The German invasions and the break-up of the Roman Empire – Extinction of Latin literature & Roman Culture in the West

While Theodoric had been establishing his kingdom in Italy with such enlightenment and moderation, what is now France was coming under the control of the most powerful of the barbarian peoples, the Franks, who were to play a more important rôle in the formation of modern Europe than any of the other German races. Besides the kingdoms of the East Goths and the Franks, the West Goths had their kingdom in Spain, the Burgundians had established themselves on the Rhone, and the Vandals in Africa. Royal alliances were concluded between the reigning houses of these nations, and for the first time in the history of Europe we see something like a family of nations, living each within its own boundaries and dealing with one another as independent powers. It seemed for a few years as if the process of assimilation between Germans and Romans was going to make rapid progress without involving any considerable period of disorder and retrogression.


But no such good fortune was in store for Europe, which was now only at the beginning of the turmoil from which it was to emerge almost completely barbarized. Science, art, and literature could find no foothold in the shifting political sands of the following centuries. Boethius, whom Theodoric put to death (in 524 or 525) for alleged treasonable correspondence with the emperor, was the last Latin writer who can be compared in any way with the classical authors in his style and mastery of the language. He was a scholar as well as a poet, and his treatises on logic, music, etc., were highly esteemed by following generations.

Theodoric’s distinguished Roman counselor, Cassiodorus (d. 575), to whose letters we owe a great part of our knowledge of the period, busied himself in his old age in preparing text-books of the liberal arts and sciences,–grammar, arithmetic, logic, geometry, rhetoric, music, and astronomy. His manuals were intended to give the uninstructed priests a sufficient preparation for the study of the Bible and of the doctrines of the Church. His absurdly inadequate and, to us, silly treatment of these seven important subjects, to which he devotes a few pages each, enables us to estimate the low plane to which learning had fallen in Italy in the sixth century. Yet his books were regarded as standard treatises in these great fields of knowledge all through the Middle Ages. So mediæval Europe owed these, and other text-books upon which she was dependent for her knowledge, to the period when Latin culture was coming to an end.

A long period of gloom now begins. Between the time of Theodoric and that of Charlemagne three hundred years elapsed, during which scarcely a writer was to be found who could compose, even in the worst of Latin, a chronicle of the events of his day. Everything conspired to discourage education. The great centers of learning–Carthage, Rome, Alexandria, Milan–were partially destroyed by the barbarians or the Arabs. The libraries which had been kept in the temples of the gods were often annihilated, along with the pagan shrines, by Christian enthusiasts, who were not sorry to see the heathen literature disappear with the heathen religion (*1). Shortly after Theodoric’s death the eastern emperor withdrew the support which the government had hitherto granted to public teachers and closed the great school at Athens (*2). The only important historian of the sixth century was the half-illiterate Gregory, Bishop of Tours (d. 594), whose whole work is unimpeachable evidence of the sad state of intellectual affairs. He at least heartily appreciated his own ignorance and exclaims, in incorrect Latin, “Woe to our time, for the study of letters has perished from among us.”


The year after Theodoric’s death one of the greatest of the emperors of the East, Justinian (527-565), came to the throne at Constantinople. He undertook to regain for the Empire the provinces in Africa and Italy that had been occupied by the Vandals and East Goths. His general, Belisarius, overthrew the Vandal kingdom in northern Africa in 534, but it was a more difficult task to destroy the Gothic rule in Italy. However, in spite of a brave defense, the Goths were so completely defeated in 553 that they agreed to leave Italy with all their movable possessions. What became of the remnants of the race we do not know. They had been too few to maintain their control over the mass of the Italians, who were ready, with a religious zeal which cost them dear, to open their gates to the hostile armies of Justinian.

The destruction of the Gothic kingdom was a disaster for Italy. Immediately after the death of Justinian the country was overrun anew, by the Lombards, the last of the great German peoples to establish themselves within the bounds of the former Empire. They were a savage race, a considerable part of which was still pagan, and the Arian Christians among them appear to have been as hostile to the Roman Church as their unconverted fellows (*3). The newcomers first occupied the region north of the Po, which has ever since been called Lombardy after them, and then extended their conquests southward. Instead of settling themselves with the moderation and wise statesmanship of the East Goths, the Lombards chose to move about the peninsula pillaging and massacring. Such of the inhabitants as could, fled to the islands off the coast. The Lombards were unable, however, to conquer all of Italy. Rome, Ravenna, and southern Italy continued to be held by the Greek empire (*4). As time went on, the Lombards lost their wildness, accepted the orthodox form of Christianity, and gradually assimilated the civilization of the people among whom they lived. Their kingdom lasted over two hundred years, until it was overthrown by Charlemagne.

(Source: “An Introduction to the History of Western Europe” by James Harvery Robinson)

(*1) This is true for the barbarians who were ‘supposedly converted’ – as we do not believe that they were ever truly christianized except a few. We need to distinguish the attitude of the indigenous Graeco-Romans and or Gallo-Romans that never turned against their own civilization, except its religion. In other words, yes, there have been isolated events of Christian Roman mobs that destroyed temples of the gods (one could say as ‘revenge’ for the long persecutions of Christians, even though ‘revenge’ is not at all a Christian act), but, not only this was forbidden -and punished– according to the Imperial Law, but was never a generalized practice. What the writer states here is valid for the Western -formerly- Imperial territories. The barbarians destroyed the West almost completely. This never happened to such an extent in the Eastern surviving Roman State. The interested reader may want to have a look at our article on ‘The Libraries in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire (330-1453 AD)

(*2) ‘Withdrew the support‘ means ‘funding‘; up to that point all schools of this kind were funded by the State. The State didn’t close the school; only stopped funding it. The school never found further funding and eventually closed. This is probably an indication of the numbers of ‘devoted pagans’ -which were obviously small- during that era and, of course, their lack of economic power and influence in a, now, Christian, in its vast majority, Empire. We also need to add that Schools in Athens continued to exist but without their pagan religious character. In other words, the Classics were still taught. There is the example of John Scotus Eriugena (c. 815 – c. 877) who was the first since Saint Augustine to introduce the ideas of Neoplatonism from the Greek into the Western European intellectual tradition, having himself studied in Athens.

(*3) This is exactly what one observes when it comes to the destruction of ancient monuments; the Graeco-Romans and Gallo-Romans hardly ever destroyed parts of their own culture. On the contrary, the invading barbarian ‘christians’, mostly heretics,  haven’t left ‘stone upon stone’ in countless parts of the Empire. Of course, there have been exceptions among them, but the rule firmly appears to be as stated.

(*4) No ‘Greek’ or ‘Byzantine’ Empire ever existed; only the Roman Empire. Sometimes we use the term ‘Byzantine’, too, in NovoScriptorium. But, this is only for the readers’ convenience.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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