The Dark Ages: Loss of Classical Culture

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  • 0:06 A Roman Pleb and a…
  • 2:29 The Loss of Classical Culture
  • 3:23 Causes for the Loss of…
  • 4:45 Impacts of the Loss of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten

Max has an MA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Behavioral Genetics, a Master of Education, and a BA in Classics, Religion, Philosophy, Evolutionary Psychology.

This lesson explores the loss of classical culture during the Dark Ages. We compare the life of a medieval peasant to that of a Roman pleb. We then examine the causes of this decline, as well as its repercussions.

A Roman Pleb and a Medieval Peasant

Meet Ianus the Roman pleb and John the medieval peasant. Ianus lives in a four-story apartment building in the sprawling city of Rome. John lives in a thatch hut in one of the hundreds of tiny villages scattered around medieval Europe.

Ianus went to school. He can read and write. Right now, Ianus is using this skill to draw lewd graffiti, but if he so desired, he had access to thousands of pieces of literature from all over the Empire at one of Rome's many libraries. John doesn't even know what a school is, let alone a library. He's only ever heard of one book, the Bible, and at any rate, the only person in the village who can read is the priest.

Ianus starts his day off with a trip to the baths, where he soaks in the hot tubs and then has a drink of water from a nearby fountain. John hasn't had a bath in months. In fact, he's fairly certain that baths are sinful, though he's not sure why. The closest thing John has to running water is a nearby stream.

Ianus spends his day off attending one of Rome's many festivals. He catches the first play of an annual theatre competition. From there, he heads to the horse races at the Circus Maximus. Tired of the ponies, Ianus wanders around the market, where he touches silk from China, tastes olives from Greece, sees paper from Egypt, and smells spices from across three continents. Ianus finishes his day watching a nice gladiatorial fight at Rome's massive stadium, the Colosseum.

John spends his day off attending church. After services, there'll be a market day - oh boy! - with peddlers and storytellers and maybe even a maypole! John hopes the peddlers bring some more apples from the village next door, but no such luck. The peddler caravan got waylaid by bandits. No market today! Poor John.

How do we explain this disconnect? Ianus lived at the height of the Roman Empire, around 100 CE. John lived hundreds of years after Ianus, around 600 CE. So why is John's world so small and pathetic while Ianus's world is huge and interesting?

The Loss of Classical Culture

Well, if we imagine the course of Western civilization like a tree, ever since its inception, it has branched out. Philosophy, literature, art, law, and religion all spread out in a hundred different directions. With the ascent of Christianity and the Dark Ages, Western civilization took a new course, and all this branching out ended.

Many branches of culture died off or were cut short. The few branches that remained all turned inward, toward a central religious core. All art, all philosophy, all literature, all law, all thought became tied to Christianity. This inward-turning focus persisted for almost a thousand years. Western civilization only really began branching out again with the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Causes for the Loss of Classical Culture

Why did this happen? Well, there were several factors.

Many of these branches died out naturally. The Roman Empire had been united by a common language. As Germanic peoples with new languages invaded the empire, this common language was lost and literacy plummeted. Very few people could read the works of the ancient world, and pretty much no one was writing anything new. The barbarians who invaded the Roman Empire had little use for poetry or philosophy. Their culture was far more primitive. With no one to appreciate or maintain these branches of culture, many of them died off simply from disuse.

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