Competitive Christians on poles


The Roman emperor Constantine (above) caused a counterintuitive problem for early Christians.

By converting to Christianity and making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in about 313 AD, Constantine made it impossible for early Christians to be either confessors or martyrs.

  1. To be a confessor meant to acknowledge openly to the Roman bureaucracy that you were a Christian. This carried the risk of martyrdom.
  2. To be a martyr then meant actually going through with the process and dying for your faith.

Why was this a problem?

Because these were the two main ways in which early Christians competed for religious kudos — and those Christians were (are?) a competitive bunch. Both confessing and martyrdom constituted a sort of second baptism and suggested spiritual excellence.

Being martyred, in particular, was surprisingly difficult, since the Romans (with rare exceptions, as under Diocletian) did not actually want to kill anybody because of religion. Historians have recovered trial transcripts that show how eager the Roman administrators were to accommodate Christians. The administrator might ask the confessor whether he might, please, consider a small sacrifice — not to any pagan gods but merely to the Emperor. No? OK, how about a pinch of incense just to acknowledge the Emperor? No? OK, how about….

But when the Roman Empire officially became Christian, this form of Christian achievement came to a complete and screeching halt.

Christians had to find some other way to excel….

(What follows is based on Lecture 5 of Philip Daileader’s excellent course on the Early Middle Ages.)

The first monk

In perhaps the strangest psychological twist in human history, the most competitive Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries AD responded by, in effect, martyring themselves (ie, attacking their own bodies).

Perhaps the most famous to do so was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. Early in his career, when it was still possible, he tried and failed to get himself martyred in Alexandria. When that didn’t work, he went far into the desert to live as a hermit.

He was, in Greek, a Monakhos, a lonely one (as in mono, one; and of course monk).

He ate nothing, slept little, did everything to punish the human senses. (No sex ever, it goes without saying.) When that made him delirious, he imagined that demons and Satan himself attacked him, but he despatched them heroically. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of that cheerful anecdote:

Word of Anthony’s self-torture got out, and other Christians traveled to the desert to see him. Anthony, of course, wanted to be a Monakhos, so he moved further into the desert to lose his groupies. Eventually, he gave up and accepted that his followers were going to live together in the desert near him, in a sort of … monastery (not that lonely anymore, obviously).

Anthony’s fame soon spread west and throughout the Roman Empire. The reason was that a man named Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a publisher with a sense of Zeitgeist, wrote a book called Life of Saint Anthony, describing what Anthony got up to in the desert.

From the book’s title, you notice that Anthony is now a “saint”. And thus a new genre is born: the hagiography. (Greek hagio = saint, as in Hagia Sophia; graphe = writing.)

To put this in contemporary perspective, Life of Saint Anthony was the Eat, Pray, Love of the late Roman Empire. Everybody suddenly wanted to try it out…

Grazers, fools and stylites

The result was a competitive free-for-all, as Christians tried to one-up each other in search of spiritual kudos.

  • The Grazers, for example, ate only grass and shoots and chained themselves up as barnyard animals.
  • The Holy Fools behaved as though they were insane, or tried to be insane. The most famous of them once paraded into the women’s bathhouse and disrobed, at which point the women, suspecting that he might be less foolish than he pretended, beat and ejected him.
  • The Stylites lived on top of pillars (Greek stylos) or poles.

The most famous Stylite, named Simeon (above) and also sainted before long, lived on top of his pole for some 40 years. (He reminds me of some tree sitters in Berkeley that I wrote about in The Economist once.) People sent food up to him via ladders and pulleys and presumably received and disposed of Simeon’s detritus by the same method.

Simeon became a tourist spectacle. Crowds watched from below as he performed painful exercises. He once touched his feet with his head 1,244 times in succession.


Let’s sit back for a moment, perhaps with a glass of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon and a cavalier mindset, and reflect.

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know that I have a recurring Diogenes fantasy. Diogenes was the guy in classical Greece who lived in a barrel like a dog (the first “cynic”).

But Diogenes did that to be free, not to compete with other barrel-dwellers. He was an eccentric.

You may also recall that I admire Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha. Many yogis and Buddhists also (then as now) practice asceticism.

But, like Diogenes, they also do so in search of freedom. (The Sanskrit word for this kind of freedom is moksha, which is achieved at the highest stage of yoga, which is called kaivalya or detachment.)

For them, asceticism is a way to reclaim our peace of mind from the oppressive push and pull of our desires (appetite, lust, jealousy, et cetera). It is a path toward clarity, serenity and humility.

Somehow, this kind of freedom seems not to have factored as a motivation for the pole-sitting Christians.

A seconds difference:

Christianity soon turned lifelong asceticism and total chastity into a virtue.

By contrast, asceticism in antiquity and in Eastern philosophy was a temporary effort, practiced at a certain stage of life.

Vestal Virgin

The Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome, for example, were expected to remain chaste while serving the goddess of the hearth (Roman Vesta or Greek Hestia). But only until they were 30! Then they were expected to do the natural and healthy thing, which was to get married and start a family.

Hindus and yogis first make a living, marry and have sex, start a family, and then, at the end of life, withdraw into asceticism to contemplate the absurdity of it all. (This is called sannyasa, and it is the last of the life stages, or asrama.)

So, asceticism has a place in many spiritual traditions.

But what were these early Christians up to? Were their stunts not huge ego trips?

Worse, did they not begin what Nietzsche would later consider the ultimate perversion of nature — by slandering every one of nature’s instincts to be evil? Were they not fundamentally … sick?

Bookmark and Share

How Muhammad created Europe

Historians are still arguing about why and how (and even when) the Roman Empire fell — and by extension why, how and when the “Middle Ages” and “Europe” (ie, northwestern Europe as we understand it) began.

One theory is that the answer is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, not in northwestern Europe but on the opposite side of the former Roman Empire. This story-line involves Muhammad, Islam and the Arab conquests in the century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The stages of those conquests you see in the map above.

In this post, I want to introduce that thesis to you and the one it tried to replace.

I do this not in order to endorse either thesis, but in order to celebrate the elegant and imaginative beauty of the thought processes of the two historians who produced them.

These two thinkers are

  • Edward Gibbon and
  • Henri Pirenne,

and I am hereby including them into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

(Which reminds me: Scientists and philosophers are currently over-represented on my list, so I am also retroactively including the historians Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. Thucydides is already on the list.)

And at the end of the post, I’ll ponder what this eternal debate about Rome tells us about intellectual theorizing in general.

My source, besides the books of Gibbon and Pirenne, is Philip Daileader’s excellent lecture series on the Early Middle Ages.

I) Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was a typical specimen of the Enlightenment. He hung out with Voltaire, considered religion (and especially Christianity) a load of superstitious poppycock, trusted in human reason and was enamored by the classics.

Being a man of independent means, he was able to devote all his time and energies to investigating what he considered the great mystery of antiquity. Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The result was an epic work of beautifully written English prose called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first of its six volumes came out in the year of America’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was so powerful that its thesis turned into what we would call a meme. Ask any semi-literate person today why the Roman Empire fell and he is likely to answer something like this:

Barbarians invaded → Rome fell

Gibbon’s thesis in more detail


In brief, Gibbon believed that the Roman Empire was

  1. in part a victim of its own success, having prospered so much that its citizens had become soft, and
  2. in part a victim of Christianization, which replaced the pagan warrior ethic with an unbecoming concern for the hereafter.

As Gibbon famously said, Rome’s

last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.

This corrosion of morals or values, according to Gibbon, left the Western Roman Empire (Diocletian had divided it into two halves, east and west, for administrative purposes) vulnerable to the blonde hordes from the north.

And thus, federations of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube and ransacked the Roman Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself and deposing the last (Western) Roman emperor in 476.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards took Italy, the Visigoths took Spain and the Franks took Gaul (→ Francia, France).

Within a few generations, one Frankish family, the Carolingians, seized power. Under Charlemagne (= Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great), the Carolingians then united much of western Europe, an area that happens to overlap almost perfectly with the founding members of the European Union.

In the nice round year of 800, Charlemagne, the king of Francia, became a new Emperor. He sparked a small cultural and economic recovery (the “Carolingian Renaissance”), but his descendants bickered about inheritance, and the Carolingian empire split into what would become France, the Low Countries and Germany.

And there we have it: “Europe”.

II) Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

Like Gibbon, Henri Pirenne was a man of his time. But that time was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians now felt that “moral” explanations of history were a bit woolly and preferred to think in terms of impersonal, and primarily economic, forces rather than great individuals or events.

And this led Pirenne, a Belgian (and thus a Carolingian heir), to a very different, and extremely original, thesis. The title of his monumental book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, essentially says it all.

The Pirenne thesis begins with a view that, first of all, nothing noteworthy “fell” in 476. Who cares if an emperor named, ironically and aptly, “little Augustus” (Romulus Augustulus) was deposed in that year? Roman civilization went on exactly as before. To most Europeans, nothing whatsoever changed.

That civilization was

  1. urban
  2. Mediterranean and
  3. Latin in the West

The Germanic tribes in fact came not to destroy but to join this civilization. They had entered the Roman Empire long before 476 to live there in peace, but were forced repeatedly to move and fight. When they eventually deposed the Romans, the Barbarians settled in the Roman cities and gradually adopted Latin (which was by this time, and partially as a result, branching into dialects that would become Catalan, Spanish, French etc).

Most importantly, the Mediterranean (medius = middle, terra = land) remained the center of this world, and trade across its waters enriched and fed all shores, north and south, east and west.

So what changed?

What changed was that Muhammad founded Islam, united the Arabs and then died. Suddenly, the Arabs poured out of the desert and conquered everything they encountered.

Look again at the map at the very top. In effect, the Arabs conquered the entire southern arc of the former Roman Empire until Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) stopped them near Poitiers in France.

The Arabs thus split the Mediterranean in two. Suddenly, the “Mediterranean” was no longer the center of the world, but a dividing line between two worlds.

Ingeniously, Pirenne then inferred the rest of his thesis from archaeological finds: In the years after the Arab conquests, papyrus (from Egypt) disappeared from northwestern Europe, forcing the northerners to write on animal hides. Locally minted coins disappeared, too. Gone, in fact, was everything that was traded as opposed to produced locally.

The Arabs, Pirenne concluded, had blockaded and cut off northern Europe from the rest of the world. Europe thus became a poor, benighted and involuntarily autarkic  backwater.

This, finally, amounts to the “fall” of Roman civilization in northwestern Europe. Roman cities, administration and customs disintegrated. Europe becomes a small and isolated corner of the world.

It is within this then-forgettable corner that the Carolingians rise and create “Europe”. As Pirenne famously said:

Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.

III) So who was right?

I promised to ponder what this debate might say about intellectual theorizing in general. Well, here goes:

1) Nobody needs to be wrong

As it happens, neither Gibbon nor Pirenne have ever fallen out of favor. Both are still considered to have got much of their interpretation right. The caveat is merely that their theses are considered … incomplete.

We encountered such a situation when talking about Newton and Einstein. Einstein in effect proved Newton “wrong”, and yet we have never discarded Newton, just as we won’t discard Einstein when somebody shows his thinking to have been incomplete.

2) Progress = making something less incomplete

Although both Gibbon’s and Pirenne’s theses were incomplete, they add up to an understanding that is less incomplete, so that others can make it even less incomplete.

This, in fact, is what has been happening. Subsequent historians have wondered why, if their theories were true in the West, the Eastern Roman (ie, Byzantine) Empire did not fall for another millennium.

Regarding Gibbon: The East, too, faced Barbarian invasions (from the same tribes). And the East was even more Christian than the West. So something must be missing in Gibbon’s explanation.

Regarding Pirenne: The East, too, was cut off from the south by the Arab conquests (though perhaps not as much).

IV) One possible omission: depopulation

So, even though both Gibbon and Pirenne, may well have been right, that there had to be at least one more factor: disease.

Perhaps it was smallpox arriving from China, and later plague. Perhaps it was something else. (The theory of massive lead poisoning is now discredited. Again: They had lead pipes in the East and the West.)

Whatever the disease(s), the population of the Roman Empire collapsed. And the West, which had fewer people than the East to begin with, became largely empty.

Its cities were deserted. Rome’s population was 1 million during the reign of Augustus but 20,000 by the time of Charlemagne. People used the Roman baths of northern cities as caves. New city walls were built with smaller circumferences than older city walls.

Fields and land lay fallow, too. We know this because taxes were levied on land (not labor), and tax revenues fell due to agri deserti, “abandoned fields”.

Viewed this way, both the Germanic invasions that Gibbon focussed on and the Arab invasions that Pirenne focussed on were perhaps not a cause but a symptom of the fall of Rome. It seems likely that the Germans and Arabs showed up because there were few people blocking their way, and conquered for that same reason.

If we ever find out the complete answer, it will be because Gibbon and Pirenne pointed us in the right direction.

Bookmark and Share