Two thousand years have now passed since the death of Emperor Caesar Augustus, yet the heritage of Rome still echoes in the historical consciousness of the peoples of Europe. The great Russian scholar and premiere Slavophile Aleksey Stepanovich Khomyakov (1804-1860) provides us a fine summary of how Europe’s tribes forged their cultures across the sweep of history, from the fall of Rome into the early Middle Ages. Translated by Mark Hackard.
Rome, of a character brisk and dominating, contained within itself all the history of Europe and the fate of humanity.
In the times of the Caesars, it reached an extraordinary degree of power, and at that moment its weakness was revealed, a natural property of any collective identity. In order to continue its dominion over the world, Rome had to be embodied in one person. The Republic gave way to the Empire.
The lord of the whole civilized world could not remain a Roman for long. His relation to his motherland vanished before a new approach to the peoples subdued by the Republic and passed into the hands of the Emperor.
The successors of Augustus expanded little by little the right of citizenship to all of their subjects, and Rome disappeared in its territorial possessions. But the state, founded on force and bound by the ties of external unity without any interior connections, could not endure. The Empire began to decline toward decadence.
In this age of downfall, Constantine the Great raised over the Roman world the banner of the Cross. The Empire assumed a new human spirit. But Christianity, having within itself sufficient strength for the founding of new states and their protection from any foreign pressure, did not accommodate itself with the old Rome. The Empire was destroyed.
From the Empire survived its Eastern half, more enlightened and independent from the Roman world in the spiritual sense and therefore more deeply and keenly assuming the Christian principle. But the Byzantine Empire already could not contain within itself the entirety of Roman power and fell little by little into the rank of second-degree states – akin to individuals in a human community, at one time obedient to the sovereign unity of Rome.
With the fall of Rome begins the life of Europe properly speaking. Little by little, sovereign life encompasses all of the Empire’s provinces up to the furthest North. The Gallic and Britannic Celts and the Spanish Iberians, famed in their ancient traditions and at one time shocking the enlightened states of the South, already had utilized the Roman heritage. They had absorbed into themselves a foreign education, had adopted a foreign language, and had lost all the elements upon which the possibility of independent activity was based. The fate of Europe went from the Roman into the hands of two great and native European tribes: the Germans and the Slavs. The first movement of peoples, and the first blows dealt to Rome with the exception of the soon to be vanquished Dacians, belonged to the Germans. Their movement was an incorrect counteraction to the conquering onslaught of a world power. At the same time the clans of the Franks and Alemanni crossed into Roman provinces and crashed into Gaul; other lesser bands broke through the Alps, and the great Goths, having overcome the barrier of the Danube, threatened Byzantium. An excess of new strength flaring up in the Germanic race threw it simultaneously into the Roman world and the eastern sphere. Ermanaric subdued the coast of Evksin, a land on the Danube and the middle part of Russia’s northern zone, where Jordanes already knew names that would in more recent times receive major historical repute.
The raids of the great Huns changed the direction of the Germans’ movement. Whoever these warlike arrivals from the Volga region were, the results of their onslaught were clear. Attila’s strikes were directed more at the Germanic world than at Rome. He left Byzantium completely at peace, and it seems that the Western Empire only brought about his wrath by granting assistance and refuge to the Germans. The weakened and terrified Goths, Burgundians, Suevi, and Alans all plunged toward the West. Even after the death of the great conqueror, they could not, nor did they dare to, return to the eastern lands whence the Hunnic storm swept upon them. And they settled forever in the provinces they had just subdued – beyond the Pyrenees and the Rhine, in Italy and the British Isles, where the mixed Germanic tribe of Anglo-Saxons and hardly Germanic Varini destroyed the kingdom of the Celts, who were already without protection from the Romans and powerless in defense of themselves. After the invasion of the Huns and the flight of the Germans to the West, in the East of Europe there suddenly appeared an entire world of Slavic peoples.
Abutting the Finno-Turkic tribes on their northern and eastern borders, the Slavs borrowed much from them in the ways of war. Meeting the Byzantine Empire in their southern reaches, they peacefully accepted from Constantinople many elements of enlightenment despite frequent and hostile clashes. Finally, to the West the Slavs bordered the Germanic world, thrown back into their previous natural boundaries by the Hunnic invasion. It is doubtless that on all the borders dividing not states but rather settled peoples, there formed over a span of time a mixed population equally belonging to both worlds, however distinct they were amongst each other. In such a way the Germans and Slavs at their meeting composed a multitude of minor tribes that history can ascribe to neither Germany nor Slavdom, and consequently, the positive borders of both regions cannot be defined with the mathematical strictness which, not being completely necessary for human education, makes for the best delight of all in the lives of lettered men.
We can consider the flow of the Elbe and the mountains of Bohemia the eastern limit of Germany and the western frontier of the Slavs, although there is no doubt that a few Germanic offshoots lived between the Elbe and the Oder and a great number of Slavic communes were interspersed into the Germanic sphere from the Elbe up to the very Rhine. A few, though historically important, remainders of the Celtic race and the Caucasian-Sarmatian (Ombri, Gotini, Iazyges) were contained within the Slavic sphere. But the warlike spirit of the Celts launched the greater number of them south beyond the Danube barrier, although some provinces such as Galicia, for example, kept the memory of them in their name. The few Sarmatians disappeared in an endless world of Slavic clans.
As we have already said, the western and greater part of Southern Europe went to the Germans; to this race belongs all recent development and almost the whole history of the European Enlightenment. But pure Deutschtum could only be found in the old boundaries of the tribe, and outside of them was confusion and abnormality. Whatever the structure of societies between the Rhine and the Elbe was, beyond the Rhine and the Alps it could already be nothing other than military. It is probable that even previous to our time, the constant clashes of Germans and Romans, as well as the ages-long struggle between the Empire and clans who would consequently form the confederation of the Franks, introduced into the very interior of the Teutonic lands a savage way of life – the preeminence of force, the organization of the war-band and all those conditional elements upon which states are built, though without the moral principles by which states are consecrated.
The clans further removed from Roman frontiers preserved with greater purity the principle of family and that of human personality. Such especially were the Saxons, whom neither by language nor by customs and religion we should consider as pure Germans. Unfortunately, namely those clans who were subordinated to Roman authority, who had already lost much from their identity and primitive virtues in mercenary service, in the enjoyments of decadent, luxurious Rome, and in rebellions where only the treachery of the savage alone could challenge the cultured force of the Romans (as, for example, in the German Arminius’s revolt and the destruction of the Varian Legions). These very clans, more than others accustomed to war and having cultivated within themselves the energy of conquering peoples, occupied the center stage of life in Western Europe.
Having captured Gaul, the Franks, checked from the south by the Goths and thereafter by the unstoppable force of the Arabs, swiveled again eastward and after a long struggle annihilated their Alemanni and Saxon rivals, who stood indisputably higher in every moral respect than the victors. Germany was corrupted by the return of an already corrupted Germanic element into her heartland. Such was the fate of Middle and Western Europe; but also in the northwest, on the islands where the best of the Germanic clans settled, fate did not allow a peaceful principle and pure communal organization, transferred by the Saxons to England and preserved by them despite long wars with Celtic outsiders, to develop. The Normans, without homes, families or souls before the judgment of men, Normans disinterestedly evaluating animal bravery and animal valor, destroyed the old England and brought all the vile depravity and inhuman ways imparted to them in France, customs that the Franks had taught the whole of Europe.
Our view of the Germanic world defines the significance of their eastern neighbors, the Slavs. Undisturbed by Rome, which only touched upon their southern lands and did not penetrate into the depth of their endless dwellings, and never scattering into alien regions or corrupting their internal life through the tempting crime of conquest, the Slavs kept inviolable the habits and customs of time immemorial. The arbitrariness of the war-band model, founded on savage force and unrestrained by any moral laws, was unknown to them. Human feelings and sacredness of family life were cultivated simple-heartedly between the grave of one’s fathers and the cradle of one’s children. Tilling of the earth, by whose labors the world was fed, and trade, the enterprise of which connected its ends, flourished in organic communities under the organic laws of tribal organization. Such was the character of the regions from the Don to the Elbe. Successful struggle with the Finns and Sarmatians did not corrupt the Slavs, because sacred war for one’s motherland does not resemble in its consequences the unrighteous war of the conqueror. The northeast of Europe awaited Christianity.
Read Part II.