There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes
The Roman empire was always beset by conflict. It reached its greatest height and largest territorial extent under the reign of the early emperors during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, when Roman law was cast into its final form. As we saw in the last lecture this was also the time of the great Greek physicians. As the end of the 3rd century approached it became clear that Rome had over-stretched itself. It could no longer control the administrators in the provinces, where a new bureaucracy began to exploit the colonies for its own benefit. To maintain its military strength the Roman army had to recruit more and more men from its colonies, known as barbarians, and use them against barbarian revolts in other parts of the empire. In 212 Rome had to concede Roman citizenship to all free people of the provinces.
To consolidate the situation, in 285 AD emperor Diocletianus established what was essentially a military dictatorship. Keeping up the notion of one united Rome, he nevertheless had to give in to provincial aspirations by introducing an administrative reform. The empire was structured into 12 dioceses of 101 provinces, and a system of co-regentship was introduced. From 293 AD onward the empire had sometimes four, sometimes three "Caesares" who reigned from different residences. By 324 the contest had been decided in favour of emperor Constantine, who declared Byzantium (today's Istanbul) his new capital and renamed it Constantinople.
During the 4th and 5th centuries territorial conflict to the north led to southward movement of Germanic tribes, which brought Rome under increasing pressure from barbarian attacks. Constantinople, the new capital on the border between Europe and Asia was relatively safe from such attacks, but Italy, the ancient core of the empire, could no longer be defended. The declaration of the barbarian noble Odoacer as the new king in Rome marked the end of the western empire and the end of slavery in Europe. Its cultural and scientific heritage was kept alive in the eastern Roman empire, also known as the Byzantine empire, which could sustain itself without slave labour and continued for another 1000 years.
An internal force of unrest during the period of the empire's decline was the arrival of Christianity. It began as a religion of the poor and oppressed (including the slaves) and was initially violently suppressed. But the general process of disintegration of the empire required arrangements with its enemies. After a period of vacillation, which saw a change of policy from persecution in the years 111 - 113 and again during 250 to toleration in 260 and back to persecution in 303, the Roman state eventually came to an arrangement with the Christian church, and official edicts ended persecution in 311 and finally in 313 (Edict of Milan). Emperor Constantine was the first ruler of the empire to adopt Christianity as his religious belief. (The dates and developments are mainly taken from Anderle et al., 1966.)
The end of the western Roman empire was the beginning of a dark period for science in Europe. It lasted for an entire millennium. There has been and continues to be much argument what caused the decline of science in Europe. Beaujeu (1963) acknowledges the negative impact of the church but concludes that "science, like the Western Empire, succumbed to the Barbarians and not to Christianity." Bernal (1965) claims that "it would be absurd to blame Christianity for its decline and fall. It was a symptom rather than a cause." A closer look at the historical development suggests that such assertions are more an expression of cultural bias than the result of detailed analysis.
The first barbarian king of the Western Empire, Odoacer, came to power through a military coup. This was barely a new method for an emperor to come to power; Julius Caesar had used it, Odoacer's predecessor Orestes had used it, and others after him would do the same. What was different this time was that Odoacer was not a Roman but belonged to a Germanic tribe. He was a Christian of the Arian faith but did not interfere much in the affairs of the Roman Catholic church. The Senate of Rome approved his installation as emperor, and Odoacer for his part allowed the Roman administration to continue as usual.
Odoacer's reign came to an end with the arrival of the Ostrogoths in Italy. The Ostrogoths had escaped severe oppression in their Ukrainian homeland, where the Huns had robbed them of their grain and stolen their land. For several decades they had roamed through the Balkan provinces fighting endless wars in an attempt to find a place to settle. In 488 their leader Theodoric, soon to be known as Theodoric the Great, reached an agreement with the Eastern Emperor Zeno that he could become the Eastern Empire's representative in the west if he could settle his people in Italy.
The war between Odoacer's Sciri tribe and the Ostrogoths lasted four years and caused much suffering to the Roman population as well. By 493 Odoacer, his wife and son and many of his people had been killed, and Theodoric installed himself as the new king of Italy. In a relatively peaceful arrangement with the Romans he settled his people in northern and central Italy and took up residence in Ravenna, which had been capital of the Western Empire since 402.
Theoderic's 33 year reign brought peace and stability to Italy. Goths and Romans lived side by side as separate people; the Goths controlled the army but were not allowed to serve in the Roman civil service and could not become members of the Senate. Ravenna developed into one of the most cultured cities of Italy. The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, built in the style of Roman architecture and decorated with the finest mosaics in the Byzantine style, was erected under Theodoric as an Arian Christian church and remains one of the great achievements of European civilization. (Ravenna flourished as capital under barbarian and later Byzantine rule for another 200 years, and its cultural monuments from these years are an important part of Europe's cultural heritage.)
Theodoric's attitude towards science, and the attitude of barbarians generally, did not differ much from the attitude that prevailed during Roman times. It was basically one of indifference. It has to be remembered that Rome never grew into a centre for science; what science there was during the Roman Empire happened in the provinces. Most of these provinces, particularly Northern Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, were now under the Eastern Empire.
There was, however, one outstanding scholar in the Western Empire during Theodoric's reign, and his life and death can serve to illustrate the prevailing attitude to science. Boëthius, a member of the Roman Senate, had set himself the task of translating all of Aristotle's works and all the works of Plato into Latin. He wrote text books for high school use on arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy based on handbooks of the Greek mathematician Nicomachus of Gerasa. He became a close friend of Theodoric, who asked him to oversee the issue of the new coinage. He was appointed magister officiorum (Head of Government and Court Services). When Gunibald, king of the Burgundians, visited the empire, Theodoric took him to Rome to meet Boëthius, who showed them various mechanical instruments including a sun-dial and a water-clock. This so impressed Gunibald that Theodoric had Boëthius prepare similar instruments as presents for the barbarian monarch. This suggests very strongly indeed that the barbarians did not have a hostile attitude towards science.
Boëthius was executed, probably on Theodoric's orders, but not because of his scientific activities. He was accused of being involved in secret contacts with the Eastern Emperor Justinian with the aim to restore eastern control over Italy. His death - which Theodoric soon regretted; it is said that his own death within two years after the execution was mainly due to his grief over his wrong decision - was the result of political struggle.
We shall return to Boëthius, a Catholic Christian, after our discussion of the rise of Christianity. At this point it is worth summarizing that the barbarian attitude to science was not much different from the Roman attitude, which was mostly one of disinterested toleration.
Christianity, one of the major world religions, began in the Roman province of Judaea. Like many other nations exploited and oppressed by Roman rule, the people of Judaea were longing for liberation and hoping that a hero might arise to lead them to freedom. Herod, the king of the Jews, promoted an economical modernization programme based on the adoption of Hellenism, but the Greek gods and goddesses were more bon-vivants than liberation heroes. Breaking free from Roman colonial rule required the arrival of a hero with mystical powers who could win against all odds.
The God of the Jews, who looks after his "chosen people" and has unlimited power, was a much more promising candidate. For centuries he had been a stern master who punished his people severely when they went astray, but he had led the Jews through the troubles of centuries. Christianity inherited the ascetic character of Judaism but made the promise of redemption accessible for all through the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. It became the religion of the oppressed of the empire and spread among the colonized people and the slaves.
For the first few centuries Christianity lived the existence of an underground cult. Eventually the number of Christians grew to such an extent that social unrest could only be controlled by elevating Christianity to the status of acceptable religious practice. Within a few decades after the Edict of Milan of 314 ended all persecution Christianity became the state religion of the empire and lost its revolutionary power. From now on political confrontation took on the form of religious controversy and persecution of "heresy." Different Christian teachings had developed before, but they had been internal church affairs. Now the emperors became involved, which changed them into affairs of the state.
One of the more important controversies was the Arian heresy, which defined the conflict between the Western and Eastern empires. Arian Christians declared that God alone is self-existent, immutable and indivisible, so Christ cannot be God and therefore is a created being that had a beginning; Catholic dogma states that Christ existed with God before he came to Earth. Another controversy developed between Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, and Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, as part of the political struggle between these two great centres of civilization. The theological argument was about the human and the divine in the person of Christ. Cyril's position was that the two aspects were united in one person, while Nestorius maintained that Christ was two persons in a single body. These conflicts had no roots among the ordinary people but were used by those in power to control the population and foment unrest.
We pointed out in earlier lectures already that science was an activity of the ruling class. Christianity had begun as a religion of the exploited and oppressed and as a consequence had no scientific tradition of its own. Its preachers spoke of miracles and mystical powers and promoted a way of thinking that was diametrically opposed to rational scientific thought. Intellectuals of the time thus led a difficult existence. They were supposed to rely on the Scriptures, which could not compete with the writings of the Greek philosopher-scientists as a source of accumulated knowledge, so they had to recast Greek thought into something acceptable to Christian doctrine.
Boëthius, who was seriously interested in the teaching of science, came probably closest to a scientific approach to Christianity. He used his intimate knowledge of Greek philosophy to try and solve some of the mysteries of the controversy between the Arian and Catholic Church by developing precise definitions of "substance," "nature" and "person." It was an honourable attempt, but it probably only added to his troubles.
The case of Boëthius demonstrates the effect of Christianity on the intellectual life of the time: Even scientific minds began to concentrate on the philosophical aspects of Greek civilization and returned to the early concepts of the science-philosophers. But the revolutionary change brought about by the Ionian and Athenian philosophers (discussed in Lecture 8) did not arise from their concepts of nature, it arose from their attitude to nature. Their concepts of the one substance that makes the universe - whether it was water, "aer" or "the infinite" - could not be sustained. Christian scholars found their concepts in the writings of Aristotle and Plato and recorded them for posteriority, but the revolutionary Greek attitude to nature was lost in the process.
Saint Augustine, who according to Bernal (1965) was "turning from wicked learning to holy nonsense," was an intellectual who would probably have achieved much more under different circumstances. He was born in northern Africa as the son of a Christian mother and a non-Christian father and showed so much promise that his parents sent him to studies in Carthage, where he was introduced to the writings of Cicero. He established himself as a teacher of rhetoric and began a search for a scientific answer to the meaning of life.
Augustine turned to Manichaeism, a brand of Christianity based on a materialistic dualism between light and darkness. Christ, according to Manichaeism, was the saviour who freed the imprisoned particles of light and let them return to their own region. After a few years Augustine became disillusioned with the shallowness of these ideas. He left for Rome in the hope to meet better minds. He wrote De genesi contra Manichaeos ("On genesis, against the Manicheists"), in which he tried to accommodate God's role as the creator of the universe with scientific ideas of the time:
Augustine was appointed professor of rhetoric to Milan, then the capital of the Western Empire. The bishop of Milan, Ambrose, was an excellent speaker and an intellectual of some standing. He impressed Augustine to such an extent that Augustine converted to Catholicism. From now on Augustine's search for answers followed the path laid out by the church. Ambrose's sermons introduced him to the Greek philosophers, and he, like others, used them to develop the dogma of Christianity and forgot all science in the process.
By the end of the 4th century Christianity had adapted Greek philosophy to its own needs, but it had no place for Greek science and could not tolerate the few remaining "pagan" teaching institutions. In 391 a Christian mob attacked the Sarapeum of Alexandria, in which some 400 years earlier empress Cleopatra had installed the remains of the city's once famous library, and burnt it to the ground.
The end of Alexandria's Museum came in 415. Alexandria's bishop Cyril had accused its director Hypatia of magic with which according to him she had beguiled the city's Roman governor Orestes. A mob of monks, incited by Cyril, killed and dismembered her. Orestes gave up the city, and Alexandria fell to the rule of the church.
In Athens the Academy, the first European university founded by Plato himself, was declared a pagan institution and closed on the orders of the Eastern Emperor Justinian in 592. Many of its philosopher-scientists emigrated to Gondeshapur, giving the Persian empire of the Sassanids an important role in the preservation of classical Greek thought for later centuries.
Was the murder of Hypatia "not policy, but monastic zeal getting out of hand?" (Beaujeau, 1963) The answer can be found in the reports of contemporaries and in the actions of the Catholic church. A report by Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian convert, only years after the event states that the "affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church." Today Bishop Cyril is a saint (his feast day is the 18th of March), and in the 18th century, when the period of Enlightenment brought renewed interest in Hypatia, and Voltaire and others expressed their admiration for Hypatia as a scientist and philosopher, the church still defended Cyril's action in a special publication.
On balance of evidence any assertion that the death of Hypatia and the ensuing end of Alexandria's Museum were not church policy can only be seen as cultural bias. It was a particularly nasty outburst of violence, but it was in line with general church policy to suppress Greek science. The barbarians may have displayed indifference towards science; the Christian church displayed open hostility. In an ironic twist of logic it declared its own teachings as reality and equated scientific work with magic; in the words of the Bishop of Nikiu, the use of an astrolabe by Hypatia was proof of her devotion to Satan.
How did science survive this attack on its values? As strange as it may seem, Christianity unwillingly helped it through its darkest period. Many of the Greek writings found their ways into the libraries of monasteries, which developed into important economical establishments and particularly in the east into serious competitors of the ruling aristocracy for land. We therefore conclude this lecture with a few sentences on the social development of the Eastern Empire.
In the Eastern Empire the slave economy came to an end during the 7th - 9th centuries through an influx of Slavs, who introduced a parallel economy based on free peasants. Threatened in their existence, the old aristocracy tried to bring the peasants under their control. They found a powerful adversary in the church, which also wanted to subjugate the peasants and appropriate their land.
As usual the conflict between the aristocracy and the church took the form of a religious dispute. Led by the military nobles, the aristocracy campaigned against the use of icons (representations of sacred personalities or events). The church used the veneration of icons to bind the peasants to its monasteries. The Eastern Emperor Leo III took the side of the nobles; in 726 he came out against the cult of the icons, and in 730 he issued an edict that banned their use. The severe persecution of icon worshippers that followed led to the confiscation of church property and monastery lands.
The ban lasted until 843. Although the church had regained an important tool for controlling the peasants, it did not receive much compensation for its other losses. Most confiscated lands and property remained in the hands of the aristocracy. The rivalry between the two parties continued, but both shared one aim: the establishment of feudalism and the end of the free peasantry.
Throughout these dark times the books in the monasteries were valued for the chapters that contained their philosophical ideas. The monks who copied them from the first to the last page did not necessarily understand their content, but through their painstaking work they saved not only the texts on philosophy but also mathematical, geographical, astronomical and historical texts from extinction, and the works were re-discovered during more enlightened times.
Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.
Beaujeu, J. (1957) Hellenistic and Roman science: medicine. In Taton, R. (ed.) La Science Antique et Médiévale, Presses Universitaires de France; English translation by A. J. Pomerans (1963) "Ancient and Medieval Science", Thames and Hudson, London.551 pp., p. 366 - 367. (Volume 1 of "A General History of the Sciences")
Bernal, J. D. (1965) Science in History, 3rd ed., C. A. Watts & Co. Ltd., London. 1039 pp, p. 167.
Singer, C. (1959) A Short History of Scientific Ideas, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 525 pp., p.502.