Lesson From the Past: The Fall of Rome – How Its Culture Was Both Preserved and Destroyed

It was the year 476 when the Western Roman Empire fell and the Ostrogothic forces sacked the city of Rome. Odoacer was the new ruler of the greatly diminished city of Rome and surrounding lands. We have here an example of a great Empire that collapsed and was taken over by the “barbarian” hordes (i.e. people not belonging to one of the great civilizations: Greek, Roman, Christian). The question then becomes, what happened to life in Rome with these invaders usurping the throne?

Frankly, not much changed for the Romans. The Roman Empire have had barbarian emperors for centuries. Rome had allowed barbarians to join its military, where they were able to rise through the ranks to become generals. Once they were a mighty general with a loyal army behind them, it became easy to claim the throne. Roman emperors ruled generally short amounts of time, and dynasties were never formed. Odoacer may have been crowned as the first barbarian king in Rome, but there had been many barbarian emperors before him.

Culturally however, these emperors, and even Odoacer himself, had become more Roman than barbarian. Without a doubt there were barbarian influences, such as the wearing of pants, yet these barbarians looked to Rome in great awe. Rome was the superpower of the Western World and even if they may have hated the Romans, they held Roman culture in a certain respect. Hence, the system of law was kept alive. It is Roman law after all, on which all civil law is founded. It is a system of law showing justice and equality before the law, as the laws are written down and to be applied in the same way to whoever is wronged. It opposes a system of law based on religion, or based on whatever the current opinion of the tribal chief may be.

Rome conquered the Germanic barbarians, but long before the fall of Rome, Rome itself had been conquered internally by those same Germanic barbarians. We may see this as an example of how a culture can outlive being conquered by foreigners, as long as those foreigners desire to adopt the host culture. Rome survived because the barbarians looked up to it.

However… The story is different for the Eastern Roman Empire. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Empire in the East lived on for almost another thousand years. Constantinople did not fall until 1453, only having been sacked once before during the 4th crusade. The Eastern Roman Empire embraced for the most part a similar culture as that of the West. A part of that culture was the Roman law code, which was expanded upon under emperor Justinian.

Yet, the fall of Constantinople meant the end of Roman law in that region. It was superseded by a version of Sharia law, implemented by the Ottomans. The Ottomans differed greatly from the Ostrogoths with how they viewed the Romans. For the Ottomans, the Romans deserved no respect. They had not embraced the true faith of Islam, they were a weakened empire that did not inspire awe in them, and they believed in their own superiority.

Today, Europe is united by a history of Roman culture, of which one example is the civil law code adopted by all the nations. Turkey, on the other hand, has a distinctively different culture; a culture more closely resembling that of the Islamic states to the East.

What is the lesson to be taken here? Cultures are only preserved in the face of invasion when the invading force has an internal desire to adopt the culture of the host nation. When the desire is lacking, the culture will fade away into obscurity. After all, a culture can only ever hope to survive if its people are there to uphold it.

 

//Guest article by Robert Ossenblok

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