Rome in the Americas?
It is not hard to see many Vikings considering it preferable to emigrate west along the Atlantic seaways in search of easier targets, and thus colonising Iceland earlier and in greater numbers than they did. Given the likely early Roman response to any serious Viking attacks on Britain, a conquest of Jutland and landings in Norway could well have occurred by the 830s if Viking raiding had followed the same trajectory as in reality. Many real-life explorers were adventurous exiles, e.g. Erik the Red the discoverer of Greenland.
The lack of available farmland for an expanding population in the narrow Norwegian fjord-valleys is usually accepted as a major reason for expansion overseas, with exploratory voyages showing the raiders the lack of resistance to determined attack. Summer raiding was followed by settlement, the latter first occurring on the Shetlands, Orkneys, and Hebrides, where there was little loot and the recent DNA analysis would indicate that the newcomers nearly wiped out the proto-Pictish locals.1 The timing and scale of the Vikings’ assaults on the Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Pictish/Dalriadan, and Frankish kingdoms is better-known due to the literary evidence. It seems to have built up during the first half of the ninth century, aided by the poor military response, which in the case of a surviving Western Roman Empire would have been different. It also utilised the opportunities offered by a civil war, e.g. that between Aelle and Osbert in Northumbria in 866 and in Francia in the 840s.
Used to maritime North Sea raiders since the Germanic attacks of the mid-third century, the Empire would have provided a centralised European response and it would have had a far larger fleet than the limited ones sporadically available to the real-life local defenders. The first fighting fleet of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom was ascribed to Alfred by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was later used to make him the ‘father of the British navy’.2 Charlemagne is recorded as building a Frankish fleet to thwart the Viking raids, and he and his successor Louis the Pious endeavoured to build up an allied and Christian kingship in Denmark to control the local warriors; but these initiatives did not last. Under the Roman Empire, there would have been as determined a response as met the seaborne Germans in Britain in the days of Carausius (280s) or Count Theodosius (367–70?). Land-hungry Vikings, who abandoned their attacks on Wessex for weaker targets in 878 and 896, would not have been satisfied indefinitely with Ireland, or may have been defeated there thanks to Roman intervention. Earlier and larger-scale movement to empty lands in the Atlantic was a logical alternative, with the shipbuilding technology for such voyages already extant by the ninth century.
The pressure from Rome in Europe and unprofitability of raiding Roman lands could also have led to an earlier Viking discovery and substantial settlement in America, the climate being optimal for sea voyages into the area in these centuries. The climate of Greenland was warm enough for scattered settlements well up the West coast in real life around 950–1100, though it is a matter of dispute as to whether worsening climate or Inuit attacks later weakened the colony. Little is clear about the state of the North American climate around AD1000 and it is now linked to the ongoing climate change debate. But the Viking settlements in Greenland evidently had enough grass in summer to feed substantial cattle-herds or flocks of sheep, and Greenland could have sustained a reasonable émigré population at around this time. Similarly, Labrador and Newfoundland, and possibly Nova Scotia, are candidates to be the elusive ‘Vinland’ where allegedly vines could be grown. It is uncertain if this claim was merely spin by over-optimistic early voyagers in order to recruit more settlers (Leif Erikson is the suspected culprit) or a reflection of a genuinely warmer climate, but in any case pressure on land in Roman-dominated Europe would have been likely to encourage the Viking voyagers to sail as far south as they needed to find good agricultural land.3
The better-armed and warlike Vikings would have overpowered the resistance of the dispersed and poorly-armed ‘Skraeling’ tribes (the ‘Athabascans’) along the East coast, with a larger amount of manpower available to them than that which they possessed when they tackled the area under Leif Erikson around 1000. In real life their frequent clashes with the locals (possibly around the site at L’Anse-aux-Meadaux in Newfoundland) discouraged a long-term commitment. Blockage of their European ambitions by Rome would have provided more manpower to overcome this, even without a Roman conquest of Denmark or Norway. There was nothing to stop the Viking navigators rounding Cape Cod and experimenting with farmland in Massachusetts or Connecticut, whose forests would have been familiar from their Scandinavian homeland; their probable numbers and enthusiasm for battle would have made them as able to take on local tribesmen as the seventeenth century settlers of New England. Technologically, they would have lacked the advantage of muskets that gave the seventeenth century settlers a major advantage; but they would have been more used to prolonged fighting than the largely peaceful Pilgrim Fathers.
By 1000 there could have been a High King of Ireland backed up by Roman troops, Roman reoccupation of Britain, Romano-German settlers in Denmark and the Oslo plain, a number of pro- and anti-Roman warlords fighting over the rest of Norway, and a substantial Viking empire of independent émigré settlements stretching over the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and eastern Canada around the Atlantic provinces down to Massachusetts. The improved climate of the northern Atlantic islands around that time seems to have been able to sustain a larger Viking population in Greenland than is now possible, and it would have been an obvious staging-post for settlers en route to Canada. The Niagara Falls need not have impeded Viking exploration of the Great Lakes area, given that they had light ships that could be carried round it and they were used to portage round the rapids on the lower Dnieper in Russia. The forests of eastern Canada would indeed have been a familiar environment to the Norwegians, reminiscent of their homeland; they were more used to woodland fighting than the real-life seventeenth century French invaders had it come to a conflict over land with the ‘Hurons’. The ‘Five Nations’ of the Iroquois to the south do not seem to have been united this early and so would have been easier to tackle than the Europeans found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Given the survival of the Western Empire and a prosperous and politically united Western Europe benefiting traders, it is likely that some captains would have sought out routes to the rumoured Viking discoveries in America too. The Empire, if animated by traditional Roman opportunism and a missionary Catholic Church, would have followed them with official expeditions, on a more southerly route than the Vikings used. The prevailing winds would have taken them via the Canaries, possibly known to some classical sailor, to the Caribbean, which Rome would have equated with the Hesperides of classical legend as a distant paradise reachable by sea from the Pillars of Hercules. Did St. Brendan’s Irish voyagers find an American Land of Promise in the mid-sixth century? In both cases sceptics have claimed that these stories’ accounts of western lands are coincidental and do not reflect real voyages; but the case for St. Brendan discovering Iceland is strong with or without Tim Severin’s re-creation of his voyage to Canada being used as evidence that it was feasible.4
Rumours of distant and colonisable lands like these, reinforced by the hints gained from traders who had dealt with the Vikings of their new lands, could have inspired ambitious captains by circa 900 to endeavour to follow the currents west via the Canaries to the Caribbean. The voyage of six weeks or so between the continents would have been well within the capabilities of sailing-ships, and if the right impression of opportunities of empire, trade and Christianization had been made on the Imperial court expeditions would have been backed (with more resources from a Roman Emperor than Ferdinand and Isabella could give to Columbus). Given the continuance of peace and prosperity in Western Europe under one polity, this could easily have occurred well in advance of 1492, possibly before 1200 given the optimal climate and a growth in population and mercantile trade-seekers. The likeliest position for early Roman settlement, given the climate, fertility of the land, and harbours, would have been the Greater Antilles. Propaganda at court could have made the most of ‘emulating the labours of Hercules’ in an officially sanctioned expedition to the West.
Rome and the civilizations of Mexico
It is also probable that further voyages would have followed. Then the new settlements would trade with the continental mainlands within decades, and stories of vast quantities of gold would have been as alluring to the central Imperial government and to individual captains as they were to the Spaniards. It is possible that the early Maya and Aztecs had come by sea to Mesoamerica from the Caribbean, the ‘old red land’ to the East being Cuba, though the former do not seem to have had any seaborne contact with the Antilles by their Classical period (circa 400 to 800) and the sketchy and mythologized references we have in sixteenth century records to Aztec migrations make it impossible to locate their whereabouts circa 800 to 1200.5 (Their original home, ‘Aztlan’, has been hopefully claimed as Atlantis.)6 Any Roman expeditions to the mainland would probably have been opportunistic exploration rather than a result of information gleaned from the few scattered residents of the Antilles, whose cultural level was lower than that of Mesoamerica when Columbus arrived. The local tribal Caribs do not seem to have created recognisable polities or been aware of the mainland by circa 1500; unlike Aztecs, Maya, and Incas they were obliterated with relative ease by the Spaniards.
And from that arises the intriguing possibilities of what the Romans would have made of the equally belligerent Aztecs if the clash of civilizations had occurred in the fifteenth century, or the Toltecs or Mayas if it had occurred earlier. The dating of the Toltec culture in Mexico is vaguer than that of the Maya, whose deciphered records show that their feuding citystates were in decline by the ninth century and largely abandoned to the jungle by 1100. But they would seem to have been active around 900 to 1200, based at Tula near Mexico City.7
The half-known civilization of the Toltecs (and before them that of the massive city of Teotihuacan, built on the scale of Rome) indeed served a role for the Aztecs similar to that of the Etruscans, and before them the lost ‘golden age of Saturn’, to Rome, as their inspirational legendary forebears. The Aztecs looked back to the era of the Mexican culture-hero from overseas, the legendary and godly founder Quetzalcoatl, as the Romans of Augustus’ era did to their own semi-divine founder from distant lands, Aeneas from Troy, who was made the son of the goddess Venus and ancestor of Augustus’ family. Some past historians have sought to portray the bloodthirsty, dynamic Roman conquerors and their peaceful Etruscan forebears as the Italian equivalent of the Aztecs and the Maya. That myth has now been exploded by decipherment of the Mayas’ own alphabet, which shows them to have been as predatory and fond of human sacrifice as the Aztecs.8 The Romans did however have a long-lasting myth of a foreign, Trojan, origin like that of the Aztecs, who had wandered across Mexico for centuries before settling in the great valley of Mexico City circa 1325.
According to the scanty accounts preserved after the Spanish conquest, the early Aztecs settled at Tenochtitlan were supposed to have been looked down on as a band of servile vagabonds by their more urbanised neighbours, who they duly conquered, as ‘Romulus’ Rome had served as a refuge for runaways, stateless brigands, and other undesirables. Both civilizations were built on dynamic warfare, and both had an emblem of an eagle. In the Aztecs’ case it survived onto the national flag of Mexico, and in the Romans’ case it was adopted as the Imperial emblem of Roman, Eastern Roman, and later ‘Holy Roman Emperors’, and hence was taken up by the Second and Third Reichs. The double-headed eagle of the Russian Czars (apparently used by the Byzantines from circa 1325) has now been brought back into use as a patriotic pre-1917 emblem for Putin’s Russia.
Would the Romans have recognised similarities between themselves and the Aztecs as they conquered them? Unless the Church had been allowed to develop its doctrines of religious superiority over godless pagans untrammelled in Rome as in medieval Europe, the destruction of Aztec, Maya and other South American culture by the conquerors may have been less than in real life. The Christian Roman Empire of real life from circa 324 was a civilization on the defensive, and so had no record of conquest and assimilation. Peoples beyond the frontier of the Eastern Empire were to be converted to orthodox (and non-orthodox) Christianity by missionaries throughout its history, from Armenia and Georgia in the early fourth century through Ethiopia to the Bulgars, Slavs, and Russians. Armenia, the first to be evangelised, was converted by private initiative while the Roman state was still pagan; Axum/ Ethiopia was converted circa 330 via a local request to the Church in Alexandria. A community of nations culturally and religiously aligned to the Empire – what Dmitri Obolensky calls the ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’ – was created. But this did not involve military conquest, so we cannot tell what the attitude of a militarily triumphant Christian Roman Empire to conquered ‘pagans’ would have been. It would seem probable that local culture would have been thoroughly Christianised and all traces of pagan religion blotted out, as with the newly Orthodox Slavs in Eastern Europe under Eastern Roman missionaries. Destruction of idols was a centrepiece of Christianization from the time of Theodosius I and Cynegius, long before Charlemagne and St. Boniface vandalised Saxon idols in Germany. But politically the Roman Empire had long been used to allowing native rulers to survive as Imperial allies, as with British and German tribal leaders from the first to the fourth centuries. Thus Aztec and Maya princes ruling dependant territories were more likely to be tolerable to a distant Roman Emperor than they were to the Spanish monarchs, and land-hungry local Conquistadors to be under closer Imperial military control than were Spain’s autonomous grandees Cortez and Pizarro.
The Romans, like the real-life Conquistadors, would have had the advantage of numbers, weaponry, and Christian zeal against the primitive ‘savages’, with their evaluation of culture on the grounds of urbanization meaning that had they arrived too late to encounter the large Maya cities in Yucatan (or Tula?) they would have rated the local tribes as no more advanced than they rated the rural German tribes in the first century. Like the Conquistadors, they would have been vulnerable to the climate. The Mayan city-states in Yucatan (as violent and competitive as fifth century BC Greece) appear to have collapsed to over-population and famine by circa 900.
The conquest of Mexico and North America. Rome versus the Vikings?
The Roman adventurers should certainly have been able to secure the Caribbean islands, settling them as the Spaniards did in reality but with a larger state behind the enterprise. European diseases would have assisted them by decimating the local population, but deliberate genocide is less likely. Land-hunger would duly have taken the Imperial forces on to the North American mainland, with large-scale settlement of people moving from a peaceful, prosperous, and probably well-populated Europe. The lands of the southeastern U.S. would have been an obvious first choice, with the existence of a powerful central authority in Europe meaning that there should have been Roman military assistance on a larger scale than the reallife military aid given to British settlers there. Until the post-1700 ‘world wars’ against France, England’s military commitment was minimal, and the only political centralization of all the colonies was by James II. Unlike reallife colonial settlement in the Americas, there would have been one European state directing it and hence no diversion of time and resources to inter-state wars.
The local Native American tribes would have been met with force and stood no chance, but Rome would probably have pursued its usual policy with ‘primitive tribes as in Scotland and granted them treaties as vassal allies once they submitted. Romanised client-chiefs would have been backed against their rivals and efforts made to create stable polities on the Empire’s borders, as on the barbarian frontiers in Europe in the first centuries AD; the Church would have been encouraging missionary activity and denouncing the Aztecs and Mayas for their human sacrifices. The Church’s attitude would probably have been broadly similar to that of the Spanish clergy’s in the sixteenth century. The Aztecs and the Mayas may well have been regarded with the uncomprehending revulsion for their cultural practices that the Romans showed to the Druids in Britain and Caesar showed in Gaul.9
If the authorities in Rome were only interested in this strategic backwater as a source for trade goods rather than for creating a well-organised set of Romanised provinces, it is likely that only commercially valuable areas such as Mexico’s goldmines would have been prime targets for conquest and strict control. Expansion of settlements elsewhere would have been piecemeal and disorganised, subject to individual initiatives. But gold-rich Mexico could have turned into the same sort of fertile site for greedy merchants, tax collectors, and land grabbers as wealthy Asia Minor became in the later second and early first centuries BC, with some ambitious local Mayan or Aztec client-king eventually seeking to channel discontent to throw out the invaders like Mithridates VI of Pontus did in Asia Minor in 88BC. As with Mithridates, Rome could not have allowed its prestige to suffer and any such revolt would have been followed by major state military intervention, with outright annexation and provincial organisation. The same process could have happened on a smaller scale in North America, with a native American rising against Roman land grabbers (probably likeliest in the fertile ‘Old South’) being punished. As with Andrew Jackson’s policies in the 1830s, Indian survivors would have been deported.
Land-seizure and exploitation in North America in the manner of what Rome did to the Iceni in the late 50s AD was as much in prospect as with the real-life British settlers in America, as was the development of large landed estates as ‘latifundia’ worked by slaves once this became economically attractive. It is unlikely from what we know of the Roman slave-system that the Empire would have resorted to systematic deportation of West Africans as a slave-labour force, as there is no evidence that they regarded any peoples as inferior on the basis of colour (as opposed to culture and civic development); the use of prisoners-of-war as slaves would have been more normal.
Once the Roman presence had expanded northwards there was the prospect of a clash (perhaps in the New England area) with the Viking settlements there. Any isolated Viking settlements further south would have been powerless in the face of larger Roman numbers and superior weaponry, and been subject to attacks by the Roman navy from the Caribbean. Distance and the unattractiveness of the poorer soil to Roman settlers would have helped the more northerly Viking possessions beyond Maine to survive.
There could have been a campaign fought over the Great Lakes area, as in real history between Britain and France in the eighteenth century, between Rome and the Vikings several centuries earlier. The Romans would have been using the Lake Champlain ‘corridor’ and the mouth of the St. Lawrence for a two-pronged advance on the Quebec area, as Britain did in 1759. They would have prevailed due to more manpower and better modern weaponry despite fierce guerilla fighting with ambushes in the thick forests if they had won the initial open battles against the Vikings. It would have been particularly crucial if the export of gunpowder westwards from China had enabled their armies to use muskets by this date.
The timing of this is uncertain, given that a prosperous and peaceful Europe in the years of the twelfth and thirteenth century climatic optimum could have enabled westwards adventuring by individual captains and then colonial expansion to commence well before it did it reality. But a substantial Roman presence could have been possible in North America before the loss of population and planning delays caused by the Black Death from circa 1350, while the worsening of the climate in Greenland would have driven Vikings living there South-West into Canada and/or New England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Thus, it would not be unreasonable to postulate a Romano-Viking war over the area by the mid-sixteenth century.
The outnumbered (and outgunned?) Vikings would have been overrun, with or without the use of hit-and-run tactics against the Romans in the thick forests aided by local Native American tribes, and Quebec and Ontario would have been annexed to the Roman Empire. But it is possible that some Vikings preferring independence would have escaped along the Great Lakes (as useful a route for longships as the Russian rivers were to real-life Viking adventurers) into the hinterland, which their fur-traders and adventurers would have been exploring for centuries, and set up new jarldoms based on fur-trading on the plains of Manitoba.
As Roman numbers and prosperity in America increased, the trajectory of expansion would have followed the real-life American expansion westwards over the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley with a probable major settlement at the river-mouth around New Orleans and another at a strategetic river-junction site upstream around St. Louis. Farming would have begun on the Great Plains, with adventurers probably escaping the bureaucratic control and taxes of the settled Roman provinces to move into the Native American tribal areas without official direction. Given the vast distances that official orders and personnel would have had to cross to reach the Americas and the cost of sending troops, it is probable that however much the Roman officials in the new provinces were legally under European orders substantial autonomy would have developed in practice.
The likeliest pattern of government would have been that of the bureaucratic, Catholic imperial state of Spain over its American empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There was official colonial subordination and the regular despatch of top officials to head the colonial administration, but a good deal of autonomy in practice and the evasion of central governmental orders. The central viceroyalty governorships would probably have been of defined geographical areas, e.g. the southern and the northern east coastal plains, the Mississippi valley, and the Canadian areas around the St. Lawrence basin (and Mexico south of the Rio Grande, if conquered). Given the lack of inter-State and inter-faith warfare in Europe, there would have been no Francis Drakes or Dutch privateers preying on the Imperial shipping that exported loot and trade-goods to Europe. Instead, the energies of restless European coastal provincial adventurers could have been used to establishing a western trade route across the Pacific to China. The amount of state power and direction of labour available to Rome would have made it an easier matter to order the digging of a canal across the Panama isthmus than it was in reality, particularly if the survival of Ancient World documentation had enabled the preservation of details of the Pharaonic canal digging in Egypt at Alexandria. Slaves, mainly prisoners-of-war, would have been easily available to work at the project for as long as necessary and the Empire would have had as little compunction as the Spanish Viceroyalities in impressing local labour for such projects.
The existence of a continuing central bureaucratic government, and a Catholic religious structure, across Europe could well have led to an exodus of people seeking more automony from government control to the Americas and thus an evolution of more democratic local government there within the provinces (at least for the wealthy farmers and merchants), centred on advisory councils to assist the governors. Given stronger central direction from Europe than in real-life British North America, probably on the basic pattern of Spanish America, a local settler ethos would have developed on the lines of creole society in the Spanish empire, and the cultural precedents their thinkers had to study should have led to an interest in the Ancient Greek colonial’ precedents of autonomous colonial societies such as republican Syracuse and city-states in the Hellenistic kingdoms. The expansionist nature of a society of rugged independent minded farmers fighting local tribesmen should also have led to interest in the precedent of early republican Rome in Italy and the cultivation of republican farmer virtues as celebrated by Livy, indeed, the interest in heroic Roman Republican virtue of the real-life French revolutionary era and of Jeffersonian America are natural developments to have been replicated in the Roman American colonies.
Society in post-fifth century Roman Europe.
Something like the physical structure of sixth century Eastern Mediterranean life would have been the norm for a continuing Western Roman social and economic world in the sixth and seventh centuries. The only caveat to this scenario is the possible impact of the epidemics and climate, problems that seem to have afflicted all Europe for decades from the early 540s, quite independently of the military situation. Recently David Keys has constructed a theory of far-reaching political, economic, and psychological results arising from this train of disasters in his study Catastrophe.10 The famines and later the plagues of the period are traced to the apparent ‘dimming of the sun’ for months in 535/6 reported by Procopius,11 and connected to the effects of a massive volcanic eruption in the Krakatau islands off Java that caused dust-clouds to circle the Earth and prevented the sunlight ripening the crops across the world.12 The overall effects of these disasters remain contentious, but even in a fairly settled Europe the loss of manpower would have severely affected urban life and trade besides causing famine in the countryside. Particular hardship would have fallen on the poorer classes, affecting the government’s ability to raise taxes and to feed the cities and armies.
If a large ‘Diocletianic’ bureaucracy and an army on the scale of that listed in the Notitia Dignitatum were still in existence in the sixth century West, loss of manpower would have affected the ability of the citizenry to pay for them. It could have caused a (temporary?) flight from the towns to avoid the onerous duties of the curial classes in making up for their fellows’ tax defaulting. The physical effects of this would have included a decline in the ability of the civic taxpayers and the town councils to repair civic buildings and carry out expensive new projects, with the untaxed Church and monasteries at a distinct advantage. Some villages in the rural areas could have disappeared altogether, along with smaller towns, as in the similar mixture of bad weather, famine, and plague in the fourteenth century, but it is likely that larger towns would have survived as they did then. Isolated peoples not on the regular trade routes, such as the Vikings and remote Slavic settlements, would have been at a demographic advantage. As a result, the untaxed Church could have preserved its wealth and the fabric of its properties better than the rest of society, and Church buildings could have been more dominant in the surviving towns as they were to be in those of surviving Byzantine cities that had a Classical origin (e.g. Constantinople, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Nicaea).
It is noticeable that the public context of civic life in Byzantine cities tended to be centred around the Church rather than the secular buildings that had been the centre of life in the Classical era, most especially the public baths. The cost of maintaining the latter in a time of financial stringency, and possibly a shortage of skilled masons to maintain the fabric, must have played a part in this decline for secular civic culture. There is also the factor of the Church’s disapproval of the inheritance of the ancient Greek sporting ‘ethos’ for nudity and immorality. Theodosius I’s closure of the Olympic Games in 394 is often cited as an exemplar of the new Christian puritanism, though it is unclear how popular such spectacles still were.13 The Church, following St. Paul, denounced Greek athletic nudity – which had not originally been a Roman practice.
It is not clear how may of the local pagan Games and other cultural or sporting competitions of civic Greece, recorded for the second century in the travelogues of Pausanias, survived the chaos and economic dislocation of the third century crisis and were still active at the time of Theodosius’ prohibitory legislation. The most prestigious Games, e.g. at Nemea, seem to have survived. Even if there were dramatic contests in the theatres at Athens and Epidaurus until 394, there is no record of new drama being created; instead, the traditional repertoire continued ritually to be performed. Without the formal bans on all non-Christian festivals and seizure of shrines’ property by Theodosius, it is probable that these aspects of established tradition would have continued for generations under local patronage. Important buildings vital to the practice of ancient Greek cultural practices, such as the sanctuary of the ‘Mysteries’ at Eleusis, which Alaric’s Goths sacked in 396, would have survived but for Constantinopolitan politics and military crisis. But the major series of famines and epidemics in the mid-sixth century would have added to the strain on the curial classes’ purses of maintaining these buildings, and Procopius’ vehement comments on the mid-sixth century civic tax burden shows the state of the people who paid for them. The greater emphasis on private, as opposed to public life (except in religion) argues against civic buildings seeming as vital as in the classical period anyway.
The cost of government and war would have been high, particularly after the plague of the 540s, and affected these classes’ ability to pay for the physical structure of ‘civilized’ classical life. The anti-pagan legislation of Theodosius, followed by the active persecution of all religious deviants by the obsessive Justinian, only accelerated an ongoing decline. It is noticeable that the orthodox Christian State backed vigilante actions against local pagan temple buildings, as when under Theodosius I the militant Christian state commissioner Cynegius toured Syria wrecking such buildings with the puritanical enthusiasm of the Taleban destroying statues of the Buddha. Theodosius and Justinian both sanctioned official razzias of destruction like Mao in the Cultural Revolution. Systematic vandalism of pagan shrines was also carried out by the Patriarchs’ heavies in Alexandria in the early 390s, notably at the great Temple of Serapis.14 But murders of blasphemous pagan philosophers are known on only one occasion, the lynching of the female lecturer Hypatia, a feminist icon, by the Patriarch’s men in Alexandria.
It is unrealistic to assume that the ethos of Classical sport and entertainment would have survived unchanged if the Empire had not fallen. The developments of the fourth and fifth centuries under the Christian Emperors are instructive. The gladiatorial content of the games in Rome had already been halted before the West ‘fell’ in real life, initially by Constantine and finally possibly as a result of an incident after Stilicho’s victory over Alaric in 402.15 Thus there would have been no continuation of the Games familiar to the early Empire; sporting enthusiasm would have probably transferred to chariot racing as in Constantinople, with the great racing teams serving as the foci for partisanship. Rome had had a long history of racing at the Circus Maximus, and post-fifth century Rome would thus have had its own racing riots and political interventions by the racing faction demes as well as Constantinople.
As analysed by Alan Cameron, the races were an important occasion for the Emperor to connect with his people and show that he shared their interests and was available to listen to their complaints.16A politically astute ruler would pretend to take an interest in the races to show his affability and democratic instincts, like a New Labour minister showing an interest in football today. A disgruntled Hippodrome crowd was capable of hailing a new Emperor, as they did to Justinian at the Nika Revolt in 532. He had to send in the troops to carry out a massacre before the rioting ended.17 The factions of rival Hippodrome race teams had a major role in city life, and it was seen as a matter of major import that Justinian’s wife Theodora had a family background in the racing world as daughter of a Hippodrome bear trainer. After her father died his racing faction refused to give his family a pension, so Theodora always backed their rivals.18This was not merely ephemeral show business; in 532 the usually fratricidal Greens and Blues joined together to try to depose Justinian, and in 602 the factions helped to depose Maurice. It is unclear, however, if the rigid ceremonial of the Byzantine races would have been as apparent in the Western Empire; the formality of fourth century Western state ceremonial could have been reversed at a later date by more democratic rulers. This was, however, unlikely as long as the Church, with its year-round rituals, was a major prop of the state. The evolution of ceremonial at the eastern court had a religious function to present the Emperor as the ‘equal of the apostles’, with religious ceremonies frequent; this ‘holy’ aspect of the imperial capital was developing in Rome too in the fourth and fifth centuries, but had another focus than the Emperor, i.e. the Pope as heir to St. Peter.
The Emperor at Constantinople served as the focus of religious devotion, as the heir to the ‘thirteenth apostle’ Constantine, and the local patriarchate was a newcomer to the religious hierarchy. The see had initially only been a bishopric, being elevated to patriarchal status relatively late, and lacked the antiquity of the venerable sees of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria, all founded by apostles. But in Rome the religious leadership had the advantage of a first century foundation by the man charged by Christ with leading the Church, and was making the most of it to claim local disciplinary authority even in the third century. Rome had the relics of Ss. Peter and Paul, martyred in situ; Constantinople had to import its relics and was only a minor Greek town in the first century.
There was thus every political reason for the authorities at ‘nouveau riche’ Constantinople, which lacked the authority given by age and apostolic associations, to consciously build up an atmosphere of holiness centred on its Emperor as religiously unchallengeable. The dynamic Patriarchs Theophilus and Cyril of Alexandria had overshadowed both Emperor and Patriarch of Constantinople as chief defenders of orthodoxy in the early fifth century. But in the West there was less religious controversy over the form of official doctrine, and no rival patriarchs to challenge the bishop or Emperor in Rome. There was thus no need to build up the Emperor’s role or his sacred status. An Emperor living at Milan or Ravenna might have been relatively free from the sort of religious atmosphere to his public appearances that developed in Constantinople, or even at Rome he might have played it down.
The Church would have held great power and continued to draw in able careerists, but would have had a rival in the continuing Roman civil service and been subject to secular control as in Byzantium. The Papacy would not have held more than a primary position of honour. And in due course a revival of interest in pagan culture and rejection of the Church attitude towards ancient philosophy would have stimulated a renaissance, perhaps after the military threat posed by the Vikings to the new urban centres and monasteries of Northern Europe had passed. The leisure and politically stable conditions that enabled such interests to develop would have been unlikely in a sixth centuryWestern Roman world affected by plague or an eighth to ninth century world afflicted by Vikings, but could well have emerged by the later eleventh century when real-life theological speculation began to flourish in France and Italy.
The ethnic composition of Europe would have been much different from reality, with no (or few) Angles and Saxons in England, no (or few) Franks in France, no Goths or Arabs in Spain, and no Lombards in Italy. The nature of civilization and politics in any ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’ would have been much different from that of reality, not least with a powerful Emperor and a weak Papacy, though Latin would still have been the lingua franca. Crucially, the stimulus given to development by autonomous or independent local towns in Italy and Germany would have been absent. Each district would have been under an Imperial governor, whether or not the division between civic praeses and military duces introduced circa 290 had continued. These men would have continued to be bureaucrats, regularly appointed place holders under the direction of the central government, not the hereditary rulers of medieval Europe.
The nature of central control over the localities would have been beyond that of any medieval state, even late Capetian France. The role of the Church in the localities would have been smaller, as also its monopolization of career paths for the literate. Also, Church control of intellectual speculation in the universities would have depended on the backing of a still powerful secular State. In the Eastern Empire the autonomy of the university school of Athens was ended, along with the rights of pagans to teach, by Justinian in 529. This is traditionally supposed to have closed the institution founded by Plato nine hundred years before, with its pagan scholars emigrating to more tolerant Persia under the patronage of the learned Great King Chosroes Anushirvan.19 This convenient and symbolic break with Ancient humanism and tolerance, at the hands of the belligerently Orthodox Justinian, may be an exaggeration. But Justinian seems to have been as keen to destroy incorrect thought as Stalin or Mao, though in his opinion no doubt it was his godly duty. Poor evidence makes it unclear exactly how much postsecondary teaching by acceptable Christian scholars survived in post-529 Constantinople, or even in Athens. Crucially, Procopius seems to have expected to be well read by an Empire-wide literary elite but evidence of scholarly activity crumbles even for Constantinople after 600, possibly due to the wars for survival. In Heraclius’ time, local Greek took over as the ‘lingua franca’ at Court.
But when university teaching of Classical philosophy revived in ninth century Constantinople it was subject to constant intolerant Church interference, the pagan philosophers being regarded with extreme suspicion. Careful scholars had to genuflect before the requirements of Christian orthodoxy and make it clear that they did not accept the ancients’ religious beliefs, even if (like Michael Psellus in the 1040s) they had close Imperial connections and patronage.20 This greatest of Byzantine ‘revivalist’ enthusiasts for Greek philosophy had to be careful of Church hostility, and found it prudent when Imperial support waned to retire to a monastery as reassurance of his orthodoxy. Emperors were to back the Church against undesirable philosophers of dubious orthodoxy, e.g. John Italus in the 1080s, who was put on trial amidst public demonstrations of hatred.21 Notably the term ‘Hellene’, with its ancient Greek cultural and religious connotations, was not back in usage in Eastern Roman culture until the fourteenth century, and even then Platonist enthusiast George Plethon could not teach in Constantinople. Ironically, he settled near ancient Sparta at the local Imperial appanage capital, Mistra. The same difficulties for unorthodox thought could have occurred in the West.
The continuation of peace and settled conditions across Northern Europe and the presence of an urban civilization as a market for produce would have stimulated agriculture, though the problems of bad weather and disease would have held it back. The existence of large aristocratic estates under the late Empire would have continued, with the peasantry as ‘coloni’ rather than feudal serfs but equally subordinate to their masters; freer communities would have had a better chance to develop in newly-acquired territory e.g. the north-east German/Polish plains and Denmark, or maybe Ireland. The optimal climatic conditions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries thus could well have led to a population explosion in the prosperous Western Empire and the need for new acquisitions of territory, with secular knowledge of land management and agriculture surviving from the classical world. As a result of debateable numbers of Germanic warriors and their dependants not having been able to migrate west of the Rhine or into Britain from 406, there would have been more physical pressure on the land in Germany with the probable destruction of forests and settling of farms on a wider scale than really occurred in the ‘Dark Ages’. Pressure for new lands in the East would have been likely by about 1200.
The steppes – and the Mongols
If the Empire’s authorities, mariners and the commercial leadership of the Atlantic coast provinces had not yet discovered America, the likeliest area for conquest would have been the continuation of the ‘Drang nach Osten’ into the Ukraine as far as the Dneiper or the Don. This could not have been achieved until the defeat of the Mongols, who presumably would have arrived there in 1237–40 as in reality and with luck would have been defeated as they threatened Poland in 1241/2. The Mongols would have faced a united Europe under a military leadership used to fighting nomads from the steppes since the time of Attila, probably with Greek fire to match the Mongols’ Chinese fire-crackers and certainly with all the Classical world’s military technology. They would not have been allowed to rampage as far as Poland and Hungary without a major challenge, even assuming that Rome had not bothered to annex the emerging Slavic kingdom in Poland or the Slavic-Viking principalities of Russia. There was constant interest in real-life Byzantium in developments on the steppes, as shown in Constantine VII’s strategic ‘handbook’ De Administrando Imperio of around 950.22 The Empire(s) would have been aware of the Mongol threat at least since the defeat of the Sultanate of Khwarezm in 1219–20, and a large army could have moved into Russia to meet them as they arrived in 1237. If not, then the united forces of Western Europe would have been available to meet the advancing army of Batu in Poland or Hungary, instead of the Mongols being able to take on one kingdom at a time. The Romans would have been able to put together an army of 60–80,000 if necessary to meet the Mongols, whose numbers are unclear but vastly outnumbered their real-life enemies, on much more equal terms
The extent of the Mongol threat would have been such as to require military co-operation by both Empires to defeat it, and afterwards one or other Empire would have been anxious to secure the steppes from further threat to the settled lands to the West. Remaining Turkic or Mongolian tribes, such as any Volga Bulgars or Cumans/Polovtsians the Mongols had not destroyed, would have been Roman vassals. Granted the previous Roman practice of building up reliable buffer states against major enemies, e.g. the screen of client kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean between Rome and Parthia, the Roman leadership should have been keen to use local peoples to reduce the threat of the Mongols returning. Logically, the Empire would have encouraged any non-Mongol tribal forces remaining independent in Siberia or Turkestan to act as Roman clients, and taken a greater interest in Russian and steppe affairs.
Constructing forts to defend the Empire was not an option, as there was no easily defensible line of frontier. The Urals were too low to provide a barrier to nomadic raiding and the lower Volga too long to be patrolled. If the Mongols proceeded to set up the same subordinate Khanates across the region east of the Urals as they did in reality, the ‘Jagatai’ Khanate would have been emerging after the 1240s among that part of the Mongol army settled in Turkestan and the ‘Ilkhanate’ would duly have taken over Persia. (See next section on the Eastern Empire.) It would have been in Rome’s interests to seek to stir up warfare between these states and the Great Khan in Karakorum (China after the 1260s) to keep the Mongols fighting each other, and as the Mongols were animists, to convert them to Christianity as allies. Any settlement nearer the Roman European frontier, by the ‘Golden Horde’ on the Don and lower Volga, or by the ‘Nogaj’ khanate in Wallachia, would have been a major source of concern until it was either destroyed or converted into an ally, seeming an heir to the threat posed in the fifth century by Attila.
Religion – an Imperial-led ‘Reformation’?
The flux of theological speculation apparent among Christians before their religion became the state cult had seen a variety of doctrines competing for attention. Despite the simplistic view of the ‘Dan Brown’ school of modern writers, the fixing of a definitive, orthodox theology for all citizens to follow at Constantine I’s Council of Nicaea in 325 was not an innovation by the new alliance of Emperor and bishops – or an Imperial hijacking of a multifaceted Church debate into rigid control by a new doctrine. The now dominant Catholic doctrines had developed within Christian thought since the first century, particularly regarding the precise nature of Christ’s mixture of human and divine attributes. They had always held the adherence of the senior bishoprics, among whom the See of Rome (later the Papacy) was already particularly venerated in the West and was pushing its claims as a source of authority by the third century.23
A majority of the Church’s leadership were Catholic well before Constantine’s time, holding that this was the doctrinal position established by the Apostles and St.Paul; the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were already defined as the core of the emerging New Testament and most of the other books eventually included in it were already accepted before 300. The definitive list of books, and thus of acceptable teachings, was not established until Bishop (St.) Athanasius of Alexandria drew up a list in 367,24but the acceptance of the unorthodox writings in the ‘Gnostic’ Gospels, known to be second century, not from the Apostles’ lifetimes, was never considered.25 They were certainly not suppressed by the Church fathers or Constantine at Nicaea, and senior churchmen concerned for unity were denouncing such Gnostic innovation and potential for unseemly controversy (and disorder) in the third century. After Nicaea, the latest such heresy, the new doctrine of the Egyptian presbyter Arius on Christ having a human not a human and divine nature, was still a threat to the Catholic dominance, and Constantine himself made unsuccessful efforts to reach a compromise with the theologian and draw him into a state church. A desire for a tidy and ordered bureaucratic Church, an ecclesiastical equivalent of the civil and military systems established across the Empire since Diocletian’s reforms, was apparent. It was not limited to Christian Emperors; Diocletian had sought to enforce precise pagan religious ritual for all citizens across the Empire and the most vehement pagan enforcer, Maximin Daia, had set up a hierarchy of State-funded pagan priesthoods like that which Constantine was to set up for the Church.26 A disciplined hierarchy of bishops was now set up, led by the Patriarchs in the major cities of the Empire (Rome, with Constantinople added after Constantine’s time as the new Imperial capital, and the apostolic sees of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem) with a metropolitan see in each provincial capital controlling the bishops of that province, and there was no room for dissent in religious as in civil life. The establishment of a state Church was duly accompanied by a definition of doctrine to be followed, the Nicene Creed, still the basis of Catholic belief, and the eviction of bishops and junior clerics who would not subscribe to it.
This centralised edifice was the religious counterpart of the late Roman secular and military state, with hierarchy and order dominant, and it was clearly designed to make religious life mirror secular affairs but in theological terms to to reflect the Heavenly order too. In due course the Emperor, now ‘Equal of the Apostles’ as Constantine had proclaimed himself and taking a lead in Church councils, began to participate in a round of religious rituals at his ‘Sacred Palace’ that reflected his semi-divine status and religious role.27 The notion of the Emperor as a semi-divine figure had been present to some degree since the early Empire in the more religiousminded East, and had received a boost in the troubled third century when coinage had presented him as the helper or equal of the Empire’s protective deities. The end of the Western Empire prevented it from continuing in the West, but it became central to the Imperial office and its round of palace and Church ceremonial in the Eastern Empire.
The potential winning of an Emperor to back a doctrine other than Catholicism was a major flaw for the new Constantinian Church system. What one Emperor had granted, another could take away. In due course, the Arians achieved the support of Constantine’s son Constantius II, ruler of the East from 337 and the West from 352/3–61, and he started to appoint senior Arian clerics in place of Catholics; the Council of Sardica (Sofia) in 342–3 saw deadlock between the differing views of theologians backed by the Catholic Western and Arian Eastern rulers. Julian, a recidivist Catholic turned pagan, attempted to undermine both doctrines and issued legislation against Church privileges, thus ending the legal advantages that were inducing many citizens to convert from the traditional pagan beliefs; a further move towards a state Arian Church in the East was attempted by Valens (364–78) and in the West the regent Justina attempted to put Arians on an equal legal footing with Catholics in Italy in the late 370s to the fury of Bishop Ambrose of Milan. Catholic doctrine only became firmly established with draconian legal support, as it happened, permanently in the West, under Theodosius the Great, and the fifth century was to see the emergence of two new doctrines, Nestorianism and Monophysitism, in the East.
The first threat to Orthodoxy, Nestorianism, failed to win a foothold in Constantinople in the late 420s despite its eponymous originator being patriarch. The militant Catholic patriarchs of Alexandria secured the backing of the wavering Theodosius II, Nestorius was sacked and deported to an isolated monastery, and his doctrine secured backing in Syria and Mesopotamia but was driven underground and only flourished within Persia beyond Roman control. It later set up a mission in China, and in 1287 a Chinese Nestorian mission from Kubilai Khan arrived in Constantinople and Rome. Monophysitism secured Theodosius’ backing in 448–9 thanks to Court patrons, was driven out of the capital after his death in 450, but had two subsequent Imperial patrons, Basiliscus, quickly overthrown, and Anastasius who faced Catholic rebellion from Vitalian, and became the dominant theology in Syria and Egypt. Even the obsessively orthodox and persecuting Justinian could not secure one all-embracing Imperial Church of conformists, not least due to his wife Theodora’s support for the Monophysites. The state Church in Egypt, the ‘Melkites’ or ‘King’s/Royal party’, appear to have been in the minority by the seventh century and some historians have argued that state attempts to crush the Monophysites encouraged them to prefer Arab rule.
The Catholic doctrine remained dominant in the West, although there was an intellectual challenge to official theology from Pelagius, probably a Briton, in the 400s which orthodox leaders such as Augustine of Hippo insisted needed suppression. Notably, the Constantinopolitan government’s attempts at creating a third way theology to reunite orthodox and Monophysites in the seventh century, the ‘Monothelete’ doctrine and the ‘Type’, failed to win many adherants in Roman controlled lands in the West. The same could have been expected of any Eastern Imperial or Church innovations in a continuing Roman Empire; the Papacy in the eighth century was uncompromisingly opposed to Iconoclasm. It is unlikely that any Western Emperor would have been sufficiently interested in the relatively arcane issue of the theological meaning of religious art, (was it idolatry to venerate a depiction of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint?), to hold a council altering doctrine. Theological debate had always been a popular passion in Constantinople, as testified to in the mid-fourth century, but the Western Church was less riven by furious debate and Pelagianism and Priscillianism, a minor Spanish heresy of the 380s, were their sole contributions to late Roman theological controversy.28Ironically, when the Catholic St.Martin of Tours persuaded new Emperor Magnus Maximus to use state power to punish the Priscillianists the ‘gulag’ chosen for their exile was the Scilly Islands.29
This situation would doubtless have continued in a surviving Western Empire, at least until the settled socio-economic conditions and probable climactic optimum of the post-Viking era (circa 1100–1300) stimulated the equivalent of the real-life ‘Twelfth-century Renaissance’. Of course, the Western Empire of that era would have been a different social and cultural world to the divided polities of real-life Western Europe. The cultural ‘mix’ of peoples would have been different, with the population upheavals of the fifth to the tenth centuries avoided or much altered and a much more powerful, bureaucratic secular State outmatching the Church in power. No German Holy Roman Emperor ever approached the Roman Emperors in power or the amount of territory controlled, and no Pope could have treated a Roman Emperor as Gregory VII did Henry IV, whose rebellious vassals could be used against him if he did not submit. Individual Emperors like Theodosius did humble themselves before the Church after doing wrong, in that ruler’s case, after carrying out a massacre of his rioting subjects in Thessalonica on dubious evidence. But there would have been no theoretical basis for the submission of secular rulers to Church power ‘per se’, and no Papal legal justification for it on the grounds of a ‘Donation of Constantine’ abdicating secular power in the West.
The Emperors would have continued to appoint and dismiss Popes and, if sufficiently interested, to preside at Church councils. It must however be said that this different balance between secular and religious power would not in itself have led to greater freedom to propose doctrines in defiance of the Creed, or to question the basis of Christian theology. State power had decided what a citizen was required to believe and perform (in public) since the legal orders for all to sacrifice to the pagan gods by Decius in 250–1, though since Constantine the Great (apart from 361–3) the law had been backing Christianity and Theodosius I had banned pagan worship. State police powers were limited, but it would have required an Emperor who was as unusually sceptical about Christianity as Julian to reverse this legal situation. This was however a possibility from a ruler educated in the Latin and Greek classics and enthusiastic for traditional Roman culture; the survival of secular schooling in a continuing Empire would have increased the chance of an earlier than in real life renaissance of interest in the values of the classical world. An Emperor like Frederick II, interested in science and secular learning and at odds with the Church, could then have encouraged both theologically Christian and pagan speculation and refused to continue the draconian legislation imposed by Theodosius I.
One advantage for freedom of thought during an educational revival is that few Roman Emperors were likely to have gone along with any Church plans for an inquisition to root out heretics. The state would have had far more power under the Empire and so been able to back up Church crackdowns across the entire Empire if so agreed, rather than the Pope having to secure the agreement of many separate and mutually hostile secular rulers. There would be no chances of a secular state far from Rome revolting against Papal power and surviving an interdict, but the Papacy would never have achieved the prestige and independence of action that it did in the real-life twelfth century. It would have been the secular power which decided what heresies to persecute and when, as Constantine the Great did regarding the ‘Donatists’ in fourth century Africa, Maximus regarding the Priscillianists and Theodosius I regarding all non-Catholics. The Papacy not Honorius took the lead over Pelagians after 410, but that Emperor was a weak ruler and the state in decline since the 406–12 invasions and civil wars.
A new or weak ruler under political threat might have given in to Church pressure to act against heretics, as Constantine IX in the East was overshadowed by Patriarch Michael Cerularius in the 1050s; but this would have been the exception. Sooner or later, there could logically have been an egotistical and theologically minded Emperor who set out to reform the Church according to his own opinions as Constantine and Justinian had done earlier. Indeed, since Constantine had presided at the Council of Nicaea as the ‘Thirteenth Apostle’ the legal precedents were in favour of the Imperial office’s interventionist role. The clerics would have had no traditions of being able to defy an errant secular authority successfully, provided that that ruler was Christian, unless by luck and good management they had been able to use a successful rebellion or civil war after the fifth century to remove a heretic Emperor.
The landed wealth of the monasteries would have been an added incentive for a financially embarrassed or ambitious secular government to act against them in a mass-confiscation and sale in the manner of Henry VIII. In real life, in the mid-eighth century East the Iconoclast ‘innovator’ Constantine V closed down monasteries as centres of resistance to his doctrines and held forced mass-marriages of monks and nuns. The extent of Imperial authority over a united Europe, with all its provinces subject to Imperial orders, would however have given pause to a militant reformer such as Luther. No persecuted author could take refuge from Church law and its courts in the domains of a secular ruler who shared his willingness for defiance; the safety of individual controversialists would have depended on local secular connivance and ultimately on Imperial backing. Nor could independent and godly city-states run by reformers, such as sixteenth century Geneva, be set up within an all-embracing Empire. An Emperor loyal to the existing Church order would have had a far easier job than Charles V in the real-life 1520s in putting down heresy and forcing compliance from local authorities.
But, conversely, once an Emperor decided to back the Church’s opponents, as Constantius II and Valens had backed rival sects and Julian the pagans, he could throw the weight of Imperial power into the conflict in support of his protégés. Gaining the support of the secular prince would have been as vital to reform as in sixteenth century England or Scandinavia. Lacking such support, reformers would have had to develop unofficial, underground churches at risk of state harassment as in the fourth century West and East (Arians and Donatists) and the fifth to seventh century East (Nestorians and Monophysites). Such bodies may have been easier to set up in provinces further away from the centres of secular and ecclesiastical power, such as Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany, providing that there were sympathetic local governors or bishops. Many Emperors may indeed have been persuadable that multiplicity of religious belief led to anarchy, as tradition would have been in favour of ‘one Church’ as of one centralised secular government. In these circumstances, it is probable that unless a determined secularising ruler or a classical enthusiast had ended legal coercion an embryonic ‘Protestantism’ may have found it easier to develop in the new colonies in America than in centralised Europe, and Catholicism have maintained its control at the Imperial Court. A form of ‘Counter- Reformationary’ culture and thought would have been likely to emerge at the Imperial court, as in the real-life Habsburg Empire, with Emperors in the mould of Philip II of Spain or Emperors Ferdinand II and III. But hopefully there would have been more open-minded and enquiring rulers in the mould of Rudolf II, and the greater physical survival of classical writings would have duly stimulated a revival of interest in science.
A word of caution should be issued about thinking that a ‘Golden Age’ of scientific discovery could have been assisted by the survival of the information contained in the Great Library of Alexandria. Certainly, Alexandria itself would have survived as a major Mediterranean port, unless its harbours had silted up without clearance, and not declined into a backwater. Scientists could have settled in the major cities of the Eastern Mediterranean rather than emerging in the new mercantile economies of north western Europe. But it is debateable whether the Great Library still existed in the late Roman period, let alone being intact for use by scholars. The story of Caliph Omar feeding the contents to the city’s baths-furnaces as being un-Islamic appears to be a late myth, though equally the warehouse of manuscripts burnt during Julius Caesar’s war in the city in 48BC was probably only an ‘over-flow’.30–31 The date of the ending of the library’s existence is still debated, but the two major occurrences of destruction in the city in the third century, Caracalla’s sack and the revolt against Diocletian, or the destruction of the ‘Serapeum’ by militant Catholic monks in 391 probably accounted for most of the premises. Many useful classical manuscripts would have survived to a Renaissance in unsacked libraries across the Empire, but much would still have been lost to neglect since the third century.
The actual term of ‘Renaissance’ – not a contemporary but a later one – for any revival of enthusiasm for classical art would have been unlikely, as there would have been no break in political continuity. The practical implications of less physical destruction would have preserved for more ancient manuscripts, on both art and science, to be consulted. Individual secular families’ collections would have survived, in great houses in cities and countryside, and some of the civic libraries in Rome itself. The capital had been a destination for literary loot for centuries, especially from Hellenistic libraries such as Pergamum; these would have survived unless burnt in accidental fires.
In scientific matters, works by Archimedes or Hero of Alexandria would have aided inventors; in artistic matters, looted paintings and statues would still have adorned Rome. But neglect or Christian zeal would have wrecked some examples; not all the classical statuary taken to Constantinople by Constantine survived to the sack in 1204. Memorably, the great statue of Athena from the Parthonon was smashed then by a superstitious crowd.32 Would pious Romans or Iconoclast clerics have acted similarly in the West? The surviving examples of pagan temples in the ‘civilized’ Roman East in the sixth xentury were shunned by the superstitious peasants and nobles alike, as seen in the ‘life’ of St Daniel the Stylite.