The Legacy of Rome

The Roman Catholic Church and Medieval society in general were very much the children of the Roman Empire. Medieval society was a hodgepodge of customs, language, laws and attitudes taken from the late, great, Roman empire, with some Germanic admixture. Both the Medieval world, and our own world, are very much descended from Rome.

The Romans had created the greatest empire ever known. Moreover, they had done it largely with relatively democratic forms of government. While 753 BC was the founding date of the city of Rome, and a line of kings, in the fifth century BC the kings were thrown out and a republic established. In the first century BC, this republic was transformed to accommodate an emperor (sort-of a "president for life" in modern parlance), but many of the quasi-democratic forms and practices continued for another three centuries. Around 300 AD, just before Christianity was recognized as an official religion, the Roman government was reorganized as an absolute monarchy. This system used two emperors, one in the west, based in Italy, the other in the east, based in Greece and Anatolia (modern Turkey). Both emperors were to supposed to cooperate with each other in matters that concerned the empire as a whole, but each was supreme in his half of the empire. By the late fifth century, the empire in the west was overrun by numerous German tribes. The eastern part of the empire, with it's capital in Constantinople (formerly called the city of Byzantium), survived until 1453.

The Romans lasted as long as they did because they were, above all, very practical people. They adopted a republican form of government because they saw how limiting, and ultimately disasterous, absolute power could be. Moreover, they noted the success of the democratic Greek city states, including the ones founded in Italy as colonies. By giving more people a say in major decisions, and the selection of leaders, one received more enthusiasm from the population.

Roman republicanism was not the same as we now have in the 20th century. In effect, a Romans voted roughly in proportion to his (women never voted) financial worth and ability to render military service. But that was the only form of democracy known until rather recently. The Romans were also very militarized and the population eagerly participated in wars of conquest. For a long time, only those with a certain net worth could serve in the army. This eventually changed, but for a long time the principal might of the army was its citizen soldiers fighting to protect, or expand, their own possessions.

Another major asset of the Roman system was its willingness to create "naturalized" citizens . This is the same concept the United States has made much out of. For the Romans, anyone willing to swear loyalty to Rome and its institutions, could become a Roman citizen. Since Rome began as a successful, but geographically limited, city-state, this approach to citizenship was a key element in creating a Roman empire. Ultimately, however, the lack of modern communications made it increasingly difficult to administer an empire that streatched from the Middle East to Britain. Local demagogues or military dictators eventually destroyed the unity of the empire. Oddly enough, all those Roman citizens, no matter what their ethnic background, were still quite proud of their Roman citizenship.

In general, the Romans were quick to adopt foreign ideas. This became a problem only after they had conquered all the civilizations in sight and had to rely on their own resources for new ideas. The Romans were no slouches in the ideas department, but being able to quickly adapt tried techniques from others was a much more effective nethod. Democracy was one example, but the Romans borrowed superior economic, engineering, administrative and agricultural concepts from wherever they might find them.

One of the principal sources of ideas for the Romans were the Greeks. Under Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BC, the Greeks had conquered most of what existed east of Greece and west of India. But upon Alexander's death, this momentary empire split into several Greek-ruled succesor states. It was this collection of civilizations that the Romans conquered in the last two centuries before Christ. The Romans were mostly impressed with Greek thought and customs. They had already been exposed to Greek culture through the Greek colonial cities in Italy and were so taken by things Greek that it became standard for upper class Roman children to become bilingual in Greek and Latin and educated in Greek literature and culture. The Greeks did not reciprocate, and for this reason the eastern portions of the Roman empire came to eventually be run by Roman citizens who spoke Greek well and Latin grudgingly.

Building an empire was easier than running one, as the Romans soon discovered. While the empire was being built, new economic opportunities brought with it a century or more of growth and prosperity. But as things settled down, there came frequent unrest, corruption among imperial officials, and general decay. This was made worse by the 4th century migrations of the German tribes. Long a threat on Rome's northern frontiers, in the previous centuries there had been a population explosion in the German areas. From 200 BC to 200 AD the population of Germany probably went from two million to 3.5 million, in an era when human populations tended to grow much more slowly. By the 4th century the German tribes began to move into Roman territory looking for new opportunities. Some tribes were settled in Roman territory by the Romans and "Romanized" to a large extent. The Germans were usually quite taken with the idea of being a Roman citizen. Some Germans became senior officials in the imperial government. Many became Roman soldiers. Centuries of exposure to Roman culture had made the Germans familiar with how the Roman armies operated and more able to prevail on the battlefield. It was the Germans who now had the stirrup for their horses and developed heavy cavalry (the predecessors of the later "knights "). The German invasions were also encouraged by Asian nomads (the Huns and such) who came in behind them from the east. These nomads taught the Germans a lot about mounted warfare.

In the late third century, the Roman emperor Diocletian reorganized the empire as an absolute monarchy with four rulers. The two senior rulers would preside over the eastern and western portions of the empire respectively. They would each appoint successors, who would in the meantime govern portions of the empire until the senior rulers retired or died. The empire's 101 provinces were organized into twelve districts called dioceses and governed by officials called vicari.(vicars). These were but two of the many terms that the Christian church adopted for their own clerical organization when the western part of the empire was taken over by the Germans.

Diocletian's successor in the west, Constantine, recognized Christianity as an tolerated religion, ending several centuries of sporadic persecution. This "conversion" is commonly attributed to Constantine's victory in a desperate battle, via an appeal to the God of the Christians. Actually, the Roman upper classes had been infiltrated by Christians over the centuries, and many Roman women --including Constantine's Mother, St. Helena-- had became Christian or had Christian sympathies. This influence should not be surprising. Compared to previous religions, Christianity was definitly "kinder and gentler" and preached more equitable treatment of women. For example, Christian marriage was considered a sacred pact and divorce was discouraged. Husbands, then and now, often sought the counsel of their wives and more of the wives had a Christian view of things (even if they had to keep their baptism secret from their pagan husbands).

But that wasn't Constantine's only innovation. He also fought a civil war that reunited the rule of the Roman empire in one man. He then tried to solve many of the empire's economic and social problems by decree. Corrupt officials and bad fiscal policy had brought about rampant inflation. Unemployment had led to widespread migrations and unrest. So the emperor instituted price controls and hereditary occupations, building on precedents already set by Diocletian. The price controls made things worse, and were unworkable in the bargain. The decree ordering sons to assume the livelihood of their fathers and no other led to serfdom, a practice that survived into the Medieval period.

The two emperor system came back after a while, and in 391 AD, Christianity became the official, and only, state religion of the empire. None of this solved the empire's problems. The two parts of the Roman empire entered the fifth century as virtually independent states. The problems were worse in the west, and the Roman government there collapsed in the late 5th century. The eastern portion of the empire, with its capital in Constantinople, managed to reorganize itself successfully and survived until 1453.

The Eastern Roman Empire had some success in regaining portions of the western empire in the 6th and 7th centuries. But the Arab led Moslem invasions in the 7th century forced the eastern Romans on the defensive. Then came the Turks, who conquered key Roman territory in the 11th century and forced the Romans on the defensive permanently. For various reasons, this eastern Roman empire came to be called the Byzantine empire in the west. But it was indeed the last remnant of Roman rule and went down fighting in 1453 AD. The Arabs, the eastern Romans discovered, they could deal with over the long haul. The Turks, however, were another matter. The Turks, like the Germans, were migrating from the east as tribes. They were, in many ways, like the Romans. The Turks were practical, determined, and relentless. They eventually established their own empire that lasted nearly a thousand years and, to a certain extent, lives on in the form of Turkey, one of the largest and most powerful nations in the Middle East. Unlike the Romans, the Turks knew when to get out of the Empire business. Which is why we now have the nation of Turkey, but only the legacy of Rome.

Although Constantinople was the only seat of Roman power for nearly a thousand years, the city of Rome retained enormous prestige thorughout the West, and its bishop was traditionally seen as the senior bishop of the Christians. This was so because the first bishop of Rome was the senior apostle of Christ, Peter. But during the long centuries of persecution, the Christian church survived by being decentralized. Each diocese was, for all practical purposes, autonomous. Because the Christian faith upheld learning and the preservation of knowledge, the bishops and many of their priests were prolific letter writers. The bishops kept in touch with each other and able bishops in Rome continued to assert a "first among equals" attitude. The bishop of Rome used his position to settle or, more commonly, arbitrate, disputes between bishops.

Yet into the 7th century, there were regional loyalties, particularly in North Africa, where the Bishop of Carthage was considered the local "pope" and in the east, where the Patriarch of Constantinope was regarded as the senior cleric. The attitudes of the North African clergy became a non-issue once the Arabs came through in the 7th century and converted --through persuasion or force, as needs be-- most of the Christians to Islam. The clergy in Constantinople survived the onslaught of Islam and continued to have a bona-fide Roman emperor to back up their religious positions. The disagreements between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople were a rehash of the ancient east-west and Latin-Greek disputes that the Romans had never been able to resolve, to which were added various theological issues, some of which are nowadays too obscure to comprehend fully.

The Roman government in the east was relatively strong, and survived for a thousand years after the Roman administration in the west was crushed by invading German tribes . The Germans were mostly pagans, but they were susceptible to Christian missionaries. Some of the Romanized Germans were already Christians. The German leaders were also aware that the Christian clergy were educated and possessed the knowledge of the much admired Roman administrative system.

The Romans were a highly organized and systematic people. They kept lists, counted everything and analyzed information in order to make efficient decisions. Even though books had to be copied by hand, wealthy Romans were eager to build libraries. Many of these libraries survived the German invasions and in them was found the wisdom, and practical experience, of the ancients. Although an illiterate warrior himself, Charlemagne admired literacy and all of its benefits. He learned to sign his name and read a bit, but spent most of his life in the saddle leading his troops. But when he wasn't conquering his neighbors, Charlemagne held court in the ancient Roman town of Aachen, surrounded by clerics and scholars. He encouraged education and efficient administration. While his conquests did not survive him intact, his administrative reforms did. His followers could see for themselves that these educated bishops, priests, and monks were a valuable asset for any king, duke, or lord of a manor. From that point on, education became a valuable asset and the Christian church controlled education and who would receive it. Early on, the only commoners who could receive an education were those willing to take Holy Orders and devote their lives to the service of the church. Thus the church became the conduit of Roman law, administration and culture, from the past through the Medieval period and into the present.

The manner in which the pagan Germans were converted had an enormous impact on Medieval society. The missionaries, originally from Italy and other highly civilized portions of the Roman empire, went right to the leaders of the German tribes. In most cases, the missionaries had done their homework. Roman scholars had been writing down their observations of the Germans since Romans first encountered them in the second century BC. Since the Germans had little in the way of written records, these literate and well read Christians knew more about German history than the Germans did. The Germans were intrigued by these well spoken priests from the south.

The Roman system of higher education stressed teaching the student to think fast and make good use of reason and logic. These skills were continued under church sponsored education and the pagan German nobles found themselves discussing (never arguing, even then, Christian missionaries knew it was unwise to argue with heavily armed Germans) religion with some formidable thinkers and speakers. This impressed the Germans, whose tribal culture greatly admired good public speakers who could think fast. What also impressed them was the offer of education in the way of Roman administration if they and their people accepted Christ as their Savior.

By the 10th century, there were few pagan Germans left . There were swarms of educated priests and monks in the service of German nobles throughout Europe. Clerics showed the new nobility how to keep records and run things. Bishops and abbots were given large chunks of land to administer as feudal holdings. In return, the church used its new wealth to educate more German children, including nobles, as well as commoners (for the clergy). The church was, in effect, the only source of education, and the education was much on the ancient Roman model. It was what we would today call a liberal education, with an emphasis on learning how to think and express oneself.

The church and its many monasteries were what passed for think tanks and research institutes in the Medieval period. Many monasteries contained large libraries, and scores of trained monks making hand copies of particularly popular, or rare, works. Monks performed what little scientific research that was done during the period. It was both prestegious, and useful, for every noble's court to have a few classically trained priests and monks in attendance. While these clerics could attend to the court's religious needs, they could also handle any other task that required an educated, and trustworthy, man.

By the 14th century, much of the Roman influence was no longer obvious. The culture of Rome had become the culture of the Roman Catholic church. Some educated commoners who looked beneath the surface could find the Roman roots of many of the institutitions of Medeival culture. But the Romans were now ancient history, and what they had left behind had been well tended to by the Christian clerics. And we still live in the shadow of a culture the Romans began creating 2,800 years ago.