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Rome Questions, Byzantine Answers - The Age of Justinian




There is a theory within cosmology that describes a possible event whereby an imploding universe bounces back and reignites through a Big Bang into a new expanding universe. Whilst the science behind the “Big Bounce” Theory is far beyond the comprehension of this historian, the analogy it poses for our understanding is highly valuable. Within the previous chapter we, alongside Augustine, witnessed the pillars of Rome collapse beneath its feet. From this event, the following century saw the boundaries of the empire beginning to shrink and implode. Yet, whilst the flame of Rome may seem to have been extinguished, beneath the rubble a small flicker of antiquity endured which would birth a new era - the Age of Justinian, spanning from 482 to 602. Procopius of Caesarea, a prominent contemporary historian to Justinian, wrote of his prominence as such:


“Then appeared the emperor Justinian, entrusted by God with this commission to watch over the whole Roman Empire and, so far as possible, to remake it.”

It is for this reason that we continue our journey from the sack of Rome to the court of Justinian as the sixth century was a historical milestone which marked a definitive transition between antiquity and the middle ages. Not only was this the dawn of a new age, however, but it also marked the rise of a new culture which, despite being influenced by its past, was a new hybridity that sought to establish its own path that would shape what we come to know as the medieval era. Whilst historians have regarded this age as “the last of the Roman centuries” and contemporaries would have continued to call themselves ‘Romans’, a fusion culture began to emerge - one which borrowed from Christianity, Roman, Greek, and other local elements. This new civilisation was Byzantium, with its capital at Constantinople, and though it did not purposefully create a new medieval system, it prompted an evolution that would reform the old Roman institution. Nevertheless, in order to fully understand the sixth century, we must begin by outlining the volatile contours of the period since Rome’s fall as the collapse of this institution left Europe in a fluid state whereby the ripples of social mobility and opportunity were impacting lives across the continent.


The Age of Justinian was shaped by three major forces. The first and most important was Persia which, as we know from the previous chapter, was a constant pressure on the Roman borders. Over the century following the sack of Rome, Persia was able to expand into the Near East and Caucasus region at the expense of the Romans. Exponentially growing in power, this multiethnic empire would continue to be a threat throughout the Age of Justinian with tensions rising and conflicts becoming more frequent between them. Equally, the persistent attacks by Khusro I, the archenemy of Justinian, caused great amounts of damage to the rich Roman cities of the region. The loss of revenues from this, alongside the seizure of Roman property by the Persians, had a disastrous effect on the economy. Only in the seventh century would Emperor Heraclius finally repel the Persian invasion for good - only to then have to contend with the rising Muslim armies.


Aside from the pressing Persian matter in the East, the second force to mould the contours of Justinian’s Age was the ultimate collapse of Western Roman authority and rise of diverse barbarian kingdoms. The migrant crisis and ‘barbarian invasion’ of the former century resulted in an onslaught of warriors, traders, and refugees pouring into the west from the Balkans and beyond. Over several generations, out of the ashes of the former empire did newly formed militaristic and aggressive kingdoms emerge. These kingdoms primarily evolved from the tribes who had contributed to the fall of the empire but had since become major European powers. By 527, when Justinian ascended to the throne, four major kingdoms were exercising power within western continental Europe: the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Vandals in North Africa, the Visigoths in Spain, and the Franks, who occupied the majority of Gaul as well as non-Roman lands beyond the Rhine River. Although the names of these tribes hark back to the atrocities Romen endured in the fifth century, by the sixth, their kings were maintaining a complex interrelationship and cooperative policy with their Roman populations. We must remember that whilst the institution of Rome had ceased, many Roman citizens continued to inhabit these lands. As such, varying degrees of civility can be witnessed as these newly formed kingdoms interacted with their populations.


These kingdoms, however, prompted the rise of a religiously divided continent. Many of the new kings and settled tribes were Arian Christians, whilst the Roman citizens they ruled over were Chalcedonians, a branch of Christianity upheld by Justinian and the Byzantines that accepted and upheld the theological resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This, however, led to two distinct clergies and communities of faith forming and existing side by side. This coexistence was not entirely smooth, however, as in Vandal Africa there was occasional persecution of Chalcedonian Romans. Equally, despite efforts by John of Ephesus to convert thousands of nonbelievers to Christianity in Asia Minor and Syria, this only helped to build a superficial understanding of Christianity which left large numbers of peasants from across the Mediterranean world reverting back to worshipping the old gods. As such, in society, politics, and religion, this new age experienced a complex internal evolution which, although being influenced by Rome, would be driven by Justinian’s pursuit to achieve unity and create a ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’ in which Constantinople was the hub of a constellation of diverse ethnic Christian communities.


The third and final force which shaped this age was the emergence of confederacies of peoples who once again placed pressure on the borders of the empire. With such widespread social mobility causing tribes to form kingdoms, space was left for small pockets of nomadic groups to gather and form tribal confederacies:


To the north of the Danube, steppe nomads driven westward by Turks loomed. These people, the Avars, first appeared in the final years of Justinian’s reign and immediately made an alliance to become another Byzantine pawn for the northern frontier. Among the Avar hegemony, however, were Slavic communities who sought to cross the border and torment the regions of Greece and Thrace.


In North Africa, tribesmen collectively known as Berbers (the cultural heritage of Augustine) pressed north against the settled farmlands of Roman North Africa. Justinian’s wars to reclaim areas of the former Roman Empire brought him closer to these tribesmen in 533 after overthrowing the Vandals, and though a series of fortresses were built along the North African coast to repel raiding parties, the Berbers would continue to be a problem until the seventh century.


To the southeast, on the cusp and fringes of the empire and borders with Persia, both sides endured frequent interactions and skirmishes from groups of Arabs. Though not a huge threat by this period, they were typically employed by both empires as pawns in the conflict. After accepting Islam, however, these peoples would utterly change the landscape of the Mediterranean world within a century.


And so, by 483 when a soon-to-be emperor was born to a peasant family in Thrace, the world was in an ever changing state of social mobility and evolution. Born with the name Petrus Sabbatius, we know little about the childhood of Justinian aside from the prominence of his uncle Justin, a stalwart soldier who had risen to command the imperial guard during the reign of Emperor Anastasius. Being childless, Justin took Petrus under his wing by adopting him and bringing him to Constantinople where he received a good education in Latin, Greek, Theology, and Philosophy. Departure from the old Roman ways in the forthcoming age can be seen in Justinian’s distaste for Classics, being drawn more towards Christian Theology. Growing up he had a keen skill in intrigue and quickly learned the politics of Constantinople which helped leverage his uncle to become emperor after the death of Anastasius in 518. In the following year, Justinian was bestowed several titles including “Master of Cavalry” and “Infantry at Court”. By 527, however, he had become consul, patrician, and ‘Most Noble’ of Constantinople. It was during this time that he met and married his beloved wife, Theodora, who would become a prominent advisor to Justinian until her death in 548.


History has been unkind to Theodora. She was born in 500 to a bear trainer and dancer - evidence of Constantinople’s bustling entertainment industry primarily situated at the hippodrome. Procopius, in his Secret History, wrote that Theodora followed her sister’s profession by working from a young age in one of Constantinople’s brothels, serving a variety of customers from all walks of life. It was said that her presence was avoided by all who wished to escape scandal or temptation as she was incredibly beautiful but equally as skilled in intrigue and gossip. After some time, sources describe that Theodora then travelled as a concubine of a Syrian official to North Africa. Maltreated, she made her way back to Constantinople but not before settling in Alexandria for some time. It is said that during this time she met Patriarch Timothy III who converted her to Miaphysite Christianity. This doctrine, which is held today by Oriental Orthodox Churches, affirmed that Christ was fully divine and fully human in one nature - a theory which opposed the Chalcedonian position that Jesus is one person in two natures. Nevertheless, from Alexandria, she travelled to Antioch where she may have met a close informer to Justinian. A relationship between her and Justinian grew but when the question of marriage arose, Roman law prevented anyone of senatorial rank from marrying prostitutes. In 524, Emperor Justin passed a new law that reformed women could marry outside of their rank if approved by the emperor which enabled Justinian to marry his beloved Theodora. This law also passed that the daughters of these women could be free to marry outside of their rank which secured the succession of Justinian and allowed the illegitimate daughter of Theodora to marry a relative of the former emperor Anastasius.


This marriage, however, was seen with controversy by many. Procopius, for instance, wrote slanderous pages about the empress and her vulgarity in supposedly sleeping her way to empress. As such, these scandalous gossip and lewd stories that thoroughly defamed her have, for centuries, blacklisted her in the annals of history. Yet, despite being exploited by religious commentators, she stood strong with Justinian and faced opposition. Under her reign, rape was made punishable by death with the property of the offender being transferred to the victim. This law also extended to encapsulate anyone in society, regardless of position or rank. Equally, female inheritance was promoted which gave women physical social power and meant that should a woman become widowed, she was able to claim the property and fortune of the family. Furthermore, she also empowered prostitutes by passing laws which limited the power of brothels and the exploitation of young women. Theodora thus revolutionised the social standing of women in this age through her command of the law, and thus when we realign our perspective of history away from ‘great men’, we can empower those like Theodora who were saints in their own right.


Alongside his marriage to Theodora, however, Justinian also rose to become co-emperor until Justin’s death just four months later. Thus, by 528, a mere peasant and prostitute were crowned the rulers of an empire which dominated the Mediterranean - a testament to the social mobility of the period. Nevertheless, although Justinian had inherited the Roman throne and title of Augustus, his first act was to reform and renew the ancient law codes - an act which would set forth the departure from the classical world. Produced in c.530, the ‘Codex Justinianus’ was a highly influential law codex which rationalised a millennia of existing Roman statutes. With a cohort of 2,000 Roman Jurists, contradictions and conflicts were eliminated, and any existing laws that were not included in it were repealed. Following its production, a digest was produced which commented, clarified, and expanded on the codex. These jurists also constructed a legal handbook, called ‘institutes’, which served as a guide and textbook for legal studies throughout Europe - the first of its kind in history. A prominent purpose in reforming these laws, however, was that Justinian was able to promote a distinctly new Christian authority. Throughout the codex, there is a repetition and insistence that God entrusted the governance of the empire solely to the emperor, and that this law should attempt to establish the laws of Heaven on Earth. This insertion was the foundation of a concept many will know to be interwoven with the concept of kingship, one which arguably still underpins the monarch to this day. This was the medieval concept of Divine Right of Rule.


Justinian’s pursuit for legal reform was accompanied by an equally strong approach to Christian unification. From the beginning of his reign, he sought to stamp out heresy and create a singular doctrine - Chalcedonian, named after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. To deviate slightly from our journey through the life of Justinian, the Council of Chalcedon is one of many examples of the councils put together throughout the medieval period to decide and agree upon questions in Christianity. Whilst nowadays Christianity is a highly structured institution with a large degree of unity on its aspects of faith, once upon a time it was very fluid and scattered in its beliefs. Two prominent questions divided theologians and ecclesiastes across the continent. The first was how to calculate the date of Easter - should it always be celebrated on a Sunday? Or, should Christians follow the Jewish lunar month on which the Paschal Lamb was slaughtered? In order to answer this, a further issue then arose on deciding how to calculate when the Paschal moon appeared as the Celtic Church, Western Church, and Eastern Church all observed it differently because of the conflicting calendars used. Whilst this may seem like a small issue, it is one that continued up until 1963 where the second Vatican Council finally stated that there was no objection to observing Easter on a fixed Sunday. A far more pressing and dividing issue, however, was understanding the nature (or natures) of Christ upon incarnation. Without getting too theological, if we agree that Christ is the son of God, what does it mean for him to be God and Man? Is he both? Or one? Or the other? This is what many councils throughout history have sought to answer and the Council of Chalcedon was a pivotal event in this controversy as it resulted in a schism which lasts to this day.


Monophysites believed in one nature, that Christ was purely divine and not human despite taking on an earthly form. Today, the Coptic and Armenian Orthodox churches and the Jacobite Syrian Church (also known as the Oriental Orthodox CHurch) follow this doctrine. Opposing this, however, were the Chalcedonians who disagreed and stated that Christ had two natures - a fully human form and fully divine form. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Protestant Churches currently uphold this doctrine. The Council of Chalcedon, which was attended by 520 bishops, therefore sought to approve several earlier religious creeds, establish definitions of faith and doctrine, and reject Monophysite beliefs. The culmination in this division, as aforementioned, was that Justinian sought to achieve Chalcedonian unification throughout the empire and eliminate heresy and any deviations of Christianity.


In his early reign, all seemed to be going well with Justinian and his empire. Peace had been temporarily restored with Persia and his policies were running smoothly. Yet, in mid-January 532, that peace broke in what has been regarded as one of the most violent riots in Constantinople’s history. An aspect of ancient Rome which endured into the Age of Justinian was the development of sporting factions who competed against each other in events such as chariot races. Typically there were four competing factions; Blues, Greens, Reds, and Whites, each one gaining their name from their coloured uniform. Often these factions became the focus of social or political issues as there was not a distinct forum for such an outlet. In 521, during a riot comparable to modern-day football hooliganism, some members of the Blue and Green factions were arrested for a murder after a chariot race. Whilst the majority of these members were executed for their crimes, two of them, a green and a blue, escaped and sought refuge in a church along with an angry mob. Threatened, Justinian changed the sentencing to imprisonment and sought to hold a chariot race in the following January. Beneath this, however, were aristocratic political agitators who sought to use such an event to form a coup due to the high taxes levied in the city. Equally, civil reforms which limited the power of officials and aristocrats dispersed a cloud of betrayal across the Blues whilst the Greens felt that Justinian was implementing civil oppression. The culmination was a violent riot breaking out at the Hippodrome whereby urban rioters shouting “Nika”, or “Victory” in Greek, revolted against the emperor. Fires destroyed the heart of the city, even reaching the palace gates.


A decision was presented to Justinian on whether to stay and endure, or flee. Opting for the latter, his influential and wise wife, Theodora, convinced him and his office to stay. Belisarius and Narses, two of Justinian’s top generals, were able to restore order by massacring thousands of rioters in the Hippodrome. The victorious Justinian took this event and his survival as a sign of divine support, which only spurred on his already powerful religious zeal. Following this devastating event, multiple building projects took place to rebuild the areas of the city which had been destroyed. Taking the opportunity to demonstrate his dedication to God, Justinian embarked on several prominent building projects. The most prominent of these was the creation of the world-famous Hagia Sophia which replaced a much earlier church that was destroyed in the fire. It is perhaps ironic that this palace which Justinian built to stand as a testament to Christian reform is now a holy Mosque. Nevertheless, with a heart overpouring with zeal, he girded himself with the ecclesiastical sword and embarked on a vast anti-Christian military campaign westward.


Justinian’s first target was the great Vandal Kingdom at Carthage. Motivated by heresy, Justinian sought to overthrow the Arian Christians in the region and further spread his Chalcedonian doctrine. This conquest also enabled him to expand his territory and influence in the region by conquering a major centre of trade and commerce. In doing so, this would also fulfil his policy of remaking the former Roman empire.


The Byzantine army of 15,000 men, led by the general Belisarius, sailed to North Africa and laid siege to the city of Carthage in 533. The city was heavily fortified and defended by a large garrison, but Belisarius was able to breach the city walls and capture it after a prolonged battle. The conquest of Carthage was a major victory for the Empire and allowed Justinian to extend his control over a significant area of North Africa. It allowed the Byzantines to gain control of important trade routes in the region and gave them a strategic foothold in North Africa. However, the conquest of Carthage was not without its costs, as the Byzantine Empire had to devote significant resources to the campaign and suffered heavy casualties. Nevertheless, fueled with divine favour, Justinian turned towards the ancient capital of Rome to be his next target.


The Ostrogoths were a Germanic people who migrated into the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. They came into conflict with the Romans and were eventually allowed to settle in the area of Italy as foederati, an allied barbarian tribe that was granted land in exchange for military service. In 493, Theodoric the Great became the king of the Ostrogoths, and he set out to conquer the remaining Roman territories in Italy. Over the next few decades, he was able to defeat the other barbarian groups in Italy and establish the Ostrogothic Kingdom, with its capital at Ravenna. The Ostrogoths maintained control of Italy through a combination of military force and diplomacy. They had a strong army, led by Theodoric and later by his successors, and they were able to defeat the Romans and other barbarian groups that challenged their rule. At the same time, Theodoric sought to integrate the Ostrogoths into Roman society and maintain good relations with the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, in 535, Justinian sent an army again under the command of his general Belisarius against the Ostrogoths. The Byzantine army was able to make some initial gains and capture Sicily quickly, but the war was quickly slowed by a series of costly sieges and battles. In 540, Belisarius was able to capture Ravenna, the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, and Theodoric's grandson, Totila, was killed in battle the following year. The Ostrogoths, however, continued to resist and, under the leadership of their new king, Teia, they were able to regain control of much of Italy. In 552, Justinian's forces, now led by another general, Narses, were able to defeat the Ostrogoths once and for all at the Battle of Taginae.


This was perhaps a sign of times to come as although Justinian had thus far ruled successfully, during the arduous 20 year struggle for Italy the 540s would prove to be a difficult decade for the emperor. In an event that many in the 21st century have become familiar with, The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that struck the Byzantine Empire, as well as many other parts of the Mediterranean world, in the sixth and seventh centuries. Recent epidemiologists have concluded that the disease is believed to have been caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, a cousin of the later bubonic plague ‘The Black Death’. The first outbreak of the plague is thought to have occurred in the early 540s, and was named after Justinian as it simply occurred within his reign and because the plague had a significant impact on the empire and its history. The plague is believed to have originated in the region of Egypt and spread westward along trade routes, eventually reaching the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 541. It is estimated that the plague may have killed as much as half of the city's population and also spread to other parts of the empire, including the provinces of North Africa, Italy, and the Near East. The plague continued to erupt periodically in the Byzantine Empire and other parts of the Mediterranean world for the next two centuries, causing widespread death and suffering.


Alongside the Italian campaign, pressures of a persian war front, and the devastating plague (all of which diminished the resources of the Byzantines), Justinian’s policy of Christian unification also began to crumble beneath him. The Three Chapters Controversy was a theological dispute that took place in the sixth century. It centred around the writings of three theologians who had been condemned for their beliefs by the Council of Constantinople in 543. These three theologians were Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa. The controversy arose because some church leaders believed that the writings of these three theologians contained teachings that were at odds with the teachings of the church. In particular, they were accused of supporting the heresy of Nestorianism, which held that the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were separate and distinct. In response to these accusations, the Council of Constantinople issued a condemnation of the three theologians and their writings, known as the “Three Chapters”. This decision was met with resistance from some church leaders, who argued that the theologians were being unfairly condemned and that their writings should be considered valid expressions of Christian doctrine. The controversy continued for several years, with different factions within the church supporting one side or the other. Eventually, the controversy was resolved at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, which affirmed the condemnation of the Three Chapters and reaffirmed the teachings of the church on the nature of Christ. The Three Chapters Controversy had a significant impact on the development of Christian theology and the relationships between different branches of the church. It also highlighted the ongoing struggles within the church over issues of doctrine and authority. Ultimately, rather than reconciling Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian Christians whilst maintaining support from the western clergy, his alienation of the west by undertaking the role of a priest rather than emperor left a bitter taste between Constantinople and the Papacy.


The final decades of Justinian’s reign continued to be disappointing. In 548, Justinian’s beloved wife Theodora passed away and with it, the dome of the Hagia Sophia cracked and partly collapsed - a symbol of Christianities splintering and partial downfall through Justinian’s policies. Alongside this, in 559, Slavic raiders from the Balkans raided and pillaged through Thrace and up to the gates of Constantinople which reignited the same fear and paranoia from those witnessing the fall of Rome at the hands of similar barbarians. Earthquakes struck the empire, civil disturbance continued to rock the capital, and ambitious men sought the throne. Religiously, an independent anti-Chalcedonian clerical hierarchy emerged and the rift with the west deepened as bishops at the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned the Three Chapters.


On the 14th of November 565, Justinian fell ill with a fever and passed away at the age of 83. The exact cause of his death is not known, but it is believed that he may have died from a combination of old age and illness. He was known for his ambitious attempts to reconquer the territories that had been lost to the barbarian invasions, as well as for his efforts to codify Roman law and create a unified christianity. Whilst the earlier years of his reign were underpinned by eagerness and hope, by the end it was anger and frustration. Despite this, we now turn to the saint of this chapter, Gregory the Great, to explore how Justinain’s policies, beliefs, and pursuits rippled through time and influenced the lives of those for decades to come.


Gregory was born towards the end of Justinian’s reign in Rome which had been recently reconquered by the Byzantines from the Ostrogoths. What is particularly interesting about Gregory’s family which, like Augustines, was wealthy and of a degree of nobility, is that it contained a prominent ecclesiastical dynasty. When historians discuss nobility, bloodlines and family connections are often discussed in conjunction with their prominence. Adela of Blois, for example, was the daughter of William the Conqueror, mother of King Stephen of England and Bishop Henry of Winchester, wife of Count Stephen, sister to King Henry I of England (to name just a few of her connections) - a very powerful bloodline. Whilst Gregory may not have had noble veins, he certainly had Christian fervour coursing through them. His father was a senator and prefect of the City of Rome but also Regionarius of the Church; his mother and two aunts (Trasilla and Emiliana) were saints; and his great-great-grandfather was supposedly Pope Felix III. As such, Gregory’s family was one of the most distinguished clerical families of the period. Despite this, however, Gregory was born in the epicentre of geopolitical upheaval. From 542, the Plague of Justinian swept through Italy - wiping out up to a third of the population in some regions and leaving thousands destitute. Following this, the Gothic Wars endured and turmoil on Italian soil persisted through the 540s. In 546, Totila led his forces on a campaign against the city of Rome, which was then under the control of the Byzantine Empire. The Sack of Rome was a devastating event for the city, as Totila's forces were able to breach the city's defences and plunder its wealth. The sack lasted for several days, during which time the Ostrogoths looted and destroyed many of Rome's most important buildings and landmarks. The damage to the city was so severe that it took many years for it to recover. After, Totila went on to recapture almost all of the lands previously seized by Justinian in his zealous campaign. The 550s for Gregory were equally as relentless as he bore witness to the continued Gothic War as well as a Frankish invasion in 554 and the Schism of the Three Chapters in 553.


Growing up in the Age of Justinian and witnessing the turmoil of Italy had a lasting impact on the young Gregory - both in a spiritual and emotional way. At school he was well-educated and read Latin but refused to read or write Greek, the lingua franca of Constantinople. He gained a keen interest in politics and religion, and became Prefect of Rome at only 33. Like Augustine, however, the death of a beloved family member had a profound impact on his faith. Following his father’s passing, he converted the ancestral home in Rome into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle (later being rededicated to Gregory following his death). A painting commissioned by the monks and hung at the home a few years after Gregory’s death reported him as rather bald with a tawny beard and a face that was an intermediate between his mothers and fathers. He had long curled hair on the sides and his nose was thin and straight, and his forehead was high. Above all, however, he had beautiful hands with which he wrote poetic theological axioms such as “in that silence of the heart, while we keep watch within through contemplation, we are as if asleep to all things that are without.” Contemplation was key to Gregory’s devotion, but equally as important was poverty. From losing his home and becoming a refugee at a young age to the plundering of Rome by Totila, appreciating and acknowledging poverty whilst rejecting greed was a key pillar of Gregory which he took incredibly seriously. When a dying monk was seen to have stolen three gold pieces, Gregory forced the monk to die alone, and then threw his body and coins onto manure as punishment. He said, “Take your money with you to perdition.


Gregory also firmly asserted that punishment for sins could occur during your life - no doubt a remark reflecting the Byzantine downfall which followed Justinian’s zealous micromanagement of christian doctrine and controversial marriage. Perhaps this bitter statement was also influenced through his frustrations during his office as Apocrisiariate. In 579, Pope Pelagius III appointed Gregory as Apocrisiariate, an ambassador to the Imperial Court of Constantinople on behalf of the Papacy and western world. Most notable was his appeal to the emperor (Tiberius Constantine at this point) for military aid against a Lombard invasion. Tiberius, however, was more concerned with the eastern war front to pay attention to such trial skirmishes and thus denied such aid. In 584, during the reign of Emperor Maurice, another attempt was made to send a relief force to Italy. Maurice, opting for diplomacy over war, was able to strike an agreement with the Franks to fight against them instead - only somewhat solving the issue.


It was clear to Gregory that the Byzantines were far more occupied with the eastern front and the crisis with the Avar and Slav tribes to pay any attention to Italy. This in itself is important as Rome was seemingly fading as a priority. Although recovering and remaking the former classical empire had once been a priority of Emperors following the 5th century, as we now enter the seventh century and the rapidly changing world, the Byzantines are forever straying from their former predecessors. As such, Gregory was a man stuck between two worlds, not only tiltering on the borders between the Germanic and Roman, but above all between the ancient and medieval.


One element of continuity, however, was the ongoing debate involving the nature of Christ. Gregory was deeply involved with this theological debate throughout his life, and had a bitter conflict with Eutychius. As Gregory could not read the untranslated Greek exegeses and commentaries on the Bible, he had to rely on scripture. This worked in his favour when he cited Luke 24:39 to support the Chalcedonian argument. This passage, which states “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have”, seemingly confirmed that Christ’s body was corporeal and palpable after his resurrection. In support of Gregory, the emperor burned Eutychius’ writings.


The culmination in all this was that Gregory ascended to the papal throne following the death of Pelagius who had died from a plague outbreak in the city. In 2013, a Guardian news article reported that Pope Benedict XVII said when being appointed as pope that it was a “great burden” and did not want the job. Likewise Justin Welby, upon being elected as Archbishop of Canterbury simply said “Oh no”. Even Pope Francis, the current pope when writing this book, followed suit by saying that “anyone who wants to be pope doesn't care much for themselves. God doesn't bless them," he said. "I didn't want to be pope." It is interesting, therefore, to see that this is seemingly a historic tradition as Gregory, upon becoming pope, issued a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter, instead stating that he preferred the quiet life of a monk and did not wish to carry the weight of the papacy on his shoulders. It is important to note, however, that at this point in time the papacy was not the all-powerful institution we are more familiar with in the 11th, 12th, or 13th centuries. Instead, the papal’s power in the west was limited: Gaul’s episcopy was drawn from territorial families, Visigothic Iberia was simply disconnected from Rome, and the Italian ‘de facto’ lands were constantly under attack. As such, Gregory had a huge role to fulfil, and despite his conflicts with the Byzantine regime, it is here that those seeds which Justinian had sown in his age a century earlier come into fruition.


In a religious sense, Gregory vastly expanded upon Justinian’s superlative piety through the production of one of the most influential works of Western literature. Known as the Dialogues, this work of religious history and biography is a collection of four books about the lives of various Italian saints, including St. Benedict, as well as spiritual contemplation. On the topic of St. Benedict, who was a close contemporary to Gregory, the second book of the Dialogues provides the earliest and most authoritative account of St. Benedict that we possess and is thus incredibly treasured by the Benedictines of the middle ages that we will explore in due course. Indeed, it, together with the Rule of St. Benedict, is our only source for the story of his life and the understanding of his character. Nevertheless, in discussing the lives and histories of saints as this author is currently attempting, Gregory also provides us with an insightful and vivid picture of religious life in Italy during the sixth century, especially during the invasion of the Lombards, a "barbarous and cruel nation," according to Gregory, who "drawn as a sword out of a sheath" wrought such unimaginable destruction and havoc in the peninsula that many truly believed that "the end of all flesh was come" (a somewhat more pragmatic approach to the looming darkness over italy that Augustine repudiated in The City of God). Yet, in a Christian sense, the nuances contained in the theological contemplations of the fourth book are, without a doubt, the basis of inspiration for many medieval authors we shall come to know in the following chapters. The Dialogues were among the most popular readings of the Middle Ages, and early translations exist in almost every European language. In the fourth book, we find the first rudiments of the mediaeval conception of the three states of souls in the afterlife. Gregory’s story of the vision seen by a certain soldier are the genesis of the imaginations of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, which inspired so many imitations throughout the Middle Ages, from Venerable Bede's Legends of Fursaeus and Drythelm to the visions of Tundal, Alberic of Monte Cassino, and the monk Edmund of Eynsham, of which culminate in the Divina Commedia. We know that Dante himself, for instance, knew the Dialogues well and utilised them often in his writing, and Gregory's earlier work, the Moralia, or Exposition of the Book of Job, is also very marked in many passages of the Divina Commedia.


Furthermore, the far reaching shadow cast by Justinian is equally discernible in the legislative behaviour of Gregory. The greatest definitive achievement of Justinian’s reign is by far his law code, the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Aside from his Moralia or Dialogues, Gregory is equally known for his 800 letters which spanned his episcopate. From religious contemplation to social commentary, these letters offer an unrivalled insight into the world of a sixth century Roman Bishop. What is clear from a comparative exploration of the letters and law codes is that Christianity was emerging as a state religion, and one whereby the bishop’s role in society was fundamentally, and more importantly, intermeshed within the civic sphere - a concept which was widely practised in the successive medieval centuries. Justinian’s primary goal was to form a united Christian doctrine throughout the empire and Europe. This central thesis is one which Gregory sought to adopt and thus re-energise Christianity in Europe through the conversion of non-Christian peoples. He believed that the best way to convert pagans was through peaceful means, such as preaching and missionary work. He also believed in the importance of education and the use of local customs and traditions to help convert people to Christianity. The target of this campaign was the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England. St. Augustine of Canterbury was a Benedictine monk who was sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He arrived in England in 597 and established his base in Canterbury. Through his preaching and missionary work, he was able to convert many of the Anglo-Saxons, including King Ethelbert of Kent, who gave Augustine land to build a monastery and a church. This monastery became the centre of Christianity in England, and Augustine is considered the "Apostle to the English". Canterbury then became a base of operations for missionaries to convert regions of Germany and Netherlands. These efforts were largely successful, and many of the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity during Gregory's pontificate. Gregory, like Justinian, was equally as adverse to heresy. We see in Gregory’s correspondence to subordinate bishops, for example, that there were multiple occasions when heresy was at the forefront of religious policy:once for “pagans and heretics” amongst the Lombards in Italy; once for Sicilian “worshippers of idols;” three times in Sardinia; and once in Corsica for those “worshipping idols.” As such, both monarch and pope saw the role of the episcopate as a means of enforcing the christian faith within the empire and beyond its borders.


Likewise, it is unquestionable that Gregory, like Justinian, wanted his bishops to be active participants in civic life. With empowerment, however, came regulation, and just as he wanted his clergy to help reform and regulate his subjects, Justinian and Gregory also realised that their authority demanded regulating subordinate bishops. This was the role of the Roman Bishop outlined by Justinian and undertaken by Gregory. One such legislation emerged against purchasing ecclesiastical office, a nuance of the time, with five separate laws across a 37 year period being issued. Likewise simony, the sin of buying or selling religious privileges (a crime we will become more accustomed to in later chapters on the twelfth and thirteenth century) was an issue which struck to the very core of Justinian and Gregory. From the sheer number of references to this crime, 29 in total, we can clearly see that just as Justinian never gave up on the hope of eradicating simony, nor did Gregory. It is not surprising that Gregory's concern focused significantly on simony given its pervasiveness within the Merovingian church. As such, we see five letters sent to bishops on the topic, as well as eight also sent to four different Frankish monarchs - all of which asked them to organise councils to prevent simony in their kingdoms. Both Gregory’s hatred of simony and his recognition of its prevalence throughout Northern Europe is plainly expressed:


“For I have learnt from certain reports, that in the lands of Gaul and Germany, no one obtains holy orders without handing over a payment. If this is so, I say with tears, I declare with groans that, when the priestly order is rotten on the inside, it will not be able to survive for long externally.”

In quoting the relevant laws, the legislative weapon wielded by Gregory was underpinned by his awareness of the Justinian law code and the policies of his age. In nurturing the ideology of Gregory, Justinian, by extension, provided the necessary tools for medieval christianity to flourish. From the protection of women and the poor to contemplations of heaven, the influence of Gregory reached into almost every monastic community across the continent for centuries to come.


The Age of Justinian, however, did not entirely diminish with the end of his reign. Following Justinian was Justin II who was his nephew. His reign from 556-578 is categorised by various losses. Not only was there a long and expensive war with Persia which resulted in a substantial loss of Roman territory and revenues, but the Lombards also invaded and seized Italy, and the Slavic and Avar tribes gained a foothold in the Balkans. Justin’s successor, Tiberius Constantine, who ruled from 578-582, maintained the war with Persia dn failed to retake Lombard Italy. Nevertheless, Tiberius did implement further administrative reforms by introducing exarchs, a new local administrator, in the remaining Roman lands of Italy in 584. The Balkan crisis, however, worsened when aggressive forces of Avar tribes skirmished against the Roman defences that were weakened by the Persian Front. Sirmum was captured by the Slavs and their resettlement within the region continued. After Tiberius’ death, he was succeeded by his general, Maurice, who ruled from 582-602. As Tiberius depleted the treasury, Maurice was forced to limit expenditure and military pay which only further impacted Roman morale and disfavour. Out of all the aforementioned successors, however, Maurice was the most religiously active, but his aim was to maintain a tolerant posture between Chalcedonians and anti-Chalcedonians. Towards the end of his reign, the geopolitical climate of Persia began to change when a new king, Khusro III, sought peace and Roman support. Maurice was also able to reassert control over the Avars in the Balkans within a decade. With all good things, however, they eventually come to an end. In 602 Maurice ordered his troops to camp north of the Danube during winter and, though strategically sound, his undernourished and underpaid troops rebelled. One soldier, Phocas, led a band of mutinied Romans to Contantiniple where he murdered Maurice and claimed the throne. This therefore ended the age of Justinian and began a decade of misrule.


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