the 1st century AD, Emperor Augustus established a Roman colony
at Berytus (modern Beirut). Here he stationed
two legions to keep an eye on a Greco-Semitic province which
had sided with his old enemies Antony and Cleopatra. But he
also commenced a lavish building program in the city.
years later, and having grown into a major port, Berytus was
renowned for its school of Roman Law. The
school had been founded in 200 AD by the Emperor Septimius
Severus, a monarch who appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured
to the formidable Julia Domna had forged an imperial link to
a prominent family of the nearby Syrian city of Emesa. Berytus
was the first school of Roman Law in the eastern Empire and
reached its apogee in the 3rd century with the professorship
of its two most famous jurists (both natives of Phoenicia):
Papinian (died 212) and Ulpian (died 228). Both served as imperial
The Law School
continued to furnish the eastern provinces of the empire with
jurists and magistrates for three hundred years. The
decline of the school – and of Law within the Roman
Empire – went hand-in-hand with the rise of the
Privileged Class of Priestly Parasites
might be saluted as the father of his people, be he owed
a filial duty and reverence to the fathers of the church;
and the same marks of respect which Constantine had paid
to the persons of saints and confessors were soon exacted
by the pride of the episcopal order ... a new and perpetual
order of ecclesiastical ministers, always respectable,
sometimes dangerous, was established in the church and
state" (Gibbon, ch.20)
had no need of leaders and Roman religion had no priestly class.
Its priests (haruspices) were elected or co-opted from
prominent citizens, laymen not 'experts', whose chief function
was to propitiate the relevant gods to ensure continued good
fortune. Belief did not really come into it; correctness of
ceremony was paramount.
introduced structure into religion. Indeed it offered a way
to wealth and career outside
of the only real alternative the army.
whole body of the catholic clergy, more numerous, perhaps,
than the legions ... The cathedrals of Constantinople and
Carthage maintained their peculiar establishment of five
hundred ecclesiastical ministers ... 60 presbyters or priests,
100 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 90 sub-deacons, 110 readers,
25 chanters, and 100 door-keepers ... The clerical name
and privilege were extended to many pious fraternities
... 600 parabolani , or adventurers, visited the sick at
Alexandria; 1100 copiatae, or gravediggers, buried the
dead at Constantinople; and the swarms of monks, who arose
from the Nile, overspread and darkened the face of the
Christian world." (Gibbon, ch. 20)
revolution of Constantine transformed the Church beyond recognition.
Bishops and priests, no longer elected or 'acclaimed' by the
brethren but members of a self-perpetuating 'order', enjoyed
exemption from taxation and all other public service. As state
officials they received generous stipends; and as a custodians
of 'the Church', bequests from those who died. Whilst they
might not 'own' church property, theirs was a privileged and
exclusive use of ever-grander riches and properties during
their own earthly presence.
But in 321
Constantine went further and began the process by which the
clergy were exempted from the jurisdiction
of civil law and the decisions of bishops
became binding on civil magistrates.
in a capital accusation, a synod of their brethren were
the sole judges of their guilt or innocence ... Constantine
was satisfied that secret impunity would be less pernicious
than public scandal, and the Nicene council was edified
by his public declaration, that, if he surprised a bishop
in the act of adultery, he should cast his Imperial mantle
over the episcopal sinner." (Gibbon, ch.20)
the ecclesiastical arm of government gained control of the
secular, though not without resistance (as, for example, in Egypt).
Answerable only to their own self-appointed 'Ecclesiastic
Courts' (and God, of course!), the priests had free
licence to brutalise, abuse and profiteer on a monumental scale.
Given the level of paedophilia and corruption within the Church
in our own enlightened age, the suffering of humanity through
the dark centuries which followed beggars belief.
Taliban regime in Afghanistan showed what happens when
the 'agents of God' gain control – education
withers and dies and the only valued technology is
the one that kills the most unbelievers.
6th century, the eastern half of the Roman world
degenerated into a theocratic tyranny in which centuries
of Hellenic scientific discovery was condemned as
demonic and consigned to the flames.
End to Justice
foolish Constantine was perhaps the first of a thousand monarchs
who "too easily believed that he should purchase the
favour of Heaven if he maintained the idle at the expense of
the industrious." (Gibbon)
438 Theodosius II began the process of Christianising
the Law Code. Now, in Law, the imperial palace – even
its stables! – became 'sacred.' The interweaving of the
'sacred person' of the monarch with the 'sacred Church of Christ'
became ever tighter. The code spoke of "the thousand
terrors that defend the boundless claim to honour of the Church." (Freeman,
later, Justinian, forever credited with his law
code (indeed, the very spelling of 'justice'), actually
did no more than authorise a compendium of the massive corpus
of laws framed by his pagan predecessors (he employed the pagan Tribonian,
in 529, to do the work). The 3rd century works of Papinian
and Ulpian alone comprise more than one third of the 6th century
compilation (Corpus Juris Civilis). His over-riding
goal was to eliminate from Roman law any aspects
which were incompatible with Christian
When the 'Digest' and
the 'Pandects' were ready in 535, three million 'verses'
had been reduced to 150,000. Notoriously,
the Justinian Codex contained two pernicious statutes
(Codex I., xi. 9 and 10) which decreed the total destruction of Hellenism,
even in the civil life. These particular laws were vigorously
enforced, with severe persecutions even of men in high positions.
For its contribution,
the 'pious, prosperous, renowned, victorious, and triumphant' Justinian
gave the city of Berytus an honoury title: 'Nutrix Legum' – 'Mother
gods must have heard:
glorious city of Berytus was destroyed by a triple catastrophe
of earthquake, tidal wave and fire in 551 AD.
theocratic state is a particularly pernicious and austere form
of dictatorship. Individual "sin" is held to pollute
the community and is used to enforce a harsh, collective discipline.
A blind obedience is required to secure God's blessing. Where
once humanity had gathered in the agora to hear and
debate through the skills of rhetoric and logic, now
cowed 'sheep' knelt in silence in the basilica of a church
to receive, without question, a sermon from on high. From the
pulpit, too, came imperial propaganda, and on occasions, 'heretical'
diatribes. In time, the call would be for holy murder crusades,
pogroms, witch hunts.
the fusion of Church with State, the imperial family (and
indeed the barbarian successor kings) did indeed gain the "endorsement
of Heaven." With a theocratic monarchy in the
east, a papal monarchy in Rome, and barbarous sister kingdoms
of christendom in the west, an ecclesiastic totalitarianism reigned
throughout Europe, its tyranny permeating every sphere of life.
with such almighty autocracy the ancient liberties of the common
people, if only ever slightly referenced by tribunes and assemblies,
dissolved before the 'divine right of kings' and 'Privilegia
bears the image of God, just as the bishop bears the image
– The frightening
words of the 4th century Ambrosiaster.
malicious God of the Old Testament frequently acted in an arbitrary,
vicious manner so might kings and emperors – with impunity.
Thus, the ever-pious Justinian saved his throne in the face
of the Nika riots in 532 by the massacre of 30-50,000 rioters.
The only restraint upon boundless tyranny was the collapse
of enforceable authority.
study of jurisprudence, the very Law itself, became an irrelevance.
of Human Rights, New Forms of Oppression
you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God
pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world.
Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the
devil's gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree,
you first betrayed the law of God, you softened up with
your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could
not prevail by force.
image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's
play to you. You deserved
death, and it was the son of God who had to
rancorous Tertullian gives a Christian view of women – Discipline, Moral & Ascetical Works (Trans. R. Arbessman)
culture ensures that we are all more familiar with the slavery
of ancient Rome than we are with the so-called "serfdom" of
the Christian centuries which followed.
the empire of Rome, until the decline of the 4th century, encouraged
and facilitated the manumission of slavery into
freedom on a vast scale, and with it the growth of a large
and important class of free or freed men. Nor did social mobility
end merely with a former slave gaining his freedom. Many slaves
are known to history because they became successful, wealthy
and even powerful men in their own right, some themselves becoming
slave-owners in turn.
slaves became freedmen holding important positions in the state
bureaucracy. The children of slaves could, and did, become
powerful "Romans" up to and including Emperor
of all the Romans.
of the greatest of the Roman emperors, who ruled for thirty
years and then retired had parents who were born slaves.
In the Christian
monarchy that began with Constantine slavery
was extended and made harsher. Instead of manumission the new hereditary
employments of labourers and peasants created a 'serfdom'
worse than slavery.
in particular, were singled out for subjugation and punishment. With
the example of the blessed, ever-pure Virgin
Mary set before them at every turn all
non-virgins were pronounced whores and Jezebels. In time the
sentence on women, so misogynously voiced by Tertullian, would
lead to enforced celibacy, joyless marriage and witch burning.
Charles Freeman, The Closing of The Western Mind (Heinemann, 2002)
Jenifer Cochrane, The Illustrated History of Medicine (Tiger Books,
Henry Pirenne, Medieval Cities (Princeton UP, 1952)
Tony McAleavy, Life in a Medieval Abbey (English Heritage, 1996)
John Julian Norwich, Byzantium (Penguin, 1991)
Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Thames & Hudson, 1986)
Friedrich Heer, The Fires of Faith (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1970)
Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1985)
Joan Evans (Ed.), The Flowering of the Middle Ages (Thames & Hudson, 1998)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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