BMCR 2024.05.40

War, rebellion and epic in Byzantine North Africa: a historical study of Corippus’ Iohannis

, War, rebellion and epic in Byzantine North Africa: a historical study of Corippus' Iohannis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781009391986.



Andy Merrills is one of the foremost authorities on late antique North Africa, so when he publishes a new book, it is worth paying attention. Merrills has previously written several books on the Vandals and geography in late antiquity.[1] With his newest book on Corippus’ Iohannis, Merrills takes on the important task of analyzing one of our most important and yet complex sources on the region in the sixth century. The Iohannis is historical epic (Merrills describes this as “an unusual literary medium,” 261) and needs to be read much differently from the work of prose authors such as Corippus’ contemporary Procopius of Caesarea. For Merrills, Corippus should be read in the context of an African population reflecting on decades of incompetent administration and his epic is not therefore an unabashed panegyric of Roman imperial might.

War, Rebellion and Epic in Byzantine North Africa is an analysis of Corippus’ Iohannis and a study of the early years of medieval Roman Africa. Merrills positions Corippus’ text as a work of history, literature, and social memory (4). Merrills’ book is not a historical commentary on the Iohannis nor a complete history of Roman North Africa in the 540s, but rather something in between these two. The book is divided into six chapters followed by a brief conclusion. The first chapter, “‘I Sing of Things That are Not Unknown’: Epic and History in Byzantine Africa” functions as an introduction to Corippus and his text. Merrills explains the difficulties in knowing Corippus and in understanding the Iohannis, which survives in only a single incomplete manuscript (7). Merrills also tackles the Iohannis through a literary approach, noting the author’s debt to classical forebears, above all to Virgil. The chapter concludes with a section that will be most helpful to readers who are unfamiliar with Corippus: Merrills provides an outline of the poem, book by book, which anchors the reader in the material (28-35). The second chapter, “Prelude to a War: Byzantine Africa 533-546” provides the historical background to the Iohannis by tracking the history of the region from the restoration of Roman authority by the general Belisarius in 533-534 up to the landing of the general John Troglita, the protagonist of Corippus’ epic, in 546. Here Merrills makes the critical argument that the struggles of Roman North Africa in this period should be attributed primarily to mutiny and rebellion within the Roman administration, and that the Berber or “Moorish” wars of this period were a direct consequence of this internecine strife (80-84). The third chapter, “Past and Future in the Iohannis,” returns to the structure of Corippus’ epic and explains how the work both conveys a sense of uncertainty and disquietude about the recent imperial past of Africa and a triumphant celebration of inevitable imperial victory. Merrills shows this through Corippus’ use of analeptic flashbacks, in which characters within the epic describe the recent past in unflattering terms, complaining about the suffering that Africa has experienced (91-105). But there are also proleptic passages that anticipate triumphal celebrations to come when John Troglita wins his inevitable victory over Moorish forces and restores order and peace (119-126). The fourth chapter, “Corippus and the Moorish World,” considers the different ways that the author portrays the “Moorish” peoples. Corippus was more concerned about loyalty (or subjugation) to imperial order than about ethnic identity, and attempts to read his epic as straightforward ethnography of the Moors are bound to fail (134-141). The fifth chapter, “‘For Every Blade was Red’: War and Bloodshed in the Iohannis,” examines how Corippus presents the campaigns of John Troglita. Here Merrills argues that historians may draw certain conclusions about the conduct of the campaign and makeup of John’s armies even though the text is not primarily intended to convey such information (175-186). Merrills also shows that Corippus’ use of extremely violent imagery served an important purpose: to clarify loyalties in a very visceral fashion. The final chapter, “Christianity and Paganism in the Iohannis,” analyzes the approach of the epic’s author to religion. Merrills makes the interesting argument that while Corippus does not directly weigh in on the current doctrinal argument of the day (The Three Chapters controversy), he perhaps indirectly encourages the unity of all North African Roman Christians by painting two prominent opponents of Justinian’s Three Chapters policy in a positive light as supporting the imperial war effort (227-234). The chapter does not shortchange “Moorish” religious beliefs, concluding with an analysis of Corippus’ description of “Moorish” gods and comparing this to what is known from the religious archaeology of North Africa.

As a historical analysis of the Iohannis, it matters how Merrills approaches and makes use of the text in this work. Merrills readily admits that he is not a philologist and that he has relied heavily on the philological work of many experts to ground his understanding of the thorny textual issues that are involved in looking at a work that survives in a single manuscript. He utilizes the 1970 edition of Diggle and Goodyear.[2] Although other scholars have recently proposed changes to the way this edition presents the text, no new complete edition has yet come out with these suggested revisions. It seems that a revised, new edition remains a desideratum. Translations of the Iohannis within the book are Merrills’ own, and he is to be commended for making these translations clear and approachable.

To his credit, Merrills makes clear the place of his arguments in the context of other recent modern scholarship on Corippus. Merrills is well-read and cites widely in his footnotes, fairly and even generously referring his reader to other scholars old and young alike, including a considerable amount of non-Anglophone scholarship. In particular, Merrills frequently returns to important analyses of Corippus by Averil Cameron and Yves Modéran.[3] For Merrills, Cameron’s articles on Corippus argue that the Iohannis was an unrestrained celebration of Roman power meant to reassure the locals of imperial supremacy during a time of religious conflict (17). By contrast, Merrills argues that Corippus, through the analepsis of Liberatus, criticizes imperial mismanagement and failures in the years since the restoration of Roman rule by Belisarius (100). Modéran’s groundbreaking work on the Moors in late antiquity mined Corippus for evidence of Moorish identity (132). Merrills frequently refers positively to Modéran’s conclusions, but also argues that the Moorish peoples listed by Corippus are catalogued specifically for John Troglita’s triumph, not according to a geographical or spatial ordering (161-169).

War, Rebellion and Epic in Byzantine North Africa is a good book. It is carefully argued and makes important points that will help historians decide how they should make use of the Iohannis in their research. Merrills is quite convincing that Corippus must be read in the context of the struggles of late antique Roman North Africa, as the work of a local trying to make sense of those struggles while also expressing the expectation of better days ahead. As part and parcel of this understanding, it is important not to treat this historical epic as simply a rich vein to be mined for related information, whether that be on the medieval Roman army or the identities of the Moorish peoples. Such information as is to be found is conditioned and presented according to the needs of the genre.

Some critiques may be made, although all are relatively minor. While Merrills wishes to argue, following the work of Peter Riedlberger, that the epic recalls Vandal rule fondly, this is not altogether clear from the quoted text presented.[4] Quotes suggesting that there was peace and prosperity in the time of the Vandal Kingdom may instead represent a fondness for peace in general rather than pining for Vandal rule particularly (98-99). There is some repetition in the book and the reader may find material being recycled across many chapters. In particular, the Virgilian motif of granting the conquered clemency and crushing the proud in war recurs throughout the study, as Merrills himself admits (260). The prophecies relating to the birth of the Moorish leader Antalas are also referenced rather repetitively (92, 125, 237, 245). Some readers may question whether it is reasonable for Merrills to compare Corippus and George W. Bush (21-22). More seriously, the uncritical use of the term “Byzantine,” both within the title and at many points throughout the text (e.g., 4, 23, 39) is notable. Byzantinists have recently been wrestling with this term and its appropriateness.[5] This is primarily worth mentioning because Merrills is so careful about other questionable terms, for instance frequently putting the terms “Moorish” or “Berber” in scare quotes (e.g. 22, 129) – why no scare quotes for “Byzantine?”

Despite these quibbles, War, Rebellion and Epic in Byzantine North Africa should be the first book consulted by historians interested in using Corippus’ Iohannis as a source. Moreover, it is an excellent book for those with a passion for late antique North Africa or late Latin epic poetry. It is, admittedly, not a book for the uninitiated or those approaching this period for the first time. The arguments are complex, and even with the outline of the Iohannis that Merrills provides at the end of the first chapter, the reader without some prior knowledge of the Iohannis is at a disadvantage. For those who know what they are getting themselves into, this book contains treasures worth excavating.



[1] For example: Andy Merrills, Roman Geographies of the Nile. From the Late Republic to the Early Empire (Cambridge, 2017); Andy Merrills and Richard Miles, The Vandals. Blackwell Peoples of Europe. (Chichester, 2010).

[2] J. Diggle and F. Goodyear, eds. Flavii Cresconii Corippi Iohannidos Libri VIII (Cambridge, 1970).

[3] Averil Cameron, “Byzantine Africa. The literary evidence,” in J.H. Humphrey, ed., Excavations at Carthage, VII (Ann Arbor, 1982), 29-62.  Averil Cameron, “Corippus’ Iohannis. Epic of Byzantine Africa,” in F. Cairns, ed., Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 4 (Liverpool, 1984), 167-180. Yves Modéran, “De Julius Honorius à Corippus. La réapparition des Maures au Maghreb oriental,” in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 147 (2003), 257-285. Yves Modéran, “‘Le plus délicat des peoples et le plus malheureux’: Vandales et Maures en Afrique,” in G.M. Berndt and R. Steinacher, eds., Das Reich der Vandalen und seine (Vor-) Geschichten (Vienna, 2008), 213-225.

[4] Peter Riedlberger, Philologischer, historischer und liturgischer Kommentar zum 8. Buch der Johannis des Goripp (Leiden, 2010).

[5] See Anthony Kaldellis, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Harvard, 2019), 3-37, but compare Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton, 2014), 26-45 and 65-67. See also the discussion in the Byzantium and Friends podcast, “Is it time to abandon the rubric ‘Byzantium’?, with Leonora Neville” (February 11, 2021).