What Is The Source Of The Roman Empire? Opinion 2: The Roman Empire Was Established By God Through The Roman People Chapter 27 ~ William Of Ockham

What is the source of the Roman Empire?

Opinion 2: The Roman Empire was established by God through the Roman people

Chapter 27

Student Let us now deal with the second opinion touched on above in chapter 18.

Master That opinion considers that the Roman empire was originally established by God, but yet through men, namely through the Romans.

The gloss on dist. 17, para. Hinc etiam [col.71] seems to attest to this when it says, "The Roman church has authority from the Lord [[councils in Zn]], but the emperor from the people", which ever we read. [[Probably a reference to the fact that the gloss also puts the contrary view that the Roman church's authority is from the Lord.]] Hence the gloss on dist 2, Lex est constitutio populi [col.7] also says, "Formerly the people established laws but not today because they have transferred this power to the emperor." The empire, however, is from whoever conferred on the emperor the power of establishing laws. The empire, therefore, is from the people.

Again, the Roman empire was from those who subjected the rest of the nations to the Roman empire, who committed the lordship of these subjugated people to whom they chose and who changed, as and when they liked, the way of dominating and ruling those who were obedient to the Romans. But the Romans did this in connection with the people they had subjugated. We find this in 1 Maccabees 8:1, where we read as follows, "Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong. ... And they (the Israelites) had heard of their wars and the brave deeds that they were doing among the Gauls, how they had defeated them and forced them to pay tribute, and what they had done in the land of Spain to get control of the silver and gold mines there, and how they had gained control of the whole region by their planning and patience, even though the place was far distant from them. They also crushed the kings who came against them from the ends of the earth, and inflicted a great disaster on them."

Moreover, that they committed to whom they chose the lordship of the people they had subjugated and who were obedient to them is implied in the same place when it says [1 Maccabees 8:14,16], "Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride. ... They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man and there is no envy or jealousy among them."

Moreover, we find trustworthy things in writings about changing the way of dominating and ruling those obedient to them. For sometimes they had kings, sometimes consuls, sometimes one man who was changed every year. Finally, however, they chose an emperor who commanded everyone without there being a change. The Roman empire, therefore, was established by the Romans.

Student It does not seem that it was a true empire from the Roman people, but only one that was usurped. For the Romans oppressed others. They did not acquire a true empire, therefore, but only a tyrannical one.

Master There are two replies to this. One is that the Romans understood that it was necessary for the common good of the whole world that one emperor dominate all people. Those who opposed the unity of the empire, therefore, were deprived, as hinderers of the common good, of the power of making arrangements about the emperor. The power of making arrangements about the emperor, therefore, fell to the Romans and to others who agreed with them about this. And thereafter the Romans could licitly subjugate those who opposed or rebelled against their empire.

Otherwise it is said that although at first and for a long time afterwards the Romans unjustly forced others to be subject to them, nevertheless later others began to agree to the lordship of the Romans. At that time the Romans received true lordship over them, and therefore after the whole world willingly agreed to the lordship and empire of the Romans, that empire was a true, just and licit empire.

Student Was it necessary for the whole world to agree to the empire of the Romans in order that the Roman empire over the whole world was a true empire?

Master The reply is that the gloss on Extra, De constitutionibus, c. Cum omnes [col.19] attests that when a number of people form one college it is sufficient, with respect to those things which have of necessity to be done, that they be done by a majority. All mortals, however, are one body and one college and it was necessary, at the time when the Romans began to dominate the world, that one prince should dominate all other mortals. At that time, therefore, the greater part of the world could, even if others opposed them, set an emperor over the whole world, and the agreement of everyone was not required, just as it was not necessary for all to agree when kings and princes were placed in authority and also just as, if some country were invaded by enemies, the majority could appoint one head over them for the defence of their country even if some people opposed them.

Student According to that it would seem that the Romans subjugated the whole world to themselves justly and without sin. This does not seem to be so when Augustine censures them for their love of dominating.

Master The reply is that if in making arrangements for the empire the Romans were moved solely by love of the common good and the republic and not by a love of dominating and had neither intended their own vain glory nor had any corrupt intention in this, they would have been without sin, and perhaps some of them did not sin in obtaining the empire or cooperating in its acquisition. If they were exerting themselves for their own good, however, so that others would be dominated or their own wealth increased, they sinned. Hence, as we read in 23, q, 1, c. Militare [c.5, col.893], Augustine says, "To wage war is not wrong, but to wage war for the sake of booty is a sin; nor is it sinful to govern the republic, but for that reason to govern the republic in order to increase one's wealth seems to be reprehensible." Similarly, therefore, it is not a sin to work to subjugate the world to one prince, but it seems to be regarded as reprehensible to do this out of vain glory or to strike fear into others or out of a pleasure in dominating.

Student If the Romans had a corrupt intention in acquiring their empire, so that they sinned reprehensibly, should the empire so acquired be considered usurped and illicit and not a true one? It seems that if it was acquired in this way, with a corrupt intention, it was not a true empire, because no temporal good acquired illicitly passes into the true lordship of the one acquiring it. Augustine deals with this in his letter to Vincent where he says, as we find in 23, q. 7, c. 1 [col.950] [[the letter to Vincent is partly quoted at this point of the canon law, but not this part of it.]], "That the lordship of all temporal belongs to the just and the impious do not by right have true lordship over anyone because they do not possess by any right those things that belong to other just men."

Master The reply is that notwithstanding the corrupt intention of the Romans, the Roman empire, acquired with the consent of the people, was a true empire because a corrupt intention does not prevent the acquisition of true lordship. For he who buys something with a wicked intention does not on that account fail to acquire true lordship of the thing bought. And he who with a wicked intention receives some thing from a donor who can present it obtains true lordship of the thing presented. And so a wicked intention does not prevent the acquisition of true lordship either in the transferring of some temporal thing or in receiving the thing transferred.

Now some people say about the text of Augustine that certain people understand it wrongly. For Augustine does not mean that by divine right everything belongs to the just in the sense of true lordship, because then no sinner would have true lordship of any temporal thing. And so whenever some king, prince or other lord were to sin mortally, true lordship of all his goods would pass to the just and would not remain in the possession of any sinner. Augustine means, therefore, that by divine right everything belongs to the just in the sense of the excellence of his merit. This is that only the just are worthy of true lordship of temporal goods and no sinner is worthy of any temporal good. Whatever he possesses, therefore, he possesses unworthily.

Student It still seems that before Constantine resigned it, the Roman empire was not a true empire because everything outside builds toward hell, as the apostle says at Romans 14:23, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." No power outside the church, therefore, has been ordained by God.

Again, Constantine would not have resigned the empire to the pope unless he had perceived that he did not have before that a true empire. Before that, therefore, the Roman empire was not a true empire.

Master The reply is that it is not without exception universally true that everything outside builds toward hell. For not all unbelievers sin mortally in every act. For the midwives about whom we read in Exodus 1:15-21 did not sin mortally in saving the Hebrew males, although they did sin mortally or venially in lying. Many other unbelievers too do not sin mortally in many of their acts. Now when the apostle says, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin", they say that he means that what is outside conscience is sin, whether it is done by a believer or an unbeliever.

When it is said moreover that Constantine resigned the empire, they say that this is not found in ancient writings, although certain writings imply that Constantine gave imperial honour to the apostolic see. For, as we read in dist. 96, Constantinus [c.14, col.342], we find the following in the deeds of blessed Sylvester, "On the fourth day after his baptism Constantine conferred a privilege on the pontiff of the Roman church such that in the whole Roman world bishops or priests have him as head, like judges have the king. In this privilege we read, among other things, the following: 'Together with all our satraps, the whole senate, our nobles and all the people subject to the rule of the Roman church [[glory in Zn]], we judge it to be useful that, just as blessed Peter seems to have been established as the vicar of the Son of God on earth, those pontiffs who perform the duties of that prince of the apostles obtain as a grant from us and our empire fuller power of rule than the earthly gentleness of our imperial serenity is seen to have, choosing the prince of the apostles or his vicars to be strong patrons with God for us. And like our earthly and imperial power, so we have decreed that the sacrosanct Roman church too be reverently honoured and that the most sacrosanct seat of blessed Peter be gloriously exalted, more fully than our empire and earthly throne. We bestow on it power, the dignity of glory, vigour and imperial honour and we decree and ordain that it should maintain rule both over the four sees of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople and also over all the other churches of God throughout the whole world. Also let the pontiff who is the head of the sacrosanct Roman church at the time be higher than and head of the rest of the priests throughout the whole world and let whatever things which need to be attended to for the worship of God or for the stability of the faith of christians be arranged according to his judgement.' And below: 'We have conferred estates on the churches of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul for the continuation of the wax tributes of their possessions. ... Behold, we grant and leave to the most blessed pontiff and universal pope Sylvester our palace, the city of Rome and all the provinces, places and towns of Italy or the western regions and we decree that they should be managed by the latter and his successors through an appointed advocate and we grant that they will remain by right belonging to the holy Roman church.'" We gather from these words that it was not as someone not having the right and legitimate power to hold the empire that Constantine resigned the empire to the pope nor as someone who before this had not had a true empire. But out of piety and imperial munificence he granted to him those things which are named in the above words and in others in the same document, so that Pope Sylvester did not have any of those temporalities named except by the gift of Constantine, not by the resignation of something previously held unjustly. Constantine never said that he did not have a true empire before his baptism.

Text and translation by John Scott.
Copyright (c) 1999, The British Academy