Conversion of the Barbarians – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 37 Part 3

Conversion of the barbarians


It isn’t too hard to explain why Christianity became the predominant religion in the Roman Empire.  It was well organised.  It provided social security at a time of great insecurity.  It also had all the coercive power of the state behind it.   But how did the conversion of the barbarians make such inroads into the German tribes?

I think the explanation is that the Germans and the Romans knew each other very well and most of the time got on extremely well. One observer writes that it was impossible to tell which side of the Rhine was the one that was official Roman territory. Both were populated with prosperous villas. The empire was basically a plus in the lives of the Germans.  It provided employment, particularly military employment, and goods to spend the cash they had earned on.  As such, although they were never ruled by the Romans they were strongly influenced by them.  If there was a trend towards Christianity in the empire it isn’t surprising that it made its way to the Germans in the same way that they got their coins and their pottery.  In fact it is more surprising how impermeable the tribesmen were to this latest innovation.  Long after the empire had fallen the Saxons of Germany were still steadfastly remaining pagan.

But the process of conversion was not simply a matter of  passive diffusion.  The church made a conscious effort to win over the barbarians.  In order to propagate a book based faith the Bible had to be translated into Gothic.  This was a bit more involved than a simple transcription because previously Gothic had been a purely verbal language.   The latin alphabet had to be adapted to the sounds of Gothic.

As it happened, the Christians who did this were of the Arian persuasion.  It is tempting to see this as a conscious effort on the part of the Arians to bolster the position of their heretical views against those of the Orthodox.  It they did, then it was a wise strategy that might well have worked.  At the time it would have been impossible to predict that German tribesmen would one day come to rule most of the empire though.  So I think we have to chalk this one up to pure religious enthusiasm. 

But whatever the reason, the efforts of the missionaries in the early third century did bear some fruits.  The majority of the tribes were still pagans, but there were some significant successes.  Alaric for instance led a Visigothic nation as a Christian and with large numbers of Christian followers.  His religious convictions were deep seated enough to encourage him to be careful to avoid damage to Christian monuments.  But the results of the Germans adopting heretical views were going to have some bad consequences as well.

These were most acute in the Vandal kingdom of North Africa.  Genseric seems not only to have been an Arian Christian, but one who sincerely believed that Arianism was the true and pure form of the religion.  This enabled him to come up with an idealogical basis for his attacks on those parts of the empire that were still under the control of the official Roman state.  Gibbon quotes one of the sayings attributed to him that the wind could take his ships wherever it blew them, because the Almighty would single out those who were most in need of punishment – meaning here punishment for deviating from the true path of worship.  He also instigated some pretty extensive and bloody persecutions against those of his subjects that continued to follow the Catholics.  North Africa had already suffered some extreme religious conflict in the form of the battles between the Catholics and the Donatists, so this new element to the controversy was yet more fuel on the fire.

The Vandals were the only Arians who took their views to the extreme of actively persecuting large numbers of Catholics.  But for the Goths it presented a problem that made taking over the old imperial system more complicated.  It was certainly the pretext, if not the actual cause of some internal struggles inside the Gothic kingdoms.  Not all the Germans went through an Arian phase.  The Frankish king Clovis converted straight from paganism to Catholicism – and managed to get some political advantage from the process.    And not all the Germans had given up paganism before the empire itself disappeared.  The Saxons, as mentioned, maintained their old beliefs and took them to Britain, where they wiped out the local Romano-British church.  This was Christianity’s first actual loss of a large diocese.  The Saxons didn’t get to Ireland though, so they were open to reconversion from there.  But in the event, a mission from Rome was sent under the somewhat less famous of the two Saint Augustines.  He landed in Kent.  The story I was told at school was that the king of Kent was so mistrustful that he insisted on meeting under on oak tree, so that the power of Wodin would protect him if Augustine turned out to be a sorcerer.  I have never seen that story written down so I don’t know if it was something that teacher simply made up or if it is a folk tale or if there is some source that I don’t know about.   Gibbon at least doesn’t mention it.

But even with Woden on hand Augustine was successful and won over the king of Kent.  The first cathedral in Saxon England was built in his capital, so to this day the top job in the Church of England is based not where you would expect in London but in Canterbury.

Arianism did not last long.  The Vandal kingdom was destined to be destroyed.  The Goths, who might well have been predicted to emerge as the strongest state in western Europe by any independent pundit in the fifth century, somehow didn’t capitalise on their strong position. The Catholic Franks came from a poor second place to emerge as top dogs.  This left the Goths as the only Arians around, and eventually they simply joined the majority.  Christianity everywhere was for the first and last time in its history officially united under one organisation.

It would not be long before the splits would start and the history of the papacy is one that can hardly be described as smooth.  But the pope in Rome remains to this day the person who embodies the religion more than anyone else.  The institution and the wider church has its problems today, but it always has.  It has lost a lot of its influence – and many of us are quite happy about that.  But so long as a pope continues to be elected Christianity will always have a living link to the past, and it will always have that special aura of authority that can only come from centuries of tradition.  A chunk of that comes from its association with the empire. In fact the pope still uses the title Pontifex Maximus, which was the title the emperor’s used as heads of the pagan cult of the old empire.  In that sense, the imperial authority still counts for something even today.

But getting back to the fifth century,  the decline of secular Roman power left the church in a very strong position as the sole organised pan-national body.  It was able to acquire all manner of powers that then became self reinforcing.  In particular it was able to establish a monopoly on education and even to some extent on writing itself.  This intellectual hegemony enabled heresies and paganism to be very effectively silenced and in the case of paganism totally wiped out.  There were extreme penalties for pagan worship, but probably it was simple removal of places of worship that did the job.  Western Europe now had a single monolithic religion.  Or very nearly.  Only one alternative faith managed to survive.  The Jews stubbornly held onto their customs.  There was nobody else left to persecute, so they became the only possible target for Christian violence.  Organisations always find the existence of an external enemy useful for maintaining internal cohesion.  It was the great misfortune of Jewish history in western Europe that they would so often be used as a convenient scapegoat.

This naturally varied from place to place.  Jews were often very useful to rulers and society at large.  Their cosmopolitan outlook meant that they possessed some rare skills. But even so we hear about a forcible baptism of 90,000 Jews by the Gothic king Sisebut in the early seventh century.  This seems to have been the first large scale act of violence agains the Jews as a community.  It was the start of a long and disgraceful tradition that Europe would return to again and again.  Let us hope that it is one we have now finally consigned to history.


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