The “Fall of Rome”
Throughout the fourth century CE, the proponents of paganism had warned that the well-being of Rome was dependent on the proper maintenance of the old imperial religion. Conversely, such church leaders as Eusebius had seen in the Christianization of the ruling house the effective union between church and state. The glory and power of the latter provided evidence of the triumph of the church. These ideas would be challenged when, in 410, the Visigothic Arian king Alaric and his army sacked Rome. While pagan authors saw in this traumatic event the gods' punishment for their neglect, Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa, responded with his magisterial City of God, penned in twenty-two books between 413 and 426. For Augustine, the “universal way” of salvation was through Christ and the Catholic church, the earthly point of access to the eschatological and eternal “city of God.”
In today's language, City of God is a multidisciplinary work, intertwining, as the Roman historian Averil Cameron has observed, not only theology but also political theory, history, and philosophy to argue that pagan culture and, indeed, the Roman state were fundamentally flawed. Thus for Augustine the sack of Rome did not undermine the belief that God was the agent of human history as it moved toward the final judgment and, for some, life in the Heavenly Jerusalem.
As Augustine lay near death in 430, the “barbarians” stood literally at the gates of his beloved city. Had he lived another year, he would have witnessed the partial destruction of Hippo by the Arian Vandals, who would rule North Africa for roughly the next century. In 476, well before their departure, the paradoxically named Romulus, the last Roman emperor in the west, was deposed by his master of the soldiers, a Visigoth, constituting the date often serving to mark the “fall” of the Roman Empire. But the previous century had already provided ample evidence that, in the west at least, the empire was splitting at some of its seams. At the same time, the “barbarian” kingdoms that evolved in the fifth and sixth centuries, some of which shaped the map of medieval Europe, displayed much continuity with their Roman and Christian pasts. The Latin language, the Christian religion, and the Late Antique culture of the eastern elites were adopted and transmitted by the “barbarian” elites, resulting in a kind of “romanization.”
In the east, although Justinian and his successors understood themselves to be Romans, modern historians typically refer to them as Byzantines. Historians differ in their date for the beginning of the Byzantine era. Some date it to the reign of Justinian, others to 330 when Constantine dedicated his new capital at Constantinople, the former Byzantium. The end of the Byzantine empire is usually dated at 1453, when, under Mehmet the Conqueror, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople.
Justinian's lust for power and glory in both secular and sacred spheres was reflected not only in his territorial ambitions but also in his building projects. They included the rebuilding of the magnificent Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople, whose extraordinary interior prompted Byzantine clerical sources to observe that it embraced the divine cosmos, enabling worshipers through their senses to contemplate and celebrate God. At its dedication in 537, Justinian is said to have uttered, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.”
Its enduring grandeur notwithstanding, the circumstances in which Justinian rebuilt Hagia Sophia are reminders of the hardships and tensions of urban life in the Late Antique empire. Justinian began his building project in the aftermath of the Nika riot of 532, in which the older church had been destroyed by fire. The revolt had left many thousands dead and much of Constantinople in ruins. Anger at Justinian's officials probably fueled the riot. Indeed, exorbitant taxes, government mismanagement, occasional interruptions in the food supply, and mass poverty contributed to the unrest, which exploded at times in devastating riots in the cities of the empire. Of course, the fate of the city-dwellers was inextricably linked to the countryside. Rural unrest, whether the outcome of natural disasters or political and economic strife, exacerbated by the rural populace's disproportionate tax burden, could affect food production and transportation with devastating consequences for civic life. Disease was also a ubiquitous specter haunting the cities. Only six years after the dedication of Hagia Sophia, as much as one-third of Constantinople's population may have died in an epidemic of bubonic plague.