The Barbarians’ Raw Deal
For the past 1,500 years the assortment of Germanic, Slavic and Asian tribes known collectively as the barbarians have gotten a raw deal. Blamed largely for initiating the collapse of the Roman Empire, extinguishing the lamp of learning and precipitating the Dark Ages, they have been unable to defend themselves in a court of inquiry. Here is one case where the victors did not write the history (perhaps because most of them couldn’t write). But while the barbarians (literally “babbler” or one who does not speak Greek) did wreak a great deal of havoc, an impartial look at the facts will show that their role in abolishing Greco-Roman culture was almost nil.
In fact, most barbarian kings and warlords greatly admired Greco-Roman culture-when it did not conflict with the tenants of their Christian faith. Take the Roman general and first Germanic king of Italy Odoacer (CE 435-493). During his rule, Odoacer retained Roman law, administration, even the Roman Senate, and, though an Arian, tolerated orthodox Christianity. Then there was the greatest of barbarian kings, Theoderick the Ostrogoth, whose armies defeated Odoacer. Hardly a textbook Goth, Theoderick was raised at court in Constantinople. His father, a political and military ally of a Byzantine emperor, handed over his son as a hostage, a standard practice for the time. Theoderick was known to tell his fellow tribesmen that “an able Goth wants to be like a Roman.” Despite conquering much of the Italian peninsula, most barbarian rulers wisely recognized the Eastern Emperor as their sovereign. And in order to facilitate their assimilation into Roman society, Goth and Vandal kings often married the daughters of Roman or Greek Emperors and nobles. Destruction was seldom on their minds and Rome, though sacked repeatedly, was never destroyed by barbarians.
By time of the first invasions, the barbarians were well established in the Western Empire, not only in the Roman military, but in the upper echelons of imperial Rome. The first large-scale invaders, the Visigoths, were commanded by the well-born Alaric I, leader of Rome’s foederati (or Germanic irregular troops). For reasons both economic and political, Rome preferred to leave the defense of the empire to Gothic generals, who were banned from imperial rule, and thus less likely to follow in the footsteps of Julius Caesar. In return for their service Gothic tribes were billeted on Roman lands. When Alaric’s Visigoths attacked the Empire it was because his army was tired of being subjegated, disrespected, and poorly rewarded by a weakened and chaotic Roman Empire.
When Alaric sacked Rome in the early 5th century, the Western Empire was effectively ruled by a semi-barbarian, the Roman General Stilicho. The German-born son of a Vandal father and Roman mother, Stilicho was both military commander and guardian of the young emperor Honorius. Arguably the greatest of Roman generals, Stilicho was Rome’s bulwark, frequently defeating greater Visigoth, Ostrogoths, Alan, Sueve and Vandal armies. Then the emperor, fearful that Stilicho was becoming too ambitious, had him beheaded. Within two years, the Visigoths sacked Rome.
Forty-five years later it was the Vandals’ turn, this time upon the invitation of the Empress Eudoxia. They, in turn, were followed by the Ostrogoths, who were induced to invade by the Eastern Emperor Zeno, before they themselves were crushed by an army from the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in 553. Then came the Lombards, who were ultimately defeated by the last and greatest of barbarian tribes, the Franks.
More important were the characteristics these tribes held in common. Foremost was their Christianity. The Vandals, for instance, believed they were waging a holy war in North Africa against the heretic Augustine of Hippo and his orthodox Christian followers. It took the most influential of the Germanic tribes-the Franks-to note that unorthodox Christian tribes would never be left unmolested, and thus wisely converted to Roman Catholicism. The Franks were also responsible for the Carolingian Renaissance (in the late eighth and ninth centuries), yet another attempt to recreate the late culture of the Roman Empire by standardizing Medieval Latin and establishing schools. Though, of course, without its traditional pagan – i.e., cultural – aspects.
Indeed much of what we have come to regard as the savagery of the barbarians was a consequence of their Christianity and their attempts to stamp out the orthodox heresy and paganism. After the Visigoth leader Alaric took Athens, he proceded to crush the last remnants of the pagan cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis, which was heretical to his Arian Christian beliefs. Augustine, in CE 430, encouraged his fellow Romans to resist the siege of Hippo primarily because the Vandals were Arian Christians, and not because they were barbarian hordes. And indeed orthodox Christians fared badly under Arian rule. Bishops were exiled or killed, while laymen were excluded from office and frequently suffered confiscation of their property. The Vandals tried for several decades to force their beliefs on their North African subjects, exiling clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Christians. The Vandal king Geiseric demanded all his close advisors follow the Arian form of Christianity and banned conversion for Vandals. It was, in other words, internecine warfare.
A case could be made that the Roman Empire was doomed long before the birth of Christ, or before Caesar even thought about crossing the Rubicon. One might trace the beginning of the end to the defeat of Xiongnu tribes by the Han Chinese at the Battle of Ikh Bayan, some 50 years earlier, which precipitated the Xiongnu’s (or Huns’) westward migration.
Yet Greco-Roman culture might have survived and prospered regardless of the Western Empire’s fate. After all, Greek culture survived near constant warfare, from the Greco-Persian wars (the Persians sacked Athens twice) to the Peloponnesian War and, later, the conquest by the Macedonians. If barbarism were to blame for the near-extinction of Greco-Roman culture, how does one explain the fact that important cultural areas were relatively untouched by barbarian hordes, including Constantinople, Alexandria, indeed most of the Eastern Roman Empire? The Empire continued to produce important pagan thinkers and scientists to the end. In the second, third and fourth centuries CE, thinkers such as Plutarch, Galen, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Proclus and Hypatia flourished, though by the fifth century few thinkers of any importance remained. The tide had turned in Christianity’s favor.
Nothing is more illustrative of Church’s attempted suppression of Greco-Roman culture than the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria. In CE 415 the young Greek philosopher and mathematician was accused of stirring up religious turmoil, and was flayed alive and burned by a Coptic Christian mob, likely monks. As if to put too fine a point on it the murder was carried out in a church. By the early sixth century Boethius (c.480-c.525 CE), considered the last Roman philosopher, saw the writing on the wall and tried to salvage something of Greco-Roman culture by translating much of Aristotle into Latin (since the Greek language was fast disappearing from the West). But Christianity too undid him. The latter’s orthodox Christianity was suspected by the Arian Christian King Theodoric, who had his old mentor executed for allegedly conspiring with orthodox Byzantine Emperor Justin I.
The eradication of Greco-Roman culture remained the top priority for the early Church, a sentiment captured perfectly some one thousand years later in Renaissance painter Tommaso Laureti’s Triumph of Christianity, which shows a crucifix placed on a pedestal and a toppled Greek or Roman statue broken into a dozen pieces. With the exception of Plato’s Timaeus, philosophy was considered subversive of Christian belief. The highly influential Tertullian rejected all philosophy as anti-Christian and heretical. True, one or two works of Plato were tolerated, but “heretical Aristotle” was taboo. Even so-called moderates, like Clement of Alexandria, considered philosophy a preparation for paving the way for Christ, though one no longer necessary. Then there was the eternal warfare between science and religion, with the former considered futile, and a greater threat to faith than philosophy. Augustine set the anti-skeptic tone of the early Church when he wrote: “When it is asked what we ought to believe in matters of religion, the answer is not to be sought in the exploration of the nature of things, after the nature of those whom the Greeks called ‘physicists.’…For the Christian, it is enough to believe that the cause of all things, whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the Creator.” Meanwhile Augustine’s colleagues Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom considered Jews and pagans enemies of the church, and with their tacit approval Jewish pogroms begin in earnest in CE 415, causing many scholars to flee to Babylon with its large Jewish population.
If Greeks, Romans or Jews who stubbornly refused to accept orthodox Christianity were in for a hard time, it was equally bad for churchmen who dabbled in Aristotelian science. Those who did, like Bishop Diodor of Tarsus, couldn’t help but develop unorthodox views (i.e., an earth without beginning, the soul not surviving the death of the body) and were soon condemned as heretics.
High culture fared no better in the Eastern Empire, particularly in Alexandria. In the fourth and fifth centuries it was principally Christian mobs that razed Greek temples and libraries and the artwork within. The famed Sarapeum library founded by Cleopatra met a similar fate. Indeed the destruction of the Sarapeum was seen as representative of Christianity’s triumph over Greco-Roman religion and culture. In his attempt to eradicate “profane” learning, Justinian I closed the Platonic Academy in CE 529; what education remained available was soon taken over by the Church and would remain under its thumb until power-struggles between the papacy and French monarchs drove the latter to found their own universities in the late Middle Ages.
As the Empire crumbled, faith, not reason gained momentum. Countless classical works, including manuscripts by Aristotle and Plato, were lost forever, probably destroyed on the orders of bishops and emperors. Richard Rubenstein, author of Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages, characterizes the resultant Dark Ages as “half a millennium of endemic violence, poverty, and disorder.” It was, he writes, “little wonder that, during this seemingly endless winter, those seeking comfort and meaning would turn to the certitudes of faith rather than the conundrums of philosophy.”
Scholars have suggested that in addition to providing comfort and meaning to the huddled masses, Dark Age Christianity was responsible for civilizing the barbaric hordes, for keeping the lamp of learning lit (albeit dimly), and for bringing order and civilization to Western Europe once the empire ceased to exist. “I do not agree with [Gibbon] that intellectual thought in the early Christian centuries was dead and I believe that the well established hierarchy of the church strengthened not undermined the empire,” writes historian Charles Freeman. “After all it was the church which survived the collapse of the western empire.” Gibbon expressed a similar sentiment in chapter 39 of Decline and Fall: “If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” But what Gibbon and Freeman are forgetting is that the ferocious conquerors – with the exception of the Lombards – were already Christians when they sacked Rome, Hippo, Carthage, etc. What little learning Christianity brought to the barbarians was based on pagan Roman culture (The early church fathers, like Augustine, were raised in a rich Roman culture). Once the Orthodox Church established its dominion over what would become the Holy Roman Empire, it did create an atmosphere of servility and passive obedience, but this sort of tyranny is a far cry from fostering an environment of scientific, philosophical and artistic pursuit. The fact the Dark Ages persisted so long is a testament to the absence of that ancient culture and civilization.
Despite the Church’s best efforts, reason and science did not to completely perish from the West. As Rubenstein documents, soon after Boethius’ execution, his colleague Cassiadorus collected the philosopher’s translations and other manuscripts and asked the Pope to use them as the foundation for a university in Rome. The pope, naturally, hemmed and hawed until Cassiadorus, weary of waiting, removed the manuscripts to Vivarium where he founded an abbey that included a monks’ library. There the works were copied (sometimes by illiterate monks) and shared with monasteries across Europe, finally ending up, some six centuries later, in the hands of men like Peter Abelard, Roger Bacon and Siger de Brabant who would revive classical learning.
We can hold the barbarians responsible for defeating the Roman legions and conquering nearly all Roman territory, but they were not responsible for nearly eradicating Greco-Roman culture. Only the Church hierarchy was organized enough and powerful enough to do that.
Christopher Orlet is a columnist, essayist and book critic based in St. Louis, MO.