Catch Up and the Legacy of Rome

I haven’t updated for a while because little has been going on! Well, I say nothing… I did get onto that America thing! Yes sir, I will be working abroad for three months In Arizona, Utah and Nevada as well as doing the tourist thing in San Francisco, LA and Vegas! I’m so psyched. My plan is to use this blog to update how things are going to save me telling the same story to my friends over and over again.

I’ve been reading up on the fall of the Roman Empire again…which isn’t saying much as I only finished studying it at Uni back in May. Either way, I’m amazed at how many different people in the closing days of antiquity mimicked Roman power in order to legitimise their own administrations to the end of justifying their authority over the Romanized areas of Europe….which essentially was all of Europe. Since 476 is traditionally viewed as the end of imperial authority in the west, our examination should start here.

Romulus Augustus, the so-called last Roman Emperor, was deposed in this year by the Ostrogoth Odoacer. Rhetorical usage of the word “deposed” in textbooks has entered public general knowledge to such a degree that Odoacer’s accension has been portrayed as a radical event, a shift from a Roman providential scheme to a Germanic* and barbaric one. This could not be further from the truth. To contemporaries, little had changed. By this time, most of the west had lived under ‘barbarian’ authority for some time- Franks in north Gaul, Visigoths in Aquitaine and Hispania, Vandals in Africa. Thus the rule of the barbarian Odoacer, in Rome, although significant on a political/ethnic homogeneous scene, meant little to the people. Odoacer helped to maintain civic harmony it seems by using a Roman title- rex– meaning king. Granted, there had been no king in Rome since the Roman Kingdom was replaced with the Republic in the 6th century BCE. Regardless, using the Latin title over a more Germanic one suggests that this new generation of elite wished their power to wear a Roman  face.

The barbarians that had occupied the remnants of the western empire did not try to impose their own customs or languages. Latin remained the lingua franca, and later involved into the Romance Languages (French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian etc).  The only real Roman province (or rather ‘ex’ Roman province) in the west to become permanently linguistically altered was Britannia, where the Angels Saxons and Jutes Germanised the local population. The legacy of Rome was largely ignored in the British Isles until the Normans arrived in 1066 and again bought our humble island into the European sphere.

The establishment of the Carolingian Empire by the Franks under Charlemagne, who styled himself as Imperator Augustus- Augustus was of course synonomous with Roman and imperial power- and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire (infamously dubbed “neither holy, Roman, or an empire” by Voltaire) clearly shows how important it was for secular powers to appear Romanized. Catholicism itself was the embodiment of the Roman Empire in the High Medieval Ages. The Pope was a powerful politician who through his papal legates administered power from the Alps to Iceland. The fact that he was stationed in Rome made him a spiritual successor to the western Empire, and his disagreements with the Holy Roman Empire were often centered on who had the authority and right to rule the Italian peninsular, the homeland of Rome.

The situation in the east was different of course due to the fact that the eastern Roman empire never fell (until 1204 and later to 1453). To distinguish between the classical and medieval age,  we call this entity the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines maintained an unbroken line of emperors until 1453, dating back to Augustus himself. They also kept hundreds of years of Greco-Roman thought alive, although Greek became the dominant language by the eight century. After the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, the west began to refer to the Byzantines as the Greeks, the Empire of the Greeks. However, the Byzantines still maintained that they were Romans and refered to themselves as such. What is more, when the Arabs arrived on the scene and began to conflict with the Byzantines they too saw them as Roman, giving them the title of the Rums– Romans. The Qur’an even has a sura called Ar-Rum.

The title of Tsar- now associated with Imperial Russia- derives from Caesar, perhaps the longest surviving title in history. Interestingly, the German title of Kaiser also shares this genesis. I read once that Kaiser is in fact the correct pronunciation of Caesar in Classical Latin but I have no idea if that’s true or not. Either way, the people of eastern Europe in the early medieval ages followed suit by using the title of Tsar. The Bulgars were doing this by the tenth century. This was especially important for them as they were often in conflict with the Byzantine Caesar.

Some historians are of the opinion that Rome fell when the west fell, and that there were no Romans after this. At university I always argued that subscribing to the thought that in 476 the deposition of Romulus Augustus meant that Rome had fallen undermines what it meant to be Roman. There was more to the empire than an emperor born from a Roman father. The empire had always been a cultural hotpot- different people unified under one banner. Certainly, this too was prominent under the Ostrogoth Theodoric in the west. In my opinion the Byzantines too were Roman. Probably not after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 or even after their defeat to the crusaders in 1204, but certianly still by the tenth century.

When the Ottoman leader Mehmed II claimed the title of “Caesar” of Rome (Kayser-i Rûm) after taking Constantinople in 1453 he was continuing a thousand year old tradition of using Roman titles to exhert imperial authority. Modern day Greece was dubbed “Rumelia” by the Ottomans under their empire. Tsar and later Kaiser remained Imperial titles with a Roman heritage until the twentieth century- that’s the legacy of Rome.

Anyway this is what has been on my mind. See, being unemployed doesn’t mean I have to stop being a little bit academic!

*Barbarians of the invasive period are too readily classified as ‘Germanic’. This implied a collective, yet it is only true in a broad linguistic scheme. It is historically anachronistic when used in reference to the anything before the seventh century. In late antiquity the term referred to tribes of the Rhine peoples- notably the Franks. Those of the Danube, e.g. the Visigoths, though Germanic in speech would never have referred to themselves as such. A lot of modern writing presupposes a homogenous Germanic identity. The disunity of early ‘Germans’ can hardly be too emphatically stressed. Tacitus’ writings are in part to blame for this. The historian presupposed that all Germanic people shared a common thought that they were descended from the same mythical figure- this was not true. The first indication of a Germanic consciousness is not apparent until the Carolingian era of Medieval Europe. Even then it was only prevalent amongst the highly learned- it was not a common thought. Conclusively, the barbarians of late antiquity were extremely fragmented. This is self evident in the records of Germanic tribesmen fighting with or for Rome against neighbours. There was never a movement of unity against Rome in all of antiquity.


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