4. THE LATE ROMAN EMPIRE AND THE ORIENTAL RELIGIONS
The oscillation between restoration and Oriental cult imports
The declining phase of the Roman empire is characterised on one hand by the increasing
pressure of 'primitive' agrarian populations of Northern Europe, on the other hand
this time is - clearly politically motivated - a phase of experiments with Oriental
religions. < 21>
The pendulum goes back and forth between restoration and oriental imports. The oscillations
end with the import of a relatively recent and populistic form of Jewish messianism.
It is, however, synthesised with the theocratic constitution of the Old Testament (Nicaea 325). This 'Nicaenic synthesis', as we might call it, is declared Roman
state religion (391), and remains this - in the west - up to the breakdown of the
Western empire (476), that is to say over a period of 85 years.
Evidently Constantinus, later the Great, is the active person behind this Nicaean
synthesis. He had recognised early, that the popular acceptance of Christianity could
support the Roman state from the bottom up, but at the same time that Christianity
was not strong enough in the sense of state politics. The military successes of Constantine,
his later completion of Diocletianus' imperial reforms focused on an absolutistic
state with strict oriental court rituals emphasising the God-like character of the
emperor, shows clearly, that calculated politics stood in the foreground. The 'oriental',
the 'theocratical' element was important, not the charm of Christ!
The identity dispute ('Nicaean synthesis')
The 'mythical' element, the legendary time depth, was completely missing in the Christian
tradition, as far as it did not refer to the 'father God' of the Jewish tradition.
It was only natural, even necessary in the political sense, to fuse the Christian
godly claim with that one of the Hebrew tradition. This was discussed intensely in
the 'identity dispute' (see below) and at the council at Nicea: the identification
of the Jewish state God (conceived approx. 1250 B.C.) with Christ, whose tradition
then had a temporal depth of merely about 300 years. It is clear, that this dispute happened
in very patriarchally coloured and very narrow circles. Characteristic is the 'father-son'
relationship. It genealogically reproduces ancient Near Eastern genealogies and 'syntheses' of deities. Within the circle around Constantinus one was doubtless conscious
about the political significance of this synthesis. In fact, the historically quite
questionable Christian tradition thereby received the temporally deep rooted support of a theocratic imperial constitution of the ancient Near East.
Thematically the 'Nicaean synthesis' is derived from the theological dispute which
started around 318 between Arius and Athanasius. Arius (260-336), elder of the Christian
community in Alexandria maintains the thesis, that Christ was different from God
father. Later he soothed 'difference' into 'similarity' (homoiusie). Athanasius (295-
373), bishop of Alexandria and unscrupulous adversary of Arius postulated the opposed
view that Christ as God's own son had to be identical with God father. In the council
convened by Constantinus to Nicaea (325) the decision favours Athanasius. <22>
The range of this decision becomes clear, if we relate it to Constantinus' 'Tolerance
edict of Milano'. From then on - in opposition to Diocletian's persecutions - the
Christian tradition was increasingly valorised and included into state politics.
In the year 313 Christianity was acknowledged among other religions. The ancient Roman state
cult was eliminated. Under Constantius II. (337-361), the successor of Constantinus,
Arianism (similarity) was declared compulsory for the whole church. Under Theodosius I. the 'Edict of Thessaloniki' forbids Arianism in the east. Athanasianism (identity)
is declared state religion. In the year 391 Christianity is declared Roman state
religion in the form of the Nicaean synthesis (identity) .
Now, on this well prepared level important decisions are made. After his victory
over Licinius at Abianopolis and Chrysopolis, Constantine erects his full autocracy
over the Roman empire (Totius orbis imperator). Constantinopolis is constructed
and expanded to form the new imperial metropolis. In the year 330 it is ceremonially established.
The imperial residence is transferred from 'heathen' Rome to the east. At a second
council (381), the first Nicaenum (325) is confirmed under Theodosius I. (379-395)
and in the year 391, as said before, Christianity is declared state religion of the
Roman empire. All heathen cults are forbidden.
It is very characteristic, that most historic presentations of Christian origins focus
on its internal powers. It naturally expands as a successful development. The anthropological
display, however, shows the outer forces involved. The dominantly political reasons, why it was welded with powerful institutions, are evident. This synthetic
character has remained essential for Christianity until today. The high popular acceptance
which is granted to this 'religion' appears intimately combined with a theocratic state principle of the Ancient Near East. The Post-Roman theocracy has remained
active and efficient until today and rules globally over the modern world. If, through
mission, the basis is secured, then international politics on the topmost level are
The ambivalent character of the 'Nicaean synthesis' proves efficient also in the mediaeval
state formation. It outlaws topologically bound systems of Central and Northern Europe
(old-Germanic settlement and provincial cults as local constitutions, sacred law ['Thing'] and dukedoms) and also affects kingly and imperial figures. Through the
Roman imperial heritage, they become infected with the omnipotence deliria of ancient
Near Eastern theocratic types of constitutions. Note that our modern - mediaevally
fixed - historisms favour such glory-constructs. Hopefully we have not forgotten yet
the contemporary consequences of these ideas of 1000-year-old empires.
5. THE MEDIAEVAL FORMATION OF EMPIRES AND POST-ROMAN ROME
The shifts of power in the declining phase of the West-Roman empire and later are
not merely processes activated by certain historical figures. They should also -
and essentially - be understood in the framework of a multicultural empire of spatially
enormous dimensions. This extension produced strong tensions between east and west. Ancient
Near Eastern theocratic imperial systems and particularly Egypt were highly esteemed
whereas the predominantly autonomous agrarian village cultures in Central and Northern Europe were considered of lower level (Tacitus).
However, the military and administrative power of the Roman empire had not managed
to control the strong social and political cohesion of the traditional Germanic face-to-face
groups in spite of technical superiority. Sources of early mediaeval times (Charlemagne and his campaign against the Saxons and the destruction of their tribal-sanctuary
[Irminsul]) provide good arguments to assume that at least among the Germanic peoples,
but also in territories formerly controlled by the Romans, local constitutions supported by local cult traditions were still widely in force at least in the early
Middle Ages. Highly autonomous and topologically bound settlement constitutions
can be taken into account. The application of our 'bilevelled image' can then explain
very clearly the processes of the mediaeval imperial reorganisation of Central and Northern
The Roman heritage
The breakdown of Western Rome left essentially two things. First, Rome, as a politically
deconstructed world metropolis and, second, huge 'empty' territories (from the Roman
perspective). At the beginning of the Middle Ages both were occupied again surprisingly quickly and from then on expanded accordingly.
The heritage of Rome was the glory of an imperial metropolis, the once centre of a
quasi worldwide empire with divinely legitimated emperors, in its glory equivalent
to the ancient theocratic empires of the ancient East. And further it inherited a
highly developed centralistic imperial administration-model. And last, but not least, its
heritage was an imperial state religion which had given its positive proofs in the
Roman empire for the last 85 years: Christianity, or what we called the 'Nicaean
The empty lands provoked the Roman type of military conquest. The Franconians seized
this occasion and were successful. They had adjusted their political power and their
administration system very early and respected the structures locally handed down
in autonomous Germanic and other agrarian settlements. Thus the king legitimates himself
similarly like the Germanic dukes (Herzog) in regard to law, political and military
organisation. King and people meet on the March field (Maerzfeld), the political
event reflects the adjustment to autochthonous structures. Further, the Imperial court (Pfalz)
is not centralised, there are several, and they are scattered in the territorial
gravity points according to decentralistic principles.
However, the Franconians became also very quickly aware of the political implications
of Christianity. According to a legend, the wife of Chlodwig, Chrodechildis, impressed
by the triumphant battle against the Alamannes, stimulated her husband to change
his confession to Christianity. One or two years later, at Christmas time, Chlodwig
was baptised by bishop Remigius. The good reasons are obvious. In contrast to Theoderich's
incompatible juxtaposition of catholic novels and arianic Goths, Chlodwig thus managed the fusion of Galloroman and Franconian populations. They could be brought under
control in a common state.
The pacifying functions of Christianity
In other words, Christianity serves as an ideal means of political consolidation,
as a long-term instrument for pacifying newly conquered territories. The Saxony campaign
of Charlemagne (722) illustrates this very clearly. The Saxons were defeated near
their tribal sanctuary. This was destroyed (Irminsul). A stone relief of the so called
'Externsteine' at Westfalia shows Nikodemus standing on the broken column. He triumphantly
stretches out the cross. The defeated Saxons were then forcefully converted. Those who resisted were confronted with hardest punishments. The Franconian expansion
towards the east was similarly characterised by forceful conversion to Christianity.
Monasteries were founded after the conquests and in towns and villages churches were
built. The dynamics of these developments are evident. With its popular element systematic
conversion annulled the autonomous constitutions of the agrarian settlements, and,
on the other hand, supported and legitimated the emperor in new ways. The topologically bound, physically represented gods were destroyed. At the same time churches, monasteries
were founded, the territories were classified into dioceses now ruled by bishops.
The power of the autochthonous dukes was annulled, new districts were managed by
royally or imperially legitimated counts. It is this ambivalent field of strong tensions
between autochthonous nobilities and superseded - spiritual and worldly - elite functions
which characterised the imperial history of the Franconians and their followers.
As pacifying instrument above all, Christianisation processes chained the Franconians
to the holy chair. In worldly terms, the church provides the executive power of pacification.
It steers the developments in a foreign territory. In regard to status its administrators are equated with the political elite and, diffusing the new 'highest
values', they had great influence on the peoples and manage to consolidate conversion
over wide areas.
Evidently, this double structure of power, of worldly and spiritual, of royal and
papal power, or of concrete territorial claims and pseudo territorial claims and,
finally, of worldly administration and spiritual administration may be successful
in regard to direct control, but, on the higher level strong problems arise. It leads the Roman
church to a harsh fight for control over the Franconian empire. Two competing constitutions
are struggling for the same territory.
In the framework of the Germanic heritage with its local and provincial constitutions,
including its cults and rites, or, what was now called religion had conventionally
been part of a local ontology and therefore was naturally part of political power.
Correspondingly, in the Germanic view, bishops, abbots and other church positions are
selected and established by the Franconian emperor. Both forces are cooperative insofar
as the popularisation of Christianity is concerned with the pacification of newly
acquired territories. The Franconians use conversion to pacify their nuclear countries
politically, the church expands its field of action in the shadow of military protection,
thus extends also its personnel and material development.
Rome consolidates the ancient near Eastern part of the Nicaean synthesis using Neoplatonism.
Contrary to this expansion of the popular basis, Rome increasingly develops as a clerical
centre. Based on the Nicaean synthesis, it increasingly develops its own status
in the sense of the ancient Near Eastern theocratic constitutions of the "God/ruler/empire" type. The gravity point of the Old Testament shifts from the Jewish constitution
('chosen people' status, the Hebrew alliance with God) to the Genesis. The history
of creation is now interpreted universally and projected monotheistically on the
Jewish state God. The whole is rationally postulated as the absolute reality.
Philosophically and theologically important in these processes is above all Plotin's
(204-270) line of Neoplatonism. Based on a great simplification and dematerialisation
(in regard to Plato), the 'supreme general' in the philosophical sense is used to
formulate the concept of God. On the other hand patristic writers too, (e.g. Augustinus
354-430) support the development of the church as theocratical 'state of God'. Unquestionably
this is valid in the case of Augustinus' chief work: De Civitate Dei'. Therein Augustinus outlines the eternal contrast between 'God's city' and 'the devil's city'.
He describes the former as the catholic church. It is supported by humble trust into
the clerical authority. The 'devil's city', however, is rooted in the heathen Roman empire and is characterised by a selfish pride against God. We would regard such
evidently exaggerated contrasts today as propaganda.
Thus, the position of papal Rome was systematically strengthened. On one hand concrete
steps were taken to gain support from the New Testament. The primacy of Rome under
the bishops, resp. patriachates, was maintained. And further, the direct apostolic
succession of Rome was postulated. Within church law the direct descent of the Roman
pope from Peter legitimates the church to supreme authority in regard to government,
law, and teachings ('Patrimonium Petri'). On the other hand, the distinction of a
spiritual world, opposed to the worldly power, was developed with great efforts. Its ultimate
goal was the total independence of the Roman clerical power in the sense of the decrees
of pope Gelasius 1. (492-496). He had written them against the Byzantine empire to demonstrate the Roman doctrine of the 'two separate powers'. The decrees claimed
essentially five points:
These foundations of a theocratically supported and independent clerical 'empire'
gained increasingly momentum. They were reinforced particularly under Gregory I.
the Great (590-604) and Gregor II. (715-731).
- the subordination of the worldly sovereigns (as part of the church law),
- supra-statal administrative districts according to the Roman model (dioceses),
- the development of the clerical hierarchy,
- the development of the territorio-legal bases of the church state and
- the centralisation of the territorial properties of the church.
Thus, Rome, by relying heavily on its administration system structured according to
previous Roman centralism, increasingly penetrates into the territorial annexations
of the Franconians and their successors, operates politically through the system
of 'church provinces' with (arch-) bishops, abbots and special 'legates'. Most clearly the
ambivalent tensions of this split system are shown at its tops, namely between strong
worldly leaders and some extraordinary popes, who provoked the worldly powers with
their claims to absolute ecclesiastic autonomy. These top-tensions are mostly revealed
at events on the highest levels, like royal and imperial coronation festivities,
or at the occasion of a new pope's election. We will outline this chronologically
in the following. Evidently theoretical and political, worldly and spiritual elements are intrinsically
interwoven in this 'power struggles' so important not only for the Middle Ages, but
also for our modern present. The stakes were high: control over 'Heaven and Earth'.
Based on Neoplatonism, the popedom has constructed its own 'supra-imperial' constitution
Evidently the clerical administration has constructed a 'supra-imperial' theocratical
constitution for its own needs. This allows the clerus to control and administrate
the world creator's empire on earth. In this type of reasoning the Franconian monarchy
must be clearly subordinate. The powerful insignium of this constitution consists
in the emperor title granted by the pope, with emperor crown and oriental ointment.
The church cleverly managed to combine its own power with the prestige survivals
of the former Roman world of Cesars. 'Rex Francorum' the Saxon and Salian emperors living under
Franconian right called themselves. After the coronation in Rome the emperor calls
himself 'Imperator Augustus', since 982 'Imperator Romanorum Augustus'.
This tension between the German right of kings and the church-law of the Roman church,
resp. between a king's title and the emperor's title conferred by the pope, always
reaches the kings at specific events, socially on the top level, at coronation festivities related to this or that crown. Who elects whom? Who anoints whom? Does the duty
to go to Rome degrade the position of the king or emperor, or is it an honour for
him? Is the pope designated by the king or emperor, or vice-versa? Consequently,
kings and emperors crown themselves personally. Letters of excommunication are sent. Henry
IVth's walk to Canossa has to be mentioned. Admissions are made to popes. Popes are
put down, replaced by anti-popes. It is not our intention to dramatise history here,
but, on the other hand, the dramatical element shows clearly that important things were
The defenceless spiritual sword
In spite of ecclesiastic triumphs, the popedom soon revealed its fatal dependency
essentially conditioned by the distinction of worldly and spiritual powers. Evidently,
there were envious looks to the east. In early and middle-Byzantine times the Nicaean
synthesis, without any problems between worldly and spiritual swords, had developed
as a reliable basis for a theocracy of the 'oriental' type ('Cesaropapism' under
Justinian 527- 65). With this envied model in view, post Roman Rome became aware
that the spiritual sword is vulnerable without any support of the worldly sword. This was particularly
felt at the invasion of the Langobards in Upper Italy (572-650; 751 conquest of Ravenna
by Aistulf). In the year 754, pope Stephen II. (752-757) calls Pippin, the first Franconian king, for help against Aistulf, the king of the Langobards. Rome is
put under the protection of the Franconian king, Pippin and his sons receive the
title 'Patrons of the Romans' (Patricius Romanorum). In two successful campaigns
(754, 756) Pippin forces Aistulf to return his conquered territories. They are given to the
pope as a gift (Pippin's donation). Together with parts of Rome, it forms the 'worldly'
territories of the then time church state.
This event shows clearly, that the church is heavily dependent. It must arrange itself
with worldly powers. In paradoxical ways it is chained to the worldly forces, if
possible to the most powerful ones. The numerous campaigns of the Franconian kings
and emperors to Italy have to be seen in this context, above all those, which were related
to contracts providing the protection of Rome.
Thus, the paradox of the scholastic doctrines is the dynamic motor of mediaeval history.
Two kinds of constitutions project themselves on the same territories. At the basis
both naturally cooperate. However, at the top, both fight each other fiercely in
the framework of constitutional law. Both finally loose their prestige and their force.
The increasing power of the church leads to the weakening, and, in the 13th century
to the breakdown of the power of its most important partner, the Franconian-German
kingdom or empire. After its breakdown the church turns to another partner, towards
France which has developed new strength. However, France in the meantime, had itself developed
a new, but worldly absolutism. It contemptuously denies any respects for the neoplatonically
constructed spiritual power. The pope is put into prison.
These constitutional disputes had tremendous impacts on the development of European
culture and civilisation until today. Usually these struggles for power are described
in the framework of tensions between historical figures, between positions representing state reasoning and religion, but, if we consider both in the framework of territorial
constitutions, the immanent structure becomes very clear. They can be traced historically
in two disputes which are closely interwoven in complementary ways: the dispute of universals and the investiture quarrel.
The dispute of universals
Christian patristics were dominated by Neoplatonism from the 2nd to the 7th century.
With the expansion of Islam (7th century: Syria, Egypt, 8th century: Spain) Christian
scholasticism (9th-15th cent.) came into contact with Aristotelian thought. Main
transmitters were Arabic sources, partly medical writings (Hippocrates, Galen), partly
other writings by authors like Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-98). They widely
questioned the Neoplatonical fixations of patristic thought by emphasising reason
and empirical reflections. Further, during the 12th and 13th centuries the 'old logics'
(logica vetus) are increasingly dominated by the 'logica nova' (Roger Bacon 1219-94).
Theoretically the quarrel flares up during the second half of the 11th century over
a passage of Porphyrius (232-304), translated and commented by Boëthius (480-524),
the Roman statesman and philosopher and most important mediator between Antiquity
and Middle Ages. On first sight the discussion looks like a philosophical hair-splitting.
It deals with the question of the' reality' of general terms. However, since the
term 'general' in its uppermost context meant God, the matter was of enormous importance.
The basic question of the dispute of universals is the following: Is truth only an
idea? Mediaeval scholasticism answers this Boëthian question in its own ways. God,
as the topmost general, is the truth. Three main views can be distinguished:
The most important contrahents are:
- Radical realism of ideas: general terms represent a view lifted up from individual
things. On the level of ideas 'they correspond to a metaphysically objective essence.
- Nominalism: general terms are merely words, which sum up similar aspects.
- Moderate realism: general terms are objectively valid. They record the nature of
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).
He originated from a noble family of Piemont, later becomes bishop of Canterbury.
As a clerical, his outlook is basically neoplatonical: the nature of the things is
their divine idea. The more terms are general, the more they are real. The most real
is God. In other words, belief in God is the basis and the goal of any true knowledge.
He counts himself among the nominalists. He represents the following concept. Our
human idea is the nature of the things. Reality is composed of individual things.
If we speak, we give names to things, relate them to generally understandable ideas.
These, however, have no own reality. There are individual persons only, no concrete reality
supports the term 'mankind'. Similarly there is no such a thing like truth, there
are only true statements. If the general is however only an abstraction of our mind,
thus merely subjectively presented and thus without actual capacity for reality, then
the one Christian God too is only an abstraction of the three Christian divinities.
At the council of Soissons (1092) Roscellinus is condemned. He looks in vain for
support from his pupil Abaelard. He is forced to flee to England. There he meets resistance
by Anselm, meanwhile bishop of Canterbury. Roscellinus is, however, only pursued
because he accuses the clerics. They use their positions, he says, to hieve their
illegitimate children into respected positions. In spite of the announcement of the bishop of
Chartres saying that he would be stoned at his arrival in Paris, Roscellinus again
asks for asylum in France.
He is a former student of Roscellinus, works in a compromising sense as 'conceptualist'
(The nature is in the things). As a student he had followed the lectures of both,
the realist William of Champeaux as well as Roscellinus, the nominalist. Later, he
teaches logics and theology in Paris. He attempts to find a theoretically satisfying
solution for the dispute of the universalities and maintains that the realists on
one hand are neglecting the sensual things, whereas the nominalists are fixed on
individuality and thus cannot perceive the similarity of things as their essential nature. Naturally
his thesis is not supporting the goals of the church and is thus considered as useless.
In 1140, at the council of Sens, Abaelard is sharply attacked by Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153), the then famous fanatic for an ecclesiastic reform.
The dispute of the universals was ultimately settled within the church by Albertus
Magnus (1193-1280) and Thomas of Aquino (1225-1274). They both dogmatically favoured
the neoplatonistic line. The universals existed before the creation in the divine
spirit and thus preceded the general terms of the world and the created things. The absolute
'ideas' related to the neoplatonic concept of God are declared as the primary 'real'.
This result is ecclesiastically dogmatised. The quarrel goes on, however.
William of Ockham (1285-1349)
He teaches at Oxford and Paris and maintains that scholasticism is at its end. His
main point: The manifold of all experienced and knowledgeable details cannot be derived
just from some general doctrines of belief. Christian dogmas can not explain the
manyness of observable natural processes. In 1324 Ockham is arrested and accused of heresy.
Four years later, before the end of the process, he manages to get out of the papal
prison at Avignon and to flee to Lewis the Bavarian, then German emperor. In 1339,
the university in Paris prohibits the diffusion of Ockham's criticism. Nevertheless
his doctrine develops as the basis of modern European thought.
The dispute of universals is an important event of the Middle Ages. In the framework
of church politics of those times and in close relation to the struggle of investiture
it reveals clearly the power-motivated developments of the church towards an absolutely spiritual, that is to say, 'supra-imperial' constitution against the Franconian
kings. As a 'supra-imperial' construct the ecclesiastic constitution was successful
in various regards. It managed to break the imperial church of the Franconians and
Ottonians and thus also to control the imperial formations. But, at the same time the
church weakened the power of its most important protector and partner.
On the other hand, this absolutely idealistic 'realism' based on Neoplatonic doctrine
was a trauma, particularly because it manifested itself with power and glory in
the framework of past Roman and Ancient Near Eastern imperial traditions. On the
long run it was this trauma, which called the empirical sciences as the most critical opponents
of the church on the stage. One could even say that this Neoplatonic absolutism
provoked the origins of European science. But it also 'created' the highly problematic split of European thought into materialism and spiritualism. No concepts ever managed
to overcome this schism ('spiritual' and 'natural' sciences) basically caused by
the mediaeval church. In addition, the ecclesiastic myth of creation was projected
onto the natural sciences and the liberal arts. It supports the Euro-Western illusions
of creativity, innovation and discovery, keeps them vital with tremendous energies,
to an extent which, today, is running out of control.