History & Silence

I have just finished reading History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2000), written by Charles W. Hedrick, Jr., who is Professor of Ancient History in Cowell College of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The book details the way that the memory of a member of the Roman senatorial elite, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (d.394) was purged and then rehabilitated in the late Roman Empire. Flavian, a pagan senator, was implicated in the revolt of Eugenius against the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great in 394. Due to the fact that Theodosius was a Christian the revolt has frequently been interpreted as one last attempt by the pagan elite of the Empire to stem the tide of Christianization (p.39-46). According to one early life of Ambrose, the famous bishop of Milan, when Eugenius and Flavian marched out of Milan, where they had set up court, to do battle with Theodosius at the River Frigidus, they assured Ambrose that they would win. And when they returned they would turn Ambrose’s cathedral into a stable (p.45). But the two-day battle was won by Theodosius—victory being credited to a wind that God sent in response to the prayers of Theodosius. Eugenius was executed on the field of battle and Flavian compelled to commit suicide.

Hedrick does a brilliant job of using the way Flavian’s memory was purged and rehabilitated to analyze the mindset and politics behind what was called damnatio memoriae, namely the way in which the Roman state sought to destroy the memory of a dead public enemy. Along the way there are some excellent discussions of such things as the nature of history, the rehabilitation of a text and the role of silence.

With regard to the latter, Hedrick notes that “the theme of silence is pervasive in most historical writing” (p.131) for the historian is nothing less than the “guardian of memory”—seeking to recall what many have forgotten—and the “vindicator of silence”—speaking about things that had been shrouded in silence (p.135). Both of these are good—and we should add classic—descriptions of what it means to do history.