Fall of the Roman Empire (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.1)

Constantine had changed the Roman Empire in many ways. He ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. He changed the laws to make them more acceptable to Christians. He even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome to the new city of Constantinople. In doing all of this, Constantine was trying to save the Roman Empire from destruction. Rome had been facing many very big problems for a long time. Its many wars and the size of its territory led to economic problems. The people of Rome had gotten used to living happy, easy lives and were unwilling to face hardship and suffer to keep their Empire alive. While Constantine’s reforms brought a new life to the Roman Empire, even he was unable to prevent its eventual destruction.

The Roman Empire went through a short period of new energy after Constantine. The people of the Roman Empire united around their new religion, Christianity. By the year 400, Emperor Theodosius had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and ordered the last few temples dedicated to the Roman gods to close their doors forever. Some of these temples were destroyed. Others were converted into Christian churches. Still others were closed up and forgotten about for hundreds of years.

The Romans also tried to solve their problems by dividing their Empire into two. There would be one emperor in the East in Constantinople and another in the West in Rome. They hoped that by doing this it would be easier for each emperor to rule over his territory and defend it from barbarian attacks. Unfortunately, this division of the Empire probably made the Empire weaker. While much of the wealth and military might of the Roman Empire came to be centered in the East in Constantinople, the Western Roman Empire grew poorer and weaker.

The last Roman Emperor in the West was a young boy, Romulus Augustus. He was six years old when he became Roman Emperor, leading the people of Rome to call him Romulus Augustulus, which means “Little Emperor.” He was unable to lead the Romans and defend the Italian peninsula from the barbarian armies coming in from the northern part of Europe. The adults around him were busy fighting each other for power and were too afraid and weak to lead the fight against the barbarians. As a result, the barbarians finally conquered the city of Rome and the rest of the Italian peninsula, the old heart of the Roman Empire.

At first, the barbarians who came in from the northern part of Europe to conquer the Italian peninsula pretended that Romulus was still in charge. Finally, in 476, the barbarian king Odoacer, who was actually in charge in Italy, decided to stop pretending. He sent Romulus away to live in a castle and declared that there was no longer any Roman emperor. Instead, Odoacer called himself “King of Italy.” The Western Roman Empire had finally fallen. The result of the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 was the beginning of the 1000 year period we call the Middle Ages.


Review Questions

1. What year did the Roman Empire fall?

2. Who was the last Roman Emperor?

3. What is the name of the 1000 year period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire?

Constantine the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.10)

As Christianity continued to grow, the Roman government continued to persecute Christians. The last and worst of the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire came in the third century. The Roman Empire suffered a series of military defeats by barbarians. There were also internal conflicts between powerful people who wanted to become emperor. In addition, a terrible plague had swept through parts of the empire and killed many people. Many Romans blamed the Christians for the wars, civil wars, diseases, and money problems of the empire. They believed that because the Christians refused to worship the Roman gods the gods had become angry with the empire and were punishing them.

As a result, the Roman emperors Decius and Diocletian each tried to wipe out Christianity entirely. In 250, Decius issued a law that said every Roman citizen must appear before a local government official and offer a sacrifice to the gods. Once a person did this, they would be given a certificate to carry with them. If they were stopped by the police and did not have this certificate they could be arrested and even put to death. After Decius’s death, Diocletian continued the persecution of Christians by ordering every Christian church in the empire destroyed and by burning copies of the Christians’ holy books.

There were other men in powerful positions, however, who were more kind to the Christians. One of these was Constantine, who was one of a group of men who were fighting each other to become emperor. While the others persecuted Christians, Constantine was more tolerant of them. In fact, his own mother, Helena, was a Christian. Although Constantine treated the Christians kindly, he did not decide to become one until a remarkable event the night before an important battle.

Constantine had been battling against a man named Maxentius for control of the Italian peninsula. Finally, the two men marched their armies out for one great final battle near the Tiber River, at a placed called the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine later told others, he looked into the sky and saw the shape of a cross. He then heard a voice say to him from the sky, “In hoc signo vinces,” which in Latin means, “By this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine immediately ordered his soldiers to paint the symbol of Christianity on their shields and on the banners they carried into battle. The next day, October 28, 312 AD, Constantine marched into battle against Maxentius and was victorious. Maxientius himself fell from the bridge during the battle and drowned in the Tiber River.

The next day, Constantine entered Rome and was greeted by cheering crowds. It was tradition for a conquering emperor to parade through the city to the temple of Jupiter. There, the conquering emperor was expected to dismount from his chariot and go into the temple to offer sacrifices to thank the king of the Roman gods for victory. Constantine shocked the people of Rome, however, by riding past the temple of Jupiter without even so much as looking toward it. Constantine was now emperor of the Roman Empire and had decided to become a Christian. He would be the first Christian Roman emperor.

The following year, in 313 AD, Constantine issued a new law called the Edict of Milan. This new law not only ended the persecution of Christians everywhere in the Roman Empire, it ordered that any churches that had been burned had to be rebuilt using the money of the Roman government and any property taken from the Christians had to be given back to them.

While Constantine did not outlaw the worship of the Roman gods, he did pass laws that showed favoritism to Christians. Now that Constantine was in charge, a person had to be a Christian to be promoted to the highest positions in government. Many who had formerly hated Christianity decided to become Christians.

Constantine also passed laws that made the empire more Christian in other ways. He outlawed practices that Christians did not like, such as using crucifixion to execute Christians. He also passed laws that made life easier for poor people, slaves, and women. In 324, Constantine even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from the city of Rome to a new city named after himself, Constantinople. While Rome was a city filled with temples to the Roman gods, Constantinople was a city filled with Christian churches. Constantine was trying to remake the Roman Empire as a Christian empire.

After Constantine’s death in 336, there would only be one more emperor who was not a Christian. Julian, who was Constantine’s nephew, reigned as emperor for only two years. He was raised as a Christian but returned to worshipping the old Roman gods. Julian tried to bring back to old Roman religious beliefs, but it did not work. By the end of the fourth century, almost everyone in the Roman Empire had become a Christian. At the beginning of the fourth century, only about 1 in every 10 people in the Roman Empire was a Christian. At the beginning of the fifth century just 100 years later, only about 1 in every 10 people was not a Christian.


Review Questions

  1. Who was the first Christian Roman emperor?
  1. What did Constantine say he saw and heard the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?
  1. What was the name of the law Constantine passed which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire?

Primary Source Selection: From the Martyrdom of Polycarp (155 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.9)

Polycarp of Smyrna was an early Christian bishop who was martyred, which means killed for his religious beliefs, in 155 AD. A Christian who witnessed the martyrdom of Polycarp wrote about it shortly after he died. The writings about the deaths of martyrs like Polycarp became very popular reading among early Christians remained popular reading for Christians for over a thousand years. Below is one section of the writing about Polycarp’s martyrdom. Polycarp has just been arrested and brought into the arena. Standing in front of the crowds there, he is questioned by a member of the Roman government.


Now when Polycarp entered into the arena there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” And no one saw the speaker, but our friends who were there heard the voice. And next he was brought forward, and there was a great uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore when he was brought forward the Pro-Consul asked him if he were Polycarp, and when he admitted it he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: “Respect your age,” and so forth, as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: `Away with the Atheists'”; but Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said: “Away with the Atheists.” But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

But when he persisted again, and said: “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered him: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you are ignorant who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity fix a day and listen.” The Pro-Consul said: “Persuade the people.” And Polycarp said: “You I should have held worthy of discussion, for we have been taught to render honor, as is meet, if it hurt us not, to princes and authorities appointed by God. But as for those, I do not count them worthy that a defense should be made to them.”

And the Pro-Consul said: “I have wild beasts. I will deliver you to them, unless you repent.” And he said: “Call for them, for repentance from better to worse is not allowed us; but it is good to change from evil to righteousness.” And he said again to him: “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you despise the beasts, unless you repent.” But Polycarp said: “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”

Bishops, Apologists, and Martyrs (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.8)

In the beginning of the second century, Christianity found itself in a state of crisis. Christian believers, who all together are called “the Church,” found themselves threatened both from the outside as well as from the inside. From the outside, Christians were threatened by the Roman government and others who were very hostile to the message of Christianity. Inside of the Church, there were people who were beginning to teach different things from what the apostles had taught and were dividing Christians into different groups. The last of the apostles died at the end of the first century, so there was no longer anyone around who had known Jesus himself. A new generation of Christians began to take the positions of leadership in the Church to help it through this troubling time. These people are called the bishops, the apologists, and the martyrs.

The greatest problem facing the Church from inside Christianity was the rise of a variety of groups who had different beliefs and practices than other Christians did. The early Christians used the word “heresy” to refer to ideas that were different from those taught by the rest of the Church.

The Church needed leaders to decide what should and should not be believed by Christians, so they turned to their bishops. The word bishop comes from a Greek word that means “overseer” or “supervisor.” It was the job of the bishops to oversee and supervise the Church. The first bishops, Christians believed, had been chosen by the apostles. These bishops then chose other outstanding Christians to be new bishops. Each city had its own bishop to lead the church in that city. Some bishops of very large and important cities, such Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem, were looked to as leaders even by other bishops. The bishop of Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire, was especially important.

From the outside, the Church faced the threat of persecution by Roman authorities. Most upper-class Roman men did not like the message of Christianity. They thought it was dangerous for the Christians to tell women, slaves, and poor people that they were equal to rich men. They also thought the Christians were wrong not to worship the Roman gods. They believed the Roman gods would get angry with the people of Rome and punish them. Many Christians were tortured or even put to death by the Romans. A person who dies for their religious beliefs is called a martyr.

The first Roman emperor to persecute Christians was Nero. When a fire in Rome destroyed much the city, Nero blamed the Christians for setting the fire. He ordered Christians throughout the city of Rome put to death. Among the Christians martyred by orders from Nero were the leader of the apostles, Peter, and the apostle who wrote most of the New Testament, Paul. In fact, all of the apostles except John were eventually martyred. Later Roman emperors continued to persecute the Christians for almost 300 years.

Christians who were very educated tried to reason with the powerful Romans who were persecuting Christians by explaining Christian beliefs to them. These people, called apologists, wrote letters and books telling the Romans what Christians believed and trying to persuade them that Christianity was not dangerous to the Roman Empire. The Romans told many rumors about Christians doing bad things. The apologists tried to show why these rumors were wrong.

While most Romans thought the Christians were crazy for choosing to die rather than worship the Roman gods, many Romans were very impressed by how willing Christians were to suffer for their faith and become martyrs. By being willing to die for their beliefs, the Christians convinced many Romans to decide to become Christians as well. Through their work the bishops and the apologists defended the Church against those attacked it from outside as well as those on the inside who wanted beliefs to change. As a result, the Christian Church grew and became stronger even during these tough times.


Review Questions

  1. What two threats were Christians facing from the inside and outside?
  1. What is a bishop?
  1. What is a martyr?
  1. What is an apologist?


Vocabulary Words

Heresy – beliefs that are different from the accepted opinions of the Church

Persecution – mistreating someone because of their religious beliefs

The Apostles (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.6)

For a few days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the apostles and the other follows of Jesus, including his mother, gathered together to spend time praying and talking about what had happened. Finally, on the day of a Jewish holiday called Pentecost, the Bible says that God sent his Holy Spirit on them and inspired them to begin preaching. They immediately went out and began to speak about the Gospel to the people who had gathered for the festival.

After this, Jesus’s followers quickly spread out around the Mediterranean and to other places even further away to tell people everywhere about the Gospel. Christians around the world still tell stories of the travels of the apostles and other early followers of Jesus. They say that Matthew, who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, travelled to Ethiopia. Mark, who wrote the Gospel of Mark, travelled to Egypt. Peter, the leader of the apostles, went to the capital of the Roman Empire in Rome. One apostle, Thomas, even went as far away as India. Everywhere they went, the apostles taught that Jesus had brought salvation through his Incarnation and Resurrection.

One of the most important of the early Christians who spread the word about Jesus was also one of the most unlikely. His name was Saul. Saul was a Jewish man who hated Christians. He believed that they were spreading a false message about a man who was not really the messiah. He believed, instead, that Jesus had lied and that his followers were lying about him. After witnessing the execution of Stephen, Jesus’s first follower to die for teaching people about the Gospel, Saul started down the road to the city of Damascus. Along the way, he later wrote, he saw a bright burst of light that knocked him off his horse. The light was so bright that he was blinded by it. From the light, a voice spoke to him, asking “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul said, “Who are you?” The voice responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The voice then ordered him to go into the city and find a certain Christian man. Saul, still blind, did as the voice had told him to do. He found the man he had been ordered to find. The man healed him and Saul was baptized as a Christian. He then changed his name to Paul.

Paul became the most widely travelled of all of the apostles. He travelled all around the Mediterranean, including to Jerusalem, Greece, and, finally, Rome, teaching people about the Gospel everywhere he went. Paul also wrote many important letters that were read by Christians everywhere. Eventually, when the New Testament of the Bible was put together, Paul’s letters made up the majority of the New Testament. Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 14 of them were Paul’s letters.

Many people greeted the message of the Gospel with happiness and excitement. This is especially true of people from the lowest classes of Roman society. Many of the earliest people to convert to Christianity were poor people, women, and slaves. In Roman society, all of these people were treated very badly. Romans believed that women and slaves were not even entirely human. Romans respected only men who were powerful and rich. The message of the apostles, however, was that Jesus had become a human being, died, and resurrected for the salvation of all people, including the poor, women, and slaves. The early Christians were among the first people in the world to believe that women are equal to men. They were also the first ones to say that slavery is morally wrong. This message was very different from what people were used to hearing in the Roman Empire. As a result, many poor people, slaves, and women became Christians. As a result, Christianity began to grow from a small group of people to a very large group very quickly.


Review Questions

  1. On what Jewish holiday did the apostles begin to preach the Gospel?
  1. Which apostle wrote most of the books of the New Testament?
  1. In a paragraph, describe the sort of people who were attracted to the message of Christianity. Explain why they were attracted to it.


Vocabulary Words

Baptism – the ritual by which a person becomes a Christian; the one who is baptized is washed with water while special prayers are said

Conversion – changing religions

Persecution – treating people badly because of their religious beliefs

Augustus Caesar: The First Roman Emperor (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.9)

After the death of Julius Caesar, Caesar’s nephew Octavian rushed back to Rome. Octavian, who was 19 years old, had been away at school when his great-uncle was assassinated. Caesar had adopted Octavian as his son and left most of his wealth to Octavian in his will. Octavian knew that he had to make some fast and wise decisions in order to inherit his great-uncle’s power as well. There were two groups he knew he especially needed on his side in order to become powerful in Rome, the plebeians and the soldiers.

Immediately upon returning to Rome and receiving his inheritance, Octavian threw a large party for all of the plebeians of Rome. Using the money he had inherited from Caesar, Octavian bought enough food and drinks to last for ten days. He gave them out to the people of Rome. He also paid to have gladiator contests and other entertainment provided for the people during that time. The plebeians began to love him for his generosity in throwing a 10 day long party for them.

Octavian also vowed to punish those who had killed Caesar. Caesar’s soldiers, who were very angry that their leader had been murdered, were very happy about this. When the army found out that Caesar had appointed Octavian as his heir, the soldiers pledged their loyalty to Octavian.

The following year, 43 BC, with the army and the plebeians both on his side, Octavian demanded to be made a consul. The Senate agreed and allowed him to rule alongside two other men. The three consuls, however, quickly began to fight against each other. Octavian was able to defeat both of his rivals and become sole ruler of Rome. As he acquired more power for himself, however, he was careful not to make the same mistake his great-uncle had. He knew that if he demanded to be made king the Senate would try to kill him too.

Instead, Octavian made the people of Rome love him more and more by passing laws that made their lives more comfortable. He developed a network of roads made of concrete that allowed people to move easily from one place to another in the lands owned by Rome. He reformed the tax system so that it was more lenient on the poor. He started a police and firefighter system in the city of Rome. By far his most important achievement is the long peace that he brought to Rome. Rome had not gone a single century without a large war since its beginning. Through building a large and well-trained army, Octavian was able to start a 200 year period of peace for the Romans, called the Pax Romana, which means “Roman Peace.” During this time, the Romans fought no major wars and the people of Rome lived without fear of invasion by other nations.

As Octavian did more and more for the people of Rome, his popularity continued to grow. The people wanted to give him more power. Each time it was offered, however, Octavian would reject it at first, saying that he did not want all of that power for himself. When the Senate offered to make him dictator, as they had made his great-uncle before, Octavian instead chose to be called Princeps, which means “First Citizen.” Even without the title, however, Octavian still had all the power of a dictator. He also had one power even his uncle did not have: he had the power to select who would rule Rome after his death. Octavian was also given a new name at this time. He was called Augustus, which means “blessed” and “majestic.” It is for this reason that Augustus is considered by historians to have been the first Roman emperor. He reigned as emperor from 27 BC – 14 AD. His legacy, the Roman Empire, continued for more than a thousand years after his death.


Review Questions

 1. What did Octavian do to make the plebeians of Rome love him?

2. Why did the army love Octavian?

3. What was Octavian’s named changed to in 27 BC?

Introduction to Ancient Rome (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.1)

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC. By 200 BC, the Romans had established their dominance on the Italian peninsula by the subduing the other tribes there. With this firm control of Italy, Rome then quickly expanded its power to encompass a vast empire surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. By the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire stretched from Spain in the west to Palestine in the east and from Britain in the far north to Egypt in the south. By extending their empire over this huge area of land and imposing their power on it, the Romans brought greater unity to the many peoples who lived around the Mediterranean Sea than they had ever had before.

Roman control of the entire Mediterranean world brought about a period of peace and stability that allowed people and things to move quicker from one place to another than they had before. The Romans used their military power to destroy piracy on the Mediterranean Sea. This made it much safer for boats to travel across the sea with people and goods. They also built long concrete roads that connected all of the cities of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Romans were the first people to use concrete, a material we still use in building projects today.

The Romans also helped to create a single culture all around the Mediterranean. Ironically, the culture the Romans spread was the culture of the Greeks, a civilization the Romans had conquered. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they quickly began to admire the philosophy, science, literature, and art that the Greeks had produced.

Roman artists and writers started to imitate the Greek art and literature. The Roman author Virgil, for example, wrote an epic poem called the Aeneid. You may recall from the unit on the Greeks that Homer was the first person to write epic poetry. His Iliad and Odyssey are both about events the heroes and gods of the Greeks and the role they played in the Trojan War, an event in Greek history. Virgil imitated Homer’s style by writing the Aeneid. He also got the idea for his story from Homer. Virgil tries to link the Romans to the Greeks by telling a story about refugees from Troy who leave the city after it is destroyed and flee to Italy. Once there, he says, they became the ancestors of the Romans.

Other Roman thinkers also admired and imitated the Greeks who had come before them. People all around the Roman Empire began to read the writings of the Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. The Romans even took many of the religious ideas of the Greeks. For each Greek god, they found a Roman equivalent. The Greek god Hades, god of the underworld, for example, became the Roman god Pluto. The Greek god Zeus, the father and king of the gods, became the Roman god Jupiter. The goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, became the Roman goddess Venus. Ideas that had started with the Greeks spread throughout the Roman Empire and had a very large influence on the way Romans thought.

By adopting Greek culture as their own at the same time they were spreading their empire over a huge area of land, the Romans helped Greek culture to spread as well. Soon, people were talking about Greek philosophers and reading the works of Greek poets in places as far away as Britain, which is more than 2000 miles from Greece. Greek language and culture became the language and culture of most of Europe and much of North Africa and the Middle East.

In addition to spreading the ideas of the Greeks, the Romans also made some unique contributions of their own. One piece of the heritage we still have from the Romans is an emphasis on law. Because their empire was so large and so diverse, the Romans were very concerned that everyone follows the same law, the law of the Roman Empire. The law codes of many of the countries of Europe date from time of the Roman Empire. Even in the United States, whose law code has a different origin, many of the most important words used by lawyers and judges are words in Latin, the language spoken by the Romans.

The Latin language is another very important aspect of the heritage we have received from the Romans. Even many years after the end of the Roman Empire, Latin remained the language used in churches and universities in Europe. The result was that educated people in Europe could speak to each other in the same language no matter which part of Europe they were from. In addition, many of the other languages of Europe came from Latin. French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, for example, are all called Romance languages because they come from Latin. Even about half of the words of the English language have Latin roots.

Although, as we will see, the western half of the Roman Empire was conquered more than 1500 years ago and the eastern half of the Roman Empire was destroyed more than 500 years ago, the heritage of the Romans is still alive and well today. The ideas, words, and customs that began with the Romans still can be found all around us. And all of this started with one small tribe on the Italian peninsula more than 2700 years ago.


Review Questions

 1. What civilization’s culture did the Romans admire and imitate?

2. What sea did the Roman Empire encircle?

3. Name one important aspect of our heritage from the Romans.