Misperceptions That Matter

We face an election soon that offers very different views of the role of government in our society.  One believes that the government is the people, another believes that government is of the people.  Both recognize the need and use of government but the nuances of distinction matter so dearly to both sides that it is truly at the center of the debate.  Health care, tax policy, and financial regulation may be the flashpoints in the headlines but behind them lie the  differing views of how much government should be in control of one’s life.  One side views the government, if run by the “right” people as inherently good and a benevolent force in our lives.  The other views government as a necessary evil to be watched, controlled and even tamed when the people believe it exercises too much authority.   Government exists in both views but the details of its functioning and purpose are quite different.

In the 6th century AD there was a similar nuance in the Christian world.  Most of us were taught that the Roman Empire fell in the last part of the 5th century which was basically a true statement.  But as always when one explores a bit deeper the details are not that clean-cut.   The Visigoth, Vandals and Lombards had indeed destroyed the essence of the Roman Empire and its set of power had been moved to Constantinople by the 4th century AD.  You have heard of Attila the Hun and his conquest of Rome.  He did that but originally his plan and hope was to become the Emperor of Rome himself.   By the early 6th century the Goths had hegemony over old Rome in Italy and Sicily and large chunks of North Africa including Carthage.  Those Goths and the Vandals before them had been subsumed to great extent though by the society they conquered and had become Christian.  Most of them had adopted the Arian belief sets of religion.  Arianism essentially disputed the fundamental basis of the Trinity that Christ and God were one and the same.  The Arians believed in the divinity of Christ but held that he was inferior to God because he was created by God.  That put Christ more in the role of Holy Man than God. 

Justinian was the Emperor of Byzantine portion of the remaining Roman Empire at that time.  He and his immediate followers didn’t approve of the Arian worship system and sets of tenets.    The Goths were content with their beliefs and had life pretty good all things considered and never thought they were in danger of having their power or religion attacked by anyone.  The Goths had a lot of dissension among them over power and glory between those in North Africa and Rome.  They had been in power for generations and had accomplished so much having moved and conquered lands all the way from their homeland in Germany through Gaul, Spain, North Africa and then Italy.  There were the usual disputes over trade and hegemony between the Goths and Justinian and then the additional impetus of religious ardor for the true belief.  Justinian was blessed with a very capable and loyal commander in Belisarius.  He was dispatched to Carthage to put things “right”.  As since time immemorial, there was diplomatic negotiations before the arrows and lances flew.  But Gelimer the local was not very brave in the face of what was an inferior force.  He was defeated rather handily by Belisarius and Arianism was abolished.  There wasn’t always room for religious tolerance in those days just as today.  That has never changed.  Belisarius then moved on to Sicily and Italy.

It took a couple of years but Belisarius was successful over Theodatus, the Goth King in Rome.  The Goths and their allies badly outnumbered his army.  Rome itself was besieged by him.  Belisarius was benevolent for the times by not allowing destruction and rape and pillage by his troops.  He told them these people were their brethren.  Theodatus like so many petty dictators over the course of time had tried to negotiate for good terms for his personal welfare.  He was eventually successful in that and was in the process of retiring  to a remote region with enough to live a life of ease.  But his own people were appalled at his villainy and his was assassinated by a lieutenant while begging for his life on Flammian Way. After an initial victory the Goths regrouped and encircled Rome with an army 150,000 strong but Belisarius successfully fended them off with great personal courage.  The walls of Rome had been rebuilt and improved under his command.  Now the Byzantine Empire ruled the East, North Africa and Italy without dispute from any barbarians and the Arians were reduced to nothing.  The true religion won per their view.  The Catholic Church now became supreme throughout the region where Justinian’s writ ran.  It was reduced to an interesting footnote in history.  Politics, money and zest for power and glory were no doubt strong factors in the conquest of the Goths by Belisarius but the religious factor was the rallying cry.  It surely seemed a small difference of opinion to the learned of the day but it mattered greatly to the many.  The Goths misperceived their position and power.  They paid the price for the miscalculation.  Constantine gets most of the press for establishing the Christian religion throughout the Roman world but it was Justinian and his general–Belisarius that brought it to fruition. 

It pays to pay attention to the abstractions that lie behind the great debates among people.  They do matter usually more than the headlines that grab most of the attention. 

Briefly the Italians thought they were going to rebuilt the glory days of the old Empire of Rome.   But alas that day had passed.  They were no longer the farmer -soldiers and statesmen and “citizens” of a Rome any longer.  The loyalty once severed could not be restored.  The factions could not coalesce and all power devolved on Constantinople.  http://www.olcranky.wordpress.com

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Filed under Culture, Foreign Affairs, geography, government, military history, Politics

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