Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Lesson 2: Limits of the Roman Empire

How was the Roman Empire before 476?

GEOGRAPHICALLY, the borders of the Roman Empire, which fluctuated throughout the empire's history, were a combination of natural frontiers (most notably the Rhine and Danube rivers) and man-made fortifications (ie limes) which separated the lands of the empire from the barbarian[1] countries beyond.

Limes (fortified walls) are man-made border fortifications of the Roman Empire.

In Brittania, the Empire built two walls [(Limes Britannicus: 1. Antonine wall (North) and 2. Hadrian wall (South)] one behind the other.
In Mauretania, there was a single wall (Limes Tripolitanus) with forts on both sides of it.

In other places, such as Syria and Arabia  (Limes Arabicus), there wasn't a continuous wall; instead there was a net of border settlements and forts occupied by the Roman army.

In Germania Magna (modern Germany), Dacia (modern Romania), Limes Germanicus and the Limes Moesia (the conjunction of two, and sometimes three, lines of vallum[2], with a Great Camp and many minor camps spread through the fortifications).

Borders of the Roman Empire

In continental Europe, the borders were generally well-defined, usually following the courses of major rivers such as the Rhine and the Danube. Nevertheless, those were not always the final border lines; the province of Dacia was completely on the far side of the Danube so the Limes Moesia was built; and the province of Germania Magna was the land between the Rhine, the Danube and the Elbe so the Limes Germanicus was built.

In Great Britain, Hadrian built the Hadrian wall in 122 and Antonius Pius built the Antonine Wall between 142 and 144 to protect the province of Britannia from the Caledonians.

The eastern borders changed many times, of which the longest lasting was the Euphrates river. The Limes Arabicus protected Syria and Arabia.

Limes Africanus built by Septimius Severus was expanded by expanded and becomes the Limes Tripolitanus in the second century.

At the greatest extent of the Empire, the southern border lay along the deserts of Arabia in the Middle East and the Sahara in North Africa, which represented a natural barrier against expansion.

The Empire controlled the Mediterranean shores and the mountain ranges further inland.

The North Atlantic Ocean served as the natural barrier.


POLITICALLY, the emperor Diocletian (284-305) saw the vast empire as ungovernable, and therefore split the empire in half and created two equal emperors to rule under the title of Augustus. In doing so, he effectively created what would become the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. In 293, the authority was further divided, as each Augustus took a junior Emperor called a Caesar to provide a line of succession. This constituted what is now known as the Tetrarchy ("rule of four"). The transitions of this period mark the beginnings of Late Antiquity. War erupted among the leaders which resulted to civil wars. In other words, there was political instability within the empire itself.  

Lesson 1 - Division of Church History


In history there are different epochs and periods.  Not all of them are the same.  The “Roman man” is not like the “medieval man”.  This, in turn is not like the “Modern man”.  All of them have different ideas, thoughts, and approaches to life.  As in the individual life, we are first boys, young men, mature men, old people, so it is in history.  We do not know when the child becomes an adult, the adult becomes mature, but nobody can deny that there are different stages in human life.  The same happens in history.

When does an epoch end and the next begin? The historical process, no doubt, is continuous, is a perpetual becoming (devenir).  In order to understand history, nevertheless, we are obliged to divide.  A new epoch does not come to life by spontaneous generation, but is prepared by the last one.  History, we repeat, is a “continuous becoming” and if we give to a particular period such and such characteristics, those very characteristics, can be found in the preceding period, at least in germ.  Abstraction is necessary, not only a subjective abstraction but also above all, an objective one, with fundamentum in re[1], as the Scholastics say, because the historian can see something which distinguishes one period from the other.  There is winter, spring, autumn and summer in history.  We, men of today, are children of yesterday and, at the same time, we are begetting or generating the children of tomorrow.

Dates as the year 30 (Death of Christ), 64 (Persecution of Nero), 313 (Edict of Milan), 476 (Fall of the West Roman Empire), 800 (Charlemagne’s Coronation), 1073 (Papal Coronation of Hildebrand as Pope Gregory VII), 1517 (Luther’s Revolt), 1648 (Peace of Westphalia after the Thirty Years War), 1789 (French Revolution), 1919 (Russian Revolution) are milestones in history, turning points, not so much, yet, that we can say that history begins anew.  If “natura non fecit saltum” much less history which is a wonderful uninterrupted “cursus”.

The vast and extensive subject matter of ecclesiastical history can be divided in a double division:
    1. by the topic or theme, called, then, “thematic history”.
    2. chronologically, called “chronological history”.

The right approach to the history of the Church, with perhaps a certain prevalence of the chronological fact.

History flows in a continuous uninterrupted stream. The people of the Medieval Age didn’t even know that they are in the “middle”. Therefore, all attempts at periodization are dubious. Periodization serves a practical purpose but can never define the whole aspect.


The division of history in three great epochs (Ancient History, Medieval History and Modern History) was introduced by the humanists of the XV and XVI centuries and appeared in the manuals of world history in the XVII century.

In recent years, however, a new division of Church History is fast gaining ground.  It is a quadripartite division:
1)    Ancient History (I-VIII; up to 800)
2)    Medieval History (VIII-XIV; 800-1303)
3)    New History (XIV-XVII; 1303-1648)
4)    Modern History (XVII-X-; 1648-2000)

Anybody is free to follow his own division of history.  We must always avoid a certain schematism and picture the historical reality as it happened, as a continuous historical becoming, as a wonderful uninterrupted “cursus”.

1.                    Ancient History is the epoch in which the Church lives in the Graeco-Roman World.  It begins with Christ’s birth reaching up to the VIII century.  This is divided into two smaller periods:
a)     up to 313 The Edict of Milan  (Pre-Constantinian)
b)    From 313 (Post-Constantinian) to 800 (Charlemagne’s Coronation)

2.                    Medieval History is the epoch in which the Catholic faith and the Church prevail and exercise a tremendous influence in all the fields of public and cultural life in the Roman-Germanic people.  It is divided into two periods:
a)     From 800 (Charlemagne’s Coronation) to 1073 (Accession of Hildebrand to the Papacy as Gregory VII)
b)    From 1073 (Hildebrand’s Succession) to 1304 (Death of Boniface VIII)

3.                    New History or History of the Reforms.  It is an epoch of serious crisis, of transition, in which the medieval synthesis collapses and Christianity finds itself in a deep crisis.  It comprises the Papal exile in Avignon, the Great Western Schism, the Great Councils, the Lutheran Rebellion, Trent and the Catholic Reformation, etc.  It will be divided into two periods:
a)     From 1304 (Death of Boniface VIII) to 1517 (Luther’s Revolt)
b)    From 1517 (Luther’s Revolt) to 1648 (Peace of Westphalia after the Thirty Years War)

4.                    Modern History, or Contemporary History.  The Church is challenged by the secular world.  It is the age of Enlightenment, Rationalism, French Revolution, Liberalism, Socialism and Communism.  The Church spreads to the Americas, Asia and Africa. It reaches to our present day and is usually divided into three main periods:
a)     From 1648 (Peace of Westphalia) to 1789 (French Revolution)
b)    From 1789 (French Revolution) to 1914-1918 (First World War)
c)     From 1914-1918 (First World War) to the Present Moment.

For our purpose, we shall mark the terminus a quo of the Middle Ages with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) and the terminus ad quem with the Fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453). We shall divide the epochs as follows:

1.                    Early Middle Ages (476-1054)
2.                    High Middle Ages (1054-1303)
3.                    Late Middle Ages (1303-1453)

[1] Aquinas held that the difference between our concepts arise not just in the mind, but have a foundation in the thing.