Production of certain other books having taken priority, this project was suspended for a short time. It is now resumed. Links to the previous chapters follow at the end of this one.
CHAPTER 11.—THE ROMAN EMPIRE DECLINES AND FALLS FOR 1500 YEARS STRAIGHT.
To understand how civilization overcame the threat of Christianity and in fact triumphed against all odds, it will be necessary to go back a little and look at the history of the Roman Empire after the time of Augustus. It is regrettably impossible to make a strictly chronological history, because the people of the world have steadfastly refused to do one thing at a time in a tidy and organized manner. Perhaps in the future, when the leaders of the civilized world are making their plans, they will remember the convenience of historians, and will be sure to bring one trend or movement to a satisfactory conclusion before beginning another. Until that happy day, however, the historian is forced to leap back and forth like a square dancer.
Augustus left an empire at peace to his successors, along with a healthily inefficient bureaucracy and an atmosphere of snarling suspicion in the imperial household. The wisdom of the government he established is proved by the fact that he was succeeded by a line of alternating imbeciles and madmen, yet—outside of the imperial household and the very upper crust of the social soufflé—the empire continued to hum along in peace and prosperity. The Christians were not yet numerous enough to be a serious nuisance, and the bureaucracy was lazy and intransigent enough that no madness in the palace could trickle down more than a layer or two without being hopelessly diluted.
Thus begins the period known to history as the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as described in one of the most celebrated historical works ever written, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to Gibbon, the Empire began to decline and fall with its establishment in 33 b.c., and continued its uninterrupted decline until 1453 a.d., when the Turks finally captured Constantinople. The Romans, who did everything on a grand scale, still hold the record for longest continuous decline and fall in history.
After a brief experiment with wise emperors, including Marcus Aurelius, who spent most of his reign polishing aphorisms, the empire entered a period known to historians as the Age of the Revolving Door, when new emperors entered the palace at noon, and their mangled corpses were tossed out the door by tea time. The lack of stability at the top seeped through even into the lower levels of the Roman bureaucracy, and the treasury was deplete by the lavish donatives each fresh emperor distributed to buy the loyalty of the soldiers. The soldiers, being no fools, quickly learned that a high turnover rate meant high profits, and made sure to keep the door revolving.
At last a strong emperor entered the palace and stayed there for a while: his name was Diocletian, and he was one of those politicians with a plan that cannot possibly fail. His idea was to divide the Roman Empire into two main parts,west and east, with an Augustus for each half. Each Augustus would pick some bright young man to be his understudy, the Caesar. After a certain number of years, the Augusti would retire, and the Caesars would take their places, appointing Caesars of their own. Clearly such a system was flawlessly conceived and would give the empire centuries of stability. In practice, of course, it all fell apart as soon as Diocletian retired. Soon there were six Augusti running around; and that (as you have read in the previous chapter) was when Constantine decided to seize the opportunity presented by the hitherto untapped Christian demographic.
There is every reason to believe that Constantine actually believed the creed he professed. The surest indication is that he postponed his baptism until the end of his life: he was counting on baptism to wash away his sins, but he was also counting on getting in many productive years of sinning first. There were wars to be fought, rivals to eliminate, and family members to murder in the middle of the night. It might have scored some points with his Christian supporters if he had been baptized at once, but it was not worth the risk.
Here we see already how the forces of civilization were cleverly mounting their campaign to neutralize the Christian menace. Constantine had accepted the teachings of Christ, but Civilization whispered in his ear that Christian doctrine was not compatible with effective government. An emperor had a certain responsibility to see to it that the public thing (the Romans still had not thought of a name for it) was not troubled by rivalry for the throne, and the only effective way to prevent rivalry was to destroy potential rivals. Yes, it was against the teachings of Christ; but baptism will wash away those sins, and really it is almost an act of Christian charity to make sure that the ordinary people of the empire can go about their ordinary lives without being haunted by the specter of civil war.
When it came time to confront Constantine’s heirs, the forces of civilization moved on to the next stage of their campaign. You need not trouble yourself with fruitless scruples, they told the emperor. The governing powers are instituted by God, and it is therefore the emperor’s religious duty to take effective measures to keep himself in power. Rivals must be eliminated, because their wicked plots run counter to the divine will that placed you on the throne. You may be confident that, when you are most ruthless in rooting out these plots and destroying their perpetrators, even when they are members of your own family, that is when you show yourself as truly Christian.
Thus it took civilization only two generations to bring Christianity around to its own side, making the dangerous faith a willing collaborator in maintaining that constant state of terror that makes effective government possible. The most revolutionary teachings of Christ—love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and all those provocative sayings about rich people—turned out to be absolutely compatible with civilization, once they were properly interpreted. Torture, murder, and massacre were part of an emperor’s Christian duty to govern the subjects whom God had placed in his charge. Looked at this way, Christianity was actually good for civilization. Would it be showing genuine love for one’s enemies to allow them to continue in sin by defying God’s anointed authority? Was it not necessary for the good of their own souls that they should be brought back to the straight and narrow path by the threat of torture or death? And would those threats not lose all their good effects if it were known that they would not be carried out? In fact, would one not have borne false witness if one failed to carry them out? And was it not necessary to accumulate an enormous stock of earthly treasure in order to be able to carry out those threats when it became necessary?
Not content with going down in history as the man who reconciled Christianity with civilization, Constantine made one more drastic innovation: he moved the capital of his empire to Byzantium, a little Greek city that had the advantage of a nearly impregnable natural position. Constantine, who had Alexander’s taste in names, called his new capital Constantinople, and built it up into a magnificent new Rome.
But where did that leave the old Rome? It was still a big city, but it was not the city anymore. In fact, the time was soon coming when it would be perfectly possible to be a Roman emperor without ever having seen Rome. Even when the empire was divided into eastern and western halves, the western emperors preferred to make Milan or Ravenna their capital. Rome found itself condemned to a fate worse than decline: it was lapsing into irrelevance. Decades could pass without an emperor setting foot in the city. And if part of the empire had to be sacrificed to an invader—well, thought the emperors, better Rome than Ravenna.
The chapters previously published:
FROM THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE TO THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION.
THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS INVENT HISTORY.
ALEXANDER RUNS OUT OF WORLDS TO CONQUER.
WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.