Barbarism and Superstition: the Middle Ages in Modern Times

I study, among other things, the fifth century. Normally, this is the definition of a niche activity; but it’s not normal right now. For some fifteen months—since the killings in Paris in November 2015, since the EU Referendum, and since the US election—the fifth century has gone mainstream. For it was in the course of these hundred years that the Roman Empire partially collapsed as a political structure. Now everybody—from media dons to demagogues—is talking about the fall of Rome. What they are all saying is: we’re living through it again. But are we really? If we stand back from terrorism, Brexit, Trump, and all of the mayhem, what we see is that, in this respect, our times might not be so different. For the last half millennium (if not longer), everybody has been talking about the Fall of Rome, making and remaking it in their own image.

The Roman Empire, 117 AD

At its height, the Roman Empire stretched right across the map of Europe and the Near East, from the Urals in Russia, to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, to the Grampians in Scotland. Apart from comprehending its scale, we also have to understand its shape: the boundary we think of now between Europe and North Africa, between the ‘western world’ and the ‘Arab countries’, did not exist in the ancient world. The Mediterranean was not a border but a crucial space of communication and exchange.

This political structure held together for over four hundred years. Then, in the course of the fifth century, the western Roman Empire broke apart. A number of separate kingdoms were established in Europe and North Africa, some of which went on to become the nation states of the modern map, in particular France and England. The shift from Empire to kingdoms is what people normally mean when they talk about ‘the Fall of Rome’. In the East, however, the Roman Empire did not fall: it kept going for another 1000 years. Although the Eastern Roman Empire is known now as ‘Byzantium’, its inhabitants thought of themselves as Romans, and were very prickly when described as anything else.

Why did the western Empire collapse in the fifth century? The most common answer is ‘barbarians’. Think ‘Gladiator’: the scene near the beginning of the film where a huge seething mass of hairy warriors attempt to break through the largely clean-shaven, and totally regular ranks of the Roman legions. ‘Hold the line’ roars Russell Crowe, and the soldiers do as they are told, even though it looks as though they are about to be overrun. Then Crowe gives the order to attack—at which point the barbarian horde is promptly slaughtered. This is a brilliantly faithful rendition of how Romans and barbarians have been imagined since the fifteenth century, if not before. We think of Romans as disciplined, and of barbarians as unruly. How was it, then, that in the fourth and fifth centuries, events did not play out as in the opening scene of Gladiator? In 378, a Roman Emperor was killed in battle by Goths; in 410, notoriously, the Goths sacked Rome; in 439, a different people, the Vandals, sacked the city of Carthage, modern day Tunis, and sixteen years later, they also sacked Rome.

One explanation is, the barbarians were too strong. There were too many of them. As well as the Goths and the Vandals, there were the Huns—a nomadic people from Mongolia, who under their leader Attila swept across the steppes, and in fact drove peoples like the Goths into the Empire. In other words, the invaders of the Roman Empire were themselves on the run from a yet more fearsome horde of barbarians.

In early modern Italy, this was the story that carried the day. It was part and parcel, in fact, of the movement we know of as the Renaissance, the rebirth of the culture of classical antiquity, and the end of the ‘Middle Ages’, an intervening period of darkness and barbarism. The glory that was Greece and Rome had been eclipsed by savage thugs invading from the North, and had only been recently rediscovered by brilliant and cultured Italians. It was not a coincidence that this view was propounded as exactly the time that Italy was being invaded by German princes from North of the Alps, as they competed with each other and sought vainly to subdue cities such as Milan and Florence. The Renaissance view of the past shamelessly transposed contemporary circumstance back onto the fifth century.

For all that we may be able to see that, we still talk about ‘the Renaissance’ and ‘the Middle Ages’, as though these were periods which actually existed; and as the opening of Gladiator shows, we still imagine the Romans and the barbarians in terms of imagery constructed a thousand years after the events.

The Renaissance story, however much it appealed to the imagination, left a big question unanswered.  Why were the Romans susceptible to barbarian attack in the fifth century? They had repelled such invasions before: the line had held, discipline had overcome thuggery. What had changed to weaken Roman military prowess? The most influential answer to this question was given in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes from 1776 to 1788. 

Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols., 1776-1789

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was convinced he had found the key to explain the enfeeblement of the Roman legions: they had ‘got religion’, specifically the religion of the man who died, who enjoined his followers to turn the other cheek. In 312, after a personal conversion experience, the Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity which previous emperors had enforced. Before this dramatic development, in so far as they noticed Christianity at all, the Romans had been hostile to it. Any religious cult which made exclusive claims on its adherents’ allegiance was suspect and dangerous, in their view. The refusal of Christians to sacrifice to the Emperor meant that they were traitors to the Roman state, and should be executed. Now, suddenly, under Constantine this treasonous cult was officially sanctioned by the Emperor.

This, in Gibbon’s view, had an absolutely disastrous effect on the Roman imperial machine. The ruling elite, under stress of radical religious conviction, were abdicating responsibility for running the empire; their soldiers did the same. Gibbon imagined troops of legionaries downing tools and marching themselves into monasteries. Civic spirit and military discipline were fatally undermined by what Gibbon regarded as irrational superstition. By the turn of the fifth century, when the barbarians started to arrive in force at the borders of the Empire, the Romans had lost the capacity to resist them, and the Empire fell.

Gibbon’s account of Christianity reflected his own context. Renaissance self-promotion turned on the contrast between classical civilization and the barbarism that followed; the self-promotional mythology of eighteenth-century elites turned on the contrast between the power of human reason and the dangers of irrationality. The claim was that sustained rational enquiry, rather than blind acceptance of truths handed down by tradition, was the way forward for humanity. The upshot, for many Enlightenment thinkers, was a long, hard look at Christian tradition. For Gibbon in particular, the rise of Christianity was a cautionary tale. A civilization as mighty as Rome could be brought to its knees by superstition.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was an instant classic and has remained so; but within two generations of his death, his account no longer commanded the same credibility: Europeans changed their minds again about the story they wanted to tell of themselves, and so the story they wanted to tell about the Fall of Rome. This transformation in self-understanding began within a year of the appearance of the final volume: in 1789, Revolution broke out in France. Viewed by the revolutionaries themselves as the triumph of reason, in England at least the spectacle of the fall of the Bourbon monarchy was understood as a terrifying victory for uncontrollable forces of destruction. But no-one could blame religion: it was clear the great force animating the overthrow of the old order was different: it came from the people, from the French nation.

The French example took hold of Europe; in part through force—the conquests of Napoloen—but more through persuasion, as peoples around the continent began to think of themselves as ‘nations’, and to look to make of this identity a political reality. Thus the nineteenth century witnessed wave upon wave of nationalist revolution; not all of these were successful—but the unification of Italy and of Germany, both completed within a decade (1861-1871)—dramatically changed the map of Europe.

The story of the Fall of Rome changed accordingly. Nineteenth-century nationalist historians pushed Gibbon aside and went back to the account of the Renaissance historians, with the barbarians at centre stage—but with a difference. Where the Renaissance, and indeed the Enlightenment, had regarded the barbarian invasions as a catastrophe, in the nineteenth century, the Fall of Rome was heralded as the dawn of true civilization. Yes the barbarians had been rough and ready peoples—but the important thing is, they were peoples, nations, who understood that they belonged together and for each other. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was seen as a mechanism of subjugation: it served the interests of a distant and increasingly corrupt ruling elite. It fell to the barbarians because it was, like the French monarchy, an instrument of government that did not give voice to the people. In short, it was a tyranny—and its overthrow was the beginning of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the passage from empire to barbarian kingdoms, then, nineteenth-century historians saw the modern map of Europe taking shape. Far from being a catastrophe, the Fall of Rome was a cause for celebration. It was when ‘we’ became ‘ourselves’.

The 19th century Myth of Nations - Clovis I leading the Franks to victory in the Battle of Tolbiac, in Ary Scheffer’s 19th-century painting

The 19th century Myth of Nations - Clovis I leading the Franks to victory in the Battle of Tolbiac, in Ary Scheffer’s 19th-century painting


Again the fact that we can see through the self-interested and self-regarding character of this account does not diminish its power and influence. History is a subject one can study at university because nineteenth-century national governments decided to invest in it. Until then, History had been a hobby. Edward Gibbon did not train as a historian; he wrote as a cultured amateur. Universities offered Theology or Classics, in order to train priests or soldiers. In the nineteenth century, however, governments wanted to train citizens: they wanted people to understand their national origins, to understand how the French or the English or the Italians became peoples, and they were prepared to pay historians to teach the young about the Fall of Rome and the birth of modern Europe.

In the twentieth century, historians began to dissent from the nationalist project. To take a key example. In 1937 appeared Mohammed and Charlemagne. Its author, a Belgian scholar named Henri Pirenne, had died two years previously. His achievement was to have produced a decisively new account of the Fall of Rome. The argument has two parts.

  1. That the ancient Mediterranean world did not end as a result of the invasions of barbarian peoples in the fifth and sixth centuries. Whatever political disruption the marauding tribes may have caused in the western Empire, long-established networks of cultural and economic exchange continued to flourish uninterrupted during this period.
  2. What did cause the massive disruption of these ancient networks was the rise of Islam in the seventh century. As a result of the Islamic conquests in Syria, North Africa, and Spain, the Mediterranean, which had served as an emporium, a space for exchange, came to function as a frontier.
Henri Pirenne, author of The Pirenne Thesis

Henri Pirenne

In the West, this made for a major geopolitical shift: the Franks, now found themselves cut off from their normal source of trade and thrown back on their own devices. The consequence was the overthrow of the old ruling dynasty and the rise to power of a new family, the Carolingians, who established in northwest Europe a new society and culture. While Charlemagne may have claimed to be a Roman emperor, his empire was in fact a new departure, a medieval European, not an ancient Mediterranean venture, based on agrarian, not commercial wealth.

Now is not the time to discuss further whether Pirenne was right (almost no scholar now thinks that he was). The point is that he changed the nature of the debate about the Fall of Rome. Everyone until the mid-twentieth century assumed that there was a simple, brutal transition in the fifth century, from an ancient world of empires to a medieval world of kingdoms. The effect of the Pirenne thesis was to suggest that ‘the Fall of Rome’ was not a single cataclysmic event. Various different shifts and changes took place over centuries.

As a result, for the first time since the Renaissance, we have a different way of thinking about European history. There is no longer a simple division between the ancient world and the medieval world. For the past three generations, historians have imagined a third period, ‘Late Antiquity’, a transitional era running from the third century to the eighth century, in which both the barbarian invasions and the rise of Islam have their place.

The invention of ‘Late Antiquity’ as a period has enabled historians to tell more complicated stories about the processes which it may be far too simple to call ‘the Fall of Rome’.

At the same time, Pirenne’s view of Islam as an alien force bringing a world to an end can be a dangerous ideological tool. In current right wing fantasies about our era as the Fall of Rome—‘we are being invaded by peoples we do not understand’—the barbarians are not German, but Muslim. This is simply to recycle in a degraded form early twentieth-century colonial violence (and it is worth remembering the savage regime ran by King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo). As one of Pirenne’s early critics pointed out, in fact the rise of the Islamic Empire, so far from bringing an end to networks of exchange, had the effect of broadening and expanding them. Rethinking it, we might want to argue that the history of globalization begins with the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam.

A few days after June 23rd  of last year, I gave a lecture at an Open Day about the Fall of Rome. It has never been easier to get teenagers to engage with the fifth century—and in particular with the end of Roman Britain. I didn’t need to reach for ‘Gladiator’ and Russell Crowe. But it did make me rethink ‘the John Cleese question’. In the ‘Life of Brian’, notoriously, his character asks, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’?, and there follows a long list of the benefits of imperial rule. If we re-ask the question now, we might get two different answers. If for the Romans and their empire, we read the EU, then we’re about to find out, the hard way, what it means to have left. The other answer is that, for better or for worse, the Romans have left us a mirror. We are fixed on ‘the Fall of Rome’, seemingly unable to tear ourselves away from the sight of our own reflection. Is this healthy? Probably not, and if we cannot curb our narcissism, we should at least manage our expectations. ‘History’, by itself, does not show us anything: what we see is up to us. 

- Dr Conrad Leyser
Associate Professor of Medieval History