Augustine lived to see Rome's fall. When we speak of the "Fall of Rome," we don't speak of the Roman Empire. Specifically, Rome's fall refers to Alaric's sack of Rome in A.D. 410.
How did this come about? Who were the barbarians and why did they invade Roman lands? I'll answer those questions and present the church's first missionary endeavor outside the Empire here.
I. Who are the Barbarians?
Romans considered anyone living outside the Empire a barbarian! The term held no more significance than today's term for non-citizens: alien. The Romans considered anyone barbaric who hailed from what they considered an inferior culture. Romans looked down on any foreigner. J.V.P. Balsdon writes:
Balsdon classifies Romans as snobs.
Northern barbarians actually possessed a rich culture. By the fourth century they had a system of writing, a stable government and an effective legal system. The "blood tie" was basic to the society. The basic Germanic political unit was the comitatus, consisting of a chief and his warband. When a chief died the people elected the next chief from the royal family by vote. They selected the individual they considered most "throne worthy." The Germanic law code consisted of the wergeld, a table of payments based on the wronged party's position in society. Barbarians usually determined guilt or innocence in trial by ordeal. At the root, law resided in the "volk." No one could alter custom without community agreement. Furthermore, most barbarians were morally superior to the Romans. While they lacked social graces, the Germanic peoples displayed courage, hospitality and honesty. Barbarians and Romans were both cruel, but it shocked barbarians to discover that Romans used torture to extract criminal confessions.
Most barbarians professed Christianity, albeit the Arian version. This was particularly true among the Goths. In addition, many barbarians identified with Rome since they hired on as mercenary soldiers to fight Rome's battles.
II. How did the Goths become Christians?
Historians do not know how Christianity first reached the Goths. After the first century the church did little to evangelize outside the Empire. Thomas Burns wrote:
Cross cultural evangelism was not a priority for third, fourth and fifth century Christianity.
Whether deserved or not, Ulfilas receives credit for evangelizing the Goths. Some suspect prisoners of war introduced Christian teachings as early as 264 among western Goths but as a nation they remained unconverted. Ulfilas accomplished that work.
To the best of our knowledge, Ulfilas descended from captives taken in Cappadocian border raids. No one knows his birthdate, but historians guess it at about 310 or 311. His parents appear to be Christians and he was soon a "reader" in a little Gothic Christian circle. Other historians argue that Ulfilas became a Christian in Constantinople after contact with Eusebius of Nicomedia. Most likely, Eusebius consecrated Ulfilas as Bishop for the Gothic people and sent him north about 341. For 40 years, Ulfilas labored successfully among his own people.
Ulfilas's translated the Bible into the Gothic language providing them with an alphabet in the process. He did not, however, translate all of Scripture into Gothic. Earle Cairnes points out that "because the Goths were so warlike, he felt justified in not translating the books of Kings and Samuel into their language." Stephen Neill, well known missions historian, writes:
Ulfilas's work contributed to the conversion of thousands. Through the preaching of Gothic Scripture the western Goths (Visigoths), eastern Goths (Ostrogoths), the Vandals in part, and even more remote Germanic tribes all heard the Gospel. Before the barbarians invaded the Empire most already held to the Arian version of Christianity.
III. Why did the migrations begin?
Barbarians moved south for various reasons. First, the Empire continued its internal disintegration. Most barbarians respected Rome and desired to enjoy its living standards. Rome's decline continued in four areas. The family continued to disintegration. By 400, the Empire's population stood at 70 million but only 6 million were Italian. Fewer Italians meant mercenaries made up most of the army. The middle class decreased in size. No society lasts long without a strong middle class. Rome faced increasing balance of payments deficits. Declining agriculture required Rome to import food and pay the price. Industry, never popular in Italy, offered no tax base. Soon the middle class bore the heaviest tax burden. Those living off taxes outnumbered those paying them and corruption ate up even more of the revenues. Some middle class citizens fled north passing barbarians heading south. There was a decline in slavery. Owners freed slaves because of economic problems but most came as small farms continued to be eaten up by larger ones. A crumbling Empire had little "fiber" to keep out encroaching barbarians.
Second, barbarians came south for land. As Romans left the land, poorer land lay untilled. That abandoned land awaited someone determined to make it pay. Realizing the value of personal achievement, profit and enterprise, the Germanic peoples believed they could make the land pay without slavery.
Third, the barbarians moved into Roman territory because of pressure from others moving into their traditional homelands. When the Huns moved into eastern Europe during the 370s they forced barbarian movement. Terrified western Goths begged Rome to allow them into Roman territory for protection. The Roman Emperor agreed to allow migration into the Empire in 376. Once the migrations began, trouble arose almost immediately! Western Goths claimed Roman governors and businessmen cheated them. In 378, they staged a small revolt. The Emperor entered battle without adequate preparation and the rebel Goths defeated him. Theodosius I settled the issue later with a sizeable military force but a precedent was set: Roman armies can be beaten!
In 398, western Goths, led by Alaric, moved into Illyricum. Stilicho, a Vandal, commanded Rome's western army. He is one of the best Roman generals in their service. When the Goths entered Roman territory, Stilicho met them and turned them back. Such confrontations occurred three times. Alaric continued pressing on the eastern borders along the Danube. Stilicho summoned troops from the Rhine frontier leaving it almost defenseless. Emperor Honorius saw this as a Vandal plot and ordered Stilicho's assassination. Stilicho's assassination drove many German mercenaries out of the Roman army and into Alaric's service. Alaric, with a greatly strengthened force, now saw nothing standing between his forces and Rome.
In 407 Alaric entered Italy, surrounded Rome and prepared to attack. Rome's Bishop entered negotiations with Alaric and, after paying substantial tribute, bought him off for the time being. Alaric's forces moved back up Italy's boot continuing his conquests. He called upon Honorius to make him a Roman general. Honorius refused and a year later Alaric returned to Rome. This time Rome could not buy him off. Alaric proceeded to sack the city. Significantly, as the Gothic sack took place churches remained untouched. Romans found safety inside the churches; outside their walls carnage took thousands of lives. After sacking the city Alaric took his army down Italy's boot hoping to conquer Sicily. He died before attaining that goal leaving Gothic leadership to a brother-in-law.
Shock waves from Rome's fall shook the Empire. Augustine put pen to parchment writing The City of God which emphasized that God's real city lay outside this world. Jerome wept bitterly when he heard the news. Others believed the end was near and that Christ would soon return. Alaric's sack had tremendous significance. Rome had remained untouched by war and pillage for almost 700 years. The violation of the Empire's chief city left everyone shaken.
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