This episode of Communio Sanctorum is titled, “Living It.”
For generations, scholars have debated the cause of the Fall of Rome in the West. In his monumental work, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire historian Edward Gibbon laid a large part of the blame on Christianity. And for decades that view dominated the popular view of the history of 5th C Europe.
Christianity certainly played a role in the course of events in Europe during that time, and I’m loath to contend with such an eminent & erudite scholar as Mr. Gibbon, but The Roman Empire did not fall in the 5th C when barbarians overran the West. As we’ve seen in previous episodes, the Empire continued on quite nicely, thank you very much, in the East for another thousand years. What we see in Gibbons is the western provincialism typical of an 18th C European. He largely disregards the Eastern Empire once the West fell; this despite the fact the Eastern Empire continued to identify itself as Roman for hundreds of years.
And as for Christianity being the most significant cause for the West’s fall? Wait – Christianity was no less in place in the East as the West. We can make a case for saying it was even more so ensconced in the seat of power. After all, while Church and State remained largely separate in the West, in the East they merged. So why didn’t the Eastern Empire fall to the no less frequent and concerted attacks by so-called barbarians?
The reasons the West fell while the East continued are numerous and far more complex than we have the time to deal with here. Besides, this is a church history, not a history of the Roman Empire podcast. For that, you want to listen to Mike Duncan’s excellent The History of Rome.
Gibbon’s justifies his position by saying the Christian faith encouraged chastity and abstinence, resulting in a population decline within the Empire. That meant fewer men for the army. And those men who did enlist were influenced by a passivism taught by the Church that didn’t want to fight. They were all a bunch of 5th Century hippies. “Make love, not war, broh.” Gibbon’s assumption is that at the same time, the Barbarians popped out warriors like rabid attack-rabbits amped to go to war as soon as they could swing a sword.
Hold on Mr. Gibbon, those barbarians, weren’t they Christians too? Arian Christians to be sure, but weren’t they of the same general moral stripe as the Romans you claim were getting soften up and ready for the slaughter by a milk-toast brand of religion? So why were the barbarians different?
A far better cause to look for on why the barbarians took down the West was the pressure they faced from other barbarians invading their territory. It was easier, and quite frankly far more tempting, to just vacate territory being invaded by blood-thirsty savages from distant lands, and move toward the rich pickings of a decadent and largely under-defended Empire. An Empire where the quality of governing officials had so declined the people would rather be ruled by barbarians than the rapacious, brutal and corrupt officials sent by Rome, or Milan, or Ravenna – where ever the Western capital now sat.
So, did Christianity contribute to the fall of the Empire in the West?
Some of Gibbon’s criticisms may have merit. But whatever factors the Church contributed to weakening the Empire were offset by the benefits the Faith brought. As we’ve already seen, had it not been for the Church and its very capable bishops, entire regions would have gone without any governance.
What would have happened to Rome if Pope Leo hadn’t convinced Attila & his Hunnish hordes to turn back? What would have happened to the City had he not convinced the Vandals to limit their deprivations to looting?
To be sure, the percentage of genuine believers in the Empire was small. But their influence was growing. And Christianity began to alter the culture of the Empire in both the East and West.
In the mid 5th C, an elder of the church at Marseilles named Salvian wrote a book titled The Government of God. He wanted to answer the same question the great Augustine of Hippo wrestled with, “Why did Rome fall? Why would God bring suffering on a Christian people?” You’ll remember Augustine’s answer to that perplexing problem everyone was talking about was the book The City of God.
Salvian said the suffering of Christians in Gaul at the hands of invaders was not a measure of God’s just rule; it was His judgment on the wicked aristocrats and greedy officials who’d mercilessly oppressed the poor.
Salvian is unique because, until that time, writers tended to denigrate the common man in favor of the rich and powerful. After all, who bought books in those days? Salvian wrote for fellow believers, to help make sense of what they saw every day at the hands of barbarian invaders. He said God had let them in because the rich landowners and civil officials were corrupt and abused the common people.
While the case he makes is simplistic, it did contain a measure of truth others thought but feared to voice. Contrary to Salvian’s picture, the common man wasn’t all a mass of innocence, nor were all officials corrupt. There were exceptions on both sides. But a new note had been stuck in the old question of why Rome fell. And from that point on, the Church began to take an increasingly larger role in being the voice of the common people. The Church had always put a priority on charity and taking care of the poor, but rarely had it spoken out against the unjust policies of civil officials that deprived people of their rights and property. Now it began to.
The City of Rome was in the habit of evicting non-citizens in time of famine but Bishop Ambrose worked to change the policy so they’d be provided for. A similar policy was adopted at Edessa in Greece as well as a 300-bed hospital – all at the urging and with the assistance of believers in the city.
This is not to say in some places the Church was part of the problem rather than the solution. In Sicily for instance, church officials were oppressive in the way they exacted taxes from the commoners who worked church lands. But when Pope Gregory found out, he moved quickly to correct the problem.
Historians have long debated the efficacy of the Christian faith on the morality of the Empire. The tendency among advocates of the Faith is to attribute too much influence to the Church while critics scoff and say the Church had no impact on morals. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.
We know it was the influence of Christianity that brought an end to gladiatorial combats. But the ever-popular chariot racing, wild animal hunts, and the incredibly immoral theaters carried on despite regularly sermons preached against them. The theater was so bawdy, some Emperors banned them. But they carried on in secret, knowing that the next Emperor might very well lift the ban.
One realm of morality that experienced a major overhaul was sexual ethics. The modern and popular conception of the late Roman Empire is that it was marked by lax sexual mores. TV miniseries on Rome have played this up to boost ratings. While the Imperial palace and homes of the wealthy were occasionally the scenes of moral debauchery, the common people were not given over to rampant sexual license. Society then was much like society now. What Christianity did was to elevate marriage and the status of women. Also, for the first time, virginity for both men and women was valued as a virtue. While marriage was held as sacred, the idea of staying single and choosing a life of celibacy so that a man or woman could devote themselves wholly to Christ became a regular part of the Christian Community.
Pagans considered this odd and another mark that set Christians apart.
Sexual intercourse outside of marriage was forbidden and violators were excluded from the Church. When the number of those excluded grew, it was decided to allow them back into fellowship after they’d demonstrated public repentance and done the required penance. As time passed and the idea of celibacy grew, even sex within marriage was edited. It was thought it should only be engaged in to produce children. Finding pleasure in marital sex was deemed by some church leaders, themselves celibate, as sinful. Sex between a husband and wife was to be endured to produce children, not enjoyed to build intimacy. Too bad they didn’t take the Song of Solomon at face value or apply what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 7.
The Christian view of marriage had a significant impact of Roman customs. Because it was considered a sacred covenant, divorce was forbidden except in the case of adultery. By Roman law, a woman was not allowed to marry a man beneath her social rank. If she did, her status was lowered to her husband’s level, he was never elevated to hers. In the early 3rd C, Pope Callistus not only eased the rule for sexual offenses, he declared as legal the marriage of men and women from any social level.
Under the Roman law of paterfamilias, the male head of household had absolute authority over his family and estate to do as he pleased. Technically, he had the power to beat and even execute his wife, children, and servants. I say ‘technically,’ because while the rule of paterfamilias did grant a father that right, being an abusive brute and killing family members was certainly frowned on. What paterfamilias did was to denigrate the value of women and children.
Christianity fundamentally altered that. Not only were women elevated as co-heirs of Christ with men, but children were also valued as parents were charged with the stewardship of raising them to the glory of God. The practice of exposing unwanted infants on a hillside, a common Roman and Greek custom, was forbidden for Christians, as was abortion. It’s said when non-Christians went to the hillside to leave their unwanted offspring, Christians came out from nearby hiding places to rescue them before the wild beasts could take them. They were then raised in Christian homes.
As the Church grew and more people came to faith in Christ from all occupations and levels of society, the impact of the Faith began to be felt across a wider spectrum. Many believers found it difficult to live in a secular world. When a civil magistrate came to faith, how was he to order the torture or execution of someone who before his conversion he wouldn’t have thought twice for? Some thought to solve this problem by saying Christians couldn’t serve in public office. Meaning those who DID serve in that capacity weren’t followers of Christ and so were void of the virtues of a believer. This had to have contributed to the decline in morality that marked the late Empire, especially the morality of governmental administrators; who became rapacious and brutal tyrants.
We think of men like Ambrose and Gregory who’d been magistrates before they left office to become leaders in the Church. The Church attracted the best and brightest who before would have gone into public office. Men like Athanasius and Augustine. There were hundreds who became bishops rather than governors and prefects. It was an ancient form of brain-drain that weakened the civil order of the Empire. These church leaders were more concerned to build Augustine’s City of God than to help shore up the sagging walls of the City of Man. And the barbarians were waiting just outside those walls to tear them down.
This, more than anything else is what contributed to the Fall of the Western Empire.
During the 3rd and 4th Cs, government policies saw a massive shift of people from being producers to consumers. By the dawn of the 5th C, the imbalance was unsupportable. The army had doubled in size to deal with the barbarian threat. As is the nature of government bureaucracy, it had mushroomed drastically. But producers like farmers and manufacturers had dropped significantly. The costs of doing business rose steeply consuming profits, and farmland was either threatened by invasion or stolen by elites who knew how to work the system to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
All of this burdened the government at the same time as impoverishing it. And wouldn’t you know it, it was right at that time that new barbarian groups decided have a go at the old girl called Rome.
Many of the commoners of the Western Empire weren’t really all that worried about the barbarians. They were ready for change since their Roman overlords had become brutal and rapacious. A change in regime sounds kinda’ good. Out of frustration with the civil authorities in Rome, Pope Gregory negotiated with the Lombards. The Christians submitted to barbarian political rule, then promptly converted those barbarians to the Faith.
So, Christianity may indeed have contributed in a small way to the fall of the Western Empire, but the question is – was it really worth saving? Was history set back by Rome’s demise? If Rome’s fall was Christianity’s fault, how then did the Church become the repository of culture and the treasury of civilization and emerge as one of the dominant institutions in the centuries that followed? The barbarians may have conquered the Western Empire, but the Church soon conquered them.