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By Eileen Power
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.
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1. ROME IN DECLINE
Every schoolboy knows that the Middle Ages arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire. The decline of Rome preceded and in some ways prepared the rise of the kingdoms and cultures which composed the medieval system. Yet in spite of the self-evident truth of this historical preposition we know little about life and thought in the watershed years when Europe was ceasing to be Roman but was not yet medieval. We do not know how it felt to watch the decline of Rome; we do not even know whether the men who watched it knew what they saw, though we can be quite certain that none of them foretold, indeed could have foreseen, the shape which the world was to take in later centuries.
Yet the tragic story, its main themes and protagonists were for all to see. No observer should have failed to notice that the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was no longer the Roman Empire of the great Antonine and Augustan age; that it had lost its hold over its territories and its economic cohesion and was menaced by the barbarians who were in the end to overwhelm it. The territory of the Roman Empire had at its height stretched from the lands bordering the North Sea to the lands on the northern fringes of the Sahara, and from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the central Asiatic Steppes; it comprised most of the regions of the former Hellenic, Iranian, and Phoenician empires, and it either ruled or kept in check great clusters of peoples and principalities beyond its Gallic and north African frontiers. From these farthest frontiers Rome of the fourth century had retreated and was still retreating.
Within its frontiers great currents of inter-regional commerce had in earlier centuries flowed along the routes which bound all the provinces of the Empire to Rome and most of the provinces to each other. But from the third century onwards the economic unity of the Empire was in dissolution, and by the fifth century most of the great currents of inter-regional trade had ceased to flow, and provinces and districts had been thrown upon themselves and their own resources. And with the wealth of the provinces reduced, their commerce restricted, the great provincial cities also declined in population, wealth, political power.
Yet to its very last days the Empire endeavbured to defend its frontiers against the converging barbarians. Not only did the Barbarian Conquests, like all conquests, threaten destruction and ruin, but the way of life the barbarians stood for was the very denial of what Roman civilization had been, though alas, was gradually ceasing to be.
However, it was not in material things, that the contemporaries found, or should have found the sharpest conflict between Rome and the barbarian prospects before it. Above all Roman civilization was a civilization of the mind. It had behind it a long tradition of thought and of intellectual achievement, the legacy of Greece, to which it had in turn made its own contribution. The Roman world was a world of schools and universities, writers, and builders. The barbarian world was a world in which mind was in its infancy and its infancy was long. The battle sagas of the race, which have all but disappeared or have survived only as legends worked up in a later age; the few rude laws which were needed to regulate personal relationships, this was hardly civilization in the Roman sense. King Chilperic, trying to make verses in the style of Sedulius, though he could not distinguish between a long foot and a short and they all hobbled; Charlemagne himself, going to bed with his slate under his pillow in order to practice in the watches of the night that art of writing which he never mastered; what have they in common with Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius and that great Julian called the Apostate? They sum up in their very persons the whole wide gulf that yawned between Germany and Rome.
Rome and the barbarians were thus not only protagonists but two different attitudes to life, civilization and barbarism. We cannot here discuss in detail the question as to why, in the clash between the two, it was civilization which perished and barbarism which prevailed. But it is important to remember that while the Empire tried to defend its frontiers against the barbarian hosts, it gradually opened them to barbarian settlers.
This peaceful infiltration of barbarians which altered the whole character of the society which it invaded would have been impossible, of course, if that society had not been stricken by disease. The disease is plain enough to see by the third century. It shows itself in those internecine civil wars in which civilization rends itself, province against province and army against army. It shows itself in the great inflationary crisis from about 268 and in the taxation which gradually crushed out the smaller bourgeoisie while the fortunes of the rich escaped its net. It shows itself in the gradual sinking back of an economy based upon free exchange into more and more primitive conditions when every province seeks to be self-sufficient and barter takes the place of trade. It shows itself in the decline of farming and in the workless city population kept quiet by their dole of bread and their circuses, whose life contrasted so dramatically, so terribly with that of the haughty senatorial families and the great landowners in their palatial villas and town houses. It shows itself in the rise of mystical faiths on the ruins of philosophy, and of superstition (more especially astrology) on the ruins of reason. One religion in particular grew mighty, by clasping its sacred book and addressing itself with words of hope to the victims of social injustice, but although it was able to bring comfort to individuals it could do nothing, indeed it did not try, to give new strength or inspiration to the embattled civilization. True to its own ethos it was impartial as between Barbarian and Roman, or between the Romans who prospered and ruled and those outside the pale.
The most obvious manifestation of Roman society in decline was the dwindling numbers of Roman citizens. The Empire was being depopulated long before the end of the period of peace and prosperity which stretched from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Does not Augustus himself summon the poor man of Fiesole who has a family of eight children, thirty-six grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren, and organize in his honour a fete in the Capitol, accompanied by a great deal of publicity? Does not Tacitus, half-anthropologist and half-Rousseau, describing the noble savage with his eye on fellow citizens, remark that among the Germans it is accounted a shameful thing to limit the number of your children? The long duration of Augustus's legislation to raise the birthrate is significant; successful it was not, but the fact that it was maintained on the statute book and systematically revised and developed for three centuries shows that it was at least accounted necessary. It is true of course that the mortality rate was a far more important factor in those days than it is in our own, and the mortality from pestilence and civil war from Marcus Aurelius onwards was exceptional. And it is plain that the proportion of celibates was high in the Roman empire and that the fall in the fertility of marriages was going on. It is the childless marriage, the small family system that contemporary writers deplore. In Seeley's striking phrase: 'The human harvest was bad.' It was bad in all classes, but the decline was most marked in the upper ranks, the most educated, the most civilized, the potential leaders of the race. In the terrible words of Swift, facing his own madness, the Roman Empire might have cried: 'I shall die like a tree — from the top downwards.'
Why (the insistent question forces itself) did this civilization lose the power to reproduce itself? Was it, as Polybius said, because people preferred amusements to children or wished to bring their children up in comfort? Hardly, for it is more marked among the rich than the poor and the rich can have the best of both worlds. Was it because people had grown discouraged and disheartened, no longer believing in their own civilization and loath to bring children into the darkness and disaster of their war-shattered world? We do not know. But we can see the connection of the falling population with the other evils of the empire — the heavy cost of administration relatively heavier when the density of the population is low; the empty fields, the dwindling legions which did not suffice to guard the frontier.
To cure this sickness of population the Roman rulers knew no other way than to dose it with barbarian vigour. Just a small injection to begin with and then more and more till in the end the blood that flowed in its veins was not Roman but barbarian. In came the Germans to settle the frontier, to till the fields, to enlist first in the auxiliaries and then in the legions, to fill the great offices of state. The army is barbarized, and a modern writer, Mr Moss, has quoted most effectively the complaint of the Egyptian mother clamouring to get back her son who (as she says) has gone off with the barbarians — he means that he has enlisted in the Roman legions. The legions are barbarized and they barbarize the Emperor. For them he is no longer the majestic embodiment of law, he is their leader, their Führer, and they raise him on their shields. And side by side with the barbarization of the army goes the barbarization of civil manners too. In 397 Honorius has to pass an edict forbidding the wearing of German fashions within the precincts of Rome. And in the end, half barbarian themselves, they have only barbarians to defend them against barbarism.
Such was the general picture of the great ruin of civilization amidst which the Romans of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries lived. What then did it feel like to live at a time when civilization was going down before the forces of barbarism? Did people realize what was happening? Did the gloom of the Dark Ages cast its shadow before? It so happens that we can answer these questions very clearly if we fix our eyes on one particular part of the Empire, the famous and highly civilized province of Gaul. We can catch the decline at three points because in three consecutive centuries, Gallo-Roman writers have left us a picture of their life and times. In the fourth century we have Ausonius, in the fifth Sidonius Apollinarius, in the sixth Gregory of Tours and Fortunatus, a stranger from Italy, who made his home in Poitiers. They show us Auvergne and the Bordelais in the evening light. The fourth, the fifth, and the sixth centuries — going, going, gone!
Going! This is the world of Ausonius, south-western France in the latter half of the fourth century,'an Indian summer between ages of storm and wreckage'. Ausonius himself is a scholar and a gentleman, the friend alike of the pagan Symmachus and of St Paulinus of Nela. He is for thirty years professor of rhetoric in the university of Bordeaux, for some time tutor to a prince, praetorian prefect of Gaul, consul, and in his last years just an old man contentedly living on his estates. His most famous poem is a description of the Moselle, which for all its literary affectations evokes most magically the smiling countryside which was the background of his life. High above the river on either bank stand the villas and country houses, with their courts and lawns and pillared porticos, and the hot baths from which, if you will, you can plunge into the stream. The sunny hillside is covered with vines, and from slope to hill-top the husbandmen call to each other and the wayfarer on the towpath or the bargemen floating by, shout their rude jests to the loitering vine-dressers. Far out in midstream the fisherman trails his dripping net and on a rock by the shore the angler plies his rod. And, as twilight falls, the deepening shadow of the green hillside is reflected in the water and gazing downward the boatman can almost count the trembling vines and almost see the swelling of the grapes.
Equally peaceful, equally pleasant is life on Ausonius' own estate in the Bordelais, his little patrimony (he calls it) although he had a thousand acres of vineyard and tillage and wood. Miss Waddell has reminded us, on the authority of Saintsbury (whom else?) that 'to this day it boasts itself as Château-Ausone, one of the two best of the St Emilion clarets.' Here he tends his roses and sends his boy round to the neighbours to bid them to luncheon, while he interviews the cook. Six, including the host, is the right number — if more it is not a meal but a melée. Then there are all his relatives to be commemorated in verse, his grandfather and his grandmother and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts (especially his aunts).
And when the family circle palls there is the senior common room to fall back upon and the professors of Bordeaux to be celebrated in their turn. Professors were important people in the empire of the fourth century; Symmachus says that it is the mark of a flourishing state that good salaries should be paid to professors; though what exactly we are to deduce from that in the light of history I should hesitate to say. So Ausonius writes a collection of poems about the professors of Bordeaux. There are thirty-two of them and all are celebrated. There is Minervius the orator, who had a prodigious memory and after a game of backgammon was wont to conduct a post-mortem over every move. There is Anastasius the grammarian, who was so foolish as to leave Bordeaux for a provincial university and thenceforth languished in well-merited obscurity. There is Attius Tiro Delphidius, who retired from a legal career into the professorial chair, but could never be got to take any trouble with his men, to the disappointment of their parents. There is Jocundus the grammarian, who did not really deserve his title, but was such a kind man that we will commemorate him among men of worth, although he was, strictly speaking, unequal to the job. There is Exuperius, who was very good-looking and whose eloquence sounded superb until you examined it and found that it meant nothing. There is Dynamius, who slipped from the paths of virtue with a married lady in Bordeaux and left the place rather hastily, but fortunately fell on his feet in Spain. There is Victorius the usher, who liked only the most abstruse historical problems, such as what the pedigree of the sacrificial priest at Cureo was long before Numa's day, or what Castor had to say on all the shadowy kings, and who never got up as far as Tully or Virgil, though he might have done so if he had gone on reading long enough, but death cut him off too soon. They seem oddly familiar figures (except of course, Dynamius) and their chronicler contrives to make them live.
Such is the world depicted for us by Ausonius. But while this pleasant country house and senior common room life was going calmly on, what do we find happening in the history books? Ausonius was a man of nearly fifty when the Germans swarmed across the Rhine in 357, pillaging forty-five flourishing cities, and pitching their camps on the banks of the Moselle. He had seen the great Julian take up arms ('O Plato, Plato, what a task for a philosopher') and in a series of brilliant campaigns drive them out again. Ten years later when he was tutor to Gratian he had himself accompanied the emperor Valentinian on another campaign against the same foes. While he was preening himself on his consulship ten years later still, he must have heard of the disastrous battle of Adrianople in the east, when the Goths defeated a Roman army and slew an emperor. He died in 395 and within twelve years of his death the host of Germans had burst across the Rhine, 'all Gaul was a smoking funeral pyre', and the Goths were at the gates of Rome. And what have Ausonius and his correspondents to say about this? Not a word. Ausonius and Symmachus and their set ignore the barbarians as completely as the novels of Jane Austen ignore the Napoleonic wars.
Excerpted from Medieval People by Eileen Power. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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