49. The long life and slow fall of Rome

(continued) Chapter 5.           Faster evolution in human historical times


4th Roman Era: Theocracy (325 to 476 CE)

In 306 CE the long-jawed Roman emperor Constantius had been in office for a little over fourteen months and had coincidentally “adopted” as “junior co-emperors” the notables Galerius and Severus the Second, both of whom were well connected. On July 25 he unexpectedly died in office and, according to the ways then deemed normal in Roman custom, the emperorship passed to his son, a fellow named Constantine, reportedly as long-jawed as his father. Both junior-co-emperors were as out as Spiro Agnew. Most remarkably for Roman emperors, Constantine then reigned for a full thirty years, nine months and twenty-seven days and, more remarkably, died of completely natural causes.


For what comes next you need to keep in mind some of the common popular mindsets in those days. I’ve already mentioned the unquestioned assumption that rulers can steal their neighbors’ land if they’re strong enough to do so. Slavery was normal. Violence and death were normal. The concept of “rights” – for anybody – did not exist and would not for one and a half millennia, and this was normal. Another mindset held that total merger of church and state is normal. As long as anyone could remember, the Roman gods had been part and parcel with Rome itself. If you were Roman you were subject to the whimsies of the Roman gods – Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, et al – as well as the whimsies of the very human Roman emperors, several of whom maneuvered to have themselves declared members of the godly pantheon. It had always been the same in Greece (Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite), Persia (Ahurani, Al-Lat), and everywhere else anyone had ever been. The quaint idea of separating church and state was yet many centuries in the future.


It was in this context that after only six years in office Constantine found himself at the Milvian bridge over the Tiber River, facing off against the military leader Maxentius for control of the western part of the Roman empire. It was a fateful day, Maxentius’ forces were fierce, and Constantine had good reason for anxieties. But then a strange thing happened, according to an early Christian bishop named Eusebius who had every motivation to be less than completely candid in his retroactive reporting of events.


Before the battle was joined, if Eusebius can be believed, Constantine (and his soldiers, reportedly) looked up and (all of them, reportedly) saw in the sky a great cross of light on which, reportedly, were the words “in this sign you will conquer.” Someone (perhaps Eusebius?) then advised Constantine that this sign should be interpreted as a promise that he would be victorious if (but only if) he required all his soldiers’ shields to be painted with the chi-rho symbol – i.e., the first two letters of the name “Christ” as spelled in Greek. If this doesn’t seem quite logical to you, never mind – it apparently seemed logical enough to Roman Constantine who (reportedly) did as he was advised, thus covering all bets, and history records that he was indeed victorious that day.


Things gradually changed after that. Following the battle Constantine went straight back to his palace in downtown Rome without bothering to carry out the customary sacrifices to the old gods. No dead goat, no entrails, no holy smoke, gods affronted. He continued approving the images of the old Roman gods on coins minted over the next few years, but the very next year, 313 CE, his Edict of Milan granted freedom of religious practice to all sects in the empire, including the Christians. In subsequent years Constantine gradually but increasingly assumed the role of Christian patron. For example, he returned previously confiscated church property; granted special privileges to church officials; promoted quite a few of them to high governmental offices; exempted them from taxes; and built a substantial number of basilicas. Call it the conjoining of church and state.


The transition from the old Roman gods (and their unpredictable whimsies) to the new monotheistic Christianity (with its controlling doctrines and dogmas) continued and gained momentum. Thus did it come to pass sixty-seven years later that, in the year 380 CE, the emperor Theodocius in the second year of his sixteen-year reign issued the Edict of Thessalonica which declared Christianity to be not only the official state religion of Imperial Rome but also the only legal religion. Getting caught paying tribute or sacrifice to any of the old pantheon could now get you in real trouble.


Thus died those mighty old Roman gods, their statues toppled with scarcely a whimper, and what had long been the imperial Roman government – Emperors, figurehead Senators, bureaucracy and all – was well along on its way to becoming the Roman Catholic Church.


It remained only for traditional Rome – the symbol – to fall.


5th Roman Era: The end and aftermath (476 CE to…the present day?)

Rome wasn’t built in a day nor did it fall in a day. It happened as a series of jerks and quirks. Most historians agree the end had begun during the later years of the theocracy (assuming you don’t think Julius or Caligula began the end). Specifically, on August 24, 410 CE Visigoths under King Alaric came down from the north, attacked with notorious success and sacked the city. Never mind that Rome was not at that time the empire’s capital (the governing center had been moved to Mediolanum in 286 CE and to Ravenna in 402 CE), it nevertheless remained in the minds of peoples everywhere as the spiritual center and paramount symbol of the empire, the eternal city, the center of the world. Thus after eight hundred years during which no enemy ever prevailed over mighty Rome, revelation of its vulnerability came as a shock to friends and foes alike.


Copy-catting as opportunists always do, attacks therefore became more frequent, especially from the Gothic lands to the north.


And then, one thousand two hundred twenty nine (1,229) years after the first Romulus, in the year 476 CE, the name came back around when Roman troops defending the city were defeated by a German Goth named Odoacer who, ironically, had received his military training in, and served in, the Roman army. Thus did an emperor named Romulus Augustulus became the last Roman emperor (at least, the last to legitimately carry the title). Odoacer placed Augustulus under house arrest and his Gothic troops sacked Rome once again. For most practical purposes this event is officially counted as “the fall of Rome”… and the beginning of those awful centuries accurately described as Europe’s dark ages.


Recap and perspective

There remain a few details to be cleared up, but first let’s recap:

  • Beginning around 753 BCE, Etruscan “kings” ruled Rome for 244 years;
  • a quasi-democratic republic then prevailed for 465 years until it was overthrown;
  • a colonial empire under dictatorial emperors lasted 369 more years; and
  • a theocracy then lasted for 151 years until Rome fell to invaders in 476 CE.


Between 753 BCE and 476 CE lie 1,229 years of the ancient glory that was Rome – by far the longest-lasting civilization in the history of the world (China has been around longer, but not as a distinct polity as Rome was). For perspective, compare Rome’s 465 years as a republic, that alone, to the history of the USA:

  • First settlement at Jamestown (1607) to adoption of the federal Constitution (1789) totals 182 years;
  • Beginning of USA (1789) to the year 2020 totals 231 years;
  • From Jamestown (1607) to 2020 totals 413 years – which is still half a century less than Rome’s republican period alone.


How long would it take the USA to match Rome’s record as a republic? Adding Rome’s 465 republican years to our 1789 founding year takes us forward to the year 2254.  Hence a question arises: In 2254 do you think the USA will: 1) be a republic?  2) still exist?


Emperors, popes and other legacies

Did you know the title “Caesar” used by the Roman emperor-dictators remains with us today? From it are derived the despot honorifics “Kaiser” (German) and “Czar” (Russian) also spelled “Tsar.” Notwithstanding that all Caesars, Kaisers and Czar/Tsars are dead, the titles remain very much in common usage in all western languages today, a small example of Rome’s lasting influence. Notice likewise that our Senate and its senators are named directly after that old Roman senate and its senators, and that as time passed the locus of real power shifted from the senate to Caesar – whether abruptly or gradually makes little difference when measured over centuries:  it shifted, and democracy died.


As noted, over the years and centuries Rome had occasionally undergone other types of organizational evolution such as moving the center of governance to Mediolanum and then to Ravenna. Another little matter of this nature had happened in 395 CE when the emperor Theodocius – the same mover and shaker who had declared Christianity the state religion – split the Roman empire in two, a western part ruled by Rome and an eastern part ruled by Constantinople. Aware that he was dying, Theodocius named a ruler for each part – i.e., his 18-year-old son Arcadius for the east and his 10-year-old son Honorius for the west. Both sons have been judged by historians as “disastrously weak,” but Arcadius managed to rule for twenty-five years and Honorius ruled for thirty. Both moreover died of natural causes, perhaps a comment on the judgment of historians.



The eastern part’s capital had not always been called Constantinople. This ancient city was named Byzantium by its Greek founders around 660-700 BCE. Built beside the sea of Marmara and its chokepoint Bosporus, Byzantium was ideally located for strategic control over travel and commerce between the Mediterranean and Black Seas as well as the fabulous silk road to China. Byzantium would indeed become fabulously rich over time. In 196 CE the aggressively expanding new Roman empire took control of the city as Greece became a Roman colony. In 330 CE the emperor Constantine (yes, that Constantine) ordered the city rebuilt and immodestly re-named it after himself – thus Constantinople.


More than a thousand years later, aggressive Turks seized the city in 1453 CE, bringing about rapid transition from the ancient Byzantine Empire to the expansionist Ottoman Empire. Counting from that date back to its origin in the sixth century BCE, we note that  Byzantium-Constantinople had endured about 2,100 years by the time of the Turkish invasion. Five hundred years later in 1930, the modern Turkish successors to the lately deposed Ottomans, still in control of Constantinople, yet again renamed the city – this time as Istanbul. As we see, Rome and Istanbul-Constantinople-Byzantium have both been around a very long time, but Rome is slightly the elder.


After the “fall” of Rome (i.e., putting an end once and for all to its absolute dominance of the Mediterranean world), continuance of the center of what had been Roman civilization took place mainly in the eastern capital – which, largely by accident of geography, was generally off the map of the hordes who kept invading the plum that was Rome.


Until the crusaders arrived, that is. In the year of our Lord 1204 some thousands of valiant Christian soldiers comprising the Fourth Crusade, marching onward with fervent intent to retake the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims, became unruly and mutinous long before reaching the Holy Land. Being in a state of high dudgeon as well as in close vicinity to the very Christian city of Constantinople, they veered off and vent their spleens on looting, burning, raping, pillaging and generally destroying the beautiful old capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The event says something about mob rule carried to its logical extreme and is strategically remembered by modern apologists of limited democracy in their advocacy for self empowerment by limiting the vote to male landowners and a proscribed few others, the fewer the better.


The popes

Then we come to perhaps the final and main reason why Rome and its legacy can never die. Roman emperors are measured from Julius Caesar to Romulus Augustulus – some 86 to 88 emperors in all (depending how you count).


Meanwhile another, separate hierarchy had long been establishing itself in the city: they were called the Christian Bishops of Rome. Commencing early in the Christian era, wherever two or more of the new Christian congregations arose in the same town there came to be placed over them a governing bishop – a step up from each church’s local preacher. The bishop was to be the maximus dominus on matters of Christian doctrine and dogma, as well as ultimate arbiter in judgment over the doings of individual churches and the behavior of their members. Rome being even then a fairly large city, several Christian groupings soon arose in various neighborhoods and over these there came to be a reigning “Bishop of Rome.” The city of Rome being long dominant over every other place in the Roman world, it didn’t take long for the Bishop of Rome to become a tad more equal than all the other Bishops out in the provincial hustings.


After some time, the office of the Bishop of Rome came to be called “the pope” (Greek “pappas” or father). The earliest known record of the descriptor “pope” being applied to a bishop of Rome dates from the late third century with reference to “Pope” Marcellinus. The Pope appellation was tried a few other places (e.g., “Pope of” Alexandria), but only in Rome did it become the lasting honorific we know today. As centuries rolled by, attributes of varying utility to Church interests subsequently were appended to and made integral to the meaning of the term Pope (e.g., infallible; inheritor of Peter, who was retroactively claimed to have been the first bishop in the city of Rome).


By the time the 54th Emperor Constantine came into office in 306 CE, the 33rd Pope Sylvester was also in office. By the time the last emperor Romulus Augustulus left the scene in 476 CE, the 47th Pope Simplicius was also in office. When Simplicius died in 483, selection of a new replacement Pope was the first to take place in the absence of a governing emperor over Rome. The political vacuum didn’t last long. Within a decade, the head of the defunct Roman Empire’s official state religion was influentially selected if not outright appointed by the Germanic conquerors. Owing to this control the office of Pope became known as the “Ostrogothic Papacy” from 493 to 537 CE. It was the first among many instances of secular interests interceding in religious affairs that would occur over the next thousand years. Of course there were times when the obverse was also true during the same millennium, when popes meddled in the business of virtually everybody in Europe, from the lowliest peasants to the veriest kings.


To ensure we don’t miss the trends displayed in these dry facts, notice two things:  1) the power of Roman emperors waxed, waned and went away; 2) the power of Roman Catholic Popes waxed…and waxed again, until – at least through the Dark and Middle ages in European history –  they became the dominant governing power in the western hemisphere of the planet. The power of the Popes has lasted two millennia, and their influence yet today is considerable indeed.

*          ©          *


…to be continued in one week…


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