Friday, 23 May 2014

Game of Thrones and Dark Age history (part 1)

Game of Thrones started broadcasting in 2011, about the same time I started teaching at Durham University, so over the last few years my students have got used to me peppering lectures and seminars with gratuitous references to the show.

It says a lot about the vibrancy of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy world that it can resonate with an early medievalist, even though his main inspiration is from later medieval history, especially the Wars of the Roses. But I’ve noticed a few interesting parallels between Martin’s world and the period commonly (and unfairly) known as ‘the Dark Ages’.

Jamie Adair has an excellent blog which mainly focuses on Game of Thrones parallels with later medieval history, and Brittany Garcia has recently written a great essay on parallels with Roman history, so I thought I could help fill in the intervening centuries...

Weirwoods and sacred oaks

While the southrons of Westeros tend to follow the Faith of the Seven (loosely based on the Roman pantheon), many in the north follow what they call ‘the old gods’. These nameless deities are part of an ancient, nature-focused religion strongly associated with the sacred trees known as ‘weirwoods’.

Weirwoods appear throughout the show – large oak-like trees with white bark, red foliage and faces carved into their trunks. This is very reminiscent of the pre-Christian religion of northern Europe. Sacred trees, in particular oaks, were important to the peoples who lived in the forested lands in what is now Germany.

There’s a famous story of a Christian missionary, St Boniface (right), who destroyed such a tree in 723:

[Boniface] attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called by the pagans of olden times the Oak of Jupiter. Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch.

Naturally enough, the tree instantly collapsed and the pagans all converted to Christianity. I'm not sure the Starks would be so impressed if someone tried to burn down their godswood. Which brings us nicely on to...

Iron Islanders and Vikings

Jamie Adair has written a couple of blog entries on the Vikings (on castration and female warriors), so I can keep this brief.

Of course the Iron Islanders are based on Vikings. Longships. Raiding and pillaging. Warrior culture. The Greyjoy family motto of ‘we do not sow’. Need I go on?

Okay, as an early medievalist I might complain that Martin is inadvertently helping perpetuate an old-fashioned and one-sided perception of the Vikings as rampaging thugs, but this is fantasy, after all. Besides, part of the joy of the show is watching the Iron Islanders themselves (especially poor Theon Greyjoy) desperately try to live up to this über-macho image, bless their angry little hearts.

The Dothraki and the Huns

Jamie Adair has written some fun blog entries drawing parallels between the death of Attila the Hun and the death of a certain hated Lannister. There’s a further Hunnic echo in the Dothraki hordes of Essos – Martin’s direct inspiration is probably the Mongols (just replace ‘khal’ with ‘khan’), but the Huns work just as well.

Little is known about the Huns until they gallop onto the stage of history in the late fourth and fifth centuries. It’s clear that they were a nomadic people from the vast grassy plains of the Eurasian steppes, and it’s clear that the Romans were horrified by them.

Rome was used to dealing with barbarians, but the Huns were something else. Their appearance and whole way of life were utterly alien. The Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Huns as ‘a race savage beyond all parallel’, and goes on to describe them thus:

They are certainly in the shape of men, however uncouth, but are so hardy that they neither require fire nor well-flavored food, but live on the roots of such herbs as they get in the fields, or on the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing in between their own thighs and the back of their horses. They never shelter themselves under roofed houses, but avoid them, as people ordinarily avoid sepulchres as things not fitted for common use.

Concerning horses he writes:

They are not well suited to infantry battles, but are nearly always on horseback, their horses being ill-shaped, but hardy; and sometimes they even sit upon them like women if they want to do anything more conveniently. There is not a person in the whole nation who cannot remain on his horse day and night. On horseback they buy and sell, they take their meat and drink, and there they recline on the narrow neck of their steed, and yield to sleep so deep as to indulge in every variety of dream.

And their attitude towards farming?

None of them plough, or even touch a plough handle; for they have no settled abode, but are homeless and lawless, perpetually wandering with their wagons, which they make their homes; in fact, they seem to be people always in flight.

Finally, this is how the Huns introduced themselves to the European world:

This active and indomitable race, being excited by an unrestrainable desire of plundering the possessions of others, went on ravaging and slaughtering all the nations in their neighborhood... 

There’s obvious ignorance and exaggeration in Ammianus’s account. What he saw as aimless and lawless wandering was clearly a highly successful way of life for the Huns – so successful that Attila managed to establish total Hunnic domination over a vast swathe of Europe, terrorising his neighbours and bullying the empire into supplying him with endless piles of gold and silver. Needless to say, this should all be sounding familiar by now.

I have a couple more Dark Age parallels to explore in a future post, but in the meantime check out the blogs of Jamie Adair and Brittany Garcia, and subscribe to my mailing list above for updates!

Images from Wikipedia Commons

C. H. Talbot (trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London, 1954)
James Robinson (ed.), Readings in European History, vol 1 (Boston and New York, 1904)

Monday, 21 April 2014

When was Offa's Dyke built?

It's one of the great monuments of early medieval Britain, and one of the most mysterious.

Image from
Offa's Dyke is a linear earthwork (bank and ditch) that runs roughly along the English-Welsh border. It isn't continuous, but the surviving stretches (shown on the map to the left) add up to 129 kilometres.

These stretches are part of a 283 kilometre-long National Trail between Sedbury and Prestatyn that I walked in 2010 (and can recommend!).

It's named for King Offa of Mercia (757-796) basically because a hundred years after he lived a Welsh monk called Asser attributed the building of the dyke to him. No source from Offa's lifetime actually mentions the dyke.

Archaeologists love a good argument. There are debates not only about when Offa's Dyke was built and why, but about whether it even ran 'from sea to sea', as Asser claims. Probably it didn't. If it did, a lot of it must have been destroyed.

But very recently the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust has uncovered evidence that the dyke was built much earlier than Offa - perhaps 200 years earlier. This is based on radiocarbon results from a northern section of the dyke near Chirk in Wrexham (Wales), which give a date range of 430-642. A best guess would therefore place the building of dyke at Chirk in the later sixth century - a period about as dark as the Dark Ages get.

A hiker on a section of surviving bank. The kingdom of Mercia lay on the left side, Powys on the right.

Isolated C-14 dates should always be taken with a fistful of salt, but if they turn out to be reliable this really upsets the apple cart. Could the dyke really be this much earlier? If so, who built it, and why did Asser give Offa the credit? Maybe parts of the dyke were built long before other parts, and no single king was responsible. Could it be that Offa only refurbished and extended an older earthwork?

Most likely, this is just one new piece in a highly complicated and mysterious puzzle...

Thanks for reading - feel free to leave comments, and subscribe by email above!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Jesus Christ, magician and emperor

It’s easy to forget that we have no idea what Jesus Christ actually looked like.

The earliest accounts of his life were written a generation or more after his death, and none of the Gospel writers ever knew him. His face was essentially a blank.

In the early centuries, when Christianity was a small, occasionally persecuted cult, its adherents didn’t even try to depict Christ visually. The earliest portraits only date from the third century, and explode in number from the fourth century, when Christianity became an official religion of the Roman empire.

What does Jesus look like in these early portraits? Nothing like our modern image, that’s for sure. He normally appears youthful and beardless, a kind of idealised, Apollo-esque hero. And for good measure he sometimes carries a magic wand. Less Christ Pantocrator, and more Harry Potter (except without glasses).

Roman hero 

Take a look at this late fourth-century ivory panel from Rome. It depicts the two Maries discovering Christ outside his open tomb after the Resurrection. No wand in this image – but if you look closely at Christ in the lower left, you can see he’s clutching a scroll in his left hand. A Roman looking at this image would instantly understand the scroll as a standard symbol of literacy and education. (Statues of Roman emperors and aristocrats often show them holding scrolls.)

Likewise the two-finger gesture comes from Roman oratorical tradition, and was adopted into Christian art as a symbol of blessing.

In fact almost everything about this ivory panel makes Christ look right at home in fourth-century Rome. The upper frame shows his tomb as a grand circular mausoleum, not unlike those of Augustus, Hadrian and Constantine’s daughter Constantina. The dozing soldiers are wearing the tunics and distinctive box-hats (pillei) of the late Roman military. On the lower frame the doors of the tomb are carved with images from the Gospels, just like the famous fifth-century doors of Santa Sabina.

The only obvious Christian symbols are the winged ox and man at the top of the upper panel, representing the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Otherwise this particular Christ is sitting quite happily in the late Roman world, a long way from first-century Palestine. He looks almost as content as he does in this fourth-century villa mosaic from Hinton St Mary (Dorset).


A magic wand is a curious addition to early iconography of Jesus. In depictions of the wedding feast of Cana, for example, Christ is shown touching the jars of water with his wand to turn them into wine. This ‘Christ the Magician’ appears especially on sarcophagi and catacomb paintings, but is also carved on the doors of Saint Sabina and on the ivory Andrews Dipytch (click on links for images).

Of course, none of the Gospels describe Jesus wandering about with a magic wand. Fourth- and fifth-century Romans, though, clearly thought he needed one. They effectively turned him into the sort of magician they associated with eastern mystery religions.


After his stints as Apollo and Harry Potter, Jesus settled down as Emperor of the Universe.

Christ probably looks more familiar to modern eyes in this mosaic from the apse of Santa Pudenziana. It dates from between 401 and 417, a period which saw savage suppression of paganism and the final triumph of Christianity as the sole Roman state religion. The Church now identified itself powerfully with the Roman state; as a result, religious images were swamped with imperial symbolism.

In the mosaic, Christ is no longer a youthful magician, but an emperor: bearded, stern and distant, wrapped in folds of golden cloth, sitting on a jewel-encrusted throne.

He holds a book displaying the words ‘Lord Protector of the Church of Pudentia’. Behind him are depicted drapes of Tyrian purple and gold thread, as one would see in the audience hall of a Roman emperor.

The imperial iconography continues around him. The Apostles are seated to either side in the tunics and togas of Roman noblemen, looking for all the world like the members of a heavenly Senate.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meanwhile, are being crowned by female religious figures inspired by the traditional goddess of Victory depicted on Roman coins. Even the architecture, intended to represent the Heavenly City, looks suspiciously like Rome, with its marble arcades and gilded roof tiles.

We’ve become so used to this ‘Romanised’ way of depicting Christ, it seems natural. Take the portrait on the left, which is pretty typical of how Christ is portrayed for a modern audience (image from

Even if the imperial pomp has been put to one side and Jesus has been given a more compassionate, ‘human’ face, he’s still wearing the toga, and he still has that two-finger gesture of benediction. The essential elements put in place during the fourth and fifth centuries have clearly stuck. Sadly the wand never caught on.

I think Jesus has been wrapped in that toga for so many centuries, it would be hard to depict him wearing anything else. But his hand gestures? No reason we can't update them...

Feel free to leave comments, and subscribe by email above!
  • Image of ivory panel from John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (1979), fig. 36

Monday, 7 April 2014

The mystery of Ostia

Located at the mouth of the Tiber, Ostia is one of the greatest Roman treasures.

Perhaps it isn’t as well known as Pompeii, but Ostia has a few advantages. First, it’s easy to reach from Rome itself, just a half-hour train ride. It’s also roughly the same size as Pompeii, but with far, far fewer visitors – and the coach parties that do arrive tend to stay only a couple of hours to take in the major sights.

Map in the Museum of the Ostian Way, showing Ostia (lower left) and Portus in relation to Rome

Access off the beaten track is less restricted than in Pompeii, so it’s easy to wander into the ruins and not see another soul for an hour or more. Finally, while we know exactly how Pompeii met its end, Ostia’s story is much more mysterious.

Decline and fall

This is a melodramatic way of saying that archaeologists still don’t really know when Ostia was abandoned, or why. The traditional story is that the city lost its defining function as a port, partly because Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) constructed a massive artificial harbour at Portus to the north, partly because the Tiber itself shifted course and left Ostia’s wharves facing nothing but mudflats and sandbanks.

Apartment of the Aurighi
Through the fourth century, the city’s docks and massive warehouses were abandoned, the working classes moved out, and their apartment blocks were replaced with fancy town houses belonging to the well-to-do of Rome. For a brief period Ostia became a kind of luxury seaside resort.

Yet by the end of the fourth century, so the story goes, the city was in deep decline. ‘Its one remaining glory,’ wrote the poet Rutilius Namatianus in 416, ‘is to have welcomed Aeneas.’

He was alluding to the myth that the founder of the Roman race, having sailed across the sea from Carthage, first made landfall at the future site of Ostia; but in Rutilius’s day, the left branch of the Tiber was ‘inaccessible’.

As the political situation worsened over the following decades – Rome and Ostia were both captured by the Goths in 410, and by the Vandals in 455 – even the posh set moved out, and the few remaining citizens moved to a new settlement a little way upriver. The one-time commercial jewel of the empire, what had been a city of 50,000 people, was left to weeds, stone robbers, and ruination.

New questions, new answers

But is the whole story? In a recent study, Douglas Boin of Georgetown University argues that Late Antique evidence from Ostia has long been neglected by archaeologists. The first large-scale modern excavations took place under Mussolini in the 1930s; obsessed with the glories of the High Empire, these ideologically-driven investigators tended to pay scant attention to activity later than the second century AD. The circular logic developed that the city quickly collapsed after this period, and so any late evidence could be dismissed as unimportant.

Ostia in its heyday - model in the Museum of the Ostian Way

This imbalance continues with the modern presentation of the site. I bought an official guidebook which speaks of a ‘grave and irreversible crisis’ by the middle of the fourth century, and claims that ‘beginning in the V century A.D. the real and definitive decline of the city was evident in all its desolation, as recalled by the poet Rutilius Namazianus [sic]’. (In fact Rutilius only mentions that the river had silted up, and says nothing about Ostia itself.)

According to Boin, the picture emerging from modern excavations is much more interesting and complex than this. Proper attention paid to Late Antique evidence is showing that an awful lot was happening in the city through the fourth and well into the fifth century.

Continued life

The city Forum, for instance, was still the busy, bustling heart of the city. Members of the élite were installing new monuments and refurbishing older buildings right through the fourth century. There was fresh commercial investment, with the building of a new market space in the latest architectural style. In the fifth century shops around the Forum were still being repaved, and judging from recent pottery analysis more than half of the town’s imported wine was coming from the eastern Mediterranean.

The Capitolium, a massive temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, still stood proudly over the ancient civic space, its facade of mixed marble – purple-veined pavonazzetto, honey-coloured Tunisian giallo antico, the wavy green ribs of Karystian cipollino – still gleaming in the sun.

The Capitolium as it survives today

Religious communities, too, were investing in ambitious new projects. Ostia’s seafront synagogue was heavily refurbished in the fourth century, and in 1996 a team of German archaeologists discovered evidence of the earliest Christian basilica in the city, which was given a baptistry in the fifth century (and actually remained in use until about 800 A.D.).

Corridor in the Apartment of the Aurighi
Even as more and more Ostians left behind the traditional Roman cults for Christianity, there is no sense that they wanted a break with the past. On the contrary, in the fifth century it seems that the old sanctuary complex of Magna Mater (‘Great Mother’) was turned into a collecting space for statues and inscriptions – a kind of museum, or ‘a treasure chest of the town’s cultural heritage’, as Boin puts it. In the middle of the fifth century the citizens of Ostia were still holding their annual games in honour of Castor and Pollux.

A whimpering end

Gradually, over two hundred years, the rhythms of the traditional religious calendar were replaced with the cycle of Christian holy days, but the people of Ostia were no less Roman for it. The latest archaeological evidence for building work in the city dates from the sixth century.

At this point the city was in true decline, but this hardly marks it out from countless other Italian cities (including Rome itself) during the troubled decades of the Gothic Wars. Perhaps Ostia suffered more than most because of its strategic importance; it was used as a military depot and camp by the Byzantines. I also wonder if the bubonic plague of the sixth century also played its part – as an entry point into Italy, Ostia would have been on the front line when the deadly infection arrived.

In any case, by the ninth century it had been truly abandoned and replaced by a new, far smaller settlement just half a kilometre to the east. The rationale for this move was defensive, to provide security against worsening Saracen raids on the Italian coast.

By the twelfth century, the old city of Ostia was known as calcaria – the place of the lime kilns. Its sole function was now as a handy source for cheap building material. ‘Life at Ostia ended not with a Vesuvian bang,’ writes Boin, ‘but with a whimper.’

So, is the mystery of Ostia’s end finally answered? I doubt it; there are still so many gaps in the story, as Boin acknowledges. Much of the city has yet to be excavated (barely half of it is even visible), and there must be many more secrets waiting to be revealed by archaeologists. Only one thing is certain: the story of Ostia is not yet over.

  • Douglas Boin, Ostia in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2013)
  • Angelo Pellegrino, Ostia: Guide to the Archaeological Excavations (Rome, 2013)
  • - an excellent online resource on Ostia and Portus

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Back in Rome

Has it really been twelve years since the last (and first) time I was in Rome?

Well, to be accurate it’s been twelve and a half years. My first day in Rome turned out to be a day to remember, wherever you happened to be – September 11, 2001. I was a naïve 21-year-old backpacker who had just interrailed his way through Paris, Marseilles, Nice, and Pisa, and had arrived in Rome without thinking to book accommodation in advance.

The city’s youth hostels were fully booked, and I didn’t have the cash for a hotel room, so my 9/11 was spent frantically heading from one tourist office to the next, studying my hopelessly inadequate Rough Guide map to work out where places were, darting between public phones (no mobile in those days), and fumbling with loose change to call pensiones that inevitably turned out to be fully booked as well.

Every time I entered a tourist office, all I saw on the TV was the image of the Twin Towers. Tourists were staring at the screen in that strange suspension of horror and belief we all felt that day. As evening drew on and the tourist offices closed, I had the added fear that I might end up sleeping that night on a bench in Termini Station.

Eventually, through sheer luck, I ended up staying in the spare room of an old Italian lady who spent the whole evening in front of her TV, watching the news coverage from New York. She spoke no English, and I spoke no Italian, not that it mattered. ‘Mammia mia,’ she muttered, over and over again, shaking her head.

Thankfully my second arrival in Rome has been less eventful, and this time I’ve even got a place to stay for a week. I’ve also come properly equipped for some hard-core Roman sightseeing.

  • Filippo Coarelli, Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide (2007)
  • Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 2nd edn (2010)
  • John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art, 2nd edn (1979)

Together, these books offer an unbeatable guide to Classical and Late Antique Rome. They point the reader towards some lesser-known sites, as well as revealing the more arcane secrets of the necessary tourist traps of the Colisseum, Forum, and so on.

Needless to say, there’ll be some intense (and overdue!) posting on this blog over the coming days, as I explore ancient Rome to a depth I’ve been dreaming of for years... please subscribe to the mailing list above, to make sure you don't miss a post!

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Lion and the Lamb - new paperback cover

My publishers over at Hodder & Stoughton have revealed the new paperback cover for The Lion and the Lamb, which is out on April 10.

As you can see, it's pretty dramatic! It really draws out the intrigue and drama (fire, smoke, snarling lion face), and the figures below allude to the impact of war and devastation on family life...

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Visualising Late Antiquity

One of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction is trying to visualise what everyday life was like.

How did people dress? What did they eat and drink? What would you have seen, heard and smelled as you walked through an ancient city?

The problem is that most historical texts are concerned with high politics or religion, and not with telling us about humdrum realities. Sometimes we get a glimpse of daily life, as in this famous (and rather snobbish) passage by Ammianus Marcellinus on the fourth-century plebs of Rome:

But of the multitude of lowest condition and greatest poverty some spend the entire night in wineshops, some lurk in the shade of the awnings of the theatres [...] or they quarrel with one another in their games at dice, making a disgusting sound by drawing back the breath into their resounding nostrils; or, which is the favourite among all amusements, from sunrise until evening, in sunshine and in rain, they stand open-mouthed, examining minutely the good points or the defects of charioteers and their horses.

(Blokes hanging out to get drunk, play pub games and argue about sport? Maybe the Roman world wasn't so weird after all...)

Archaeology is also incredibly useful, along with the work of re-enactors who experiment with clothing, cooking and the countless other details of ordinary life that most historians rarely have to think about.

This is why I'm excited about a current research project based at the University of Kent, Visualising Late Antiquity.

This project is bringing together a whole range of academics and research students to piece together a clearer picture of 'everyday urban society' in the late Roman period. So far they've published fantastic visual reconstructions of city life in Ostia, along with articles on basket weaving, tunics, and even spices (which, it seems, were not just used in cooking).

True, this project isn't going to teach anyone about the lives of emperors and empresses, or about epic wars or the adventures of great heroes - but it's a real treasure trove for the historical novelist, and for anyone interested in the humdrum lives of the 99%!

Monday, 3 February 2014

Author interview

I was recently interviewed by Grace Ranola for the Butler Scholarly Journal, a student-run online publication at Durham University.

Grace asked some thought-provoking questions, and I had fun answering them - here's a link.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Dungeons & No Dragons

I am ridiculously excited about this new video game. 

It's called 'Kingdom Come: Deliverance', and comes from the brand new company, Warhorse Studios, based in Prague. They’ve had the crazy idea that there is an audience for an RPG (that’s ‘role-playing game’, for the uninitiated) that has a medieval-esque setting, but approaches the Middle Ages like a grown-up.

In other words, without any of this:

Or this:

And definitely none of this:

Not the most practical set of armour ever devised

The typical formula for an RPG is that you start off as some lowly nobody, and gradually develop your character through a series of missions, adventures, and encounters, until you become a hero of epic renown.

The video game industry, like the movie industry, doesn’t like to stray from tried-and-tested formulas. In this case, thanks to the legacy of Tolkien, the formula involves a brain-crushing dose of magic and monsters that turns the whole thing into a kind of rainbow-coloured pantomime.

Brienne of Tarth, a true warrior maiden...
That’s all well and good, but the world of orcs, wizards, and improbably-proportioned elf warrior-maidens has never done it for me. I mean, I love Skyrim to bits, but I always play as a human rather than some weird talking cat-person (for example), and I have as little to do with magic as possible.

It’s also telling that Game of Thrones is such a massive hit, when magic is all but absent in the first couple of seasons.

Aren’t the Middle Ages exciting enough without all that frippery? Who doesn’t want to be truly immersed in a living, breathing virtual medieval world, complete with all its intrigue, adventures and dangers?

These were the questions asked by the people at Warhorse Studios. ‘Dungeons & No Dragons’ is how they pitched it.

Naturally the big games developers weren’t interested, so Warhorse have launched a kickstarter campaign online. They want to prove that there is an audience for a realistic medieval RPG, with the help of thousands of individual investors (you can invest anything from £3 to £5000).

It seems to be working, too. They reached their initial target of £300,000 within three days, and it currently stands at more than £500,000.

Both the video game nerd and the medievalist inside me are so chuffed about this. The only downside is that we have to wait till late next year to see the final product...

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Holy hippies

They don’t work. They don’t wash. 

They roam across the country, preaching sanctimoniously about peace and love, despite being dangerously ill-informed. They dress in a way that is somehow shabby and pretentious at the same time. Worst of all, they have no respect for government or power structures.

Clearly, something has to be done about these ‘monks’.


For an Anglo-Saxonist like me, there’s nothing weird about monks. Right through the Anglo-Saxon period, monasteries were at the heart of the church – indeed, it was founded by Irish and Roman monks. For the Anglo-Saxons, it would have been weird to have a church without monks.

The respectable face of Christianity: Santa Sabina, Rome
But it wasn’t always like this.

Let’s pretend to be a typical Christian in late Roman Gaul, circa 430.

The church, like everything in civilised life, is based around the city. It has tidy structures of bishops and priests and deacons, and congregations of ordinary people. It’s staffed by educated, cultured men from the middle and upper classes.

It’s clean, respectable.

Yes, far away in the east, in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, there have always been oddballs who go out in the wilderness and live in caves.

Saint Antony in the desert
The Greeks call them monachoi – ‘those who dwell alone’. They starve themselves to the point of madness and then claim to have visions and miraculous powers.

Yes, some of these weirdos get reputations as ‘holy men’, and attract followers from the more gullible segment of society. Some even group into small communities.

A bunch of fanatical zealots bunched up together, obsessed with the end of the world? That’s fine, as long as they keep themselves to themselves.

The problem is, they don’t. Monachoi are spreading from east to west like diseased rats, infecting the whole Mediterranean with their pernicious teachings.

And now the disease is spreading into the Gallic church itself.


The warning signs have been there since the 360s. An illiterate, obnoxious young Pannonian called Martin, who had been dishonourably discharged from the army and kicked out of more than one city for stirring up trouble, tried to set himself up as a monachos on Gallinara, a tiny island off the north-west coast of Italy.

Having no idea what he was doing, the idiot almost killed himself by eating a poisonous plant. Undeterred, he came to Gaul and latched onto Bishop Hilary of Poitiers – another rabble-rouser who had just returned from exile.

After a few years, Hilary and his buddies engineered the election of Martin as bishop of Tours, even though he was completely unsuited to the post. He preferred to spend his time living in a shack beside the river Loire, where (of course) he quickly attracted a bunch of hangers-on – dozens of pious layabouts, disillusioned posh types who thought the best way to respond to the world’s problems was to bury their heads in the sand.

The modern Abbey of Marmoutier, successor to Martin's original hermitage
Oh, sure, they were just like those brave monachoi who lived in the depths of the desert. That is, if by ‘depths of the desert’ you mean a half-hour stroll along the banks of the Loire. They they lived in caves, true, but it’s not like they were willing to get their hands dirty: all the manual labour was done by the servants they brought with them!

They’re also famous for wearing camel-hair shirts, just like the desert monachoi. How did they come by camel-hair shirts in Gaul, you might ask? Why, they were so devoted to simplicity and poverty that they had them specially hand-crafted and imported from the across the Mediterranean.

Naturally, all this would be bad enough. But when Martin wasn’t sitting in his shack, he was traipsing around the countryside with his fanatical thugs, looking for innocent pagans to terrorise. Are monachoi not meant to be devoted to peace? It's hardly surprising that when Martin died, there was an ugly squabble between the monachoi of Tours and Poitiers over which community would get to keep his corpse.

‘Swollen with black bile’

Unfortunately this Martin started a trend. Even a former imperial governor and consul – a consul, the highest dignitary in the empire! – was brainwashed into following his footsteps, becoming a housebound monachos.

This man, the illustrious Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus, retired (with his wife, I might add) to one of his estates in Spain, where he kept himself busy weaving baskets and eating porridge, cutting himself off from all his friends except to write them pompous letters about how pious he was.

Then there’s the self-made man, Claudius Postumus Dardanus, a former prefect of Gaul. I hardly know where to start with this character. After a career of treachery, back-stabbing and murder, he didn’t just retire, but went and built himself a fortified enclave in the mountains where he now rules as a sort of robber king.

It's accessible only up a narrow, winding valley, at the top of which is a gate and an inscription proclaiming his achievements and holiness. Theopolis, he calls it – ‘the City of God’. Is there anything more offensive, more hypocritical, than this?

Google Earth image of Theopolis, near Sisteron, France - a natural fortress enclosed by 500-foot cliffs

Inscription on the road leading into Theopolis

At least Paulinus still lived a civilised life. These days it seems that every lump of rock off the coast is crowded with scruffy monachoi. Rutilius Namatianus wrote about them in the poem about his voyage from Rome to Gaul. Here’s what he says about Capraria:

"The island is a mess, filled with men who flee from the light. They call themselves monachoi, a Greek name, because they want to live by themselves, with no one to see them. They are afraid of fortune’s gifts, even while they fear the harm she causes. Who would avoid being miserable by choosing to be miserable? [...] I don’t know whether they are trying to punish themselves for their deeds with a prison or whether their melancholy insides are swollen with black bile."

And about the island of Gorgona:

"I turn away from the cliffs, monument to a recent calamity. Here a fellow countryman was lost in a living death. For not long ago one of our youths, rich in ancestry with property and a wife to match, was driven by the furies to abandon home and society and entered a shameful retreat, a credulous exile. The unfortunate fellow thought that filth is conducive to heavenly endeavours and inflicted on himself more cruelty than would offended gods."
He really hits the nail on the head. You must be filled with twisted self-loathing to punish yourself like some of these monachoi do.

The monastic master plan

And what can we say about the island of Lérins? Of all the monachoi, these are the worst. They’re taking the legacy of Martin to the next level. They don’t just want a comfortable retirement home: they want to take over the entire Gallic church.

The island of St-Honorat, with the modern monastery of Lérins

Given their wealth and resources, this is frighteningly possible. One of the founders of Lérins, Honoratus, has already managed to bully his way into the bishopric of Arles. Bishop Proculus of Marseilles is just as bad; he’s been squatting in his see for years, ignoring papal rulings whenever he feels like it. He’s even been implicated in the murder of the previous bishop of Arles!

The tomb of John Cassian in the church of Saint Victor, Marseilles
And he’s now sheltering John Cassian, a smug, self-styled ‘expert’ on eastern monachoi who is trying to make the Gallic variety even more extreme. There is no end to the self-absorbed callousness one finds in his writings.

What will happen if we let such men usurp every bishopric in Gaul? Pope Celestine has recently written a letter in a desperate attempt to avert this disaster. He makes some good points about their ridiculous ‘desert fancy-dress’ of wooden staffs, and camel-hair shirts girded at the loins.

"What is this get-up doing in the Gallic Church, so that the custom of so many years and so many bishops is now turned into another form of dress? The laiety and others are to recognise us by our teaching, not our garments; by our way of life, not our costume; by purity of mind, not custom. For if we begin to follow novelties, we trample underfoot the order given to us by our fathers, to create a place of pointless superstition."

‘Pointless superstition’ – the words of the bishop of Rome himself! Not that these monachoi will pay any attention to him, since they never have in the past.

They will ignore his complaint about their silly costumes, just as they will ignore his complaints that they deny absolution to the dying, that they harbour wanted criminals, that they violate the territory of other bishops, that they impose foreign bishops on unwilling cities, that they ordain unqualified men to holy orders, and that they accept bribes for doing so.

The monachoi consider themselves above criticism by any power on earth. They are radical zealots, detached from reality, unwilling to compromise, and absolutely convinced of their own righteousness.

Heaven help us if they ever come to rule the church!

All images from Wikipedia Commons unless otherwise stated