The Historiography of Crisis: Jordanes, Cassiodorus and Justinian in mid sixth-century Constantinople

The Historiography of Crisis: Jordanes, Cassiodorus and Justinian in mid sixth-century Constantinople

By Lieve Van Hoof and Peter Van Nuffelen

Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 107 (2017)

Cassiodorus – Leiden, University Library, Ms. vul. 46, fol. 2r

Abstract: This article presents a new interpretation of the historiographical production of Jordanes by situating it in the political and social environment of Constantinople of the years 550-552. It argues that these years were a period of crisis in Justinian’s reign and that this is reflected in the dejected view of Roman power and the critique of Justinian’s military and religious policy we can see in Jordanes’ Romana. If this precludes that we should understand Jordanes as a mouthpiece of the court, he cannot be reduced to a mere reproducer of Cassiodorus either: while there is more evidence for a close interaction between Jordanes and Cassiodorus (in particular the use of the Historia Tripartita in the Romana) than usually adduced, this is balanced by Jordanes’ explicit attempts to keep his distance from the Senator.

If the latter can be explained by Jordanes’ much lower social and literary status and his Moesian rather than Italian origin, which made him only a marginal member of Cassiodorus’ circle in Constantinople, the agreement between both men is the result of a confluence of views caused by the turn of the Italian war in 540-550. Jordanes, then, appears as a unique voice in what must have been a polyphony of opinions in mid sixth-century Constantinople.

Introduction: In 551-552, Jordanes composed two Latin works of history in Constantinople: the Romana, a breviarium of world and Roman history, and the better known Getica, a history of the Goths. The Getica in particular has been the object of intense debate. Whereas scholars working on Gothic history have focused on its reliability regarding early Gothic history, those interested in Justinian’s Italian policy and later Latin literature have focused on its ideological message and its relationship with the lost Gothic history of Cassiodorus.

As far as ideology is concerned, the message of the Getica has been interpreted by some as a plea for a reconciliation between the Goths and Romans and by others as advocating the ruthless suppression and subordination of the Goths. With regard to Cassiodorus, Jordanes’ admission that his Getica relies mainly on Cassiodorus’ lost Gothic History has fuelled attempts to identify his degree of dependency. The most ingenuous attempt to downplay Jordanes’ own contribution was Momigliano’s suggestion that he actually copied a revised, second edition of Cassiodorus’ Gothic History. More recently, however, scholars have tended to emphasize Jordanes’ own input, as he clearly used additional sources besides Cassiodorus.

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