Time alone reveals the just man; but you might discern a bad man in a single day. — Sophocles

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




Rome in His Boyhood

Saints are always an interesting study. We ourselves are groping upward in the darkness towards the heights which they have scaled and kept; and we are fain to help our steps along the slippery crags by the footholds which their hands have carved. The interest intensifies when the saint we study is a man of action whom the world cannot even affect to despise, a man who has stamped his impress upon his time and upon our time, a man in whose writings we may read the story of his own soul, and learn things worth knowing of the men with whom he dealt.

Such a saint is Gregory, the great pope whom God gave to His Church in her need, at the close of the sixth century.

The men of his generation conceived of him as far and away their foremost man, his influence owned alike by Byzantine Emperor and Lombard lords, by Franks in Gaul and Visigoths in Spain. His firmness and forbearance stamped out heresy and schism in Vandal Africa. His letters followed his missionaries to the coast of Kent, urging them to encourage whatever was harmless in the time-engrained customs of those heathens of good-will. Leave them, he advised, their beer feasts at Yuletide, and (in the form of good roast beef) the oxen fattened for the sacrifice. But, at the same time, lure them gently to the love of Christ by the story of the son of God, a Babe for their salvation and crying with cold in the manger at Bethlehem.

This was the secret of St. Gregory's power. Deep down in the heart of every man with whom he had to do, he saw some latent good and fostered it. And thus he roused the Romans round him to reorganize order out of chaos, and restore all things in Christ. And thus he tamed the German tribes, singling out what was best in their feudalism, and breathing into it the spirit of the Gospel. We cannot read aright his life, unless we have a clear idea of the world into which he was born.

Rome had long out-lived her palmy days. To the eyes of Gregory she sat on her Seven Hills a discrowned queen dying of old age. "In former years vigorous with youth, strong to multiply the race of men, but now, weighed down by the very weight of years, and hurried on by increasing maladies to the very brink of the grave." Elsewhere he applies to Rome the words of the prophet to Judea: Enlarge thy baldness as doth the eagle. "Rome enlarges her baldness like the eagle, since in losing her people she has lost, as it were, all her plumage. The feathers have fallen even from the wings with which she used to swoop upon her victims. For all the mighty men are dead by whom she made the world her prey." And into this decaying civilization swarmed the barbarians, jostling one another for their place in the sun.

When Constantine the Great removed the seat of empire from the Tiber to the Bosphorus, he meant his new capital to act as bulwark against the Persian king. But the real danger came, not from voluptuous Asia, but from the hardy race of tough fighters who dwelt amid the forest swamps and bleak uplands north of the Danube and east of the Rhine. Already in the second century Tacitus had warned his countrymen against the manly virtues of the Teuton. "The freedom of the Germans is the thing to dread, and not the despotism of the Persian King. Long may it endure and harden into a habit that, if they cannot love us they may at least go on hating one another. Fortune can give us nothing better than that our enemies disagree."

Even while Tacitus wrote, Rome was bargaining with the barbarians to fight her campaigns. Soon her best legions were German mercenaries, officered by leaders of their own race and choice. And the legions, as we know, controlled politics in the West, selling the empire to the highest bidder, and murdering their puppet in the purple, when he would not or could not meet their demands. It was German meeting German, when in the fourth and fifth centuries hungry tribes migrated into the Empire, lured by "the goodness of the land and the nothingness of the people "and seeking shelter from the Slays and Huns pressing on their rear.

The Franks, the most capable of assimilating civilization, merely crossed the Rhine and adopted the language and the religion of the conquered regions. Gaul lost nothing by the change of masters. This is the solitary instance in history of Germans fraternizing successfully with Celts and Latins. The Saxons, on the other hand, remained heathen. A few tribes sailed across the North Sea in the wake of the Angles and the Jutes. But the greater number filled up the gaps in the Fatherland left by Angles, Swabians, Lombards and Burgundians. They enlarged their frontiers also by settling in Alsace. The word Saxon is writ large to-day all over the map of Germany.

The other tribes headed South and in theft Arrogance counted Christianity as part of their place in the sun. The Emperors had made the Arian heresy fashionable. The Arians had a code of morals far from rigorous and baptised their neophytes without probation. So Arians they all became.

At last the Empire of the West collapsed.

In 476 the Herule Odoacer murdered the last of the imperial mannikins and proclaimed himself king of Italy. To avenge this crime, and at the same time to rid himself of troublesome neighbours, the Emperor of the East commissioned Theodoric the Ostrogoth to depose the usurper. Theodoric crossed the Alps with two hundred thousand of his countrymen, restored order, and assumed the title of king with the sullen acquiescence of the Court at Constantinople. This was in 493.

He fixed his capital at Pavia to keep in touch with the northern frontier, and for the thirty-three years of his reign the peninsula had peace. One third of the land was held by the Goths in military tenure. The natives kept their own laws, their own language, their own religion. At Rome the citizens had bread and games, the Senate was soothed with high-sounding titles, a public architect was salaried to keep in good repair the city aqueducts and monuments.

All went well while Theodoric lived. All might have gone well after his death in 526 had the Goths been true to his daughter Amalasunth, had the Emperor Justinian dealt fairly with the unfortunate and gifted princess. But openly he proclaimed himself her protector, and secretly he schemed for her death, The rebels strangled her with her veil in 535, and the murder furnished the pretext for the campaigns in Italy of Justinian's generals, Belisarius and the exarch Narses.

Rome changed hands more than once during the four years fighting that followed. In 540, the year St. Gregory was born, the fields had lain fallow for two years. The people fed on acorns or starved to death on the open moor, and the very vultures turned in disdain from the fleshless corpses. The Greek garrison in the city included Moors, Huns, Persians and, of course, Germans. Military discipline was extremely lax, the imperial officers greedy of gain. The soldiers compounded for their worst offences by a money payment, and so robbery usually accompanied deeds of violence.

On the other hand, Totila, King of the Goths, gained everywhere the goodwill of the peasantry by his strict observance of the rules of war. He had his troops well under control. There was no lawlessness. Every deed of frightfulness was deliberately planned. Towards the close of 545 Totila laid siege to Rome. Bessas, the imperial general, held the city with three thousand troops. A brave man was Bessas, but utterly callous to the sufferings of the poor. There was grain in the public granaries, but the market price of provisions rose with the pressure of famine, till even the wealthiest could scarce afford the price. A quarter of wheat sold for thirty pounds. Dogs, rats and cats were dainties difficult to buy. The poorer citizens lived on nettles which they cooked with care, to prevent the blistering of their lips and throats. The alms of the church, the whole income of the noble-hearted among the richer citizens served but as a drop in the ocean.

A mass meeting was held on the Palatine. The little Gregory could see it from his home on the Coelian Hill. He could hear the famished howl of the desperate crowd:

"Feed us or kill us or allow us to leave Rome." But Bessas suffered none to depart unless they paid him well .

Belisarius made valiant attempts to raise the siege. With the few troops at his command he forced Totila's position on the Tiber. Bessas, however, failed to assist him by a sally. Perhaps he could not. His garrison was on short rations; the civilians refused to man the walls; the sentries, if they chose, slept at their posts for the officers no longer went their rounds. At length on the 17th of December 546, four Isaurian soldiers turned traitor and admitted the enemy. And as Totila marched his men in by one gate, Bessas fled for his life by another. He had not even time to remove or hide his ill-gotten hoard. The remnant of his horsemen rode hard at his heels.

The Goths paced slowly through a network of deserted streets—the silence unbroken, save for their own shouts and blare of trumpets, or by the occasional shriek of some agonizing , citizen whom they dragged from his hiding hole and killed. Totila gave stern orders that no woman should suffer hurt or insult. Nor did he approve of indiscriminate slaughter. Only the senators and the leading citizens did he doom to death.

These unfortunates with their families sought sanctuary in St. Peter's great basilica. Was the Senator Gordianus one of those who knelt round the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles? And did his little son, Gregory, lift up his innocent voice in prayer? The boy was seven years of age, quite old enough to understand what was going on.

A copy of the Gospels in his hand, the Archdeacon Pelagius stood forth, to speak Totila fair. "God hath made us your subjects," he told him, "and as your subjects we have a right to be dealt with in mercy."

Totila left them their lives, but sent them to fortresses in the Campagna. The few hundred citizens who survived the siege were also ordered out of Rome. The deserted city was given over to pillage, some buildings were set on fire, a third of the circuit of its walls destroyed. It was rumoured that the Gothic king meant to turn the capital of Christendom into a sheep-walk.

The rumour reached Belisarius on his sick-bed, and he wrote in protest to Totila: "If you win the war, Rome will be the fairest jewel in your crown. If you lose, Rome spared will plead your cause."

Totila stayed the destruction and withdrew his troops. He came back in 549 to find corn-fields waving in the city squares. This time he laid himself out to win hearts—issued orders for rebuilding, gave a chariot race in the Circus Maximus at his own expense, and invited all the exiles to return.

Most of the senators accepted; for Rome was now the safest place for a Roman noble. The scene of the war had shifted, first to Sicily then to Sardinia, and the fame of Totila's victories at last roused the Emperor to effective action. The chief command at Ravenna was given to Narses, a puny little man with brains, who knew Italy well, both land and people. Moreover he was an orthodox Catholic, popular with the soldiers. and had the name of being the only minister who could get from Justinian all the money he asked for.

A great battle took place in 552. Six thousand Goths lay dead on the field, and Totila mortally wounded was borne away to, die. Within a month his blood-stained tunic and his jewelled helmet were laid at the Emperor's feet. Within the twelvemonth the Ostrogoths as a nation disappeared from history.

Certain Greeks, who love to belittle their own great men by praising the enemy, write highly of Totila and cite traits of his chivalry and largesse. Even St. Gregory, who looked upon him as "always evilly disposed "admits in his Dialogues  that "he was not so cruel as before he had been "after his visit to Monte Cassino in 542, when the great St. Benedict foretold to him the things which afterwards came to pass.

"Much evil dost thou do, much evil hast thou done," said the abbot to the king. "Refrain thyself now from unrighteousness. Thou shalt enter Rome. Thou shalt cross the sea. Nine years shalt thou reign, in the tenth thou shalt die."

Later the man. of God told the Bishop of Canossa, who came to him for comfort amid the tribulations affecting the Church:

"Rome shall not be utterly destroyed by strangers, but shall be so shaken with storms and lightnings and earthquakes that it will fall to decay of itself."

St. Gregory, who had the incident third hand, adds his comment. "The mystery of this prophecy we now behold clear as day."

The Rome of the Caesars was indeed, in his boyhood, mouldering away. There was still a senate, with duties dwindled, to the regulation of weights and measures. But the sea and two mountainous peninsulas divided the city from the seat of empire. Rome now paid her taxes to Justinian at Constantinople. She was not even at the head of the Italian province but took her orders from Ravenna on the Adriatic coast.

From his father's house on the western escarpment of the Coelian Hill, the boy Gregory could look across the Appian way to the mass of ruins covering the Palatine. In the reign of Augustus the elite of Rome lived on this hill in marble mansions, "each one huge enough to be a city in itself." Goth and Hun and Vandal had made but small impression on their solid masonry. But only a handful of buildings was in good repair—just enough to house the imperial officials, and the exarch from Ravenna when business brought him to Rome. All around, and elsewhere on the Seven Hills, the ground lay strewn with broken marble and mosaics, and headless statues carelessly toppled over when the pedestals were rifled of their bronze.

It was the Romans themselves who mutilated their monuments and took from public buildings and deserted temples wherewith to mend and reconstruct their own abodes. The houses were now huddled in the lower parts of the city. It was difficult to get water on the heights since the grand old aqueducts had been suffered to fall out of repair. Malaria was chronic in the pestilential swamps thus engendered, and the Campagna had become a wilderness, with the broken lines of aqueduct arches and the charred remains of buildings to tell of the glories and prosperity of bygone days.

But Gregory's home stood on a healthy height, the Clivus Scaurus or western escarpment of the Coelian Hill, where now stands the church and monastery of San Gregorio. There was never a shortage of water in his father's mansion. The great fountain in the atrium  was, according to legend, the very fountain where the nymph Egeria gave lessons to King Numa on law and religion. In the Middle Ages it was to be a holy well, where halt and blind and sick of divers diseases would come to drink, and to kneel in thanksgiving or silent petition before the portrait of the sainted pontiff on the wall hard by.

From the steps of the colonnade which let in air and light to the windowless atrium, the boy Gregory could see below him to the south-west the Thermae Caracallae where once sixteen hundred bathers lounged through the day. The roof was still intact, the painted ceilings beautiful. But the huge swimming bath had long ago run dry, weeds were sprouting through the mosaics on the untrodden pavement, spiders wove their webs across the faces of the marble gods. He may have played here as an infant, under the watchful eye of his nurse, Dominica. As a schoolboy he may have sought here, sometimes, a quiet nook, sheltered from the sun, where he might con the morrow's task.

Outside the Thermae ran the Appian Way, the queen of long roads. Gregory must often have walked along its perfect pavement of smoothly jointed stones; for the Roman section of the Via Appia skirted the bases of the Coelian and Palatine Hills, before merging in the Via Sacra a little to the north of the Coliseum.

The Coliseum, too, was in good repair: no breaches then in the huge weather-beaten mass of masonry. It was still used for acrobatic displays and the feats of performing animals. But the gladiators had fought their last fight in 404. Beast-baitings, too, had ceased. The citizens had no longer the opportunity to applaud indecencies on the very spot where their forefathers had died for Christ. Somehow we cannot picture the boy Gregory as ever seeking amusement in the shows of the Coliseum.

Pagan Rome was mouldering away. Deserted and dilapidated, shunned as the haunts of evil spirits stood the stately temples which erstwhile made its glory. The small bronze shrine of Janus in the Forum still contained the image of the two-faced god; but some fanatic had wrenched its gates apart from their hinges during the Gothic war.

Hard by, on the Via Sacra, Pope Felix IV had thrown into one two small temples to form the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Here the boy Gregory may often have lingered, drinking in the lessons of its storied mosaics. All through life he loved to see the walls of churches covered with holy pictures, "books of the unlettered "he calls them in a letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles:

"Exhort your people to acquire the fervour of compunction by gazing on these historic scenes while they bend the knee adoringly before the Holy Trinity."

He liked too the idea of transforming heathen temples into places of Christian worship, and suggested it to his English missionaries. After his death such conversions became popular on the banks of the Tiber. The Pantheon began the series in 6og when Boniface IV consecrated it to the honour of Our Lady and all the martyrs. But in St. Gregory's. lifetime Saints Cosmas and Damian was the solitary instance in Rome.

There were churches in plenty—ugly outside, devotional and aglow with colour and gilding within. Classic monuments had contributed piecemeal to their structure. Thus the pavement in St. Paul's Without-the-Walls was a patchwork of nine hundred inscriptions. In St. Peter's-on-the-Vatican, the ninety-two great pillars had capitals and bases which did not match. The columns of Grecian marble in St. Peter's ad Vincula  had once adorned the Thermae of Titus and of Trojan.

Only one church could rank as a work of art, "the Golden Basilica," which Constantine had built near the Lateran palace of the popes to be "the mother and mistress of all the churches in the city and in the world."

Yet, even in the sixth century, the Catholic world recognized as its real centre, not the fair church of St. John Lateran, but that other basilica built by Constantine "above the body of Blessed Peter." Here Theodoric the great Goth, albeit an Arian, "worshipped with the deep devotion of a Catholic," and left his offering, two silver candelabra, seventy pounds in weight. Hither, as ex-voto  for his victories, Belisarius brought two silver-gilt candelabra and a golden cross adorned with gems. Hither from time to time the emperors sent pledges of their communion with the Throne of the Fisherman; costly tapestries, jewelled altar vessels and vases of gold and silver, illuminated gospels in rich bindings encrusted with gems. Nor must we forget St. Gregory's own tablet, enumerating the estates which he allotted for the upkeep of the lamps.

St. Peter's holds a more sacred memorial of this great pope. For "When he departed," says Bede, "to the true life where the reward of his labours shall never die, his body was buried in the church of St. Peter the Apostle, before the sacristy." The greater portion of his relics were translated in 1606 to the Clementine chapel within the same basilica.

But fully to satisfy our devotion towards the saint, we must turn our backs on the Vatican and go—as Gregory so often went in life—along the Via Triumphalis which links St. Peter's with the Lateran palace. And, a little before the road ends in the Piazza San Giovanni, we turn aside up the Avenue San Gregorio which leads to the church and monastery of that name.

In the church we venerate a reliquary containing an arm of our saint, his ivory crosier, his marble chair, the recess where he slept, the picture of Our Lady before which he was wont to pray, the marble table with antique supports where once he entertained an angel unawares, the arm of St. Andrew which he brought home to his monks from Constantinople, his statue designed by Michael Angelo but finished by another hand, and frescoes treating of St. Augustine's mission to the English.

The circerone taps the walls and buttresses of the church, and tells the pilgrims that they date from St. Gregory's time. And so they do. For when the building was reconstructed in the seventeenth century as much as possible of the old material was used, and the architect copied, as accurately as he could, the church erected during the pontificate of this great pope, and which he consecrated in honour of St. Andrew close to the monastery where he himself had lived so many years in holy peace.

The monastery, too, has been rebuilt. A few Benedictines of the Camaldolese congregation are still tolerated here as caretakers of the church. But the Italian Government took over the premises in 187o and assigned the larger portion as an almshouse for old women.

Centuries have altered the ground level of the Coelian Hill. Yet experts have reason to believe that, beneath the cellars of the monastery, the old Roman mansion, where St. Gregory was born, exists still in good repair and could be excavated without danger or injury to the buildings overhead.

It was still above ground in 872 and the monks in possession for three hundred years, when John the Deacon paid his memorable visit and described the three portraits in the atrium: Gordianus, Sylvia and their illustrious son.