AD/BC Era, another Christian contribution in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were not a ‘dark ages’, as I’ve explained a few times now. Indeed, while the direct centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD caused severe declines in literacy, population, commercial trade and skills, etc, this was reversed in the centuries thereafter and by the end of the Middle Ages, the world was a new and much more advanced place as it once had been during the period of classical antiquity (from Homer to the end of Greco-Roman culture in the West after the empire collapsed). And the foundations for the Late Middle Ages were established in the Early Middle Ages, between 500-1000 AD. All this is documented in James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009), a very important monograph. Many of these advancements were a direct product of Christianity, indeed, Christianity is one of the primary reasons why the foundations for the modern world were laid in this period. Here, I’ll explore just one topic of this contribution; the eras of our calendars. That is, the eras described by the terms AD/BC, which we use to date the years of virtually every event. No doubt, much celebration occurred close to half a year ago when AD 2018 begun.

In 525, Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk used his learning to replace the former A.D. scheme, a Latin phrase which meant ‘anno Diocletiani’, in the year of Diocletian, which currently dated systems from the year that Diocletian became emperor which took place in AD 284. This dating scheme had gained some prominence in the churches in the 4th and 5th centuries. Another dating scheme used was to simply refer to when certain events took place based on who was consul at the time (the highest rank in the Roman political world until the Roman Empire was established in 27 BC, when the highest rank then became the emperor himself). So, if an event took place in a year when Pompey the Great was the consul in Rome, we may refer to the event, a century afterward, as taking place “in the consulship of Pompey”. Dionysius Exiguus thus replaced this with ‘anno Domini’, in the year of the Lord (not ‘after death’ or ‘after Christ’), referring to the year in which Jesus was born.

Then, during the 8th century, the Venerable Bede would be the next in succession to advance the calendar. Bede was going to go on to become one of the greatest men in the history of Christian thought, and in Dante’s Paradiso (which follows his Inferno and Purgatorio in his poem of the Divine Comedy, now one of the classics of Western thought) where Dante portrayed himself meeting the heroes of Christianity and Christian thought, placing the Bede alongside others such as Thomas Aquinas and Solomon. Bede was an English monk, and by adopting the eras that Dionysius Exiguus used, the modern calendar entered into the mainstream of scholarship. Furthermore, Bede also added in the B.C. system, before Christ. Until this time, calendars (such as that of Diocletian) contained no such mechanism to dating events before the epoch of the first year, and therefore, this advancement of Bede was very important. AD 1 comes right after 1 BC, meaning there is no year 0 – this is because, although the number 0 had been ‘invented’ by Indian mathematical scholar Brahmagupta in the early 7th century, it would not reach the mainstream of Europe until the 13th century, when it was transmitted there by the works of Fibonacci, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the entire medieval period.

The fate of the AD/BC calendar was sealed when the court of Charlemagne adopted it, looking back at the treatises of Bede in the contemporary speculations about time itself. Charlemagne was the first Holy Roman Emperor, an empire he established in AD 800 that lasted all the way until 1806 (when Napolean brought it to its knees). Charlemagne is known as the ‘father of Europe’, probably being to Europe what Augustus was to Rome. This is not the time for an biography of Charlemagne, though it is safe to say that Charlemagne helped establish this calendar, and by the 15th century, it had been widely adopted by Europe.

Indeed, the advancement of this little Christian idea would be further developed throughout the medieval period, as scholars would continue to provide corrections and calculations to make it more accurate. In his monograph The Middle Ages (2015, Harvard), Johannes Fried writes;

Chronologers of the Early Modern era such as J. J. Scaliger regarded these medieval calculators with disdain, and even went so far as to accuse the calendar makers of 1582 of half-heartedness. However, they misconstrued the absolute necessity of the first steps in this subject, and as a result disregarded earlier authors such as Wilhelm von Hirsau, Rainer von Paderborn, or Robert Grosseteste, who in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries respectively subjected the traditional calendar to close scrutiny, and through their experiments and calculations corrected it, for the most part accurately. Yet because their innovations were not immediately adopted, the modern period—in its ignorance and complacency—discriminated against those scholars and their entire era. (pg. 58)

In 1988, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted this means of era as the international standard (though it does leave room for the newer CE/BCE system, which is basically based on Dionysius’s calculations of when Christ was born (which was actually a bit off) but just states it without any reference to Christianity).

Thus, we can see the development of a small Christian idea, replacing the calendar based off an emperor who hated Christianity and attempted to crush its followers until finally giving up, once he realized that Christianity was growing too rapidly in his empire to be stamped out. A more venerable figure was placed at the heart of the calendar, Jesus Christ himself, and the medieval Christian scholars like Bede would progress it further. This is another contribution we owe to the Middle Ages, one which has Christian roots like so many other things we seamlessly enjoy today. In 1582, shortly after the Middle Ages ended, Pope Gregory XIII would introduce the Gregorian calendar, the worlds most widely used calendrical system today that refined and replaced the Julian calendar, which goes back to Julius Caesar. Thank Christianity.

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Christian Fall, the End of History

As I explained in my previous post, a new chapter marked history when Constantine converted to Christianity, formally banned persecution against Christians within the Roman Empire, which had broken out time and time again in earlier decades and centuries. This was a result of Constantine himself converting to the religion, and establishing the city of Constantinople — a city that would serve as the center of Christendom and capital of the Byzantine Empire for the next millennium until its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. However, this was not before the Roman Empire itself would split into the eastern and western halves, something that occurred at the end of the reign of Theodosius I (379-395 AD). What was left was the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire. While the Eastern half of the empire would go on for another thousand years, this would not be before the Western Roman Empire had itself fallen, which would mark the transition of history into the Middle Ages in 476 AD after being captured by the barbarian officer Odoacer who would thus become its king.

Here, I’m going to try to look at and summarize the main factors and events that went into the fall of the Western Roman Empire, focusing mainly on the barbarian invasions, and thus clarify one of the most pivotal moments for the future of the history of Christianity. I will just add that the term ‘barbarian’ was invented by the Greeks much earlier on, in order to originally describe any of those inferior peoples that were not Greek themselves. The Romans used the term to describe a much different, and much more specific peoples.

The empire did not suddenly fall, of course. The fall of the empire was centuries in the making, the first cracks opening up during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180) when the empire was struck by the Plague of Galen (also known as the Antonine Plague) that may have claimed a fourth or even a third of the inhabitants of the empire, akin to the Black Plague that would become one of the markers of the European Middle Ages during the 14th century. The Third Century Crisis began in 235, and until 284, the empire would be rife with enormous civil wars, inflation and over 60 emperors, each slaying one another in the struggle for power, at least three being slain at the hands of the Persians to the east. Then, in 249, the empire was struck once more by the Plague of Cyprian that lasted from 249-262 (which the pagans blamed the Christians on, and so started the first empire-wide persecution of Christianity).

After the empire was stabilized and strengthened under Diocletian and Constantine, it would not be long before civil war would become constant once more, albeit at a much smaller rate. However, this time, things would be much different, as the barbarians would begin their migrations and invasions into Roman territory. This would all culminate in 476, where the empire was finally conquered by the barbarians. The barbarians were numerous disparate tribes and groups north of the empire, beyond the Danube and Rhine living on the steppes in nomadic lifestyles as they constantly traveled in order to survive. Almost all the barbarian enemies were Germanic, though the Romans would have to also deal with the Huns as the decades went by. These groups were made up of many smaller peoples, such as the Goths (who would split into the Visigoths [west Goths] and Ostrogoths [east Goths] soon enough), the Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Alans, Alemanni, etc, with each of these peoples being made up of various tribes that may have warred with each other and allied with each other at different times. They desired to enter and live in the Roman Empire, knowing of the riches that lay south of them, and many of them would successfully migrate their, though others had more nefarious motives, sometimes which would become manifest after already having migrated. Many times, different tribes were allied with the Romans themselves, and as the professional army of the Western Roman Empire began to vanish, the Romans would often hire different barbarian tribes to battle against others. However, it would end up the case that the barbarians would slowly conquer, and carve out the Western Empire among them. Here’s an image of the Western Empire before and after the barbarians helped themselves to the Roman lands.

Now that’s a catastrophe if I’ve ever seen one. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his fantastic book How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009, Yale University Press) summed up the situation like this;

By the end of the fifth century the territory once controlled by the Western Empire was now split into a number of separate kingdoms. The Visigoths controlled much of Gaul and almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. Only in the north-west did the rump of the Suevic kingdom survive. Similarly, the Vascones – from whom the modern Basques claim descent – were effectively independent in their lands along the north-east coast. The Visigoths, however, were not the sole power in Gaul. There was a substantial Frankish kingdom in the north, and smaller Burgundian and Alamannic states in the east. In the far north some areas had been settled by Saxons. Brittany was controlled by a combination of its old provincial population and the descendants of the refugees who had fled there from Britain. Across the Channel, Britain was divided into many separate groupings, and the east was now overwhelmingly dominated by rulers who were Saxon or from other north Germanic tribes. The Vandals remained in control of North Africa, although to the south they were under pressure from the Moors. Finally, Italy itself was in the hands of King Theodoric and the Ostrogoths. (pg. 370)

At first, the barbarians would only enter the Roman Empire upon admission from the Romans to settle them because, as I mentioned earlier, they originally wanted to migrate in order to inherit the riches of the Roman lands which they could not dream of in their own lands. It was the case, too, however, that many barbarians would want to enter the Roman Empire in order to escape and run away from other expanding tribes. Thus, the first time the barbarians ever forcefully entered into the (eastern) empire was in 376, a group of Goths seeking asylum from the expanding territories of the ruthless Huns. In his now  famous monograph titled The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005, Oxford University Press), Bryan-Ward Perkins writes;

The first people to enter the empire in force were Goths, who in 376 crossed the Danube, fleeing from the nomadic Huns who had recently appeared on the Eurasian steppes. (pg. 1)

They had first made their way to the border on the Danube, and requested permission to settle in the empire. Now, the initial entry would not be forceful, as they were a massive force and the emperor Valens (364-378) found it more secure to settle them in then to keep them out (lest they invade). So, they entered, but things quickly devolved for their situation. They had almost no food, and the Romans were said to have forced them to sell a child per dog they received. The Goths could not take it, and revolted. Thus commenced the Gothic War of 376-382.

This would be a horrible time for the Romans. The Romans had, by this time, already been weakened by over a century of civil war, plague, wars with the Parthian Empire and some battles with the barbarians themselves. Indeed, by this time, they were not powerful enough to command a decisive victory against the barbarians, and so through a period of 6 years were routing their supplies and doing some guerrilla warfare, eventually forcing the Goths to surrender (on rather generous terms). However, the Romans, at one point, did attempt a decisive victory. In 378, the emperor Valens at Hadrianopolis, deciding not to wait for reinforcements to arrive, launched a massive head-on attack against the barbarians. The battle was, against the perceived odds, an utter massacre. The Roman army was utterly destroyed, perhaps losing a war that wasn’t as disastrous since Cannae centuries earlier where Hannibal was said to have slain around 50,000 Romans in a single day, the barbarians even killing the emperor Valens. This disaster was only the beginning of the end, however. Perkins continues;

Certainly any theory that the East was always much stronger than the West is demolished by the fact that it was the eastern field army that was defeated and massacred at Hadrianopolis in 378. This defeat provoked a profound and immediate eastern crisis: the Balkans were devastated; Constantinople itself was threatened (though saved by the presence of some Arab troops); and Gothic soldiers within the Roman army were slaughtered as a precautionary measure. The loss with all its equipment of perhaps two-thirds of the eastern field army took years of expenditure and effort to repair. Indeed, until the Goths under Alaric entered Italy in 401, it was the eastern emperors, not the western, who occasionally needed military help from the other half of the empire (in 377, 378, 381, 395, and 397). In dealing with the Goths, after their entry into the empire in 376, the eastern emperors alternated between a policy of alliance and one of aggression; but their ambitions after 380 seem to have been limited to containing the Gothic menace, with little hope of destroying it or driving it right out of imperial territory. (pp. 58-9)

In 401, the Western Roman Empire would be invaded by the barbarians for the first time, under the Visigothic king Alaric. Alaric would be defeated twice in 402, at the Battle of Pollentia (by Stilicho, one of the last great Roman generals and himself half-barbarian) and Battle of Verona, but was not killed in these engagements and would return once more to cause something unprecedented in almost a thousand years of Roman history. In 408, the emperor of the Western Roman Empire Honorius (393-423, by this time the eastern and western empires had split would be led by different emperors) executed Stilicho and ordered the executions of tens of thousands of Goths, causing many to defect and join the forces of Alaric, swelling the numbers of his army. That same year in 408, Alaric would once again invade Rome, changing history in the process. Until this time, a famous phrase in the empire was ‘Roma Invicta, or ‘Unconquered Rome.’ By 410, Alaric marched his armies into the gates of the great city and sacked it over a period of three days. “The city which had taken the whole world had itself been taken”, was how Jerome summed it up. Coincidentally, Alaric would later die that year. In 455, a few decades later, Rome was sacked once again, this time though, much more systematically by the Vandals over a 2 week period.

Just years prior to Alaric’s sack, the empire had effectively lost control of the province of Britain, first occupied by Julius Caesar and conquered by the emperor Claudius (41-54) when Constantine III, ruler over the province at the time, attempted to usurp the throne of the empire from Honorius with its support in 407. It had never been easy to maintain rule over Britain, but the usurpation of Constantine who crossed back with his army into Europe effectively ended any such reign (Constantine III himself would be killed years later by Constantius III, who would briefly be emperor in 420 before dying of natural causes). And a year before Constantine III, barbarians groups of Vandals, Sueves and Alans crossed into Gaul, and would slowly conquer it. In 429, the Vandals crossed into North Africa, the largest tax revenue base that the Western Roman Empire controlled, and had conquered the capital Carthage by 439. In the 430’s, the Hunnic Empire would be great enough and so large that it itself threatened the empire under its famous leader, Attila the Hun.

At first, Attila bullied the Eastern Roman Empire, forcing it to pay enormous annual sums of gold (which Attila likely required to pay his own generals so they would be at check, it was not only common for emperors to be killed by those in their midst looking to usurp power). To get a scale at how big Attila’s empire was at the time, behold:

Attila had plundered the Balkans in the 430’s (basically, the modern countries that make up south-eastern Europe, that big chunk of land to the east of Italy that connects to Turkey). His success in raiding the Eastern Roman Empire lead him to invade the west, and he went far enough until 451 (as can be seen in the map above) until he was finally stopped at the Battle of Cataulanian Plains, a great alliance between the Romans and countless different barbarian peoples, which ended the expansion of his empire. He raided Italy in the next two years, but eventually died drunken in 453. His empire fractured and dissolved away as competing men vied to take power. One of Rome’s fiercest enemies had fallen, but by then it was too late. Roman control continued to slowly fade away, until Odoacer finally delivered the final blow in 476 when he conquered Italy and became king. Odoacer himself would be killed by the Ostrogoths under Theoderic the Great in 493. And so was the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

By this time, most of the barbarian tribes had converted to Christianity, mostly in the heretical form of Arian Christianity (it would not be until centuries later until they converted into a more orthodox sort (for example, the Visigoths who controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula [essentially modern Spain and Portugal], with their capital at Toulouse, and then Toledo as they retreated from the Franks in the early 6th century, had been Arian Christians since they entered the empire in 376, but would not abandon Arianism until 587, over 200 years later)). Some barbarians, such as the Ostrogoths who controlled Italy, actually favored the concept of the Roman identity so much that they referred to themselves as Romans, and the other tribes as the real barbarians (even their fellow Visigoths). Western Europe would not become much more united until Charlemagne centuries later, sometimes known as the ‘Father of Europe’ who would unite the Western Empire for the first time since classical times. However, that’s a story for another day, and for now, the Byzantine Empire would live on and a new era was being made way for. This was the medieval period, not a ‘dark ages’ (a term given up by historians) where the history of the world would continue until the modern period. I don’t claim to have fully explained all the factors in Rome’s fall — for a fuller explanation, I’d recommend reading the two aforementioned books; How Rome Fell by Adrian Goldsworthy and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan-Ward Perkins.

Christian Emperor, A New History

The first Roman emperor to have ever interacted with the Christians, a group born under imperial Roman rule in Israel, was Nero. According to Tacitus, who records this interaction in his Annals 15.44, Nero blamed the burning of the city of Rome (which he was likely responsible for) on the Christians and thus persecuted them, likely killing several hundreds (which would have devastated the early community in Rome, since no more than a few thousand could have possibly existed at the time). Some later traditions linked the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul to this persecution (though we do not know precisely when they died) and the Book of Revelation, likely written towards the end of the 1st century also makes associations of the beast with the past reign of the emperor Nero, likely alluding to past persecutions. In a recent 2017 paper titled Tacitus and the Persecution of the Christians: An Invention of Tradition?, Bremmers and van der Lans write;

In Revelation, which is commonly dated to somewhere around 100 but without a general consensus about either the author or the place of composition, there is a reference to a second beast associated with the number six-hundred sixty-six. Tons of ink has been spilled about this number, but the majority of interpreters have accepted that the number is “(among many other things) the sum of the numerical equivalents for the Hebrew letters which spell the words ‘Neron Caesar'”. Furthermore, one of the beast’s heads is said to have received a seemingly fatal wound of which it had been healed. This is probably a reference to the myth of Nero rediturus, which would place Revelation among Jewish apocalyptic scenarios of Nero’s return as eschatological opponent. (pg. 311)

Nero’s persecution in Rome was only the beginning. Christians would also be persecuted under the reign of Trajan (as signified by Pliny’s letter to Trajan and his response back), Hadrian (noted by his letter to Servianus), and then under Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, the greatest persecution against the Christians yet broke out murdering tens of thousands in cold blood. Some of the greatest ancient Christians met their deaths under these circumstances, including Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr (receiving his last name due to the end he met), Ignatius of Antioch and others. Under the reign of Septimius Severus, the last great emperor before the Third Century Crisis of the empire until the reign of Diocletian (who was also a great persecutor of Christians), Severus decided Christianity undermined Roman patriotism and determined to crush it as well, and it is during his reign that the tragic story of Perpetua is documented.

Under the emperor Decius who ruled from 249-251, the first truly empire-wide persecution erupted as Christianity continued to grow exponentially, destroying many more for their faith. Not every emperor hated Christianity, though. One notable exception was the reign of Aurelian under which the empire was reunited (270-275) who not only tolerated Christianity but apparently even resolved a dispute in a church in the empire that had written to him for his aid.

Everything changed, of course, with Constantine I, son of Constantius I of the tetrarchy established by Diocletian, and a pivotal man in the history of the Roman Empire (or perhaps, history in general) in almost every aspect. In the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 against one of the other emperors at the time, Maxentius (by this time, it had been common for there to be multiple emperors), Constantine claimed that a cross appeared over the sun before he entered the battle, and was told that by this sign, he would conquer.

Tiridates was not the only important political figure to embrace Christianity in this period, for in the early fourth century Constantine, one of the most influential figures in Rome, also converted. The decisive moment came during a tempestuous civil war when Constantine took on his rival Maxentius at Milvian Bridge in central Italy in 312 AD. Shortly before the battle, the former supposedly gazed into the sky and saw ‘a cross-shaped light’ above the sun, together with Greek words declaring ‘by this sign, you will conquer’. The full meaning of this became clear to him after he had a dream in which an apparition of Jesus Christ explained to him that the sign of the cross would help him defeat all his rivals. This, at any rate, was how some liked to describe what had happened. (Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A History of the New World, 2015. Pg. 41.

He defeated Maxentius, and became a Christian — the first emperor to do so (however, if Constantine had not done this, scholars generally recognized it would have happened eventually given the rapid growth speed of Christianity at the time, growing so fast that Diocletian gave up on his hopes of stamping Christianity out and simply asked the Christians to pray for the good of the empire). From here, the history of the empire took a turn.

Christian communities certainly benefited greatly under his rule. Not only was their religion granted formal acceptance by the state, but Constantine was generous in funding the construction of grand church buildings. Some of the first of these were in Rome.” (Adrian Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, 2009. Pg. 185)

Constantine further consolidated his power as sole emperor after defeating Licinius in 324. Constantine also converted the city of Byzantium into another centre of the empire, and renamed it Constantinople after himself — which started a new history on its own. Constantine built Constantinople as an overwhelmingly Christian city, erecting churches everywhere with little sign of the pagan cult.

“Christian claims that there was no trace of pagan cults in the city were exaggerated. There was a large nude statue of Constantine as the sun god on top of what is now known as the Burnt Column, and there were a few temples, mostly on existing foundations. Yet it is fair to say that it was an overtly and overwhelmingly Christian city.” (Goldsworthy, pg. 186)

In 313 AD, a year after defeating Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, which established freedom of religion and tolerance of Christianity in the empire and ordered the return of confiscated property to the Christians. Persecution, which had peaked earlier during Diocletian’s reign, had virtually come to an end in the empire for the time. Frankopan continues to explain;

Christian accounts leave little doubt about the limitless enthusiasm with which the Emperor personally oversaw the enforcement of Christianity at the expense of all other religions. We learn from one author, for example, that the new city of Constantinople was not ‘polluted by altars, Grecian temples or pagan sacrifices’, but enriched by ‘splendid houses of prayer in which God promised to bless the efforts of the Emperor’. Another writer states that famous centres for cults were shut down by the Emperor, while oracles and divination, staple features of Roman theology, were banned. The customary sacrifice made before official business could take place was likewise outlawed, while pagan statues were pulled down and legislated against. There was little room for equivocation in the story told by authors with vested interests to show Constantine as single-minded promoter of his new beliefs.

In 325, in the second half of Constantine’s reign, the Christians banned gladiatorial fights, claiming that the bloody spectacles had displeased them. In the same year, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to take place between church leaders in order to address the increasing rifts in the ever-larger Christian community (though Constantine himself did not participate in the council or any of its decisions). Constantine’s mother, Helena, also a Christian, had by this point built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem over the location where the local Christians had claimed was the place of the burial of Jesus Himself (and last year it was confirmed that this church dated to this period), and this structure today is now the greatest pilgrimage site in the Christian world. Constantine also built the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, which stood until the 16th century (sadly taken down by Pope Julius II). Throughout his reign, Constantine supported the church financially, built basilicas, and exempted priests from various taxes and made sure many Christians received powerful positions in the Roman bureaucracy.

Constantine raised all his sons as Christians, who all reigned as emperors until Julian became emperor from 361-363, who would be the last pagan emperor to ever reign (and now known as Julian the Apostate for abandoning Christianity, he was greatly succumbed to the Greek philosophies and tales, and died against the Sasanians to the east of the empire in an attempt to conquer them to re-enact the conquests of Alexander the Great). Under the reign of Theodosius I (379-395), Christianity for the first time would be established as the state religion of the empire, taking the spot the pagan cult had once had.

Of course, such a pivotal moment in the history of the world and Christianity in particular, the crazy New Atheist conspiracies shine forth, claiming that Constantine was, despite the endless documentation in texts, inscriptions, etc, not really a Christian after all and it was all made up. The vast ignorance one would require over virtually everything I’ve gone over about Constantine’s reign is required here. Thankfully, I don’t need to engage in the dismantling over this vast conspiracy, because Bart Ehrman has already done it for me in his most recent book, The Triumph of Christianity (2018), which is very articulately reviewed and explained by Tim O’Neill in his (recommended) recent and extensive review of Ehrman’s book.