“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
452 AD St. Leo Repulses the Huns (The Conversion of the Barbarians)
The word civilization comes from the Latin word, civis, indicating someone who lives in a town. Because of the stability inherent in established towns, a shared culture and religion can develop.
It was the Greeks who coined the term barbarian. To them, everyone who wasn’t Greek sounded like “buhbuhbuh” when they spoke, hence the word barbarian. They were nomadic people, therefore tribal, lacking the stability of a town. To the barbarians, the collective identity of the group was important; individual identity was not. Thus, they engaged in honour killings and their way of killing was to the death.
The Roman Empire of the third and fourth centuries was collapsing for many reasons. There was economic crisis. Farmers couldn’t grow crops from depleted soil. Roman men were not joining the army in sufficient numbers so men from barbarian tribes who settled within the empire made up greater numbers of officers and fighting men. The tribes who had lived around Rome for generations were loyal to her but soldiers from more recent tribes were not. So Rome was constantly fighting off barbarian invaders. Politicians were corrupt. Citizens with money lived decadent, sensual, worldly lives while the poor starved. A historian wrote about the “terrifying sluggishness of the whole population” which indicated that the people had lost their purpose. The worst thing was, Rome was by now a Catholic society so these things were happening regardless of the Catholic faith. People were being baptized but not living out their Faith.
Over in Carthage, the empire wasn’t doing any better. The monk, Salvian of Marseilles wrote about the many vices that Christians there were engaged in, including homosexual acts by men. Salvian admired the Vandal tribes that had invaded Carthage. They were not “effeminate” and were “more chaste and pure than the Romans.” He lamented that “the vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us.”
Meanwhile, in Hippo, St. Augustine had no sympathy when his people were invaded by the Vandals. “The times are what we have made them!”
The empire was attacked by tribe after tribe, predominantly Vandals and Visigoths. Interestingly, when the Visigoths attacked Rome for a second time in 410, some of the soldiers showed mercy towards the citizens, something that had not happened before. St. Augustine called it a “nova more” - a new way of behaving. The Visigoths were Arian – Christian, but still heretics.
None of the barbarian attacks on the empire compared to the destruction by the Huns. A scary-looking people, they were “totally ignorant of the distinction between right and wrong” and were “under no restraint from religion or superstition” according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. Their leader was the “highly intelligent and talented” Attila, dubbed by a monk as “the Scourge of God.” At one time, he had been a hostage in Rome and so along with being able to speak Latin, he knew the city’s defects very well.
When Attila decided the time was right to invade Rome, he moved westward leaving a wake of destruction behind him. In Troyes and Paris, however, God intervened. The bishop of Troyes, St. Lupus, convinced Attila not to attack the city. At Paris, St. Genevieve entreated the people to pray so that God would spare them and God granted their prayer.
As Attila and the Huns continued their destruction, the Romans and barbarians formed a coalition that was hopefully strong enough to repel the Huns. The coalition army was only marginally successful, weakening the Huns but not defeating them.
In 452, Attila began his invasion of Italy and town after town fell to his forces as he moved closer to Rome. The emperor enlisted Pope Leo’s help. Before going out to meet Attila, Pope Leo spent much time in prayer and then his party set off carrying crosses and banners. The two leaders met and although their discussion was not recorded, Pope Leo convinced Attila to spare Rome and promise peace.
Attila’s demise came in 453. At the celebration of yet another one of his (many) weddings, he was so drunk that he had to lay down. He began to hemorrhage from his nose but since he was flat on his back, the blood flowed down his throat and he choked and drowned on his own blood.
The unusual move by Attila the Hun to spare Rome proved two things. First, the impeding attack was not caused by Christians’ refusal to worship pagan gods (as the pagans alleged). Second, the coalition of Romans and barbarians proved that they could work together and “the future of Christendom lay in that cooperation.”
With the collapse of Rome in 472, a new Catholic Europe would slowly emerge. It’s leader? The Papacy.
Related post: Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know – Part 1