HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

Lecture 6

 - Transformation of the Roman Empire


The Roman Empire in the West collapsed as a political entity in the fifth century although the Eastern part survived the crisis.. Professor Freedman considers this transformation through three main questions: Why did the West fall apart – because of the external pressure of invasions or the internal problems of institutional decline? Who were these invading barbarians? Finally, does this transformation mark a gradual shift or is it right to regard it as a cataclysmic end of civilization? Professor Freedman, as a moderate catastrophist, argues that this period marked the end of a particular civilization rather than the end of civilization in general.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

HIST 210 - Lecture 6 - Transformation of the Roman Empire

Chapter 1: Introduction  [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Freedman: Today we’re going to talk about the transformation of the Roman Empire. And I use the somewhat neutral and undramatic word “transformation”. It can be “fall of the Roman Empire,” “collapse of the Roman Empire…” It’s clear that we’re talking about the fall of the Western Empire. Next week we’ll talk about the survival of the Eastern Empire.

From 410 to 480, the Western Roman Empire disintegrated. It was dismembered by barbarian groups who were, except for the Huns, not really very barbarian. That is, they were not intent on mayhem and destruction. All they really wanted to do was to be part of the Empire, to share in its wealth and accomplishments, rather than to destroy it.

Nevertheless, 476 is the conventional date for the end of the Western Empire, because in that year, a barbarian chieftain deposed a Roman emperor. Nothing very new about this for the fifth century. What was new is that this chieftain, whose name is spelled all sorts of different ways, but in Wickham, it’s Odovacer. Sometimes he’s known as Odacaer, Odovacar, Odovacer. We aren’t even sure what so-called tribe he belonged to. A barbarian general deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustulus, who by an interesting coincidence, has the names of both the founder of the city of Rome and the founder of the Roman emperor [correction: Empire]. The

“-us” on the end is little. It’s a diminutive. So a man with this grandiose name, a child, deposed in 476.

And instead of imposing another emperor, Odovacer simply wrote to Constantinople and said, “We’re going to be loyal to you. We will recognize you as the sole emperor.” Constantinople, however, was far away. And while of symbolic significance, this pledge of loyalty by Odovacer had no practical significance. For all intents and purposes, the Western Empire had, in 476, become a collection of barbarian kingdoms.

A kingdom is smaller than an empire. We use the term empire to mean a multi-national, very large state ruled from one center, but consisting of many different kinds of pieces. Kings, and the term and title “king”, is of German origin. Kings are very powerful, but over a more limited territory. So there was a king of Italy now. There would be a king of the Franks, or Francia, the former Roman Gaul. There would be a king of the Lombards later in northern Italy. A king of the Visigoths, first in southern France and Spain. And we’ll go over who is where at the beginning of next class.

For now, we’re going to talk about this collapse and its consequences. And we’re going to orient ourselves around three big questions. One– why did the west fall apart? And as a corollary to that question, was this because of the external pressure of invasions or the internal problems of institutional decline. Did it fall of its own accord or was it pushed, in other words?

Question number two. Or big question number two. Who were these barbarians? And how Romanised or how different from Rome were they? And that’s what we’re going to talk about more on Wednesday, next class.

And three, does this transformation mark a gradual shift to another civilization, or is it the cataclysmic end of the prevailing form of civilization, ushering in a prolonged period of what used to be called The Dark Ages? The Dark Ages– roughly the sixth to eleventh century. This is a term we don’t like to use. It implies a value judgment that is not only not necessarily accurate, but also expresses a certain kind of point of view of what are good periods in history and what are bad periods in history.

Chapter 2: Catastrophe [00:05:18]

But I’d like to just probe this third question first. That is, how severe a catastrophe was this? So is it the end of civilization à la Planet of the Apes or Blade Runner or any of those apocalyptic image we have? Or is it merely a shift in power and the survival of Roman institutions such as the Church, while Roman political infrastructure– the emperor, the consoles, the praetorian prefects, and so forth– while that collapses?

A medieval historian named Roger Collins in a book called The Early Middle Ages writes, “The fall of the Roman Empire in the west was not the disappearance of a civilization. It was merely the breakdown of a governmental apparatus that could no longer be sustained.” The key word here is “merely”. The destruction of the Roman political apparatus may simply mean that the Roman state ceased to function, but that everything else continued.

But really, the question is, could everything else continue in the absence of a state and of a political order? The destruction of the political order also means, after all, the destruction of the military system. When we opened this class, we talked about a civilization built on such things as the rule of law and the maintenance of peace. These are no longer possible if there is no military governmental structure.

As we’ll say a little later, to some extent people didn’t know that it was the end. Because for a while, things seemed to go on as before. People were speaking Latin, they were living in cities, the cities were much less populated, but nevertheless, they were still there; there were still rich people; there were still poor people. In retrospect, though, we can see that things really did change. How much they changed is the subject of a lot of historical controversy.

The world of the late Roman historians is divided, roughly speaking, between catastrophists and continuists. As you may guess, the catastrophists think the fall of the Roman Empire – whether we date it 476 or there’s some reasons to date it, really, 550 for reasons we’ll learn in next week. Between 450 and 550, a catastrophe happened. A civilization was wiped out. And really, if not literally a Dark Ages, a more primitive, more war-like, more illiterate, and more rural period was ushered in.

The disappearance of ancient texts, things that the Romans knew from that lost Hortensius dialogue of Cicero that Augustine was so fond of to many other kinds of works that had been known to the Roman world, right? I can’t remember exactly how many plays Aeschylus wrote, but it’s something on the order of 60, and we have three. So the disappearance of text. The end of literacy, except for a very small portion of the Christian clergy.

A more primitive architecture. The end of grand civic projects like aqueducts, coliseums, theaters, baths. A more isolated society without these urban centers. A diminished population spread across the countryside, mostly engaged in subsistence. Hence, the, if not end of trade, the radical diminution of trade.

The continuists, people like Collins whom I just quoted, see the political changes as dramatic all right, but as essentially surface phenomena based partly on archaeology and partly on a more sympathetic understanding of Christian practices. In other words, they don’t think that the proliferation of churches, saints, cults, is necessarily a sign of primitiveness. So based on both archaeology and an understanding of Christianity, these continuists point to the survival of trade, the role of bishops and other church officials, as replacing the Roman governors.

The Roman political order may have collapsed in terms of staffing by lay people and military people, but the bishops were now the rulers of the city. The bishops would now do things like ensure the food supply, rally the local population against barbarian invasions, educate the populace. And the barbarian kings themselves try, with some success, to perpetuate the Roman order. They collect taxes, for example– that may or may not be a good thing. They engage in some kind of public works, some kind of maintenance of order.

The civilization of the sixth and seventh centuries in what comes to be considered Western Europe, rather than the Western Roman Empire, is not radically more barbarized or primitive than the late Roman Empire. Thus, the continuists.

My own position, but I don’t hold to it dogmatically, is that of a moderate catastrophist. I think something really happened; I think it’s pretty radical; and it didn’t happen all at once, however. 476 is not the year of collapse. It is a process. I’m fascinated by the degree to which people were and were not aware of the cataclysm, but I believe there is a cataclysm.

Wickham, the author of this book that we’re starting now The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham, straddles the fence, as you’ve seen. His chapter that you were to read for today is entitled, “Crisis and Continuity: 400 to 550”. I would never use a chapter title like that, because it’s really frustrating. Which is it, dude?

He’s the leading medieval historian in the English-speaking world. He is Chichele Professor at All Souls, Oxford. And if that doesn’t sound impressive, well, it takes a lot to impress you. He’s a very great historian, but I don’t like that chapter title. As I said, I would emphasize crisis or change or cataclysm.

Well, let’s ask what happened, beginning with the gradual involvement of the barbarians in the military and their entrance into the empire. We’re using the term “barbarians”, which goes back to the Greek term applied to outsiders. People outside but threatening. The Greeks defined barbarians as uncivilized by reason of their speech, which sounded to them incoherent, and by reason of the fact that they’re nomads.

People who lead settled lives don’t trust nomads. Nomads, almost extinct in our world, once dominated many geographical regions and were frightening, because they moved to around to people who liked order and familiarity. They didn’t live in cities, whether they were nomadic or not. Barbarians were illiterate. This is the Greek idea of barbarians.

In the case of Rome, there is no single definition of barbarian society. We can say that Rome was overthrown by a war-like, but not very fierce, group of enemies. And I use enemies in a very mild sense. The Romans perceived them as enemies; the barbarians perceived Rome as simply a nicer place to live.

But there is no Mongol horde kind of event here. They’re not that frightening. The Romans had known them for centuries. Most of them were even Christians. Heretical Christians, OK. They’re Arians, A-R-I-A-N-S, I remind you, but they’re not unfamiliar, again, even in their religion. They’ve been at the borders of the Roman empire forever.

Like most empires, Rome was at the one hand, very aggressive, and on the other hand thought of itself is peace-loving. It maintained the Danube-Rhine frontier as a kind of natural frontier, every so often crossing those rivers to punish German tribes who were probing the frontiers of the empire. But generally speaking, the Romans were not interested in what they perceived, somewhat inaccurately, as endless forests inhabited by primitive people.

The continuists argue, with some justice, that between 250 and 600 what changed was not that primitive warriors conquered a civilized state, in the way that say, the Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth century  but that the ancient world became the medieval world. That is, an urban culture became more rural. A Latin culture became amalgamated to a German one. Pagan society became Christian.

Having said this, it’s nevertheless true that the most dramatic event to the fifth century is that people who had been outside the empire were now in it. If we ask why the Western Empire collapsed, the simple, most immediate answer is it was taken over by German confederations, tribes. They came not so much as conquerors as military recruits, or as allies, or as refugees.

So rather than as guys with knives in their teeth hacking and slashing and burning, they came as pathetic refugees, maybe doing some hacking, slashing, and burning; as military recruits; and as military allies. Again, not without a certain amount of H. S. B.: (hacking and slashing and burning). But not a cataclysmic amount. They admired Rome. They wanted to continue its institutions. They regarded Rome as a rich and as civilized. The last thing they wanted was to still live in little huts in the forest.

They were not the bringers of a revolution. They were not even that numerous, amounting to some tens of thousands. Nevertheless, they ended Roman government, accelerated the changes we’ve already described towards depopulation, decentralization, ruralization– a less cultivated, less literate, less Mediterranean-centered society.

Chapter 3: The Roman Army and the Visigoths [00:18:18]

So I want to begin the description of this process by the changes in the Roman army. We saw that Diocletian, around 300 AD, militarizes Roman government, pays for the, perhaps, doubling of the military presence of the Roman army by changing the taxation system. So the twin pillars of the empire in the fourth century are army and taxation, the latter requiring a civilian governmental apparatus.

The army was a problem in terms of the recruiting of soldiers. This may have to do with the population; it may have to do with the unattractive nature of military life, but nevertheless there was already, in the fourth century, a tendency to get the more familiar barbarians into the army as Roman soldiers. Because they were available, they were near the frontiers– this may seem odd. Why hire your potential enemy to be soldiers? But there’s a lot of precedent.

Very often, empires don’t really want to supply their own manpower. And the people who are the best soldiers are also the people who may, in the future, be most threatening. I don’t want to pursue this simile, but the Afghan Mujahideen were trained by Americans, because at one time they were opposed to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. As it happened, in retrospect, that had some bad consequences. But at the time, it seemed like a good idea.

So in the 370s a group called the Visigoths asks to be admitted to the Roman Empire as an allied army. In other words, the whole group will be federated with the Romans. And federati is the term given for barbarian troops serving under the Roman Empire.

Why were they on the move? These are not really nomadic people. They don’t live in yurts or travel across Central Asia. They tend to be settled in villages. They have dairy cattle rather than have some kind of nomadic sheep, or something like. They’re pretty settled. Nevertheless, in 378, they were on the move. And we don’t know why. Some enemy pushing them across the Danube into what’s now Romania? It may be the weakness of the Empire. They may have seen that the empire was not so strong and made a proposition, kind of like a takeover. You don’t seem to be doing so well in your stock or your finances, so we’re going to infuse some capital into you, i.e., our soldiers.

They also may have been hungry. Certainly, once they crossed the frontier, the Romans were rather inept in feeding them, in supplying them, and the Visigoths rebelled. Thus far, nothing incredibly new. What really was new was that the emperor came with an army to suppress them. And rather to his surprise and everybody else’s, the emperor Valens was defeated at the battle of Adrianopole. Defeated by the barbarians. Yeah.

Student: So, being involved in this federati, what did they get from the Roman Empire? Did they agree to fight for them and then they’d get land?

Professor Paul Freedman: They agreed to fight for them and they got a combination of land, or supposed to get land or territory, and some kind of maintenance in kind and or money. The question was about what the Visigoths, as federati, got out of this deal. Or were supposed to get.

The defeat at Valens was not immediately cataclysmic, because, even though he was killed at this battle, even though it sent shock waves throughout the empire, in fact, it would not be this area that succumbed to the barbarians– the East. Romania, or the Balkans would be part of the Eastern Empire. And indeed, both Adrianople the city, and Constantinople, the even greater city, would withstand Visigothic attempts to take them.

 In 382, the Visigoths were officially recognized, and they were allowed to settle in the Balkans as federati. And, in fact, they were reasonably useful troops to the Roman Empire in the 380s and 390s. What this does show, however, is the barbarization of the army. And another aspect of that is that the army tended to be commanded now more and more by barbarian generals.

These barbarian generals, at the top, bore the title magister militum – master of the soldiers. So I’m using the term “general” as an anachronistic one, since that’s what we’re familiar with. These magistri were powerful leaders, charismatic leaders, of German or other tribal groups, who then ruled in the name of, or behind the throne of the emperor. They couldn’t be emperors themselves, at least in these years, it was impossible to envisage a barbarian emperor. But they held more power than the emperors.

Two of these generals, war leaders, magistri, Stilicho and Alaric. Stilicho was a Vandal. Alaric was a Visigoth. Alaric wanted territory, food, treasure from Rome. The Visigoths were moving from the Balkans into Greece, eventually into Italy. Stilicho played a kind of game with Alaric, trying to keep him in check in the name of the Western emperor, but also negotiating with him. The emperors moved from Milan in the north to Ravenna, a little bit to the east. Ravenna, then, was in the marshes and impossible for a barbarian army to take. This is the last capital of the Western Roman Empire. Kind of romantic and mysterious, but strange as a place to end up.

These are the Visigoths then, who are on the move in the 390s and the 400s. Eventually, Stilicho would be executed by the Roman emperor of the West, and Alaric would invade and plunder Rome in 410. It was the Visigoths who engineered the so-called Sack of Rome that so shocked Augustine and his contemporaries.

Where, you might be asking in all of this, was the Roman army? Alaric was wandering around the Balkans and Italy for two decades before he sacked Rome. The army, which had consumed so much of the resources of the Roman Empire, is curiously absent in the history of the fifth century. This is not the Eastern Front in World War II. This is something altogether different: the collapse of an empire that expended huge amounts of treasure on its army. Its army seems to be invisible and supports, to some extent – or that fact supports to some extent, the argument that the Roman Empire collapsed of its own internal disorders, since we don’t see it losing pitched battles to outside barbarians.

Or maybe the army doesn’t disappear, it becomes indistinguishable from the invaders. The army is the invaders. Creepier.

Chapter 4: Another Kind of Barbarian: The Huns [00:28:00]

Now within this, there are some real barbarians– the Huns. The Huns are kind of nomadic. OK, they didn’t actually cook their meat by holding it between their thigh and the horse hide, and the sweat and heat of the horse heated up the meat. This is a widespread myth of nomadic peoples. The Chinese say this about the Mongols, the Romans about Huns. But they were pretty mean.

They were interested in the Roman Empire mostly for plunder. And they didn’t care if that destroyed the economic base, because they weren’t thinking in such terms. And indeed, they may have frightened the rather nice German tribes that stood between them and the Roman Empire.

In the 450s the Huns were united under the leadership of Attila. And Attila certainly threatened the Eastern Empire first, but the Eastern emperor defeated the Huns, discontinued tribute to them, and in a pattern that we’ll see repeated again and again, the Huns decided that Constantinople was too tough. That the Eastern Empire as a whole, access to which was more or less controlled by Constantinople, was too well-guarded.

And they turned to the west instead. Not as rich maybe, but much easier pickings. They show up in Gaul in 450. They were defeated by an army of Visigoths allied with Romans. They then went to Italy. They went into the heart of the Empire, sacked cities in the northeast of Italy, and there’s no army. The emperor is holed up in Ravenna. basically shuts the door, gets under the bed, and waits for it to go away.

The one power of Italy willing to try to deal with Attila is the Bishop of Rome, whom we haven’t heard of yet, but we’re going to be hearing about him a lot. And indeed, in the course that follows this, even more. The Bishop of Rome – the pope. Pope Leo I, along with two senators from the Roman senate, goes up to northern Italy to remonstrate with Attila, to visit the leader of this barbarian tribe in 453 to try to get him to stop plundering Italy.

Whether they were successful or not doesn’t much matter, because Attila died shortly thereafter of a brain hemorrhage. And with his charismatic leadership, the Huns came to an end as a military force. That is, with the end of his leadership, the Huns no longer had as imposing a military force and quickly disintegrated.

What’s significant is that it’s the pope who is taking over what we would think of as the Roman imperial responsibilities. And this will be a pattern, not only in the assertion of papal power, but in the way in which the Church starts to take over many of the roles abandoned by the empire.

After this, the barbarian generals, in effect, take charge. The Huns are defeated, but the other groups now pour into the empire. The Vandals have taken over North Africa by this time, by 430, cutting off the grain supply to Rome. They are unusual among the barbarian groups in that they have a navy. They know how to use boats, and indeed, they plunder the city of Rome in 455 in a sack that might have been worse than that of 410.

By 470, the Visigoths control southern Gaul, what’s now southern France; a group called the Suevi are in Spain; the Vandals in North Africa; a group called the Ostrogoths in what’s now Hungary; the Angles and the Saxons in Britain. All that effectively remained of the Western empire when Odovacer overthrew Romulus Augustulus was Italy. And in 476, that’s it.

A little coda, however. In 493, the Eastern emperor in Constantinople convinced the Ostrogoths to get out of Hungary, stop threatening the Eastern Empire, and take Italy from Odovacer. Once again, the Eastern Empire is capable of deflecting barbarians into the west, because they’re too strong. So in 493, our friend Odovacer was overthrown by the Ostrogoths and their leader Theoderic.

Chapter 5: Accomodation [00:33:54]

So what’s the impact of all of this? On the ground, if you were looking around in 480s, 490s, you would see a kind of accommodation. The Roman elite accommodated themselves to, compromised with, negotiated with, their new rulers. So, for example, a member of a very wealthy Roman family, a man named Sidonius Apollinaris in southern France, was a bishop and a great landowner. And we have a lot of letters of his that tell us about his negotiations with the Visigothic king Euric. He found the Visigoths uncouth, hard to deal with, not knowledgeable of the Latin classics, but not very frightening, either. Not particularly formidable.

So accommodation, improvisation. We have a saint’s life that is a biography of a saint, a man named– I’m sorry that I’m writing on the board so much today. Usually, as you know, I’m a little more in control. But these are great names. And some of them are good cats names or dog names, too. Severinus of Noricum. You know, “Stop scratching the furniture, Severinus.” That kind of thing. Severinus of Noricum. A saint in what’s now, more or less, Austria. His life tells us that he learned of the end of the Roman Empire this way:

“At the time when the Roman Empire was still in existence, the soldiers of many towns were supported by public money to guard the frontier. When this arrangement ceased, the military formations were dissolved, and the frontier vanished. The garrison of Passau, which is still a town in modern Bavaria, the garrison of Passau, however, still held out. Some of the men had gone to Italy to fetch for their comrades their last payment.”

This resembles a corporation– somebody, actually, was telling me yesterday they worked for Eastern Airlines, a company that went out of business in 1990. And so sudden was the collapse of Eastern, even though it had been predicted, that she was a flight attendant and had to get on another airline in order to get home. She lived in New York; she was in Florida; Eastern ceased to exist. So these soldiers are in the same position. They want to get their last paycheck.

They were never heard from again. Nobody knew that they, in fact, were killed by barbarians on the way. “One day, when Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh. The river, he said, was now red with human blood. At that moment the news arrived that the soldiers had been washed ashore by the current.”

Interestingly enough, he doesn’t just stay in his cell and pray. He starts to organize this society. He is active, although some of it involves some miracles, in poor relief. He deals with the local barbarian king, the king of the Alamanni, remonstrates with him.

He helps in diverting Odovacer into Italy. Again, like Pope Leo, we have a member of the church, and in this case somebody that you would think was a recluse, indeed had been living like a recluse, nevertheless taking over the responsibilities for a population abandoned by its civilian government. That is then one of the forms of accommodation.

Chapter 6: Decline [00:38:55]

Another aspect of this era, however, is decline. The urban population declines. The society and economy experienced what Wickham euphemistically calls, “a radical material simplification”. The term he uses, I believe, on page 95 and 105. “Radical material simplification” means that your standard of living plummets.

Cruder ceramics. Instead of that nice, north African red slip ware, you’ve got mud that you baked at home. Fewer imports, no pepper. More homemade, crude building materials. Fewer luxury goods.

The Vandal control of North Africa meant the end of the Roman wheat supply. The countryside of Rome had not grown enough wheat to feed the city since 200 BC. So for 600 years, minimum, Rome was dependent on other sources of supply. Southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa. The moment the Vandals cut the supply, the city could no longer support its massive population, could not feed everybody. When you multiply this phenomenon, it’s not a surprise that the city’s decline in population, and that the society becomes more rural, more agricultural, more subsistent.

And here’s where I think Collins is naive to speak of merely a political decline. Without a government and military structure, trade could not take place on the scale it had before. And without that trade, cities could not survive. There is no denying a decline in culture, economy, and population. Let’s just look at Roman population figures, based on things like pork supply figures, public– well, I mean, nobody took a census in Rome. We don’t really know exactly how many people lived there at any given time.

But historians and archaeologists looking at things like food supply, public welfare payments, water delivery figures, for aqueducts, and the abandonment of houses and of building sites. Probably in 5 BC, the Roman population was 800,000. That would be a fairly conservative estimate. Maybe as much as a million, but definitely 800,000. 5 BC. Yeah?

Student: This is just the city of Rome?

Professor Paul Freedman: Just the city of Rome. Yes, just the city of Rome. At the time of Constantine, sort of where we begin the course, more or less, in the early fourth century, the population had declined probably to 600,000. After the sack of Rome in 419, probably 300,000 to 500,000. Obviously, these are very rough figures.

But after the sack of Rome, more than half of the population that had existed in 5 BC is gone. With the end of grain shipments from North Africa, we don’t really know immediately. We can estimate that by 590, there could not have been more than 150,000 people in Rome. This is after not only the Vandals, but after a catastrophic war in Italy launched by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who we’ll be talking about next week.

In 800, on Christmas Day, Charlemagne was crowned in Saint Peter’s in Rome as Roman Emperor by the pope, an act whose implications we will be exploring towards the end of the class. On that day, Rome must’ve had maximum, maximum, most optimistic estimate, 30,000 people. This does not necessarily mean that they were primitive, but they were living in the Coliseum, for example. People built houses in there. They used the walls of the Coliseum as a fort. There is a certain Planet of the Apes quality, in fact. Rome, still to this day, is filled with picturesque ruins, even though it is a city of two and a half, three million people.

As I said, people were not necessarily aware of this change. For example, lots of churches were built at this time, and some of them have mosaic pavements that have mottos about the grandeur of the Roman name, and the usual classical kind of mottos. But then again, people often aren’t aware of what’s happening to them. I mean, what if somebody in the future points to the fact that New Haven, in 1920, had far more people living in it than it does now? New Haven lost a third of its population between 1950 and 1980.

What if some future historian is scandalized at the fact that in order to get into Yale a hundred years ago you had to know Greek and Latin. If you look at what those gentlemen C students had to study, or were responsible for, in say, 1925, it’s extraordinary. It’s not very impressive in the sciences, but the decline of the humanities, if by decline we mean things like knowledge of classical literature, is stunning.

Somebody may decide in a few hundred years that the Dark Ages began in about 1950. And that those pathetic people in, say, 2011 impressed with their little technological toys, nonetheless didn’t know anything. Now I don’t actually believe that. There are some people who do. There’s a philosopher at Notre Dame named Alasdair MacIntyre who really believes that the Dark Ages began a long time ago, and we simply don’t know. We simply refuse to recognize this.

I was impressed by an obituary for a man named Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died at the age of 96 earlier this year. This is the last of the great British characters of the twentieth century. He not only was classically trained, wrote a lot about Greece, lived in Greece, he, in World World II, disguised himself as a Greek shepherd in Crete, engineered the capture of a German general, and the delivery of that general after three weeks of hiking through the mountains of Crete to a British destroyer. It’s in a movie called Ill Met By Moonlight, if you ever want to check this out. Not a great movie, but—

Patrick Leigh Fermor also wrote two books out of a projected three about walking from Holland to Constantinople or, Baghdad actually, I think, in the 1930s. But the obituary describes a conversation he had with this German general, whom he is trying to get across Crete. And the general at one point, over some fire in the wilderness, quotes a line from Horace, the Roman poet, that then Patrick Leigh Fermor finishes is for him, and indeed, quotes the next two stanzas.

Well, that world is over. That world is over. I don’t pretend to be part of that world, either. And that’s a world that would have existed in the time of Horace, or the years after Horace, who lives at the time of Augustus. This would have existed in 300 A D. It would have existed, at least, in a few monasteries in 800 AD. It would have flourished in the Britain of the eighteenth and nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

So again, I don’t think that civilization came to an end. What came to an end was a civilization, a certain kind of society. It has some heirs, however, like all dead entities. There are four heirs to the Roman Empire. One is the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, which calls itself the Roman Empire. It doesn’t call itself the Eastern, doesn’t call itself the Byzantine, it calls itself the Roman Empire, even though it does so in Greek.

The second heir are the barbarian kings. We’ll be talking about them on Wednesday. They are attempting to prop up the remnants of Roman culture, civilization, and material society.

The third heir in some ways, is Islam, which we meet in the seventh century, the century of its invention. And the fourth heir is the Church. Even though the Church grew up in opposition to the Roman Empire, it will preserve Latin, cities, learning, classical civilization. OK. So barbarians on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]