Thursday, January 23, 2014

476 A.D.: The fall of Rome

Nothing may be more significant to the history of asthma, or medicine in general, than the fall of the mighty Roman Empire.  For it is a fact that as Rome fell, so to did all knowledge.  As all knowledge fell, so to did knowledge of science, philosophy, and medicine.

There was a time when Romans believed their empire would last forever.  In a sense, they may even have taken it for granted.  The reason for the decline is still being debated to this day, although the following are often credited:  (5, page 41-2)
  1. Rome was too large to be managed.  Rome was so spread out it was difficult to communicate  with people and inspire them to join the military, participate in government, or create industry.  
  2. Christianity distracted leaders from problems of the empire, which required intense concentration to remedy.  
  3. Able and educated men became Bishops rather than become military leaders in a defunct military or become governors in a nation that was falling apart.  Fixing the government seemed a hopeless task.  
  4. Population declined markedly between 250-400 A.D. mainly due to the bubonic plague.
  5. Rome had a weak economy, weakened more by population declined.  The economy worsened as markets shrank, and international trade declined.  
  6. The inability to form a industrial technology to support nation (no specialization)
  7. Regions became more dependent on themselves, weakening the whole (the Empire)
  8. Taxes were high, and an alienated populace didn't want to pay them
  9. Slavery.  Before 200 A.D. there were wars and slaves captured to do the work.  When wars were no longer needed, the number of slaves declined, yet by then Roman aristocracy were so spoiled they were too lazy to do the work themselves
Many scholars provide most of the blame for the fall of Rome, and eventually the decline of science and medicine, to the rise of Christianity, which started in Rome as a secret society and grew to be a credible institution. 

Yet Historian  Edward Withington claims this theory is far overblown.  He writes:  (1, page 119)
It must be admitted that the triumph of our holy religion, though by no means so responsible for the decline of medicine as is sometimes asserted, nevertheless tended to hasten than to hinder the downfall; but by means of one great institution it has, in the long run, done far more to further the healing art than it ever did to injure it."
Withington explains that various Christians, out of their good hearts, established some of the world's first hospitals and even an ambulance service.  He explains that:
"There is, I believe, no certain evidence of any medical institution supported by the voluntary contributions of the people, or by private munificence, till we come to the Christian days.  The primitive Church, as we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, cared for it's poor from the earliest time, but we find no definite notice of any special buildings for the reception of the sick till the close of the fourth century.  St. Jerome, writing about 400 A.D., says, that Fabiola, a noble Roman lady and his own friend, was the first to build a hospital."
 Withington proceeds to list various Christian hospitals. (1, page 119)

Regardless, Christianity enveloped western Europe, and in 476 A.D. German barbarians crushed Rome to a pulp, destroying libraries and places of learning.  Germans and Christians intentionally cast away all "the gifts of Athens and Alexandria," because the material world that evolved through technology was the antithesis of an eternal life with God in heaven. (2, page 84)

William Osler, in a 1913 lecture at Yale, explains that:
"Knowledge other than that which made a man 'wise unto salvation' was useless.  All that was necessary was contained in the Bible or taught by the Church.  This simple creed brought consolation thousands and illumined the lives of some of the noblest of men.  But 'in seeking a heavenly home man lost his bearing upon earth.'" (2, page 85?)
Other historians provide most of the blame for the fall of Rome on slavery.  In the early days of Rome there were only a few slaves, with most of them working on farms.  Most Romans were farmers in these days, and they were the people recruited to fight wars.  As Rome continued to win wars, the number of slaves skyrocketed.  It got to the point that there were more slaves than Romans who work for hire.  It got to the point that there were even more foreigners than Romans fighting Roman wars, according to historian Harold Johnston.  (6, page 87)

The country was almost completely run by foreigners, many of whom were better educated than their Roman masters.  Johnston explains that:. (6, page 87)
Ruinous as were the economic results of slavery, the moral effects were no less destructive. It is to slavery more than to anything else that is due the change in the character of the Romans in the first century of the Empire. With slaves swarming in their houses, ministering to their luxury, pandering to their appetites, directing their amusements, managing their business, and even educating their children, it is no wonder that the old Roman virtues of simplicity, frugality, and temperance declined and perished. And with the passing of Roman manhood into oriental effeminacy began the passing of Roman sway over the civilized world.
You can see how easy it was for the average Roman to become dependent on the slaves.  It got to the point that when the economy collapsed, it was difficult to get the average Roman excited about doing the work.

By the beginning of the 5th century German Barbarians were allowed to live in peace with the Romans in Rome.  So between slaves and Germans, foreigners far outnumbered Romans.  So, in 476 A.D., when the German Barbarians attacked Rome, there was little the natural born citizens of Rome could do to stop them.

These barbarians wanted to completely demolish Rome and all it stood for, and so they destroyed the libraries and places of learning.  While watching these places burn, the Germans were watching the demise of all knowledge of philosophy, science and medicine.  It would all be lost for over a thousand years.

  1. Withington, Edward Theodore, "Medical History from the Earliest Times: A Popular History of the Art of Healing," 1894, London, The Scientific Press. 
  2. Osler, William Henry, "The Evolution of Modern Medicine: A series of lectures delivered at Yale..." page 85
  3. Meryon, "
  4. Cantor, Norman F, "The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History," 1993, first edition, Harper Collins Publishers
  5. Cantor, Norman, "The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and expanded Edition of Medieval history: The Life and Deal of a Civilization," 1993, Harper Collins Publishers, New York
  6. Johnston, Harold Whetstone, "The Private Life of Romans," 1908, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Scott, Foresman and company

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