Monthly Archives: November 2016

A Year of Empresses

As this year is drawing to a close I start to realise that, for me, it has been a year of late Roman empresses, both with regard to Clerical Exile and to other research projects. It has also been a year of understanding better how research works. I have learned it is very much about making and enjoying connections: connections between the various strands of my own research and connections across the research community.

My interest in late Roman empresses actually dates from some time ago, when I was in Frankfurt on a Humboldt fellowship and writing up Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity. I was at a stage with the book where I could see the end of the tunnel and very cautiously started to think about what to do next. I stumbled over some references to late Roman imperial women residing in Rome which caught my interest, particularly when I realised that there had been quite a few. I can’t remember how I came across this, but it was possibly while preparing an article on Anicia Iuliana for submission to an edited collection on the Collectio Avellana (which still hasn’t been published, but that’s another story!).

I thought this was odd – late antique Rome isn’t usually researched under the perspective of imperial women – but I didn’t really have the time to pursue this any further. However, I did have, for the first time in my life, research assistants, courtesy of the wonderful Humboldt foundation and my host Hartmut Leppin. So while I was reading Plato on punishment, my assistants were scouring the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire and the library for references to connections between imperial women and Rome. The results are three hefty folders of primary and secondary sources which I brought back to England. (Many thanks to Maximilian Becker and Timo Christian!)

I was looking forward to this project and to (mentally, if not physically) returning to Rome, my first research passion. I felt I needed some relief from having spent nearly ten years with Roman prisons. In the event, my ‘research trajectory’, as it’s now so managerially called, turned out differently. While in Germany, I also had got to know my delightful co-investigators Jörg Ulrich and Jakob Engberg and together we set out on the journey of Clerical Exile, a logical step from Prison, Punishment and Penance.

Yet, there were those three folders sitting on my shelves and it seemed a shame ‘wasting’ all this material. So, while managing Clerical Exile in the daytime, late Roman empresses became a bit of a hobby. I started to give papers on this topic, often – because the topic is an accessible one – to more general audiences up and down the country, such as local branches of the Classical Association. But empresses also started to creep into my work on Clerical Exile (if that isn’t too weird an image), perhaps true to the maxim that once you start looking for something you find it almost everywhere.

Collecting all data on clerical exile and submitting them to network analysis is a very ‘democratizing’ process: every connection mentioned in the primary material counts for the algorithm. You hence have to read texts with a different eye and many individuals become more visible (if you want to find out more come to our book launch next week, where you can also meet the incomparable Máirín MacCarron without whom I would know much less about networks). It turns out, empresses are all over late antique exile stories, as either scheming enemies of clerics, responsible for their exile, or as supporters, helping with their return. Sometimes, they appear in both roles at once in the same story. Take, for example, the case of the deacon Theophilus ‘The Indian’, who was exiled around 354 by Constantius II for treason. According to the sympathetic Philostorgius (Hist. eccl. 4.1, 7, 8), Constantius recalled him when his wife, Eusebia, fell ill and it was said that only Theophilus could heal her, which he did. However, back at court, Constantius’ women, who must have included Eusebia, turned against him, supporting his enemy Basil of Ancyra in influencing Constantius to banish Theophilus again, this time for his Anomoean beliefs. Here’s how this story can be visualised as a network graph:


I haven’t quite figured out what Eusebia’s u-turn means yet (why upset a man who’s just cured you from deadly disease?), but I suspect late antique authors found imperial women ‘good to think with’ about proper legal procedure (or the absence of it) surrounding clerical exile.  Aelia Eudoxia, Arcadius’ wife and John Chrysostom’s nemesis, springs to mind here as well.

My previous and initially somewhat thwarted interests in empresses in Rome induced me to think about clerical exile differently. But it also works the other way around: knowing more about clerical exile induced me to think differently about empresses, too. Probably due to giving all these papers on late Roman empresses there now seem to be a lot of kind people across the research community who think I can contribute to the field. As a result, this year I was flooded with opportunities to extend my knowledge: through reviews of new books on late Roman empresses, through examining a PhD thesis by the brilliant, now Dr Belinda Washington (who I immediately made to give a paper on empresses and exile at our September workshop), through writing dictionary entries for the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and through gaining an amazing new PhD student working on female spaces in late antique Rome (who, incidentally, has blogged here).

What I found out in the process is how often we know something about late Roman empresses because they were remembered in texts and collections that were not about them, but about clerical exile (or more broadly, religious conflict): take, for example, the fifth-century Church historians’ obsession with Constantia, the sister of Constantine, for her alleged support of the exiled Arius, who I have blogged about here.

The highlight of my year was a paper I was invited to give, once again, about the Collectio Avellana, that curious imperial-episcopal letter collection compiled in the sixth century (check out the interview by TGRMedia with Rita Lizzi Testa, who organized the event!).  I have been involved with the enthusiastic ‘Banda Avellana’ for some years now. When they invited me again this year, I wasn’t quite sure what I could still contribute. But then I remembered that Collectio Avellana contains letters by Galla Placidia, sister of Honorius, about the expulsion of dissenting bishops from Rome after a schism broke out in 418, and that the letter collections emerging from the Council of Chalcedon contained more letters by the same empress and her daughter-in-law, empress Licinia Eudoxia, about the exile of Flavian of Constantinople in 449. So once again, clerical exile led me to think about empresses differently, and I spent almost all summer fretting about the ‘female imperial voice’ in late antiquity. What a treat!

While at the beginning of this year I felt a bit torn between the various strands of my research, I’ve now come to understand that everything is, after all, connected, true to the premise of Clerical Exile. I still have to decide what that means for developing and, crucially, publishing the various bits of my research, but  I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspiring people who can help me figure that out. In the end, networks matter!

Head of an unidentified late Roman empress, Museo dell’Alto Medio Evo, Rome, inv. 2547.