BELLOC-Europe and the Faith - II: WHAT WAS THE CHURCH IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE?


III: WHAT WAS THE "FALL" OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE?



That state of society which I have just described, the ordered and united

society of the Roman Empire, passed into another and very different state

of society: the society of what are called "The Dark Ages."

From these again rose, after another 600 years of adventures and perils,

the great harvest of mediaeval civilization. Hardly had the Roman Empire

turned in its maturity to accept the fruit of its long development (I mean

the Catholic Church), when it began to grow old and was clearly about to

suffer some great transition. But that transition, which threatened to be

death, proved in the issue not death at all, but a mixture of Vision and

Change.

The close succession of fruit and decay in society is what one expects from

the analogy of all living things: at the close of the cycle it is death

that should come. A plant, just after it is most fruitful, falls quickly.

So, one might imagine, should the long story of Mediterranean civilization

have proceeded. When it was at its final and most complete stage, one would

expect some final and complete religion which should satisfy its long

search and solve its ancient riddles: but after such a discovery, after the

fruit of such a maturity had fully developed, one would expect an end.

Now it has been the singular fortune of our European civilization that an

end did not come. Dissolution was in some strange way checked. Death was

averted. And the more closely one looks into the unique history of that

salvation--the salvation of all that could be saved in a most ancient and

fatigued society--the more one sees that this salvation was effected by no

agency save that of the Catholic Church. Everything else, after, say, 250

A.D., the empty fashionable philosophies, the barbarians filling the army,

the current passions and the current despair, made for nothing but ruin.

There is no parallel to this survival in all the history of mankind. Every

other great civilization has, after many centuries of development, either

fallen into a fixed and sterile sameness or died and disappeared. There

is nothing left of Egypt, there is nothing left of Assyria. The Eastern

civilizations remain, but remain immovable; or if they change can only

vulgarly copy external models.

But the civilization of Europe--the civilization, that is, of Rome and

of the Empire--had a third fortune differing both from death and from

sterility: it survived to a resurrection. Its essential seeds were

preserved for a Second Spring.

For five or six hundred years men carved less well, wrote verse less well,

let roads fall slowly into ruin, lost or rather coarsened the machinery of

government, forgot or neglected much in letters and in the arts and in the

sciences. But there was preserved, right through that long period, not only

so much of letters and of the arts as would suffice to bridge the great

gulf between the fifth century and the eleventh, but also so much of what

was really vital in the mind of Europe as would permit that mind to blossom

again after its repose. And the agency, I repeat, which effected this

conservation of the seeds, was the Catholic Church.

It is impossible to understand this truth, indeed it is impossible to

make any sense at all of European history, if we accept that story of the

decline which is currently put forward in anti-Catholic academies, and

which has seemed sufficient to anti-Catholic historians.

Their version is, briefly, this: The Roman Empire, becoming corrupt and

more vicious through the spread of luxury and through a sort of native

weakness to be discovered in the very blood of the Mediterranean, was at

last invaded and overwhelmed by young and vigorous tribes of Germans.

These brought with them all the strength of those native virtues which

later rejected the unity of Christendom and began the modern Protestant

societies--which are already nearly atheist and very soon will be wholly

so.

A generic term has been invented by these modern and false historians whose

version I am here giving; the vigorous, young, uncorrupt, and virtuous

tribes which are imagined to have broken through the boundaries of

the effete Empire and to have rejuvenated it, are grouped together as

"Teutonic:" a German strain very strong numerically, superior also to what

was left of Roman civilization in virile power, is said to have come in

and to have taken over the handling of affairs. One great body of these

Germans, the Franks, are said to have taken over Gaul; another (the Goths,

in their various branches) Italy and Spain. But most complete, most

fruitful, and most satisfactory of all (they tell us) was the eruption of

these vigorous and healthy pagans into the outlying province of Britain,

which they wholly conquered, exterminating its original inhabitants and

colonizing it with their superior stock.

"It was inevitable" (the anti-Catholic historian proceeds to admit) "that

the presence of uncultured though superior men should accelerate the

decline of arts in the society which they thus conquered. It is further to

be deplored that their simpler and native virtues were contaminated by the

arts of the Roman clergy and that in some measure the official religion

of Rome captured their noble souls; for that official religion permitted

the poison of the Roman decline to affect all the European mind--even the

German mind--for many centuries. But at the same time this evil effect was

counter-balanced by the ineradicable strength and virtues of the Northern

barbaric blood. This sacred Teutonic blood it was which brought into

Western Europe the subtlety of romantic conceptions, the true lyric touch

in poetry, the deep reverence which was (till recently) the note of their

religion, the love of adventure in which the old civilization was lacking,

and a vast respect for women. At the same time their warrior spirit evolved

the great structure of feudalism, the chivalric model and the whole

military ideal of mediaeval civilization.

"Is it to be wondered at that when great new areas of knowledge were opened

up in the later fifteenth century by suddenly expanded travel, by the

printing press, and by an unexpected advance in physical science, the

emancipation of the European mind should have brought this pure and

barbaric stock to its own again?

"In proportion as Teutonic blood was strong, in that proportion was

the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the hold upon men of Catholic

tradition, shaken in the early sixteenth century; and before that century

had closed the manly stirp of North Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and

England, had developed the Protestant civilization a society advancing,

healthy, and already the master of all rivals; destined soon to be, if it

be not already, supreme."

Such is not an exaggerated summary of what the anti-Catholic school of

history gave us from German and from English universities (with the partial

aid of anti-Catholic academic forces within Catholic countries) during the

first two-thirds of the nineteenth century.

There went with this strange way of rewriting history a flood of wild

hypotheses presented as fact. Thus Parliaments (till lately admired) were

imagined--and therefore stated--to be Teutonic, non-Roman, therefore

non-Catholic in origin. The gradual decline of slavery was attributed to

the same miraculous powers in the northern pagans; and in general whatever

thing was good in itself or was consonant with modern ideas, was referred

back to this original source of good in the business of Europe: the German

tribes.

Meanwhile the religious hatred these false historians had of civilization,

that is, of Roman tradition and the Church, showed itself in a hundred

other ways: the conquest of Spain by the Mohammedans was represented by

them as the victory of a superior people over a degraded and contemptible

one: the Reconquest of Spain by our race over the Asiatics as a disaster:

its final triumphant instrument, the Inquisition, which saved Spain from a

Moorish ravage was made out a monstrosity. Every revolt, however obscure,

against the unity of European civilization in the Middle Ages (notably the

worst revolt of all, the Albigensian), was presented as a worthy uplifting

of the human mind against conditions of bondage. Most remarkable of all,

the actual daily life of Catholic Europe, the habit, way of thought and

manner of men, during the period of unity--from, say, the eighth century to

the fifteenth--was simply omitted!

At the moment when history was struggling to become a scientific study,

this school of self-pleasing fairy tales held the field. When at last

history did become a true scientific study, this school collapsed. But

it yet retains, as an inheritance from its old hegemony, a singular power

in the lower and more popular forms of historical writing; and where the

English language is spoken it is, even today, almost the only view of

European development which the general student can obtain.

It will be noted at the outset that the whole of the fantastic picture

which this old and now discredited theory presented, is based upon a

certain conception of what happened at the breakdown of the Roman Empire.

Unless these barbaric German tribes did come in and administrate, unless

they really were very considerable in number, unless their character in

truth was what this school postulated it to be--vigorous, young, virtuous

and all the rest of it--unless there did indeed take place a struggle

between this imaginary great German nation and the Mediterranean

civilization, in which the former won and ruled as conquerors over subject

peoples; unless these primary axioms have some historical truth in them,

the theory which is deduced from them has no historical value whatsoever.

A man may have a preference, as a Protestant or merely as an inhabitant

of North Germany or Scandinavia, for the type of man who originally lived

his degraded life outside the Roman Empire. He may, as an anti-Catholic of

any kind, hope that civilization was decadent through Catholicism at the

end of the united Roman Empire, and it may please him to imagine that the

coincidence of what was originally barbaric with what is now Protestant

German Europe is a proof of the former's original prowess. Nay, he may even

desire that the non-Catholic and non-traditional type in our civilization

shall attain to a supremacy which it certainly has not yet reached.

[Footnote: I wrote that phrase before the break up of Prussia and at a

moment when Prussia was still the idol of Oxford.] But the whole thing

is only a pleasant (or unpleasant) dream, something to imagine and not

something to discover, unless we have a solid historical foundation for the

theory: to wit, the destruction of the Roman Empire in the way which, and

by the men whom, the theory presupposes.

The validity of the whole scheme depends upon our answer to the question,

"What was the fall of the Roman Empire?"

If it was a conquest such as we have just seen postulated, and a conquest

actuated by the motives of men so described, then this old anti-Catholic

school, though it could not maintain its exaggerations (though, for

instance, it could not connect representative institutions with the German

barbarians) would yet be substantially true.

Now the moment documents began to be seriously examined and compared, the

moment modern research began to approach some sort of finality in the study

of that period wherein the United Roman Empire of the West was replaced by

sundry local Kingdoms, students of history thenceforward (and in proportion

to their impartiality) became more and more convinced that the whole of

this anti-Catholic attitude reposed upon nothing more than assertion.

There was no conquest of effete Mediterranean peoples by vigorous

barbarians. The vast number of barbarians who lived as slaves within the

Empire, the far smaller number who were pressed or hired into the military

service of the Empire, the still smaller number which entered the Empire as

marauders, during the weakness of the Central Government towards its end,

were not of the sort which this anti-Catholic theory, mistaking its desires

for realities, pre-supposed.

The barbarians were not "Germans" (a term difficult to define), they were

of very mixed stocks which, if we go by speech (a bad guide to race) were

some of them Germanic, some Slav, some even Mongol, some Berber, some of

the old unnamed races: the Picts, for instance, and the dark men of the

extreme North and West.

They had no conspicuous respect for women of the sort which should produce

the chivalric ideal.

They were not free societies, but slave-owning societies.

They did not desire, attempt, or even dream, the destruction of the

Imperial power: that misfortune--which was gradual and never complete--in

so far as it came about at all, came about in spite of the barbarians and

not by their conscious effort.

They were not numerous; on the contrary, they were but handfuls of men,

even when they appeared as successful pillagers and raiders over the

frontiers. When they came in large numbers, they were wiped out.

They did not introduce any new institutions or any new ideas.

Again, you do not find, in that capital change from the old civilization to

the Dark Ages, that the rise of legend and of the romantic and adventurous

spirit (the sowing of the modern seed) coincides with places where the

great mass of barbaric slaves are settled, or where the fewer barbaric

pillagers or the regular barbaric soldiers in the Roman Army pass. Romance

appears hundreds of years later, and it appears more immediately and

earliest in connection with precisely those districts in which the passage

of the few Teutonic, Slavonic and other barbarians had been least felt.

There is no link between barbaric society and the feudalism of the Middle

Ages; there is no trace of such a link. There is, on the contrary, a very

definite and clearly marked historical sequence between Roman civilization

and the feudal system, attested by innumerable documents which, once read

and compared in their order, leave no sort of doubt that feudalism and the

mediaeval civilization repose on purely Roman origins.

In a word, the gradual cessation of central Imperial rule in Western

Europe, the failure of the power and habit of one united organization

seated in Rome to color, define and administrate the lives of men, was an

internal revolution; it did not come from without. It was a change from

within; it was nothing remotely resembling an external, still less a

barbaric, conquest from without.

All that happened was that Roman civilization having grown very old,

failed to maintain that vigorous and universal method of local government

subordinated to the capital, which it had for four or five hundred years

supported. The machinery of taxation gradually weakened; the whole of

central bureaucratic action weakened; the greater men in each locality

began to acquire a sort of independence, and sundry soldiers benefited by

the slow (and enormous) change, occupied the local "palaces" as they were

called, of Roman administration, secured such revenues as the remains of

Roman taxation could give them, and, conversely, had thrust upon them so

much of the duty of government as the decline of civilization could still

maintain. That is what happened, and that is all that happened.

As an historical phenomenon it is what I have called it--enormous. It most

vividly struck the imagination of men. The tremors and the occasional local

cataclysms which were the symptoms of this change of base from the old

high civilization to the Dark Ages, singularly impressed the numerous and

prolific writers of the time. Their terrors, their astonishment, their

speculations as to the result, have come down to us highly emphasized. We

feel after all those centuries the shock which was produced on the literary

world of the day by Alaric's sack of Rome, or by the march of the Roman

auxiliary troops called "Visigoths" through Gaul into Spain, or by the

appearance of the mixed horde called--after their leaders--"Vandals" in

front of Hippo in Africa. But what we do not feel, what we do not

obtain from the contemporary documents, what was a mere figment of

the academic brain in the generation now just passing away, is that

anti-Catholic and anti-civilized bias which would represent the ancient

civilization as conquered by men of another and of a better stock who have

since developed the supreme type of modern civilization, and whose contrast

with the Catholic world and Catholic tradition is at once applauded as

the principle of life in Europe and emphasized as the fundamental fact in

European history.

The reader will not be content with a mere affirmation, though the

affirmation is based upon all that is worth counting in modern scholarship.

He will ask what, then, did really happen? After all, Alaric did sack Rome.

The Kings of the Franks were Belgian chieftains, probably speaking (at

first) Flemish as well as Latin. Those of the Burgundians were probably

men who spoke that hotchpotch of original barbaric, Celtic and Roman words

later called "Teutonic dialects," as well as Latin. The military officers

called (from the original recruitment of their commands) "Goths," both

eastern and western, were in the same case. Even that mixed mass of Slav,

Berber, escaped slaves and the rest which, from original leaders was called

in North Africa "Vandal," probably had some considerable German nucleus.

The false history has got superficial ground to work upon. Many families

whose origins came from what is now German-speaking Central Europe ruled in

local government during the transition, and distinct though small tribes,

mainly German in speech, survived for a short time in the Empire. Like all

falsehood, the falsehood of the "Teutonic theory" could not live without

an element of truth to distort, and it is the business of anyone who is

writing true history, even in so short an essay as this, to show what that

ground was and how it has been misrepresented.

In order to understand what happened we must first of all clearly represent

to ourselves the fact that the structure upon which our united civilization

had in its first five centuries reposed, was the Roman Army. By which I

do not mean that the number of soldiers was very large compared with the

civilian population, but that the organ which was vital in the State, the

thing that really counted, the institution upon which men's minds turned,

and which they thought of as the foundation of all, was the military

institution.

The original city-state of the Mediterranean broke down a little before the

beginning of our era.

When (as always ultimately happens in a complex civilization of many

millions) self-government had broken down, and when it was necessary,

after the desperate faction fights which that breakdown had produced,

to establish a strong centre of authority, the obvious and, as it were,

necessary person to exercise that authority (in a State constituted as was

the Roman State) was the Commander-in-Chief of the army; all that the word

"Emperor"--the Latin word Imperator--means, is a commander-in-chief.

It was the Army which made and unmade Emperors; it was the Army which

designed and ordered and even helped to construct the great roads of the

Empire. It was in connection with the needs of the Army that those roads

were traced. It was the Army which secured (very easily, for peace was

popular) the civil order of the vast organism. It was the Army especially

which guarded its frontiers against the uncivilized world without; upon

the edge of the Sahara and of the Arabian desert; upon the edge of the

Scotch mountains; upon the edge of the poor, wild lands between the Rhine

and Elbe. On those frontiers the garrisons made a sort of wall within

which wealth and right living could accumulate, outside which small and

impoverished bodies of men destitute of the arts (notably of writing) save

in so far as they rudely copied the Romans or were permeated by adventurous

Roman commerce, lived under conditions which, in the Celtic hills, we can

partially appreciate from the analogy of ancient Gaul and from tenacious

legends, but of which in the German and Slavonic sand-plains, marshes and

woods we know hardly anything at all.

Now this main instrument, the Roman Army--the instrument remember, which

not only preserved civil functions, but actually created the master of all

civic functions, the Government--went through three very clear stages of

change in the first four centuries of the Christian era--up to the year

A.D. 400 or so. And it is the transformation of the Roman Army during the

first four centuries which explains the otherwise inexplicable change

in society just afterwards, in the fifth and sixth centuries--that is,

from 400 to 600 A.D. The turn from the full civilization of Rome to the

beginning of the Dark Ages.

In its first stage, during the early Empire, just as the Catholic

Church was founded and was beginning to grow, the Roman Army was still

theoretically an army of true Roman citizens. [Footnote: A soldier was

still technically a citizen up to the very end. The conception of a soldier

as a citizen, the impossibility, for instance, of his being a slave, was

in the very bones of Roman thought. Even when the soldiers were almost

entirely recruited from barbarians, that is, from slave stock, the soldiers

themselves were free citizens always.]

As a matter of fact the Army was already principally professional, and

it was being recruited even in this first stage very largely from the

territories Rome had conquered.

Thus we have Caesar raising a Gallic legion almost contemporaneous with his

conquest of Gaul. But for a long time after, well into the Christian era,

the Army was conceived of in men's minds as a sort of universal institution

rooted in the citizenship which men were still proud to claim throughout

the Empire, and which belonged only to a minority of its inhabitants; for

the majority were slaves.

In the second phase (which corresponded with the beginning of a decline in

letters and in the arts, which carries us through the welter of civil wars

in the third century and which introduces the remodeled Empire at their

close) the Army was becoming purely professional and at the same time drawn

from whatever was least fortunate in Roman society. The recruitment of it

was treated much after the fashion of a tax; the great landed proprietors

(who, by a parallel development in the decline, were becoming the chief

economic feature in the Roman State) were summoned to send a certain number

of recruits from their estates.

Slaves would often be glad to go, for, hard as were the conditions of

military service, it gave them civic freedom, certain honors, a certain

pay, and a future for their children. The poorer freed men would also go at

the command of their lord (though only of course a certain proportion--for

the conscription was very light compared with modern systems, and was made

lighter by reŽnlistment, long service, absence of reserves, and the use of

veterans).

During this second stage, while the Army was becoming less and less civic,

and more and more a profession for the destitute and the unfortunate, the

unpopularity and the ignorance of military service among the rest of the

population, was increasing. The average citizen grew more and more divorced

from the Army and knew less and less of its conditions. He came to regard

it partly as a necessary police force or defence of his frontiers, partly

as a nuisance to him at home. He also came to regard it as something with

which he had nothing to do. It lived a life separate from himself. It

governed (through the power of the Emperor, its chief); it depended on, and

also supported or re-made, the Imperial Court. But it was external, at the

close of the Empire, to general society.

Recruiting was meanwhile becoming difficult, and the habit grew up of

offering the hungry tribes outside the pale of the Empire the advantage of

residence within it on condition that they should serve as Roman soldiers.

The conception of territories within the Empire which were affiliated and

allied to it rather than absorbed by it, was a very ancient one. That

conception had lost reality so far as the old territories it had once

affected were concerned; but it paved the way for the parallel idea of

troops affiliated and allied to the Roman Army, part of that army in

discipline and organization, yet possessed of considerable freedom within

their own divisions.

Here we have not only a constant and increasing use of barbaric troops

drafted into the regular corps, but also whole bodies which were more

and more frequently accepted "en bloc" and, under their local leaders, as

auxiliaries to the Roman forces.

Some such bodies appear to have been settled upon land on the frontiers,

to others were given similar grants at very great distances from the

frontiers. Thus we have a small body of German barbarians settled at Rennes

in Brittany. And, again, within the legions (who were all technically of

Roman citizenship and in theory recruited from the full civilization of

Rome), the barbarian who happened to find himself within that civilization

tended more than did his non-barbarian fellow citizen (or fellow slave)

to accept military service. He would nearly always be poorer; he would,

unless his experience of civilization was a long one, feel the hardship

of military service less; and in this second phase, while the army was

becoming more sedentary (more attached, that is, to particular garrisons),

more permanent, more of an hereditary thing handed on from father to son,

and distinguished by the large element of what we call "married quarters,"

it was also becoming more and more an army of men who, whether as

auxiliaries or as true Roman soldiers, were in blood, descent, and to some

extent in manners and less in language, barbarians. There were negroes,

there were probably Celts, there were Slavs, Mongols of the Steppes, more

numerous Germans, and so forth.

In the third stage, which is the stage that saw the great convulsion of the

fifth century, the army though not yet wholly barbaric, had already become

in its most vital part, barbaric. It took its orders, of course, wholly

from the Roman State, but great groups within it were only partly even

Latin-speaking or Greek-speaking, and were certainly regarded both by

themselves and by their Roman masters as non-Roman in manners and in blood.

It must most clearly be emphasized that not only no such thought as an

attack upon the Empire entered the heads of these soldiers, but that the

very idea of it would have been inconceivable to them. Had you proposed it

they would not even have known what you meant. That a particular section

of the army should fight against a particular claimant to the Empire (and

therefore and necessarily in favor of some other claimant) they thought

natural enough; but to talk of an attack upon the Empire itself would have

seemed to them like talking of an attack upon bread and meat, air, water

and fire. The Empire was the whole method and meaning of their lives.

At intervals the high and wealthy civilization of the Roman Empire was,

of course, subjected to attempted pillage by small and hungry robber bands

without its boundaries, but that had nothing to do with the barbaric

recruitment of the Roman Army save when such bands were caught and

incorporated. The army was always ready at a moment's order to cut such

foreign raiders to pieces--and always did so successfully.

The portion of the Army chosen to repel, cut up, and sell into slavery a

marauding band of Slavs or Germans or Celts, always had Celts or Slavs or

Germans present in large numbers among its own soldiery. But no tie of

blood interfered with the business. To consider such a thing would have

been inconceivable to the opponents on either side. The distinction was not

between speech and speech, still less between vague racial customs. It was

a distinction between the Imperial Service on the one side, against the

outer, unrecognized, savage on the other.

As the machinery of Government grew weak through old age, and as the

recruitment of the Army from barbarians and the large proportion of

auxiliary regular forces began to weaken that basis of the whole State,

the tendency of pillaging bands to break in past the frontiers into the

cultivated lands and the wealth of the cities, grew greater and greater;

but it never occurred to them to attack the Empire as such. All they wanted

was permission to enjoy the life which was led within it, and to abandon

the wretched conditions to which they were compelled outside its

boundaries.

Sometimes they were transformed from pillagers to soldiers by an offer

extended by the Roman authorities; more often they snatched a raid when

there was for the moment no good garrison in their neighborhood. Then a

Roman force would march against them, and if they were not quick at getting

away would cut them to pieces. But with the progress of the central decline

the attacks of these small bands on the frontiers became more frequent.

Frontier towns came to regard such attacks as a permanent peril and to

defend themselves against them. Little groups of raiders would sometimes

traverse great districts from end to end, and whether in the form of

pirates from the sea or of war bands on land, the ceaseless attempts

to enjoy or to loot (but principally to enjoy) the conditions that

civilization offered, grew more and more persistent.

It must not be imagined, of course, that civilization had not occasionally

to suffer then, as it had had to suffer at intervals for a thousand years

past, the attacks of really large and organized barbaric armies. [Footnote:

For instance, a century and a half before the breakdown of central

Government, the Goths, a barbaric group, largely German, had broken in and

ravaged in a worse fashion than their successors in the fifth century.]

Thus in the year 404, driven by the pressure of an Eastern invasion upon

their own forests, a vast barbaric host under one Radagasius pushed into

Italy. The men bearing arms alone were estimated (in a time well used to

soldiery and to such estimates) at 200,000.

But those 200,000 were wiped out. The barbarians were always wiped out when

they attempted to come as conquerors. Stilicho (a typical figure, for he

was himself of barbarian descent, yet in the regular Roman service) cut

to pieces one portion of them, the rest surrendered and were sold off and

scattered as slaves.

Immediately afterwards you have a violent quarrel between various soldiers

who desire to capture the Imperial power. The story is fragmentary and

somewhat confused: now one usurper is blamed, and now another, but the fact

common to all is that with the direct object of usurping power a Roman

General calls in barbarian bands of pillagers (all sorts of small groups,

Franks, Suevians, Vandals) to cross the Rhine into Gaul, not as barbarian

"conquerors," but as allies, to help in a civil war.

The succeeding generation has left us ample evidence of the results. It

presents us with documents that do not give a picture of a ruined province

by any means; only of a province which has been traversed in certain

directions by the march of barbarian robber bands, who afterwards

disappeared, largely in fighting among themselves.

We have, later, the very much more serious business of the Mongol Attila

and his Huns, leading the great outer mass of Germans and Slavs into the

Empire on an enormous raid. In the middle of the fifth century, fifty years

after the destruction of Radagasius, these Asiatics, leading more numerous

other barbaric dependents of theirs from the Germanies and the eastern

Slavonic lands, penetrated for two brief moments into Northern Italy and

Eastern Gaul. The end of that business--infinitely graver though it was

than the raids that came before it--is just what one might have expected.

The regular and auxiliary disciplined forces of the Empire destroy the

barbarian power near Chalons, and the last and worst of the invasions is

wiped out as thoroughly as had been all the others.

In general, the barbaric eruptions into the Empire failed wholly as soon as

Imperial troops could be brought up to oppose them.

What, then, were the supposed barbaric successes? What was the real nature

of the action of Alaric, for instance, and his sack of Rome; and how,

later, do we find local "kings" in the place of the Roman Governors?

The real nature of the action of men like Alaric is utterly different from

the imaginary picture with which the old picturesque popular history

recently provided us. That false history gives us the impression of a

barbarian Chieftain gathering his Clan to a victorious assault on Rome.

Consider the truth upon Alaric and contrast it with this imaginary picture.

Alaric was a young noble of Gothic blood, but from birth a Roman; at

eighteen years of age he was put by the Court in command of a small Roman

auxiliary force originally recruited from the Goths. He was as much a

Roman officer, as incapable of thinking of himself in any other terms

than those of the Roman Army, as any other one of his colleagues about

the throne. He had his commission from the Emperor Theodosius, and when

Theodosius marched into Gaul against the usurper Eugenius, he counted

Alaric's division as among the most faithful of his Army.

It so happened, moreover, that those few original auxiliaries--mainly Goths

by race--were nearly all destroyed in the campaign. Alaric survived. The

remnant of his division was recruited, we know not how, but probably from

all kinds of sources, to its old strength. It was still called "Gothic,"

though now of the most mixed origin, and it was still commanded by himself

in his character of a Roman General.

Alaric, after this service to the Emperor, was rewarded by further military

dignities in the Roman military hierarchy. He was ambitious of military

titles and of important command, as are all soldiers.

Though still under twenty years of age and only a commander of auxiliaries,

he asks for the title of Magister Militum, with the dignity which

accompanied that highest of military posts. The Emperor refuses it. One of

the Ministers thereupon begins to plot with Alaric, and suggests to him

that he might gather other auxiliary troops under his command, and make

things uncomfortable for his superiors. Alaric rebels, marches through the

Balkan Peninsula into Thessaly and Greece, and down into the Peloponesus;

the regulars march against him (according to some accounts) and beat him

back into Albania.

There ends his first adventure. It is exactly like that of a hundred

other Roman generals in the past, and so are his further adventures. He

remains in Albania at the head of his forces, and makes peace with the

Government--still enjoying a regular commission from the Emperor.

He next tries a new adventure to serve his ambition in Italy, but his army

is broken to pieces at Pollentia by the armies in Italy--under a general,

by the way, as barbaric in mere descent as was Alaric, but, like Alaric,

wholly Roman in training and ideas.

The whole thing is a civil war between various branches of the Roman

service, and is motived, like all the Roman civil wars for hundreds of

years before, by the ambitions of generals.

Alaric does not lose his commission even after his second adventure; he

begins to intrigue between the Western and Eastern heads of the Roman

Empire. The great invasion under Radagasius interrupts this civil war. That

invasion was for Alaric, of course, as for any other Roman officer, an

invasion of barbaric enemies. That these enemies should be called by this

or that barbaric name is quite indifferent to him. They come from outside

the Empire and are therefore, in his eyes, cattle. He helps to destroy

them, and destroyed they are--promptly and thoroughly.

When the brief invasion was over, Alaric had the opportunity to renew the

civil wars within the Empire, and asked for certain arrears of pay that

were due to him. Stilicho, the great rival general (himself, by the way,

a Vandal in descent), admitted Alaric's right to arrears of pay, but just

at that moment there occurred an obscure palace intrigue which was based,

like all the real movements of the time, on differences of religion, not of

race. Stilicho, suspected of attempting to restore paganism, is killed. In

the general confusion certain of the families of the auxiliaries garrisoned

in Italy are massacred by the non-military population. As Alaric is

a general in partial rebellion against the Imperial authority, these

auxiliaries join him.

The total number of Alaric's men was at this moment very small; they were

perhaps 30,000. There was no trace of nationality about them. They were

simply a body of discontented soldiers; they had not come from across the

frontier; they were not invaders; they were part of the long established

and regular garrisons of the Empire; and, for that matter, many garrisons

and troops of equally barbaric origin, sided with the regular authorities

in the quarrel. Alaric marches on Rome with this disaffected Roman Army,

claiming that he has been defrauded of his due in salary, and leaning upon

the popularity of the dead Stilicho, whose murder he says he will avenge.

His thirty thousand claim the barbarian slaves within the city, and certain

sums of money which had been, the pretext and motive of his rebellion.

As a result of this action the Emperor promises Alaric his regular salary

as a general, and a district which he may not only command, but plant with

his few followers. Even in the height of his success, Alaric again demands

the thing which was nearest his heart, the supreme and entirely Roman

title of Magister Militum, the highest post in the hierarchy of military

advancement. But the Emperor again refuses to give that. Alaric again

marches on Rome, a Roman officer followed by a rebellious Roman Army.

He forces the Senate to make Attalus nominal Emperor of the West, and

Attalus to give him the desired title, his very craving for which is most

significant of the Roman character of the whole business. Alaric then

quarrels with his puppet, deprives him of the insignia of the Empire, and

sends them to Honorius; quarrels again with Honorius, reŽnters Rome and

pillages it, marches to Southern Italy, dies, and his small army is

dismembered.

There is the story of Alaric as it appears from documents and as it was in

reality. There is the truth underlying the false picture with which most

educated men were recently provided by the anti-Roman bias of recent

history.

Certainly the story of Alaric's discontent with his salary and the terms of

his commission, his raiding marches, his plunder of the capital, shows how

vastly different was the beginning of the fifth century from the society

of three hundred years before. It is symptomatic of the change, and it

could only have been possible at a moment when central government was

at last breaking down. But it is utterly different in motive and in

social character from the vague customary conception of a vast barbarian

"invasion," led by a German "war lord" pouring over the Alps and taking

Roman society and its capital by storm. It has no relation to such a

picture.

If all this be true of the dramatic adventure of Alaric, which has so

profoundly affected the imagination of mankind, it is still truer of the

other contemporary events which false history might twist into a "conquest"

of the Empire by the barbarian.

There was no such conquest. All that happened was an internal

transformation of Roman society, in which the chief functions of local

government fell to the heads of local auxiliary forces in the Roman

Army. As these auxiliary forces were now mainly barbaric, so were the

personalities of the new local governors.

I have only dealt with the particular case of Alaric because it is the

most familiar, and the most generally distorted: a test, as it were, of my

theme.

But what is true of him is true of all other auxiliaries in the

Armies--even of the probably Slavonic Vandals. These did frankly loot a

province--North Africa--and they (and they alone of the auxiliary troops)

did revolt against the Imperial system and defy it for a century: but

the Vandals themselves were already, before their adventure, a part of

the Imperial forces; they were but a nucleus for a mixed host made up of

all the varied elements of rebellion present in the country; and their

experiment in separation went down at last forever before the Imperial

armies. Meanwhile the North African society on which the rebels lived, and

which, with their various recruits--Moors, escaped slaves, criminals--they

maladministered and half ruined, was and remained Roman.

In the case of local Italian government the case is quite clear. There was

never any question of "invasion" or "conquest."

Odoacer held a regular Roman commission; he was a Roman soldier: Theodoric

supplanted him by leave of, and actually under orders from, the Emperor.

The last and greatest example, the most permanent, Gaul, tells the same

story. The Burgundians are auxiliaries regularly planted after imploring

the aid of the Empire and permission to settle. Clovis, the Belgian

Fleming, fights no Imperial Army. His forebears were Roman officials: his

little band of perhaps 8,000 men was victorious in a small and private

civil war which made him Master in the North over other rival generals. He

defended the Empire against the Eastern barbaric German tribes. He rejoiced

in the titles of Consul and Patrician.

There was no destruction of Roman society, there was no breach of

continuity in the main institutions of what was now the Western Christian

world; there was no considerable admixture (in these local civil wars)

of German, Slav, or outer Celtic blood--no appreciable addition at least

to the large amount of such blood which, through the numerous soldiers

and much more numerous slaves, had already been incorporated with the

population of the Roman world.

But in the course of this transformation in the fifth and sixth centuries

local government did fall into the hands of those who happened to

command the main local forces of the Roman Army, and these were by descent

barbarian because the Army had become barbarian in its recruitment.

Why local government gradually succeeded the old centralized Imperial

Government, and how, in consequence, there slowly grew up the modern

nations, we will next examine.








BELLOC-Europe and the Faith - II: WHAT WAS THE CHURCH IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE?