Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Christianity and the Fall of the Roman Empire

A. Roman Empire

1. Wars of conquest--The Roman practice of expropriating land from conquered peoples initially kept the plebians who did most of the fighting content, since they shared in a portion of the spoils of war. As time wore on, however, plebians received less and less land, while land prices in these conquered areas increased, causing them to go into debt and often lose the land they previously had received.

2. Slavery--became increasingly important to the ruling elite, who used slaves on the land they acquired to produce the surplus that provided them with the patrician lifestyle.

a) By the 1st century BCE there were more than 2 million slaves out of a population of 5.25 million people in the empire (or nearly 40% of the population)

b) Slavery led to the gradual impoverishment of free labor in Rome; the free populations stagnated, and many poor parents abandoned their children that they could no longer afford; these children often ended up being sold in slave markets.

C. Fall of the Roman Empire--according to the English historian Edward Gibbon, the fall of the empire was caused by its adoption of Christianity; the real cause was the internal difficulties caused by the reliance on slavery to produce a surplus (undermining the living that peasants could make from the land, and increasing the disparity in wealth distribution), while the costs of maintaining the empire were rising due to the necessity of a mercenary army and paying bribes to the “barbarians” to keep them pacified.

1. Mercenary Army--as slavery impoverished the plebian class (driving down wages and the capability of plebians to retain their land), plebians became less likely to serve in the army, and the population of plebians stagnated, so there were fewer of the to serve, anyway); this necessitate hiring mercenaries in ever greater numbers.

2. Empire’s main source of income--was from agriculture. Although the ruling class and its civilization was based in cities, the economy was based almost entirely upon rural agriculture, and most of the population was made up of peasants--and the income of the ruling class depended almost entirely upon rents collected from these peasants.

3. Trade--consisted largely of luxury goods consumed by the ruling elite. The vaunted infrastructure of roads and aqueducts was used to support the army, rather than to transport goods, which stifled trade (the cost to move a ton of wheat 300 miles, for example, doubled its price).

4. Cities--were largely parasites on the countryside, rather than a source of innovation--technology was not created in Roman cities and then moved out into the countryside.

5. Expenses of slavey--as Rome conquered all the areas that it could reasonably hope to administer, the sources for new slaves dried up and purchasing slaves became more expensive.

6. Rents--became a heavier burden for peasants; peasants were expected to pay taxes to both the imperial government and local officials. This burden grew at the imperial level from about 10% to more than 33%--and they still had to pay local taxes.

D. Western and Eastern Empires--in response to these increasing pressures, in 330 CE the emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire east to the Straits of Bosporus; ruling the western part of the empire from this vantage point, and the empire was split into two halves

1. Barbarian invasions--in the west, “barbarians” proved to be a threat to retaining control of the empire. They were temporarily bought off with bribes (after one group was successful in sacking Rome), but eventually they decided to exercise control over their areas themselves.

2. Mercenary armies--with no reason to have any allegiance to Rome itself, mercenaries were used by ambitious commanders to sack and pillage the very areas they were suppose to be protecting.

II. Rise of Christianity

A. Monotheism--the belief that one supreme being is responsible for the creation of mankind. Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, are but two varieties of monotheism that began in the Middle East.

1. Zoroasterism--founded by Persian man named Zoroaster. Zoroasterism is thought to be the oldest “revealed” religion (that is, a supreme being appeared before Zoroaster and told him to found religion). Zoroaster lived between 1500 and 1000BCE, it is though

a) It is also thought that the other regional monotheistic religions borrowed heavily from Zoroasterism, including the concept of God and Satan, virgin birth, messiah (christos, in Greek)

B. Judaism--if Genesis is to be believed, god revealed himself to Abraham. God is named Jehovah or Yaweh. Judaism developed a number of practices that set them apart from their neighbors, particularly in regard to diet (the various kosher prohibitions against consuming pork, shellfish, mixing preparation areas for meat and dairy products, etc.) and the bris milah, or male circumcision. While Jewish theology proved somewhat attractive to religious converts, the dietary restrictions and the circumcision requirement inhibited its popularity.

C. Christianity--or Judaism lite; similar theology with fewer dietary restrictions and no circumcision requirement helped it become more popular than Judaism.

1. The Messiah--a number of men within a couple of hundred years either side of the supposed time of Jesus called themselves the Messiah (Christos, the Christ); some even led rebellions against the Romans and ruling class Jews like Herod.

2. The Jewish Connection--Christianity borrowed heavily from Judaism, and lays claim to its inheritance (Jesus, Christians claim, is the Messiah that the Jews were awaiting), and spread earliest among the Jewish diaspora.

3. Persecution of Christians--while early Christians were sometimes persecuted, that persecution was not systematic; Roman’s tended to tolerate different religious practices, as long as the religion and its belief system did not constitute a threat to Roman political control.

4. Constantius--this emperor’s deathbed conversion--after a lifetime of debauchery and sinful pleasure--ensured that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

a) Son Constantine moved seat of government east to a city he had build, which he humbly named Constantinople; eventually the Empire split in two, and then slowly disintegrated.

b) Rome remained the location of the Bishop of Rome, who claimed descent from the first of Jesus disciples, Peter, the “rock” of the church--and therefore, supremacy in religious matters--but whose alleged supremacy was ignored by the bishops of churches in the east.

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