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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 5 - Ninian visits Rome; His Journey thither; Rome in Ninian's Day


By-And-By there comes a change over Ninian. The simple missionary of Galloway sets out on a visit to Rome. So do all his biographers relate, though none of them on what seems perfectly reliable authority. As we see him depart, we fear lest Ninian may not return the same man he went. The Church of Rome was just then beginning to forsake the simple path of the Gospel for the road that leads to riches and worldly grandeur. As yet, however, her glory was in good degree around her, although the prestige of the old city on the Tiber, and the rank to which her pastor had by this time climbed, was filling the air of western Christendom with a subtle, intoxicating element, which was drawing to Rome visitors from many lands who felt and yielded to the fascination. Of the number we have said was Ninian. Damasus, in whom the papal ambition was putting forth its early blossoms, then filled the Roman See. The pontiff welcomed, we cannot doubt, this pilgrim from the distant Britain. He saw in his visit an omen that the spiritual sway of the second Rome would be not less extensive than the political dominion which the first Rome had wielded. This journey painfully convinces us that even in Britain, Ninian had begun to breathe Roman air. This is seen in the motives attributed to him for undertaking this journey to "the threshold of the Apostles." He began to suspect that the Christian pastors of Britain did not know the true sense of Scripture, and that he himself was but imperfectly grounded in it, and that should he go to Rome and seat himself at the feet of its bishop, he would be more thoroughly instructed, and the Bible would reveal to his eye many things which it refused to disclose to him in the remote realm of Britain.

We know of nothing in the Bible itself which warrants the belief that it is a book which can be rightly understood in but one particular spot of earth, or truly interpreted by only one class of men. It bears to be a revelation to mankind at large.

"There is nothing more certain in history," says Bingham, "than that the service of the ancient church was always performed in the vulgar or common language of every country."[1] From her first foundation it was the pious care of the church, when a nation was converted, to have the Scriptures translated into the tongue of that nation. Eusebius says, "they were translated into all languages, both of Greeks and barbarians, throughout the world, and studied by all nations as the oracles of God." [2] Chrysostom assures us that "the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Persians, the Ethiopians, and multitude of other nations, translated them into their own tongues, whereby barbarians learned to be philosophers, and women and children, with the greatest case, imbibed the doctrine of the Gospel."[3] Theodoret asserts the same fact, "that every nation under heaven had the Scripture in their own tongue; in a word, into all tongues used by all nations in his time." [4] The long residence of the Romans in the country had familiarized the provincial Britons with their tongue, and they had access to the Word of God in Latin, and, doubtless also in Belgic or Armoric, if not British Celtic. The Bible till now had been regarded as a book for the world, to be translated, read, and interpreted by all.

But towards the opening of the fifth century it began to be whispered that this was an erroneous and dangerous opinion. Only episcopal insight, and especially Roman episcopal insight, could see all that is contained in this book. Ordinary Christians were warned, therefore, not to trust their own interpretations of it, but to seek to have it expounded to them by that sure and unerring authority which had been appointed for their guidance, and which was seated at Rome. It is easy to see with what a halo this would invest that old city on the banks of the Tiber, and with what authority it would clothe its pastor. It was the first step towards the withdrawal of the Book, and the installing of the Roman bishop in its room as the sole dictator of the faith and the sole lord and ruler of the consciences of men.

These arrogant assumptions would seem to have gained so far an ascendancy over the missionary of Galloway, that he forsook for a while his labours among his countrymen who so greatly needed his instructions and guidance, and set out towards the eternal city. He crossed the Alps, it is said, by the Mons Cenis pass,—in those days a rugged path that wound perilously by the edge of black abysses, and under horrid rocks and gathering avalanches. His biographer, Ailred, in enlarging on the motives which led him to undertake this journey, speaks of him as assailed by the temptation "to throw himself on the resources of his own mind, to trust to the deductions of his own intellect, either from the text of Holy Scriptures, or the doctrines he had already been taught. For this he was too humble."

Shielded by his humility from the snare to which he was exposed, that even of exercising the "right of private judgment," Ailred makes Ninian break out into the following soliloquy, expressive of ideas and sentiments altogether foreign to the fourth century, but which had come to be fully developed in the twelfth, when Ailred puts them into Ninian's mouth. "I have in my own country," Ninian is made to say, "sought him whom my soul loveth, and have not found him. I will arise: I will compass sea and land to seek the truth which my soul longs for. But is there need of so much toil? Was it not said to Peter, thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it? In the faith of Peter then, there is nothing defective, obscure, imperfect: nothing against which evil doctrine or perverted sentiment, the gates as it were of hell, could prevail. And where is the faith of Peter, but in the See of Peter? Thither, certainly, I must go, that leaving my country, and my relations, and my father's house, I may be thought worthy to behold with inward eye the fair beauty of the Lord, and to be guarded by his temple." [5]

There was now at Rome a galaxy of talent, which, doubtless, helped to draw Ninian thither. Jerome, and others, whose renown in learning and piety filled Christendom, and has crossed the ages to our own days, were then residing. in that city. These men had no sympathy with the rising tide of superstition, or the growing ambition of the Popes; on the contrary, they strove to repress both, foreseeing to what a disastrous height both would grow if allowed to develop. But their presence dignified the old city, and the simple grandeur of their character, and the fame of their erudition, shed upon Rome a glory not greatly inferior to that of its first Augustan age. It was natural that Ninian should wish to see, and to converse with these men.

The Itineraries and the Roman roads, portions of which are still traceable on the face of England, enable us to track the route by which Ninian would travel. Starting from Annandale, he crosses the Solway and traverses the great military way to Carlisle. Thence he would continue his journey along the vale of the Eden and over the dark hills of Stanemoor.We see him halt on their summit and take his parting look of the mountains amid which he had passed his youth. As he pursued his way, many tokens would meet his eye of the once dominant, but now vanished, power of the Druids. Here and there by the side of his path would be seen oak groves felled by the ax, dolmens overturned, and stone circles wholly or in part demolished. Even in our day these monuments of a fallen worship are still to be beheld in the north of England: they were doubtless more numerous in Ninian's time.

Resuming his journey, Ninian would next cross the moorlands that lie on the other side of the Stanemoor chain. The Roman road that runs by Catterick would determine his path. Traversing this great highway, not quite obliterated even yet, and then doubtless in excellent condition, seeing it led to the main seat of the Roman government in Britain, Ninian in due course arrived at York.

This city was then one of the main centres of Christianity in Britain. It had its schools of sacred and secular learning; nevertheless its predominant air was still Roman. It had its courts of Roman judicature, its theatres, baths, mosaic pavements, and tutelary shrines within the walls; and suburbs in the Italian style. It was honoured at times with the presence of the Emperor. It was, in fact, a little Rome on English soil. From York our pilgrim would proceed by the well-frequented line of Wattling Street to London, and thence to Sandwich, where he would embark for Boulogne.

Ninian's steps are now on Gallic earth. He beholds around him the monuments of an older civilization than that of his native Britain. Pursuing his way he arrives at Rheims, a city which, in little more than a century afterwards, was to witness the baptism of Clovis an event which gave to the "church" her "eldest son," and to France the first of its Christian kings. Lyons is the next great city on his route. Here Ninian's heart would be more deeply stirred than at any previous stage of his journey. The streets on which he now walked had been trodden by the feet of Irenęus: for Lyons was the scene of the ministry and martyrdom of that great Christian Father. Every object on which Ninian's eye lighted—the majestic Rhone, the palatial edifices, the crescent-like hills that walled in the city on the north—all were associated with the memory of Irenęus, and not with his memory only, but with that of hundreds besides, whose love for the Gospel had enabled them to brave the terrors of the "red-hot iron chair: " the form of death that here awaited the early disciples of Christianity. As Ninian ruminated on these tragedies, for they were of recent occurrence and must have been fresh in his knowledge, he accepted these morning tempests, now past, as the pledges of a long and cloudless day to Christian France. Alas, Ninian did not know, and could not forecast, those far more dreadful storms that were to roll up in the sky of that same land in a future age and drench its soil with the blood of hundreds of thousands of martyrs.

Not long does Ninian linger on this scene of sad but sublime memories. Again he sets forth. His steps are now directed towards those white summits, which, seen across the plains of Dauphine, tower up before him in the southern sky, and admonish him that the toils and perils of his journey are in a measure only yet beginning. The Alps were already passable, but with extreme difficulty and hazard. The legions, marching to battle, and the merchants of the Mediterranean coast, seeking the markets of Gaul, had established routes across them; but to the solitary traveller the attempt to climb their summits was an arduous and almost desperate one. He was in danger of stepping unawares into the hidden chasm, or of being overtaken by the blinding tourmette, or surprised and crushed by the falling avalanche. Nor were their precipices and whirlwinds the only perils that attended the traveller in these mountains. He ran the farther risk of being waylaid by robbers or devoured by wolves. These hazards were not unknown to Ninian. His journey must be done nevertheless. Classic story, and now the tale of Christian martyrdom, had made the soil of Italy enchanted ground to him. But a yet greater fascination did its capital wield. That city had cast out its Caesar, but it had placed in his seat one who aspired to a higher lordship than emperor ever yielded. These gates Ninian must enter, and at these feet must he sit. Accordingly, joining himself, most probably, to a few companions, for such journeys were now beginning to be common, we see him climbing the lofty rampart of rocks and snows that rose between him and the goal of his pilgrimage, and their summits gained, he descends by an equally perilous path into the Italian plains. The Goth had not yet entered that fair land, and Ninian saw it as it appeared to the eye of the old Roman. The bloom of its ancient fertility was still upon its fields, nor had its cities lost the chaste glory of classic times. But the flower of Italy was Rome, the fountain of law the head of the world, and now the centre of the Christian church; and Ninian hastens his steps thither.

We behold the missionary of Galloway at the "threshold of the Apostles," as the church of the first parish in Rome now began to be magnificently styled. Here the greatest of the Apostles had suffered martyrdom, and here thousands of humble confessors had borne testimony to the faith by pouring out their blood in the gladiatorial combats of the Coliseum, or at the burning stakes in the gardens of Nero. But now the faith for which they had died was triumphing over the paganism of the empire, and the churches of the west were crowding to Rome and laying their causes at the feet of her bishop, as if in acknowledgment that their homage was justly due to her who had fought so terrible a battle, and had won so glorious a victory. Such, doubtless, were the thoughts of Ninian as he drew nigh to the eternal city. We know the overpowering emotions with which a greater than Ninian, eleven centuries later, approached the gates of Rome. Ninian entered these gates, not, indeed, unmoved, but with pulse more calm, and mind less perturbed, than the monk of Wittenberg. In Ninian's day the Papacy was only laying the foundations of its power, and laying them in a well-simulated humility; in Luther's age it had brought forth the top-stone, and its vaulting pride and towering dominion made it the wonder and the terror of the nations.

How did Ninian occupy himself in Rome? How long did he sojourn in it? What increase did he make in knowledge and in piety from all that he saw and heard in the capital of Christendom? To these questions we are not able to return any answer, or an answer that is satisfactory. The mythical haze with which his medieval biographers invest him is still around him. In their hands he is not the missionary of the fourth century but the monk of the twelfth; and if we shall relate, it is not necessary that we shall believe all that they have told us of his doings in Rome. He was shown, doubtless, the prison in which Paul had languished, and perhaps the bar at which he had pleaded. He was taken to the dark chambers in the tufa rock beneath the city, which had given asylum to the Church during the terrible persecutions of her infancy. He saw the basilicas being converted into churches; and in the transformation of the ancient shrines into Christian sanctuaries, he beheld the token that the great battle had gone against paganism, despite it was upheld by all the authority of Cęsar and by all the power of the legions. The descendants of those who had lived in the catacombs were in Ninian's day filling the curial chairs of the capital, and the tribunals of the provinces, or leading the armies of Rome on the frontiers. The orations of Chrysostom, the "golden-mouthed," and the writings of Augustine, were supplanting the orators and poets of pagan literature. These auspicious prodigies—the monuments of the irresistible might with which Christianity was silently obliterating the ancient pagan world, and emancipating men from the bondage in which its beliefs, philosophies, and gods had held them—Ninian did not fail to mark. These victories he could contemplate with an unmixed delight, for in their train no nation mourned its liberties lost, nor mother her sons slaughtered. They enriched the vanquished even more than the victor; and they gave assurance that the power which had subdued Rome would yet subdue the world.

But there were other things to be seen at Rome fitted to awaken a dread that a new paganism was springing up, which might prove in time as formidable a rival and as bitter a persecutor of the Gospel as that whose decay and fall was to be read in the deserted altars and desolate fanes of the metropolis. Crowds were flocking to the catacombs, not fleeing from persecution like their fathers, but seeking to enkindle their devotion, and add merit to their services, performed in the gloom of these sanctified caverns. The supper was celebrated at the graves of the martyrs: the dead were beginning to be invoked: art, which is first the handmaid, and next the mistress, was returning with her fatal gifts: the churches were a-glow with costly mosaics and splendid paintings. But the "holy of holies" in Rome was the tomb in which slept the Apostles Peter and Paul. Their bodies, exempt from the law of corruption, exhaled a celestial odour, able to regale not the senses only, but to refresh and invigorate the spirit. Thither, doubtless, was Ninian conducted, that he might return to his own country fully replenished with such holiness as the bones of martyrs and the mystic virtue of sanctified places can confer.

But what of the new truths and deeper meanings with which Ninian hoped his understanding was to be enlightened, when, lifting his eyes from the page of Scripture, he fixed them on the holy city of Rome, and set forth on his journey to it? Some things met his gaze in Rome that were indeed new, and which, if they did not minister to his edification, we may well believe, excited not a little his surprise. The temples which the followers of the humble Nazarene had reared for their worship, presented by their magnificence a striking contrast to the wattle-built churches of Galloway! And then came the pomp of the church's services: the rich and costly vestments of the clergy! the splendid equipages with which they rode out! the luxurious tables at which they sat—all these things were new to him. Compared with the golden splendour in which Ninian found the Roman Church basking, it was but the iron age with the Church in Scotland.

Ninian saw something in Rome more magnificent still. There he beheld, with wonder, doubtless, the blossoming power of her chief bishop; fed by riches, by adulation, by political power, and the growing subservience of the western churches, the Roman prelate was already putting forth claims, and displaying an arrogance which gave promise in due time of eclipsing the glory of the Cęsars. And not unlike their shepherds, were the flocks of the Eternal City. The members of the church, not slow to follow the example set then, were delighting in pomps and vanities. The days were long past when the profession of Christianity exposed one to the sword of the headsman, or the lions of the amphitheatre. The bulk of the professors of that age had succeeded in converting religion into a round of outward observances, which cost them far less pain than self-denial and sanctification of heart.

The bishop and clergy of Rome at the time of Ninian's visit have been pictured to the life by historians of unimpeachable veracity, eye-witnesses of the men and the scenes which they describe. Let us enter the gates which those writers throw open to us, and observe what is passing within them. It is the year 366. We find Rome full of violence, war is raging on its streets; the very churches are filled with armed combatants, who spill one another's blood in the house where prayer is wont to be made. What has given rise to these sanguinary tumults? The Papal See has become vacant, and Rome is electing a new bishop to fill the empty chair. Two aspirants offer themselves for the episcopal dignity—Damasus and Ursinus. Both are emulous of the honour of feeding the flock; but which of the two shall become shepherd and wield the crook, is a question to be determined by the sword. Damasus is backed by the more powerful faction of the citizens; and when the struggle comes to an end, victory remains with him. He has not been elected to the chair in which we now see him seating himself—he has fought his way to it and conquered it, as warrior conquers an earthly throne, and he mounts it on steps slippery with blood. He has fought a stout if not a good fight, and his mitre and crook are the rewards of victory. The choice of the Holy Ghost, say the scoffers in Rome, has fallen on him who had the biggest faction. So do contemporary historians tell us. "About the choice," says Ruffinus, speaking of the election of Damasus, and describing what was passing before his eyes, "arose a great tumult, or rather an open war, so that the houses of prayer, that is, the churches, floated with man's blood." [6] The historian Ammianus Marcellinus has drawn a similar picture of Rome at that time. The ambition that inflamed Damasus and Ursinus to possess the episcopal chair was so inordinate and the contest between them so fierce, that the Basilica of Sicinius, instead of psalms and prayers, resounded with the clash of arms and the groans of the dying. "It is certain," says Marcellinus, "that in the church of Sicinius, [7] where the Christians were wont to assemble, there were left in one day an hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies." The historian goes on to say that when he reflected on the power, the wealth, and the worship which the episcopal chair brought to its occupant, he ceased to wonder at the ardour shown to possess it. He pictures the Roman prelate in sumptuous apparel proceeding through the streets of Rome in his gilded chariot, the crowd falling back before the prancing of his steeds; and after his ride through the city, he enters his palace and sits down at a table more delicately and luxuriously furnished than a kings. [8] Baronius admits the truth of this picture, when he replies that Marcellinus, being a pagan, could not but feel a little heathen envy at the sight of the Christian Pontiff eclipsing in glory the Pontifex Maximus of old Rome. And as regards the "good table" of the bishop, Baronius rejoices in it "as one who delighted," says Lennard, "to hold his nose over the pot."[9] Again we find the pagan historian counseling the Christian bishop thus: "You would consult your happiness more if, instead of pleading the greatness of the City as an excuse for the swollen pride in which you strut about, you were to frame your life on the model of some provincial bishops, who approve themselves to the true worshippers of the Deity by purity of life, by modesty of behaviour, by temperance in meat and drink, by plain apparel and lowly eyes;"[10] a piece of excellent advice doubtless, which, we fear, was not appreciated by him of the "western eyebrow," as Basil styled Pope Damasus.

When these sordid humours, to speak leniently of them, infected the Head, what was to be looked for in the clergy? With such an example of pomp and luxury daily before their eyes, they were not likely to cultivate very assiduously the virtues of humility, abstinence, and self-denial. The Roman clergy of the day, it should seem, were devoured by a passion for riches, and that passion was fed by the wealthier members of their flocks, whose profuse liberality ought to have more than satisfied their avariciousness. A stream of oblations and gifts flowed without intermission into the episcopal exchequer. Not on the dignitaries of the church only did this shower of riches descend; it fell in almost equal munificence on many of the lower clergy. It was the practice of the time for the matrons and widows of Rome to choose a cleric to act as their spiritual director. The office gave occasion to numerous scandals and gross abuses. The pagan Protestratus, the consul of the city, could afford to be jocular over the subject of clerical magnificence. "Make me bishop of Rome and I shall quickly make myself a Christian," said he to Damasus, putting his satire into the pleasant form of a jest. Jerome, who was then in Rome in the midst of all this, was too much in earnest to give way to pleasantry. It was indignation, not mirth, with which the sight filled him. He denounces the salutations, the cozenings, the kissings, with which these reverend guides flavoured their spiritual counsels.[11]He describes, in terms so plain that we cannot here reproduce them, the devices to which the clergy had recourse to win the hearts and open the purses of their female devotees. He addresses his brother ecclesiastics now in earnest admonition, now in vehement invective, and now in keen sarcasm. The world aforetime honoured them as poor, now the Church blushed to see them rich. "There are monks," says Jerome, "richer now than when they lived in the world, and clerks which possess more under poor Christ than they did when they served under rich Beelzebub." But grave admonition and cutting sarcasm were alike powerless. The rebukes of Jerome, instead of moderating the greed of the clergy, only drew down their hatred upon their reprover; and soon he found it prudent to withdraw from the metropolis, which he styles "Babylon," and to seek again his cave at Bethlehem, where, no longer pained by the sight of the pride, ambition, and sensuality of Rome, he might pursue his studies in the quiet of the hills of Judah.

Even the Emperor Valentinian found it necessary, by public edict (A.D. 370), to restrain the wealth and avariciousness of the ecclesiastics. More striking proof there could not be of the extent to which this contagion had grown in the Church. The edict was addressed to Damasus, and was read in all the churches of Rome. The emperor prohibited, under certain penalties, all ecclesiastics from entering the houses of widows and orphans. And, farther, it was made illegal for one of the ecclesiastical order to receive testamentary gift, legacy, or inheritance from those to whom he acted as spiritual director, or to whom he stood in religious relations only. The money or property bequeathed by such illegal deeds was confiscated to the public treasury. This edict had respect to the clergy alone; and it is worthy of notice that it proceeded not from a pagan persecuting ruler, but from a Christian emperor. Its significance was emphasized by Jerome, when he pointed out that of all classes, not excepting the most sunken, this edict singled out and struck at the ecclesiastical order. "I am ashamed," said he, "to speak it: but the priests of idols, stage-players, charioteers, and courtesans, are capable of legacies and inheritances; only clergymen and monks are disabled from inheriting. Neither do I complain of the law, but grieve to see that we should deserve it." Approving the wisdom of the law, Jerome yet bewails its utter inefficiency.. The avarice of the clergy baffled the vigilance of the emperor. The law stood, but methods were devised for circumventing and evading its enactment. Donations and death-bed bequests to ecclesiastics continued, only they reached then in a more circuitous way. They were made over to others, to be held by them in trust for clerical uses. This law was renewed by succeeding emperors in even stricter terms. Theodosius and Arcadius attempted to grapple by statute with this great evil, but the churchmen of the day were fertile in expedients, and the patriotic intentions of these legislators were completely frustrated. Legal enactment's cannot reach the roots of moral maladies. The thirst for gold on the part of the clergy continued unabated; and with the increase of superstition, the disposition to load priests and monks with the good things which they professed to have renounced, grew stronger, baffling not only legal restraints but the sanctity of personal and family obligations. Eight centuries later the evil had come to such a head in England that the sovereigns of that country found it necessary to revive the spirit of the laws of Valentinian and Theodosius. These statutes came just in time to prevent the absorption of the whole landed property of England into the "Church,'' and by consequence, just in time to save the people from inevitable serfdom, and the public order and liberties from utter destruction.

To return to Rome, where Ninian was still sojourning, the growth of ecclesiasticism and the decay of piety went on by equal stages. The citizens of the metropolis and of Italy generally were leading careless and luxurious lives. They had invented a devotion which could be slipped on or of at pleasure. A few moments were all that was needed to put them into a mood fit for the church or for the theatre. They passed with ease from the secular games to the religious festivals, for both ministered an equal excitement and an equal pleasure. They thought not of what was passing on the distant frontier. There the Scythian bands were mustering, prepared to take vengeance on the mistress of the world for centuries of wrong endured at her hands. The Romans deemed themselves far removed from danger under the ęgis of an empire the prestige and power of which were a sufficient guarantee, they believed, against attack or overthrow. Rome was entering on a new and grander career: There awaited her in the future, victories which would throw into the shade those her generals had won in the past. She had linked her destinies with Christianity; and that would never perish. She had become the seat of a pure faith, and this, it was presumed, had imparted to her a new life and a higher intellectual vigour. Her bishop was filling the place of Cęsar. Her city was consecrated by the labours and blood of martyrs. Within her were the tombs of the apostles, and their protection would not be wanting to a city in which their ashes reposed. Bishops and Presbyters, as of old kings and ambassadors, were crowding to her gates. The churches East and west were beginning to recognize her as umpire and judge by submitting their quarrels and controversies to her decision. The barbarous nations were beginning to embrace her creed and submit to her sway; and surely her children in the faith would never come with armies to destroy her. If ever they should appear at the gates of Rome, it would be to bow at the footstool of her bishop, not to rifle her treasures and slay or carry captive her citizens. On all sides were prognostications of growing power and extending dominion. Deceived by these signs of outward grandeur, the Romans failed to note the cloud of barbarian war which was every day growing bigger and blacker in the northern horizon.


Footnotes

1. Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticę, vol. v., p. 90. London, 1719.

2. Eusebius, Prępar. Evang., lib. xii., cap. 1

3. Chrys., Hom. in Ioan.

4. Theod.; Bingham, Origines Eccl., vol. v., p. 96.

5. Life of Ninian, by Ailred, chap. 2; Historians of Scotland, vol. V., Lives of the Eng. Saints, Ninian, p. 39.

6. Ruffin., lib. i. c. 10.

7. The Basilica of Sicinius is probably the church of the Santa Marie Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill.

8. Am. Marcel., lib. xxvii. See also Gregory Nazianzen, Orat. xxxvii.

9. Baronius, tom. iv, An. 367.; Samson Lennard, History of the Papacy, prog. 6, 41.

10. Am. Marcel, xxvii. 3.

11. Hieron. ad Eustochium, Epist. 22.


Editor's Note.

The Bishop of Rome was not about to share his throne with the Emperor. All the money flowing into Rome was used to bribe the Generals of the Army to look the other way while the Barbarian hordes were invading and destroying the Empire!!