Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Historical themes


The “barbarization” of the Western Roman Empire

Rev. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlasios, Hierotheos Vlachos


Translated by: A. N.

Taken from the book: «Born and Raised as Romans» by the Rev. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlasios, Hierotheos Vlachos.

Table of Contents


This title may seem somewhat provocative. We are referring to the “barbarization” of the western region, even though we are aware that there exists in it a significant technological civilization and scientific progress; even though we had been taught to regard the States and the nations comprising the West as “enlightened”.

It must be stressed from the very beginning, that this expression – “barbarization of the West” – does not allude exclusively to our times, nor to the course of today’s States in the western region; but only to that which occurred in the past: that is, how they lost such a magnificent and stately cultural heritage, to end up in barbarity. This can be further supplemented by the viewpoint that although today’s States may be equipped technologically and possess scientific progress, they nevertheless lack the cultural tradition that consoles the human spirit.  This fact becomes evident, in the ease with which the various oriental currents infiltrate the western world.  It is a fact that the westerners, disillusioned by the nonexistence of a spiritual infrastructure, are in search of something more profound and more essential, that will help them solve their intense psychological and existential concerns.

We have no intention of analyzing the situation that prevails in the western world today. An attempt will be made however, to see how the West disconnected itself from the civilization and the profound spiritual infrastructure that the Roman Empire possessed.

It is of course a known fact that the entire Roman Empire – which stretched from Spain down to Egypt - was influenced and permeated by the Hellenic civilization and the revelatory theology as preserved within the Orthodox Church. But with the passing of time, when the capital city moved to the city of Byzantion and was re-named “New Rome”, the western sector of the Roman Empire – now deprived of its power by its central administration – was exposed to the onslaught of the barbaric tribes, which eventually occupied it.  The Barbarians tried to destroy whatever belonged to the Hellenic-Orthodox civilization and then create their own tradition and their own civilization.  Thus, what we refer to today as the European civilization has nothing to do with the Hellenic-Orthodox or the Roman civilization. It may possess some of its elements, but fundamentally, it is entirely different [1].

We do not intend to analyze the subject based on Romanity’s sources.  I am declaring from the very start, that I fully accept father John Romanides’ research, as well as the pursuant research by father George Metallinos.  A very fine analysis is also made by Anastasios Filippides, in his book “Romanity or Barbarism?”  From these surveys, we become fully aware that the western sector of the Roman Empire was eventually taken over by the Franks, who tried to destroy whatever was tied to Romanity’s civilization.  We also know that a large portion of the West’s population had not been affected or significantly changed by the spirit that the Barbarians introduced, hence their persistent revolts against the Barbarian conquerors.  It is within this context, that we should also see the French revolution.  We furthermore know that the west European civilization is the complete opposite of the roman civilization.

            All of these facts are familiar and have been analyzed and presented by the aforementioned Professors in their published works, so, I would now like to present the views of a western scientist and researcher, Jacques Le Goff, as detailed in his book titled “The Civilization of the Medieval West”, which was translated into Greek.

            Before commencing the presentation of certain thoughts of this author, I must emphatically stress two things.  Firstly, several important historical details will be presented, which indicate that the West was “barbarized” with the advent of the barbaric tribes, especially the Franks.  These pieces of information are important, precisely because they are being presented by a Frank researcher-historian.  Secondly, I will not be agreeing with certain observations and interpretations by the author, because it is obvious that they are aligned with Frankish historiography.   Of course I am not a historical scientist, but the reason I am saying this is because the analyses of the author will be judged on the basis of father J.Romanides’ and father George Metallinos’ interpretations.

            Apart from the above, Jacques Le Goff’s book is significant, because it offers us some exceptional testimonies.  Given that we Greeks unfortunately are quick to doubt our own researchers, such as the aforementioned (by attributing to them the characteristic of fanaticism), it would be interesting to see what western scientists have to say on the same matter.


1. Biographical information on Jacques Le Goff

The translator of the book from the French edition, Rika Benveniste[2], claims that Jacques Le Goff is one of those people who discovered the Dark Ages in the 20th century.  In fact, according to her own words, his participation “in the discussion regarding the theoretical and methodological choices of this historian, and the creation of a workshop for the historical anthropology of the medieval West is priceless”. [3]

“J. Le Goff was born in Toulon in 1924; he studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure, in the French School of Rome, but also at the Universities of Prague and Oxford.  He began his career at the University of Lille, then worked at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and from 1960, was enrolled in the Sixth Wing of the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes (renamed “Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales” in 1975)» [4]. Today he is the director of studies in the higher School of Social Sciences in France, where he directs the seminar “Historical Anthropology of the Medieval West”.  He is also a member of the committee that runs the magazine Annales ESC.  Lastly, along with some others, he symbolizes the “new history” as cultivated by the French historical school.” [5].

All of the above information indicates firstly that he has access to sources and is able to study the history of the medieval West, and secondly, as we shall see, he cannot fully detach himself from western ponderings.

A certain passage from the author’s prologue regarding the Greek edition is quite significant, where the following are mentioned:   “The Roman Empire had embodied the Hellenic and the Hellenized world; also the Roman and the Romanized world.  Their Christianization could have helped to reinforce and deepen this union.  Unfortunately, the Dark Ages split them into a western, Latin-speaking Europe and an eastern, Hellenic Europe that professed the so-called orthodox Christianity. Where there previously used to be a lack of understanding and at times opposition, but with attempts to bridge medieval western Christianity and Byzantine Christianity, now, the Turkish conquests in southeastern Europe compounded the separation.  Fortunately, ever since the Hellenes gained their independence at the beginning of the 19th century, followed by other orthodox Christian peoples, this Europe never ceased to create relationships, more and more close ones, with western Europe”[6].

            In this excerpt, one can clearly perceive the confusion that prevailed between the western, Latin-speaking Europe and the eastern, Hellenic Europe, as well as the difference between the so-called roman Christianity and orthodox Christianity.  From father John Romanides’ studies, as well as father George Metallinos’ studies, we are made aware that there is no difference between orthodox and roman Christianity, since the Orthodox is Roman, whereas western Christianity expresses the Frankish-Latin tradition.  Furthermore, any distinction between western and eastern Europe is always scrutinized because, although there is a uniform Roman Empire, at its western and its eastern regions however, the current European civilization is one that has been shaped by the prevalence of the Frankish conquerors and the attempts of the westerners to rid themselves of the Frankish mentality.  Thus, we must clearly distinguish between the Europe prior to Charlemagne and the one after him.

            Furthermore, Le Goff’s influence by Frankish historiography is evident, when he refers to a common heritage from ancient times, by posing the question:  “What would Europe be, without its Hellenic heritage?”[7]. It becomes obvious at this point, that he has given priority to ancient Hellenic tradition, and that he has overlooked the orthodox tradition of Romanity that was embraced through the centuries up to our time, thanks to the experience of all those who had experienced theosis.

            These observations by no means lessen the author’s work.  They are pointed out however, so that we can read and utilize in the best and most authentic manner the information that he is preserving and conveying to us.  And this is exactly what we shall be doing, in the analysis below.


2. The advent of the Barbarians in the western region of the Roman Empire

Given his particular perspective, Jacques Le Goff frequently mentions that the moving of the Capital of the Roman Empire from Old Rome to New Rome –Constantinople- also moved the roman world from the West to the East.  The Byzantium now constituted the continuation of Rome, and the West thus “became impoverished and was barbarized”[8].  Because of this, the “medieval West was born on the ruins of the roman world”[9].  He maintains therefore, that the particular cultural tradition that had prevailed in that region for years, started to vanish.

We mentioned earlier that the vast differentiation of the western region from the eastern one took place mainly during the 8th century, with the prevalence of the Franks.  That was when a new lifestyle was introduced, as well as a new way of thinking.  Despite this differentiation however, large masses of the population were –and continued to be- Romans by conscience, at heart and in their cultural traditions.

But we cannot ignore the fact that with the passing of time, a certain barbarity began to prevail in the western region.  In many parts of this book, mention is made of the difference between the Romans and the Barbarians; of the Barbarian invasions that “barbarized” roman territories.  The first chapter of his book is titled “The settlement of the barbarians” (5th-7th century), where we find a wealth of information.  I would like to present a few phrases and characterizations of Jacques Le Goff:

·        There is a repeated mention of the difference between Romans and Barbarians.[10]

·        The Roman civilization appealed to the Barbarians.[11]

·        Elsewhere, it is said that: “the decadent Romans, now inwardly barbarized, were reduced to the level of the crass Barbarians, who were nobles externally.[12]

·        The Roman masses are being “barbarized”[13].

·        The Saxon peoples are ruthless, the Franks are treacherous, the Jutes are inhuman, the Huns are obscene[14].

      The settlement of the barbarian tribes in the western region of the Roman Empire is described in detail. At times, it was with slow and progression, and other times, with sudden charges that were linked to battles and slaughters;  “the invasion of the barbarians between the beginning of the 5th and the end of the 8th century, profoundly changed the political map of the West, which, technically, was still under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine emperor”.[15]

We shall not give a full description of the settlement of the barbarians in the western region of the Roman Empire, but will only make note of a few landmarks, as described by Jacques Le Goff.

            Between the years 407 ad 429, Italy, Gaul and Spain are desolated.  The most important event is the siege, the occupation and the ransacking of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths of 410. “The Vandals, Alans and Suabians desolate the Iberian peninsula.” The Vandals, who are the only barbarians with naval power, “reached northern Africa and conquered the Roman territory of Africa – Tunisia- as well as easternmost Algeria.”  Of course after Alaric’s death, “the Visigoths withdrew from Italy towards Gaul in 412 and then in 414 towards Spain, where they regrouped in 418, to settle down in Aquitalia..”[16].

            In the middle of the 5th century, many and significant changes took place.  The Scandinavian barbarians, the Angles and the Saxons occupied Britain. The empire of the Huns was temporarily formed, by Attila, who “united the Mongol tribes which had infiltrated the West and then conquered and assimilated other Barbarians[17].  In 468 the Visigoths re-conquered Spain. At that time, Claudovic and Theodoric appeared on the scene, with their eye on the West.  Claudovic, who recruited the Frankish tribes, conquered Gaul, so, in 511 the Franks became the masters of Gaul, with the exception of Provence. [18]

            In general, “during the beginning of the 6th century, it appeared that the partitioning of the West had been achieved:  between the Anglo-Saxons in Britain which became cut off from every kind of relations with continental Europe; the Franks who had taken over Gaul, the Burgundies who confined themselves to Savoy; the Visigoths who became masters of Spain, the Vandals who settled down in Africa, and the Ostrogoths who ruled over Italy.”[19].

            The final occupation of the western sector of the Roman Empire occurred in the 8th century, by the Franks.  Pipin the Short – son of Charles Martel – reached an alliance with the Pope, after giving him temporal power over a section of Italy around Rome.  The Pope in turn bestowed on him the title of King.[20]  The even greater dominance of the Franks in the West was during the reign of Charlemagne, who was considered a prominent figure and leader of the Frankish Empire.

            The fact is, that the Franks introduced the feudal system. “The Frankish kings regarded the kingdom their property, exactly as they do their estates or their treasures. The kingdom that belonged to them the franks distributed amongst their heirs.”[21].  It was with these distributions, that the future nations were to be formed. In other words, the western Frankish region was to comprise Francia, the eastern region was to comprise Germany, which was to move westward and southward, where Italy is situated..

            The king of Germany, Otto I, was crowned Imperator Augustus, after guaranteeing the Pope’s temporal authority. His son, Otto II (973-983) bore the title Imperator Romanorum, and the son of the latter, Otto III, proclaimed the restoration of the Roman Empire.  However, the people of Rome rose up against Otto III, following which, his heir –Henry II- returned to the «Regnum Francorum», in other words, the kingdom of the Franks.[22]

            From this brief retrospective journey, it appears that after moving the Capital of the Roman State from Old Rome to New Rome –Constantinople- many Barbarians had designs against the western section of the Roman Empire.  Eventually, it was the Franks who prevailed, who created the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and who created a particular civilization.  However, there continued to be a reaction to these Barbaric raids by the roman population of those regions. In fact, the revolution of the populace of Rome against Otto III, who usurped the title of Roman Emperor, is not irrelevant to the existence of a roman conscience in the population of western Romanity.

            Jacques Le Goff notes that when the roman dream of the year 1000 was extinguished with the revolt of the people of Rome: “a renewal was ready to see the light of day: the renewal of the entire West.  Its sudden appearance made the 11th century an era of Western Christianity’s true beginning[23].

            From this conclusion, it is obvious that we have a political and religious withdrawal of the western world from the orthodox east – from the roman cultural tradition.  Of course this did not permeate the entire population, but it does show the differentiation.  Consequently, what we today refer to as the western civilization is a creation derived from conflicts and distancing from Romanity, from the life and the beliefs of the true Romans.  In reality, it is the creation of the barbarian Franks.

            The Barbarians, who were idolaters, had embraced Christianity. The characteristic here is that:

 “the proselytized barbarians – Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundies, Vandals and later Longobards” embraced Arianism[24], while the Franks had embraced Orthodoxy, although they had combined it with pagan habits and traditions.  Jacques Le Goff says:  “the masterly touch of Clodovic was his accession –along with his people- not into Arianism, but to Catholicism.”[25].  Again, the confusion observed in Le Goff’s work becomes more evident, as he relates Catholicism as it is known today, with Orthodoxy. The fact is, that neither the Franks nor any other barbaric peoples were familiar with Orthodoxy.  Illiterate as they were, and crude, and because they combined elements of Orthodoxy with their pagan perceptions, they were a far cry from Orthodoxy.  Their views on the proceeding of the Holy Spirit, their disposition to theologize without orthodox prerequisites and through only the perspective of the blessed Augustine, created many problems in the western world.

            The settling of the Barbarians in the western region of the Roman Empire was not achieved painlessly and gently. From sources of that time, we learn that their infiltration was linked to slaughters, looting and mutating of cultural traditions.  Le Goff gives us such pieces of information, which we must present further along, because they are very characteristic.

            The Barbarians that settled in the West during the 5th century were not “new peoples, but savage ones, who had only just left the forests and their steppes.”  Le Goff however insists that as they passed through, they assumed various elements from the peoples that they encountered on the way [26]. From a testimony of 440 A.D., we extract the following words: “the Saxon people are ruthless, the Franks are treacherous, the Jutes are inhuman, the Huns are obscene “[27].

            In  Ammianus Marcellinus’ description we see the savageness of the Huns: “Their savageness exceeds everything: with a piece of iron, they slashed deep wounds on the cheeks of the newborn, in order to destroy every trace of fuzz; in that way, they would grow old beardless and unattractive like eunuchs. They have a short, stumpy body, robust limbs and a thick neck. Their square shoulders give them a fearful appearance.  One would think they are biped animals, or those ill-shaped forms, shaped like a tree trunk, that decorate the edges of bridges. The Huns neither cook, nor do they season whatever they eat; their sustenance consists only of wild roots or raw meat, from the first animal that happens to appear before them:  they only warm it slightly, placing it on their horse’s back, between their legs. They have no refuge. They do not use houses, or graves… They cover themselves with cloth or the hides of rats which they sew together; they do not have any garment for indoors and another for outdoors; if they should ever put on a cape with old coloring, they will abandon it, only when it is so worn out that it falls off them…. One would say that they are nailed to their horses… Their feet never touch the ground, not even to eat, or to drink; they sleep lying down on the frail neck of their beast of burden, where they dream of everything at their leisure…”[28].

            Saint Ambrosios considers them inhuman enemies and exhorts Christians to defend “their homeland against the barbarian invasion”, with weapons.  Bishop Synesios of Cyrene also exhorts them, making use of a verse from Homer  “to drive out the accursed dogs that destiny brought”.[29].

            Bishop Horentio of Auch writes the following, after the invasion of 417 in Gaul: “See how suddenly death has weighed down on all the earth, how violently war has struck these peoples. Neither the course terrain with its thick woods and the high mountains, nor the current of the rivers with its whirlpools, or the protection provided to the territory by the castles, or the walls of the city, or the obstacle that the ocean creates, or the somber loneliness of the deserts, or the gorges, or even the caves where dark rocks predominate, could escape from the hands of the Barbarians.  Many were lost – victims of this bad faith, of perjury. Many were denounced by their townsmen. Ambushes caused serious harm, as did the violence among the people. Mothers succumbed to wretchedness together with their children and their husbands, and masters succumbed to slavery along with their serfs.  Others became prey to dogs, and many saw their houses in flames; they watched as their lives were taken from them and then become offerings in the fire. In townships, in the farms, in the countryside, at crossroads, in every canton, on both sides of the road, there is death, pain, destruction, fire, mourning. One single fire turned all of Gaul to smoke[30]

            Dreadful destruction also took place in Spain, as described by Bishop Idatius: “The Barbarians are ruining the Spains; the plague of epidemics is also rampant there, and the tyranny of the extortionists is looting the income and the fortunes that are hidden in the cities, and swarms of undisciplined soldiers are wasting it.  An inhuman hunger is so widespread, that the people in its grip are devouring human flesh; mothers drown their children, they roast them and feed themselves with their bodies.  The animals which had become used to human corpses that had died of hunger, murder weapons or epidemics, would kill even living people; they were not satisfied with the flesh of the cadavers and would attack the human species. Thus, the four plagues: weapons, hunger, epidemics and beasts, are storming the entire world and the predictions of the Lord through His prophets are being realized.[31]

            The Barbarians of the Medieval West resemble their ancestors the Alans, who are vividly described by Ammianus Marcellinus: “The pleasure that the docile and peaceful spirits find in an industrious school, they find in dangers and in war.  In their eyes, supreme pleasure was achieved by losing their lives on the battlefield; death by old age or an accident was considered shameful and unmanly, and was accompanied by atrocious insults; to kill a man was heroism, for which they could not find enough praises. The most glorious trophy was the enemy’s hair; it comprised an ornament for the battle horse.  In these people, we see no temple, no sanctuary, not even a cottage covered with straw. A bared sword plunged into the ground according to the barbaric custom, became the symbol of Mars; they honor him with reverence, as the Master of the territories that they traverse.”[32]

            Jacques Le Goff uses the testimony of Gregory of Tour: “In those times, many crimes were committed… everyone meted out justice according to his own will.”  And he adds: “The seeking of torture inspired medieval iconography for a long time. Whatever tortures the Roman idolaters did not impose on Christian martyrs, the catholic Franks imposed on their own people. They often chopped off hands and feet and the tip of the nose; they would gouge out their eyes, mutilate the face with a red-hot iron, they wedged sharp rods underneath fingernails and toenails… After the wounds had festered with pus and had begun to heal, they re-opened them.  If necessary, they called for a doctor,  so that the poor unfortunate would be healed in order to be tortured with even more severe methods.”  In 677 A.D., Leodegar (Saint Léger), Bishop of Autun, fell into the hands of his enemy, Ebroin, Mayor of the palace of Neustria.  They cut out his tongue, they slashed his cheeks and his lips, they forced him to walk barefoot over a trench, which they had strewn with sharp stones that punctured his feet, and finally, they gouged out his eyes.  Brunhilde’s death was analogous; after torturing her for three days, they finally tied her to the tail of a wild horse, which they flogged until it had bolted….

            The stony wording of their codices is what was more impressive. This is an excerpt from their insane law: “For the severing of a hand or a foot, or of an eye or a nose: 100 soldes; but only 63 if the hand remains hanging; for the severing of a thumb: 50 soldes, but only 50 if it remains hanging; for the severing of the index finger (the finger used in archery): 35 soldes; for two fingers together 35 soldes; for three fingers, 50 soldes.”[33]

            Slaughters and pillaging were also practiced by the Franks. Jacques Le Goff will write characteristically: “In the east, Charlemagne ushered in  a tradition of conquests, in which slaughter and proselytism walked hand-in-hand; it was the christianizing by force, and was practiced for a very long time in the Middle Ages. Along the length of the Northern sea, between 772 and 803 A.D., the Saxons were the first to be conquered –and with great difficulty- through a series of expeditions, with a succession of apparent victories and uprisings of the supposed defeated populace, of which the most spectacular was the one headed by Viducind.  A savage repression followed the destruction that the Franks had undergone in Suntal:  Charlemagne ordered the decapitation of four thousand five hundred rebels in Verdain.

            With the aid of the missionaries who each year were placed in charge of soldiers - some of which would baptize, while others would pillage, burn and slaughter - and through mass relocations, Charles managed to finally subjugate the Saxons.  According to a decree that was issued to assist in the conquest, the wounding of a missionary and any kind of offending of the Christian faith was punishable by death.  In Bremen, Munster, Paderborn, Verden and Minden, bishoprics were founded.”[34]

Thus, the advent of the barbarians in the western region of the Roman Empire is linked to horrendous pillaging and slaughters. The Roman population is decimated.  The Barbarians (mainly the Franks) strive to prevail through murder and terrorizing.  The Orthodox Clergy was the main recipient of their aggressive mania.  After slaughtering the Roman Clergymen, they placed their own clergy in their place, thus altering the composition of the Christian Hierarchy; in actual fact, they had destroyed the apostolic tradition and succession.

            Of course, in some of the descriptions of older sources, an element of exaggeration is expected. But even this exaggeration was an indication of the reaction of Western Romanity to the infiltration of the barbaric tribes in the western sector of the Roman Empire.

            Jacques Le Goff characteristically notes: “The commencement of the history of the Medieval West is truly macabre. For ten centuries, the tune will remain the same – slavery, hunger, famine… the animals will remain the calamitous protagonists of this history.”[35].

            It would be interesting for one to ask exactly what the Church and Constantinople did, amidst this whirlwind.  How did they react to this situation?  It is not possible to go into the details of this point; what we should note however, is that the Orthodox Clergy tried to save whatever they could, they preserved the people, by negotiating with the Barbarians, they distributed food and practiced charity.[36]  Naturally, Jacques Le Goff maintained that “its bishops, who all belonged to the aristocracy of the major land owners, were almighty beings within their cities, within their bishopric territories, and they strove to become just as powerful within the kingdom.”[37].   From the research and the analyses that father John Romanides had made, it is evident that the bishops who were instated by the Franks indeed had such characteristics, and that they indeed exercised such authority; except that they were not Romanity’ s Bishops and Clergy, who were actually the ones that suffered the Frankish Bishops’ aggressive mania.

            Even Constantinople reacted to the infiltration of the Barbarians.  Le Goff maintains that in the beginning, the emperors held a passive stance towards the Barbarians, since it was their desire to keep them subjugated, by ceding to the Barbarian Kings titles of nobility such as consul or patrician.  Later on, however, they apparently abandoned their passiveness and retaliated. Justinian wanted to recover the entire western section of the Roman Empire. The Roman generals “dismantled the kingdom of the Vandals in Africa (533-534), the gothic dominance in Italy… they took away the Vaitic colony from the Visigoths in Spain.” But these successes were only transient.[38]


3. The western historical perspective

      We outlined some of Le Goff’s testimonies regarding the Barbarian invasion in the western sector of the Roman Empire and the problems that arose from it.  Nobody can doubt the sources, however one cannot deny some of the exaggerations that are observed in these reports-descriptions. As we have already mentioned, Jacques Le Goff cannot escape from the perspective in which history was written in the West. That is why it is necessary to examine three observations regarding the invasion of the Barbarians, which, in some way, attempt to soften the macabre climate of that era.

The first observation was that the advent of the Barbarians was accepted by the Romans,, because of the wretched conditions that prevailed.  In other words, as Le Goff claims, it was the passive stance of the inhabitants that favored the settlement of the Barbarians. This was the result of the pressure that populations were subjected to, by the wealthy class, and this is the reason one speaks of a barbarizing of the western populations before the advent of the Barbarians, and a suicide of the roman civilization. However, because the author cannot explain all the phenomena, he finally maintains that the roman civilization in the West did not die, but that it survived, through the Barbarians.[39]

            Father John Romanides, who concerned himself especially with this issue, proved in his writings that the constant revolts of the Romans of the West against the conquerors – especially the Franks – are proof that the Barbarians were not well received by the roman population.[40] Nor can the revolts or the rousing of the Romans of the West by the Emperor of Constantinople be explained by the theory of free and willing reception of the Barbarians by the Romans of the West. Furthermore, the slaughters that took place -as we mentioned above- cannot be explained either. Acts of this nature cannot be justified, if we were to concede that the prevalence of the Barbarians was unhindered.

            Jacques Le Goff’s second observation that somehow subdues the impression that the advent of the Barbarians gave, is that a kind of osmosis took place, between Barbarians and Romans.  In many parts of Le Goff ‘s book, it appears that –not right from the beginning but with the passing of time- the Barbarians became civilized, by assimilating many elements of the roman civilization[41], subsequently creating their own civilization.

            This viewpoint belongs to western historiography, according to which, the Hellenic civilization was destroyed both in the East as well as the West.  In the East it was transformed into a Byzantine one, while in the West, it was destroyed by the German tribes under the leadership of the Franks, who created their own civilization above the ruins of the Hellenic civilization that had been destroyed.[42] Of course this is not correct.

            It is noteworthy, how Jacques Le Goff himself is forced to admit certain truths, which prove that one cannot speak of osmosis between Barbarians and Romans, and of course one cannot speak of the creating of a common cultural level. The societies that were created with the settlement of the Barbarians were not societies of equals; there was no equality, since the Barbarians strove to dominate as possessors, with the characteristic of a free person, as opposed to the Romans, who became and were regarded as vassals.[43]  The Barbarian peoples also strived not to lose their own customs and traditions[44]. Furthermore, how can we speak of osmosis between Barbarians and Romans, when the former avoided living inside cities and preferred the countryside, while the Frankish Kings preferred to remain in their grand villas and not in their urban palaces?[45]  It is also known that the barbarian people would not subject themselves to a common law; instead, each populace was judged under its own law.  “The Frank according to Frankish tradition, or, rather, according to the tradition of the Frankish group that he belonged to; the Burgundian in according to the Burgundian custom; the Roman according to the roman law”.[46]  Besides, this was the reason many barbarian leaders “ deemed necessary a new legislation that would be destined for Romans”.[47]

            Jacques Le Goff’s third observation, which is apparent in many parts of his book that we are studying, and is also the sequel to the two previous observations, is that the osmosis of Barbarians and Romans generated a rebirth –a renaissance- in the West.  He writes characteristically: “When the roman dream was extinguished in the year 1000, a renewal was ready to see the light of day: the renewal of the entire West.[48]  In another part, where he refers to the barbarization of the Romans, he writes: “The decadent Romans, now inwardly barbarized, were reduced to the level of the crass Barbarians, who were nobles externally.”[49].

            However, when mention is made of renewal, and especially of Carolingian rebirth, it is more along the lines of an attempt to civilize the barbarian peoples, and of course that meant their leaders also.  The Barbarians admired the civilization of the Romans and strove to imitate it.[50]  Carolingian education aspired to the educating of superior military officers; it extended to several territories, it produced an art, but –as Le Goff himself confesses- “it was a beginning that failed or was crushed prematurely”, albeit it contributed to the subsequent rebirth.[51]

            In Jacques Le Goff’s book however, the truth is expressively outlined, how the settlement of barbaric peoples in the West contributed towards the regression of the cultural level of its inhabitants. It was a quantitative regression, since human lives were destroyed, monuments, art treasures, roads, workshops, warehouses for merchandises, irrigation systems, etc.  The words of Paul the Deacon are characteristic, regarding the horror that prevailed in Italy:  “In just one day, whole farms or multitudinous to that day cities would sink into the deepest kind of silence, on account of the general flight of the dwellers.  Children would flee, leaving their parents’ bodies uninterred; parents would desert their children’s still smoldering bodies.  If, perchance, someone stayed behind to bury a relative of his, he was condemned to end up uninterred himself….  The century returned to the original silence that existed before humankind appeared:  no voices could be heard in the fields, the whistling of shepherds was no longer heard… In vain, the crops awaited a reaper, and although winter was approaching, the grapes were still hanging from the vines.  The pastures were turned into graveyards and the peoples’ houses dens for wild animals...”[52]

            Regression also ensued in craftsmanship, since stonemasonry was abandoned, and had given its place to wood, just as the art of glassmaking became extinct.[53]  Regression is also noted in the love of beauty and morals. “ It is not merely an exposure of the depth of rustic prejudices; indeed, every sexual deviation is unleashed and violence is exacerbated: beatings and wounding, gluttony, drunkenness.”[54] We also observe the regression in administration, with gubernatorial grandeur simultaneously.

            Jacques Le Goff is characteristic, when saying: “The Frankish king, who is enthroned by being lifted up on a shield, holding a spear as the only emblem in place of a scepter or crown, with long hair as his distinctive mark: rex crinitus.  A Samson king with a mane, a few scribes, house servants and a garrison of anstrutiones who follow him from one region that he ruled to another.  All of the above are decorated with fairytale titles that they had borrowed from the later Empire.  The head stableman became the “Count of the Stable” (connetable), the bodyguards became “Counts of the Palace”, and the medley of drunken soldiers and fat, clumsy clergymen were named “admirable men” or “eminence”.   Because taxes were not collected, the king’s riches became limited to chests of gold coins, glass miniatures and jewelry, and after the king died, the wives, the companions, their children and the illegitimate ones, all claimed it for themselves, in the same way that the land and the kingdom itself was shared.[55]

            From all that we presented above, it is obvious that the settlement of the barbaric peoples in the western region of the Roman Empire created serious problems. The Barbarians subjugated the Romans, they mutated their cultural tradition and they tried to create their own civilization. Nevertheless, the subjugated Romans held on to their customs and traditions.


4. The particular lifestyle after the infiltration of the barbaric peoples

            Western historiographers insist that with the infiltration of the Barbarians in the western region of the Roman Empire, osmosis occurred between the Romans and the Barbarians, as we said previously.  This however is not valid, because it cannot explain the reason for so many atrocities and slaughters, or the difference in the cultural level between Barbarians and Romans.  The fact is, that a particular lifestyle developed, and a particular civilization, which is clearly contrary to the Roman civilization.  We will examine this, in four characteristic points.

            First.  The difference between the civilizations of the Romans and the Franks is evident, in the so-called feudalism and the feudal system.  Feudalism constitutes the core of the Frankish way of life, and it shows its opposition to the roman way of life.  Of course, one can encounter an agrarian feudalism in the Roman era also, but it differed clearly from Frankish feudalism, because it did not have any theological infrastructure; it was not based on the distinction between nobles by nature and serfs by nature.  What we shall see further along, will automatically prove the immense difference between Franks and Romans.

            According to Professor fr. John Romanides, the Frank conquerors had -and imposed- the feudal system.  The Franks’ regent had under his authority all of the fiefs, as though they were his private property, and he would cede them for life to the Frank nobles, warriors, dukes, counts, barons and the lesser knights.  In time, they came to be recognized as “hereditary family rights”.   The Frank ruler even distributed fiefs to bishops, who held the rank of a commander and not a spiritual father.[56]

            The feudal system in the West prevailed with the emergence of the Franks, and of course, this emergence coincided with the eradication of the Romans from the administrational ecclesiastic ranks.[57] When the Franks took over the western parts of the Roman Empire, even in the ecclesiastic administration, they named themselves nobles, and the subjugated Romans vassals.  In this way, there was no longer a distinction between rich and poor, or literate and illiterate, only between conquerors and the conquered.[58].  We are talking about a racist distinction and a division of the population of the West. Naturally this also affected ecclesiastic administration, when it was taken over by the Franks, and consequently, ordination, the conciliar (synodic) system, the assigning of bishops, all attained the feudalist mentality and were permeated by the feudalist atmosphere.[59].

            Even the western historians cannot deny the existence of feudalism. Jacques Le Goff offers us some characteristic information on feudalism in the Middle Ages in the West, chiefly under the prevalence of the Franks.

            Despite the fact that the Frankish conquerors tried to borrow the political and administrative legacy of Rome, they never acquired the sense of a State.  “The Frankish kings considered the kingdom their private property, just like their lands or their treasures. The kingdom that belongs to them the Frankish kings distribute between their heirs. From time to time, fortune, child mortality or mental retardation united the Frankish states, under the rule of one or two kings.”[60]

            In order for Charlemagne to create a stable Frankish state, he gave away fiefs – portions of land – to various people, so that they might become subservient to him.  The difficult conditions that prevailed at the time in the West forced the weaker people to seek protection from the feudal lords. That gave rise to the creation of a particular way of life. Le Goff’s surmise is characeristic : “We nevertheless sense what is happening during the era of the Carlides, and it is of a decisive importance to the medieval world. From then on, every person becomes more and more dependent on his lord, and this narrow horizon, this yoke that weighs even heavier if we take into consideration that it is imposed on a very small circle of people, will become founded in the justice system; the basis of authority will more and more become the possession of land; the foundation of morality will be the faith that will replace the Hellenic-Roman political virtues. The ancient man was obliged to either be fair or honest; the medieval man had to be faithful. From now on, the “evil ones” would be the infidels.”[61]

            Feudalism, which is the “sum of the personal relations that hierarchically connect the members of the ruling strata of society”, and even though it existed in theory during the time of the Carlides, nevertheless bloomed around 1000 A.D..[62]

            Jacques Le Goff also gives us the characteristic traits of the feudal system, which are two: subjugation and fiefs.  The lord and his subject are joined by a contract of subjugation.  A special rite takes place, during which the subject gives his promise that he belongs to the lord, and undertakes obligations “in administration, in justice and the lord’s army”.  This vassalage takes place with symbolic acts, after the subject has placed his clasped hands inside the master’s hands, and says to him: “Lord, I have become your man”. The lord in turn undertakes the protection of his vassal.

Apart from the characteristic of vassalage, feudalism is linked to the fief, which is a portion of land.  The ceding of a fief takes place during a special ritual, the chrism, where the lord symbolically offers his vassal an object – for example a banner, a scepter, a rod, a ring, a dagger, a glove, a piece of straw, etc.  Another important element of the feudal system was the heredity of the fief.[63]

            When ecclesiastic administration was taken over by the Franks, it too acquired a feudal character.  The ceding of fiefs to the hierarchs was done with the same kind of ritual, the only difference being, that instead of the regent offering another object (sword, spear, shield), he would offer a high priest’s scapular.  Furthermore, the fact that the Bishop did not have any descendants to inherit the fief was very accommodating to the regent in that it averted the decentralization of his military and economical power.  Thus, through the hierarchy, the regent or the emperor secured the state power in his hands much more easily.[64].

            S e c o n d.  The feudal organizing of society naturally gave rise to the various classes, whose characteristics were the wars and the squabbles amongst themselves. These squabbles occurred both between the dominant Franks and the subjugated Romans, as well as between the various categories of feudal lords.  The medieval history of the West, and European history in general, is full of such conflicts and revolts. Jacques Le Goff will write characteristically: “in the Medieval West, the war of the classes is accompanied by vivid competitions in the interior of the classes”.[65]

            As father John Romanides says, the entire European civilization is discerned by two basic points: One is feudalism, with its classist and racist philosophy and organization, and the other is the revolutions that opposed these class distinctions, on the principle that each person strives for happiness.[66]

            T h i r d.   The feudal system has castles as its center, and this is a significant characteristic feature.  Indeed, “the center of feudal organization is the castle”.[67]  “The castle becomes the center of a feudatory despotism that gradually assimilates every authority: economical, judicial and political”.[68] Of course, castles are a mark of power and despotism, but they are also fortresses against the constant revolts of subjugated Romanity.

            Jacques Le Goff makes the following note as regards the significance of castles: “Since the 10th century, new feudal institutions are born around the central castle.  The castle is initially a fortified place, a fort. It was initially built of wood, and its basic features are a fence and a tower that is comprised of two levels: one basement and one large hall that is accessed by a large stair.  It is built on raised ground (motte).  The tower becomes the visible and specific basis of the authorities of the lord of the manor, whose banner waves atop a turret.  The castle soon becomes the center of social and economic dominance.  From the 11th century onwards, knights and lords of manors tend to form a caste, whose lifestyle becomes more and more refined, while the construction of the castles and their interior are slowly improved.  The castle is the center of a particular society: the society of castles constitutes a military and artistic civilization.”[69]

            Inside the castles, a particular lifestyle is cultivated, which clearly differs from the lifestyle of the subjugated Romans.  It is characteristic that even today, various expressions of the lifestyle and the entertainment that prevailed in the West and were transported into our realm, bear the name that they had in the lifestyle of the castles.  We are all familiar with classical music, classical ballet etc.  The word “classic” is derived from the word “class”. It is indicative of the particular civilization of the “nobles”, the conquerors of the Romans.

            Jacques Le Goff characteristically says: “Just as the parish community is the microcosm that the Church has organized, so is the community of castles the social cell that the lords of the manors have organized.  It gathers the young sons of the vassals (who are sent to serve the master and undergo military training –possibly to be used as hostages also), also the servants of the masters and the entire force of entertainers that are destined to satisfy the feudal lords’ needs for entertainment and prestige.  The posts of minstrel and troubadour are somewhat ambiguous, as they are obliged to sing the achievements and the basic virtues of their employers and are directly dependent on the wages and the favour of those noblemen; they often desire –and sometimes succeed in – becoming in turn noblemen themselves. Such is the case of Minnesanger, who became a knight and received family crests (the famous manuscript of Heidelberg, whose miniatures portray the Minnesangers and their crests, testifies that lyric poetry rose to prominence through the arts of the nobles); however, they often felt resentment because of their post as artists, who depend on the capricious whims of a warrior, feeling that they are intellectual beings who are moved by higher ideals that are opposed to those of the feudal caste, and are ready to become the accusers of their employers.  The literary and artistic products in the environment of the castle were frequently a more or less covert testimony of that opposition to the feudal society”.[70]

            F o u r t h.  An element that is closely linked to the preceding ones is the army that the feudal lords had at their disposal, with which they secured their dominance over the subjugated Romans and quelled their revolts.  It was with these armies that the western leaders executed their crusades, for the supposed purpose of liberating the Holy Lands, whereas in reality, their purpose was to also subjugate the Romans of the eastern sector of the Roman Empire.  And indeed, the crusades succeeded in weakening the Roman Empire, especially with the 4th Crusade, when the crusaders seized Constantinople, looted it obscenely of its treasures, and in fact, it was never able to recover afterwards. Thus, Frankish dominance in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire weakened the Empire and immensely contributed towards its enslavement by the Turks.  Consequently, we can speak of the sacking of Constantinople from 1204 A.D., when it was stormed by the Crusaders.[71]

There is much talk nowadays about the marbles of Elgin, which should be retuned to Greece; yet, we forget to mention the treasures of the Empire of Orthodox Romanity that were snatched by the Crusaders-Franks, filling all of their libraries and their museums.  Looting such as theirs had never before been recorded, in the history of the Roman Empire.

            Subsequently, the feudal organization, the classist society, life in the castles and the armies, as well as other related elements, all indicate the particular lifestyle of the Franks, which are clearly opposed to Romanity’s way of life and constitute the basis of the so-called “European civilization”.  I do not intend to expand on this point, but I would like to underline that these four points that we examined previously, which comprise the basis of the western-Frankish society, are foreign to the life of Romans and to the essence of the Roman Empire.  In Romanity, feudalism with its classist and racist mentality was nonexistent, and naturally, we neither have the phenomenon of castles with their peculiar lifestyle, nor do we have phenomena of crusades with all of their aftermaths.


5. Conclusion

Judging by everything that was mentioned above, the significance of Le Goff’s book becomes evident.  The testimonies that he offers us are certainly noteworthy, but we must also remain cautious and critical before the interpretations that are embodied in western historiography.  We have our own interpretations on the phenomena that were observed in the western region, which, in the case we are presently examining, are more objective.

      The fact remains that, with the infiltration of the barbaric tribes in the western sector of the Roman Empire, a barbarism prevailed, which took a very long time to overcome.  There was of course a rebirth, in other words, a new civilization was created, but even that can be characterized as a neo-barbarian one.

      Today, it is believed that the western States are civilized, enlightened, because in that region, science and technology were developed.  Nobody can doubt this.  However, the problem still remains, as to how much science and technology constitute a fulfilled civilization.  When only certain external features are cultivated, which are supported simply and only by logic, while other facets of man’s personality are overlooked, one cannot call that “civilization”.

      During the period of rebirth in the West, ancient Hellenic philosophy was studied and many centers were founded for the study of the problems posed by the ancient philosophers.  But, when Hellenism becomes alienated from the Orthodox Tradition, when it ceases to be Romanity, it becomes backward and is rendered unable to solve man’s existential problems.

      Consequently, the contemporary European is spiritually and existentially crippled.  He may have highly developed scientific thought, or be distinguished for his technical infrastructure; he may have rules for good conduct and proper upbringing, but he cannot solve his ontological and existential problems. Today’s western civilization is one-dimensional.  That is why we can assert that in the West, a neo-barbarism is now predominant.

      The West today is in need of the Roman tradition, which solves all of man’s problems. This is precisely where we can perceive Orthodoxy’s immense offer to the European Union. We should not be entering Europe as if we were its poor relatives with an inferiority complex, but as spiritual nobles, since we have at our disposal the spiritual nobility of mankind: all of the finest elements of genuine humanism.

August 1994.



[1] Ref. John Romanides, “Romanity”, Thessaloniki 1975, Pournaras publications, page 32 onwards.

[2] Jacques Le Goff:  The civilization of the Medieval West, Vanias Publications, 1993. Greek edition.

[3] as above, page 639.

[4] as above, page 635.

[5] as above, page 639.

[6] as above, page 635.

   as above, page VIII.

[8] as above,

[9] as above, page 18.

[10] as above. page 27-29.

[11] as above, page 31.

[12] as above, page 31.

[13] as above, page 28.

[14] as above, page 27.

[15] as above, page 35.

[16] as above, page 35-36.

[17] as above, page 36.

[18] as above, page 37.

[19] as above, page 38.

[20] as above, page 42.

[21] as above, page 73.

[22] as above, page 80-81.

[23] as above, page 81.

[24] as above, page 30.

[25] as above, page 40.

[26] as above, page 29-30.

[27] as above, page 27.

[28] as above, page 23.

[29] as above, page 23-26.

[30] as above, page 33.

[31] as above, page 34.

[32] as above, page 34-35.

[33] as above, page 56.

[34] as above, page 66.

[35] as above, page 34.

[36] as above, page 57.

[37] as above, page 58.

[38] as above, page 39-40.

[39] as above, page 27-28.

[40] Protopresbyter fr. John Romanides, “Tradition”, edition 4, page 487.

[41] as above, page 29.

[42] John Romanides, “Romanity”, Pournaras publications, Thessaloniki 1972, page 32 onwards.

[43] Jacques Le Goff: he civilization of the Medieval West, Vanias publications 1993, page 49.

[44] as above, page 50.

[45] as above, page 51.

[46] as above, page 52.

[47] as above, page 53.

[48] as above, page 81.

[49] as above, page 31.

[50] as above, page 31.

[51] as above, page 183.

[52] as above, page 55.

[53] as above, page 55.

[54] as above, page 55.

[55] as above, page 56-57.

[56] ÉùÜííïõ Ñùìáíßäç, Ñùìçïóýíç, as above, page 157.

[57] as above, page 140.

[58] as above, page 141.

[59] as above, page 157 êáé åîÞò.

[60] Jacques Le Goff, as above, page 73.

[61] as above, page 79.

[62] as above, page 132.

[63] as above, page 132-134.

[64] John Romanides, “Romanity”, as above, page 157-158.

[65] Jacques Le Goff, as above, page 425.

[66] ÉùÜííïõ Ñùìáíßäïõ, as above, page 174.

[67] Jacques Le Goff, as above, page 586.

[68] as above, page 135.

[69] as above, page 586.

[70] as above, page 433-434.

[71] as above, page 98-101.


Rev. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlasios, Hierotheos Vlachos

Translated by: A. N.

Article published in English on: 26-10-2005.

Last update: 3-11-2005.