Friday, May 2, 2014

On the Theodosian Code

[from Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, pages 124-5]  “On Christmas Day 438, a new compendium of recent Roman Law, the Theodosial Code (Codex Theodosianus), was presented to the assembled senators in the old imperial capital.  All senatorial meetings were fully minuted and the minutes passed on to the emperor. . . The Praetorian Prefect of Italy, Glabrio Faustus, who presided, and in whose palatial home the senators had gathered, opened the meeting by formally introducing the text to the assembly.  After reminding the audience of the original edict that had established the law commission, he presented the Code to them.  In response, the assembled senators let rip at the tops of their voices:

‘Augustuses of Augustuses, the greatest of Augustuses!’  (repeated 8 times)

‘God gave You to us!  God save Your for us!’ (27 times)

‘As Roman Emperors, pious and felicitous, may you rule for many years!’ (22 times)

‘For the good of the human race, for the good of the Senate, for the good of the State, for the good of all!’ (24 times)

‘Our hope is in You, You are our salvation!’  (26 times)

‘May it please our Augustuses to live forever!’  (22 times)

‘May You pacify the world and triumph here in person!’  (24 times)”

“. . . The great and good of the Roman world were speaking with one voice in praise of their imperial rulers in the city that was still its symbolic capital.  Only slightly less obvious . . . is the second message: the confidence of the senators in the Perfection of the Social Order of which they and their emperors were symbiotic parts.  You can’t have complete Unity without an equally complete sense of Perfection. . . And, as the opening acclamations make clear, the source of that Perfection was, straightforwardly, God, the Christian deity.  By 436, the Senate of Rome was a thoroughly Christian body.  At the top end of Roman society, the adoption of Christianity thus made no difference to the age-old contention that the Empire was God’s vehicle in the world. 

“The same message was proclaimed at similar ceremonial moments all the way down the social scale, even within Church circles. . . Many Christian bishops, as well as secular commentators, were happy to restate the old claim of Roman imperialism in its new clothing.  Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was already arguing, as early as the reign of Constantine, that it was no accident that Christ had been incarnated during the lifetime of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.  Despite the earlier history of persecutions, went his argument, this showed that Christianity and the Empire were destined for each other, with God making Rome all-powerful so that, thorough it, all mankind might eventually be saved. 

“This ideological vision implied, of course, that the emperor, as God’s chosen representative on earth, should wield great religious authority within Christianity.  As early as the 310s, within a year of the declaration of his new Christian allegiance, bishops from North Africa appealed to Constantine to settle a dispute that was raging among them. This established a pattern for the rest of the century: emperors were not intimately involved in both the settlement of Church disputes and the much more mundane business of the new religion’s administration.  To settle disputes, emperors called councils . . .”

Comment:  This code is shot through with what the Reformers later would see as heresy.  You do not trust in a political leader for salvation. The book of Ephesians indeed says that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service . . .”   I don’t find any precedent in the New Testament for this sort of devotion to an emperor, but this is part of the age-old debate between Protestants and Catholics.  Protestants won’t believe it unless they can find it in the Bible, but Catholics rely upon tradition as well as Scripture and since their tradition has grown up in Rome, the investiture of the Pope with great authority seems only fitting.

Theodosus II was of course the Eastern emperor, but Heather assumes that the same sort of thing was going on in Valentinian III in the west.  It is called the Theodosian code rather than something more all-encompassing because only this one example has survived. 

What about “the Holy Roman Empire”?  There is this interesting from Wikipedia:  The precise term Holy Roman Empire was not used until the 13th century, but the doctrine of translatio imperii ("transfer of rule") was fundamental to the prestige of the emperor, the notion that he held supreme power inherited from the emperors of Rome.  The office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. The German prince-electors, the highest ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as "King of the Romans", and he would later be crowned emperor by the Pope; the tradition of papal coronations was discontinued in the 16th century. The empire never achieved the extent of political unification formed in France, evolving instead into a decentralized, limited elective monarchy composed of hundreds of sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, Free Imperial Cities, and other domains.  The power of the emperor was limited, and while the various princes, lords, and kings of the empire were vassals and subjects who owed the emperor their allegiance, they also possessed an extent of privileges that gave them de facto sovereignty within their territories. Emperor Francis II dissolved the empire in August 1806 after its defeat by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz.”

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