THE HISTORY OF EUROPE & THE CHURCH Part three THE IMPERIAL RESTORATION
Keith W Stump
ROME has fallen! The greatest power the world has ever known is trampled in the dust. The Empire that had conquered the world is herself conquered! Italy is overrun by Germanic tribes. Odoacer, a chieftain of the Germanic Heruli, has deposed the boy — monarch Romulus Augustulus. The great city is without an emperor! The long and gradual collapse is now complete. The ancient world is at an end. The Middle Ages have begun. The stage is now set for momentous events — events that will determine the course of history for centuries to come.
Master of Italy
In the East, the old Roman Empire still lives, protected by the almost impregnable walls of Constantinople. There, Zeno sits on the throne of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. In theory, the German Odoacer accepts the overlordship of Emperor Zeno. Zeno considers Italy one of the administrative divisions empire. of his In reality, Constantinople has little power west of the Adriatic. Odoacer holds the administration of Italy firmly in his own hands. He is master of the peninsula. Odoacer perpetuates the Roman form of government, which he admires. He initially encounters little serious opposition from the people of Italy. But Odoacer is an Arian Christian; that is, Christians who follow the teachings of the scholar Arius. (The Italians are Catholics.) The same is true in North Africa. There, the Germanic Vandals have held sway since A.D. 429. The Vandals, too, continue and maintain the Roman system of administration within their kingdom. The Vandals are also Arian Christians. They persecute the Catholics within their realm — often fiercely. The Roman Catholic Church bristles under the feet of the Arian barbarians dominating the West. Since the days of Constantine, the Church had had the wholehearted support of the civil power. Now things have changed radically — for the worst. Something will have to be done about these hated Arian heretics.
Italy's New "King"
In A.D. 476 — the same year Odoacer deposes the last Roman emperor — a young noble named Theodoric becomes leader of the Ostrogoths (East Goths). Theodoric quickly becomes the most powerful of the barbarian kings in southeastern Europe. Zeno, the Eastern emperor, fears the ambitious Theodoric. To prevent the troublesome Ostrogoths from invading his Eastern Empire, Zeno recognizes Theodoric as "king of Italy" in 488. Zeno hopes to appease Theodoric, thereby ridding himself of the Ostrogothic menace. Theodoric immediately leads 100,000 Ostrogoths into Italy to claim his kingdom from Odoacer. By the autumn of 490, Theodoric has captured nearly the entire peninsula. But throughout Italy, military garrisons still hold towns for Odoacer. These bastions must be eliminated!
Though Theodoric is himself attached to the Arian creed, he is supported by the Catholic clergy in Italy. The clergymen feel they will fare better under Theodoric than under Odoacer. Secret orders are sent to the overwhelmingly Catholic citizenry throughout Italy. The Heruli and other soldiers still loyal to Odoacer are to be dealt with once and for all! The secret of the plot is well kept. It is executed precisely on time. The Heruli 'are caught completely off guard. Throughout Italy, Catholic civilians set upon the unsuspecting Heruli at a predetermined hour. At one stroke, the Italian citizenry accomplishes what the Ostrogoths could not. This "sacrificial massacre" (as one contemporary describes it) puts an end to the Heruli as a military power once and for all.
Beaten in the field, Odoacer has taken refuge behind the strong fortifications of Ravenna, north of Rome. There he is besieged nearly three years. Early in 493, Odoacer finally surrenders. Theodoric graciously offers to rule Italy jointly with him. A few days later — on March 5, 493 — Theodoric invites Odoacer to a banquet. Odoacer accepts — with disastrous consequences. As Odoacer enters the banquet hall, two of Theodoric's men suddenly grasp his arms. Others hidden in ambush rush forward with drawn swords. Apparently they had not been told the identity of their intended victim, for when they see Odoacer standing helpless before them they are panic-stricken! The soldiers hesitate. Theodoric himself rushes forward to do the job for them. With one powerful blow of his broadsword, Theodoric splits Odoacer in two from his collarbone to his hip! With this piece of treachery, Theodoric becomes the sole and undisputed master of Rome. He establishes a strong Gothic kingdom in Italy. Theodoric, too, has great respect for Roman civilization, and continues the traditional Roman system of government. But Theodoric and his heirs are Arians. And for this reason, they, too, will have to be uprooted. Theodoric dies in Ravenna on August 30, 526. He has no male issue, so his kingdom is divided among his grandsons. Civil war soon breaks out in Italy — with dire consequences for the Ostrogothic nation.
Meanwhile, Constantinople is growing in importance. As the western part of the Roman Empire had gradually succumbed to the barbarians, the star of the eastern capital had steadily risen. Emperor Constantine had begun building the magnificent new capital of the Roman Empire in A.D. 327. He had called it Nova Roma — "New Rome." It was founded on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. Before Byzantium became New Rome, it had occupied the favored location on the Bosporus for more than 1,000 years. With the fall of Rome, Constantinople and its emperors carryon the traditions of Roman civilization. Emperor Zeno — who had made Theodoric king of Italy — is followed as emperor by Anastasius (491-518). Anastasius is succeeded by Justin (518-527).
Justinian and Theodora
In August 527 — exactly a year after Theodoric died heirless in Ravenna — a new emperor comes to the throne of the Eastern Empire. The childless Justin is succeeded by his nephew and protégé Justinian. He will rule for nearly four decades. Justinian is 45 years old. He possesses great intelligence and boundless energy. He is popularly called "the man who never sleeps." Beside Justinian at the helm of state is his beautiful wife and empress, Theodora. Justinian had married her four years earlier, in 523. Theodora is low born. She is a former actress and dancer. Her father had been a bear trainer at the Hippodrome circus. Vicious rumor declares her to have once been a prostitute. The truth of this charge will be debated for centuries. Despite her past, Theodora becomes a queen in every sense of the word. Her personal morals as empress will never be called into question. For 21 years, until her death from cancer in 548, she will live with Justinian as his faithful spouse and adviser. Theodora is brilliant, brave and wise. Had she been otherwise, Justinian would not have held his throne. And his historic mission — a mission, as we shall see, of the highest significance to the course of history — would never have been realized. Justinian's career is almost ended before it begins. Constantinople is a sports-minded city. Its people are divided in their allegiance to different charioteers. They are called the Greens and the Blues, according to the color of dress of their favorite jockeys.
In January 532, a disturbance breaks out between the two factions. The ringleader of each party is punished. In response, the two rival factions unite in armed revolt against the government. Open violence erupts as the government cracks down on both factions. The city is filled with fire, bloodshed and murder. Thousands are slain in the rioting. The crowd cries out "Nikal" (Greek for "Conquer!") History will thus record the event as the "Nika Riots." Justinian's life stands in jeopardy. He decides to abdicate, and prepares to abandon his capital by ship. But at the last moment he is dissuaded by Empress Theodora. In a bold speech, Theodora turns the tide of her husband's fear. "I will remain, and like the great men of old, regard my throne as a glorious tomb," she declares. Her firm stand arouses new determination in Justinian. He decides to stand his ground. Justinian dispatches Belisarius, his trusted and brilliant general, to the Hippodrome with 3,000 veterans. The riots are decisively suppressed. In one day, Belisarius slaughters 30,000! Justinian's throne is saved. Had the Emperor been toppled, history might have taken a much different course.
Justinian is now in a position to pursue his one burning ambition: the recovery of the Western provinces that his predecessors had lost to the barbarians. His dream is to restore the Roman Empire to its full ancient grandeur — under his own scepter! Justinian sees himself as rightful ruler of the whole Roman world. But Justinian realizes that there cannot be unity of empire without unity of religion. Throughout the Empire — West and East — Christianity is established. But the form of Christianity is not the same everywhere. Quarrels over basic articles of faith tear at the unity of Christendom. Justinian believes that a theological rapprochement will prepare the way for the eventual political reunion of Byzantium and Italy. He views political and ecclesiastical policy as inextricably linked. They are the two major aspects of his envisioned Christian Empire. One of the most divisive religious controversies centers around the old argument about the union of the human and the divine in Jesus Christ. Some believe that Christ had only one nature — a divine one — rather than a combined human and divine nature, as Catholics believe. They are called "Monophysites" believers in one nature. The West — led by the Pope in Rome — rejects the Monophysite doctrine, charging that it overstresses the divine in Christ at the expense of the human. In A.D. 451, the Council of Chalcedon (held in what is now modern Turkey) condemns Monophysitism as heresy, just as the Council of Nicaea had condemned Arianism in 325. But Monophysitism persists. The Eastern Church is torn between Catholic orthodoxy and the Monophysite doctrine. Zeno and his successor Anastasius sympathize with the Monophysites, triggering a schism between Constantinople and Rome. The Monophysites are powerful in the Eastern provinces of Egypt and Syria. The Eastern emperors do not want to endanger their control of these provinces by condemning the doctrine.
Upon the accession of Justin in 518, good relations are renewed with the Papacy. Communion is reestablished with Rome. The Eastern prelates sign a letter of reconciliation proclaiming the decision of Chalcedon as binding on all Christians and stressing the primacy of the Roman See as the final arbiter of what constitutes the faith. The authority of Chalcedon is thus renewed. The Eastern and Western churches are, for a time, reconciled, albeit tenuously. But this does not end the problem. Monophysitism still thrives in many areas. Personally, Justinian is a most zealous supporter of the Council of Chalcedon and the cause of orthodoxy. But he would like to somehow unite the die-hard Monophysites with the Church. He seeks to placate the Monophysites without offending Rome — a difficult task. He will have but slight success. Justinian's efforts are hampered by the sympathies of Empress Theodora. She leans toward the Monophysite position. In 536, Theodora intrigues with Vigilius, a Roman deacon. Succumbing to an impulse of ambition, he agrees to modify Western intransigence toward the Monophysites in exchange for her helping him become Pope. It is said he gives Theodora a secret guarantee that he will use his papal influence to abolish the Council of Chalcedon. The next year, Vigilius is installed as Pope. But Theodora's hopes of manipulating the Roman See are disappointed. Under many opposing pressures, Vigilius vacillates and fails to offer clear concessions to the Monophysites. For years the problem continues to plague the religious world. The situation grows so acute that Justinian is finally prompted to convoke a general church council. In May 553, the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council) opens. It has been called in yet another attempt to reconcile the Monophysites. The issues are complex. The Council finally settles on an interpretation that is technically orthodox but leans a bit toward the Monophysite position. Few are satisfied with this compromise formula. To the Monophysites, the new interpretation is just as unacceptable as the old. Pope Vigilius initially refuses to accept the decrees of the Council. But under pressure he later signs a formal statement (February 554) giving pontifical approbation to the Council's verdict. In return, Justinian grants Vigilius an imperial document known as the Pragmatic Sanction and permits him to return from Constantinople to Rome. Vigilius dies on the way back. A new Pope, Pelagius, is elected — with Justinian's insistence. Justinian's Pragmatic Sanction confirms and increases the Papacy's temporal power, and gives guidelines for regulating civil and ecclesiastical affairs in Rome and Italy. It is issued on August 13, 554. The year 554 will become a decisive date in history for yet another reason — the result of events in the military arena. For the moment, the Papacy is under the Eastern Emperor's thumb. But it is not destined to remain so. Ultimately, Justinian's efforts in the religious sphere prove fruitless. At his death, the Empire will still be badly divided in its religious belief. The unhealed wounds of religious strife between the churches of East and West will continue to fester — coming to a head, as we shall see, in the Great Schism of 1054.
While the aforementioned ecclesiastical maneuverings are underway, events are moving swiftly ahead in the political sphere. The persecuted Catholics in North Africa appeal to Justinian to send troops against their Arian Vandal oppressors. This sparks the short-lived Vandalic Wars. Justinian sends Belisarius — the greatest general of his age — to do the job. In 533-34, imperial armies move against the Vandals. Belisarius makes short work of the barbarians. He receives the submission of the Vandal king Gelimer, and North Africa is reincorporated into the Empire. Phase Two of Justinian's Grand Design follows immediately: the military reconquest of Italy, the heart and mother province of the Western Empire. The Ostrogoths have played into Justinian's hands. In his latter years, Theodoric had begun to persecute the Catholic Italians. Following his death, Ostrogothic cruelty toward non-Arians intensifies. Italians look for a deliverer to uproot Arianism. Justinian now has an excuse for invading Italy. He sees himself as God's agent in destroying the barbarian heretics and winning back the lost provinces of the West. If he succeeds in toppling the barbarian usurper from the Western throne, his dream of restoring the Roman Empire will become reality!
In 535, Belisarius — fresh from victory in North Africa — arrives in Italy to take on the Ostrogoths. Italy is plunged into war. The fighting will continue for nearly two decades. In 540, Belisarius captures Ravenna and announces the end of the war. But the Goths soon regroup under a new king, Totila, and again take the offensive. City after city falls to Totila, including Rome in 546. (Totila holds the last chariot races in Rome's Circus Maximus in 549.) In 549, Belisarius is recalled to Constantinople. In 552, Justinian sends a strong force against Totila under the command of General Narses. Totila is defeated and mortally wounded in the summer of 552. His body is placed at the feet of Justinian in Constantinople. By 554, the Gothic hold is completely broken. The reconquest of the peninsula is complete. Italy is regained! Italy is now firmly in Justinian's hands. His Pragmatic Sanction of 554 (mentioned previously) officially restores the Italian lands taken by the Ostrogoths. Italy is again an integral part of the Empire. Three barbarian Arian kingdoms have been uprooted and swept away! The deadly wound of A.D. 476 is healed! The ancient Roman Empire is revived — restored under the scepter of Justinian. Both "legs" of the Empire — East and West — are now under his personal control. History will memorialize his great achievement as the "Imperial Restoration." It is a milestone In the story of mankind.
Heir of the Caesars
Many territories have been regained. During his reign, Justinian has doubled the Empire's extent! The great Emperor dies on November 14, 565. He has lived 83 years and reigned 38. At his death, his restoration is ready to crumble. The resources of the Empire are not sufficient to maintain those territories that have been recovered. The treasury is empty. The army is scattered and ill paid. Within a century after his death, the Empire will have lost more territory than Justinian had gained! Just three years after his death, the Longobardi, or Lombards — a Germanic tribe — invade and conquer half of Italy. Again the Eastern Empire is deprived of the greater portion of the Italian peninsula. The continuing threat of the Empire's traditional enemy to the east — Persia — further saps Byzantium's strength. And soon, the forces unleashed by Mohammed in Arabia will introduce yet another peril. In the meantime, the Roman court of the East will lose much of its Western character. For these and other reasons, the focus of events will now shift to the West. As the Eastern Empire founders, Papal Rome will turn its eyes toward Western Europe, where the powerful Frankish kingdom is on the rise. Subsequent revivals of the ancient Roman Empire will surface in France, Germany and Austria. The center will shift away from the Mediterranean to the heart of Europe. But Justinian's efforts are not to be slighted. His reign has signaled a rebirth of imperial greatness. He has been a true Roman emperor, an heir of the Roman Caesars! Much of what will be envisioned and accomplished by later conquerors who build upon the ruins of the Roman Empire will be owed to the memory of the Grand Design of Justinian. The historical consequences will be major. (NEXT MONTH: "Charlemagne — and the New Europe.")