Stilicho’s Son – Prologue

Historical fiction |

The Fifth Century AD

The Romans in Their Decadence by Thomas Couture Painting - Image for Stilicho's Son
The Romans in their Decadence by Thomas Couture

Romans in the fifth century would remember the splitting of the empire into East and West and the unprecedented rise of the barbarian Stilicho. They would remember the last gladiatorial games, the relocation of the capitol from Rome to Ravenna, a handful of army revolts, several devastating defeats, and invasions by Alaric and his rapacious Visigothic Confederacy. 

By the end of the fourth century, migrating tribes had transformed into a barbarian invasion of the western empire. Since men sought to avoid military service, the army dug deep to fill its ranks, even enlisting barbarian tribes to guard frontiers they had been ravaging only the year before. The western empire ceased to grow, its armies no longer paying for themselves with new lands and booty. That left merchants and the poor with the burden of financing an empire. 

Whenever money was needed, the emperor demanded more taxes. Taxes had tripled in living memory. Rich land-owners were sheltered by exemptions, and many poor families began to sell what they had and attach themselves to working a farm, where they remained virtual slaves for generations. Those who failed to meet their tax debt could sell their children, and a thriving yearly market developed in southern Italy. A man could even sell himself into slavery, which was illegal, but like everything in Late Rome, the law served those who could afford to enforce it. There were no police. 

Chi Rho, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican image for Stilicho's Son
Chi Rho, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican

A citizen could be flogged. He could be tortured. He could be extorted by corrupt officials. He ate porridge, drank watered-down wine, worked the land, enjoyed chariot races, and engaged in riots spurred by religious controversy. If he lived in a city, he used a public bathhouse and public latrine, a bench he shared with as many as twenty others at a time. He belonged to a guild that obliged him to serve in the fire brigade or dredge rivers or some other unpaid service. 

A man would not likely live beyond the age of forty and die from an infectious disease. A woman would not live beyond thirty and die from a disease or in childbirth. A slave would not live beyond twenty, and he could be beaten, raped, or killed with impunity. 

The senatorial aristocracy turned away from traditional duties, such as funding repairs, building water ways, or providing shows. They funneled their money into the growing Catholic Church, which replaced the declining civil government by establishing its own courts, care of the poor, farms, and administrations. Bishops became emperors of their domains, using slaves to work Episcopal lands and spending a treasury at their discretion. 

Catholic Christians worked to get other Christian sects declared heresy by imperial decree. Constantine had ended the persecutions of Christians generations before, but it was Theodosius who stripped off the symbols of worldly power and knelt before Ambrose, the stern little bishop who excommunicated an emperor. Theodosius begged forgiveness, and thus the relationship between imperial Rome and the once-persecuted Church would never be the same. 

As a dark age of orthodoxy descended on Rome, heretics were fined, beaten, deported, barred from civil and military service, not allowed to inherit, their property confiscated, their worship prohibited, and occasionally, they were even executed. There were no atheists. There were no pagans. And soon there were no heretics. 

Welcome to Christian Rome.

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