conforms to the patterns laid out by other comparable documentary compilations in Late Antiquity. Marconi jumps ahead to the eleventh century and the monastic author Peter Damian, who is often claimed to have used the compilation for his works. Emphasising that we cannot be sure that Peter did use the CA, Marconi instead suggests that Anselm, bishop of Lucca, was more instrumental in the collection’s transmission from Late Antiquity and moreover that this transmission seems to have occurred with the CA in two books. Taken together, this section’s chapters assert that above all else, the CA was a manipulable tool for emphasising episcopal authority.

Part Two turns to the titular notaries, especially those who served the imperial court and to a lesser extent those who worked in senatorial contexts. Tantillo opens by surveying the evidence for stenographers and scribes in the service of emperors from the first century BCE to the third century CE, with the conclusion that the formal position of imperial notary was probably established in the fourth century, alongside the reorganisation of the imperial civil service. Raimondi extends the narrative to the Valentinianic dynasty, which, as indicated by various case studies focused on well-attested notaries, marked a diversification of the profiles and responsibilities associated with imperial scribes. Roberto shifts the focus to fifth- and sixth-century records concerning divinatory rituals and omens, and their preservation in the archives of senatorial families, who could reveal and manipulate these documents to assert their authority in Rome. With the transferal of these documents to Constantinople, these texts became more open for wider use, especially by historical writers based in the city. Castello also considers this movement of records by exploring the evidence for centralised imperial archives, which seem to have developed in the fifth century from the pre-existing repositories associated with urban and praetorian prefects.

These wide-ranging discussions are followed by more narrowly concerned chapters. Paño analyses one rescript issued in the name of Valentinian III in late 443 and the associated Gesta senatus, dated to 438, to identify two constitutionarii (specially appointed functionaries mandated to copy out official texts) as senatorial exceptores (stenographers). Szidat briefly considers the involvement, visible and invisible, of notaries in the documents relating to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Besides emphasising the influence of these officials in the conciliar proceedings, Szidat also notes that the designation of a special group of secretaries as asecretis, which becomes more common in the sixth century, is first mentioned in the Chalcedonian acts, although it is unclear for how long this group predated the council. Girvés examines the late sixth- and seventh-century records of pacts deposited in the Gothic regnal archive in Toledo and the centralised imperial repository in Constantinople to demonstrate the centrality of scribal apparatuses to international relations. Oppedisano focuses on one of Cassiodorus’ Variae concerning the appointment of a scribe in Ravenna, identified as a senior position in charge of the municipal archives. Internullo ends the section by exploring the evolving duties of exceptores across Italy, Gaul, and Egypt, with particular concern for their presence in the Ravenna papyri and a brief consideration of their relationship to the CA.

Part Three moves onto notaries and religious, especially ecclesiastical, records. Noting the infrequent presence of stenographers in late-antique passions, Perrin demonstrates the roles of narrative legitimation played by exceptores in their few appearances in martyr accounts. Canella examines how scribes collated, preserved, obscured, and even forged texts in the contexts of the Acacian and Laurentiam schisms to support the ideological agendas of their patrons. Vilella continues this theme by considering three collections of Spanish canon law and their minimal, but still present, connections to letters sent by Roman bishops. Remaining with the theme of church canons, Sardella uses the work of the sixth-century monk, Dionysius Exiguus, to emphasise the inextricability of scribes in doctrinal discussions but also the opportunities for these same scribes to control subsequent perceptions of the debates they ‘recorded’, especially where translation was involved. Destephen shifts the focus to notaries and conciliar minutes, in particular the transcripts from a synod convoked by Menas of Constantinople in 536. By examining the structure of the acts and the duties of those involved in their creation, Destephen demonstrates that sixth-century ecclesiastical notarial practice largely followed that of its imperial counterpart. Caliri also draws links between church and state notaries in the sixth century by examining the letters of Gregory the Great, whose scribes, like imperial notaries, had duties beyond the management of written records: as delegates, these officials could act as envoys, disciplinary officials, and ecclesiastical administrators.

The final part centres on the presence of scribal functionaries in the CA. Torres begins by examining all mentions of ecclesiastical and imperial notaries in the collection, and considering how these references reflect the officials’ changing functions and training. Complementing Torres’ chapter, Evers uses the CA’s attestations of notaries to trace the growth of short-hand writers as they become messengers and influential authorities in their own right. Lenski closes the section by offering a prosopography of the letter-bearers mentioned in the CA. By thinking about the statuses of these individuals and their roles in high-profile interactions, Lenski complements the arguments of Evers and Torres that these record-related officials could influence communications between church and state powerbrokers.

Readers of this collection of essays—a fitting format for a study of the CA—will surely find much of value here. Each chapter is packed to the brim with interesting thoughts and analyses of under-appreciated evidence, especially pertaining to notarial practices. Nevertheless, a few directly relevant items of scholarship have unaccountably been omitted.[4] There are also a surprising number of typographical slips, albeit none which severely inhibit the arguments made. These minor issues might be related to the volume’s density. Owing to the large number of chapters, the plethora of sources used, and the subject matter itself, non-specialists will find the volume as a whole difficult to access. While the introduction and the abstracts which follow each chapter help to navigate and highlight the book’s thematic strands, perhaps an index of key terms would have augmented the discussion’s accessibility. Nevertheless, the target audience—specialists in the institutional histories of church and state governance in Late Antiquity—will find the most value in using individual chapters and sequences of chapters in isolation.

It should also be noted that this book is not a guide to the CA. Parts Two and Three are overtly pitched as expansions of Hans Teitler’s seminal work on scribal functionaries into the sixth century.[5] While the CA does receive some occasional attention in these chapters, the collection is not the centre of focus. Parts One and Four are more in keeping with the title’s stated focus of the CA as a source of information for developing notarial practices. Certain themes, such as the influence afforded to notaries via their control over their documents, do run throughout the chapters, with some contributors overtly highlighting these links via references to the other essays in the book. Nevertheless, this volume feels like two intermingled books, both inherently interesting but not always consistently tied to the central corpus of evidence.

These issues aside, Lizzi Testa, Marconi, and their collaborators should be thanked for the impressive work they have put into this wide-ranging collection of papers and moreover for shining light on just how much work there is still to do on this corpus of evidence. In particular, the differing nature and quality of the entries in the CA requires additional analysis. Many of these documents would benefit from contextualisation in the broader history of Late Antiquity. To this end, we all must eagerly await the achievement of La Banda Avellana’s stated aim to produce a new edition, apparatus, translation, and commentary, which can provide the guide to the CA we so desperately need.


Authors and Titles

Rita Lizzi Testa, ‘Introduction’


PART 1. The Making of the Collectio Avellana from Cassiodorus to Pier Damiani

Pierfrancesco Porena, ‘La seconda vita di Cassiodoro e la Collectio Avellana

Paola Paolucci, ‘Ritornando sulla Collectio Avellana. La subscriptio del notarius Sixtus nel codex Berolinensis Latinus 79

Tommaso Mari, ‘The Gesta de absolutione Miseni of 495 as Synodal Minutes. A Formal Analysis’

Serena Ammirati, ‘Dal manoscritto medievale ai modelli tardoantichi. Indizi nel codice V della Collectio Avellana

Giulia Marconi, ‘Pier Damiani e la Collectio Avellana. Storia di un’ipotesi’


PART 2. A Teeming World of Secretaries and Archives, Between the Senatorial Aristocracy and the Imperial Court

Ignazio Tantillo, ‘Alcune note sui notarii nella corte imperiale del IV secolo’

Milena Raimondi, ‘The notarii of the Valentinian Emperors (AD 364–392). Social Profiles, Promotion in Rank, and Political Rise in the East and in the West’

Umberto Roberto, ‘L’aristocrazia senatoria romana e la trasmissione di oracoli e prodigi sulla fine dell’impero tra Roma e Costantinopoli (sec. V–VI)’

Maria G. Castello, ‘Archivi palatini tardo antichi. Genesi e mitopoiesi’

María Victoria Escribano Paño, ‘Los constitutionarii ¿exceptores del senado?’

Joachim Szidat, ‘I funzionari dell’amministrazione civile al concilio di Calcedonia (451)’

Margarita Vallejo Girvés, ‘Archivos y notarii en las relaciones bizantino-visigodas’

Fabrizio Oppedisano, ‘Lo scriba di Ravenna e la prefettura del pretorio tardoantica’

Dario Internullo, ‘Gli exceptores fra tarda antichità e alto medioevo. Aspetti istituzionali, sociali e culturali’


PART 3. Tachygraphers, Notaries, and the Formation of the Ecclesiastical Chancellery

Michel-Yves Perrin, ‘Abiectis ante iudicis pedes tabulis. Stenografia e stenografi nelle passioni tardoantiche di martiri cristiani: alcune osservazioni’

Tessa Canella, ‘Notarii, decretali e apocrifi a Roma tra fine V e inizio VI secolo’

Josep Vilella, ‘Los preceptos romanos en las primeras colecciones canónicas atestiguadas en Hispania’

Teresa Sardella, ‘Committenti e ‘tecnici’ delle collezioni: i traduttori tra notarii, copisti, stenografi e altri. Dal caso delle Dionysianae

Sylvain Destephen, ‘Ecclesiastical Bureaucracy at the Synod under Menas in 536’

Elena Caliri, ‘Da stenografi ad amministratori. I notarii nel Registrum Epistularum di Gregorio Magno’


PART 4. Moving Documents in Late Antiquity: Messengers and Negotiators in the Collectio Avellana

Juana Torres, ‘Los notarii y otros funcionarios en la Collectio Avellana. Formación, funciones y papel institucional’

Alexander Evers, ‘Don’t Shoot the Messenger? Men of “Power and Might”—notarii and exceptores in the Collectio Avellana

Noel Lenski, ‘Moving the Mail: The Status and Operations of Letter Carriers in the Collectio Avellana

Rita Lizzi Testa, ‘Concluding Remarks. Cassiodorus as antiquarius



[1] Liberius: CA 1; T.D. Barnes, ‘The capitulation of Liberius and Hilary of Poitiers’, Phoenix 46.3 (1992), 256–265. Anthemius: CA 95.61.

[2] See: R. Lizzi Testa (ed), La Collectio Avellana fra Tardoantico e Alto Medioevo (Bologna, 2018); R. Lizzi Testa and G. Marconi (eds), The Collectio Avellana and Its Revivals (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019);

[3] R. Lizzi Testa, ‘Introduction’ in Lizzi Testa and Marconi, Revivals (n.2), viii–xxiii, at xvii–xix, recapitulated in this volume’s introduction and conclusion.

[4] In particular: R. Price, ‘Truth, omission, and fiction in the Acts of Chalcedon’ in R. Price and M. Whitby (eds), Chalcedon in Context: Church Councils 400700 (Liverpool, 2009), 92–106; R. Cribiore, ‘Stenographers in Late Antiquity: Villains or victims’ in W.V. Harris and A.H. Chen (eds), Late-Antique Studies in Memory of Alan Cameron (Leiden, 2021), 220232, although perhaps the omission of Cribiore’s chapter resulted from this volume’s production schedule.

[5] H.C. Teitler, Notarii and Exceptores: An Inquiry into the Role and Significance of Shorthand Writers in the Imperial and Ecclesiastical Bureaucracy of the Roman Empire (Amsterdam, 1985).