The People That History Forgot
Chapter 16 

Easterners Transform the Roman West

Read and ListenIn this chapter we will briefly notice the later influence in the Roman Empire of those Syrians who remained in the east. Let us note those in Syria, Asia Minor, Phoenicia and adjacent areas (those who were not taken as slaves to the west). It is not too much to say that they played one of the most influential parts in making the Empire great.

For one thing, the major part of Roman wealth was in the east (at least it was before the C.E. 70 and C.E. 135 wars with the Jews). In the period before the destruction of Jerusalem and Judaea, nearly all manufacturing, industry and culture remained eastern. The west was predominant only in agriculture and soldiering. The eastern Syrians, being in the very center of this prosperous region, capitalized on their excellent situation. Manufactured goods and delicacies from the further east were wanted and needed in the west.

The Syrians being the natural heirs of the old Syro-Phoenician trading system, stepped into the shoes of their forefathers and became the giants of commerce throughout the Roman Empire. They practically had a monopoly in the enterprise. These Syrians established many trading colonies in all the Roman world. Every major port had colonies of Levantine Syrians who had ties with their brethren who still remained in the eastern parts of the empire. Remember, we are not now speaking of the freed Syrians who were making up the general population of Italy and Sicily who had primarily been taken there as slaves. We are talking about those Syrians who remained in the east.

The influence of these trading Syro-Phoenicians cannot be over emphasized. The effect they played on later Roman history, particularly in the history of the Middle Ages, was of lasting influence in the history of western civilization.

Let us now observe what scholars say about these Syrian traders who monopolized trade in the Roman world. Dr. Cumont, who was a recognized authority on comparative religions in Rome, gave an excellent and correct rundown.

"At the beginning of our Era the Syrian merchants undertook a veritable colonization of the Latin provinces. The Levantine traffic attained a development previously unknown. We can trace the history of the Syrian establishments in the Latin provinces from the first to the seventh century, and recently we have begun to appreciate their economic, social and religious importance at its true value.

"The Syrians love of lucre was proverbial. Active, compliant and able, frequently a little scrupulous, they knew how to conclude first small deals, then larger ones everywhere. Using the special talents of their race to advantage, they succeeded in establishing themselves on all coasts of the Mediterranean, even in Spain. The Italian ports where business was especially active, attracted them in great numbers. But they did not confine themselves to the seashore; they penetrated far into the interior of the countries, wherever they hoped to find profitable trade.

"They followed the commercial highways and traveled up big rivers. By the way of the Danube they went as far as Pannonia, by the way of the Rhone they reached Lyons. In Gaul they were especially numerous. [Dr. Tarn says that Southern Gaul and up the Rhone was especially eastern in race, not Greek or Gallic.] In this new country [Gaul] that had just been opened to commerce, fortunes could be made rapidly. The Syrians traveled over the entire province [of Gaul] as far as Treves, where they had a strong colony. Not even the barbarian invasions of the fifth century stopped their immigration. Saint Jerome describes them traversing the entire Roman world amidst the troubles of invasion, prompted by the lust of gain to defy all dangers. In the barbarian society the part played by this civilized and city-bred element was even more considerable. Under the Merovingians in about 591 they had sufficient influence at Paris to have one of their number elected bishop and to gain possession of all ecclesiastical offices. It may be remarked that Syrians also gave the Papacy several popes in the eighth century and in England even an archbishop of Canterbury, as an example of their commercial and religious importance, was a Syrian.

"Those establishments [commercial colonies] exercised a strong influence upon the economic and material life of the Latin provinces, especially in Gaul. As bankers the Syrians concentrated a large share of the money business in their hands and monopolized the importing of the valuable Levantine commodities as well as of the articles of luxury. Their moral and religious influence was not less considerable: for instance, it has been shown that they furthered the development of monastic life during the Christian period, and that the devotion to the crucifix was introduced into the Occident by them. During the first five centuries, Christians felt an unconquerable repugnance to the representation of the Savior of the world nailed to an instrument of punishment more infamous than the guillotine of today. The Syrians were the first to substitute reality in all its pathetic horror for a vague symbolism."

  • Cumont, Oriental Religions, pp.107109

Dr. Cumont stops in the 8th century with the story of these commercial peoples. Actually, some of their most important functions came later, for the commercial cities of Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Marseilles, and the banking centers of Italy and France, which in the Middle Ages dominated the whole character of European life, were the heirs to and the descendants of these early Syro-Phoenicians. Even the Crusades were brought about, it has been maintained by some historians, by the wish of these commercial cities to open up again traffic into the east.

Actually, the Crusades were motivated more by greed and lucre than by the religious spirit. By the end of crusading times, there was some Jewish influence being felt in these commercial cities along with the Syrians, but still the Syrians (or rather, their descendants) were very active. We have, however, gone too far ahead in the story about the peoples from Syria (by Syria I mean the whole area of Syria, as well as areas of Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Samaria and adjacent regions). These Chaldeans, Phoenicians, Samaritans, etc. radically changed the racial characteristics and religious ideas of the later Roman world.


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