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Career of Charlemagne, by Guizot, Francois P. G.

Life of Charlemagne

World History Center

Holy Roman Empire, The
Book: Chapter II: The Roman Empire Before The Invasions Of The Barbarians.
Author: Bryce, James
Date: 1901

Page Two

Chapter II: The Roman Empire Before The Invasions Of The Barbarians.

That ostentation of humility which the subtle policy of Augustus had
conceived, and the jealous hypocrisy of Tiberius maintained, was gradually
dropped by their successors, till despotism became at last recognised in
principle as the government of the Roman Empire. With an aristocracy decayed,
a populace degraded, an army no longer recruited from Italy, the semblance of
liberty that yet survived might be swept away with impunity. Republican forms
had never been known in the provinces at all, and the aspect which the
imperial administration had originally assumed there, soon reacted on its
position in the capital. Earlier rulers had disguised their supremacy by
making a slavish senate the instrument of their more cruel or arbitrary acts.
As time went on, even this veil was withdrawn; and in the age of
SeptimusSeverus, the Emperor stood forth to the whole Roman world as the
single centre and source of power and political action. The warlike character
of the Roman state was preserved in his title of General; his provincial
lieutenants were military governors; and a more terrible enforcement of the
theory was found in his dependence on the army, at once the origin and support
of all authority. But, as he united in himself every function of government,
his sovereignty was civil as well as military. Laws emanated from him; all
officials acted under his commission; the sanctity of his person bordered on
divinity. This increased concentration of power was mainly required by the
necessities of frontier defence, for within there was more decay than
disaffection. Few troops were quartered through the country: few fortresses
checked the march of armies in the struggles which placed Vespasian and
Severus on the throne. The distant crash of war from the Rhine or the
Euphrates was scarcely heard or heeded in the profound quiet of the
Mediterranean coasts, where, with piracy, fleets had disappeared. No quarrels
of race or religion disturbed that calm, for all national distinctions were
becoming merged in the idea of a common Empire. The gradual extension of
Roman citizenship through the coloniae, the working of the equalized and
equalizing Roman law, the even pressure of the government on all subjects, the
movement of population caused by commerce and the slave traffic, were steadily
assimilating the various peoples. Emperors who were for the most part natives
of the provinces cared little to cherish Italy or conciliate Rome: it was
their policy to keep open for every subject a career by whose freedom they had
themselves risen to greatness, and to recruit the senate from the most
illustrious families in the cities of Gaul, Spain, and Asia. The edict by
which Caracalla extended to all natives of the Roman world the rights of Roman
citizenship, though prompted by no motives of kindness, proved in the end a
boon. Annihilating legal distinctions, it completed the work which trade and
literature and toleration to all beliefs but one were already performing, and
left, so far as we can tell, only one nation still cherishing a national
feeling. The Jew was kept apart by his religion: but the Jewish people was
already dispersed over the world. Speculative philosophy lent her aid to this
general assimilation. Stoicism, with its doctrine of a universal system of
nature, made minor distinctions between man and man seem insignificant: and by
its teachers the idea of cosmopolitanism was for the first time proclaimed.
Alexandrian Neo-Platonism, uniting the tenets of many schools, first bringing
the mysticism of the East into connection with the logical philosophies of
Greece, had opened up a new ground of agreement or controversy for the minds
of all the world. Yet Rome's commanding position was scarcely shaken. Her
actual power was indeed confined within narrow limits. Rarely were her senate
and people permitted to choose the sovereign: more rarely still could they
control his policy; neither law nor custom raised them above other subjects,
or accorded to them any advantage in the career of civil or military ambition.
As in time past Rome had sacrificed domestic freedom that she might be the
mistress of others, so now to be universal, she, the conqueror, had descended
to the level of the conquered. But the sacrifice had not wanted its reward.
From her came the laws and the language that had overspread the world: at her
feet the nations laid the offerings of their labour: she was the head of the
Empire and of civilization, and in riches, fame, and splendour far outshone as
well the cities of that time as the fabled glories of Babylon or Persepolis.

Scarcely had these slowly-working influences brought about this unity,
when other influences began to threaten it. New foes assailed the frontiers;
while the loosening of the structure within was shewn by the long struggles
for power which followed the death or deposition of each successive emperor.
In the period of anarchy after the fall of Valerian, generals were raised by
their armies in every part of the Empire, and ruled great provinces as
monarchs apart, owning no allegiance to the possessor of the capital.

The founding of the kingdoms of modern Europe might have been anticipated
by two hundred years, had the barbarians been bolder, or had there not arisen
in Diocletian a prince active and politic enough to bind up the fragments
before they had lost all cohesion, meeting altered conditions by new remedies.
By dividing and localizing authority, he confessed that the weaker heart could
no longer make its pulsations felt to the body's extremities. He parcelled
out the supreme power among four persons, and then sought to give it a
factitious strength, by surrounding it with an oriental pomp which his earlier
predecessors would have scorned. The sovereign's person became more sacred,
and was removed further from the subject by the interposition of a host of
officials. The prerogative of Rome was menaced by the rivalry of Nicomedia,
and the nearer greatness of Milan. Constantine trod in the same path,
extending the system of titles and functionaries, separating the civil from
the military, placing counts and dukes along the frontiers and in the cities,
making the household larger, its etiquette stricter, its offices more
important, though to a Roman eye degraded by their attachment to the monarch's
person. The crown became, for the first time, the fountain of honour. These
changes brought little good. Heavier taxation depressed the aristocracy ^1:
population decreased, agriculture withered, serfdom spread: it was found more
difficult to raise native troops and to pay any troops whatever. The removal
of the seat of power to Byzantium, if it prolonged the life of a part of the
Empire, shook it as a whole, by making the separation of East and West
inevitable. By it Rome's self-abnegation that she might Romanize the world,
was completed; for though the new capital preserved her name, and followed her
customs and precedents, yet now the imperial sway ceased to be connected with
the city which had created it. Thus did the idea of Roman monarchy become more
universal; for, having lost its local centre, it subsisted no longer
historically, but, so to speak, naturally, as a part of an order of things
which a change in external conditions seemed incapable of disturbing.
Henceforth the Empire would be unaffected by the disasters of the city. And
though, after the partition of the Empire had been confirmed by Valentinian,
and finally settled on the death of Theodosius, the seat of the Western
government was removed first to Milan and then to Ravenna, neither event
destroyed Rome's prestige, nor the notion of a single imperial nationality
common to all her subjects. The Syrian, the Pannonian, the Briton, the
Spaniard, still called himself a Roman ^2.

[Footnote 1: According to the vicious financial system that prevailed, the
curiales in each city were required to collect the taxes, and when there was a
deficit, to supply it from their own property.]

[Footnote 2: See the eloquent passage of Claudian, In secundum consulatum
Stilichonis, 129, sqq., from which the following lines are taken (150-160): -

'Haec est in gremio victos quae sola recepit,
Humanumque genus communi nomine fovit,
Matris, non dominae, ritu; civesque vocavit
Quos domuit, nexuque pio longinqua revinxit.
Hujus pacificis debemus moribus omnes
Quod veluti patriis re ionibus utitur hospes:
Quod sedem mutare licet: quod cernere Thulen
Lusus, et horrendos quondam penetrare recessus:
Quod bibimus passim Rhodanum, potamus Oronten,
Quod cuncti gens una sumus. Nec terminus unquam
Romanae ditionis erit.']

For that nationality was now beginning to be supported by a new and
vigorous power. The Emperors had indeed opposed it as disloyal and
revolutionary: had more than once put forth their whole strength to root it
out. But the unity of the Empire, and the ease of communication through its
parts, had favoured the spread of Christianity: persecution had scattered the
seeds more widely, had forced on it a firm organization, had given it
martyr-heroes and a history. When Constantine, partly perhaps from a genuine
moral sympathy, yet doubtless far more in the well-grounded belief that he had
more to gain from the zealous sympathy of its professors than he could lose by
the aversion of those who still cultivated a languid paganism, took
Christianity to be the religion of the Empire, it was already a great
political force, able, and not more able than willing, to repay him by aid and
submission. Yet the league was struck in no mere mercenary spirit, for the
league was inevitable. Of the evils and dangers incident to the system then
founded, there was as yet no experience: of that antagonism between Church and
State which to a modern appears so natural, there was not even an idea. Among
the Jews, the State had rested upon religion; among the Romans, religion had
been an integral part of the political constitution, a matter far more of
national or tribal or family feeling than of personal ^1. Both in Israel and
at Rome the mingling of religious with civic patriotism had been harmonious,
giving strength and elasticity to the whole body politic. So perfect a union
was now no longer possible in the Roman Empire, for the new faith had already
a governing body of her own in those rulers and teachers whom the growth of
sacramentalism, and of sacerdotalism its necessary consequence, was making
every day more powerful, and marking off more sharply from the mass of the
Christian people. Since therefore the ecclesiastical organization could not
be identical with the civil, it became its counterpart. Suddenly called from
danger and ignominy to the seat of power, and finding her inexperience
perplexed by a sphere of action vast and varied, the Church was compelled to
frame herself upon the model of the secular administration. Where her own
machinery was defective, as in the case of doctrinal disputes affecting the
whole Christian world, she sought the interposition of the sovereign; in all
else she strove not to sink in, but to reproduce for herself the imperial
system. And just as with the extension of the Empire all the independent
rights of districts, towns, or tribes had disappeared, so now the primitive
freedom and diversity of individual Christians and local Churches, already
circumscribed by the frequent struggles against heresy, was finally overborne
by the idea of one visible catholic Church, uniform in faith and ritual;
uniform too in her relation to the civil power and the increasingly
oligarchical character of her government. Thus, under the combined force of
doctrinal theory and practical needs, there shaped itself a hierarchy of
patriarchs, metropolitans, and bishops, their jurisdiction, although still
chiefly spiritual, enforced by the laws of the State, their provinces and
dioceses usually corresponding to the administrative divisions of the Empire.
As no patriarch yet enjoyed more than an honorary supremacy, the head of the
Church - so far as she could be said to have a head - was virtually the
Emperor himself. The apparent right to intermeddle in religious affairs which
he derived from the office of Pontifex Maximus was readily admitted; and the
clergy, preaching the duty of passive obedience now as it had been preached in
the days of Nero and Diocletian ^2, were well pleased to see him preside in
councils, issue edicts against heresy, and testify even by arbitrary measures
his zeal for the advancement of the faith and the overthrow of pagan rites.
But though the tone of the Church remained humble, her strength waxed greater,
nor were occasions wanting which revealed the future that was in store for
her. The resistance and final triumph of Athanasius proved that the new
society could put forth a power of opinion such as had never been known
before: the abasement of Theodosius the Emperor before Ambrose the Archbishop
admitted the supremacy of spiritual authority. In the decrepitude of old
institutions, in the barrenness of literature and the feebleness of art, it
was to the Church that the life and feelings of the people sought more and
more to attach themselves; and when in the fifth century the horizon grew
black with clouds of ruin, those who watched with despair or apathy the
approach of irresistible foes, fled for comfort to the shrine of a religion
which even those foes revered.

[Footnote 1: In the Roman jurisprudence, ius sacrum is a branch of ius

[Footnote 2: Tertullian, writing circ. A.D. 200, says: 'Sed quid ego amplius
de religione atque pietate Christiana in imperatorem quem necesse est
suspiciamus ut eum quem Dominus noster elegerit. Et merito dixerim, noster
est magis Caesar, ut a nostro Deo constitutus.' - Apologet. cap. 34.]

But that which we are above all concerned to remark here is, that this
church system, demanding a more rigid uniformity in doctrine and organization,
making more and more vital the notion of a visible body of worshippers united
by participation in the same sacraments, maintained and propagated afresh the
feeling of a single Roman people throughout the world. Christianity as well as
civilization became conterminous with the Roman Empire ^1

[Footnote 1: See the book of Optatus, bishop of Milevis, Contra Donatistas.
'Non enim respublica est in ecclesia, sed ecclesia in republica, id est, in
imperio Romano, cum super imperatorem non sit nisi solus Deus:' (p. 999 of
vol. ii. of Migne's Patrologiae Cursus completus.) The treatise of Optatus is
full of interest, as shewing the growth of the idea of the visible Church, and
of the primacy of Peter's chair, as constituting its centre and representing
its unity.]