Ancient History & Civilisation

The Secular Historians

Our knowledge of the events that gave an overall shape to later Roman history derives in the first instance from the secular historians of late antiquity. Their prime object was to preserve a record of the successes and failures of the Roman Empire and its rulers, including the activities of emperors and senior officials, of armies and campaigns, of diplomacy and power struggles, and other political events. We are well served by them. Some of the finest historical writing from the ancient world comes from late antiquity. These major writers, who were well aware of the tradition to which they belonged, continued the secular tradition of historiography that had begun in the fifth century BC. The best historians of the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius, and the fragmentarily preserved Greek writers of the fifth century, bear comparison with their classical predecessors, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and Tacitus.16

Almost all the secular historians of late antiquity share two characteristics. Firstly, they held office in the Roman government, as lawyers, diplomats, or military officers, and participated in state affairs at a high level. Secondly, they wrote not about the distant past but about events that they had lived through themselves, or that were within the memory of people they talked to. They were thus men close to the center of Roman power with access to good information about major events. Like the emperors themselves and other high officials, they formed a view of what was going on in the empire as a whole. In view of the pressures and military uncertainties which beset the Roman state throughout the period, they also devoted much attention to regions and peoples beyond the imperial boundaries. These political historians, as we may reasonably call them, took advantage of the highly privileged positions they occupied. The universal historians of late antiquity exploited their access to the inner circle of power, because this was the only vantage point from which a synoptic overview of the ancient world was possible.

This point is of some importance also for understanding how emperors and their advisors operated. They had access to the same level and quality of information as the historians, and were able to take this into account in devising their own policies and responses to conditions and situations across the empire. The secular histories were critical for contemporaries, as they are for us, in shaping and articulating a reflective view of Rome's place in relation to its neighbors, and of grasping similarities and differences between one region and another, of identifying shifts in policy, and making reasoned judgments about political behavior. News about what was going on in other places in general traveled slowly and fitfully. Unlike in today's global village, very few people had any accurate idea of events taking place beyond the region where they lived. Modern media and news dissemination allow us to form perspectives today which were inconceivable in antiquity. Without the historians of late antiquity it is unlikely that we would be able to make any unified sense of the period.

One of the major problems in reconstructing the political history of the first half of the fourth century is the lack of any large-scale historical narrative from the period. What we do possess are three summaries written in the 360s and 370s by Latin writers who had held positions at court or in the army, and whose purpose was to provide succinct historical information, perhaps for official purposes. Aurelius Victor published a series of short imperial biographies from Augustus to Constantius, called Caesares, in 360. Eutropius wrote a Breviarium, a history in ten short books from the foundation of Rome to the accession of Valens, which appeared in 369, when he held the post of a libellis and was the emperor's magister memoriae. About the same time Festus, who also held the post of magister memoriae, produced another Breviarium organized on a different principle, thirty chapters devoted to the origins of each of the provinces of the empire. An anonymous Epitome de Caesaribus covered similar ground to Aurelius Victor's work, but brought the record up to 395. These short works evidently drew on a now lost common source, which has been dubbed the Kaisergeschichte, a history of the emperors, and is thought to have been written c.337. Another source for Constantine, independent of this tradition, is an anonymous Latin account of his reign, probably written around 390, whose one surviving manuscript bears the misleading title Origo Constantini Imperatoris. It is brief, but sober.

Ammianus Marcellinus is the most important historical writer of the fourth century, and has a claim to be the finest Latin historian of any period. This is the more remarkable for the fact that he was born in a Greek-speaking milieu of the Near East, perhaps at Syrian Antioch, and acquired Latin as a second language, doubtless partly in the course of service as a senior army officer (a protector domesticus) under Constantius and Julian. He was born in the mid-330s, and served in Gaul from 354, during the period when Julian was Caesar, until he was transferred to Milan in 354, where he was based until 357, when he moved back to the East with Ursicinus, a personal friend and one of the heroes of his narrative (Ammianus 16.10.21). One of the most dramatic sections of his history describes his own escape from the Persian siege of Amida in 359. Subsequently he took part in Julian's Persian expedition, and returned to Antioch in the autumn of 363, where he seems to have resided through the 370s. Ammianus' military service is one of the keys to his historical personality, and explains the scorn in which he held most civilian courtiers and other imperial advisors. His experience reinforced the view he shared with other historians and political commentators, that emperors were often the victims of malicious and partisan advice. Between travels, he spent most of the last phase of his life at Rome, and probably completed his history before the death of Theodosius in 395.

Ammianus provided the clearest pointer as to how his history should be read and understood in the final paragraph of the whole work:

This is the history of events from the reign of the emperor Nerva to the death of Valens, which I, a former soldier and a Greek, have composed to the best of my ability. It claims to be the truth, which I have never ventured to pervert either by silence or a lie. The rest I leave to be written by better men whose abilities are in their prime. But if they choose to undertake them, I advise them to cast what they have to say in the grand style. (Ammianus 31.16.9, trans. Hamilton)

Service as a military officer provided Ammianus with the privileged access to information and to high-level informants, who were indispensable for his historical project. At the beginning of book 15, in a passage that deliber­­ately echoes Thucydides, Ammianus makes plain that such sources were invaluable:

Using my best efforts to find out the truth, I have set out, in the order in which they occurred, events which I was able to observe for myself or discover by thorough questioning of contemporaries who took part in them. The rest, which will occupy the pages that follow, I shall execute to the best of my ability in a more polished style, and I shall pay no heed to the criticism which some make of a work which they think too long. Brevity is only desirable when it cuts short tedious irrelevance without subtracting from our knowledge of the past. (Ammianus 15.1.1, trans. Hamilton)

Active, energetic, and often brutal military service meant that he had little time for the imperial court and its intrigues, which he frequently paints in a lurid light. Unlike Procopius, however, he was not primarily a war historian, and he set Roman warfare and campaigns within the full scope of political and diplomatic activity. Following the example of many of his Greek and Latin predecessors, he interspersed the narrative with large-scale excursuses, on ethnographic matters, natural phenomena, and other matters of major interest. Like all serious historians of antiquity, he saw his task not merely as a matter of record, but also as a matter of judgment. Moralizing appraisals of particular actions or of men's entire lives are a pervasive feature of his writing, and these judgments of course reveal his own personality and prejudices. They do not, however, compromise the seriousness with which he attempted to maintain high standards of accuracy and detail.

His decision to write in Latin, not his native Greek, which continued to influence his style and expression, is readily explicable by the environment in which he worked. His history was begun in the time of Valentinian and Valens, when the leadership of the empire was in the hands of a Latin-speaking dynasty. In later years he was active in the cultivated senatorial circle at Rome.17 Many of these senators were still pagans, and so was Ammianus at this stage of his life. By describing himself as a Graecus he identified himself as a Hellene in the sense that it would be understood in the fourth century, a pagan whose outlook was shaped by Greek culture and religion. While Ammianus' decision to write in the secular tradition of classical historiography precluded any extensive discussion of Christian events and institutions, his work contains much subtle polemic against Christianity.18 His own religious views were a sophisticated form of pagan monotheism, influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy. They differed in significant ways from those of Julian, who nevertheless was portrayed with enthusiasm that verged on the panegyrical.

The final sentences of his work, quoted above, underlined Ammianus' ambition, and made a programmatic statement that his intention was to write critical history. By choosing the death of Nerva as his starting point he explicitly claimed that he was the successor of Tacitus, whose Annals and Histories, covering the history of the first century AD, had not been matched by any subsequent historical writing in Latin. Ammianus' surviving books, numbered XIV–XXXI, cover the period from 353 to 378, ending soon after the defeat and death of Valens at Adrianople.19 In fact there is a chronological gap of three years between the events recounted in book 30 and the catastrophic defeat of the Romans by the Goths at Adrianople, which is the subject of book 31.20Ammianus could not hope to maintain the critical stance towards Valentinian II, who succeeded Valentinian I in 375, and Theodosius I, who came to power in 379, that had been possible when he was writing about dead emperors. Thus he ironically relinquishes responsibility for writing about the period after Adrianople to “better men” who would write in a grander style, that is in a suitably panegyric manner.

Ammianus' claim to be a dispassionate searcher after the historical truth cannot be left uncontested. He famously acknowledged the partisanship in his own account of Julian's career as Caesar and Augustus (Ammianus 16.1). His writing is spiced with satire and personal prejudice. Editorial judgment is barely distinguished from factual reporting, and he can be as biased in his presentation of individuals as Tacitus. Furthermore the excursuses on ethnic groups, for all their vivid rhetorical coloring, tend to be works of the schoolroom, culled from outdated sources, and written with more of an eye for literary effect than for historical accuracy. But the weaknesses of Ammianus' Res Gestae are far outweighed by their strengths. The sweep and dynamism of the narrative are conveyed in colorful, pointed prose, and laced with acerbic judgments. Most important of all is that the huge canvas is crammed with detail. In contrast to the anemic Latin chroniclers of the fourth century, or the church historians with their narrower focus, Ammianus offers a panoramic view of the Roman world of the fourth century.21

Ammianus' work was continued by Sulpicius Alexander, a Latin writer who began his history at the point where Ammianus left off, but only fragments from the period 387–93 survive, in excerpts quoted by Gregory of Tours (Histories 2.9). One other Latin history survives from this period, the History Against the Pagans, which was completed in 417 by the Spanish priest Orosius (see p. 34).

We are less well served for the fifth than for the fourth century. An important sequence of Greek writers took up the challenge of writing large-scale histories of the Roman Empire. Their subject matter was not confined to the eastern provinces, but only fragments of their work are preserved and it is very difficult to form an impression of how they interpreted the history of the period as a whole.22 A large proportion of the fragments were preserved in a tenth-century collection of “Excerpts concerning diplomatic embassies,” Excerpta de legationibus. These contain important detailed information, and have a bearing on major issues of Roman foreign policy, but of necessity they give a misleading impression of imperial history as a whole, neglecting warfare, internal dynastic affairs, and other matters. A consequence of this uneven survival has been that modern scholarship in turn has concentrated to a considerable degree on diplomacy during this period.23 In particular it is extremely difficult to form a balanced picture of the processes by which the various Germanic tribes and the Huns increasingly dominated the western part of the empire and brought about its dissolution in the 470s. This was a major theme for any historian, and it is a serious loss that no contemporary presentation survives in full.

The fragmentary classicizing historians of the fifth century AD, as they are labeled in the collected edition with translation and commentary by Blockley, are an indispensable source for the history of the period. The first major figure was Eunapius, a pagan author from Sardis in western Asia Minor, who was born around 349, and died after 404. One of his works, the Lives of the Sophists, is preserved, and provides a series of portraits of important pagan intellectuals and philosophers of the fourth century, among them some of the teachers of Julian. His main work was a Universal History covering the period 270–404, which is now only preserved in fragments. These are couched in obscure language and display vituperative pagan prejudice. It is clear that this served as a main source for the later pagan historian Zosimus for events from Constantine up to 404.24 Eunapius' work was continued by another pagan writer, Olympiodorus of Thebes, who wrote a history covering the period from 407 to 425, which was also cited or summarized at length in books 5 and 6 of Zosimus, and extensively used by the church historians, especially Sozomen. The fragments of Olympiodorus are enough to show that his work was of much higher historical quality than Eunapius'.

Priscus, from the Thracian city of Panion, who lived from around 420 to 479, wrote a history in eight books, which seem to have covered most of his own lifetime from 434 to 474. The starting-point was determined by an event not in Roman but in barbarian history, the moment when Attila the Hun assumed power from his uncle Rua, initially in consort with his brother Bleda. The Huns took center stage at least in the first part of Priscus' history, and Attila emphatically dominates the surviving fragments. The longest of these provides a compelling and memorable account of the Constantinopolitan embassy to Attila of 449, in which Priscus himself participated (discussed on pp. 215–7 and 397). Priscus' style, like those of the other fifth-century historians, was especially influenced by Thucydides, but the embassy to Attila shows him to have been a writer of perception and imagination, and a keen and alert historical observer.25 If his work had survived in full there is no doubt that he would be seen as one of the major historians of antiquity.

Malchus of Philadelphia wrote a history in seven books of the period 474–480, which was published around 491. The fragments are the most important source for relations between Zeno and the Goths and also for the emergence of the Isaurian dynasty at Constantinople. He offers a very hostile view of the Isaurians, which doubtless reflected the general opinion of the educated class in Constantinople. The history of the Isaurian dynasty certainly formed the main focus of the work of their compatriot, Candidus, who wrote a history in three books, which began with the accession of Leo in 457 and ended with the death of Zeno in 491. Its contents are known to us from the succinct summary of Photius, made in the tenth century (Blockley fr. 1; FHG IV, 135–7). Many more fragments survive of the history written by John of Antioch, but these appear to have been composed at the earliest in the seventh century. They lack the authority of Priscus or Malchus, although they must of necessity be pressed into service to reconstruct a narrative framework for the period.

Zosimus was the only major historian whose works survive who is known to have been active under Anastasius. His New History, written in six books around the year 500, covered the period from Augustus to 409, where the manuscripts break off in the middle of book 6, shortly before the sack of Rome by Alaric, which may have formed a melancholy climax to the narrative.26 Zosimus wrote from an aggressively pagan viewpoint, and it is a matter for ongoing dispute how much of this stance is due to his copying the pagan views of his main sources, especially Eunapius, and how much represents his own convictions. Much of book 2, covering the period of Diocletian and the tetrarchy, is not preserved, and we may reasonably guess that it contained a vehemently anti-Christian account of the period of the Great Persecution, which seems to have provoked the deliberate removal of part of the manuscript. The period up to 404 is heavily dependent on Eunapius, and from 406/7 to 409 on Olympiodorus. Zosimus' overall motivation was to offer an explanation for Rome's decline from its former greatness. He contrasts his task with that of Polybius. While Polybius had traced Rome's rise to imperial power in a mere fifty-three years, Zosimus claimed that Rome's power had been ruined in an equally short space of time (Zosimus 1.1 and 57). His explanation for the decline was the conversion of Rome to Christianity, which he held responsible for the corruption of Rome's political virtues. The most militantly Christian emperors of the fourth century, Constantine and Theodosius, are viciously pilloried; the account of Julian is as positive as that of Ammianus, and both authors often drew on the same sources of information. When describing how Theodosius visited Rome, and abolished state support for public sacrifices, in defiance of the wishes of the senators, Zosimus comments that the city had been preserved intact for 1,200 years by observing these traditional rites. It was their abandonment that caused the empire to be reduced and to become a home for barbarians, or to be so depopulated that places which had once been cities could now no longer be recognized (Zosimus 4.59). Zosimus also identified the barbarization of the empire as another cause of its ruin. At the end of his lengthy account of how Diocletian staged the secular games in 305, he quoted the Sibylline oracle which associated Roman success with the conduct of the major public sacrifices on this occasion. “But once this festival was neglected after Diocletian's abdication, the empire gradually collapsed and was imperceptibly barbarised” (Zosimus 2.6, trans. Ridley). The two themes of barbarization and the neglect of the gods surely coalesced in the missing account of the sack of Rome by Alaric. The loss of this section may either be the responsibility of Christian copyists, exercising their form of religious censorship, or be due to the accidental loss of the work's final pages. Although Zosimus is an indispensable source, especially for the period after 378 where Ammianus had stopped, the historical quality of the work is low, marred by careless use of sources leading to doublets in the narrative and other errors, as well as by transparent prejudice. These drawbacks are exposed, but also redeemed, by the splendid detailed edition and commentary by Paschoud.

Almost contemporary with Zosimus is the invaluable Syriac Chronicle attributed to Joshua the Stylite, the pseudonym of a monk from Edessa in Mesopotamia, who was commissioned by his abbot to write an account of the afflictions suffered in Mesopotamia in the years around 500, which culminated in war with the Persians. The year 500 aroused millenarian expectations, and the earthquakes, plagues, famine, and pestilence, which were observed at the time, strengthened men's conviction that the end of the world was at hand.27 The Chronicle noted with relief that they had somehow evaded destruction:

For look, the afflictions of famine and plague bore down on us at the time of the locusts, until we were close to being reduced to destruction. Then God had compassion on us, undeserving as we were, and gave us a brief breathing-space from the afflictions pressing in upon us. (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 5, trans. Watt)

The author described himself as a man of plain speech who recorded the truth about what people in Edessa had experienced, and the work is full of detailed circumstantial information about the conditions in the city at a time when it was beset with natural disasters and warfare. However, it also provides a remarkably well-informed perspective on events on the world stage as they appeared to a community on the border between the Roman and Persian empires. Ps-Joshua traced the origins of the Persian invasion of Roman territory in 502 back to the 480s, and provided many details about the internal condition of both empires at this period.28 He took trouble to establish the facts:

Father (Sergius), I believe I have now told you enough about the cause of the war and how it was provoked, even although in order to avoid a lengthy account I have made these narratives brief. I found some of the information in old books, some of it I learnt from meeting men who had been on embassies with the two sovereigns, and other things I discovered from those who had been present at the events. But now I wish to tell you about the things which happened to us, for in this year there began the series of heavy punishments and signs which occurred in our time. (Ps-Joshua, Chron. 25, trans. Watt)

The Chronicle is the most remarkable example of a local history to survive from late antiquity, and is all the more valuable for the fact that no contemporary general history survives from the early part of the sixth century.

Much retrospective information about the reigns of Anastasius and Justin is found in the enormous oeuvre of Procopius, the last great historian of antiquity and the main chronicler of the age of Justinian. Procopius, who was born around 500 and died c.560, was one of the extraordinarily talented generation that emerged in Constantinople in the late 520s, and contributed to the dynamism of the first half of Justinian's reign. He reveals that he was an assessor, or legal advisor, on the staff of Belisarius in 527 (Bell. Pers.1.1.3, 1.12.24) and accompanied the general on campaign in Mesopotamia, in Africa and in Italy until the siege of Ravenna in 540, when Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople. His narrative of the various wars indicates that he took significant responsibilities as a prominent staff officer (Bell. Vand. 3.14.7–17, 3.21.6; Bell. Goth. 5.4.1–2).

His main work was a history of the wars under Justinian, comprising two books on the Persian Wars (1–2), two books on the Vandal Wars (3–4), three books on the wars with the Ostrogoths in Italy (5–7), with a final book continuing the story on all three fronts (8). This unusual form of organization has its precedent in Appian's account of Roman history, written in the middle of the second century AD, which was arranged according to the various regions where Romans campaigned against major enemies. The work covers the period 527–551. The scheme is remarkably effective, and enables Procopius to provide very coherent accounts of Roman activities in each of the theaters of war, without sacrificing detail. There are inevitable problems of achieving clarity where the chronology of the wars overlapped. The history of the campaigns against the Persians presents no complications up to the “eternal peace” of 532, but later diplomatic and military activities in the East occurred during the period of the wars against the Goths in Italy, which seriously hampered the Roman war effort in the East. The highly successful African campaign against the Vandals of 533–4 is convincingly portrayed in the two books of the Vandal Wars; less effective is Procopius' much less detailed account of later developments in Africa, when the Roman grip was threatened by Moorish and other rebellions. Commentators have drawn a distinction between the positive, even triumphal, tone of the first seven books of the wars, when Roman successes far outweighed their failures, and the subdued note struck by book VIII. In this final book Procopius extended his narrative through the middle of the sixth century, culminating in the final Roman victory over the Goths in Italy in 553. A close reading of Wars as a whole shows that Procopius was neither a supporter of Justinian's imperial ambitions nor sympathetic to the tenor of his reign as a whole. On the contrary he used highly sophisticated literary artistry to criticize the regime which he served. His is one of the most extraordinary dissident voices to have made itself heard in a totalitarian state.29 The aptest parallel to his achievement may be found in a very different context. The compositions, and especially the symphonies, of Dmitri Shostakovich, the most important composer of the twentieth century, provide a mocking, often terrifying, critique of the tyranny of Lenin, Stalin, and later Soviet rulers, while simultaneously presenting a face that was for the most part acceptable to and applauded by the regime.

Procopius left two other works, which have been as influential as Wars in shaping modern perceptions of the age of Justinian. Buildings is a lengthy, panegyrical account of building undertaken by Justinian throughout the empire, including churches, fortifications, and even new cities. Much effort has been devoted to matching Procopius' descriptions to the archaeological evidence on the ground, with conflicting results. Unsurprisingly Procopius tends to ascribe as much building work as possible to Justinian's efforts, but in particular cases, as for instance his account of the frontier fortress city of Dara in Mesopotamia, it seems that he has effectively withheld credit which is due to Justinian's pre­decessors.30 This may have been a deliberate ploy by Procopius to undermine the credibility of his own work. He was an embittered and acerbic critic of Justinian's policies, and writing panegyric will not have been a welcome task. The famous Secret History or Anecdota (literally “not published”) is a pungently critical reappraisal of the workings of the Justinianic state. It unveils the disreputable intrigues and dubious, self-interested motives behind the actions and policies of the leading figures in the regime, in particular Justinian and the empress Theodora, Belisarius and his wife Antonina. The tone adopted for the Secret History is not unparalleled in Wars. Some short passages are common to both works, and the two analyses present views of the age of Justinian from the inside and the outside, which are carefully designed to complement one another. The criticisms found in the Secret History can be paralleled in the work of many earlier historians writing about dead emperors and their associates. Condemnation of court intrigues, for instance, is an essential ingredient of Ammianus' history. Procopius, however, goes far beyond retelling court scandals and immoralities, to deliver a devastating indictment of an emperor whom he came to regard as an incarnate demon. It may have been that Procopius expected to integrate the findings of his Secret History into his main work after Justinian's death. As it was the emperor outlived him, and the fusion was never achieved.

Jordanes, the first major chronicler of barbarian history, was also active at the same time as Procopius and wrote two works, the Getica and the Romana, in 551. The former is of particular importance, as it is the first comprehensive narrative account of Gothic history. The author was himself a Goth, and notarius to a noble Gothic family (Get. LX, 316). One of the sources which inspired this work was a lost account of Gothic history by the Roman senator Cassiodorus, which is described in a letter written by the Gothic king Athalaric to the Roman Senate in 533:

Why, honourable sirs, should you suppose that Cassiodorus was content merely to essay the study of living lords, a task of inevitable tedium, although they may be expected to reward it? (4) He extended his labours even to the ancient cradle of our house, learning from his reading what the hoary recollections of our elders scarcely preserved. From the lurking place of antiquity he led out the kings of the Goths, long hidden in oblivion. He restored the Amals, along with the honour of their family, clearly proving me to be of royal stock to the seventeenth generation. (5) From Gothic origins he made a Roman history, gathering, as it were, into one garland, flower buds that had previously been scattered throughout the field of literature. (Cassiodorus, Var. 9.25.3–5, trans. Barnish)

Jordanes explained his debt to Cassiodorus in his own preface:

You urge me to leave the little work I have in hand, that is the abbreviation of the chronicles, and to condense in my own style in this small book the twelve volumes of Senator on the origin and deeds of the Getae from olden times to the present day, descending through generations of the kings. (Jordanes, Get. LX, 316)

Jordanes avowed that this was a difficult task:

But worse than any other burden is the fact that I have no access to his books that I may follow his thought. Still – and let me lie not – I have in times past read the books a second time by his steward's loan for a three-day reading. The words I recall not, but the sense and the deeds related I think I retain entire. To this I have added fitting matters from some Greek and Latin histories. I have also put in an introduction and a conclusion and inserted many things of my own authorship. (Jordanes, Get. I.1–2)

The format of the first half of the Getica precisely corresponds to the description of Cassiodorus' lost work.31 Most of this is etiological or genealogical fiction, designed to enhance the dignity and antiquity of the Gothic race and place them on a level with Romans, Greeks, and Jews.32 As a source of historical information Jordanes is most valuable for his excerpting and use of Priscus, who is cited by name in four passages and is clearly the main source for the account of the mid-fifth century. This includes extended descriptions of the defeat of the Huns at the battle of the Catalaunian Plain, the encounter between Attila and Pope Leo, and the death of Attila. Mommsen drew attention to the much higher quality of these sections of Jordanes:

in these pages are found accurate descriptions of the distinguishing traits of various peoples, a life-like and truthful portrayal of men, a keen and careful analysis of the causes and meanings of various events, and the use of apt figures of speech and comparisons.

At the same time as Jordanes was active, an anonymous writer, known to modern scholars as the anonymus Valesianus, wrote a short Latin account of events in Italy from 474 to 526, concentrating on the achievements of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic. He had access to well-informed sources, including Maximinus, bishop of Ravenna in the 540s and 550s. He had also read and cited the Life of St Severinus of Noricum (Anon. Val. 10.45–46). This short biography, written by Eugippius, one of the inhabitants of the former Roman province who sought refuge around the Bay of Naples at the beginning of the sixth century, is a circumstantial account of conditions along the northern frontier of the empire at the end of the fifth century, when the region was given up definitively to the barbarians.

The next surviving “chronicle of barbarian history” after Jordanes is the work of Gregory of Tours, the founder of early medieval Latin literature. The ten books of his Histories (widely referred to today as the History of the Franks) are reminiscent not only in their title but also in their content of Herodotus, as they relate the affairs of Gaul under the Frankish kings in astonishing detail up to c.590. The last five books, covering the period from 575 to 591, were effectively a chronicle of his own times, concentrating especially on the activities of the Frankish kings and leading figures in the church, which Gregory brought up to date on a yearly basis until two years before his death. They present a world that has almost lost contact with its classical Roman roots.

Three major historians covered the second half of the sixth century. Agathias of Myrina began where Procopius' Wars had left off.33 He was also the author of a substantial collection of verse epigrams. He conceived his history on a large scale, and the five books that survive cover only the period from 553–9. Agathias shared Procopius' interest in technical matters and practical achievements. It has recently been argued that both writers belonged to the shrinking circle of pagan intellectuals.34 However, the differences between the two authors were greater than their similarities. While Procopius wrote about Justinian's wars as a participant observer, Agathias compiled his history at the end of his life, probably between 579 and 582, and at a considerable remove from the events he described and the persons who had lived through them. His focus was on the period when Justinian's regime had turned in on itself, and the narrative lacks the dramatic wartime narratives and overall political grasp of Procopius. The work is notable for important digressions on the Sassanians and the Franks, and for events in Lazica, at the east end of the Black Sea, which had become the main theater of war between Rome and Persia.35 Overall, however, there is a notable emphasis on the unexpected blows of fate which the empire endured, and the natural catastrophes and disasters which afflicted Constantinople in the 550s, to the extent that these become the guiding elements in Agathias' pessimistic reading of Justinian's later years.36

The history of Menander Protector (“the Guardsman”), which was written in the 580s, covered the period from the 559 to the death of Tiberius II in 582. It perpetuates the qualities of the best fifth-century historians, and provides a sober and reliable guide to events. Most notably, it preserves the full text of the treaty struck between Rome and Persia in 561/2. As with Priscus, most of the fragments of Menander derive from the tenth-century Excerpta de legationibus, thus creating the impression that Roman foreign policy depended disproportionately on diplomacy. In contrast to Agathias and Procopius, Menander makes his personal Christian convictions clear.

Theophylact Simocatta wrote his substantial secular history in eight books in the reign of Heraclius (610–41). It was devoted to the reign of the emperor Maurice. Most of the content of his history concerns the wars fought by Maurice's generals, in the East against the Persians, and in Thrace and Illyricum against the Avars. He creates the impression more of a litterateur than a historian. The style is over-elaborate and often bombastic, and he makes little attempt to reconcile conflicting narratives that he found in his sources. These often contained identifiable biases. Chronology and the topography of campaigns are confusingly reproduced. He is a flawed but indispensable authority for the last quarter of the sixth century, and the value of his work stands out the more for the fact that no large-scale historical narrative of the following reigns of Phocas and Heraclius has survived.37

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