Brief Views of the Early Medieval World Part I: The Decline of the Roman Empire, Monarchs, and Christianity

This post is a bit convoluted.... well, I thought I would warn you early. :) It is a hodgepodge of information about the different rulers of early medieval Europe and the rise of Christianity... and the gradual decline and fall of the Roman empire. (There are some historians that suggest that the Roman empire didn't actually collapse, but instead continued on in the rise of the Roman Catholic church... there certainly seems to be some good evidence for this perspective... but I digress.)

There are many important legacies that Diocletian and Constantine gave to the medieval world. Both of these men were emperors of the Great Roman empire as it was beginning to 'fall' or decline. Both of these men ruled in a time of crisis for the empire and it was their decisions to try and save the empire and their reforms that really helped to shape the land known as Europe in the early Middle Ages. One of the major difficulties that these emperors faced was trouble with the Roman army. The empire itself was too large to be easily defended and military service was no longer considered to be an honorable career choice. It was not an easy life – quite hard as a matter of fact- and so finding people to do it when it was no longer honorable either and no good promises of land, pensions, etc... became quite challenging. So outside warriors would be hired but as with any people who are hired for money, they are more loyal to the people around them and those that pay them... so not necessarily loyal to the roman emperor himself. Other difficulties that they faced was the diminishing amount of slave labor and the inequality of the economic system in the different areas of the empire. As the Roman empire stopped fighting wars because they had conquered so much, they no longer had huge amounts of captives to make slaves. And some areas of the empire had managed to achieve economic stability while others really depended on these economically wealthy areas to sustain them. This sharp division of secure economies, cheap labor shortages, and the added burden of differing groups of people attacking the large and under-protected borders of the empire would have created quite a crisis for these emperors to deal with. Diocletian came to power from his position in the Roman army – a good example of how joining the army did create opportunities for the underclasses as he was from a peasant family in the area that is now the former Yugoslavia. He managed to cement absolute power for himself (which many leaders for the last 100 years had not) and he used that influence and power to push back on the barbarians who were raiding and compromising the borders and the towns near them. He reconstructed the government of the empire into a position of absolute power that was 'divinely' appointed. Using ceremony and created 'pomp and tradition/ceremony', Diocletian created a persona of the competent Roman ruler which Constantine was to continue with great success. He also created a class system which required all peasants to be bound to the land they had been on. Diocletian divided the empire into two large parts that could be more easily controlled. Constantine would continue every policy of Diocletian and added more reforms of his own. He himself became a Christian and made it the majority religion in his lands by force over paganism. Constantine the Great gathered much power and control over the fledgling Catholic church and even help to establish official church doctrine – an example is the Council of Nicea called in 325 CE to establish 'standard' beliefs for the church.

Together the general accomplishments of these emperors was to stabilize the borders and to create economic and social opportunity. The restructured governments helped keep their subjects in line and a more peaceful existence in the kingdom. In some cases, they were able to win back lost territories and to restore area to the empire They also were truly able set up the empire in such a way that 1/2 of it lived on in success for almost 800 years after the other half 'fell'. That is an achievement in itself. :)

There were a few different things that allowed for the development of a strong Christian church with specific orthodoxy and hierarchy. One thing that helped was the suppression of these early Christian groups, but was also due to the suppression and exiling of many Jewish groups. The religion that we see as Christianity in the beginning was seen as a form of Jewish heresy... Jesus Christ was Jewish, many of the laws followed the Jewish laws, etc... When Rome attempted to split up Jewish communities to give the government more power over the Jews, they inadvertently spread this heresy to a much larger area and made it much more difficult to destroy. The idea and development of church hierarchy came from the events up to and after the death of the Christ. When Jesus Christ was on the earth, he was the prophet and unquestioned leader. Upon his death by crucifixion and his 'resurrection', the first 'male' he saw was Peter the apostle. It was this experience and the words of Jesus that Peter was to be 'the rock upon the church's foundations' that caused Peter to become the new leader of the fledgling church. The organization of the twelve apostles was still used and as Peter or other apostles died they were replaced. Within the next few centuries, tradition about the resurrection of Jesus began to change a bit to state that Jesus only spoke with the apostles after his resurrection and no one else which was used to give the growing leaders of the Catholic church- the pope as the man who inherited his leadership for Peter the apostle, the bishops and cardinals who inherited the positions of the apostles and other high placed missionaries such as Paul- legitimacy as the heirs of these great founding 'fathers'. And as the church grew in membership, size and diversity, it became important to church leaders as well as secular leaders to control and standardize the beliefs of the Christian church. When some of these standards or orthodoxy had been established, it gave both secular and political leaders more power to deal with the other differing beliefs. New laws and persecutions would cause believers to either adhere to the new orthodoxy... or suffer for non-compliance. When necessary over time, more 'orthodoxy' would be added to help control other splinter groups (or groups with differing Christian ideas) over the years.

Christianity was so appealing to converts for many reasons. One thing that is clear is that it was most appealing to people who were unhappy and dissatisfied with the current government or civilization around them. This can be seen in the high percentages of converts who were members of alienated classes – women, slaves, immigrants and free people without a lot of rights or money. Christianity maintained a belief that all members of this spiritual order were 'equal' whether you were a slave or a member of the aristocracy which would attract many who were in the lesser classes. In many ways in the Roman empire, belonging to the official religion was seen as a form of patriotism so belonging to this 'Jewish splinter group' was not looked kindly upon. Christianity also offered spiritual guidance, a moral code, and a much better potential afterlife for its believers than the abstract philosophy and emotionless expression of the Roman pagan religion. Some historians also believe that due to the similarities between one of the pagan religions (Mithraism) and Christianity, people were more likely to convert to Christianity because its major beliefs and ideals were already known to the population and were not new ideas. One last idea that is believed to have converted followers to this religion is that Jesus Christ was a real person and as such, evidence for what he said or did could be found. Most other religions had no large amounts of evidence that could conclusively back them up.

The Roman empire was a empire of vast proportions of land and differing geography... and it was a land full of diverse people. The only unifying force was the government itself and this force would be less 'unifying' the farther you lived from it and it's influence. There was nothing that really connected any of these different groups or people to each other except their differences... which were more conductive to division and war rather than peace and unity. Clovis I may have had a few reasons for conversion including belief, but he was shrewd enough to recognize that as he continued to conquer lands and build his own empire, he needed something to unify these diverse groups of Franks in able to be able to rule them effectively. He was successful in both of these goals. He conquered the land of Gaul which we now call France and toppled the last roman emperor in 486 CE. By forcing conversion to Christianity, his people now had a common spiritual outlook and a way that they could be more easily controlled. It was also rumored that he had looked at other Christian religions (Arianism), but he chose the Catholic church and he became (as far as we know) the first Catholic ruler. And as a member of the rising Catholic church, he would also have the church heirerchy's support for his rule.

During the decline of the Roman empire, the Germanic tribes to the North gathered strength even as Roman officials continued to call these Germanic groups barbarians and uncivilized. The amusing irony is that while these Germanic groups did eventually overthrow the roman emperor.... the fact that the western empire lasted as long as it did was because of the military might of these groups that had become the majority members of all the armies for the Roman emperor in the Western empire. The groups that today we would call 'Germanic' would have been similar in culture, religious practices and in language- but those would be the only similarities. Under Clovis I, these tribes became united and incorporated other groups of people into their cultures. When these groups were not unified, each group had a leader who served in the capacity of the leader of religious function, military commander, judge... basically a king in most ways although the leader of these small groups was usually elected or agreed upon in some way by the eligible members of the tribe. With the success of Clovis and Christianity that brought about the unification of these groups, the leader quite literally became a king and was no longer 'electable' by his people. The society of the German peoples was hierarchical with laws that were more lenient for wealthier or more noble offenders, and women would only gain any form of class from their closest male relative- such as father or husband. Warfare was fairly 'rare' and most forms of violence were for easy gain- such as raids on neighboring villages before unification. Economics was mostly agricultural and hierarchical as well with peasants bearing the brunt of the labor and food production.

Most historians mark the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE when the emperor was overthrown by a German Chieftain. Certainly describing this slow and petering decline as a 'fall' seems slightly inaccurate. The study of the ending of the Roman empire in the west reminds me of a cancer patient. The problems started small and and then spread... and even with a few great rulers who were able to make reforms in attempts to eradicate the cancer, it continued to spread until the last gasp of life was gone and the empire was no more. At least when I hear the word 'fall' I imagine a group, city or territories being quickly and forcibly taken over by another large and powerful group.... a very clear defining line between the before and after so to speak. With the Fall of the Western Roman empire, there is no true defining line except for potentially where the 'last gasp' came- at the fall of the last emperor to Clovis and his army. Those are just my thoughts though. Another part of the gradual separation of these two large empires was the rise of the strength of the Islamic religion that started to become prominent both religiously and politically in the eastern part of the empire, which caused more separation between the two emperors and their people.

The Eastern Roman Empire had so many advantages over the Western Empire so its ability to survive for almost 800 years more is not necessarily remarkable. For quite a few years before the collapse of the Western empire, the leader in the East was the stronger emperor due to his empire's superior economy. The survival of the Western empire during its last few years was really based on the generosity and willingness of the Eastern empire to provide it with money, military help, etc.... So it comes as no surprise that the Western empire would fall if the emperor of the Eastern part of the empire decided not to continue the aid... which is what eventually brought the downfall of the Western empire. The Eastern empire had a steady tax base, fewer problems with outsider invasions and was generally more urban that the Western empire.

Two rulers of the Byzantine Empire really had several outstanding accomplishments during their rule – Justinian and Theodora. One thing of note is that Justinian used a lot of military might and kept his focus on reclaiming the lands around the 'Roman' lake or Mediterranean Sea. It had been lost before his rule and it was not an easy thing to gain back.... but he was successful during his reign. Justinian also helped reform Christianity and the church. One focus for Justinian was to pursue and force the idea on the people that an absolute emperor should be the status quo. Unlike many of the kings or 'emperors' in the west, Justinian was educated and was deeply religious and he used his power, position and the wealth of the empire to create beautiful churches. His total reformation of the law, known as the Justinian code, became the basis for civil law in the empire that is actually still used in many ways today (over 1000 years later.)

Before the disputes that would lead to the split of the early Christian Catholic church, the leaders of both the east and western churches would discuss orthodoxy and different church issues. One major religious dispute that was to help cause the eventual split between the two parts of the Christian church was based on who was the ultimate leader of the Catholic Church. At this time, there was a patriarch of Constantinople and a patriarch in Rome- both men argued that they were the true heir of St Peter (Peter the apostle) and therefore the true 'Pope' or Patriarch of the Catholic Church. The apostle Peter had been martyred in Rome and so the Patriarch of Rome felt that the head of the church should be in Rome where the apostle had died and where his grave was. The Patriarch of Constantinople disagreed and felt that since the first Christian Emperor (Constantine) had declared the city of Constantinople the 'New Rome', the patriarch of that city was the true heir to the apostle. Also, the city of Constantinople was in the stable part of the Eastern empire... whereas Rome was in the disintegrating and unstable Western empire. Other differences included differences in language and circumstances based on the slow estrangement of the western empire from the eastern empire... in a sense, the two sides became different enough that they began to distrust one another. In the Western empire, the pope was the head and all loyalty went to him whereas in the east disputes were only brought to Rome if the patriarchs in the east could not solve the dispute... clearly a different situation. Another was a dispute over the whether the Holy Spirit comes from the Father only or whether it comes from both the Father and the Son. Over time, There were several 'petty' disputes as the patriarch in Rome refused to agree with decisions made by the patriarch in Constantinople. These differences would continue until the Christian Church 'split' and became two churches. The first part would become the Roman Catholic church and would be led by the Pope. The church in the east would be headed up by the Byzantine emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople. In a sense, this schism was very much more of an human and emotional schism, not a schism based on doctrine or church policy.

Charlemagne, a member of the Carolingian dynasty, successfully linked politics and religion in his reign and used religion as a way to help him cement his power. Upon his conversion, he was a 'zealous' missionary and followed a strict policy of 'conversion or die' to all of the people that he fought. As part of his 'foreign policy', Charlemagne continued the policies of his father towards the church and he became the 'warrior' arm of the church- their protector, etc... He used religion to prop up his rule with elaborate rituals and as well as the 'support' of the Pope. One example was his coronation by Pope Leo III on Christmas day in 800- this showed everyone that he was 'God's choice' for ruler and also linked him heavily with the church. Some have noted that his reign was a reign of pure conquest... 'by the sword and the cross'. Another example was Charlemagne’s decisions to convey meetings of church officials as well as privileged laymen to consider his agenda and when it was agreed upon he expected not only the laymen but the bishops of the church to help enforce this agenda. Some of his reforms were to strengthen the Catholic church's hierarchy and clarifying their powers- this seems like quite a big deal for a secular ruler to help set the agendas and form he rules that a different spiritual organization would follow. He also built lots of churches and made not following the Catholic faith a capital offense. This ruler truly wanted to create a stability in his lands that had not existed for several decades and he used three major ideas to do so; culture, Christianity, and the good traditions of the Roman past.

Hope you enjoyed this post and learned a few things to boot. Stay tuned for Part two in a few days. :)

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