Not Dead Yet

Exterior of Santa Sabina, Rome, built 420s.

Exterior of Santa Sabina, Rome, built 420s.

School children learn, or used to learn, that the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. After that, Europe broke into competing kingdoms and tribes, and any Roman glory that remained was reserved for Constantinople in the East, with a little left for the Pope, who was just getting started on his controversial career.

What is less known among schoolchildren and adults was that those living in the city of Rome in the 400s didn't expect their civilization to end. Certainly, there had been setbacks. They were undoubtedly offended when Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople. No doubt some Romans pronounced it "the beginning of the end," even as they spread smooth cheese on smooth bread and made plans to see the next mock battle at the Colosseum. Then there was that unfortunate invasion in 410, when those fool barbarians made it into the city itself. Yes, it had been "sacked," which was a blow, but the barbarians had moved on. They hadn't even done that much damage. 

In the 440s, these events were in the past. Nor was the city without its great leaders. A city of so many great ideas had another one in the system: a new office had been developing for some time. This office was not one of civil service, but of religious service. It was a bishopric, and the men who had been Roman bishops had done a great job working with the city administration to keep the streets clear and businesses going. If the office of the bishop continued as it did, Rome could continue as it had always done, emperor or no emperor. It was a pity to many that she had turned from its old gods, but there it was. If a pagan Rome was great, maybe a Christian Rome would be greater still.

Some practical Romans thought like this, and despite what ultimately happened, they were not entirely wrong. In America, we live with one foot in the present, the other in doomsday. Surely this president or this law will bring everything good in our country to an end. The freedoms we enjoy are perched on a precipice, and it's a slippery slope to oblivion. But the Romans didn't think this way. Just thirty years before "the Fall of the West" in 476, Pope Sixtus III built a glorious church as a testament to God's greatness and possibly Rome's. Go visit Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and ask yourself if Sixtus spent his days thinking about slippery slopes.