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

Barbarism

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.

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

Constantine

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.