Paul the Deacon: A Reader

Stories from Paul the Deacon: A Latin Reader for GCSE,
A-Level and University Students,
Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Comprehensive Vocabulary
by Sean Gabb


The purpose of this book is to give students a set of readings that are in genuine but fairly simple Latin, and that are interesting in themselves, and that are accompanied by a Vocabulary in which nearly every word used in the text is fully-explained. I hope it will be useful to GCSE and A-Level students, and to undergraduates who are beginning an accelerated course in Latin. Nor do I forget students in home-education or those who are trying to learn Latin by themselves.

One of the difficulties that students of Latin at any level face is a lack of reading material that is both original and accessible. Both qualities are important. For beginners, the second of these is probably more important. If you have learned—even perhaps memorised—the grammar and rules of syntax, you have not yet learned Latin. If you are able to read a sentence by looking for the main verb, and then any subject, and then their dependent parts, you have still not learned Latin. You have learned only how to decode. You have learned the language when you are able to read an entire passage, quickly and accurately, without being consciously aware of the rules you are applying. This is an ability that comes from several hundred hours of practice—practice with texts that are not of forbidding complexity.

Now, there is, for beginners, no shortage of written material. I think, for example, of the excellent Latin Stories by Cullen, Dormandy and Tayor. The texts are both easy and interesting. They allow vocabulary to be learned and habits of understanding to be absorbed almost without conscious effort. They take a reader who has mastered the basics of grammar and syntax, and finish somewhat beyond the level required by the latest GCSE specification. Here, though, the guiding hand is largely withdrawn.

At A-Level, if the unseen texts are hardly beyond the level of Latin Stories, the prescribed texts are in entirely genuine Latin—and these can, at this stage, be of forbidding complexity. The classical writers did not set out to be accessible even to their own average contemporaries. Going to them straight from GCSE is rather like trying to clean windows from a ladder too short for their height. It can be done, with much standing on tiptoe, and much outstretching of arms. But Cicero’s Pro Milone is more often started than finished. So too Book VIII of The Aeneid, and the various other texts currently prescribed. Not surprisingly, many students at A-Level give up on direct engagement, preferring to memorise the texts together with their translations.

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I have prepared this book with these students largely in mind. As a writer, Paul the Deacon (c.720-799) stands at a level intermediate between Latin Stories and the Roman classics. A further advantage is that the extracts given here are in entirely genuine Latin. Turn forward to any of the texts, and you are reading the unaltered prose of a man whose working language was Latin. Paul is a writer of much enthusiasm and curiosity. He is lucid and often graceful, and variously learned and sceptical and colloquial. He has a grim sense of humour, and a sense of history. He knows how to tell a story, and how to weave his stories into an extended narrative. He is justly called the Herodotus of the Middle Ages.

Though I have an obvious bias, I think he is as enjoyable as Livy, and he shows a greater respect for the truth than Tacitus. All this you can know for yourself, sure that no editor has been through it, changing words here and there, or stripping out subordinate clauses. In short, I give you a master of Latin prose who, without tampering, can be read and appreciated with an intermediate knowledge of Latin. To go back to my analogy of the windowcleaner, this book adds another half-dozen rungs to the ladder.

So much for A-Level. What of GCSE? My answer is that, if somewhat beyond, Paul is not too far beyond the level required. If you are studying Latin at GCSE not just for another set of points towards your university application, but as a path into one of the most interesting and abundant of all literatures, I can think of few writers more suitable than Paul the Deacon. All that I have said above still applies. Put in the minimum effort to read him, and it will be hard to emerge from the GCSE without a Level 9.

As for university and other students, I have probably said enough already. But Paul is genuine. He is accessible. He is interesting. I do defy anyone to start on one of the passages selected, and not to want to finish it, and not to want to move to the next.

The Language

There is an old prejudice, dating from the Renaissance, against the Latin authors of the Middle Ages. They are said to write of childish things, and in an obscure and barbarous jargon. They are despised for failing to write exactly like Cicero and Tacitus. This is an absurd prejudice. What we call Mediaeval Latin was written for about a thousand years, beginning perhaps in the fourth century, with Saint Jerome’s translation of The Bible. As with any other language, it was used by writers of limited understanding, but also by writers of genius. If it was not usually written in exactly the style of the Latin classics, that is because a language changes over time. New words are needed to express new ideas, or old words are put to new uses. Styles of composition change to accommodate new mental habits, or to reach out to new audiences.

But, to focus only on the present writer, I do not think Paul’s Historia Langobardorum would have been meaningless to Livy. Certainly, Paul had received an excellent education in the Roman and the Greek classics. If I have marked in my footnotes some of the main departures from classical usage, the difference in Latin between Livy and Paul is no greater than the difference in English between John Milton and John Bunyan. We do not sneer at either English writer because he failed to write like the other. If we must, we should regard Paul as more rungs on the ladder towards the Roman classics. If we can, we should enjoy him for himself.

As said, I have supplied a dictionary that covers nearly every word used in the text. For some students, I have no doubt this will be excessive. Do you really need to be told the meaning of binus and digredior? For others, this will justify the price of the book. The whole meaning of a passage can often be lit up by finding the meaning of one unknown word; and it is useful to have both text and dictionary between one set of covers. Even with a good knowledge of Word for Windows, and some of Visual Basic, compiling the dictictionary was a laborious task, and I hope it will be useful to someone.

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As for the notes, I have tried to strike a balance between leaving readers to work out for themselves the details of a period that is largely unknown outside a handful of university departments, and making every name of a person or place into a small essay. I give a short reading list at the end of this Address. Or there is Wikipedia. One of the open secrets of modern education is that students are warned not to use this, and are penalised if they reference it. Yet everyone, teachers as well as students, uses it. I agree that, if you are researching Donald Trump, or anything about the Middle East, Wikipedia at any one moment is a snapshop of a dispute between rival teams of fanatics. But, if you want to know how the Lombards conquered Italy, or how Constans II tried to take it back, what you find on Wikipedia is probably reliable. Otherwise, I will now give a short background to Paul’s History that will be useful to anyone whose knowledge becomes hazy after the death of Augustus and only sharpens again at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Historical Background

In 395, following a century of experiment, the Roman Empire was divided into Eastern and Western administrative zones, with joint Emperors in Rome and in Constantinople. The purpose was to let each Emperor deal with the pressure on his own critical frontiers—the barbarians along the Rhine and Danube frontiers in the West, and the Persians along the Euphrates and desert frontiers in the East.

In theory, each Emperor was equal. In practice, the Eastern Emperor, ruling from Constantinople, was soon the senior partner. During the next two hundred years, becoming increasingly Greek in language in culture, the Eastern Empire flourished, and Constantinople became one of the largest and most opulent cities in the world.

The Western Empire went into immediate and rapid decline. In 406, barbarians crossed the Rhine in large numbers, and broke into Italy. In 410, they sacked Rome. By then, the Western Capital had been moved to Ravenna, a city in North Eastern Italy, impregnable behind marshes, and within easy reach of the frontiers—and within easier reach of Constantinople.

During the next seventy years, the Barbarians took France and Spain and North Africa from the Empire. Britain remained in the Empire, but its people were told to look to their own defence. In 476, the last Western Emperor was deposed. By 500, the whole of the Western Empire had been replaced by a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms.

After 527, the Emperor Justinian began to reach out from Constantinople to reconquer the lost Western provinces. He recovered North Africa and Italy and part of Spain. However, the effort was exhausting. After his death in 568, the Empire lost much of Italy to the Lombard barbarians, and Rome itself fell under papal domination. Slavic and Avar barbarians crossed the Danube and conquered and burned all the way to Athens and the walls of Constantinople. After 602, the Persians began a war of destruction against the Empire. Though they ultimately lost, they did briefly take Egypt and Syria.

The Persians suffered total defeat by the Empire in the 620s. This did not lead to an age of restored peace. Instead, the chaos of the war, plus environmental changes that I mention without discussing, allowed the first eruption of Islam. Once again, the Empire lost Egypt and Syria, now for good. This was not the end. Not only did the Empire manage what no else has—to fight Radical Islam to a halt—it also evolved into the Glory that was Mediaeval Byzantium. But this takes me outside the scope of my Historical Background.

Returning to Italy, this was, by 600, divided between the Empire and the Lombards, while the Papacy sat largely on the fence. Governed by an Exarch, or Viceroy, the remaining Imperial possessions in Italy had their capital in Ravenna, a city in the North. Because of the Emperor’s preoccupation with the Persian and later with the Arab Wars, the Exarch was effectively his own man. He could rule and make war or peace as he pleased.

When the Lombards first entered Italy, they were a most savage race of barbarians. They were also highly intelligent. Unlike the Avars and the Huns, they destroyed only when they were resisted. Unlike the Ostrogoths, no amount of Imperial diplomacy or direct military action was enough to dislodge them. Within fifty years, they had converted to Christianity. Their higher classes had adopted both Latin and the wider Roman culture. Their ambition was to become the rulers of a Latin and Christian and prosperous Italy, more or less at peace with the Eastern Empire. Their capital was sometimes Pavia, another city in Northern Italy, and sometimes Milan.

Paul the Deacon

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Paul the Deacon—known in Latin as Paulus Diaconus, and also called Paulus Casinensis, Paulus Levita, and Winfrid son of Warnefrid) —was born some time about 720 at Fruili in North Eastern Italy. Leupichis, one of his ancestors, had entered Italy with Alboin in 568, and been granted lands close by Friuli. During the Avar invasion of c.611, the five sons of Leupchis were carried off into captivity. But one was able to return and continue the family line. His grandson, Warnfrid, married a certain Theudelinda, and their son was Paul.

He seems to have been educated at the court of King Ratchis in Pavia. Studying under Flavianus the Grammarian, he followed the Latin curriculum standard to his age, but also learnt Greek. We can presume that he was fluent in the language of his own people, though his first language may have been Latin, or whatever intermediary stage between this and Italian was commonly spoken in his day.

He may have been secretary to Desiderius, the next King of the Lombards. We know that he was tutor to the King’s daughter, Adelperga. After Pavia was taken by Charlemagne in 774, he moved to the court of Duke Archis at Benevento. He then became a monk at Monte Cassino. In 782, he joined the court of Charlemagne, where, with Alcuin and Einhard, he played a distinguished part in the Carolingian revival of learning. He died on the 13th April, probably in 799.

His first literary work, produced at the request of Duchess Adelperga, was the Historia Romana, a revised and expanded version of Eutropius. To this he added two further books, carrying the history to the time of Justinian. Another of his works, Liber de Espicopis Mettensibus, is a history of the Bishops of Metz, which contains an account of the family and ancestors of Charlemagne. He composed numerous other works, both in prose and in verse.

His most important work is the Historia Gentis Langobardorum Libri Sex, known in English as The History of the Lombards. He wrote this in old age, and left it unfinished at his death. What we have, though, is a connected narrative of Lombard History from the earliest days in Scandinavia to 774, when the Lombard Kingdom was incorporated into the Empire of Charlemagne.

Paul’s general theme is obvious. He tells how the Lombards, a people of exceptional courage and intelligence, move from the freezing wastes of the North in search of a better home. They leave behind them other barbarians of decidedly low quality. In their wanderings, they fight or join with other peoples. At last, they are invited into Italy—a dubious though a convenient claim—and take it for themselves. The Lombards are not like other barbarians. These are either little better than the beasts of the field, or they have a taste for gang-rape and impalement. They are not like the treacherous and degenerate Greeks. They rule for the most part justly, and are insensibly assimilated into the language and culture of the land. They protect the land from enemies who mean it nothing but ill.

You see this most clearly in Book V, the main part of which deals with the attempted reconquest of Italy by the Empire. This should be seen as Paul’s counterpart to the Persian invasion in Herodotus. The contrast is at all times sharp between Western courage and honour and the degraded state of the East. Constans II arrives and asks for a blessing on his enterprise. He is told that the Lombards are the divinely-ordained rulers of Italy. He takes cities by siege—there is no suggestion that, as with the reconquest a century earlier by Justinian, the natives open their gates to welcome him. He visits Rome, where he is greeted politely by the Pope, but then strips the city of any metal that can be coined into money. He fails to overcome the Lombards, and withdraws to Sicily, where his tax-gatherers are outstandingly and unprecedently oppressive. He is finally murdered by his own domestics, and the Lombard areas of Italy are free to continue their development as part of a reviving West.

That Paul has an agenda is obvious. He is not, however, a crude propagandist. Alboin was the king who led his people into Italy. He spared the people af Pavia even after a siege of three years. Paul also describes him as a tyrant in his domestic arrangements, and his wife as loose with her favours. The Empire is mostly at war with the Lombards. Paul treats Constans harshly, but is able to admire and even praise other Emperors. Not every Lombard is shown as a saint, not every enemy as a villain. Paul is an unusual historian in his unwillingness to paint wholly white or black portraits of his characters.

The Historia Langobardorum is a work of greatness in its own right. It also testifies to a progress of which Paul himself was necessarily ignorant. The popular idea is that the Romans conquered the Empire because of their virtues, and lost it because of their vices. These vices were first sexual incontince and a lack of honour, and then a corrupted version of Christianity that stopped them from holding the frontiers. The truth, it is increasingly plain, is that the Empire fell on evil times because of variations in the output of the Sun. By about 200, the world was moving into one of its cooling periods. This made agriculture less productive. It began a movement of disease-bearing rodents across the Eurasian landmass. The diseases then struck already weakened populations, reducing the number of taxpayers and potential soldiers, and generally sapping the foundations of high civilisation. At the same time, colder weather forced waves of primitive peoples from their own lands to the more temperate zones.

The effects of all this for China, Persia and the Roman Empire were all disastrous. There was a general collapse of population. Political and military incompetence, misgovernment—even outright treason—were but secondary causes of the disaster. The pagans tended to believe their fate was written in the stars. It does seem to have been written in the internal workings of our own star.

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Paul’s History covers the last phase of the cooling cycle. By the time he was born, global temperatures appear to have been recovering. The result for us was the birth of a new European civilisation. Rather than condemn the men of Paul’s world for their superstition and frequent lack of culture, we should rather admire them for how they weathered the storm. Cities shrank. Technologies disappeared. But what could be saved was saved. Every attempt was made to keep some degree of civilised life in being. Paul lived long enough to join the first generation of what is called the Carolongian Renaissance—when, under the patronage of Charlemagne, crumbling books were pulled from their places of safety and copied. Many of these copies still exist. Hardly anything they saved has perished since then. Paul’s life stands on the border between the age of preservation and the first age of revival. His writings are a monument in themselves, and a monument to the endurance of our civilisation.

If I can, through these extracts from his writings, help to improve the Latin of those who read them, I shall not have published in vain. If I can bring his writings to a wider audience of the appreciative, I shall not have taught in vain. I therefore commend Paul the Deacon and his Historia Langobardorum.

Sean Gabb
Centre for Ancient Studies
June 2018

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