The Birth of the Early Middle Ages: Rome’s Greatness and First Crises


Crypt in the Church of St Servatius at Quedlinburg, Founded 936 CE / Wikimedia Commons


Lecture by Dr. Paul Freedman / 03.06.2012
Chester D. Tripp Professor of History
Chair, History of Science and Medicine Program
Yale University

Themes Arriving at the Early Medieval Era

Early Medieval church / Creative Commons

We [begin] by looking at the crisis of the Roman Empire. And then we will be looking at its peculiar legacy. In the year 1000, where we stop, we will still be dealing with The Inheritance of the Roman Empire, the title of Chris Wickham’s book.

The legacy is peculiar because, while the memory of the Roman Empire remains intact throughout the period, and beyond–I mean, to this day, the head of the Catholic Church is in Rome. Until 1960, the transactions of the papacy were in Latin; the services of the Church were in Latin, the Catholic Church were in Latin. And Latin remains the official language of the Catholic church in its administrative head.

So the most faithful preserver of Rome and its legacy, historically, is the Catholic Church. And this is a paradox because the Church begins its career, and, indeed, its first 250 years, as illegal in the Roman empire. And, indeed, there are periodic persecutions where people were punished, including killed, because they were Christian.

The most faithful preserver of Rome, however, after the fifth century collapse of the Empire in the West, is the so-called Byzantine Empire–the Byzantine Empire with its headquarters in Constantinople. Despite the fact that it would abandon Latin for Greek in the sixth century and turn into a very different kind of political and cultural entity, the Byzantine Empire went down in flames to the Turks in 1453 still as the Roman Empire. That was its official name to the end.

Another heir to the Roman Empire, in a sense, is Islam, which begins in the seventh century, in the middle of our period. I don’t have to emphasize to you the historical importance of Islam. But our task is to understand its origin and its astonishing expansion in terms of this era, 250 to 1000. To understand it in terms of its times, and thus how it arises and interacts with the Roman and Byzantine as well as, offstage, the Persian, Empires that it either destroys or weakens in the seventh and eighth centuries.

Mohammed was from outside the former empire, from Arabia, and may be said to represent a very different kind of set of ideas. But the power of Islam would, for centuries, be concentrated in areas of the former Roman Empire: the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Egypt, Syria, North Africa. Of course, in the latter, it still is the overwhelming majority religion.

And Islam then brings up a sort of question that I’m not going to deal with directly very much, but that will be at the back of our minds, and that is relevance. This is a pre-industrial course; it’s in the very pre-industrial category in terms of requirements. It’s far away; it’s distant. That is part of its appeal, I think, is as I said, its strangeness.

[The lessons] are perhaps these – worth thinking about:  How, perhaps the most successful, multi-cultural empire of Western history, how it did that, how it endured for so long. The success of the Roman Empire and why it finally failed. And in that failure, how does a rich, literate, well-developed society come to be destroyed by a more primitive one? Primitive, at least, in the sense of material culture, economic complexity, urbanization, and literacy.

Another important lesson is the power of religious ideas, not only intrinsically as part of people’s lives and outlook, but socially and historically: how religion affects the political course of history.

Roman baths, England / Wikimedia Commons

We begin with a familiar world, in the sense that the Roman Empire, although obviously not technologically the same as the one we live in, is a very advanced society and a very complex one. Advanced? Well, go to Europe and look around, and see the engineering feats of the Romans. See the public life that the baths, stadia, temples, law courts, marketplaces, whose ruins still, in many instances, dwarf the towns that survived around them. See what an accomplishment that is.

It is a huge empire, a bureaucratic empire, one with lots of literate people, a huge army, a huge civil service, a lot of commerce back and forth, all things that are familiar to us. But as it weakens and collapses, you get a kind of, if not post-apocalyptic, at least transformative experience. It gets stranger and stranger, more and more disorganized, harder to understand at first grasp. Basically we begin in the Shire, and we end up in more dangerous territories. It’s hard to describe the territory that we end up in, but that is what I think is intriguing about the course. You start out in a familiar world, and it just becomes something alien, but, I think, appealing.

Appealing, but I do have one warning – we’ve got to talk about religion, both Christianity and Islam, and, to a more limited extent, Judaism, and also paganism, for that matter. But the one that tends to bother people actually is Christianity. So sometimes people will say, I thought I was taking a History course, and this turned into a Religious Studies course before my eyes. We’re going to have to talk about some heresies. You’re going to have to understand, actually, what people are fighting and killing each other over, when they talk about the nature of Christ, or the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity.

This is unfamiliar, but, again, I think unfamiliarity is good for us. And unfamiliarity has a funny way of turning into familiar. When I started teaching–well, dinosaurs weren’t walking the earth, but they’d just departed, primitive birds and early mammals–the assumption was that religion was safely–religion as a political movement, not religion as a personal commitment, but religion as something that had an impact on politics was pretty safely gone, and that it was a feature of medieval history. Obviously the last years have shown us, in many ways, the power of religious ideas. The power of religious ideas, not solely personally, but collectively; not solely as sentiments, but as political movements.

The Roman Empire before the Crisis of the Third Century

The “Five Good Emperors” (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius) / Pinterest, Creative Commons

So we begin with the crisis of the Empire, the first crisis of the Empire in the third century AD. If we go back just before that– this isn’t officially part of the course, this is like the chef offers you this little amuse-bouche, this little snack to begin the meal. The period of the Good Emperors, the second century AD – the term the Good Emperor is a term popularized by the great historian of The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, who wrote in the 18th century. And it’s one of those works that, whatever its myriad factual and interpretive inaccuracies, still sets the program for how we look at the decadence and collapse of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon says, “If a man were called upon to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius,” that is, 96 to 180 AD. He goes on, “Their united reigns are possibly the only period in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.” So it’s this period of the so-called Good Emperors against which the subsequent decline traced in Gibbon’s monumental work would take place.

Now, as opposed to Gibbon, we’re not so confident that the Roman Empire was so wonderful for everybody involved. We have a somewhat more egalitarian outlook than Gibbon. Gibbon never says, oh, well, what about the slaves? Or what about the peasant, or hey, the position of the women in society? But more than that, I think we have some more doubt and hesitation as to whether any state, particularly any powerful state, necessarily represents a standard of virtue or happiness. For the poor, the smooth functioning of the Roman government was less important than it was for the propertied classes. Because the Roman state, like most states, in so far as it practiced the rule of law, was set up to guarantee property, not rights.

[Wickham emphasizes that] the Roman Empire was not organized to reward ordinary people. To different degrees, and at varying times, it did rely on slave labor. This is easy to exaggerate. It’s not a slave society. It’s not an overwhelmingly slave-owning society, but certainly many of its enterprises involved slavery. Its laws were designed to protect the property of the wealthy, rather than to mete out equal justice.

Rome was an imperial power, and, as I will say in a moment, it was an extraordinarily tolerant one. But it was tolerant as long as you conformed to their image of civilization. Like many great imperial powers, it assumed that there were certain areas of life that were optional. They were very tolerant with regard to religion, for example. But their definition of civilization was being like us. They were generous about that. They would make citizens of people from the Celtic lands of Britain to Egypt. But this meant conforming to a certain set of standards, beliefs, assumptions, and a way of life.

Another thing that we now would dissent from Gibbon about is the efficiency of the Roman Empire. To Gibbon, in the 18th century, the Roman Empire appeared a marvel of efficiency. But really, how could it be efficient? The distances were so long, and travel was so slow. This is an empire that took weeks and weeks to traverse in the state of communications. And we know, from contemporary times that, even with great communications, indeed, with instantaneous communications, it’s very hard to hold states together.

And, in fact, one of the things that’s happened in the last 50 years is the weakening of the state, strangely enough. Strangely, because what people thought was going to happen is what had been going on in the 20th century generally. States had become more and more powerful, more and more dictatorial, more and more tyrannical. And, indeed, George Orwell’s 1984, written in the post-war era in the late 1940s, assumes that totalitarianism is what’s going to be generalized. In fact, it turns out that the problem is not so much the state– look at the great states of the mid-20th century: one no longer exists, the Soviet Union, and the other, the United States–whatever our strengths are–it doesn’t seem to be the extraordinary power of the central government, which is, in fact, much reduced from what is was in, say, 1950, by any measurement.

So we have a different idea of the state. We’re more aware of the limitations of state power in past times. We’re more aware of the discrepancy between the rhetoric of power– and no polity equals the Roman Empire for its ceremonies of power, its architecture of power, its culture of power. But the emperor, in fact, however glorious, however much in the third century was worshiped as a god, his power was limited. His power was limited in terms of enforcement, if not in theory.

Bust of Diocletian / Wikimedia Commons

And this will be important because, right from the start, we’re going to assess the accomplishments of the Emperor Diocletian, at the end of third century, and the Emperor Constantine, beginning of the fourth century, who may be said to have saved the empire from collapse. The thing about the Roman Empire that is indisputable, and does not have a value judgment attached to it, is that it was enduring. The Roman Empire lasted for an incredibly long time; it was stable.

In the year 410 the Visigoths sacked, plundered Rome. They entered the city of Rome, this so-called barbarian tribe, and they pillaged it. They pillaged it in a fairly orderly way, but, nevertheless, they pillaged it. This was the first time this had happened in the city of Rome in something on the order of 800 years. The Empire itself, by this time, was nearly 400 years old.

The other indisputable accomplishment of the Roman Empire is that it controlled the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was its center, referred to often as Mare Nostrum, as “Our Sea.” Our sea because they controlled all of the shoreline of the Mediterranean–the only power that has ever done that. There have been great empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Caliphate, but none of them controlled more than about 40% of the Mediterranean at any one time.

So even if we dissent from Gibbon’s calm assurance that the best period of human history was the era of the Good Emperors in the second century AD, we shouldn’t minimize the accomplishments of this empire and of this era. To live in security, with respect to both outside enemies and internal disorder, essentially peace and the rule of law, was unusual. And, unfortunately, it remains so.

Rome was an immense empire. It stretched from England to the Sahara, from Spain to Armenia. It had a common language of administration, Latin. And two cultural languages, Greek and Latin, understood by the elite from one end of the empire to the other. The cities were not walled until the third century.

Gibbon, in particular, emphasizes the tolerance of Rome, which appealed to his innate anti-clericalism. And, as many of you know, his explanation for the fall of the Empire was Christianity. It was Christianity that weakened the Empire, weakened its  elite, turns its attention to foolish controversies over Trinitarian or Christological concerns, when they should have been concentrating on the barbarians. This is not accepted anymore, for reasons that will become clearer in these first few weeks.

And its appeal though, the idea of toleration, is very important to Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, when Europe had just emerged from centuries of religious wars. Having seen the wars of the Reformation, well not literally, he hadn’t lived through them, but being the inheritor of these religious wars, of the Thirty Years War in Germany in the 17th century, of religious controversy in Britain, Gibbon, like many members of the Enlightenment generation he was part of, thought that the world would be far better if religion remained either an exclusively private matter or just disappeared. So for him, the villain in history, and in particular, the villain in Roman history is religion.

But, however tolerant, of course, Rome drew the line at Christianity, for reasons we shall discuss. But it is still, historically, quite unusual that the Empire should have permitted all of these other religions. Indeed, rather than regarding, say, the religions of Egypt as inferior, they simply brought those gods in. Monday, you might worship Zeus. And Tuesday hey, if you wanted to see if Isis was going to help you with your impending business deal, why not go and see an Egyptian temple?

So its eclectic. It’s a little bit like the way Americans dine out. It makes no sense to most people, in most of the world, to say something like, “Oh, I don’t want Japanese food. I had that for lunch.” If you’re in Japan you’re expected to have Japanese food for lunch and for dinner, and the same with Italian food. The same is true of religion, most people don’t just say, “Oh, I don’t want to go to Presbyterian Church this weekend, I’m going to go worship at a Buddhist temple, just for a change”. This is more in the nature of Roman religion. So this kind of tolerance is unusual. So tolerance, tolerance is a real virtue of the Empire, even if it’s limited. Real virtue because it’s unusual, historically.

Peace — the Roman Empire spent half of its state budget on the army. On the other hand, no empire this large could be held together by military means alone. It was held together by an elite that shared notions of civilization, that made certain sacrifices for the public good. Those games, the circuses, the competitions, the ceremonies were usually paid for by private people, not by the state, for example.

It is an urban civilization, with an elite that is urban. The cities held their local gods. They had local administration. They built aqueducts, temples, law courts, all these edifices that I mentioned earlier. It was a cosmopolitan way of life. So it’s diverse in the sense that there are many different peoples, but unified, in the sense that the elite shares a common language and even the city planning is the same. If you went to London or you went to Timgad, in what’s now the Algerian desert, you’d know your way around. You’d know where to find the marketplace. You’d know that it was laid out in a grid. You’d know where the law courts would be in relation to the temples. You could find your way, just as if you get off the interstate, you know that there will be a Wendy’s or a Denny’s or a Shell station. And it would be an exceptional place that didn’t have them. If you couldn’t find a Home Depot, even without benefit of technical aids, getting off an exit of the average interstate highway then you don’t live in America, or you haven’t been here very long. So the same thing, there’s a sort of a mental picture of what a city looks like, from one end of the empire to the other.

But it is an empire that is centered around the Mediterranean, and not just logistically or politically, but culturally. For the Romans, their empire included lands where olive trees didn’t grow, and where wine grapes didn’t flourish, but those places were not places they wanted to live. They wanted to control them, but they were beyond civilization. So a government official on the Danube, in what’s now Hungary, writes home complaining that, quote, “The inhabitants lead the most miserable of lives for they cultivate no olives and they drink no wine,” end of story. And you could imagine, there’s a certain kind of East Coast discourse on the order of, “They have blueberry bagels out here, I can’t live here. ” Or, you know, the nearest Starbucks is 30 miles away, and there’s no substitute. This is an impressive empire then.

Flaws of the Roman Empire

A Roman army triumphal procession depiction / Ancient History Encyclopedia, Creative Commons

So, its flaws – it has an imbalance between the urban and the rural, not as great as historians once thought, but it is dominated by cities that depend on peasants, but that tend to drain the land of its vitality. It’s also imbalanced East-West. Strangely enough, for an empire that was founded in the West, by the time we start, the East is more prosperous. It’s more urban. It has more trade. It’s better organized, more commercial. Another flaw of this empire is its size. It works for a long time, and then, when it doesn’t work, this becomes a real problem.

And then the army– the army in the third century discovers that it can make and unmake emperors. So the immediate crisis of the third century, which lasts from 235 to the accession of Diocletian in 284, is that it has dozens and dozens of emperors. Most reign for less than three years. All but one die violently. So the two things are linked, the power of the army to proclaim an emperor, and the inability of that emperor to keep this power before the army or an army somewhere, in one province or another, rises up another emperor and kills the former one.

So it’s a durable empire, but an unwieldy, and in certain respects, exhausted one.

So in the first part of the course, we’re going to look at how this empire functioned. And we’re going to look at its two great crises. The first of them, this third century crisis, which involves all these many different emperors, also has invasions from Persia, also has the first indications of barbarian invasions across the frontier of the Danube and the Rhine rivers, but it survives this first crisis. And that is the accomplishment of Diocletian, about whom you’re going to be reading.

The second crisis, that of the fifth century, is similar, in many respects, but more final in its results. The fifth century crisis witnesses the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the fall of the Roman Empire of Gibbon, that Gibbon made famous, and that continues to inspire a certain amount of fascination and fear today.

Destruction, painting about the fall of Rome, Thomas Cole, oil on canvas, 1836

So here are some questions that should be in the back of your mind. When we’re talking about the collapse or weakening of the Roman empire, did this happen because of foreign threats or internal weakness? The rhetorical topos, and it’s often invoked with regard to empires in the modern world, is internal weakness. That’s because the opponents don’t seem very savage or very impressive. But it’s not necessarily a given. External enemies, even that don’t appear to be that imposing, can, under certain circumstances, impress their will on what would seem to be a more powerful empire. To some extent that is, indeed, because of internal weakness. But it won’t do to exaggerate that. But this is one of the problems.

Another problem is continuity versus change. The East survives. The East even flourishes for a while. And even for a while seems to be on the verge of re-conquering the West from the barbarians. So how can we talk about the fall of the Roman Empire when, you know, only part of it falls?

Another question is, how did the rise of Christianity affect the political and cultural fortunes of the Empire? As I said, Gibbon said it affected its fortunes by destroying it. But beyond that, I think, over simple explanation, how did Christianity change the Empire? Was this change a catastrophe or a transformation? And, how did Christianity triumph? It seems to be so alien to everything Roman. How does it become the official religion of the Empire? And, how does it become, indeed, identified with the Empire?

All of these questions are currently very much debated by historians. I’m not going to have a definitive answer for you. I’ve certain opinions. I’ll present the information basically in accord with that, but this is not something that has been scientifically proven or received universal acknowledgement.

So we begin [discussing the Early Middle Ages] with the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, 284 to 305. And we do this because he solved a number of problems which threatened the survival of the Empire in the third century. These problems – instability of rule, Persian invasion, barbarian invasions, and then, one I didn’t mention, which is inflation, tremendous economic dislocation.

All of these are manifestations of the long-term flaws I just mentioned. The thing about long-term flaws. You can point to long-term flaws in the Soviet Empire or long-term flaws in the British Empire. But why do they manifest themselves when they do? Or, to put it another way, why does the empire go on and flourish for a couple hundred years, or a few decades, and then collapse?

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