The allure of Rome flows from our very human desire to achieve the ideal society. Somehow, for many, the saga of ancient Rome’s centuries-long ‘glory’ seems to have reflected that ambition. The lustre of memory too easily forgets the ugliness of how Rome achieved and maintained its enduring supremacy. That is why the wide-winged eagle remains a prime symbol of power and sovereignty for nations with imperial aspirations—the Hapsburgs, Tsarist Russia, Napoleon, the USA, Nazi Germany. Those who aspire to political and social greatness in the eyes of their fellows find Rome’s tale fascinating. Surely with all our science and technological prowess we can do even better!
Selective memory is not a new phenomenon. The much idolized Alexander the Great created a vast empire by cutting a swath of ruthless destruction from Greece to Afghanistan and the borders of India. He sought immortal fame and glory, claiming he was chosen by the gods, and was in fact a “son of god”, variously named Ares, Zeus, Baal, or Amon-Ra; he claimed them all as “father” according to the audience. If he was lenient from time to time it was strictly for political reasons; in general he squashed the resistance like bugs, utterly annihilating Thebes (Greek, not Egyptian) and Tyre, for example, and slaughtering hundreds of thousands. He spared Athens from this wrath only because of the pleas of Aristotle and some other of his advisors. Yet, despite his megalomania and concomitant atrocities, he is revered as a great unifier, humanity’s benefactor and promoter of universal brotherhood. Islam even elevates him among the twenty-eight recognized prophets.
Rome’s genocides were multiple, but the most complete were those of Carthage (149-146 BCE) and Judea. Carthage, Rome’s major competition in its ascendance to empire, was utterly, deliberately, and permanently destroyed. Not a stone was left standing on another and the city site was plowed level and sown with salt. An estimated million people were slain in that hecatomb.
The Roman conquests of Gaul (France, for the most part) and Britain included the extermination of whole recalcitrant tribes and the relentless extirpation of the Druids. Even the imperial Roman historian Tacitus reported a British chieftain’s observation that the “Pax Romana” was founded on total destruction of opposition: “They created a desert and called it peace.” After all, it was for “greater good” over the long term. The barbarians who refused Rome’s mission to pacify, unite, and “civilize” the world must be erased and room made for those who were more worthy (compliant and complaisant).
Judea was effaced permanently from the map in two separate wars of rebellion. In the first (Zealot) rebellion (66-73 CE), the estimated carnage was 1-1.5 million killed and another half million enslaved. The second (Bar-Kochba) rebellion (133-135 CE) saw another half-million put to the sword. Jews were banned from Palestine and Jerusalem rebuilt as a Roman city called Aemilia Capitolina—no Jews permitted under Rome. It became a largely Gentile city for the next 1700+ years. It was given its original name again by Constantine.
Rome’s vaunted tolerance and clemency was strictly limited to the dictates of imperial policy. Generally speaking, slaughtering the population was bad economics, although many got rich on the spoils. Depopulation is not conducive to a healthy tax base. Europe’s ‘tolerance’ during the Middle Ages and into modern times was also largely a matter of convenience, although some Christian leaders objected to pogroms and massacres promulgated in Christ’s name. The oft-extolled toleration of the Islamic Caliphates and Ottomans was no better, and too often reflected the work of Alexander, Rome, or Genghis Khan to qualify as anything like Allah’s primary qualities of mercy and compassion.
The Roman Emperor Constantine I, the ‘Great’ (305-337 CE), officially tolerated Christianity, making it an accepted and encouraged faith, but not an exclusive one (Edict of Milan, 312 CE). Theodosius I, the ‘Great’, ended Rome’s brief era of real toleration and, in 385 CE, made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, denying paganism and Judaism any standing and closing their places of worship.
After Constantine, the Catholic Church, the official, orthodox expression of Christianity, had become increasingly an organ of the state, an auxiliary to the established secular power. (The term ‘secular’ as we understand it never applied to ancient, Medieval, or early modern states. It was used strictly as an adjective indicating ‘of this present age before the Millennial Reign of Christ’.) It is from this time that we may speak of the emergence of the idea of ‘Christendom’—the lands where Christ is acknowledged as the ultimate, Divine ‘King of kings’. In the concept of Christendom, earthly sovereigns hold sway while, at least theoretically, they owe Christ allegiance.
For more than a millennium Rome’s old spiritual ethos seemed to have lost the war to stay in control. The new political regimes and gradually evolving national kingdoms paid lip service to Christ’s Kingdom of humility, compassion, mercy, and caring for the downtrodden, but delegated these sorts of humane and compassionate service to the Church as Christ’s ‘mystical body’ at work in the world until his real, visible, physical return, whenever that might be. For centuries, this system worked more or less effectively through the dedication and commitment to selfless service of many persons who sought to be Christ’s hands and feet to the suffering and oppressed.
But, as we know, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” (a truism coined by Lord Acton, a British 19th Century historian). The old allure of Rome’s distant echo rose from the ancient ruins and distant memories: “Once upon a time there was a great empire … Remember? Once upon a time, there was unity among the peoples, and there was a golden age of peace and plenty (the 200-year Pax Romana) … Remember? Once upon a time there were no petty kings and squabbling, feuding nobles sowing destruction and mayhem wherever you turn; there was a single great Emperor who gave wise, or at least firm, government and preserved peace and order. The Emperor ensured safety and protection from marauders, pirates, bandits, and barbarian invaders … Remember? Look about and you can see the remnants of the monuments, the great cities, the splendid roads and aqueducts bringing clean, safe water to everyone.”
In the seventh and eighth Centuries CE Islam’s fanatical armies exploded out of Arabia and thundered across North Africa and South-Western Asia, bringing down the 400 year-old Second Persian Empire and all but obliterating Zoroastrianism in Persia’s old domain (Persia is now Iran). Paganism was mercilessly erased from all Islam’s vast new expanse “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful”. The Byzantine bastion of Constantinople (the successor of the East Roman Empire, which still called itself ‘Roman’) was almost taken, barely surviving a terrible siege in 714 CE, while the East Roman domain was reduced to a rump in Anatolia (central and western Turkey) and the Balkans (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro).
In the early 8th Century the Muslim hosts crossed from Morocco into Iberia (Spain and Portugal). By the second decade most of Iberia was Muslim and Muslim forces were raiding and scouting into southern and central Gallia (France). The dominant power in old Gallia (the Roman name) was the Frankish Kingdom, and Charles Martel (Martel means “hammer”) decisively defeated an invading Muslim army in 732 CE at Poitiers. His grandson, another Charles, came to the Frankish throne in 768. He had conceived a much greater ambition than merely consolidating the “Carolingian” Frankish hold on old Gallia.
The grandson of Charles Martel is now known as Charlemagne (a distortion of the Latin Carolus Magnus),Charles the Great. Charles soon to be “the Great” dreamed a great dream of reuniting the lands of the West under his banner into a ‘Christian Roman Empire’ and driving back the invading Muslims. He would bring the still pagan barbarians of Central and Eastern Germania and the Slav lands into the Christian fold. He had a “holy ambition”. He was relentless, rarely spending a whole year in one place. He moved his capital to Aachen, now a city in northwest Germany, in order to be more central. He campaigned with monks and priests and at least one bishop to Christianize the conquered peoples—for conquer profusely he did. He used a combination of carrot and stick, but when a people like the Saxons proved too stubborn to convert, he reverted to the ancient Roman way of ruthlessly setting examples of what resistance would cost.
For his fervency and dedication, he won the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor’s approval to resurrect the title “Emperor of the West” and use the Roman Eagle as his imperial insignia. He was crowned by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800 CE. He wanted his realm to be known as a truly Christian state and so coined the term “Holy Roman Empire” to differentiate it from the old pagan version. When he liberated Rome itself from the infidel Lombards, he granted the Pope sovereignty over it under his protection.
Charlemagne’s dream was certainly more noble than Constantine’s, and the new Emperor of the West seems to have had a very sincere faith in Christ and a desire to see it established and inculcated into the hearts, minds, and culture of the peoples under his sway. He promoted learning and study and extensively built churches, monasteries, convents, schools, hospitals, and castles for his garrisons. He was devout in his personal observance. But he still used fear and force to convert the reluctant or make examples of the too stubborn.
“Life is too short.” Worn out by many years of hard campaigning and trying to administer a vast domain at a time when roads and bureaucracy were rudimentary, with large areas still only half-subjugated, he died in 814, ruefully leaving his realm to be ruled by his three sons, and sensing that his unfinished mission would probably die with him. Here the parallel with Constantine becomes closer. Like the three sons of Constantine, Charlemagne’s three sons quarreled. Rather than sharing the rule of a unified empire, they jealously divided it and then conspired to intrude into one another’s kingdoms, which is what the three portions became. The senior son, “Louis the German”, held onto a nominal precedence and the title “Emperor”.
Within two generations, only two kingdoms remained standing—Francia, which became France, and the Kingdom of Germania, the titular “Holy Roman Empire”, ruling Slavic and even Italian areas. Instead of a united West, the newly emerging Christendom was divided. But the dream and memory of the glory of old Rome lived on. Charlemagne had given its revival a valiant effort, but he alone could not overcome the obstacles. Charlemagne’s hard-won title, “Emperor of the West”, was not transferred to a successor, as none proved worthy.
TO BE CONTINUED