Of all the problems that faced the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century, none was more serious than the barbarian threat. Ever since the days of Augustus, Roman armies had learned to be wary of the dark German forests and bloodcurdling cries across the frozen Rhine. For nearly three hundred years, the barbarians had remained just beyond the borders of the empire, occasionally making raids across the frontier, but for the most part were restrained by their ever-shifting alliances and fear of Roman arms. By the time of Julian the Apostate’s death, however, all that had begun to change. From the east came a new and terrifying power, wild Huns so barbaric that the frightened Germanic tribes ignored the decaying imperial forces guarding the frontiers and came flooding across. This time, however, they came as settlers, not invaders, and the prize they sought was land, not gold. The influx of new people, unwilling to assimilate, provoked an identity crisis within the Roman world and stretched the creaking empire to its breaking point. The pressure would redefine what it meant to be a Roman and nearly bring down the classical world.
The particular genius of Rome had always been in its conception of citizenship, a fact made more extraordinary since it came of age in a world which more often than not restricted citizenship to individual cities. Fifth-century Greece, which had so dazzled the Mediterranean with its brilliance, remained at its heart a patchwork collection of city-states, and for all its glory could never quite transform a Spartan into an Athenian or an Athenian into a Spartan. Locked firmly behind their walls, the cities were unable to refresh themselves, and after a few remarkable generations the luster all too quickly burned itself out. The Romans, on the other hand, had expanded the concept beyond the narrow confines of a single city, spreading citizenship in the wake of its legions. Athens in all its splendid exclusivity had remained just a city; Rome had embraced the world.
Yet for all the empire’s inclusiveness, the Romans tended to look down their noses at the peoples just beyond their borders. Those outside of the Roman orbit lacked citizenship and were therefore barbarians, uncivilized regardless of their cultural achievements. Of course, the astute among them realized that their own ancestors had once been considered as barbaric as the tribes beyond the Rhine and were perfectly aware that a few centuries in the imperial melting pot had made Romans of them all. The most recent flood of newcomers, however, seemed different. The empire had always been able to absorb new people into its expanding body, and the immigrants had proved more often than not to be a source of strength, but times had changed. The empire was now on the defensive, and the Germanic peoples crossing its borders wanted its land, not its culture. They were coming on their own terms, unwilling to be absorbed, speaking their own languages, and retaining their distinct cultures. The influx of new blood was no longer the source of strength it had always been. For many of those watching the traditions of millennia getting swept away, the strangers seemed like a frightening wave threatening to overwhelm the empire.
It would have been difficult at the best of times to absorb the sheer volume of newcomers, but, unfortunately for the empire, this massive wave of immigration came at a time when remarkably shortsighted rulers sat on the imperial throne. There had been a depressing decrease in quality ever since Julian’s death. His immediate successor had left a brazier burning in his tent one night and suffocated only eight months into his reign, and this left the throne to a pair of rather boorish brothers named Valentinian and Valens, who split the empire between them and tried to shore up the crumbling frontiers. Valentinian, the older of the two, managed to keep the West together for eleven years, while at the same time maintaining a restraining influence on the brash young Valens, but he could never control his own temper and suffered a fatal aneurysm in the midst of a characteristic rant. His sixteen-year-old son, Gratian, inherited the throne but was too young to assert himself, and this left the mercurial Valens as the driving force behind imperial policy.
With the Roman stage conspicuously empty of statesmen, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths asked permission to settle in Roman territory. They had left the frozen lands of Germany and Scandinavia behind and had come in search of new lands, something the fertile Eastern Empire seemed to have in abundance. They promised to provide troops in exchange for land, and the emperor obligingly agreed, allowing two hundred thousand Goths to cross into imperial territory and lumber toward their new homes in Thrace.
In theory, Valens’s plan to bolster the depleted imperial army with Germanic troops and at the same time repopulate devastated lands was an excellent idea, but it was doomed from the start. There was no way that the eastern government could handle such a staggering influx of immigrants, and Valens hardly even bothered to try. Shipments of food promised to the Goths arrived rotten or of such low quality as to be barely edible. Local merchants fleeced the starving newcomers, and several magistrates even started kidnapping them and selling them into slavery. Provoked beyond endurance, the Goths erupted in revolt.
Valens, whose shortsighted policies had largely been responsible for the debacle in the first place, wrote to his nephew Gratian to plan a joint campaign and set off in August 378 along the Via Egnatia with an army forty thousand strong, determined to teach the newcomers a lesson. As he approached the Gothic camp near Adrianople, he got an erroneous report that the Goths numbered only ten thousand, and he decided to attack at once without checking to see if the report was true. Throwing caution to the wind in his desire to prevent Gratian from sharing in the glory of vanquishing the Goths, he plunged forward with the entire army. It was a disastrous mistake. The day was unseasonably hot, and the Romans were parched, exhausted from their long march, and in no condition to fight. The Ostrogothic cavalry mercilessly swept down on them, easily splitting their ranks and cutting off all hope of escape. By the time the carnage ended, Valens, two-thirds of his army, and the myth of Roman invincibility lay trampled under the blood-soaked Gothic hooves.
It was the worst military disaster in four centuries, and it opened the floodgates of invasion to every barbarian tribe on the frontier. The eastern government was brought to its knees, its armies shattered and its emperor dead. Unafraid of Roman arms, the Goths rampaged through the East, attacking its major cities and even threatening Constantinople itself. Terrified peasants fled from their farms at the approaching hordes, watching from the hills as the horrifying foreigners destroyed their homes, sending a lifetime of work up in flames. Civilians huddled behind the walls of their cities and prayed for deliverance, but the imperial government was listless in the wake of Valens’s death. If a savior didn’t arrive soon, the mighty Roman Empire seemed destined to dissolve under the strain.
Desperate situations have a way of thrusting greatness upon seemingly ordinary people, and in its hour of need, a retired general arrived to save the empire. His name was Theodosius, and though he was only in his early thirties, he already possessed a formidable military education. Born in Spain to an army family, as a youth he had cut his teeth putting down rebellions in Britain and campaigning on the lower Danube. By the time of the disaster of Adrianople, the empire could boast no finer general, and the western emperor, Gratian, raised him to the rank of emperor, charging him with restoring order to the eastern half of the empire.
The task was nearly impossible, and there was no shortage of people telling him so, but Theodosius threw himself into the job with a refreshing sense of energy and purpose. To replace the nearly twenty thousand veterans who had been lost, he started a massive recruitment drive, pressing every able-bodied man into service—even those who had mutilated themselves in hopes of escaping. When this still failed to produce enough men, the emperor resorted to the dangerous precedent of enlisting Gothic renegades, swelling his ranks with barbarian troops. The gamble worked, and in 382, after a long and bitter struggle, Theodosius forced the Goths to sign a peace treaty with the Roman Empire. Confirming the previous arrangement, Theodosius allowed the Goths to settle on Roman land in exchange for contributing twenty thousand men to the imperial army. This continued the dubious precedent of letting a sovereign nation settle inside the empire’s frontiers, but Theodosius could congratulate himself on having staved off the collapse of the East, as well as having solved his manpower needs all in one blow. A few voices were predictably raised, objecting to the “barbarization” of the military, wondering aloud if absorbing such a strong Germanic element into the army didn’t create more of a threat than it replaced, but they were easily ignored in the face of political realities. After all, immigration had always been a source of strength to the empire, and some of its greatest emperors had been from territories as diverse as Africa and Britain. Even Theodosius’s native Spain had once been called barbaric, and it was now just as Roman as Augustan Italy.
Such were the things that men said to comfort themselves, but these barbarians had no reason to become Roman and never would. The Goths who joined the imperial army served under their own commanders, spoke their own language, and maintained their own customs. They had no reason to blend in and so failed to become Romanized, remaining a semiautonomous group within the borders of the empire. Within a generation, they would completely dominate the government and push Europe toward the terrible chaos of the Dark Ages. Though he had no way of knowing it at the time, Theodosius had signed the death warrant of the Roman West.
Barbarian pressure wasn’t the only thing transforming the classical empire into medieval Europe. In addition to the Gothic treaty, the year 382 saw the beginning of the final triumph of Christianity within the empire. It started, remarkably enough, with a terrible sickness. Traveling to Thessalonica, Theodosius fell so seriously ill that his ministers despaired of his life. Like all the Christian emperors, he had delayed his baptism, hoping to wipe away his sins at the last moment and enter the judgment hall with a clean slate. The local bishop was summoned, and in a hasty ceremony he baptized the dying emperor. To the great astonishment of his attendants, the emperor made a full recovery, and by the time he reached Constantinople, he was a profoundly changed man. As an unbaptized Christian, Theodosius could afford to ignore his conscience, since he could count on his eventual baptism to wash away whatever foul deeds he had committed. Now that he was a full communicant member of the church, however, he had placed himself beneath the spiritual authority of the bishops. No longer could he cavalierly order the execution of innocents or ignore the heresy that was ripping the church apart. It was his sacred duty to restore both temporal and spiritual peace. To ignore either one would put his soul at risk.
Nearly every emperor after Constantine—even Julian, in his own way—had been a supporter of the Arian heresy, and this imperial patronage had kept the rift in Christianity alive and well. Determined to put an end to it once and for all, Theodosius summoned a great council of the church to meet at Constantinople and offer an explicit condemnation of Arianism. After some deliberation, the bishops did so, giving a ringing endorsement of the Nicene Creed, and giving Theodosius official sanction to move against the heresy. The emperor acted with all the firmness that Constantine had never shown. Arians were compelled to surrender their churches, and without imperial support their congregations quickly disappeared. Within the empire, only the Goths remained stubbornly Arian, but although they soon came to dominate the West, they never made a serious attempt to convert their Christian subjects. After a disastrous sixty years of infighting, the Arian controversy was at last over.
Having put the church in order, Theodosius was soon convinced to move against the dying embers of paganism. Though it had deep roots throughout the empire, for most citizens, paganism had long since been reduced to a collection of venerable traditions without any significant religious meaning. But since the temples were public property, they continued to be maintained at the public’s expense, and the awkward fact of Christian emperors funding pagan rituals horrified the emperor’s fiery religious adviser, Bishop Ambrose of Milan.
This wasn’t the first time the bishop had attempted to enlist imperial support in stamping out the last traces of the ancient religion. A few years before, the bishop had convinced the emperor Gratian that it was embarrassing for a Christian emperor to be carrying around the title Pontifex Maximus—chief priest of the state religion—prompting Gratian to go striding into the Senate House of Rome and publicly declare that he was renouncing the title.* Unfortunately for Ambrose, Gratian was killed soon after, and the provoked senators tried to revive their religion by putting a pagan on the throne. Theodosius quickly overthrew the man, uniting the empire under his leadership, but the episode convinced the bishop that paganism was a dangerous force that had to be actively destroyed. For the moment, the rather mild Theodosius ignored his thundering sermons, but a clash between the two was inevitable.
It was set off when one of Theodosius’s generals was lynched during an uprising in Thessalonica, and to punish the city, the furious emperor trapped seven thousand citizens in its hippodrome and slaughtered them. When he heard the news, Ambrose was mortified and marched into the palace to tell Theodosius that no matter what the provocation, a Christian emperor didn’t go about killing innocent civilians. When Theodosius ignored him, feeling fully justified in enforcing his authority, Ambrose turned up the pressure by denying him communion or entrance to a church until he performed penance. After several months of endangering his soul without the sacrament, Theodosius caved in. Dressing in sackcloth and sprinkling ashes over his head, he publicly apologized and submitted to the bishop. Unlike the absolute authority of Diocletian’s pagan rule, it appeared as if there were limits to what a Christian emperor could do—even one appointed by God. In the first great contest between church and state, the church had emerged victorious.*
Theodosius was appropriately chastened, and he began to take a harder line against the last vestiges of paganism. The Olympic Games, held in honor of the gods for the last thousand years, were canceled, and the Delphic Oracle was officially suppressed. In the Forum of Rome, the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta was snuffed out, and the vestal virgins were disbanded, provoking outraged citizens to warn of terrible repercussions and divine retribution. For the most part, however, such protests were rare. Though it would cling to some semblance of life for the better part of a century, paganism was clearly moribund.† Christianity had triumphed, and the coup de grâce came in 391, when Theodosius made it the only religion of the Roman Empire.
Despite the historical importance of his actions, Theodosius was in no way a revolutionary. By making Christianity the state religion, he had merely put the finishing touches on a movement that had begun at the Milvian Bridge. Christianity had become so entwined with the Roman way of life that for barbarians and Romans alike, to be a Christian and to be a Roman were essentially the same thing. Christian theologians adopted the intellectual traditions of the classical past and made them their own. Clement of Alexandria described the church as emerging from the two rivers of biblical faith and Greek philosophy, and Tertullian quipped, “Seneca saepe noster”—“Seneca is often one of us.”
Even the ceremonies of the church and the court had begun to mirror each other. Priests and courtiers dressed in luxurious vestments, elaborate processionals and singing choirs heralded the beginning of services, and incense and candles were carried as a sign of honor. Where the court had its emperor, the church had its bishops, and both were accorded the same outward signs of respect. There was a comforting sameness to it all, a familiarity that reassured each celebrant of the divine order. Even the imperial propaganda reflected the theme. In the Hippodrome, Theodosius set up an obelisk, carving the base with images of himself flanked by his subordinates much in the same way Christ had been depicted with his disciples. Every citizen, from the most erudite to the illiterate, could clearly see that the heavenly kingdom was mirrored here on earth.
There were no doubts in the Roman mind that the divine was smiling on their empire. Even the economy had been improving for nearly a century. Relative political stability had allowed fortunes to once again be amassed. Traders carried their wares unmolested along the great land routes, and ships once again safely plied the waters of the Mediterranean. Farmers could bring their produce to the great urban centers and find revitalized markets awaiting them. The Roman Empire might not be as prosperous as it once had been, but its citizens could still dream that the golden days of the past could yet return.
There were, however, troubling signs on the horizon. Most of the money from taxes had been drawn from the nobility, and these families were exhausted. As more and more of them fled their burdens by joining the clergy or embracing the monastic life in the deserts of Egypt or Asia Minor, the government responded by leaning more heavily on the poor and working classes. Successive governments would raise taxes and try to bind peasants to the land, arguing that this was necessary to keep society running smoothly, but the end result for many was grinding poverty. The West in particular suffered from the exactions, and though the East had always been richer, it now almost seemed as if they were two different worlds. How long, astute citizens wondered, would it be before the distance between Rome and Constantinople was too great to be bridged?
*Although Gratian was the last emperor to use the title Pontifex Maximus, it didn’t disappear into the mists of history. In 590, Pope Gregory I adopted it in his role as “chief priest of Christianity.” and from it we get the title “pontiff.” Literally, it is translated as “bridge builder,” because the Pontifex Maximus bridged the gap between the world of the gods and the world of man. Constantine had kept the title because he saw himself as the “Bishop of Bishops”—a title that the pope also assumed.
*Seven hundred years later, Pope Gregory VII would famously repeat the clash with Henry IV of Germany. Once again, the result was the same. Henry trudged humbly through the snow—barefoot—to offer his submission.
†The pagan temples on the acropolis of Constantinople survived until the beginning of the sixth century, and other practices continued even longer. As late as 692, the church found it necessary to forbid peasants from invoking the name of Dionysus while pressing grapes or from using bears (or other animals) to predict the future.