Many issues vital to the future of Australia and Western Civilisation are raised by Cardinal George Pell’s excellent overview of ‘Religion, Barbarism and the Fall of the Roman Empire’ in December’s Quadrant. In particular, he takes up the parallels that may be drawn between the decline and fall of Rome, the fate of the British Empire, and the dire situation of the contemporary the West under the presently failing leadership of the United States. Above all, he draws attention to the similar situations of Roman Britain at the time of the Fall, c.410 AD, and Australia at the present time, both being vulnerable outposts of Civilisation on the periphery of their respective Imperial orders as these slide into crisis.
Key Factors: Cardinal Pell also addresses the question of why the Roman Empire fell, and identifies five factors behind the growth of Christianity in the centuries leading up to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the eventual Fall: zealous monotheism, individual salvation, miracles, morality, and discipline. It is difficult to argue with the importance of these; however, as we will see below, there is another dimension to the triumph of Christianity, one that provided a context for the other factors and greatly heightened their appeal and their historical impact.
Apocalyptic Expectations: This is Christian eschatology, i.e., the doctrine of the last things, concerned with the ultimate destiny of the individual soul, society and humanity, and of the entire created order. Cardinal Pell emphasises the importance of the Christian promise of a heavenly afterlife for the individual believer, but equally or more important was the Early Church’s teachings about the looming End Times. Christianity’s long-standing Apocalypticism, i.e., its conviction that the End of the World was approaching, was central to the growth of Christianity, providing a powerful narrative that gave meaning to the faith through centuries of oppression and persecution, before ultimately coming true in the most brutal fashion, not only in Rome herself, but throughout the Empire and especially in the far-flung Roman province of Britannia.
Romano-Britain: There are striking parallels between Australia and ancient Britannia, both of which flourished as outposts of Civilisation after being established by Imperial outreach. Britannia reached inland from the southern and Channel coasts across the island to the edges of Scotland and Wales. Its population consisted of Celtic Britons, Romans, and other peoples from around the Empire. During 350 years of the Pax Romana it had evolved a fusion of Roman culture with indigenous British and Celtic cultures and customs. Much of the population were Roman citizens, with the privileges and protections this offered. In their world there were cities, shops, farms, mines, factories, potteries, workshops, fishing fleets, paved roads, harbours, stadia, theatres, schools, libraries, pagan temples, country villas, intricate mosaic floors, murals, ancient Druidic groves, Christian churches, and public baths, including the internationally renowned facility still to be seen at Bath.
Flourishing: Beyond their shores the Romano-Britons were integrated into a gigantic international empire reaching across three continents, and this offered opportunities for trade, travel, and participation in Imperial affairs. Their world was a relatively ordered and peaceful one, governed by Roman law where even the civilian possession of weapons was prohibited. Perched on the fringes of the Empire, Britannia’s people enjoyed a civilisation and lifestyle that would have been the envy of most of the rest of the world. With a population of some 3.6 million, it was a flourishing and substantial society.
Abyss: But all this would be wiped away. For all its achievements, Britannia was on the periphery of the Empire and it became increasingly vulnerable through the 4th Century as the barbarian threats multiplied, the Imperial core began to disintegrate, and the province’s army and wealth were drained away. Eventually, Britannia and its people were abandoned and left at the mercy of ferocious tribal peoples flooding in from Scotland, Ireland, and from across the Channel. During the Dark Ages to come, the British Isles saw Romano-British civilisation destroyed; its buildings and infrastructure largely obliterated; its population enslaved, driven into the wilderness and exile, or virtually exterminated, producing a net demographic decline of well over a million people in the centuries that followed.
Making Sense: How could this have come about and how could the Romano-Britons have made sense of it? Many would have turned to the apocalypses and prophecies of the Bible, which alone provided an explanation and hope. Christianity had been introduced into Roman Britain in the early 3rd Century and during this period the Early Church suffered great torments and ongoing crises. Unsurprisingly, believers embraced apocalyptic predictions and visions (e.g., Dan. 9:24-7, 12:1-13; Mal. 3:23f.; Matt. 24:15-44; 1 Cor. 15:20-8; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; & Rev. 13; 17:3-18, & 20:1-21:5). These involved vivid images and grim narratives of a cataclysmic collapse of Civilisation accompanied by the rise of tyrants, mass persecutions, oppression, and misery; followed by the Tribulation and the demonic and manipulative Antichrist(s), causing mass apostasy; and culminating in the Parousia, the final battle, the binding of Satan, and then the glorious Millennium. Such grim prognoses were sometimes alleviated by the hope that the faithful would be sheltered from the worst, the righteous dead would be raised up, and they would all enjoy a thousand year ‘wedding feast’ of peace, plenty, and pleasure.
Origen: To some extent this stark Millenarianism was offset by the teachings of theologians like Origen of Alexandria. He saw the Bible as containing several levels of meaning: literal, moral, and especially spiritual. He noted that in Rev. 19 Christ is identified as the Word (Greek, Logos), i.e., divine thought or reason. Consequently, Origen insisted the cosmic battle in Rev. 19 takes place not in the external world but in the human soul; that the seven-headed beast is not a real monster but a symbol of the destructive sinful forces at work within the individual; and that the battle of Armageddon symbolises the ongoing spiritual struggle waged within the believer as God’s Word conquers the power of sin.
Persecution: However, this inward-looking approach became problematic when the external environment became very hostile for Christians, especially during the repeated periods of widespread and severe persecution in the 3rd & 4th Centuries, e.g., under Decius (249-51), Valerian (257-8), and Diocletian (303-311). At such times it became usual to make the Christians the scapegoats for society’s problems. In such conditions the apocalyptic mood re-emerged and many of the faithful looked forward even more fervently to the End Times and their ultimate deliverance.
The Church Fathers: Encouragement for these desperate folk came from various notable theologians, all of whom suffered greatly for their faith. These included Justin Martyr (c.100-165), who predicted that the world would be judged and destroyed by a vast inundation of fire, which would purify the just and consume the wicked, and then be followed by the millennial paradise on earth. His near contemporary, Irenaeus of Lyon (c.130-202), believed the End Times would be inaugurated by the appearance of the Antichrist who would manifest himself as a tyrannical ruler and unjust judge, “concentrating in himself every Satanic error”, and demanding to be worshipped as a god. He would lead many astray before being finally vanquished by Christ, who would arrive in fire and majesty to judge the world and annihilate his enemies. Tertullian of Carthage (c.155-220) was sure the Antichrist was
close by, gasping for the blood of Christians”, and he positively gloated over “the spectacle that is fast approaching … that last, unending day of judgement … when the world, hoary with age, and all that it has produced, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then will burst upon the eye!
The Bible Belt: Further encouragement would come later from the ‘Bible Belt’ of North Africa, where the strictest version of the Christian world-view ruled. Christians there had suffered enormously under persecution, and Lactantius, in his Divine Institutes (c.307), drew on Classical, Jewish, Egyptian, and Zoroastrian sources, as well as folklore and occult speculation, to depict the End Times in vivid detail, declaring that “all these things are true, being foretold by the unanimous annunciation” of all his sources, Christian and non-Christian.
Two Antichrists: Central to this conflagration would be the hated Roman Empire, whose destruction would be followed by the ascent of ten kings who would divide the spoils prior to the arrival of “a mighty enemy from the far North”, who would destroy three kings in the East and establish dominion over the others and their subject peoples. This would be the first of two Antichrists who will “afflict the world with unbearable tyranny”. He will be followed by a second who, “born of an evil spirit, will arise from Syria. He will be the subverter and destroyer of the human race”, and will be “the Final Antichrist who conducts a campaign of four battles against the saints until his final destruction by the returning Lord.” (Bernard McGinn, Antichrist, 1996, pp.67-8) Lactantius followed many other theologians in the first three centuries, insisting that the Bible foretold a glorious Millennium to come, and that this would be preceded by the Second Coming. Subsequently, after terrible battles, Satan would be bound for a 1000 years, as Christ reigned over the righteous in the Millennium, where “the mountain rocks will drip with honey, the brooks will run with wine and the rivers overflow with milk”.
The World Turned on its Head: Incredibly, all of this apocalypticism was turned on its head in 312 AD when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This was followed in 313 AD by the promulgation of the Edict of Milan, which gave Christianity legal status. Constantine also made Sunday a public holiday, granted privileges to the clergy, endowed Church institutions, including the holy places in Jerusalem, and presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325, which defined the essentials of the Christian faith. Abruptly, the old world of a violently persecuted Christian Church awaiting divine deliverance passed away, and the faith went from being an outsider insurgency looking forward to the overthrow of the State to an insider beneficiary with a vested interest in preserving that same State.
Problems: This miraculous transformation in the situation of the Church created serious problems with the dominant apocalyptic outlook, and especially with the key premise that the End Times would begin with the Fall of Rome, the infamous ‘Great Babylon’ and last of the wicked empires. After all, Revelation
is the most anti-Imperial book in the NT. It portrayed Imperial authority as a seven-headed beast that conquered nations and slaughtered the followers of Jesus. Rome is not the glorious eternal city. It’s pictured as a drunken whore, who had the blood of the saints dripping from her lips. So one wonders how the author of Revelation would have reacted to the idea that the Roman Emperors now claimed Jesus as their own.— Craig Koester, The Apocalypse, 2011, pp.263-4
Shift in Focus: Nevertheless, this incredible inversion was what happened: the Emperor’s throne and the power it represented went quite suddenly from being the seat of tyranny and corruption to being the guarantor of social order and protection for the Church. Indeed, according to St Jerome (c.342-420), the great theologian and translator of the Vulgate Bible, the Roman Empire itself had been transformed. After centuries of leading and condoning the persecution of the Church it had become the Katechon, the Restrainer mentioned by Paul in 2 Thessalonians, i.e., the force keeping the Antichrist at bay.
The Only Hope: Jerome had a vivid sense of how important such Imperial protection was. As he explained to one correspondent:
…savage tribes in countless numbers have overrun all parts of Gaul [and] the whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the Ocean, has been laid waste by hordes of Quadi, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepids, Herules, Saxons, Burgundians, Alemanni, and Pannonians.
Such hordes appeared to Christians as the infernal forces of Gog and Magog, identified in Ezekiel 38 and Revelation 20:7-8 as sinister nations from the heartlands of Eurasia upon which Satan will call in the final battle with Christ: “In number they are like the sand on the seashore.”
The Gates of Alexander: According to legend, Alexander the Great had confronted these hordes in the 4th Century BC. Realizing the full horror of the threat they represented, he had reputedly erected a set of gigantic bronze gates in a key pass in the Caucasus to hold them back. According to the Christian version of the legend, as the End Times approached the Antichrist would open the gates and allow the peoples of Gog and Magog to enter Christendom to ravish and pillage the realm, initiating Armageddon. Now, as the migrating masses continued to impact on the borders of the Empire, it seemed as if this moment had arrived and that Gog and Magog were indeed on the march. Vast demographic shifts were happening that would violently assail the Roman Empire and change the End Times from prophecy to reality, as the Romano-British and all the citizens of the Empire would soon find out.
New Year’s Eve AD 406: On December 31, 406, amidst a terrible winter, the Rhine River froze over, and a great invasion began. On the eastern bank of the river tens of thousands of barbarian peoples stood and stared at the western shore and thought of the riches of the Roman province of Gaul that lay beyond. They wondered at the good fortune that had opened up before them. They and other Germanic tribes had long awaited their chance to invade the fabled Roman Empire and plunder its wealth.
Fierce Warriors: Elsewhere, on a frozen riverbank near Mainz, a mixed band of Vandals, Alans and Suebi also massed, soon followed elsewhere along the frontier by Saxons, Sarmatians, Burgundians, Alemanni, and others whose peoples had been biding their time for centuries. These Germani looked at the icy expanse before them and then began marching across the frozen river towards the distant shore. Led by their fiercest warriors, accompanied by their women and children, all wrapped in hides and tatty fabrics, carrying their weapons and belongings, hundreds of thousands of people were on the march.
Wave of Destruction: That frozen New Year’s Eve initiated a terrible wave of destruction that swept across Rome’s Western provinces. The wave broke first across northern Gaul, and then rushed southwards all the way to Spain. All the major cities and settlements were sacked over a two year period: Mainz, Triers, Rheims, Amiens, Paris, Orleans, Tours, Bordeaux, and Narbonne. It was a tale of fire, rape, and pillage, as a Gallo-Roman civilization nearly half a millennium old was put to the sword. As one contemporary lamented,
All Gaul was filled with the smoke of a single funeral pyre”. The mood quickly became apocalyptic: “With sword, plague, starvation, chains, cold and heat – in a thousand ways – a single death snatches off wretched humankind [as] everything rushes headlong to its end.
Jaws: Meanwhile, in the East, the other jaw of the great vice that would crush Rome had been closing for decades. In the far distant hinterland of Eurasia, the Huns had moved west, driven by the exhaustion of their lands and the pressure of their own enemies to their east. These masses of nomadic warriors were masters of a form of mobile warfare never before encountered in the West and they swept all before them. They advanced into Russia about 355AD, overcame and absorbed the Alani tribe, crossed the Volga around 372 and destroyed the developing Ostrogothic society in the Ukraine. They then confronted Visigoths north of the Danube. The Visigoth army was decimated, leaving a frantic remnant begging the Roman authorities on the Danube for permission to cross the river south and find refuge in the Balkan provinces of Moesia and Thrace.
Valens: The Emperor at the time was Valens, a brutal, uncouth, indecisive soldier who decreed that the desperate Visigoths should be admitted into the Empire on condition that they surrender their arms and give up their youths as hostages. The desperate Visigoths agreed and were allowed to cross the border, only to be shamelessly cheated, plundered, and exploited by corrupt Imperial officials and predatory troops. Many of the women were raped and poor-quality food was sold at extortionate prices, so that eventually the Goths were forced to sell their children into slavery to escape starvation.
Revenge: Visigothic resistance began to form behind a leader, Fritigern, and so the Roman officials invited him to a banquet, plotting to kill him there. Fritigern escaped the attack, but most of his bodyguard were killed and the outraged Visigoths went berserk. They pillaged, burned and killed all about them until almost all Thrace was laid waste. Hearing of the uprising, Valens rushed to the scene with a force he felt sure could easily defeat the semi-starved Visigoths.
The Battle of Adrianople: Valens’s forces met the Goths on the plains of Adrianople in August 378. The result was the most disastrous defeat suffered by the Romans since Cannae, 594 years before, when they were nearly annihilated by Hannibal. The Gothic cavalry routed the Roman infantry, and two-thirds of the Roman army perished. Valens himself was wounded and he was taken to a nearby farmhouse to be treated; the Goths then set fire to the cottage and the Emperor and all his attendants were burned alive. The victorious Visigoths were then joined by the Ostrogoths and the Huns, who also crossed the now undefended Danube, and together they ravaged the Balkans at will from the Black Sea to the borders of the Italian Peninsula. And so, in the East and the West the great jaws of destruction were closing on the Empire, as a sense of impending doom spread and apocalyptic expectations intensified.
The Crisis of Roman Britain: The End Times were also approaching in Britannia. On that fateful, frozen New Year’s Eve, 406, she faced many problems. Chief amongst these was greatly increased taxation as the Empire struggled to finance its defences. Next was the progressive withdrawal of Imperial forces: eventually some 125,000 soldiers and their families left, taking both their deterrent effect and their spending power with them. The Empire itself was entering its death throes and all resources were being withdrawn back to the continent to help preserve the core. Even Hadrian’s Wall, the vital bulwark to the North, was stripped of troops. Entwined with this decline were a series of rebellions and attempted coups in Britain as local commanders sought to seize control as the Roman administration disintegrated. And all this was happening at a time when the savage and relentless Picts from Scotland and Scotti from Ireland were increasing their raiding activity, rampaging across the borders, seizing plunder and slaves, and getting ever closer to the centres of Romano-British civilization.
The Rescript of Honorius: Desperate, the people in Britannia petitioned the Roman Emperor Honorius for assistance. A prodigiously incompetent ruler, he issued the infamous ‘Rescript of Honorius’. This informed the Romano-Britons that there were no Imperial troops to spare, and that they were on their own, a bleak admission of helplessness that signalled the beginning of the end. Britannia was being sacrificed to help preserve the core of the Empire.
Betrayal: Honorius also presided over the Sack of Rome, proving himself completely incapable of dealing with the powerful barbarian general Alaric and his massive forces, reneging on several deals that might have delivered some measure of sustainable peace. Outraged, Alaric marched over the Alps, pillaged the rich cities of Cremona and Aquileia and swept down to the walls of Rome, whose population now numbered about 800,000.
Cannibalism: Encamped before the walls, Alaric cut off every avenue by which food and supplies could enter Rome. Soon the populace began to starve: dogs and the horses were eaten and some turned to cannibalism. A desperate delegation went out to meet Alaric, seeking terms; they declared that a million Romans were ready to resist if he entered the city; he laughed: “The thicker the hay, the more easily it is mowed”. However, he agreed to withdraw upon the payment of all the gold, silver and valuables that could be carried out of the city. When the envoys asked, “But what will then be left to us?” he replied scornfully, “Your lives!”
Debacle: Honorius, ruling from Ravenna, now decided to assert himself in the negotiations with Alaric, but he brought only disaster. Alaric’s principal demand was for a homeland in the provinces for his people, along with an annual tribute and perhaps an official position for himself. Honorius rejected these demands and sent an insulting letter to Alaric, which was read out in the negotiations, bringing them to an abrupt end. Honorius had made it known that he was bent on war.
The Sack of Rome: Inside Rome, a solitary slave reaped his revenge on his oppressors and opened the Salarian Gate. On August 24, 410, Alaric’s ferocious forces poured in and for three days Rome suffered the rapine, pillage and destruction that her own armies had dealt out innumerable times to defeated cities. As (Arian) Christians, the Goths left the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul untouched, and spared the lives of those who gained sanctuary in them. But elsewhere the massive army of battle-hardened troops and bitter escaped slaves could not be controlled. The wealthy were slaughtered, women were raped, and anyone who resisted or got in the way was killed. Soon it was impossible to bury all the corpses that littered the streets. Thousands of prisoners were carried off into slavery. All the remaining gold and silver in the city was seized. Artworks were melted down for their precious metals, while innumerable masterpieces were wantonly destroyed by ex-slaves taking revenge for the oppression and exploitation they had endured.
Testimony of Pelagius: One eyewitness to the Sack was Pelagius, a famously austere British monk and theologian. In a letter to a follower he described the apocalyptic mood in the city:
Everyone was mingled together and shaking with fear: every household had its grief and an all-pervading terror gripped us. Slave and noble were one. The spectre of death stalked us all.
The Unthinkable: And so, the unthinkable happened: Rome, the ‘eternal city’ was sacked. Not only a political and military disaster, this stupendous event symbolized the End Times for an Empire and a Civilization that had taken a millennium to build. As Bishop Jerome observed, “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”
The End Times in Roman Britain: Out on the edge of the Empire the remnants of the Roman army in Britannia finally disintegrated, as did the bureaucracy. Soon there was no effective central government and what was left of the ruling elite had fled to their country villas. Even the currency was disappearing, as all the coinage flowed out of the province and towards Rome, reducing its society to a barter economy where the laws and conventions of commerce had largely vanished.
The Usurpers: The raids by the Picts and the Scotti accelerated once the borders were denuded of guards, and the seaborne incursions by the Saxons, Angles, and other Germani increased. There was a power vacuum, and soon Britons were living under ‘the Usurpers’, local warlords who had risen to fill it as the Roman administration deserted. Chief amongst these was Vortigern, a 5th Century warlord, fancifully known as the King of the Britons. Tragically over-confident of his ability, he took a tremendous gamble with the British people, and they all lost. Vortigern and other local leaders were desperate to repel the incessant raids on Britain by the Picts and the Scotti. Their strategy was to follow the ill-fated approach taken by the Romans and employ barbarians to fight other barbarians.
The Germani Arrive: They therefore hired Saxon, Angle, and Jute warriors as mercenaries to fight with the Britons against the invaders from the north and the west. Such battle-hardened mercenaries knew only war and easily eclipsed the native British soldiers, who had lost all martial vigour through centuries of civilized living under the Pax Romana. In his post-apocalyptic polemic, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, the great Church historian, Gildas (c.500-570), complained that the British were “foolish and frightened [and] too lazy to fight and too unwieldy to flee.” Soon the Germani were sending word back across the Channel to their homelands describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” that lay at their mercy, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records. Their families and other warriors soon joined them as they began to seize the fertile lands of eastern Britain, brushing the Britons aside.
War of Terror: Soon they were waging a war of terror across the island, seizing vast areas: the Saxons annexed Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; the Angles, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria; and the Jutes, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, and Kent. The Germani believed they had been gifted the British lands by Woden, their war god, and they had no respect for the Britons, whom they physically and psychologically overawed, nor for the Christian God, who offered no help to the faithful. Abandoned, it was said that the terrified British “fled from the Germani like fire”. The Germani captured London, York, Lincoln, and Winchester, “ravaging the neighbouring countryside and attacking the peasantry, just as wolves attack sheep that the shepherds have forsaken,” as Geoffrey of Monmouth records.
Carnage: This uneven war of conquest raged throughout the 5th century, as the Germani brutally colonized the land. Gildas provides a vivid depiction of the carnage:
Our citizens abandoned the towns and the high wall. Once again they had to flee; once again they were scattered; once again there were enemy assaults and massacres most cruel. The pitiable citizens were torn apart by their foe like lambs by the butcher; their lives became like those of the beasts of the field.
while others “offered themselves up as slaves to the plunderers merely to get a scrap of food.” A terrible conflagration stretched across the land from sea to sea:
It devastated town and country and it did not die down until it had burned almost the whole surface of the island … All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams, laid low too were all the inhabitants – church leaders, priests, and people alike – as the swords glinted all around, and the flames crackled.
A Dreadful Wine Press: To make the apocalyptic scenario clear, Gildas then invoked “the great winepress of God’s wrath” (Rev.14:19-20), lamenting
In the middle of the squares, amidst the holy altars torn from their bases were fragments of corpses covered with a purple crust of congealed blood, looking as though they had been through some dreadful wine press There was no burial to be had except in the ruins of houses and the bellies of the birds and beasts.
Extermination: By the year 600, vast numbers of the original British population had been killed, driven deep into Wales or the rugged North, or had fled overseas to Brittany in France or Galicia in Spain:
Some wretched survivors were caught in the mountains and butchered wholesale. Others, their spirit broken by hunger, surrendered to the enemy, fated to be slaves forever, if they were not killed outright – the highest boon! … Some fled in terror to the highest hills, the densest forests, and the sheerest cliffs along the coast … Others made for lands beyond the sea.
Gildas himself escaped to Brittany with other Britons and founded the monastery of St Gildas de Rhuys, where he became a prophetic figure and recorded the grim fate of his people, deserted and betrayed by those upon whom they had been taught to rely.
The End: In this fashion, virtually an entire people, a sophisticated culture, and an advanced economic and physical infrastructure that had evolved over four centuries under the influence of Roman civilization were utterly devastated. They had been wiped out by a group of warlike tribes that valued none of it, and whose general level of culture was utterly regressive compared to that which they had destroyed. They were “bloody-minded pirates, rejoicing to destroy a higher civilization than their own”, as G. M. Trevelyan observed in A History of England.
Conclusion: It is not uncommon to compare the Fall of Rome with the Decline of the West, and the parallels between the civilizational outposts of ancient Britannia and contemporary Australia are striking. Therefore, what must be driven home is how precious and vulnerable Civilisation is, and how easily it can be destroyed if its leaders lack resolve and competence and the people prove unable or unwilling to protect a way of life they have been allowed to take for granted.