01. Course Introduction: Rome’s Greatness and First Crises


PAUL FREEDMAN: So
welcome to History 210, The Early Middle Ages. I’m Paul Freedman. And behind this innocuous
title “The Early Middle Ages”– I think we’re going to have
to jazz it up a little. I think we’re going to put an
exclamation mark on it, at least. But behind this innocuous
title, you will see, I hope, if you stay for this
course, a strange course. Strange, not because it covers
the particular period 250 to 1000, but because it starts
out very recognizable, and gets stranger and stranger, and
seems to dissolve into a kind of a hard to grasp world. Hard to grasp, but fun. I will talk about both the
strangeness and the fun aspects in more detail. There are several great themes
in this span of centuries: the fall of the Roman Empire; its
survival in the East, as the Byzantine Empire; the so-called
barbarian invasions and kingdoms, set up on the
ruins of the Roman Empire; the triumph of Christianity, which
went from being an outlawed minority religion to the
established faith of the Roman Empire; and then survived
the extinction of the Roman Empire. We have two Teaching Fellows:
Lauren Mancia, sitting at this end, and Agnieszka Rec standing
in that corner. So far, there are sections
scheduled for Wednesday at 4 o’clock and Friday at 10:30. We’ll probably have two
other sections. We’ll see how large the
class is next week. Let me know if those
two section times– well, probably, the sections
to be added would be on Thursday: Thursday afternoon,
and Thursday evening. Let me know if you have some
special problem in terms of the scheduling of
the sections. As I said, when some of you were
already here, I’ll have some pauses, so that if you are
shopping and want to look at another course, it’ll be, if
not easy, at least possible for you to get up and leave.
So I’ll have several pauses during the presentation. But, I should say, I do want
to give a full class discussion today, or
presentation today. We only have so many opportunities to discuss things. And I’d like to set
the scene for you. And I think that will also help
you decide about taking this course. Now, this course is part of the
Yale Open Courses Program. And, as you probably know,
there are lots of– well, a select number, but a
substantial number, of courses that are offered free to the
public via the Internet. And this is one of them
for the fall. And I take this opportunity to
greet our Internet students and Internet friends. So since it’s part of this
project, a Yale University broadcast team will be recording
all the classes. And they’ll be as unobtrusive
as possible. The classroom experience will be
essentially as it would be if they’re not there. And it’s their intention to
videotape me, and not you, so neither your faces nor voices
are supposed to appear. Your questions are unlikely
to be heard. I will repeat the questions, so
that people watching this on the Internet will
have an idea. And I do encourage questions,
both things that you haven’t understood or things
for elucidation. I have a slightly more formal
lecture style than some people, perhaps. I try to have a reasonably
structured lecture that doesn’t wander off too much. Some of you have taken courses
from me and know I have certain themes, or
preoccupations, or diversions. But I’m going to try to be as
coherent as possible, partly because we are filming. So I hope that you’re
enthusiastic about the fact that we are participating in
this Yale Open Courses initiative. And, having said that, now you
should just think it away. The broadcast team is not
very conspicuous. And the objective is for us to
interact in the classroom as we normally would. And this is part of the unique
experience of teaching and learning at Yale, so don’t
hesitate to ask me if you have any questions or concerns. The syllabus, you all
have copies of the syllabus, I believe. And, of course, you’ll have
seen it on the server. The books are at Yale
Bookstore, and they are all there. I hope there will be
enough copies; if not, we will get more. The first assignment is,
conveniently in this sense, from the course pack. The course pack is at
TYCO, the photocopy place on Elm Street. If you don’t know where
that is let us know. And the assignments for Monday
and Wednesday, those first two assignments are from Peter
Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity and A. H. M. Jones’
Constantine and the Conversion of Western Europe. Questions so far? Right. OK. So the requirements that you
see on the syllabus are a short paper that’s due
October the 10th. A mid-term, that will be held
in class October 17th. And a long paper, which
is due December 5th. That long paper is
a research paper. And we’ll be glad to help you
choose a topic, offer you suggestions, help you
get started on that. It’s 15 to 20 pages, and it
counts for 40% of your grade. The mid-term counts 30% of the
grade; the short paper 20%, and your section grade is 10%. Now, this course does not have
onerous requirements. But I expect you to do the
requirements that we have. There’s no final exam. I urge you to blot out of your
mind the temptation not to do the reading because there’s no
final exam, or the reading of the second part of the course. And if we think that this is a
problem, judging on the basis of how the sections go, we
reserve the possibility of giving you quizzes in the
section in the section [correction: second] half of the course. Paper times, I’m going
to be firm on this. I can’t say absolutely no
extensions on the paper, because I acknowledge the
existence of overwhelming emergencies. But let me give you an example
of an excuse that’s not going to be accepted: “I have
three other papers due that week.” OK? Plan in advance. We are at your disposal. If you want to plan your final
paper tomorrow, hey, this afternoon, talk to me. I’m eager to hear from
you about that. In the sections, we don’t want
you to bring laptops. And the reason for that is, not
that we think you’re going to be Facebooking or answering
your email, because we know that you never do that. The laptops, in our experience,
interfere with the purpose of the section,
which is partly to talk to each other. And rather than focusing on
the screen, and then, in a sense, being a series, of
archipelago of little islands, rather than a section, in the
sense of give and take and interchange. If you think that that imposes
some kind of hardship on you, I think you’ll find that
it is pleasant. And if there’s some technical
hardship, let me know. So logistical questions? Questions about the organization
in the course, or any other aspect of this? Good, that means that
I’m clearer than on some occasions. So, if anybody wants to leave
now, this is one opportunity. But, since it looks like I have
your attention riveted, let me introduce the course in
terms of its actual content. We are beginning by looking
at the crisis of the Roman Empire. And then we will be looking
at its peculiar legacy. In the year 1000, where we stop,
we will still be dealing with The Inheritance of the
Roman Empire, the title of Chris Wickham’s book, one of the
books that we’re going to be using a lot. The legacy is peculiar because,
while the memory of the Roman Empire remains intact
throughout the period, and beyond– I mean, to this day, the
head of the Catholic Church is in Rome. Until 1960, the transactions of
the papacy were in Latin: the services of the Church were
in Latin, the Catholic Church were in Latin. And Latin remains the official
language of the Catholic church in its administrative
head. So the most faithful preserver
of Rome and its legacy, historically, is the
Catholic Church. And this is a paradox because
the Church begins its career, and, indeed, its first
250 years, as illegal in the Roman empire. And, indeed, there are periodic
persecutions where people were punished, including
killed, because they were Christian. The most faithful preserver of
Rome, however, after the fifth century collapse of the Empire
in the West, is the so-called Byzantine Empire– the Byzantine Empire with
its headquarters in Constantinople. Despite the fact that it would
abandon Latin for Greek in the sixth century and turn into
a very different kind of political and cultural entity,
the Byzantine Empire went down in flames to the Turks in 1453
still as the Roman Empire. That was its official
name to the end. Another heir to the Roman
Empire, in a sense, is Islam, which begins in the seventh
century, in the middle of our period. I don’t have to emphasize
to you the historical importance of Islam. But our task is to understand
its origin and its astonishing expansion in terms of this
era, 250 to 1000. To understand it in terms of
its times, and thus how it arises and interacts with the
Roman and Byzantine as well as, offstage, the Persian,
Empires that it either destroys or weakens in the
seventh and eighth centuries. Mohammed was from outside the
former empire, from Arabia, and may be said to represent
a very different kind of set of ideas. But the power of Islam would,
for centuries, be concentrated in areas of the former Roman
Empire: the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Egypt, Syria,
North Africa. Of course, in the latter, it
still is the overwhelming majority religion. And Islam then brings up a sort
of question that I’m not going to deal with directly very
much, but that will be at the back of our minds, and
that is relevance. This is a pre-industrial course;
it’s in the very pre-industrial category in
terms of requirements. It’s far away; it’s distant. That is part of its appeal,
I think, is as I said, its strangeness. But the lessons from the
material covered in this course are perhaps these– worth thinking about. How, perhaps the most
successful, multi-cultural empire of Western history, how
it did that, how it endured for so long. The success of the
Roman Empire and why it finally failed. And in that failure, how
does a rich, literate, well-developed society come
to be destroyed by a more primitive one? Primitive, at least, in the
sense of material culture, economic complexity,
urbanization, and literacy. Another important lesson is the
power of religious ideas, not only intrinsically as part
of people’s lives and outlook, but socially and historically:
how religion affects the political course of history. Having said this, I think I did
mention, I was going to tell you what was fun
about this course. This is what I think is fun,
and I’ve already kind of alluded to this. We begin with a familiar world,
in the sense that the Roman Empire, although obviously
not technologically the same as the one we live in,
is a very advanced society and a very complex one. Advanced? Well, go to Europe and look
around, and see the engineering feats
of the Romans. See the public life that the
baths, stadia, temples, law courts, marketplaces, whose
ruins still, in many instances, dwarf the towns that
survived around them. See what an accomplishment
that is. It is a huge empire, a
bureaucratic empire, one with lots of literate people, a
huge army, a huge civil service, a lot of commerce back
and forth, all things that are familiar to us. But as it weakens and collapses,
you get a kind of, if not post-apocalyptic,
at least transformative experience. It gets stranger and stranger,
more and more disorganized, harder to understand
at first grasp. Basically we begin in the Shire
and we end up in more dangerous territories. It’s hard to describe the
territory that we end up in, but that is what I think is
intriguing about the course. You start out in a familiar
world, and it just becomes something alien, but,
I think, appealing. Appealing, but I do have
one warning for you. Or one thing that I have seen
students surprised at, and sometimes even annoyed at. And that is, we’ve got to talk
about religion: both Christianity and Islam, and,
to a more limited extent, Judaism, and also paganism,
for that matter. But the one that tends to bother
people actually is Christianity. So sometimes people will say,
I thought I was taking a History course, and this
turned into a Religious Studies course before my eyes. We’re going to have to talk
about some heresies. You’re going to have to
understand, actually, what people are fighting and killing
each other over, when they talk about the nature of
Christ, or the relationship among the three persons
of the Trinity. This is unfamiliar, but, again,
I think unfamiliarity is good for us. And unfamiliarity has a funny
way of turning into familiar. When I started teaching– well, dinosaurs weren’t walking
the earth, but they’d just departed, primitive birds
and early mammals– the assumption was that
religion was safely– religion as a political
movement, not religion as a personal commitment, but
religion as something that had an impact on politics was pretty
safely gone, and that it was a feature of
medieval history. Obviously the last years have
shown us, in many ways, the power of religious ideas. The power of religious ideas,
not solely personally, but collectively; not solely
as sentiments, but as political movements. So we begin with the crisis of
the Empire, the first crisis of the Empire in the
third century AD. If we go back just
before that– this isn’t officially part of
the course, this is like the chef offers you this little
amuse-bouche, this little snack to begin the meal. The period of the Good Emperors,
the second century AD– the term the Good Emperor
is a term popularized by the great historian of The Decline
and Fall of The Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, who wrote
in the 18th century. And it’s one of those works
that, whatever its myriad factual and interpretive
inaccuracies, still sets the program for how we look at the
decadence and collapse of the Roman Empire. Gibbon says, “If a man were
called upon to fix the period in history of the world during
which the condition of the human race was most happy and
prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which
elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus
Aurelius,” that is, 96 to 180 AD. He goes on, “Their united reigns
are possibly the only period in which the happiness of
a great people was the sole object of government.” So it’s
this period of the so-called Good Emperors against which the
subsequent decline traced in Gibbon’s monumental work
would take place. Now, as opposed to Gibbon, we’re
not so confident that the Roman Empire was
so wonderful for everybody involved. We have a somewhat
more egalitarian outlook than Gibbon. Gibbon never says, oh, well,
what about the slaves? Or what about the peasant, or
hey, the position of the women in society? But more than that, I think we
have some more doubt and hesitation as to whether any
state, particularly any powerful state, necessarily
represents a standard of virtue or happiness. For the poor, the smooth
functioning of the Roman government was less important
than it was for the propertied classes. Because the Roman state, like
most states, in so far as it practiced the rule of law, was
set up to guarantee property, not rights. And you’ll see Wickham, when
we come to read him, he emphasizes, in the chapter on
the burden of rule in the Roman Empire– this is for September 19th– the Roman Empire was
not organized to reward ordinary people. To different degrees, and at
varying times, it did rely on slave labor. This is easy to exaggerate. It’s not a slave society. It’s not an overwhelmingly
slave-owning society, but certainly many of its
enterprises involved slavery. Its laws were designed to
protect the property of the wealthy, rather than to mete
out equal justice. Rome was an imperial power,
and, as I will say in a moment, it was an
extraordinarily tolerant one. But it was tolerant as long as
you conformed to their image of civilization. Like many great imperial powers,
it assumed that there were certain areas of life
that were optional. They were very tolerant
with regard to religion, for example. But their definition
of civilization was being like us. They were generous about that. They would make citizens of
people from the Celtic lands of Britain to Egypt. But this meant conforming to
a certain set of standards, beliefs, assumptions,
and a way of life. Another thing that we now would
dissent from Gibbon about is the efficiency
of the Roman Empire. To Gibbon, in the 18th century,
the Roman Empire appeared a marvel
of efficiency. But really, how could
it be efficient? The distances were so long,
and travel was so slow. This is an empire that took
weeks and weeks to traverse in the state of communications. And we know, from contemporary
times that, even with great communications, indeed, with
instantaneous communications, it’s very hard to hold
states together. And, in fact, one of the things
that’s happened in the last 50 years is the
weakening of the state, strangely enough. Strangely, because what people
thought was going to happen is what had been going on in the
20th century generally. States had become more and more
powerful, more and more dictatorial, more and
more tyrannical. And, indeed, George Orwell’s
1984, written in the post-war era in the late 1940s, assumes
that totalitarianism is what’s going to be generalized. In fact, it turns out
that the problem is not so much the state– look at the great states of the
mid-20th century: one no longer exists, the Soviet Union,
and the other, the United States– whatever our strengths are–
it doesn’t seem to be the extraordinary power of the
central government, which is, in fact, much reduced from what
is was in, say, 1950, by any measurement. So we have a different
idea of the state. We’re more aware of the
limitations of state power in past times. We’re more aware of the
discrepancy between the rhetoric of power– and no
polity equals the Roman Empire for its ceremonies of power, its
architecture of power, its culture of power. But the emperor, in fact,
however glorious, however much in the third century was
worshiped as a god, his power was limited. His power was limited
in terms of enforcement, if not in theory. And this will be important
because, right from the start, we’re going to assess the
accomplishments of the Emperor Diocletian, at the end of third
century, and the Emperor Constantine, beginning of the
fourth century, who may be said to have saved the
empire from collapse. The thing about the Roman Empire
that is indisputable, and does not have a value
judgment attached to it, is that it was enduring. The Roman Empire lasted
for an incredibly long time; it was stable. In the year 410 the Visigoths
sacked, plundered Rome. They entered the city of Rome,
this so-called barbarian tribe, and they pillaged it. They pillaged it in a fairly
orderly way, but, nevertheless, they
pillaged it. This was the first time this
had happened in the city of Rome in something on the
order of 800 years. The Empire itself,
by this time, was nearly 400 years old. The other indisputable
accomplishment of the Roman Empire is that it controlled
the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was its
center, referred to often as Mare Nostrum, as our sea. Our sea because they controlled
all of the shoreline of the
Mediterranean– the only power that has
ever done that. There have been great empires:
the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Caliphate,
but none of them controlled more than
about 40% of the Mediterranean at any one time. So even if we dissent from
Gibbon’s calm assurance that the best period of human history
was the era of the Good Emperors in the second
century AD, we shouldn’t minimize the accomplishments
of this empire and of this era. To live in security, with
respect to both outside enemies and internal disorder,
essentially peace and the rule of law, was unusual. And, unfortunately,
it remains so. Rome was an immense empire. It stretched from England
to the Sahara, from Spain to Armenia. It had a common language of
administration, Latin. And two cultural languages,
Greek and Latin, understood by the elite from one end of
the empire to the other. The cities were not walled
until the third century. Gibbon, in particular,
emphasizes the tolerance of Rome, which appealed to his
innate anti-clericalism. And, as many of you know, his
explanation for the fall of the Empire was Christianity. It was Christianity that
weakened the Empire, weakened its elite, turns its attention
to foolish controversies over Trinitarian or Christological
concerns, when they should have been concentrating
on the barbarians. This is not accepted anymore,
for reasons that will become clearer in these first
few weeks. And its appeal though, the idea
of toleration, is very important to Gibbon, writing
in the 18th century, when Europe had just emerged from
centuries of religious wars. Having seen the wars of the
Reformation, well not literally, he hadn’t lived
through them, but being the inheritor of these religious
wars, of the Thirty Years War in Germany in the 17th
century, of religious controversy in Britain, Gibbon,
like many members of the Enlightenment generation he
was part of, thought that the world would be far better if
religion remained either an exclusively private matter
or just disappeared. So for him, the villain in
history, and in particular, the villain in Roman history
is religion. But, however tolerant, of
course, Rome drew the line at Christianity, for reasons
we shall discuss. But it is still, historically,
quite unusual that the Empire should have permitted all of
these other religions. Indeed, rather than regarding,
say, the religions of Egypt as inferior, they simply brought
those gods in. Monday, you might
worship Zeus. And Tuesday, hey, if you wanted
to see if Isis was going to help you with your
impending business deal, why not go and see an
Egyptian temple? So its eclectic. It’s a little bit like the
way Americans dine out. It makes no sense to most
people, in most of the world, to say something like, “Oh, I
don’t want Japanese food. I had that for lunch.” If
you’re in Japan you’re expected to have Japanese food
for lunch and for dinner, and the same with Italian food. The same is true of religion,
most people don’t just say, “Oh, I don’t want to go to
Presbyterian Church this weekend, I’m going to go worship
at a Buddhist temple, just for a change.” This
is more in the nature of Roman religion. So this kind of tolerance
is unusual. So tolerance, tolerance is a
real virtue of the Empire, even if it’s limited. Real virtue because it’s
unusual, historically. Peace– the Roman Empire spent half of
its state budget on the army. On the other hand, no empire
this large could be held together by military
means alone. It was held together by an elite
that shared notions of civilization, that made certain
sacrifices for the public good. Those games, the circuses, the
competitions, the ceremonies were usually paid for by private
people, not by the state, for example. It is an urban civilization,
with an elite that is urban. The cities held their
local gods. They had local administration. They built aqueducts, temples,
law courts, all these edifices that I mentioned earlier. It was a cosmopolitan
way of life. So it’s diverse in the sense
that there are many different peoples, but unified, in the
sense that the elite shares a common language, and even the city planning
is the same. If you went to London or you
went to Timgad, in what’s now the Algerian desert, you’d
know your way around. You’d know where to find
the marketplace. You’d know that it was
laid out in a grid. You’d know where the law courts
would be in relation to the temples. You could find your way, just
as if you get off the interstate, you know that there
will be a Wendy’s or a Denny’s or a Shell station. And it would be an exceptional
place that didn’t have them. If you couldn’t find a Home
Depot, even without benefit of technical aids, getting off an
exit of the average interstate highway then you don’t live in
America, or you haven’t been here very long. So the same thing, there’s a
sort of a mental picture of what a city looks like,
from one end of the empire to the other. But it is an empire that
is centered around the Mediterranean, and not just
logistically or politically, but culturally. For the Romans, their empire
included lands where olive trees didn’t grow, and where
wine grapes didn’t flourish, but those places were not places
they wanted to live. They wanted to control them,
but they were beyond civilization. So a government official on
the Danube, in what’s now Hungary, writes home complaining
that, quote, “The inhabitants lead the most
miserable of lives for they cultivate no olives and they
drink no wine, end of story. And you could imagine, there’s
a certain kind of East Coast discourse on the order of, “They
have blueberry bagels out here, I can’t live here.”
Or, you know, the nearest Starbucks is 30 miles away,
and there’s no substitute. This is an impressive
empire then. So, its flaws– it has an imbalance between the
urban and the rural, not as great as historians once
thought, but it is dominated by cities that depend on
peasants, but that tend to drain the land of
its vitality. It’s also imbalanced East-West.
Strangely enough, for an empire that was founded
in the West, by the time we start, the East is
more prosperous. It’s more urban. It has more trade. It’s better organized,
more commercial. Another flaw of this
empire is its size. It works for a long time, and
then, when it doesn’t work, this becomes a real problem. And then the army– the army in the third century
discovers that it can make and unmake emperors. So the immediate crisis of the
third century, which lasts from 235 to the accession of
Diocletian in 284, is that it has dozens and dozens
of emperors. Most reign for less
than three years. All but one die violently. So the two things are linked,
the power of the army to proclaim an emperor, and the
inability of that emperor to keep this power before the army
or an army somewhere, in one province or another, rises
up another emperor and kills the former one. So it’s a durable empire, but
an unwieldy, and in certain respects, exhausted one. So in the first part of the
course, we’re going to look at how this empire functioned. And we’re going to look at
its two great crises. The first of them, this third
century crisis, which involves all these many different
emperors, also has invasions from Persia, also has the first
indications of barbarian invasions across the frontier
of the Danube and the Rhine rivers, but it survives
this first crisis. And that is the accomplishment
of Diocletian, about whom you’re going to be reading. The second crisis, that of the
fifth century, is similar, in many respects, but more
final in its results. The fifth century crisis
witnesses the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the
fall of the Roman Empire of Gibbon, that Gibbon made famous,
and that continues to inspire a certain amount of
fascination and fear today. So here are some questions that
should be in the back of your mind, at least, while
you do this reading for the first few weeks. When we’re talking about the
collapse or weakening of the Roman empire, did this happen
because of foreign threats or internal weakness? The rhetorical topos, and it’s
often invoked with regard to empires in the modern world,
is internal weakness. That’s because the opponents
don’t seem very savage or very impressive. But it’s not necessarily
a given. As I said before, external
enemies, even that don’t appear to be that imposing,
can, under certain circumstances, impress their
will on what would seem to be a more powerful empire. To some extent that is, indeed, because of internal weakness. But it won’t do to
exaggerate that. But this is one of
the problems. Another problem is continuity
versus change. The East survives. The East even flourishes
for a while. And even for a while seems
to be on the verge of re-conquering the West
from the barbarians. So how can we talk about the
fall of the Roman Empire when, you know, only part
of it falls? Another question is, how did
the rise of Christianity affect the political
and cultural fortunes of the Empire? As I said, Gibbon said it
affected its fortunes by destroying it. But beyond that, I think, over
simple explanation, how did Christianity change
the Empire? Was this change a catastrophe
or a transformation? And, how did Christianity
triumph? It seems to be so alien
to everything Roman. How does it become the official religion of the Empire? And, how does it
become, indeed, identified with the Empire? All of these questions are
currently very much debated by historians. I’m not going to have a
definitive answer for you. I’ve certain opinions. I’ll present the information
basically in accord with that, but this is not something that
has been scientifically proven or received universal
acknowledgement. So we begin this course with
the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, 284 to 305. And we do this because he solved
a number of problems which threatened the survival
of the Empire in the third century. These problems, as I said,
instability of rule, Persian invasion, barbarian invasions,
and then, one I didn’t mention, which is inflation,
tremendous economic dislocation. All of these are manifestations
of the long-term flaws I
just mentioned. The thing about long-term
flaws– I mean, you can point to
long-term flaws in the Soviet Empire or long-term flaws
in the British Empire. But why do they manifest
themselves when they do? Or, to put it another way, why
does the empire go on and flourish for a couple hundred
years, or a few decades, and then collapse? Questions? Questions about this,
or problems? You know how to reach me,
[email protected] I put my office, 327 HGS,
and office hours. Please come and see me. And I look forward to talking
with you on Monday. Thanks.

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