ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fifth Century

Section 6: The Impact of the Fifth-century Crisis

Steven Muhlberger

How did those who lived through the fifth-century crisis of the Roman system feel about their experience? There must have been many different opinions, for there most certainly were many different experiences. The few reactions that have been preserved for us show an interesting variety.

The pagan historians of the period laid the blame for recent disasters squarely on the shoulders of the Christian successors of Constantine. Their incompetence and folly were exposed, the chief folly being the abandonment of rites and gods that had long protected the Roman people. Olympiodorus reported one pagan explanation for the entry of the Goths into the empire. Sometime in the fourth century, the governor of Thrace had found, buried, three solid silver statues of bound barbarians. Although the locals said they were sacred treasures, consecrated according to an ancient rite, the governor, with imperial approval, had the statues removed. "As soon as the statues were removed, a few days later the whole Gothic nation poured over Thrace and shortly afterwards the Huns and the Sarmatians were to invade Illyricum and Thrace also." More important to the pagan case than this legendary occurrence was the undoubted Gothic sack of Rome in 410. Rome under its old gods had gone for eight centuries untaken by foreign enemies. It was only under the new religion that Rome had become vulnerable.

There was no single Christian analysis of Roman defeats. In the debate about the sack of Rome, one Christian refugee from the barbarians, Orosius, argued that current troubles were not nearly so bad as the slaughters of ancient times -- including those inflicted by the Romans on others. This opinion was not well received. When Augustine, Orosius's teacher, later discussed the same situation in his book The City of God, he was more subtle, and perhaps more honest. Augustine forthrightly stated that for the true Christian earthly happiness was beside the point. This world was a place of pilgrimage, where one struggled against sin and for a heavenly reward. Earthly empires had their place in God's schemes, but their rise and fall was not something that Christians should get overly exercised about.

A pessimistic strain developed in Christian thought as the century went on -- if only because more and more Christians were exposed to dispiriting hardships. Those who witnessed cities plundered, their neighbors enslaved, the triumph of men of blood and of heretic kings were in some cases driven to draw drastic conclusions. The Galician bishop Hydatius had by his old age seen the empire and church attacked by so many traitors and heretics that he became convinced that all these disasters were part of the cosmic struggle that scripture said would precede the end of the world. He believed, in fact, that he had divined the very date from the sacred page. In Greek Christian circles, a different chronological scheme led others to similar conclusions, which gained credence with each new set of troubles.

Yet the world did not end, and even those who had suffered greatly did not necessarily take the apocalyptic view. Other Christians took a more serene view. They believed that they were taking part in a spiritual battle for souls, under the leadership of a general whose ultimate victory was guaranteed. Leo of Rome thought of himself as chief bishop of a Christian empire, was both politically aware and involved, and was hardly indifferent to the survival of the empire. Yet Leo told his flock that the chief threats to their well-being were their spiritual enemies:

If we can conquer them by God's grace, enabling us to correct our ways, the strength of our bodily enemies also will give ways before us, and by our self-amendment we shall weaken those who were rendered formidable to us, not by their own merits, but by our shortcomings.

Indeed, said Leo, their time was one of progress. The devil was raging fiercer against Christians because he was losing his grip on the world, because thousands of thousands were being reborn and breaking away from him. This may seem a very partial view, of no use to someone threatened by real, physical violence; but we must not be too quick to dismiss it. It is worth reflecting on the case of Prosper, an associate of Leo and disciple of Augustine. Although -- or because -- he had witnessed in his youth the devastation of his native Gaul he had devoted his life to spiritual struggle. In his old age, despite his recent experience of the Vandal sack of Rome, Prosper could write:

All conflicts of opposed interests and all the causes of confusing events which we are not able to search into and explain, are simultaneously known and clear to God's eternal knowledge...the very armies that exhaust the world help on the work of Christian grace...nothing can prevent God's grace from accomplishing His will.

Despite the importance of such views, both at the time and in the long run, they are hardly the whole story. If some people turned to God and the church, others concluded that God did not, in fact, rule the world. Such thoughts must have been common in a century when vast numbers of people driven from their homes. Those who had lost any possibility of leading a settled, peaceful life, often embraced war -- at first, perhaps, for lack of an alternative, but eventually with enthusiasm. The historian Priscus, a Constantinopolitan diplomat who visited Attila's great camp in 449, has preserved the life history of one such displaced person, whom the historian met while he waited outside the tent of Onegesius, a leading Hun:

He said that he was a Greek and for purposes of trade had gone to Viminacium, the city in Moesia on the river Danube. He had lived there for a very long time and married a very rich woman. When the city was captured by the barbarians, he was deprived of his prosperity and, because of his great wealth, was assigned to Onegesius in the division of the spoils; ...having proved his valor in later battles against the Romans and the nation of the Akatiri and having according to Hunnic law given his booty to his master, he had won his freedom. He had married a barbarian wife and had children, and, as a sharer at the table of Onegesius, he now enjoyed a better life than he had previously.

The same man went on to praise the Hunnic way of life at the expense the Roman one. In the empire, citizens -- who were forbidden to keep weapons -- were at the mercy of the tax collectors, the unjust rich, and the foreign enemies whom cowardly generals were unable to defeat. The Huns, because they bore arms, knew how to protect themselves. "After a war men among the Huns live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all."

Priscus recorded these words because he still believed that the best guarantee of order and justice was Roman rule, and wished to defend the imperial idea -- which he did in a long passage. Priscus knew, however, that imperial failures were throwing the empire into contempt. The figures who dominated his time were the brilliant and bloody warlords -- and the saints who might mollify or repulse them by means of their supernatural connections. It is their names, of saints such as Ambrose and Martin, of warlords like Attila, and not those of the emperors, that are remembered today.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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