The fall of Rome

Historians discuss and debate when the Roman Empire fell and why it fell. They rarely ask each other whether it fell. Surely it does not exist today, so at some time it must have fallen. The key is to find a date when it fell and then to offer reasons why it fell.

Diocletian divided the Empire into administrative halves in 286, governing the western half from Mediolanum (now Milan, Italy). Constantine built a new city in the eastern Empire, calling it New Rome, although it quickly became known as Constantinople. The city of Rome, then ceased to be the center of the Roman Empire well before the city was sacked by barbarians. Some historians push the decline and fall of Rome back into the 200s; others point to the collapse of the borders around the year 376 or the clear division of imperial authority in 395. Many place the end of Rome at the sack of the city by Alaric in 410 or that of Odacer in 476. Yet the continuity of Roman government in the eastern Mediterranean continued under the Byzantine emperors until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For that matter, a Frankish king named Charles considered the title of Roman Emperor to be worth receiving in the year 800. For that matter, a country called the Holy Roman Empire still existed on European maps a thousand years after Charles (or Charlemagne) was crowned in Rome; Napoleon might be considered the final conqueror to bring about the fall of Rome when he disbanded the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

For those who prefer to say that Rome fell some time before the year 500, many reasons can be offered as the cause of that fall. Those reasons include climate change, immigration problems, increasing taxation, rampart immorality, loss of the “will to power” due to Christianity, and even lead poisoning from Roman plumbing. Like most historical events, the fall of Rome (if it happened at all) probably had multiple causes. From a historical perspective, though, immigration problems may have contributed more than any other factor to large-scale changes in the Roman Empire.

At the same time that Rome prospered in the west, the Han dynasties were powerful in China. Among their rivals for power in eastern Asia were central Asian residents known to the Chinese as the Xiongnu. As China grew in size and strength, the Xiongnu were displaced; rather than battling China, they sought homes elsewhere. Some traveled south into India, bringing an end to the powerful Gupta Empire. Others pushed into northwestern Asia, displacing Germanic tribes who pressed on the borders of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the descendants of the Xiongnu also arrived in Italy, where (as in India) they were called Huns. But the leader of the Huns in Italy, Attila, turned away from Rome—according to some sources, after successful negotiations of Pope Leo. Roman power was not enough, though to prevent the arrival of Vandals, Goths, and other nations that sought to migrate into Roman lands.

The Vandals and Goths and others were fleeing the Huns and other enemies. They were looking for better places to live—more favorable climates, and more opportunity to raise food for themselves and their families. They valued Roman law, Roman civilization, and Roman culture. (All of them eventually became Christians.) They did not want to conquer or destroy Rome as much as they wanted to join Rome. Yet their presence on soil once claimed by Rome constituted, for Romans at the time and for most historians today, an invasion that brought about the fall of Rome.

The Romans struggled to prevent this immigration problem. They posted troops on the borders of the Empire. They built walls. One of their better ideas was to offer Roman citizenship to the immigrants provided they remain on the border and guard against new waves of immigration. All these efforts bought time to preserve the Empire. In the end, though, the immigrants overwhelmed Roman efforts to bar their entry. They made their home in western Europe and north Africa. In the absence of Roman authority, they established their own governments and preserved their various cultures.

Yet they did not destroy all that was Roman. In many ways, they adopted or imitated Roman law and bureaucracy. As already noted, they became Christians as the Romans had become Christians. They viewed themselves, not as the destroyers of Rome, but as the heirs of Rome. Even their language blended with the Latin language, creating Spanish and Portuguese and French and Italian from the mixture.

Maybe the change was inevitable. On the other hand, maybe the Romans could have done more to welcome the immigrants and to assimilate them into the Empire rather than fighting them and resisting them. In either case, the most valuable elements of Roman civilization—its ideas, its art, its technology—survived to improve the lives of many people for countless generations, continuing until and beyond the present time. J.

Home again

 My family adventure of the last nine days contains three highlights: meeting my granddaughter, driving many miles, and seeing the Grand Canyon.

  1. Those of you who have met a grandchild for the first time already know what I would be describing. The rest of you might or might not understand. Either way, words fail to convey the most important moments of a voyage that lasted slightly more than two hundred hours.
  2. The voyage, from driveway to driveway, was roughly 1,900 miles, or a bit more than 3000 kilometers. We were in five states but saw license plates from 46 states (missing only Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont). We experienced open highways and construction delays. We saw spacious skies and also drove through heavy rains in northern New Mexico and Arizona. (Who ya gonna call? Drought-Busters!) We observed smoke and ash from western wildfires. Our trip included mountains and canyons, hills and valleys, prairies and deserts and conditions in between, oaks and pines and mesquite and sagebrush and cacti (clearly planted in crop rows) and corn and alfalfa. At one point we drove through the region where Apollo astronauts practiced walking on the moon. (Only on the last day of our voyage did it occur to me that, at roughly the same time fifty-two years earlier, three men spent nine days in a little metal box so they could walk for an hour or two on the surface of the moon. They had no rest stops, no restaurants, and no motels—just a long trip in a small metal box.) We saw the Hoover Dam and Area 51. I stood—not at a corner, but in a gas station—in Winslow, Arizona. We should have turned left at Albuquerque.  
  3. When we told people back home that we planned a side trip to the Grand Canyon, they assured us that we would be amazed and astounded and awed. That concerned me—when people tell me how to feel, I often feel the opposite. But viewing the Grand Canyon was memorable and impressive. Rather than merely driving there and looking around on our own, we paid to join a tour group that traveled from Flagstaff, Arizona, up to the South Rim and back. Our driver and guide was a geologist who also leads hiking and rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. He drove us to six different locations on the South Rim, giving us twenty or thirty minutes at each location to view the Canyon and explore the area, while he parked the vehicle and then met us again, sparing us much of the hassle that many tourists face in that National Park. A generous lunch was included in the package, and our guide was able to share copious information about the geology, history, flora and fauna, and significance of the Canyon and its surrounding area, including personal anecdotes and observations. He mentioned, for example, that most of the deaths at the Grand Canyon are the result of heat and dehydration, not from falls into the Canyon. The guide said that an average of five people a year die in the Grand Canyon but that there have already been ten deaths this year. (A later Internet search gave an average of twelve deaths per year at the Grand Canyon, but that statistic included aircraft crashes and drownings in the Colorado River.)

For the journey, I brought books from my long-term reading plan and also drafts of writing I hope to publish. I found little time for the latter project, but I did keep up with my reading. Ironically, before going to sleep the night after we visited the Grand Canyon, my reading included the following selection from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five: “…and Billy was flung back into his childhood. He was twelve years old, quaking as he stood with his mother and father on Bright Angel Point, at the rim of the Grand Canyon. The little human family was staring at the floor of the canyon, one mile straight down. ‘Well—’ said Billy’s father, manfully kicking a pebble into space, ‘there it is.’ They had come to this famous place by automobile. They had had seven blowouts on the way. ‘It was worth the trip,’ said Billy’s mother raptly. ‘Oh, God—was it ever worth it.’ Billy hated the canyon. He was sure that he was going to fall in. His mother touched him, and he wet his pants. There were other tourists looking down into the canyon, too, and a ranger was there to answer questions. A Frenchman who had come all the way from France asked the ranger in broken English if many people committed suicide by jumping in. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the ranger. ‘About three folks a year.’ So it goes.” J.

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

Birth announcement

My first grandchild was born this week. Mother (and father) and baby are all doing well. Those who are interested have already been given information about length and weight and time of birth. These statistics are less important than the report that all are in good health. (Time of birth is especially arbitrary, given the reality of time zone and of Daylight Saving Time.)

I am careful not to say that I became a grandfather this week. My daughter and her husband are firm, and rightly so, to say that their daughter has been a person for some months as she developed before birth. They celebrated their first Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day this spring, and they have gently corrected those people who suggest that they became parents at the birth of their daughter, as if she was less than a person prior to being born.

I was not able to be there this week for the occasion of her birth. But several members of the family will be making the pilgrimage next week to be present when she is born again in Holy Baptism. (I am prepared to give a Biblical explanation of infant baptism to anyone who is interested, but that is not my reason for writing this evening.) The baby will meet her family and no doubt be passed from one person to another. Not all the family can make the trip this month; other family members hope and plan to visit later in the year.

The trip there and back will take several days, so after the coming weekend I will have a short vacation from blogging and other online activities. I could find ways to remain active online, but I am choosing instead to take this vacation. It will be good for me to be free from social media for a few days, and I’m sure that I will catch up with anything important once I find my way back home.

Meanwhile, this weekend I have some writing to do—some continuation of blogging themes, and some other writing that needs to be done. I will even take some work with me—writing to read and edit and prepare for publication, as time permits during the trip. You can expect a flurry of posts in the next three days or so before Salvageable falls silent for a time. God willing, I shall return.

Meanwhile, my family and I celebrate the gift and miracle of new life. J.

History of Rome, part two

The peninsula Italy looks much like a boot, with the city of Rome situated on the shin. The island Sicily appears to be a rock being kicked by the boot. When Rome had consolidated power over Italy, it turned its attention to Sicily, which brought it into conflict with the north African city Carthage, once a colony founded by the Phoenicians. War erupted between Rome and Carthage over control of Sicily. The result of that fight, known as the First Punic War, was that Rome gained control of Sicily and also damaged the Carthaginian navy, making Rome the prevalent power of the western Mediterranean Sea.

Treaties were signed between Rome and Carthage, but Roman leaders were not content with the treaties they had signed. Almost immediately, they sought ways to violate the treaties and return to war with Carthage—preferring, if possible, to make Carthage seem guilty of the breach rather than Rome. The desired conflict was sparked to the west, in what is now Spain. Rome sent its armies to defend Roman interests in Spain, but Hannibal—a general from Carthage—responded by transporting troops and supplies across southern Gaul (which is now France), over the Alps, and into Italy. (He was forced to use the land route because of the previous damage to Carthage’s naval forces.) His army was too weak to lay siege to Rome itself, largely because of reductions in strength during the long voyage to Italy; but they devastated the Italian countryside, hoping to draw Roman forces into an engaged battle. The Roman commander, Fabius, preferred to avoid battle and wait for Hannibal’s troops to run out of supplies. When Roman citizens tired of the impasse, other Roman generals took command and brought the fight to Hannibal. The Romans were solidly defeated. In the end, though, Hannibal still could not attack Rome itself. Another Roman general, Scipio (later given the title Africanus for his victory) moved his troops from Spain to north Africa, attacking Carthage and ending the Second Punic War in Rome’s favor.

Now masters of the western Mediterranean Sea, the Romans turned their attention to the east, to the land of Greece and the kingdoms ruled by descendants of Alexander’s generals. Over the course of many years, with a combination of negotiations, treaties, and military victories, Rome captured all the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean basin. But some Roman politicians feared a revival of Carthage. A Senator named Cato ended every speech he gave, on any topic whatsoever, with the words, “Moreover, Carthage must be destroyed.” Eventually, his opinion prevailed. Rome attacked Carthage, initiating the Third Punic War, which Rome easily won, and Carthage was destroyed.

As Roman power expanded, the system of the Republic became increasingly unwieldy. Between bouts with other kingdoms, Rome was threatened with civil war. Several generals seized political power, generally with the support of their troops, who were demanding better retirement plans for veterans of the Roman army. Gaius Gracchus, his younger brother Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, and Gnaeus “Pompey” Pompeius all sought power and influence to reform Roman law, to care for soldiers and veterans, and to establish a government capable of handling the larger land mass and population Rome was now ruling.

The most famous in this line of reformers was Julius Caesar. Like the other reformers, Julius Caesar rose to power within the Roman military system. Like the other reformers, he seized political power in Rome, working to adjust the government to face the changing reality of its power. Along the way, he reinvented the calendar (and the Julian Calendar, with some tinkering from a pope named Gregory, is still used around the world today). He revised the judicial system and the welfare system of Rome. He sent citizens to colonize various regions in conquered lands, relieving overpopulation in the city of Rome and other Italian municipalities. He rewrote the rules of local government in the places ruled by Rome. He planned new construction, including highways and harbors.


The opponents of Julius Caesar warned that their leader was becoming a king. (Remember that the word king—“rex”—was one of the most frightening words in the Latin language.) Graffiti even appeared in Rome with the words “Rex Julius.” To prevent his coronation, a group of Senators assassinated Caesar, stabbing him to death on the Senate floor. They believed that they had preserved the Republic. Instead, the provoked a new civil war, one which ended when Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian Caesar, defeated his opponents in battle. Octavian made it clear that he did not want to be a king. “Just call me Emperor,” he said, borrowing a word from legal practice that did not yet have the meaning it acquired. Octavian completed the reform that Julius began, finally bringing peace to the Roman Empire. A grateful Senate granted him a new title, making him Caesar Augustus. In time, the family name of Caesar would become a title equivalent to king or emperor—in Germany it was spelled Kaiser, and in Russia it was spelled Czar or Tsar.

But Caesar Augustus could not anticipate that a Jewish baby, born in his empire and counted in his census, would rise to outshine him in power and in glory. J.