What is the West? The Origins and Definition of Western Civilisation [Part 2]

After the split of the Roman Empire into two parts. the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire [read Part 1], the Western Roman Empire eventually declined.

In the second part of the origins and definition of the West, we look at what happened after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and how the last surviving institution, the Roman Church was vaulted into ascendency by the unwitting activity of a new rising civilisation – Islam.

The clash of the West European Christian Tribes with the Islamic Civilisation, would unleash forces that led to the birth of the West as a distinct civilisation. The rise of Islam would create the West.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire and the ‘Barbarian’ Colonisation of Europe

The Western Roman Empire was crumbling economically and militarily, and began to withdraw from many areas of the Empire, in many places it ceded areas to barbarian tribes for settlement instead of resisting. However it was a matter of time before the complete collapse of the Western Roman Empire came.

After the sack of Rome to Alaric and his gothic army in 410AD, the city of Rome remained, although only a pale shadow of its former esteem.

The gothic armies of Odoacer (a former Roman officer) deposed the last Western Roman Emperor in 476AD and Odoacer was declared first (‘Barbarian’) King of Italy. This formally ended the Western Roman Empire.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, europe was overrun with barbarian tribes, from Germania – the Franks, the Lombards, the Visigoths, the Saxons, the Frisians and the Angles and Danes from Scandinavia.

Invasions_of_the_Roman_Empire_1

The native Gauls and Celts who had previously lived throughout western Europe under Roman power were christian and many Christian communities of the Western Roman Empire survived and adapted to their new pagan overlords (although some of the tribes were nominally Christian).

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Later on, the Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian (ruled 527AD-565AD) attempted to reconquer all the former Western Roman areas into a reunited Roman Empire, which met with some success, but eventually shrank back due to overstretched resources.

However, the Eastern Roman Empire managed to retain Rome, leaving a small garrison force to protect it. The city of Rome looked to the Eastern Roman Empire for its protection against the european barbarians. The Bishop of Rome attended the councils and synods of his fellow Bishops in the Eastern Roman Empire (who each head churches in Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople), but this didn’t last long.

The Rise of Islam & the Breakaway of the Church of Rome

Pressured by constant wars against the Persian Sassanid Empire and the invading Bulgars, the rise of Islam and the military defeats of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) armies, shrivelled up the Eastern Roman Empire, losing it North Africa, Egypt, the Levant and the islands of the mediterranean. Constantinople barely resisted a number of sieges by Caliph Muawiyah, relying on ‘greek-fire’ flamethrowers to fend off the Muslim forces.

The pressure of the barbarian Lombards invasions of Italy, and the loss of a significant amount of provinces to the Islamic Caliphate created a weakness and inability in the Eastern Roman Empire to protect the Italian peninsula. This prompted the Bishop of Rome to look towards the new germanic tribal overlords of Europe for protection. If the rise of the Islamic Caliphate hadn’t conquered the lands dominated by the Eastern Roman Empire, history would have taken a completely different turn.

The Roman Catholic Church finds new patrons

With the Roman Church free of the Eastern Roman Empire’s control, it used Rome as a base of operations to send missionaries and resources from the Catholic Church to convert the invading pagan tribes to Christianity and set up new communities and expand existing ones – leading to new Bishops and Churches being established throughout Europe. This task was made easier due to the fact that many of the invading tribes were already (nominal) Christians, and had earlier become Christian due to awe at the power and civilisation of the former Roman Empire.

The Bishops and clergy preserved Western Roman language (Latin) and a lot of Roman administrative methods, laws and codes. They offered their assistance and giving them religious-approved authority to the rule over the new Christian tribal kings and chiefs in return of protection and patronage. Over time, the invaders were latinised and their languages changed under the tutelage of Bishops and clergy who preserved many aspects of late Roman culture. This led to the adoption of many latin words into the languages of these new Christian tribes – leading to the languages that would eventually become French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, English and German. Eventually, conquest and increasing wealth from settlement and sedentary life  led to the rise of bigger kingdoms in western europe.

In 800 AD,  Pope Leo III crowned the highly successful Frankish King, Charlemagne, as ‘Holy Roman Emperor’, conveying upon the church of Rome, the ability to spiritually approve and make Kings and heirs to the Roman Empire itself (which was strongly protested by the Empress Irene of the Eastern Roman Empire, and her successor Emperor Nikephoros I, who viewed themselves to be the only true continuation of the Roman Empire).

Charlemagne’s Frankish empire, called the Carolingian Empire – spanned modern-day France, Germany and Northern Italy, and had become powerful patrons of Roman Christianity, fighting Muslims in Spain (with limited results), conquering the Lombards in Italy, and forcing the Saxons in Germania to convert to Christianity or face death.

carolingian-empire-7-638

The Carolingian Empire lasted until 846AD where it split into three parts between three sons of Frankish Emperor Louis ‘the Pious’ (840AD), Western Francia, Northern Italy and the third Kingdom over the area where is now modern germany.

2000px-division-of-carolingian-empire

The Frankish Kingdom ruling over the area where is now modern-day germany (shown in pink on the picture above), expanded somewhat and later became another revived ‘Holy Roman Empire’ under King Otto I  in 962AD (lasting in very different forms up until 1809).

While Bishops and Churches of the Eastern Roman Empire were puppets of the Emperor and lacked independence, however, the new political independence of Rome and its Church from the shrinking Eastern Roman Empire allowed the Bishop of Rome to act independently and decide theological doctrines outside of Eastern Imperial control. This would eventually lead to a schism between the Christian communities under the influence of the Roman Church (the churches of Western europe) and the prominent christian communities under the rule of the Eastern Roman Emperor.

Over the years many Bishops of Rome began increasingly claiming that they possessed preeminent authority in all earthly and spiritual matters – arguing that the foundation of christian communion (i.e. The Christian ‘ Ummah’), was upon St. Peter, who they argued was given the ‘keys to the Kingdom of Heaven’ [1]. The Bishops of Rome argued they were the direct successors of St. Peter, and therefore only they were inheritors to the same ‘powers’ and ‘authority’ allegedly first conveyed to St. Peter – possessing ‘rightful’ leadership of all the Christian communities throughout the world.

In the past, the Bishops of all the most prominent Christian communities were called ‘Popes’ (Greek: Father), however, the Bishop of Rome would now (according to itself) be the only one that could be called PopeIn essence, the Bishop of Rome, gradually claimed pre-eminence until it declared that the Bishop of Rome alone could unilaterally decide Christian doctrine, rites, creed and canon law without strictly needing councils or synods.

In 1054, Pope Leo IX sent Cardinal Humbert to deliver a decree to the head Bishop (Patriarch) of Constantinople, Michael Cærularius. The decree not only claimed the supreme authority of the Pope of Rome, but also claimed that the Roman emperor Constantine had in centuries past ‘donated’ the Roman Empire to the Church of Rome (this was based upon an inauthentic and possibly deliberately forged document called ‘the donation of Constantine’). The mission ended badly and the decree was rejected and the Cardinal excommunicated (i.e takfir) the Eastern Christian Patriarch. This was met in response by a mutual excommunication from the Patriarch against Pope Leo IX. This began the West-East schism creating what is known today as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Christendom – The first Consciousness of  Western Civilisation

Conversion to Christianity from amongst the pagan european tribes had already begun under Roman Imperial rule from 4th century and continued progressively until 14th century. However, it was the Roman Catholic encounter with Islam that would change Western Roman Christians forever, and inadvertently create the beginning of Western Civilisation as a separate civilisation all of its own.

The Roman Catholic Churches control over the tribes and kingdoms increased over time, but politically their patrons and influence were faced with an enemy it couldn’t easily conquer – the Islamic Civilisation. Everywhere the Catholic Church looked, whether to the West in Iberia (modern-day spain/portugal), Sicily, North Africa, the Eastern Levant and beyond, all it could see was the lands of Islam. This created a call of unity by the Catholic Church, to all Catholic Christians, would slowly gather pace around 11th century, leading to a new purpose for war, a Crusade from Latin cruciata, past participle of cruciare “to mark with a cross,”) against the ‘infidel’.

The settled tribes of Western europe had by now become established kingdoms and had warred against eachother. The creation of a new kind of war, a war based upon their Catholic Christian identity, and blessed by their religion, created a new awareness and consciousness in the world that had now become a distinct civilisation – Christendom.

From [Pope] Gregory VII [d.1058AD] onward, christianitas and related words occurred much more frequently, and it is in that period that the term began to achieve its “true significance.” The heyday of christianitas coincided with the rise of the papal monarchy, and the idea of Christendom finally “triumphed” under the pontificate of [Pope] Innocent III [d.1216AD], perhaps the mightiest of papal monarchs. This idea lay at the center of Innocent’s political outlook and actions. One finds the full articulation of the notion of christianitas in crusading chronicles, where the word was in common use.  This is understandable once we realize that the concept of Christendom was the first to take shape among the various preconditions of the crusading movement—as well as the last to vanish. A precondition of the crusade, the concept of Christendom was realized with the crusade. The launching of the crusade can be seen as marking the symbolic point when Christendom became “a living reality,” when it was transformed into what could be called a society. “Christendom (and the idea of Christendom) found its most potent expression in the crusade; the crusade exalted Christendom, carried it to its highest point of fervor.” Christendom and the crusade came into existence together: They were “made together, in a reciprocal creation.” (2)

It comes as no surprise then, that the earliest surviving record we have today of the use of the word ‘christianitatis’ to mean ‘Christendom’ as the dominions of (Roman Catholic) Christians, occurs in a chronicle of an unnamed crusading warrior from the first Crusade:

“Turci inimici Dei et sanctae christianitatis” [The (Muslim) Turk is an enemy of God and Holy Christendom] (3)

In effect, the medieval Catholic Church created Christendom by radicalising the Catholic Christian peoples of Europe against Islam.

Up until now, the Catholic Church’s political power was limited to only rubber stamping Catholic kings and rulers and demanding their christian populations obey them. However, the call to crusade and the ability to regularly launch wars under its instigation – attracting volunteers from both the peasant and noble classes across the Catholic kingdoms – gave the church a degree of ascendency over all the Catholic Kings. The new consciousness and civilisation of Christendom that spanned the Western European kingdoms and transcended their borders, would now be led by the Catholic Church.

The first incarnation of the something approximating the modern-day West, and its precursor, was ‘Christendom’. This concept referred to all lands dominated or ruled over by Christians from the Western Roman Church, Roman Catholicism, and did not generally include the Eastern Orthodox Church or lands of its followers. 

As Europe came into the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, the Swedes, and Danes converted to Catholic Christianity as did the rest of Scandinavia and eastern Germany. Viking raiders settled in west Francia on condition of converting to Christianity, and were called Normans (from latin Normanni, from the old Frankish word Nortmann, which mean ‘North men’). The region is now called Normandy.

Further East, the Slavs and peoples of Novgorod (later Russia) converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Great_Schism_1054_with_former_borders

The region in the above illustration, marks the schism between the West Roman Church (Roman Catholicism) and the Eastern Roman Church (Eastern Orthodox Christianity).

The Catholic Kingdoms of Denmark, Poland and Sweden (and two Germanic Knight orders) launched crusades in the 13th-14th century to spread Christianity and force convert the Pagans to the East, however Catholic crusades weren’t only reserved for pagans and Muslims. Pope Gregory IX endorsed Northern Crusades in 1242 against the Eastern Orthodox Christian Kingdom of Novgorod (modern day Russia), which ended in defeat for the Catholics. These campaigns are now called the ‘Northern Crusades’.

The lands under control of Roman Catholic Christians by 14th century, or Christendom, set the basis the region that would be later collectively called ‘the West’, and form the lands whose descendants would later be called ‘Westerners’.

A Brief Note on Eastern Roman Empire and the Islamic Civilisation’s Perspective towards Christendom

Since the split of the Roman Empire into two parts, the Eastern Roman Empire had always referred to the other half as fellow Romans. When the Western Roman Empire was overrun by barbarians, the barbarians were obviously not considered Romans, but after the later latinisation of their culture due to the work of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Roman Empire called them ‘Latinikoi’ (Greek: Latins). It should be borne in mind, that the Eastern Roman Empire considered only themselves as the surviving continuation of the Roman Empire, and called themselves ‘Rhomaioi’ (Greek: Roman). The new ‘Latins’ of the West, were merely viewed as latinised barbarians who ruled over the conquered lands they took from the Roman Empire, and inherited and imitated some of the old culture from a dead part of the Roman Empire mixed with their own – and so could never truly be Roman themselves.

The Islamic Civilisation had conquered the germanic tribe Visigoths and ended their occupation of Iberia, but later encountered border clashes with the Catholics of Asturias in the mountainous area of northern Iberia (Al Andalus). Muslims had also fought against Normans invading Sicily. However, Muslims of the time did not perceive of Christendom as a united force, nor a separate civilisation.

This was going to change after the Crusades, when Muslims observed Christians from all over Western europe were flocking into armies directed at the Islamic Levant. But this didn’t prompt Muslims to lump all Christians together – they still differentiated between Eastern Romans, native Middle Eastern Christians, and the warlike newcomers from Western europe.

The Christian Eastern Romans were simply called ‘Al Rum’ and their Greek language was called ‘Al Rumi’, and the Christians living in Islamic lands were simply called ‘Christians’ or Nassara (Arabic for Nazarenes).

The closest name invented by Muslims for the people of Christendom (Western European Catholics), was a word coined from their most prominent and most encountered ethnic group, Al Franji (Arabicised word for Franks). This was probably because the Frankish empires of europe were the most prominent Catholic power for most of the middle ages, and to Muslims, were the most prominent of the people they encountered from that region.


1  Matthew 16:13-19 (New Testament, Bible)

2 Crusading Peace Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order, Tomazˇ Mastnak, 2002

3 Gesta Francorum VI,xiii.



Categories: ARTICLES, WRITINGS

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  1. What is the West? The Origins and Definition of Western Civilisation [Part 1] | Abdullah al Andalusi

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