• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Rome in the Eighth Century: A History in Art (Review)


This is a guest post by @philocrocodile:


An intriguing book that does much to bring a too often ignored period to light, John Osborne’s Rome in the Eighth Century: A History in Art makes a good case both for its art-centric methodology and the rising importance of the Eastern Roman Empire in the modern academy.


Think. What is the last important event you can think of in late antique Rome? I mean Rome proper, none of the Frankish nonsense. For me, prior to this book, it was probably the two week visit of Constans II in 663 or maybe even the dedication of the column of Phocas in 608 (the former stripped, the latter at least added to skyline of the city before being killed by the great grandfather of the former, haha)[1]. I think the vast majority of those interested in antiquity would at least have the final settlement of Italy after the Roman Reconquista (554) in their minds, but I suspect that the deposition of Romulus Augustulus (himself a pretender) in 476 remains the most popular date.


Nevertheless, the Romans did retake Italy (and parts of North Africa and even Spain) and held onto the old heartlands for a decent while.[2] There are obvious implications to this: how did the city of Rome develop as the Roman heart shifted from the Tiber to the Bosporus? What can be learnt from paying a little more attention here? As it turns out, a fair bit.


I will throw my hands in the air and fully admit, once more, that I am not a Byzantine specialist. Moreover, I was spurred to pick up this book by Byz Ambo’s recent series of posts on Byzantine Rome, the first of which may be found here. This book certainly hit the spot.


Chapter one “Constantinople on the Tiber” serves to rapidly situate the entire book. We start with the Ostrogothic siege in 408, which Osborne sees as a kind of watershed moment: the necessities of siege meant that for (perhaps the first time since the archaic period) bodies had to be buried within the pomerium. The subsequent sixth century siege served only to exacerbate this, and we can see the origin of some of the post-classical behaviours that help define non-classical (and non-Roman) Rome.



One particularly praiseworthy element of the book begins here: Osborne deftly demonstrates just how important Greek and the Roman East were to this period in Rome “it was not a case of Latin or Greek…but rather of Latin and Greek, of a clergy and elite laity [italics here, mine] comfortable in both languages” (p14). Readers may be familiar with the academic work of Ekonomou and others,[3] but this book paints a picture beyond the émigré clergy and shows a genuine survival from the later Roman Empire (and later, the import of this).


In an interesting reversal of provincial periphery and imperial metropole Rome in the 700s really was another “Constantinople on the Tiber” and understanding this is key to understanding the argument of the book, even as Osborne moves on to tackle the way in which Rome and Constantinople parted ways: Osborne goes on to argue that a “competing sense of Romanitas” begins to form in the mid-700s. Be that is it may, the book does suffer by a lack of exploration of this fraught term.[4]


The next chapter, “Pope John VII servus sanctae Mariae”, is the first in a series of lengthier case studies which make up the book. The overall thrust is it to pick up some of the themes mentioned above but to situate them more forcefully in evidence and context. This sees the introduction of our literary evidence and, without putting too fine a point on it, this is generally where the book is weakest. Osborne is throughout a fairly naïve reader of ancient sources. On p.54 he cites Sergius I refusing to sign the acta of the Quinsext Council on account of “erroneous novelties”.[5] Yet Sergius, as Osborne reminds us, had previously appended his own words to the eucharist. On the next page we sense something of a surprise that Sergius’ successor meekly signed without emendations.


I think Osborne could have pushed the hypocrisy of this a little more. In fact, hypocrisy over the conservation of tradition is precisely one of the defining features of the development of the western church. From the filioque onwards. This is a real shame, the author consistently shows the complex relationship between Rome and Constantinople throughout the book, yet this is a major aspect that is overlooked. Moreover, whilst the Liber Pontificalis and Mirabilia Urbis Romae appear throughout I can’t help believing that the book suffers from an apparent lack of familiarity with Greek sources.[6] That said I would direct readers to the book’s subtitle, this is effectively an art history book and a good one at that.


I leave off this chapter in full agreement with the author, “at the dawn of the eighth century the city of Rome was still an integral part of the Roman Empire” (p40). Sure, hardly surprising, but Osborne then uses this fact to infer some details of what religious art may have looked like at Constantinople. I delight in this sort of careful reading (be it text, textile, or art) and extrapolation of patterns and details. Due to a combination of Iconoclasm (from the 720s-80s – thanks Leo! Very cool!), the exigencies of time, as well as Latin and Turkish barbarity, we know relatively little about the art of Constantinople during this time. The mosaics in St Peter’s and the murals in Santa Maria Antiqua do not just help us fill in the gap between the mosaics at Ravenna and later Byzantine art, they allow us to re-envision what the City looked like.



Chapters three and four take a step back from the art to look at some of the broader context, from the politics of the time and the development of the eighth century papacy, to the nature of those making and enjoying the art. Chapter five examines the murals in Santa Maria Antiqua, from around the middle of our time period. The named donor of the chapel, Theodotus, may have been a hellenophone "Byzantine" who seamlessly became a part of the new Roman elite. There is a lot to unpack here. Osborne’s analysis presages certain motifs we will see in the post Charlemagne era, that is the (re)appropriation and re(use) of Roman motifs in a new


Western/Barbarian/Christian manner. By far the most fun bit is how the character of Theodotus himself is made a little less murky. I love this aspect of history, there is a real sense of rescuing someone, in some small way, for the exigencies of oblivion. It also helps indirectly answer one of the big questions about the transition to the Italian middle ages: we know there were Roman elites, we know that later Italian elites did not overwhelmingly descend from the former (despite ludicrous claims of families like the Orsini). Whence come they? Osborne lays out a plausible paradigm for various sub-elites (“Byzantines” and “natives”) to establish themselves during this period.[7]


The subsequent two chapters take us into the next half of our century and continue to ratiocinate on the ways in which the bishops of Rome continuously made use of the Roman past and built environment, from the establishment of St Peter’s to the production of fake documents such as the donatio Constantini, and the murky providence of the Capitoline Wolf. One begins to sense a telos emerging at this point (the coronation of Charlemagne) and the pace of the book seems to ramp up towards it.


The book, however, continues to be full of fascinating little observances and comments on art and (occasionally) literature. One such being just how strong the Hellenophone elements of early medieval Rome were. It is odd, much of the evidence we are familiar with – graffiti, spelling practices, change in vocabulary, artistic narrative, religious ordinances and staff etc – when collated like this present a startling picture. I found myself time and time again asking myself the kinds of questions one might as a teenager: what if Irene was less of a maniac? What if iconoclasm ended two decades earlier? What if the bishops of Rome were a little less venal? The use/abuse of Roman antiquity by the bishops were surely an attempt to wrest free of Imperial control and find legitimacy, but the mark of the Eastern Empire remained strong for some time after.[8]


The book closes out the century on Christmas day 800, an obvious watershed moment, but thanks to Osborne’s careful analysis readers will see that it was not a sudden one. The attempts at shoring up prestige and independence by Sergius I and John VIII bore strange fruits indeed, and the Frank took his price. “In the eighth century Rome finally became a ‘city of the church’” (p232) but what that meant and whether things were better or worse would be hard to tell at this point.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book and since reading it have found myself turning to the Liber Pontificalis and clicking through images of late antique/early Byzantine art.[9] It is engaging and well written, and I found myself looking at a city whose sights I thought I knew with new eyes – well, as much as one may during a pandemic. Naturally being a CUP book and on such a narrow topic it is likely to be meant for the specialist reader, but anyone wanting a follow up to Thomas Noble’s book on the papal republic or something meatier on Rome herself than Wickham’s recent offering will likely find much to enjoy here.[10] For those of us who cling tightly to the usual narrative sources, this is a good excursus on how art (and artists) can testify as to historical change. The book is generously illustrated throughout.




[1] Heraclius! Now there is a story that deserves a big budget adaption like GoT or Rome. If only Netflix had some sense and courage rather than making silly orc porn like Rise of Empires: Ottoman. Meanwhile, Kaegi, W. E. (2003). Heraclius, emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press is probably a good stopgap for interested readers.

[2] The Romans held onto the bottom bit of Italy until the 11th century hence the name Capitanata < κατεπανίκιον. Likewise, Ravenna remained as a loyal exarchy until the 8th century, hence the name Emilia-Romagna for the broader region (< Romania, the rest of Italy being given over to the barbaricum).

[3] Ekonomou, A. J. (2007). Byzantine Rome and the Greek popes: Eastern influences on Rome and the papacy from Gregory the great to Zacharias, A.D. 590-752. Lexington Books. I think the “Greek” influence is also commonly spoken about in terms of theological influence – e.g the cult of Maria Regina or the celebration of the Cross – but I genuinely have almost no interest here.

[4] See e.g Adams, J. (2003). 'Romanitas' and the Latin Language. Classical Quarterly, 53(1), 184-205 and, for Byzantium specifically, the works of A Kaldellis.

[5] The acta and some critical work may be found: Flogaus, R., & Kraus, C. (2013). Concilium Constantinopolitanum a. 691/2 in Trullo habitum. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Think of acta as Roman Law for the intellectually challenged. I am surprised they do not occupy a higher position in modern academe.

[6] For example, Procopius’ work on buildings or the so called patriae. I was often surprised both at the parallels these could evince as well as the further context they could bring to our Latin literary sources. This is what I mean by naïve.

[7] Much of this can be absorbed profitably if you have Conant, J. (2012). Staying Roman: Conquest and identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 in the other hand. Especially the last few chapters.

[8] Indeed, we know one Gratianus, who served under Leo IV (847-55), was charged with trying to restore Imperial rule. Ah…

[9] The LP can be found in a very readable format, here: https://fontistoriche.org/liber-pontificalis/

[10] Noble, T. F. (1986). The Republic of St. Peter: The birth of the papal state, 680-825. University of Pennsylvania Press; Wickham, C. (2016). Medieval Europe. Yale University Press.

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