This week on the reading rest I have an article by Dominic O’Meara, again from Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou.

O’Meara, D. 2002. The Justinian Dialogue on Political Science and its Neoplatonic Sources. In: Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed) Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources.
But today—
Dominic O’Meara’s book Platonopolis. Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Calderon Press Oxford 2003
—must be added as well as
Peter N Bell (Trans, Notes and Intro) Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian. Agapetus, ‘Advice to the Emperor’. Dialogue on Political Science. Paul the Silentiary, ‘Description of Hagia Sophia’. (Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 52) Liverpool University Press 2009.

Santorum quotes from the www state that ‘if faith is true and reason right you’ll end up in the same place’—indeed, ‘end up’ in places such as Santorum’s or Ahmadinejad’s or Netanyahu’s. When looking through the three texts listed above bearing in mind this quote on faith and reason, anyone, except perhaps those to whom the equation faith true = reason right rings true, will agree that when it comes to faith, reason and politics Roman or Byzantine problems are still with us.

The Christian concept of God as applying in mid-first millennium Rome and Byzantium posed a growing problem for Neoplatonists trying to nourish and develop their idea of the divine in forced opposition to Christian ideas. As late as 529 AD these intellectuals fell victim when Justinian, beefed up his anti-pagan legislation, purged Pagans and closed the Neoplatonic school of Athens.

In this general perspective the fragmentary anonymous Dialogue on Political Science (DoPS) can be seen as an attempt – one, two or three decades after the 530s – to revive and develop Neoplatonic ways of thinking – niching them while addressing the field of political science. In the 550s Justinian was already Mubarak-old if not exactly in years and surgery sessions in Germany. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that when a Neoplatonist writer turns to this field of practical rather than metaphysical or esoteric thinking, he seeks to demonstrate something uncommon among Neoplatonists. In effect he argues that a Platonic foundation will support the better government of any two Christian or non-Christian rulers, and he thinks that political leaders ought to step down at 57 or 60. Given that old age came early in the 6th c. this is not a bad idea.

Ultimately, the reason why this argument can at all be developed is the commonly agreed Late Antique dogma that kingship was an imitation of God or Platonically speaking, the Divine. In the chapter Kingly science as an imitation of the divine Dominic O’Meara (DO’M) discusses this notion in relation to the DoPS (DO’M pp 55 ff, ). Since kings or emperors cannot escape old age, old leaders should resign because growing old they tend to lose their grip and capability of imitating the Divine. That’s why they send in a son imitating the divine as it were. If Justinian wasn’t old and weakened when the dialogue was penned, the old-age argument would have been most dangerous. But then again Justinian probably felt that his capacity was exceptionally supreme. Notwithstanding, a pretext would have been found. And since it wasn’t, the dialogue was probably written in the last years of Justinian’s reign c. 560 CE.

The dialogue is intellectual and learned, but not outright Pagan. Its composition is difficult and far from straightforward when it comes to politics. Its rhetorical style is manneristic or as O’Meara puts it: ‘the fiction of the Platonic dialogue is pushed very far in the fragments’ (p.51). In my opinion and to a majority of their reviewers, O’Meara, followed by Bell, has convincingly argued the Neoplatonic case and pointed to consciously wide-ranging references to classical authors emphasizing Plato, Cicero and a host of others from Homer and onwards. Given their analyses it is worth pointing out that in the 9th century when Photius catalogued and labeled DoPS he stressed its novel ideas on political science, its criticism of Plato and its affinities with Dicaearchon views. It’s by way of Cicero that DoPS points out the once influential 3 c. BCE philosopher Dicaearchus as the father of these views, which in the 6th c. carried little ideological ballast. Judging from Photius, it would seem that in the mid 9th c. is was difficult immediately to denounce DoPS as Pagan and non-Christian. The Neoplatonic case wasn’t straightforward in modern times either.

The dialogue is fragmentary. Books I-III and VI are lost.

The extant part of Book IV is concerned with a rather unsophisticated, now and then inexperienced dialogue of military science and virtue – there is a nice and typical paragraph on the use of horn signals too – leading up to the much better preserved Book V. This book takes up a theoretical and central discussion that gives rise to a new political science. The composition would seem to indicate that the didactics of the dialogue proceed from pressing or at least everyday problems to general, markedly intellectual, solutions able to guide any rulership.

The author of the DoPS has found a field full of practical problems in which essentially Neoplatonic solutions and sound guidance stand out as worthwhile—not least in the Queen of Cities, i.e. Constantinopel, i.e. Rome, i.e The Empire.

In our day and age, when once again fundamentalist scripture-based political sciences have their advocates DoPS is not without its points: ‘Instead he (i.e. the emperor) will accept the imperial authority offered to him by the citizens as if it were an imposition, thinking it to be in itself a personal burden and a public obligation for which he will not be unaccountable to God’s judgement and perhaps that of men also.’ (DoPS book 5.47; Bell 2009 p.155)

It’s the bit about ‘men also’ that counts.

Nevertheless, if we ask any of the recently disqualified Egyptian presidential candidates, however dangerous, corrupt and popular they may be, they will tell us that personal burden and public obligation make up a foundation for their commitment to power.

The outlook of the dialogue reveals it as open to barbarian skills and the possibility to interact with barbarians. In book IV, e.g., the military skill of the Franks is considered model and speaking about the optimates of the state, those who should be chosen because of natural qualities and education/culture, Menas (the central speaker) points out to Thomas that able barbarians too must be among the optimates. Rhetorically, echoing 6th c. problems in sustaining urban populations, Menas concludes: ‘If they say it’s the most important thing of all to secure a good management for a private estate, how much more necessary would it be for the state.’ (book 5.31-32) Indirectly DoPS advocates government by common sense in a system where the King is imitating the divine and the optimates, whether Roman or foreign, Christian or Pagan, are chosen with a view to their personal qualities.

This attitude of the DoPS can be compared to the central role of the political model of the King, the King’s men and government expressed in poems echoing contemporary Pagan/Barbarian society. This model surfaces in poems by Venantius Fortunatus, The Finnsburg Fragment, Beowulf, Hêliand, Ludwigslied, Eddaic poems or Ynglingatal, i.e genealogies, epics and lyrical poems alluding to or reflecting upon government and politics.

Late Iron Age Germanic royalty is related to the divine. These ties are most often mythical and thus plentiful and rhetorical in poems where kings and queens are referred to as descendants of gods, the offsprings of holy weddings (Man + Goddess = True), God’s foster children, or clairvoyantly existing in the visible as well as the (seemingly) invisible world at the same time. This capacity for foresight, i.e. the Divine, runs in families as it does in Rome.

Thus Athalaric (10 years old) when he was made King in Italy in 526, was first of all of the right kind of royal family. This is confirmed by the fact pointed out by himself that he was designated by Theoderic the Great, his maternal grandfather. In Rome/Byzantium of course, bishops and patriarchs were needed to guarantee divine consent. Then Athalaric was elected/accepted by the elite among the Goths and acclaimed by an assembly of citizens. This series: designation by a King with divine qualities; election by the elite; and public acclaim is a pattern found in all Germanic societies. Athalaric’s case shows that this model procedure was conventional, the real ruler was his mother Amalasuntha and she inherited the throne when Athalaric happened to die in 534 (Procopius, who else, gives us a hunch that it happened for a reason) [1].

Nevertheless, this model procedure parallels the one prescribed in DoPS. In the dialogue the imperial or royal power legislates for itself how legitimate proclamation should be brought about, so that he who is about to receive power receives it when it is given to him by God and offered to him by the citizens (Book 5.17). Because the divinely royal is already there, in the Pagan and early Christian Germanic society, kingship is given by God or gods—the method is designation by a King in his divine capacity—and offered by the citizens by means of election and acclaim. Similarly, in Book 5.50, DoPS describes how the optimates go about electing the emperor, and in principle the Roman optimates and the Gothic elite play the same part—in practice in Ravenna 526 CE and in theory in DoPS. Germanic kings, whether Pagan or Christian, imitate the Roman emperor and the DoPS link-in with the democratic and secular perspectives of Pagan succession. Naturally, the DoPS involves the Church in its much more regulated and balanced model procedure. The point, nevertheless, is the affinities: Pagan or Christian, Kingdom or Empire alike are all societies organized either around a semi divine King , an executive elite and a certain popular involvement, or around Emperor, optimates and a certain involvement of the citizens. In the dialogue, the system is constructed with an eye to neutralizing the Church.

Since Hêliand and more so Beowulf are poems comparable to mirrors of princes they have some affinities with DoPS.

Beowulf is of the right kind of family. He is reluctant to become king as long young prince Headared lives, but he is designated by the widowed Queen. The elite, ‘the helpless’ in the poem have elected him (inasmuch as they urge him to receive kingship) and since he helps Headared among the people we are given to understand that they approve of him too. Everything is stuffed into vv 2369-2377. Of course Headared is killed and Beowulf becomes King and Beowulf therefore ‘accepted the authority offered to him as if it were an imposition, thinking it to be in itself a personal burden and a public obligation’ to use the words from DoPS book 5.47.  Beowulf’s supernatural swimming capacity is evident and as a king he ‘lived rather for those he ruled than for himself’. In fact the whole passage Book 5.157 seems tailored for Beowulf:

For me, Thomas, the man who had reached such a height of virtue and power would lack something of imperial perfection if he did not himself persuade us by his actions, similar though he be to God amongst men, that he lived rather for those he ruled than for himself – for this is the true and sufficient of the man who really is worthy of imperial rule. (DoPS, Book 5.157)

When Beowulf, vv 2417 ff, fights the Dagon he knows that he will die, but sacrifices himself for the common good. In so doing, he takes kingship to the kind of perfection recommended by DoPS, when Menas points out: ‘Put simply, he lives not for himself or in his own interest. And, if it is necessary, he will lay down his life for them as has often happened with some rulers, as Codrus died for the Athenians’. (Book 5.133)

Menas recommends this practice when it comes to emperors, but when he says: ‘has often happened with some rulers’, he is hardly referring to Roman emperors who weren’t in the habit of sacrificing themselves. Instead Menas has to refer to barbarian myth or reality.

Being good is important in the dialogue (DO’M p. 57) inasmuch as God/the divine is good and the king imitating the divine. In Book 5.118  we are told that ‘[authority is] inserting the power of doing good in things through his own providence – just as radii extend from the centre of the circle to the circumference’. The Platonic essence of this argument is developed up and until 5.122 where we understand authority also to be the emperor/king. This general standpoint is followed up in sections 5.123-71 in which DoPS concerns itself with the practices of being a ruler in terms of characteristic virtues such as goodness, wisdom, power, justice and foresight. Already in Book 5.130 ‘it is fitting, therefore, for the emperor who wishes to make himself like him (i.e. God), first of all to be himself good, to do good to those he rules’.

In Beowulf being good in character and practice is of paramount importance. In the first part of the poem, King Hrothgar is already as good as it gets and Beowulf is growing in goodness with each of his engagements with the evil. The actual word ‘good’ is used by the author to designate Beowulf and King Hrothgar. The word is also used to bracket episodes in the poem in such a way that before anything happens ‘good’ is emphasized, so that we know what is coming to us. Afterwards ‘good’ is used to close the episode making us aware of what happened in it.

Wealhtheow’s speech after the story about Finnsburg has come to an end is typical—the politically good are stressed in the frame of the episode and ‘good’ is used as a keyword in the end of the speech. The frame is circumstantial with longs lines in the beginning. Old Hrothgar and young Hrothulf are both good, but Unferth is not because he is not a flawless optimate. If we were to use the two ways in which the DoPS judges optimates, Unferth is an optimate by nature, i.e. birth, but not by education. Wealhtheow’s speech proceeds smoothly into concluding the Good and in the frame ‘good’ is mentioned once again. Since Beowulf is such an ominous poem the audience knows and doubts that if Hrothgar dies the two remaining good ones Hrothulf and Beowulf will look after Wealhtheow’s two young sons Hrethric and Hrothmund, while the widowed Queen engages herself in dialogue on political science with her new friend Menas [2].

There are affinities between Beowulf and other Germanic poems when it comes to understanding what a king must be. Needless to say there is were little in the poems of the elaborate model society discussed in the dialogue, but still the kingly barbarian matches the Neoplatonic emperor. The dialogue shows knowledge of the contemporary barbarian world and acknowledges its qualities. Correspondingly the use of ‘good’ in Beowulf is so structurally organized that it echoes the Neoplatonic practice discussed in the dialogue.

The point in this exercise is not to argue for a conscious exchange of Pagan ideas, but to emphasize a preparedness to add, mirror, transform or echo cultural elements between European elites in the 6th century. Among the barbarians ideals lived on in myth and poems. The practice suggested in the DoPS did not take on although Dominic O’Meara has shown that part of the philosophical model behind the DoPS can be traced in Islamic political philosophy. Adding one or two barbarians thinking along lines with an affinity to Neoplatonic political philosophy, seems to support Dominic O’Meara’s conclusion that such a philosophy existed.

In periods favouring ideological streamlining it is good to know that there’s always some Greek thinking to counter it.


[1] These and other characteristics of Continental and Scandinavian first millennium CE aspects of kingship are discussed by Svante Norr in To Rede and to Rown.Espressions of Early Scandinavian Kingship in Written Sources. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 17. Uppsala University 1998. If you google    To rede and to rown Norr       you can download the book as a pdf file

[2] A translation:

Then Wealhtheow came forth,
walking in a golden neck-ring to where the good pair
sat, uncle and nephew; then their kinship was still together,
each to the other true; Unferth the þyle was also there
sitting at the feet of the Scylding lord; each of them trusted his spirit,
and that he had great courage, though he to his kin was not
honourable in clash of blades; the Scylding lady then spoke:
‘Receive this full cup, my noble lord,
dispenser of treasure; you–be joyful, gold-friend of men, and to the Geats speak
with gentle words so ought a man to do;
be gracious with the Geats, mindful of gifts
which from near and far you now have;
it has been said to me that you wish for a son,
to have this leader of armies; Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; enjoy, while you may,
many rewards, and leave to your kinsmen
folk and kingdom when you must go forth
to meet what is fated; I know my
gracious Hrothulf, that he the youths wishes
to hold in honour, if you earlier than he,
friend of the Scyldings, leave behind the world,
I think that he with good will repay
our children, if he that at all remembers,
what we for his sake and for his worldly renown,
before, in his youth, bestowed our favours.
She turned then by the bench, where her boys were,
Hrethric and Hrothmund, and heroes’ sons,
the young company all together; there sat the good
Beowulf of the Geats by the two brothers.


This week On the Reading Rest I have a Danish article about the excavation of some Iron Age farms at Darum in Southwest Jutland. There are two reasons for reading the it: Darum is an interesting place in itself and the excavation an example of modern Danish archaeology and heritage management at its best.

Søvsø, Morten. Et udsnit af en landsby fra omkring år 500 e.Kr. udgravet i St Darum ved Ribe (A section of a village from c. 500 AD excavated at the Great Darum village, Ribe).  By, marsk og geest 22:5-20 [1]

Overview. In this context Ribe and Esbjerg are modern sites, the three other ones conpemporary. The distance between Dankirka and Præstestien is 30 km.

Putting this article on the reading rest, which presently stands  on a desk in Sweden, I became interested in the layout of the Darum farms. Since the excavation is modern I found the excavation report—and others from St Darum in the electronic museum archive:  [2]
Morten Søvsø (MS), the director of the excavation was interested in dating the settlement by means of 14C dates and had a sample of charred plant remains analysed before choosing nine grains from different contexts and sending them to the 14C lab in Aarhus.
I found a report on the plant remains at

MS presented the nine 14C dates in his article, but since I wanted to look at the results in a slightly different way, I wrote and asked for the report from the 14C lab. I got it just a few hours later. MS referred to an article from 1985 on the first trail excavation in Darum and I went down to the open stacks and made a pdf-copy of that article too. Everything started just after lunch when I read Morten Søvsø’s article and the next day in the morning I had access to all the information I needed. I looked up Darum in the national data base Fund og fortidsminder—finds and prehistoric monuments:
and was ready to start.

These first 24 hours were a typical 21st c. Scandinavian experience based on 200 years of legislation, heritage management, public museums, national and local archives. After two centuries, there is a lot of order and access to information.

A 19th century map of Darum. The yellow dots are all the registred Iron Age finds. The green shadows represent partly contemporary villages from the centuries around 500 CE. Data from Fund og fortidsminder and Museum reports.

Darum in the 6th c. CE superimposed on Darum in the 18th. The villages are situated in more or less the same way on the hillock. Generally speaking, shifting the position of the villages over millennia give access to fertile anthropogenic soils at the old settlement sites. In the 18th c. church and churchyard is close to the old Iron Age cemetery on top of a low hill, but quite far away from the wetland votive site. Church and votive site are emblems of their respective period.

The excavations showed that what happened in Darum happened more or less similtaneously also at nearby Præstestien (lit. ‘The vicar’s path’). Let us suggest, therefore, that these events were typical of their time and place. Præstestien was an informally structured Roman Iron Age row village, one of many, a community autonomously solving its problems and a centre to itself only.  Then, all of a sudden, this traditional village was regulated—enlarged and rearranged as two straight façades in which the farms were defined by the number of feet they occupied. These two new rows adjoined the village green and on the green in front of the farms there were some pit houses or sunken huts. Præstestien was defined as a village of 1320 feet divided on 11 farms – that’s 120 feet on average – but in reality one farm was 144, nine were 120 and one consequently just 96 feet.

Præstestien before and after its makeover.

Darum was given the same extensive makeover and thanks to context and excavation we can stick a date on it and know how long it lasted.

At Præstestien change is radical, but at Darum the traditional kinship relations, indicated by the open plots, survive the reformation of the village.

At Darum only a section of the village has been excavated, but that suffices to show that part of the same population that lived on the old farms stayed on. Unlike Præstestien, the farm land was not rearranged and the fields continued to be situated north of the village. Nevertheless there were gates and doors facing south towards the green, i.e. gates and doors in the village façade.

The second phase in Darum is the work of someone with a measuring rod and an interest in straight lines and well-defined façades regulating things. As it was the case at Præstestien, the surveyor was not satisfied with the orientation of the old village and changes it a few degrees from east-west to something east, a little to the south – west, a little to the north. The row is organized with a straight façade to the south, and in this façade the breadth of each farm is 100 feet. We cannot know how many farms there were in the reformed Darum—perhaps eight, i.e. 800 feet.

The reason why the plots are being measured is a wish to regulate and make it easy in a formal way to see and define the size of the farm in relation to the village. Traditionally, in an old village administrating itself, this was hardly a major problem and in this part of Jutland they had managed row villages without surveyors 400 years or more. Surveyors are brought in to establish the simple definition of farm and village because it is a prerequisite for meting out duties and taxes. Measuring the façades amounts to measuring the capacity of the village and the part that falls on the individual farm. If a village, similar to Præstestien, is 1320 feet then your 120-feet farm is 1/11 of the whole. That equals your duties. Regulation simply means that there are obligations, indirect or direct, to someone outside the village.

Although pit houses or sunken huts are not unknown in the Roman Iron Age they grow in number during Pre Carolingian times. Typically, they are situated on the green outside the plots. In terms of formal planning, therefore, two things happen: (1) the carrying capacity of the village and its farms is assessed and defined as a number of feet; (2) the façade separates the regulated farms from the village green—private grounds from common grounds. Since the pit houses are on the green they are not strictly speaking part of a farm inasmuch as they are not on a plot. Their situation, nevertheless, indicates that they are associated with the farms. And since they are used for production, it stands to reason that they are occupied by outsiders who worked for the farmers as craftsmen – weavers, smiths or farm hands – without being full members of the farm household. Pit house dwellers are landless people allowed to settle on the green offering their services to a farm owner at a temporal or seasonal basis. Therefore, when strict planning is introduced it looks as if the Middle Ages with lords, landed gentry, tenants and landless peasantry arrive at Præstestien and Darum, and we may wonder when that happened.

This is where the 14C-dates enter the scene. The source critical conditions are under control. The settlement was new to the site and there were only two major building phases: First, a construction phase with informally planned farms. Second, the reformed village when the plots were defines as façades with a certain breadth in feet. In both phases houses were repaired now and again, less however in the first phase, which was thus probably the shorter one.  Pit houses, between three and six at one and the same time, were probably repaired, rebuilt and torn down in their own shorter cycles.

The material dated were seeds representing one year only. Since the settlement started with one farm that eventually became two before the villages was restructured, we may suggest that there was an escalation of activities in the continuous settlement. Because of the few phases MS rightly suggests that the village existed c. 50-150 years.

The nine 14C-dates were selected to represent the settlement period of the farm houses and not a certain point in time such as the beginning or the end of the settlement. The calibration curve in the time span in question is not ideal, inasmuch as it looks like a section through a slope with a flat terrace in the middle, and this indicates that a 14C-year measured in calendar years is short when the slope is steep and long when the when curve is horizontal. If it is reversed, the year is long and split. No surprisingly, looking at a single 14C-date is frustrating. But if we look at all the possibly dated years, then they make up a probability distribution that allows us to suggest that sometime during the 5th c. CE people lived in the village – perhaps earlier, perhaps later too.

The probability distribution and its calibration illustrating the 14C-date and its central 14C-year as well as the calibrated Median year.

Since it is unlikely that the dates represent a single date rather than a period, we may ask ourselves whether they represent a century. We can test this by modelling what a period such as 400-500 CE would look like if we took a seed every 10th year and dated it with a certain standard error. We will start by pointing out that in a calibrated probability distribution there will be a median year dividing the sum of all the probabilities into two—50% of the possible dates are earlier than the central year and 50% later. Therefore, we may now ask ourselves the following: what series of central 14C bp years will result in a series of probability distributions in which the 50-50 calendar year equals the series 400, 410, 420 … … 500 CE, given that the standard deviation of the tests is 43 years, i.e. the average standard deviation in the Darum sample. Finding that kind of series we can model what a period with an even production of possible 14C tests will look like and compare the observed Darum probability distribution to the modelled one.

A comparison between the observed Darum dates and the modelled period 390-510 CE.

If we begin by comparing the model period 390-510 CE to Darum, this blue distribution, fits the black Darum outline quite well, but there are too few probabilities in the beginning of the period and even in its central part. This should not come as a surprise, since the production of suitable 14C test material is hardly constant at Darum, although the excavator tried to take out samples that would give the same weight to buildings from the whole period.

A comparison between the observed Darum dates and the modelled period 400-510 CE .

If we shorten the period a little and compare the observed Darum distribution to the modelled green distribution 400-510 CE, then we get a better fit from c. 400 CE and onwards, but predictably the fit before 400 CE  gets worse.

This tells us the following: For two reasons it is difficult to say when the Darum settlement started. (1) Relatively speaking fewer suitable seeds were trapped in the settlements in the beginning of the settlement period when the production of suitable 14C-material was low. (2) In the beginning of the settlement period the impact of much older material blowing in the wind and trapped by chance would be greater than later on.

There is in other words a risk of contamination and biased representation. These risks are larger in the beginning of a settlement period than in the end, if the settlement expands.  The 14C-dates on the other hand suggest that the settlement came to an end in the 510s. If the end happened with an aftermath rather than abruptly, then the 14C-dates would probably conceal it, but then again the settlement would probably not have been a very important one either.

In one of the pit houses, the one excavated in the 1980s two fragmentary brooches suggested that the house may have been lived or the pit filled-up as late as the 530s. It is worth suggesting, therefore, that at least one of the farms, but not all of them, continued after the 510s. Be this as it may, in the 5th c. CE the Darum village was regulated and its plots defined. The farms became 100 feet farms and the village a village defined as a number of units.

When Beowulf saved the Danish king, allegedly c. 500 CE he was rewarded also by his own king, who gave him 7000 of land. Perhaps villages such as Darum and Præstestien were c. 2000 (feet) of land – not enough by all means – but probably worthy a lesser hero.

Does this mean that the Middle Ages started in Darum and Præstestien in the 5th century? Yes, in a way it does, but Darum and Præstestien also shows that if so, the Middle Ages lasted only a couple of generations before coming to an end in the beginning of the 6th century. I think I have read about this somewhere.

In Anglo-Saxon poems (Beowulf and the Battle of Finnsburg) there is a place called Finnsburg, a manor with a hall that is synonymous with the ‘burg’. This place is in Jutland at the coast and King Finn (cf. the poem Widsið), who rules over Jutes, is a Friesian. Finn is married to a Danish princess and this is a political marriage, because in reality both Friesian and Danish interests compete in the area. Because of the Friesian presence we may suggest that Finnsburg is on the west coast of Jutland and that fits the context of the poems too—you go there by boat and may send home Friesian warriors directly to their homes. Finnsburg is the scene of a political conflict and in the end the Danes manage to revenge themselves, conquer Finnsburg, kill Finn and his retinue and bring back the Danish queen.

There was great rejoicing and composing of memorable poems, since in the event throwing out the Friesians, the Danes established their most important national border—right-wing nationalists still defend it. Although the zone of conflict was much older, it stands to reason that after the emigration of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, Danes and Friesians competed for power in a political vacuum in southern Jutland.

It so happens that there is an obvious archaeological candidate for fictional Finnsburg in today’s Dankirke [3], an Iron Age manorial farm 6 km south of Ribe. This farm is much older than the 5th century, but by that time it was an important place that caught the attention of Friesians as well as Danes. And it is quite possible that when conquered, it was called Finnsburg by the Friesian party and later Dankirke by the Danes.

Leaving the mythical epic echoes of the past to themselves, regulating villages in the 5th century CE may nevertheless be seen as a novelty under foreign rule trying to import one or two principles of taxation and government from the Late Antique world. Closing down the project in the early 500s fits the expansion of any national liberators. A bunch of 6th century Arminiuses succeeded in defending barbarian values against Romanized civilization once again..


[1] Summary from MS’a article in By, marsk og geest

[2] There are two reports on similar sites on the Darum hillock are:

or in Danish:

Is That a Proper Name?

2 April, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have an anthology: Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou. Since chronology is its ordering principle and since I bought it some years ago in the AUC bookstore in Cairo, because I am interested in Scandinavian Iron Age, I tend to become less interested after the third article. Actually, the third article is the one I ought to be most interested in, and I am, but I read the second one first.

It seems there’s a lot of ‘I’ in this entry.

Artistotle as he looked in the 16th century in the Monastry of Philanthropinon. Ioanninon/Aksiotheata_Ioanninon/ english_version/monh_fil.htm

Kalligas, Paul. 2002. Basil of Caesarea on the semantics of proper names. In: Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed.) Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Pp 31-48.

In Luke chapter 1 vv 57-61 we are told that:
on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, there is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.

For different reasons the name was to be John, but we understand why Elisabeth’s neighbours and cousins suggested Zacharias and wondered, why John?

Having been told to read the whole chapter faithfully or resolved on accepting it as we accept a piece of jigsaw puzzle, we take it that ‘Em Yochanan’, Mother John, an 80-year-old primigravida, has a reason to call the child John = Yochanan = ‘God [is] gracious’, and faith enough to refer to God. Moreover, God, who in this early part of Luke is still in his Old Testament mood, is teaching Zacharias a lesson, and there is quite a bullying touch in forcing the old man to accept that God is gracious.

Centre right: the elderly parents and the healthy child, haloed. Left: Mary unmarried and three month pregnant; everybody surrounded by midwives. The feeble Zacharias writes 'Yochanan'; able Elisabeth supervising his doing it corretly.

In Northwest Europe in the beginning of the 9th century AD instruction wasn’t yet that successful. In fact the story was so strange, the gap between faith and reason so wide, that the Saxon poet, who translated and rewrote the Gospels to bridge Pagan and Christian ways in newly conquered (Carolingian) Saxony, felt the need to clarify what he thought was obscured by Luke:

‘Then spoke there a skillful man, who knew so many wise words, had much sense. He eagerly asked what his (the child’s) name would be in this world: “It seems to me from his looks as well as his behavior that he is better than us and so I find that obviously God himself has sent him from Heaven”. Then at once the child’s mother, who had him, her son, that child on her lap said: “Hither came last year God’s command, the foremost of words, saying that according to God’s instruction he should be called John. Whatever I may think, I cannot change this even if I wanted to”. Then spoke an arrogant man, who was her kinsmen: “Never were any of the nobles or any of our clan called so. Let us choose another name, an agreeable name, which he may like”. Then spoke a wise man, who had much to say: “I wouldn’t advise any young warrior to start changing God’s words …”.’ Hêliand vv 208-227.[1]

When it comes to 9th c. Germanic naming traditions rather than 1st c. Jewish, we can identify two positions: (1) An old Pagan tradition seeking a name that links in with social stratification and socially acceptable qualities, which clan and family can accept and the child (grow up to) like. The point is to create a match between being and life, and naming is the start of that process. (2) A modern Christian tradition, which also seeks sociably acceptable names, however, leaving it to God (i.e. the father) to decide what a proper name is.

Cunningly, as always, the Hêliand author, whose task it was to drive home new Christian values, chose to let the young and foolishly arrogant represent old-fashioned views while the old, wise, sharp, sensible, eloquent and eager advocate the modern ones.

We tend to sympathize with the modern 9th c. view because we take a great interest in neutrally referring to unique objects, and it so happens that we don’t mind seeing any human being, be it father or son or whatever, as indeed unique. Taking this interest in ‘unique’ and ‘human’ one step further we find a reason for inventing proper names. Names, one might suggest, are ‘proper’ inasmuch as they designate an individual being. Although this sounds quite straightforward, proper names are nevertheless difficult to handle. Someone called Peter may be one of many called Peter. Individuals called Peter have for a long time been contextualized in a number of ways, e.g. in Christian societies. This means that someone called John may be ‘a Peter’. As it happens, the sentence ‘Peter is dead’ bothers noboby, despite the fact that there is no more any Peter to designate, now that he has ceased to exist. Moreover, the problems with the concept ‘being’ in relation to ‘unique’ and ‘human’ are so great that it makes sense to say: ‘Peter is dead! Long live Peter!’

Our latent interest in the individual and the unique sparks the eternal in mortals – a contradiction in terms.

Authorities, as well as parents giving their children a series of names, have tried to come up with solutions to the need for unique references, but we may still ask ourselves whether the uniquely defined 3001 1996 1126 2065-M, listening to the name Peter, is indeed the person in front of us. Immigration authorities wonder every day, at least a little, before they come up with a conclusion similar to this: ‘If your language contains some elements of the dialects of northern Somalia, then whatever you say, you cannot be designate “3001 1996 1126 2065-M, Peter from Mogadishu” because Mogadishu is southern Somalia, isn’t it? So, we send you back to Northern Somalia where you belong – and by the way, who is called Peter in Mogadishu these days?’ Like most of us, immigration officers equate designation with contextualization although it cannot always be done. Some of us understand the problem others do as they are told.

In some contexts Peter is no doubt Peter, in others he (or whoever it is) is not. ‘Peter’ may mean and means a lot, but it is only a proper name – nobody corresponds to the meaning of the name.

These are the kind of problems addressed by Paul Kalligas (PK)  in his article on Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 AD). PK writes in a genuinely analytical way, well-anchored in the history of philosophy. Since his is a philosophical approach it’s worth mentioning that philosophers, although they are interested in discussing proper names in order to define them, are also willing to take part in language games that go against any simple realtion with names.

Porphyry, the 3rd century AD philosopher born in Tyre of Phoenician parents, was given the name Malchus, i.e. a variety of the Semitic maliki, ‘My king’. When he moved to Athens to study philosophy, his teacher called him Porphyry, i.e. ‘of the purple colour’ of the Royal toga or the rock used, e.g. in busts, to depict this toga. His teacher showed his appreciation and used the pun to point out Malchus’ outstanding qualities and intellectual class travel: in these Neoplatonic circles hinting that someone was a Philosopher King was flattering. Porphyry later went on to Rome and became a leading philosopher writing textbooks that would be studied a thousand years or more. ‘Malchus’ therefore, disappeared and ceased to exist c. 260 AD, but lived on in ‘Porphyry’: a Peter of philosophy? – well not exactly. His most famous work was Against the Christians. In Rome ‘Porphyry Peter’ is odd or irony and thus a meaningful proper name. In the fourth gospel, ‘John’ tells us that the man whose ear Peter cut off was called Malchus – a third century fact?

And what might possibly be the reason why anyone interested in Scandinavian Iron Age will read about Basil, let alone Basil himself? The answer rests with the fact that Basil, amidst predictable tradition, happened to express an interesting and uncommon opinion.

Basil was engaged in a religious discussion with his contemporary Eunomius, who happened in passing to express an extreme position when it came to names. He pointed out that the nature of things corresponds to the names that God himself has given things in an appropriate way when they were born, i.e. created. Eunomius goes on to say that this, the true nature of things, can be known to man only through some kind of prophetic or apocalyptic revelation. Predictably Eunomius would argue that names and proper names are ‘in accordance with truth’ (PK p:41). Against this Basil offers the following:

It is easy to see that the name John = Yochanan = ‘God (is) gracious’ and the reasons for choosing it comes very close to Eunomius’ ideas, and if, as in this blog, we don’t understand the meaning of God’s grace when it comes to St John’s life and its gruesome end, then that is just a lack of relavation.

‘John’ was given by God and to the best of our knowledge it is in accordance with (Christian) truth. It is a proper name in the Eunomic sense. Not surprisingly we can pin the modern 9th c. understanding on Eunomius, surprisingly we can not pin it on Basil! Instead, his point of view reminds us of the young warrior belittled in Hêliand when he suggests a name that the new born will like, i.e. ‘like’ in the future when he is able to look upon himself as a human being living a life.

Basil felt that he lived in an era in which hearing the name we will at once begin to enumerate and grasp some of the peculiarities of the lives lived by one or more persons labeled by this proper name. These peculiarities may of course be indicative also of other beings with other names. As PK points out, proper names, the way Basil sees them, are similar to pronouns because they can refer to an infinite number of contexts and at the same time unite these contexts in one narrative defining any person represented by the name.

This then brings us to a vogue phenomenon concerning early if not the earliest recorded Scandinavian iron-age names and appellations. Now and then they make up a small series of contexts, labeled under a proper name that acts as a pronoun or indeed under a pronoun inasmuch as the series often starts with or incorporates ‘ek’, i.e. ‘I’.

Looking at Early Iron Age Scandinavian names (4-5th c. AD) from a general point of view, there are a number that a child may grow up to like whatever his career. They are names such as Bear—bera ; Hawk—haukz ; Nimble—wagnijo; Black—swarta; Glad—taitaz, Little New—niujila . They are simple proper names and although they are metaphorical or meaningful (and could have been acquired during adult life) they will act like ‘Peter’ in Basil’s example. This is true also of some names that refer more clearly to acquired skills, mostly martial, such as Fighter—wigaz or Little Weapon—sarula. Without knowing for sure, these could be names we grew to like rather than appellations. Conventional proper names such as these are nevertheless few in comparison with those clearly referring to a lived context. These latter names are often composite indicating a social role such as guest, servant, protector, counsellor or warden, but also simple ones referring to an acquired physical status such as Limping—lamo or Maimed—hnabdas or Bent—hakuþo; or names indicating that a community refers someone to foreign lands or a places such Finn—fina (the runestone stands in South Eastern Sweden), or (from) Holt—holtijaz. Some names may perhaps have been used as appellatives, but even complex names such as Fino Saligastiz—Finn Hallguest seems to be no more than a proper name.

It is typical of the rune names that they may all, albeit metaphorically, refer to a lived contextuality, and they can all be referred to contexts such as social roles, individual roles, warrior mentality, personal appearance, non-humans (name metaphors) and geographical origin.

If these are general characteristics there are inscriptions which make up quite elaborate collections of names referring to the contexts and peculiarities to which the person in question was related. I have chosen five examples. They all include the word erilaz, which refers to an institution and/or man, often working as a title. That is not surprising inasmuch as it is the origin of the word earl [2]:

The distribution of the inscriptions mentioned in the text

(1) ek erafaz ek naudigastiz kelbaþewas.—I (am) Wolverine I (am) Kelbaþewa’s [i.e. ewe lamb servant’s] Needguest [i.e. guest in/from/of Need].

(2) ek erilaz asugisalas muha haiteI (am) Asugisala’s erilaz [i.e. ‘the erilaz of “god’s arrow shaft”’] I am called Muha [i.e. ‘retainer/warrior’].

(3) ek erilaz saiwilagaz hateka—I erilaz I am called Sawilagaz [i.e. ‘the seaman giving oath’ or ‘the cunning man (, who is) from the sea’].

(4) ek irilaz liubaz hite, harabanaz haite runaz wraitu— I erilaz I am called balmy*, I was called raven I wrote the runes**.
* This in NOT slang! **This runestone stands in Järsberg in Värmland

(5) Fahiðu wil-ald wigaz ek erilazI painted (the runes on) the crafty-work, wigaz I erilaz [i.e.’ (I am) warrior I (am) erilaz’]*
*’Crafty work’ refers to the gold brecteate carrying the inscription. ‘ek’ is moved to a position between wigaz and erilaz making it unstressed to befit the meter fornyrðislag: fahiðu wil-ald – wigaz ek erilaz – two half lines each with two stressed syllables, 5+6 syllables, assonances on w. Dropping the ‘ek’ and putting it back again one hears the rhymnic qualities of the unstressed ‘ek’ and why it is needed to make the half line and the names a suitable conclusion.


The point in this kind of naming is to build up the ‘ek’ with one or more names and appellatives linked to a pronoun. Even names referring to other persons come in handy inasmuch as they contextualize the I of the proper name. Typically, the noun erilaz drifts towards appellative and proper name because of the way nouns are used to describe men. Originally, erilaz was probably an occupation, the forerunner of ‘earl’ in the sense of being ‘someone’s erilaz’, however informally. But in (5) Fahiðu wil-ald wigaz ek erilaz—I painted the artefact–Wigaz I Earl, in which wigaz means’ warrior’ and erilaz ‘earl’, we can’t know the precise status of the nouns, they may be proper names, appellatives or even nouns. The inscription nevertheless describes the man as (rune) painter, warrior and earl. The proper name need not be there at all because the pronoun (‘ek’) is there to harbour all the other appellations. The inscriptions are similar to Basil’s peculiarities because they link name and pronoun.

Most series are tied to a moment in the present, but in (4) ‘I erilaz, I am (called) delightful, I was (called) hawk I wrote the runes’, there seems to be a timeline including the actual writing in order to describe a man with a past, who as erilaz is eternal presence. Since there are no more runes on this stone the inscription is all about contextualizing erilaz or Erilaz.

The rune inscriptions link in with a common tendency during the Late Roman Iron Age and the early Pre Carolingian Iron Age to exhibit individuality, e.g. in graves (cf. On the Reading Rest: Roland of Ellekilde, 6 February 2012). In the graves as well as in ‘name narratives’, the ‘I contextualized’ is all that matters, even in case the man’s original proper name, such as Muha or Erafaz, is involved. As Basil suggests, … the appellations of Peter and Paul and all persons in general are distinct, yet the substance of all is one. The way contemporary Scandinavians looked upon the naming of men seems thus to equal Basil’s point of view: the essential thing is keeping the appellations together by means of a proper name functioning as a label and enhanced pronoun. In Scandinavian literacy as we know it, the pronoun ‘I’ tend to squeeze out the proper name.

This means that in the 4th century AD what rang a bell in Basil rings in Scandinavian writers too. Basil as well as the barbarians fell back on the same in the Mediterranean area non-traditional understanding of names. In Neoplatonic or Christian Late Antiquity it was an intellectual eye opener to Basil. Among barbarians in the 4th c. AD it was a simple practice, a vogue seeking to contextualize outstanding individuality, and easy to explain with reference to a society rapidly stratifying itself. This is not a question of diffusion, but rather a matter of latent ways of acting and thinking triggered by cultural intercourse, such as enrolling barbarians in the Roman army.

In the end therefore, we may add Erilaz to Basil’s Peter and Paul and rewrite his conclusion: So that the name, on the one hand demarcates for us the character of Peter, but, on the other hand, it in no way represents the substance itself. Again hearing ‘Paul’ we grasped a concurrence of other peculiarities: ‘the one from Tarsus, ‘the Jew, ‘the Pharisee according to law, ‘the student of Gamaliel’ … … all these are encompassed by the single sound ‘Paul’. And hearing ‘Erilaz’ we proceed to grasp ‘the balmy man’, ‘he who was called Raven’, ‘the writer of runes in Järsberg’.

What is important to Basil as well as the Scandinavians is saying ‘Peter, he who is … …’, ‘Paul, he who is … … ‘ and ‘Erliaz, he who is … … ‘.It turned out that in the long run the Scandinavian heroes, contrary to the heroes of Christianity, lacked supporters and we can only rely on Erilaz telling us: ‘Erilaz, I who am … … .’


[1] If you want the whole story, there are several translations of Hêliand. G. Ronald Murphy’s The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (1992) New York: Oxford University Press, is very readable.

[2] There is a lot on the net about erilaz, but one might as well read Mees, Bernhard. 2003. Runic “erilaR’. NOWELE, 42:41-68.

Albeit in Swedish all names can be checked in Lena Peterson’s dictionary at:

One can find the runetexts on Samnordisk runtextdatabas at: