Why the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were just as civilised as the savage Roman empire

In the epic 1982 swords-and-sorcery film Conan the Barbarian, when the massively muscled hero is asked what is best in life, he memorably decrees: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

Conan, like Game of Thrones (its modern progeny), is set in a fictional age, but the saga’s look and feel is a hundred per cent Dark Ages Europe.

The Dark Ages. The thousand years that filled the void from the fall of the Roman Empire to the start of the Renaissance – a period of blood, conflict, destruction, and ignorance.

Educated people of the Enlightenment shunned it as an aberration. Edward Gibbon famously dismissed the entire epoch as “the triumph of barbarism and religion”.

Even today, the phrase “the Dark Ages” effortlessly conjures up images of pelt-clad Visigoths and Vandals smashing up Rome and torching it, filling the sky with clouds of billowing smoke that would smother the heavens for a millennium.

Schoolchildren know it well – how the “glory” of Rome was ruthlessly snuffed out, trampled under hooves that sought only plunder. As the Empire’s marbled temples and libraries fell to the boorish hordes, the light of Graeco-Roman learning was forever extinguished, plunging Europe into a long dark night of tumult and oblivion.

With Rome aflame, the continent retreated into huts of wood and mud. Greek was forgotten, and Latin was bastardised into the primary Romance languages of Italian, Spanish, French, and Provençal. Rome’s poetry and literature were effaced, along with the arts of engineering, building, sculpture, metalwork, glass, enamelling, mathematics, geometry, law, rhetoric, and the rest.

The Empire officially died on the 4th of September AD 476 – and so “civilisation” ended, until awoken in 1401, when the contest to cast the bronze doors of Florence’s Baptistery of St John sparked the Renaissance.

Okay.  I’ll stop now.  You get the picture.

This is Victorian pseudo-history at its judgmental worst – a tragically emotionalised and simplistic view of the past with all the historical accuracy of Errol Flynn playing Robin Hood. It may have been good enough for a child’s history primer in the mid-1800s, but these days we know it to be wrong in so many key ways.

First, it assumes that the barbarians overwhelmed Rome by force, bringing civilisation to an abrupt and violent end. That may be how it happens in Hollywood, but it’s not remotely accurate.

The Western Roman Empire had been disintegrating for centuries (just as the wheels had come off from under the Roman Republic before it).  The Western Empire was old, tired, and coming apart at the seams.  It was in a state of terminal decline. The emperors had long ago even done the unthinkable and abandoned Rome – choosing instead to rule from Trier, Milan, and especially Ravenna. As the map changed, they also realised they needed to shift power eastwards, which is why the Emperor Constantine eventually built his magnificent new Rome at Constantinople (Istanbul). There, where Europe meets Asia, the ever-philhellenic Romans continued to flourish as the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years.

So, barbarian hordes may have picked over the carcass of the fading Eternal City in the 400s, but imperial Rome continued largely uninterrupted on the shores of the Bosphorus until AD 1453 (give or take the odd Crusader coup d’état).

Next, the notion of Rome giving way to a “Dark Age” presupposes that the Roman Empire shimmered in light, wonder, and glory.

To an extent, it did. How can you not be impressed with a culture that gave us Catullus and Christianity, stone arenas of up to 50,000 seats, the stunning temples at Baalbek, the unsupported concrete dome of the Pantheon, and armies of almost living marble statues (largely in the Greek style), depicting everything from megalomaniacal emperors to callipygous goddesses? There is no doubt it was an impressive culture.

But beyond these achievements, there was also a distinctly less glamorous side.

The Romans were as violent as the barbarians

The Romans were, and made no bones about being, an aggressively militaristic and expansionist society. The pax romana was built and governed the old fashioned way – by hardened soldiers armed with bronze and steel. You need only read Tacitus’s account of how the legions met the druids of Anglesey to appreciate that Roman rule was not a soft, fluffy, inclusive proposition.

Reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames. (Tacitus, Annals)

If the Romans were coming, subjugated people either opened their doors and welcomed them or faced annihilation. Whichever Roman spin-doctor put the “pax” in pax romana certainly earned his keep.

Existence could be harsh in the farther reaches of the Empire. Yet even in the glittering city of Rome itself, life for half of its million inhabitants left a lot to be desired.

If you happened to be born female, you probably had a very different experience of Rome. Unless you were highborn from an aristocratic patrician family, the chances are you had no education, no influence and no role outside the home – a significantly less glorious and civilised existence than the one offered to the city’s male shakers and movers.

And then there were the slaves – those endlessly resourceful characters who steal the show in every beginner’s Latin grammar textbook, where they mischievously play pranks on each other to the hilarity of the assembled household, before their fidelity and industry eventually wins them a well-deserved manumission.

Honestly? I doubt it. Throughout history slaves have been there to be bought, sold, used, misused, and abused in the privacy of their owners’ homes. One needs only look at countries where slavery has been legal or normal in the last hundred years to know what the ghastly and vulnerable exploitative reality usually is.

In an age when opinion shapers from Mel Gibson to George W Bush have trumpeted the universal imperative of “freeedom”, can we really, uncritically, admire a culture that denied millions their names, families, and backgrounds, giving wealthier citizens largely unchecked powers of life, sadism, and death over them?

The answer is: no. Slavery is a form of institutionalised violence, and there is nothing “light” or “glorious” about it.

In fact, violence and ruthlessness were fundamental building blocks of imperial Rome’s DNA — a fact constantly reinforced by the emperors.

Everyone knows how Nero burned Christians as “Roman candles” to illuminate his gardens. But he was not alone. There were the persecutions under Domitian, Trajan, Decius, Diocletian, and the others. There was also a more personal violence, too. For instance, on one occasion Caligula was so bored at the games that, to liven things up, he had an entire section of the crowd rounded up by his troops and dumped into the arena to be torn apart by the wild animals. The Emperor Commodus took the bloodmania even further. He loved the idea of being a heroic gladiator (but only in rigged fights). To satisfy his craving, he would have the city’s cripples tethered to stakes in the arena so he could dress as a gladiator, pretend they were giants, and enthusiastically club them to death in front of the delighted crowd

For all the literary and artistic wonders of ancient Rome, we also need to recognise that Roman imperial society was complex, and it is difficult to ignore a deep element of what was definitely “dark”.

So, if Rome was unenlightened and barbaric in certain ways, then what did Gibbon & Co find so abhorrent about the European tribes that succeeded them?

It certainly wasn’t the brutality of their conquest – because the fall of Rome was all relatively civilised.

When Alaric the Visigoth entered Rome in AD 410 for a three-day sack, his men did a good deal of pilfering, but there was not much bloodshed. And 45 years later, in June 455, when Gaiseric the Vandal sacked Rome definitively for fourteen days – one of the many dates regularly touted as the end of the Roman Empire – he heeded Pope Leo I’s request not to murder the inhabitants or raze the buildings.  Instead, he focused on the real priority of stripping the Eternal City of all remaining valuables.

The restraint shown by Alaric and Gaiseric – who were both Christians – would have been unrecognisable to the Roman legions who had slashed and bludgeoned their way across the Empire.

Nevertheless, it is a fair question to ask whether darkness descended as the “Dark Ages” got under way.

In a manner of speaking, it did. Writing and record keeping fell off sharply in the early medieval period (no one says “Dark Ages” any more), leaving us with a lot less information to pick over.

But there was still plenty of learning and nib-scratching going on. Early medieval chroniclers wrote up what they saw, heard, and read, and their works were every bit as sophisticated as anything that came before.

Take the Venerable Bede (born AD 672), the sage of Sunderland. His history of the English people, written in excellent clear Latin of the day, is one of the great works of English history. No one can criticise him for ignorance. His opening stands as a classic:

Britain, an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion, is situated between the north and the west, facing, though at a considerable distance, the coasts of Germany, France, and Spain, which form the greatest part of Europe.  It extends 800 miles in length towards the north, and is 200 miles in breadth, except where several promontories extend further in breadth, by which its compass is made to be 3,675 miles. (Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People)

Not long after Bede, Europe bore one of its greatest ever kings – Charlemagne (Charles the Great, born 740s). As well as being the first European ruler since the fall of Rome to be crowned emperor, he was passionate about education and literacy. Not content with fully educating himself and his court, he sponsored the “Carolingian Renaissance”, encouraging the highest standards of learning in his kingdom, taking scholars from all over (under the direction of the mighty Alcuin of York), tasking them with overseeing a fresh burst of education throughout his lands.

For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct. Therefore each one ought to study what he desires to accomplish that so much the more fully the mind may know what ought to be done. And may this be done with a zeal as great as the earnestness with which we command it. (Charlemagne, On the Study of Letters)

Just over a century later, England found its own Charlemagne in King Alfred the Great (born 849). He was quite happy translating theological and moral texts from Latin into English himself, for the betterment of his people. In the preface to his most famous translation he was clear about his priorities:

Therefore it seems better to me, that we also [like the Greeks and Romans] translate certain books which are most needful for all men to know into that language that we can all understand, so that all the youth of free men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it be set to learning until they know how to read English writing well. (King Alfred, Pastoral Care)

With this kind of approach to learning, it is hard to see the “barbarity” in these kingdoms. It is simply plain wrong to categorize the early medieval period as an age of bovine ignorance.

And then there is the art.

The exquisite ‘Dark Ages’ cross of Lothar, AD 1000

The exquisite ‘Dark Ages’ cross of Lothar, AD 1000

Ruskin famously remarked that great nations write their most trustworthy autobiographies in the books of their art (well, he would). But it is worth testing his theory by looking at the art of the early medieval period.

As far as anyone can tell, finely skilled craftsmen continued to flourish, just as they had in Rome. The statues were no longer marble, and they depicted the holy family and saints rather than pagan deities, but the skill of the sculptor was undiminished.

In terms of the decorative arts, our museums burst with incomparable early medieval wonders – the Alfred Jewel, the Sutton Hoo treasures, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells, the Cross of Lothair, the list is endless.  Archaeologists have dug up a mass of items attesting to the artistic genius of the period.

Turning to buildings, the scale was diminished, but the quality was not. Take Charlemagne’s Palatine chapel, now at the heart of Aachen cathedral.  t is far from being a mud hut, wooden shack, stone bunker, or anything else one might expect from the “Dark Ages”. As you gaze around its undulating polychromed stonework, you see a Roman/Byzantine chapel built with all the skill of the inheritors of Rome. It makes clear, if there were any lingering doubts, why our European neighbours have no concept of the “Dark Ages”. The expression is simply alien to them. And for a very good reason.

It never existed.

So far we have only looked at the early middle ages (AD 476–1000). But for Gibbon and the Victorians, the Dark Ages carried on through the high middle ages (AD 1001–1300), and even the late middle ages (AD 1301–1500). In their eyes, civilisation did not return until the Renaissance.

But that is simply untenable. The high middle ages burned with knowledge and creativity. The 12th-century Renaissance saw a quantum leap in human understanding and achievement as cathedrals, universities, scholars, mystics, scientists, and philosophers pushed the boundaries of their minds. And it is a rank absurdity to denigrate the late middle ages of Dante, Marco Polo, Chaucer, Petrarch, and the many others, whose outlook seems closer to our own modern experiences than to life in Rome.

So, for all the Victorians’ wondrous achievements in industry, machinery, railways, architecture, and a host of other areas, they built on Gibbon and both romanticised and distorted the past unrecognisably, leaving a legacy we are still battling to undo.

In fact, if we shine a light closely into the gloomy underbelly of Victorian society, with its Jack-the-Ripper slums, gin-sodden destitution, workhouses, debtors’ prisons, and not always fragrant imperial administrations, it may be that they are among the last people who should be pejoratively labelling any age “dark”.

But finally back to Gibbon, perhaps the first and greatest detractor of the middle ages. He summed up his hostile view of the period clearly:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister. (Gibbon, Decline and Fall)

Aside from his well-known hostility to Christianity, his main problem with the middle ages was therefore not that they were filled with conflict – which they were, just like today and every other period in history. But rather he was aghast that the middle ages had turned people soft, killing off the Roman martial spirit and zeal for war.

That’s my day sorted out then. I can clear that one up once and for all.  I’ll nip down to Fletching parish church this lunchtime and drop him off a box set of Game of Thrones.