Dawn of the Modern World

This essay is part I of a three-part feature series on “Dawn of the Modern World”. Read part II, here. Part III, here.

Part I: “200-700: The Anvil of Europe”

For answers as to why Europe has its identity, one must return to its formation in the early medieval period. However, the DNA of these cultural kernels can be traced as far back as the third-century crisis. Indeed, while the West likes to paint itself as an iteration of the Antonine Age, in reality, it’s the product of every transformation that followed.

The third-century involved historical firsts on several fronts. Elagabalus introduced official worship of the Semitic sun-god Helios-Baal. The murderers of Caracalla and Severus Alexander were Macrinus (the first non-senatorial emperor) and Maximinus (the first soldier-emperor to rise through the ranks). The costs of the army, reasonable when conquests paid for themselves, absorbed half the state’s income. And its Latin character vanished in favour of troops from the frontier regions.

Going local, however, in a globalised world had its own risks as Constantius II found to his cost when he approached Julian for crack troops (such as the Petulantes) for an eastern campaign. Instead of complying, they complained:

“We are being exiled to the furthest points of the earth like condemned criminals and our families will become slaves of the Alemanni after we have already freed them once from captivity in desperate battles.”

This shift in attitudes can roughly be dated to the 160s. In those halcyon days, the legions could be persuaded to pursue almost any threat. Yet even then it was easier to post smaller detachments (c. a thousand men) known as vexillations. Perhaps these pawns wouldn’t have had to have been pushed around so much if their placement had owed more to grand strategy than political arithmetic (to deter coups).

A glance at any third-century map reveals familiar names. This is because the majority of civitates became medieval cathedral cities. Some boast even older heritages as pre-conquest oppida. To give a single example, the Breton tribe of Namnetes was governed from the Civitas Namnetum, which became the city of Nantes.[2] In France, Bourges, Chartres, or Poitiers also fit this category though the majority of medieval towns were Roman in origin.

It was insecurity on the Danube that produced the keenest figure in the historical imagination of the Dark Ages: the walled city. Most obviously at places like Serdica, Philippopolis, and Nicopolis ad Istrum. This instability snowballed when barbarians learned to sail. In 262, the Germanics hit hard, and in the words of Aurelius Victor:

“Plundered Gaul, seized Spain and, after laying waste and almost destroying Tarragona, eventually took boats and got as far as Africa.”[3]

Five years later the Goths forced the Dardanelles with a fleet acquired on the Black Sea and sacked Greece (though Claudius II thrashed them at Naissus in 268). In 271, Aurelian repulsed the Alemmanic invasions from the Po valley and then fortified Rome in the Hellenistic manner. His walls were completed by Probus who became renowned for having brought almost all the Germanics to heel. The emperor Julian later admired him as the man who “set seventy cities back on their feet in less than seven years.”[4]

But the charisma of emperors could not always be on hand to deliver emergency victories and so Aurelian’s successors ordered the construction of formidable defenses. Some of these Roman fortifications still remain in cities such as Bourges, Le Mans, Tours, or Evreux. This new defensive agenda absorbed even the symbols of Rome’s past. The tombstone of a procurator of Britain — Julius Classicianus — for instance, found itself repurposed in the foundations of a bastion in Londonium’s Roman walls.

In this defensive atmosphere, the circuits of walls took eccentric routes to incorporate monumental architecture such as amphitheatres and fora. This created a new economy of space in which contraction was necessary and so cathedrals and granaries moved within the walls. In fact, Ausonius went so far as to describe the fortifications of northern Gaul to be “non casta, sed horrea Belgis” (not the castles but the granaries of Belgica).[5] These facts all slot conveniently together to form our modern prejudices of what makes a city. Namely, a bishop and walls.

Talking of bishops, the ink on Nicaea (325) had barely dried when the military commander in Britain Magnus Maximus involved the imperial authorities in a quarrel between the Spanish ascetic Priscillian of Avila and his accusers. The trial and decapitation of the bishop (385) — the first time a Christian ruler had executed a subject for heresy — divided the Gallic church into pro-imperial and anti-imperial factions for over a generation.

In Maximus’ reign, the contours of post or sub Roman units (or at least the delusional aspects of the imperial project) can be discerned. This was, after all, a man who felt at ease threatening Ambrose of Milan with his turmae translimitanae (foreign troops).[6] In this topsy-turvy world, the halves of the empire preferred to battle it out (as at Frigidus, 395) rather than fight Franks and Alemanni who had developed a worrying habit of winning the occasional victory (as in 387-8). Such a muddled state of affairs meant that when the Rhine frontier was irretrievably breached at the end of 406, it was Frankish federates who beat the Vandals back (it was the latter’s Alan reinforcements that won the eventual victory).

This caused chaos in Britain where the rapid succession of three leaders suggests a civil war (or at least lethal elite maneuvering) over how to react. One may have wanted to nationalise the Roman army, another to take the fight to the barbarians and make a bid for supreme power, and another a half-way house. Constantine, who clearly supported the aggressive option, crossed to Boulogne in 407 to ‘do another Constantine’, i.e. seize the purple and then crush the Germanic menace. After beating the loyalist general Sarus the Goth, he managed to set up court at Arles and declare himself Constantine III with Apollinaris (grandfather to Sidonius) as praetorian prefect. In an odd twist, it was Constantine’s son Constans who — in the suppression of loyalist elements in Spain — first used barbarians thereby acquainting them with Spain (a knowledge promptly utilised when they invaded in 409).

By Constantine III’s death in 421 the political terrain had again changed. First, the Burgundians had been settled at Worms (413) in the first federate kingdom. Second, the Visigoths were introduced to Spain by Constantius in order to mop up the remains of Constans’ troops, before being placed in Aquitania Secunda as the gatekeepers of Iberia. Third, the ever-dwindling parts of the empire that remained under Rome were plagued by Bacaudae, Robin Hood elements of the population who saw local government (and resistance) as superior to the expensively supine techniques of the imperial seat.[7] Finally, almost no bronze coin reached Britain after 404 and its pottery industry died.

At this point the Goths tried to seize Arles, which would have given them a port and therefore access to African grain. Aetius relieved the city in 427, however, and destroyed a large Gothic force at Mons Colubrarius. In reality, the Goths form a shadow dance to the ultimate show: imperial disunity. If Felix, Aetius and Boniface had formed a triumvirate and fought on their respective fronts, much would have been possible. Instead, Aetius had Felix murdered and was in turn defeated by Boniface at Rimini (432) who did Aetius the favour of dying from his wounds shortly afterward. This left all of Africa save Carthage in Vandal’s hands.

Aetius is the ultimate symbol of the empire’s cannibalisation. Hiring Huns, he promised subsidies and largesse (a credible offer based on his rank — he was a patrician by 434 — and knowledge of the empire) and in return they buffed Rome’s tarnished military standing. Supported by such a force, Aetius played the powerbroker facing down Burgundians on the Upper Rhine, Franks to the north, Goar’s army of Alans, the Bacaudae of Armorica under Tibatto, and the Visigoths.

By this point, the phallic direction tags of ethnic labels often drawn on Volkswanderung maps had receded in importance in comparison to the feminine, assimilative aspect of the land. Romans found themselves de-ethnicising (or should that be re-ethnicising) in the sense that they attached themselves to defenders of their locale (who were often Germanics) against the violent disorders of the Age. Sidonius, for instance, recounted how Romans fought alongside Germanics with their military standards.[8] Prokopios even claimed these men were still identifiable thanks to aspects of their dress such as shoes.[9]

At this point Britain seized the opportunity to request Roman reoccupation, which appeared a delightful prospect to fearing slavery or death at the hands of the Irish, Picts, Frisians, Saxons, Angles or Jutes on a daily basis.[10] This was declined, however, just as a deputation from northern Spain had failed in a similar quest fifteen years earlier.

When Attila attacked, the game was up for Aetius. If the Roman general had lost at the Catalaunian Plains (451) he would have become superfluous to requirements in a Hunnic empire. Yet in victory, his Huns were obliterated as a domestic power base. Time was also called on imperial government in the West, which ended not so much with a bang but a whimper as — after Majorian’s murder (461) — the general Aegidius refused to recognise the puppet emperor Libius Severus or the Eastern emperor Leo I. Instead he staked out a territory around Soissons which he handed to his son Syagrius, a realm that only survived Odoacer’s transfer of Rome’s regalia to Zeno by a decade.[11]

As imperial rule fled to Constantinople, the West entered a ghost story. Literally in the case of Germanus of Auxerre (d. 448) who sought shelter one night in a deserted villa only to find it was possessed.[12] Its torch-carrying ghoul led the bishop through the ruins and told him that he lay with a friend — both executed criminals — enchained and unable to rest. The trauma only ended when Germanus found his skeleton and gave it a Christian burial.[13] A neat metaphor for the post-Roman West.

More to the point, the post-Roman West was haunted by Rome. Take Germanus’ visit to Britain, for instance, the island that had fallen hardest and quickest from its imperial heyday.[14] Still, Rome’s shadow fell on everything. Germanus was met on arrival by ecclesiastics (admittedly Pelagian but that was the reason for the cleric’s visit) from a typical late Roman Church as well as a man holding the rank of tribune. Indeed, the Gallo-Roman aristo’s mix of Romanitas and orthodoxy (the same thing in early medieval eyes) was so potent that it only took a few ‘alleluias’ from him to defeat the combined forces of the Picts and Saxons in battle.[15]

Back on the continent — thanks to two-way Germanic-Roman assimilation — there were many Gallic aristocrats who worked for the Frankish king in parallel with their Germanic counterparts. But the cursus honorum no longer existed, or more accurately only the top five percent of jobs survived and these few posts were the preserve of the potentissimi. A fact that led young aristos to flee to the western outposts of the Eastern Roman empire: Ravenna and Rome to take up the posts of tribune or notary.

Those who remained resigned themselves to the Church or hoped to be appointed comes civitatis (count of the city) by the king. Sometimes a Merovingian king needed a figure who could lead more than a single city into war and so the late Roman military rank of dux (duke) was adopted for the leaders of these larger armies. Indeed, some counts (of Anjou, for example) and dukes (of Aquitaine, for instance) accrued such vast powers that they effectively later became independent rulers.

Despite these measures, the disparity between a centralised imperial and a decentralised feudal state was clear in matters of security. Bandits, pirates, and low-level anarchy was endemic in any part of the West that lacked the presence of a court or army. Into this breach stepped the bishop. Petitioning against rash massacres, ransoming prisoners, and providing famine relief — often facilitated by cathedral bakeries — these actions also handily proved to be very effective means of evangelism.

As courts took up military and diplomatic duties, so the cathedrals took on all the people-facing equivalents. Soon it was the cathedrals — under the patronage of successive bishops — that took centre stage rather than itinerant potentates and their households. Indeed, cathedrals operated like courts. Sat on a cathedra in the apse, the bishop faced his congregation gathered in the nave like a civil magistrate seated in an urban basilica.

The sole arbiter of non-violent power, the bishop had a monopoly on baptism (until rural baptisteries began to compete with this prerogative) and led their communities at the great feasts (Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost) when landowners were forbidden to celebrate at their villa chapels with estate clergy. In so doing, villages and towns with no primary identity slowly but surely came to identify themselves with their local city’s bishop and saint.

Originally, there were too few churches for dedications to matter, as well as a slender number of relics to go around. It was only in the early fifth century when urban churches began to multiply and relics began to migrate West that dedications took on a life of their own. Many of the oldest French cathedrals, for instance, were originally dedicated to St Stephen because his relics were discovered in Palestine (415) and taken to Gaul. Interestingly, Gaul’s earliest taste for martyrs appears to have been inflected by Milan, especially cults sponsored by Ambrose such as Agricola, Vitalis, Gervasius, and Protasius.

With these saints and martyrs, the ‘Dark Ages’ of historiography was lived as an Age of wonders by contemporaries. Often humble oratories or wooden martyria preserved the memories of these heroes until vitae were written and stone memoria/churches erected. These buildings preserved two main Roman architectural forms: the rotunda and basilica. Some parts of these complexes didn’t even need to be built. The baptistery at Marseille, the largest in France, for example, occupied the Temple of Diana. Indeed, in a world of wood and mud, churches and cathedrals were the only ones who could offer a glimpse of orthodox Romanitas, of heavenly permanence. Hence the gusto of the chronicler at Nantes, who enthused about how:

“Bishop Felix put in the cathedral marble altars, the like of which are not to be found even in Rome. He had made very many columns, with sculptured capitals of divers marbles… [and there were] mosaics of marvellous workmanship…”[16]

Beauty aside, it was the saints who provided a strong cultural glue. Beneath frescos of these spiritual superstars, the Romans embraced the Germanics — who’d previously been chalked up as pagans without souls — as brothers in faith. In turn, the Germanics learned to venerate (often exotic) military saints who’d ultimately fought in armies opposed to their presence. And so together they prayed to an unlikely canon that included Marcellus of Tangier, Maximilian the Numidian, St Maurice, and the Theban Legion, etc.

More destructively, their new asabiyya (to borrow Ibn Khaldun’s terminology) was based around clubbing together to fight pagan armies, smash their sacrifices, seize their lands and women, topple temples and columns, and chop down sacred trees. And they did it in the name of a heaven that looked remarkably like a Roman court. Hence all the vitae in which angels drop down from the sky only to look and sound very much like Roman soldiers.

Rome’s heavenly intercession was constantly called upon. As the superpower had receded, unknown powers had taken advantage: magic had come to the fore. And its black form required the Church’s intervention. Sorcery’s efficacy was never denied. Only its source was critiqued as being biblically sanctioned or otherwise. And so the Church found itself at the heart of a magical economy that involved curse tablets, lost items, illnesses, runaway workers, promotions, legacies, tax issues etc. Indeed, uneducated clerics could often find themselves in hot water by solving these problems via bibliomancy and sortres quas sanctorum vocant (the sortes/lots of the saints) — the sort of grey areas that gave the top brass grey hairs.

Rome’s faith was also called upon to tackle the pagan cycle of the seasons. The sixth-century diocesan synod at Auxerre, for example, put a stop to folk dressing up as livestock at winter solstice, delivering new year’s gifts to sprites, having private ceremonies, keeping vows at thorn bushes, holly trees and springs, and carving wooden ex votos of human figures. Pagans were continually looking for loopholes in such legislation, however, hence the persistence of human figures made from wheat-flour cakes into the eighth century.

Just as the Church based its pattern of bishoprics on that of the Roman civitates (split into the pagi, rural districts, that gave pagans their name), so the pattern of its rural churches was based on the vici (towns usually based around a market or an industry like iron smelting or pottery) and villas of landowners. The ecclesiae diocesanae (churches around the vici) were the basis which extended the organisation of the urban church into the surrounding countryside. Bishops toured these dioceses, the units that made up their see, to ensure staff and doctrine were kept up to scratch. Interestingly, in roughly the same period the Greek word ‘parochial’ (parish) also came into use. Its original meaning was a community of Christians within a town under the charge of a bishop but it soon came to mean anybody under the charge of a particular priest in the modern sense.

Under such a set-up, wily magnates trying to usurp the Church’s benefits could be just as trying as pagan confrontation. Often the ratio between private estate and diocesan churches was as bad as three-to-one. And so Church councils, therefore, found it necessary to repeat that estate churches were not private property outside the diocesan structure. Indeed, the Church in Italy refuses churches their consecration unless their founders renounced all rights other than those of a typical layman. Similarly, in Spain, the council of Lerida (524) decreed that no church could be withdrawn from episcopal control.

Defining the parish boundaries became an essential job for those who wished to impose the next stage of Christianisation: tithes. A moral obligation in the sixth century, Pippin III made them compulsory in 765. In England, they became obligatory under Edmund (939-46). This caused a slight clash in ecclesiastical structures, however, as the older financial rights of the ecclesiae diocesanae (which had set up much of the rural pastoral care) rubbed against the new seigneurial parish churches. This often resulted in a division of funds (ratios dependent on politics) between the new parish church and what became the “Old Minister.”

Back on the geopolitical plane, the West’s regions had not totally collapsed in on themselves. In London, there was an emporium visited by every nation. In Paris, the fair of St Denis (founded in 634) welcomed merchants from all over the West. Gaul, as usual, operated as the middle man with a foot in both the Mediterranean and the insular worlds that spun off it.[17] This was, after all, an Age in which a merchant in Bordeaux, for instance, could have a relic of St Sergios of Resafa at his house; a Syrian could become bishop of Paris; and Byzantine merchants of Orleans could celebrate the adventus of king Guntram into the city.[18]

In the mid-sixth century, the eastern Roman emperor still appeared on the gold coinage of the West (including Visigothic Spain).[19] In fact, some regions went even further. Marseille and the rest of Provence struck a pseudo or quasi imperial gold coinage (580-613) in the names of successive Eastern Roman emperors.[20]

Indeed, this was still an Age when “senatorial” families existed, often in ways that belie the fact they are often presented as totally reliant on Germanic patronage. Take, for instance, the senatus Cantabriae, a little state controlled by Roman magnates in the Cantabrian mountains that wasn’t conquered until Leovigild’s reign 570-86.[21] The very fact it had to be defeated shows just how threadbare the legal fiction was by which Germanic rulers were presented as allies of Rome with no sovereign rights.[22]

Despite the continuities, however, long-distance trade came to a permanent end in several parts. Papyrus, for example, was native to Egypt and when Justinian II quarreled with Caliph Abd al-Malik, the latter issued a trade embargo and insisted on placing a Muslim religious formula on the authentication of each sheet. Pope John VII was therefore presumably unaware that one of his papal bulls opened with the statement that there was no God but Allah (in Arabic).[23] The Merovingian chancery suffered no such blunders thanks mainly to a lack of supply. While papyrus use ended north of the Alps, however, appearances were kept up at both Ravenna and Rome until the eleventh century.

If a medieval Age has any historiographical legitimacy — was/is not the entire Western project “sub-Roman” i.e. realising Constantine the Great’s vision, in essence? — then its hinge should be placed squarely on the life of Dagobert I (629-39). Under him, regional powers were trounced and Paris took on its role as the capital of a centralised Frankish state. Indeed, he rebuilt the martyrial church of St Denis and established it as the burial place of Frankish kings, forming an axis of power that remains today.

That this new Paris-centric world was more insular than its predecessor is clear from the fact a place as irrelevant to Rome as Hibernia (Ireland) began to influence it. In 585, Columbanus landed near Nantes with twelve companions where he formed a powerful catalyst to the Church (in types of penance and the development of extramural monasteries) before crossing to Bobbio (Lombardy) where he founded a monastery. Missions like these — which would soon spur the English to evangelise half of Germany — showed that the Atlantic seaboard was no longer the Mediterranean’s backwater; that the peoples who bordered great Oceanus had the potential to be a cultural engine room.

The ‘West’ was no longer an agglomeration of faithless fools. As it moved into the seventh century, the landmass realised it had the potential to be a Kingdom for Christ (Christendom) that looked east to Constantinople for culture, south-east to Jerusalem for faith, and south to Rome for guidance. The Gallic hinterland and Atlantic fringes suddenly mattered: missionaries went on hobbit-y adventures in their hundreds to evangelise the pagenses of the wooded and remote regions that would one day become the cockpit of Europe.

Show Footnotes

1 Ammianus Marcellinus XX, 4.
2 Sadly, the ecclesiastical geography of France was swept away by the revolutionary government and its old names replaced by rather banal river names. The same logic doesn’t apply to England due to the Anglo-Saxon conquest, nor Spain thanks to the Islamic invasions.
3 Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus XXX, 3.
4 Julian, Convivium 314b. Interestingly, S. Frere (Britannia [1987]) suggests that Probus may have created the litus Saxonicum.
5 Austonius, Mosella 456-7.
6 Letter of St Ambrose, P.L.16, 1036.
7 The Bacaudae appear in the late third century with the requisition in kind of the annona militaris, then disappear from our sources in the fourth century when monetary taxation and an effective western regime had been restored, only to reappear in the fifth century. Almost certainly a reversion to local leadership among peoples who believed imperial authority had failed them or required “illegal exactions,” they retreated to easily defensible places such as forests and woodlands. Romans tended to depict them as stupid provincials who sought to revert to type i.e. their older barbaric ways.
8 Sidonius, Panegyric on Majorian 211-56.
9 Prokopios, History of the Wars V, xii, 8-9.
10 This missal is known as “gemitus britannorum” (groan of the Britons) or “ter consuli” (thrice consul) which can only refer to Aetius.
11 Soissons was lost to Clovis in 486.
12 Constantius of Lyon, Vita Germani 10.
13 Similar hauntings may be why skeletons at places like Brislington villa (Somerset) were thrown down wells and buried beneath over six feet of rubble (see K. Branagan, The Romans in the Bristol Area [1969] 25).
14 Germanus appears in British history cum legend as a major opponent of Vortigern and a teacher of St Patrick. See N. Chadwick, Poetry and Letters in Early Christian Gaul (1955).
15 Constantius, Vita Germani, 17-18. M. E. Jones reckons the miraculous elements of Germanus’ victory formed a Christianising cloak to excuse the fact such a prominent cleric was also a great military leader (see “The historicity of the Alleluja Victory,” Albion, Vol. 18, No. 3 [1986]).
16 Chronicle of Nantes (ed. R. Merlet, 1896), quoted Pietri T.C.C.G. V Lugdunensis Tertia, 90.
17 Though this dynamic should not be over-emphasised. Insular import wares for instance arrived in Britain via the straits of Gibraltar and the Atlantic seaways, not southern Gaul. Despite these impressive connections, some of the geographic links vitae throw up are not what they seem. The life of St John the Almsgiver, for example, contains a story connecting trade between the Eastern Roman Empire and Britain. The original of this text written by Sophronios of Jerusalem in 633-7, however, is lost. Instead, we have a supplement added by Leontius of Neapolis containing an episode in which a captain clams to have sailed to Britain. This was conflated with two earlier vitae and produced a story in which an Alexandrian ship captain down on his luck is given money for a new boat by the patriarch John the Almsgiver. After two unsuccessful attempts he managed to sail to Britain with a cargo of corn (with the aid of a magic mist and a ghostly helmsman) and returns with the “British metal” lead that is miraculously turned into silver.
18 Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum, VII, 3; X, 26; V, 1.
19 The exception was Theodebert I of Metz (534-48) who acquired so much gold in booty and subsidies that he managed to have a coinage struck in his own image. This breach of the imperial prerogative caused a grave scandal in Constantinople.
20 Currency is the most obvious inheritance from this period. Late Roman coinage was based on the solidus and its third, the tremissis. While the Franks imitated the latter in the seventh century, its content had been increasingly diluted with silver. Around 670 this pale gold coinage was replaced with silver deniers. The English followed suit and c. 675 the pale gold English shillings were replaced by new silver coins called “pennies.” Ultimately, gold had been better for long distance trade but for a smaller world framed by places like Hamwic (Southampton), Lundenwic (London’s port in area of Covent Garden and Aldwich) and Frisia, silver did the job.
21 In its last stages the Roman empire seems to have egotiated tax settlements with leaders of communities. Subsequent Germanic kings appear to have had the same relations with these seniores, principes or reges and forced new settlements upon them through arms or simply conquered them. Apart from the subjugation of the senatus Cantabriae, there’s the case of Aepidus, senior loci in the Aregenses montes, who appears to have been forced into submission too.
22 Two of the most important early medieval missions from Rome were Gregory the Great’s mission to England and his work with Leander of Seville (d. 600) to convert the Goths to Catholicism. In many ways the pope’s relationship with England and Spain prefigured the relationship of the papacy with the Carolingians.
23 J. K. Knight, End of Antiquity (2007) 168.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. Find his articles at: byzantineambassador.com, or his tweets: @byzantinepower.

Our work and future rely entirely on the generous contributions from the public. If you find what we do valuable, please consider making a donation.

Scroll to top