The Historians' History of the World in Twenty-Five Volumes, Volume 07 The History of the Later Roman Empire

Anonymous The Historians' History of the World in Twenty-Five Volumes, Volume 07 The History of the Later Roman Empire
Project Gutenberg
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The fifth century is, in a way, the beginning of the history of Europe. Until the hordes of Goths, Vandals, and Franks came out from the fastnesses beyond the Rhine and Danube and played their part upon the cleared arena of the empire itself, the history of the world was antique. The history of the later empire is still a part of the continuous but shifting history of the Mediterranean peoples. The civilisation which the legions of Constantine protected was not the product of Rome, it was the work of an antiquity which even then stretched farther back, three times farther, than all the distance which separates his time from ours. The empire was all antiquity, fused into a gigantic unit, and protected by the legions drawn from every quarter of the world, from Spain to Syria. As it grew old its roots sank deeper into the past. When it had taken all that Greece had to offer in art and literature, the tongue of Greece gave free access to the philosophy of the orient, and as its pantheon filled with all the gods of the world, its thought became the reflex of that of the Hellenised east. If Rome conquered the ancient world, it was made captive in return. The last pagan god to shine upon the standards of the legions was Mithras, the Sun-god of the Persians, while Isis shared with Jupiter the temple on the Capitol. This world entrenched behind the bulwarks that stretched from Solway to Nineveh, brooding upon its past, was quickened with but one new thought,—and that was an un-Roman one,—the strange, unworldly, Christian faith. The peoples that had become subjects of Rome were now to own a high allegiance to one whom it had condemned as a Jewish criminal; on the verge of its own destruction the empire became Christian. It is the fashion to decry the evil influences of the environment of early Christianity, but it was the best that human history has ever afforded. How would it have fared with Christian doctrine if it had had to do with German barbarians instead of with Greek philosophers, who could fit the new truths into accordance with the teachings of their own antiquity, and Roman administrators who could forge from the molten enthusiasm of the wandering evangelists, the splendid structure of Catholicism. Before the storm burst which was to test the utility of all the antique civilisation, the church was already stronger than its protectors. And so, at the close, the empire stood for two things, antiquity and Christianity.

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