An Easter reflection

Easter is a perfect time for reflection about the big questions of life, humanity and history – like for instance whether it was Christianity which destroyed the Roman Empire.

It had been a popular belief among many historians, in particular Edward Gibbon, who blamed the spread of Christianity and monasticism for the decline and fall. However, whatever the reasons for the Empire’s end, it is clear that Christianity converted what was a relatively diverse and tolerant Empire into one in which intolerance and ideological rigidity became paramount. In his book AD 381(Pimlico) Charles Freeman describes how Theodosius, the Eastern Emperor, issued decrees which were the beginning of more than a thousand years of intolerance driven by imperial political priorities rather than religion (even if the Christians caught on the intolerance stuff pretty quickly). In an earlier book, The Closing of the Western Mind (Pimlico), Freeman describes the effect of bringing to an end the diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs which flourished under the Empire.

In essence the Gibbon and Freeman approach suggests that the ‘Dark Ages’ view of the period from the end of the Empire to the middle of the last millennium has some validity despite being commonly rejected today. The Dark Ages view came under pressure from scholars preferring to see the end of the Empire as a gradual, largely peaceful process which was the start of a period they first called early medieval and then Late Antiquity. This is consistent with the tendency in much recent historical study to emphasise continuities rather than discontinuities. At times the emphasis is so strong that one wonders why on earth some events, such as the English Civil War, happened at all and whether Charles I died of a shaving accident rather than the axe.

Nevertheless, while we will probably never know whether it was Christianity, lead pipes, barbarian invasion, an ancestor of Berlusconi or something else altogether which did for the Romans there is now sound evidence to suggest that there was a decline followed by some centuries of economic and social darkness after the end of the western Empire. Bryan Ward-Perkins, who spent some time at ANU and is now back at Oxford, uses that wonderful antidote to religion and historical speculation– science – to establish what happened in the fifth and sixth centuries CE and after. In The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Oxford University Press) Ward-Perkins points out that much of the case for continuity is dependent on picking and choosing between developments in the western and eastern empires. More importantly, he draws on scientific research to suggest that manufacturing in the Roman period was very widespread and that after the empire fell activity returned to levels closer to prehistoric levels.

How did he do it? By examining ice cores from the Arctic to measure levels of industrial pollution at various points in history. Traces of lead, copper and silver were very high in Roman times; fell back to prehistoric levels in post-Roman times; and only really recovered around the 16th and 17th centuries. No doubt some environmentalists would argue that this shows the pre and post-Roman times were better, although like any heterodox view at the time, it might have lead them to the stake rather than any environmental nirvana. Evidence on the quality and range of pottery throughout the Empire and afterwards shows similar results. There was less sophistication. The same applies for construction with the quality and number of buildings declining after the fifth and sixth centuries.

Perhaps the final question is to do with literacy. In Roman times literacy was widespread and universal among the ruling elites. By Carolingian times it was significant that Charlemagne himself was not fully literate. And, of course, when westerners had contact with the Byzantine Empire during the Crusades the Byzantines were horrified at just how barbaric they were. In 1204 these western barbarians even sacked Constantinople itself – weakening the Empire and ultimately making easier the Ottoman capture of the Empire and finally, 300 odd years later, the city itself.

So whether the Christians were responsible for the fall of the Western Empire or not, the major role they played in the fall of the Eastern Empire to Islam some thousand years later is an interesting subject for Easter reflection.