The Benedict Option: More history

I’m blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In my first post, I set out my reasons and credentials and then considered some of my problems with Dreher’s broad-stroke history of fifth-century Rome. Then I continued the discussion of history, talking about why it matters for a book like this and then moving into monastic history. Today, I look at two more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’ — both are related.

Post-Roman Powers

Throughout this brief contextualisation of the Rule of St Benedict, Dreher uses the word ‘barbarian’ and the designation ‘barbarian tribes’ to describe the Roman empire’s conquerors. Rome left in her wake:

countless local wars as barbarian tribes fought for dominance. (15)

I think the designation of late Roman, irregular military forces that coalesced as nations while they conquered Roman territory as ‘barbarian tribes’ is taking things too far. Theoderic and the Ostrogoths who oust Odoacer are not ‘tribes’. They are a late Roman military force whose leader never received a lasting military command from the Emperor Zeno, and who took control of an unstable situation. Yes, there was local war as a result, but then these barbarians brought stability.

In fact, it is argued that Theoderic, before the accession of Justin in 518, was setting himself up as an emperor. Everything he does in Rome and Ravenna is basically the same as what an emperor would do. Whether he would ever claim the title is, perhaps, immaterial. What matters is that he ruled like an emperor.

Or to take the notorious Vandals. Once they were done torturing and executing a large proportion of the catholic clergy of North Africa, they decided to settle down, enjoy their new villas, and write poetry. In fact, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, although weak when destroyed by Belisarius in the 530s, was relatively stable. So was the Visigothic kingdom of Spain by 589.

For Gaul and Italy, before the Byzantine-Gothic wars of Justinian, the ‘countless local wars’ were, from what I can tell, largely confined to the border areas, to places like Septimania on the modern France-Spain border. The rulers of these new polities established themselves and fought their enemies, but it was not all war all the time.

That said, they did behave badly a lot of the time, especially if a civil war erupted amongst the Franks. Gregory of Tours (d. 595) was particularly appalled by the behaviour of Frankish Christian soldiers and their treatment of monks, nuns, and church property.

But the problem with Dreher’s picture of post-Roman Europe is that it buys into


On page 17 we read:

When we think of barbarians, we imagine wild, rapacious tribesmen rampaging through cities, heedlessly destroying the structures and institutions of civilization simply because they can. Barbarians are governed only by their will to power, and neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating. (17)

This paragraph is a zinger. He is using the image of the barbarian to describe modern liberals: ‘we … are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.’ (17) In fact, if one accepts Dreher’s view of things today, I’d much rather be ruled by Late Roman barbarian kings, thank you very much.

For example, they were not actually all that into wanton destruction. The text Anonymus Valesianus II includes a long description of things at Rome that Theoderic maintained. We have a mosaic of him from Ravenna, pictured at the right. Not only that, but his son held the consulship. His court helped foster the arts and culture of Cassiodorus and Boethius (the latter of whom he killed on suspicion of treason — perfectly Roman of him).

When the Franks emerge as military force, they imagine themselves holding various ranks within the now deceased Roman bureaucratic infrastructure. They, too, build things. Or, if not they themselves, then the Gallo-Romans under their rule.

As far as pillaging goes, this is, sadly, not a feature solely of barbarians. Soldiers have a long history of looting and destruction, whether they are Romans, Greeks, or barbarians in antiquity, or the medieval English in the Hundred Years’ War, or (sadly) even Allies in WWII. Soldiers are human; I do not wish to imply either that looting is not a big deal, nor that soldiers = barbarians. Just giving context.

Final thoughts on this strand

My final thoughts on what was meant to be a single post but is now three are as follows.

The fall of the western Roman Empire, which was a protracted process over decades, led to a power vacuum in some places and some chaos in others. It resulted in the breakdown of much long-distance trade and the reduction of classical urbanism. In Britain, in fact, Romano-British culture was completely subsumed by the newcoming Anglo-Saxon powers. Materially, many people suffered and were very, very poor.

Of these very poor, those who could sometimes joined monasteries. There were, however, legal restrictions on the movement of those we might call ‘peasants’, so many of the very poor did not join monasteries because of being legally bound to the land that they farmed. Nonetheless, for these people and for some of the ‘middle’ class and aristocrats, monasteries became places of refuge in the relative uncertainty of the new regimes. Sure.

That said, everything in Italy, where Benedict lived, happens a few decades later than elsewhere (setting aside the possible exception of northern Italy, where first Attila in 450-2 then Theoderic vs Odoacer in the 490s, as well as some civil wars, made life difficult). Benedict is part of an international moment of monasticism that helps preserve writing as the classical culture of villa-based aristocratic living dissolves and is replaced by a largely illiterate military aristocracy who prefer hunting to poetry.

Things are often very bad in the post-Roman world, and the new rulers and their armies often do terrible deeds. But they are not always so bad as people like Dreher make it sound, and all of them were committed to preserving Roman law, Roman taxation, long-distance trade, and Roman buildings as much as was within their power, with greater or lesser success.

Here is one success, again of Theoderic’s. The Arian baptistery at Ravenna.

The Benedict Option 1: 5th-century history

I’ve decided to blog my way through Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. I do not know if, overall, this is a good book or a helpful book or — even if it is both of those things — my kind of book. But it is a book much talked about. And I am a historian of late antiquity as well as a Christian concerned about the survival of the faith and of western culture who believes that ancient and medieval texts have relevance for today’s world.

Two things first, though.

Thing One: My qualifications for critiquing the historical side are: a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity and Classics; two published articles about late antique Christianity plus a third in press that is specifically sixth-century; one year of teaching ancient history, primarily late antique, at a major research university; one year of research into late antique Christianity in Rome itself; a current postdoctoral position studying mediaeval manuscripts. I do Latin, canon law, christology, the Later Roman Empire, and manuscripts. Intellectual history.

Thing Two: Thing One will make me critique Rod Dreher in ways an ordinary, sane human would not, and possibly at times unfairly. Nonetheless, I believe that professional writers, even if not academics, have a duty to do research and read the sources themselves as well as at least some of the most current analysis of the sources and events they write about. I don’t think that’s unfair. I certainly, however, do not expect Rod Dreher to have read Gregory the Great or Benedict in Latin, or to have read Adalbert de Voguë’s multi-volume French commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. That would be absurd.

I have read Chapter 1. In this chapter Dreher sets out very quickly the plight of conservative Christians in America and gives a very brief account of the life of Benedict from St Gregory’s Dialogues, which you can read here. It is also included in Carolinne M. White’s Early Christian Lives from Penguin. My concerns do not lie with the brief outline itself, but with the decline and fall narrative as we have it here.

Dreher maintains that Rome in the year 500 ‘was no longer the Rome of imperial glory’ (13). This is only sort of true, but the grounds he gives are weak — the Visigothic sack of 410 (p. 13) and the fall of the western Roman Empire when a barbarian deposed the last emperor in 476 (p. 13). The population ‘plummeted in the decades after the sack.’ (13)

The fact of the matter is, the sack of 410 was a Bad Thing, but that seems mostly to have been on a psychological level — everyone, Dreher included, cites Jerome’s histrionics after the fact. But no one cites Rutilius’ poetry that seems to imagine a city full of glories and intact temples. And yes, people left. Mostly wealthy people; we see them turn up in North Africa and Palestine-Syria. But the Goths were mostly after moveables, besides any human cost. If they could carry it, they did. Otherwise, it stayed behind. The same goes for the very successful Vandal pirate raid of 455.

Now, I don’t want to say that Rome in 500 was a shiny city of marble or that it was in as good condition as it was when Constantius visited in 357 or when Theodosius I visited in 389. But I maintain that the main cause was not necessarily the sacks of Rome but the loss of Africa. The überwealthy of the fifth century owned most of North Africa, so when the Vandals conquered it throughout the first four decades of the 400s, that shattered their own personal financial base. And the subsequent imperial attempts to gain it back — including the largest joint East-West Roman army every mustered — went to impoverish the already economically weak imperial fisc in the West.

But, as Dreher notes (p. 14), Rome in 500 was still important enough for Theoderic the Ostrogoth (misidentified as a Visigoth) to visit. And the wealthy aristocrats were still there — Symmachi, Anicii, et al. 410 makes a nice, neat bundle for pegs to hang your history on, but it is not a primary cause for the gradual decline of the city of Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries. And it was still the largest city in the West, if not the whole Mediterranean when Benedict visited.

It seems like a needlessly simplified story to have Rome in 500 a crumbling shadow of its former self, when we know that there was a certain amount of urban revitalisation going on. However, this seems to be part of Dreher’s rhetorical strategy. On page 14, he posits that the reason why Roman morals were so bad in Benedict’s day — so bad that the young, tenderhearted Christian ran off to become a hermit — was precisely because of the shock of Rome’s fall, citing modern parallels. This could have worked for Rome in the immediate aftermath of 410 or 455, but not 500. Moreover, Benedict finding the city a corrupting influence and thus running away is a trope. Not to say it’s not what happened, mind you. Finally, Rome is always described by its critics as being a city of sin, whether these critics are Juvenal c. 100 or Ammianus c. 380.

That this is all too neat seems to hover at the edges of Dreher’s awareness when he says that things in Italy continued much as they had before (13). In fact, Italy’s great change and disruption do occur during Benedict’s posited lifetime and extend beyond into Gregory the Great’s era — first, Justinian’s Byzantine-Gothic War, second the Lombard invasions. These are what ruptured the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Italy. If Benedict had been in southern Gaul or Spain, Dreher’s neat, little late Roman narrative would have worked. But he lived in Campania.

I have three further critiques of this chapter’s presentation of history, more specifically about the sixth century. But this has gone long enough, and I need to get ready for bed. So I’ll leave it here for now, and then jump in next time with the history of monasticism, post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’.

Select Letters of St Jerome

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

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Constructing Christendom 1: What is it and whence did it come?

Notre Dame (what better symbol of 'Christendom'?)
Notre Dame (what better symbol of ‘Christendom’?)

Many people have been speaking for the past few years about the Fall of Christendom, about how we now live in the Post-Christian West. Today I was doing some reading and thinking about the origins of ‘Christendom’.

What is it, though?

Christendom is the idea that for centuries in Europe and certain non-European kingdoms (think Ethiopia and Armenia) — besides those places formally colonised by Europe — there was a confluence of power, persons, and Christianity. Christians were kings or lords or emperors or presidents. Christians were chamberlains or generals or composers or philosophers or poets or architects.

In Christendom, as it is imagined, Christians hold power and influence in the political and cultural life of the realms. Typically, this is constructed in negative ways these days — bishops who make or break politicians, popes who wage wars, devout Christian slavetraders. The other side, also sometimes stressed, is emperors and kings making or breaking bishops, monasteries, and cathedrals.

Of course, the confluence of Christianity and western culture was much more fertile than that. ‘Christendom’ could allow for the construction of beautiful cathedrals and the composition of oratorios, the development of affordable or free education and healthcare through the Church’s charitable ministries.

And the persistence of something to hold onto when everything else may be going to pieces.

Constructing Christendom


The man usually targeted for making this a reality is the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337, saint of the week here). He legalised Christianity, he granted favours to the Church, he built lots of churches, he helped fund the Church’s charitable works, he called the Council of Nicaea, he is thought to have founded Constantinople as a purely Christian capital (its level of Christianness is disputed). He is also falsely accused of all sorts of things, such as persecuting Gnostics, burning apocryphal Gospels, hiding the fact that Jesus was married, making Jesus a God for the first time, increasing the power of the bishops and stealing it from local presbyteries, and so forth.

From Constantine onwards, goes the Christendom narrative, the Empire and the Church were welded together ever more tightly, as when Theodosius I (r. 379-395) outlawed paganism in 381, and culminated in the East with the alleged theocracy — or caesaropapism — of Justinian the Great (r. 527-565) and in the West with Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) crowning Charlemagne (r. 768-814) Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

But wait! How do we get from Constantine to Charlemagne?

The development of Christendom in western Europe is tied up intrinsically with the political shift from the centralised government of the Roman Empire to the scattered polities that arose in its place.

The theology of Christendom is as old as Constantine, visible in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea such as In Praise of ConstantineThe Life of Constantine, and The Preparation of the Gospel. Later, in the 400s, Orosius (385-420) in Spain, writing in the shadow of Alaric’s sack of the Eternal City in 410, would argue that the pax romana ushered in by God’s chosen emperor, Augustus (r. 31/27 BC – AD 14) was part of a divine plan that culminated with the century following Constantine. Church and Empire were to be intertwined henceforth forever!

Except that, after bouncing around in Spain for a while, the Vandals conquered Roman North Africa, 429-439. Rome’s breadbasket and many of her wealthiest provinces were not only gone but were in the hands of Arian Vandals who set about busily persecuting the Nicene church there. Orosius didn’t live to see that; his mentor Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius in Africa, did, just barely.

[Augustine is an important figure for how we should look at these ‘disasters’, but that would make this even longer than it already is. So we’ll talk about him another day.]

The Vandals proceeded to harass Sicily and conquer Sardinia, thus further reducing Rome’s grain supply and forging what one historian calls an ‘empire du blé‘ — empire of wheat.*

Meanwhile, Visigoths were busily settling various bits of Gaul (mostly what is modern France) and every once in a while sacking a city for good measure. Burgundians kept threatening the eastern border along the Rhine. Oh, and then Attila came and trashed everything in sight before going home and dying somewhere. And then the Alemanni crossed the Danube to do some of their own invading.

In 466, the Visigoths began their conquest of Spain, still holding much of southern Gaul. Spain would be theirs, and strong overall, until the Umayyad conquest beginning 711.

The fifth century also saw the coming of the Franks into northern Gaul, in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium, where they eventually supplanted the Roman rule.

The empire, in other words, was being dismembered, and the Roman ruling class was being replaced by or integrated into new polities. These often ran much along Roman lines except with no tax or tribute going to Rome, but over time they would subtly change with landed aristocracies, castles, and the peasantry.

Italy itself (and the last Roman ties to what remaining ostensible power she had in Gaul) was lost in 476 with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus and the accession of the Scirian (a non-Roman people group) Arian Odoacer to the kingship of Italy, which lasted until the Ostrogothic Arian Theoderic the Great took over in 493, ostensibly in the interests of the Emperor in Constantinople, but we all know that to be a sham. (Well, I think it was, anyway.)

By 530, we have this instead of the Western Roman Empire:

What does this have to do with Christendom?

It is clear that Orosius’ vision of the pax romana and Christianity coinciding and coinhering would not survive the century. The Roman Empire in the West was clearly not God’s chosen instrument for the passing along of the Gospel through the centuries, no matter how strong she was in Eusebius’ day or how hopeful Orosius was in the 410s. In the reign of Valentinian III (r. 425-455), with the loss of Africa and ongoing devestation in Gaul, Rome’s financial base was destroyed.

The Roman Empire could not be God’s chosen vessel. Could it?

Maybe it could. To keep life liveable (i.e. keep this post well under 1500 words), next post we’ll see how Christendom was constructed, and why the fifth century is so important for us as we look back on all that follows.

*Christian Courtois, Les Vandales.