A Visual Tour through Late Antiquity

With an emphasis on Gaul and the time of Gregory of Tours

compiled by Steve Muhlberger
initially for the benefit of Nipissing University students
in HIST 4505, Topics in Medieval History: The World of Gregory of Tours
These images are available thanks to Professor Haines Brown of Connecticut State University. They and many more can be found at his Images from History Site.

There is not a great deal of visual material from sixth-century Gaul. However, the viewer can get some feeling for the era by looking at a variety of material of Roman and barbarian origin. The world of Gregory of Tours was influenced by the traditions of the late Roman aristocracy, of the Christian churches, and of the barbarian warrior aristocracies that seized power in many western regions during the fifth and sixth centuries. I have included here some samples of each tradition. Please forgive the fact that some pictures and artifacts predate Gregory by more than a century, and some are taken from areas quite distant from Gregory's home town of Tours. The purpose of this tour is to give your imagination something to work with when you try to visualize the world of Gregory.

Late Roman Court and Aristocracy

Gregory's own family had a Roman aristocratic background. The following ivory carvings, mosaics, and other artifacts are products of the most aristocratic milieu, the Roman imperial court. Other aristocratic circles very often took their lead from the court.

An ivory portrait of Stilicho. This is an idealized portrait of a late Roman general. Stilicho, like many military figures of the late empire, was a "barbarian" by birth, a Vandal to be specific. In Stilicho's time, c. 400 A.D., the imperial service and assimilation to Roman standards were still the road to fortune (he married into the imperial family). By the end of the fifth century, though, many similar generals were emphasizing their barbarian heritage, and setting themselves up as the kings of independent peoples.

An ivory portrait of the sixth-century Roman consul Basilius, shown with a symbolic figure of Roma (R). Consuls, who in republican Rome were the highest officials of the state, were still chosen in the early sixth-century A.D. This ivory carving shows how high imperial dignitaries dressed on the most formal of occasions.

A fifth-century Roman consul watches the chariot races. In late ancient times, the old chariot races were still the centerpiece of imperial festivals. Some barbarian kings imitated this custom.

A mounted soldier symbolizing victory. Although this ivory carving dates from the sixth century, its style is influenced by earlier, classical art.

Imperial Art of Sixth-Century Ravenna

This section, too, shows imperial and aristocratic art. These images come from Ravenna in northern Italy, a city which was an imperial sub-capital in the lifetime of Gregory of Tours. A number of churches in and near Ravenna preserve striking mosaic depictions of the imperial court and of the milieu of high-ranking bishops. In particular, they give us some notion of what rich and important folk wore in the Roman empire of the sixth century. No doubt Frankish royalty and Gallic aristocrats were influenced to some degree by these fashions from farther east and south.

The emperor Justinian (d. 565) and his retinue.

A dignitary from Justinian's retinue.

The empress Theodora and her retinue.

Close-up of the empress Theodora.

Two men in Theodora's retinue

A woman in Theodora's retinue.

Bishop Apollinaris. St. Apollinaris, here shown in bishop's vestments, in a mosaic from the church dedicated to him.

Episcopal throne from Ravenna. All bishops of the era were entitled to sit in thrones. Since the Patriarch of Ravenna was a particularly important bishop, his throne was of carved ivory. Here is another view, and a detail of the carvings.

An impressionistic depiction of the imperial palace.

The emperor Justinian, depicted with a nimbus, like a saint. Imperial power, claimed the emperors, came from God, and they were seen as leaders of the church.

This picture shows the interior of St. Apollinare, a still standing example of a sixth-century church. Above the arches can be seen a mosaic depicting a procession of martyrs. Here is a close-up of the procession, led by St. Martin (d. 397), Gregory of Tours' saintly predeccesor at Tours.

Here is another interior shot of St. Apollinare, showing a procession of virgins.

One of the virgins with the Magi. The Magi are wearing "Gallic caps" and shorter tunics than the courtiers.

Again from Ravenna, an emperor from a much later time than Gregory of Tours: Constantine IV grants tax relief to a bishop. Gregory also appreciated rulers who reduced or abolished taxes.

Gallic Art of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries

I've included in this section art produced in Gaul in the Roman tradition, both during Roman rule in Gaul and after. You will note that almost all of it has a Christian inspiration. One reason for this is that churches have preserved their late antique treasures down to modern times.

A late fourth-century carving showing St. Peter with the legionaries in the Garden of Gesthemene.

A fifth-century depiction of Peter and Paul, in ivory.

A fifth-century glass beaker from the Rhineland. The Rhine frontier was during Roman times a center of imperial power, and thus experienced much economic development. Some of this, such as the glass industry, survived the collapse of Roman power on the Rhine, when the area became a center of Frankish influence.

A fifth-century chalice and paten used to celebrate the mass. The work is in gold decorated with colored gems or glass, a polychrome style popular among the barbarians -- but perhaps not just among them.

An ivory buckle from the tomb of Caesarius of Arles, early 6th c.; Burgundian style, Roman motifs, buried with a Roman bishop.

Another ivory carving of St. Peter, 6th or 7th century.

A sixth-century sarcophagus from Aquitaine, showing Christ between Peter and Paul.

The wooden reading desk of St. Radegund, a famous nun whom Gregory knew personally.

Stone tomb slab of Bishop Boethius of Carpentras, d. 604, ten years after Gregory of Tours. Note that the carver, presumably an illiterate, has put the "alpha" and "omega" on backwards. What is the significance of such carelessness?

Christ depicted on limestone slab, before 620.

Frankish art and artifacts

Much of what we know about the Franks comes from analysis of items they buried with their dead, a custom that was very important (and not just among Franks) in the sixth century. Although the contrast between this "barbaric" art and "Romano-Gallic" art is apparently great, we can't say that people chose their artistic or symbolic loyalties on the basis of their ancestral background. For instance, the weaponry and its decoration has both Roman and non-Roman antecedents. However, it is almost certainly true that those who followed "Frankish" fashions were trying to demonstrate a connection with the new warlords, whatever their actual ancestry.

A selection of Frankish gravegoods from North French and Rhineland sites, up to the sixth century.

Some sixth-century glass Frankish gravegoods.

A pitcher, made of raised bronze on wood, from around 500, showing both Roman and Frankish influences.

A Frankish helmet from a grave c. 525. Helmets of this sort were originally Persian, and were used by Romans as well as barbarians. It could have been made by Romans or Franks.

Royal gravegoods

Some of the graves of the royal Franks have been discovered and excavated. They contained artifacts meant to demonstrate the power and glory of both the deceased and their surviving kin.

A swordhilt and scabbard from the grave of Childeric, father of Clovis, late 5th c.; this polychrome is made of garnets in gold.

Another polychrome piece, a buckle, from a post-Childeric grave.

Two fibulas -- broaches or clasps -- from a Frankish princess's grave, first half of the sixth century.

A sixth-century broach influenced by styles from the steppes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

A sketch of the Frankish queen Arnegundis, d. c. 570, as archaeologists found her (L) and as they believe she was dressed for her burial (R). Note that her costume is not all that close to that of the Roman courtiers depicted in Ravenna. Her inner skirt was knee length and worn over stockings.

The jewelry of Queen Arnegundis.

The throne of King Dagobert, seventh-century Frankish king.

The End!

More late ancient images can be found through:

Return to the World of Gregory of Tours home page.

Write me.

Nipissing University Disclaimer