Oh my. Can I really ask for any historical period? Let’s have the Renaissance then, if you wouldn’t mind?

The Renaissance is an interesting one. It fascinates me how people perceive the Renaissance as a literal rebirth of knowledge in Europe, when in reality, the pursuit of knowledge in Europe never really disappeared. The pursuit of knowledge in Western Europe–outside of the walls of monasteries and convents–ceased for six or seven centuries in the wake of the fall of Rome (as defined in my post on the subject). However, during what we commonly think of as the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire was going strong in Eastern Europe, and the Islamic Caliphate was approaching its golden age.

The pursuit of ancient, Classical knowledge never died in those areas. That ancient knowledge, the science and the math and the philosophy and the medical teachings, lived on in those two civilizations, especially within the Islamic one. Here is a map of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Near East during the Medieval period to illustrate the general proximity of these three civilizations to each other:

So, it always seemed odd to me that we’d celebrate the re-birth of knowledge in Western Europe, but ignore its continued presence throughout Islamic civilization and the Byzantine Empire. It is very Western-centric.

Rome did not fall in 476 CE

The thing about the decline of a massive empire is that you cannot pinpoint the time at which it ceases to exist. You can pinpoint when it has ceased to exist, but determining when it fell is much more inexact endeavor.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a process which took place over the course of centuries.

First, we must remember that the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Empire and a Western Empire in the fourth century. The Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) endured into the fifteenth century until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. So in discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, we must remember that we are only discussing the Western Roman Empire.

Here is a map showing the East/West division (please note that this map shows the height of the Empires; within the fifth century time-frame being discussed in this post, the West controlled a significantly smaller amount of territory than is pictured below):

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By 476, the Western Roman Empire had, for all intents and purposes, already fallen. Yet at the same time, it would continue to live on for centuries.

What happened in that year was the deposition of the last traditional emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus, by Flavius Odoacer (historians are unsure as to whether he was a Goth or a Hun). That’s all. And it was hardly a tumultuous event; the peoples the Romans referred to as “barbarians” had, in fact, been major political players in Rome for over 100 years prior to the date of the perceived fall. Many of those tribes were fully assimilated into Roman society, and it was often the case that they functioned as the true powers behind the imperial throne. We can only assume that Odoacer grew tired of the charade and decided to make it official.

By the fifth century, these tribes—the Vandals, the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Franks—had assimilated to the Roman way of life and were exporting it to areas outside the bounds of the Empire. Western Roman culture outlived the Western Roman Empire as a result of these tribes.

For at least two centuries after the generally accepted time of the fall of the empire, the Roman culture lived on. However, by around time of Charlemagne (late eighth, early ninth century), most of the populace had come to view the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire with suspicion and disdain. Thus, we can probably say that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist by the mid or late seventh century.

Aelia Eudoxia and Aelia Pulcheria: Power and Purity Politics

Pictured above from left to right are two of my favorite historical ladies: Aelia Eudoxia (d. 404) and Aelia Pulcheria (399-453).

Aelia Eudoxia was a late fourth century, early fifth century Byzantine empress. Her husband, the Emperor Arcadius, wasn’t much of an emperor, so she was the real power behind the throne. Her power, religious politics, overtly feminine presentation, and influence over the populace pissed off St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople and influential preacher) so much that he declared her to be the second Jezebel, making him the second Elijah.

Her daughter, Aelia Pulcheria, was even more amazing. Her brother, Theodosius II, was the emperor, but like her mother, it was Pulcheria who held the true power. At the age of 14, she took a vow of chastity and ordered her sisters to do the same. While this may have been done out of true religious sentiment,* it is far more likely that she did it to keep hold of her power; the vow ensured that she would never be forced to marry and lose her power to a man. This, of course, pissed off loads of ambitious nobles who were hoping to gain power by marrying into the imperial family.

In short, Pulcheria manipulated the patriarchal construct of appropriate female religious behavior in order to consolidate her power and keep it out of the hands of men. She used the patriarchy against them, and there was nothing they could really do or say about it because they were the ones who created that framework in the first place. Fucking brilliant.

*This vow of chastity was influenced by her devotion to the Theotokos, or the Virgin Mary. This particular form of worship is known as Mariology.