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The late Roman Empire was not the twilight of popular myth

Far from being chaotic, Late Antiquity was stable and confident right up until the late 5th century

By on Friday, 23 December 2011

The ever excellent Ed West has this to say over at Telegraph blogs, while speaking about our current decline:

There are, of course, many other similarities between our age and the late Roman Empire: a declining birth rate, especially marked among upper-class women; a collapse in religious belief and the growth of a more vital and passionate monotheistic faith from the Middle East; a shrunken attachment to the ideal of the country – patriotism – and increased attachment to the state, a state which virtually all ambitious, educated people wished to work for.

It is perhaps something of a truism to compare our own age with the period of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Funnily enough, when researching my thesis, which had a chapter about Saint Augustine, I read quite a lot about what historians call Late Antiquity.

Late Antiquity is a fascinating period, and for two reasons. Firstly, it is full of surprises, and secondly it is full of excellent sources, chief of which to my mind is Augustine himself. We know more about Augustine than any other ancient person (with the possible exception of the Emperor Julian) and through him we find a point of entry into the world of Late Antiquity; it is only hundreds of years later that we have a similar insight into what people were thinking and feeling, when we reach the confessional writings of the seventeenth century.

So, what can we learn from the twilight of the Roman Empire?

For a start, it is a mistake to think of it as a twilight. The Empire was substantially intact at the death of Theodosius the Great in 395, and even after 410, when Rome had been sacked by Alaric the Goth, Augustine makes clear in The City of God that he thinks that Rome, though suffering a reverse, is by no means defeated. Indeed, contemporary historians now think that while the fall of the North African provinces was a huge blow, which occurred in the year of Augustine’s death, 430 AD, it was only the two subsequent failures to win them back, in 461 and 468, that doomed the West. So, even into the second half of the fifth century, people in the Roman Empire may well have been confident that the Empire was going to survive, just as it had survived the very difficult period in the third century before the accession of Diocletian.

What is very clear from reading Augustine, and even Jerome, is a strong sense of belief that these men had in the Roman idea, which was for them summed up in Virgil’s immortal line put into the mouth of Jupiter: Imperium sine fine dedi. “I grant them imperial rule without end.” Augustine and Jerome were Christians, but this idea made perfect sense to them. Rome was immortal, granted immorality not by Jupiter but by Divine Providence. Moreover, the other Virgilian tag about Rome’s role in the world, Parcere victis et debellare superbos – “to spare the vanquished and to conquer the proud” – would have made perfect sense to Christians as well.

So the world of Late Antiquity, it seems to me, had a very clear idea of itself and what it was for. This, it strikes me, is in marked contrast to our own world, which may talk of values, but rarely says what those values are.

But if that is the case, why did the Western Empire collapse, for collapse it undoubtedly did? The real reason, as far as I can judge from my reading, was internal weakness caused by incessant civil wars. Roman fought Roman until the Western Empire effectively ran out of troops. The Eastern Empire was much less prone to Emperor assassination, usurpation and civil strife. But the West was essentially destroyed by its own military rulers. Alaric, after all, was, though barbarian born, a Roman general, in the pay of the Roman Empire, who sacked the City because he had not been properly paid. One of the Western Empire’s last effective military leaders was Stilicho – half Vandal, but emphatically Roman – murdered by his own son-in-law the ineffectual Emperor Honorius. These people, Goths and Vandals, did not want to destroy the Empire, rather they wanted to take it over from within, and by the fifth century had more or less succeeded. Stilicho was a pretty good ruler and general, but internal divisions did for him. In the sixth century Italy was to be devastated not by Goths, but by Justinian’s Roman armies, trying to reconquer the peninsula for the government in Constantinople.

Jerome, incidentally, in one of his letters, laments the fact that the Empire trusted men like Stilicho; I think the Empire’s mistake was not in trusting Stilicho, but not in trusting him enough. He might just have saved the West.

But what are the lessons for us? Going back to Ed West’s concerns about immigration and asylum seekers, people who come to Europe from Afghanistan generally do so, I would have thought, because they want what Europe has, rather than because they wish to destroy Europe from within. Yes, there are Trojan horses in our midst, but these people are relatively few and far between; the vast majority of immigrants want to integrate, surely, as much as Alaric and Stilicho did.

I am reminded of something a lady who knew a great deal about the Middle East said to me at the time of Rowan Williams’s now famous Sharia Law speech. She told me she had had women ringing her up all day, all saying the same thing: “Doesn’t the Archbishop realise that we came to Britain in order to get away from the oppression of Sharia? And now the very person who should be resisting Sharia is trying to force us back into it.”

If you have read this far, you might agree with me that this is a long and rambling post. My conclusion is that like Augustine, we need to have confidence in our national myth; without it, we are lost. But we are not lost yet.

  • ms Catholic state

    The fact is, if and when Europe becomes Muslim majority….it will not be Western civilisation anymore.  Western Civilisation is another word for Christendom in its latter post-Christian dying days.  And most Muslims naturally want to spread their beloved faith and convert the Heathens.  Just as we Catholics want to do….or should want to do.

    Here’s hoping and praying.

  • Oconnord

    “a long and rambling post.”

    By no means, you followed a time line and seemed concise. I am very weak in that area of history so thanks for stating the facts well and deliveringing your conclusions just as concisely.
    Three paragraphs to draw some conclusions is modest. 

    So merry Christmas to all you bloggers and posters of weird comments. Or happy xmas, festival or holidays if you prefer that. I wish you all the joy and weirdness that a day with family and friends can give.

  • Oconnord

    Sorry I forgot…. for anyone stuck with commuting, “Via con Dias”, a nice sentiment, I like it even if I don’t “believe”

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    There are some excellent books on the period, btw, which you would I am sure enjoy. I certainly did.
    Best wishes!

  • Info

    the goths, visigoths, vandals etc were already Christian albeit mostly of a heretical Arian trait. no comparison with the islamic hordes which for the past 1,400 have been incessantly waging war against the west… 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    True….. the Eastern Empire did have to deal with Islamic invasion, though….

  • VeraFidesCaritas

    Yes, Rev. Father, but the Muslim invasion wasn’t for another two or even three centuries.

    Btw, as a student of St. Augustine at the Augustinianum, the thesis I’ve found most convincing thus far is that he thought the Roman Empire – strictly speaking or proprie dictum (imperium) – had fallen long before the then “current” disasters and that only the Church actually inherited the Virgilian promises.

    So, while I strongly disagree with your intrepretation of the ancient data, I thank you for the lucid commentary and I wish you a very Merry Christmass.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    that is an interesting thesis, but what I found in my research was the exact opposite! What was the name of the thesis btw?

  • Parasum

    Maybe Gibbon had a point – the rise of Christianity & movements like monasticism can hardly have had no effect on the Empire’s ability to survive; and there were the murderous hatreds unleashed by – already simmering, then expressed by ? – the combination of Imperial power & Christian heresy-hunting. The see-sawing between Arian & Catholic is a prize example of this, and not the
    only one.

    As for Stilicho – what sort of Christianity allows political assassination :(  ? No wonder Julian despised Christianity: the men who massacred most of the other descendants of Constantine were supposedly Christian. Which does not suggest that conversion was as important as catechesis.
    Maybe the Empire lasted because its old religion kept moral character & the *pax deorum* separate – unlike Christianity, which followed Judaism in fusing them, and made things worse by treating doctrinal variation, & those who varied, as evil.  Church and state should never have been united – they corrupt one another (as Dante was painfully aware). The Islamisation of Europe could have the effect of disentangling Christians from depending too closely on the state – this could in theory reduce the Church to powerlessness so that it would survive only by being a leaven in society, as Jesus wanted it to be.

    Happy Christ-Mass BTW :)

  • Nat_ons

    There were more monks and sects and indeed Christians under the Eastern rule than in the West; so no, Gibbon wrote from a ideological not a historiographical stance in his otherwise enjoyably gruff reading of the history. The West suffered precisely for the want of a Christian basis: large, popular and energetic cities – it was these that seemed to float above the waves of barbarous intrusion (not the countryside, that is, the pagan hinter lands). Therefore, Islam – an odd Christian heresy and not a tribal tide alone – differs in kind not degree of opposition to catholic orthodoxy; it is civilised even in its tribal barbarity, divine even in its worldly views, and more challenging: fired with Judeo-Christian zeal for the One God of revelation .. a zeal to which most educated ‘Christians’, the ‘neither hot nor cold’ variety, gladly bend or demand that others must bow to (for policy-sake if not clarity). 

  • Anonymous

    “Gibbon wrote from a ideological not a historiographical stance”

    ## As did the Fathers, & as do most authors with any strong convictions. That does not make him wrong. There are plenty of faults in his history, but many of them are as little or as much blameworthy in (say) Baronius as in Gibbon or his other sources. Was Baronius wrong for having strong Catholic convictions ? Tillemont & other of Gibbon’s sources were Catholics.

    The mention of the monks and sects in the East strengthens the case for saying Christianity was a Bad Thing for the Empire.

  • Anonymous

    Much of Spain was Muslim for 780 years until 1492 – much longer than the 125 years for which it was officially Catholic. Would the Islamisation of Europe be so bad ? Human nature being what it is, an Islamised Europe would probably not be zealously Islamic for more than a few generations. Orthodoxy survived under Islam; so did Catholicism. Why should they not do so again – so long as Catholics & Orthodox wanted them to ? I think secularism is much more likely than Islam to take over Europe; Christianity is a busted flush :( It’s in the same position as Classical paganism in the time of the Apologists – their criticisms could in many respects be applied to the Church as it has become. What they say of the churches of their period could hardly be said of the Churches today, alas.

  • theroadmaster

    Spain was Catholic and Christian long  before the Moorish invaders set foot on Spanish soil in the 8th Century. Granted that Islamic thought, customs, architecture, food etc have left an indelible mark on the national psyche of Spain which indeed Judaic influences have contributed so much to as well.  But the Moorish occupation of huge swathes of the Iberian peninsula was not the idyllic civilized point of contact or toleration for beliefs that popular history makes out.  In some instances, Christians who were subject to Islamic rule were treated effectively as 3rd or 4th class citizens, burdened with legal penalties(e.g dhimmi (heretic status) and suffered from periods of intense persecution.  On the other hand,the very stimulating intellectual work of Islamic scholars in tandem with their Jewish counterparts opened up the rather constrictive world of Christian Spain to a larger universe of thought and technical advancement.  But one wonders how Christianity either in it’s Catholic or Orthodox forms would have survived if Islam had managed historically to dominate the European continent in both the West and East?  If one judges by the reality of such hegemony in the former Ottoman territories in middle or eastern Europe, not very well.  Christianity is too firmly rooted in Europe, despite it’s present poor condition, to totally disappear.  Pope Benedict XV1 is too well aware of the precarious state of belief on the continent and next year will be devoted to the New Evangelization project to recover the missionary spirit which so set the original Evangizers on fire.  May God make this work bear much fruit.

  • theroadmaster

    The old  religion’ you think survived because it kept ‘moral’ character?  A religion which represented emperors as gods or demi-gods no matter how brutal or unsavory their characters were, somehow does not generate consistent role models.  This religion regarded infants with disabilities as being no more worthy than thrash and it was a common policy for such newly born children to be killed and consigned to the compost heaps of urban Rome.   The sickening spectacles of men trained to kill each other for the sport and entertainment of fickle ancient Roman audiences as well as other such public delights as adherents of the arriviste and socially revolutionary but non-violent Christian religion, being mauled by wild animals, crucified or set on fire could not be regarded as favorable advertisements for Roman paganism.
    Christianity for all of the human frailties and faults of it’s leaders and believers, both past and present, always stressed the eternal and spiritual essence of every human being made in their Creator’s image.  The legalization of Christianity by Constantine’s decree in the 5th century had the undoubted advantage of enabling the word of God to be expedited to corners of the Greco-Roman world and beyond because of the unparalleled road network, administrative bodies and rule of law.  The marriage of the functions of the former empire to the newly-legalized religion has down to our present day been a bone of contention between historians and religious pundits.  I suppose the downside has always been the intermingling and identification of the Church with the policies of kings, emperors and national governments at different epochs in world history.  But the positive flip-side to this has been the evangelization of the continent of Europe which led to the flowering of Western culture on a global scale and the further evangelization of other continents.  At least in Western societies there has developed the politics of rendering to God what is His due and to Caeser what is his.  I wonder would this have been the case if Europe had been fully Islamised?

  • Anonymous

    It was Catholic from 586 to 711 – then the Moors invaded. Before 586, the Visigothic Christians of Spain were Arians. 125 is a lot less than the 781  years from 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492; 125 is less 1/6 of 781. And you can’t find anything in my post saying things were idyllic under the Moors, or under anyone else.

    If Christianity survives in Europe it will probably do so through inertia, simply because it too big & too long-established  to vanish soon – like the remains of pre-Christian religion after the Roman Empire was Christianised (which is not the same as being converted). That does not mean that Christianity will be in a healthy state; it could be very mixed, like some of Japanese Catholicism after Westerners were forbidden to enter Japan until 1853.  It’s hard to believe that any centrally-inspired initiative from “Head Office” in Rome will change things; nothing Rome does is going to give people the gift of faith, for only God can do that. And He may find Evangelicals are more attentive to Him than the CC is. I would not bet on the CC’s being around in 200 years’ time.

  • Nicholas Beecroft

    Thanks for this article Alexander. Very interesting. This could unravel or us very fast and our complacent cultural value system- multiculturalism (shadow imperialism) and political correctness (shadow fascism) – will wash away very fast. The question is what will it be replaced by? It can’t be just Catholicism. I’m not a Christian or a Catholic and respect them and believe that there’s truth in them but I don’t believe in the stories or in the structures. A few years ago, I worked hard to understand the collapse of our civilisation from within and it’s appeasing reaction to the multidimensional jihad. What amazed me was that the current Pope COMPLETELY understands- he is one of the few to have a really clear diagnosis of what’s gone wrong and what are the threats. But to my disappointment, he has gone completely quiet now in office. I’m sure he’s scared of setting off violence- mainly the stepping up of Islamic persecution of Christians from persecution to genocide. It’s a real risk, but the appeasement is simply bringing our colonisation, submission and mediaevalisation faster closer. Why is he so passive?

  • theroadmaster

    Well it was Catholic from 586-711 and then from 1492 to the present.  I think think that it is safe to say that Catholicism had over 1000 years of existence in Spain in comparison to the 500 years that Islam dominated parts of the Iberian peninsula.  
    Catholicism will survive the current anti-Christian mentality that surrounds the Faith in Europe.  I agree that Evangelical groups seem to provide an effective introductory path to Christianity at the basic level which Catholics could learn from.  But Catholicism is the full realization in many levels of that initial introduction and possesses a spiritual profundity and historical resonance that Evangelical or Pentecostalist groups do not possess.  Jesus promised that He would be with His Church until the end of time and I think that the Catholic Church will be present in Europe and elsewhere while the Earth can still support life.

  • Nat_ons

    As the empire survived in the East – perhaps despite the monks and sects – it is hardly a secure reason to suggest Christianity was a ‘bad thing’ for it, its cultural glory, or its civilised endurance. Strong conviction, also, is not of itself a bad thing, I agree, in the normal course of things; yet it is not truth – let alone a guarantee of sound understanding of truths (according to a standard other than the conviction). The convictions – in so far as these are understood, if not openly confessed – may inform us merely about the soul convinced, not about the history or its written sources (unwritten sources are nearly always filtered through some prior conviction); thus, it is not my convinced opinion that tells you what is true in the records of empire .. rather it is the truth that we all seek out which must at least inform our convinced opinion (not least mine, Baronius, Tillemont or Gibbon, et al).

    The lack of civic culture in the West, not the advance of Christian life in its declining cities, marks the witness of the sources – written and otherwise. All the thriving cities of the East, even with their explosive Christian life, make a similar mark. So a Christian life was not the common denominator in imperial decline or vitality, the city itself was.

    Note well: that commonality of data is not a matter of conviction, opinion or bias but of witness. Of course the witness of these divers sources may be incomplete and even faulty – and thus our understanding misled by this fault; for civic society did indeed survive, temporarily in the West – although it was once considered to have crumbled more swiftly than it did. Nonetheless, when data common to one failing rule (the West) and one burgeoning culture (the East) are ignored to advance an attack on one part of that data (and only one: the presence of Christians/ heathens/ tribes), any conviction expressed in that attack is not one based on sound reasoning only prejudgement – thus, some of the relatively few cities in the West did in fact survive the social turmoil of decline in Roman rule, not least with their enduring Christian witness; that imperial rule declined to its greatest extent only where there were fewer vibrant centres of civic culture, with all that vital if boisterous Christian witness, is clear from the East .. hence Gibbon’s conviction and assertion otherwise (against Christianity) stands in stark contrast to any reasonable understanding of the data actually available (even to him, Baronius, and us).

    PS: This slight of bias is a common enough fault, and relatively easily disposed of – if one cares to do so. Rather, it is the habit of presenting such prejudice as evident truth that causes to real difficulty, e.g. an ultramontanist spirit of using the Donation of Constantine fraudulently in advancing political claims. Where the ultramontanist fraud differs from the historian’s bias (in my opinion, and worth no more than that) is not in invention of ‘truths’ more suitable to a given purpose, but in the data; Constantine did indeed restore the vast wealth of the pre-Constantinian Roman church and added ostentatiously to it – however, the decline of Roman rule in the West was not due to Christian values, faith or religion for these same surces added to its story of survival in the East, plainly contra Gibbon (I hope this little discursus helps you to see my reason for distinguishing between history and idea).

  • sajoeuk

    There has never been a worse time to be an intellectual especially an historian or an economist. Most of the former are pathological liars and the latter no better than turf acccountants in fact worse.

    I suspect there was a racial/tribal dimension to the collapse of the Roman empire just as there was to the collapse of the Vatican II church and currently is to the collapse of the USA.

    In the case of the Catholic Church, a bunch of ‘denazified’ German theologians (which includes the present Pope) turned up in Rome in 1962 and proceeded to be wrong about absolutely everything. Indeed, Rahner told Dublin’s McQuaid at the time that V2 didn’t really have anything to do with the “Irish”. Given that McQuaid was at the centre of an enormous eccliastical empire which extended to the four corners of the earth, this must rank as the one of the most crass statements ever by any Catholic theologian living or dead.

  • ebergerud

    Just to tidy history, the Islamic portion of Spain was in decline from about 1000 AD. In 1236 the Emirate of Grenada became the last Muslim state in Spain (they were ejected from Portugal a little earlier). If you’ll look at a map, you’ll note that the Emirate was actually quite small. It continued to exist as a kind of unofficial vassal state of Castile until 1492. It was during this period that much of the cultural highlights of Islamic Spain took place – ie a time when the question of religious supremacy in Iberia was well settled. (It was only after the fall of Cordoba to Christian rule two centuries earlier that allowed the flow of Greek and Arabic knowledge into Medieval Europe began.) There might be a lesson there. Religious toleration in Grenada might have suited many of its rulers well. It was also necessity. The Emirate existed only as long as Castile wished it to. When Castile and Aragon unified their dynasty in 1492 Grenada ceased to serve a function and was disbanded not conquered. The question of what percentage of Al Andulus was Christian or Muslim is very much open to debate. However, there can be no question that between 700-1492 a majority of people in the Iberia were some kind of Christian, although a Muslim majority in some areas is very likely. There was a cross sectarian group that you might call Arabized Christians who adopted Arab culture and even some of the Islamic faith while maintaining a belief in Christ’s full divinity.  

  • Anonymous

    We can and must venerate the Church. But if you were looking for a place where Christian social values, especially those taught by the past three Popes, would you look in a secular New Rome like San Francisco or an Islamic community in Michigan? I think the answer is self-evident.

    I’ve spent my life studying war and have no illusions concerning radical Islam. That said, Muslims worship the God of Abraham. Militant secularists have utter contempt for all religions. An unborn child is far safer in an Islamic country than in the USA. So let’s remember our duty to Christian charity when considering issues like Islamic immigration (and high birth rates). And let’s also remember who presents the real danger to our Faith. It’s not Islam.

  • None

    I think u all need to get a life.
    Seriously, believing in god? as if….