The fifth century was that of the barbarian invasion and the fall of the Western Empire. After the death of Augustine in 430, there was little philosophy; it was a century of destructive action, which, however, largely determined the lines upon which Europe was to be developed. It was in this century that the English invaded Britain, causing it to become England; it was also in this century that the Frankish invasion turned Gaul into France, and that the Vandals invaded Spain, giving their name to Andalusia. St Patrick, during the middle years of the century, converted the Irish to Christianity. Throughout the Western World, rough Germanic kingdoms succeeded the centralized bureaucracy of the Empire. The imperial post ceased, the great roads fell into decay, war put an end to large-scale commerce, and life again became local both politically and economically. Centralized authority was preserved only in the Church, and there with much difficulty.
Of the Germanic tribes that invaded the Empire in the fifth century, the most important were the Goths. They were pushed westwards by the Huns, who attacked them from the East. At first they tried to conquer the Eastern Empire, but were defeated; then they turned upon Italy. Since Diocletian, they had been employed as Roman mercenaries; this had taught them more of the art of war than barbarians would otherwise have known. Alaric, king of the Goths, sacked Rome in 410, but died the same year. Odovaker, king of the Ostrogoths, put an end to the Western Empire in 476, and reigned until 493, when he was treacherously murdered by another Ostrogoth, Theodoric, who was king of Italy until 526. Of him I shall have more to say shortly. He was important both in history and legend; in the Niebelungenlied he appears as 'Dietrich von Bern' ('Bern' being Verona).
Meanwhile the Vandals established themselves in Africa, the Visigoths in the south of France, and the Franks in the north.
In the middle of the Germanic invasion came the inroads of the Huns under Attila. The Huns were of Mongul race, and yet they were often allied with the Goths. At the crucial moment, however, when they invaded Gaul in 451, they had quarrelled with the Goths; the Goths and Romans together defeated them in that year at Chalons. Attila then turned against Italy, and thought of marching on Rome, but Pope Leo dissuaded him, pointing out that Alaric had died after sacking Rome. His forbearance, however, did him no service, for he died in the following year. After his death the power of the Huns collapsed.
During this period of confusion the Church was troubled by a complicated controversy on the Incarnation. The protagonists in the debates were two ecclesiastics, Cyril and Nestorius, of whom, more or less by accident, the former was proclaimed a saint and the latter a heretic. St Cyril was patriarch of Alexandria from about 412 till his death in 444; Nestorius was patriarch of Constantinople. The question at issue was the relation of Christ's divinity to His humanity. Were there two Persons, one human and one divine? This was the view held by Nestorius. If not, was there only one nature, or were there two natures in one person, a human nature and a divine nature? These questions roused, in the fifth century, an almost incredible degree of passion and fury. 'A secret and incurable discord was cherished between those who were most apprehensive of confounding, and those who were most fearful of separating, the divinity and the humanity of Christ.'1
St Cyril, the advocate of unity, was a man of fanatical zeal. He used his position as patriarch to incite pogroms against the very large Jewish colony in Alexandria. His chief claim to fame is the lynching of Hypatia, a distinguished lady who, in an age of bigotry, adhered to the Neoplatonic philosophy and devoted her talents to mathematics. She was 'torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts.'2 After this, Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers.
St Cyril was pained to learn that Constantinople was being led astray by the teaching of its patriarch Nestorius, who maintained that there were two Persons in Christ, one human and one divine. On this ground Nestorius
objected to the new practice of calling the Virgin 'Mother of God'; she was, he said, only the mother of the human Person, while the divine Person, who was God, had no mother. On this question the Church was divided: roughly speaking, bishops east of Suez favoured Nestorius, while those west of Suez favoured St Cyril. A council was summoned to meet at Ephesus in 431 to decide the question. The Western bishops arrived first, and proceeded to lock the doors against latecomers and decide in hot haste for St Cyril, who presided. 'This episcopal tumult, at the distance of thirteen centuries, assumes the venerable aspect of the third oecumenical Council.'3
As a result of this council, Nestorius was condemned as a heretic. He did not recant, but was the founder of the Nestorian sect, which had a large following in Syria and throughout the East. Some centuries later, Nestorianism was so strong in China that it seemed to have a chance of becoming the established religion. Nestorians were found in India by the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in the sixteenth century. The persecution of Nestorianism by the Catholic government of Constantinople caused disaffection which helped the Mohammedans in their conquest of Syria.
The tongue of Nestorius, which by its eloquence had seduced so many, was eaten by worms—so at least we are assured.
Ephesus had learnt to substitute the Virgin for Artemis, but had still the same intemperate zeal for its goddess as in the time of St Paul. It was said that the Virgin was buried there. In 449, after the death of St Cyril, a synod at Ephesus tried to carry the triumph further, and thereby fell into the heresy opposite to that of Nestorius; this is called the Monophysite heresy, and maintains that Christ has only one nature. If St Cyril had still been alive, he would certainly have supported this view, and have become heretical. The Emperor supported the synod, but the Pope repudiated it. At last Pope Leo—the same Pope who turned Attila from attacking Rome—in the year of the battle of Chalons secured the summoning of an oecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451, which condemned the Monophysites and finally decided the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. The Council of Ephesus had decided that there is only one Person of Christ, but the Council of Chalcedon decided that He exists in two natures, one human and one divine. The influence of the Pope was paramount in securing this decision.
The Monophysites, like the Nestorians, refused to submit. Egypt, almost to a man, adopted their heresy, which spread up the Nile and as far as Abyssinia. The heresy of the Abyssinians was given by Mussolini as one of his reasons for conquering them. The heresy of Egypt, like the opposite heresy of Syria, facilitated the Arab conquest.
During the sixth century, there were four men of great importance in the history of culture: Boethius, Justinian, Benedict, and Gregory the Great. They will be my chief concern in the remainder of this chapter and in the next.
The Gothic conquest of Italy did not put an end to Roman civilization. Under Theodoric, king of Italy and of the Goths, the civil administration of Italy was entirely Roman; Italy enjoyed peace and religious toleration (till near the end); the king was both wise and vigorous. He appointed consuls, preserved Roman law, and kept up the Senate: when in Rome, his first visit was to the Senate House.
Though an Arian, Theodoric was on good terms with the Church until his last years. In 523, the Emperor Justin proscribed Arianism, and this annoyed Theodoric. He had reason for fear, since Italy was Catholic, and was led by theological sympathy to side with the Emperor. He believed, rightly or wrongly, that there was a plot involving men in his own government. This led him to imprison and execute his minister, the senator Boethius, whose Consolations of Philosophy was written while he was in prison.
Boethius is a singular figure. Throughout the Middle Ages he was read and admired, regarded always as a devout Christian and treated almost as if he had been one of the Fathers. Yet his Consolations of Philosophy, written in 524 while he was awaiting execution, is purely Platonic; it does not prove that he was not a Christian, but it does show that pagan philosophy had a much stronger hold on him than Christian theology. Some theological works, especially one on the Trinity, which are attributed to him, are by many authorities considered to be spurious; but it was probably owing to them that the Middle Ages were able to regard him as orthodox, and to imbibe from him much Platonism which would otherwise have been viewed with suspicion.
The work is an alternation of verse and prose: Boethius, in his own person, speaks in prose, while Philosophy answers in verse. There is a certain resemblance to Dante, who was no doubt influenced by him in the Vita Nuova.
The Consolations, which Gibbon rightly calls a 'golden volume', begins by the statement that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the true philosophers; Stoics, Epicureans, and the rest are usurpers whom the profane multitude mistook for the friends of philosophy. Boethius says he obeyed the Pythagorean command to 'follow God' (not the Christian command). Happiness, which is the same thing as blessedness, is the good, not pleasure. Friendship is a 'most sacred thing'. There is much morality that agrees closely with Stoic doctrine, and is in fact largely taken from Seneca. There is a summary, in verse, of the beginning of the Timaeus. This is followed by a great deal of purely Platonic metaphysics. Imperfection, we are told, is a lack, implying the existence of a perfect pattern. He adopted the privative theory of evil. He then passes on to a pantheism which should have shocked Christians, but for some reason did not. Blessedness and God, he says, are both the chiefest good, and are therefore identical. 'Men are made happy by the obtaining of divinity.' 'They who obtain divinity become gods. Wherefore every one that is happy is a god, but by nature there is only one God, but there may be many by participation.' 'The sum, origin, and cause of all that is sought after is rightly thought to be goodness.' 'The substance of God consisteth in nothing else but in goodness.' Can God do evil? No. Therefore evil is nothing, since God can do everything. Virtuous men are always powerful, and bad men always weak; for both desire the good, but only the virtuous get it. The wicked are more unfortunate if they escape punishment than if they suffer it. 'In wise men there is no place for hatred.'
The tone of the book is more like that of Plato than that of Plotinus. There is no trace of the superstition or morbidness of the age, no obsession with sin, no excessive straining after the unattainable. There is perfect philosophic calm—so much that, if the book had been written in prosperity, it might almost have been called smug. Written when it was, in prison under sentence of death, it is as admirable as the last moments of the Platonic Socrates.
One does not find a similar outlook until after Newton. I will quote in extenso one poem from the book, which, in its philosophy, is not unlike Pope's Essay on Man.
If Thou wouldst see
God's laws with purest mind,
Thy sight on heaven fixed must be,
Whose settled course the stars in peace doth bind,
The sun's bright fire
Stops not his sister's team,
Nor doth the northern bear desire
Within the ocean's wave to hide her beam.
Though she behold
The other stars there crouching,
Yet she incessantly is rolled
About high heaven, the ocean never touching.
The evening light
With certain course doth show
The coming of the shady night,
And Lucifer before the day doth go.
This mutual love
Courses eternal makes,
And from the starry spheres above
All cause of war and dangerous discord takes.
This sweet consent
In equal bands doth tie
The nature of each element
So that the moist things yield unto the dry.
The piercing cold
With flames doth friendship heap
The trembling fire the highest place doth hold,
And the gross earth sinks down into the deep.
The flowery year
Breathes odours in the spring,
The scorching summer corn doth bear,
The autumn fruit from laden trees doth bring.
The falling rain
Doth winter's moisture give.
These rules thus nourish and maintain
All creatures which we see on earth to live.
And when they die,
These bring them to their end,
While their Creator sits on high,
Whose hand the reins of the whole world doth bend.
He as their king
Rules them with lordly might.
From Him they rise, flourish, and spring,
He as their law and judge decides their right.
Those things whose course
Most swiftly glides away
His might doth often backward force,
And suddenly their wandering motion stay.
Unless his strength
Their violence should bound,
And them which else would run at length,
Should bring within the compass of a round,
That firm decree
Which now doth all adorn
Would soon destroyed and broken be,
Things being far from their beginning borne.
This powerful love
Is common unto all,
Which for desire of good do move
Back to the springs from when they first did fall.
No worldly thing
Can a continuance have
Unless love back again it bring
Unto the cause which first the essence gave.
Boethius was, until the end, a friend of Theodoric. His father was consul, he was consul, and so were his two sons. His father-in-law Symmachus (probably grandson of the one who had a controversy with Ambrose about the statue of Victory) was an important man in the court of the Gothic king. Theodoric employed Boethius to reform the coinage, and to astonish less sophisticated barbarian kings with such devices as sun-dials and water-clocks. It may be that his freedom from superstition was not so exceptional in Roman aristocratic families as elsewhere; but its combination with great learning and zeal for the public good was unique in that age. During the two centuries before his time and the ten centuries after it, I cannot think of any European man of learning so free from superstition and fanaticism. Nor are his merits merely negative; his survey is lofty, disinterested, and sublime. He would have been remarkable in any age; in the age in which he lived, he is utterly amazing.
The medieval reputation of Boethius was partly due to his being regarded as a martyr to Arian persecution—a view which began two or three hundred years after his death. In Pavia, he was regarded as a saint, but in fact he was not canonized. Though Cyril was a saint. Boethius was not.
Two years after the execution of Boethius, Theodoric died. In the next year, Justinian became Emperor. He reigned until 565, and in this long time managed to do much harm and some good. He is of course chiefly famous for his Digest, but I shall not venture on this topic, which is one for the lawyers. He was a man of deep piety, which he signalized, two years after his accession, by closing the schools of philosophy in Athens, where paganism still reigned. The dispossessed philosophers betook themselves to Persia, where the king received them kindly. But they were shocked—more so, says Gibbon, than became philosophers—by the Persian practices of polygamy and incest, so they returned home again, and faded into obscurity. Three years after this exploit (532), Justinian embarked upon another, more worthy of praise—the building of St Sophia. I have never seen St Sophia, but I have seen the beautiful contemporary mosaics at Ravenna, including portraits of Justinian and his empress Theodora. Both were very pious, though Theodora was a lady of easy virtue whom he had picked up in the circus. What is even worse, she was inclined to be a Monophysite.
But enough of scandal. The Emperor himself, I am happy to say, was of impeccable orthodoxy, even in the matter of the 'Three Chapters'. This was a vexatious controversy. The Council of Chalcedon had pronounced orthodox three Fathers suspected of Nestorianism; Theodora, along with many others, accepted all the other decrees of the Council, but not this one. The Western Church stood for everything decided by the Council, and the empress was driven to persecute the Pope. Justinian adored her, and after her death in 548, she became to him what the dead Prince Consort was to Queen Victoria. So in the end he lapsed into heresy, that of Aphthartodocetism. A contemporary historian (Evagrius) writes: 'Having since the end of his life received the wages of his misdeeds, he has gone to seek the justice which was his due before the judgment-seat of hell.'
Justinian aspired to reconquer as much as possible of the Western Empire. In 535 he invaded Italy, and at first had quick success against the Goths. The Catholic population welcomed him, and he came as representing Rome against the barbarians. But the Goths rallied, and the war lasted eighteen years, during which Rome, and Italy generally, suffered far more than in the barbarian invasion.
Rome was five times captured, thrice by Byzantines, twice by Goths, and sank to a small town. The same sort of thing happened in Africa, which Justinian also more or less reconquered. At first his armies were welcomed; then it was found that Byzantine administration was corrupt and Byzantine taxes were ruinous. In the end, many people wished the Goths and Vandals back. The Church, however, until his last years, was steadily on the side of the Emperor, because of his orthodoxy. He did not attempt the reconquest of Gaul, partly because of distance, but partly also because the Franks were orthodox.
In 568, three years after Justinian's death, Italy was invaded by a new and fierce German tribe, the Lombards. Wars between them and the Byzantines continued intermittently for two hundred years, until nearly the time of Charlemagne. The Byzantines held gradually less and less of Italy; in the South, they had also to face the Saracens. Rome remained nominally subject to them, and the popes treated the Eastern emperors with deference. But in most parts of Italy the emperors, after the coming of the Lombards, had very little authority or even none at all. It was this period that ruined Italian civilization. It was refugees from the Lombards who founded Venice, not, as tradition avers, fugitives from Attila.