by Hilaire Belloc. Annotation of text copyright (c)2006 David Trumbull and Patrick McNamara. All Rights Reserved.

Here Begins Chapter I of Europe and the Faith.

WHAT WAS THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
The history of European civilization is the history of a certain political institution which united and expressed Europe, and was governed from Rome. This institution was informed at its very origin by the growing influence of a certain definite and organized religion: this religion it ultimately accepted and, finally, was merged in.
The institution–having accepted the religion, having made of that religion its official expression, and having breathed that religion in through every part until it became the spirit of the whole–was slowly modified, spiritually illumined and physically degraded by age. But it did not die. It was revived by the religion which had become its new soul. It re-arose and still lives.
This institution was first known among men as Republica we call it today "The Roman Empire." The Religion which informed and saved it was then called, still is called, and will always be called "The Catholic Church."
Europe is the Church, and the Church is Europe.
It is immaterial to the historical value of this historical truth whether it be presented to a man who utterly rejects Catholic dogma or to a man who believes everything the Church may teach. A man remote in distance, in time, or in mental state from the thing we are about to examine would perceive the reality of this truth just as clearly as would a man who was steeped in its spirit from within and who formed an intimate part of Christian Europe. The Oriental pagan, the contemporary atheist, some supposed student in some remote future, reading history in some place from which the Catholic Faith shall have utterly departed, and to which the habits and traditions of our civilization will therefore be wholly alien, would each, in proportion to his science, grasp as clearly as it is grasped today by the Catholic student who is of European birth, the truth that Europe and the Catholic Church were and are one thing. The only people who do not grasp it (or do not admit it) are those writers of history whose special, local, and temporary business it is to oppose the Catholic Church, or who have a traditional bias against it.
These men are numerous, they have formed, in the Protestant and other anti-Catholic universities, a whole school of hypothetical and unreal history in which, though the original workers are few, their copyists are innumerable: and that school of unreal history is still dogmatically taught in the anti-Catholic centres of Europe and of the world.
Now our quarrel with this school should be, not that it is anti-Catholic–that concerns another sphere of thought–but that it is unhistorical.
To neglect the truth that the Roman Empire with its institutions and its spirit was the sole origin of European civilization; to forget or to diminish the truth that the Empire accepted in its maturity a certain religion; to conceal the fact that this religion was not a vague mood, but a determinate and highly organized corporation; to present in the first centuries some non-existant "Christianity" in place of the existant Church; to suggest that the Faith was a vague agreement among individual holders of opinions instead of what it historically was, the doctrine of a fixed authoritative institution; to fail to identify that institution with the institution still here today and still called the Catholic Church; to exaggerate the insignificant barbaric influences which came from outside the Empire and did nothing to modify its spirit; to pretend that the Empire or its religion have at any time ceased to be–that is, to pretend that there has ever been a solution of continuity between the past and the present of Europe–all these pretensions are parts of one historical falsehood.
In all by which we Europeans differ from the rest of mankind there is nothing which was not originally peculiar to the Roman Empire, or is not demonstrably derived from something peculiar to it.
In material objects the whole of our wheeled traffic, our building materials, brick, glass, mortar, cut-stone, our cooking, our staple food and drink; in forms, the arch, the column, the bridge, the tower, the well, the road, the canal; in expression, the alphabet, the very words of most of our numerous dialects and polite languages, the order of still more, the logical sequence of our thought–all spring from that one source. So with implements: the saw, the hammer, the plane, the chisel, the file, the spade, the plough, the rake, the sickle, the ladder; all these we have from that same origin. Of our institutions it is the same story. The divisions and the sub-divisions of Europe, the parish, the county, the province, the fixed national traditions with their boundaries, the emplacement of the great European cities, the routes of communication between them, the universities, the Parliaments, the Courts of Law, and their jurisprudence, all these derive entirely from the old Roman Empire, our well-spring.
It may here be objected that to connect so closely the worldly foundations of our civilization with the Catholic or universal religion of it, is to limit the latter and to make of it a merely human thing.
The accusation would be historically valueless in any case, for in history we are not concerned with the claims of the supernatural, but with a sequence of proved events in the natural order. But if we leave the province of history and consider that of theology, the argument is equally baseless. Every manifestation of divine influence among men must have its human circumstance of place and time. The Church might have risen under Divine Providence in any spot: it did, as a fact, spring up in the high Greek tide of the Levant and carries to this day the noble Hellenic garb. It might have risen at any time: it did, as a fact, rise just at the inception of that united Imperial Roman system which we are about to examine. It might have carried for its ornaments and have had for its sacred language the accoutrements and the speech of any one of the other great civilizations, living or dead: of Assyria, of Egypt, of Persia, of China, of the Indies. As a matter of historical fact, the Church was so circumstanced in its origin and development that its external accoutrement and its language were those of the Mediterranean, that is, of Greece and Rome: of the Empire.
Now those who would falsify history from a conscious or unconscious bias against the Catholic Church, will do so in many ways, some of which will always prove contradictory of some others. For truth is one, error disparate and many.
The attack upon the Catholic Church may be compared to the violent, continual, but inchoate attack of barbarians upon some civilized fortress; such an attack will proceed now from this direction, now from that, along any one of the infinite number of directions from which a single point may be approached. Today there is attack from the North, tomorrow an attack from the South. Their directions are flatly contradictory, but the contradiction is explained by the fact that each is directed against a central and fixed opponent.
Thus, some will exaggerate the power of the Roman Empire as a pagan institution; they will pretend that the Catholic Church was something alien to that pagan thing; that the Empire was great and admirable before Catholicism came, weak and despicable upon its acceptation of the Creed. They will represent the Faith as creeping like an Oriental disease into the body of a firm Western society which it did not so much transform as liquefy and dissolve.
Others will take the clean contrary line and make out a despicable Roman Empire to have fallen before the advent of numerous and vigorous barbarians (Germans, of course) possessing all manner of splendid pagan qualities–which usually turn out to be nineteenth century Protestant qualities. These are contrasted against the diseased Catholic body of the Roman Empire which they are pictured as attacking.
Others adopt a simpler manner. They treat the Empire and its institutions as dead after a certain date, and discuss the rise of a new society without considering its Catholic and Imperial origins. Nothing is commoner, for instance (in English schools), than for boys to be taught that the pirate raids and settlements of the fifth century in this Island were the "coming of the English," and the complicated history of Britain is simplified for them into a story of how certain bold seafaring pagans (full of all the virtues we ascribe to ourselves today) first devastated, then occupied, and at last, of their sole genius, developed a land which Roman civilization had proved inadequate to hold.
There is, again, a conscious or unconscious error (conscious or unconscious, pedantic or ignorant, according to the degree of learning in him who propagates it) which treats of the religious life of Europe as though it were something quite apart from the general development of our civilization.
There are innumerable text-books in which a man may read the whole history of his own, a European, country, from, say, the fifth to the sixteenth century, and never hear of the Blessed Sacrament: which is as though a man were to write of England in the nineteenth century without daring to speak of newspapers and limited companies. Warped by such historical enormities, the reader is at a loss to understand the ordinary motives of his ancestors. Not only do the great crises in the history of the Church obviously escape him, but much more do the great crises in civil history escape him.
To set right, then, our general view of history it is necessary to be ready with a sound answer to the prime question of all, which is this: "What was the Roman Empire?"
If you took an immigrant coming fresh into the United States today and let him have a full knowledge of all that had happened since the Civil War: if you gave him of the Civil War itself a partial, confused and very summary account: if of all that went before it, right away back to the first colonists, you were to leave him either wholly ignorant or ludicrously misinformed (and slightly informed at that), what then could he make of the problems in American Society, or how would he be equipped to understand the nation of which he was to be a citizen? To give such a man the elements of civic training you must let him know what the Colonies were, what the War of Independence, and what the main institutions preceding that event and created by it. He would have further to know soundly the struggle between North and South, and the principles underlying that struggle. Lastly, and most important of all, he would have to see all this in a correct perspective.
So it is with us in the larger question of that general civilization which is common to both Americans and Europeans, and which in its vigor has extended garrisons, as it were, into Asia and Africa. We cannot understand it today unless we understand what it developed from. What was the origin from which we sprang? What was the Roman Empire?
The Roman Empire was a united civilization, the prime characteristic of which was the acceptation, absolute and unconditional, of one common mode of life by all those who dwelt within its boundaries. It is an idea very difficult for the modern man to seize, accustomed as he is to a number of sovereign countries more or less sharply differentiated, and each separately colored, as it were, by different customs, a different language, and often a different religion. Thus the modern man sees France, French speaking, with an architecture, manners, laws of its own, etc.; he saw (till yesterday) North Germany under the Prussian hegemony, German speaking, with yet another set of institutions, and so forth. When he thinks, therefore, of any great conflict of opinion, such as the discussion between aristocracy and democracy today, he thinks in terms of different countries. Ireland, for instance, is Democratic, England is Aristocratic–and so forth.
Again, the modern man thinks of a community, however united, as something bounded by, and in contrast with, other communities. When he writes or thinks of France he does not think of France only, but of the points in which France contrasts with England, North Germany, South Germany, Italy, etc.
Now the men living in the Roman Empire regarded civic life in a totally different way. All conceivable antagonisms (and they were violent) were antagonisms within one State . No differentiation of State against State was conceivable or was attempted.
From the Euphrates to the Scottish Highlands, from the North Sea to the Sahara and the Middle Nile, all was one State.
The world outside the Roman Empire was, in the eyes of the Imperial citizen, a sort of waste. It was not thickly populated, it had no appreciable arts or sciences, it was barbaric . That outside waste of sparse and very inferior tribes was something of a menace upon the frontiers, or, to speak more accurately, something of an irritation. But that menace or irritation was never conceived of as we conceive of the menace of a foreign power. It was merely the trouble of preventing a fringe of imperfect, predatory, and small barbaric communities outside the boundaries from doing harm to a vast, rich, thickly populated, and highly organized State within.
The members of these communities (principally the Dutch, Frisian, Rhenish and other Germanic peoples, but also on the other frontiers, the nomads of the desert, and in the West, islanders and mountaineers, Irish and Caledonian) were all tinged with the great Empire on which they bordered. Its trade permeated them. We find its coins everywhere. Its names for most things became part of their speech. They thought in terms of it. They had a sort of grievance when they were not admitted to it. They perpetually begged for admittance.
They wanted to deal with the Empire, to enjoy its luxury, now and then to raid little portions of its frontier wealth.
They never dreamt of "conquest." On the other hand the Roman administrator was concerned with getting barbarians to settle in an orderly manner on the frontier fields, so that he could exploit their labor, with coaxing them to serve as mercenaries in the Roman armies, or (when there was any local conflict) with defeating them in local battles, taking them prisoners and making them slaves.
I have said that the mere number of these exterior men (German, Caledonian, Irish, Slav, Moorish, Arab, etc.) was small compared with the numbers of civilization, and, I repeat, in the eyes of the citizens of the Empire, their lack of culture made them more insignificant still.
At only one place did the Roman Empire have a common frontier with another civilization, properly so called. It was a very short frontier, not one-twentieth of the total boundaries of the Empire. It was the Eastern or Persian frontier, guarded by spaces largely desert. And though a true civilization lay beyond, that civilization was never of great extent nor really powerful. This frontier was variously drawn at various times, but corresponded roughly to the Plains of Mesopotamia. The Mediterranean peoples of the Levant, from Antioch to Judea, were always within that frontier. They were Roman. The mountain peoples of Persia were always beyond it. Nowhere else was there any real rivalry or contact with the foreigner, and even this rivalry and contact (though "The Persian War" is the only serious foreign or equal war in the eyes of all the rulers from Julius Cęsar to the sixth century) counted for little in the general life of Rome.
The point cannot be too much insisted upon, nor too often repeated, so strange is it to our modern modes of thought, and so essentially characteristic of the first centuries of the Christian era and the formative period during which Christian civilization took its shape. Men lived as citizens of one State which they took for granted and which they even regarded as eternal . There would be much grumbling against the taxes and here and there revolts against them, but never a suggestion that the taxes should be levied by any other than imperial authority, or imposed in any other than the imperial manner. There was plenty of conflict between armies and individuals as to who should have the advantage of ruling, but never any doubt as to the type of function which the "Emperor" filled, nor as to the type of universally despotic action which he exercised. There were any number of little local liberties and customs which were the pride of the separate places to which they attached, but there was no conception of such local differences being antagonistic to the one life of the one State. That State was, for the men of that time, the World.
The complete unity of this social system was the more striking from the fact that it underlay not only such innumerable local customs and liberties, but an almost equal number of philosophic opinions, of religious practices, and of dialects. There was not even one current official language for the educated thought of the Empire: there were two, Greek and Latin. And in every department of human life there co-existed this very large liberty of individual and local expression, coupled with a complete, and, as it were, necessary unity, binding the whole vast body together. Emperor might succeed Emperor, in a series of civil wars. Several Emperors might be reigning together. The office of Emperor might even be officially and consciously held in commission among four or more men. But the power of the Emperor was always one power, his office one office, and the system of the Empire one system.
It is not the purpose of these few pages to attempt a full answer to the question of how such a civic state of mind came to be, but the reader must have some sketch of its development if he is to grasp its nature.
The old Mediterranean world out of which the Empire grew had consisted (before that Empire was complete–say, from an unknown most distant past to 50 B.C.) in two types of society: there stood in it as rare exceptions States , or nations in our modern sense, governed by a central Government, which controlled a large area, and were peopled by the inhabitants of many towns and villages. Of this sort was ancient Egypt. But there were also, surrounding that inland sea, in such great numbers as to form the predominant type of society, a series of Cities , some of them commercial ports, most of them controlling a small area from which they drew their agricultural subsistence, but all of them remarkable for this, that their citizens drew their civic life from, felt patriotism for, were the soldiers of, and paid their taxes to, not a nation in our sense but a municipality .
These cities and the small surrounding territories which they controlled (which, I repeat, were often no more than local agricultural areas necessary for the sustenance of the town) were essentially the sovereign Powers of the time. Community of language, culture, and religion might, indeed, bind them in associations more or less strict. One could talk of the Phoenician cities, of the Greek cities, and so forth. But the individual City was always the unit. City made war on City. The City decided its own customs, and was the nucleus of religion. The God was the God of the city. A rim of such points encircled the eastern and central Mediterranean wherever it was habitable by man. Even the little oasis of the Cyrenęan land with sand on every side, but habitable, developed its city formations. Even on the western coasts of the inland ocean, which received their culture by sea from the East, such City States, though more rare, dotted the littoral of Algeria, Provence and Spain.
Three hundred years before Our Lord was born this moral equilibrium was disturbed by the huge and successful adventure of the Macedonian Alexander.
The Greek City States had just been swept under the hegemony of Macedon, when, in the shape of small but invincible armies, the common Greek culture under Alexander overwhelmed the East. Egypt, the Levant littoral and much more, were turned into one Hellenized (that is, "Greecified") civilization. The separate cities, of course, survived, and after Alexander's death unity of control was lost in various and fluctuating dynasties derived from the arrangements and quarrels of his generals. But the old moral equilibrium was gone and the conception of a general civilization had appeared. Henceforward the Syrian, the Jew, the Egyptian saw with Greek eyes and the Greek tongue was the medium of all the East for a thousand years. Hence are the very earliest names of Christian things, Bishop, Church, Priest, Baptism, Christ, Greek names. Hence all our original documents and prayers are Greek and shine with a Greek light: nor are any so essentially Greek in idea as the four Catholic Gospels.
Meanwhile in Italy one city, by a series of accidents very difficult to follow (since we have only later accounts–and they are drawn from the city's point of view only), became the chief of the City States in the Peninsula. Some few it had conquered in war and had subjected to taxation and to the acceptation of its own laws; many it protected by a sort of superior alliance; with many more its position was ill defined and perhaps in origin had been a position of allied equality. But at any rate, a little after the Alexandrian Hellenization of the East this city had in a slower and less universal way begun to break down the moral equilibrium of the City States in Italy, and had produced between the Apennines and the sea (and in some places beyond the Apennines) a society in which the City State, though of coarse surviving, was no longer isolated or sovereign, but formed part of a larger and already definite scheme. The city which had arrived at such a position, and which was now the manifest capital of the Italian scheme, was ROME.
Contemporary with the last successes of this development in Italy went a rival development very different in its nature, but bound to come into conflict with the Roman because it also was extending. This was the commercial development of Carthage. Carthage, a Phoenician, that is, a Levantine and Semitic, colony, had its city life like all the rest. It had shown neither the aptitude nor the desire that Rome had shown for conquest, for alliances, and in general for a spread of its spirit and for the domination of its laws and modes of thought. The business of Carthage was to enrich itself: not indirectly as do soldiers (who achieve riches as but one consequence of the pursuit of arms), but directly, as do merchants, by using men indirectly, by commerce, and by the exploitation of contracts.
The Carthaginian occupied mining centres in Spain, and harbors wherever he could find them, especially in the Western Mediterranean. He employed mercenary troops. He made no attempt to radiate outward slowly step by step, as does the military type, but true to the type of every commercial empire, from his own time to our own, the Carthaginian built up a scattered hotchpotch of dominion, bound together by what is today called the "Command of the Sea."
That command was long absolute and Carthaginian power depended on it wholly. But such a power could not co-exist with the growing strength of martial Italy. Rome challenged Carthage; and after a prodigious struggle, which lasted to within two hundred years of the birth of Our Lord, ruined the Carthaginian power. Fifty years later the town itself was destroyed by the Romans, and its territory turned into a Roman province. So perished for many hundred years the dangerous illusion that the merchant can master the soldier. But never had that illusion seemed nearer to the truth than at certain moments in the duel between Carthage and Rome.
The main consequence of this success was that, by the nature of the struggle, the Western Mediterranean, with all its City States, with its half-civilized Iberian peoples, lying on the plateau of Spain behind the cities of the littoral, the corresponding belt of Southern France, and the cultivated land of Northern Africa, fell into the Roman system, and became, but in a more united way, what Italy had already long before become. The Roman power, or, if the term be preferred, the Roman confederation, with its ideas of law and government, was supreme in the Western Mediterranean and was compelled by its geographical position to extend itself inland further and further into Spain, and even (what was to be of prodigious consequence to the world) into GAUL.
But before speaking of the Roman incorporation of Gaul we must notice that in the hundred years after the final fall of Carthage, the Eastern Mediterranean had also begun to come into line. This Western power, the Roman, thus finally established, occupied Corinth in the same decade as that which saw the final destruction of Carthage, and what had once been Greece became a Roman province. All the Alexandrian or Grecian East–Syria, Egypt–followed. The Macedonian power in its provinces came to depend upon the Roman system in a series of protectorates, annexations, and occupations, which two generations or so before the foundation of the Catholic Church had made Rome, though her system was not yet complete, the centre of the whole Mediterranean world. The men whose sons lived to be contemporary with the Nativity saw that the unity of that world was already achieved. The World was now one, and was built up of the islands, the peninsulas, and the littoral of the Inland Sea.
So the Empire might have remained, and so one would think it naturally would have remained, a Mediterranean thing, but for that capital experiment which has determined all future history–Julius Cęsar's conquest of Gaul–Gaul, the mass of which lay North, Continental, exterior to the Mediterranean: Gaul which linked up with the Atlantic and the North Sea: Gaul which lived by the tides: Gaul which was to be the foundation of things to come.
It was this experiment–the Roman Conquest of Gaul–and its success which opened the ancient and immemorial culture of the Mediterranean to the world. It was a revolution which for rapidity and completeness has no parallel. Something less than a hundred small Celtic States, partially civilized (but that in no degree comparable to the high life of the Mediterranean), were occupied, taught, and, as it were, "converted" into citizens of this now united Roman civilization.
It was all done, so to speak, within the lifetime of a man. The link and corner-stone of Western Europe, the quadrilateral which lies between the Pyrenees and the Rhine, between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Channel, accepted civilization in a manner so final and so immediate that no historian has ever quite been able to explain the phenomenon. Gaul accepted almost at once the Roman language, the Roman food, the Roman dress, and it formed the first–and a gigantic–extension of European culture.
We shall later find Gaul providing the permanent and enduring example of that culture which survived when the Roman system fell into decay. Gaul led to Britain. The Iberian Peninsula, after the hardest struggle which any territory had presented, was also incorporated. By the close of the first century after the Incarnation, when the Catholic Church had already been obscurely founded in many a city, and the turn of the world's history had come, the Roman Empire was finally established in its entirety. By that time, from the Syrian Desert to the Atlantic, from the Sahara to the Irish Sea and to the Scotch hills, to the Rhine and the Danube, in one great ring fence, there lay a secure and unquestioned method of living incorporated as one great State.
This State was to be the soil in which the seed of the Church was to be sown. As the religion of this State the Catholic Church was to develop. This State is still present, underlying our apparently complex political arrangements, as the main rocks of a country underlie the drift of the surface. Its institutions of property and of marriage; its conceptions of law; its literary roots of Rhetoric, of Poetry, of Logic, are still the stuff of Europe. The religion which it made as universal as itself is still, and perhaps more notably than ever, apparent to all.

Here Ends Chapter I of Europe and the Faith; which continues in Chapter II.