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All Scripture references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIV-UK) unless stated otherwise
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from
Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
Luke 2: 1 (King James Version)
THE LINE OF Hadrian’s Wall runs from the river Solway in the west to the river Tyne in the east. For over eighty miles of moors and hill country the frontier rises and falls with the terrain, a stone boundary that once separated Roman civilisation in the south from the northern wilderness. Large sections of the wall survive today, supported in places by mile-castles and the remains of garrison buildings. It is an impressive work of engineering. The wall is made of several layers of large and rough-cut stone blocks, while the connecting temples and domestic buildings are adorned with carvings and inscriptions. The wall cuts through a deserted landscape that was once alive with traders and soldiers.
Fragments of handwriting on wooden tablets have been discovered at the fort of Vindolanda, one mile south of the wall. They give us a sketch of Roman life in Britain. Some are personal notes, typical of everyday exchanges that can be found in any age of human history. Among the fragments are requests for groceries, invitations for social occasions, as well as military and legal reports. The tablets are about the size of a postcard and are written in ink.[fn1] Silver and bronze coins have also been found at Roman sites along the wall.
The Roman coins recovered from the Northumberland mud were the same as those used around the Mediterranean coast – a single currency bearing a likeness of the Emperor. The Syrian auxiliary patrolling the Caledonian border could spend his wages in the taverns of northern Britain or in the markets of Palmyra two thousand miles to the south-east. The coins, Vindolanda tablets and archaeological remains of foreign wood and plant residues are proof of Britain’s foreign trade.
After the conquest the Romans divided Britain into four districts with each district under a separate administration. The Imperial staff of each district collected taxes from their province and used the revenues to fund central and local government. This broad style of Roman government gave Britons privileges that were not possible when they lived as separate tribes with a hereditary leadership. Roman law granted rights to all citizens of the Empire.
The Apostle Paul, himself a free-born citizen of Rome (Acts 22: 28), demonstrated the strength of Rome’s rule of law when he appealed to Caesar after an unsatisfactory hearing with Festus the governor of Judea (Acts 25: 10-12) :-
Paul answered: ‘I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no-one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!’ After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: ‘You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!’
That Paul’s appeal had been allowed by Festus demonstrates how the Empire eased assimilation of the vanquished nations by offering citizenship and access to the courts. Lex in latin can mean the law and it can also mean a covenant or contract, something that binds. Just as St. Paul could claim his rights with confidence, so Britons also could appeal to Rome.
In return for subjection to the Imperial law, British frontiers were guarded by Rome’s Legions. When Hadrian’s wall was completed between A.D. 122 and 130, Britain for the first time was a part of Europe – culturally, politically and militarily.
The sacking of Rome in 410 by the Visigothic army under Alaric I, heralded the Empire’s collapse. It was the first of several upheavals as the northern tribes of the Huns, Vandals and Goths moved south. These barbarian armies overran the civil and military powers and cut off the provinces from the centre of authority, effectively scattering the Empire’s officers and servants. Outlaws roamed freely and robbed the towns and supply routes. The western half of the Empire, fragmented and isolated, was left to defend itself.
The former glory and majesty of Rome inspired subsequent rulers of nations to recreate its golden age – that of a united Europe under one government. The church also had an interest in a return to order, on the principle that civil society is conducive to holy living. ‘Seek peace and pursue it’ is St. Peter’s advice (1 Peter 3: 11). Others looked for the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to return and establish His Kingdom on earth – the new Jerusalem: -
Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. (Revelation 1: 7).
But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3: 13).
Alive with hope, the Gospel spread throughout the ruins of the Empire. Earnest Christian men travelled across the European continent, founding churches and monasteries. In the early Middle Ages (before A.D. 1000) the characters of Columban, Virgilius and Fursa shone out for their missionary zeal. Catholic missionaries Augustine and Boniface promulgated a Christian faith centred in Roman practice and doctrine across Europe. Thus the peoples of Europe learned a common faith before there was any effective common government.
Situated in the capital of the old Empire and associated strongly with Sts Paul and Peter, the church in Rome had an advantage over those who opposed her. For practical reasons, civil rulers desired unity of faith among their subjects, and invoked the authority of the church at Rome to settle disputes. Popularity and tradition thus elevated the influence of Rome.
Two separate but allied motives united the interests of the Roman church and the leaders of the largely Christian nations. The church coveted civil authority to enforce its ecclesiastical decrees and defend its mission; monarchs sought Divine endorsement of their right to rule. Kings and bishops ambitious for a new civil order supported each other in their common desire to establish stable and popular government.
Historians mark the coronation of Charlemagne as the pivotal event in the development of Christendom.[fn2] He united the peoples of Neustria and Austrasia – Frankish kingdoms – into a single realm stretching from the Atlantic to the river Danube and from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. Charlemagne fought fifty-three campaigns defending and advancing the kingdom of the Franks. He demonstrated his support for the Roman church by confirming in a charter the Papal territories. Pope Leo III recognised and rewarded such fealty in A.D. 800 when, in the basilica of St. Peter, Leo bestowed on Charlemagne the title of Emperor.
The Emperor was the ‘defender of the faith’, and thus the highest legal authority, the maker and maintainer of the social order in which kingdoms came and went. From this perspective the Emperor was God’s executive agent in temporal affairs. Charlemagne died fourteen years after his coronation; within a century the kingdom of the Franks disintegrated. The Imperial office remained, and a succession of popes continued to appoint Emperors for another one thousand years.
To Be Continued
Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but
sites may expire or be moved.
The history and research surrounding the Vindolanda Tablets are available over the internet. The Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents and the Academic Computing Development Team at Oxford University have collaborated to present the tablets on a website. It is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
< http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/exhibition/setting.shtml > (retrieved 24 September 2011).
James Viscount Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (London: MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1928), p. 50.
Article copyright July 2011 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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Map is of Central Europe 980. Area in yellow denotes the Holy Roman Empire. This map is from the Atlas to Freeman’s Historical Geography, edited by J.B. Bury, Longmans Green and Co. Third Edition 1903. It is in the public domain and you may download it or print it for any use.