Belloc on the Fall of Rome

My object in writing… is to show that the Roman Empire never perished but was only transformed….—Hilaire Belloc

Belloc’s Europe and the Faith (1920) is considered a meta-historical tour de force, comparable to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire both in its majestic prose and its intellectual vigor. The difference, of course, is that Belloc reached very different conclusions from the Enlightenment author. He challenged the accepted view that Rome collapsed under the influx of more vigorous barbarians and that Christianity hastened this downfall by contributing to the loss of morale and unity.

Belloc argues that Rome’s decline was due to internal causes. Furthermore, the Church not only “saved what could be saved” of the ancient Greco-Roman world, it created a new basis of cultural unity that was more spiritual and more dynamic because it was not primarily political.

One of the crucial events in the “fall of Rome” was Alaric’s march on the capital city in 410 A.D. Belloc notes that the Visigoth leader was an appointed commander of auxiliary forces, and not an external enemy. He was an adventurer of the sort well known in Roman history, who sought power and prestige, but within the political order of the Empire. Neither he nor any other such leader would have attempted the “overthrow” of the civilization that so clearly benefited them. One of Alaric’s demands, for example, was the coveted title magister militum (“master of the soldiers”), which he expected the Emperor to grant him.

As Belloc explains, Alaric’s sack of Rome, due largely to arrears in pay, “could only have been possible at a moment when central government was at last breaking down. But it is utterly different in motive and in social character from the vague customary conception of a vast barbarian ‘invasion,’ led by a German  ‘war lord’ pouring over the Alps and taking Roman society and its capital by storm.”

There had long been a gradual and often peaceful settlement of barbarians along the border areas. These groups sought assimilation because they desired the obvious advantages of Roman polity. By contrast, any major incursion by marauding hordes was invariably and inexorably wiped out by imperial forces. “All that happened,” says Belloc, “was that Roman civilization having grown very old, failed to maintain that vigorous and universal method of local government subordinated to the capital, which it had for four or five hundred years supported.” Imperial institutions persisted even as power gradually coalesced around the new kings (of mixed barbarian and Roman culture) who replaced the old imperial governors. It was far from being a revolutionary upheaval.

I will close with one of the more intriguing assertions of the book, as regards the liberty of the Church and the inhabitants of the declining Empire. There was “the desire that the living Church should be as free as possible; hence the Catholic Church and its ministers everywhere welcome the growth of local as against centralized power.”

For more details, see my earlier post.

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