As I expected, Christianity’s cultured despisers (many of them from within) took great offense at my daring to suggest that the Roman Empire was not unmitigated evil. Instead, I suggested that the legacy of Rome is ambivalent — good and bad. (As David Sessions brilliantly showed yesterday, hot-takes are swallowing the Christian blogosphere, on both left and right. Facebook and Twitter hot-takers gleefully troll me anytime I write a post that offends their sensibilities. This now comes with the territory of blogging.)
Nevertheless, anyone with a modicum of common sense cannot help but be impressed with the feats of the Romans, especially as you stroll through the modern city that is built upon the ruins of the empire.
And yes, they are ruins, because Rome fell, and it fell hard.
Medieval visitors to Rome write of a small and sickly population, living in hovels crafted from remnants of ancient temples and basilicas. A city that had been home to as many as 2 million people in the first century had shrunk to less than 100,000. What went wrong?
One of the first to tackle this question was Edward Gibbon in the 18th century. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he famously blamed the Romans for becoming effeminate by outsourcing their military to mercenaries. When those very mercenary armies turned on Rome, the Romans had forgotten how to defend themselves, and they were overrun.
Gibbon also blamed Christianity — both its pacifism and its focus on the afterlife served to undermine Rome’s military power.
Although the most famous history of Rome ever written, Gibbon was criticized in his own day, and his theories are considered hogwash by most historians today. Rome fell for a complex set of reasons, but Christianity and femininity were not among them.
For one thing, history has shown that empires that are spread too far geographically are impossible to maintain. Rome was massive for its day — for instance, if the emperor died while campaigning in Britannia, it could take a month for the news to reach the capital, and another month for it to reach the southeastern corner of the empire. Think of all the craziness that could happen in those two months, then the additional time before a new ruler took the throne and word of that accession crossed the empire.
And imperial decadence surely has to be factored in to Rome’s fall. Even by the early fourth century, an emperor like Constantine spent very little time in Rome, preferring instead to build a new capital in the East, which he could name after himself and build to his own designs.
Rome fell in no small part because times changed, and the imperial system that had worked relatively well for four centuries did not change. Our own government struggles under the same weight. Whether it’s the military, built to fight a certain type of enemy and struggling to adapt to a very different kind of enemy, or the Supreme Court, attempting to interpret a document that guarantees privacy but was penned in an era before electronic communication, our own “empire” is straining under the weight of change. Our government was developed by white, male landholders who wore powdered wigs and buckle shoes. Can their government survive another century?
The earliest Christians did their level best to survive and thrive in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Some among us hate that they accepted the beneficence of Constantine and later emperors who built them magnificent buildings of worship. But at the time, these gifts must have seemed an overwhelming blessing to the nascent church.
It’s quite unlikely that church and state will be married in such a way again — indeed, we’re moving in the very opposite direction. Nevertheless, the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity happened contemporaneously, and each holds lessons for us.