Friday, August 21, 2009

The Fall of Paganism

The fall of Rome was not the end of the Western Roman Empire that struggled on for another sixty years. The fall of Rome was in fact the fall of Paganism in Western Europe. The Gothic sack of Rome sparked what might very well be the first conspiracy theory in history. It goes like this, the officials of Rome where Christians, the Goths where Christians, the Roman Christians let the Goths in. Why would the Pagans say this? Two reasons; first the Goths never stormed the walls of Rome they entered through an unguarded gate, whether they were let in or successfully infiltrated Gothic agents is not entirely clear. What is clear it that the battle between the Goths and Rome’s defenders was remarkably short, the Goths gained control of the city in about an hour and relatively bloodless. Secondly the Goths spared the churches. They did not spare the temples. They effectively wiped out the Pagan infrastructure of Rome. A feat the Christian officials had been laboring at for the past ten years.
The ruins of the temple of Vesta in Rome

The Pagan senate cried foul. They shouted their accusations from the senate floor, the smoking ruin of the forum and in letters to their friends. They claimed Christian pacifism weakened the Empire; Christians were legally exempt from military service because they were pacifists. They also claimed that the haughty Christian officials angers the Gods and that the sack was divine retribution. But the most damaging accusation was that the Christians revoked the divine protection of Rome when they removed the alter of Victory from the senate. During the Emperor’s last visit to Rome the senate begged him to restore the alter to its rightful place. A Christian poet belittled the senate with a popular poem, which criticized them for believing in the protective powers of the alter. He went on to claim that Rome would remain invulnerable so long as St Peter’s bones resided in the ballista. Needless to say when the Goths arrived, St Peter did not rise from his tomb and throw them back as was foretold.

How did the Christians counter these devastating attacks? They did it with The City of God. That’s right De Civitate Dei the book that gives us the concept of a city of God and a city of Man was really just a very long winded debunking of the Pagan conspiracy theory. In it St. Augustine argues that the heavenly city is truly eternal whereas the earthly city of men is perishable. In Book III, he claims that Rome suffered as many calamities before the advent of Christianity as after. He details each event beginning with the first fratricide of Romulus through the republican civil wars. In summary his argument is that rather than being preserved from such woes, Rome has been overwhelmed by them. And yet the pagan gods, no matter their number, did not preserve the city. Why then, asks St. Augustine, should the Christian God be blamed for not having done so?

Now the sack of one city however great, was not responsible for the end of Paganism. But the Goths didn’t just confine their temple ransacking to Rome, they did this throughout the Italian peninsula and on into southern France. Add the loss of the Pagan infrastructure to dispersal of several hundred thousand Roman Christian refugees all over Western Europe. This enables Christianity, which had previously been confined to the major cities, to spread out into the French and Italian countryside.

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