The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Or Not)

In his monumental work The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham lays claim to righting several major errors in twentieth century historiography. But the mile-high view, it seemed to me, didn’t depart very much from the picture long familiar to me. In the East, Rome continued to be represented by Byzantium with Roman values gradually subsumed into Christian ones. In the West, Rome itself became increasingly isolated as the once unified western half changed into a variety of states ruled by successions of invaders (infiltrators?) from the North. Goths, Visigoths, Angles, Jutes and Saxons.

I did learn a great deal from those parts of the book which relented from the recitation of endless succession lines of a dozen or more “barbarian” polities. In the area of language, while we know that Romance languages are all descended from Latin, Wickam explains that most of the invaders actually spoke and even read Latin. Writing was more of a professional skill, so the elites who need something memorialized would dictate to a professional scribe. What was new to me is understanding that many of these may have done their dictation in Latin rather than relying on the scribe to both translate and write.

Nevertheless, these revelations raised more questions for me. Why did some groups adopt Latin and speak its variants, while others did not? Most of the invaders as early as the 5th century were variants of Germanic (Teutonic) speaking people, yet German, Norse, Dansk, and the languages of the Celts remained largely untouched by Latin. Modern English is the great melting pot between Teutonic and Latin… Still, I wanted to hear more about Greek in the East. After all, Greek does seem to have lasted in Asia Minor until the Turkish conquest. And what of Aramaic there and Coptic in Egypt?

Wickham is undoubtedly correct in asserting that there was no sudden “Fall” of Rome, but rather a gradual transformation which differed from locale to locale across the West, and something entirely different in the East.

I am running out of time for these comments today, but if I can find a few more minutes before the seminar, I would like to discuss a (very) few comments Wickham made about Jews in the (no longer) Dark Ages.

In particular, it would have been good to have heard something about how Jews fit into the economic and legal environment. Jews had a particular, one might even say peculiar, place in Roman legal texts. A status that somehow survived three or more severe revolts against Roman authority. Wickham notes [p. 133-4] that the Visigothic rulers of Iberia passed harsh legislation de-legitimizing Judaism and enslaving the Jews. He then notes that as harsh as the legislation might seem, it was not out of line with “Roman” law regarding heretics. But pre-Christian Roman law excluded Jewish persecution (other than taxation after 70 CE). I also wondered whether we have evidence that any of these laws were actually enforced–indeed, were there actually any Jews who would be affected by them?

A quote that intrigued me: “The political fragmentation of the western church and the absence of heresy were, as has been implied, linked: people simply did not have regular information about what was going on outside their own local and regional circuits.” [p. 171] Although I can’t be sure that communication was speedy during Roman imperial times, the implication to me seems to be that we are dealing with a “dark age” comparatively speaking!

One aspect I followed with interest was the discussion of the promulgation and collection of laws. I haven’t read the chapters on Byzantium yet, but I know that the Eastern Roman Empire was a focal point for the collection and systematization of law. Nothing like this seems to have occurred to Jews that early, despite the ancient interest of Jews in the law–indeed the most sacred text of the Jews was called “The Law” (Torah). The earliest attempt at systematizing the law in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, was that of Rabbeinu Hannael. He lived in Islamic Africa in the first decades after the turn of the millennium. And nothing resembling a true code of laws existed until the Mishne Torah of Maimonides, more than a century later. Maimonides too lived and worked under Islam.

Wickham does devote a number of sections to understanding class and gender issues. I was intrigued by several cases where Wickham discussed documents that seemed to contradict long established legal norms. Was this common or rare?

While Rome, especially in Byzantium, was long occupied with creating “digests” or collections of legal principles,

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