Saturday, October 24, 2009
428 AD by Giusto Traina
The examination of people belonging to different and distant worlds like King Artashes of Armenia, Euthymius and Vortigern within the same work almost seems the kind of expedient that would be used in the popular novels of Christian Jacq or film scripts for a particularly fantastic sword-and-sandal movie. But this is one of the characteristics of Late Antiquity: the imperial crisis and the arrival of new peoples were responsible for bringing the various and previously hidden elements of a complex and multi-ethnic world to the surface.
King Artashes was the straw man whose "plunge without restraint into licentious pleasures" incurred the hostility of the local potentates, who organized what can only be called a Fronde with the support of the Persian Empire. After years of trying the Sassanids finally succeeded in overturning the balance that kept the King of Armenia in a position above the other noble families, over the objections of the catholic patriarch of the Armenian Church. The centuries-long Armenian question, which had so often led to conflict between Rome and Persia, ended with this lasting blow to the prestige of the Empire, in spite of its military superiority over the Persians and the attempt in 428 , by Flavius Dionysius, to limit the damage by negotiating guarantees for the Christian communities.
Euthymius himself was a native of the most westerly regions of Armenia and was fifty years old when, in 428, he established his monastic foundation in Palestine, halfway between the Holy City and the Dead Sea, not far from the road to Jericho. This was not a site that lend itself to the isolated life of an anchorite. A biography of the saint recorded the sojourn of as many as four hundred pilgrims on their way from Jerusalem to Jordon who decided to take a detour. Domitian, the steward of his laura, told Euthymius of his concerns: how was such a crowd to be fed? The monastery's scarce resources- bread, oil, wine- were multiplied 'miraculously' and this definitively established Euthymius's fame. He attracted monks and virgins from all over the Empire, including many from the cream of the senatorial aristocracy which thus provided 'charisma' and large endowments.
The official demobilization of Britain occurred around 410, but it was not entirely abandoned. The Imperial court (then centered at Ravenna) decided to discontinue its control of Hadrian's Wall and the western borders, but continued to garrison the forts to defend the eastern and southern coast known as the Saxon shore. The administration of Britain was trusted to a leading figure in the local Celtic aristocracy, who had been romanized to some degree: the semi-legendary figure of Vortigern (Welsh Gwrtheyrn, meaning 'highest lord'). The medieval chronicles of the 9th century claim that 428 was the date of an epoch-making event for the island: Vertigern was supposed to have summoned Saxon mercenaries to assist him in defending the country from attacks by the Picts and the Scots. The Angles and the Saxons were more interested in a romanized territory, took over, and forced the Celts to abandon their lands and move to their current territories of Wales and Cornwall. However,in the near future, new anthropological perspectives may well make it possible to clarify further the problems of the "Dark Ages" in Great Britain .
Whatever the variety and complexity of the voices of the Roman world in the 5th century, and their evident conflicts-whether imperial or foreign- the empire remained the key reference point. Subsequent events would undermine this view and accelerate the centrifugal tendencies in the Mediterranean, but in 428, Rome, although a little less eternal, was still very much a real entity and had not been reduced to a mere concept.