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 history for the 5th C.
Christianity certainly played a major 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 over ran the West. As we’ve see 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 that the Eastern Empire continued to identify & call itself Roman for hundreds of years.
And as for Christianity being the most significant cause for the West’s fall to the Barbarians? Wait – Christianity was no less in place in the East as in 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 & concerted attacks by barbarians?
The reasons the West fell while the East continued are numerous & far more complex than we have the time to deal with here. And 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 less 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.” Edward’s assumption is that at the same time, the Barbarians were popping 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 barbarians who were invading them. It was easier & 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 & 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 & corrupt officials sent by Rome, or Milan, or Ravenna – where ever the Western political capital now sat.
So, did Christianity contribute to the fall of the Empire in the West?
Some of Gibbon’s criticisms may be correct. But whatever factors the Church may have contributed that weakened the empire are offset by the benefits the Faith brought. As we’ve already seen, had it not been for the Church & it’s very capable bishops, entire regions would have gone without any kind of 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?
Methinks Gibbon only reveals an antipathy toward Christianity by his remarks. Let me be clear – I come to this view by my conviction Psalm 33:12 is true when it says …
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.
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 & 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 that 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 & greedy public 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 & 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 let them in because the rich landowners and civil officials were corrupt and abused the common people to their own gain.
While the case he makes is too 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 of both sides. But a new note had been stuck in the old question of why Rome fell. And from this 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 & 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 & with the assistance of believers in the city.
This is not to say that 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, lie 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, & the incredibly immoral theaters carried on despite regularly sermons preached against them in the churches. The theater was so bawdy, some of the Emperors banned them. But they carried on in secret, knowing that the next Emperor might very well remove the ban.
One realm of morality that experienced a major overhaul was sexual ethics. The modern & 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 their ratings. While the Imperial palace & homes of the ultra-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 & women was valued as a virtue. While marriage was held as sacred, the idea of staying single & 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 the Christians apart from society.
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 that 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 & women from any social level, at least from the Church’s viewpoint.
Under the Roman law of paterfamilias, the male head of household had the absolute authority over his family & 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 ruler of paterfamilias did grant a father that right, being an abusive brute & killing family members was certainly frowned on by society. What paterfamilias did was to denigrate the value of women & children.
Christianity fundamentally altered that. Not only were women elevated as co-heirs of Christ with men, children were valued as parents were charged with the godly stewardship of raising them to the glory of God. The practice of exposing unwanted infants on a hillside, a common Roman & Greek custom, was forbidden for Christians, as was abortion. It’s said when the non-christians went to the hillside to leave their unwanted offspring, the Christians would come 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 & so were void of the godly 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 & Gregory who’d been magistrates before they left office to become leaders in the Church. The Church attracted the best & brightest who before would have gone into public office. Men like Athanasius & Augustine. There were hundreds who became bishops rather than governors & prefects. It was an ancient form of brain drain that helped to weaken 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 & manufacturers had dropped significantly. The costs of doing business had risen steeply consuming profits, & farm land was either threatened by invasion or stolen by the Roman elite 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 & rapacious. A change in regime sound 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 & 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.