Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dr. Philip Daileader Teaching Company course on the Early Middle Ages fascinating!

I began listening to the Teaching Company course ?The Early Middle Ages? presented by Dr. Philip Daileader of the College of William and Mary and became almost immediately intrigued by a discussion of the writings of Belgian historian Henri Pirenne. Unlike Edward Gibbon who attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to a loss of moral fiber and incursion by the Germanic barbarians, Pirenne postulates that the fall didn?t really occur until the 7th and 8th centuries and attributes the eventual decay of European urban centers to the disruption of international trade networks brought about by the Muslim conquest of the Mediterranean region. Pirenne based this thesis, outlined in his book ?Mohammed and Charlemagne? published in 1937, on such observations as the disappearance of gold coin and papyrus north of the Alps that he points to as a clear indication that Europeans no longer had access to the richer areas of the Mediterranean during this time.

Lecture 2 about the Early Middle Ages focused on Diocletian?s reforms to the economic and social structures of the Roman Empire in his attempt to strengthen the empire through authoritarian means. As most of my study of the Roman Empire has been centered on the late Republican period, I know very little about the third century CE except that Diocletian formed a tetrarchy in an attempt to make management of the Roman Empire more efficient and responsive. But, today I learned about Diocletian?s more radical social and economic reforms that essentially lay the foundation for development of the feudal system. Dr. Daileader explained that Roman taxation was based on land production so it was detrimental to have citizens abandoning their farms and migrating to the cities looking for better opportunities. So Diocletian enactied laws that essentially bound people to the land and made them responsible for whatever taxes the land should be capable of producing. He then empowered large landowners to act as judicial officers to not only handle legal problems that might arise on the estate but eventually to collect taxes (ostensibly for Rome although abuse was almost immediate) as well (I couldn?t help but envision the Sheriff of Nottingham!). Diocletian implemented this system by conducting an empire-wide census that required people to register at their place of origin.

Diocletian also analyzed the economy and designated certain occupations as essential to the empire. For people engaged in these occupations, he made it mandatory that their family members would succeed them in the business if the primary provider died. For example, he determined that baking bread was essential to the empire so all sons of bakers had to become bakers to ensure that an adequate amount of the commodity would always be produced.

As for Diocletian himself, I guess he succeeded in requiring petitioners to prostrate themselves in front of his throne (apparently 3rd century CE Romans were more easy to manipulate than the Macedonians of Alexander the Great?s time!), kiss the hem of his gown, and call him ?Lord and God?. No more of this ?princeps? business!

More interesting details today in Dr. Daileader?s lecture about the Emperor Julian?s efforts to reestablish paganism as the religion of choice in the 4th century. He described how Julian issued an edict that restricted the teaching of classical Greek literature to only pagan tutors. Julian thought that the elite considered Greek literature the very foundation of a proper education so would hire pagan tutors for their children if the study of Greek literature was not available from anyone else. These pagan tutors would then influence their charges much in the same way Julian himself was influenced by a pagan tutor.

Dr. Daileader said in response to this edict, Christian tutors took passages of the gospels and transformed them into examples of Greek tragedies, comedies, and Homeric epics so their students would have an understanding of these classical literary forms. I wonder if any of those efforts are extant?

I wish modern educational institutions would place as much importance on the elements of a classical education as the Romans did!

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