Medieval Castles > Europe in the Middle Ages > Beginning of medieval history

Beginning of medieval history

The fall of the Roman empire
Medieval history begins with the dissolution of the Western Empire, with the abandonment of the Latin world to German conquerors. Of the provinces affected by the catastrophe the youngest was Britain; and even Britain had then been Roman soil for more than three hundred years. For Italy, Spain, and Gaul, the change of masters meant the atrophy of institutions which, at first reluctantly accepted, had come by lapse of time to be accepted as part of the natural order.

Large tracts of Europe lay outside the evacuated provinces; for the Romans never entered Ireland or Scandinavia or Russia, and had failed to subjugate Scotland and the greater part of modern Germany. But the Romanised provinces long remained the dominant force in European history; the hearth-fire of medieval culture was kindled on the ruins of the Empire. How far the victorious Teuton borrowed from the conquered provincial is a question still debated; the degree and the nature of Rome's influence on the new rulers varied in every province, indeed in different parts of the same province. The fact of the debt remains, suggesting a doubt whether in this case it was indeed the fittest who survived. The flaws in a social order which has collapsed under the stress of adverse fortunes are painfully apparent. It is natural to speak of the final overthrow as the
judgment of heaven or the verdict of events. But it has still to be proved that war is an unfailing test of worth; we have banished the judicial combat from our law courts, and we should be rash in assuming that a process obviously absurd when applied to the disputes of individuals ought to determine the judgments of history on nationalities or empires.

What caused the end of the Western Empire?
The immediate and obvious causes which ruined the Western Empire were military and political--the shortcomings of a professional army and professional administrators. If asked whether these shortcomings were symptomatic of evils more generally diffused through other ranks and classes of society, we must go deeper in the analysis of facts. No _a priori_ answer would be satisfactory.

The beginning and the end of the disaster were successful raids on Italy. Alaric and his Visigoths (401-410 A.D.) shattered the prestige and destroyed the efficiency of the government which ruled in the name of the feeble Honorius. The Ostrogoths under Theodoric destroyed the last simulacrum of an imperial power rooted in Italy (489-493 A.D.).

After Theodoric had vanquished Odoacer, it was clear that the western provinces would not again acknowledge an Emperor acclaimed at Ravenna; although the chance remained that they might be reconquered and reorganised from Constantinople. This chance disappeared when the Lombards crossed the Alps (568 A.D.) and descended on the Po valley.

From first to last Italy was the key to the West. And these successive shocks to imperial power in Italy were all due to one cause. All three of the invading hordes came from the Danube. The Roman bank of the great river was inadequately garrisoned, and a mistaken policy had colonised the Danubian provinces with Teutonic peoples, none the less dangerous for being the nominal allies (_foederati_) of the Empire. The Visigothic raids, which were in fact decisive, succeeded because the military defences of the Western Empire were already strained to breaking-point; and because the Roman armies were not only outnumbered, but also paralysed by the jealousies of rival statesmen, and divided by the mutinies of generals aspiring to the purple. The initial disasters were irreparable, because the whole machine of Roman officialdom came to a standstill when the guiding hand of Ravenna failed. Hitherto dependent on Italy, the other provinces were now like limbs amputated from the trunk. Here and there a local leader raised the standard of resistance to the barbarians. But a large proportion of the provincials made peace on the best terms they could obtain. Such are the essential facts.

Evidently the original error of the Romans was the undue extension of their power. This was recognised by no less a statesman than Augustus, the founder of the Empire; but even in his time it was too late to sound a retreat; he could only register a protest against further annexations.

Embracing the whole of the Mediterranean littoral and a large part of the territories to the south, east, and north, the Empire was encumbered with three land frontiers of enormous length. Two of these, the European and the Asiatic, were perpetual sources of anxiety, and called for separate military establishments. That neither might be neglected in the interest of the other it was reasonable to put the imperial power in commission between two colleagues. Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) was the first to adopt this plan; from his time projects of partition were in the air and would have been more regularly carried out, had not experience shown that partitions led naturally to civil wars between rival Emperors. In 395, on the death of the great Theodosius, the hazardous expedient was given a last trial. His youthful sons, Arcadius and Honorius, were allowed to divide the Empire; but the line of partition was drawn with more regard to racial jealousies than military considerations. It extended from the middle Danube (near Belgrade) to a point near Durazzo on the Adriatic coast, and thence to the Gulf of Sidra. East of this line lay the sphere of Greek civilisation, the provinces which looked to Alexandria and Antioch and Constantinople as their natural capitals. West of it the prevailing language was Latin, and the higher classes of society modelled themselves upon the Italian aristocracy.

Founded upon a principle which appeals to our modern respect for nationality, this partition only gave a legal form to a schism which had been long in preparation. But in one respect it was disastrous. The defence of the Danube frontier was divided between the two governments; and that of the East, rating the impoverished Balkan peninsula as of secondary importance, and envisaging the problem from a wholly selfish point of view, left unguarded the great highways leading from the Danube into Italy.

Stilicho, the great general who administered the West in the name of Honorius, ventured to meet this danger by intervening in the peninsula, and even in the political intrigues of Constantinople. He only succeeded in winning a precarious alliance with the Visigoths and the permanent ill-will of the Eastern Empire. He was left to deal single-handed with the first invaders of Italy; and the estrangement of the two imperial courts persisted after his untimely fall. The Western Empire, betrayed by the one possible ally, collapsed under the strain of simultaneous attacks along the whole line of the European frontier.

It has been alleged that the Roman armies were neither so robust nor so well disciplined in the fifth century as they had been in an earlier age. However this may be, they could still give a good account of themselves when matched on equal terms with the most warlike of the barbarians. It was in patriotism and in numbers, rather than in professional efficiency, that they failed when put to the supreme test.

The armies were now largely recruited with barbarians, who numbered more than half the fighting strength and were esteemed the flower of the Roman soldiery. Many of these hirelings showed an open contempt for their employers, and sympathised with the enemies whom they were paid to fight. Furthermore, each army, whatever its constituent elements, tended to be a hereditary caste, with a strong corporate spirit, respecting no authority but that of the general. The soldiers had no civic interests; but they had standing grievances against the Empire. Any political crisis suggested to them the idea of a mutiny led by the general, sometimes to obtain arrears of pay and donatives, sometimes to put their nominee upon the throne. The evil was an old one, dating from the latter days of the Republic, when Marius, in the interests of efficiency, had made military service a profession. But it was aggravated under the successors of Diocletian, as the barbarian element in the armies increased and the Roman element diminished. Its worst effects appeared in the years 406-407. The German inroads upon Italy and Gaul were then followed by the proclamation of military usurpers in Britain and on the Rhine; the Roman West was divided by civil war at the very moment when union was supremely important. Hence the strange spectacle of the Visigoths, still laden with the spoils of Rome, entering Gaul by
invitation of the Empire to fight against imperial armies.

The problem of numbers had been earlier recognised, but not more adequately met. Diocletian is said to have quadrupled the armies, and in the fourth century they were far larger than they had been under Julius and Augustus; Constantine had revised the scheme of frontier-defence to secure the greatest possible economy of men. Still, under Honorius, we find that one vital point could only be defended by withdrawing troops from another. The difficulty of increasing the numbers was twofold.

First, the army was mercenary, and taxation was already strained to the point of diminishing returns. Secondly, it was difficult to raise
recruits among the provincials. The old principle of universal service had been abandoned by Valentinian I (364-375); and although compulsory levies were still made from certain classes, the Government had thought fit to prohibit the enlistment of those who contributed most to taxation. Every citizen was legally liable for the defence of local strongholds; but the use of arms was so unfamiliar, the idea of military service as a national duty was so far forgotten, that Stilicho, when the barbarians were actually in Italy, preferred the desperate measure of enlisting slaves to the obvious resource of a general call to arms.

We find ourselves here confronted with a social malady which was more than an economic weakness. The Empire was, no doubt, a complex and expensive form of government superimposed upon a society which stood at a rudimentary stage of economic development. Barbarous methods of taxation and corrupt practices among the ruling classes had aggravated the burden to such a degree that the municipalities of the provinces were bankrupt, and the middle-class capitalist was taxed out of existence. For this and other reasons the population of the older provinces was stationary or declining. But there was still much wealth in the Empire; and the great landowners of the provinces could raise considerable armies among their dependants when they saw fit to do so. The real evil was a moral evil, the decay of civic virtue.

Ethics, morals and Christianity
We do not mean that the ethics of private life had deteriorated from the standard of the past. This is incredible when we remember that
Christianity was now the all but universal religion of the Empire; for Christianity, at its worst and weakest, laid more stress upon ethical duties, in the narrower sense, than any of the older religions. The provincial was a more moral being than the Goth or the Vandal. It is a mere superstition that every victorious race is chaste and frugal, just and law-abiding; or that ill success in the struggle for existence is a symptom of the contrary vices. In many respects the Greeks who submitted to Philip and Alexander were morally superior to the victors of Salamis and Plataea. Private and political morality may spring from the same root; but the one has often flourished where the other has been stunted. Perhaps this is only natural. Human nature seldom develops equally in all directions. Men who are intensely concerned with the right ordering of their relations to neighbours, friends and family, may well forget the larger community in which their private circle is contained. The Roman provincial had exceptional excuses for remaining indifferent to a state which claimed his loyalty, not in the name of nationality or religion, but in that of reason and the common good. Loyalty for him could only be an intellectual conviction. But, unless he could enter the privileged ranks of the army or the higher civil service, he had no opportunities of studying, still less of helping to decide, the questions of policy and administration with which his welfare was closely though indirectly linked. Political ideas only came before the private citizen under the garb of literature. The most admired authors only taught him to regret republican polities long out of date. The antiquarian enthusiasms which he acquired by his studies were in no way corrected by the experience of daily life. If a townsman, he was legally prohibited from changing his residence and even from travelling about the Empire, for fear that he might evade the tax-collector. If a rural landowner, he lived in a community which was economically self-sufficient, and consequently provincial to the last degree. The types of character which developed under such conditions were not wanting in amiable or admirable traits. The well-to-do provincial was often a scholar, a connoisseur in art and literature, a polished letter-writer and conversationalist, a shrewd observer of his little world, an exemplary husband and father, courteous to inferiors, warm-hearted to his friends. Sometimes he found in religion or philosophy an antidote to the pettiness of daily life, and was roused into rebellion against the materialism of his equals, the greed and the injustice of his rulers. But he despaired of bridging the gulf between the Empire, as he saw it, and the ideal commonwealth--City of God or Republic of the Universe--which his teachers held up to him as the goal of human aspirations. Rather he was inclined, like the just man of Plato, to seek the nearest shelter, to veil his head, and to wait patiently till the storm of violence and wrong should pass away.

It is hard to condemn such conduct when we remember the appalling contrast between the weakness of the individual and the strength of a social order coextensive with civilisation itself. But in this spirit of reasonable submission to a state of things which appeared fundamentally unreasonable, in this conviction that the bad could not be bettered by reforms of detail, there was more danger to society than in the crass indifference of the selfish and the unreflecting. When the natural leaders of society avow that they despair of the future, fatalism spreads like a contagious blight among the rank and file, until even discontent is numbed into silence. Nor does the evil end here. The idealists pay for their contempt of the real, not merely with their fortunes and their lives, but, worse still, with their intellectual patrimony. Just as a government deteriorates when it is no longer tested by continual reference to principles of justice, so a Utopia, however magnificent, fades from the mind of the believer when he ceases to revise it by comparison with facts, when it is no longer a reply to the problems suggested by workaday experience. Life and theory being once divorced, the theorist becomes a vendor of commonplaces, and the plain man is fortified in his conviction that he must take life as he finds it.

The transition to the Middle Ages
This analysis helps us to understand why the Western Empire, on the eve of dissolution, had already assumed the appearance of a semi-barbarian state. In those districts which had been lately settled with Teutonic colonists the phenomenon may be explained as resulting from over-sanguine attempts to civilise an intractable stock. But even in the heart of the oldest provinces the conditions were little better. Law and custom had conspired to sap the ideas and principles that we regard as essentially Roman. The civil was now subjected to the military power. The authority of the state was impaired by the growth of private jurisdictions and defied by the quasi-feudal retinues of the great. For civic equality had been substituted an irrational system of class-privileges and class-burdens. Law was ceasing to be the orderly development of general principles, and was becoming an accumulation of ill-considered, inconsistent edicts. So far had decay advanced through the negligence of those most vitally concerned that, if Europe was ever to learn again the highest lessons which Rome had existed to teach, the first step must be to sweep away the hybrid government which still claimed allegiance in the name of Rome. The provincials of the fifth century possessed the writings in which those lessons were recorded, but possessed them only as symbols of an unintelligible past. A long training in new schools of thought, under new forms of government, was necessary before the European mind could again be brought into touch with the old Roman spirit.

The great service that the barbarians rendered was a service of destruction. In doing so they prepared the way for a return to the past. Their first efforts in reconstruction were also valuable, since the difficulty of the work and the clumsiness of the product revived the respect of men for the superior skill of Rome. In the end the barbarians succeeded in that branch of constructive statesmanship where Rome had failed most signally. The new states which they founded were smaller and feebler than the Western Empire, but furnished new opportunities for the development of individuality, and made it possible to endow citizenship with active functions and moral responsibilities. That these states laboured under manifold defects was obvious to those who made them and lived under them. The ideal of the world-wide Empire, maintaining universal peace and the brotherhood of men, continued to haunt the imagination of the Middle Ages as a lost possibility. But in this case, as so often, what passed for a memory was in truth an aspiration; and Europe was advancing towards a higher form of unity than that which had been destroyed.