Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

Gregory the Great Lays the Foundation of Papal Power

Lombards in Italy

The Lombards or Longbeards, so called either because of their long axes or long beards, invaded Italy less than three years after the death of Justinian. They were a terrible people, "a race fierce with more than the ordinary fierceness of the Germans." They fought for the mere love of bloodshed and destruction. They had not even the beginnings of art and learning when they swarmed over Italy, and they brought nothing with them save savagery and a cruel love of slaughter.

The name of their king at this time was Albion, and with his brutish host he quickly overran all the north of the peninsula, made Pavia his capital, and called himself Lord of Italy. In no long time, however, Albion was murdered by his own people. His successor also was murdered. Then for ten years there followed a "kingless time," during which thirty-six barbarian dukes oppressed the unhappy land.

Soon the whole peninsula was theirs save Ravenna, Rome, Naples, Venice, and a few other coast towns with the territory round them. All Italy was still in name part of the Eastern Empire, and an exarch ruled in Ravenna in the name of the emperor. But he could give little help to the rest of Italy against the Lombards, for he had scarce troops enough to defend Ravenna itself.

Now again and again in their misery the Romans sent messengers to Constantinople, praying the emperors who succeeded Justinian to grant them aid. But they prayed in vain. The emperors were busy with their wars against the Persians and the Avars, enemies at their gates. To them Constantinople was the heart of the Empire, Italy but an outlying province, for which it was not well to sacrifice safety at home.

Such was the state of Italy when, in 590, much against his will, Gregory I became pope. "For my sins," he writes, "I find myself bishop, not of the Romans but of the Lombards, men whose promises stab like swords, and whose kindness is bitter punishment."

In his youth Gregory had been a brilliant man of the world, and had been made prefect of the city, an office which entitled him to wear the imperial purple. We may picture him, young and handsome, dashing through the streets of Rome in a gilded chariot, while the populace bow before him, or clad in robes of purple presiding at the Senate, or in the courts of justice. But amidst this splendour Gregory felt the call of religion. Suddenly he broke off his brilliant career, devoted all his fortune to the founding of convents and monasteries, and himself became a monk.

But Gregory had a true genius for business, and his great abilities could not be altogether hid beneath the humble garb of a monk. He soon became an abbot, and at length the supreme office of pope was thrust upon him. As pope he showed himself to be a great pastor and great statesman. His love for, and pride in, Rome was unbounded. To him there was no question but that Rome was the city of the world, and that the bishop of Rome was by divine right the head of the Church. And by insisting on that right he laid the foundations of the absolute spiritual power which future popes were to enjoy.

The Temporal Power of the Papacy

He also laid the foundations of their temporal power. This was not so much sought by him as forced upon him by circumstances. His appeals for help against the Lombards were disregarded both by the exarch of Ravenna and by the emperor. He saw then that he must either take to himself regal power or suffer the oppression of the Lombards. He chose the former, and boldly took the reins of government into his own hands. He carried on the war against the Lombards, he gave orders to generals, he appointed governors, and did not hesitate to declare that his rank was higher than that of the exarch, even although the latter was the representative of the emperor. Finally he made peace on his own account with one of the Lombard chiefs.

This roused the Emperor Maurice to wrath, and he called Gregory in so many words a disloyal, presumptuous fool. He could, or would, do nothing himself to relieve his distressed province, but neither would he recognize the act of another which seemed to usurp his imperial authority, and he refused to ratify the peace. Only after years had passed could he be brought to own that the Lombards had come to stay, and see the impossibility of ousting them without strong measures. For strong measures he was not prepared, and at length a general peace was signed.

Peace brought added work to Gregory both in Church and State. For now that his messengers could travel safely through Italy he made rebellious or lax clergy feel his authority, rousing them to zeal or bringing them back to obedience. He settled disputes over boundaries, and arbitrated in many ways between Lombards and Romans. Now, too, he carried out his long cherished plan and sent St. Augustine to convert the heathen Angles of England.

Gregory's days and nights were full, his manifold labours leaving him scant rest. Yet all this work in Church and state, at home and abroad, was carried on by a man in constant pain, so ill indeed that for weeks at a time he could not leave his bed. "I live in such misery and pain," he writes, "that I grieve to see the light of returning day. My only comfort is in the hope of death." Or again, "I die daily, yet never die."

Before many years had passed his labours for peace seemed to be brought to naught by the folly of the exarch. War broke out again and ended in further triumphs for the Lombards. Yet from this time dates a more settled state in the affairs of Italy. The peace was often disturbed, often broken, but on the whole it was maintained, or renewed, from year to year. Still, for nearly two hundred years this obscure and savage Teuton race held sway over the fair lands of Italy which to-day still bear the name of Lombardy.

Meanwhile the great prelate drew near his end. A moment of peace had come to his beloved land when peace came to him too, and death set him free from his labours and his pains. He was not as men count years an aged man, but he was worn out by his great labours and great suffering. He left his mark not only on his own times but on times to come. For he had advanced the Roman see to a far higher position than it had ever before attained, and for good or ill had laid the foundations of the temporal power of the popes.