Gregory II: the schism begins

The pontificate of pope Gregory II marked the beginning of the end of the old “Byzantine papacy,” and the start of a new, western-facing papacy. Gregory opposed the Byzantine emperor on new taxes, inaugurated a muscular regional policy to oppose Lombard expansionism, and implacably fought the eastern empire’s policy of Iconoclasm. The popes that succeeded Gregory continued his policies, eventually culminating the coronation of Pepin the Short and the establishment of the ‘Papal States’ that continued until the 20th century. Let’s take a look.

Gregory II (his original name is not known) was born to a noble Roman family in 669. After holding a number of ecclesiastical posts he was elected pope on 19 May 715, and held the papacy until his death on 11 February 731. He is first notable to history for his work with Boniface, the English monk who proselytized among the Germans. During this period the papacy became increasingly concerned with converting German lands.1.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32. Boniface, then named Wynfrith, first worked among the Frisians, then traveled to Rome in 717. Wynfrith impressed Gregory, who renamed him Boniface and sent him to Germany.

Boniface returned to Rome in 722, evidently a man on the rise. Gregory made him bishop of Germany and in December of that year sent him back with a packet of letters of introduction. One letter enjoined all who encountered the new bishop to give their full support.

Hearing, to our great distress, that certain peoples in Germany on the eastern side of the Rhone are wandering in the shadow of death at the instigation of the ancient enemy and, as it were under the form of the Christian faith, are still in slavery to the worship of idols, wile others who have not as yet any knowledge of God an dhave not been cleansed by the water of holy baptism but as pagans to be likened unto the brutes, do not acknowledge their Creator, we have determined to send the bearer of these presents our brother the reverend Bishop Boniface, into that country, for the enlightenment of both classes, to preach the word of the true faith…2.Letters of Boniface, IX, p.20.

Another of the letters is addressed to Charles Martel, who had “shown a religious spirit upon many occasions,” then Mayor of the Palace of the Franks.3.Letters of Boniface, XII, p.23. It does make one wonder if the pope would also remark that Charles had demonstrated a religious aversion on other occasions. Charles, freshly emergent from a civil war that left him in sole control of Neustria and Austrasia, was the perfect patron and protector for Boniface. Gregory had cleverly tied Rome’s emissary to the new power in the west. This theme would continue and grow over the coming decades.

Gregory continued to support and encourage Boniface. The pope wrote two letters to the magnates of Thuringia, an area under loose Frankish authority. In the first, another in the batch penned in December of 722, he congratulated the leaders of Thuringia for stating “that you would rather die than break the faith in Christ you had once accepted.” Also, he advised, Boniface was coming, and that they should “accept obediently” his teachings.4.Letters of Boniface, XI, p.22. Two years later Gregory again wrote to the Thuringians, for evidently Boniface’s teaching was not taking hold. The pope again commended Boniface to the leaders, and instructed them to “[w]orship not idols, neither sacrifice offerings of flesh to them…”5.Letters of Boniface, XVII, p.30.

When stymied with real-world complications, Boniface would write to Gregory for advice on a range of theological issues. Gregory’s answers illustrate not only eighth century doctrine and dogma, but the kinds of controversies that arose in that time and place. Marriage is lawful within the fourth degree; a man whose wife is “unable to fulfill her wifely duty” should remain continent, but “since this is a matter of great difficulty” he can take another wife; children who were given to a monastery cannot marry when they reach age, for “it is an impious thing that the restraints of desire should be relaxed for children offered to God by their parents”; lepers may receive communion, “but they may not take food together with persons in health”; and trying to escape a plague through flight is the height of folly, “for no one can escape from the hand of God.”6.Letters of Boniface, XVIII, p.31-33.

Interestingly enough Gregory’s vita mentions none of these German adventures. The two concerns that most troubled Gregory in Rome were the demands, theological and secular, of the Byzantine empire, and, to a much lesser extent, the continued expansion of the Lombards. Gregory’s great task was to balance these competing forces, without an army of his own.

Leo III, known as the Isaurian, came to power in Constantinople in 717, just a couple of years after Gregory was invested, having forced the abdication of the previous emperor. Naturally some of his first thoughts were around money, and he ordered an increase in taxation throughout the empire, which included Rome and Italy. Gregory defended the Roman people against this new taxation, and in the process accelerated the schism between east and west. In response to this resistance the empire’s representatives in Italy organized actual assassination attempts against Gregory.

In those days on the order of the emperors Paul the patrician who had been exarch was attempting to kill the pontiff for the reason that he was preventing the imposition of tax in the province, strip the churches of their wealth as had been done elsewhere, and ordain someone else in his place.7.Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.16, p.10.

Not long after the demands for new taxation, Leo launched one of the most famous religious disputes in western history, the Iconoclast movement. We won’t go into the details here, but Gregory strenuously opposed Leo’s efforts to regain favor with God by a zealous adherence to the letter of the first commandment.

In the mandates he later sent, the emperor had decreed that no church image of any saint, martyr or angel should be kept, as he declared them all accursed; if the pontiff would agree he would have the emperor’s favour; if he prevented this being carried out as well he would be degraded from his office. So the pious man despised the prince’s profane mandate, and now he armed himself against the emperor as against an enemy, denouncing his heresy and writing that Christians everywhere must guard against the impiety that had arised.8.Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.17, p.11.

Modern scholars agree that it was Leo who made unacceptable demands, and that Gregory resisted across the board. “[I]t is important to note that the plots against Gregory began before the emperor Leo III issued the first of the inconoclast edicts – Gregory’s resistance to Constantinople began on economic, not theological, grounds.”9.Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.14, n.40, p.10.. “As Leo’s efforts to enforce Iconoclasm increased so did Italian opposition, checked only by the pope. …a proposal was made to nominate an emperor and lead him to Constantinople but this Gregory restrained.”10.Llewelyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, p.167.

Gregory’s response to this and other Byzantine demands remained mild, at least according to the author of his life.11.“The author’s loyalties naturally lay with Rome, not with Byzantium or the Lombards, and he stresses Gregory’s efforts to contain Lombard expansion in Italy and his loyalty to the empire, despite imperial plans to have him deposed or murdered.” Liber Pontificalis, life 91, introduction, p.1. For example, Gregory’s letters continued to be dated from the accession of the Byzantine emperor. He could not definitively break with Byzantium, because to do so would leave him at the mercy of the Lombards.12.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.48.

At the time of Gregory’s accession the Lombard kingdom had undergone a period of internal tumult, out of which king Liutprand emerged to rule from 712 – 744. Liutprand was an ally of Charles Martel, but also kept his eye open for opportunities unfolding as Byzantine authority in Italy unraveled. He naturally watched the growing discord between the eastern and western churches with some interest. He was also, however, a Christian, at least on some level.

While Liutprand did gobble up some Byzantine possessions, he also gave back to Rome. North of Rome at the town of Sutri in 728 he gave the town and other possessions to Gregory. This transaction, along with the acquisition of Cumae, south of Rome, with the help of the dukes of Naples and 70 pounds of gold, expanded not only the land, but the idea of the Duchy of Rome. The germ of the Papal States had been born.13.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.26.

Gregory did not face the full array of new forces that were gathering in Europe. The Lombards were not as aggressive, and the Byzantines not as weak. But he was the first pope forced to come to grips with the facts of the new age. He laid the foundation for a new papacy, western-oriented, with powers and lands of its own.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32.
2. Letters of Boniface, IX, p.20.
3. Letters of Boniface, XII, p.23. It does make one wonder if the pope would also remark that Charles had demonstrated a religious aversion on other occasions.
4. Letters of Boniface, XI, p.22.
5. Letters of Boniface, XVII, p.30.
6. Letters of Boniface, XVIII, p.31-33.
7. Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.16, p.10.
8. Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.17, p.11.
9. Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.14, n.40, p.10.
10. Llewelyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, p.167.
11. “The author’s loyalties naturally lay with Rome, not with Byzantium or the Lombards, and he stresses Gregory’s efforts to contain Lombard expansion in Italy and his loyalty to the empire, despite imperial plans to have him deposed or murdered.” Liber Pontificalis, life 91, introduction, p.1.
12. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.48.
13. Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.26.

Santa Maria Antiqua, reborn

Once literally, now figuratively buried in the architectural mass of the Palatine Hill in Rome, lies a little church that is a gem of eighth century artistic expression. Buried in an earthquake in 847, it was rediscovered in 1900 with its frescoes more or less intact. The ensuing century has not been necessarily kind to the structure, with many of the ailments common to historic structures and artworks manifesting themselves. However, the church is a World Heritage Site, and conservators have been at work for decades to restore and protect the paintings. Best of all, particularly for my legions of Italian readers, the church is open now until 11 September, 2016, after undergoing decades of restoration.

Interior of the church

The Palatine Hill is one of the famous seven hills of Rome, and the one where several of the emperors made their residence. During the years of late antiquity, as the empire disintegrated, the Huns approached, and Christianity rose, a small church was created from a former guardroom, out of the walls and foundations of the west slope of the hill.1.Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, p.24.

You approach through an open air atrium, pass through a large glass wall which was recently built, along with the roof, to preserve the structure. The inside of the church is spare, with three arches on either side that create left and right aisles. In front is a stout presbytery, with a semi-circular apse at the pinnacle of the church. The entire structure, except for the marble columns that divide the nave from the aisles, is made of brick.

A: Atrium, B: Presbytery, C: Apse, D: Chapel of Theodotus, E: Chapel of the medical saints, F: Central nave, G: Left aisle, H: Right aisle, I: Temple of Augustus, L: Ramp to Palatine hill, M: Oratory of the 40 martyrs

It is not for the architecture that the Santa Maria Antiqua is famous, but for the frescoes that adorn so many of the walls. There are up to six layers of adornments in some parts of the church, everything from the original Roman mosaics to the final eighth century frescoes from the time of Pope Hadrian I (772 -795). One of the walls near the apse is called the Palimpsest, so-called because a palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used anew. The Palimpsest wall wasn’t scraped clean, but it was used again and again, in seven layers from the fifth to the eighth century. The Superintendent for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome maintains an excellent website about the church (make sure you select the English version). There is a page called “The Stratigraphy of the Palimpsest” that includes a Flash presentation of the wall that illustrates the different layers that are visible.

There are two chapels on either side of the presbytery. To the left is the Chapel of Theodotus, who was the patron of the frescoes, which were painted during the reign of Zacharias (741 – 752). The chapel includes scenes of the patron in front of saints, and panels depicting various martyred saints. Some of the frescoes were detached from the walls for preservation, but are now back on display in the chapel.

The other chapel is smaller, a square chamber entered through small doorways. The Chapel of the Medical Saints is covered with images of saints who healed the sick and injured without the use of medicine. The idea was to provide a space for the sick to pray for healing, surrounded by the inspirational imagery.

Two of the ‘medical saints,’ with Greek inscriptions. This pic also gives a good idea of the state of decay of the images throughout the church.

There are records of the church in the Lives of the Popes. The life of John VII (705 – 707) specifically mentions frescoes. “He adorned with painting the basilica of the holy mother of God which is called Antiqua, and there he built a new ambo, … He provided an excellent gold chalice weighing 20 lb and decorated it with jewels.”2.Book of Pontiffs, bk.88, ch.2, p.86.

There are several mentions of the church in the life of Leo III (795 – 816). Leo’s life is a veritable catalog of all the treasures that he sent to churches in Rome and elsewhere. For the Santa Maria Antiqua he provided “…in the deaconry Antiqua, cross-adorned silk cloths with a fringe.” “…over the high altar a canopy of fine silver weighing 212 lb.” “…silver crown, 13 lb.” “… 4 all-silk crimson veils to cover all four sides, adorned all round with fourfold-woven silk.”3.Liber Pontificalis, bk.98, ch.45 p.200, ch.52 p.203, ch.70 p.209, ch.83 p.219. Needless to say, the chalice nor any of the other treasures have survived.

While this little church will never be mistaken for Chartres or St. Peters, it is a precious jewel of early medieval artistic expression. Go see it if you can.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, p.24.
2. Book of Pontiffs, bk.88, ch.2, p.86.
3. Liber Pontificalis, bk.98, ch.45 p.200, ch.52 p.203, ch.70 p.209, ch.83 p.219.

The war for Aquitaine – final thoughts

It took ten years, two kings of Francia, a duke and a pretender in Aquitaine, multiple betrayals, and numerous scorched earth raids across the countryside, but at last the war for Aquitaine was over.

Perhaps the result was foreordained, given the disparities in resources, organization, and military heritage between Francia and Aquitaine. But this war must have been much more of a match than the Frankish sources let on, for otherwise it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did.

My biggest historigraphical regret is that we have virtually nothing from the Aquitanian side. There are so many questions I would like answers to:

  • Was Waifar surprised by Pepin’s ultimatum? How much did Waifar ever know about the Frankish intentions?
  • Did Waifar have an over-arching strategy of defense? I believe he wanted to maintain heavily armed fortresses, from which he could strike at the Frankish columns, but (according to the Frankish sources) that never happened.
  • What prompted to Waifar to tear down the walls of his fortresses?
  • Did Waifar have the support of his magnates? Or was he merely first among equals, and the counts acted more or less do as they pleased?
  • What did Remistanius have in mind when he first betrayed Waifar, and then betrayed Pepin two years later? Was the whole thing a ploy from the beginning, was Remistanius feeling snubbed by his new king, or did he suffer an attack of conscience?
  • What did Waifar do during the two-year lull in the fighting?
  • What happened to Waifar at the end? Who betrayed him, and why?
  • Finally, who was the mysterious Hunald who appeared in 769? Waifar’s father, son, or someone completely different?

We will never know the answer to any of these questions.

On the Frankish side, it is true that we have the “winner’s story” from the Frankish sources. Professor Bachrach believes that Pepin both had a strategy he had been developing for several years, and that each year’s battles involved some fairly complex tactical deception.1.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.212-242. Was that true, or did Pepin merely act and react as the moment took him?

The sources also portray a fairly monolithic Frankish front during the war, with the notable exceptions of Tassilo and Carloman. Were there other political or military disputes that disrupted the Frankish war effort?Across all of western Europe, what was the economic impact of the war?

The war goes completely unmentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, which is not too surprising, given the Italian-centric focus of those lives. We should note, however, that the pontificate had been a great fan of Eudo, when he was fighting Saracens,2.The classic quote from the life of Gregory II, ch.11, p.8, “as for the three sponges the pontiff had sent them as a blessing the previous year from those provided for use on his own table, at the time the war was beginning Eudes prince of Aquitania had given them to his people to consume in small amounts and of those who had shared in them not one had been injured or killed.” but no doubt threw the Holy See’s support behind a more powerful and important friend in Pepin.

Aquitaine, unlike Saxony or other foes to the east, seems not to have supported a long-simmering rebellion for decades. Once conquered, the region became a part of Francia without further ado. Charlemagne even named his son Louis (known to history as the Pious) as king of Aquitaine in 781, when the lad was just three.

The Basques, who may or may not have been part of the Gascon levies mentioned so frequently during the war, gave Charlemagne one of his bloodiest defeats of his long career, when they ambushed his rearguard during the retreat from Spain in August of 778.

To history the war for Aquitaine merits only the smallest of footnotes. But it must have been a sad and terrible war, when neighbors and former allies fought each other, while, unknowingly, forging France into the state it is today.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, pp.212-242.
2. The classic quote from the life of Gregory II, ch.11, p.8, “as for the three sponges the pontiff had sent them as a blessing the previous year from those provided for use on his own table, at the time the war was beginning Eudes prince of Aquitania had given them to his people to consume in small amounts and of those who had shared in them not one had been injured or killed.”

769: Charlemagne’s first battle

Seldom can it be truly said that a new year heralded a new era, but it is true of the year 769. Charles, son Pepin, known to history as Charles the Great, Charlemagne, had taken the throne only a few months before. Europe would never be the same.1.At that point in time, it is true, he shared rule of Francia with his brother Carloman, but that didn’t last long.

As noted previously Pepin had allocated the kingdom between his two sons. In a nutshell, Pepin got Neustria, and Charles got Austrasia. In a curious move, the old king divided Aquitaine between the two of them. Unfortunately we don’t know if he gave them more guidance regarding the recently conquered province other than “figure it out.”

Fate gave the brothers an immediate opportunity to do just that, as Aquitaine gave up one last death rattle. The Royal Annals report some kind of an insurrection “since Hunald was intent on rousing the whole of Gascony as well as Aquitaine to rebellion.”2.RFA, year 769, p.74. Charles showed the initiative which was to mark the next thirty years of his life. “Of all the wars which Charlemagne waged, the first which he ever undertook was one against Aquitaine, which had been begun by his father but not brought to a proper conclusion.”3.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, bk.5, p.59.Read more…

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. At that point in time, it is true, he shared rule of Francia with his brother Carloman, but that didn’t last long.
2. RFA, year 769, p.74.
3. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, bk.5, p.59.

768: Death of a king, end of a kingdom

A screenwriter would be hard pressed to sell a story ending more cliched than what actually happened in 768. After eight years of almost continuous war King Pepin mops up the last of the Aquitanian resistance, tidying up loose ends in the hinterlands. His forces capture Remistanius, the double-betrayer, and the man’s own former allies hang him in the town square. Then the king organizes a four-column sweep through the countryside to capture lord Waifar, but then receives word that Waifar’s own people have killed him! And then, with Aquitaine crushed and under control, with his wife queen Bertrada at his side, and the world at his feet, he catches a slight fever. His fever continues to worsen as he travels toward home. At the great and beloved monastery of Saint Denis in Paris, he divides the kingdom between his two sons, and breathes his last.

What an ending! I can almost hear the violins. Let’s unpack this eventful and dramatic year piece by piece. … Read more…