So, it’s goodbye to Eggs, aka, Pope Benedict XVI. I can’t say I’ll miss him a whole lot, but that’s not surprising considering I’m an atheist with a strong dislike for religion and unscientific “belief” in all its forms. In the aftermath of his rather unexpected decision to resign, we’ve been subjected to the usual preliminary obituaries of his papacy, with all manner of people voicing their opinions about whether he was successful or otherwise. Today was his last day in office and now we have the rare and beautiful breathing space of an interregnum or interpontificatus (?) as it were, during which time the papacy can choose the next man to annoy and frustrate the hell out of us secular non-believers.
I have a strange relationship to the papacy, it must be said. Having done a PhD in early medieval Italian history and had a long obsession with the late Roman Empire and the cultural and religious transformation that took place during that period, I have long been fascinated by this ancient institution. It is worth remembering that Julius Caesar himself once held the title of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome, a position that came exclusively to be held by Christians in the fourth century once the Empire had made Christianity its official religion. The transition was not quite as smooth as this, but I’m not about to go into that sort of detail. Even in Caesar’s time, the position of Pontifex Maximus was already centuries old, which does lend the Papacy a certain cred for sustaining such an ancient institution.
As an unabashed fan of Roman civilization, culture and law, with apologies for the slavery and warmongering, I found a certain sympathy with the popes of Late Antiquity. With the slow decline and ultimate collapse of the Western Empire (a process by which they practically delegated themselves out of existence) the popes came to the forefront of Roman affairs, playing an increasingly important role in protecting Roman interests. People Leo I “The Great” even went so far as to confront Attila the Hun when he invaded Italy in AD 452 and persuaded him to turn back.
During the sixth century, after the devastating reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565), the papacy became the major player in the organisation and defence of the much reduced city of Rome. Presiding over the depopulated, overgrown wreck of the once-great city, with only one of ten aqueducts still functional, the popes did their best to mitigate the chaos that ensued shortly after the reconquest when the Lombards invaded to find inadequate resistance and easy plunder in the derelict metropolises of the Italian peninsula.
Perhaps the most outstanding figure of this age was Pope Gregory I, also “The Great” (c. 540 – 12 March 604) who held the position from AD 590 until his death in 604. Gregory, a Roman aristocrat with an at times almost desperate nostalgia for the long-passed glories of Roman dominion over western Europe, lamented the moribund state of present affairs and did his best to make a difference. Gregory attempted to re-energise the Church’s missionary work and to re-establish closer contact with Catholic bishops in Visigothic Spain and Frankish Gaul. He is most famous for sending Augustine of Canterbury to spread the word amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded formerly Roman and Christian Britain in the 5th century. The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The culture of education and learning promoted by the church during this period, helped significantly to spread literacy and preserve much of the dwindling knowledge accumulated during the heights of Roman power and civilization. On that score, props.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Papacy worked hard to shore up the pockets of territory it held in Italy, along with those still directly governed by representatives of the Eastern Roman Empire – based at Ravenna – against the further incursions of the Lombards who had established themselves throughout Italy. It also found itself increasingly at odds with and slowly divorced itself from the policies and administrative demands of the Eastern Empire. Indeed, there was a most curious instance in 663, during the time of Pope Vitalian (657-72) when Emperor Constans II (641-68) actually visited Rome from Constantinople, allegedly considering moving his court there in the wake of a string of Islamic conquests of Roman territory in the Middle East and North Africa. In the end he stayed a mere twelve days, during which time he stripped the city’s churches of their valuables, including the gold gilding from the roof of the Pantheon. It’s hardly necessary to say that this did not leave a good impression.
When, in 726, the Emperor Leo III (717-741) decreed a new policy of Iconoclasm, banning the veneration of images, he faced revolts not only in Greece, but in the Italian territories as well. The defiant attitudes of Popes Gregory II and III soured relations with the Eastern Empire even further. Gregory II’s decision to excommunicate iconoclasts in Italy resulted in Leo’s retaliation by which he, on paper, transferred the provinces of southern Italy and Illyricum to the Patriarch of Constantinople. He further attempted to put down an armed outbreak in the Exarchate of Ravenna by sending a large fleet, but its destruction in a storm marked not only the failure of his attempts to bring Italy to heel, but also marked the final separation of the Italian territories from the Eastern Empire. From this period onwards, the destiny of all Italian territories was tied to that of the Papacy.
Likely the most significant figure of this period, however, was Pope Steven II (752-757) who first engineered an alliance with the Franks to protect against the constant Lombard threat. With the fall of Ravenna in 751, the Lombards began to look to Rome to complete their conquest of Italy. Not only did Stephen II prove himself extremely agile in negotiating with the Lombards and preventing further incursions, but he went so far as to travel to Paris to persuade the Franks, under Pepin the Short (752-768), to cross the alps in 756 and chastise the pesky Lombards in a manner they weren’t likely to forget in a hurry. The Franks forced the Lombards to surrender their recent conquests and guaranteed the lands between Rome and Ravenna should remain under the rule of the Duchy of Rome, now very much an independent entity.
It wasn’t, however, until 774, during the papacy of Adrian I, that the Lombard problem was solved once and for all. Distrustful of the intentions of the Lombards, Adrian appealed first to the eastern emperor, who was unable or unwilling to assist, and then to the Frankish King Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne saw it as a great opportunity both to obtain the support and legitimacy offered by the papacy, expand his territories into Italy, and get rid of the nuisance that was the Lombards once and for all. He did all of this and more of course, which is why his name is so well known into the present.
From here on in the fortunes of the Papacy are far too complex and lengthy to narrate, suffice to say that towards the end of the ninth century, a period of decline set in which resulted in the period between 904 and 964 being referred to as a saeculum obscurum, or dark age. One scholar went so far as to refer to the Papacy of the 10th century as the “pornocracy,” so corrupt and seedy were its affairs.
So, in a nutshell, the early medieval period in Italy saw some rather extraordinary characters fill the role of pope, some of whom had very interesting names. Consider the following monickers:
Hilarius I, 461-468
Agapetus I, 535-536
Pelagius I, 556-561
Sisinnius, 15 January, 708- 4 February, 708
And the list goes on. All we get these days is boring old John Paul and Benedict. Indeed, I’m desperately hoping the new Pope will have a peculiar fascination with one of these early figures and take on a name not spoken for centuries. How great would it be to have Hormisdas II giving the Christmas homilies instead of the likely inevitable John Paul III or some equally dull name?
Not all of the Popes during this period were Italian either. Some came from Syria, Palestine, Constantinople. Perhaps, should another non-Italian Pope don the mantle and pick up the sceptre or whatever they get up to, we might see a more creative choice of name.
Speaking of the future, one cannot help but keep one eye on the past. It seems ironic, considering how many popes have proven so divisive throughout history, that the title “Pontifex” has a curious metaphorical meaning. It literally means bridge-builder, on account of the fact that the position originally also included these duties. It is fair to say that in more recent years the papacy has attempted to build bridges between itself and other religions, or those who have felt themselves victimised, hurt or excluded by its policies. Of course, it moves with the pace of continental drift, although the shake up of Vatican II was, historically speaking, the earthquake that broke the Richter Scale.
Either way, I don’t hold much hope of any significant change taking place and, on this front, without wishing to sound illiberal or reactionary, I’m not entirely sure I want the Catholic Church to change at all. Not because I support their backward policies on abortion, contraception and er, believing in God etc, but precisely because I want them NOT to be relevant to the modern world. These sorry bastards have persecuted people throughout history, burning them at the stake, sending them to prison, exile, condemning the cultures and religions of whole peoples as worthless pagan shite and brutally enforcing their own dogma, how dare they turn around and say, oh, perhaps we were wrong about that? They should stand by all their sorry and misguided beliefs, especially where people have died opposing them, and be shown up for the uselessly effete bunch of medieval paedophile-protecting snobs they actually are. My fascination with the survival of an ancient Roman institution does not necessarily mean I wish to accommodate its continuation into the future.
One thing I will say about the Pope, which I do consider to be a sort of positive, is that despite the relative hypocrisy of the institution’s history, at least he regularly goes around preaching peace in the world these days. That at least, is a nice thing, and I’ve often wondered if present tensions between “the West” and Islam wouldn’t be tempered by the presence of a similar central figure preaching peace to Muslims the world over. Not to suggest that Islam is intrinsically warlike or even an aggressor, but if such a message were broadcast by a figure of equal authority who garnered an equal degree of respect and deference, then perhaps there would be a few less instances of people resorting to violence. Of course, it is important to note that considering the degree of hostility to Islam offered by Israel, the USA and various other nations including my own, Australia, the anger is justified. But still, non-violence is always preferable and allows one to retain the moral high ground. Controversial as it might sound, and in lieu of people just quitting religion altogether, an Islamic Pope might not be such a bad thing.
So, in brief conclusion, bring on Pope Hormisdas II, I say, and may you oversee a rapid decline in membership and faith in your antiquated institution.