Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Empire Falls - The Church Survives

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
The Roman Empire was the greatest and the longest lasting of all the empires the world has ever seen. Tradition says Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus; the eastern half of the empire, with its capitol at Constantinople lasted until 1453 when it fell to the Muslim Turks. Thus, measuring from 753 BC (a questionable date, to be sure) to the fall of Constantinople, we count a period of 2100 years. In its earlier years Rome developed into a republic; its empire form began with Caesar Augustus, around the same time as the New Testament church (see Luke 2:1). Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar, the great general, historian and statesman who was assassinated by his political rivals on March 15, 44 BC.

At its height, the empire surrounded the Mediterranean Sea and reached into northern Europe. It extended from the Sahara desert in the south to the Atlantic Ocean in the west; from the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north to the Euphrates in the east. But, as with all large empires, it was not always peace. In the east, the Medes and Parthians gave some trouble but were held in check. The big problem came from the north.

This is the time of the great movement of peoples all across Europe. Although there were various causes for this, the main reason was fear of the Huns who, under their ferocious leader Atilla, swept across the plains of Russia from Mongolia (bordering on China). The Huns were hideous in appearance; they burned, raped and looted, destroying everything before them. Never in the memory of mankind had such a thing taken place on so large a scale.

The German tribes, the Visigoths (west-Goths) and Ostrogoths (east-Goths) were pushed forward by the Huns. In 376 these tribes crossed the Danube river; the first invasion ever of the empire. Rome was weak, especially in the West. Earlier, the capital had been moved to the East by Constantine; this in itself weakened the western part. Rome itself was corrupt and morally bankrupt. The city was full of welfare cases; the armies were composed of mainly foreigners, many of them were Germans who now had to face other Germans; defences were stretched to the limit; there were heavy taxes and high inflation.

The Visigoths and Ostrogoths joined forces and defeated the Roman armies of Emperor Valens at Adrianople, near Constantinople, in 378. Valens died in battle. Theodosius succeeded Valens and defeated the Goths. There were no further problems with the barbarians in the East. However, they now attacked in the West. Although they had been ÒChristianized,Ó they were not much better than the Huns. Churches were desecrated, priests and bishops were murdered, nuns were raped. In 410, Rome itself was sacked by the Goths under Valaric. The rampage lasted six days. There was great plunder and bloodshed.

It was during this time that Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine lived and the Christological controversies were settled. Some, who were still pagan, blamed the Christians for all the disasters, thinking that if they had stayed with the old gods this would not have happened. Christians were perplexed: How could God allow Rome to fall on such hard times when it had just become Christian and everything looked so good? Against this background Augustine wrote his famous book, The City of God, in which he explained that there are two kingdoms (cities) in this world: that of God and that of man. Although a Christian, as a good citizen, is to work for the well-being of the city of man, he is also to know that only the City of God will last.

Rome was sacked by the tribe of the Vandals in 455. They came out of North Africa via Spain and have left their name in our language as the term to describe wanton and pointless destruction: vandalismÓ. Meanwhile, the Huns were finally defeated at Chalons, France. Atilla now turned to Rome. He was met by Pope Leo I (ÒLeo the Great,Ó the first real pope) and was bought off. Leo could not do so with the Vandals. Gradually, the ÒBarbariansÓ conquered all of western Europe and there was much tribal migration: Jutes, Angles and Saxons to Britain, Lombards into northern Italy, Burgundians into France. This period of tremendous upheaval laid the roots for modern Europe.

Rome finally fell in 476 when Odacer forced emperor Augustulus to surrender the crown to him. This marks the end of ÒAncient HistoryÓ and the beginning of the ÒMiddle Ages.Ó

The Significance of the Invasions
These various invasions over a period of a hundred years mark a great turning point in the history of Europe. The significance of these events may be broadly noted in three distinct but related categories:

1. Rome was destroyed by internal corruption. God works through the nations and uses them to punish evil. Rome is the last successful attempt at a world empire. Remember DanielÕs dream of the image with the legs of iron (Daniel 2). Note also Revelation 17:10--five kings are fallen, one is, one is to come. The one who is (at that time) is Rome; to come is Antichrist.

2. Although the empire collapsed in fire and smoke, the church survived. The various struggles within the Church must be seen against this background of upheaval and unrest. The church was the only institution of stability in all this turmoil.

3. GodÕs sovereign purpose is shown: through the barbarians, the church spread into all of Europe. The orthodox position regarding Christ and the Trinity was preserved in Europe while the Eastern churches, to a large degree, stagnated in error. The churches of North Africa and the Middle East are destroyed by Islam in the eighth century. From here on, Europe is where it happens.

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