Newman, writing still as an Anglican, defends the traditional idea that the Roman Empire is the the power alluded to by St Paul as ‘that which restrains’ the coming of the antichrist. He raises the difficulty that the Roman empire has apparently passed away, as the Greek, Persian and Babylonian ones did before it. He replies
It is difficult to say whether the Roman Empire is gone or not; in one sense, it is gone, for it is divided into kingdoms; in another sense, it is not, for the date cannot be assigned at which it came to an end, and much might be said in various ways to show that it may be considered still existing, though in a mutilated and decayed state.
Of course one might suggest dates for the end of the empire: AD 476, AD 1453, AD 1805, AD 1918 – though perhaps this very multiplicity of possible dates supports Newman’s contention. Yet in what sense, if any, can the Empire be said still to exist: to be ‘dormant’, as he says, rather than extinct? Is it not just special pleading to claim that this empire has not vanished like the three preceding empires?
The first thing that could be said is that no other empire has succeeded to the Roman one as earlier ones succeeded to it. Newman, and the Fathers, are vindicated here. But that by itself is not enough to show that it somehow still exists. So should we say that it has left an indelible mark on the memory and imagination of Western man, as a hot iron could brand someone’s face with a mark that would remain after it was taken away? Is it in this sense that the Empire remains? Or might we say that its laws, language, measures, divisions of land, tools and architecture are the foundation for ours: that despite the the revolutions that have taken place here and there in many of these things, the organic link joining us to our Roman past has not been wholly snapped?
Or are we to say that the Roman empire has indeed now gone; and that the hour is later than we suppose?