Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Fall of Rome

I have read through the book, The Fall of Rome by Ward-Perkins. The motivator was from a posting by DeLong who quoted from the work as:

"In less than a century after the barbarian nations settled in their new conquests, almost all the effects of the knowledge and civility, which the Romans had spread through Europe, disappeared. Not only the arts of elegance, which minister to luxury, and are supported by it, but many of the useful arts, without which life can scarcely be contemplated as comfortable, were neglected or lost."

Now knowing something of the events in the seventh century, I thought I would look through what the author stated. In my opinion, it is a bit Gibbonesque in approach, namely a Brit looking upon Rome and seeing what they want to see, not necessarily reality.

I believe that the change occurred from the time of Constantine to that of Charlemagne. Constantine dies in 337 AD; Charlemagne started his rule as Roman Emperor in 800 AD. It was this period where we see the change, albeit one could argue the slow decline of Rome even up to Constantine and the rocky road even after Charlemagne. Yet the period of 337 to 800 AD is in many ways what some historians call the Dark Ages, and what DeLong refers to.

But the key period in my view was from 600 AD to about 650 AD. Why? Well this was a major transition, from Rome as we know it being destroyed to the beginning of the Muslim invasion of what was old Roman territory. For Gibbon, and one can only guess for DeLong, the Catholic Church was at fault. In reality it really was a complex set of issues, some Church related, and others the natural flow of humanity. But by focusing on those middle fifty years one can see that all was not lost, just transforming. Historians for the most part just jump over this, and unfortunately they miss the key changes in the jump.

Let me remark as to what happened:

1. Columbanus, the Irish monk, set forth and established what we could call the first set of public universities. They were at monastery like settlements but open to all. They focused on studying Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and the classics as well as the religious works. For the most part Columbanus and his followers were somewhat disconnected from the heresy scandal of the Greeks. They were not part of any Pelagian debates or Arian controversies. However they did battle with Gregory, Bishop of Rome, the title Pope was yet to be used since there were many equal bishops, Rome being the most equal of equals. Columbanus rattled Gregory over the date of Easter, and although he never won the debate, his correspondence is intellectually challenging. It also upset Gregory who refused to allow the Irish to convert the Angles and Saxons. Instead Gregory sent Augustine, an Italian bishop, to Canterbury in 599 AD. This was the first split between Ireland and England. However Ward-Perkins makes no reference to this effort. Columbanus managed to educate the Merovingians, the Lombards, and a collection of Germanic tribes, all the while Gregory never learned Greek to speak to his Eastern brethren. I believe that this was a seminal event in the break, one driven in many ways by the Emperor in Constantinople.

2. Justinian in the sixth century created a new legal code, an extension of the Roman law. At the same time the Merovingians worked on development of Salic law, a slightly and in some cases materially different set of laws. This construct set into motion another conflict. The conflict of a dying and decaying Roman system and evolving western view of the individual. Again there is not note of this.

3. The Byzantine emperors were a major factor in the decline. Constantine moved from Rome to Constantinople. That left Rome undefended and created a dramatic loss of population. It went from well over 1 million in 150 AD, the time of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, to less than 50,000 by the time of Gregory. In fact by 600 AD the Coliseum was stripped of all is white marble and was an open pit for wandering hordes. By Justinian’s time the control of Rome was from Ravenna and Gregory managed a city initially as its mayor and then as its Bishop. He had a city which was vacated and impoverished. Why? Because people went to where the power was, in Italy it was Ravenna, and in the Empire it was Constantinople. Then in 602 the Emperor Maurice, who had been holding the Persian at bay, was slaughtered by Phocas, one of the officers in his army, and Phocas was then slaughtered by Heraclius in 610 AD. It was then Heraclius who managed the war with Chosroes, the Persian King. The Empire looked East, not West; Persia was on the attack, as it had been for millennia before. Heraclius then had to deal with this issue. Again Ward-Perkins leaves out these issues totally. His view was West looking, failing to see and appreciate the Eastern threat. Sound familiar.

4. Now we come to the Arabs, a major player. Yemen had always been the portal of the trading routes, south to Medina, then Mecca, then Sanaa, then Aden. Goods were brought from the East, India and China and up the trade routes. The control of Aden went from locals, to Jewish tribes, to Ethiopian and then to the Persians. This cut trade off. This was a critical event in East West trade; it stopped the effort entirely, especially from 610 through 650 AD. From this comes the Prophet, from Medina, to Mecca to Medina to Mecca. Then the development of the Muslim agglomeration of tribes, the ability of the Arabs, under a single belief, to coordinate their efforts. The details of this as part of the tale and its critical importance is in my opinion missing from Ward-Perkins. I would also argue that the complexity of the Trinity may very well have played a role in the structure of the Muslim faith, Arian belief was a harbinger of the issues which would arise. Christianity was made much more complex by the introduction of the complexities of Greek philosophical elements, leading to several centuries of vitriolic debates.

5. Why the collapse of North Africa? Simply Alexandria and the other areas were at war with Byzantium, religious war, due to the issue of various heretical battles. Thus when the Arabs arrived in Alexandria, it was akin to the English in New Amsterdam, it was better than what was there before, what was to come had yet to be seen. Alexandria was happy to be rescued from Constantinople. Rome was no part of this. Again not context of this is exposed by Ward-Perkins.

6. By 615 Isidore of Seville had been working on his encyclopedia, collecting and gathering his information, and Span was culturally stable and progression, it would be a good fertile soil for the Muslim moves. Again, Ward-Perkins fails to recognize the ongoing intellectual developments.

7. Technology, this was taken from Rome and moved eastward. Rome was stripped of its expertise. Thus there just was not chance to continue. Yet the Merovingians, the Franks, were able to develop and sustain technology for building and roads, but without the massive slave workforce of Rome. Without slaves, in massive numbers, life styles could not be maintained. The Merovingians were ruthless, read Gregory of Tours, but they were not massive slave holders as was Rome. Rome lived on slaves. Again, in my opinion, an issue of this magnitude is missing from Ward-Perkins.

If any period is worth study, especially to understand the change from Rome to our current era it is 600-650 AD. It is a pity Ward-Perkins gives it short shrift in my opinion.