A History of the Popes
by Joseph McCabe
Excerpts from: A History of the Popes by Joseph McCabe,
| 6th to 9th Century
SECTION - TWO
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Constantine had previously divided the Empire into East and West and had made Constantinople a serious rival of Rome. Its bishop naturally became the equal in prestige and authority of the Pope, and every Council of Eastern bishops confirmed his position as head of the Greek half of Christendom, which may roughly be described as stretching from the Balkans to Mesopotamia. Every effort of the Popes to attack this position was, we saw, futile, and Christianity remained a federation of Churches under two regional presidents.
When the Western Empire fell, the Archbishop of Constantinople, Acacius, began to speak of his Church as "the mother of all Christians," and he turned a disdainful ear to the protests of Pope Simplicius (468-483). But the next Pope, Felix III (483-492), was of the aggressive pontifical type. He discovered heresy in the formula which the Emperor Zeno had drafted for the purpose of ending the latest theological controversy that filled the East with disorder. Pope Felix sent two bishops to Constantinople to enforce his orthodoxy, but they yielded to the cajolery and bribes of the Greeks. He then excommunicated Acacius; and a monk stole into the sanctuary and pinned the sentence upon the vestments of Acacius while he conducted a solemn ceremony. Acacius retorted by excommunicating the Pope, and for forty years the two Churches refused to correspond except in the lurid language of the book of anathemas.
Pope Anastasius II (496-498)
Readers of Dante will remember that when the poet reached the sixth circle of hell (Canto XI, 3), where the stench was such that he had for a while to take shelter, he first encountered the pit of Pope Anastasius. We gather how little progress history had made even in the brilliant days of Dante when we notice that the poet has put Pope Anastasius in a deep circle of hell for a crime which was committed by the Emperor Anastasius; but his sentiment faithfully reflects Church tradition about the Pope ever since his death in 498. He had been guilty of a monstrous attempt to induce the Roman clergy to forget the outdated feud with the Greeks and renew communion with them. He survived less than two years in the Papal chair, but it was enough to start in the Church a passionate struggle which recalled the days of Damasus. (The throne at Constantinople was occupied by a quaint type of Emperor, Anastasius (491-518), an heretical lay-preacher — hence confused by Dante with Pope Anastasius)
In the second year of the pontificate of Anastasius the leading Roman patrician Festus, head of the Senate, went to Constantinople to confer with the Emperor and the Greeks about the means of effecting a reunion, and while he was there the Pope died Cardinal Baronius sees in the premature removal of the Pope a proof that Providence watched over the Roman Church and preserved it from heresy. There are historians who suggest that Providence must have made use of poison.
Festus hurried back to Rome, and he and the majority of the Senate and leading men of Rome raised the Archdeacon Laurence, who favoured their policy, to the Papacy. The opposed party elected the deacon Symmachus. Each side accused the other of bribery. The Church was so far from having reached its medieval form that the Roman people still joined the clergy in electing the Pope. There were as yet no "cardinals" in the modern meaning of the word.
Pope Symmachus (498-514)
We presently find Symmachus, who is described as a convert from paganism, accused, and probably guilty, of immoral relations with a number of the wealthier women of the city, as well as of bribery.
Once more we find that as soon as any historical light falls upon the personality of the Pope it reveals a far from saintly character: a man like Damasus, a "tickler of matrons' ears," ready to use any weapon to secure the lucrative office. But the murderous fights between the two parties which now set in and lasted for several years, while Theodoric the Goth and his daughter looked on in amazement from peaceful Ravenna. (The Goths — Ostrogoths, instead of continuing to harass the Romans and prevent them from reconstructing their social life, had for some years settled in the north of Italy. Their King, Theodoric, made Ravenna his capital and ruled one-third of the country.) The reader will pardon the irony when I remind him that virtually all our historians tell him that the Goths were responsible for the demoralization of Europe and the Popes were piously checking the spread of the disorder.
Men fought in the streets, especially round the churches, with swords, axes, cudgels, and stones. A number of priests and many of the laity were killed. They broke into each other's houses ; and nuns were dragged from their monasteries, stripped, and beaten. After much murderous fighting in the streets and looting of each other's houses both parties appealed to King Theodoric, the heretic and barbarian, to restore order in the Papal city. Theodoric ordered all the bishops of Italy to meet in synod at Rome and find a solution. The Pope was summoned to the church where the synod was held, and he barely escaped with his life when his procession was stoned. In the end they, as Duchesne, who clearly believes the Pope guilty, says, "refer to God's tribunal the task of judging whether the charges brought against the Pope are sound or not." They ordered the people and clergy to submit to Symmachus, but they had not declared the Pope innocent and the followers of Laurence continued to hold all the churches except St. Peter's. The feud lasted ten further years, or until the death of Symmachus.
Hormisdas (514-523) remains, like most of the early Popes, obscure in personal character, but he entered upon a diplomatic policy, in the interest of the Papal ambition, which frustrated the hope of a restoration of civilization in Italy. Ravenna was now a city of considerable promise in art and culture and far superior in moral tone to Rome and Constantinople, and the cooperation of the Papacy with the Goths might have had historic consequences. To this prospect of moral and social recovery the Pope was blind. From his pontifical point of view it was desirable to get the Greek bishops compelled to recognize his authority and then to help the Greek Emperor to extend his corrupt rule over Italy.
Justin, a boorish peasant who had won a high military command, bribed his way and became Emperor in 518. He had an ambitious nephew, Justinian, and able officers, and, after pacifying the Empire, they looked with covetous eyes toward Italy. They readily healed the schism of the Churches by sacrificing the memory of Acacius, the Bishop of Constantinople who had excommunicated the Pope, and granted all the Pope's demands except the actual submission of the Greek Church to his authority.
The price the Pope had to pay was that the Romans should conspire with the Greeks to ruin Theodoric the Goth; and Theodoric, who was now advanced in years and had only a daughter and a young grandson to succeed him, watched the intrigue with deep concern.
John I (523-526) had succeeded Hormisdas. Theodoric, now a worn and irritable man, summoned him to Ravenna and ordered him to go to Constantinople and induce the Greeks to cease persecuting the Arians in that city. John had a magnificent reception in the East, and we can hardly be surprised that he made a feeble plea for the heretics. When he returned to Ravenna he was imprisoned, and he died in prison in a few days. Theodoric died three months later and left his gifted daughter Amalasuntha, the ablest and most cultivated woman of her age, to guard the kingdom for her son, curb the unruly Gothic troops, and face the ambition of the powerful Greek Empire.
Felix IV (526-530), seems to have been a quiet and pious man whose election had been secured by Theodoric before he died. In four years, however, the See was again vacant, and, since the Goth ruled the city no longer, there was again a double election, and the murderous fights of the two parties lasted nearly a month.
The next Pope, Boniface II (530-532), a man of Gothic extraction, tried to suppress the practice of bribery by decreeing that henceforward the Pope would nominate his successor. There was so loud and general an outcry that he was compelled to rescind his decree in public, and his rule lasted only two years. At his death the Senate passed a severe law against bribery at the Papal election, and a rescript was issued from Ravenna in the name of the young king in which we still read how gross the corruption had become. Even the sacred vessels of the altars were sold or pledged to bribe supporters, and the funds from which the poor were assisted were shamelessly alienated. The Goths were endeavouring to save the Papacy from the debasement which steadily lowered its character; yet there are probably few colleges today in which students are not taught that these barbarians were responsible for the debasement, and the Popes strove to check it.
Amalasuntha, daughter of Theodoric, who sought to restore civilization, was betrayed and murdered, and her vicious husband and feeble son promised a poor resistance to the new Greek Emperor Justinian (527-565). The Emperor had able generals, astute diplomatists, and eminent jurists who compiled the code of laws which bears his name. His armies wrested Africa and Sicily from the Vandals, who, being Arians, were allies of the Goths, and his diplomatists then prepared the way for the conquest of Italy by securing the co-operation of the Papacy.
A most impressive deputation came to Rome to confer with Pope John II (532-535) on religious questions it was said and enrich the Roman churches from the gold and treasure which still abounded in the East; and from all parts of Southern Italy lay and clerical assurances of homage were sent to Justinian.
The next Pope — there were ten in forty years — Agapetus (535-536), son of a priest, was an old man of strong religious feeling, and the Goths, threatening severe reprisals on Rome, compelled him to go to Constantinople to disarm the Greeks, It happened that the See of that city was vacant, and the Pope engaged in a violent quarrel to prove that the candidate whom the Empress favoured was a heretic. The Empress Theodora had insisted upon the election of a certain Anthimus, and the Pope had fierily objected that the man was tainted, like the Empress herself, with the latest heresy of the Greeks, The Pope secured the rejection of Anthimus; and the Pope died, as opponents of the Empress Theodora frequently did. The Romans elected Silverius (536-537), a son of Pope Hormisdas, to succeed him.
Theodoric the Goth ruled a third of Italy for thirty years, he was so little removed from barbarism in his boyhood that he never succeeded in learning to write his own name. His daughter, who spoke and wrote Greek as well as Latin, inherited his ideals and his ability. The Popes conspired with the Greeks to destroy this constructive agency in the life of Europe, yet they must have known well the character of the Greek rulers, clergy, and people, We have now to see that the alliance brought upon the Papacy, in its frenzied hope of securing ecclesiastical supremacy at any cost, the worst degradation that it had yet endured.
A courtly deacon, Vigilius, of the Papal suite, privately assured the Empress that she should have her Anthimus as Patriarch of Constantinople if he were Pope, and he went back to Rome with a promise of seven hundred pounds of gold, for bribing the voters, and an assurance of Greek assistance when an opportunity arrived.
At the time when, in the year 536, Silverius became Pope, Belisarius, the ablest military commander of the age, had led his victorious Greek troops to within fifty miles of Rome. The Pope sent him a formal invitation to advance and deliver Rome from "the yoke of the barbarian," and before the end of the year the Greeks entered Rome by the Asinarian Gate, close to the Lateran Palace, and sent the key of the city to Constantinople. It was near Christmas, and the festival was boisterously celebrated. But the entire Gothic nation was now in arms, and in the following year they besieged Rome. Such were the horrors of the siege that many Romans pressed the Greeks to leave, and one day Pope Silverius was summoned to the palace of Belisarius on the Pincian Hill, the seat of the old Roman patricians. Belisarius sat at the feet of his beautiful wife, Antonina, who reclined on a royal couch, and the Pope, ominously deprived of his suite of priests, was ordered to stand before her. She coldly accused him of treacherous correspondence with the besieging Goths, produced documentary proofs, and ordered him to be dragged ignominiously from the palace and sent into exile.
Vigilius the deacon had worked with Belisarius and his wife Antonina in framing the charge against Silverius, and when his partisans rushed into the street shouting that Silverius had become a monk, which was an act of abdication on the part of a Pope or bishop, he secured two hundred pounds of gold from Belisarius and opened his electoral campaign. Under the protecting shadow of the Greek general and his wife he became Pope Vigilius (537-555). The two deacons of the Roman Church, sons of what were then called "Roman nobles," who became, in succession, Pope Vigilius and Pope Pelagius (556-561), were both in the plot with Empress Theodora. The authorities tell us that it was Vigilius who sent some of his officers and slaves to seize Pope Silverius on the journey and take him to a desolate island in the Mediterranean, and that it was widely believed at Rome that Vigilius had him killed there. (the only points in dispute relate to details of little importance)
For a time Pope Vigilius had the support of most of his people. But, when the death of Silverius in a cruel exile became known, the Pope was weakened by a formidable opposition. He was accused of the murder of Silverius, of having in a fit of temper knocked down — he was a big man of giant strength — and killed one of his secretaries, and of having ordered the husband of his niece to be beaten to death. He endeavoured to clear himself in part by an explicit condemnation of the new and monstrous heresy which Theodora shared, and the Empress was infuriated. She sent an officer to Rome with peremptory orders to bring Vigilius to her. "Bring him, or by the Living God I will have your skin," she is reported to have said; and to the historian it does sound like the voice of Theodora.
The Pope was seized at the altar and hurried to the docks. In some obscure way Vigilius managed to linger two years in Sicily, and at the end of 546 or the beginning of 547 he reached Constantinople. To his surprise, he had a royal reception. Justinian headed the solemn procession which met him. Apparently Justinian curbed his wife and, as she died soon afterwards, the Pope must have been relieved. But the Emperor himself had now contracted a heresy and demanded that Vigilius should support him and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Vigilius refused. Justinian fired an anathema at the Patriarch, who duly fired one at him in return. After condemning the heresy and recanting a couple of times the Pope took sanctuary in a church. Soldiers enter and, clinging to the pillars of the altar while they tried to drag him away, he brought the altar down upon himself. He was led through the streets of Constantinople with a rope round his neck, "like a bear," and was put in a dungeon. Somehow he escaped and fled to Chalcedon, but Justinian brought him back, and, after another condemnation of the heresy and a third recantation, he was allowed to take ship for Rome, but he died on the voyage. It is piquant to reflect that this miserable career of Vigilius was the longest pontificate in three centuries !
Pope Pelagius I (556-561). His money and the favour of Justinian, whom he promised to support, won the election for him, but there was so general a conviction of his unworthiness that it was impossible to get three Italian bishops to consecrate him, as the canons demanded, and he had to be content with two.
The nobles, the monks, and many of the clergy still held angrily aloof, though, under escort of the Emperor's representative, he swore at the altar in St. Peter's, holding the Bible in one hand and a cross in the other, that he was innocent of the taint of heresy and of any complicity in the evil treatment of Silverius and Vigilius: a very solemn act of perjury, but it enabled him to invoke the secular arm against the bishops and priests who still opposed him. Most of the Romans he disarmed by a generous use of his fortune. Italy was now a desolation. The Goths fought bravely, and the Greeks summoned half-savage Franks, Lombards, and other Teutonic peoples to help them. The land suffered such famine that mothers are said to have eaten their children. Rome shared the horror, and the one redeeming feature of the pontificate of Pelagius is that he used his private fortune very liberally to relieve their distress.
The next thirty years (560-590) are, says Milman, "the most barren and obscure period in the annals of the Papacy." Three Popes were added to the list. Though the first of them, John III (561-574), was guilty of the familiar Papal fault of accepting appeals from delinquent bishops in the provinces and ordering their reinstatement — the fighting bishops of the Middle Ages, as truculent and drunken as the knights, now appear in the chronicle — and the third, Pelagius II (579-590), has left us an ingenuous letter (Ep. VI) in which he tells with horror how a bishop of Ephesus has blasphemously called himself the Ecumenical Patriarch (as the Popes called themselves).
The contention that in summoning the Greeks or Byzantinians to Italy and preparing the way for them by intrigue against the Goths the Popes had sought to promote the welfare of the Roman and the Italian people is ludicrous. They knew well that the Byzantine Empire was as corrupt in morals as the pagan Empire had ever been, and that its provincial administration was infamous in comparison with that of the older Romans or that of the Goths. From the Exarch (Viceroy) to the humbler officials, the Greeks in every province were simply blood-suckers. The imperial taxation was extortionate, and private graft was universal. It was a time of rapidly deepening poverty, for during twenty years vast armies of barbaric soldiers moved from end to end of Italy. Towns and villages were deserted and large tracts of country were left waste. Men despaired of growing food for themselves or of securing elementary safety, for the new European armies had begun the licence, to which they would cling for the next thousand years, to loot, rape, and kill wherever they went. Famine repeatedly racked the land, and during the pontificate of Pelagius II there were such floods that the rumour of a second Deluge spread. The Popes might plead that they had not foreseen these consequences, though even the feeblest-witted of them must have known what an attempt to exterminate the Gothic nation would mean, and certainly every Pope knew how the Greek officials behaved.
Totila, the last strong Gothic king, had the same ideals as Theodoric. In glaring contrast to the behaviour of the Pope's allies, he inflicted sentence of death upon any soldier who violated a woman. We must remember however that for the next twenty years of savage war against the Goths millions of lives were lost. The smooth generalization, which so many historians are content to repeat, that barbaric invasions, century after century, kept Italy at a low level, which might have been even lower but for the unselfish exertions of the Popes, ought to be erased from our literature. The Popes looked only to the interests of the Papacy; for we shall see later that they did not even guard or inspire the morals of the new Europe.
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Gregory I (590-604). He had spent eight years (578-586) representing the Papacy in Constantinople before he became Pope. Few Popes can have had a better knowledge than he of Greek affairs and personalities. Yet in his relations with the Greeks he showed a determination to assert the supremacy of the Papacy as he behaved repeatedly like an ill-mannered, bad-tempered, and not very scrupulous prince.
As soon as he was elected he took up a problem which had long troubled the Papacy. On one of the occasions when, as we saw, the Popes acquiesced in an Eastern heresy, the ecclesiastical province of Istria had declared itself independent of Papal jurisdiction, Gregory sent a troop of soldiers to Aquileia with a command that the bishop and his leading clerics should come to Rome for judgment; and he said that this was "according to orders of the Most Christian and Most Serene Lord of all." But, when the bishop wrote to Constantinople, it appeared that the Emperor had given no such orders; and he, in fact, at once warned the Pope to mind his own business. The following year, grave distress was caused in Aquileia by a great fire and the Churches sent relief funds, Gregory, the richest man in Europe, said that his money was "not for the enemies of the Church."
He again fierily resented other bishops assuming the title of Ecumenical Bishop, as the Patriarch of Constantinople now did. The Pope's letters to him are models of bad taste and exhibitions of bad temper. He tells the prelate, John the Faster, that it would be less wicked to put a little meat into his belly than to tell lies. "We do not want to cause a quarrel" he quaintly says, "but we are quite ready for it if it is forced upon us."
Gregory wrote epistles to his own ambassador at Constantinople, to the patriarch John, and to the emperor Mauritius, in which in various passages he denounces the title of universal bishop as "vain," "execrable," "anti-Christian," "blasphemous," "infernal," and "diabolical."
In his letters to the emperor Mauritius, Gregory reiterates the same sentiments. On account of their importance, the following extracts from these letters are subjoined.
"The care and principality of the whole church," says Gregory, "is committed to St. Peter; and yet he is not called 'universal apostle' — though this holy man, John, my fellow priest, labors to be called 'universal bishop!' I am compelled to cry out, 'O the corruption of times and manners?' Behold the barbarians are become lords of all Europe: cities are destroyed, castles are beaten down, provinces depopulated, there are no husbandmen to till the ground. Idolaters rage and domineer over Christians; and yet priests, who ought to lie weeping upon the pavement, in sackcloth and ashes, covet names of vanity, and glory in new and profane titles. Do I, most religious sovereign, in this plead my own cause? Do I vindicate a wrong done to myself, and not maintain the cause of Almighty God, and of the church universal? Who is he who presumes to usurp this new name against both the law of the gospel and of the canons? We know that many priests of the church of Constantinople have been not only heretics, but even the chief leaders of them. If, then, every one of that church assumes the name by which he makes himself the head of all good men; the Catholic church, which God forbid should ever be the case, must needs be overthrown when he falls who is called UNIVERSAL. But, far from Christians be this blasphemous name, by which all honor is taken from all other priests, while it is foolishly arrogated by one. This man (John), contemning obedience to the canons, should be humbled by the commands of our most pious sovereign. He should be chastised who does an injury to the holy Catholic church! whose heart is puffed up, who seeks to please himself by a name of singularity, by which he would elevate himself above the Emperor! We are all scandalized at this. Let the author of this scandal reform himself, and all differences in the church will cease. I am the servant of all priests, so long as they live like themselves — but if any shall vainly set up his bristles, contrary to God Almighty, and to the canons of the fathers, I hope in God that he will never succeed in bringing my neck under his yoke — not even by force of arms."
These urgent letters of Gregory appear to have been unavailing. The patriarch John, indeed, was soon afterward removed by death from his archiepiscopal dignity; but Cynacus, who succeeded him as bishop of Constantinople, adopted the same pompous title as his predecessor. Having had occasion to despatch some agents to Rome, in the letter which he wrote to the Roman pontiff Gregory, he so much displeased him by assuming the appellation of "universal bishop," that the latter withheld from the agents somewhat of the courtesy to which they considered themselves entitled, and, of course, complaint was made to the emperor Mauritius of the neglect which had been shown them. This circumstance extorted a letter from the Emperor at Constantinople to the bishop of Rome, in which he advises him to treat them, in future, in a more friendly manner, and not to insist so far on punctilios of style, as to create a scandal about a title, and fall out about a few syllables. To this Gregory replies,
"that the innovation in the style did not consist much in the quantity and alphabet; but the bulk of the iniquity was weighty enough to sink and destroy all. And, therefore, I am bold to say," says he, "that whoever adopts, or affects the title of UNIVERSAL BISHOP, has the pride and character of anti-Christ, and is in some manner his forerunner in this haughty quality of elevating himself above the rest of his order. And, indeed, both the one and the other seem to split upon the same rock; for as PRIDE MAKES ANTI-CHRIST STRAIN HIS PRETENSIONS UP TO GODHEAD, so whoever is ambitious to be called the only or universal prelate, arrogates to himself a distinguished superiority, and rises, as it were, upon the ruins of the rest." (* Epist. Greg. 1. vi. Ep. 30.)
The last 3 paragraphs are from the work of JOHN DOWLING, D.D., titled History Of Romanism, The Earliest Corruptions Of Christianity To The Present Time.
The last phase of this painful chapter of Gregory's pontificate is revolting. By another of the sordid and half-savage revolutions that were now common in the Greek world, a particularly brutal, repulsive, physically deformed officer fought and bribed his way to the throne (602) and the Emperor Maurice, his father, his five brothers, his five sons, and a large number of their supporters were foully murdered. Yet Gregory at once sent to this most vicious and dissipated murderer, the new Emperor Phocas, a letter (XIII, 31) which begins "Glory be to God on high" and ends "Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad." Several months later, when the facts must have been fully known in every tavern, Gregory writes again (XIII, 38) to Phocas in the same strain, rejoicing that the "night of tyranny" has ended in "a day of liberty." Gregory even had a special column dedicated to Phocas in the Roman Forum.
Instead of the Pope being dependent upon casual and distorted news from Constantinople, as his apologists say, he had had as representative in that city one of the most accomplished of the Roman clergy, and this priest, Sabinianus (604-606), was elected to succeed him. He so execrated the name of Gregory and denounced his vandalism that there was a common belief in Rome that, after seventeen months of reign, the ghost of Gregory visited him in the night and slew him. It is more likely to have been one of Gregory's monks.
Sabinian's successors, Boniface III (607) and Boniface IV (608-615), at last won from the Greeks a recognition that the Pope was "head of all the Churches." It was, of course, the bestial Emperor Phocas who awarded it. The Patriarch of Constantinople had resented the Neronic savour of his murders and dissipations; the Popes preferred to be "badly informed" about them. From Phocas they also got permission to convert the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple of all the gods, into a Church of St.Mary.
But the new and deeply-tainted alliance was shortlived. The monkish intellect of the East had entered upon the last phase of the sanguinary struggle over the true nature of Christ, the rebels now entrenching themselves in the horrid heresy that he had only one will (Monothelitism) instead of two, and the Popes were first entangled in it and then in violent reaction to it. Next the imperial patrons of the inventors of heresies adopted Iconoclasm, or a fierce antipathy to the use of statues in religion, and this happened to coincide with the advance of the Muslim upon the Byzantine Kingdom and the transfer of the interest of the Popes to new European powers.
At the very time when the Caliph Omar rallied all the forces of Arabia, not to the Koran, at which most of them laughed when Mohammed died, but to the glorious plan of looting the fabulously rich provinces of ancient Persia and those of the Greek Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople and his monarch rent the Empire by proclaiming that all good Christians must adopt the new heresy. The Patriarch Sergius explained to Pope Honorius (625-638) how they had now discovered the correct formula about Christ. As described in the Pontifical Chronicle, the churches of Rome under Honorius were blessed with immense enrichment, at a time when Italy was sinking deeper into poverty. The new shower of gold and silver, however, had its dangers. At the death of Honorius in 638 the See remained vacant for a long time, and one day the officer in command of the Greek garrison pointed out to his men that it seemed wrong that the churches should be so rich while there was no pay available for soldiers. They sent to Ravenna for the greedy Exarch (representative of Constantinople), and they looted the churches and divided the profits.
The new Pope, Severinus (640), lasted a few months, and his successor, John IV (640-642), boldly anathematized the heretics of the East. He had little to lose, for the Emperor Heraclius, broken by the victories of the Arabs in the field and the domestic difficulties which his incestuous marriage with a niece had created, was near death. A sequel of these troubles, however, gave Rome a singular experience. For a few years after the death of the Emperor his widow and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Pyrrhus, who supported her, held their ground against their fierce opponents, but in 642 they fell. The Empress had her tongue, her son his nose, slit by the public executioner two of a dozen forms of mutilation which now became common in East and West and the ex-Patriarch fled to Rome and laid his Monothelite heresy at the feet of the Pope. He was most honourably received and granted a comfortable retreat in Ravenna; where he returned to his heretical vomit, if I may use the ecclesiastical language of the time. Pope Theodorus (642-649) was so moved that he invented a new form of anathema. Into the ink with which he wrote it he poured a few drops of the blood of Christ from his chalice; and all his clergy looked on and approved.
This stern attitude toward the Greeks was maintained by Pope Martin (649-655), who followed, and the new Emperor ordered his Exarch to seize the Pope and send him to Constantinople. Legend says that the Exarch sent a man to stab the Pope at the altar, and that the man was miraculously struck with blindness at the crucial moment. The truth is that the Romans flew to arms, and the Exarch was not very energetic. Soon afterwards a new and more vigorous Exarch came to Rome to execute the Emperor's order. The soldiers found that the Pope had set up his bed before the high altar in St. Peter's, but piety no longer cowered before such superstitions. The Pope, old and ailing, was shipped to Constantinople. There he was contemptuously left lying on deck all day, while crowds stared at him, and he spent three months in prison, Two soldiers had to hold him up when he appeared before the Senate and listened to their gross abuse. His clothes were torn off and, half-naked, an iron ring round his neck, he was dragged through the streets by the public executioner. A few further months in prison and a cruel exile ended his life. His chief supporters lost their tongues and their right hands.
The Romans had elected a Pope in his absence, Eugene (655-657), but he lived only a few months after the death of Martin; and both he and his successor maintained a prudent silence about the number of Christ's wills. In fact, the second of them, Vitalianus (657-672), had an experience which might be called heaping coals of fire upon the head of the wicked Emperor. Constantinople, tired of his crimes and vices, drove him out, and he took ship for Sicily. He would, he announced, desert the ungrateful East and restore the great Empire of Constantine in the West. He passed to Rome, and the Pope gave him a royal reception and many days of entertainment; at the end of which he looted Rome of all its bronze, his Exarch having previously taken the gold and silver, even stripping the gilt-bronze tiles from the roof of the Pantheon. From Sicily, to which he returned, he continued to loot the churches of all Italy until, in 668, his bath-attendant ended his hectic career with an iron soap-dish.
Seven Popes of colourless personality succeeded each other on the throne during the next fifteen years. Pope Adeodatus II (672-676) — Pope Donus (676-678) — Pope Agatho (678-681) — Pope Leo II (682-683) — Pope Benedict II (684-685) — Pope John V (685-686) — Pope Conon (686-687). The Greek heresy came to an end in a new Ecumenical Council, especially when its most famous champion failed to bring life to a corpse which was solemnly laid before the bishops, and friendly relations with the Emperors — every Pope still had a tax to pay to the Greeks after election — were resumed; though eyes, ears, noses, tongues, hands, feet, and any other detachable organs were hacked off every week. In 687, while Pope Conon (686-687) lay dying, Archdeacon Paschal sent word to the Exarch at Ravenna that he would pay him one hundred pounds of gold for election, and the Exarch got him elected. But his opponents elected the Afrchpriest Theodotus, and the rivals held each one half of the Lateran Palace. Others now chose the priest Sergius (687-701), and the Exarch transferred the debt to him, and for a hundred pounds of gold made him Pope.
Paschal was found guilty of magical practices and turned into a monk. Sergius defied the Greek Emperor over some new trouble, and an officer was sent to bring him along the familiar route to Constantinople. We see how the Greek interest is waning when we read that the matter ended with the Pope hiding the imperial officer under his bed to protect him from the Romans. Another revolution in the East postponed the Emperor's vengeance, and Sergius was dead when the Emperor waded back to the throne through a river of blood. He summoned the new Pope, Constantine (708-715), to him, and that Pope, after enjoying a magnificent reception, signed any parchments they cared to put before him, and returned in triumph to Rome: to discover that the Emperor was tainted with heresy and induce the Romans to declare themselves independent of Constantinople and under the rule of the Popes.
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The one-fourth of Europe which the Popes ruled — Italy, Spain, France, and Western Germany — had sunk from the high level of civilization to which the Romans had raised it to a state of semi-barbarism. We are tempted to see this Catholic world as its life is reflected in the eight hundred and fifty letters, often of considerable length, which Gregory I has left. The letters in which Gregory repeatedly denounces the vices and crimes of bishops and abbots are usually ignored. The letters in which he scorns culture and forbids education are misrepresented. The letters from which we gather that this monk-Pope who expects the end of the world has contrived to become in fourteen years the richest land-owner and slave-owner in Europe are not candidly appreciated. And we have already seen how the letters are often in themselves entirely misleading.
We have already referred to the letters in which the Pope showers nauseous compliments upon one of the most vicious and repulsive imperial couples who ever sat upon the golden throne at Constantinople. The reign of Maurice had been comparatively decent, the massacre which ended it was revolting, and the personalities of Phocas and Leontia were disgusting, yet Gregory, who must have been well-informed, would in his letters completely deceive us about these events if we had not the historical record. He wrote similar letters repeatedly to Queen Brunichildis of France. He praised her "devout mind," and said that she was "filled with the piety of heavenly grace." He granted the pallium to a loose Frank bishop who supported her and refused it to a more learned and devout bishop who rebuked her crimes and vices. Yet she was beyond question the most scarlet woman of that scarlet age and country.
Several pages of Lecky's History of European Morals are filled with the most revolting details of torture, murder, adultery, rape, theft, and every species of corruption; and the "worst sovereign," he says, "found flatterers or agents in ecclesiastics." The central figures of this epic of vice and violence are the rival queens Brunichildis and Fredegonde, two of the most vicious women in history; and Gregory finds Brunichildis, from whom he wanted favours, "filled with the piety of heavenly grace."
When we set aside the deceptive accounts which Catholic and some other writers give of Gregory and his work and consider all the facts, we find it difficult to understand the man. This intensely puritanical and austere monk flatters the vilest princes.
This man of simple piety who fills his books with devils, angels, and the most infantile stories of miracles, acquires more than fifteen hundred square miles of estates for the Papacy, with an income of between 300,000 and 400,000 Pounds (well over a million in our values) a year ; and he makes this beginning of the Temporal Power of the Papacy by urging the rich to see that the end of the world is near and it is better to unload their property upon the Church. In his books he is as credulous as a peasant; in his letters he is a business-man of untiring energy and vigilance. He insists strongly upon justice, and he has armies of slaves working his estates. The few phrases, cut out of their context, in which apologists make him disapprove of the institution of slavery are taken from letters in which he merely gives their freedom to a few slaves who have inherited money and have consented to leave it to the Church. And in letter after letter he shows himself irascible,, vindictive, haughty, greedy, and in some ways unscrupulous.
The key to his character is that when he became Pope the official Papal ambition perverted his better qualities. But that is not the point which interests us most. What we ask is whether this strongest and most deeply religious Pope in the first thousand years of the history of the Roman Church rendered a proportionate moral or social service to the race. If we like the answers to such questions given in historical facts, not rhetoric, it is surely simple. Rome, Italy, France, and Western Germany Spain passed to the Arabs sank to a lower depth than ever. Lecky says that the seventh century, which opened with Gregory's pontificate, is the darkest century of the Dark Age. He is wrong; but the fact that Europe was worse in the eighth century, and still worse in the tenth, and that Rome was the foulest city of all in the worst period, is a monumental refutation of the claim that the Popes used their influence for social regeneration.
One reason is clear in the record of Gregory. He used all his energy to secure more wealth and power for the Popes and the Church in the belief that they would use these to make men virtuous. On the contrary, and making every allowance for a good bishop or abbot here and there, the wealth and power themselves corrupted the Church, from the Popes to the monks. If there is one sin that Gregory, in his letters, finds more widespread than any other, it is simony. The better-paid clerical offices were bought and sold in every country, and they attracted the sons of the new "nobility." "Barbarians who had barely abjured Odin," says the French historian Martin, speaking of his own country at this period, "installed themselves with their wives, soldiers, and hunting dogs in the episcopal palaces."
A second important reason for Gregory's failure was his approval of the crass ignorance and illiteracy into which nine-tenths of Europe had now passed. He writes (VI, 54) to Bishop Desiderius of Vienne that he learns he had spies everywhere that the bishop is teaching "grammar" which in the old Roman language means opening an elementary school, and he orders him to desist from so "horrible" an enterprise. It was a tradition in Rome for centuries John of Salisbury learned it there that Gregory burned the only collection of books which remained in Rome from pagan days and had the marble statues which still survived broken up. The conduct of Gregory's successor confirms this. Such men add to the power of the Church, but they help to destroy civilization.
In an age when most of our literature accepts the myth that the greater Popes helped to rebuild civilization in Europe it is necessary to make these observations, but for the reader with any sense of historical proportion they ought to be superfluous. Civilization was not rebuilt in Europe until, after the year 1000, the influence of the Spanish Arabs began to be felt. The social condition sank, with a few temporary and regional recoveries, lower and lower during several centuries. It is especially in Rome that we must look for the result of any beneficent work of the Popes; and it is chiefly in Rome that we find the steady deterioration. We saw how Pope Sabinian, who succeeded Gregory, tried to restore some respect for culture; and he lasted seventeen months. He is accused of greed and of exploiting the people in a time of famine, but the legend that he was killed by Gregory's ghost is more instructive. The better Romans were with Sabinian, but the ignorant mass threatened even his dead body, and it had to be conveyed from the Lateran Palace to St. Peter's across the country outside Rome.
Election of Gregory II (715-731). The Greeks still hold Sicily and South Italy and have an Exarch of diminishing importance at Ravenna in the north. But they need all their resources to check the Arabs in the East, and their corrupt power in Italy is doomed. Rome has declared itself independent and is nervously facing the Lombards who have occupied the north of Italy. The Greeks had, in alliance with the Papacy and in gross disregard of the consequences, summoned the Lombards from the Danube region to Italy to help them to destroy the Goths. In the appalling carnage of the long Gothic war they behaved much as the Indian Allies of the French and English did in America in the eighteenth century. Although they were now, in 715, Catholics (Arians for the most part), they were generally hostile to Rome; and it was from no Papal tuition that the savages of yesterday had become a wellorganized nation with large cities, a respectable code of law, a considerable development of art, and a much higher prosperity than that of Rome.
Once more the Papacy had, as in the days of Theodoric, a chance to use a vigorous nation for the restoration of civilization. At the time at which we have arrived, the Lombards agreed with the Romans in their detestation of the Greek Iconoclasts; and their King Liutprandj one of the best of his race, was a man of high character and a devout Catholic. Hodgkin, the highest authority on them, describes Liutprand as very strict in his regard for chastity — which writers were beginning to call an angelic virtue, since it was so rarely found in humans — justice, and the duties of religion, and eager to found a kingdom like that of Theodoric the Goth. Few will question the truth of Dean Milman's words:
If the Papacy had entered into a confederacy of interests with the Lombard kings and contented itself with spiritual power, by which it might have ruled almost uncontrolled over barbarian monarchs, and with large ecclesiastical possessions without sovereign rights, Italy might again perhaps have been consolidated into a great Kingdom.
The obstacle to the realization of this ideal was not King Liutprand, who, says Hodgkin, "carried compliance with the Papal admonitions to the very verge of weakness and disloyalty to his people." The obstacle was the determination of the Popes to retain secular power over Rome and the provinces which Gregory I had so fatally bequeathed to the Papacy. If the Lombards had been permitted to fuse their people and the Italians in a Kingdom of Italy, the Dark Age would soon have ended in that country and might have closed more speedily in the rest of Europe. They were not permitted because the Popes, whose spiritual supremacy was now unchallenged, were determined to have a secular kingdom of their own in Central Italy; they secured this kingdom, apart from certain extraordinary frauds which they practised, by summoning the Franks to destroy the Lombard civilization; and, while apologists claim that this kingdom was necessary to guard the spiritual independence of the Papacy, it is one of the most notorious of historical facts that it completely corrupted the Papacy and brought upon Italy a long succession of devastating wars.
The evil of the Papal policy betrayed itself at once under Gregory II. The evil of the Papal policy betrayed itself at once under Gregory II. Another blood-drenched revolution in the Byzantine palace had prepared the way for a robust soldier who somehow espoused a sort of Protestant movement which had begun in the Greek Church. We call it Iconoclasm, or a zeal to destroy religious statues, but it meant also a hostility to relics, monks, and other adulterations of the Christian faith. But, when the Greek Emperor tried to enforce his decree in the Exarchate of Ravenna, the Pope instigated a rebellion, hoping to annex the province to his estates. King Liutprand, however, could not tolerate the extension of secular Papal power in the north, and he conquered the distracted province for himself; whereupon the Pope summoned the Greeks to oust the Lombards. At Rome rival parties of pro-Lombards and pro-Greeks appeared, and some of the leading Romans conspired to murder the Pope and were themselves killed by the people. There were plots, skirmishes, and anathemas on all sides, but the trouble ended for the time in an alliance of all Italy against the Greek Iconoclasts, Liutprand came to Rome, knelt for the Pope's blessing, and offered his shining armour and his golden crown at the tomb of the Apostles.
Gregory III (731-741) enjoyed the fruits of this peace for seven or eight years. Owing to the new fervour of all for statues and relics, he was able to decorate and enrich the churches, and he sent one sonorous curse after another over the sea to Constantinople, which his messengers never reached. But the growing power of Liutprand irked him, and he began to intrigue among the vassals of the Lombard King. One of the chief weaknesses of the Lombard State was that it was a federation of strong duchies which were always prone to chafe against the monarchical bond. When the Pope tried to exploit this weakness, Liutprand unleashed his troops once more, and it seemed possible that he would take Rome itself. One of the rebel dukes had taken refuge in Rome and had received aid from the Pope in his attempt to recover his duchy. No help could now be expected from Greece. The Popes must find another "protector".
From a much earlier period they had occasionally concluded that the Franks, the most powerful of the Teutonic peoples — it is, of course, a polite fiction that the French people are a "Latin nation" — were the most suitable. In the latter part of the sixth and during the seventh century these Franks, who were still raw barbarians, ready to respond to any appeal to fight and loot, had several times invaded Italy at the invitation of the Popes, and had helped in the devastation and impoverishment of the country. Now, after 732, their fame spread throughout Christendom. The Arabs had, in the extraordinary energy of their first expansion, marched along the entire northern coast of Africa, crossed to Spain, and with a relatively small force wrested it from the Visigoths. They had then swept north of the Pyrenees and were pouring over France when they were defeated and driven back to Spain by the Franks under Charles Martel. Very probably Gregory III had in mind an appeal to Charles when he broke the peace by assisting the rebels against the Lombard King. However that may be, he now sent him an offer of the title of Consul of Rome with rich presents that included the golden keys of the Tomb of St. Peter and a few filings from what were fraudulently alleged to be the chains which had fettered Peter in prison.
Charles Martel shines in our history-classes and text-books today as the saviour of the faith and the champion of Christendom, but to the more devout Frankish clergy and monks of his time he was "Judas" and "Anti-Christ." The monkish chronicles curse him luridly. His armies looted churches and monasteries and violated nunneries as freely as did the Muslims and he was one of the worst corruptors of the bishoprics. Liutprand, moreover, was his close ally and friend. The Lombard King had fought with him at the head of his army against the Arabs, and had then, in the old Teutonic fashion, adopted his son Pepin. However, both Charles and the Pope died soon afterwards, and the new Pope, Zachary, went in solemn procession to Liutprand's camp and, after impressive religious ceremonies and a banquet which seems to have made an even deeper impression in history, they signed a twenty-years' peace. Unfortunately, Liutprand died soon afterwards, and the first phase of the final tragedy opened.
Charles Martel, the ruthless robber-warrior who figures in our history as the Saviour of European civilization from the hordes of the Infidel, had not been King of the Franks. The last descendant of the ancient line of kings lingered, spineless and half-witted, in the palace, and its Mayor (Major Officer) exercised the royal power. This power Charles had divided between his two sons, but the elder experienced a religious conversion at Rome, abdicated, and entered an Italian monastery. Pepin, the younger son, then sent two clerics to ask the Pope whether, seeing that he held the royal power, it would be improper of him to seize the crown. Pope Zachary replied that Pepin not only might but must take the crown from the King; and from that day his descendants would be reminded every few years that they owed the crown to "the Blessed Peter."
Whether the Pope had inspired the whole procedure is not known — even our Cambridge Medieval History leaves this open — but Pepin had been educated by the monks of the Abbey of St.Denis, and he was extremely receptive. They do not seem to have taught him to read and write, but they, we shall see, gave him a remarkable degree of credulity. He was deeply impressed when the Pope came to France to crown him and laid sonorous curses upon any who should ever dare to rebel against Pepin or his God-appointed descendants. Thus did the Pope create that divine right of kings which would inspire many wars and encourage revolting greeds, and would in the end prove a most costly obstacle to social and political progress.
Stephen II (1 month) — Stephen III (752-757)
In the meantime the course of Lombard history was approaching the final disastrous conflict. Liutprand's elder son was a quiet and devout man, and when his soldiers compelled him to attack, the Pope so moved or intimidated him that he abdicated. The younger brother, Aistulph, who replaced him was, on the contrary, a fiery and ambitious soldier and a man who scorned priestly dictation. When his troops spread over Italy as far as Rome, Pope Stephen went out to essay on him the legendary power of the pontifical eye, but it was an ignominious failure. When his men overran the Vatican suburb — it was still outside the walls — and looted its churches, he himself collected the bodies of dead saints from the churches and cemeteries, forget that relics were then very valuable loot. He had sufficient superstition to shrink from looting St. Peter's, but otherwise he and his men burned churches as lightheartedly as farms, and left the nunneries everywhere in a painful condition.
The Pope went to France to lay before Pepin, who was very reluctant to interfere, a tearful account of these outrages. Aistulph withdrew Pepin's monk-brother from his monastery and sent him to thwart the Pope's mission, but the Pope got the luckless man arrested as a vagabond monk and incarcerated in a French monastery, in which he conveniently died shortly afterwards. The Pope then admonished Pepin "by all the divine mysteries and the day of judgment" to come to Italy and, without shedding more blood than he could help, recover its territory for the Papacy. Aistulph retired when the Franks appeared in Italy, but he took the field as gaily as ever when they returned to France. He besieged Rome, and even its priests and abbots now buckled on swords and mounted the walls. We have four hysterical appeals which the Pope sent to Pepin in the course of the year 755, and the Frank monarch took not the least notice of either the cries of anguish or the discreet threats of divine vengeance.
Stephen then resorted to a trick which strains the resources of the modern apologist. The Popes had for a long time found it profitable to represent to such monarchs as Pepin that the provinces they claimed were the property of "the Blessed Peter," so that they could seem unselfish in their efforts to recover them. Stephen sent to Pepin a letter which pretended to have been written in heaven by Peter himself and miraculously conveyed to earth! It threatened the King that he might give up all hope of entering heaven unless he started at once for Italy. Apologists like Mann airily say that, of course, the Pope did not mean this to be taken as a miraculous letter, and that there is no evidence that Pepin regarded it as such. They, however, dare not translate any part of the letter for their readers, and they conceal the fact that Pepin, who had resisted really poignant human appeals for more than a year (from the end of 754 to the spring of 756), hurried to Italy as soon as he received the Peter letter.
The document, which is published in the Migne collection of Stephen's letters, opens without a word of the customary address of a Pope to a monarch. It is long but I need give only a few sentences to show that the ignorant and credulous King was to understand that it had not been written by the Pope:
I, Peter the Apostle, of whom you are adopted sons, admonish you to defend the city of Rome, the people committed to my charge, and the church in which my body lies, from the hands of enemies and the contamination of foreign nations. . . . Be very sure that I am alive in your presence, as if in the flesh. . . . I, Peter the Apostle, present among you alive, as if in the flesh. . . . Our Lady, the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, joins with me in laying this obligation, upon you. . . . It is I who, by the grace of God, gave you victory over your enemies. . . . If you delay to deliver the Holy Apostolic Church of God, committed to me, and its bishop, know that by the authority of the Blessed Trinity and in virtue of my apostolate you are, for transgressing my command, shut out from the Kingdom of God and life eternal.
Pepin, who had for more than a year completely ignored appeals which in their statements of facts were far more impressive than this, now went at once to Italy and recovered the Papal territory. Aistulph died soon afterwards, and, as a price of his mediation between the quarrelling heirs to his power, the Pope secured some further territory.
The Papacy was now richer than it had been even in the days of Gregory I, and the baneful consequences of this enrichment at once became apparent. When Pope Paul I (757-767), the successor of Stephen, lay upon his deathbed in the year 767, only ten years after the recovery of the temporal dominions, Rome was startled by the arrival of a troop of soldiers and armed peasants with Toto, Duke of Nepi, and his three brothers riding at the head. Toto represents one class of the new "nobility" of Papal Rome: the nobles with large estates in the country and mansions in the city. A second class of what were called nobles held the highest offices in the city and in the Papal Court. The Italian bandit of the last century, who mixed prayers and murders without the least feeling of incongruity, had exactly the same kind of mind and religion. The requirements of his faith were, he felt, that he should implicitly believe whatever the priests taught him and should attend certain obligatory services, in a language which he could not understand, in church. This was for the overwhelming majority in the Middle Ages the kind of religion which the Roman Church required, and vice and violence were universal.
Certainly Toto and his brothers went beyond the common licence of the time, though we shall find the highest Papal officials not far removed from them. They seized a bishop who was in Rome when the Pope died, and compelled him to consecrate one of the four brothers, Constantine (Anti-pope), to succeed Paul. Constantine occupied the Lateran Palace during thirteen months and discharged the usual functions of a Pope, ordaining priests and consecrating bishops, while his brothers shared the rich revenues of the new Papal Kingdom. Then two of the leading officials of the Papal Court, Christopher and his son Sergius, declared that they had a vocation to the monastic life and begged permission to leave Rome and bury themselves in a provincial monastery. They were suspected, but they repeated on solemn oath to the Pope that this was their sole intention, and they were allowed to go. They fled to the Lombards, came back with Lombard troops, and made a bloody end of Toto and his supporters. The Romans, distrusting them, hastily elected a monk, but Christopher and Sergius drove him out and made them elect another, "a chaste and holy monk" who had worked under them for some years. He became Pope Stephen IV.
Pope Stephen IV (767-772).
The appalling events which followed are described at length by the Roman Librarian and Secretary, Anastasius, who lived soon afterwards and was a very loyal Papalist. The followers of Christopher and Sergius, who had returned to their posts in the Lateran, seized the bishop whom Toto had compelled to consecrate his brother, cut out his eyes and his tongue, and left him to die of hunger and thirst in a monastery. They cut out the eyes of a surviving brother of the late Pope and imprisoned him also in a monastery. Constantine himself they first put in a woman's saddle on horseback, his feet heavily weighted, and dragged round Rome. On the following morning he was brought before the bishop and clergy for the ceremony of degradation and was sentenced to imprisonment in a monastery. But the partisans of the new Pope were dissatisfied. They brought him from the monastery, cut out his eyes, and left him lying on the street. Supporters of his who fled to the churches were dragged out and deprived of their tongues and eyes, Pope Stephen then sent Sergius to give a diplomatic report to King Pepin, and, as that monarch had died, he reported to his sons, Charles (the future Charlemagne) and Carloman. They sent French bishops to Rome, and Constantine was brought before a synod of these and the Italian bishops; and with their own consecrated fists they fell upon him when he attempted to defend himself.
The "chaste and holy monk," as Anastasius calls Pope Stephen, who had presided at these orgies, found his patrons, Christopher and Sergius, arrogant and avaricious after their triumph, and he turned to the Lombards, who also seem to have gained nothing by supplying troops to the victorious nobles. The situation again provokes a smile at the legend that the Popes civilized the barbarians. Pavia, the Lombard capital, was now the most highly civilized city in Europe: Rome, it will surely be admitted, had sunk to the level of barbarism. The Pope sent his Chamberlain, Paul Afiarta, to Pavia, where the Lombard King, Didier (or Desiderius), now ruled. The story is at this point obviously manipulated by the Roman chronicler in order to defend the character of his "chaste and holy monk," but it is futile of modern apologists to try to take advantage of this. For it is plainly stated in the official Pontifical Chronicle that Stephen's successor Hadrian, the most religious and most important Pope since Gregory I, told the Lombard envoys that Stephen himself "caused the eyes of Christopher and Sergius to be cut out" because Didier promised the return of certain territories to the Papacy if they were removed.
Afiarta returned to Rome from his secret mission, and shortly afterwards King Didier settled in the Vatican district, outside the walls, with a body of troops. He came, Rome was told, as a pilgrim to St. Peter's, and the Pope went from the city to confer with him. Afiarta's men set a rumour current in Rome that Christopher and Sergius were traitors to the city, and that the Pope was a prisoner of the Lombards. A hostile crowd gathered about the Lateran, and Christopher and Sergius fled secretly to join the Pope in St. Peter's. Telling them that they might be able to save themselves by becoming monks, the Pope deserted them and returned to the Lateran; whereupon Afiarta's men dragged them out of St. Peter's and cut out their eyes. Christopher died of the savage mutilation. Sergius was taken to a monastery, beaten, half-strangled with a rope, and, it is said, buried before he died.
We have thus a repulsive exposure of the character of every class in Rome in the eighth century; and we shall find them sink still lower. Nobles like Christopher, who held the most profitable offices in the Papal Court as well as the city and army, seem to have been admitted to the lower orders of the clergy. This would not prevent them from marrying and living as laymen. The whole class was clearly corrupt and brutal, the people supported every act of savagery, and the Pope was callous and unscrupulous.
We have a further proof that Stephen, however chaste he may have been, had his full share of the pontifical spirit which shrank from no means to recover and secure the rich temporal domains of the Papacy. The sons of Pepin, Carloman and Charles, were both married, but the Lombard King Didier proposed that one of them should put away his wife and marry Didier's daughter Hermingard. The Pope heard this, and he not only composed a letter to Carloman and Charles which exhibits the art of anathema at its ripest, but he laid the letter upon the Tomb of the Apostle and took the Communion over if. The anger it vents is, however, not at the proposal that a Christian monarch should put away his wife, but that he should for a moment entertain the idea of an alliance with an enemy of the Papacy: the very man with whom the Pope had allied himself in getting rid of Christopher and Sergius. Charles (Charlemagne), who throughout life disdained Church laws about sex and marriage, smiled at the Pope's anathemas and married the Lombard. But at this juncture Stephen died, and we have to see how the greatest and holiest Pope since Gregory I consolidated the Temporal Power, duping Charlemagne himself by the use of one of the most famous forgeries in history.
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Hadrian I (772-795) was, in the Catholic phrase, one of "the best Popes." It illustrates again the historical truth that these did far more harm to the interests of the race than the more numerous vicious Popes. Hadrian, we are told, came of a "noble" Roman family, received the education of boys of his class, and, on entering the clergy, was conspicuous for the piety and austerity of his life. We have already seen something of the character of the Roman "nobility," and shall see more; while the poor Latin, not free even from grammatical errors, of the Pope's letters shows to what level education had fallen in Rome. That he was deeply religious no one questions,, yet he was one of the line of virtuous Popes who consecrated the maxim that the end justifies the means; and the end which he sought above all others was the Temporal Power. Of his fifty-five extant letters no less than forty-five are querulous and unpleasant appeals to Charlemagne, who was plainly disgusted, about his possessions. Yet few non-Catholic historians would dissent from the terms in which Dean Milman comments on them at the close of the second volume of his History of Latin Christianity:
Rome, jealous of all temporal sovereignty but its own, yielded up, or rather made, Italy a battlefield of the Transalpine and the stranger, and at the same time so secularized her own spiritual supremacy as to confound altogether the priest and the politician, to degrade absolutely and almost irrevocably the Kingdom of Christ into a Kingdom of this world.
Further and for this there is not the excuse of pious zeal it is not disputed that Hadrian introduced into the Papal Court the evil of nepotism, (favoritism to family and friends) which was the second chief cause of its corruption; and we shall see that the nephews whom he promoted to high office and wealth were brutal and unscrupulous. As in the case of Gregory I and later "great Popes," what I call the official pontifical ambition deformed whatever virtues he possessed.
After his visit to Italy Charlemagne was stimulated by the Lombard example to try to introduce civilization into his Prankish kingdom, which was in almost as disorderly a condition as we found it in the sixth and seventh centuries. He made serious attempts to reform the appalling morals of his clergy and monks, yet throughout his life he himself took not the slightest notice of the Christian code. He had five wives in succession, a large number of mistresses (four at one time are known), and at least twenty natural children. In his campaign to "convert" the Saxons he perpetrated all the barbarities of his age, and he cut or burned out the eyes of conspirators. All historians now admit that the value of his work has been greatly exaggerated, and that much of it was harmful to social interests. His chief modern biographer, H. W. G. Davis, who is more lenient than critical, admits that he "built no great cities and left no enduring monument of his presence; nor did he, like the Greek, enrich the worlds of art, of literature, or of science."
It is necessary to premise these statements, since history, apart from the little-read works of our experts, is so taught today that the names of Charles Martel, Charlemagne, and Hadrian are supposed to stand out luminously in a Dark Age, whereas at the time it was the civilization of the Lombards, the art and culture of Pavia, Milan, Verona, and other fine cities, which commanded the respect of Europe. All Charlemagne's early teachers were Lombards.
To its high social and human value the Popes were so blind that Hadrian's predecessor Stephen IV had, in his letters, called the Lombards "lepers" and "barbarians." "May they be grilled in everlasting hell with the devil and all his angels," he wrote. Hadrian, whose Latin must have amused the learned teachers in the Lombard colleges, was equally blind to the interests of civilization. Shortly before his accession Charlemagne had brutally and wantonly divorced the refined Lombard princess he had married and replaced her by a robustly handsome German girl. King Didier was, therefore, well disposed for an alliance with the Papacy, and he opened negotiations. During the course of these, Charlemagne's elder brother and co-ruler died. His son was his legitimate heir, but Charlemagne seized his inheritance and compelled the widow and her children to fly to Lombardy. When Hadrian refused to make any protest against this violation of the rights of the widow and her son, Didier began again to harass the Papal provinces.
At the Pope's first appeal for help, Charlemagne offered Didier a large sum of money to withdraw his troops and, apparently, to deliver to him Carloman's widow and children. Didier refused, and the Frank army crossed the Alps and, helped by the Pope's secret agents in the Lombard towns, slowly conquered Italy. Holy week occurred during the campaign, and Charlemagne went to spend it in Rome. In silver-edged tunic and blue mantle the blond giant of at least six and a half feet tall, walked the last mile afoot, and he kissed each step of St. Peter's church before he knelt for the Pope's blessing. Every artifice was used to impress the ignorant King. The business conference with him was staged before the awe-inspiring Tomb of St. Peter, and he must have been reduced to the last degree of religious docility in the presence of what he believed to be the remains of the Prince of the Apostles.
The Pontifical Chronicle relates that two copies of a treaty were signed, and the Pope's copy was solemnly placed inside the Tomb of the Apostle; and in describing the territories which Charlemagne assigned to the Papacy in this treaty it includes the greater part of Italy, or all of it except Lombardy in the north and the Greek province in the south. But, apart from the fact that Charlemagne could not write until long afterwards and it is doubtful if he could read, we are told that this copy of the most important treaty a Pope ever signed, entrusted to the most sacred receptacle in Christendom, has been "lost"; and no copy was preserved in France. All that we can say with confidence is that Charlemagne confirmed his father's gift of territory, with the addition of one province.
But there is a more astonishing fraud. During the pontificate of Hadrian certain documents which purported to supply a legal basis for the Papal claim appeared for the first time, and it is the general opinion of historians that the Pope's officers fabricated them in order to forestall any ambition of the Frank to conquer Italy for himself. The most important of these documents is known as the Donation of Constantine, and it is so blatant a forgery that not even the most desperate apologist will break a lance in its defence. It is a quite ridiculous claim that Constantine, when he was driven from Rome, handed over Italy to the Papacy. In a letter to Charlemagne four years later Hadrian says:
Just as in the time of the Blessed Sylvester, Bishop of Rome, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church was elevated and exalted by the most pious Emperor Constantine the Great, of holy memory, and he deigned to bestow upon it power in these western regions.
This is beyond question a reference to the Donation, and it assumes that Charlemagne is acquainted with it. The Temporal Power of the Popes was based upon a lie. There seem to have been contemporary prelates who recognized and resented the lie. As soon as Charlemagne left Italy, the Archbishop of Ravenna expelled the judges and officers who were sent by the Pope and instructed the entire province — the earlier Exarchate of the Greeks, to which Rome had no title whatever — that he was its ruler. Charlemagne received the Pope's first acrid appeal, but it was not until much later that he compelled the archbishop to yield; for which the Pope rewarded him with valuable marbles and mosaics which he stripped from the Ravenna palace.
Next a son-in-law of King Didier (whom Charlemagne had compelled to enter a monastery) organized a Lombard League against the Pope and tried to draw the Greeks into the alliance. Charlemagne had to come again to Italy to suppress the revolt. In the following year a son of Didier succeeded in getting the help of the Greeks, and there was a widespread rebellion against the rule of the Pope. To the Pope's appeal Charlemagne angrily replied that he was busy, and, to the joy of the Lombards, he committed what the Pope tearfully described as the "unprecedented act" of arresting a Papal Legate for insolence. The trouble was, however, composed by an alliance of Charlemagne with the Greek Empress Irene, the lady who would a few years later cut out the eyes of the son whom she now proposed to wed to Charlemagne's daughter. Hadrian did not live to hear of this ghastly outrage, but his successor Leo III flattered "the most Pious Irene," and Charlemagne asked her hand in marriage. It may be necessary to assure the reader that this vile act of the Empress Irene, from whom so many girls still derive their name, is not in dispute. She was as ruthless and unscrupulous as Theodora of the Brothel.
Hadrian never secured the whole of the territory which he claimed, but he had at least the revenues of nearly half of Italy, since Charlemagne had been persuaded to be content with a vague title which implied only the duty to fight for the Pope's possessions. Not less injurious was the Pope's complete indifference to the illiteracy of more than ninety-percent, of the people and the really gross ignorance of the literate minority. Didier had, like Theodoric the Goth, left behind him an accomplished daughter who was eager to develop and protect the high culture of the Lombard cities, where there were elegant and learned writers and colleges of literature, dialectics, and law. Yet thirty years later we shall find the Emperor Lothar, the new ruler of the Lombard provinces, complaining that "teaching is extinct in all places." Rome had learned from them only the decorative arts — mosaic, tapestry, music, metal-work, etc. — which served to adorn the churches, and these certainly flourished now that the veins of the city were once more flushed with gold. But there was not the least attempt to correct the ignorance which was the chief cause of the general degradation of character.
The doors, and even part of the floor, of St. Peter's were plated with sheets of silver. Massive plates of gold covered the altars, which bore large statues of solid gold and silver. An immense silver chandelier, with 1345 separate lamps, hung from the ceiling and lit all these new splendours and the purple hangings, the tapestries, the mosaics, the rich vestments, and sacred vessels and ornaments, but there was no corresponding intellectual revival. "Homer, Vergil, and Horace," says Milman, "were better known at the Frankish Court than in Rome."
The Empress Irene holds her high place in the calendar of the Greek Church, in spite of the murders and mutilations she ordered, because she made an end of the Iconoclast heresy and restored the use of images. Hadrian dreamed of bringing the Greek Church at last under Roman control when he received an invitation from her to preside at an Ecumenical Council of eastern and western prelates. There was, of course, never any question of submission, but he might have restored friendly relations if he had not, in his obsession about the Papal possessions, at once complained that certain territories held by the Greeks must be restored to the Roman Church. This annoyed the Greeks, and, though his Legates presided at the Council, they were prevented from reading part of the Pope's letter, and the Greeks drifted back into a mood of cold disdain which would presently end in a violent and final separation.
These same events led to a quarrel with Charlemagne in the course of which he denounced the Roman Church as at least semi-heretical. The worship (which in Catholic teaching is distinguished from adoration) of statues had already revealed its dangers, and the Frank bishops attempted to restrain it. Charlemagne himself became interested in the question, and he gave his name to a treatise (the Caroline Books) on the subject which his theologians composed. When a copy of this reached Rome, Hadrian was deeply mortified to find that it strongly condemned the practice of his Church. Hadrian was in a painful dilemma. His letter to Charlemagne had to be temperate, or the Papal States would lose their protector, but Charlemagne took no notice, and his bishops, meeting in synod, endorsed the doctrine of the Caroline Books and condemned both the Greek and the Roman practice. This humiliating experience and the knowledge of his failure in the East brought to a close, in 795, the long and strenuous pontificate of Hadrian I. After the death of Hadrian the Papal Court and the Roman nobles reverted to the savagery of the days of Stephen IV, and for this the misconduct of Hadrian himself was largely responsible. Whether or no we regard pious zeal as a sound excuse for Hadrian's use of fraud and his insatiable greed for territory, it does not in the least condone his promotion of nephews whose vile character cannot possibly have been hidden from him.
Leo III (795-816)
These nephews of Hadrian, Paschalis and Campulus, belonged, like Hadrian himself, to what was regarded as the leading family of the Roman nobility. They were specially trained in the Lateran school and were promoted to the highest offices in the Papal service. Harsh, domineering, and greedy, they were generally disliked outside their own circle, and when Hadrian died the electors chose Leo III, who was not friendly to them, before they had time to act. Leo hastened to send the golden keys of the Tomb of St. Peter to Charlemagne and asked him to appoint a representative at the Papal Court. He sent a German abbot, and doubtless this man's presence helped to check Paschalis and Campulus, who remained in office, for several years. But the nobles saw with increasing anger how the more lucrative posts were kept in the hands of the clergy, and in the year 799 they concerted an appalling plot.
On the Feast of St. Mark, April 25, when the spring is well advanced in Central Italy, it was customary to have an imposing religious procession through the streets, the Pope riding on horseback amid his higher clergy and the nobles. Paschalis and Campulus rode with the Pope, but they had posted a body of armed men in a monastery on the route, and these fell upon the procession with drawn swords. They dragged the Pope from his horse and began in the street to cut out his eyes and tongue. The correct reading of the best contemporary account, (Abbot Eginhard's Life of Charlemagne — in the Migne Collection, he was Charlemagne's secretary), seems to be that, while most of the nobles were in the plot, the people took the Pope's side and drove off the assassins before they could complete the horrid mutilation. The nobles then seem to have rallied, for Paschalis and Campulus returned to the spot where the Pope lay bleeding on the street, dragged him into the monastery, and beat him severely. At night, however, while fighting and looting occupied the combatants, the Pope's Chamberlain forced his way with a few men into the monastery. They lowered the Pope from the walls with ropes and took him to St. Peter's; and the Duke of Spoleto, hastily summoned to Rome with a troop of horse, conveyed him to his capital.
Charlemagne refused to come to Rome, but he had the Pope brought to him at Paderborn, and seems to have accepted his story and sent him back to Rome under protection. He soon, however, received from the Roman nobles an indictment of Leo which, like so many indictments of Popes by their subjects, has "not been preserved." From a letter of Alcuin we learn that it "impeached the Pope's morals," and we know that it charged him with gross unfairness in the administration of the Papal finances. The Emperor sent ten prelates and nobles of high rank to watch the trial of the Pope at Rome, but again the proceedings of the trial have been "lost." It seems that the bishops left the final decision to the Emperor, who was to come to Rome for the Christmas ceremonies of the year 800. On December 1 Charlemagne, now in ancient Roman dress, sat in the sanctuary of St. Peter's surrounded by a colourful throng of Frank and Roman prelates, abbots, and nobles, while the people and the soldiers filled the body of the church. He decided that the charge was not proved — we shall see later that the charge of corrupt administration was certainly sound — and he condemned Paschalis and Campulus to death; though, to conciliate the nobility, the Pope persuaded him to change the sentence to exile. The Pope solemnly swore on the Gospels that he was not guilty, and the affair was closed.
At the end of the Mass on Christmas Day the Pope dramatically produced a crown and a purple mantle and made Charlemagne Roman Emperor. Most of the chroniclers describe the event as filling the great congregation with surprise and then wild rejoicing, and some historians believe that the Pope, secretly informed that the Frank intended himself to restore the old Empire, forestalled him by making the dignity a gift of the Papacy. The best witness, Eginhard, Charlemagne's secretary, says that the Emperor was annoyed, and declared that he would not have attended the ceremony if he had known the Pope's design.
Whatever be the true explanation, the historians who describe the event as a notable step in the restoration of civilization in Europe are again false to the historical facts. Gregorovius, the leading authority on the history of medieval Rome, says at this point:
The whole history of the human race affords no example of a struggle of such long duration, or one so unchanged in motive, as the struggle of the Romans and Italians against the Temporal Power of the Popes, whose kingdom ought not to have been of this world.
We have seen the beginning of the evil, and we shall find the Papacy sinking to a lower level than ever. And when the struggle for the imperial purple was added to this strife over the Papal States, the danger to civilization in so violent a world was immeasurably increased. It is one of the most notorious facts of the history of the ninth century that after the death of Charlemagne the new Empire was rent and degraded by sordid quarrels, the Church was deeply corrupted, the entire country thoroughly demoralized; and it is the most notorious fact of the tenth century that the Papacy sank, and remained, so low that distinguished Catholic historians have called the period "The Reign of the Whores."
Leo used the vast wealth which now poured into Rome for building and enriching churches and monasteries. As long as Charlemagne lived, immense wealth came to Rome from France and Germany; and England and other countries began to send a large annual sum which was called Peter's Pence. At this time, too, pilgrimages to the Roman churches and their priceless relics multiplied, to the great profit of the Papal treasury. The Pope's dominions were tranquil and prosperous under the protection of the Frank and sent in rich revenues. It was still not enough for the Pope's plans, and he laid excessive taxes upon the richer Romans and confiscated their estates as soon as they vented their anger. When Charlemagne died in 814, two years before Pope Leo, the nobles plotted to murder the Pope, and, when Leo crushed the revolt with a truculence which scandalized the new Emperor, Louis the Pious, they passed to the country and raised large armed forces which burned the Pope's farms and threatened Rome itself.
The next Pope, Stephen (816-817), was more conciliatory, but he lasted little more than a year. Pope Paschal I, (817-821), then entered upon his stormy pontificate. The Emperor Louis had made his eldest son, Lothar, King of Italy, and Lothar was no docile son of the Church. When he decided against the Pope, who had claimed a rich abbey, the Roman nobles were encouraged to rebel once more, and the revolt was crushed with more than the usual severity. Two of the highest officials of the Papal Court and a number of other distinguished nobles and clerics were blinded and then beheaded in the Pope's palace.
"There were some," says Eginhard, "who said that this was done by the command or advice of Pope Paschal." Few historians doubt it. Lothar sent judges to Rome to ascertain the truth, and the Pope refused to be examined by them. His explanation strengthened the suspicion of his guilt. There had been no murders, he said, but just a few executions of traitors; and he was so little believed when he went through the comedy of "purging" himself by a solemn oath of his innocence that after his death in the following year the Romans refused to have him buried in St. Peter's.
The death of Paschal in 821 stimulated the party of the nobles to make a supreme effort. The Emperor Louis and his son Lothar, King of Italy, were disposed to check the excessive Papal pretensions and support the nobles, while most of the clergy and the ignorant mass of the people resented the interference of the Frank monarchs. There were thus bitterly hostile factions, the Imperialists and the Papalists, but the Imperialists seem to have carried the election without the murderous conflicts which now occurred so frequently and secured a Pope, Eugenius II (822-827), who was favourable to them. The apologist who tells his readers how in 826 Eugenius ordered all the bishops in Italy to open schools for teaching "the liberal arts" as well as religion does not explain that Rome had for a short time been reformed by the King of Italy, nor that a later Pope admits that no teachers of the liberal arts — which at that time meant merely Latin grammar and a study of the half-dozen classical works which had survived the wreck of the ancient literature — were available. In the previous year, 825, King Lothar had issued a decree on education, in which he said, possibly with an eye to Rome, that "teaching is, through the neglect and laziness of the authorities, totally extinct in all places." He had, in fact, to open schools of an elementary type in the cities which had been famous for their culture before the Pope had brought upon them the destructive forces of the Franks.
The Pope's call for schools was part of a general scheme of secular, indeed anti-clerical, reform which the nobles and the representatives of King Lothar, who came to Rome, carried out. The gross abuses and the clerical monopoly of lucrative offices which Hadrian and his successors had introduced were severely condemned. Corrupt judges and other civic officials whom they had put in office were discharged. Estates which the Church had confiscated had to be restored to their owners. The entire Papal administration, which was foul with corruption, was reformed, and Lothar forced upon the Papacy a civic constitution, of which he had a copy fastened to the gate of the Vatican house. The temporal dominion of the Pope was recognized, but Legates of the Emperor were to live in Rome and send to him frequent reports on the conduct of the Pope's officials and to ratify all elections. In case of serious differences an appeal might be made to the Emperor as the supreme authority.
Such pages of medieval history as this are ignored by the writers who represent "great Popes" like Hadrian as a fine constructive force, saving what remained of European civilization from complete wreck and leading the nations onward toward recovery. These statements are flagrantly opposed to the historical facts. The "barbarians" were responsible for every serious constructive efforts and the Popes ruined their work. Hadrian destroyed the fine and advancing culture of the Lombard cities, and the theocratic system which he and Charlemagne substituted for it became in less than twenty years repellent with corruption and inefficiency; just as we shall find it in its last phase during the first half of the nineteenth century. Now a Frank monarch, Lothar, only two generations removed from barbarism, stimulated, not by any Papal counsels but by the remains of the anti-Papal Lombard culture, sets out to restore the social ideals which the Popes have destroyed. Lothar was neither a genius nor a man of high character, but he brought back Rome and Italy to the progressive path. Unfortunately, the unsound work of Charlemagne in his own Empire now began to reveal its evil consequences, and the protection of the Franks was withdrawn from Italy, or was fatally weakened, just when a new enemy appeared.