By the end of the fifth century, the western half of the Roman Empire was crumbling into a conglomeration of barbarian kingdoms.
The city of Rome remained central for churches in communion with the Roman church, but Rome wasn’t nearly so central for the new barbarian rulers rising in the west. Over time, a partnership would emerge between these kingdoms and the church; it was this partnership that would hold western society together through the Middle Ages. Over and over, the rulers of these western kingdoms would clash with the bishops of Rome—known by this time as “popes,” from the Latin for “father”—over whether the church or the state would be the stronger partner.
:: What Happened to the Western Roman Empire? ::
So what exactly caused the western half of the ancient empire to fall apart? Historians have been arguing about this question for centuries; I neither pretend nor intend to solve this issue in a single blog post. But it is an important issue to understand; so, I’ll simply set forth four of the primary theories:
(1) Decay due to disease. In the centuries before the fall of the empire, Romans experienced several waves of smallpox and other diseases. These diseases spread through communal bathhouses, urban brothels, and water sources. Barbarians were nomads who drank ale and didn’t frequent bathhouses or brothels, so they grew stronger while Romans grew weaker.
(2)Decline because the Romans began to rely on hired barbarian soldiers to defend the empire. This was part of Edward Gibbon’s view—though he also blamed Christianity for contributing to a decline in civic loyalty.
(3) Collapse because the empire was facing too many simultaneous challenges. Economic and environmental challenges combined with disease and increased reliance on barbarian mercenaries—taken together, all of these factors were simply too much for the ancient empire to survive.
(4) Change due to migration of barbarians into the empire. Henri Pirenne and Peter Brown have argued that the empire didn’t really fall at all. The southward migration of the barbarians was part of a gradual societal shift from an empire centralized in Rome to a variegated collection of tribal kingdoms.
:: What Was Happening in the East? ::
The Eastern Roman Empire—centered in Constantinople and known to later generations as “the Byzantine Empire”—fared far better than the west, at least from a political perspective. In fact, the city of Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern Empire for nearly one thousand years after Rome fell.
:: How Did God Use the Changes in the Empire to Preserve His Truth? ::
In the ninth century A.D., four hundred years or so after the fall of the Western Empire, a prince in the land of Moravia asked the emperor of the Eastern Empire to send missionaries to his people. The prince’s motives were primarily political: he needed the support of the Eastern Empire, so he asked the Eastern emperor for missionaries. Yet God worked through two Eastern missionaries named Cyril and Methodius to preserve his Word in ways that bore fruit far beyond the borders of Moravia. Watch this video to find out how!
30 Days through Church History: Day 14