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John Lydus and the Roman Past: Antiquarianism and Politics in the Age of Justinian.

John Lydus is not a highly-ranked author by any standard. Michael Maas calls him, with justice, "a disgruntled civil servant and antiquarian" of the first half of the sixth century, which was dominated by the emperor Justinian whose rule contemporaries counted from 518, when his uncle Justin donned the purple. He came from the city of Philadelphia, which went back no further than the Hellenistic period, but it was in the territory of the ancient Lydian empire, which had fallen a thousand years before his time. But John had an antiquarian's interest in Lydia and knew at least one word of Lydian, which was a dead language in his day. Lydus perhaps had some claim to be called "the Lydian."

His On the Magistracies is extant in three books and has been well mined as a source for the bureaucracy of Late Antiquity. We also have his De Ostentis (On Portents) and a work on the calendar, the De Mensibus. He also wrote poetry, at least two panegyrics, including one on Justinian which pleased the emperor, and a history of the Persian War up to the "Endless Peace" of 532, which was commissioned by Justinian himself. None of that has survived. He became moderately well-to-do; a fellow Philadelphian who held the praetorian prefecture secured him a salaried post in his office as a shorthand secretary and the influence-peddling which that made possible proved lucrative. Eventually Justinian appointed him to a professorship at the imperial school in Constantinople. Yet he was a disappointed man.

He is a splendid witness of his own segment of Justinian's period, and Maas exploits him well in this brilliant little book, which is as much about the intellectual climate of Justinian's age as it is about Lydus. For his attitude to the Roman past, Maas compares him with Zosimus, also a bureaucrat in Constantinople, though almost a generation earlier. Their outlooks were closely similar, but Zosimus was openly a pagan. Lydus was not. He did not attack Christianity and was eager to praise Justinian, who was more efficient and ruthless at rooting out paganism than any of his predecessors. But Lydus's model for decline was that of Zosimus; the difference was that Lydus left the pagan gods and the Christian theological disputes out of it.

Maas begins with background. Justinian's reign was a period of transition and Maas's first chapter is a valuable summary. His third chapter takes up the theme again. The slogan for Justinian's programme was restoration, but Procopius of Caesarea had it right in his Secret History. Justinian was an innovator. Like the res publica restituta of Augustus, the restored imperium of Justinian mixed old, traditional ingredients, but what emerged was something new and different.

The fifth chapter, "Paganism and Politics" is one of the most valuable. Paganism was a way of life, closely bound up with educational and cultural traditions with which Late Antiquity did not want to break. Public sacrifices mere only a part of it. Justinian's anti-paganism had a touch of McCarthyism about it. Maas calls it Justinian's "intolerant little game" (p. 77), and argues instead for "an uneasy cultural ground of common interests, values and education" which pagan and Christian shared, and it was antiquarianism which provided "a key to the middle ground between Christianity and paganism." But this can be said only of a tiny, educated elite. Christianity had conquered the urban masses, and with the help of the monks and holy men, it was mell on the way to conquering the countryside as well. The "middle ground" was growing sharply smaller in Lydus's lifetime.

This is a book of sound scholarship and good judgement. It adds measurably to our understanding of the Weltanschauung of Constantinople in the first half of the sixth century.
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Author:Evans, J.A.S.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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