The Benedict Option: More history

I’m blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In my first post, I set out my reasons and credentials and then considered some of my problems with Dreher’s broad-stroke history of fifth-century Rome. Then I continued the discussion of history, talking about why it matters for a book like this and then moving into monastic history. Today, I look at two more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’ — both are related.

Post-Roman Powers

Throughout this brief contextualisation of the Rule of St Benedict, Dreher uses the word ‘barbarian’ and the designation ‘barbarian tribes’ to describe the Roman empire’s conquerors. Rome left in her wake:

countless local wars as barbarian tribes fought for dominance. (15)

I think the designation of late Roman, irregular military forces that coalesced as nations while they conquered Roman territory as ‘barbarian tribes’ is taking things too far. Theoderic and the Ostrogoths who oust Odoacer are not ‘tribes’. They are a late Roman military force whose leader never received a lasting military command from the Emperor Zeno, and who took control of an unstable situation. Yes, there was local war as a result, but then these barbarians brought stability.

In fact, it is argued that Theoderic, before the accession of Justin in 518, was setting himself up as an emperor. Everything he does in Rome and Ravenna is basically the same as what an emperor would do. Whether he would ever claim the title is, perhaps, immaterial. What matters is that he ruled like an emperor.

Or to take the notorious Vandals. Once they were done torturing and executing a large proportion of the catholic clergy of North Africa, they decided to settle down, enjoy their new villas, and write poetry. In fact, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, although weak when destroyed by Belisarius in the 530s, was relatively stable. So was the Visigothic kingdom of Spain by 589.

For Gaul and Italy, before the Byzantine-Gothic wars of Justinian, the ‘countless local wars’ were, from what I can tell, largely confined to the border areas, to places like Septimania on the modern France-Spain border. The rulers of these new polities established themselves and fought their enemies, but it was not all war all the time.

That said, they did behave badly a lot of the time, especially if a civil war erupted amongst the Franks. Gregory of Tours (d. 595) was particularly appalled by the behaviour of Frankish Christian soldiers and their treatment of monks, nuns, and church property.

But the problem with Dreher’s picture of post-Roman Europe is that it buys into


On page 17 we read:

When we think of barbarians, we imagine wild, rapacious tribesmen rampaging through cities, heedlessly destroying the structures and institutions of civilization simply because they can. Barbarians are governed only by their will to power, and neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating. (17)

This paragraph is a zinger. He is using the image of the barbarian to describe modern liberals: ‘we … are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.’ (17) In fact, if one accepts Dreher’s view of things today, I’d much rather be ruled by Late Roman barbarian kings, thank you very much.

For example, they were not actually all that into wanton destruction. The text Anonymus Valesianus II includes a long description of things at Rome that Theoderic maintained. We have a mosaic of him from Ravenna, pictured at the right. Not only that, but his son held the consulship. His court helped foster the arts and culture of Cassiodorus and Boethius (the latter of whom he killed on suspicion of treason — perfectly Roman of him).

When the Franks emerge as military force, they imagine themselves holding various ranks within the now deceased Roman bureaucratic infrastructure. They, too, build things. Or, if not they themselves, then the Gallo-Romans under their rule.

As far as pillaging goes, this is, sadly, not a feature solely of barbarians. Soldiers have a long history of looting and destruction, whether they are Romans, Greeks, or barbarians in antiquity, or the medieval English in the Hundred Years’ War, or (sadly) even Allies in WWII. Soldiers are human; I do not wish to imply either that looting is not a big deal, nor that soldiers = barbarians. Just giving context.

Final thoughts on this strand

My final thoughts on what was meant to be a single post but is now three are as follows.

The fall of the western Roman Empire, which was a protracted process over decades, led to a power vacuum in some places and some chaos in others. It resulted in the breakdown of much long-distance trade and the reduction of classical urbanism. In Britain, in fact, Romano-British culture was completely subsumed by the newcoming Anglo-Saxon powers. Materially, many people suffered and were very, very poor.

Of these very poor, those who could sometimes joined monasteries. There were, however, legal restrictions on the movement of those we might call ‘peasants’, so many of the very poor did not join monasteries because of being legally bound to the land that they farmed. Nonetheless, for these people and for some of the ‘middle’ class and aristocrats, monasteries became places of refuge in the relative uncertainty of the new regimes. Sure.

That said, everything in Italy, where Benedict lived, happens a few decades later than elsewhere (setting aside the possible exception of northern Italy, where first Attila in 450-2 then Theoderic vs Odoacer in the 490s, as well as some civil wars, made life difficult). Benedict is part of an international moment of monasticism that helps preserve writing as the classical culture of villa-based aristocratic living dissolves and is replaced by a largely illiterate military aristocracy who prefer hunting to poetry.

Things are often very bad in the post-Roman world, and the new rulers and their armies often do terrible deeds. But they are not always so bad as people like Dreher make it sound, and all of them were committed to preserving Roman law, Roman taxation, long-distance trade, and Roman buildings as much as was within their power, with greater or lesser success.

Here is one success, again of Theoderic’s. The Arian baptistery at Ravenna.


Pope Question: Was Leo one of the bad popes?

pope clipartThe question of whether Leo was a bad pope is one of the most frequent questions I get. While the answer is short (‘No’), the question itself is revealing. It tells us a few things about the perspective of people today on the papacy.

This is a question I never asked. Perhaps it’s my upbringing, or the years I spent studying the Middle Ages for fun before coming to Late Antique popes for research, or the respect I actually have for the Church of Rome, but it never crossed my mind that a fifth-century pope would even be a candidate for the ranks of ‘bad popes’.

The first thing this question tells me about how people view popes is that the papacy is very frequently seen through the lens of the Reformation and Renaissance, when Bishops of Rome had enormous temporal power as well as mistresses and children. An age when the Bishop of Rome was as likely to be a sleazy, back-stabbing jerk as any secular prince. An age when the church hierarchy was inescapably corrupt, and the top of the pyramid most corrupt of all. Setting aside the question of the accuracy of this characterisation of Renaissance-Reformation popes, this is the image of the pope that people have.

Thus, they project this ‘badness’ back onto earlier ages, and imagine earlier Bishops of Rome as being as likely to be corrupt and as grasping after temporal power.

Second, sometimes the way people discuss popes reveals that they cannot see being Bishop of Rome as a spiritual vocation that a good man might strive towards. Thus, even if they can disassociate Late Antique popes from Early Modern ones, they still imagine that it’s the sort of job a wordly-type of ambitious man guns for. This is the cynicism of our age.

Being Bishop of Rome certainly had its advantages in Late Antiquity. It also, however, came with extraordinary duties and responsibilities with very little in the way of wealth or secular power. The Bishop of Rome was shepherd of the church in the city of Rome where he had liturgical and preaching duties. He was also Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy where he had canon-legal duties and administrative tasks.

Beyond that, he was, or was at least becoming (sometimes through his own connivance, I admit, but sometimes through the activities of those beyond his Italian sphere of influence), the most powerful ecclesiastical leader in the Latin Church, which is not all that glorious at a time when most of that church is beyond the Bishop of Rome’s effective control and in the slow process of being dismembered from the Roman Empire and reconstituted as Barbarian Kingdoms.

If the Roman Episcopacy were the sort of thing to which worldly, ambitious men were drawn for the reasons cynics imagine men become Pope, it is also worthy of note that the first aristocrat to become Bishop of Rome was Felix III (pope, 483-92). One would expect more aristocratic popes much sooner if the job were all that enticing in the temporal sphere.

As I said, the question is itself illuminating.

To answer it more fully, Pope Leo I ‘the Great’ (pope, 440-61) was not a ‘bad’ pope. He had no mistress. Was not a paedophile. Led no armies into battle. Had no ‘nephews’ promoted to high ecclesiastical or secular office. Did not misappropriate church funds for his own use. Did not elaborately furnish the Lateran Palace for his own use.

He did use church funds to restore churches, both their fabric as well as their liturgical goods, damaged in the Vandal sack of 455, though. He did try to use the expanding authority of the Bishop of Rome to see what he felt was good governance and good doctrine established in the Roman world, from Gaul and Spain to Egypt and Palestine. He did go on a diplomatic mission to stop Attila from sacking Rome.

Whatever you may feel about his place in history in other ways, Leo I was certainly not a ‘bad’ pope.