The Place of Authority Part 3-1: The Fall of the Western Empire and the Rise of the Bishop of Rome

Raphael's Meeting Between St. Leo and Attila the Hun, 1514, Public Domain Artwork

Meeting Between Leo the Great and Attila the Hun, Raphael (1514), Public Domain Artwork

The reason that the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed are legion (pardon the pun). Although the eastern half of the empire and the Eastern Church would survive mainly intact for another thousand years, in the western half of the empire (which comprised much of Europe and Northern Africa) the relative peace, many of the roads and aqueducts, and much of the literature, art and knowledge of the previous centuries would be lost. In the place of the emperor and the legions various groups of “barbarians”, some Christian (whether orthodox or Arian) and some pagan came in to fill the vacuum. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the one constant was the church.

In 378 CE the Goths delivered a great blow to the Roman Empire at the battle of Adrianople. For centuries the legions had managed to keep the Germanic Peoples behind the Rhine and the Danube Rivers. At the battle of Adrianople the legions failed to repel the incoming Goths, the emperor was killed and the floodgates were open. Vandal, Goths, Gauls, Angels and Saxons and more would all settle into parts of the Empire they had sacked over the next century. By 410 CE the Goths sacked Rome, but even before this the formerly united Roman Empire had been divided into an eastern and western half. Theodosius I (379-395 CE) was the last emperor who controlled both halves of the empire but there were significant struggles internally and externally well before Theodosius.  With struggles within and struggles without the Roman Empire lost its control of most of Europe and North Africa, and what remained was based out of Constantinople and we will examine this group in the next blog.

What remained in the midst of the wreckage of the Empire was the Church, and over the next several centuries the invaders who were either pagan or Arian would be converted to Nicene Orthodoxy as it existed in the West. The exception is North Africa which I will deal with in a later blog which found itself conflicted between multiple groups. It is during this period where the rise of the Bishop of Rome (or the Pope) escalates. The Bishop of Rome had been a powerful position before, but Antioch (in Syria) and Alexandria (in Egypt) as well as key leaders from North Africa had also held equivalent power. Partially because there was no one else who would step into the role, partially due to a handful of very capable leaders, and partially due to the need for someone to act as a uniting figure the papacy emerged as one of the major sources of authority for the next 1,000 years.

In 452 CE when Attila the Hun invaded Italy, the western emperor did not have the ability to prevent Attila from marching into Rome and the eastern emperor gave indications that he was unwilling to assist, so it was Pope Leo who went out to meet with Attila. What Leo said to Attila is unknown, but Attila turned north and died soon afterwards. Leo could not prevent the Vandals from invading the city in 455 CE, but Leo led the negotiations with Genseric, the Vandal leader, and was able to prevent the Vandals from burning the city.[i] There would still be tensions between the Pope and the Eastern Emperor, but by 565 CE the Eastern Empire no longer was able to influence events in Italy. With the danger of yet another invasion (this time by the Lombards) as well as an epidemic in Rome Popes Pelagius II and his successor Pope Gregory (the Great) would become the leaders of Rome by default.

Pelagius II would pay the Lombards not to invade the city and with the help of monks, like Gregory who would become his successor, he organized the feeding of the hungry, burial of the dead, sanitation and other essential functions. When Pelagius became ill and died Gregory was elected as Pope and he adopted the responsibility zealously. Gregory oversaw the rebuilding of the city defenses and garrison, took measures to guarantee the shipment of wheat from Sicily, ensured food was distributed, supervised the rebuilding of the aqueducts, and generally restored order. In addition to this Gregory would be instrumental in converting the Visigoth king in Spain to Nicene Catholicism as well as extending the authority of Rome to the British Isles. The Bishop of Rome changed from being one of the powerful bishops to the patriarch of the West charged with both ecclesial (churchly) and secular responsibility. In the midst of the change in the West the Roman Church’s leadership emerged stronger than ever and they would be one of the primary sources of authority for the next 1,000 years in the west.

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[i] Prosper of Aquitaine is the only fifth century report of this meeting between Leo and Genseric so some scholars are skeptical that this meeting occurred. Regardless of whether it was Leo who was able to convince Genseric to be satisfied with only pillage the legend would be firmly there. The whole story of the dysfunctional nature of Roman politics that led to this point is an interesting story as well, maybe for another time.

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