There is nothing so corrupt as history when it enters the service of the state. — Edgar Quinet

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




The Things that are Caesar's

Little did St. Gregory dream, as he pored over his account books and prayed over his letters, that he was laying very solidly the foundations of that Temporal Power of the Holy See which was to outlast a thousand years, from the reign of Charlemagne to the reign of Pius IX.

He was himself, in a very real sense, the master at Rome; providing supplies, organizing defence, exacting obedience from officials, military and civil, his words and his wishes having weight with kings and queens. But both in the city and in every portion of the Patrimony of St. Peter he had to preach and to practise submission to the secular power. The Pope still owed allegiance to his sovereign at Constantinople, even though Maurice's inability to protect his Italian subjects often forced Gregory to act independently in their defence.

He was always extremely careful to avoid collision with the emperor's officers, or to interfere with them in the discharge of their duties. But he would not wink at wrong-doing, however high in rank the offender. "The Lombards," he wrote, "can only kill our bodies, while the rapine and fraud of the imperial judges devour our souls."

Especially in the islands, because they were less in touch with Ravenna, the administration was hopelessly corrupt. Those whose duty it was to enforce the law did not always make a decent pretext to conceal their malpractices.

In 590 Gregory wrote a strong protest to the Duke of Sardinia, then to the exarch of Africa, the duke's immediate superior. Both letters were ignored. Next he instructed his apocrisarius to lay the case before the emperor. Finally he urged the empress, Constantia, to use her influence with her husband on behalf of the oppressed islanders.

"Since I know," he begins his letter, "that our Most Serene Lady turns her thoughts to the heavenly kingdom and to the life of her soul, I feel strongly that I should be guilty of grievous sin if I were silent when the Fear of God impels me to address her."

In Sardinia, he goes on, the governor sells to the pagans a licence to worship idols, and continues to collect this money from those who have been baptized. In Corsica the taxes are so heavy and so cruelly extorted, that the people have to sell their sons into slavery.

"Hence it comes to pass that those who own estates in the island forsake the empire and pass over to the Lombards. For what outrage more cruel can the barbarians inflict on them?"

He complains, too, of the high-handedness of one Stephen, in Sicily. "His evil deeds would fill a volume."

"I beg our Most Serene Lady to investigate prudently these facts, and to still the groans of the oppressed. Had these evil doings come to your ears, they would long ago have been mentioned at a fitting moment to our Most Pious Lord, so that he might remove this great burden of sin from his soul, from his empire, and from his children. He may say indeed that all the money collected in these islands has been sent back to us for Italian expenses. It might be suggested to him to spend less in Italy, and to free his empire from the groans of the oppressed. It is certainly better that we should suffer some temporal loss in these parts than that you should be hindered in your salvation. Just think of it! Parents sell their children to save themselves from torture. You who have children of your own will soon find a means to remedy this state of things."

Perhaps in consequence of this letter Leontius came from Constantinople a little later to inquire into the state of the Italian Province. On his arrival in Sicily, Libertinus, who had held supreme command there for the last five years, fled to sanctuary, and came out to stand his trial only when the Pope had guaranteed he should have a fair hearing. All the papers on this case were sent on to Rome.

Libertinus seems to have governed fairly, for no one lodged complaints against him. He was accused of diverting public money to his private uses; but worthy men bore witness that he had spent more of his own money on the emperor's business than he was charged with taking from the emperor's treasury. Leontius, however, had him heavily fined, and scourged him moreover to make him confess he had embezzled the State funds.

St. Gregory wrote a very strong letter to Leontius: "When you scourge a free man you sully your own fair fame, you obscure the glory of the Most Religious Emperor. For there is this difference between the Roman emperor and other monarchs: he rules over free men, they rule over slaves. If you would not yourself be wronged by your superiors, you should respect with jealous care the liberty of those whom you are appointed to judge.

"You will tell me perhaps that public frauds cannot be detected without the scourge and torture. Well, I might admit that plea, were it not my lord Leontius who is concerned. For those who are too ready to use brute force are usually men lacking in intelligence, and without language at their command. But you can offer no such excuse. For God has given you wisdom enough to examine accounts with minute accuracy. No need of torture to extract information.

"My Glorious son, in your present commission, strive first of all to please God, and next to secure with the utmost zeal the interests of our Most Serene Lord. Indeed I feel that when he gives you work to do, you cannot neglect it."

Libertinus, notwithstanding, remained disgraced. We find Gregory exhorting him to bear patiently his tribulation and to give God thanks for it.

"Perhaps, Magnificent Son, you have offended Him somewhat when you were in power, and He sends this merciful bitterness to cleanse your soul. . . . I beg you not to be offended because we have written to Romanus, our defensor, to provide thirty suits of clothes for your household. Even so small a gift from the goods of the Blessed Apostle Peter should be accepted as a blessing, in token that he can bestow greater favours here below and procure for us eternal benefits from Almighty God."

It was easier for St. Gregory to provide for Libertinus at his own expense than to awaken the emperor's conscience to a just consideration of his creditor's claims. As we have seen in a former chapter, he was at Constantinople when Maurice was crowned and wedded, and he assisted as godfather at the christening of his eldest son. Even thus early there were signs of miserliness, of that cheese-paring economy in the wrong direction which made Maurice unpopular with the soldiers, and in the end brought about his death. Hence the Pope's eagerness to encourage every spark of generous feeling: hence his overflow of gratitude when on one occasion Maurice sent an alms to relieve the poor at Rome. He is careful to give details as to "the faithful distribution of the thirty pounds of gold. . . .

"Whatever could be spared from the relief of the blind, the maimed and the infirm we gave to some religious women who fled to the city from the provinces after captivity. Thus not only poor citizens but also strangers have received the bounty of my Lord." The soldiers, too, received their arrears of pay, "and all, under due discipline, received with thanks the gift from their emperor, and repressed all murmuring such as formerly used to prevail among them."

St. Gregory's position was of extreme delicacy. On the one hand Maurice, like a God-fearing Christian, recognised the Pope as his spiritual father, whose decision was final in matters of faith. On the other hand, his tendency to meddle in Church affairs grew in proportion as his authority in temporal matters declined. He never tampered with dogma, however; and St. Gregory only resisted his decisions in points of discipline when such decisions were manifestly unjust, or, as he tactfully worded it, "obtained by misrepresentation."

Thus when Maurice deposed a bishop on account of ill-health, the Pope protested against such a breach of Canon Law. The bishop, he contended, should have been asked to resign or given a coadjutor. But he did not hinder the edict from taking effect.

"Our Most Religious Sovereign has power to do what he likes," he wrote on this occasion. "He may make what arrangements he deems fit. Only he must not expect the Apostolic See to help him to carry them out. If his action accords with Canon Law, we shall conform to it. If it does not, we shall submit to it, so far as we can without sin."

Maurice interfered but seldom in the quarrels of the clergy. "He has no mind to burden himself with our sins," St. Gregory once wrote. When appeals reached Constantinople from the Churches in the African Province, they were always passed on to Rome. But the Pope had no intention of acting as the emperor's delegate in matters which were entirely within his own jurisdiction. So he forwarded them in his turn to some bishop in Sicily. Such roundabout appeals were so severely handled by Maximianus and his colleagues, that the appellants had cause to regret that they had not dealt directly with the Pope, as Canon Law required.

Our saint's longanimity was tried to the utmost in 593, when Natalis of Salona died and Maximus was intruded into this, the metropolitan Sea of Dalmatia. Maximus was an ambitious man, reported of evil life, but "popular with the palace and with the people." St. Gregory excommunicated the bishops who consecrated "the presumptuous intruder," in defiance of his express commands. He summoned Maximus to stand his trial at Rome, and forbade him to act as bishop, or say Mass until his character was cleared.

"If you dare to disobey, anathema to you from God and St. Peter! Your punishment will serve as an example to the whole Church."

But Maximus appealed to the emperor, and the Pope received an order to overlook the irregularities in his consecration, and to receive him with the honours due to the lawful metropolitan of Dalmatia.

St. Gregory refused point blank. He wrote to his apocrisarius, Sabinian:

"I am ready to die, rather than allow the Church of Blessed Peter to be thus degraded in my lifetime. You know me. I endure for a long time. But once I have made up my mind to resist, I face every danger with joy."

It was the empress, however, and not the apocrisarius, whom he requested to inform the emperor of his refusal.

"In obedience to my most Religious Lord's command, I forgave Maximus his presumption in setting myself at naught, as completely as if he had been ordained bishop by my authority. But the impurity alleged against him, his bribery of electors, his celebration of Holy Mass while excommunicate, these things I cannot let pass without inquiry. It is my wish and my prayer that he may prove himself innocent, and so the matter may end without danger to my soul. But my Most Serene Sovereign orders me to receive with honour, before judgment or even inquiry, a man accused of so many crimes. If the affairs of the bishops committed to my care are to be settled through the influence of friends at the Court of our Most Pious Lords, woe is me! Of what use am I in the Church?"

Maximus would not come to Rome. The journey through the Lombard lands was too dangerous for his witnesses, he declared. St. Gregory warned the Dalmatians to hold aloof from the clergy who upheld him in his obduracy.

"Avoid altogether those whom the Apostolic See does not receive, lest the very things in which you seek salvation be against you at the Judgment Seat of God."

The affair dragged on six years. Finally the Archbishops of Ravenna and Milan were delegated to try the case. In their presence Maximus purged himself publicly, by oath, of most of the crimes imputed to him, and confessed his sin of simony. For the space of three hours he lay prone upon his face before the bishops, the clergy and the exarch, lifting his head at intervals to cry aloud:

"I have sinned against God, and against the Most Blessed Pope Gregory."

And Gregory assured him by letter of forgiveness full and fatherly. "As soon as Your Fraternity knows that you are restored to communion with the Apostolic See, send someone to us who may bring you back the pallium."

It was not often, however, that our saint was forced thus directly to refuse obedience to the emperor's command. Even when Maurice issued an edict forbidding soldiers and civil servants to become monks, the Pope forwarded copies to the Italian bishops, before venturing on a respectfully worded protest, which he requested the court physician to present privately at a fitting moment. It is reasonable, he admits, that State officials should not be too readily received as monks, unless the monastery guarantees to pay their debts. The case of soldiers was on another plane.

"This law fills me with terror, for it bars the way to Heaven for many souls. Some men can lead a good life in the world; others cannot be saved unless they renounce all they have to follow Jesus. I may not keep silence—dust and earthworm though I be in the sight of my Most Serene Lords—because I see this decree interferes with the rights of God, my Master and yours, Who has given you power over men so that you may make easy for them the way to Heaven. A decree has gone forth that no soldier may enlist in the army of the King of kings, unless he is disabled or too old to be of use in the army of an earthly king. . . . "

Then comes a personal appeal to the elder monarch:

"Thus does Christ speak to thee by my mouth: 'From a notary, Maurice, I have made thee Captain of the Guard, from captain Caesar; from Caesar Emperor, yea, and father of emperors yet to be. I have put My priests in thy power, and thou withdrawest thy soldiers from My service.' Most Pious Lord, what answer shalt thou make Him Who in the Day of Judgment will upbraid thee thus? I conjure thee, let not thy tears, thy fasts, thy many prayers avail thee nothing in the sight of God. Annul or modify this decree. For the army of my Master becomes stronger against the enemy when the army of God grows stronger in prayer."

In this case Maurice saw fit to compromise. St. Gregory again wrote round to the metropolitans, bidding them not to allow civil servants to enter monasteries until their accounts were audited and their debts to the State discharged. Ex-soldiers—men "branded in the hand "—are to have, like ex-slaves, three years' novitiate in secular dress. The emperor, he adds, will not find fault with this arrangement.

In writing to the emperor and indeed to dignitaries of every grade, St. Gregory punctiliously conforms his language to the rules of etiquette. His correspondents were Glorious, Illustrious, Magnificent, according to their rank, just as nowadays we have Right Honourable, Most Noble, Your Grace, and the like. Especially in his letters to Maurice we are often reminded of Erasmus's sarcasm on the mode of addressing royalty in Renaissance days. "Kings are serene though they turn the world upside down in a storm of war, invincible though they fly from every battle-field, illustrious though they grovel in ignorance and vice, Catholic and Christian though they follow anything but Christ."

The courteous phrasing reads very like irony in St. Gregory's answer to "the most serene letter," in which the emperor has treated him as a fool and liar. He admits he is a fool '' even if Your Clemency did not call me one," for who but a fool would have wearied himself in the emperor's interests and endured all that Gregory has endured "amid the swords of the Lombards."

But the charge of falsehood he will not dismiss thus lightly. He is a patriot, and his country is dragged daily deeper beneath the Lombard yoke, while the emperor prefers to believe the men who talk rather than the man who does. Furthermore, he is a priest.

"Although I am not worthy to be called a priest, I know that a priest is a servant of the Truth, and that it is a deadly insult to call a priest a liar. I plead to Your Clemency, not for myself alone but on behalf of all priests. For I am a sinful man. I sin daily and many times a day, and I know that the suffering you cause me will avail me at the Judgment Seat of God. . . .

"Unworthy and sinful as I know myself to be, I trust more in the mercy of Jesus, when He comes to judge, than in the justice of Your Piety. Perhaps what you praise He will blame, and what you blame He will praise. I can but entreat Him with tears to guide with His own Hand our Most Clement Lord and to find him free from fault in the dread day of doom."

The hot letter which provoked this reply has not come down to us. Perhaps St. Gregory destroyed it in the last year of his life, when tidings reached him that Maurice had nobly merited in death the title "Most Religious "so often misapplied to him in life.

Things went from bad to worse with Maurice in the closing years of his reign. He chose his generals badly. He harassed his soldiers by unwise reforms, and whenever these reforms induced a mutiny the culprits received reward instead of punishment. His unpopularity had ebbed its lowest when the Avars marched on Constantinople, collecting booty and prisoners on their road through Thrace. Great sums of money were given them to save the city, but Maurice refused to pay the small amount asked, over and above, as ransom for the twelve thousand soldiers who were prisoners of war. He argued, and perhaps with truth, that these men were cowards and mostly deserters.

But when the Avars massacred the twelve thousand in cold blood, the anger of his subjects equaled their contempt for his inability to conduct the campaign. The army was furious, and sent deputies to lay their grievances before the senate. But these deputies were treated with scorn; their spokesman, Phocas, was smitten in the face.

Grim famine stalked throughout the land that winter. The emperor was hooted and stoned as he walked barefoot through the streets of his capital in the procession on Christmas Eve. The army stationed in war-worn Thrace received neither pay nor supplies. Instead came the callous command: "Cross the Danube and quarter yourselves upon the Slays."

There was open mutiny, of course, indeed concerted revolt. The army, Phocas at their head, marched on Constantinople.

"Who is this Phocas?" Maurice is said to have asked, and they told him Phocas was a coward.

"A coward?" he repeated sadly. "Then all the more likely to commit murder!"

And he spoke to his intimates of a dream, in which he saw himself standing, one of a crowd, before the great figure of Christ in molten bronze above his palace gateway.

"Bring forth Maurice!" came a terrible voice from the statue.

"O Lover of men!" he found voice to plead, "O Lord and Righteous Judge, punish me here, and not in the world to come."

And the Divine Voice gave sentence in gentler tone that Maurice with his wife and children and all his kin should be delivered into the hands of the soldier Phocas.

Deformed in body, sensuous in feature, with shaggy, scowling eyebrows, cruel mouth, coarse red hair, and on his cheek an ugly scar which turned black during his frequent bursts of anger, with neither charm of manner nor grace of intellect to recommend him; such was Phocas when the Patriarch Cyriacus placed the crown upon his head.

The citizens accepted quietly the new ruler whom the army imposed upon them. But when Phocas took his seat for the first time in the imperial box at the Hippodrome, a mocking cry arose:

"Begone Tyrant! Maurice is still alive!" That cry was the death-knell of the dynasty. Not only did the dethroned emperor taste of death, but his wife, his brother, his sons and three of his daughters shared his doom.

Four of his children were butchered before his eyes. The youngest was a baby in arms, and the nurse tried to substitute her own child in his stead. But Maurice rose superior to the promptings of nature, and himself revealed the heroic fraud. A noble and pathetic figure he stood, erect and dry-eyed, on that foggy winter's morning by the seashore.

"Thou art just, O Lord, and all Thy judgments righteous!" These were the only words that issued from his lips; and these he repeated over and over again, while the soldiers hacked the young princes into pieces and flung quivering fragments of their flesh in his face.

He was himself the last to be killed. Then the bodies were thrown into the sea, and the heads exposed in Constantinople to the insults of the mob.

A letter of St. Gregory's, dated two months later, shows that he then believed Maurice to be alive "and his life very necessary to the world."

Phocas was crowned on the 23rd of November and Maurice was murdered on the 27th. It was not until the 25th of April that news of the revolution reached Rome, and then St. Gregory only heard what Phocas chose he should hear.

For the Holy See was unrepresented at the Court of Constantinople—Maurice's dictatorial eccentricities having rendered the post of Apocrisarius so unpleasant that not one among the Roman clergy was willing to undertake its duties. Besides, there were no sailings from the Bosphorus in the winter months, and the Pope's friends at Constantinople would write on things indifferent, if at all, for their letters might fall into the hands of an unscrupulous and suspicious tyrant. The overland post was tedious as well as risky. Later in the century (678 and 686) we find emperors writing to Popes who had died six months and four months before.

Etiquette required that the Pope should send suitable replies to the "favourable letters "which the envoys brought him from the newly-crowned emperor and empress. As might be expected the wording of these replies is very wary. Gregory knew nothing about Phocas except that he was lawfully elected and crowned, and very powerful for good or ill. One short sentence alluded to the "yoke of tribulation" while Maurice and his deputies misgoverned. One short sentence congratulated Phocas on his advent to power. Then came a series of pious hopes that all the virtues may unite in Phocas, and the blessing of heaven gladden his dominions.

"May the whole Commonwealth rejoice at your kindly deeds. . . . May all the citizens enjoy without trembling their own property which they have honestly acquired. Under the rule of Your Piety may each one's liberty take out a new lease. . . . For there is this difference between the kings of other nations and the Emperor of the Roman Republic: they are lords of slaves, he rules over free men. . . . But we can say all this better in prayer to God, than by expressing our hopes to you. May Almighty God, in your every thought and word, hold the heart of Your Piety in the Hand of His Grace."

Boniface, afterwards Pope, was at once despatched to Constantinople as apocrisarius, and St. Gregory soon learned from his letters how deplorably the new emperor fell short of his ideal. Never again did he write directly to Phocas, never once did he mention the revolution in his other letters.

The Pope's prudence and the tact of his delegate came noticeably into play when a certain bishop of Euria appealed to the emperor from the decision of his metropolitan, and obtained, in consequence, lands which St. Gregory deemed should belong to the diocese of Corcyra, "according to ecclesiastical justice and canonical reasoning." He could not allow the injustice to pass unrebuked, so he instructed Boniface to bring pressure to bear up3n Phocas.

"We foresee that our sentence will fail in its effect if we appear to be acting contrary to the commands of our Most Gracious Lord the Emperor, or in contempt of his commands, which God forbid! Wherefore, beloved, discreetly insinuate to His Piety, and constantly reiterate, that it is altogether evil, altogether unjust, and completely at variance with the sacred canons, and that therefore he should not allow a sin of this kind to be introduced into the Church in his time. . . . Exert your vigilance, with the help of Almighty God, so that this shameful business may not serve as a precedent."

We know not how the incident ended, but we know that Phocas held Boniface in high esteem. When the apocrisarius in due course became Pope, the emperor proclaimed, on his own initiative, that the See of Rome was at the head of all the Churches.

To understand all the importance of this decree we must have a clear notion of St. Gregory's famous controversy with John the Faster, patriarch of Constantinople.