Salvian says, “Rome is dying, but she continues to laugh.
The early church because it believed in the resurrection faced the world with confidence, it was not afraid of change and decay. Others as they saw Rome fall were filled with horror, to them there was no future, no hope. But men like Salvian the presbyter could see the fall of Rome coming and say it has to come, and let us welcome it.
One of the neglected books of the fall of Rome is Salvian, the governance of God. And what Salvion did when the first major bastion, Trier, fell to the barbarians and he lived there and he saw that very soon Rome would fall because there was no resistance, nobody was ready to fight, and he indicted first of all the Christians. He said that now you are successful and have been for a century, you have picked up all the traits of the Romans, all their moral evils and therefore you are no longer the salt that should preserve the empire but you have become a part of the problem. And this is an aspect of the fall of Rome that we don’t hear about.
Well, on a … the way people react, of course, has a great deal to do with their faith. One of the most memorable books I have ever read was the book by Salvian the Presbyter, S A L V I A N, The Governance of God. It was an account of the fall of the Roman Empire. It is not well known like Augustine’s work, but in some respects it is the greater work as far as a description of what happened is concerned, because Salvian describes the horrors that ensued, the unwillingness of people to face them, how when Trier was destroyed the people were in the coliseum for the games unwilling to defend the city and the survivors petitioned the emperor to rebuild the coliseum to improve their morale.
And Salvian’s whole point was that the horrors, grim as they were—and he was an eye witness to them—were better than the alternative. Rome had to fall, he said. And the judgment on Rome was a demonstration of the grace of God.
The presbyter Salvian wrote in the last days of Rome and before the barbarian invasions saying, “If Rome does not fall then we will know there is no God.” And we can say the same today.
Salvian gives us a grim account of the fall of Trier when he said the cries of the raped and the dying mingled with the cheers of the people who would not leave the arena. And when it was over and the city had been burned to the ground the survivors of the city council met together to petition the emperor. Rebuild the arena to improve the moral of the people. Salvian said, “Rome is dying but it continues to laugh.”
Read Salvian sometime or other, on the governance of God. Salvian welcomes the Fall of Rome. He said it was an evidence of the righteousness and holiness of God that Rome fell. He was a resident, at the time, of the barbarian invasions of Trier in what is now northern France, and he describes what happened as the barbarians took over the city. Most of the people were at the Arena watching the games. They couldn’t be bothered with defending the city, and he said the shouts of the raped and the dying mingled with those of the cheering crowds in the Arena, and after the barbarians passed through and left a burnt out city, the survivors of the city council met and petitioned the Emperor for funds to rebuild the Arena in order to improve the morale of the people, and Salvian described the insanity of man for more and more amusement and said, Rome dies but she continues to laugh as she is dying.” Salvian welcomed the fall of Rome.
In this respect he (Augustine) was a world apart from Salvian the Presbyter. Salvian wrote that, “Because God is, therefore Rome must fall,” and he looked to Rome as a vindication of God and the vindication of the Christian. He knew the habits it would create. He saw it before Augustine ever did, because he was in Treves, right on the border of Germany. When the Barbarians came, Treves was one of the first cities to be burned to the ground, and Salvian saw all the horrors that went with it, but Salvian said, emphatically as he wrote, “After Treves had burned, it is the governance of God, that this was the righteous judgment of God, and had to be welcomed by the believers, and it had to be seen as something that was necessary,”
Salvian gives us a vivid picture of the new morality of his day of the impurities of the theatre and of the circus. William Carol Bark, a Stanford historian, calls attention to Salvian’s observations and he comments: “Few observers of this period of history can have failed to ponder the fact that millions of Romans were vanquished by scores of thousands of Germans. According to Salvian it was not by the natural strength of their bodies that the barbarians conquered nor by the weakness of their nature that the Romans were defeated. It was the Romans’ moral vices that alone that overcame them. Narrow as it is, this judgment by one very close to the events remains respectable. As for the men of more exalted positions, the well educated noble men who fled to the barbarians in order to escape the persecution and injustice that prevailed among the Romans, it is clear that they like their poor compatriots had given up hope of obtaining justice and protection from the Roman state and its law. Their flight confirms the fact that in large areas of the western empire, public spirit and public justice had disappeared and that men were obliged to act privately and locally in matters that had formerly been regulated by central governmental authority.”
Rome died. Why? Rome had become humanistic to the core. This is implicit in a philosophy of Rome from the very beginning. The one basic law in Rome which progressively took action was this: the health or the welfare of the people is the highest law. Now over the centuries this law was implied, was applied more and more systematically. So that the republic gave way to the empire and the empire progressively did that which the republic had not done: catered to the mob. A welfare mob was created. Release was not enough. It had to be bred and serviced. So they were given free housing. Apartment houses were built for them; they were given food and they were given free tickets to the circus so they could go to the arena and see the Christians thrown to the lions. They were given free wine. But of course they always wanted more and Aurelius in 274 AD it gave way to another demand. The mob was becoming concerned it was traumatic for their young people when they became old enough to marry to have to go down on and apply for relief, it really hurt their feelings. And so what was the demand of the mob? They had cradle to grave security, they wanted welfare for their children without application and so Aurelian and the government said that every child born to every welfare family will have welfare as his birthright. He won’t have to apply and answer a lot of nosy questions from our officials. And his children and his children’s children will all have welfare as a birthright. Of course the mob was happy and the coins of that year 274 AD celebrated Aurelian as “our savior and our god.” But the poor man had nothing to deliver the next year so they killed him. All this sounds familiar does it not?