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The year to remember is 313. That's the year the Emperor Constantine declared religious toleration . . . And although he did not make Christianity the religion of the Empire, it was clear that the persecutions were over.
So, who was Constantine? Well, he was the man. He had emerged victorious from the most recent round of civil wars and moved the Roman capital to the fishing village of Byzantium and named it “Constantinople.” That was in 324. But don't remember that date.
Remember 325. That was the year of the first Church Council. And it was called by Constantine because he was pretty irritated that Catholics were arguing among themselves over the nature of Christ. There was a new teaching called “Arianism.” And it had suddenly become powerful. St. Athanasius wrote that the world woke up one morning to find itself Arian. I can't get into the theological details here, but basically, Arianism taught that Christ was less than the Father. Not three equal persons within the one Godhead, but God the Father, then Christ a lesser person within the Trinity. It was the first of Christological heresies that would embroil the Church from about 300 to 700, occupying center attention in six of the seven ecumenical councils. There seven total ecumenical councils. By that, I mean “Seven councils that the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church both accept.” There were a lot more councils, Second Vatican for instance.
Six of those councils were convened to deal with heretical notions regarding Jesus Christ's dual nature. Now, it should be noted, they weren't heretical when the Councils were called. The teachings prompted the calling of the Councils in order to flush them out and find what, exactly, the teachings held, and then they were declared heretical after much discussion and debate. I can't remotely do justice to the various Councils, but know this: They form the basic tenets and backbone of the Christian religion. We get our Nicene Creed from the ecumenical councils. The very first one, in fact, the one Constantine called at Nicea in 325 (and it was further tweaked at the second Council in 381).
Key date: 376. Goths were being pushed around by Huns from the Steppes. Now, the Goths had engaged in commerce with the Roman Empire for years and greatly admired the Roman culture, recognizing it as superior in many ways. But they were content merely trading with and, yes, occasionally raiding into the Roman Empire. But in 376, they asked if they could cross the Danube and settle in Roman territory so they could put some water between themselves and the Huns. The Romans said yes, signed a treaty of sorts, then grossly mistreated the Goths. The mistreatment by local Roman officials was apparently unbelievable, starving the Goths to the point that a Goth would trade his child for a dog to eat. But the Goths were a nation. They still had swords and knew how to use them. The mistreatment was like loosing a wild boar inside the Roman borders and there was war. After a few battles, the two sides came to a treaty and the Goths were allowed to settle permanently in the Empire. Later, their king, Alaric, who was really a Roman general, engaged in internal fighting with other Roman generals and sacked Rome in 410, which is another year to remember.
In 476, a barbarian deposed the western emperor of Rome. Now, deposition of western Roman emperors had become a frequent occurrence. Nothing unusual in 476. What was different this time, however, is that the barbarian general/king who overthrew the emperor didn't take the title himself. Instead, he told the Roman emperor in the east that they would just answer directly to Constantinople for now on. No separate emperor for the West was necessary. That barbarian, Odoacer, then ruled in the name of the Roman Empire. He was both called “patrician,” a Roman term, and “king,” which roughly equated to “general” in those days. (Caveat: I think scholars debate that point, probably fiercely, but the term is “Rex” and, from what I can tell, the term blended both king-like and merely general-like (as in “General in the Roman Army”) characteristics.)
None of this blended barbarian/Roman was new. Barbarians had occasionally ruled the Western empire from the time of Maximinius Thrax in 235. What you need to understand is, for hundreds of years, the Roman Empire and barbarians were hopeless intertwined. Use your imagination to think what would happen if Ted Kennedy hadn't gotten the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed, beefing up the border patrol and eliminating the free interchange that existed previously between the U.S. and Mexico. Just think if Mexicans kept coming to America to find a better life, gradually controlling the vote in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, maybe eventually swaying presidential elections, the two cultures continuously blending. Then throw in the brutal fact (and this is crucial if you ever want to understand Rome) that Rome had been controlled by the military since the days of the late Republic and, voila, you have an evolving arrangement that loosely paralleled what happened from, say, 100 AD to 500 AD. It got to the point that, at some levels, you couldn't tell a barbarian from a Roman, if it weren't for the barbarians' beards and odd ways of dressing. So, after 476, things continued pretty much the same way they always had. The Senate still functioned, albeit its role was, and had been for a long time, diminished. Roman coins were still used. There were bread and circuses. Roman towns and baths. Sure, in some areas, Roman civilization had collapsed, but (i) they had collapsed well before 476, and (ii) in most areas of the old Roman Empire, things continued like they always had, even though control by Constantinople was rapidly draining and the Roman nobility–descendants of the Senatorial classes and barbarian kings/generals–increasingly just did what they wanted, even though, if pressed for an answer, they would've sworn fealty to Constantinople as their overlord. None of them would've said “F the Emperor in Constantinople,” both because they fear what type of response that would've invoked and, honestly, they were proud of being part of Rome.
Okay, so let's look at things after 476: First, Visigothic Spain. These are the same Goths who fled the Huns in 376 and revolted. They are different from the Ostrogoths, which we haven't discussed, but the Ostrogoths conquered Italy in the name of Constantinople shortly after 476, so you basically had Goths in control of Spain and Italy, albeit different branches. The Visigoths established a kingdom in Spain that was almost identical to Roman culture. The Visigoths comprised only 3% of the population. The folks they ruled you might call “Hispano-Romans.” The Visigoths became wholly Roman as time went on and stayed so until the Visigothic Spain fell to the Muslims in the early 700s.
Now France. The rise of the Franks. Clovis became king of the Franks and ruled the geographic area we know as modern day France. This was the Merovingian Dynasty. It was huge because, unlike the Goths, the Franks were orthodox Catholic.
During this time period, the 500s, Justinian was the main player. He ruled the Byzantine Empire. He dang near returned the Roman Empire to its former glory by re-taking northern Africa and parts of western Europe, but troubles with the Persians and a plague derailed his efforts. Fascinating man. As was his wife, Theodora, who was one of the most cunning and maybe cruel women in history. Meaning of the word “Byzantine”: cunning, deceit, complex, shadowy. It's all there with the earliest Byzantine emperor. And it was in full display in Procopius' Secret History, which dragged Justinian and Theodora through the proverbial mud, even asserting that Theodora had an affair with a goose. If that doesn't tell you how much she was despised, nothing does.
This time period contains St. Patrick. Patrick was a Roman Britain. He was kidnapped in an Irish raid (something that occurred more often as the last of the legions withdrew from Britain in 410 . .. . Listen to episode 67). He escaped years from Ireland later, then went back to Christianize the place, which he did successfully. Shortly after the last legions left Britain in 410, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes started to settle and/or invade, depending who you ask. The historical record is muddled, to say the least. They pushed the Romano-Britain population to the west. Britain was again pagan; Christianity all but eliminated.
But then in about 600, Christian missionaries were sent to Britain and had limited success, but Irish monks also came over and had great success. This is one of those neat incidents in history: one culture evangelizing the other, then the other returning the favor many years later. Here, Britain sent St. Patrick, Britain subsequently became pagan, St. Patrick's spiritual descendants then reconverted Britain. The same thing is happening today, as South America, Africa, Vietnam, and India send Europe and the United States their priests. The West evangelized them; they are now coming to our rescue.