Written by Vladimir Moss



     St. Constantine’s transfer of his capital from Old Rome to the New Rome of Constantinople marked the beginning of the end of the Western Empire. For the old capital, weighed down by its pagan past, was in no position to defend and unify the newly Christianized empire, and would soon prove incapable of defending even herself. As for the new capital, in the words of St. Gregory the Theologian, it was to be “a bond of union between East and West to which the most distant extremes from all sides were to come together, and to which they look up as the common centre and emporium of their faith.”[1]

     Hoping in this way to make a fresh start for the Christian empire, St. Constantine implicity admitted that the old capital was irredeemeable. The symbolism of his act was clear: if the state, like the individual man, was to be redeemed and enjoy a long and spiritually fruitful life, it, too, had to make a complete break with the past, renounce the demonic sacrifices and pagan gods and philosophies that it had loved, and receive a new birth by water and the Spirit. (The fact that New Rome quickly filled up with the statues and monuments of paganism did not change the aim and the symbol.)[2]For Old Rome, in contrast to many of her individual citizens, had never been baptized. There was a pagan rottenness at the heart of the western empire that even its Christian head, the Emperor, was not able to cut out.[3] And so its doom was sealed.

      “As the Oxford historians Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins have argued, the final breakdown in the Western Roman Empire began in 406, when Germanic invaders poured across the Rhine into Gaul and then Italy. Rome itself was sacked by the Goths in 410. Co-opted by an enfeebled emperor, the Goths then fought the Vandals for control of Spain, but this merely shifted the problem south. Between 429 and 439, Genseric led the Vandals to victory after victory in North Africa, culminating in the fall of Carthage. Rome lost its southern Mediterranean bread-basket and, along with it, a huge source of tax revenue. Roman soldiers were just barely able to defeat Attila’s Huns as they swept west from the Balkans. By 452, the Western Roman Empire had lost all of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, and southwestern and southeastern Gaul. Not much was left besides Italy. Basiliscus, brother-in-law of [the Eastern] Emperor Leo I, tried and failed to recapture Carthage in 468. Byzantium lived on, but the Western Roman Empire was dead. By 476, Rome was the fiefdom of Odoacer, king of the Goths.

     “What is most striking about this history,” writes Niall Ferguson, “is the speed of the Roman Empire’s collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century – inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle – shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe. What Ward-Perkins calls ‘the end of civilization’ came within the span of a single generation.”[4]

     The fall of the city itself took seventy years, from Alaric’s invasion in 406 to the deposition of the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476, when a barbarian officer in the Roman army, Odovacar, killed the father and uncle of Romulus and sent Romulus himself into retirement. But then, instead of taking the imperial crown himself, he did a remarkable thing: he declared that “there was no need of a divided rule and that one, shared emperor was sufficient for both [Eastern and Western imperial] territories”. And then he sent the imperial cloak and diadem to the Eastern Emperor Zeno… The old empire of Old Rome was dead, long live the new empire of New Rome![5] 


     When Rome fell for the first time, Blessed Jerome wrote from Bethlehem: “At the news my speech failed me, and sobs choked the words that I was dictating. She has been captured – the City by whom the whole world had once been taken captive. She dies of hunger before dying by the sword – scarcely do any men survive to be led off into captivity. The fury of the starving fastens on to nourishment unspeakable; they tear each other to pieces, the mother not sparing even the infant at her own breast.”[6]

     Cannibalism had taken place also during the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It was a characteristic sign of God’s turning away from His people. Therefore a theological and historiosophical explanation that reflected the spiritual, no less than the political and social gravity of the situation was required…

     Tertullian had said: “In the Emperor we reverence the judgement of God, Who has set him over the nations”[7]. It followed that the fall of the western emperor had to express the reversal of God’s judgement, His guilty verdict against the Romans, perhaps the whole oikoumene. Indeed, for patriotic Romans like Jerome, the fall of the City of Old Rome was equivalent to the fall of the whole of humanity: “The flame of the world has been extinguished and in the destruction of a single city, the whole human race has perished!” [8]

     The emphasis was somewhat different among the Holy Fathers in the eastern half of the empire. They emphasised heavenly patriotism, the patriotism of the City who “Builder and Maker is God” (Hebrews 10.10) over any earthly patriotism, even Roman patriotism; for “here we have no continuing city, but seek one to come” (Hebrews 13.14). Thus St. John Chrysostom wrote: “If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours….

     “Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are withal but strangers and sojourners in it all.

      “We are enrolled in heaven: our citizenship is there! Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great, and admire those which are little!

      “Not our city’s greatness, but virtue of soul is our ornament and defense.

      “If you suppose dignity to belong to a city, think how many persons must partake in this dignity, who are whoremongers, effeminate, depraved and full of ten thousand evil things, and at last despise such honor!

      “But that City above is not of this kind; for it is impossible that he can be a partaker of it, who has not exhibited every virtue.”Christianitas (Christianity). As F. van der Meer interprets his thought: “Compared with Christianity, what significance was there in things, admittedly good in themselves, like the order, unity and authority of the Roman Empire?…”[14]

      However, “the order, unity and authority of the Roman Empire” was of value. Even the barbarian conquerors of Rome recognized that. Thus Ataulf, the son of the famous Alaric, said: “To begin with, I ardently desired to efface the very name of the Romans and to transform the Roman Empire into a Gothic Empire. Romania, as it is commonly called, would have become Gothia; Ataulf would have replaced Caesar Augustus. But long experience taught me that the unruly barbarism of the Goths was incompatible with the laws. Now, without laws there is no state. I therefore decided rather to aspire to the glory of restoring the fame of Rome in all its integrity, and of increasing it by means of the Gothic strength. I hope to go down to posterity as the restorer of Rome, since it is not possible that I should be its supplanter.”[15]

      The Romans attached enormous importance to law. As Peter Heather writes, “Roman imperial state ideology had long since identified the existence of written law as the single factor which distinguished the Roman world as a higher order of divinely inspired human society, far superior to that of any known or conceivable neighbour.”[16] Thus in the second preface to his Judicial Code the Emperor Justinian wrote: “The maintenance of the integrity of the government depends upon two things, namely, the force of arms and the observance of the laws: and, for this reason, the fortunate race of the Romans obtained power and precedence over all other nations in former times, and will do so forever, if God should be propitious; since each of these has ever required the aid of the other, for, as military affairs are rendered secure by the laws, so also are the laws preserved by force of arms.”

      The Goths (not only Ataulf, but also the Ostrogothic King Theoderic later in the century) bought in to this vision, to the extent of seeing themselves as restorers, rather than supplanters, of Rome and the upholders of her laws. Even the Huns, who were still more barbaric than the Goths, respected the greatness of Rome. Thus Attila was turned back from sacking Rome in 452 by the eloquent embassy of Pope Leo I and a vision of Saints Peter and Paul, who appeared in a vision with St. Leo and threatened the Hun with death.[17]

      Augustine believed Rome had not been destroyed, but chastized. By this tribulation God was purifying the Roman nation, as He had purified Israel in Old Testament times. Rome would emerge from this period of affliction cleansed and better able to carry out her civilising mission in the world… But the catastrophe of 410 did not produce the regeneration of Rome that Augustine had hoped for. If it was still true at the beginning of the century that Rome was being chastized, not destroyed, by the end it had to be admitted that the disease was more serious and chronic, and the treatment more radical, than Augustine had recognised…

      For the sad fact was that Old Rome was still not profiting from the opportunity presented by the conversion of St. Constantine to regenerate herself. She remained throughout the fifth century in a situation of spiritual and political crisis not dissimilar to that in the time of Diocletian. As Christopher Dawson writes: “It was literally Rome that killed Rome. The great cosmopolitan city of gold and marble, the successor of Alexandria and Antioch, had nothing in common with the old capital and rural Latin state. It served no social function, it was an end in itself, and its population drawn from every nation under heaven existed mainly to draw their Government doles, and to attend the free spectacles with which the Government provided them. It was a vast useless burden on the back of the empire which broke at last under the increasing strain.”[18]

      The real rulers of the later western empire when the emperor was campaigning against the barbarians, were the senators. Snobbish and immensely rich, they had much to lose from the empire’s fall. However, as a visitor to Rome remarked, they did not want to serve the State, “preferring to enjoy their property at leisure”.[19]

      “In spite of frequent lip-service to the romantic concept of Eternal Rome,” writes Grant, “many noblemen were not prepared to lift a finger to save it… They also undermined the state in a very active fashion. For of all the obstacles to efficient and honest administration, they were the worst. They forcibly ejected collectors of taxes, harboured deserters and brigands, and repeatedly took the law into their own hands… They often remained hostile to the Emperor, and estranged from his advisers. For a long time many were pagans while their ruler was Christian.”[20]

      The free poor of Rome did not come far behind the senators in corruption. Although the Christian Emperor Honorius had supposedly abolished the circuses in 404, Grant writes that “a hundred and seventy-five days of the year were given up to public shows, as opposed to a mere hundred and thirty-five two centuries earlier; moreover the fabric of the Colosseum was restored as late as 438. It is also true that in the mid-fourth century 300,000 Romans held bread tickets which entitled them to draw free rations from the government; and even a century later, when the population of the city had greatly diminished, there were still 120,000 recipients of these free supplies. Certainly the population of Rome was largely parasitic. However, the city proletariat played little active part in guiding the course of events which brought the later Roman Empire to a halt.

      “It was, on the other hand, the ‘free’ poor of the rural countryside upon whom the government, struggling to raise money for the army, imposed the full rigours and terrors of taxation. Although technically still distinguishable from slaves, they were no better off and perhaps worse off, since they often found themselves driven into total destitution. Between these rustic poor and the government, the relationship was that of oppressed and oppressor, of foe and foe.

      “This is perhaps the greatest of all the disunities that afflicted the Western Empire. The state and the unprivileged bulk of its rural subjects were set against each other in a destructive and suicidal disharmony, which played a very large and direct part in the downfall that followed. It was because of this rift that the taxes that were needed to pay the army could not be raised. And because they could not be raised, the Empire failed to find defenders, and collapsed.”[21]

      But there was a still greater disunity… Professor Mary Beard has argued that the main cause of the rise of Rome to mastery over the ancient world was its ability to co-opt the conquered peoples as fellow citizens and then send them out to fight for an empire in which they now had a big stake. In other words, it was “boots on the ground” that won Rome her empire; she was simply able to put more men in the field than any of her rivals.[22]

      If we accept this thesis, then we can put forward an analogous thesis for the fall of the empire – namely, that Rome fell when she began to fail to co-opt her conquered peoples. One of the greatest and most enduring legacies of Roman civilization was the principle – enshrined in law in 222 - that every citizen is equal before the law, whatever his nationality or faith. This was no empty principle, as we see as early as the career of St. Paul, who, though a member of the despised race of the Jews, was able to win a trial in Rome because he was a Roman citizen. But by the fifth century this principle was no longer being applied; universalism had given way to a new kind of tribalism. And this in spite of the fact that the official religion of Rome was now Christianity, the most universalist of faiths.

      It was not the Emperors that were to blame: although there were no really distinguished Emperors after Theodosius I, they remained Orthodox.[23] The burdens they imposed on the people were not imposed willingly, but because of the desperate situation of the empire. They failed because Roman society was divided both against itself and against her non-Roman subjects and foederati - and a divided house cannot stand...

      In the past Rome had not been too proud to learn from, and unite with, the nations whom she conquered. The classic example was the Classical Greeks who conquered Rome culturally while submitting to her politically. Nor, centuries later, had she despised the humble fishermen who preached a Jewish God Whom they themselves had crucified. The success of the apostles even among the emperor’s own family was witnessed by St. Paul, who declared: “My bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace [of the emperor]” (Philippians 1.13), and came to fruition with the conversion of St. Constantine. Even when the last pagan Roman emperor, Julian the apostate, tried to reverse the Constantinian revolution, the momentum proved unstoppable. Like all the previous persecutors of the Christians, he perished in agony, crying, “You have triumphed, Galilean!” And when the last Emperor to unite East and West, Theodosius the Great, bowed in penitence before a Christian bishop, Ambrose of Milan, it seemed as if Ambrose’s dream of a Rome purged of its pagan vices and uniting its traditional virtues to the Cross of Christ – a Rome truly invicta and aeterna because united to the invincible and eternal God - had been realized.

      For, as St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, said, addressing Rome: “[The Apostles] promoted thee to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter's holy See thou didst attain a wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government. For although thou wast increased by many victories, and didst extend thy rule on land and sea, yet what thy toils in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered… That state, in ignorance of the Author of its aggrandisement, though it ruled almost all nations, was enthralled by the errors of them all, and seemed to itself to have fostered religion greatly, because it rejected no falsehood [an excellent definition of ecumenism]. And hence its emancipation through Christ was the more wondrous in that it had been so fast bound by Satan.”[24]

      Of course, there is a big difference between conquering a nation and then magnanimously giving the conquered people certain privileges, on the one hand, and being invaded by a nation and having to suffer various atrocities and indignities at their hands, on the other. Nevertheless, even among the pagans there were those who understood that magnanimity pays – even if you are now the invaded people. Thus the senator and philosopher Themistius, writing in about 370, said that “it is the task of kings – those who have a right to that title – rather than rooting out completely this surfeit of human temperament whenever they restrain the insurgent barbarians, to safeguard and protect them as an integral part of the empire. For this is how things are: he who harries the barbarians to no good purpose sets himself up as king of the Romans alone, while he who shows compassion in his triumph knows himself to be king of all men, especially over those whom he protected and watched over when he had the chance to destroy them utterly.”[25]

      However, after the first sack of Rome, the gulf between the Romans and the barbarians was becoming too great. Not that the barbarians, who settled in the empire through necessity to escape the hordes that pressed on them from the east, were always resolved to destroy it. On the contrary, as we have seen, they came to admire and emulate it. But the Romans themselves were not interested in converting or integrating them. Empire had gone to their heads; they despised the German hordes. Thus the Christian poet Prudentius, who had once declared that the peoples of the empire were “equals and bound by a single name”, now despised the barbarians:

As beasts from men, as dumb from those who speak,

As from the good who God’s commandments seek,

Differ the foolish heathen, so Rome stands

Alone in pride above barbarian lands.[26] 

     In the last analysis it was this pride, more than any purely political or economic factors, that destroyed Old Rome. Rome ceased to be the universal ruler when she abandoned her own tradition of universalism, transmuted now into Christian universalism. By refusing to come to terms with Alaric because he was a Goth (albeit a Christian Goth), although he was not seeking to destroy Rome but only find a place for his people within her empire, the Romans provoked the first sack of Rome in 410, which weakened the State and made later, still more catastrophic sacks inevitable.

      Not all Romans were so proud, of course: churchmen such as the Italian St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, the Spanish priest Orosius and the Gallic priest Salvian of Marseilles, were hopeful that a new Romano-Germanic order could be constructed. After all, the fall of Rome could be seen, not just as God’s wrath against the Romans, but also His mercy towards the barbarians, by creating an unprecedented opportunity to bring them to the Christian Faith. For as Orosius, a priest from Braga who fled to Hippo from the Vandals, wrote: “It would seem that the mercy of God ought to be praised and glorified in that so many [barbarian] nations are receiving, even at the cost of our own weakening, a knowledge of the truth which they never could have had but for this opportunity.”[27] Moreover, they had the example of the Gothic Martyrs Sabbas (+372) and Nicetas (+378), and the very early translation of the Bible into the Gothic language, to show that a real conversion of the barbarians was possible. [28]  

      And so, while the Western Empire died, Christian Romanitas itself did not die. Although the Antichrist took its place temporarily in the sense that pagan and heretical rulers took the place of Orthodox ones, under the rubble of the old empire new kingdoms were arising that were to restore Orthodoxy and reincarnate the spirit of Christian Rome, uniting both Romans and barbarians in the One, Holy and Catholic Church. As Peter Heather writes, “new rulers at the head of politically reasonably coherent bodies of military manpower, which had within living memory originated from beyond the imperial frontier, were now masters of the bulk of the old Roman west. Alongside Odovacar, Anglo-Saxon kings controlled most of central and southern Britain, their Frankish counterparts ran northern and eastern Gaul, Visigothic monarchs controlled south-western Gaul and Spain, Burgundian dynasts the Rhone valley, and the richest lands of Roman North Africa were in the hands of the Vandalic Hasding dynasty. Groups from the old north-central zone of Europe as it had stood at the birth of Christ thus generated a huge revolution on Roman soil, replacing the old monolithic empire with a series of successor states.”[29]

      Moreover, the memory of Old Rome and her achievement did not die; it was to remain profoundly influential for centuries to come. And there continued to be great native Romans, such as St. Gregory the Great, who remained passionately attached to bringing the glorious traditions of Rome – both Old and New – to the unenlightened barbarians. Even the twentieth-century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell concluded: “The problem of a durable and satisfactory social order can only be solved by combining the solidity of the Roman Empire with the idealism of St. Augustine’s City of God…”[30]

December 20 / January 2, 2017/2018.

[1] St. Gregory, in Michael Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire, London: Phoenix, 1997, p. 198.

[2] See Judith Herrin, Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium, London: Phoenix Press, 2001, p. 11.

[3] See Dirk Bennett, “Ecstasy in Late Imperial Rome”, History Today, vol. 48 (10), October, 1998, pp. 27-32.

[4] Ferguson, “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edges of Chaos”, Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2010, pp. 27-28.

[5] Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome, London: Pan Books, 2013, p. xiii.

[6] St. Jerome, Letter 127, P.L. 22, col. 1094.

[7] Tertullian, Apologeticum, 32.

[8]St. Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel, prologue.

[9] St. John Chrysostom, On the Statutes.

[10] St. Augustine, The City of God, I, 1.

[11] St. Augustine, The City of God, XVIII, 2.

[12] St. Augustine, The City of God, V, 17.

[13] St. Augustine, The City of God, IV, 4.

[14] Van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop, London: Sheed and Ward, 1961, p. 584.

[15] Ataulf, in Grant, op. cit., p. 127.

[16] Heather, op. cit., p. 118.

[17] Patrick Howarth, Attila, London: Robinson, 2001, p. 132.

[18] Dawson, Progress and Decay.

[19] Grant, op. cit., p. 74.

[20] Grant, op. cit., pp. 75, 76, 78.

[21] Grant, op. cit., p. 60. Another reason that enough taxes could not be raised was that more and more barbarian groups occupied more and more of the taxable agricultural land.

[22] Beard, “Why Rome Ruled the World”, BBC History Magazine, April, 2016, pp. 32-36.

[23] Thus Emperor Honorius abolished gladiatorial contests after he witnessed the martyrdom of the Syrian monk Telemachus on January 1, 404, for his opposition to the contests.

[24] St. Leo, Sermon LXXXII, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

[25] Themistius, Oration 10; in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassel, 2004, p. 113

[26] Prudentius, in Grant, op. cit., p. 132.

[27] Orosius, Seven Books of History against the Pagans, VII, 41.

[28] Unfortunately, most of the Goths were converted to Arianism rather than Orthodox Christianity, in spite of the intense efforts of St. John Chrysostom (+407) to draw them to the truth faith…See J.W.C. Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D.500, London: Methuen, 1982, pp. 181-184.

[29] Heather, op. cit., p. xvii.

[30] Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen Unwin, 1946, p. 515.

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