Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Defense of Rome and the Rise of the Papacy





The Defense of Rome and the Rise of the Papacy
































Until Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, Rome had been a city of prestige and power.  However, as the focus of the Roman Empire moved to the eastern portion, the city of Rome began to encounter great challenges.  These challenges eventually played a major role in more than just the Roman Empire as a whole, but also on the Church at large in the Roman Empire.  A couple of the challenges included immigration without assimilation and attacks from various outside forces will be discussed briefly as they played a part in the rise of power to the papacy.  The majority of this paper will examine some individuals whose leadership and involvement made sizable contribution to the increase in the power of the papacy.  These aspects lead to great power falling upon the Roman bishop who after a period of several hundred years began to be known as the Pope.

Rome experienced a significant increase in immigrants who sought the comfort and peace of Rome. Often however, these immigrants might have sought citizenship, but they brought with them challenges to the Church in theological positions that were once thought resolved.[1]  Many of these immigrants came from locations in which Christianity had spread, but who held to the Arian beliefs that had mostly resolved in the Roman portion of the Empire. Since the time of Constantine, various emperors had banished church leaders and bishops who did not hold to their position on the Arian conflict, and so the people sought clarification and direction not from the Emperor, but from the Church leadership.

Beginning in the fifth century, Rome began to find itself attacked by various forces, and often without the support to the Empire.  Rome was attacked by the Lombards and Goths, and then in A.D. 452 when the Huns set out to “Conquer Constantinople” they were diverted to Italy.[2]  Leo the Great set out to meet “The Scourge of God” and either through negotiations, or through some miracle, Attila decided not to attack Rome.[3] The constant attacks by the various groups, and the lack or limited response of Constantinople were major contributing factors in the pope gaining great power in Rome for, as Gonzalez states: “they had to take measures for their own defense.”  There were two typical approaches to the defense of Rome, either a posturing of strength, or paying off the attacking force, as was practiced by Pope Pelagius II.[4]

The immigration into Rome and the various attacks against Rome itself played a role in the rise of the Pope.  However, these actions alone would not of brought about the authority and power of the Papacy had it not been connected to some individuals who took these events and used them for the benefit of Rome.  This paper will now turn to examine some major players whose actions in the midst of great challenges lead to the rise of the Papacy; Gregory the Great, Pope Leo II, Pepin the Short, and his son Charlemagne.

             After Pelagius II, one of the most respected popes came on to the scene, Gregory the Great.  This paper will now take a moment to look at Gregory and his impact on the growth of the Power of the Pope. In his Institutio Christianae religionis John Calvin “regarded Gregory I as the last legitimate claimant to the “cura aliarum ecclesiarium” exercised by the bishops of Rome.”[5] Pope Gregory did not see himself as an all perfect leader, but instead servant, and he conducted himself as such.

            Gregory was born into a time of great chaos in Italy, and in the city of Rome.  Not only was Rome subjected to various attacks from, but the city of Rome was suffering various times of famine and plaque.  Amongst this chaos Pope after Pope sent request to Constantinople requesting assistance and protection.  As history would have it, Gregory was one of the envoys sent to Constantinople around 580 A.D. by Pope Pelagius II.[6]  For seven years Gregory was in Constantinople, and although he did not complete his primary objective, to bring a response from Constantinople to address the challenges of Rome, John Norwich argues that Gregory’s time was still successful: “he earned the respect of two successive emperors, and returned in 585 with firsthand knowledge of the Byzantine court and its ways.”[7]

            Gregory was elected as Pope in 590 AD after Pelagius II fell to the plague that was affecting Rome at the time.  Most historians agree on is that Gregory never desired the office of the Pope, and in fact on his return from Constantinople he had placed himself again into a monastic life.[8]  Upon his election to the papacy Gregory wrote to the emperor and requested that his election be overruled.[9]  In spite of his hesitation, Homes-Dudden described how Gregory, in a letter to a bishop, indicated that he was willing to hold the role as it was the will of God.[10]

Gregory the Great impacted three areas which also lead to the rise of the power of the papacy.  First, Pope Gregory had to not only exercise authority in the religious aspect of Rome, but was also forced to take on much of the civilian authority as well.  This civilian authority of Gregory was not performed out of a desire to hold this type of authority but a reason of need of leadership.  Dr. David Hipshon argues in an article he wrote for Journal of Ecclesiastical History that Gregory lived with a theology that secular authority also played a role in salvation.[11]     Unfortunately for Gregory, the exarch of Revenna, Romanus, was either unwilling to deal with the crisis of the Lombardian attacks due to helplessness[12], or simply unwilling to “lift a finger” due to jealousy[13].  As such, Gregory’s “time was taken up secular business”.[14]  These challenges of the civilian authority eventually lead to Gregory securing peace with the Lombards.[15] This was demonstrated when Gregory took on the role of defense of Rome when Romanus enticed King Agilulf to attack Rome.[16]  Neill and Schmandt explain how in A.D. 599 Gregory again brought about peace with the Lombards and his power then began to outshine the power of Romanus.[17]

            The second increase of power to the papacy that was impacted by Gregory was his desire to expand Christendom.  With his desire to spread Christianity, Norwich explains how the north seemed “more promising”.[18] “At the beginning of Gregory’s pontificate the principal regions to be taken in hand seemed to be Visigoth Spain, Frankish Gaul, and Anglo-Saxon Britain.”[19]  Neill and Schmandt give great praise to the work of Pope Gregory the Great:

He seconded St. Leander’s work in converting the Visigoths, urged the Lombards to accept Christianity, and dispatched St. Augustine of Canterbury to England to bring the Angles and Saxons into the Church. Benedictine monasticism owed its first expansion to him and much of its fame from his biography of St. Benedict.[20]


With this growth in the Church it is no surprise how in almost 200 years after Gregory, the Church is going to find allies amongst these groups evangelized that will only further expand the rise of the Papacy in Rome as will shortly be addressed.

            The third and final rise of the Papacy that will be discussed as it relates to Gregory is in something that came about with unintended consequences.  As someone who had denied his great wealth in order to serve the LORD in the monastery prior to his becoming Pope, Gregory had a great concern and care for those who were poor.  As was mentioned earlier in the paper, the attacks of Rome were only a portion of the great challenges that faced this once great city.  Poverty, plague, and famine brought about many dire consequences upon the city.  The care for the poor had been a major concern for various Popes, and in fact was the direct reason that Pelagius II came into contact with the plaque that lead to his life coming to an end.  As Pelagius had shown great care for the poor and distressed of the city, so Gregory in many ways exceeded that of his mentor.

            During the greatness of the Roman Empire the many lords and landowners bestowed charity among the poor of Rome, yet after the move of the Capital of the Empire, and the lack of protection offered by the Empire Homes-Dudden points out: “Most of them had removed to Constantinople, some had died out.  As things were, the Pope was almost the only wealthy man remaining in the city”.[21] How was the Pope able to help those who were poor? The answer is the “Patrimony of St. Peter, the vast estates belonging to the Church scattered throughout Italy, Sicily, and the north.”[22]

            It was in his use and reorganization of the Patrimony of St. Peter which lead to one of Gregory’s biggest and unintended rise of the power of the papacy. Earlier in his life Gregory had served as one of the Perfects of Rome[23], and as such was probably fairly familiar with how the Patrimony was run. As was mentioned previously, Norwich indicated how the knowledge of the Byzantine Court was organized was something that Gregory benefitted from while in Constantinople.[24]  With the vast administrative experience that Gregory had over his various positions, Gregory used that to his advantage to organize the Patrimony of St. Peter for the sake of the poor. Norwich explains how this was accomplished:

It (the Patrimony of St. Peter) was effectively in the hands of nineteen deacons, seven of whom had charge of the seven regions of the city.  Gregory not only increases their numbers several times over but swelled them further with newly created ranks of subdeacons, notaries, treasurers, and senior executive officers, together forming a civil service unparalleled in Europe outside Constantinople itself.[25]

 Gregory was the first to attempt to reorganize the Patrimony of St. Peter.  Norwich explains the resulting consequence of this organization: “he unknowingly laid the foundations of what was later to be the Papal State, ensuring the temporal power of his successors which was to endure for the next thirteen centuries.”[26]

After the death of Gregory, Neill and Schmandt speak about how Italy enjoyed a mostly stabilized Italy during the seventh century.[27] However, during this time there was only a further alienation between the Pope of Rome and the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople.  Emperor Leo III’s constant involvement in ecclesiastical business only intensified this great separation.[28]

The continued straining of relationship between Rome and Constantinople was the final piece of the equation in relation to the rise of the power of the Papacy.  Of all the parts this was substantial because although Emperor Leo III and Emperors that followed continued to try to fight for control in theological issues, they refused to stand up in defense of Rome from the continuing attacks of the Lombards.  Pope Stephens sent an envoy to Constantinople to request aid from Emperor Leo III, unfortunately Emperor Leo refused to assist, and instead advised Stephen to “seek alliances from another Germanic tribe”.[29]  Finally, after attempts to gain support from the Byzantine empire failed, Pope Stephen went up the Franks and there found support from Frankish ruler Pepin the Short.

Pepin’s loyalty to the papacy was in relation to a debt he owed when Pope Zachary crowned him as King over the Merovingian kingdom.[30]  This was a debt that Stephens was willing to call upon and further in debt Pepin and his family in the defense of Rome.  When Rome was under siege of King Aistulf, and the new Pope, Stephens, knew that he was in desperate need of the protection from the continual onslaught of Aistulf.  Pope Stephens traveled up to see Pepin, and in 764 Stephen crowned Pepin and his sons the “Patrician of the Romans”.[31]  In essence Stephens only increased the debt of Pepin and his sons in the hands of the Pope.

Pepin the Short honored his debt to the Pope, and was indeed an able defender of Rome.  In 754 and 756, Pepin fought against the forces of King Aistulf and in 756 King Aistulf was disposed from the throne and a steward of Pepin’s was put in his stead.[32]  In addition, Pepin committed the land that had been claimed by the Lombards as the property and under the absolute authority of the pope.[33]  In his obligations to the Pope, Pepin removed the sovereignty of these areas from the hands of Constantinople who had failed to defend it, and from the hands of the invading forces thus making a step of removing the authority of the state from the head of the Church.

After Pepin’s death, Charles and Carloman took over the rule of the kingdom.  However, within three years Carloman died, and instead of his sons being given their portions of the kingdom as was custom Charles declared himself sole ruler.[34]  Charles proved as faithful as his father in the defense of Rome and on Easter of 774 Charles came before the new Pope, Hadrian.  At that time he not only reiterated his father’s donation, but added to it greatly. Charles also affirmed his intention of bringing all Churches in his dominion into unity with the Pope and the Church of Rome.[35]  Possibly unintentionally, Charles did something on this Easter which again added to the power of the Pope.  As a king of a vast domain, Charles knelt before Pope Hadrian showing not that the Pope was subject to the secular authority, but that the secular authority was inferior to the authority of the Pope.

            It is reasonable that Charles did not realize the significance of this concession, which was demonstrated in his reaction to Pope Hadrian and the issue of iconoclasm.[36]  Pope Hadrian had sent a delegation to Constantinople at the request of Empress Irene who had called for an Ecumenical Council.  For many years the issues of images used in worship had been a major bone of contention between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church.  This had all the appearances of Constantinople making an attempt to reunify an empire that had been separated unofficially.  Charles was furious about this development as he, and his father before him, had been the protectors of Rome not only secularly, but also theologically.[37]  Charles thought it only right that he should have been allowed to send a delegation to Nicea, and this lead to some tension between Pope and King.  However, the relationship was restored, and after Hadrian’s death a strong relationship still remained between Charles and the Pope.

            The final player and action that lead to the rise of the power of the Papacy, as discussed in this paper, occurred between Pope Leo III and Charles around December A.D.800.  Pope Leo had come to the office of Pontiff not in celebration and excitement but in doubt and suspicion.  Upon his ascension around A.D. 797 Leo faced challenges from Pope Hadrian’s family.  In late A.D. 800 some charges were brought up against Leo and Charles went to Rome to see how best to support Leo.  The question was did Charles or anyone have the right or authority to cast judgment upon the Pope?[38] Pope Leo III did not appear before any authority, but instead made an oath that the charges were false.  Two days later, Charles knelt before Leo, and Pope Leo III crowned Charles the “Emperor of the West”.[39]  The final piece had fallen into place.  With the actions of Leo III, not only did the Pope rise in power, but in action placed upon the Pontiff absolute authority beyond and above any secular authority.  For the next thousand plus years the Pontiff had the ability to appoint the Emperor of Rome.[40]

            In conclusion, there were several events and situations which lead to the rise of the power of the papacy.  Immigration without assimilation had to be addressed outside of secular authority, and theological positions had to come not from the emperor, but from the Church.  With all the various outside forces attacking Rome, and with the unwillingness or inability of Constantinople to defend, the Pope took on himself the role of defense both militarily and theologically.  More than just militarily, the poor and the sick had also to be cared for and provided, and with the riches falling not upon the citizens, but the Church, the Pope had to use the resources available to answer the challenges of famine and pestilence. 

            All of these events played a role in the rise of the papacy, but what was the biggest contributing factor were not the events, but the players on the scene.  Gregory the Great rose above Romanus in the defense of Rome and in the care of the people.  Gregory the Great expanded Christendom beyond Rome, and through his actions brought about the evangelism of the Franks, which lead to the close union of the Franks and the Pope hundreds of years after his death.  Through careful restructuring of the “Patrimony of St. Peter” Gregory laid the foundation for the organizational structure that is seen today.  Popes Stephen, Hadrian, and Leo through careful practice and blatant claims laid the foundation of rising the Pope from one subject to secular authority to being the supreme authority, even with the ability to name and crown emperors.  Pepin the Short, and his son Charles, through their contributions to the Pope in areas of authority, and in actions of submission lead to the Pope as supreme authority over Rome. All these factors and people gave rise to the power of the papacy.

Works Cited

Dudden, F. Holmes. Gregory the Great: His Place in History and Thought (2 Volume Set). 1905. 2 vols. Reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004.


Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. 2nd ed. Vol. 1 of the Story of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2010.


HIPSHON, DAVID. "Gregory the Great's ‘Political Thought’." The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 53, no. 03 (July 2002). doi:10.1017/S0022046902004219 (accessed September 19, 2013).


McEniery, Peter. "Pope Gregory the Great and Infallibility." Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11, no. 2 (Spring 1974): 263-80. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost.


Neill, Thomas, and Raymond Schmandt. History of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965.


Norwich, John Julius. Absolute Monarchs: a History of the Papacy. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Random House, 2011.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity., 2nd ed., vol. 1 of the Story of Christianity. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 270.
[2] Gonzalez, 282.
[3] Gonzalez, 283.
[4] Gonzalez, 285.
[5] Peter McEniery, “Pope Gregory the Great and Infallibility,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11, no. 2 (Spring 1974): 263-80, ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed September 19, 2013).
[6] John Julius Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: a History of the Papacy, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: Random House, 2011), 41.
[7] Norwich, 42.
[8] Norwich, 42.
[9] Gonzalez, 287.
[10] F. Homes-Dudden, Gregory the Great: His Place in History and Thought (1905; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 1:228.
[11] David Hipshon, “Gregory the Great's ‘Political Thought’,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 53, no. 03 (July 2002): page nr., doi:10.1017/S0022046902004219 (accessed September 19, 2013).
[12] Thomas P. Neill and Raymond Schmandt, History of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965), 123.
[13] Norwich, 42.
[14] Homes-Dudden, 1:246.
[15] Homes-Dudden, 2:13.
[16] Neill and Schmandt, 123.
[17] Neill and Schmandt, 123.
[18] Norwich, 45.
[19] Norwich, 45.
[20] Neill and Schmandt, 123.
[21] Homes-Dudden, 1:247.
[22] Neill and Schmandt, 124.
[23] Homes-Dudden, 1:105.
[24] Norwich, 42.
[25] Norwich, 43.
[26] Norwich, 48.
[27] Neill and Schmandt, 134.
[28] Neill and Schmandt, 136.
[29] Neill and Schmandt, 140.
[30] Norwich, 53.
[31] Norwich, 53.
[32] Norwich, 54.
[33] Norwich, 54.
[34] Norwich, 54.
[35] Norwich, 55.
[36] Norwich, 55.
[37] Norwich, 55.
[38] Norwich, 56-57.
[39] Gonzalez, 289.
[40] Norwich, 57.

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