During its golden age, the sprawling metropolis of Rome was decorated with dozens of beautiful arches veneered with the finest marble and ordained with ivory statues of the gods. Citizens of Rome were entertained by literally thousands of fountains and bathes supplied with scores of aqueducts (Hadas 37). The city became a cosmopolitan metropolis that reached a peak population of between six hundred- thousand and one million people. All of these people were supplied with grain and merchandise from throughout their known world (Starr 134-135). Through this wondrous city the Empire was controlled with a strong, yet dynamic central government. Thus, this great city earned the praise of Edward Gibbon as "the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind" (1).
Farther north of this prosperous country lies the Roman Empire's antithesis, the Germanic tribes. These tribes began moving into the Empire's border regions by 200 A.D. and a few of them were Romanized and learned to farm and trade, however most of them remained a violent, ignorant people (Lyon 436). These barbarians had no central leader and their loyalties changed at a whim. Each group of tribesman had their own set of laws and customs that lead to the destruction of the Roman's universal code(Randers-Pehrson 73). During the Middle Ages, this sort of barbarism gained control of Europe and was tamed only by the influence of the Church. How did the fall of the Roman Empire so drastically change European life from one of progress and security to anarchy and regression?
In the ancient days of Rome, thought was encouraged and, under normal circumstances, ideas could be discussed without fear of persecution. However, this all changed as Europe was overrun by barbarians with weak minds and strong superstitions. Without centers of population and government support, the Roman's system of schools and universities quickly decayed (Williams 34). Originally, knowledge was shared through private schooling that, in its primary stages, both girls and boys were involved in. Roman primary schools taught reading, writing, arithmetic, useful maxims, and the Roman law codified on the Twelve Tablets (Hyde 160). Upperclass boys proceeded on to a secondary education focusing on Greek, grammar, composition, and expressive speech. At the age of sixteen, students could enter rhetoric schools and be taught a curriculum of oratory, geometry, astronomy, and philosophy. These final years of schooling were equivalent to present day universities and often employed erudite Greek slaves. Over the years after the collapse of the Empire, warfare replaced learning as the pastime of the rich for "the only honorable life was that of a professional warrior" (Lyon 440). Because of this change in culture, ignorance was almost universal, except in the monasteries where it was diluted by extreme censorship and oppresion.
After Rome's demise, the Church became the only source of instruction for the exceptionally bright people of the age. Therefore, it played a major role in almost all learning in the Early Middle Ages (500-900 A.D.). Paradoxically, the Church, mixed with pagan superstition, was also a cause of Europe's rampant ignorance. The people of Europe were so uneducated that they believed Pope Sylvester II to be a wizard only because of his knowledge of astronomy (Haines 279). While this presented little problem to him, other scholars were always under suspicion and charges of "collusion with the Devil were certain to follow any marked intellectual superiority" (Haines 292). A situation that was disparate from the days when educators were so revered that the leaders of the Empire honored all teachers with citizenships and declared their exemption from taxation and public duties ("Chronicle of the Roman Emperors" web page). Through its immense power, the Church also prohibited any questioning of its basic principles and doctrines, including the Bible. Those who committed this crime were labeled heretics and were guilty of the unpardonable offense of heresy. By the mid-1200s, the pope had ordered the Dominicans to begin all out persecution of so- called heretics through a man-hunt known as the Inquisition (Josephy 57). Those who had been so much as accused of heresy could be abducted to a secret trial and tortured until they confessed. After their confession the heretics were forced to perform penance, however, if they refused to confess they were most often burned at the stake. An atmosphere of paranoia was created and it compelled the few intellectuals of the period to believe in a ". . . universally accepted view concerning the general structure of the universe and the place of man in the world" (Wildiers 36). A society in which all people think alike can make no progress, for when ideas are not challenged, they cannot be improved.
The nescience of the people was also reflected in the literature, or lack there of, immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, the non-clergy population had become so illiterate that "As we understand the term now, there was no literature in the Early Middle Ages" (Haines 277-8). The only written output of this time period was the extremely dry, Latin theological doctrine written by the clergy. This was the final result of the downfall of Greco-Roman education and the Roman-Catholic censorship.
As Rome weakened, the barbarians that poured over its borders brought their own inconsistent justice system to replace the Roman courts. In Ancient Rome, they believed that the defendant was innocent until proven guilty before a judge or panel of judges. Accused criminals among the Germanic tribes were usually put before a judge and forced to prove their innocence. If the judge could not decide, which frequently occurred, three different forms of trial could be initiated: trial by ordeal, compurgation, and trial by combat. Trial by ordeal was the strangest and most painful. The defendant would grab a stone at the bottom of a pot of boiling water, pick up a red-hot iron rod, or in some other way burn themselves. If the burns showed signs of healing within three days, he was judged innocent, otherwise he was hanged. Compurgation was far less painful, though equally unjust, and resembled conducting a modern trial based solely on character witnesses. The defendant and his accuser would gather their families and friends and have them swear they were the ones telling the truth. Though those swearing had no knowledge of the crime, whoever's group swore the most convincing would be considered correct. A king in Burgundy revived the third form, trial by combat, in 501. Essentially, the accused and the man charging him would fight a duel and victory or defeat in this duel signified judgement by God (Randers-Pehrson 210). All three of these crude, often truculent forms of trial had little to do with whether or not the person was innocent and did nothing to improve the lawlessness of the Germanic society.
Rome's downfall profoundly impacted European government forever. However, the deepest effect was felt in Europe immediately after the Empire's disintegration. The ignorance of the people, difficulty of communication, and general lawlessness created by Rome's collapse led to the installation of feudalism. During the days of the Empire, the emperor and other major government officials ruled from Rome in much the same way that the U.S. federal government rules from Washington. The Roman world was united under this omnipotent emperor and a Senate that had little direct power but maintained some political influence (Hadas 132). One secret to the success of the Roman's government was its citizens' "readiness to follow orders, to submit to discipline and to work with his fellows for the good of all" (Hyde 148). The loyalty and unity of the people held the Empire together for hundreds of years. Around three- hundred years after this powerful central government ceased to exist, Charlemagne and his nobles put feudalism into practice (Fourquin 57). Charlemagne found it impossible to rule his large territory through officials directly responsible to him largely because of his people's unwillingness to be governed. Therefore, he divided up much of his land amongst his nobles who, in theory, served only him. While this method worked well for Charlemagne, by the end of the ninth century, Germanic impatience with control and love of independence resurfaced and the kingdoms began to fall apart. Because there was no longer any form of universal government, many new petty lords depended almost entirely on force to accomplish their goals. Because of this, almost every province was disputed by two or more lords who cared little about the general welfare of their lands (Haines 120). Now in a constant state of war, little time was spent developing technologies that were not related to the destruction of human life. Feudalistic society also slowed the growth of cities, the apex of civilization. Each time a city was attacked, its citizens would disperse into the countryside (Randers-Pehrson 327). Originally, the citizens would come back after the war was over, however all centers of population were attacked with such frequency that a large portion of their inhabitants would not return. The initiation of feudalism choked all of Europe with disloyalty, selfish lords, and almost constant warfare.
Rome was the center of culture, power, and order in the entire western world. When Europe lost its most important megalopolitan center, a destructive surge of illiteracy and ignorance swept over Europe and caused regression in almost every category.