The Roman Empire was permanently divided between East and West from 395. The eastern empire, based in Constantinople, flourished, but gradually changed in character so that historians know it as the Byzantine Empire. In the west, the emperors abandoned Rome itself, first for Milan and then for Ravenna; western Europe and western north Africa were overrun by Germanic tribes, Rome itself fell to the Goths in 410, and in 476 the western empire disappeared entirely. The attempt by Justinian in the 6th century to reconquer Italy from the Goths caused only massive and widespread destruction. Rome itself was ruined, the great aqueducts had been cut, and the population had collapsed. In the east, the Christian church was firmly under the control of the Byzantine state; but in the west the church, and specifically the Popes, were able to step into the gap left by the disintegration of state power.
The early Christian church was based on the towns (not for nothing was the word for the peasants, the country people, “pagani”!). Every large town with a Christian population had a bishop, and from the time of Constantine these were given a major role in local government; but it was generally accepted that primacy should go to the bishops of the great centres: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria (It will be noticed that that all but one of these were in the lands of by the Byzantine Empire). It was not clear whether, for religious purposes, Rome was superior to Constantinople, or vice versa; nor how much authority the Emperor at Constantinople had over the whole church.
The church in west was greatly boosted by St Benedict, (c.480-543), the father of western monasticism. Early monks had lived in the deserts of the east, often practicing extreme asceticism (e.g. St. Simeon Stylites, who lived on top of a pillar for 33 years!). Benedict drew up rules for monks to live communal lives, working and praying together. Around 529, he founded the great monastery of Monte Cassino. The movement spread rapidly.
Many of the earliest Popes are little known, perhaps even mythical; but the papacy grew in importance once Emperors ceased to live in Rome. It was Leo I who persuaded Attila the Hun to turn back, and then got Genseric the Vandal chieftain to promise not to kill anyone when his forces plundered Rome. The method of choosing a Pope was often chaotic; he was unofficially elected by Roman people, and then needed confirmation by the Emperor in Constantinople. The most important of the early Popes was Gregory the Great (590-608), who came from a noble background, had served as Prefect of Rome 573, and had had to deal with the threat caused by the Lombard invasion of Italy. He became a Benedictine monk, and was sent as an envoy to Constantinople in 579, to beg help from the Emperor Maurice (who had his own problems and could do nothing). He was elected Pope by the Roman people in 590, and strove to reform the church, especially enforcing clerical celibacy and obedience to Rome. Most famously, he sent Augustine to convert England, ensuring the Roman church’s control there from the start. Less happily, Gregory rejoiced when the Emperor Maurice and all his family were killed by an illiterate soldier, Phocas, and set up a column in Phocas’s honour in the Roman forum. It is still there. (Phocas proved to be perhaps the most brutal, murderous and incompetent of all the Byzantine Emperors)
Events in the east meant that the Byzantine Emperors, whilst retaining footholds in Italy, were unable to do much there. From 606 to 628 there was a long and immensely destructive war with the Persian Empire. The Persians seized control of Palestine, Syria and Egypt (the Christian communities in these places never really recovering), and for two years Constantinople itself was besieged, by the Persians on Asian side and on the European side by the Avars: an Asiatic people who had emigrated into Hungary and the Balkans. The Emperor Heraclius (610-641) saved the city and smashed the Persians in brilliant campaigns, recovering his lost territories. But both empires were now completely exhausted; as was to be seen in what followed.
A few years after the defeat of the Persians, Heraclitus would have received a strange letter from someone he had never heard of, living in a city from outside his empire, commanding him to embrace the new religion. The writer was, of course, Mohammed. It is not known whether Heraclitus read it.
Mohammed died in 632, and the early Caliphs, his successors set out to conquer the world for Islam: with astonishing success. By 640, Syria and Lebanon were overrun, Iraq fell in 642, Iran followed in 650, and the ancient Persian Empire disappeared. Simultaneously Egypt was overrun in 642, followed by North Africa, with Carthage taken in 695. In 711 an army commanded by Tariq’s invasion invaded Spain (he landed by an impressive geological feature which he named after himself: “Jebel Tariq”, the Rock of Tariq, or as we would say, “Gibraltar”). The Visigothic kingdom, which had existed since the fall of the Roman Empire, quickly collapsed. Christianity almost disappeared in the Middle East and North Africa, with Jerusalem and two other great church centres: Antioch and Alexandria, now in Moslem hands.
The first Arab attack on Constantinople came in 674; then in 717-718 came a much greater attack, with Arab troops crossing the Hellespont to besiege the city from the European side, in alliance with Bulgar tribes emigrating from the Ukraine. The city was saved by new emperor, Leo III (717-741), a Syrian peasant by birth. He retained control of sea with a new secret weapon, “Greek fire” (spontaneously-combusting substance, whose exact chemical composition remain a mystery); annihilated the Arab fleet and persuaded the Bulgars to attack the Arabs on the European side. Constantinople would not be attacked again for almost 500 years. (This must count as a decisive battle in world history; for if Constantinople had fallen, who could have stopped the Arabs from flooding into Europe from the east, as the Turks did in the 15th and 16th centuries?) But after this, the Byzantine Empire was confined to modern Turkey, and its Balkan territories were increasingly penetrated by the Bulgars and later by the Serbs.
But no sooner had Leo defeated the Arabs than there began a new religious conflict: iconoclasm! Leo ordered the destruction of all religious images, beginning in the great cathedral of Santa Sophia. His campaign was denounced by the papacy, so there was now a serious breach between Rome and Constantinople. Leo’s son, Constantine V (741-775) was even more hostile to icons, violently persecuting monks who kept them. He neglected his bases in Italy. The next Emperor, Leo IV, died young in 780, leaving only a 10-year-old son, Constantine VI. The dowager Empress, Irene, an Athenian girl of obscure origin, became regent for next ten years. She was pro-icon, and “veneration” of icons was once again permitted by the Council of Nicaea in 787. The Pope would approve, and so would most subjects of the empire; but no Pope could ever approve of what followed. When Constantine VI took personal control, he soon proved a cruel and incompetent ruler, and in 797 Irene struck back. She took her son prisoner and had him blinded (he died soon afterwards) and then ruled as empress in own right! Meanwhile, Ravenna, the main Byzantine base in northern Italy, fell to the Lombards, and Sicily broke away from Byzantine control, only to be invaded and overrun by Moslem invaders soon afterwards.
So, from the point of view of the Popes, there were several heretical Emperors, followed by a usurping Empress who blinded her own son! Why should Constantinople be obeyed any longer? Had the Empire not clearly forfeited its right to lead the Christian world?
One significant Pope of this period was Honorius II (625-638) who organized the supply of food and water to Rome; showing how the papacy could take on government functions, in the absence of anyone else to do it. Another was Gregory II (715-731), who denounced Iconoclasm; yet another was Zacharius (741-752), the first pope to be appointed without seeking approval from Constantinople. But other Popes of time were flagrantly corrupt, deeply insignificant, or mere puppets in the hands of Roman aristocratic families. Many Popes were terrorized by Roman mobs, and the city was frequently under threat from the Lombards. Popes might have moral authority, but had no means of enforcing order even in Rome. Who could help?
North of the Alps were the Franks. Unlike the Germanic tribes, they were pagans when they entered Roman territory after 406, but around 500 their king, Clovis, was baptized a Christian; and, what was more, a proper Catholic, unlike the Goths, who were Arian heretics! Clovis conquered modern France, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine – his southern territory being still heavily Romanized, with villa life continuing but slowly declining. Clovis’s descendants were known as the Merovingians (as featured in the “Da Vinci code” and other works of dubious historical merit). They were without question one of the most appalling dynasties in European history; their unedifying story being recorded in the “History of the Franks”, written by Gregory, Bishop of Tours, around 590.
There were primitive survivals from pagan times; notably that the kings never cut their hair, as a sign of their sacred nature. There was no capital; and when a king died, the kingdom was divided among all his sons, resulting in savage civil wars, betrayals and murders. Local control was in the hands of bishops (such as the famous St Martin of Tours) and the “comites”, who were in charge of local troops (which gives us the title of “count”. By about 700, the Merovingian kings had declined to mere figureheads, with real power in the hands of the “Mayor of the Palace” (Major Domo): a sort of hereditary Prime Minister.
In 732 Moslem forces, having overrun Spain, invaded France; but were defeated at the battle of Tours by the Mayor of Palace, Charles Martel. (This battle equals in importance the siege of Constantinople a few years earlier. Edward Gibbon speculated how far Moslem conquests might have extended had the victory gone the other way!) Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, deposed the last Merovingian, Childeric III, who had his sacred long hair cut and was banished to a monastery. The Frankish nobles hailed Pepin as King: Pope Zacharius recognized his title, and he was anointed with holy oil by St Boniface, an English missionary, in a ceremony deliberate copying the anointing of David by Samuel in Bible. (Anointing is still the central ritual of British coronations)
In 753 Pope Stephen II fled from the Lombards to seek help from Pepin. His Franks then invaded Italy and defeated the Lombards but did not take Rome itself. Pepin succeeded in 768 by son, Charles, who became better known as Charlemagne (though at first he had to divide the kingdom with his brothers). During his long reign, Charlemagne destroyed the power of the Avars and forcibly spread Christianity eastwards among the pagan Saxons.
Pope Adrian I again needed help against the Lombards in 773. Charlemagne invaded Italy, destroyed the Lombard kingdom and crowned himself with Iron Crown of Lombardy: but did not enter Rome. At some unknown time shortly before this, there appeared the “Donation of Constantine”; a document in which the great Emperor acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope and gave him sovereignty over Rome. Charlemagne accepted the validity of the Donation, which was exposed by Renaissance scholars as a blatant forgery.
In 799 the next pope, Leo III, lost control of Rome. After being attacked in street by mobs and beaten unconscious, he fled to Charlemagne. This time Charlemagne did enter the city, and in St Peter’s on Christmas Day 800 was crowned as Emperor by Pope Leo. He was thus the first in Emperor in the west for over 300 years; and there were now two Emperors in the Christian world. The significance of this, in the minds of Charlemagne and the Pope, has been debated by historians ever since; but it was certainly a direct challenge to Constantinople, and a repudiation of the Byzantine Emperors’ claim to universal rule. We should remember what had been in Constantinople: several heretical iconoclastic Emperors followed by the frightful woman Irene, who blinded own son. Leaders in the west could ask: was there really a legitimate Emperor there at all? (Ironically, Charlemagne rather admired Irene, and even wrote to her proposing marriage!)
(This story is continued in my next post)