This week we’re going to start tackling a complex and much debated question: ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ This was the topic that won the vote among the patrons of the ACOUP Senate. The original questions here were ‘what caused the loss of state capacity during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West’ and ‘how could science fiction better reflect such a collapse or massive change?’ By way of answer, I want to boil those questions down into something a bit more direct: how bad was the fall of Rome in the West?
At first I thought I would try to answer that in a single post but it rapidly became apparent that giving a sufficient answer was going to require multiple weeks: my plan is for three parts. In part I (this part), I want to focus on culture, literature, language and religion (‘words’). In part II, we’ll then turn to look at states and government (‘institutions’), though this will also entail looking at the institutional part of religion, for reasons that will become clear as we get there. Then finally in part III, we’ll turn to look at economics and demographics (‘things and people’), the concrete realia of people’s lives. In all of these, we will mostly be focused on the western empire (with some gestures at the East), but I’ll note here (and no doubt repeatedly subsequently) that this is because the empire didn’t fall in the East, at least not any time remotely around the fifth century. The continued existence of the Eastern Roman Empire is a free, massive point that the change-and-continuity argument gets to score at the beginning of these debates for free, every time.
As will readily be apparent, that significance of that division of topics will be important because this is one of those questions where what you see depends very much on where you look, with scholars engaging with different topics often coming to wildly divergent conclusions about the impact and experience of the fall of Rome. And there is no way to really discuss that divergence (and my own view of it) without diving into the still active debate and presenting the different scholarly views in a sort of duel. I’ll be providing my own judgements, of course, but I intend here to ‘steelman’ each argument, presenting it in what I view as its strongest form; as will some become evident, I think there is some truth to both of the two major current scholarly streams of thought here.
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Two Knights an Old Man and a Nitwit
So who are our combatants? To understand this, we have to lay out a bit of the ‘history of the history’ – what is called historiography in technical parlance. Here I am also going to note the rather artificial but importance field distinction here between ancient (Mediterranean) history and medieval European history. As we’ll see, viewing this as the end of the Roman period gives quite a different impression than viewing it as the beginning of a new European Middle Ages. The two fields ‘connect’ in Late Antiquity (the term for this transitional period, broadly the 4th to 8th centuries), but most programs and publications are either ancient or medieval and where scholars hail from can lead to different (not bad, different) perspectives.
With that out of the way, the old view, that of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) and indeed largely the view of the sources themselves, was that the disintegration of the western half of the Roman polity was an unmitigated catastrophe, a view that held largely unchallenged into the last century; Gibbon’s great work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) gives this school it’s name, ‘decline and fall.’ While I am going at points to gesture to Gibbon’s thinking, we’re not going to debate him; he is the ‘old man’ of our title. Gibbon himself largely exists only in historiographical footnotes1 and intellectual histories; he is not at this point seriously defended nor seriously attacked but discussed as the venerable, but now out of date, origin point for all of this bickering.
The real break with that view came with the work of Peter Brown, initially in his The World of Late Antiquity (1971) and more or less canonically in The Rise of Western Christendom (1st ed. 1996; 2nd ed. 2003, 3rd ed. 2013). The normal way to refer to the Peter Brown school of thought is ‘change and continuity’ (in contrast to the traditional ‘decline and fall’), though I rather like James O’Donnell’s description of it as the Reformation in late antique studies.
Among medievalists2 this reformed view, which focuses on continuity of culture and institutions from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, remains essentially the orthodoxy, to the point that, for instance, the very recent (and quite excellent) The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (2021) can present this vision as an uncomplicated fact, describing the “so-called Fall of Rome” and noting that “there was never a moment in the next thousand years in which at least one European or Mediterranean ruler didn’t claim political legitimacy through a credible connection to the empire of the Romans” and that “the idea that Rome “fell” on the other hand, relies upon a conception of homogeneity – of historical stasis…things changed. But things always change” (3-4, 12-3).3 As we’ll see, I don’t entirely disagree with those statements, but they are absolute to a degree that suggests there is no real challenge to the position. There have been a few cracks in this orthodoxy among medievalists, particularly the work of Robin Flemming (a revision, not a clear break, to be sure), to which we’ll return, but the cracks have been relatively few.
While some ancient historians also bought into this view, purchase there has always been uneven and seems, to me at least, now to be waning further. Instead, a process of what James O’Donnell describes as a ‘counter-reformation‘ (which he stoutly resists with his own The Ruin of the Roman Empire; O’Donnell is a declared reformer) is well underway, a response to the ‘change and continuity’ narrative which seeks to update and defend the notion that there really was a fall of Rome and that it really was quite bad actually. This is not, I should note, an effort to revive Gibbon per se; it does not typically accept his understanding of the cause of this decline (and often characterizes exactly what is declining differently). Nevertheless, this position too is sometimes termed the ‘decline and fall’ school. My own sense of the field is that while nearly all ancient historians will feel the need to concede at least some validity to the reformed ‘change and continuity’ vision, that the counter-reformation school is the majority view among ancient historians at this point (in a way that is particularly evident in overview treatments like textbooks or the Cambridge Ancient History (second edition)). We’ll meet many of the core works of this revised ‘decline and fall’ school as we go.
As O’Donnell noted in a 2005 review for the BMCR, the reformed4 school tends to be strongest in the study of the imperial east rather than the west (something that will make a lot of sense in a moment), and in religious and cultural history; the counter-reformation school is stronger in the west than the east and in military and political history, though as we’ll see, to that list must at this point now be added archaeology along with demographic and economic history, at which point the weight of fields tends to get more than a little lopsided.
Those are our two knights – the ‘change and continuity’ knight and the ‘decline and fall’ knight (and our old man Gibbon, long out of his dueling days). To this we must add the nitwit: a popular vision, held by functionally no modern scholars, which represents the Middle Ages in their entirety as a retreat from a position of progress during the Roman period which was only regained during the ‘Renaissance’ (generally represented as a distinct period from the Middle Ages) which then proceeded into the upward trajectory of the early modern period. Intellectually, this vision traces back to what Renaissance thinkers thought about themselves and their own disdain for ‘medieval’ scholastic thinking (that is, to be clear, the thinking of their older teachers), a late Medieval version of ‘this ain’t your daddy’s rock and roll!’
But almost every intellectual movement represents itself as a radical break with the past (including, amusingly, many of the scholastics! Let me tell you about Peter Abelard sometime); as historians we do not generally accept such claims uncritically at face value. For a long time, well into the 19th century, the Renaissance’s cultural cachet in Europe (and the cachet of the classical period where it drew its inspiration) shielded that Renaissance claim from critique; that patina now having worn thin, most scholars now reject it, positioning the Renaissance as a continuation (with variations on the theme) of the Middle Ages, a smooth transition rather than a hard break. At the same time, knowledge of developments within the Middle Ages have made the image of one unbroken ‘Dark Age’ untenable and made clear that the ‘upswing’ of the early modern period was already well underway in the later Middle Ages and in turn had its roots stretching even deeper into the period. It is also worth noting here, that the term ‘Dark Age’ has to do with the survival of evidence, not living conditions: the age was not dark because it was grim, it was dark because we cannot see it as clearly.
The popular version of this idea continues, however, to have a lot of sway in the popular conception of the Middle Ages, encouraged by popular culture that mistakes the excesses of the early modern period for ‘medieval’ superstition and exaggerates the poverty of the medieval period (itself essentialized to its worst elements despite being approximately a millennia long), all summed up in this graph:
While that sort of vision is not seriously debated by scholars, it needs to be addressed here too, in part because I suspect a lot of the energy behind the ‘change and continuity’ position is in fact to counter some of the worst excesses of this thesis, which for simplicity, we’ll just refer to as ‘The Dung Ages‘ argument, but also because assessing how bad the fall of the Roman Empire in the West was demands that we consider how long-lasting any negative ramifications were.
And with that out of the way, let’s lay some foundation work for what we’re talking about. We’ve had one preamble, yes…but what about second preamble?
A Short History of the (Long) Fifth Century
The chaotic nature of the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire makes a short recounting of its history difficult but a sense of chronology and how this all played out is going to be necessary so I will try to just hit the highlights.
First, its important to understand that the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was not the Roman Empire of the first and second centuries (all AD, to be clear). From 235 to 284, Rome had suffered a seemingly endless series of civil wars, waged against the backdrop of worsening security situations on the Rhine/Danube frontier and a peer conflict in the east against the Sassanid Empire. These wars clearly caused trade and economic disruptions as well as security problems and so the Roman Empire that emerges from the crisis under the rule of Diocletian (r. 284-305), while still powerful and rich by ancient standards, was not as powerful or as rich as in the first two centuries and also had substantially more difficult security problems. And the Romans subsequently are never quite able to shake the habit of regular civil wars.
One of Diocletian’s solutions to this problem was to attempt to split the job of running the empire between multiple emperors; Diocletian wanted a four emperor system (the ‘tetrarchy’ or ‘rule of four’) but what stuck among his successors, particular Constantine (r. 306-337) and his family (who ruled till 363), was an east-west administrative divide, with one emperor in the east and one in the west, both in theory cooperating with each other ruling a single coherent empire. While this was supposed to be a purely administrative divide, in practice, as time went on, the two halves increasing had to make due with their own revenues, armies and administration; this proved catastrophic for the western half, which had less of all of these things (if you are wondering why the East didn’t ride to the rescue, the answer is that great power conflict with the Sassanids). In any event, with the death of Theodosius I in 395, the division of the empire became permanent; never again would one man rule both halves.
We’re going to focus here almost entirely on the western half of the empire; we’ll come back to the eastern half next week.
The situation on the Rhine/Danube frontier was complex. The peoples on the other side of the frontier were not strangers to Roman power; indeed they had been trading, interacting and occasionally raiding and fighting over the borders for some time. That was actually part of the Roman security problem: familiarity had begun to erode the Roman qualitative advantage which had allowed smaller professional Roman armies to consistently win fights on the frontier. The Germanic peoples on the other side had begun to adopt large political organizations (kingdoms, not tribes) and gained familiarity with Roman tactics and weapons. At the same time, population movements (particularly by the Huns) further east in Europe and on the Eurasian Steppe began creating pressure to push these ‘barbarians’ into the empire. This was not necessarily a bad thing: the Romans, after conflict and plague in the late second and third centuries, needed troops and they needed farmers and these ‘barbarians’ could supply both. But as we’ve discussed elsewhere, the Romans make a catastrophic mistake here: instead of reviving the Roman tradition of incorporation, they insisted on effectively permanent apartness for the new arrivals, even when they came – as most would – with initial Roman approval.
This problem blows up in 378 in an event – the Battle of Adrianople – which marks the beginning of the ‘decline and fall’ and thus the start of our ‘long fifth century.’ The Goths, a Germanic-language speaking people, pressured by the Huns had sought entry into Roman territory; the emperor in the East, Valens, agreed because he needed soldiers and farmers and the Goths might well be both. Local officials, however, mistreated the arriving Goth refugees leading to clashes and then a revolt; precisely because the Goths hadn’t been incorporated into the Roman military or civil system (they were settled with their own kings as ‘allies’ – foederati – within Roman territory), when they revolted, they revolted as a united people under arms. The army sent to fight them, under Valens, engaged foolishly before reinforcements could arrive from the West and was defeated.
In the aftermath of the defeat, the Goths moved to settle in the Balkans and it would subsequently prove impossible for the Romans to move them out. Part of the reason for that was that the Romans themselves were hardly unified. I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds here except to note that usurpers and assassinations among the Roman elite are common in this period, which generally prevented any kind of unified Roman response. In particular, it leads Roman leaders (both generals and emperors) desperate for troops, often to fight civil wars against each other, to rely heavily on Gothic (and later other ‘barbarian’) war leaders. Those leaders, often the kings of their own peoples, were not generally looking to burn the empire down, but were looking to create a place for themselves in it and so understandably tended to militate for their own independence and recognition.
Indeed, it was in the context of these sorts of internal squabbles that Rome is first sacked, in 410 by the Visigothic leader Alaric. Alaric was not some wild-eyed barbarian freshly piled over the frontier, but a Roman commander who had joined the Roman army in 392 and probably rose to become king of the Visigoths as well in 395. Alaric had spent much of the decade before 410 alternately feuding with and working under Stilicho, a Romanized Vandal, who had been a key officer under the emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) and a major power-player after his death because he controlled Honorius, the young emperor in the West. Honorius’ decision to arrest and execute Stilicho in 408 seems to have precipitated Alaric’s move against Rome. Alaric’s aim was not to destroy Rome, but to get control of Honorius, in particular to get supplies and recognition from him.
That pattern: Roman emperors, generals and foederati kings – all notionally members of the Roman Empire – feuding, was the pattern that would steadily disassemble the Roman Empire in the West. Successful efforts to reassert the direct control of the emperors on foederati territory naturally created resentment among the foederati leaders but also dangerous rivalries in the imperial court; thus Flavius Aetius, a Roman general, after stopping Atilla and assembling a coalition of Visigoths, Franks, Saxons and Burgundians, was assassinated by his own emperor, Valentinian III in 454, who was in turn promptly assassinated by Aetius’ supporters, leading to another crippling succession dispute in which the foederati leaders emerged as crucial power-brokers. Majorian (r. 457-461) looked during his reign like he might be able to reverse this fragmentation, but his efforts at reform offended the senatorial aristocracy in Rome, who then supported the foederati leader Ricimer (half-Seubic, half-Visigoth but also quite Romanized) in killing Majorian and putting the weak Libius Severus (r. 461-465) on the throne. The final act of all of this comes in 476 when another of these ‘barbarian’ leaders, Odoacer, deposed the latest and weakest Roman emperor, the boy Romulus Augustus (generally called Romulus Augustulus – the ‘little’ Augustus) and what was left of the Roman Empire in the west ceased to exist in practice (Odoacer offered to submit to the authority of the Roman Emperor in the East, though one doubts his real sincerity). Augustulus seems to have taken it fairly well – he retired to an estate in Campania originally built by the late Republican Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus and lived out his life there in leisure.
The point I want to draw out in all of this is that it is not the case that the Roman Empire in the west was swept over by some destructive military tide. Instead the process here is one in which the parts of the western Roman Empire steadily fragment apart as central control weakens: the empire isn’t destroy from outside, but comes apart from within. While many of the key actors in that are the ‘barbarian’ foederati generals and kings, many are Romans and indeed (as we’ll see next time) there were Romans on both sides of those fissures. Guy Halsall, in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (2007) makes this point, that the western Empire is taken apart by actors within the empire, who are largely committed to the empire, acting to enhance their own position within a system the end of which they could not imagine.5
It is perhaps too much to suggest the Roman Empire merely drifted apart peacefully – there was quite a bit of violence here and actors in the old Roman ‘center’ clearly recognized that something was coming apart and made violent efforts to put it back together (as Halsall notes, “The West did not drift hopelessly towards its inevitable fate. It went down kicking, gouging and screaming”) – but it tore apart from the inside rather than being violently overrun from the outside by wholly alien forces.
This vision of the collapse of Roman political authority in the West may seem a bit strange to readers who grew up on the popular narrative which still imagines the ‘Fall of Rome’ as a great tide of ‘barbarians’ sweeping over the empire destroying everything in their wake. It’s a vision that remains dominant in popular culture (indulged, for instance, in games like Total War: Attila; we’ve already talked about how strategy games in particular tend to embrace this a-historical annihilation-and-replacement model of conquest). But actually culture is one of the areas where the ‘change and continuity’ crowd have their strongest arguments: finding evidence for continuity in late Roman culture into the early Middle Ages is almost trivially easy. The collapse of Roman authority did not mark a clean cultural break from the past, but rather another stage in a process of cultural fusion and assimilation which had been in process for some time.
The first thing to remember, as we’ve already discussed, is that the population of the Roman Empire itself was hardly uniform. Rather the Roman empire as it violently expanded, had absorbed numerous peoples – Celtiberians, Iberians, Greeks, Gauls, Syrians, Egyptians, and on and on. Centuries of subsequent Roman rule had led to a process of cultural fusion, whereby those people began to think of themselves as Romani – Romans – as they both adopted previously Roman cultural elements and their Roman counterparts adopted provincial culture elements (like trousers!).6
In particular, by the fifth century, the majority of these self-described Romani, including the overwhelming majority of elites, had already adopted a provincial religion: Christianity, which had in turn become the Roman religion and a core marker of Roman identity by the fifth century. Indeed, the word paganus, increasingly used in this period to refer to the remaining non-Christian population, had a root-meaning of something like ‘country bumpkin,’ reflecting the degree to which for Roman elites and indeed many non-elites, the last fading vestiges of the old Greek and Roman religions were seen as out of touch. Of course Christianity itself came from the fringes of the Empire – a strange mystery cult from the troubled frontier province of Judaea in the Levant which had slowly grown until it had become the dominant religion of the empire, receiving official imperial favor and preference.
The arrival of the ‘barbarians’ didn’t wipe away that fusion culture. With the exception of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who eventually ended up in England, the new-comers almost uniformly learned the language of the Roman west – Latin – such that their descendants living in those lands, in a sense still speak it, in its modern forms: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. alongside more than a dozen local regional dialects. All are derived from Latin (and not, one might note, from the Germanic languages that the Goths, Vandals, Franks and so on would have been speaking when they crossed the Roman frontier).
They also adopted the Roman religion, Christianity. I suspect sometimes the popular imagination – especially the one that comes with those extraordinarily dumb ‘Christian dark age’ graphs – is that when the ‘barbarians invade’ the Romans were still chilling in their Greco-Roman7 temples, which the ‘barbarians’ burned down. But quite to the contrary – the Romans were the ones shutting down the old pagan temples at the behest of the now Christian Roman emperors, who busied themselves building beautiful and marvelous churches (a point The Bright Ages makes very well in its first chapter).
The ‘barbarians’ didn’t tear down those churches – they built more of them. There was some conflict here – many of the Germanic peoples who moved into the Roman Empire had been converted to Christianity before they did so (again, the Angles and Saxons are the exception here, converting after arrival), but many of them had been converted through a bishop, Ulfilias, from Constantinople who held to a branch of Christian belief called ‘Arianism’ which was regarded as heretical by the Roman authorities. The ‘barbarians’ were thus, at least initially, the wrong sort of Christian and this did cause friction in the fifth century, but by the end of the sixth century nearly all of these new kingdoms created in the wake of the collapse of Roman authority were not only Christian, but had converted to the officially accepted Roman ‘Chalcedonian’ Christianity. We’ll come back later to the idea of the Church as an institution, but for now as a cultural marker, it was adopted by the ‘barbarians’ with aplomb.
Artwork also sees the clear impact of cultural fusion. Often this transition is, I think, misunderstood by students whose knowledge of artwork essentially ‘skips’ Late Antiquity, instead jumping directly from the veristic8 Roman artwork of the late republic and the idealizing artwork of the early empire directly to the heavily stylized artwork of Carolingian period and leads some to conclude that the fall of Rome made the artists ‘bad.’ There are two problems: the decline here isn’t in quality and moreover the change didn’t happen with the fall of the Roman Empire but quite a bit earlier. Hopefully you have been following along with the pictures in this section because they carry a fair bit of my argument here.
Late Roman artwork shows a clear shift into stylization, the representation of objects in a simplified, conventional way. You are likely familiar with many modern, highly developed stylized art forms; the example I use with my students is anime. Anime makes no effort at direct realism – the lines and shading of characters are intentionally simplified, but also bodies are intentionally drawn at the wrong proportions, with oversized faces and eyes and sometimes exaggerated facial expressions. That doesn’t mean it is bad art – all of that stylization is purposeful and requires considerable skill – the large faces, simple lines and big expressions allow animated characters to convey more emotion (at a minimum of animation budget).
Late Roman artwork moves the same way, shifting from efforts to portray individuals as real-to-life as possible (to the point where one can recognize early emperors by their facial features in sculpture, a task I had to be able to perform in some of my art-and-archaeology graduate courses) to efforts to portray an idealized version of a figure. No longer a specific emperor – though some identifying features might remain – but the idea of an emperor. Imperial bearing rendered into a person. That trend towards stylization continues into religious art in the early Middle Ages for the same reason: the figures – Jesus, Mary, saints, and so on – represent ideas as much as they do actual people and so they are drawn in a stylized way to serve as the pure expressions of their idealized nature. Not a person, but holiness, sainthood, charity, and so on.
And it really only takes a casual glance at the artwork I’ve been sprinkling through this section to see how early medieval artwork, even out through the Carolingians (c. 800 AD) owes a lot to late Roman artwork, but also builds on that artwork, particularly by bringing in artistic themes that seem to come from the new arrivals – the decorative twisting patterns and scroll-work which often display the considerable technical skill of an artist (seriously, try drawing some of that free-hand and you suddenly realize that graceful flowing lines in clear symmetrical patterns are actually really hard to render well).
All of the cultural fusion was effectively unavoidable. While we can’t know their population with any certainty, the ‘barbarians’ migrating into the faltering western Empire who would eventually make up the ruling class of the new kingdoms emerging from its collapse seem fairly clearly to have been minorities in the lands they settled into (with the notable exception, again, of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – as we’re going to see this pattern again and again, Britain has an unusual and rather more traumatic path through this period than much of the rest of Roman Europe). They were, to a significant degree, as Guy Halsall (op. cit.) notes, melting into a sea of Gallo-Romans, or Italo-Romans, or Ibero-Romans.
Even Bryan Ward-Perkins, one of the most vociferous members of the decline-and-fall camp, in his explosively titled The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005) – this is a book whose arguments we will come back to in some detail – is forced to concede that “even in Britain the incomers[sic] had not dispossessed everyone” of their land, but rather “the invaders entered the empire in groups that were small enough to leave plenty to share with the locals” (66-7). No vast replacement wave this, instead the new and old ended up side by side. Indeed, Odoacer, seizing control of Italy in 476, we are told, redistributed a third of the land; it’s unclear if this meant the land itself or the tax revenue on it, but in either case clearly the majority of the land remained in the hands of the locals which, by this point in the development of the Roman countryside, will have mostly meant in the hands of the local aristocracy.9
Instead, as Ralph Mathisen documents in Roman aristocrats in barbarian Gaul: strategies for survival in an age of transition (1993), most of the old Roman aristocracy seems to have adapted to their changing rulers. As we’ll discuss next week, the vibrant local government of the early Roman empire had already substantially atrophied before the ‘barbarians’ had even arrived, so for local notables who were rich but nevertheless lived below the sort of mega-wealth that could make one a player on the imperial stage, little real voice in government was lost when they traded a distant, unaccountable imperial government for a close-by, unaccountable ‘barbarian’ one. Instead, as Mathisen notes, some of the Gallo-Roman elite retreat into their books and estates, while more are co-opted into the administration of these new breakaway kingdoms, who after all need literate administrators beyond what the ‘barbarians’ can provide. Mathisen notes that in other cases, Gallo-Roman aristocrats with ambitions simply transferred those ambitions from the older imperial hierarchy to the newer ecclesiastical one; we’ll talk more about the church as an institution next week. Distinct in the fifth century, by the end of the sixth century in Gaul, the two aristocracies: the barbarian warrior-aristocracy and the Gallo-Roman civic aristocracy had melded into one, intermarried and sharing the same religion, values and culture.
In this sense there really is a very strong argument to be made that the ‘Romans’ and indeed Roman culture never left Rome’s lost western provinces – the collapse of the political order did not bring with it the collapse of the Roman linguistic or cultural sphere, even if it did fragment it.
But surely the barbarians burned all of the libraries, right? Or the church, bent on creating a ‘Christian dark age’ tore up all of the books?
Here I think the problem is the baseline we assess this period against. Most people are generally aware that the Greeks and Romans wrote a lot of things and that we have relatively few of them. Even if we confine ourselves only to very successful, famous Greek and Roman literature, we still only have perhaps a low single-digit percentage of it, possibly only a fraction of a percent of it. In our post-printing-press and now post-internet world, famous works of literature do not simply vanish, generally and it is intuitive to assume that all of these lost works must have been the result of some catastrophe or intentional sabotage.
I am regularly, for instance, asked how I feel about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The answer is…not very much. The library burned more than once and by the time it did it was no longer the epicenter of learning in the Mediterranean world. Instead, the library slowly declined as it became less unique because other libraries amassed considerable collections. There was no great, tragic moment where countless works were all lost in an instant. That’s not how the chain of transmission breaks. Because a break in the chain of transmission requires no catastrophe – it merely requires neglect.
The literature of the Greeks and Romans (and the rest of the ancient iron age Mediterranean) were largely written on papyrus paper, arranged into scrolls.10 The problem here is that papyrus is quite vulnerable to moisture and decay; in the prevailing conditions in much of Europe papyrus might only last a few decades. Ancient papyri really only survive to the present in areas of hard desert (like Egypt, conveniently), but even in antiquity, books written on papyrus would have been constantly wearing out and needing to be replaced.
Consequently, it didn’t require anyone going out and destroying books to cause a break in the chain of transmission: all that needed to happen was for the copying to stop, even fairly briefly. Fortunately for everyone, Late Antiquity was bringing with it a new writing material, parchment, and a new way of putting it together, the codex or book. The transition from papyrus to parchment begins in the fourth century, but some books are still being produced in papyrus in the 7th century, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Whereas papyrus is a paper made of papyrus stalks pressed together, parchment is essentially a form of leather, cleaned, soaked in calcium lye and scraped very thin. The good news is that as a result, parchment lasts – I have read without difficulty from 1200 year old books written on parchment (via microfilm) and paged through 600 year old books with my own hands. Because making it requires animal hide, parchment was extremely expensive (and still is) but its durability is a huge boon to us because it means that works that got copied onto parchment during the early middle ages often survive on that parchment down to the present.
But of course that means that the moment of technological transition from short-lived papyrus to long-lasting parchment was always going to be the moment of loss in transition: works that made it to parchment would largely survive to the present, while works that were not copied in that fairly narrow window (occupying Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages) would be permanently lost. And that copying was no simple thing: it was expensive and slow. The materials were expensive, but producing a book also required highly trained scribes (often these were monks) who would hand copy, letter by letter, the text for hundreds of pages. And, for reasons we’ll talk about later in this series, the resources available for this kind of copying would hit an all-time-low during the period from the fifth to the seventh centuries – this was expensive work for poor societies to engage in.
And here it is worth thus stopping to note how exceptional a moment of preservation this period is. The literary tradition of Mediterranean antiquity represents the oldest literary tradition to survive in an unbroken line of transmission to the present (alongside Chinese literature).11 The literary traditions of the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BC and the period directly before antiquity broadly construed) were all lost and had to be rediscovered, with stone and clay tablets recovered archaeologically and written languages reconstructed. The Greeks and Romans certainly made little effort to preserve the literature of those who went before them!12
In that context, what is actually historically remarkable here is not that the people of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages lost some books – books had always been being lost, since writing began – but that they saved some books.13 Never before had a literary tradition been saved in this way. Of course these early copyists didn’t always copy what we might like. Unsurprisingly, Christian monks copying books tended to copy a lot more religious texts (both scriptures but also patristic texts). Moreover, works that were seen as important for teaching good Latin (Cicero, Vergil, etc.) tended to get copied more as well, though this is nothing new; the role of the Iliad and the Odyssey in teaching Greek is probably why their manuscript traditions are so incredibly robust. In any event, far from destroying the literature of classical antiquity, it was the medieval Church itself that was the single institution most engaged in the preservation of it.
At the same time, writers in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries did not stop writing (or stop reading). Much of the literature of this period was religious in nature, but that is no reason to dismiss it (far more of the literature of the Classical world was religious in nature than you likely think, by the by). St. Augustine of Hippo was writing during the fifth century; indeed his The City of God, one of the foundational works of Christian literature, was written in response to the news of the sack of Rome in 410. Isidore of Seville (560-636) was famous for his Etymologies, an encyclopedia of sorts which would form the foundation for much of medieval learning and which in its summaries preserves for us quite a lot of classical bits and bobs which would have otherwise been lost; he also invented the period, comma and colon. Pope Gregory I (540-604) was also a prolific writer, writing hundreds of letters, a collection of four books of dialogues, a life of St. Benedict, a book on the role of bishops, a commentary on the Book of Job and so on. The Rule of St. Benedict, since we’ve brought the fellow up, written in 516 established the foundation for western monasticism.
And while we’ve mostly left the East off for this post, we should also note that writing hardly stopped there. Near to my heart, the emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) wrote the Strategikon, an important and quite informative manual of war which presents, among other things, a fairly sophisticated vision of combined arms warfare. Roman law also survived in tremendous quantities; the emperor Theodosius II (r. 402-450) commissioned the creation of a streamlined law code compiling all of the disparate Roman laws into the Codex Theodosianus, issued in 439. Interestingly, Alaric II (r. 457-507), king of the Visigoths in much of post-Roman Spain would reissue the code as past of the law for his own kingdom in 506 as part of the Breviary of Alaric. Meanwhile, back at Constantinople, Justinian I (r. 527-565) commissioned an even more massive collection of laws, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, issued from 529 to 534 in four parts; a colossal achievement in legal scholarship, it is almost impossible to overstate how important the Corpus Iuris Civilis is for our knowledge of Roman law.
And it is not hard again to see how these sorts of literary projects represented a continuing legacy of Roman culture too (particularly the Roman culture of the third and fourth century), concerned with Roman law, Roman learning and the Roman religion, Christianity. And so when it comes to culture and literature, it seems that the change-and-continuity knight holds the field – there is quite a lot of evidence for the survival of elements of Roman culture in post-Roman western Europe, from language, to religion, to artwork and literature. Now we haven’t talked about social and economic structures (that’s part III), so one might argue we haven’t quite covered all of ‘culture’ just yet, and it is necessary to note that this continuity was sometimes uneven. Nevertheless, the fall of Rome can hardly be said to have been the end of Roman culture.
Next time, we’ll turn to the institutions of the Roman world: cities, government, administration, and the Church and see how they fared.
- The sort of footnote where you show that you have read and understood the history of the debate you are about to comment on. When this sort of footnote ascends to being part of the actual text of a work, it is called a ‘literature review.’
- I am going to refer here to ‘ancient historians’ and ‘medievalists’ here because I think there is a noticeable difference in how the two fields on either side of this period tend to think about it. Of course these labels can be reductive to a degree so please understand them as necessary simplifications of the shape of the field
- I do not mean here to trash The Bright Ages, which I think on the whole is very good and probably due for a fireside recommendation. That said, I did find myself somewhat frustrated by the first few chapters which embrace the ‘change and continuity’ school as if there was no serious challenge to it – as we’ll see, an absolutist position I do not think can survive the evidence. I was much more frustrated by the deflection to insist that the only way one can imagine there was a ‘fall’ was to be the sort of person convinced that “Germans couldn’t really be Romans, women couldn’t really be rulers, etc.” (13) It is an ad hominem deflection unworthy of the rest of the book. Anyone even passingly acquainted with my writings here on this blog will know that I absolutely think Germans could be Romans and women were rulers. The implication of the deflection does a disservice to the lay reader who may thus be mislead as to the existence of real counter-arguments.
- that is, ‘change and continuity’
- That position isn’t unchallenged, mind you. P. Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (2006) makes the opposing argument that the Germanic peoples were a coherent ethnic grouping that displaced the pre-existing Roman culture. Here I think Halsall has the better of the argument, both in the sense that the various Germanic peoples were hardly a single group but also that they seem more to have fused with the Roman cultural fabric than replaced it, as we’ll see.
- Often for the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to the Latin-speaking provincials of this period as Gallo-Romans, Ibero-Romans or Romano-Britons or the like. Nevertheless in our sources these fellows tend to be quite clear that they think of themselves as Romans, whatever other local habits they may have.
- The Romanist in me feels the need to note that I am using this term because I have no doubt it is the one I’d hear in this context, but Greek and Roman temples are, in fact, structurally different, just as Greek and Roman religion was, in fact, meaningfully distinct
- Real to life.
- Now we’ll come back to the economic implications of this later, for now we are merely noting that the existing population was not pushed aside or wiped out
- By the by, I think we’ll come back sometime this year and do a series on ‘How Did They Make It: Books’ but in the meantime, there is a solid introduction in the first section of B. Bischoff, Latin Paleography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. D. O. Cróinin and D. Ganz (1990)
- Please note before anyone rushes to the comment that I have drawn this particular definition – the literary tradition of Mediterranean antiquity – broad enough to also encompass the Torah.
- Though I will say that the Greeks in particular did make more of an effort than most ancient civilizations to write about the myths and cultures that surrounded them. The sort of ethnographic curiosity of Herodotus or Plutarch is quite hard to find in most places.
- Of course we are mostly focused here on the Latin tradition which tended to survive in the West, though the same here might well be said for the Greek tradition, mostly preserved in the East, in the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire and also in the Islamic world.