There was a dream once that was Rome. Ah Rome! That ginormous empire that covered most of the known world for centuries! We still look back to its culture, its achievements, its laws and language, as the bastion of civilization. And then it wasn’t there anymore. Then the Middle Ages happened, “Dark Ages” first. What the heck happened?
Well, first of all, it’s a mistake to think that the Roman Empire just disappeared one day. Actually, it was still there for a long time. It changed more than it disappeared, contracting and crumbling slowly over time as its political and economic make-up changed. Geography and religion played important parts in its decline. Geography because it was so vast and as the political situation at home in Rome weakened the empire was divided into sub-empires. Religion because the system of belief in those divided regions became more powerful than the forces of secular government and defined who the people who lived there thought they were.
So basically, when Mediterranean unity as exemplified by the Roman Empire collapsed, the Middle Ages began. But how did that happen?
Last week in talking about the Anglo-Saxon invasion/migration into the British Isles I mentioned those pesky Visigoths who were giving Rome a hard time. It wasn’t just the Visigoths. The Ostrogoths and Vandals and Lombards were a problem too along with a lot of other Germanic tribes. The Germanic tribes that sacked Rome in 410, 455, and 546 had actually been an integral part of the Roman army before this time though. You see, as Rome expanded its empire into Western Europe it encountered all of these tribes, conquered them, and then enlisted their men in its army to help conquer more barbarian areas.
And it wasn’t that the Germanic tribes were bloodthirsty ruffians who just wanted to destroy everything. Actually, they saw that what Rome had to offer, structure, culture, order, and learning, was awesome. They wanted it. So they moved on in to take it. The problem was that they didn’t have the same background of either education or civic structure. They weren’t Roman people and they didn’t have centuries worth of Roman ways worked into their culture. They tried to integrate all that was Rome into their way of life, but the fundamental misunderstanding of what it was and the contradictions the Roman lifestyle had with their heritage made for a big mess.
So the part of the Roman Empire that was Western Europe was plagued by a basic incompatibility between cultures where the less sophisticated Germanic cultures smothered all things Roman. That’s part one of the decline.
Then there was the Eastern Roman Empire. When Rome saw that it could no longer single-handedly keep its empire together a political division was made. In 395 a second capital was set up at Constantinople to govern the eastern half of the empire. Things went pretty well at first. As the situation in the West got dicey the East was able to keep things together. This new empire, the Byzantium Empire, was politically separate from the Western Empire, but at least at first there were close relations between east and west.
Well that all fell apart, especially as divisions within the Church came to a head. The Roman Empire wasn’t just split geographically, there was also the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. There are volumes of books written about the how and the why of this massive schism in the Church, but I will summarize it by saying they couldn’t agree on some very basic principles of doctrine. But a lot of those dry, theological divisions had their roots in cultural differences. They were just different people with different cultural and faith traditions. So they split and drew further and further apart.
In 533 the Easter emperor Justinian began a reconquest of the Western part of the empire. He was successful in a lot of ways because he reclaimed much of the territory of Italy and North Africa. But Justinian wasn’t as great of a leader as he could be. Mostly because he spent way too much money on the conquest and way too many men died to regain it. What could have been a great moment in history flopped, partially because it was too little too late. Justinian’s efforts ended up ravaging both empires, his battles of conquest destroying parts of the former empire that had actually been untouched by the barbarian raids. And when the next wave of Germanic tribes moved in they were able to take what they wanted from the weakened western empire. But the Byzantine Empire carried on, stretching north and east into what would become parts of Russia. The Slavic people were on the rise.
And then came the final blow. The definitive end of Mediterranean unity, the ultimate separation of East and West, started with one man by the name of Mohammed. While the Christian Church was experiencing its own divisions along deep-rooted cultural lines that effected its theology, the new religion of Mohammed was taking over in the Middle East. Islam didn’t catch on overnight as just a religion in and of itself. It wasn’t until after Mohammed’s death that the religious aspect of Islam and the political life of the Arab people were entwined. Once Islam became a governing factor it spread like wildfire. The Islamic Arab people started conquering the formerly Roman territories throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, all the way to Spain.
By 720 the Islamic Arab empire stretched from India to Spain. It was more scientifically and culturally advanced than the struggling agricultural areas of Western Europe and more militarily and economically powerful than the Byzantine Empire. It wanted to keep on conquering too. Western Europe was surrounded on all sides by enemies who wanted nothing more than to take a great big bite out of it. The tables were turned on all those Germanic tribes who had pretty much done the same thing to Rome centuries before.
So what was poor Western Europe to do? Succumb to the forces of Islam on one side or Byzantium on the other? Was there any hope for these less educated, less organized early Medieval agricultural people? Would they be squashed by arguably superior cultures? Tune in next week for the story of how one man, a Mayor of the Palace and not a king, turned the tide of history and began a dynasty that would change everything.
But in the meantime, to circle back to our point today, with the conquest of the Arabs the last vestiges of the Roman Empire were gone. With communication cut due to the dangers of pirates and raiders in the Mediterranean, with relations between the West and Byzantium getting frostier, the dream that was once Rome was now forgotten. The Middle Ages was well under way.