Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Glimpse at the Dark Ages (Part I): Constantine's Role

To delve right into the History of Architecture, one cannot begin discussing the architecture (buildings, structural details, aesthetic choices) of the period until one understands the history of the civilization. By civilization, I am regarding to the life of the people as a whole including the economic, political, and scholarly agenda of the period. Just as we cannot claim that in Early America there was a sudden ingenuous style of the Georgian Revival because it was brought over from the British (chronologically this statement is supported); we also cannot say that styles of the Dark Ages was purely a coincidence. Changes in political power, economic downfalls, and plagues helped to change the styles of the architectural structures including domestic architecture, fortifications, and ecclesiastical structures.

The Dark Ages, also known as the Early Middle Ages occurred roughly between 300 AD and 1000 AD. Many scholars name the Dark Ages so due to the scarcity of written history and knowledge of the period. On the other hand, there is a valid argument that the Dark Ages has also been named because of the ignorance of the citizens during the period. What we do know (which is very little) begs several questions, which I hope to continue the discussions, if not help to find some insight.

Constantine was one of the greatest figures during the Dark Ages as he accomplished something no other predecessor had: he legitimized Christianity so it was no longer a heretic religion. Before Constantine, all emperors of the Roman Empire had been pagan and Christians had to pray in hiding. It should be noted that at the time (early fourth century) the Roman Empire had been divided into two parts: the East (Daia) and the West (Italy and Gaul). (Paretti 698) In 312 AD, Constantine won two victories near Rome and soon after reached an agreement with the Licinius of the East to tolerate the Christians. Because the Christian community now surpassed in sheer number of followers in the West, Constantine soon took power. (Paretti 698)

The way in which Constantine solely took power over the other four rulers is a story in itself. Constantinian reforms were being carried out in the West. These reforms included “reducing the number of legionaries, with recourse once more to barbarian 'federati' for frontier defence” (Paretti 699), improving the economic downturn by devaluing the money and substituting forced taxes for the “abnormal collection of tribute then ruling” (Paretti 699), and finally to force particular professions upon successors to ensure the continuity of the field. As these reforms were gaining hold, war broke out in Constantine's favor as he was trying to free the Christians. In 323 the final emperor was forced to surrender, leaving Constantine the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. With his reighn, he declared Christianity to be the new state religion. About seven years later, he dedicated the city once known as Byzantium to the new city called Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

With the new religion taking full power, churches began to reform in response. The “basilica” form of the church began to appear as early as the fourth century. The basilica plan is essentially a cross, which contains a nave with aisles on both sides and an apse at the front of the church. However, these early years, the aisles were small, only alluding to the basilica type plan. The earliest known plan is that of the church of Silchester, excavated by the Society of Antiquities. (Quennell, 38)

There are varying opinions from scholars as to the reasons of the decline of Rome. One example to the decline of the Empire (but certainly not to be used as a definitive answer) included the decay of the commerce. The Roman Empire never adopted a true policy of mercantilism nor tried their hand at trade. The Empire also did not try to develop state monopolies. The Empire was usually short of money and the ways in which they gained income was sometimes formidable. One of the fundamental causes of the decline was the inflation of money. It was not accepted in any foreign countries. Because it was reduced in weight and purity, it eventually became essentially a coin currency. In other countries, payment had to be made in precious metal at face value and because of this policy, there was a steep fall in the value of the Roman Empire's money. In addition, banks failed, interest rates rose astronomically, and goods went up in price adding to the decline in economical power. The Roman Empire tried to fix the latter problem by putting a maximum price on goods, but this only caused more problems for the merchants and producers. Constantine's forced reforms were the only somewhat redeeming capabilities of the Empire.

The fields of Astronomy and Mathematics also had an influence during the Dark Ages. Before Constantine, astronomy and its subsequent sciences of astrology and divination were the main sources of propaganda, led by paganism. However, after the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion, the Christians denounced astrology and divination, claiming that a human's destiny is not determined by the Pagan Gods, but by man's free will.

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