Professor Freedman introduces the major themes of the course: the crisis of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, the threats from barbarian invasions, and the continuity of the Byzantine Empire.
At the beginning of the period covered in this course, the Roman Empire was centered politically, logistically, and culturally on the Mediterranean Sea. Remarkable for its size and longevity, the Empire was further marked by its tolerance.
Although it contained an eclectic mix of peoples, the Empire was unified in part by a local elite with a shared language and customs. Having set the scene, Professor Freedman looks to subsequent lectures where he will discuss reforms enacted to address these weaknesses. But behind this innocuous title, you will see, I hope, if you stay for this course, a strange course. Strange, not because it covers the particular period to , but because it starts out very recognizable, and gets stranger and stranger, and seems to dissolve into a kind of a hard to grasp world.
Hard to grasp, but fun. I will talk about both the strangeness and the fun aspects in more detail. There are several great themes in this span of centuries: the fall of the Roman Empire; its survival in the East, as the Byzantine Empire; the so-called barbarian invasions and kingdoms, set up on the ruins of the Roman Empire; the triumph of Christianity, which went from being an outlawed minority religion to the established faith of the Roman Empire; and then survived the extinction of the Roman Empire.
Let me know if those two section times—well, probably, the sections to be added would be on Thursday: Thursday afternoon and Thursday evening.
Let me know if you have some special problem in terms of the scheduling of the sections. But, I should say, I do want to give a full class discussion today, or presentation today.
We only have so many opportunities to discuss things. And I think that will also help you decide about taking this course.
Now, this course is part of the Yale Open Courses Program. And, as you probably know, there are lots of—well, a select number, but a substantial number of courses that are offered free to the public via the Internet.
And this is one of them for the fall. And I take this opportunity to greet our Internet students and Internet friends. Your questions are unlikely to be heard. I will repeat the questions, so that people watching this on the Internet will have an idea.
I have a slightly more formal lecture style than some people, perhaps. Some of you have taken courses from me and know I have certain themes, or preoccupations, or diversions. And, having said that, now you should just think it away. The broadcast team is not very conspicuous. And the objective is for us to interact in the classroom as we normally would.
The syllabus, you all have copies of the syllabus, I believe.
HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
The books are at Yale Bookstore, and they are all there. I hope there will be enough copies; if not, we will get more.
The first assignment is, conveniently in this sense, from the course pack. Questions so far? A mid-term that will be held in class October 17th. And a long paper, which is due December 5th. That long paper is a research paper. Now, this course does not have onerous requirements. But I expect you to do the requirements that we have.
And if we think that this is a problem, judging on the basis of how the sections go, we reserve the possibility of giving you quizzes in the section in the section [correction: second] half of the course.
The Roman Empire: introducing some key terms
Plan in advance. We are at your disposal. If you want to plan your final paper tomorrow, hey, this afternoon, talk to me. The laptops, in our experience, interfere with the purpose of the section, which is partly to talk to each other. And rather than focusing on the screen, and then, in a sense, being a series of archipelago of little islands, rather than a section, in the sense of give and take and interchange.
So logistical questions? Questions about the organization in the course, or any other aspect of this? So, if anybody wants to leave now, this is one opportunity.
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But, since it looks like I have your attention riveted, let me introduce the course in terms of its actual content. We are beginning by looking at the crisis of the Roman Empire.
And then we will be looking at its peculiar legacy. The legacy is peculiar because, while the memory of the Roman Empire remains intact throughout the period, and beyond—I mean, to this day, the head of the Catholic Church is in Rome. Until , the transactions of the papacy were in Latin; the services of the Church were in Latin, the Catholic Church were in Latin.
And Latin remains the official language of the Catholic church in its administrative head. So the most faithful preserver of Rome and its legacy, historically, is the Catholic Church. And this is a paradox because the Church begins its career, and, indeed, its first years, as illegal in the Roman empire.
And, indeed, there are periodic persecutions where people were punished, including killed, because they were Christian.
The most faithful preserver of Rome, however, after the fifth century collapse of the Empire in the West, is the so-called Byzantine Empire—the Byzantine Empire with its headquarters in Constantinople. Despite the fact that it would abandon Latin for Greek in the sixth century and turn into a very different kind of political and cultural entity, the Byzantine Empire went down in flames to the Turks in still as the Roman Empire.
That was its official name to the end. Another heir to the Roman Empire, in a sense, is Islam, which begins in the seventh century, in the middle of our period. But our task is to understand its origin and its astonishing expansion in terms of this era, to To understand it in terms of its times, and thus how it arises and interacts with the Roman and Byzantine as well as, offstage, the Persian, Empires that it either destroys or weakens in the seventh and eighth centuries.
Mohammed was from outside the former empire, from Arabia, and may be said to represent a very different kind of set of ideas.
Of course, in the latter, it still is the overwhelming majority religion. That is part of its appeal, I think, is as I said, its strangeness. But the lessons from the material covered in this course are perhaps these— worth thinking about. How, perhaps the most successful, multi-cultural empire of Western history, how it did that, how it endured for so long.
The success of the Roman Empire and why it finally failed. And in that failure, how does a rich, literate, well-developed society come to be destroyed by a more primitive one? Primitive, at least, in the sense of material culture, economic complexity, urbanization, and literacy.
Having said this, I think I did mention, I was going to tell you what was fun about this course. We begin with a familiar world, in the sense that the Roman Empire, although obviously not technologically the same as the one we live in, is a very advanced society and a very complex one. Well, go to Europe and look around, and see the engineering feats of the Romans. See the public life that the baths, stadia, temples, law courts, marketplaces, whose ruins still, in many instances, dwarf the towns that survived around them.
See what an accomplishment that is. It is a huge empire, a bureaucratic empire, one with lots of literate people, a huge army, a huge civil service, a lot of commerce back and forth, all things that are familiar to us. But as it weakens and collapses, you get a kind of, if not post-apocalyptic, at least transformative experience.
It gets stranger and stranger, more and more disorganized, harder to understand at first grasp. Basically we begin in the Shire, and we end up in more dangerous territories. You start out in a familiar world, and it just becomes something alien, but, I think, appealing.
Appealing, but I do have one warning for you. Or one thing that I have seen students surprised at, and sometimes even annoyed at. But the one that tends to bother people actually is Christianity.
So sometimes people will say, I thought I was taking a History course, and this turned into a Religious Studies course before my eyes. This is unfamiliar, but, again, I think unfamiliarity is good for us. And unfamiliarity has a funny way of turning into familiar. Obviously the last years have shown us, in many ways, the power of religious ideas. The power of religious ideas, not solely personally, but collectively; not solely as sentiments, but as political movements.
So we begin with the crisis of the Empire, the first crisis of the Empire in the third century AD. We have a somewhat more egalitarian outlook than Gibbon.
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Gibbon never says, oh, well, what about the slaves? Or what about the peasant, or hey, the position of the women in society? But more than that, I think we have some more doubt and hesitation as to whether any state, particularly any powerful state, necessarily represents a standard of virtue or happiness. For the poor, the smooth functioning of the Roman government was less important than it was for the propertied classes. Because the Roman state, like most states, in so far as it practiced the rule of law, was set up to guarantee property, not rights.
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To different degrees, and at varying times, it did rely on slave labor. This is easy to exaggerate. Its laws were designed to protect the property of the wealthy, rather than to mete out equal justice. Rome was an imperial power, and, as I will say in a moment, it was an extraordinarily tolerant one.
But it was tolerant as long as you conformed to their image of civilization. Like many great imperial powers, it assumed that there were certain areas of life that were optional.