Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 300-750
Byzantium – Last of the Romans (1:39:35 hrs; start at 31:49 min.):
Cultures, pp. 259-280 (Imperial decline; a Christian emperor and a Christian church; the Byzantine Empire; barbarian kings and warlords; divided estates and kingdoms)
The crises that beset the Roman Empire in the 200s CE ended with Diocletian’s strong but harsh reorganization of the empire and its administration (284-305):
284-305 CE Diocletian restored order:
- Re-organized the army
- Restored the currency
- Set wage and price controls
- Required men to follow their father’s occupation (to prevent loss of essential services, such as tax-collection)
- Divinized the office of emperor
- Persecuted Christians who would not offer sacrifices to the gods and the emperor
- Divided the empire into Eastern and Western halves (the East was by now more important than the West), and ruled with a co-emperor and two deputy emperors (Tetrarchy)
- Intended the Tetrarchy system to solve the problem of imperial succession, by having the two co-emperors (Augusti) step down after twenty years, having their deputy emperors (Caesars) step up to replace them, and then choose new Caesars to serve as their deputies, and so on, so that the succession could continue forever in 20-year cycles.
Diocletian and his co-emperor duly stepped down in 305, but their former Caesars began to fight for sole rule.
Constantine I (306-337):
In 306 Constantine, son of the former Caesar of the West, was hailed as Augustus by his late father’s army, and in 312 he defeated his remaining rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge (N. of Rome). This victory established Constantine as emperor of the western half of the empire. Constantine later attributed his victory to a vision on the eve of the battle in which he saw a cross with a banner, blazing with light, which led him to direct his soldiers to paint the Greek letters chi-rho (the first two letters of “Christos”) on their shields.
In 313 Constantine and Licinius, the new emperor of the East, met at Milan. They issued jointly the “Edict of Milan,” which made Christianity a legal religion and guaranteed religious freedom for all faiths in both halves of the empire.
Thereafter, although Constantine continued to venerate the Roman gods, he became a great patron of Christianity, including building many churches (including St Peter in Rome, and Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem), sponsoring the training of priests, and choosing Christians to serve as imperial bureaucrats.
In 324 Constantine defeated Licinius to win control of the entire empire, and chose a new imperial capital, the former Greek city of Byzantion, which he renamed Constantinople (formally dedicated in 330).
In 325, Constantine convened the first ecumenical church council, at Nicaea (modern Iznik), about 100 miles from Constantinople. He invited all 1800 bishops of the entire Christian world, and about 300 came, including from as far away as Britain. Pope Sylvester (314-335), the bishop of Rome, did not attend the Council of Nicaea but sent two papal legates to represent him. The main business of the Council was to refute the Arian heresy, promoted by an Alexandrian priest called Arius (c. 250-336), that the Trinity was hierarchical, because the Son was not co-eternal with the Father, and thus subordinate to the Father. The council issued the Nicene Creed as a statement of correct belief, declaring that all three divine Persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) were co-equal, consubstantial, and co-eternal.
Constantine gave himself the formal title of “thirteenth apostle” and declared himself, as emperor and pontifex maximus (“chief priest”), to have supreme authority over the church. He did not, however, accept baptism and formal conversion to Christianity until he was on his deathbed, near Nicomedia.
Constantine’s legalization and patronage of Christianity led to a surge in public preaching and missionary work, and to the rapid institutional development and growth of the church.
The fourth century saw continuing religious turbulence over heretical movements including Arianism; even some emperors were Arians.
In 391 emperor Theodosius I “the Great” made Christianity the Roman state religion, and forbade the worship of the old Roman gods. At his death in 395 he divided the empire between his two sons, and thereafter the Eastern and Western empires went their separate ways:
The Eastern (“Byzantine”) Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, was wealthy, strong, and well-defended both by land and sea. It controlled the eastern half of the Mediterranean and was tightly governed by its emperors.
The Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527-565):
- Briefly expanded the Byzantine empire by reconquering Italy, SE Spain, and the Vandal kingdom in N. Africa
- Rebuilt much of Constantinople (including the church of Hagia Sophia) after a destructive riot
- Established a legal commission to codify late Roman law: the resulting Corpus Iuris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) formed the basis of Byzantine jurisprudence for 900 years, and – after its re-discovery in the West in the late 11th century – served as a model for the development of canon law and of the national laws of Continental Europe.
- Made silk production an imperial monopoly; this became even more lucrative when, during Justinian’s reign, two monks brought smuggled silkworms, after which the Byzantines no longer needed to import raw silk from India
Justinian’s conquests exhausted his treasury and his army, and were lost after his death. But his successors, especially Heraclius (610-641), re-organized the army by providing it with imperial lands for the officers and soldiers. The officers governed their districts (themes), and the army now was financially self-supporting and very vigorous. After the Persians had seized Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and parts of Anatolia, and even besieged Constantinople itself, Heraclius initially bought them off with tribute, but eventually was able to launch successful campaigns against them and to recover Palestine and Syria.
Constantinople was the administrative, military, political, religious, cultural and commercial capital of the Byzantine Empire. From the 600s on, it siphoned off the cultural, intellectual, and commercial life of the provincial towns.
The collapse of the Western empire, and after:
The Western Empire was weakened by invasions of Germanic tribes (including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, Saxons, and Lombards) who crossed the Rhine-Danube frontier, and by faltering imperial governance. Poor upkeep of roads, bridges, and aqueduct systems and inadequate patrolling against brigands disrupted trade and led to a massive, long-term contraction of urban life in the West, which was less urbanized, less industrialized, and less populous than the East. Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths, and in 455 by the Vandals. The last Western emperor was deposed in 476 by a Germanic general, and the Western empire fell apart, becoming a patchwork of kingdoms with demonetized barter economies and populations that lived largely by subsistence farming.
Britain, for example, was overrun in the 400s-500s by Germanic tribes (identified by the scholar Bede, writing in the early 700s, as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes). The monk Gildas described Britain in their wake as a desolate ruin. Gregory, bishop of Tours (c. 538-594), himself a descendant of the Gallo-Roman senatorial aristocracy, wrote a lengthy History of the Franks in which he described the conquest of Gaul (modern France and Belgium) by Clovis (d. 511), king of the Franks, and the violent royal dynasty (known as the Merovingians) that he founded. Clovis, who murdered any relatives whom he saw as potential rivals, was nevertheless warmly praised by Bishop Gregory because he converted to Christianity, and his Franks loyally converted, too. (Many Germanic rulers remained pagan or converted to Arian Christianity rather than orthodox Christianity.)
Over time, a new European culture emerged that blended Roman and Germanic culture and Latin (western) Christianity.
The Franks (documentary, 14:34 min.):
Lecture by Professor Paul Freedman of Yale University on Merovingian society as seen in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks (50 min.):
Cultures, pp. 280-289 (Germanic law; Christian paganism; Christian monasticism)
Sources, pp.119-137 (Procopius, The Secret History; Gildas, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain; Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks; Pope Gregory the Great, Life of St. Benedict; Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People; Dhuoda, Handbook for William)
Germanic culture and law:
Free men always carried arms, and violence and blood feuds were endemic. The only way to stop a feud was if the victim or victim’s family would accept a compensatory payment called wergeld (“man-price”). In Germanic law codes, the criminal laws focused on assessing standard wergelds for every kind of injury. The amount of the wergeld varied according to the status of the victim. Civil laws focused on property, marriage, inheritance, and taxation. Germanic culture was very patriarchal, and in most Germanic societies, women were kept under the control of their father or husband. Only the Visigoths allowed unmarried women (aged 20 and older) to be free of male control.
Germanic paganism and conversion:
By the 4th century Christian missionaries — Arian as well as orthodox — sought to convert the various Germanic tribes, who worshiped the Germanic gods and goddesses, such as Wotan (the sun god) and Thor (god of thunder and lightning). Because a core feature of Germanic society was the bond of loyalty between warriors and their war-leader or ruler, Christian missionaries focused on converting rulers, because their followers would loyally then also convert. Many Germanic converts simply added the Christian god to their ancestral paganism, and many pagan practices (such as the worship of sacred trees, or celebrating the equinox) were blended into Christian rituals in the West.
The Edict of Milan (313) made Christianity a legal religion throughout both halves of the Roman Empire. This ended forever the state persecution of Christians, and enabled the Church as a legalized institution to develop rapidly. Many Christians of both sexes were moved by a passionate faith to leave their families and join a religious community in a monastery, where they could devote themselves to prayer and emulate the ascetic lives of the apostles. In the Western, Latin-using half of the former empire, many of these monastic houses eventually came to follow the Rule of St. Benedict, compiled by St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), which offered a challenging but flexible set of regulations for living a communal religious life under the governance of an abbot (for a house of monks) or abbess (for a house of nuns). The focus of Benedictine monasticism was the Opus dei (“work of God”), a series of religious services that they performed daily in their abbey’s church. Since the services were entirely in Latin, all monks and nuns had to be proficient in Latin. The Benedictine Rule also required each monastery to be economically self-sufficient, and each monk or nun was required to do manual and intellectual work daily, both as a sign of humility and also to serve the needs of the house. In the West, after the decline of towns and the collapse of the imperial government, the monasteries became islands of learning and centers for the preservation and copying of books.
For the Western church, the most important book of all was the Latin (“Vulgate”) Bible, translated from the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament by St. Jerome (347-420), one of the four “Latin Doctors” (“teachers”) of the church. (The Eastern church used the Greek “Septuagint” translation of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.)
Procopius (d. 565), The Secret History: Procopius was a contemporary and close associate of Justinian, and wrote admiring books on Justinian’s wars to re-conquer Italy and N. Africa, and on the magnificent buildings that Justinian built, including Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In private, he wrote this scathing and pornographic account of the emperor and his inner circle.
Gildas (500-570), On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain: Gildas, a British cleric, is the only Briton to have left a surviving account (written in 544) of the conquest of Britain by the Saxons. His account survives because in the early 700s the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede copied it into his own history of the English people. Gildas interpreted the destructive conquest of the Saxons as divine vengeance on the Britons for their sinful behavior.
Gregory, bishop of Tours (d. 594), History of the Franks: In the first excerpt, Gregory depicts the murderous Clovis, king of the Franks and founder of the Merovingian dynasty, as deeply pious, always seeking direction from God and the saints, and deciding to attack and conquer the Visigoths simply because they were Arians. Clovis killed many kings including his own kinsmen, by assassination or in battle, in order to seize their kingdoms, and then lied about his involvement and motives. Nevertheless, Gregory declared that Clovis “always walked before God with an upright heart and did whatever was pleasing in His sight.” In the second excerpt, Gregory describes a theological debate about the divinity of Jesus and his place in the Trinity that he and King Chilperic had with a Jew.
Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), Life of St. Benedict: Gregory begins his account by identifying his sources. In the excerpts given here, he stresses Benedict’s successful battle against sexual desire, and his ability to perform miracles, both during his lifetime and after his death.
Bede (c. 673-735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People: The first excerpt describes how Pope Gregory the Great sent a team of missionaries to England, to the court of King Ethelbert of Kent [at that time the dominant Anglo-Saxon king], whose wife, Queen Bertha, was a Frankish princess and a Christian. Ethelbert received the missionaries with courtesy and generosity, and allowed them to preach freely. The second excerpt describes Pope Gregory’s noble Roman ancestry and his personal holiness, first as a monk, and then as pope.
Dhuoda (c. 803-c. 843), Handbook for William: A handbook of moral and religious precepts written by an aristocratic mother for her teenaged son William [826-850], who was a hostage at the court of Charles [the Bald], king of the Western Franks. Dhuoda’s husband Bernard, duke of Septimania [S. France] and count of Barcelona, was away in Aquitaine [SW France] (he was executed for rebellion in 844).