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May 30, 2007

Fascinating research

As those who read this ramble regularly will know, I have been doing a bit of research into Roman Britain, specifically the period embraced by the 5th Century. Quite a number of things triggered this interest, not least my interest in the man behind the legend that is the cardboard cutout that we know as St Patrick. Researching that period has a number of problems, not least being the paucity of reliable records and accounts from then. We know quite a bit from studying what went on in other parts of the empire and even of what was happening in Britain itself, but there is almost no written evidence for any of the bits I am particularly interested in. I suspect that, if I were a Latin scholar, or even able to read the old Irish tongue, I might find something, but as it is I have to rely on translations and there are some interesting variations in those too!

Sadly, almost everything we have from this period is written down by someone at least two centuries later. And very often what they didn't know, they invented! Because several of the languages spoken in the 5th Century - and spoken by those whose "voices" we most want to hear - were not written languages at all, we have only the record of those who wrote in Latin and frequently theirs is a biased account. Then there is the political angle as well, because many of the accounts written in the 7th to 10th Centuries were about boosting the claim to primacy and therefore power of one group or another. That said, what emerges slowly and painstakingly from the plethora of information that one has to absorb and analyse to understand that period is fascinating in itself.

Several things I have learned about the collapsing Western Roman Empire are in themselves fascinating, not least because of how it gradually ceased to function and the former middle classes suddenly found themselves bound to the great magnates who emerged the ultimate victors, holding vast tracts of territory and almost all the wealth. I think I have remarked before on the interesting phenomenon of how certain "family groups" seem to translate themselves from one age to another wielding power and wealth as they go, changing shape, profile and sometimes title, but never actually losing that grip on power and wealth. The collapsing Roman Empire demonstrated this in more ways than one as the middle was squeezed out of existence and the lower classes found themselves transformed from "freemen" and slaves into peasants and serfs of the emerging states and their rulers.

The fifth century was remarkable for the fact that it is the transit period from the Classical World to the Medieval. One minute its citizens were living in a world where they had the leisure to run schools and teach children Reading, writing and arithmetic - and the next they had lost the ability to pass on their knowledge, and with it the ability to record their history and to enjoy their freedom.

A new book I am reading points out that the ever increasing bureaucracy of the Empire meant that the upper classes and the Emperor became ever more remote from the reality on the ground. To pay for this and for the hiring of mercenaries to replace the Roman troops they could no longer recruit internally, taxes rose and continued to rise until most people were faced with a simple choice - surrender their liberty and sell themselves to the highest bidder (slaves don't pay tax!) or be stripped of everything you possess and be hung for non-payment anyway. Then, later, as control slipped from the Emperor's fingers, the tax collectors, by now the only people with the money to hire lawyers and soldiers, simply waited until someone's property had been raided by marauding bands of brigands - and then descended to demand a mammoth tax bill be settled immediately - or the forfeiture of the property. Naturally, with the bully-boys to back it up if you argued about it.

No surprise that within seventy years of Alaric's sack of Rome, the whole facade just fell in on itself. The various "Prefects" in place across Western Europe simply turned their backs on Rome, kept the taxes and the land and engaged the soldiers to defend their own little patch. Look at the lineage of any of the noble families of Europe and I will guarantee they have at least one part of the family that stretches back to the senatorial classes in the collapsed Empire of the 5th Century. Interestingly one of the major reasons the written record is so hard to find for this period is that the Magnates put the bureaucrats to the sword in most cases, or kept just enough of them on to make sure they knew who owed them what - but for the most part, outside Rome (where most bureaucrats found themselves niches in the Church in Rome!), the bureaucrats were swept aside.

This purge of bureaucrats was no where more pronounced than under the Saxon invasion of England. The invaders had no use for the bureaucracy and so they basically drove them into the sea or chucked them out of office and burned their records. The amazing thing is that a lot of the books from the classical period in Britain found their way to Irish monastic communities set up after St Patrick and others established Christianity in Ireland and this knowledge and literature returned to Britain and Western Europe from this source almost three centuries later!

One of the most frustrating pieces of the puzzle that is St Patrick is trying to get past the corruption of the names of the only two places he mentions in his two authentic pieces of writing. Copyists have managed to render them both almost meaningless and unfortunately even the oldest copy contains errors - and it was made within a very few years of his death. That said, I am now convinced that we lost a great deal more in the 5th Century collapse of Rome than just the writings of its populace, I think we lost an opportunity to move humanity forward dramatically and the reason we did so was the oldest one in the book. Personal interests and greed among the ruling classes.

The greed of the great families in their pursuit of wealth and power ensured that all the benefit that could have flowed from the creation of a stable and technologically advanced state were thrown away in their desire to take more and more of the wealth for themselves and to ensure they remained in power. The lesson this has for our own age is there - for those who have eyes to see, or ears to hear. Don't expect a miracle though, we live with a political class today who believe that the past has nothing to teach us.

"He who forgets his past is doomed to repeat its failures."

One of Rome's great men of letters wrote that and it was the epitaph of his world, just as I suspect it will be of our own.

Posted by The Gray Monk at May 30, 2007 03:00 PM

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