Throughout the third century the Roman Empire, decaying socially and disintegrating morally, faced the barbarians. The emperors of this period were fighting military autocrats, and the capital of the empire shifted with the necessities of their military policy. Now the imperial headquarters would be at Milan in north Italy, now in what is now Serbia at Sirmium or Nish, now in Nicomedia in Asia Minor. Rome halfway down Italy was too far from the centre of interest to be a convenient imperial seat. It was a declining city. Over most of the empire peace still prevailed and men went about without arms. The armies continued to be the sole repositories of power; the emperors, dependent on their legions, became more and more autocratic to the rest of the empire and their state more and more like that of the Persian and other oriental monarchs. Diocletian assumed a royal diadem and oriental robes.
All along the imperial frontier, which ran roughly along the Rhine and Danube, enemies were now pressing. The Franks and other German tribes had come up to the Rhine. In north Hungary were the Vandals; in what was once Dacia and is now Roumania, the Visigoths or West Goths. Behind these in south Russia were the East Goths or Ostrogoths, and beyond these again in the Volga region the Alans. But now Mongolian peoples were forcing their way towards Europe. The Huns were already exacting tribute from the Alans and Ostrogoths and pushing them to the west.
In Asia the Roman frontiers were crumpling back under the push of a renascent Persia. This new Persia, the Persia of the Sassenid kings, was to be a vigorous and on the whole a successful rival of the Roman Empire in Asia for the next three centuries.
A glance at the map of Europe will show the reader the peculiar weakness of the empire. The river Danube comes down to within a couple of hundred miles of the Adriatic Sea in the region of what is now Bosnia and Serbia. It makes a square re-entrant angle there. The Romans never kept their sea communications in good order, and this two hundred mile strip of land was their line of communication between the western Latin-speaking part of the empire and the eastern Greek-speaking portion. Against this square angle of the Danube the barbarian pressure was greatest. When they broke through there it was inevitable that the empire should fall into two parts.
A more vigorous empire might have thrust forward and reconquered Dacia, but the Roman Empire lacked any such vigour. Constantine the Great was certainly a monarch of great devotion and intelligence. He beat back a raid of the Goths from just these vital Balkan regions, but he had no force to carry the frontier across the Danube. He was too pre-occupied with the internal weaknesses of the empire. He brought the solidarity and moral force of Christianity to revive the spirit of the declining empire, and he decided to create a new permanent capital at Byzantium upon the Hellespont. This new-made Byzantium, which was re-christened Constantinople in his honour, was still building when he died. Towards the end of his reign occurred a remarkable transaction. The Vandals, being pressed by the Goths, asked to be received into the Roman Empire. They were assigned lands in Pannonia, which is now that part of Hungary west of the Danube, and their fighting men became nominally legionaries. But these new legionaries remained under their own chiefs. Rome failed to digest them.
Constantine died working to reorganize his great realm, and soon the frontiers were ruptured again and the Visigoths came almost to Constantinople. They defeated the Emperor Valens at Adrianople and made a settlement in what is now Bulgaria, similar to the settlement of the Vandals in Pannonia. Nominally they were subjects of the emperor, practically they were conquerors.
From 379 to 395 A.D. reigned the Emperor Theodosius the Great, and while he reigned the empire was still formally intact. Over the armies of Italy and Pannonia presided Stilicho, a Vandal, over the armies in the Balkan peninsula, Alaric, a Goth. When Theodosius died at the close of the fourth century he left two sons. Alaric supported one of these, Arcadius, in Constantinople, and Stilicho the other, Honorius, in Italy. In other words Alaric and Stilicho fought for the empire with the princes as puppets. In the course of their struggle Alaric marched into Italy and after a short siege took Rome (410 A.D.).
The opening half of the fifth century saw the whole of the Roman Empire in Europe the prey of robber armies of barbarians. It is difficult to visualize the state of affairs in the world at that time. Over France, Spain, Italy and the Balkan peninsula, the great cities that had flourished under the early empire still stood, impoverished, partly depopulated and falling into decay. Life in them must have been shallow, mean and full of uncertainty. Local officials asserted their authority and went on with their work with such conscience as they had, no doubt in the name of a now remote and inaccessible emperor. The churches went on, but usually with illiterate priests. There was little reading and much superstition and fear. But everywhere except where looters had destroyed them, books and pictures and statuary and such-like works of art were still to be found.
The life of the countryside had also degenerated. Everywhere this Roman world was much more weedy and untidy than it had been. In some regions war and pestilence had brought the land down to the level of a waste. Roads and forests were infested with robbers. Into such regions the barbarians marched, with little or no opposition, and set up their chiefs as rulers, often with Roman official titles. If they were half civilized barbarians they would give the conquered districts tolerable terms, they would take possession of the towns, associate and intermarry, and acquire (with an accent) the Latin speech; but the Jutes, the Angles and Saxons who submerged the Roman province of Britain were agriculturalists and had no use for towns, they seem to have swept south Britain clear of the Romanized population and they replaced the language by their own Teutonic dialects, which became at last English.
It is impossible in the space at our disposal to trace the movements of all the various German and Slavonic tribes as they went to and fro in the disorganized empire in search of plunder and a pleasant home. But let the Vandals serve as an example. They came into history in east Germany. They settled as we have told in Pannonia. Thence they moved somewhen about 425 A.D. through the intervening provinces to Spain. There they found Visigoths from South Russia and other German tribes setting up dukes and kings. From Spain the Vandals under Genseric sailed for North Africa (429), captured Carthage (439), and built a fleet. They secured the mastery of the sea and captured and pillaged Rome (455), which had recovered very imperfectly from her capture and looting by Alaric half a century earlier. Then the Vandals made themselves masters of Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and most of the other islands of the western Mediterranean. They made, in fact, a sea empire very similar in its extent to the sea empire of Carthage seven hundred odd years before. They were at the climax of their power about 477. They were a mere handful of conquerors holding all this country. In the next century almost all their territory had been reconquered for the empire of Constantinople during a transitory blaze of energy under Justinian I.
The story of the Vandals is but one sample of a host of similar adventures. But now there was coming into the European world the least kindred and most redoubtable of all these devastators, the Mongolian Huns or Tartars, a yellow people active and able, such as the western world had never before encountered.
This appearance of a conquering Mongolian people in Europe may be taken to mark a new stage in human history. Until the last century or so before the Christian era, the Mongol and the Nordic peoples had not been in close touch. Far away in the frozen lands beyond the northern forests the Lapps, a Mongolian people, had drifted westward as far as Lapland, but they played no part in the main current of history. For thousands of years the western world carried on the dramatic interplay of the Aryan, Semitic and fundamental brunette peoples with very little interference (except for an Ethiopian invasion of Egypt or so) either from the black peoples to the south or from the Mongolian world in the far East.
It is probable that there were two chief causes for the new westward drift of the nomadic Mongolians. One was the consolidation of the great empire of China, its extension northward and the increase of its population during the prosperous period of the Han dynasty. The other was some process of climatic change; a lesser rainfall that abolished swamps and forests perhaps, or a greater rainfall that extended grazing over desert steppes, or even perhaps both these processes going on in different regions but which anyhow facilitated a westward migration. A third contributary cause was the economic wretchedness, internal decay and falling population of the Roman Empire. The rich men of the later Roman Republic, and then the tax-gatherers of the military emperors had utterly consumed its vitality. So we have the factors of thrust, means and opportunity. There was pressure from the east, rot in the west and an open road.
The Hun had reached the eastern boundaries of European Russia by the first century A.D., but it was not until the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. that these horsemen rose to predominance upon the steppes. The fifth century was the Hun’s century. The first Huns to come into Italy were mercenary bands in the pay of Stilicho the Vandal, the master of Honorius. Presently they were in possession of Pannonia, the empty nest of the Vandals.
By the second quarter of the fifth century a great war chief had arisen among the Huns, Attila. We have only vague and tantalizing glimpses of his power. He ruled not only over the Huns but over a conglomerate of tributary Germanic tribes; his empire extended from the Rhine cross the plains into Central Asia. He exchanged ambassadors with China. His head camp was in the plain of Hungary east of the Danube. There he was visited by an envoy from Constantinople, Priscus, who has left us an account of his state. The way of living of these Mongols was very like the way of living of the primitive Aryans they had replaced. The common folk were in huts and tents; the chiefs lived in great stockaded timber halls. There were feasts and drinking and singing by the bards. The Homeric heroes and even the Macedonian companions of Alexander would probably have felt more at home in the camp-capital of Attila than they would have done in the cultivated and decadent court of Theodosius II, the son of Arcadius, who was then reigning in Constantinople.
For a time it seemed as though the nomads under the leadership of the Huns and Attila would play the same part towards the Graeco-Roman civilization of the Mediterranean countries that the barbaric Greeks had played long ago to the Aegean civilization. It looked like history repeating itself upon a larger stage. But the Huns were much more wedded to the nomadic life than the early Greeks, who were rather migratory cattle farmers than true nomads. The Huns raided and plundered but did not settle.
For some years Attila bullied Theodosius as he chose. His armies devastated and looted right down to the walls of Constantinople, Gibbon says that he totally destroyed no less than seventy cities in the Balkan peninsula, and Theodosius bought him off by payments of tribute and tried to get rid of him for good by sending secret agents to assassinate him. In 451 Attila turned his attention to the remains of the Latin- speaking half of the empire and invaded Gaul. Nearly every town in northern Gaul was sacked. Franks, Visigoths and the imperial forces united against him and he was defeated at Troyes in a vast dispersed battle in which a multitude of men, variously estimated as between 150,000 and 300,000, were killed. This checked him in Gaul, but it did not exhaust his enormous military resources. Next year he came into Italy by way of Venetia, burnt Aquileia and Padua and looted Milan.
Numbers of fugitives from these north Italian towns and particularly from Padua fled to islands in the lagoons at the head of the Adriatic and laid there the foundations of the city state of Venice, which was to become one of the greatest or the trading centres in the middle ages.
In 453 Attila died suddenly after a great feast to celebrate his marriage to a young woman, and at his death this plunder confederation of his fell to pieces. The actual Huns disappear from history, mixed into the surrounding more numerous Aryan-speaking populations. But these great Hun raids practically consummated the end of the Latin Roman Empire. After his death ten different emperors ruled in Rome in twenty years, set up by Vandal and other mercenary troops. The Vandals from Carthage took and sacked Rome in 455. Finally in 476 Odoacer, the chief of the barbarian troops, suppressed a Pannonian who was figuring as emperor under the impressive name of Romulus Augustulus, and informed the Court of Constantinople that there was no longer an emperor in the west. So ingloriously the Latin Roman Empire came to an end. In 493 Theodoric the Goth became King of Rome.
All over western and central Europe now barbarian chiefs were reigning as kings, dukes and the like, practically independent but for the most part professing some sort of shadowy allegiance to the emperor. There were hundreds and perhaps thousands of such practically independent brigand rulers. In Gaul, Spain and Italy and in Dacia the Latin speech still prevailed in locally distorted forms, but in Britain and east of the Rhine languages of the German group (or in Bohemia a Slavonic language, Czech) were the common speech. The superior clergy and a small remnant of other educated men read and wrote Latin. Everywhere life was insecure and property was held by the strong arm. Castles multiplied and roads fell into decay. The dawn of the sixth century was an age of division and of intellectual darkness throughout the western world. Had it not been for the monks and Christian missionaries Latin learning might have perished altogether.
Why had the Roman Empire grown and why had it so completely decayed? It grew because at first the idea of citizenship held it together. Throughout the days of the expanding republic, and even into the days of the early empire there remained a great number of men conscious of Roman citizenship, feeling it a privilege and an obligation to be a Roman citizen, confident of their rights under the Roman law and willing to make sacrifices in the name of Rome. The prestige of Rome as of something just and great and law- upholding spread far beyond the Roman boundaries. But even as early as the Punic wars the sense of citizenship was being undermined by the growth of wealth and slavery. Citizenship spread indeed but not the idea of citizenship. The Roman Empire was after all a very primitive organization; it did not educate, did not explain itself to its increasing multitudes of citizens, did not invite their co-operation in its decisions. There was no network of schools to ensure a common understanding, no distribution of news to sustain collective activity. The adventurers who struggled for power from the days of Marius and Sulla onward had no idea of creating and calling in public opinion upon the imperial affairs. The spirit of citizenship died of starvation and no one observed it die. All empires, all states, all organizations of human society are, in the ultimate, things of understanding and will. There remained no will for the Roman Empire in the World and so it came to an end.
But though the Latin-speaking Roman Empire died in the fifth century, something else had been born within it that was to avail itself enormously of its prestige and tradition, and that was the Latin-speaking half of the Catholic Church. This lived while the empire died because it appealed to the minds and wills of men, because it had books and a great system of teachers and missionaries to hold it together, things stronger than any law or legions. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. while the empire was decaying, Christianity was spreading to a universal dominion in Europe. It conquered its conquerors, the barbarians. When Attila seemed disposed to march on Rome, the patriarch of Rome intercepted him and did what no armies could do, turning him back by sheer moral force.
The Patriarch or Pope of Rome claimed to be the head of the entire Christian church. Now that there were no more emperors, he began to annex imperial titles and claims. He took the title of pontifex maximus, head sacrificial priest of the Roman dominion, the most ancient of all the titles that the emperors had enjoyed.
The Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire showed much more political tenacity than the western half. It weathered the disasters of the fifth century A.D., which saw a complete and final breaking up of the original Latin Roman power. Attila bullied the Emperor Theodosius II and sacked and raided almost to the walls of Constantinople, but that city remained intact. The Nubians came down the Nile and looted Upper Egypt, but Lower Egypt and Alexandria were left still fairly prosperous. Most of Asia Minor was held against the Sassanid Persians.
The sixth century, which was an age of complete darkness for the West, saw indeed a considerable revival of the Greek power. Justinian I (527–565) was a ruler of very great ambition and energy, and he was married to the Empress Theodora, a woman of quite equal capacity who had begun life as an actress. Justinian reconquered North Africa from the Vandals and most of Italy from the Goths. He even regained the south of Spain. He did not limit his energies to naval and military enterprises. He founded a university, built the great church of Sta. Sophia in Constantinople and codified the Roman law. But in order to destroy a rival to his university foundation he closed the schools of philosophy in Athens, which had been going on in unbroken continuity from the days of Plato, that is to say for nearly a thousand years.
From the third century onwards the Persian Empire had been the steadfast rival of the Byzantine. The two empires kept Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt in a state of perpetual unrest and waste. In the first century A.D., these lands were still at a high level of civilization, wealthy and with an abundant population, but the continual coming and going of armies, massacres, looting and war taxation wore them down steadily until only shattered and ruinous cities remained upon a countryside of scattered peasants. In this melancholy process of impoverishment and disorder lower Egypt fared perhaps less badly than the rest of the world. Alexandria, like Constantinople, continued a dwindling trade between the east and the west.
Science and political philosophy seemed dead now in both these warring and decaying empires. The last philosophers of Athens, until their suppression, preserved the texts of the great literature of the past with an infinite reverence and want of understanding. But there remained no class of men in the world, no free gentlemen with bold and independent habits of thought, to carry on the tradition of frank statement and enquiry embodied in these writings. The social and political chaos accounts largely for the disappearance of this class, but there was also another reason why the human intelligence was sterile and feverish during this age. In both Persia and Byzantium it was all age of intolerance. Both empires were religious empires in a new way, in a way that greatly hampered the free activities of the human mind.Of course the oldest empires in the world were religious empires, centring upon the worship of a god or of a god-king. Alexander was treated as a divinity and the Caesars were gods in so much as they had altars and temples devoted to them and the offering of incense was made a test of loyalty to the Roman state. But these older religions were essentially religions of act and fact. They did not invade the mind. If a man offered his sacrifice and bowed to the god, he was left not only to think but to say practically whatever he liked about the affair. But the new sort of religions that had come into the world, and particularly Christianity, turned inward. These new faiths demanded not simply conformity but understanding belief. Naturally fierce controversy ensued upon the exact meaning of the things believed. These new religions were creed religions. The world was confronted with a new word, Orthodoxy, and with a stern resolve to keep not only acts but speech and private thought within the limits of a set teaching. For to hold a wrong opinion, much more to convey it to other people, was no longer regarded as an intellectual defect but a moral fault that might condemn a soul to everlasting destruction.
Both Ardashir I who founded the Sassanid dynasty in the third century A.D., and Constantine the Great who reconstructed the Roman Empire in the fourth, turned to religious organizations for help, because in these organizations they saw a new means of using and controlling the wills of men. And already before the end of the fourth century both empires were persecuting free talk and religious innovation. In Persia Ardashir found the ancient Persian religion of Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) with its priests and temples and a sacred fire that burnt upon its altars, ready for his purpose as a state religion. Before the end of the third century Zoroastrianism was persecuting Christianity, and in 277 A.D. Mani, the founder of a new faith, the Manichaeans, was crucified and his body flayed. Constantinople, on its side, was busy hunting out Christian heresies. Manichaean ideas infected Christianity and had to be fought with the fiercest methods; in return ideas from Christianity affected the purity of the Zoroastrian doctrine. All ideas became suspect. Science, which demands before all things the free action of an untroubled mind, suffered a complete eclipse throughout this phase of intolerance.
War, the bitterest theology, and the usual vices of mankind constituted Byzantine life of those days. It was picturesque, it was romantic; it had little sweetness or light. When Byzantium and Persia were not fighting the barbarians from the north, they wasted Asia Minor and Syria in dreary and destructive hostilities. Even in close alliance these two empires would have found it a hard task to turn back the barbarians and recover their prosperity. The Turks or Tartars first come into history as the allies first of one power and then of another. In the sixth century the two chief antagonists were Justinian and Chosroes I; in the opening of the seventh the Emperor Heraclius was pitted against Chosroes II (580).
At first and until after Heraclius had become Emperor (610) Chosroes II carried all before him. He took Antioch, Damascus and Jerusalem and his armies reached Chalcedon, which is in Asia Minor over against Constantinople. In 619 he conquered Egypt. Then Heraclius pressed a counter attack home and routed a Persian army at Nineveh (627), although at that time there were still Persian troops at Chalcedon. In 628 Chosroes II was deposed and murdered by his son, Kavadh, and an inconclusive peace was made between the two exhausted empires.
Byzantium and Persia had fought their last war. But few people as yet dreamt of the storm that was even then gathering in the deserts to put an end for ever to this aimless, chronic struggle.
While Heraclius was restoring order in Syria a message reached him. It had been brought in to the imperial outpost at Bostra south of Damascus; it was in Arabic, an obscure Semitic desert language, and it was read to the Emperor, if it reached him at all, by an interpreter. It was from someone who called himself “Muhammad the Prophet of God.” It called upon the Emperor to acknowledge the One True God and to serve him. What the Emperor said is not recorded.
A similar message came to Kavadh at Ctesiphon. He was annoyed, tore up the letter, and bade the messenger begone.
This Muhammad, it appeared, was a Bedouin leader whose headquarters were in the mean little desert town of Medina. He was preaching a new religion of faith in the One True God.
“Even so, O Lord!” he said; “rend thou his Kingdom from Kavadh.”
Throughout the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, there was a steady drift of Mongolian peoples westward. The Huns of Attila were merely precursors of this advance, which led at last to the establishment of Mongolian peoples in Finland, Esthonia, Hungary and Bulgaria, where their descendants, speaking languages akin to Turkish, survive to this day. The Mongolian nomads were, in fact, playing a role towards the Aryanized civilizations of Europe and Persia and India that the Aryans had played to the Aegean and Semitic civilizations ten or fifteen centuries before.
In Central Asia the Turkish peoples had taken root in what is now Western Turkestan, and Persia already employed many Turkish officials and Turkish mercenaries. The Parthians had gone out of history, absorbed into the general population of Persia. There were no more Aryan nomads in the history of Central Asia; Mongolian people had replaced them. The Turks became masters of Asia from China to the Caspian.
The same great pestilence at the end of the second century A.D. that had shattered the Roman Empire had overthrown the Han dynasty in China. Then came a period of division and of Hunnish conquests from which China arose refreshed, more rapidly and more completely than Europe was destined to do. Before the end of the sixth century China was reunited under the Suy dynasty, and this by the time of Heraclius gave place to the Tang dynasty, whose reign marks another great period of prosperity for China.
Throughout the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries China was the most secure and civilized country in the world. The Han dynasty had extended her boundaries in the north; the Suy and Tang dynasties now spread her civilization to the south, and China began to assume the proportions she has to-day. In Central Asia indeed she reached much further, extending at last, through tributary Turkish tribes, to Persia and the Caspian Sea.
The new China that had arisen was a very different land from the old China of the Hans. A new and more vigorous literary school appeared, there was a great poetic revival; Buddhism had revolutionized philosophical and religious thought. There were great advances in artistic work, in technical skill and in all the amenities of life. Tea was first used, paper manufactured and wood-block printing began. Millions of people indeed were leading orderly, graceful and kindly lives in China during these centuries when the attenuated populations of Europe and Western Asia were living either in hovels, small walled cities or grim robber fortresses. While the mind of the west was black with theological obsessions, the mind of China was open and tolerant and enquiring.
One of the earliest monarchs of the Tang dynasty was Tai- tsung, who began to reign in 627, the year of the victory of Heraclius at Nineveh. He received an embassy from Heraclius, who was probably seeking an ally in the rear of Persia. From Persia itself came a party of Christian missionaries (635). They were allowed to explain their creed to Tai-tsung and he examined a Chinese translation of their Scriptures. He pronounced this strange religion acceptable, and gave permission for the foundation of a church and monastery.
To this monarch also (in 628) came messengers from Muhammad. They came to Canton on a trading ship. They had sailed the whole way from Arabia along the Indian coasts. Unlike Heraclius and Kavadh, Tai-Tsung gave these envoys a courteous hearing. He expressed his interest in their theological ideas and assisted them to build a mosque in Canton, a mosque which survives, it is said, to this day, the oldest mosque in the world.
A prophetic amateur of history surveying the world in the opening of the seventh century might have concluded very reasonably that it was only a question of a few centuries before the whole of Europe and Asia fell under Mongolian domination. There were no signs of order or union in Western Europe, and the Byzantine and Persian Empires were manifestly bent upon a mutual destruction. India also was divided and wasted. On the other hand China was a steadily expanding empire which probably at that time exceeded all Europe in population, and the Turkish people who were growing to power in Central Asia were disposed to work in accord with China. And such a prophecy would not have been an altogether vain one. A time was to come in the thirteenth century when a Mongolian overlord would rule from the Danube to the Pacific, and Turkish dynasties were destined to reign over the entire Byzantine and Persian Empires, over Egypt and most of India.
Where our prophet would have been most likely to have erred would have been in under-estimating the recuperative power of the Latin end of Europe and in ignoring the latent forces of the Arabian desert. Arabia would have seemed what it had been for times immemorial, the refuge of small and bickering nomadic tribes. No Semitic people had founded an empire now for more than a thousand years.
Then suddenly the Bedouin flared out for a brief century of splendour. They spread their rule and language from Spain to the boundaries of China. They gave the world a new culture. They created a religion that is still to this day one of the most vital forces in the world. The man who fired this Arab flame appears first in history as the young husband of the widow of a rich merchant of the town of Mecca, named Muhammad. Until he was forty he did very little to distinguish himself in the world. He seems to have taken considerable interest in religious discussion. Mecca was a pagan city at that time worshipping in particular a black stone, the Kaaba, of great repute throughout all Arabia and a centre of pilgrimages; but there were great numbers of Jews in the country – indeed all the southern portion of Arabia professed the Jewish faith – and there were Christian churches in Syria.
About forty Muhammad began to develop prophetic characteristics like those of the Hebrew prophets twelve hundred years before him. He talked first to his wife of the One True God, and of the rewards and punishments of virtue and wickedness. There can be no doubt that his thoughts were very strongly influenced by Jewish and Christian ideas. He gathered about him a small circle of believers and presently began to preach in the town against the prevalent idolatry. This made him extremely unpopular with his fellow townsmen because the pilgrimages to the Kaaba were the chief source of such prosperity as Mecca enjoyed. He became bolder and more definite in his teaching, declaring himself to be the last chosen prophet of God entrusted with a mission to perfect religion. Abraham, he declared, and Jesus Christ were his forerunners. He had been chosen to complete and perfect the revelation of God’s will.
He produced verses which he said had been communicated to him by an angel, and he had a strange vision in which he was taken up through the Heavens to God and instructed in his mission.
As his teaching increased in force the hostility of his fellow townsmen increased also. At last a plot was made to kill him; but he escaped with his faithful friend and disciple, Abu Bekr, to the friendly town of Medina which adopted his doctrine. Hostilities followed between Mecca and Medina which ended at last in a treaty. Mecca was to adopt the worship of the One True God and accept Muhammad as his prophet, but the adherents of the new faith were still to make the pilgrimage to Mecca just as they had done when they were pagans. So Muhammad established the One True God in Mecca without injuring its pilgrim traffic. In 629 Muhammad returned to Mecca as its master, a year after he had sent out these envoys of his to Heraclius, Tai-tsung, Kavadh and all the rulers of the earth.
Then for four years more until his death in 632, Muhammad spread his power over the rest of Arabia. He married a number of wives in his declining years, and his life on the whole was by modern standards unedifying. He seems to have been a man compounded of very considerable vanity, greed, cunning, self-deception and quite sincere religious passion. He dictated a book of injunctions and expositions, the Koran, which he declared was communicated to him from God. Regarded as literature or philosophy the Koran is certainly unworthy of its alleged Divine authorship.
Yet when the manifest defects of Muhammad’s life and writings have been allowed for, there remains in Islam, this faith he imposed upon the Arabs, much power and inspiration. One is its uncompromising monotheism; its simple enthusiastic faith in the rule and fatherhood of God and its freedom from theological complications. Another is its complete detachment from the sacrificial priest and the temple. It is an entirely prophetic religion, proof against any possibility of relapse towards blood sacrifices. In the Koran the limited and ceremonial nature of the pilgrimage to Mecca is stated beyond the possibility of dispute, and every precaution was taken by Muhammad to prevent the deification of himself after his death. And a third element of strength lay in the insistence of Islam upon the perfect brotherhood and equality before God of all believers, whatever their colour, origin or status.
These are the things that made Islam a power in human affairs. It has been said that the true founder of the Empire of Islam was not so much Muhammad as his friend and helper, Abu Bekr. If Muhammad, with his shifty character, was the mind and imagination of primitive Islam, Abu Bekr was its conscience and its will. Whenever Muhammad wavered Abu Bekr sustained him. And when Muhammad died, Abu Bekr became Caliph (= successor), and with that faith that moves mountains, he set himself simply and sanely to organize the subjugation of the whole world to Allah – with little armies of 3,000 or 4,000 Arabs – according to those letters the prophet had written from Medina in 628 to all the monarchs of the world.
There follows the most amazing story of conquest in the whole history of our race. The Byzantine army was smashed at the battle of the Yarmuk (a tributary of the Jordan) in 634; and the Emperor Heraclius, his energy sapped by dropsy and his resources exhausted by the Persian war, saw his new conquests in Syria, Damascus, Palmyra, Antioch, Jerusalem and the rest fall almost without resistance to the Moslim. Large elements in the population went over to Islam. Then the Moslim turned east. The Persians had found an able general in Rustam; they had a great host with a force of elephants; and for three days they fought the Arabs at Kadessia (637) and broke at last in headlong rout.
The conquest of all Persia followed, and the Moslem Empire pushed far into Western Turkestan and eastward until it met the Chinese. Egypt fell almost without resistance to the new conquerors, who full of a fanatical belief in the sufficiency of the Koran, wiped out the vestiges of the book-copying industry of the Alexandria Library. The tide of conquest poured along the north coast of Africa to the Straits of Gibraltar and Spain. Spain was invaded in 710 and the Pyrenees Mountains were reached in 720. In 732 the Arab advance had reached the centre of France, but here it was stopped for good at the battle of Poitiers and thrust back as far as the Pyrenees again. The conquest of Egypt had given the Moslim a fleet, and for a time it looked as though they would take Constantinople. They made repeated sea attacks between 672 and 718 but the great city held out against them.
The Arabs had little political aptitude and no political experience, and this great empire with its capital now at Damascus, which stretched from Spain to China, was destined to break up very speedily. From the very beginning doctrinal differences undermined its unity. But our interest here lies not with the story of its political disintegration but with its effect upon the human mind and upon the general destinies of our race. The Arab intelligence had been flung across the world even more swiftly and dramatically than had the Greek a thousand years before. The intellectual stimulation of the whole world west of China, the break-up of old ideas and development of new ones, was enormous. In Persia this fresh excited Arabic mind came into contact not only with Manichaean, Zoroastrian and Christian doctrine, but with the scientific Greek literature, preserved not only in Greek but in Syrian translations. It found Greek learning in Egypt also. Every-where, and particularly in Spain, it discovered an active Jewish tradition of speculation and discussion. In Central Asia it met Buddhism and the material achievements of Chinese civilization. It learnt the manufacture of paper – which made printed books possible – from the Chinese. And finally it came into touch with Indian mathematics and philosophy.
Very speedily the intolerant self-sufficiency of the early days of faith, which made the Koran seem the only possible book, was dropped. Learning sprang up everywhere in the footsteps of the Arab conquerors. By the eighth century there was an educational organization throughout the whole “Arabized” world. In the ninth learned men in the schools of Cordoba in Spain were corresponding with learned men in Cairo, Bagdad, Bokhara and Samarkand. The Jewish mind assimilated very readily with the Arab, and for a time the two Semitic races worked together through the medium of Arabic. Long after the political break-up and enfeeblement of the Arabs, this intellectual community of the Arab-speaking world endured. It was still producing very considerable results in the thirteenth century.
So it was that the systematic accumulation and criticism of facts which was first begun by the Greeks was resumed in this astonishing renascence of the Semitic world. The seed of Aristotle and the museum of Alexandria that had lain so long inactive and neglected now germinated and began to grow towards fruition. Very great advances were made in mathematical, medical and physical science. The clumsy Roman numerals were ousted by the Arabic figures we use to this day and the zero sign was first employed. The very name algebra is Arabic. So is the word chemistry. The names of such stars as Algol, Aldebaran and Boötes preserve the traces of Arab conquests in the sky. Their philosophy was destined to reanimate the medieval philosophy of France and Italy and the whole Christian world.
The Arab experimental chemists were called alchemists, and they were still sufficiently barbaric in spirit to keep their methods and results secret as far as possible. They realized from the very beginning what enormous advantages their possible discoveries might give them, and what far-reaching consequences they might have on human life. They came upon many metallurgical and technical devices of the utmost value, alloys and dyes, distilling, tinctures and essences, optical glass; but the two chief ends they sought, they sought in vain. One was “the philosopher’s stone”—a means of changing the metallic elements one into another and so getting a control of artificial gold, and the other was the elixir vitae, a stimulant that would revivify age and prolong life indefinitely. The crabbed patient experimenting of these Arab alchemists spread into the Christian world. The fascination of their enquiries spread. Very gradually the activities of these alchemists became more social and co-operative. They found it profitable to exchange and compare ideas. By insensible gradations the last of the alchemists became the first of the experimental philosophers.
The old alchemists sought the philosopher’s stone which was to transmute base metals to gold, and an elixir of immortality; they found the methods of modern experimental science which promise in the end to give man illimitable power over the world and over his own destiny.
It is worth while to note the extremely shrunken dimensions of the share of the world remaining under Aryan control in the seventh and eighth centuries. A thousand years before, the Aryan-speaking races were triumphant over all the civilized world west of China. Now the Mongol had thrust as far as Hungary, nothing of Asia remained under Aryan rule except the Byzantine dominions in Asia Minor, and all Africa was lost and nearly all Spain. The great Hellenic world had shrunken to a few possessions round the nucleus of the trading city of Constantinople, and the memory of the Roman world was kept alive by the Latin of the western Christian priests. In vivid contrast to this tale of retrogression, the Semitic tradition had risen again from subjugation and obscurity after a thousand years of darkness.
Yet the vitality of the Nordic peoples was not exhausted. Confined now to Central and North-Western Europe and terribly muddled in their social and political ideas, they were nevertheless building up gradually and steadily a new social order and preparing unconsciously for the recovery of a power even more extensive than that they had previously enjoyed.
We have told how at the beginning of the sixth century there remained no central government in Western Europe at all. That world was divided up among numbers of local rulers holding their own as they could. This was too insecure a state of affairs to last; a system of co-operation and association grew up in this disorder, the feudal system, which has left its traces upon European life up to the present time. This feudal system was a sort of crystallization of society about power. Everywhere the lone man felt insecure and was prepared to barter a certain amount of his liberty for help and protection. He sought a stronger man as his lord and protector; he gave him military services and paid him dues, and in return he was confirmed in his possession of what was his. His lord again found safety in vassalage to a still greater lord. Cities also found it convenient to have feudal protectors, and monasteries and church estates bound themselves by similar ties. No doubt in many cases allegiance was claimed before it was offered; the system grew downward as well as upward. So a sort of pyramidal system grew up, varying widely in different localities, permitting at first a considerable play of violence and private warfare but making steadily for order and a new reign of law. The pyramids grew up until some became recognizable as kingdoms. Already by the early sixth century a Frankish kingdom existed under its founder Clovis in what is now France and the Netherlands, and presently Visigothic and Lombard and Gothic kingdoms were in existence.
The Moslim when they crossed the Pyrenees in 720 found this Frankish kingdom under the practical rule of Charles Martel, the Mayor of the Palace of a degenerate descendant of Clovis, and experienced the decisive defeat of Poitiers (732) at his hands. This Charles Martel was practically overlord of Europe north of the Alps from the Pyrenees to Hungary. He ruled over a multitude of subordinate lords speaking French- Latin, and High and Low German languages. His son Pepin extinguished the last descendants of Clovis and took the kingly state and title. His grandson Charlemagne, who began to reign in 768, found himself lord of a realm so large that he could think of reviving the title of Latin Emperor. He conquered North Italy and made himself master of Rome.
Approaching the story of Europe as we do from the wider horizons of a world history we can see much more distinctly than the mere nationalist historian how cramping and disastrous this tradition of the Latin Roman Empire was. A narrow intense struggle for this phantom predominance was to consume European energy for more than a thousand years. Through all that period it is possible to trace certain unquenchable antagonisms; they run through the wits of Europe like the obsessions of a demented mind. One driving force was this ambition of successful rulers, which Charlemagne (Charles the Great) embodied, to become Caesar. The realm of Charlemagne consisted of a complex of feudal German states at various stages of barbarism. West of the Rhine, most of these German peoples had learnt to speak various Latinized dialects which fused at last to form French. East of the Rhine, the racially similar German peoples did not lose their German speech. On account of this, communication was difficult between these two groups of barbarian conquerors and a split easily brought about. The split was made the more easy by the fact that the Frankish usage made it seem natural to divide the empire of Charlemagne among his sons at his death. So one aspect of the history of Europe from the days of Charlemagne onwards is a history of first this monarch and his family and then that, struggling to a precarious headship of the kings, princes, dukes, bishops and cities of Europe, while a steadily deepening antagonism between the French and German speaking elements develops in the medley. There was a formality of election for each emperor; and the climax of his ambition was to struggle to the possession of that worn-out, misplaced capital Rome and to a coronation there. The next factor in the European political disorder was the resolve of the Church at Rome to make no temporal prince but the Pope of Rome himself emperor in effect. He was already pontifex maximus; for all practical purposes he held the decaying city; if he had no armies he had at least a vast propaganda organization in his priests throughout the whole Latin world; if he had little power over men’s bodies he held the keys of heaven and hell in their imaginations and could exercise much influence upon their souls. So throughout the middle ages while one prince manoeuvred against another first for equality, then for ascendancy, and at last for the supreme prize, the Pope of Rome, sometimes boldly, sometimes craftily, sometimes feebly – for the Popes were a succession of oldish men and the average reign of a Pope was not more than two years – manoeuvred for the submission of all the princes to himself as the ultimate overlord of Christendom.
But these antagonisms of prince against prince and of Emperor against Pope do not by any means exhaust the factors of the European confusion. There was still an Emperor in Constantinople speaking Greek and claiming the allegiance of all Europe. When Charlemagne sought to revive the empire, it was merely the Latin end of the empire he revived. It was natural that a sense of rivalry between Latin Empire and Greek Empire should develop very readily. And still more readily did the rivalry of Greek-speaking Christianity and the newer Latin-speaking version develop. The Pope of Rome claimed to be the successor of St. Peter, the chief of the apostles of Christ, and the head of the Christian community everywhere. Neither the emperor nor the patriarch in Constantinople were disposed to acknowledge this claim. A dispute about a fine point in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity consummated a long series of dissensions in a final rupture in 1054. The Latin Church and the Greek Church became and remained thereafter distinct and frankly antagonistic. This antagonism must be added to the others in our estimate of the conflicts that wasted Latin Christendom in the middle ages.
Upon this divided world of Christendom rained the blows of three sets of antagonists. About the Baltic and North Seas remained a series of Nordic tribes who were only very slowly and reluctantly Christianized; these were the Northmen. They had taken to the sea and piracy, and were raiding all the Christian coasts down to Spain. They had pushed up the Russian rivers to the desolate central lands and brought their shipping over into the south-flowing rivers. They had come out upon the Caspian and Black Seas as pirates also. They set up principalities in Russia; they were the first people to be called Russians. These Northmen Russians came near to taking Constantinople. England in the early ninth century was a Christianized Low German country under a king, Egbert, a protégé and pupil of Charlemagne. The Northmen wrested half the kingdom from his successor Alfred the Great (886), and finally under Canute (1016) made themselves masters of the whole land. Under Rolph the Ganger (912) another band of Northmen conquered the north of France, which became Normandy.
Canute ruled not only over England but over Norway and Denmark, but his brief empire fell to pieces at his death through that political weakness of the barbaric peoples – division among a ruler’s sons. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if this temporary union of the Northmen had endured. They were a race of astonishing boldness and energy. They sailed in their galleys even to Iceland and Greenland. They were the first Europeans to land on American soil. Later on Norman adventurers were to recover Sicily from the Saracens and sack Rome. It is a fascinating thing to imagine what a great northern sea-faring power might have grown out of Canute’s kingdom, reaching from America to Russia.
To the east of the Germans and Latinized Europeans was a medley of Slav tribes and Turkish peoples. Prominent among these were the Magyars or Hungarians who were coming westward throughout the eighth and ninth centuries. Charlemagne held them for a time, but after his death they established themselves in what is now Hungary; and after the fashion of their kindred predecessors, the Huns, raided every summer into the settled parts of Europe. In 938 they went through Germany into France, crossed the Alps into North Italy, and so came home, burning, robbing and destroying.
Finally pounding away from the south at the vestiges of the Roman Empire were the Saracens. They had made themselves largely masters of the sea; their only formidable adversaries upon the water were the Northmen, the Russian Northmen out of the Black Sea and the Northmen of the west.
Hemmed in by these more vigorous and aggressive peoples, amidst forces they did not understand and dangers they could not estimate, Charlemagne and after him a series of other ambitious spirits took up the futile drama of restoring the Western Empire under the name of the Holy Roman Empire. From the time of Charlemagne onward this idea obsessed the political life of Western Europe, while in the East the Greek half of the Roman power decayed and dwindled until at last nothing remained of it at all but the corrupt trading city of Constantinople and a few miles of territory about it. Politically the continent of Europe remained traditional and uncreative from the time of Charlemagne onward for a thousand years. The name of Charlemagne looms large in European history but his personality is but indistinctly seen. He could not read nor write, but he had a considerable respect for learning; he liked to be read aloud to at meals and he had a weakness for theological discussion. At his winter quarters at Aix-la- Chapelle or Mayence he gathered about him a number of learned men and picked up much from their conversation. In the summer he made war, against the Spanish Saracens, against the Slavs and Magyars, against the Saxons, and other still heathen German tribes. It is doubtful whether the idea of becoming Caesar in succession to Romulus Augustulus occurred to him before his acquisition of North Italy, or whether it was suggested to him by Pope Leo III, who was anxious to make the Latin Church independent of Constantinople.
There were the most extraordinary manoeuvres at Rome between the Pope and the prospective emperor in order to make it appear or not appear as if the Pope gave him the imperial crown. The Pope succeeded in crowning his visitor and conqueror by surprise in St. Peter’s on Christmas Day 800 A.D. He produced a crown, put it on the head of Charlemagne and hailed him Caesar and Augustus. There was great applause among the people. Charlemagne was by no means pleased at the way in which the thing was done, it rankled in his mind as a defeat; and he left the most careful instructions to his son that he was not to let the Pope crown him emperor; he was to seize the crown into his own hands and put it on his own head himself. So at the very outset of this imperial revival we see beginning the age-long dispute of Pope and Emperor for priority. But Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, disregarded his father’s instructions and was entirely submissive to the Pope.
The empire of Charlemagne fell apart at the death of Louis the Pious and the split between the French-speaking Franks and the German-speaking Franks widened. The next emperor to arise was Otto, the son of a certain Henry the Fowler, a Saxon, who had been elected King of Germany by an assembly of German princes and prelates in 919. Otto descended upon Rome and was crowned emperor there in 962. This Saxon line came to an end early in the eleventh century and gave place to other German rulers. The feudal princes and nobles to the west who spoke various French dialects did not fall under the sway of these German emperors after the Carlovingian line, the line that is descended from Charlemagne, had come to an end, and no part of Britain ever came into the Holy Roman Empire. The Duke of Normandy, the King of France and a number of lesser feudal rulers remained outside. In 987 the Kingdom of France passed out of the possession of the Carlovingian line into the hands of Hugh Capet, whose descendants were still reigning in the eighteenth century. At the time of Hugh Capet the King of France ruled only a comparatively small territory round Paris.
In 1066 England was attacked almost simultaneously by an invasion of the Norwegian Northmen under King Harold Hardrada and by the Latinized Northmen under the Duke of Normandy. Harold King of England defeated the former at the battle of Stamford Bridge, and was defeated by the latter at Hastings. England was conquered by the Normans, and so cut off from Scandinavian, Teutonic and Russian affairs, and brought into the most intimate relations and conflicts with the French. For the next four centuries the English were entangled in the conflicts of the French feudal princes and wasted upon the fields of France.