Rome left many legacies to the western world: the Latin language, the great code of law, the constitution of the Republic that had so much influence on the makers of the United States . In my class on Monday I focused on two of those legacies. First, the vision of power, of a vast and orderly state with enormous wealth and armed might, where the laws were followed and the emperor’s edicts were obeyed without question. This vision was kept fresh in the minds of medieval Europeans by the enormous physical legacy of Rome: roads, bridges, canals, forts, walls, cities, monuments, and more. When you find yourself wondering about the exaggerated awe some Medieval and Renaissance thinkers had for the classical past, you have to remember that they lived intimately with the surviving remnants of Roman genius: they traveled on Roman roads, depended on Roman bridges, saw around them the ruins of Roman water systems better engineered than anything that could be built in their own day. Contemplating the pathetic inability of their own governments to get anything done, they remembered the days of the Caesars, at whose command kingdoms disappeared, cities rose from nothing, and the world was covered with roads.
The Empire left another legacy, though, like a gray stain marring those monuments of gleaming marble: a legacy of corruption, assassination, civil war, conspiracy, treason trials, torture, and black magic. I had my students read fifty pages of Ammianus Marcelinus, who died around AD 400, the last of the many great pagan historians of the ancient world. Ammianus was a senior officer in the Roman army who knew many emperors and other leading figures, and he participated in some of the events he described. He was also a fine writer, and I enjoy his book. One of the things he wrote about was the awful treason trials that sprang up again and again across the troubled late imperial world. Conspiracies were unmasked at regular intervals and the conspirators executed in whatever ways the cruelty of the times could devise: torn to pieces, nailed to crosses, burned alive. It is impossible for us to know which of these conspiracies were real and which had been devised by sinister operators like Paul the Chain, so called because he could fabricate a chain of evidence linking any person, no matter how blameless, to any crime. We cannot sort out what to believe because the accused were usually tortured until they confessed. Reading these stories one is reminded again of what an awful evil torture is. Tortured enough – and some of these emperors and their agents accepted no limits on their power to inflict pain – men will confess to anything. Many of the accused conspirators, Ammianus tells us, confessed to attempting to kill the emperor with black magic. Thus the catalog of evils is completed, and to the all-too-real horrors of the poisoned dagger and the rack were added the imaginary evils of demonolatry, maleficia, and ruinous spells. As Ammianus warns us, in such a world truth is the first casualty. When men confess to the impossible in order to end the pain, and this is recorded as the verdict of justice, something truly terrible has happened, not just to them but to a whole civilization.
The sack of Rome by the Goths in AD 410 was an awful shock to the Mediterranean world. "When Rome fell," wrote St. Jerome, "the whole world perished in one city." Many people had thought Rome would stand undefeated until the end of time, when the trumpets of the final judgment would finally breach its walls. Instead it fell to a motley army of barbarians and Roman deserters that would have been brushed aside by any of Rome's great commanders. The immediate cause was not a military defeat, but another dismal round of fatal intrigue. Advisers of the Emperor Honorious convinced him that the general responsible for defending Rome, Stilicho, was betraying him, so Honorious summoned Stilicho to his court and had him assassinated. Many of Stilicho’s men promptly switched sides, preferring to serve under a barbarian king rather than the emperor who had killed their leader. Rome was left undefended, and the barbarians walked in.
Long before the barbarians conquered it, Rome had been fatally weakened by mistrust. That mistrust was fed by centuries of conspiracy, treason, slander, betrayal, and especially by the bloody tools of the torturer. A land where torture rules is a hall of mirrors where the truth can never be known and no one can be trusted, where the cries of anguished prisoners substitute for the discoveries of investigation and the arguments of reason. The Eternal City fell, not to barbarian armies, but to the rack, whispered rumor, and the knife in the dark.