In the Germanic invasions lie the origins of the first nations of modern Europe, though when the western empire disappeared the barbarian peoples did not occupy areas that looked much like later states. They fall clearly into four major and distinctive groups. The northernmost, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes, were moving into the old Roman province of Britain from the fourth century onwards, settling there well before the island was abandoned to its inhabitants when the last emperor to be proclaimed there by his soldiers crossed with his army to Gaul in 407. Britain was then contested between successive bands of invaders and the Romano-British inhabitants until there emerged from it at the beginning of the seventh century a group of seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fringed by a Celtic world consisting of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Though the first British still lived on in communities which seem to have survived sometimes to the tenth century, and perhaps longer, Romano-British civilization disappeared more completely than its equivalents anywhere else in the western empire. Even the language was to go; a Germanic tongue almost completely replaced it. We may have a fleeting glimpse of the last spasms of Romano-British resistance in the legend of King Arthur and his knights, which could be a reminiscence of the cavalry-fighting skills of the late imperial army, but that is all. Of administrative or cultural continuity between this imperial province and the barbarian kingdoms there is virtually no trace. The imperial heritage of the future England was purely physical. It lay in the ruins of towns and villas, occasional Christian crosses, or the great constructions like Hadrian’s wall, which were to puzzle newcomers until they came at last to believe that they were the work of giants of superhuman power. Some of these relics, like the complex of baths built upon the thermal springs at Bath, disappeared from sight for hundreds of years until rediscovered by the antiquaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The roads remained, sometimes serving for centuries as trade routes even when their engineering had succumbed to time, weather and pillage. Finally, there were the natural immigrants who had come with the Romans and stayed: animals like the ferrets, which often give an English country boy his first taste of the excitement of the hunt, or plants like the mustard, which was to spice the roast beef that became a minor national mythology over a thousand years later. But of the things of the mind left by the Romans we have hardly a trace. Romano-British Christianity, whatever it may have been, disappeared and the keepers of the faith retired for a time to the misty fastnesses where there brooded the monks of the Celtic Church. It was another Rome which was to convert the English nation, not the empire. Before that, Germanic tradition would be the preponderant formative influence as nowhere else within the old imperial territory.
Across the Channel, things were very different. Much survived. After its devastation by the Vandals, Gaul continued to lie in the shadow of the Visigoths of Aquitaine. Their share in repelling the Huns gave them greater importance than ever. To the north-east of Gaul, nevertheless, lay German tribes which were to displace them from this superiority, the Franks. Unlike the Visigoths, the Franks had not been converted by Arian clergy, in part because of this the future was to belong to them. They were to have a bigger impact on the shaping of Europe than any other barbarian people.
The graves of the first Franks reveal a warrior society, divided into a hierarchy of ranks. More willing to settle than some other barbarians, they were established in the fourth century in modern Belgium, between the Scheldt and the Meuse, where they became Roman foederati. Some of them moved on into Gaul. One group, settled at Tournai, threw up a ruling family subsequently called Merovingians; the third king (if this is the correct word) of this line was Clovis. His is the first great name in the history of the country known as Francia after the peoples which Clovis put together.
Clovis became ruler of the western Franks in 481. Though formally the subject of the emperor, he soon turned on the last Roman governors of Gaul and conquered lands far to the west and down to the Loire. Meanwhile the eastern Franks defeated the Alamanni and when Clovis had been elected their king, too, a Frankish realm straddled the lower Rhine valley and northern France. This was the heartland of the Frankish state which in due course appeared as the heir to Roman supremacy in north Europe. Clovis married a princess from another Germanic people, the Burgundians, who had settled in the Rhone valley and the area running south-east to modern Geneva and Besancon. She was a Catholic, though her people were Arians, and at some time after their marriage (traditionally in 496), and after a battlefield conversion which is reminiscent of Constantine’s, Clovis himself embraced Catholicism. This gave him the support of the Roman Church, the most important power still surviving from the empire in the barbarian lands, in what it now chose to regard as a religious war against the other Germanic peoples of Gaul. Catholicism was also the way to friendship with the Romano-Gaulish population. No doubt the conversion was political; it was also momentous. A new Rome was to rule in Gaul.
The Burgundians were Clovis’s first victims, though they were not subjugated completely until after his death, when they were given Merovingian princes but kept an independent state structure. The Visigoths were tackled next; they were left only the south-eastern territories they held north of the Pyrenees (the later Languedoc and Roussillon and Provence). Clovis was now the successor of the Romans in all Gaul; the emperor recognized it by naming him a consul.
The Frankish capital was moved to Paris by Clovis and he was buried in the church he had built there, the first Frankish king not to be buried as a barbarian. But this was not the start of the continuous history of Paris as a capital. A Germanic kingdom was not what later times would think of as a state nor what a Roman would recognize. It was a heritage composed partly of lands, partly of kinship groups. Clovis’s heritage was divided among his sons. The Frankish kingdom was not reunited until 558. A couple of years later it broke up again. Gradually, it settled down in three bits. One was Austrasia, with its capital at Metz and its centre of gravity east of the Rhine; Neustria was the western equivalent and had its capital at Soissons; under the same ruler, but distinct, was the kingdom of Burgundy. Their rulers tended to quarrel over the lands where these regions touched.
In this structure there begins to appear a Frankish nation no longer a collection of barbarian warbands, but peoples belonging to a recognizable state, speaking a Latin vernacular, and with an emerging class of landowning nobles. Significantly, from it there also comes a Christian interpretation of the barbarian role in history, the History of the Franks, by Gregory, Bishop of Tours, himself from the Romano-Gaulish aristocracy. Other barbarian peoples would produce similar works (the greatest, perhaps, is that written for England by the Venerable Bede) which sought to reconcile traditions in which paganism was still strong to Christianity and the civilized heritage. It must be said that Gregory presented a picture of the Franks after the death of his hero Clovis which was pessimistic; he thought the Frankish rulers had behaved so badly that their kingdom was doomed.
The Merovingians kept other barbarians out of Gaul, and took their lands north of the Alps from the Ostrogoths, where their greatest king was Theodoric. His right to rule in Italy, where he fought off other Germans, was recognized by the emperor in 497. He was utterly convinced of Rome’s authority; he had an emperor as godfather and had been brought up at Constantinople until he was eighteen. ‘Our royalty is an imitation of yours, a copy of the only Empire on earth’, he once wrote to the emperor in Constantinople from his capital in Ravenna. On his coins appeared the legend ‘Unvanquished Rome’ (Roma invicta), and when he went to Rome, Theodoric held games in the old style in the circus. Yet technically he was the only Ostrogoth who was a Roman citizen; his personal authority was accepted by the Senate but his countrymen were merely the mercenary soldiers of the empire. To civil offices he appointed Romans. One of them was his friend and adviser, the philosopher Boethius, who was to be possibly the most important single thinker through whom the legacy of the classical world passed to medieval Europe.
Theodoric seems to have been a judicious ruler, maintaining good relations with other barbarian peoples (he married Clovis’s sister) and enjoying some sort of primacy among them. But he did not share his own people’s Arian faith, and religious division told against Ostrogothic power in the long run. Unlike the Franks, and in spite of their ruler’s example, they were not to ally with the Roman past and after Theodoric the Ostrogoths were expelled from Italy and history by generals from the eastern empire. They left a ruined Italy, soon to be invaded by yet another barbarian people, the Lombards.
In the west Clovis had left the Visigoths virtually confined to Spain, from which they had driven the Vandals. Other Germanic peoples were already settled there. Its terrain presented quite special problems - as it has continued to do to all invaders and governments - and the Visigothic kingdom of Spain was not able to resist much more romanization than its founders had undergone in Gaul, where they had fused much less with existing society than had the Franks. The Visigoths - and there were not so very many of them, less than 100,000 at most - clustered about their leaders who spread out from Old Castile through the provinces; they then quarrelled so much that imperial rule was able to re-establish itself for more than a half-century in the south. Finally, the Visigothic kings turned to Catholicism and thus enlisted the authority of the Spanish bishops. In 587 begins the long tradition of Catholic monarchy in Spain.
What this adds up to is hard to say. Generalization is hazardous. Simple duration alone almost explains this; the Visigoths underwent three centuries of evolution between the creation of the kingdom of Toulouse and the end of their ascendancy in Spain. Much changed in so long a time. Though economic life and technology hardly altered except for the worse, mental and institutional forms were undergoing radical, if slow, transfermations in all the barbarian kingdoms. Soon it is not quite right to think of them still as merely such (except, perhaps, the Lombards). The Germanic tribesmen were a minority, often isolated in alien settings, dependent on routines long established by the particular environment for their living and forced into some sort of understanding with the conquered. The passage of their invasions must sometimes have seemed at close quarters like a flood tide, but when it had passed there were often only tiny, isolated pools of invaders left behind, here and there replacing the Roman masters, but often living alongside them and with them. Marriage between Roman and barbarian was not legal until the sixth century, but that was not much of a check. In Gaul the Franks took up its Latin, adding Frankish words to it. By the seventh century, western European society has already a very different atmosphere from that of the turbulent fifth.
None the less, a barbarian past left its imprint. In almost all the barbarian kingdoms society was long and irreversibly shaped by Germanic custom. This sanctioned a hierarchy reflected in the characteristic Germanic device for securing public order, the blood feud. Men - and women, and cattle, and property of all sorts - had in the most literal sense their price; wrongs done were settled by interesting a whole clan or family in the outcome if customary compensation were not forthcoming. Kings more and more wrote down and thus in a sense ‘published’ what such customs were. Literacy was so rare that there can have been no point in imagining devices such as the stele of Babylon or the white boards on which the decrees of Greek city-states were set out. Recording by a scribe on parchment for future consultation was the most that could be envisaged. None the less, in this Germanic world lie the origins of a jurisprudence one day to be carried across oceans to new cultures of European stock. The first institution to open the way to this was the acceptance of kingly or collective power to declare what was to be recorded. All the Germanic kingdoms moved towards the writing down and codification of their law.
Where the early forms of public action are not religious or supernatural, they are usually judicial, and it is hardly surprising that, for example, the Visigothic court of Toulouse should have sought the skills of Roman legal experts. But this was only one form of a respect which almost every barbarian aristocracy showed for Roman tradition and forms. Theodoric saw himself as the representative of the emperor; his problem did not lie in identifying his own role, but in the need to avoid irritating his followers who could be provoked by any excess of romanization. Perhaps similar considerations weighed with Clovis before his conversion, which was an act of identification with Empire as well as with Church. At the level just below such heroic figures, both Frankish and Visigothic noblemen seem to have taken pleasure in showing themselves the heirs of Rome by writing to one another in Latin and patronizing light literature. There was a tie of interest with the Romans, too; Visigothic warriors sometimes found employment in putting down the revolts of peasants who menaced the Romano-Gaulish landowner as well as the invaders. Yet so long as Arianism stood in the way, there was a limit to the identification with romanitas possible for the barbarians. The Church, after all, was the supreme relic of empire west of Constantinople.
The eastern emperors had not seen these changes with indifference. But troubles in their own domains hamstrung them and in the fifth century their barbarian generals dominated them too. They watched with apprehension the last years of the puppet emperors of Ravenna but recognized Odoacer, the deposer of the last of them. They maintained a formal claim to rule over a single empire, east and west, without actually questioning Odoacer’s independence in Italy until an effective replacement was available in Theodoric, to whom the title of patrician was given. Meanwhile, Persian wars and the new pressure of Slavs in the Balkans were more than enough to deal with. It was not until the accession of the Emperor Justinian in 527 that reality seemed likely to be restored to imperial government.
In retrospect Justinian seems something of a failure. Yet he behaved as people thought an emperor should; he did what most people still expected that a strong emperor would one day do. He boasted that Latin was his native tongue; for all the wide sweep of the empire’s foreign relations, he could still think plausibly of reuniting and restoring the old empire, centred on Constantinople though it now had to be. We labour under the handicap of knowing what happened, but he reigned a long time and his contemporaries were more struck by his temporary successes. They expected them to herald a real restoration. After all, no one could really conceive a world without the empire. The barbarian kings of the West gladly deferred to Constantinople and accepted titles from it; they did not grasp at the purple themselves. Justinian sought autocratic power, and his contemporaries found the goal both comprehensible and realistic. There is a certain grandeur about his conception of his role; it is a pity that he should have been so unattractive a man.
Justinian was almost always at war. Often he was victorious. Even the costly Persian campaigns (and payments to the Persian king) were successful in the limited sense that they did not lose the empire much ground. Yet they were a grave strategic handicap; the liberation of his resources for a policy of recovery in the West, which had been Justinian’s aim in his first peace with the Persians, always eluded him. Nevertheless, his greatest general, Belisarius, destroyed Vandal Africa and recovered that country for the empire (though it took ten years to reduce it to order). He went on to invade Italy and begin the struggle which ended in 554 with the final eviction of the Ostrogoths from Rome and the unification once more of all Italy under imperial rule, albeit an Italy devastated by the imperial armies as it had never been by the barbarians. These were great achievements, though badly followed up. More were to follow in southern Spain, where the imperial armies exploited rivalry between Visigoths and again set up imperial government in Cordoba. Throughout the western Mediterranean, too, the imperial fleets were supreme; for a century after Justinian’s death, Byzantine ships moved about unmolested.
It did not last. By the end of the century most of Italy was gone again, this time to the Lombards, another Germanic people and the final extinguishers of imperial power in the peninsula. In eastern Europe, too, in spite of a vigorous diplomacy of bribery and missionary ideology, Justinian had never been successful in dealing with the barbarians. Perhaps enduring success there was impossible. The pressure from behind on these migrant peoples was too great and, besides, they could see great prizes ahead; ‘the barbarians,’ wrote one historian of the reign, ‘having once tasted Roman wealth, never forgot the road that led to it’. By Justinian’s death, in spite of his expensive fortress-building, the ancestors of the later Bulgars were settled in Thrace and a wedge of barbarian peoples separated west and east Rome.
Justinian’s conquests, great as they were, could not be maintained by his successors in the face of the continuing threat from Persia, the rise of Slav pressure in the Balkans and, in the seventh century, of a new rival, Islam. A terrible time lay ahead. Yet even then Justinian’s legacy would be operative through the diplomatic tradition he founded, the building of a network of influences among the barbarian peoples beyond the frontier, playing off one against another, bribing one prince with tribute or a title, standing godparent to the baptized children of another. If it had not been for the client princedoms of the Caucasus who were converted to Christianity in Justinian’s day, or his alliance with the Crimean Goths (which was to last seven centuries), the survival of the eastern empire would have been almost impossible. In this sense, too, the reign sets out the ground-plan of a future Byzantine sphere.
Within the empire, Justinian left an indelible imprint. At his accession the monarchy was handicapped by the persistence of party rivalries which could draw upon popular support, but in 53 2 this led to a great insurrection which made it possible to strike at the factions and, though much of the city was burned, this was the end of domestic threats to Justinian’s autocracy. It showed itself henceforth more and more consistently and nakedly.
Its material monuments were lavish; the greatest is the basilica of St Sophia itself (532-7), but all over the empire public buildings, churches, baths and new towns mark the reign and speak for the inherent wealth of the eastern empire. The richest and most civilized provinces were in Asia and Egypt; Alexandria, Antioch and Beirut were their great cities. A nonmaterial, institutional, monument of the reign was Justinian’s codification of Roman law. In four collections a thousand years of Roman jurisprudence was put together in a form which gave it deep influence across the centuries and helped to shape the modern idea of the state. Justinian’s efforts to win administrative and organizational reform were far less successful. It was not difficult to diagnose ills known to be dangerous as long before as the third century. But given the expense and responsibilities of Empire, permanent remedies were hard to find. The sale of offices, for example, was known to be an evil and Justinian abolished it, but then had to tolerate it when it crept back.
The main institutional response to the empire’s problem was a progressive regimentation of its citizens. In part, this was in the tradition of regulating the economy which he had inherited. Just as peasants were tied to the soil, craftsmen were now attached to their hereditary corporations and guilds; even the bureaucracy tended to become hereditary. The resulting rigidity was unlikely to make imperial problems easier to solve.
It was unfortunate, too, that a quite exceptionally disastrous series of natural calamities fell on the east at the beginning of the sixth century: they go far to explain why it was hard for Justinian to leave the empire in better fettle than he found it. Earthquake, famine, plague devastated the cities and even the capital itself, where men saw phantoms in the streets. The ancient world was a credulous place, but tales of the emperor’s capacity to take off his head and then put it on again, or to disappear from sight at will, suggest that under these strains the mental world of the eastern empire was already slipping its moorings in classical civilization. Justinian was to make the separation easier by his religious outlook and policies, another paradoxical outcome, for it was far from what he intended. After it had survived for eight hundred years, he abolished the academy of Athens; he wanted to be a Christian emperor, not a ruler of unbelievers, and decreed the destruction of all pagan statues in the capital. Worse still, he accelerated the demotion of the Jews in civic status and the reduction of their freedom to exercise their religion. Things had already gone a long way by then. Pogroms had long been connived at and synagogues destroyed; now Justinian went on to alter the Jewish calendar and interfere with the Jewish order of worship. He even encouraged barbarian rulers to persecute Jews. Long before the cities of western Europe, Constantinople had a ghetto.
Justinian was all the more confident of the rightness of asserting imperial authority in ecclesiastical affairs because (like the later James I of England) he had a real taste for theological disputation. Sometimes the consequences were unfortunate; such an attitude did nothing to renew the loyalty to the empire of the Nestorians and Monophysites, heretics who had refused to accept the definitions of the precise relationship of God the Father to God the Son laid down in 451 at a council at Chalcedon. The theology of such deviants mattered less than the fact that their symbolic tenets were increasingly identified with important linguistic and cultural groups. The empire began to create its Ulsters. Harrying heretics intensified separatist feeling in parts of Egypt and Syria. In the former, the Coptic Church went its own way in opposition to Orthodoxy in the later fifth century and the Syrian Monophysites followed, setting up a ‘Jacobite’ church. Both were encouraged and sustained by the numerous and enthusiastic monks of those countries. Some of these sects and communities, too, had important connections outside the empire, so that foreign policy was involved. The Nestorians found refuge in Persia and, though not heretics, the Jews were especially influential beyond the frontiers; Jews in Iraq supported Persian attacks on the empire and Jewish Arab states in the Red Sea interfered with the trade routes to India when hostile measures were taken against Jews in the empire.
Justinian’s hopes of reuniting the western and eastern Churches were to be thwarted in spite of his zeal. A potential division between them had always existed because of the different cultural matrices in which each had been formed. The western Church had never accepted the union of religious and secular authority which was the heart of the political theory of the eastern empire; the empire would pass away as others had done (and the Bible told) and it would be the Church which would prevail against the gates of hell. Now such doctrinal divergences became more important, and separation had been made more likely by the breakdown in the West. A Roman pope visited Justinian and the emperor spoke of Rome as the ‘source of priesthood’, but in the end two Christian communions were first to go their own ways and then violently to quarrel. Justinian’s own view, that the emperor was supreme, even on matters of doctrine, fell victim to clerical intransigence on both sides.
This seems to imply (as do so many others of his acts) that Justinian’s real achievement was not that which he sought and temporarily achieved, the re-establishment of the imperial unity, but a quite different one, the easing of the path towards the development of a new, Byzantine civilization. After him, it was a reality, even if not yet recognized. Byzantium was evolving away from the classical world towards a style clearly related to it, but independent of it. This was made easier by contemporary developments in both eastern and western culture, by now overwhelmingly a matter of new tendencies in the Church.
As often in later history, the Church and its leaders had not at first recognized or welcomed an opportunity in disaster. They identified themselves with what was collapsing and understandably so. The collapse of Empire was for them the collapse of civilization; the Church in the West was, except for municipal authority in the impoverished towns, often the sole institutional survivor of romanitas. Its bishops were men with experience of administration, at least as likely as other local notables to be intellectually equipped to grapple with new problems. A semi-pagan population looked to them with superstitious awe and attributed to them near-magical power. In many places they were the last embodiment of authority left when imperial armies went away and imperial administration crumbled, and they were lettered men among a new unlettered ruling class which craved the assurance of sharing the classical heritage. Socially, they were often drawn from the leading provincial families; that meant that they were sometimes great aristocrats and proprietors with material resources to support their spiritual role. Naturally, new tasks were thrust upon them.
This was not all. The end of the classical world also saw two new institutions emerge in the western Church, which were to be lifelines in the dangerous rapids between a civilization which had collapsed and one yet to be born. The first was Christian monasticism, a phenomenon first appearing in the East. It was about 285 that a Copt, St Antony, retired to a hermit’s life in the Egyptian desert. His example was followed by others who watched, prayed and strove with demons or mortified the flesh by fasting and more dubious disciplines. Some of them drew together in communities. In the next century this new form of spirituality established itself in a communal form in the Levant and Syria. From there, the idea spread to the West, to the Mediterranean coast of France. In a crumbling society such as fifth-century Gaul the monastic ideal of undistracted worship and service to God in prayer, within the discipline of an ascetic rule, was attractive to many men and women of intellect and character. Through it they could assure personal salvation. The communities attracted many from among the well-born who sought a refuge from a changing world. Unfriendly critics who hankered after the old Roman ideal of service to the state condemned them for shirking their proper responsibilities to society by withdrawing from it. Nor did churchmen always welcome what they saw as the desertion of some of the most zealous among their congregations. Yet many of the greatest churchmen of the age were monks and the institution prospered. Landowners founded communities or endowed existing ones with lands. There were some scandals and no doubt many compromises of principle in grappling with patrons and men of power.
One Italian monk, of whom we know little except his achievement and that he was believed to work miracles, found the state of monasticism shocking. This was St Benedict, one of the most influential men in the Church’s history. In 529 he set up a monastery at Monte Cassino in southern Italy, giving it a new rule which he had compiled by sifting and selecting among others available. It is a seminal document of western Christianity and therefore of western civilization. It directed the attention of the monk to the community, whose abbot was to have complete authority. The community’s purpose was not merely to provide a hotbed for the cultivation or the salvation of individual souls but that it should worship and live as a whole. The individual monk was to contribute to its task in the framework of an ordered routine of worship, prayer and labour. From the individualism of traditional monasticism a new human instrument was forged; it was to be one of the main weapons in the armoury of the Church.
St Benedict did not set his sights too high and this was one secret of his success; the Rule was within the powers of ordinary men who loved God and his monks did not need to mutilate either body or spirit. Its success in estimating their need was demonstrated by its rapid spread. Very quickly Benedictine monasteries appeared everywhere in the West. They became the key sources of missionaries and teaching for the conversion of pagan England and Germany. In the west, only the Celtic Church at its fringe clung to the older, eremitical model of the monkish life.
The Church’s other new great support was the papacy. The prestige of St Peter’s see and the legendary guardianship of the Apostle’s bones always gave Rome a special place among the bishoprics of Christendom. It was the only one in the West to claim descent from one of the Apostles. But in principle it had little else to offer; the western Church was a junior branch and it was in the Churches of Asia that the closest links with the Apostolic age could be asserted. Something more was required for the papacy to begin its rise to the splendid pre-eminence which was taken for granted by the medieval world.
To begin with there was the city. Rome had been seen for centuries as the capital of the world, and for much of the world that had been true. Its bishops were the business colleagues of Senate and Emperor and the departure of the imperial court only left their eminence more obvious. The arrival in Italy of alien civil servants from the eastern empire, whom the Italians disliked as much as they did the barbarians, directed new attention to the papacy as the focus of Italian loyalties. It was, too, a wealthy see, with an apparatus of government commensurate with its possessions. It generated administrative skill superior to anything to be found outside the imperial administration itself. This distinction stood out all the more clearly in times of trouble, when the barbarians lacked these skills. The see of Rome had the finest records of any; already in the fifth century papal apologists were exploiting them. The characteristically conservative papal stance, the argument that no new departures are being made but that old positions are being defended, is already present and was wholly sincere; popes did not see themselves as conquerors of new ideological and legal ground; but as men desperately trying to keep the small foothold the Church had already won.
This was the setting of the papacy’s emergence as a great historical force. The fifth-century Leo the Great was the first pope under whom the new power of the bishop of Rome was clearly visible. An emperor declared papal decisions to have the force of law and Leo vigorously asserted the doctrine that the popes spoke in the name of St Peter. He assumed the title pontifex maximus, discarded by the emperors. It was believed that his intervention by visiting Attila had staved off the Hun attack on Italy; bishops in the West who had hitherto resisted claims for Rome’s primacy became more willing to accept them in a world turned upside-down by barbarians. Still, though, Rome was a part of the state church of an empire whose religion Justinian saw as above all the emperor’s concern.
The pope in whom the future medieval papacy is most clearly revealed was also the first pope who had been a monk. In Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604, there thus came together the two great institutional innovations of the early Church. He was a statesman of great insight. A Roman aristocrat, loyal to the empire and respectful of the emperor, he was nevertheless the first pope who fully accepted the barbarian Europe in which he reigned; his pontificate at last reveals a complete break with the classical world. He saw as his duty the first great missionary campaign, one of whose targets was pagan England, to which he sent Augustine of Canterbury in 596. He struggled against the Arian heresy and was delighted by the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism. He was as much concerned with the Germanic kings as with the emperor in whose name he claimed to act, but was also the doughtiest opponent of the Lombards; for help against them he turned both to the emperor and, more significantly, the Franks. Yet the Lombards also made the pope, of necessity, a political power. Not only did they cut him off from the imperial representative at Ravenna but he had to negotiate with them when they stood before the walls of Rome. Like other bishops in the West who inherited civilian authority, he had to feed his city and govern it. Slowly Italians came to see the pope as successor to Rome as well as to St Peter.
In Gregory the classical-Roman heritage and the Christian are subsumed; he represented something new though he can hardly have seen it like that. Christianity had been a part of the classical heritage, yet it was now turning away from much of it and was distinct from it. Significantly, Gregory did not speak Greek; nor did he feel he needed to. There had already been signs of transformation in the Church’s relations with the barbarians. With Gregory, one focus of this story has come at last to be Europe, not the Mediterranean basin. There were already sown in it the seeds of the future, though not of the near future; for most of the world’s people the existence of Europe for the next thousand years or so is almost irrelevant. But a Europe is at last discernible, unimaginably different though it may be from what was to come and limited to the west of the continent.
It was also decisively different from the past. The ordered, literate, unhurried life of the Roman provinces had given way to a fragmented society with, encamped in it, a warrior aristocracy and their tribesmen, sometimes integrated with the earlier inhabitants, sometimes not. Their chiefs were called kings and were certainly no longer merely chiefs, any more than their followers, after nearly two centuries of involvement with what Rome had left behind, were mere barbarians. It was in 550 that a barbarian king - a Goth - for the first time represented himself on his coins decked in the imperial insignia. Through the impression wrought on their imaginations by the relics of a higher culture, through the efficacy of the idea of Rome itself, and through the conscious and unconscious work of the Church, above all, these peoples were on their way to civilization and their art remains to prove it.
Of formal culture, they brought nothing with them to compare with antiquity. There was no barbarian contribution to the civilized intellect. Yet the cultural traffic was not all in one direction at less formal levels. The extent to which Christianity, or at least the Church, was still an elastic form must not be underrated. Everywhere Christianity had to flow in the channels available and these were defined by layers of paganism, Germanic upon Roman upon Celtic. The conversion of a king like Clovis did not mean that his people made at once even a formal adherence to Christianity; some were still pagan after generations had passed, as their graves showed. But this conservatism presented opportunities as well as obstacles. The Church could utilize the belief in folk magic, or the presence of a holy site which could associate a saint with respect for age-old deities of countryside and forest. Miracles, knowledge of which was assiduously propagated in the saints’ lives read aloud to pilgrims to their shrines, were the persuasive arguments of the age. Men were used to the magical interventions of the old Celtic deities or manifestations of Woden’s power. For most men then, as it has been for most of human history, the role of religion was not the provision of moral guidance or spiritual insight, but the propitiation of the unseen. Only over blood-sacrifice did Christianity draw the line between itself and the pagan past unambiguously; much other pagan practice and reminiscence it simply christened.
The process by which this came about has often been seen as one of decline and there are certainly reasonable arguments to be made to that effect. In material terms, barbarian Europe was an economically poorer place than the empire of the Antonines; all over Europe tourists gape still at the monuments of Rome’s builders as our barbarian predecessors must have done. Yet out of this confusion something quite new and immeasurably more creative than Rome would emerge in due course. It was perhaps impossible for contemporaries to view what was happening in anything but apocalyptic terms. But some may have seen just a little beyond this, as the concerns of Gregory suggest.