Everywhere . . . the name of the Roman people is an object of reverence and awe.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman historian and soldier
They left the safety of the road and tramped out into the wilderness, lugging the heavy wooden chest between them. How their limbs must have ached as they carried it some two miles across the uneven landscape-for the box, while only a meter in length, was well built, densely filled, and sealed with a large silver spring lock. To move it any distance required at least two people, or a small cart, for crate and contents together weighed half as much as a person. But the value of the goods inside far exceeded the cost of a human being. An enslaved person imported from Gaul, brought across the British Sea (Oceanus Britannicus-today the English Channel), and converted into cash on the markets of London (Londinium) might in those days cost six hundred denarii-assuming he or she were fit, young, and either hardworking or good-looking. This was no small price, around twice an ordinary soldier's annual wages. But if it was a lot, it was also nothing at all for an elite citizen of the Roman Empire in the fifth century a.d. Inside the oak box that creaked as they hiked across the gently sloping countryside was a fortune sufficient to pay for a whole houseful of enslaved people.
The precious load inside the oak case included nearly six hundred gold coins known as solidi. These jangled against fifteen thousand silver siliquae and a couple of handfuls of random bronze pieces. The coins were stamped variously with the faces of emperors from three dynasties, the most recent of them the ill-fated usurper Constantine III (r. a.d. 407/9-11). Nestled among the coins were even greater treasures: an assortment of gorgeous gold necklaces, rings, and fashionable body chains designed to cling to the curves of a slender young woman's body; bangles etched with geometric patterns and lifelike hunting scenes; tableware including silver spoons and pepper pots in the shape of wild beasts, ancient heroes, and empresses; elegant toilet utensils including silver earwax scrapers and toothpicks made to look like long-necked ibises; bowls, beakers, and jugs; and a tiny elephant-ivory pyxis-the sort of trinket that rich men like Aurelius Ursicinus, whose name was etched into many of the items, liked to buy for refined women like the lady Juliane (Iuliane). A bespoke bracelet was personalized with a loving message spelled in tiny strips of beaten gold: vtere felix domina ivliane (Use this happily, Lady Juliane). And ten silver spoons advertised the family's devotion to the young but pervasive religion of the day: each was stamped with the symbol known as the Chi-Rho-a monogram made up of the first two Greek letters in the word Christ. This would have been instantly familiar to fellow believers-Christians-who were part of a community of the faithful that stretched from Britain and Ireland (Hibernia) to North Africa and the Middle East.
This hoard of coins, jewelry, and home furnishings was by no means the sum total of the family's valuables, for Aurelius and Juliane were members of the small, fabulously wealthy Christian elite of Britain-a villa set who lived in similar comfort and splendor to other elites right across Europe and the Mediterranean. But it was a significant nest egg all the same-and the family had taken some trouble in selecting what to include in it. That was only right, because this rich cache was effectively an insurance policy. The family had instructed that it be buried somewhere discreet for safekeeping, while they waited to see whether Britain's increasingly turbulent politics would tip over into governmental collapse, civil unrest, or something worse. Only time would tell what fate held for the province. In the meantime, the best place for an affluent clan's riches was underground.
The bustle of the busy road-the route that joined the eastern town of Caister-by-Norwich (Venta Icenorum) with the London-to-Colchester (Camulodunum) thoroughfare-had long receded into the distance, and the small group carrying the box found themselves alone and out of sight. They had walked far enough that the nearest town-Scole-was more than two miles away; satisfied that they had found a good spot, they set the box down. They may have rested awhile, perhaps even until nightfall. But soon enough shovels bit the earth, the soil-a mixture of clay and sandy gravel-heaped up, and a shallow hole emerged. They did not need to dig far-there was no need to waste effort, for they would be only making work for themselves in the future. So when the hole was just a few feet deep, they carefully lowered the box into it and backfilled the spoil. As they did so, the stout oak case containing Aurelius's spoons and silverware, Juliane's delicately wrought jewelry, and many handfuls of coins disappeared: buried like grave goods, those prized possessions of the deceased that had been laid to rest with their owners in half-remembered days of generations past. The diggers took note of the spot, then set off, relieved and unburdened, back toward the road. They would, they may have said to themselves, be back. When? It was hard to say. But surely, once the political storms battering Britain eased, and the barbarous invaders who attacked the eastern seaboard with wearying regularity were finally driven away, and the loyal soldiers returned from their wars in Gaul, Master Aurelius would send them back to dig up his valuable cargo. In a.d. 409, they did not know-and could not have begun to imagine-that Aurelius Ursicinus's treasure trove would in fact remain underground for nearly 1,600 years.
At the dawn of the fifth century a.d., Britain was the farthest-flung part of the Roman Empire, a superpower with a glorious history stretching back more than a millennium. Rome began as an Iron Age monarchy-tradition dated its origins to 753 b.c.-but following the reigns of seven kings (who, according to Roman lore, became increasingly tyrannical) in 509 b.c. it became a republic. Later still, in the first century b.c., the republic too was overthrown and Rome was ruled by emperors: at first a single emperor ruled in Rome, but later as many as four emperors ruled simultaneously from capitals including Milan, Ravenna, and Constantinople. The fourth Roman emperor, Claudius (r. a.d. 41-54), began the conquest of Britain in a.d. 43, assaulting the native peoples of the islands with an army of twenty thousand Roman legionaries and a war machine including armored elephants. By the end of the first century a large part of southern Britannia had been conquered, up to a militarized zone in the north that was eventually marked by Hadrian's Wall. Britain was henceforth no longer a mysterious zone at the limits of the known world, but a territory that had in large part been pacified and incorporated into a Mediterranean superstate. For the three and a half centuries that followed, Britain was joined to the Roman Empire, a political behemoth only rivaled for size, sophistication, military muscle, and longevity by the Persian megastates of the Parthians and Sassanids, and the empire of the Chinese Han dynasty. Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek-born historian who lived and wrote in the fourth century a.d., called Rome "a city destined to endure as long as the human race survives." The Roman Empire, meanwhile, had "set its foot on the proud necks of savage peoples and given them laws to serve as the eternal foundation and guarantee of liberty."
There was hyperbole here-but only a pinch. Ammianus Marcellinus was by no means the only serious Roman writer to look upon Rome and its empire and see a series of triumphs stretching back to the dimness of prehistory and forward to infinity. Poets and historians such as Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Livy gave voice to the superior nature of the Roman citizen and the epic character of the city's imperial history. Virgil's Aeneid, which wove Romans a magical origin myth, told of an "empire that will know no end" under "the people of Rome, the rulers of the world, the race that wears the toga." "It is our Roman way to do and suffer bravely," wrote Livy. Four centuries later, and even after an exceptionally troublesome age in which the empire had been wracked by civil war, usurpation, assassination, invasion, political schism, epidemic disease, and near bankruptcy, Marcellinus could still maintain that "Rome is accepted in every region of the world as mistress and queen. . . . Everywhere the authority of its senators is paid the respect due to their grey hairs, and the name of the Roman people is an object of reverence and awe."
Yet a generation after Marcellinus wrote these paeans, the western half of the empire was in a state of final collapse: Roman garrisons and political rulers were everywhere abandoning lands they and their forebears had occupied and ruled since the dawn of the millennium. Imperial rule dissolved in Britain in a.d. 409-10, never to be restored; the shock of Britain's abrupt exit from this Pan-European union was precisely what led elite families like that of Aurelius Ursicinus and Juliane to pack up their riches and put them in the ground, a financial hedge that became, quite unintentionally, a glittering time capsule preserving the end of an era. By the end of the fifth century a.d., the Roman Empire in the west no longer existed. It was, wrote the great eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon, "a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth."
The decline and fall of the western Roman Empire is a historical phenomenon that has exercised modern historians for centuries, for the legacy of Rome remains with us even to this day, stamped into language, landscape, law, and culture. And if Rome still speaks to us in the twenty-first century, its voice rang even louder during the Middle Ages-the period that this book aims to chronicle and explore. We will examine in detail the end of the Roman Empire in the next chapter. But now we must turn our thoughts to its rise (or rather, its mutation out of the republic) around the turn of the first millennium, and sketch the land as it lay immediately before the Middle Ages. For to see the medieval west properly, we must first ask how and why Eternal Rome (Roma aeterna) managed to command an empire connecting three continents, an innumerable number of peoples with their various religions and traditions, and a similarly vast babble of languages; an empire of tribal wanderers, peasant farmers, and metropolitan elites; an empire stretching out from the creative hubs of antique culture to the ends of the known world.
Climate and Conquest
Romans liked to tell each other they were favored by the gods. In fact, for much of their history they were blessed with good weather. Between roughly the years 200 b.c. and a.d. 150-when Rome flourished as republic and empire-a set of pleasant and profitable climate conditions settled upon the west. For nearly four centuries, there were no massive volcanic eruptions of the sort that from time to time depress temperatures across the globe; during the same age solar activity was high and stable. As a result, western Europe and the broader Mediterranean fringe enjoyed a cycle of unusually warm and hospitable decades, which also happened to be very wet. Plants and animals flourished: elephants roamed forests in the Atlas mountains, while grapevines and olive groves could be grown farther north than at any time in living memory. Tracts of land that in other eras were barren and hostile to the plow could be cultivated, and crop yields on traditionally "good" land boomed. These boon years, during which nature seemed to offer her greatest prizes to any civilization capable of recognizing its opportunity, are now sometimes called the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO) or Roman Warm Period.
Rome officially became an empire on January 16 in the year 27 b.c., when the Senate awarded Octavian-an adopted son of Julius Caesar-the title of Augustus. Prior to this the republic had been tortured by two decades of bloody civil wars; over the course of these wars, in 49 b.c., Caesar had seized power and ruled as a military dictator. Yet Caesar was an autocrat both of his time and ahead of it, and on March 15, 44 b.c.-the ides of March-he was murdered, which was direct reward, said the scholar and bureaucrat Suetonius (ca. a.d. 70-130), for his vaunting ambition, in which many Romans perceived a desire to revive the monarchy. "Constant exercise of power gave Caesar a love for it," wrote Suetonius, who also repeated a rumor that as a young man Caesar dreamed of raping his own mother, a vision soothsayers interpreted as a clear sign "he was destined to conquer the earth."
Fame was Caesar's destiny, but true greatness was Octavian's. Imperium was almost written on Octavian's face: his bright eyes and magnetically handsome features were somehow accentuated by a tousled, slightly disheveled appearance, which would have suggested an utter lack of vanity were it not for the fact that he wore stack-heeled shoes to raise him above his natural height of five feet seven inches. Octavian succeeded where Caesar had not, avenging his father's death and defeating his enemies in battle, eventually emerging as Rome's sole, uncontested ruler. As Augustus he accrued all the carefully separated political powers of the republic: effectively playing senator, consul, tribune, pontifex maximus (high priest), and supreme military commander all at once. Augustus's character divided Roman opinion-was he a high-minded visionary and peerless soldier-politician, or a corrupt, bloodthirsty, treacherous tyrant, wondered the historian Tacitus (ca. a.d. 58-116), without committing to either judgment. But his achievements as emperor-or as he preferred it, First Citizen (princeps civitatis)-were impossible to gainsay. On taking power he stamped out the embers of the late republic's debilitating civil war. He transformed the city of Rome with grandiose building projects-some of them already begun under Caesar and others of his own design. The five-hundred-acre Field of Mars (Campus Martius), littered with temples and monuments, was radically rebuilt. New theaters, aqueducts, and roads were commissioned. Only the finest building materials passed muster: on his deathbed Augustus bragged that he had found Rome a city of brick, but left it a city of marble. He carried out sweeping reforms to government, concentrating power in his own hands at the expense of the Senate, and encouraging a personal cult of imperial magnificence, which evolved under his successors until some emperors were venerated as demigods.
By the time Augustus died on August 19, a.d. 14, at the grand old age of seventy-five, the Roman Empire had been vastly and dramatically expanded, pacified, and extensively reformed. Britain was still an untapped wilderness (Caesar had blanched at the prospect of a full invasion when he visited in 55-54 b.c., and his son left the Britons alone too). The early Roman Empire included the entire Italian and Iberian peninsulas; Gaul (modern France); transalpine Europe as far as the Danube; most of the Balkans and Asia Minor; a thick slice of the Levantine coast from Antioch in the north to Gaza in the south; the vastly wealthy province of Egypt (Aegyptus), won by Augustus in a famous war against the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, Cleopatra, and her lover Mark Antony; and a continuous stretch of northern Africa as far west as Numidia (modern Algeria). And the stage was set for even greater expansion during the century that followed.