Help for the History Impaired: The Holy Roman Empire

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The Wright Perspective - The Holy Roman Empire

Most people possess a passing knowledge of history, based more on the costuming departments of motion pictures than on book learning.

Someone dressed in a leopard skin and carrying a club is a caveman, the days when Raquel Welch and Victor Mature fought dinosaurs; someone in a pschent is a Pharaoh, when the Egyptians made Hebrew slaves built pyramids, until Charlton Heston freed them; someone in a toga is a Greek or Roman, and they either fought at Thermopylae with the ‘This is Sparta!’ guy, or fought in the Gladiatorial arena against Russell Crowe; pointy shoes or pointy hats make him from the Middle Ages, when Merlin and King Arthur lived, either in a good musical starring Richard Harris or a lousy melodrama starring Richard Gere.

After that is the Renaissance, and Leonardo the Mutant Ninja Turtle invented the man-powered airplane; the Muslims invented all the sciences that the Church later suppressed and burned Galileo for inventing the telescope; then Columbus proved the world was round.

Next came the Three Musketeers period when people wore lace and tall boots, fought with swords and swung on chandeliers; then came the Pilgrims in hats with buckles on them, burning witches in crucibles in Salem; then the American Revolution, when the white man, in knee socks and tricorne hats, committed genocide on the red Indian, in feathers and buckskins; then came the Civil War starring Rhett Butler; the Old West in chaps and Stetsons; the Steampunk Era when women wore bustles and goggles. The Victorians were hypocrites and Leonardo DiCaprio sank the Titanic.

Next came World War One when the Snoopy fought the Red Baron. Next came World War Two when Nazis wore Star Wars uniforms, when Captain America and Wonder Woman defeated the menace of Hydra; then came the hell on earth known as the 1950s, when Christina Hendricks worked on Madison Avenue and had a 34H bra size.

Then came the fake moonshot, Woodstock, and in that same period Martin Luther King freed the slaves from the Republican Party. Back then people wore fedora hats and shot Kennedy. And then some Russian guy named Nureyev pulled down the Berlin Wall, and a madman named Reagan thought the Star Wars movie was real; George Bush was elected President and ordered the United States to knock over the Twin Towers from Tolkien, and then torture everyone in the world to death with watersurfing. Because steel cannot melt. Or something.

It was not always thus in this nation.

The Founding Fathers possesses a remarkable knowledge of history, and the authors of the Federalist Papers expected their audience to be somewhat literate in matters past as well. Indeed, reading the test papers of student from the turn of the Twentieth Century is an eye opening experience: high school students of those days routinely were expected to know material modern college graduates cannot answer.

This column is one in an ongoing series attempting to shed light into the wide vistas of history which modern education has left dark.

Today we discuss the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in two thousand words. The reader must expect some abbreviation and simplification of an absurdly complex matter.

In general, the average uninformed student believes the Roman Empire fell because Conan the Barbarian invaded and overthrew the Roman Empire due to Nero fiddling while having too many orgies.

In fact, Rome was Christian since the early Fourth Century, the time of Constantine onward.

The Christian Imperium is a whole bloc of history, routinely overlooked, as it does not fit nearly into the pro-Christian narrative depicting the Empire as a filthy cesspool of orgies collapsing due to moral decay, but neither does it fit easily into the anti-Christian narrative of those who regard the Church as the bulwark of obscurantism, and the robust barbarians of freedom-loving Germany as the cure.

During this period, it was the Church alone which slowed the degeneration, preserved the social order, and protected the ancient learning which eventually led to the revival of civilization after a period of contraction and decay rightly called the Dark Ages.

It was the Church, whose abbots and presbyters by and large were elected from within her flock by her flock, who spread such social mechanisms as the jury system, or the manumission of slaves, throughout society, and from which the charters and parliaments of the Middle Ages took their forms. These are not innovations brought from the frozen North by shaggy Vikings or Visigoths. These tribes were slave-owning; medieval and modern European notions of common law and civic rights did not come from them.

In any case, the Empire was Christian for centuries. How many centuries? Romulus Augustulus, generally regarded as the last Western Roman Emperor, is deposed by Odoacer his mercenary, in the late Fifth Century, and this involved only a change in titles, not in the form of government. It may have been the Fall of the Western Empire according to historians, but the average man living his daily life noticed no change in his way of life, other than the title of the Italian magistrate.

The Empire in the East lasts until 1453 AD, when Constantinople falls to the Turk; and in some reckonings, the Roman Empire lasts until 1835, when Francis II, the last monarch to carry the title of Holy Roman Emperor, abdicated and dissolved the title in the face of Napoleonic victories.

Moscow, after the fall of Constantinople, arrogated to herself to the appellation of ‘Third Rome.’ The Russian title Tsar and German title Kaiser, not abdicated until 1917 and 1918, are the very name of Caesar.

All throughout the Middle Ages, as a matter of practical fact, the local ‘Rex’ or warlord, a term we now translate as ‘King’ gathered taxes and enforced the ancient laws, rights, and privileges. The word ‘Rex’ originally meant the local man in in charge of the local legion, usually staffed with immigrant mercenaries, surrounded by his ‘Counts’ (a word that originally simply meant his companions) and by his ‘Barons’ (a word which originally meant his mighty men of valor).

Only later did these positions take on a hereditary character and become surrounded by religious and civic pomp and ceremony. It is worth noting that that the divine right of kings to rule is not a medieval conception: that theory comes from the Reformation, when kings were claiming to be sole and absolute rulers of all matters, civic and spiritual. No medieval nor Dark Ages king nor baron ever dreamed of making such a claim.

(Ironically, it is not until the American Revolution, and the establishment of the First Amendment, that the division between spiritual and temporal power so familiar to pre-Reformation Europe since the time of Constantine is resurrected.)

According to the somewhat airy legal theories of the time, the Rex held his legal grant of this authority from the Roman Emperor, who was the universal sovereign of the Universal Republic; and the divine blessing on his authority can from from the Universal Church, and anointing and coronation following the model of Samuel and David.

The so-called barbarians who sacked Rome were actually Roman soldiers in uniform, serving in the Roman military. They were barbarians who were using military service to earn citizenship: they had no desire to overthrow the Empire. They were in the act of joining it.

The city state had long ago been subsumed into the Roman Republic. The Republic itself, thanks to the endless feuding and civil wars, had broken the power of the Senate in the year shortly before the Birth of Christ, and the Roman Army became the sole organ of civilization, and its commander-in-chief, the Imperator or Emperor, become the sole magistrate in whom all powers rested, judicial, magisterial, and legislative.

The so-called barbarians were immigrants pure and simple, retaining some folk law and language, but, on the whole, speaking Latin and adopting Latin manners and baptized into the Christian religion.

What about the Sack of Rome? Well, it was sacked, but by Romans. Allow me to quote that most nonconformist of historians, Hilaire Belloc:

“Alaric was a young noble of Gothic blood, but from birth a Roman; at eighteen years of age he was put by the Court in command of a small Roman auxiliary force originally recruited from the Goths. He was as much a Roman officer, as incapable of thinking of himself in any other terms than those of the Roman Army, as any other one of his colleagues about the throne. He had his commission from the Emperor Theodosius, and when Theodosius marched into Gaul against the usurper Eugenius, he counted Alaric’s division as among the most faithful of his Army.”

Alaric’s quarrel with his superiors was not the robust and freedom loving barbarian popularized in Conan movies overthrowing a decayed civilization, but was an argument over honors and back pay. His first rebellion was because he wanted the title Magister Militum, with the dignity which accompanied that highest of military posts, and the Imperator, the Commander in Chief, refused it. The second was an argument over wages with Stilicho: he sacked Rome to strip the statues of their metals so that he could pay his soldiers what the Republic owed them.

The same is true for Clovis. He is a Fleming; he never fought the Imperial Army. His forebears were Roman officials: his little band was victorious in a small civil war which made him Master in the North over other rival generals. He defended the Empire against the Eastern barbaric German tribes. He rejoiced in the titles of Consul and Patrician.

Likewise, the Vandals, later, were already part of the Imperial system. There was no conquest by barbarians properly so called until the Huns under Attila.

All that happened was an internal corruption of Roman society, in which the functions of government fell to the heads of local auxiliary military officer, the local Rex and his Companions and Men. As these auxiliary forces were now barbaric immigrants, so the new local governors were rough and severe, and the niceties of life, including such infrastructures as coined money and maintenance of roads, rotted away.

Personal oaths of fealty to the local warlord replaced the civic duties to a now absent ecumenical commonwealth. The large manor house became fortified, and taxes were no longer collected from peasants, nor were plantation hands slaves. Instead, the poor worked the land of these fortified manor houses, now called baileys or dungeons, and paid their tithes with their crops, and serfdom was born. The Rex became the King, and his companions and strong men became the barons of his Parliament, and the feudal aristocracy was born. But for generations, these men continued to call themselves Romans, and go to Rome to earn the title and regalia of the Patrician.

What caused the corruption? Historians will debate the question without an answer until own civilization declines and falls.

One predominant theory, and a disquieting one, is that a combination of capitation and other outrageous taxes, intrusive regulations and the beginnings of a caste system (some edicts in the late Empire provided that sons were required by law to enter the profession of their fathers) all conspired to erode the economy to nothing. The bones of society rotted to nothing.

All corporate bodies were outlawed by the jealousy and paranoia of the Imperial Court: even volunteer fire departments were abolished as breeding grounds of civil unrest. The factionalism of the Green and Blue racing fans in Byzantium also contributed to its share of riots and mutual hatreds, similar to the political and social factions developing here in America.

The Imperial government grew and overgrew into every element and aspect of life, so much so that, for those living in the southern and eastern themes of the Empire, submission to the Mohammedans might have actually been a relief.

Any parallel with the modern age and its discontents is not coincidence.

John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.

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