Reading this book has filled my imagination with colorful items to replace the empty concept "Dark Ages" set in my liberal arts historical curriculum. My own study of this period has been sketchy at best and I have experienced a pleasant way to flesh out many ideas. The centuries that span the rule of Constantine who moved the Empire from Rome to Byzantium until the rule of Charlemagne who wanted to consolidate Church and Empire in Rome have up to now been something of a black hole in my recollection of history. I was aware from grade school days that Constantine had moved from Rome to Byzantium and renamed the city for himself. I also could remember learning in high school that on Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne was crowned "Holy Roman Emperor." Christmas Day was easy for me to remember, as it probably was for the people of the ninth century. The dictum of my teacher at the time also stuck: The rule of Charlemagne was not holy, was not Roman and was not an empire and this meant precious little to me then. I now have pasted a healthy sized band-aide over my black hole and it is with much greater awareness that I read
Charlemagne was born among the Franks (c.750) and first visited Rome during Easter of 774. The young and zealous king joined religious goals to his military efforts and one day gave 5,000 conquered opponents the choice of death or baptism. Five hundred chose baptism and presumably 4,500 were baptized in their own blood. When he left Rome he was King of the Lombards as well as King of the Franks.
Constantine grew up in the east a hostage in Diocletian's court and became a defender of the empire against the first wave of barbarians, those roaming people from a land that was later to gain the name of Europe and who are ancestors to most Western people. They were called "barbarians" by Romans who could not understand any language other that Latin or Greek. Constantine entered Rome the first time as a victorious warrior. For reasons of safety, or perhaps attachment to his own youthful memories, Constantine chose to settle the capital of the Empire near Byzantium, attempting to fuse the sacred culture developing in Rome to a political power that was beginning to deteriorate.
When the cities near Rome fell to the newcomers the people began to rely more on their bishops, while at the same time those of the East identified more with their rulers. From 500 to 1000 there was a gradual split in communication, in leadership, in culture and in theological tenants. I see here the makings of a rift in the Church at a time earlier than I previously thought. Today we name it East and West, Orthodox and Roman. The division seems to be as much political and cultural as it is religious.
The author takes a theme of filling in details between 324 and 800 CE. The "fall of the Roman Empire" is truly not something that happened one day so we could go on to the chapter about the Middle Ages. The population of Rome dropped from one million to 100 thousand, as citizens fled or died. Over time some of the intruders chose to remain in various capacities. The Lombards who filtered into what was later called Italy did so gradually. Some of them remained as farmers, introducing an alternative to military conquest and plundering fruits from the conquered. Some became Roman citizens and served in the Senate and others took their turn in the Roman Army.
Cultural development and theological distinctions meandered through many decades before focussing on things we now take for granted. The first Councils were emergency affairs attempting resolution for variant ideas about Christ and God. I can imagine the discussions (and bloodshed) it took to center in on an idea of Christ having two natures and being one person and another idea of a God with only one nature and being manifest in three Persons. Anyone who put emphasis on variants of the doctrine was labeled heretic and subject to persecution. In 318 the bishops, guests at the first council held at Nicaea, honed the creed that to this day is recited in our liturgies.
Jerome, born probably in 347, lived 72 years and made a single-handed contribution to the Roman hold on sacred writings, translating all the books of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. He may have been an arrogant, eloquent and satiric scholar, but his version of the Scriptures persisted in Latin and translations into all the Western languages until Martin Luther produced a German translation and the Jerusalem Bible scholars published a complete work for 20th Century Christians. Jerome unified the Roman hold on sacred matters through the Latin language, but his choice of words offered many seeds of vague understandings. Hypostasis, for example, in the Greek referred to an acting subject, a person. The translation for the Vulgate was "substance," taking us into a more static view of the nature of Christ.
This book reads for me as a story, as good history ought to be. People who seem very real parade across my view, reminding me of some familiar things and conjuring up many new ideas. Augustine of Hippo was early, 354-430 CE, baptized in time by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Benedict, born 480 CE, founded the monastery at Subiaco in 525 and died 545. Boniface II, 530-537, was the first Pope of barbaric ancestry (German) and used synods to discipline wayward priests and bishops. The practice continues to our own painful and troubled times.
Pope Gregory I, 540-604 CE, a Roman patrician who was governor of Rome and a great-great grandson of Pope Felix II encouraged monasteries. His works earned him the title "The Great." He restored the fortunes of a ravaged city, suggested to the people ways to farm and feed themselves and was later blamed for the rampant starvation. Theodelinda, wife of King Agiluf about 600 CE, could contact the Lombards more effectively than the male rulers. Pope Gregory II, 715 - 731, was the first monk to become a pope and taught that "even wicked lay rulers are to be obeyed."
I wondered through the developing structures that are so familiar to us today, "How were sacraments truly dispersed with no common agreement about rubrics?" Clearly, the body of the people called Church muddled through with less than perfect distinctions.
An old question now takes on a new light for me. Did Rome conquer the Church or did the Church conquer Rome? The development presented in this book seems to be less a take-over than a transformation. The Romans had incorporated Greek into their culture, and became a sacred center for the people. Constantinople was more stable as a political geography. The Church of Rome modified Roman civilization, assuming the language and governmental structure. Jerome elevated Hebrew and Greek scriptures to a current "style." The Church in Rome and pagan Rome developed into the Roman Church, coming together as both sacred symbol and giver of Laws.
The eight centuries described here contain seeds for most of our present day phenomena. The Roman Church reached out, related to new people as good missionaries. The barbarians were no longer a threat. The combined peoples accepted Roman administration, roads, law, and plumbing and transmitted an inheritance from roots beyond Rome.
Out of the disarray that was a crumbling political structure came an established and structured Church. Hosts of marauding peoples were included into a spiritual society that turned outward to many parts of a world. From the chaotic wars and migrations developed a myriad of European cultures spreading to the North American continent and beyond.