Christian Hospital Revolution in Ancient Rome?

As one develops their understanding of ancient history, they realize that loose threads from here and there tend to get tied up in a nicely coincidental way. Now, in a rather lucky way today, this happened to me as well, and because of its relevance to this blog … here we are.

So I happened to be aware that Christians had done very good work in world history when they (starting with Basil of Caesarea) built the first Christian hospital in the late 4th century AD — one of the most important events in the world history of medicine. In case you aren’t convinced of how good this all is, read on;

The second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe. (Albert Jonson. A Short History of Medical Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2000, 13.)

The establishment of the first Christian hospital in the 4th century, Jonson tells us, marks the beginning of the second medical revolution in human history. I’ve known this for a while, however, I didn’t know why. Well, I do now, and it really animates this achievement of the Christian religion. The ancient Roman empire built hospitals. However, the public had zero access to any of these hospitals as civilian hospitals simply didn’t exist until Christianity came along (Smith, Virginia. Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity. Oxford University Press, 2008, 142), and the only people who had access to Rome’s hospitals were the military (not a big coincidence since the Roman empire poured half of its annual revenue into the military). Rome only had military hospitals — known as the valetudinaria. The hospitals would be built in military camps, tending to soldiers who had been injured — such as in Julius Caesar’s camps during his war in Gaul, forts in Britain (such as around Hadrian’s Wall), and Rome’s northernmost border at the Rhine-Danubian rivers that separated Rome from the barbarians. All this, I learned from a chapter titled ‘Roman Medicine’ in Blackwell’s A Companion to the Roman Empire (2006, 492-523) — the author being Ann Hanson, a world-class papyrologist and distinguished historian of ancient medicine at Yale University’s Department of Classics. However, as I read along Hanson’s nice chapter, something came out that struck me in all the proper ways;

The general public was not serviced by hospital facilities until the empire had become Christian and charity for the sick and dying was considered part of the Christian’s duty. (pg. 505)

In other words, what exactly was the second medical revolution in history that Jonson was talking about? Well, it appears to be this — starting with Basil of Caesarea, the Christian extension of the hospital, previously only for soldiers in military camps and gladiators, was now, at least beginning to, having been extended to the general public. Indeed, there was not a single civilian hospital in the entire history of Rome’s empire until the Christian era. By the 5th century, they may have even become ubiquitous in the Christian east (Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine, 306-307). Nowadays, at least here in Canada, there are quite a lot of hospitals — I have at least one well-known hospital within an hour of walking from me (and probably a few minutes driving). However, we didn’t always live in a world of abundant hospitals, and the first step was taken towards this, where we are today, was established by Christians pursuing their Christianity in the 4th century AD.

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A Critique of Ben Bassett and Polytheism’s Progress

For the first time, I think, Quillette has published an article that I substantially disagree with by Ben Basset, which is titled Progress and Polytheism: Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity? Here, Bassett argues that Christianity did not represent a moral schism from the entire realm of prior Greco-Roman morality and that people who claim so tend to turn the Greco-Roman world into a monolithic entity by which they gloss over the moral progress made by some Greco-Romans, which, if was allowed to continue developing and hadn’t been cut off by the Christianity’s rise, may have brought about significant moral progress on its own. I think the evidence he cites for this claim are dubious and selective, and I hope to make some progress in refuting his thesis here.

Imagine a Europe that resembles India. In Germany, France and England, in place of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals stand temples devoted to a kaleidoscopic pantheon of local and state-sanctioned gods… India is a provocative analogue for this alternate history because its temples remain open and enthusiastically attended; its ancient religions, though much evolved, are still practiced; there is a continuity, however vivisected, between the present and the deep past. By comparison, Europe’s Christian character represents a historical schism, between new and old, of unfathomable proportion: The ancient pre-Christian world of the west, though spectacular in its achievements, is a cultural enigma to us.

India, we are told, represents a historical analog by which Europe may have looked like today, hadn’t Europe left the mythologies and sacred practices and priority of the pre-Christian pagans. This may seem impressive to many if considered, despite India’s current situation, it ranks one of the strongest and most rapidly growing economies today, and just this year India no longer ranked as the country with the most people in poverty in the world (that place has been taken by Nigeria), and may even be third in the world by the end of this year (with Ethiopia also potentially surpassing it). Luminary figures and achievements in the 20th century like Gandhi and the banning of the caste system perhaps stand behind this proclamation, surely signs of immense progress that show an alternate history of how we could have been (when I say ‘we’, I mean Europe, and that technically excludes myself anyways).

However, it’s not clear at all whether or not modern India would represent an analogous history to how we would have developed without Christianity. For one, it isn’t clear just how similar Indian polytheism is to the beliefs of the Greek and Roman mythologies, nor is it clear just how much the system and government of modern India has been influenced by Western ideals and contributions, such as technology, the precepts of equality, modern democracy (contrasting to ancient Greek democracy which was, though an improvement, not the ideal it’s made out to be), architecture and construction (the British did wreak much havoc, but some good things also came out of their lengthy occupation). In fact, given these facts, it seems to me that the modern state of India couldn’t possibly represent an analog to the development to the West because it is entirely (well, not entirely) predicated on a Western predecessor, which does have Judeo-Christian roots (as we’ll find out soon enough, in contrast to Bassett’s following claim that as revolutionary as Christianity seems, its moral precepts were not unknown).

Bassett quickly admits that the ancient pagan world was full of horrid atrocities and that this was the norm. However, he adds, this was not absolute, and that the Roman world was full of self-criticism. Really? He cites Tacitus, the 2nd-century Roman historian and his critiques of imperialism and Romanisation of the Roman government, but however unique these critiques were to Tacitus (‘they create desolation, and call it peace’), Tacitus still was an imperialist. He critiqued some of the emperors for their failure to implement expansionist policies and claimed that prolonged peace had broken the spirits of the people of Italy, among other things (see Iiro Kajanto’s “Tacitus’ attitude to war and the soldier.” Latomus (1970): 699-718). Not to mention, since Christianity is on the topic, Tacitus seems to have been more then pleased with the persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero (described as a class hated for their abominations with a hatred against mankind, with Nero’s persecution of them as a “check for the moment” of the “mischevious superstition”, see Tacitus’s Annals 15.44). Perhaps Bassett will update us with a better example.

Bassett goes on and tries to provide another source for incredible moral progress that shows Christianity was not unique by speaking of the Stoic philosophies;

For example, the second century Stoic Hierocles posited an early form of “cosmopolitanism,” whereby the ego, the ‘I’ at the centre of our ethical life, was enfolded by concentric circles of moral concern. The closer the circle to the centre, to the I, the more demanding on our affections its subjects tend to be. The family was closest, and eventually one would reach all humankind in the outermost circle… It is true that these insights did not lead the Stoics to condemn slavery—even if, in a general sense, the ethical universalism explicit in Stoic philosophy theoretically encompassed all human beings regardless of status or creed. And in this failing, the Stoics were morally deficient. But then again, the early Christians didn’t condemn slavery either. In its pure ethical form, Stoicism actually expresses a less contingent attitude toward the object of ethical concern than does Christianity. As the scholar Runar Thorsteinsson has argued, the ethical character of early Christianity as expressed through the writings of Paul and in 1 Peter are best conceived as urging obedience and toleration toward non-Christian society, but advise a more generous ethical dispensation only toward fellow believers. The point here is not that early Christianity was particularly morally deficient—merely that it was not extraordinary in the context of the ethical beliefs and arguments known to educated people in the first, second and third centuries CE.

There’s a lot to address here. Firstly, as I’ve recently explained, while Christianity did not condemn slavery as a concept, the scholar Murray Vaser has shown that the New Testament clearly condemns the contemporary slave trade, especially by contrasting in Revelation how slaves are treated by Babylon (which represents Rome) to how they’re treated in New Jerusalem — in Babylon, the slaves are sold alongside animals, whereas in New Jerusalem the (God’s) slaves reign eternally as His friends in eternal happiness. On top of Vaser’s argument, a reference to 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be added, where slave traders who kidnap people themselves are condemned alongside those who kill their parents, the sexually immoral and those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” Slavery declined throughout the European continent during the Middle Ages (the slavery we’re familiar with now is a product of the Atlantic Slave Trade which originated during the 16th century) because Christians believed it was immoral to enslave fellow Christians and, as the pagan numbers dried out as all turned to Christianity, slavery (though not serfdom) significantly decline in medieval Christian Europe. In total contrast, Stoics not only were completely fine with slave trading, but thought that being enslaved was the result of divine providence (just like everything else) and it was completely fine since the slave could still act virtuously. Really?

Secondly, for all the philosophical and abstract talk of the Stoics about this kind of morality, it looks like the Stoics completely failed to apply these principles in practice at all — in fact, one Bassett’s prize Stoics is the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius who reigned between AD 161-180, and under whom the greatest persecution against Christianity by any emperor up until his time (see Paul Keresztes, Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?, 321-341; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, pg. 38, 569) took place. After championing Stoicism, Bassett asks us a very kind rhetorical question that he goes on to defend by citation of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Can it be said that Christianity improved upon this world? Did its spiritual consolations somehow spur society toward a more ethical future, or did they kill the impulse toward truth telling at the heart of Greco-Roman Stoicism, and thereby further derange a society that, by the fourth century, would become worn out by war, pestilence and almost complete political collapse? In championing the latter view, psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that true ethical progress has been a recent historical phenomenon, ultimately resulting from the triumph of rational ethical doctrine over the Catholic and then Calvinist superstitions of Christian dogma that held sway during the Enlightenment. In Pinker’s view of history, the Christian period was one of moral and political stagnation, thanks in part to its reliance on superstitious “revelation.”

Unfortunately, though, it appears that the response of historians to Steven Pinker, who is not a historian by any means, is fatally devastating. Just a few months ago, in the March of 2018, the academic journal Historical Reflections published a full issue of twelve renowned historians and their responses to Pinker’s thesis. Mark Micale, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, and Philip Dwyer, Professor of History and founding Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, scathingly conclude the following in the introductory paper.

Not all of the scholars included in this journal agree on everything, but the overall verdict is that Pinker’s thesis, for all the stimulus it may have given to discussions around violence, is seriously, if not fatally, flawed. The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world. (pg. 4)

I would seriously push Bassett to read all twelve essays (I’m not including the introductory paper in these twelve), as they reveal just how seriously dubious much of Pinker’s claims and ‘evidence’ are, especially when it comes to piling all this onto Enlightenment thinking. In other words, Bassett’s citation for his claim is dead wrong and he is either ignoring, downplaying or just blissfully unaware of what the consensus of historians is on the validity of Pinker’s thesis in the actual literature. It doesn’t get any better.

On the other hand, it is also true that while Christianity did codify much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought, it also cast a damnatio memoriae— condemnation of memory—over the rigorously open “pensive gaze” of Marcus Aurelius. In doing so, it closed the gates of history on one of the most creative and morally experimental periods in philosophy. The Roman emperor Justinian took this process to its end point in 529 CE, when he shuttered the Academy in Athens, making the cultural conquest of Christianity complete.

Bassett’s claim that Christianity simply “codif[ied] much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought” is dead wrong. The majority of scholars for about a generation now think that Christianity is to be strictly identified in its ancient Jewish, not Hellenistic, context. A few scholars, mostly inside the Jesus Seminar, proposed that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophers though at this point it’s an essentially refuted hypothesis. I must wonder whether Basset is aware of the work of Geza Vermes on establishing Christianity within a strict Jewish context and, as time goes on, the evidence for this continues to stack and the arguments for Hellenistic influence become more and more dubious. For example, the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q521 was only published in the early 1980’s and provides an incredibly close verbal parallel to the messianic expectations of the Jews and what the Gospels say Jesus came to do (see this excellent article on this connection by James Tabor, a Professor of Christian Origins and Ancient Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte). Just yesterday, I read a recently published paper titled Praising Christ the King: Royal Discourse and Ideology in Revelation 5 in the journal Novum Testamentum, and it demonstrates how the Book of Revelation actually inverts Hellenistic/Roman morality, regarding how Hellenistic monarchs claimed their right to rule through their conquest and the blood they spilled to acquire their power (something the Stoics also probably considered another element of divine providence), whereas Jesus assumes the right to rule through the blood He spilled on the cross. Surely, Richard B. Hays has shown in his paradigm shifting monograph Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul that Christianity, including Paul, operated on a fundamentally Jewish level.


I’ll interrupt in an edit here. Bassett wrote a response to his critics on his blog (which was essentially a response to the comment I wrote under the Quillette article), and he makes a fair point where he makes his claim more clear;

Nevertheless I ought to have drawn a clearer a distinction between Stoic thought and Greco-Roman culture (in the last few centuries BCE and the first few CE) in general, which indeed permitted particular practices that today we rightly condemn and find abhorrent… Still, recent scholarship has shown the indebtedness of early Christian thought to Stoicism, so I don’t believe my position is ridiculous on its face. If I compose a second response, I might try to delve deeper into this topic.

When he claims that recent scholarship has “shown” Christianity is indebted to Stoic thought, I assume he’s referring to Runar Thorsteinsson’s Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford 2010). However, scholarship has not shown this at all — at the very least, Thorsteinsson’s thesis reopens the debate but this is far from any consensus at this point. I admit to not having read this book yet, though I will note this critical review of the book in Themelios which makes some good points, at least assuming that the author isn’t wholly misrepresenting Thorsteinsson. If at least, I’ll give Bassett that his position isn’t ridiculous on its face.


Bassett also cites Justinian’s closing of Plato’s Academy in the 6th century AD as completing “the cultural conquest of Christianity”. Of course, Bassett seems to leave out the fact that the Plato’s Academy that Justinian closed never went back to Plato at all, rather that Platonic academy was closed when the pagan Romans invaded Athens in the 2nd century BC, and the one Justinian closed was actually just reopened later as a neo-Platonic school for “espousing the mystical doctrines of Plotinus and and Proclus”, as historian James Hannam explains. In fact, it seems to me that if anything, the Hellenistic monarchs were much better at conquering their own culture, since Bassett doesn’t ever mention the fact that, besides the Romans closing down Plato’s Academy in the 2nd century BC, Pharaoh Ptolemy VII Psychon also expelled all scholars out of Alexandria in the 2nd century BC, and as a further insult to education, the last pagan emperor of Rome Julian banned all Christians from being able to teach in the public schools in the 4th century AD. Nor does Bassett mention that the reason why Justinian closed down the Academy was because it was espousing anti-Christian doctrines that was being paid for out of the public purse (see again James Hannam’s article). All this seems, at least to me, to be especially relevant and besides not seeming like a “cultural conquest”, it appears that, with the decline of Greco-Roman paganism, their institutions would have inevitably passed away anyways (not to mention that their philosophies were all so dead wrong about physics that the Condemnations of 1277 of Aristotle’s work at the Arts Faculty in the University of Paris actually had the effect of helping science progress; see Edward Grant, Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, pp. 78–83, 147–48). It’s hard to see an extinction of Greco-Roman culture in the 6th century when this was the same century that Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most important and influential treatises of the Middle Ages. What makes Bassett’s claim even more dubious that this was some kind of conquest is the fact that so many of the church fathers in the classical period praised and even applied Greek learning (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Damascene, etc) such as that, for example, the most learned Christian of the 3rd century Origen of Alexandria used Pythagorean terminology to describe the Trinity. The philosophers died, but philosophy lived on. What’s so bad about that?

Is it so hard to imagine that this world could have come into being without the cultural dominance of Christianity? I submit that it is not. The ancient world contained within it the possibility for moral change. But the ancient experiment was aborted because it was eventually deemed unacceptable to practice any doctrine except that espoused by Peter and Paul.

I wonder how the Aristotelian scholars during the 12th century European Renaissance would have felt had Bassett told them that all doctrines other than those espoused by Peter and Paul weren’t permitted to be practiced. Anyways, there’s a whole slew of immediate and enormous steps towards moral progress made immediately when Christianity took precedent that Bassett either considers too unimportant to mention or, at the very least, not conducive to the advancement of his thesis. Once Christians first came into power, gladiator battles and crucifixion were almost immediately banned. The practice of exposing infants, where you would simply dispose of your newborn if you didn’t like them (read this academic paper if you want to know how horrid and widespread this practice was) was rapidly diminished by the Christian people and within a few decades of Christianity becoming the religion of the emperor, it was made illegal (though, like all wicked practices in the ancient world, did not cease from existence).

At around the same time that child exposure was made illegal, the great Christian Basil of Caesarea established the first Christian hospital (in contrast to the ancient model), an event which has an importance that cannot be overstated. Albert Jonson, in his monograph A Short History of Medical Ethics (Oxford 2000) writes that the “second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia” (pg. 13). In the final paragraph of Bassett’s article, he writes “To posit that the ancient world, deprived of Christianity, contained within it no moral prospect is to deny history.” But to claim that anyone has argued that no moral prospect existed in the pagan world is a strawman. Though Bassett likes to tell us about Stoicism, which certainly was much better than any other moral system among the pagans at the time, in its over 600 years of existence since Zeno of Elea founded it in the 3rd century BC to the time Constantine became emperor, it seems to have failed to change the system in any way at all. In contrast, as we’ve seen, the effects Christianity had on the world were immediate, even if we didn’t get to the present level of tolerance and sophistication until a long time. Interestingly enough, the final pagan emperor Julian himself shows us the moral schism between Christian and pagan morality. Julian, unable to comprehend why, chastised his fellow pagans to become more generous, as the Christians simply were far outpacing them in donations and help to those in need. There certainly was a moral schism, and Bassett should stop trying to downplay it and, like Tom Holland (a fellow non-believer he targets in the article, perhaps Bassett should have at least let Holland publish the book he’s working on when it comes to this topic instead of trying to stomp around on an argument he doesn’t yet know), should start trying to be very grateful for this schism. We are heirs of Christ, rather than Caesar. And thank God for that.

Government of the Roman Republic, Explained

OK, I’m going to write a quick post (mostly for myself, also for others) on how the government of the Roman Republic functioned, in the most simple way that I can. If you’re looking for the ins and outs of this highly complex entity with its reforms inlined with a detailed explanation of the Conflict of the Orders, then this article is not going to help you — it is a very, very short summary considering the sheer vastness of this topic. If you are looking for the ins and outs, something that’ll work much better for you is Andrew Lintott’s The constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford 1999). If you know how to download things for free from Scribd without buying a subscription by uploading your own files to the website, you can easily download the book from here. Anyways, the following is a pretty dense summary of the basic functioning of the government of the Roman Republic followed by a long quote from David Gwynn’s The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2012) that gives some more depth to these things. I’ve already created this summary, and I’ve been slowly expanding it ever since (so there’s a good chance I’ll continue updating it, though it’ll never become an essay). Quick note before you read * in ancient Rome, patricians were the elite families, whereas the plebs (plebeians) were everyone else (as long as they were a citizen). Anyways, here ya go;

The government of the Roman Republic. There were, at the top, the elected magistrates (the ranks being consuls, praetors, aediles, and quaestors in that order [plebs could only first become consuls in the 360s and ensured one consulship in 342] plus censors) and the Senate (who served as advisors to the consul). When someone completed their term as a magistrate, they would enter the Senate for the rest of their lives.

The government also had four assemblies — three comitia, and one council. With the exception of the Curia, these assemblies engaged in legislation. There was the Centuriate Assembly, dividing the citizens by centuries (193 in the Servian organization from 509-241 BC, 373 in the organization of 241-27 BC) and the Centuriate Assembly elected praetors, consuls, and censors. It approved laws and made declarations of war. There was the Tribal Assembly, dividing the citizens by 35 tribes (31 urban, 4 rural) and electing quaestors, aediles, and tribunes. The final one was the Curiate Assembly, which originally elected consuls in the Roman Kingdom (the only elected magistrate at the time), but when the Republic was created, most of its power went to the Centuriate and Tribal assemblies, and later only conferred elected magistrates their imperium (authority) and authorized adoptions. Next, there was the council, the Plebeian Council which elected the Tribunes of the Plebs. Whereas a comitia was open to all Roman citizens, only specific groups could join a council. In terms of the Plebeian Council, only plebs could join (thus excluding patricians).

The final part of the Republican Roman government was the Tribunes. The most important tribunes were the Tribune of the Plebs and the military tribunes. The Tribune of the Plebs could veto the decisions of consuls and other magistrates that had to do with the plebs, and any attack on the person of the Tribune of the Plebs was illegal. The Tribune of the Plebs could propose plebiscites (referendums) which the Plebeian Council would vote on, binding on the population. The Tribune of the Plebs along with the Centuriate Assembly essentially had sovereign power, but in practice almost always followed the guidance of the Senate.

“The magistrates were the officials elected annually from the nobility to run the daily business of government. First and foremost were two consuls who held the imperium (executive power) once wielded by the king. During their year in office, the consuls were the political and military heads of the state. They presided over the Senate, proposed laws if required, and commanded armies in the field. The consulship was usually the pinnacle of a Roman noble’s career, and the Roman calendar dated each year by the names of those who held this highest office. The hatred of autocracy that had inspired the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus, however, remained strong. The election of two consuls prevented any one man from having too much power, and the consulship was held only for a single year. Below the consuls were lesser magistrates, again elected annually. The major offices were those of praetor, aedile, quaestor, and tribune of the plebs. The praetor was the only magistrate apart from the consul to hold imperium, the right to command armies and preside over the Senate. The authority of the praetor was inferior to that of the consul, and the praetor’s main role was civil and later provincial jurisdiction. Below the praetors were the aediles, who were responsible for the urban maintenance of Rome, including roads, water supply, food, and games. The most junior magistrates were the quaestors, who performed financial and legal duties. The exact roles and numbes of these three lesser magistracies expanded over time as the growth of Roman power increased the burden on the Roman state. Tribunes of the plebs differed somewhat from the other magistrates. The office of tribune appeared after the First Secession of the Plebs in 494 BC and was originally the only office open to wealthy plebeians. Ten tribunes were elected each year, and their intended role was to defend plebeians from unjust actions by patrician magistrates. For this reason the tribunes held considerable powers, including the right to intervene in support of a citizen being arrested by a magistrate, the right to veto the action of another magistrate, and the right to propose legislation in the Concilium Plebis. In theory the person of a tribune was sacrosanct, although this did not always protect those who used the office to pursue radical policies, most famously the Gracchi brothers of the 2nd century. The other slightly unusual office was that of censor. Two censors were elected approximately every five years, but they held office only until they had completed their functions and never for longer than 18 months. Their primary role was to revise the list of citizens and assess both their property and their morality. This duty included a review of the Senate, into which they could enroll new members and remove any found guilty of improper behaviour. The censorship was therefore a prestigious office and was almost invariably held by ex-consuls. The most notorious censor of the Republican period was Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor), who held the office in 184 BC. Cato strongly believed that the Republic of his day was declining from the moral standards of the early Romans. As censor he expelled from the Senate those whom he regarded as flouting traditional Roman behaviour, condemning one senator who had embraced his wife by daylight in the presence of their daughter. These offices together formed the cursus honorum, the sequence of magistracies that a leading Roman noble might hold. In a conventional career, a man held his first office as a quaestor at a minimum age of around 28. He then became either an aedile or a tribune of the plebs, before seeking election as praetor. Those of sufficient renown could then aspire to the consulship and later perhaps stand as censor. A gap of two years was expected between the possession of each office, and in the 1st century, when age requirements were imposed for the major magistracies, they were set at 39 for praetor and 42 for consul. These expectations could not always be enforced.” (David Gwynn, The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2012), 20-22)

The Fall of Rome and Birth of the Middle Ages

In an earlier post, I provided a nice summary of the events that brought about the end of the Western Roman Empire, beginning by noting the first catastrophe to hit the empire in the reign of Marcus Aurelius when the Plague of Galen was imported into the empires frontiers, and ravaged Rome’s populations, to AD 476 when the barbarian officer Odoacer conquered the Italian peninsula and thus effectively ended the civilization of the Western Roman Empire. Western Europe would not be (mostly) united again until the reign of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor who was crowned as such after decades of expansion of the Frankish Empire by Pope Leo III in 800, something that produced much angst in the Byzantine Empire ruled by the empress Irene, which remained a powerful polity and considered itself the true ruler of the Romans, and despite Charlemagne’s efforts, would not recognize him as the Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans. But before Charlemagne arose, and brought about the Carolingian Renaissance with his reforms and policies, the state of Western Europe had become very dire after the western empire had fallen centuries earlier. Here, I hope to provide a summary of the situation caused by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in Western Europe.

The Western Roman Empire, like its eastern counterpart and the earlier united Roman Empire, was divided into various provinces, each under the authority of a Roman governor, administration, laws and perhaps a professional standing army. The tax collectors would require citizens to contribute to the empire, which in turn was mostly used in the Roman days to fund the army, which was by far the largest expense that the government had to deal with. Roman presence brought about a great deal of consistency and unity between the entire empire, where commercial trade was made possible by a vast territory connected between a network of roads unparalleled anywhere else in the contemporary ancient world. With the collapse of the empire, all this ended. In his monograph The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005), renowned historian Bryan-Ward Perkins explains various dimensions of Roman life and society that mets its end with the fall of the empire. Perkins writes;

It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a ‘crisis’ or a ‘decline’ occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a ‘civilization’ collapsed and a ‘dark age’ ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, ‘transformed’ into a medieval form. However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries. This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of saints resting in their churches. It was no mere transformation—it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as ‘the end of a civilization’. (pg. 87)

In the period of the empire, commercial production and trade had advanced to an enormous scale and linked the entire empire. Not only were there enormous amounts of product being produced and shipped at huge scales, but archaeology has revealed that their quality was also relatively advanced as well. Perkins continues describing the picture at hand;

However, painstaking work by archaeologists has slowly transformed this picture, through the excavation of hundreds of sites, and the systematic documentation and study of the artefacts found on them. This research has revealed a sophisticated world, in which a north-Italian peasant of the Roman period might eat off tableware from the area near Naples, store liquids in an amphora from North Africa, and sleep under a tiled roof. Almost all archaeologists, and most historians, now believe that the Roman economy was characterized, not only by an impressive luxury market, but also by a very substantial middle and lower market for high-quality functional products. (pp. 87-88)

In other words, products were being produced all over the empire by artisans specialized in certain fields and forms of manufacturing, and they were subsequently able to hold large numbers of customers (not only the rich, but also the households of the poor) in markets in entirely different cities, lands, and provinces. Thus, the household products of a Roman may not have been produced in the local village or city, but might come from an array of different locations each shipped to the local marketplace. However, without the complex networks established and maintained by the unity of empire, this would all soon change. As civil wars wrecked armies and consumed taxes, and numerous disparate barbarian tribes invaded, pillaged and slowly conquered Roman lands, the Roman administration slowly disappeared. A good example is provided by the province of Noricum. Perkins explains again the slow dissolution of the Roman administration in this province from the writings of Saint Severinus of Noricum, which allow us to attain a picture of just what happened;

By the time Severinus arrived, Noricum had already experienced nearly fifty years of insecurity and warfare, including a short-lived revolt against imperial rule by the Noricans themselves. It would seem that during these decades Roman administration, and any control over the province from the imperial court in Italy, had already disappeared. There is no mention in the Life of a Roman governor of Noricum, nor of an imperial military commander, and the neighbouring provinces, of Raetia and Pannonia, seem already to have fallen almost completely into Germanic hands. Eugippius indeed describes the Roman defences of the Danube as a thing of the past: ‘Throughout the time that the Roman empire existed, the soldiery of many towns was maintained at public expense for the defence of the frontier. When this practice fell into abeyance, both these troops and the frontier disappeared.’ He goes on to tell a wonderfully evocative story of how the last vestige of imperial military power in the region finally came to an end. Apparently, despite the general collapse of the Roman defensive system, one imperial garrison, that of the city of Batavis, was still in existence in Severinus’ time. But the only way the soldiers could receive their pay was by sending some of their number south and over the Alps into Italy to collect it. On the very last occasion that this was done, the emissaries ‘were killed during the journey by barbarians’; their bodies were later found washed up on the banks of the river. No more imperial pay ever reached Batavis. (pp. 18-19)

The economic situation, before the collapse, was quite good. One way archaeologists have discovered the prosperity of Roman lands during this period is from archaeological remains of … garbage. At Mount Testaccio (Pottery Mountain), a full ‘mountain’ remains from a dumpster of oil amphorae (types of jars) that accumulated over the 2nd and 3rd centuries in the small Roman province of Baetica located south-western Spain. It’s estimated that over 50 million jars remain in this trash pit, that represent over 6 billion litres of oil that were imported into the city where the trash pit was found. An enormous site like this reveals the massive commercial expanse of the Roman world, and there are many other enormous pits of pottery garbage throughout the empire from the period before the fall of the empire that accumulatively help us further understand this complex. Here’s a picture of (a bit of) Mount Testaccio.

None of it was to last, though. Perkins paints the bleak picture that followed.

In the post-Roman West, almost all this material sophistication disappeared. Specialized production and all but the most local distribution became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and quantity of high-quality functional goods, which had characterized the Roman period, vanished, or, at the very least, were drastically reduced. The middle and lower markets, which under the Romans had absorbed huge quantities of basic, but good-quality, items, seem to have almost entirely disappeared. (pg. 104)

Anything too complex to produce disappeared from the market, and empire wide transport of goods vanquished. There did not remain a diversity of products anymore, let alone anything high quality, but all your items were crude once more and you certainly had less. You would use locally produced pottery, rather than fancier imported pottery, because no one was able to ship such fine pottery anymore as the commercial networks collapsed, hegemony reigned in with the Germanic invaders who carved out the empire and continued warring with each other ruthlessly and endlessly (and it wouldn’t be any better when Justinian in the 6th century, Byzantine Emperor, sent his generals to regain lost land and crushed both the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, and annihilated the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy, deeply depopulating the Italian peninsula). Your roof of your house was now thatched and no longer tiled, your houses produced from earth. Skills like the potters wheel and constructing from mortar stone and brick, unless you were a member of the wealthiest in the lands, vanished and became inaccessible.

Slowly, the provinces continued degenerating. In fact, complexity in most provinces literally devolved back not only into those of the Iron Age in these places, but even less than that. Whereas in Roman-era sites, coinage was widespread throughout the empire in gold, silver and copper, and is still found in abundance as more sites are excavated, coins almost entirely disappear from sites thereafter the empires fall. An extensive quotation from Perkins is necessary;

It may initially be hard to believe, but post-Roman Britain in fact sank to a level of economic complexity well below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Southern Britain, in the years before the Roman conquest of AD 43, was importing quantities of Gaulish wine and Gaulish pottery; it had its own native pottery industries with regional distribution of their wares; it even had native silver coinages, which may well have been used to facilitate exchange, as well as for purposes of prestige and gift-giving. The settlement pattern of later iron-age Britain also reflects emerging economic complexity, with substantial coastal settlements, like Hengistbury in modern Hampshire, which were at least partly dependent on trade. None of these features can be found reliably in fifth- and sixth century post-Roman Britain. (pg. 118)

In the western Mediterranean, the economic regression was by no means as total as it was in Britain. As we have seen, some trade, some trading towns, some coinage, and some local and regional industries persisted throughout the post-Roman centuries. But it must be remembered that in the Mediterranean world the level of economic complexity and sophistication reached in the Roman period was very considerably higher than anything ever attained in Britain. The fall in economic complexity may in fact have been as remarkable as that in Britain; but, since in the Mediterranean it started from a much higher point, it also bottomed out at a higher level. If, as we have done for Britain, we compare pre-Roman and post-Roman Mediterranean economies, in some areas at least a very similar picture can be found to that sketched out above—of a regression, taking the economy way below levels of complexity reached in the preRoman period. In southern and central Italy, for example, both the Greek colonies and the Etruscan territories have provided much more evidence of trade and sophisticated native industries than can be found in post Roman Italy. The pre-Roman past, in the temples of Agrigento and Paestum, the tombs of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, and a mass of imported and native pottery and jewellery, has left enough material remains to serve as a major tourist attraction. The same cannot be said of the immediately post-Roman centuries. (pg. 120)

The only provinces that didn’t descend into hell after Rome fell were those in the Aegean (i.e. around the Aegean Sea, which is located between Greece and Turkey), the Levant (Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, etc) and Egypt. The Aegean collapsed itself around AD 700 (for a variety of factors, mostly including invasions by the Avars, Persians and Arabs) whereas the Levant and Egypt remained stable in their entire history, mostly due to the fact that they were quickly enveloped by the Arabs in the beginning of their conquests and thus didn’t have to suffer further. Indeed, the Arab lands would be quite prosperous for a while themselves.

The population, it’s clear, also greatly declined after the fall of the Western Roman Empire as the first few centuries progressed. The number of rural settlements declined vastly in the post-Roman period, as Perkins shows from diagrams in pp. 140-141 in the book that place points on the areas where rural settlements did exist before the fall, and after the fall. Indeed, the decline is so severe that it’s frankly astonishing. The amount of new construction dramatically fell, and the buildings that were constructed during this period, such as churches, were far more diminished in size in the post-Roman period than in the Roman period. Though St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome in the Roman period, no structure like it would ever be constructed in the ensuing centuries (and the Hagia Sophia doesn’t count since, of course, it was constructed in the eastern Byzantine Empire, not in the collapsed western territory). Literacy, which had been not terribly widespread in the Roman period severely plummeted.

On the other hand, the evidence for the very widespread use of literacy, and, in particular, for its trivial use, which is such a striking feature of Roman times, is far less apparent in the centuries that followed the fall of the empire. The numerous stamps, seals, and painted or scratched inscriptions that had characterized the commercial and military life of the Roman world seem to disappear almost completely. The need to label and stamp large quantities of commercial goods appears to have evaporated, presumably because production and distribution were now much simpler and less extensive than they had been before… Most interesting of all is the almost complete disappearance of casual graffiti, of the kind so widely found in the Roman period. (pg. 165)

It was no longer necessary to write as the technologies of the Roman world declined, any social pressure to do so had disappeared. Only the clergy tried to maintain writing, in order to read their scriptures and works of prominent church authors and church fathers, as well as to continue copying them down (indeed, it is due to the clergy and the monasteries why virtually any of the ancient Greek and Roman writings, philosophies and plays were preserved) — indeed, very soon, the clergy made up the vast majority of those remaining who were capable of writing, as archaeological analysis has also shown. It’s not hard to see why the economy, and therefore products of the economy (such as literacy) fell so dramatically. If products could be produced, and then exported and sold in the empire-wide market, then farmers who live in specific local conditions adept at producing certain foods could exploit such lands and then sell their products throughout the empire. However, once the empire fell, and kingdoms and communities became local, you could not ship out your specialized products throughout the empire, and therefore could neither receive them either. If you had a surplus of a certain product of yours, such as oil per se, you could export your oil to the rest of the economy and make more money. Yet without an international trading network, any surplus you have can’t be sold off in markets elsewhere, and in turn you could not purchase such products produced elsewhere. If a product could not be cultivated locally, you were unlikely to be able to acquire it at all. Secondly, without these surpluses that allowed you to accumulate profits and wealth, you were unable to, in turn, invest in more widespread networks to expand your business and technological capability of your business. Yet without these surpluses in profit, you were no longer able to spend in expanding your business at all, and therefore the size of large businesses themselves would have collapsed without a market outside of your local village and/or kingdom. Perkins writes;

Secondly, specialization and the ability to turn crops into cash allowed farmers to invest in improvements, that in turn increased productivity yet further. For instance, the Syrian cultivators of the limestone hills built a large number of solid olive presses around their villages, the remains of which are still standing there today, which allowed them to extract their oil efficiently and locally. At the same time, their counterparts on the plains were able to extend and intensify their arable cultivation by building complex irrigation and water-management systems, involving dams, underground channels, and reservoirs, as well as conventional irrigation ditches. Through capital investment, farmers were able to get much more out of their land. However, in the conditions of later times, without flourishing international and regional markets, specialization and investment became much more difficult, and the inhabitants of areas like the limestone hills were forced to return to a more mixed, and hence less productive, agriculture. When this happened, the population had to fall. It is indeed thought that parts of the Levant did not regain the levels and density of population that they sustained in late Roman and early Arab times until well into the nineteenth, or even the twentieth century. (pp. 144-145)

These are many of the essential reasons why skills and expansive businesses began to fall without the empire-wide trading network, leading to a severe decline in wealth, literacy, products such as pottery, coinage, etc, etc, etc. These were the products of the fall of western Roman civilization, and it would take centuries for the complexity to be rebuilt — some aspects of the Roman economy would not be attained once more until the late modern era. This was the birth of the Middle Ages in AD 476, and everything I have described here were the characteristics of western Europe in the early centuries of this period. As the centuries ensued, the Middle Ages would be where civilization was reborn and, up until its time, the greatest and bloodiest period of human history.

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.