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Name: Michael Wuk

PhD: Classics

Thesis Title: The Language of Loyalty: Oaths and their role in Late Antiquity


Thesis Description:

My research primarily regards the period of Late Antiquity (broadly defined as the late third to late sixth centuries AD), in particular the military, diplomatic, and social history of this period. My thesis focuses upon these interests in relation to the practice of oath-swearing in various later Roman contexts, namely in the army, bureaucracy, diplomacy, and Christian Church.

Several ancient authors, such as Procopius of Caesarea and Theophylact Simocatta, refer to oath-taking as a significant matter that aided societal relationships, but also state that, despite its importance, the practice was often disregarded and had little efficacy. Although oaths to some extent still exist in the modern West, few of us regularly come into contact with oath-swearing and it rarely possesses the same meaning as it did in Roman society. As a result, oaths in antiquity have received less attention than other areas of the Roman world, particularly in Late Antiquity, and modern scholarship has often disregarded the practice as an empty ritual. Nevertheless, oath-taking was a frequent part of everyday life in the Roman world; soldiers and bureaucrats took oaths of allegiance to the emperor, merchants affirmed that their goods were correctly priced, those undertaking mandatory (and often onerous) municipal services swore they would complete their duties, and litigants confirmed the truth of their evidence on oath.

Certain developments arising during the later Roman empire raised the profile of swearing in various contexts to new heights and, consequently, this period is a particularly fruitful avenue for examining this practice. Late Antiquity began with frequent upheavals which resulted in greater military and political instability. Increased pressure was thereby placed upon the allegiances of soldiers and civilians to the emperor. Alongside this instability, a series of territorial losses throughout the fifth and sixth centuries in combination with growing external threats had weakened the geopolitical position of the empire. In this environment, diplomacy and the various associated rituals assumed even more significance than they possessed previously. Oaths played a vital role in these areas, whether confirming loyalty to a ruler or reinforcing adherence to treaties. Of course, the major change that characterised Late Antiquity was the increasing pervasiveness of Christianity in Roman society. Given that the process of swearing included invocation of the divine, this change naturally affected the practice.

With these considerations in mind, my thesis examines some of the contexts in which swearing took place and discusses the varying roles that oaths possessed throughout Late Antiquity. The third to sixth centuries were a crucial transitional period between the ancient and medieval worlds; in this environment, the oaths maintaining certain institutions exhibited continuities and changes in their formulation and usage, both of which would have then had an impact upon the perceptions and purposes of these promises. This raises several questions. Firstly, how did oath-taking adapt in formulation and procedure to suit the circumstances of Late Antiquity? Did their core features remain unchanged or were some of these sworn promises late antique innovations? In either of these scenarios, why was this the case? What were the envisioned purposes of these promises and what effects, intended or not, did they have? And to what extent can we determine that they were therefore efficacious? As swearing involved several parties who viewed the ritual from different standpoints, they would have been perceived differently by the groups involved. Emperor, soldier, bureaucrat, civilian, and religious adherent would have different perceptions of swearing in specific contexts, as would those who acted as recipients and those who swore. These will be examined in relation to various contexts of swearing, to examine both attitudes towards and the effects of these oaths. The aim is not to provide comprehensive coverage, which is beyond the constraints of a thesis of this length, nor a solely technical analysis on how and when oaths were formed. The purpose of this thesis is to investigate several contexts of swearing - namely, military, bureaucratic, diplomatic, and the Christian Church - in order to discuss later Roman society through the under-exploited direction of oath-taking.


Supervisors and Institution(s):

Doug Lee (University of Nottingham)

Andy Merrills (University of Leicester)

Publications (please include full details with page nos. or web links):


Scholarly / Public Engagement Activities:


  • "Mint Imperials" blog, writer and researcher, January - September 2016.


  • Paper given ("Swearing like a trooper: the process of taking the military oath in Late Antiquity") at the Department of Classics Work in Progress seminar (Oistroi), University of Nottingham, 23rd February 2017.
  • Paper given ("Under Oath: the sacramentum militare as a Late Antique method of imperial control") at the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient History (AMPAH), King's College, London, 25th March 2017.
  • Paper given ("Creating boundaries or bridging chasms? Late Antique oaths as tools of exclusion and unification") at the Late Antiquity Network conference, Institute of Classical Studies, London, 15th September 2017.

Other Research Interests:

  • Late Antiquity
  • Roman History, particularly regarding military, social, and religious developments
  • The Roman army as an institution and military identity
  • The emperor's relationship with wider society and imperial subjects
  • Diplomacy and its effects upon imperial politics


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