The Flood and the Ark
The barbarian populations, fleeing before the push of the Huns proceeding from the East, sought refuge in the westernmost Roman provinces. In this way the Eastern Roman Empire1 suffered much less the invasions by the Anglo-Saxon peoples. For the Western Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions represented a universal flood, a real pralaya that ended the glorious historical cycle of Roman rule, which lasted for more than twelve centuries. The invasions were catastrophic: the splendid Latin civilization was struck to the ground, the cities were devastated and burned, the population exterminated, the houses, the temples, the churches, the palaces, looted. The Roman roads passed under the control of marauding raiders.
Only a few islands of peace resisted this slaughter. Like arks, they managed to ferry the ancient Roman civilization through the troubled waters of the barbaric flood. The first category of peace islands were the monasteries. The orthodox-catholic2 monks, who until then conducted a solitary life as hermits or in small cœnobia, began to gather and live in larger communities, protected by strong walls. In fact, the monasteries became real fortresses, capable of resisting the barbarian hordes. Every monk lived in his cell following his ascetic rule of life. With the passage of time, the monks, in order to coexist peacefully, adopted a set of norms to establish the common rule. In this way the monks shared tasks both in the manual and in the intellectual activities. Thus, the monasteries became the centres of the monastic initiation schools, which from this period assumed the name of Hesychasm3. As far as was possible in such dangerous times, the monks also dedicated themselves to collecting the manuscripts of ancient knowledge, saving them from the destructive raids of the barbarians, and multiply their copies by the artistic hands of the amanuensis monks. Therefore, it can be said that for several centuries the monasteries transmitted the priestly initiatory wisdom (brahmavidyā) and the knowledge of ancient pre-Christian wisdom.
Another “ark” that served as mean to survive the barbaric pralaya were the villæ4 (villas), the sumptuous farming estates of the Roman patricians who had taken refuge in the countryside fleeing before the pillage of the cities. The villæ were large fortified palaces which later, as the danger of the invaders rose, turned into real fortresses, castra, and castles, castella5. During the Empire, the Roman patricians who had fortified villas were usually Army chiefs of staff (principes officiorum militiæ) at the order of a general in chief (dux, i.e. duke) or even of the very Imperator. In addition to these, also senior officers (comites, literally comrades, counts) – who accompanied the general as members of Army chief staff led by the princeps – and the vicecomites (i.e. viscounts) – those who could replace the comes (i.e. count) in his absence – could have possessed such structures. That was how the villæ of the Roman patricians, properties of princes, counts and viscounts resisted the barbarian hordes6.
In the villa the patrician kept the militiæ formed mainly by knights (equites). To maintain the functionality of their possessions (latifundium) the lord (dominus) welcomed within their walls every type of craftsmen, merchants and peasants. In this way, the transmission of the craftsmen initiations (collegia fabrorum, sskr. śreṇi) were also preserved for centuries, along with their techniques and arts. As for the milites or equites (i.e. the knights), they perpetuated the initiation of the warrior classes (sskr. vīra mārga) as well as the martial, tactical and strategic arts of the Roman Empire. It was inside the villæ that the title of Imperator was retained and transmitted, not as head of state, but as master (sskr. guru) of the martial initiatory ways (magister militum, sskr. rājagurutva)7.
The leaders of the barbarian tribes who took control of Italy always remained fascinated by the ancient glory of Rome, the “Eternal City”. They never dared to usurp the Imperial title. They respected the Roman institutions, such as the Consulate and the Senate, even if they were now devoid of any real power. Moreover, they declared themselves vassals of the Emperor of the Eastern Empire, at least formally. At most, they aspired to be recognized as equals of the patricians. And so it was that Odoacer was recognized as a Roman patrician by the Senate, and when he proclaimed himself King of Italy, the Roman Senate validated his title. However, the ruler of the Heruli eventually sought to expand his dominion in the territories of the Eastern Empire. Therefore, the Emperor of Constantinople ordered Theodoric, barbarian King of the Ostrogoths and general at the orders of the Empire, to march against him. Theodoric defeated and killed King Odoacer and took possession of Italy in the name of the Emperor. Eventually, also Theodoric was recognized as a patrician by the Senate of Rome.
The barbarian Kings of Italy constantly tried to fit into the Imperial tradition by securing the services of Roman spiritual masters and warrior masters. However, Odoacer and Theodoric eventually came into conflict with the Latin civilization. They were both followers of the heretical Arian Church and, although at the beginning of their reign they got along with the Pope and the other Catholic bishops, with the passage of time they became more and more hostile.
King Theodoric, for example, went so far as to kill his own spiritual master, the Roman senator and consul Severinus Bœthius, and two Popes after imprisoning them. Even the patrician senator Cassiodorus, who was the military master8 of Theodoric, his minister and advisor, had tense relations with the King until he was able to convince him to improve relations with the Catholic Church and with the Senate of Rome. At the death of Theodoric, Cassiodorus remained as councelor of his two successors. When very old, he became a monk and founded the monastery of Vivarium in Southern Italy where he died at the age of ninety-five, not far from where Pythagoras had taught eleven centuries before9. During the time when the elderly Theodoric persecuted the Roman population and the Church of Rome, the Eastern Empire launched an armed intervention to free the territories of the ancient Western Empire from the barbarians10. The Emperor Justinian sent his general (magister militum) Belisarius to Northern Africa, Spain and Italy. The Byzantine expeditions were an extraordinary success: North Africa was subtracted from the Vandals and Southern Spain from the Visigoths. Furthermore, the Italian campaign brought back a large part of the Ostrogoths’ Kingdom under Imperial control. However, the conflict that Byzantium had to endure against Persia on its eastern border made this reconquest ephemeral.
In the mid-sixth century, the Lombards (or Longobards), expelled from the Balkans by the Byzantine armies, invaded Italy11, overthrowing the Ostrogoth Kingdom. A barbarian people particularly infamous for their ferocity and savagery, they suffered the influence and fascination of Rome more than any other tribe of invaders. After a ruinous beginning, the Longobards soon converted from Arianism to Catholicism, assumed the Latin language as their own and reworked and restored the Roman laws. They were also the first to create a Roman-barbarian style of art. The Lombard King of Italy, who resided in the North, made a donation of several castles to the Pope, thus allowing the Church to establish its temporal power. As a result, an independent state began to take shape, of which the Vatican is the last remnant.
To justify the foundation of the papal State, in the 9th century the Pope’s scribes forged several documents, among which the most important is the so-called “Donation of Constantine”. According to these documents, the Emperor Constantine had recognized the Pope as head of all the Patriarchates, of the Bishoprics and of the clergy of the East and the West. The Pope would have also been granted a territory as the initial seed of the future papal Dominion. In addition, Constantine would have recognized the superiority of the papal authority over the imperial one. These documents, unquestionably false, were the pretext for all claims of papal supremacy on all Christian Churches, on the Christian Empire, Kingdoms and Princedoms, which in fact has perpetuated until today.
The situation of the Papacy, of the Catholic hierarchy and of the priests during the centuries of the barbarian invasions was marked by the greatest level corruption and the almost complete ignorance12 of ritual and doctrinal matters. In particular, the priests hideously neglected their duties, taking advantage of the benefits and donations they received from faithful believers and leading a vicious life.
Bishops and popes devoted themselves to the most shameless and deceptive policy only to increase their power and wealth. It was this degenerate situation that induced St. Benedict of Nursia to forbid the entry of priests into the monasteries.
Petrus Simonet de Maisonneuve
- The Eastern Empire had as its capital Byzantium, which the Emperor Constantine I renamed Constantinople (the present Turkish city of Istanbul). With the collapse of the Western Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire slowly moved away from its Latin origins, until it adopted Greek as its official language. The same capital, Constantinople, over the centuries, took back the ancient name of Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire still survived for a millennium when, in 1453, it fell under the dominion of the Ottoman Turks.
- At the time of the Emperor Theodosius (379-395) the Christian Church assumed the titles of “Catholic and Orthodox”, that is “universal and with right doctrine”. Later, with the separation of the Latin Church from the Greek one, the first preferred the title of “Catholic” without renouncing to consider itself “Orthodox”; on the contrary, the Greek Church redeemed the title of “Orthodox”, without renouncing to consider itself to be “Universal”.
- From the Greek ἡσυχία (read esykhìa), the path of spiritual peace (sskr. śānta sādhana).
- With the passing of the centuries the villæ gave shelter to a greater number of refugees, transforming into towns.
- Castellum is the diminutive of castrum, military base.
- The authentic origin of feudalism is to be found in the hierarchical and initiatic structure of the Roman Army. The fabrication divulged by the Enlightenment that attributed the birth of the feudal system to the barbaric kingdoms had the sole purpose of representing it as an uncivilized regime opposed to the most civilized forms of bourgeois government as, for example, that of the Terror, the result of the French Revolution.
- We should not be surprised if in the history books there is no mention of the traditional transmission of the villæ, whereas the themes on the monasteries are profusely treated. This is due to the anti-imperial propaganda operated initially by the Church of Rome, later recovered and exacerbated by bourgeois and proletarian ideologies.
- He held the office of comes sacrarum largitionum (Count of sacred donations), maintaining relations with the surviving Latin chivalric organizations.
- Both Severinus Bœthius and Cassiodorus, although both Catholics, continued to transmit the Roman Pythagorean initiation. Moreover, in his youth Severinus Bœthius studied at Alexandria of Egypt where he was initiated into the Neoplatonic school. Both these masters have left important works, such as De consolatione philosophiæ (Initiation to philosophy: in a future chapter we will explain the use of the Latin term consolatio or consolamentum for initiation) by Boethius, and De Anima (On the Soul) by Cassiodorus.
- A specific chapter will be dedicated to the Eastern Empire and the Orthodox Christian religion.
- However, the Byzantine presence remained in many parts of Italy throughout the 8th century, which the Longobards had never been able to eradicate. In fact, for several centuries the Republic of Venice remained as a representative of the presence of the Byzantine civilization in the italic peninsula.
- There were, of course, praiseworthy exceptions, such as the monk St. Benedict of Nursia, the Pope St. Gregory the Great, the hermit St. Calogerus of Sicily and others