First millennium popes – from martyrdom to greatness

Features Msgr John Broadbent4 May 2012 During the second period of the first thousand years, the popes became political leaders in Rome. The emperor Diocletian had divided the vast Roman…


Msgr John Broadbent
4 May 2012

First millennium popes - from martyrdom to greatness Archdiocese of WellingtonDuring the second period of the first thousand years, the popes became political leaders in Rome.

The emperor Diocletian had divided the vast Roman Empire in two because with Rome as the only centre it was difficult to move troops from the Persian to the German border. The emperors could not trust provincial governors to keep a large standing army which could revolt against them.

Constantine built Constantinople when he became emperor of both the western and eastern Roman Empires, placing more reliance on this city than on Rome.

An empire divided
After his death, the empire was again divided, by Constantine’s sons. They were followers of Arius who believed that, although Jesus was a wonderful human being, he was not God in the trinitarian sense.

Centred on Rome, the western part of the empire became weaker, with the last of its increasingly ineffectual emperors dying in 476 AD.

With the popes becoming political leaders in Rome, Pope Leo I (The Great) could ride outside the walls to confront Attila the Hun and persuade him, probably through a bribe, not to sack the city in 452. The Vandals did so, however, in 455.

By the time of the last emperor’s death, the Arian Ostrogoths were creating an Italian kingdom. This made the pope’s leadership more important in keeping Rome free for Catholic Christianity.

Arianism had made great inroads in the East and despite the Council of Nicea (325) condemning the teachings, Constantine gradually came under its control. A sympathising Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, baptised him on his deathbed (337).

The church after Constantine
The church became four patriarchates under the Patriarch of the West (Rome), who was seen as the successor to St Peter and the last court of appeal in matters of faith.

Pope St Sylvester I was represented at the Council of Nicea and the patriarchs followed the Bishop of Rome in signing the document condemning Arianism.

For some time, the popes put up with the fact that the emperor subscribed to Arianism, but Pope Leo the Great (440-461) fought it.

The Council of Chalcedon (451) condemned Monophysitism, which held that Jesus’ human nature was absorbed by his divine nature. This council also largely adopted Leo’s profession of faith, the Nicene Creed.

Under Justinian, emperor at Constantinople from 527 to 565, the West was reconquered. Justinian’s wife followed monothelitism, a compromise heresy which claimed Jesus had only one will (the divine) and was not therefore fully human. Pope St Martin I (649-655) was exiled for not supporting the heresy, cruelly treated, and died a martyr.

Managing the barbarians
The barbarian Lombards invaded Italy in 568, dispelling the Ostrogoths and establishing dukedoms all over the country. At first they were also Arians, but were not numerous enough to conquer the bigger cities such as Rome and Ravenna in the north where the eastern emperor’s exarch resided. He watched over Rome to ensure a friend of the eastern emperor was elected pope. The greatest was Gregory I (590-604); he and Leo I are the only two popes called ‘Great’.

Gregory came from Roman nobility but felt drawn to the monastic life. He sold his considerable estates and founded four monasteries, three in Sicily and one in Rome which he entered as a monk.

It was difficult to hide his vast talents as a writer and the pope, Pelagius II, drew him out of the cloister to become his representative at the Court of Constantinople where he made many friends. He returned to Rome and was elected when Pelagius died in 590.