In 285 it was still possible for a humbly born autocrat to impose his will, more or less, upon an empire which extended almost from the Cheviot to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the valleys of the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Nile. Within this vast area, which for centuries had been a cultural, economic, political unity, it was still possible for an ordinary citizen to travel anywhere unarmed, if he carried one coinage and spoke two languages. Early in the fifth century a theologian born in Britain, educated at Rome, could by his teaching stampede bishops in Africa and Palestine. the year 476when the last Roman emperor of the West was deposed, signalled an end to this period. Although there was still an emperor in the East, most of Roman Africa, almost all of Roman Europe, had been fragmented into a medley of sub Roman kingdoms ruled by the descendants of German invaders. This is the moment when Edward Gibbon’s history, so aptly entitled Decline and Fall, pauses mid-way, as if to catch its breath.
Few scholars would now agree with Gibbon, when he reflects upon the end of the western Empire, that ‘the story of its ruin is simple and obvious’; but many share his surprise that ‘it had subsisted so long’. In the richly documented fourth century, if we read A.H.M. Jones’s monumental The Later Roman Empire (1964), it is fascinating to see how the Empire actually functioned; its army and bureaucracy, its selfcongratulating aristocracy and intellectuals, the steep-sided, appalling economic pyramid, all those ‘emperors and barbarians, soldiers, landlords and tax-collectors’ brilliantly dismissed by Peter Brown from The World of Late Antiquity (1971); and rightly so, for this was also a century which produced the last great Roman historian (incidentally a Greek who wrote in Latin), the first illustrated edition of Virgil, the greatest autobiography of all antiquity, Augustine’s Confessions, and which even saw the invention (at least on paper) of the paddle steamer. Where Gibbon saw ‘the ripening of the principles of decay’, we might see a renaissance strangled; and see the conversion of Constantine and the progressive Christianization of the Empire, his foundation of a New Rome at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia, as the catalysts of change and survival.
‘Survival’ may be too negative a word for this great age of transition and transformation, yet we must try to answer the questions posed – or evaded – by Gibbon. Were the Empire’s neighbours, the Germans and Persians in particular, its mortal rivals or its partners in a dangerous but fertile symbiosis? Did the Church fatally weaken the Empire with its ‘idle mouths’ and other-worldly teaching, or did it revitalize it? Did Christian unity, imposed by argument if not by force, make for strength or for division? Was ‘heresy’ a human perversity, or the latest flowering of Greek ingenuity, philosophy and intellectual gymnastics? Did paganism fall, or was it pushed? Are these ‘interesting times’ a hazardous age of social mobility, of careers in Church, army and government open to talent, or the dull landscape of repression and conformity painted by imperial legislation? Was late-Roman art and culture going down the easy road of ‘decadence’, or was it striking out in new directions? Why did Byzantium and the East prosper? Why did Rome, the Eternal City, cease to be the capital and lapse into a run-down museum of Roman collaborators ruled by a German king?