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.

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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.