A language of loyalty?: oaths and their roles in late antiquity

Wuk, Michael (2020) A language of loyalty?: oaths and their roles in late antiquity. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis investigates the common social practice of taking oaths in Late Antiquity, broadly defined as the third to sixth centuries CE. An oath in antiquity was a sworn undertaking to which an individual was bound by the threat of supernatural retribution. Modern scholars therefore generally view oath-taking as a means of inducing members of society to fulfil their commitments. However, as the practice could not always be relied upon to ensure that individuals maintained their promises, there is a tendency in the scholarship to disregard oath-taking as merely symbolic in significance or simply ineffective. The following discussion argues that even if the intended purpose of taking these oaths was not always realised, the practice still had a number of uses.

Due to the evolving circumstances of the third to sixth centuries, Late Antiquity is a particularly useful period in which to analyse the effects that oaths and their swearing could have upon aspects of Roman society. This thesis examines four late antique contexts in which oath-taking played a prominent role. The first three chapters focus on the military oath of allegiance, oaths of office in the civil service, and diplomatic oath-taking respectively. These chapters analyse how the oaths in question were formulated, why they were deployed, how they were perceived by various groups in society, and what effects, intended or not, their swearing had. The final chapter investigates the Christian Church’s relationship with oath-taking, which was technically forbidden in the Bible. These chapters all indicate that, even though oaths were often broken, oath-swearing was a respected and valued practice. The envisioned primary purposes of these promises, whether tying soldiers and civil servants to the emperor or foreign peoples to diplomatic pacts, were not the only effects they could have. Oaths could be used in attempts to manipulate and control, just as they could enhance the dynamics between certain groups. Equally, accounts of the taking or breaking of sworn promises could be deployed by authors as a literary device, while a range of individuals could utilise the practice to project messages about themselves to wider society. Above all else, oath-swearing had a performative function, which did not necessarily require that the promises involved were kept. Through this investigation into the roles oath-taking could play in Late Antiquity, we can come to a clearer understanding of a range of important social dynamics in the later Roman empire.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Lee, Doug
Merrills, Andy
Keywords: Oaths; Allegiance; Loyalty; Rome, history, Empire
Subjects: D History - General and Old World > DG Italy
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GT Manners and customs
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of Humanities
Item ID: 59935
Depositing User: Wuk, Michael
Date Deposited: 26 Jan 2023 08:02
Last Modified: 26 Jan 2023 08:03
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/59935

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