Luciano Gallinari – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium 3, Panel 2: Circulation (pdf)

(*En Portugués aquí; En Español aquí; En français ici)

The first consideration I want to make on the texts of the “Circulation” panel and on the territories analyzed by the respective authors in relation to Sardinia, which I have dealt with, is that as far as the island is concerned, the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the eleventh century – when the island systematically reappears in Western sources – is characterized by a considerable scarcity of written sources produced in the island and about it: few imperial epigraphs, several seals of Byzantine officials, and some mention in hagiographic work and in public documents from outside the island. The only notable exceptions are the thirty-nine epistles of Gregory the Great dedicated to Sardinia.

The essays of this symposium highlight the limitation of literary sources for Visigothic history, which is the case too for Sardinia. Yet, fascinating re-interpretations of archaeological, epigraphic and also textual (narrative and public) sources are emerging through new methodological approaches. In the last few years, I have been trying to develop a reading of the sources of the history of early medieval Sardinia, considered a historiographical laboratory, through the application of social scientific – e.g. cultural anthropological, psychological, sociological and philosophical – methods.

This has allowed me to expand the data available to the scholarly community and added to the interpretations of the historical events of Sardinia. This new reading places the island increasing within a broader geographical and cultural context than previously, as is happening here in the Visigothic Symposia project, through a parallelism between the island and the Visigothic Hispania of the early Middle Ages. Through a reading of the social sciences, even the few sources available reveal data, show additional threads that intertwine the island with the Mediterranean and Europe. In the following pages, I highlight how these emergent threads connect also with the other texts of the panel.

I find interesting some of the considerations made by Tomás Cordero Ruiz, “At the Center and the Periphery of Lusitania: The Evolution of the City of Egitania and its Territory (4th-8th centuries),” regarding the theme of the periphery/city relationship in the region of Lusitania in the Roman Empire and in the period immediately following its disappearance. The role of the Church is fundamental for its political, social and economic influence in maintaining another territorial administration based on previous Roman Imperial institutions. This element has to be linked with the equally fundamental factor mentioned by the author, that is, the role of cities, which were the core of their territory, institutionally interrelated and points of communication with the metropolis of Rome and the Empire. These considerations already suggest parallels with the situation of Sardinia in the same chronological period that I deal with, and make me think that we must reflect further on the notion of periphery. As peripherality, isolation is a concept that tends to be applied almost automatically to some regions of the Mediterranean or in relation to the Empire, as well as to other political subjects centered even more in northern Europe.

From the point of view of planning, economic and social management of the territories, however, it is necessary to make some important distinctions between Lusitania in the late Roman, Suevic and then Visigothic periods and the contemporary situation in Sardinia, due to the different course of events. I remind the reader briefly that the island fell into the hands of the Vandals in the fifth century for about eighty years, until the first decades of the sixth century when the Vandal kingdom was eliminated by the Renovatio Imperii of Justinian I. In 554, with the Pragmatica sanctio, Sardinia became one of the provinces of the Prefecture of Africa. In Lusitania, “various documents demonstrate the interest of the Church and the Visigothic monarchy in maintaining and recovering the provincial unit lost during the fifth century.”[1] This twofold action meant that “the interrelations of countryside and city would have become in this period defined by their heterogeneity and the fragmentation of territorial jurisdiction” on which, however, overlaps a structure of control built substantially by the Church.[2] In Sardinia, instead, the documents of the sixth and seventh centuries do not reveal any civil competence for the island’s bishops; on the contrary, they show how the prelates often had to defend themselves from continuous interference by imperial officials in their spheres of action. Nevertheless, and here we can make another parallel with Lusitania, the Sardinian Church turned out to be the true economic power of the island: unlike the lay landowners, it managed to overcome the crisis of the sixth century, returning to the land and becoming an important owner through the bishops. The curiales of the late Empire, on the other hand, left part of their prerogatives to the high clergy when the central power became too weak to control the administration and had to rely on the local notables. The true difference, on the other hand, was the presence in Sardinia of the real Roman Empire, able for about two centuries to operate actively in the island’s territory before its gradual decline, attested to by a range of sources and precipitated perhaps also by the Arab expansion.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that the Visigothic conquest of the Suevic Kingdom in 585 led to the reconstitution of the administrative unit of the ancient Roman province of Lusitania, broken up in the fifth century. Once again, the parallel with Sardinia is stimulating: for the island, we have to replace the term Sueves with that of Vandals: so the difference was that in the Iberian Peninsula the Byzantine Empire never regained the entire territory. The Sueves, like Justinian, had the same objective of re-establishing the Roman Province. This also involved the reunification of the dioceses of the Catholic churches of Conimbriga, Viseu, Lamecum and Egitania, at the Metropolitan Chair of Emerita. The parallels in this case are even more remarkable if we consider that the part of Lusitania that fell into Suevic hands was re-Romanized by another Germanic people, namely the Visigoths and not, as in Sardinia, directly by the Eastern Romans. All in all, the model of operation remains that of the Empire, so once again we must reflect on the alleged extension of the concept of peripherality. Because at this point it would extend from Sardinia, located in front of the Italian peninsula, to Lusitania, the western end of the Iberian Peninsula: half of the western part of the Empire would be practically remote.

Equally intriguing for me are Pablo Díaz’s methodological considerations about the use of interpretative categories and tools that come from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and psychology in order to reconstruct individual and/or even group social relations within early medieval societies. The danger that the Spanish scholar sees and describes in his contribution, “Sociability and Sense of Belonging:Community Interaction in the Work of Valerius of Bierzo,” is concrete, because many historians, not being sufficiently expert in the use of these methodological tools, frequently overlap the data of the sources with their own theoretical constructions, ideas and concepts of sociability that make it more difficult for the historian to interpret the past. This inappropriate use of such methodologies can also be found with regard to early medieval Sardinia, as I have pointed out in some of my most recent work.

These tools of the social sciences are more necessary than ever, precisely in order to try to analyze the way the useful data of the autobiography of Valerius of Bierzo, written around 700, that is, eleven years before the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs, which the Spanish historian analyzes in his essay. This work of Valerius is set in a well-defined territory of the Visigothic kingdom at the end of its existence and offers a rich harvest of data for the historian, the anthropologist, and the archaeologist. Another element that I would like to highlight in this text and that also returns in the essay by Cordero Ruiz in the context of this panel, is the concept of peripherality attributed to the region of Bierzo within the Visigothic kingdom. It is a notion widely used also for early-medieval Sardinia even in recent times by Italian and foreign historiography, as I highlighted in my essay. It is a key to reading that I do not share and that in my opinion is denied by the same sources available (I speak for Sardinia, of course).

However, despite this “limitation,” of the region of Bierzo and those of Valerius as author, which are highlighted by Diaz (“[he] was not a great theologian and did not enjoy much public influence, and has not been judged highly as a writer”[3]) – the practice of altering some episodes of his own biography “to reinforce the value of his moralizing and undertaking,”[4]and introducing “details to show that he is a person beloved by God, even a privileged mediator between divinity and his fellow”[5]– it seems to me that precisely a “peripheral” region like Bierzo and a text such as that of Valerius allow us to shed light on many aspects of daily life, social stratigraphy and power relations within the broader Visigothic kingdom shortly before its disappearance. Similar methodological and historical considerations can be made (as I have done for some time now) about Byzantine Sardinia.

So, provocatively, has the presumed historical peripherality of the early Middle Ages turned into a (historiographical) centrality in the 21st century? I have often observed that regions considered “peripheral” and “isolated” prove to be invaluable tools for reconstructing the institutional, social and cultural structures of their respective “centers.” Once again, therefore, historical reconstruction forces us to ask ourselves not only how many methodological tools we use, but also how we use them to interpret events and their protagonists.

A confirmation of the need to use the concept of periphery and center with increasing caution when we speak here of the Byzantine Mediterranean and beyond, in my opinion, is offered by Luís Fontes, “The Circulation of Models in the Construction of Christian Identity in the Northwest Iberian Peninsula: Architecture and Hagiotoponymy in the Braga Region.” Fontes offers much data and stimuli for historical reflection and allows us to see in depth the cultural and artistic links between the Braga region, also apparently peripheral, and the Byzantine world in the broadest sense of the term.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries – “a period of great constructive activity, as seen through the construction of thousands of Christian sites by bishops, clergy, lay patrons and Christian communities,”[6] Bracara Augusta and its region show that they are extremely receptive to the styles and architectural methods of building churches and basilicas, as was the case throughout the western Mediterranean. In addition to the planimetric solutions and some stylistic details coming from the Eastern Church, but also from the more Byzantine Italian regions (Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna), there is another important element that concerns the size and the high quality of these religious buildings. Elements that can be explained by the will of the Suevic sovereigns to use them to construct a “discourse” about their public power and social status. I would like to point out that in Sardinia too, a few centuries after Bierzo – at the end of the tenth and first half of the eleventh century – the Iudices (Archontas) of Calari, the rulers direct heirs of the Archon of Sardinia, were the authors of “discourses” of affirmation and consolidation of their dynasty through the embellishment of some pre-existing churches with marble decorations of high level of Byzantine origin, coming from Campania, seat of some policies of imperial origin that acted as a bridge between Sardinia and Byzantium.

Another remarkable element which further underlines the close relations with the Eastern Mediterranean is the high number of churches in the Braga region dedicated to “holy martyrs from Eastern churches, many of whom were venerated exclusively in the Iberian Peninsula.”[7] The cults of these eastern martyrs traveled on long-distance trade routes that crossed the Mediterranean in Roman times and during the early Middle Ages. In this regard, it may be interesting to make an almost chronological parallelism with Sardinia on the migration of monks and also of Passiones of martyrs from the East in the Byzantine era, although the first known codices are a bit later. Yet, there are references to these martyrs in other hagiographical works that, for instance, point out the presence of the disciples of Theodore the Studite in Sardinia. These show how such cults and texts before reaching the Iberian Peninsula also passed through the greatest Mediterranean islands and left precious impressions on the institutional and ecclesiastical structure of Sardinia; they further contribute to illustrating the profound connections between the western “periphery” of the Mediterranean (i.e., the Iberian Peninsula) and the eastern end (i.e., the Syrian coast).

The fourth essay of the panel (in addition to mine) also helps to demonstrate the close ties that united the Iberian Peninsula with the entire Mediterranean basin in the early Middle Ages. To do this, Andrew Kurt, in “Visigothic Currency in its Making and Movement: A Varying State of Circumstances,” uses the currency with which he can highlight “a general shift of the international commerce from the Ebro River region to a broad area of the center-south” of the Peninsula.[8] Nevertheless, Kurt points out that “a wide trans-Mediterranean and intra-peninsular trade still flourished into at least the first half of the sixth century.”[9] Kurt’s text intertwines Visigoth Hispania with the rest of the Mediterranean, and with the other articles of the panel, including my own. The data examined contributes to the conclusion that the Iberian Peninsula was not isolated. As Kurt argues, “northwestern Iberia experienced trade of Eastern Mediterranean origin as a result of Byzantine commerce with Britain. Recent account of Visigothic Spain’s trading activities with distant points within the Mediterranean is enlarging the geographic and for certain locations the chronological scope.”[10] These trade routes linking the Byzantine Levant to Hispania were the same as those that covered not only goods but also people (monks, traders, soldiers, etc.), ideas and cultural and technological innovations (craftsmen, artists, etc.) as mentioned by Luís Fontes and Tomás Cordero Ruiz regarding architectural influences.

In conclusion, the essays of the panel “Circulation” (except for mine on which I obviously cannot comment), seems to me to collectively offer the reader many points of historical and historiographical reflection and are well-connected to one another, thanks to the wise choice of the editors of the series.


[1] Tomás Cordero Ruiz, “At the Center and the Periphery of Lusitania: The Evolution of the City of Egitania and its Territory (4th-8th centuries),” Visigothic Symposia 3 (2018): 90.

[2] Idem.

[3] Pablo C. Díaz, “Sociability and Sense of Belonging:Community Interaction in the Work of Valerius of Bierzo,” Visigothic Symposia3 (2018): 114.

[4] Idem.

[5] Ibid., 115.

[6] Luís Fontes, “The Circulation of Models in the Construction of Christian Identity in the Northwest Iberian Peninsula: Architecture and Hagiotoponymy in the Braga Region,” Visigothic Symposia 3 (2018): 131.

[7] Ibid., 136.

[8] Andrew Kurt, “Visigothic Currency in its Making and Movement: A Varying State of Circumstances,” Visigothic Symposia 3 (2018): 181.

[9] Idem.

[10] Ibid., 182.


Cordero Ruiz, Tomás. “At the Center and the Periphery of Lusitania: The Evolution of the City of Egitania and its Territory (4th-8th centuries).” Visigothic Symposia 3 (2018): 88-111.

Díaz, Pablo C. “Sociability and Sense of Belonging:Community Interaction in the Work of Valerius of Bierzo.”Visigothic Symposia3 (2018): 112-29.

Fontes, Luís. “The Circulation of Models in the Construction of Christian Identity in the Northwest Iberian Peninsula: Architecture and Hagiotoponymy in the Braga Region.”Visigothic Symposia3 (2018): 130-50.

Kurt, Andrew. “Visigothic Currency in its Making and Movement: A Varying State of Circumstances.” Visigothic Symposia3 (2018): 165-97.