‘The Fall of The Roman Empire’ (TFOTRE) should be a registered trademark. One of the most enduring concepts of modern historiography, TFOTRE has shaped the imagination of millions in the West. Rome has fallen. The Empire collapsed. Ancient Rome is no more. The Dark Ages settled in. Ignorance reigned. The culture cafés closed down. Western civilization (particularly in its urbane, civic dimension) remained in lockdown for a thousand years.
One of the assumptions of TFOTRE is that the written culture of Rome just vanished. That for every monastery which rose up in the European countryside, a book – and a classical author – had to go. The humanist Renaissance of the 15th century is nothing if not a rediscovery and a renovation of the lost classical past. TFOTRE sang the death knell of writing and literacy.
But that is to discount the fact that good habits die hard, and in some cases they don’t die at all. As the West was recalibrating itself in the wake of the military and political disruptions of the 5th and 6th centuries, the custodians of culture were finding new homes and new lives for themselves. Many of those who joined the monasteries, for instance, carried over from their secular life “their assumption of its necessity and the place of reading and writing in its preservation, and accommodated it to the new monasticism”. The founders themselves, such as St Benedict or Cesarius of Arles, made reading and learning a central feature of the monastic lifestyle. Libraries developed wherever the capital and the geopolitical situation permitted. By the end of the 15th century, Europe was also a map dotted by libraries, schools, universities and centres of learning in addition to being one of political sovereignties and ecclesiastical jurisdictions.
Old wineskins, new wine. While the focus had always been on books, reading and learning – Rome or no Rome – the content nevertheless changed. Christianity left an indelible mark on the societies and cultures which welcomed it in the West. The classical and Christian moulds blended and shaped the Europe we know today, imperfect but thirsty for perfectibility. TFOTRE was the collision of two neutron stars, not the death of a supergiant.