Saturday, April 28, 2012

Christianity and the Roman Empire – Part II The First Century (Continued)

During the third decade of the first century a new prophet appeared in Galilee. His message was consistent with the currents of the time, but he also placed a new focus on the poor and disadvantaged. Most importantly, he claimed to be inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth through his own special relationship with the creator.  This post is about that prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, and the religion created in his name. Christianity caused a violent reaction in the Roman empire initially but, in time, conquered it. In 476 A.D. when Romulus Augustus abdicated, it was only the pope who was left standing.

Jesus of Nazareth was raised in Galilee, but we know little about him before his meeting with John the Baptist. Starting in the mid-twenties A.D, he travelled across Galilee preaching a message of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. To properly prepare for this event, the Jewish people must repent for their hypocrisy and embrace all human beings as their brothers, including women, the poor, and the disadvantaged. Without that repentance, they could hold no hope for immortality.

Jesus was well-educated (Pharisee caliber?) and was a master at using parables to reinforce his teachings. He was also said to have healed the sick and cared for the most desperate of human beings.

Despite his wisdom and charisma, Jesus’ Galilean mission was a failure because the people could not comprehend his message. Even his family did not understand his intent, causing him to express frustration at them. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters… he cannot be a disciple of mine.” AndA prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." In addition to his lack of success, Jesus had created animosity in the Galilean Pharisees, who were angered by his criticism of the Jewish law and could not abide his association with undesirables.

Later, when Jesus heard that the Baptist had been executed, he was forced to hide in the kingdom of Philip to avoid the wrath of Antipas, who was sensitive to perceived revolutionary activity.

Finally, Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, knowing full well he might have to die for his beliefs as the Baptist had done. He chose Jerusalem because it was the center of the Jewish state and a demonstration against the leadership would have the maximum impact. That demonstration is known as the cleansing of the temple, where he turned over the tables of merchants and criticized the Sadducees for disrespecting the holy place.

The response of the Pharisees and Sadducees was a plot to have Jesus eliminated. They convinced the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, that the prophet’s activities were subversive and he represented a threat to Roman rule.  Then, following a mock trial, Pilate agreed to have Jesus crucified.

Jesus’ horrible death nearly destroyed his followers who could not accept that their messiah would die in such a shameful way when he was supposed to lead them to glory. But then, defeat became victory when his followers believed they saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion, proving that he had risen from the dead. If he had risen from the dead and become visible he must have had a special relationship with God and that special relationship had to be father and son, they reasoned.

A small sect of Jewish Christians formed in Jerusalem which held to the Jewish faith but also worshiped Jesus as a new kind of messiah – the suffering servant of God. As time went on, perhaps through the mid-thirties, small parishes were formed with simple worship services, in Synagogues, incorporating baptism with a celebration of the last supper. All Christians patiently waited for the kingdom of God to arrive.

During this time a parallel mission was begun by Paul (Saul) of Tarsus who had seen a vision of Jesus, circa 37 A.D, and become converted to his cause. Paul’s message about Jesus was carried to the gentiles who were not a part of the original mission. He spent two and a half decades traveling the middle east on foot, nurturing embryonic Christian communities in Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Damascus, Phrygia, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome. The larger of these communities contained enough converts to require Bishopic leadership.

The above map shows the early Christian communities with approximate founding dates. The dates come from the travels of Paul, who we associate with most of them.

As one might imagine, a conflict eventually developed between Paul and Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem over the requirement to observe Jewish law. Paul traveled to Jerusalem circa 50 A.D. to meet with James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, and the other Christian leaders. The end result was the relaxation of the requirements for gentiles including circumcision. Later, as we discussed in the last post, Christianity become a Gentile religion when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. James was stoned to death in 62 A.D and most of the rest of the leadership were killed in 70 A.D.

Parallel to the work of Paul and the Jerusalem Christians was the effort to document the life of Jesus. In the beginning there was no reason to write about Jesus’ life because the world was about to end. But it didn't! When would it end? No one knew. By the time Mark was written (circa 60 A.D.) the church was already three decades removed from the life of Jesus. New generations were being converted and these individuals wanted to know more about Jesus and his life. The Church’s answer was to document events previously related only by word of mouth.

So the end of the first century arrived to see a maturing Christian religion solidly entrenched in important cities of the middle east and Rome. It was a religion of Gentiles by this point because the Jewish Christians were gone. Rome had become the capital of the Catholic Church very rapidly. We don’t have a record of significant missionary work there until 60 A.D. when Peter and Paul arrived, a decade or two behind Antioch, Corinth, and the other centers. Obviously, the position of Rome was enhanced by Peter and Paul living and being martyred there. By 90 A.D, Pope Clement was writing to the church at Corinth advising them as the leader of the church.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Christianity and the Roman Empire – Part II The First Century A.D.

Rome was in constant conflict with the Jewish people during the first century A.D. because the latter had become tired of enslavement by foreign rulers. By the seventh decade that conflict would erupt into the war that destroyed Jerusalem. Earlier, during the third decade, a messianic leader appeared among the Jews and spoke of the coming kingdom of God, before he was captured and crucified by the Romans. His followers, once they had overcome their grief, created a new religion based on Jesus’ life and work. Christianity eventually made its way to Rome and from there, with the help of Constantine, flourished.

We’re  going to divide the first century into two posts. This one will discuss the conflict between the Jews and Romans while the second will bring Christianity into the picture from its inception to the end of the century.

First we start with a lesson in Jewish history to set the stage.

After Alexander, the Seleucid kings Antiochus III and IV conquered and controlled Judea from 200 to 168 B.C. Then in 167 B.C. Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers began a revolt which saw the defeat of their enemy and a treaty with the Roman republic. The victor, Judas Maccabaeus, had a profound impact on his time and is considered one of the four greatest generals of Israel along with Joshua, Gideon, and David. Maccabaeus in Hebrew means “the hammer”.

The Jews ruled themselves efficiently until 66 B.C. when a power struggle broke out between the rival kings Astrobulus II and Hyrcanus II. Their dispute was eventually  brought to Pompey who placed Hyrcanus on the throne and imprisoned his brother. During one of his visits to Jerusalem, Pompey desecrated the Temple and removed gold from its treasury.

In 39 B.C, the Romans installed Herod as the king of Judea and their puppet. Herod restored the temple and reigned until 4 B.C. When he died, a diplomatic contingent traveled to Rome to convince Augustus that he should not allow Herod’s children to be his successors. The request was denied and the Jewish lands were divided into four parts. Archelaus received Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; Antipas Galilee, Philip the east shore of the Sea of Galilee; and Salome the town of Yabne.

Now, with this background, we begin our journey through the first century.

Circa 6 A.D. a revolutionary movement was begun by Judas of Galilee to oppose the Romans for their renewal of taxes and oppressive behavior toward the Jews. The movement’s members resembled bands of robbers rather than an army and were organized locally and not coordinated as a national army. Labeled “zealots” by some, these freedom fighters should not be confused with the zealot faction that acted later, during the siege of Jerusalem. With or without a name, these groups operated for decades acting on their passionate desire to free Israel from bondage.

During the early stages of the resistance, the Romans, under the command of Sabinus, were threatened by repeated attacks of Judas so they called on Varus to bring reinforcements from Syria. His army formed a wave moving north to south, destroying all in their path, crucifying two thousand, and temporarily scattering the insurgents.

After Augustus’ death in 14 A.D, Tiberius took a different approach to the administration of Judea. Rather than sending a series of procurators, he only sent only two: Gratus (15-26) and Pilate (26-36). Neither distinguished himself. Pilate, for his part, got in trouble trying to erect statues of Tiberius around Jerusalem. To the Jewish people this was idol worship.

In 46 A.D, the sons of Judas of Galilee, Jacob and Simon decided it was time to re-ignite the resistance movement, but, during an attack on Rome that year, they were betrayed, captured, and crucified.

Eleazar, their successor and also a descendant of Judas, decided that efforts to attack the Roman army directly were foolish. Resistance to the Romans must operate by stealth, he decided, because the Jewish freedom fighters possessed neither the men nor material needed to defeat them. Eleazar formed a new terrorist organization called Sicarii --  named after the daggers they carried. The Sicarii had one goal – to foment revolution. To achieve this goal they began to assassinate important Jews to emphasize the inevitability of the Jewish revolt. The Sicarii, like the previously mentioned zealot group, operated until the fall of Jerusalem.

In 64 A.D, Nero assigned Florus as the procurator of Judea. The latter set a goal of inciting war as a method to enrich himself. Starting with the murder of 3,000, he communicated the false story that the people of Judea had revolted. While the Jews were deciding how to counter Florus, word came that Menahem, the grandson of Judas of Galilee, had attacked the fortress at Masada and massacred the Roman garrison. Now there was no turning back.

The Sanhedrin met and chose Josephus as governor of Galilee, now occupied by the Roman general Gallus. The Galilean zealots led by John of Gischala opposed this as an impractical political decision. Another leader, John the Essene, emerged to take command of the army fighting in Galilee, but  his attack on the Romans at Gaza was unsuccessful.

Now it was Josephus’ turn. He appeared to prepare an army to fight the Romans but, in fact, was playing both sides. John of Gischala demanded he resign, and the leadership in Jerusalem sought to remove Josephus from office. The Jews ended up fighting amongst themselves when an army from Jerusalem attacked the town of Tiberias where Josephus’s troops were stationed.

The trouble in Galilee came to the attention of Nero who dispatched is best general, Vespasian, to settle the matter. Working his way onto Galilee, Vespasian laid siege to Jotapata. Forty thousand were killed there and Josephus was captured and sent to Rome. Vespasian completed his takeover of the Jewish countryside and began to plan an attack on Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the administrative authority in the city crumbled and the Jewish garrison began a battle with the Zealots who sought the authority to represent the people. Taking control, the zealots murdered all who opposed the revolution. It wasn't long after that Simon bar Giora, commander at Masada decided to attack the zealots in Jerusalem in support of the government party.

Vespasian resisted the temptation to intervene thinking he would let the Jews kill each other and make his job easier. Then, in June of 68 A.D, he received word that Nero was dead, so Vespasian paused to contemplate developments in Rome. As he waited, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius were overthrown in their attempts to become Caesar.

Vespasian retrieved Josephus from prison and made him an advisor on how to deal with the Jews. The new emperor set off for Rome in the fall of 69 A.D, leaving Josephus with his son Titus who was assigned the task of taking Jerusalem.

From May 25th to September 7th 70 A.D, Titus laid siege to Jerusalem and its temple, before it fell. Tens of thousands were killed or starved to death by the time the siege ended. John of Gischala and Simon bar Giora were both captured trying to escape, paraded through Rome, and executed. More importantly, the temple was destroyed by fire and the Jewish people lost their anchor.

We can see from the history how the first century was an extremely unsettled time in Judea. Contributing to the turmoil were three forces working in parallel.

1. The Jews unrelenting hatred of the Romans for exploiting them, desecrating their holy places, and worshiping idols. Their desire to be free of the Romans led to desperate and foolish attempts to defeat a superior force.

2. The re-visiting of apocalyptic writings which predicted the end of the world. The Jewish people felt that the repression was so great they would be crushed and destroyed as a culture. These writings include the Old Testament books of Zechariah, Isaiah, and Daniel. The following comes from Daniel 9:11,

Because all Israel transgressed your law and went astray, not heeding your voice, the sworn malediction, recorded in the law of Moses, the servant of God, was poured out over us for our sins. You carried out the threats you spoke against us and against those who governed us, by bringing upon us in Jerusalem the greatest calamity that has ever occurred under heaven.

3. Apocalyptical writings had the effect of creating the expectation of a messiah, who would either rescue the Jewish people from oppression or rule at the end of history. The list of first century messiah candidates is long and includes Judas son of Hezekiah, Simon of Peraea, Athronges the Shepherd, Judas of Galilee, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, the Samaritan Prophet, Theudas, the Egyptian Prophet, John the Essene, Eleazar, Simon bar Giora, John of Gischala, and John the Weaver. None of these men were able to accomplish the objectives expected from Jewish Messiah.

In the next post we will see how one of these men took the western world in a new direction through his force of will and charisma. The impression he made on his followers and their efforts to spread his message would lay the foundation for the most powerful religion in the western world.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Jesus' Coin?

Collecting ancient coins is fun because each coin is a time machine. You hold it in your hand and find yourself transported back to the time when it was struck. Since we're on the subject of Christianity and Rome, let us examine a numismatic link between them.

The coin shown below is a part of my ancient coin collection.

Known as an AE Prutah, this is the ancient Roman bronze coin of Jerusalem. Prutah is a word borrowed from the Mishnah and the Talmund meaning "a coin of smaller value" -- one thousandth of a pound. A loaf of bread at that time sold for 10 Prutot (plural form). Prutot were manufactured in Israel because the Jewish people refused to trade in Roman coinage.

This particular coin was minted during the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate who governed from 26 to 36 A.D. Pilate was of the equestrian rank and a member of the Pontii family. During the time of his administration, Pilate offended the religious sensibilities of his subjects, leading to harsh criticism from Philo and Josephus. According to the latter, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising, arriving just after the death of Tiberius, which occurred on 16 March in the year 37.

What makes the coin especially interesting is the code LIZ on the reverse which means it was struck in 29 A.D. around the time of the crucifixion. So we have a coin which we know was struck in Jerusalem during the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate and may have been in circulation at the end of Jesus' life.

Who might have held this coin in their hand?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Christianity and the Roman Empire - Part I

A complex subject for sure – but interesting. We see one of the great cultures of antiquity in its death throes and, simultaneously, one of the world’s great religions becoming established inside it. As interesting as the subject matter is, however, we find the study of early Christianity fraught with problems, including a lack of original sources, bias on the part of Christians for their cause, bias against them by their enemies, and changes within the church’s perception of itself and its mission.

In the beginning nothing was written down because the life of Jesus was viewed as an apocalyptic event by his followers. The travels of Paul began the real history when he wrote to the congregations he had established throughout the near east. Paul's life became the center of the debate between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians about the intentions of Jesus.

For this post, as the introduction to Christianity in the time of the empire, I created a reference frame for further discussions. That reference frame is in the form of a chronology -- a set of milestones in early Christian history related to the Roman emperor in power at the time of the event. This timeline is not exhaustive because there is no way to provide a complete picture in such a small space. It is intended only to provide a sense of the forces at work during the time when the Christian church was becoming established.

Before we discuss the timeline, however, I think it’s important to define my position on the subject matter to be presented here. The reader must understand that I am approaching this subject strictly from a historian’s standpoint, separated from my own religious beliefs. All facts included in this and future discussions are true in my judgment, based on the sources I have consulted. For example, I believe Paul’s travels and his letters are factual historical events. But there are difficulties when we approach the early Christian writers, such as Eusebius, because the zeal they express for their beliefs blurs the history and forces us to apply a filter. What you will read are the facts that made it through the filter.

Emperor Year Christian event
Caligula (37-41) 37-40 Paul In Damascus
Claudius (41-54)
Nero (54-69) 60? Gospel Mark written
65 Peter and Paul martyred
Vespasian (69-79) 70 Jewish Revolt
70? Gospel Matthew/Luke written
Domitian (81-96) Pope Clement(88-97) writes to Corinth
Trajan (98-117) 95? Gospel of John written
108 Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch martyred
Hadrian (117-138) 132 Jewish Revolt, Jerusalem destroyed
Antonius Pius (138-161) 150 Bishopic system in place
150 Valentinius(Gnostic)
Marcus Aurelius (161-180) 165 Justin Martyr (100-165)
177 Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (140-202?)
Tertullian (160-225)
Septimius Severus dies 211 Break in Persecutions
Philip (244-249) Pro-Christian
Decius (249-251) 250 Renewed persecutions
250 Origen (185-253) attack on pagan thought
Valerian (253-260) 258 Massacre of priests and deacons
Diocletian (284-305) 303 Diocletian persecution
Constantine (306-337) 325 First Council of Nicea
326 First St. Peter's basilica consecrated
337 Constantine dies
Eusebius (260-341) History of the church
Julian (360-363) 360 Re-institute Pagan gods
Valentinian (364-375) 364 Council of Laodicea (rest on the sabbath)
374 Ambrose (340-397)
Theodosius (379-395) 380 Theodosius I baptized
382 Catholic council of Rome sets Biblical canon
385 Pricillian executed as a heretic
391 Outlaws pagan rituals
Honorius (393-423) 420 Jerome (340-420) and the vulgate
Valentinian III (424-455) 430 Augustine (354-430)
451 Pope Leo (440-461) negotiated with

The above chronology highlights the time sequence of six major threads that stretch through the period:

1. Christians struggle to define themselves
2. Christian apologists and their efforts to defend what they had created
3. Gentile Christian attacks on Jewish Christians during their period of rivalry.
4. Christian attacks on paganism, directed against the Greeks as rivals
5. The creation of Catholic dogma and attacks against heretics
6. Persecutions by the Romans

Most persecutions occurred prior to the reign of Constantine, who changed the course of Christianity by legitimizing it and protecting it from attack. The first persecutions were derived from disgust and misunderstanding of the Christians (they drink blood). Later ones were derived from the political threats perceived by the Romans when Christians refused to obey Roman law. Also embedded in the early period was a hysterical desire for martyrdom which saw many Christians actively seeking death in imitation of their savior.

The first few entries on the chronology show the initial period when Christianity was established. Its rapid expansion was a result of Paul’s work and the inherent attractiveness of the religion. The reference to Pope Clement shows how early the Bishop of Rome was communicating to his people and instructing them.

Major figures in the early church are bolded beginning with St. Ignatius.

In the year 132 A.D, Jerusalem was leveled by Hadrian, ending any significance it may have had as the home base of Christianity. Most Jewish Christians had, in fact, died in the 70 A.D. revolt when Jerusalem was sacked and burned.

By 150 A.D. we have evidence at the Bishopic system is in place and functioning. There are bishops in Rome, Corinth, Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria among others. That same year saw the Gnostic theologian, Valentinius, active. The Gnostic sect was one of the most troublesome Christian splinter groups.

In the year 177 A.D. we note Irenaeus as the Bishop of Lyon. I find this interesting because it shows how early the “barbarian” territories had been converted. This is also the time of Tertullian who along with Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, were important early theologians – on the defense as apologists and on the attack against the Jews, pagans, and heretics.

With the death of Septimius Severus in 211 A.D. there was a pause in the persecution of Christians that lasted for 38 years. Then, during the time of renewed persecutions under Decius, Origen was attacking pagan thought and philosophy as an important Christian apologist.

The period from 284-324 A.D. saw the storms of Diocletian give way to the sunny days of Constantine who embraced Christianity from an early age and protected it with all of his might. As the founder of Constantinople, he created a base for the eastern empire and the future Eastern Orthodox Church.

Eusebius was a prominent theologian in the period after Constantine’s death who wrote The History of the Church.  He was Bishop of Caesarea, a town located on the coastline of northern Israel.

You can read the rest of the chronology for yourself. As you scan the entire list, try to get a sense of the time and place of the forces at work. Christianity saw some 260 years of growth before its acceptance, followed by another 150 years when it was embraced and became strong enough to outlast the empire. During the early period, the church built an administrative apparatus that rivaled or exceeded that of Rome – the same apparatus that is still in operation today.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Two Title Changes

I have changed the titles of two recent posts to avoid confusion.

The post originally titled Edward Gibbon and the Reasons for the Decline and Fall of Rome is now Edward Gibbon on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The original title gave the impression that the article would address many or all of the reasons for the fall of the Empire, when, in fact, the only reason discussed was the corruption of the Praetorian Guard. The most recent article Reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire - Gibbon provides a more comprehensive review of his opinions.

The post titled Interregnum is now called Interregnum - A Pause in the Fall of the Roman Empire. The original title didn't specify the subject matter, which could leave readers with the wrong impression regarding its content.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire - Gibbon

Gibbon summarized his feelings on the fall of the Empire in a document titled General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West. This essay not only addresses the fall of Rome, but relates that history to the future of modern society. We’ll ignore the latter in this post and focus on the former.

Below are some excerpts from the document, intended to summarize Gibbon’s conclusions.
“The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind. But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. …The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigor of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.
The decay of Rome has been frequently ascribed to the translation of the seat of empire but this history has already shown that the powers of Government were divided rather than removed. …This dangerous novelty impaired the strength and fomented the vices of a double reign: the instruments of an oppressive and arbitrary system were multiplied; and a vain emulation of luxury, not of merit, was introduced and supported between the degenerate successors of Theodosius. Extreme distress, which unites the virtue of a free people, embitters the factions of a declining monarchy. The hostile favorites of Arcadius and Honorius betrayed the republic to its common enemies; and the Byzantine court beheld with indifference, perhaps with pleasure, the disgrace of Rome, the misfortunes of Italy, and the loss of the West.

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity (cowardliness); the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.
…Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.”
At this point, Gibbon ponders whether the political systems of his time could fall prey to the same problems that doomed the empire. Answering his own question, he describes three differences between Rome and the modern age.
“I. The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their dangers and the number of their enemies. The flying tribes who yielded to the Huns assumed in their turn the spirit of conquest; the endless column of barbarians pressed on the Roman empire with accumulated weight; and, if the foremost were destroyed, the vacant space was instantly replenished by new assailants.
II. The empire of Rome was firmly established by the singular and perfect coalition of its members. The subject nations, resigning the hope and even the wish of independence, embraced the character of Roman citizens; and the provinces of the West were reluctantly torn by the barbarians from the bosom of their mother country. But this union was purchased by the loss of national freedom and military spirit; and the servile provinces, destitute of life and motion, expected their safety from the mercenary troops and governors who were directed by the orders of a distant court. The happiness of an hundred millions depended on the persona merit of one or two men, perhaps children, whose minds were corrupted by education, luxury, and despotic power. The deepest wounds were inflicted on the empire during the minorities of the sons and grandsons of Theodosius; and, after those incapable princes seemed to attain the age of manhood, they abandoned the church to the bishops, the state to the eunuchs, and the provinces to the barbarians.
III. Cold, poverty, and a life of danger and fatigue fortify the strength and courage of barbarians. In every age they have oppressed the polite and peaceful nations of China, India, and Persia, who neglected, and still neglect, to counter-balance these natural powers by the resources of military art. The warlike states of antiquity, Greece, Macedonia, and Rome, educated a race of soldiers; exercised their bodies, disciplined their courage, multiplied their forces by regular evolutions, and converted the iron which they possessed into strong and serviceable weapons. But this superiority insensibly declined with their laws and manners: and the feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valour of the barbarian mercenaries.”
I have no argument with these points. As we have discussed in recent posts, the emperors of the late empire were weak and they employed German commanders and barbarian soldiers.

The role of Christianity is a different matter, however, requiring us to look further at Gibbon’s statements about its role in the empire. He wrote seven chapters about the Christians. Two stand out as the most controversial.

Volume 1 Chapter 15 – Progress of the Christian Religion
Volume 1 Chapter 16 -  Conduct Toward the Christians, from Nero to Constantine

In chapter 15, Gibbon gives his opinion on the reasons for the triumph of Christianity.

“To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author.”

Gibbon asserts that Christianity developed out of Judaism by co-opting the Old Testament, defining a new covenant to replace Jewish law, and attacking the Jews. The latter was an artifact of the competition between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians, before the latter were destroyed in the ashes of Jerusalem.

Chapter 16 has been criticized for its bias and uneven approach. In spite of the chapter’s shortcomings, Gibbon's conclusions are thought provoking. He speculates about the reasons why the antiquarian tolerance for religious diversity was suddenly suspended in the case of the Christians. Gibbon characterizes the Jews and Christians as similar in behavior – both seeking social isolation and refusing to pay homage to their sovereign - yet the Jews were not persecuted. Why? His answer follows:

“The difference between them is simple and obvious; but, according to the sentiments of antiquity, it was of the highest importance.  The Jews were a nation; the Christians were a sect: and if it was natural for every community to respect the sacred institutions of their neighbors, it was incumbent on them to persevere in those of their ancestors.

By embracing the faith of the gospel, the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offence.  They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had reverenced as sacred.” 

The development of Christianity and its effect on the empire is a topic we must pursue further in order to place it in the correct context. Once we have that established, we can decide for ourselves whether Gibbon was correct. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

German Commanders of the Roman Empire

In the last few posts we have been exploring the period at the end of the Roman Empire. I plan to continue down this road until we have laid it all out and analyzed it using several posts. It remains for us to discuss the reasons for the fall, the impact of Christianity on the empire, and the transition of Europe to the Dark Ages.

This post is narrow by design, intended to make a single point about the Roman army and its commanders. In the narrative below I have constructed a chronology of the last ninety years of the empire. Each commander who is German has his name in bolded text. You will see for yourself how the Germans permeated the Roman military.

Following the death of Valens, the co-emperor in the west, Gratian, appointed a Spanish officer, Theodosius, to serve as emperor of the eastern provinces. His sixteen year reign was efficient but marked by the dubious decision to let the Goths settle south of the Danube in Roman territory (382 A.D.) under their own commanders rather than those of the empire.

Meanwhile Gratian and his commander Mallobaudes (Frank) defeated the Alamanni in May 378 A.D.

September 5-6 394 Battle of Frigidus. Theodosius defeated Eugenius, a western usurper, and his commander Arbogast (Frank). Site northeast of Aquileia.

With the death of Theodosius in 395 A.D, the empire would forever be divided into two parts. Arcadius, son of Theodosius was named emperor in the east while his other son, Honorius (age 10), was named emperor in the west.

During 395-7, the Visigoths raided the Balkans and Greece. Stilicho (half Vandal) pins them in Elis but Alaric escapes.

In 401, The Visigoths, under their king Alaric, moved from south of the Danube and attacked northern Italy, before being driven back by Stilicho, Honorius’ commander.

In 402 Ravenna became the capital of the western empire, replacing Rome.

Rome can no longer defend the provinces. Only the Italian peninsula.

In 405 German tribes attack Italy. Many cities pillaged on the way to Florence.

23 August 406 A.D. Radagaisus defeated by Stilicho at Florence and executed. Stilicho’s army includes Alani, Huns, and Goths. The survivors of the army of Radagaisus join Alaric.

In 406 Vandals, Sueves, Alans, and Burgundians crossed the frozen Rhine and attacked Gaul. This army is the remnants of the army of Radagaisus.

Arcadius died in 408 and was succeeded by his son Theodosius II who reigned for 40 years in the east.

In 408 Stilicho killed.

In 409, the Vandals settle in Spain

In 410, Alaric attacked Italy once again making it all the way to Rome where he sacked the city. Alaric dies at Bruttii.

Visigoths attack Gaul in 412.

Visigoths attack Spain in 415.  Trying to protect the Spaniards from the Vandals. (Eurich) They subdue the Burgundians.

The Visigoths withdraw to Tolosa in 418.

Honorius dies in 423 to be succeeded by Valentinian III nephew of Honorius (age 6) who is controlled by Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius I, and the general Aetius (Scythian).

Vandals arrive in north Africa 429 invited by Boniface. They take Carthage in 439. They attack Rome in 455.

Aetius and his allied Goths defeat the Huns in 451 at Catalunian Fields.

Attila died in 453 A.D.

Ricimer (Suevic/Visigoth) essentially controls the emperorship for 16 years starting in 456. He appoints Majorian but has to overthrow him in 461. He appoints Severus III who dies in 465. The eastern emperor, Leo, nominated, Anthemius in 467, but his loss to the Vandals meant the end and Ricimer marched to Rome in 472 and killed him. Ricimer now appointed Olybrius that same year but then both men died.

Power passed to the Prince Gundobad (Burgundian) who nominated Glycerius as his puppet in 473.

The eastern emperor Zeno I dispatched a new candidate Julius Nepos who took power in 474 but was murdered by his commander the next year.

The last in line was Romulus Augustulus who abdicated in 476 ended the line of Roman emperors.

The senate told Zeno he was now emperor in the west but it was Odacer (Scirii), leader of the German mercenaries, who became king of Italy.

Note: Scirii were from the area of Poland, allied with the Huns until their fall, then the Carpathian Mountain area.

Rome in the west was now only a piece of the Italian peninsula. Gaul was controlled by the Franks, Burgundians, and Visigoths. Spain was controlled by the Visigoths and Sueves. The Vandals controlled north Africa. Roman Britain was on the way to becoming Anglo-Saxon England.

In 493, Theodoric sieges Ravenna, captures it, and puts Odacer to death. On the advice of the eastern emperor, Zeno, Theodoric becomes king of Italy, ruling over the Goths and Romans.

As I said in the beginning, a trend developed where the late Roman emperors began to use German generals to run their army. This was really the culmination of the advancement of the Germans over time. Since a substantial part of the empire was adjacent to German territory, Germans were recruited (at first enslaved) to fight for Rome. After a time, there were more Germans than Italians in the Roman army so all that remained was for the commanders to become Germans too.

This development blurs the definition of the “end of the empire” because if the Germans were commanding a Roman army of Germans, weren’t they essentially controlling Rome? The emperors from Honorius on were puppets.

I also want to mention once again the attitude of the Goths toward Rome, which was essentially respectful. The Goths wanted to settle in more fertile areas south of the Alps and sought peaceful coexistence with the empire. It was only when Rome offended them repeatedly (as in 410 A.D.) that they became more militant. The Goths fought for Rome many more times than they fought against Rome.

The Vandals, of course, are another story – we named wanton destruction after them.