The Senate and people of Rome & The Roman Empire
The Romans began as a small tribe living in modern Italy but expanded to create the largest and longest lasting empire of antiquity. They were a hardy and industrious people who survived in a violent world.
The people who became the Romans migrated from northern Europe and settled on the plains south of the Tiber river. They established towns on the seven hills near the river. These towns eventually merged to form the capital city of Rome.
The Roman Republic
After the overthrow of the Tarquin monarchy by Junius Brutus in 509 BC, Rome does not revert back to a monarchy for the rest of its history. The era of the great expansion of Roman power and civilization is the era of the Roman Republic, in which Rome is ruled by its Senate and its assembly, which were institutions formed at the beginning of the monarchy. The history of the Republic is a history of continuous warfare; all of the historical stories which the Romans will use as stories of Roman virtue and values date from this tumultuous period of defense and invasion.
Roman Republican Legionaries-Hastati and Triarii
Post-Marian Reform legionaries
The Romans had at the beginning of the Republic a constitution which had laid down the traditions and institutions of government; this constitution, however, was not a formal or even a written document, but rather a series of unwritten traditions and laws. These traditions and laws were based on the institution of a monarchy, so while the Romans did not revive the monarchy, they still invested enormous amounts of power in their officials. At the top were the consuls, who were two patricians elected to the office for one year. These patricians exercised imperium in much the same way the kings had in the Roman monarchy. These consuls initiated legislation, served as the head of the judiciary and the military, and served as chief priests to the nation. They even dressed as monarchs, by wearing purple robes and sitting on the seat traditionally reserved for the monarch: the ivory chair.
However, the power of the consuls were severely limited. First, they only served for one year, at which point they would have to be re-elected or enter into private life again. Second, there were two consuls; either consul could effectively prevent any action or decision by the other consul by simply vetoing him. No consul could act without the other consul in agreement. Third, the consuls would have to serve on the Senate after their term in office; this led them to cultivate assiduously the cooperation of the senate. So the consuls exercised absolute power, imperium , but their power was severely hamstrung by the circumstances of their office. As a result, the consuls did not exercise much initiative or creativity, so Roman government tended to be highly conservative and cautious. This, however, was the intent of the consular system. In 325 BC, however, the consul system was changed to allow for proconsuls, who were consuls whose terms in office were extended because of military campaigns.
Beneath the consuls were two financial officers called quaestors, and as the Republic evolved, an officical called the praetor was invented. The praetorship was originally a judicial office, but later became a military office; the praetors were essentially the central generals of Rome. The praetorship, like the consulship, was a one-year appointment, but like the consulship could be extended in times of war. In addition, the task of classifying citizens according to wealth and tax status, which was a consular duty, eventually fell to a new pair of officials called censors. It was the job of the censor to draw up the roll of citizens (somewhat like our modern day census; census is the Latin word from which "censor" is derived) and to fix their tax status. As you might imagine, the censors had all kinds of opportunities for bribery and corruption since they were setting tax rates, so after a while the office fell only to the most incorruptible and virtuous men of the Republic: former consuls. Eventually, the office of the censor acquired great powers, such as the power to dismiss senators from the Senate not merely for financial reasons, but any reason at all. By the time of the late Republic, the censors had become some of the most powerful politicians in Rome.
It is immediately evident that the imperium was fully concentrated in the hands of the patricians. The consuls were elected from the patrician class, as were the quaestors and the praetors; the censors, by definition, were always patricians. Because the consul reverted to the Senate, the Senate, composed only of patricians, became the principle power in Rome. The Republic in its early form was largely a transfer of power from the monarch to the wealthiest classes in Rome, and this dominance of Roman law, finances, and foreign policy by the patricians instantly produced resentment among the plebeians; from its inception in 509 BC to its demise at the hands of Caesar in the middle of the first century BC, the political history of the Roman Republic is a tumultuous, chaotic, and often violent conflict between the two classes in Rome vying for political power.
This conflict was called "the struggle of the orders" (the orders of society) and is largely about the patrician class attempting to hold onto power while the plebeians attempted to achieve social and political equality. The patricians found themselves unable to exist without the plebeians: not only did the plebeians produce the food and supply the labor that kept the Roman economy going, they also supplied the soldiers for the Roman military. If the plebeians could act as a group, they could effectively shut down the Roman economy and military; the latter was especially important since Rome was in continual military conflict during the age of the Republic.
In Roman historical tradition, in 494 BC the plebeians withdrew from Rome and occupied the Sacred Mount. There they declared an alternative government. They formed a tribal assembly, modelled after the Roman assembly, which would be headed by tribunes who were heads of their tribes. They declared that these tribunes could veto any decision by a Roman magistrate or official, and could veto any decision or legislation by the Senate. The assembly itself, like the former assembly, voted by tribe, and the decision of the assembly was binding on all plebeians. In other words, the plebeians had won for themselves the right to author their own legislation. Their decisions, however, were not binding on non-plebeians.
In 450 BC, the struggle of the orders produced the Law of the Twelve Tables, which simply formalized and codified Roman law and its constitution. The Romans, however, saw it as a victory for the rights of the citizen for it gave them an instrument to know where they stood as far as the law is concerned. In 445 BC, plebeians acquired the right to marry a patrician, and in 367 the plebeians gained the right to be elected consul, when the first plebeian consul was elected. The Licinian-Sextian laws demanded that at least one consul be a plebeian. After the completion of the term of consular office, the consul became a member of the Senate, so the patrician hold on the Senate had, in part, been broken when the plebeians gained full access to the office of the consul. In 300 BC, plebeians were allowed to serve at all levels of the priesthood, thus making them religiously equal to the patricians. Finally, in the greatest victory of all in terms of power and influence, in 287 BC, the decisions and legislation of the plebeian assembly were not only binding on the plebeians, but on the entire Roman citizenry. These reforms were purchased without any civil war or internal bloodshed; they would not resolve the struggle, but they certainly prevented out and out civil war.
The Romans, then, reformed their government as the need arose rather than pursuing any particular plan of reform or development. At the same time, the Romans built their territorial power with the same lack of planning and purpose. Originally, the wars which the Republic fought were largely defensive wars; the expulsion of the Tarquins provoked many attacks by their allies and by Etruscans. Soon, however, the Romans were moving to gain control over neighboring territory in order to neutralize the threat of attack. Their logic was that control over these territories would obviate any potential attack from the people occupying those territories and at the same time provide a buffer region between themselves and potential attackers. Roman conquest, then, was pursued largely for Roman security; the end result of this process would be, first, the conquest of the entire Italian peninsula by 265 BC, and then the conquest of the world. The Roman Empire was an accident, so to speak; it was formed in the pursuit of other policies, namely, security. Only in its later stages was the Roman Empire a deliberate objective.
The Roman Empire
After the death of Augustus in 14 AD, Rome underwent a series of profound changes. The Empire itself grew dramatically; from Augustus to the time of Trajan (98-117 AD), Rome acquired more of northern Africa, most of Great Britain, parts of Germany, eastern Europe around the Black Sea, as well as Mesopotami and the northern part of the Arabian peninsula. At home, Rome struggled with its new institution of quasi-monarchical rule. Augustus had fudged the issue by declaring himself "first among equals," or simply, princeps , but his successors stopped pretending and simply called themselves either Caesar, to indicate descent from the royal house, or imperator , since they derived their power from the imperium over Rome and the military. The institution became more like a monarchy after Augustus's death; Augustus had been elected by the Senate, and this practice remainedóin truth, the early emperors were simply hand-picked by the current emperor.
The first emperors of Rome were all from the Julian line. Augustus was immediately succeeded by Tiberius (emperor 14-37 AD), who was followed by Gaius, nicknamed Caligula ("little boot") (37-41), Claudius ("cripple, lame") (41-54 AD), and Nero (54-68 AD). Tiberius and then Caligula demonstrated how arbitrarily power could be wielded by the emperor; Caligula, in particular, probably had a nervous breakdown on the death of his sister and was famous throughout Roman history for his cruelty and delusive behavior. The imperiate of Caligula, however, demonstrated how the emperor's rule was based on sheer military power; after the assassination of Caligula in 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard found Claudius cowering in the palace and declared him emperor. All vestiges of Republican rule had been removed.
This was a frightening discovery in the administration of the government; now that it was apparent that military force alone produced and legitimated the emperor's rule, there was nothing to stop ambitious generals from using their armies to advance their political careers dramatically. The final Julian emperor to sit on the throne was Nero, who had begun as a brilliantly talented and highly moral youth. It was in the time of Nero that the Romans began to actively persecute, and execute, Roman members of a new eastern, mystical religion: Christianity. Among those executed was one of the founders of Christianity, Paul of Tarsus. He soon, however, proved himself unconcerned and incompetent, and the frontier armies began to grow restless. In 68 AD, the armies revolted in Gaul and Nero was overthrown. The next year, 69 AD, no fewer than four emperors mounted the throne, each backed by a powerful army.
Rome was spinning into chaos, but a Roman general, Vespasian (69-79 AD), managed to hold onto the imperiate long enough to found his own dynasty: the Flavian dynasty. Neither Vespasian or his successors were from a noble or aristocratic Roman family. In many ways, this was Vespasian's strength. He was a hard-headed and practical soldier and administrator who ridiculed most of the trappings of the office he held.This hard-headed practicality translated into a highly effective imperiate. He was succeeded by his son, Titus (79-81 AD) and then Domitian (81-96 AD), who began the second wave of persecutions of Christians.
Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD (it was hard to die a natural death as emperor of Rome; very few seemed to have achieved it), and since he had no successor, the Senate elected the senator Nerva (96-98 AD). The Flavian dynasty was at an end, but Nerva began a period that later Roman historians would call the five good emperors: Nerva, Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). All of these emperors died without passing the succession on (except Marcus Aurelius), so each of these emperors were elected by the Senate from within its own ranks. This period was the period of the greatest political stability in Imperial Rome after the age of Augustus; when Marcus Aurelius broke the pattern and was succeeded by his son, Commodus (180-192), all hell broke loose again.
This period saw the widespread exporting of Roman culture, government, and law. The Romans actively built up large urban centers throughout the Empire and granted these cities all the rights and privileges granted to Romans. These cities were ruled by the upper classes who, as a result, grew increasingly loyal to the emperor. At the same time, Rome began to exercise more control over these municipalities; unlike earlier empires which were more or less loose confederacies, the Roman Empire was converted into what amounted as a single state under the centralized control of a Roman bureaucracy.
Culturally, this period is regarded as less creative and less interesting, but this is probably not the case. The first century may, in fact, rival the Golden Age during the Augustan principate in creativity, especially in literature and philosophy. Perhaps the most significant philosopher in Roman history was Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), who served for a time as the tutor and advisor to Nero in his youth. Seneca adopted Stoic principles in a peculiarly Roman fashion, theorizing about the relationship of "duty" (officium ) and human passions to the larger pattern of the universe, the logos . His central philosophical principle is that one should calm one's passions with the knowledge that all human experience, particularly suffering, has a meaning in the larger pattern of history and the order of the universe. This pattern, however, cannot be apprehended by human beings, so any effort to understand suffering is bound to produce more suffering. Perhaps more than anything else, the topic Seneca was interested in was the problem of human suffering; as Friedrich Nietzsche declares at the conclusion of The Genealogy of Morals , the problem isn't human suffering, the problem is assigning a meaning to human suffering. In addition, Seneca, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Roman culture had severely declined not merely in morals, but in toughness as well. Roman society and government was ruled by passion; it should be ruled by Stoic principles. The first Stoic emperor, however, was Marcus Aurelius over a century later. Seneca also wrote tragic drama which may or may not have been intended for actual production. His plays are violent and passionate, with fierce, staccato poetry and harsh language, perhaps the most powerful and dynamic poetry written in the Latin language. These plays explore the dark consequence of human passion and blindness, and the tragedy of suffering that has no meaning for the sufferer. There are no English translations that capture the sheer vertiginous power of Seneca's plays.
The Republican Crisis
Literary activity, in particular, seems to have evolved into a dramatically creative phase around the time of Seneca; this period is called the "Silver Age" of Latin literature. Writers such as Juvenal (60-140 AD) and Persius continued to write satires about the moral decay of Roman culture while exulting in the day to day problems and depravity of their city and its bursting population. Juvenal in particular used Stoic principles to show how far Roman life had strayed from its original values. The poet Propertius, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the passions and degeneracies of an illicit love affair with a married woman, producing one of the most moving and witty explorations of a soul in moral decline in his Elegies . Epic poetry was wildly popular in the silver age as Vergilian imitator sprang up all over the place. The theme, however, was not the moral virtue of Romans, but the moral degeneracy of their own times set in relief against the old virtues. The most powerful of the silver age epics is the Civil War or Pharsalia , by Lucan (40-65 AD). This epic narrates the struggle between Caesar and Pompey leading up to Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus. In Lucan's narrative, Caesar is bloodthirsty, cruel, and ambitious; Pompey, who is the only representative of traditional Roman virtue, is ineffective and undecisive. No individual stands out as exceptional or virtuous; the cost of this moral poverty are Roman lives and blood, gallons and gallons of Roman blood. In fact, Lucan and his audience revel in melodramatic violence; in one scene, a soldier single-handedly fends off an entire army by serving as a human shield, standing his ground in spite of the dozens of spears and missiles in his body. Lucan's theme, however, is about the moral depravity that has taken away Roman freedom; this message was not lost on Nero, and when Lucan took part in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, the emperor forced him to commit suicide at the age of 25. In historical writing, Tacitus (55-117 AD) emerges as perhaps the greatest of the Roman historians. Among his histories is a massive history of the imperiate, called the Annals ; the central theme of his history is that Rome had become morally degenerate and this moral degeneracy was responsible for all its ills. If there is a single theme running throughout all of the literature and philosophy of the period, it is precisely this issue of moral degeneracy. The Romans were, after all, straight-laced moralists, and nothing got their attention better than a good, stern moral lecture. So, overall, the character of first century and second century Rome is a moralistic character, in which either the psychology of immorality as both seductive and destructive is explored by some writers, while other writers, such as Seneca and Tacitus, sternly condemn the degeneracy of the age.
What is Architecture?
During this period, the Romans undertook their most massive building projects, which included the Pantheon in Rome (built by Hadrian), which is the largest unsupported dome in the world, and the Colosseum, a massive games complex that can seat well over sixty thousand people. All the great engineering projects date from this time, including a massive system of aqueducts. Rome itself had eleven aqueducts carrying 300 million gallons of water a day into the city from the surrounding hills. Not only was this water used for drinking and washing, it was also used for flushing the massive sewer system that had been built for Rome. In science, however, historians regard the Romans as deficientólooking at their massive sewers and aqueduct marvels, the joke about the Romans is that when God was handing out brains, the Romans thought he said drains. This view, however, is not entirely accurate. The Romans did not pursue speculative natural philosophy as the Greeks did, but were interested only in practical applications. While we say that the Romans made no significant scientific discoveries, in reality they made a host of scientific discoveries in engineering and medicine, the practical sciences. The "discoveries" of the Greeks were rarely empirical in nature and frequently wrong (or immediately refuted). In medicine, the Romans advanced very far in the first and second centuries; perhaps one of the greatest medical scientists of the ancient world was Galen, who lived in the last half of the second century; his most important discovery was that blood circulated in the arteries. The full mechanism, however, wouldn't be understood until the seventeenth century.
This silver age, which I must confess I find one of the most culturally interesting period in human history, came to an abrupt end in 180 AD, when Commodus succeeded his father, Marcus Aurelius, as emperor. Within a few short years, this slightly cracked emperor managed to undo over a century of stable political rule and cultural stability, and Rome steered into a storm of chaos: the calamitious third century.
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.
(From top left to bottom right): Principes, Velites, Triarii, Equites, Hastati, Accensi, Funtidores, Rorarii.
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.
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