Portrait of a Pope: St Gregory the Great and the End of Imperial Rome8-min read (inc. footnotes)

“Where is the Senate? Where the People? The very buildings we behold crumbling around us.”

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy


More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

Image: The Favourites of Honorius, John William Waterhouse, (source). The city of Rome was still flourishing in the fourth century.

In the autumn of AD 590, as a Lombard army marched on Rome and as the city tried to recover from a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague, the Roman people gathered to hear the preaching of Pope St Gregory the Great, their newly elected bishop.[1] Expounding upon the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, St Gregory, lamented over the evils that had befallen Rome:

“What happiness is there left in the world? Everywhere we see war. Everywhere we hear groans. Our cities are destroyed; our fortresses are overthrown; our fields laid waste; the land is become a desert. No inhabitants remain in the countryside, scarcely any in the towns. The small remnant of humanity surviving is daily and without cease borne down. Yet the scourge of divine justice has no end… Some we have seen led into captivity, others mutilated, others killed. 

“So what happiness is there left in the world? See to what straits Rome, once mistress of the world, is reduced. Worn down by her great and ceaseless sorrows, by the loss of her citizens, by the assault of the enemy, by the frequency of ruin… 

“Where is the Senate? Where the People? … We few who remain are daily exposed to the sword… The very buildings we behold crumbling around us.”[2]

What feelings must have been invoked in the congregation by the pope’s reference to that ancient formula, Senatus Populusque RomanusSPQR, the Senate and the People of Rome – which had summarised in a few words the spirit of the Roman Respublica.

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The Roman Senate had sat since the days of the ancient kings, it had dominated the Republic and it had advised, served, and endured emperors. But where was the Senate now? For the first generation in more than one thousand years, there was no Senate in Rome. The senatorial aristocracy were mostly dead, ruined, or had fled to Constantinople, where they were safe from barbarians, if not from the plague. 

And where were the Roman people, to whom the whole world had been tributary? They had been scattered or killed by war, famine, and disease. The much-reduced population that remained dwelt in those parts of the city which had easy access to natural sources of water, because the ancient aqueduct system had failed. The magnificent bath houses, cut off from this supply, stood decaying and unused. The great imperial palace still dominated the Palatine, but its magnificent rooms were shut up and empty. The remnant of the Roman people lived among the splendid ruins of their ancestors.

Yet just a couple of generations earlier, in the youth of Pope Gregory’s father, Rome had still been a magnificent and thriving city. When St Fulgentius, bishop of the North African city of Ruspe, visited Rome in the year 500 he was amazed by what he saw. “How wonderful” he exclaimed “must be the heavenly Jerusalem, if this earthly city can shine so greatly.”[3]  

As late as 536, the philosopher Cassiodorus was able to envision the founding of a university and new library in the city to teach theology, “seeing that the schools were swarming with students” and “there was beyond doubt rich and most distinguished instruction in the worldly authors.” He therefore “urged upon the most holy Agapetus” – who was briefly pope from 535-536 – “to collect subscriptions and to have Christian rather than secular schools in the city of Rome, with professors, just as there had been for so long at Alexandria.”[4]  

Pope Agapetus I began to put this plan into action, establishing a library and reading-room at the church of SS John and Paul.  Sixty years after the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor, the life of the city continued its centuries-old course. At this date the infrastructure and monuments of the city were still maintained. Water flowed through the aqueducts, waste through the ancient sewers, and bread and circuses to the people.

From the perspective of the elderly Romans who heard their new pope preach in 590, who had seen the heights from which Rome had fallen in their own lifetimes, it must have seemed as though they were witnessing the death of the greatest and most renowned of cities. Yet this was very far from being the case. In fact, in front of their eyes, in the very voice that they heard, a new Rome was being born.

Imperial Rome, the Rome of the Respublica, was perishing forever – though Gregory would remain loyal to the emperor in Constantinople – but something new, something greater, was rising from the ruins: Papal Rome, the Rome of the Church. The line of emperors had failed, but St Peter had been promised a perpetual succession. His heirs would not only remain in Rome, they would reign over her and bring her glory of which the Caesars could only dream. And few men did more to build Papal Rome than St Gregory I, the Great.

All this lay in the future. Gregorius Anicius, born around the year 540, would only ever see trials and torments for the city of his birth. He was born during the decade in which we might say that ancient Rome truly fell. He died believing the end of the world was close at hand. These events shaped his life, his personality, his writings, and his papacy. To understand Pope St Gregory, we must understand the world into which he was born.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Throughout her eight hundred years of expansion, and her four hundred years of relative stability, the Roman state was always threatened by incursions from “barbarian” neighbours. Gauls sacked the city in 390 BC, Marius delivered the Republic from the Teutones and the Cimbri in the second century BC, and Marcus Aurelius defended the Empire from the Quadi and the Marcomanni between 166-180 – to name just a few of Rome’s wars with her Gallic and Germanic neighbours.

Extensive frontier fortifications, and large standing armies, were required to defend Rome’s boundaries, but for centuries Rome always prevailed, Rome always dominated.

In the fourth century, across Rome’s Rhine and Danube frontiers, the Germanic peoples found themselves under increasing pressure from other tribes – such as the Alans – who were themselves on the move as a result of the advance of the Huns. These population movements, would ultimately be the most important factor in the collapse of the Western Empire.[5]

In 376 when the Emperor Valens gave permission for a large population of threatened Visigoths to cross the Danube and settle as immigrants in the province of Dacia, Rome seemed as secure as ever. In 378 these Goths rebelled and defeated a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople. This battle, in which the emperor himself fell, was one of the most devastating defeats in Roman history. St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, remarked:

“The Huns fell upon the Alans, the Alans upon the Goths and Taifali, the Goths and Taifali upon the Romans, and this is not yet the end.”[6]

It was certainly not the end. It was but the first in a series of events that would lead to the sack of Rome in 410 by a Gothic army led by Alaric. During the decades that followed the imperial authorities successively lost control of provinces outside Italy, as first Britain, then Gaul, Spain and west North Africa, fell under the control of differing Germanic groups that broke through the Rhine and Danube frontiers in successive waves. 

During the long and disastrous reign of the emperor Honorius (393-423) the Empire was wracked by internal conflict, and no successor emperor or general succeeded in reversing the decline.  By the 460s the western emperors had limited direct control of any territory outside of Italy, but, with eastern support, still had the capacity to launch a significant counterattack in 468, when a massive armada sought to reconquer North Africa. The failure of this assault contributed significantly to the final collapse of the imperial authorities in the west. 

In the year 476 Odovacer, a leader of Germanic forces in the service of the Empire, deposed the last western emperor, a 10-year old boy. His name was Romulus Augustus, and thus the last emperor to rule in the west bore the names of Rome’s first king and her first emperor. Odovacer returned the imperial insignia of the West to the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople – a symbol that he intended to rule Italy as a subordinate of the emperor in Constantinople.  The Western Roman Empire was at an end. 

The Western Empire had fallen, but Rome had not. It had many more decades to come of relative wealth, prosperity and peace, under rulers of Germanic origin. It is this period, which immediately precedes the lifetime of Pope St Gregory, and during which his family played an important role in the Church and the state, to which we will turn in the next part of this series.

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction
The End of Imperial Rome
The Reign of Odovacer in Italy


More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

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[1] The Lombards were a Germanic people who invaded Italy in 568 and dominated the north and centre of the country for centuries. We will discuss the Lombards at length later in this series.

[2] Pope St Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel. Translation taken from Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great(Lancaster, 1980), p23 (UK link: here); the last three sentences are taken from Rev H. K. Mann, The Lives of the Popes of the Early Middle Ages: Vol I(London, 1902), p106. (UK link: here)

[3] Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages(London, 1971), p21. (UK link: here).

[4] Llewellyn, Rome, p33.

[5] This is a controversial statement. There is much debate over the role of migration in the fall of the Roman Empire. The traditional view that migration was the primary cause was largely abandoned by academics from the 1960s on, but its importance is now being recognised again. See for example Peter Heather, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe(London, 2009). (UK link: here)

[6] St Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel According to St Luke, 10:10, quoted by Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire(London, 2005), p190. (UK link: here).

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