Lecture: Late Antiquity

Fall of  Western Rome

Roman ruinsIt is generally considered that the “fall of Rome” was much more complex than just the invasion of an empire. In the first place, only the Western half of the empire “fell” in the sense that it was taken over by entirely different peoples. The eastern half had prospered since Diocletian, and then Constantine, had divided the empire into two areas of rule. Because it was still primarily Greek and Asian, traditions of monarchy made the eastern empire easy for an emperor to rule.

Another complication was inherent in the Western Roman Empire itself. Over several centuries, “barbarians” (foreigners, non-citizens, non-Romans) had collaborated with the empire to rule and patrol the edges of the empire. Their loyalty was one of the justifications the emperor used to argue for their admission to the Senate in the last lecture’s document by Tacitus. In a sense, it was “new barbarians”, those who had never had any connection to Rome (and didn’t want one) who were the problem.

The new barbarians were not just invaders who came to raid Rome’s riches and run back home. They came to stay. New work in climate change history gives us one reason why. Maps for Western Civ classes usually show the invasions like this:

Invasions of the Roman Empire

This makes it look like they were an internal, European affair. This map has been shrunk a lot, but at least it includes all of Eurasia:

barbarian map

Climate change began in China, where pastoral peoples had to move westward to look for better pasture for their animals. Since there were already tribes there, those groups were forced westward into the territory of other groups, and so on across the continent. The Roman Empire is at the edge of the continent, so in a sense the new barbarians were essentially pushed into the Empire by peoples east of them.

So they were coming to settle, not just to raid and run. To me that means that “invasion” isn’t the right word, and other historians have also begun to call what happened a migration instead. These peoples moved militarily to gain control of an area, then to settle it. Since they arrived from many different directions, and in many disparate groups, the Roman military found it hard to defend the very long borders. As these new people arrived, they encountered a Rome that was primarily Christian, which some have suggested made the Romans who were already there less likely to fight. I think it’s much more likely that the Church was pulling all the talent that would normally have gone into political leadership. If you wanted upward mobility in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Church was a better place than government service. Thus the decline of virtus as a principle is also blamed for both the fall of Western Rome and the rise of the Church.


Christianity originated in the followers of Jesus, and the term “Christian” was apparently used to define them by AD 50. Our primary source of information for the early era is the New Testament, which began as a collection of texts in the late first or second centuries. In addition to the Gospels narrating the life of Jesus, the letters of Paul provide much information about the Christians, who believed that Jesus was the last Messiah of Jewish tradition, and had been resurrected after his execution to save the souls of believers. The Roman state saw the new sect as threatening, and Christians were persecuted, most famously by the Emperor Nero in the 1st century, who used them as scapegoats for the great fire of AD 64 that destroyed much of Rome.

It was through Paul that Christian ideas achieved a more universal dimension. Paul travelled through the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where there was a combination of religious traditions, including Zoroastrianism and the worship of Isis. By the 2nd century Christians were defining their faith as separate from Judaism (in both its rabbinical and Hellenistic forms), and by the 3rd century Christianity had developed communities and traditions that continued to be seen as threatening by the Roman Empire.

Ironically, persecution, which continued until the 4th century, increased the number of conversions. Christians, as an underground sect, were much influenced by the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism. Stoics believe in the individuality of the human soul, and its connection to the cosmos. Real life lies in between, and is an illusion. So, as I've mentioned previously, a Christian being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum was not likely to provide good entertainment for the crowd, since he would pray and wait to go to heaven. The audience, instead of witnessing an X Games of emotion and blood sport, would see human strength and dignity. Without much other source in the culture for such personal dignity, many converted.

As with Judaism, Christianity’s mere survival (as well as its foundation in morality) made it a powerful force. In the early 4th century, Emperor Constantine halted persecution, which had really become politically ineffective, and he later became a Christian himself. By then, Christians had organized churches throughout Europe and created territories controlled by bishops. In 325, the First Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council, and it decided on the common beliefs that would be the foundation for the orthodoxy of the Christian Church (such as the diety of Jesus and the idea of the trinity). At the same time, the idea of “heresy” was created. Heretics were those who opposed the ideas the council had sanctified. Arius, an elder in the church in Alexandria, Egypt, promulgated the idea that Jesus, as the son of God, was lower than God in the trinity. This “Arian heresy”, which became popular among the Germanic tribes, was denounced by the Nicene bishops. In areas where Christians controlled politics, persecutions of heretics began. Here's a brief timeline of early Christianity:

Spread of Christianity
Spread of Christianity to AD 600

Latin Christendom Emerges

The era of western Rome’s decline has often been called the Dark Ages (the term is also used to refer to the Homeric Greek era). This pejorative designation reflects the Roman view. The new barbarians who migrated into Rome had no respect for or interest in “civilization" -- that is, society organized in cities. They were farmers, pastoralists, and warriors. Most were not literate, because literacy requires leisure, and they had no leisure. Elite Romans had the leisure to become educated and literate, partly because they had slaves to do the grunt work of life.

Germanic barbarian fashionsAt this point we begin referring to the newcomers as “Germanic” barbarians, because the Goths and others spoke a common language. In many ways their society and customs were the opposite of the Romans. Their warrior culture was based on merit and testing in battle, not birth. They were fierce fighters who often engaged in internal battles for tribal dominance. Because they were often at war, and wanted warrior sons, women were respected and expected to become not only healthy, strong mothers but managers of lands and possessions. This was in stark contrast to elite Roman women, who were “protected” and isolated. The Visigothic code on inheritance and the Laws of the Salian Franks make it clear that men and women were equal in law and inheritance. Such laws were, of course, written down much later, but they were based on a vast oral heritage.

We have not seen such legal or social equality for females since the Hellenistic era, or such a social role for women since the Spartans.

The Germanic Middle Ages

In many ways, the Middle Ages (that thousand year period between the classical Greco-Roman past and the Renaissance) are dominated by Germanic traditions of these migrants. And in many ways, our customs today are based on theirs.

The best example of this is our use of witnesses, people who view major life events such as marriages, deaths and trials of civil and criminal cases.

Why witnesses? In pre-literate cultures, memory is important. It is also much better than memory in literate cultures. People who are not literate can retain far more information in their heads. Many of the epic poems of the Middle Ages, which lasted hours in the telling, could be repeated verbatim by their listeners. Most of us today can’t even remember a shopping list of more than seven items. Children in our culture retain huge amounts of learning in their minds, but once they start to write they lose that ability. It’s as if knowing we can write it down means we can forget it. Imagine a pre-literate personal memory on a large scale and you have a major difference between tribal people and ourselves.

Since nothing was written, life events had to be recorded in memory. When land was exchanged, or a treaty between warring parties was made, witnesses were needed to attest to the event years later if there was any question. This meant that (also unlike our culture) tribal cultures not only respected older people, but relied upon them.

Another significant difference between them and us is demonstrated in trial by ordeal. This was used in cases where there were no reliable witnesses, or an unusual crime, where somehow the verdict could not be made clear. An ordeal was designed to give the accused the opportunity to clear his name through appeal to a higher power. In the ordeal by cold water, for example, the accused tried to float in sanctified water (after Christianization, that would mean blessed by a priest). If the holy water accepted him, and he sunk (yes, they would fish him out), he was innocent. Or an ordeal could take place as a battle between accused and accusor, with the victor assumed to be right. Other ordeals were about divine intervention in healing. The accused would be handed a hot iron or coal to hold, then the injured hand would be wrapped, and if it healed after three days he was considered innocent.

BeowulfMy word "considered" is important here. Most modern people see trial by ordeal as "barbaric", in the derogatory sense. And it was. But it also allowed the community to move forward. Trials serve the same purpose today, even when the public doesn't agree with the verdict.

An epic for the times

The oldest surviving epic poem in old English, Beowulf was written down in the late 10th century, but it was probably composed during the 7th. And it may have been based on real historical events from Scandinavia in the century before that.

The story and personalities reflect both Scandinavian (Viking) and Germanic (particularly Anglo-Saxon) culture. This is the longest reading for the class, but it's worth doing. We still want in our heroes many of the values shown here.

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Here is a modern rendition of what it likely sounded like to listen to the beginning of this epic poem:

The Early Church

In the 4th century, when Rome became the official religion of the Empire, Diocletian set up "diocese", or large administrative areas run by bishops. These bishops worked alongside the secular rulers of Rome. With the fall of the Western Roman empire in the 5th century, the Roman church became the only power in that region that could claim any authority, even if it wasn't political authority. The writings of the early Church fathers helped define doctrine, but they also sometimes revealed their own conversion experiences as lessons to others.

In St Augustine's Confessions, we have such a work. He puts his life in the context of his acquired faith.

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Even more importantly for history, Augustine developed the idea of the City of God. This was in the early 5th century, at the time of the largest barbarian incursions into the Western Roman Empire. St Augustine's approach separates holiness from the chaos going on around him (actually a very Stoic thing to do):

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In 479, Clovis I, a Frankish king, coverted to the Roman form of Christianity, ending the conflict between the many Germanic tribes practicing Arianism and the Roman Church.  Since this is close to the time of the sacking of Rome by the Goths (AD 476), the decline of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of Latin Christendom create a convenient chronology.

As the western and eastern halves of the empire separated, the diocese in the east lost touch with the main diocese in Rome. The bishop of Rome was isolated from the remaining bishops in the east when the barbarians invaded. Thus the Bishop of Rome became the main administrative figure in the European church. If the Church was the only central authority in the West, since the barbarian tribes ruled locally, then the Bishop of Rome could be seen as the highest authority in the west. The word "pope", or father, came to be applied to the Bishop of Rome, and the office itself developed its own philosophy. Pope Gregory I (Saint Gregory) was pope from 590-604, and developed the "Petrine Theory". The idea is based on St Peter's martyrdom, which took place in Rome. In the gospels, Peter had noted, "I am Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church". In Greek, his name (petra) is the same word as that for "rock". Thus Peter was the foundation of the church, and his death in Rome meant that Rome was the center of the Christian Church. Thus the "pope" was the center of authority in Europe, although in fact most of the Germanic states ignored the Church as a political entity. To encourage a united Christianity, Gregory sent out missions to those in Europe who had not yet been converted.

The hierarchy of the Roman Church begins with the pope, and goes through the archbishops and bishops down to the priests who served towns and village areas (parishes). But at the same time, there was a long tradition of hermits and ascetics who had been true Christians for generations, some of whom lived in communities designed to serve God through prayer. The Church came to sanction these communities, allowing the founders and abbots (and abbesses) of monasteries to exercise considerable independence.

St Benedict of Nursia was the 6th century founder of the Benedictine order. Instead of withdrawing from the world, Benedictine monks engaged in manual labor. This focus on work as another way of getting closer to God was later picked up by other orders, and made many of them very wealthy.

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During the 6th century, there were the beginnings of conflict between church and state that would continue for centuries. Monarchs, like their previous tribal chieftains, exacted taxes from those who lived on their land. Some would try to tax churches and monasteries to raise money, but popes and bishops continually objected to this, usually effectively.

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In 800, an event took place which connected the political rulers of Europe with the Church. Charlemagne was descended from the Frankish ruling tribe, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope. This meant not only that he was seen as having a divine mandate to rule (because the pope crowned him, rather than someone else) but that the pope was seen as being a person who crowns emperors.

Lessons of History

1. What has been known as an invasion of barbarians into Rome is more accurately described as a migration of Germanic peoples into the western Roman Empire.

2. The Germanic peoples, while they destroyed the foundations of Roman life (such as baths, villas, written law, and long-distance economy), brought their own culture which contains elements we still use today.

3. The Roman Church, through the leadership of the Church Fathers and popes, came to be a central power in a fragmented Europe.


All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.