Rome, Crossroads of the World

How the Romans Became the Italians

Rome was not built in one day.


LIKE PARIS FROM THE TIME OF Napoleon III to the eve of the Second World War, Alexandria was for many years the place to be, the “City of Light” in every sense. But as with all shining cultural capitals, it gave way at last to a new star. By the time of Clement, Alexandria had already lost much of its glow as men on the move, like Galen, abandoned the declining cities of the Greek Easta and were drawn inexorably west to Rome, the immense upstart that had become the capital of the world.

Rome began as the insignificant market town of a Latin-speaking tribe of sharp-eyed, closemouthed herdsmen and farmers who settled around a ford in the River Tiber, prospered in their cultivations, and flourished in their populations. The Latins overwhelmed another tribe, the Sabines, abducting their women, and were in turn overwhelmed by a more advanced people from the north, the innovating Etruscans, who gave their name to Tuscany and who, though they adopted the language of Rome’s inhabitants, expanded the rustic town by means of Greek-inspired public works new to the older populations: the draining of marshes, extensive pavement, city walls, and large buildings of brick and stone. The tidy but impressive result was Roma quadrata, a square, walled city whose combined population found itself in a position to capture territory far beyond its borders, which made Rome in short order the force that controlled central Italy. Besides their territorial acquisitions, the Romans steadily increased their inventory of slaves, the sinewy, silent muscle of their economy.

The political structure of this new power was composed of Etruscan kingship, an advisory council of clan chieftains called Senatus (or Meeting of Elders), and a tribal assembly of citizens. This structure would come to be called Res Publica (Public Thing), later elided—by the general Latin tendency to soften sequences of consonants—into Repubblica. But this designation veiled the purpose of Rome’s political machinery, which was operated on behalf of the leading families. In time, the role of the Senate would gain in prestige, the kingship would be replaced by an elected executive of two consuls, and the citizen assembly would wither, retaining in the end little more influence than a mob in the marketplace.

More important than the nature of the Roman political establishment, however, was the Roman temperament, an admirable stability born of relentless practicality and common sense, combined with an openness to innovation, provided the innovation was of obvious service to a practical goal. And there was but one goal, really: unspectacular but steady increase in the wealth of Rome’s leading families (and, to a lesser extent, of all her citizens) by means of territorial expansion. Never in human history has real estate been more highly prized.

By gradual conquest, the city became master of the Italian peninsula; by the beginning of the second century B.C., she had added Spain, northwest Africa, southern Gaul, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica to her possessions. Naturally adept at military strategy and expert at administration and accounting, the Romans ruled their new possessions frugally and reasonably; and ever more wealth flowed to the mother city from taxes and trade. As coin poured in, so did exotic goods and people, as well as provincial families bent on keeping a house in town so that they too might sup on the excitement of urban life. The result was an enormously expanded Rome, always rebuilding her walls at further distances from the original settlement.

But in the shadow of Rome’s explosive building program a new underclass was massing, clueless, all but homeless, far more dispossessed than any slave, and easy prey to demagogues. This new proletariat included gamblers who had lost their togas in the acquisition game, fools who had spent their modest estates on evanescent luxuries, and the perennial urban poor, adept at pickpocketing, stings, and rackets but otherwise unemployable, demanding public welfare. Though the old aristocracy continued to recite its devotion to the ancient Roman virtues of order and thrift, this new class possessed but one virtue, its votes, which it sold happily enough to public figures, contentiously cutthroat in the great race for riches. Class warfare ensued, as representatives of thePopulares and the Optimates—I could almost write Democrats and Republicans—struggled over the direction of the Roman Republic, each politician pretending to represent what was best for Rome, all the while grabbing whatever additional wealth he could lay his hands on. As stoical Cicero moaned over each new scandal, “O tempora! O mores!” (What times these are! What morals!)

The upshot was a civil war, then another, then a third, all fought within the first century B.C. In the end, the Republic was “saved” through its elimination and replacement by a new political order in which all power was vested in one man, Caesar Imperator (Commander-in-Chief, thence Emperor), whose empire would soon stretch from the border of present-day Iran in the east to Scotland in the west, from the entirety of north Africa in the south to the River Rhine in the north. The first emperor, Augustus,b ruled for more than forty years, setting the style for his many successors. He built the marmoreal Rome that lives in memory (and in not a few still-standing shrines and monuments, public spaces and private palaces); he accepted the honors of a god and was received as such throughout the imitation-Romes of his far-flung empire, where the most impressive buildings were often temples dedicated to Divine Caesar. (“Great is Caesar: God must be with him!”) Not for a moment was he distracted from his main purposes: the efficient administration of his vast bureaucracy, carrying the emperor’s awesome presence to every corner of his territories, and the collection of his taxes.

Augustus died in the second decade of the first century, when Jesus of Nazareth was still an unknown teenager in a dark corner of the empire. By the second century—the time of Clement and Galen—Rome had reached its zenith. Too large and diverse to be as perfect as Alexandria, it was the New York of the ancient world. Because it attracted would-be winners from everywhere, there was no food or face, no costume or custom you could not find here. If it existed somewhere in the known world, there was an example of it in the streets of this city, crossroads of the world, teeming with a population of more than a million souls, four times that of any other ancient metropolis. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. And if your luck ran out, you could molder in obscurity in one of the crammed and crumbling tenements that teetered noisily over narrow alleys far from the august monuments of the city’s imperial center.

Lunching one day at a favorite trattoria and watching a variety of convivial Roman families enjoy their afternoon meal and their companions at table, I wondered how the ancient Romans had ever turned into the modern Italians. Unlike many other ancient stocks, the Romans are more or less the same people they were in the time of the Caesars. Whereas the once dark-haired Irish are today much mixed with Viking genes (as the red-gold hair of many testifies), the British with Celtic, Italian, and especially German genes, and the Greeks with the genes of the Turks and the South Slavs, the Italians of today are the direct descendants of those who inhabited the Italian peninsula in the centuries before Christ, in the centuries of the Caesars, in the days of Dante, of Michelangelo, of Garibaldi, of Fiat, Loren, and Armani. More southerners (with their undoubted African, Greek, Arabian, and Norman genes) have moved north; and the gene pool of the Lombards and other Germanic tribes shows itself in the honey-colored hair, pale skin, and towering height of a few northerners, but the faces of the vast majority of Italians are the same faces that peer at us from ancient portraits in marble, metal, mosaic, wax, fresco, and coral. As an observant American friend resident in Rome remarked recently, “Only this morning I saw Julius Caesar strolling across the piazza.”

But if the Italians still look like their ancient counterparts—with their small feet and expressive hands, their well-knit bodies, their healthy skin, their shining black hair, their large noses and knowing faces, their profoundly brown eyes, their sense of personal presentation—their souls have changed considerably. These, after all, were the military geniuses who conquered the world and crucified without remorse any troublemaker who dared get in their way, who enjoyed nothing so much as an afternoon watching slaves slaughter one another in the arena or an outdoor evening frolic lit by human torches. Those soulful brown eyes were once as glazed with vindictive cruelty as human eyes have ever been.

And yet today flags of peace fly everywhere—rainbow flags petitioning for PACE against a skyblue field. To protest George W. Bush’s imperial adventure in Iraq, Italians organized the largest antiwar demonstration in world history, as many as three million protesters (by some estimates) crowding into the streets of Rome (whose normal population totals somewhat less than three million), stopping all traffic while trying to reach the event’s announced center, the enormous piazza in front of Rome’s cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano. Most had to abandon their goal and so stood singing, dancing, and waving their flags wherever they found themselves throughout the labyrinthine streets and sunlit squares of Rome. It was a day on which one could believe in human solidarity.

Italy was one of only three nations—the others being Bulgaria and Denmark—whose country-wide program to hide Jews from the Nazis still provokes admiration. Alone among the nations, the Italians had no prominent political or religious figure to lead them toward these brave acts of salvation. In Denmark, the king did his best to protect Jewish citizens; in Bulgaria, the Orthodox patriarch collaborated with leading politicians to save the entire Jewish population of the country. The wily Italians, who were led by a fascist dictator and a silent pope, nonetheless saved eighty percent of their Jews by using every underhanded stratagem they could think of. Their effective goodness, it must be admitted, is compounded as much of an ancient cynical realism—what Carlo Levi called the “ironic pride” of the Romans—as it is of an acquired love of God and man.

As the historical record shows, it was the Italian state of Tuscany that first conceived of banning all judicial executions (as well as torture!)—on November 30, 1786, two centuries before elimination of the death penalty became an item on international agendas. Today, Italy leads the world in opposition to that cruel form of retribution; and state-sponsored executions, scarcely reported elsewhere, are front-page news. Whenever another country signs the international moratorium on the death penalty, the Colosseum, universal Roman symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, is lit in the night by redeeming spotlights, as are famous civic monuments throughout Italy and, with Italian encouragement, monuments from Brussels to Buenos Aires. Members of the Italian Community of Sant’Egidio have repeatedly befriended death row inmates throughout the world, many of whom have sealed those friendships by requesting that after their executions their ashes be interred in Italy.c Throughout the Italian peninsula, Sister Helen Prejean, the American death row nun who wrote Dead Man Walking, is a media figure, attracting rock-star-size crowds of young people.

The dark side of Italy—from the Mafia to Mussolini—is so well-known that it needn’t be advertised here. All countries have their darkness and their light. Less well-known to outsiders, however, is the tender sympathy that blows through Italy like a gentle breeze and that still fights elsewhere for breath and life.

How did the Romans become the Italians? I hope this book as a whole will answer the question and demonstrate as well how an Italian vita nuova coursed beyond the borders of Italy and lifted other nations. But the overture to an answer—a kind of melodic sketch of the grand opera to come—lies in the obscure centuries that stretch from the initial Christianization of the pagan Romans through the dankness of the Dark Ages to the sprouting of a fresh and vibrant sensibility in the early twelfth century, which marks the beginning of the high Middle Ages. For the remainder of this Introduction, permit me to identify just a few of the buds that open tentatively between the fourth century and the twelfth, presaging the amazing rebirth of the twelfth, thirteenth, and early fourteenth centuries that will be the subject of the rest of the book.

In the early fourth century a new emperor, Constantine the Great, secured his position against all rivals and made himself into the first Christian to occupy the imperial throne. How Christian Constantine was is a matter of conjecture: he seems to have continued to pay homage to his father’s patronal god, the Unconquered Sun, and was not baptized till he lay on his deathbed in 337. But his Edict of Milan, issued in 313, established religious freedom throughout the empire and ended the persecution of Christians, which till that time had broken out occasionally like a recurring contagion, claiming lives and creating martyrs. Constantine, whatever his beliefs, was a practical military man who wished to eliminate unnecessary conflict of every kind and to rule as unified a populace as possible. In deference to Christian feeling, he proscribed the shameful ordeal of public crucifixion, which was known to have been inflicted on the Christian God-Man four centuries earlier and had remained till Constantine’s day a favorite Roman method of enforcing popular quiescence. He even made the detested cross his royal symbol—as unusual a thing to do as would be, say, a governor of Texas electing to wear a tiny electric chair or a poison-filled hypodermic needle on a chain around his neck.

While Constantine was hardly a squeamish fellow, his dramatic contribution to the easing of punishment and the relaxation of retribution within the Roman state could only have far-reaching consequences. Throughout the empire, Christian bishops, politically suspect figures in the pre-Constantinian centuries, were now invited into partnership with state officials for the great Roman enterprise of maintaining law and order. They lost no time in pressing for further gains: the outlawing of the bloody games and murderous gladiatorial displays that the Romans counted as their chief entertainments. Soon enough the bishops would be petitioning for an end to all manifestations of pagan sensibility—public prayers and processions, nude athletic contests, the casual mixing of naked men and women in the baths, even philosophical dialogues between pupils and pedagogues (who were often pedophiles)—that had long provided Greeks and Romans with public spectacle and private diversion.

The office of bishop (episkopos, Greek for “superintendent”), though an invention of the Christian church in the late first century, was modeled on the traditions of Roman government, heavily dependent on alpha males to apply the laws and keep the peace. Each bishop ruled over a “diocese”—originally a secular Greco-Roman term for a provincial administrative district. As time went on and Roman administration collapsed in Western Europe under the increasing pressures of incursions by Germanic barbarians, the bishop would often be the only Roman official left in a given locality capable of implementing a body of law and custom that could reestablish social peace and guide the new barbarian ruler (and the mixed population of Romans and barbarians that he now ruled) toward a rational political settlement.

In the time of Constantine, however, the barbarian threat still sounded like faraway thunder. In addition to his lightly worn Christianity, Constantine would be remembered chiefly for his dramatic change of imperial residence. He didn’t care much for Rome, too huddled and pluriform for his tastes, so he established a New Rome in the small Greek city of Byzantium on the southwestern shore of the Bosphorus. It was an excellent choice, for the site commanded Europe and Asia on opposite shores, was virtually impregnable, yet stood wide open to trade. Though Western Europe began to fracture into a puzzle of barbarian kingdoms little more than a century after Constantine’s death, the Byzantine Empire would remain in the hands of Constantine’s successors for ten centuries more—till in 1453 Byzantium, now a golden capital called Constantinople, fell to the Turks, who called it Istanbul.

When Constantine left Old Rome, he left the old capital to the pope, who quickly took on imperial perquisites and donned imperial panache. The pope and his brother bishops,d however, would soon need whatever smoke and mirrors they could command to dazzle the barbarians in what was to become a centuries-long struggle. The withdrawal of the emperor, and with him a significant portion of his armed forces, from Western Europe meant that Italy and the other western provinces were far more exposed to barbarian assault than they had ever been before. At the same time, the barbarians just beyond the border of the empire were experiencing an exploding population and the ensuing famine conditions that would make their overflow into Roman territory inevitable. To some extent, the popes—the good ones, at least—would have no choice but to take on the role of emperor, certainly insofar as the protection of Italy was concerned.

During the fourth century, however, the rumble of barbarian thunder could be ignored while Rome, gifted with lavish donations from the now-distant emperor, rebuilt itself into a Christian shrine, no longer possessing the living presence of the emperor but rather the saving relics of dead apostles and martyrs. Rome had long been deemed civitas aeterna, meaning that this marble-fronted colossus, its roots sunk in myth and legend, could never fail to rule the world. Now, under an elaborate program of church construction—to consecrate the bones of such slaughtered apostles as the New Testament figures Peter, Paul, and Priscilla and the grisly martyrdoms of such unyielding aristocratic ladies as Cecilia, Sabina, and Domitilla—the city was transformed into an earthly gateway to everlasting life, the Eternal City that it still is, focus for worldwide Christendom, font of ambiguous religious authority, and irresistible magnet for pious, free-spending pilgrims as well as for awed, if secular, tourists. From a Roman cleric’s point of view, worldly failure had been transmogrified into heavenly success; from a municipal accountant’s point of view, it was a very smart move.

The atmosphere of ancient political power now combined with the spectacle of continuing religious authority; and it would prove an impressively durable, not to say fertile, combination. “Most great cities,” writes the Princeton historian Theodore K. Rabb, “get only one shot at a golden age. Rome is the chief exception, an Eternal City not least for having hosted repeated outbursts of remarkable creativity.” From Virgil to Cavallini, from Fra Angelico to Michelangelo, from Bernini to Fellini, outsized creative geniuses have flourished along the banks of the stinking Tiber, always managing to serve up from Rome’s cultural depths surprising delights to a bedazzled world.

For centuries to come, the Italian church and the Byzantine emperor would continue to influence each other, even if at each interaction the distance between them seemed to lengthen and the wall separating the Latin West from the Greek East grew ever thicker and more impassable. But besides this gradual estrangement (with its lasting historical consequences),e there looms the more profound question of why the ancient Ecumene, East and West, turned Christian in the first place. Why did the classical Greeks and Romans abandon their ancestral altars, bury forever their old gods—mighty Zeus-Jupiter, shining Apollo, lust-inducing Aphrodite-Venus, bountiful Demeter-Ceres, darkly provocative Dionysos-Bacchus, and all those other age-old, larger-than-life presences—and turn in prayer to a bloody worm of a man nailed to a cross?

Conventional analysis customarily points to Constantine as the catalyst for this remarkable conversion. Everyone, after all, knew that Christians were in the emperor’s good graces and that upward social mobility might now depend on being part of the Christian club. Well, yes, that’s a fair enough description of what happened in the fourth century; but it hardly explains the position the church had already achieved by the time of Constantine’s accession. Over the course of three centuries Christianity had gone from being a minuscule sect of Judaism—itself a decidedly minor religion—to serving as the favorite whipping boy of psychopaths like the emperor Nero, to acting as a refuge for more and more disaffected Greco-Romans, whether runaway slaves, working-class artisans, housewives, or (at last) well-connected aristocrats.

Christianity’s claim that all were equal before God and all equally precious to him ran through class-conscious, minority-despising, weakness-ridiculing Greco-Roman society like a charged current. It is no wonder, really, that the primitive church seemed an almost fairyland harbor to women, who had always been kept in the shadows, and to slaves, who had never before been awarded a soupçon of social dignity or political importance. What is truly remarkable is how many aristocrats joined the still-illegal Jesus Movement in the course of the second and third centuries. Unlike the well-born opportunists of the fourth century who joined in the train of Constantine and his family, the Christians of earlier centuries were, by and large, distinguished by their sincerity and courage. They were seekers after truth who had gone quite out of their way to find it and then held to it despite the many inconveniences and even dangers that membership afforded.

There were no social scientists to count heads and take polls in the time of Constantine, but it seems obvious that such a down-to-earth fellow, such a realistic politician, would never have been tempted to join the ranks of a marginal sect or even a larger movement that was too obviously not of this world. If from a philosophical viewpoint Christianity offered Constantine internal consistency, it also offered him a practical vehicle for uniting the empire in common cause. The old gods, at war with one another, had already proven themselves unbelievable to the intelligentsia, and even for many simple souls pagan worship had devolved to little more than empty rote. Christianity was a religion that could outlast its adversaries—and that already boasted among its members many of the most reliable and upstanding people in the empire. If it did not claim a majority, it was inching ever closer to that goal. To Constantine it was obvious: Christianity was his ready-made instrument, the medium for revivifying the flagging spirits of an increasingly cynical populace and the bullhorn through which the imperial Thirteenth Apostle could speak to his subjects on God’s behalf.f

But what was the internal consistency that had drawn so many devotees? Was it only the—admittedly extraordinary—lure of spiritual equality? Was it that Jewish monotheism, now repackaged in its open-door Christian format, answered the previously unanswerable challenges to polytheism that had been posed by Greek philosophy? It was these things, for sure, and no doubt many others as well. But, above all, what gave Christianity its remarkable inner cohesion was the figure of Jesus Christ himself. Nor is it necessary to be a believing Christian to appreciate the immense strength that this stupendous character lent to the new religion.

(Photo Credit itr.2)

Anything new must be received into the old. Buddhism, for instance, was received into an ancient Indian religious context, so much so that, in its vocabulary and outlook, it came to be understood as a kind of Reformed Hinduism. Similarly, the early attempts by Christian intellectuals to come to grips with the new revelation were largely limited by the mind-set of Greek philosophy. To one looking backwards from the twenty-first century, Clement of Alexandria seems as much a Greek philosopher (of negligible importance) as he does a Christian. His outlook might be more easily adopted by a Stoic of his own day than by a Christian of ours; and while only a few Christian leaders of our day would be able to muster much sympathy for the repressive, howling monks who murdered Hypatia, the sixth-century patriarch of Alexandria was comfortably at home among their fanatical obsessions, which amounted to a sort of dumbed-down, if baptized, version of Plotinus’s anti-carnal philosophy.

For all that, the Christians of late antiquity understood that they were holding something new by the tail: they may not have been able to make out the full contours of the fabulous beast, but they had no doubt that it was alive and scarily larger than themselves. Almost from the moment the persecutions were past, Christians began to argue heatedly about Christ: who exactly was he? and how do we explain his role in the great scheme of things? Their undying disagreements over the nature and function of this figure were so fierce and unyielding that for us—at so great a distance from their concerns—they illuminate little about Jesus as we might come to understand him today, but they do serve to underscore the obvious fact that he was utterly central to ancient Christianity.

The proposed solution to the quarrels, hammered out by bishops meeting in a series of councils (called “ecumenical” because they were thought to represent the whole Christian world), was that Jesus, though human—having “taken flesh” in the womb of his mother, Mary—was God’s Word incarnate. This Word of God had always existed, for he was the Second Person of the divine Trinity. The First was God the Father, and in this guise God had spoken to the prophets of Israel. The Second was God the Son, God’s own Word by the utterance of which he had brought the universe into being, as related in the Book of Genesis. The Third was God the Holy Spirit, who acted in time—who, for instance, had brought about the miraculous conception of Jesus and who animated the church, the Assembly of Christians, in its pilgrimage through history.

The consequences of such rarefied, Greek-inspired thinking would shape the subsequent history of Christianity—and, therefore, of the Western world—like no other theological statements ever made. It is not surprising that Greek Christians, enamored of subtlety, would continue to gaze upon this construct and fashion it into the focus for all their theology and prayer. If Christ was both God and man, did he have two natures with two separate intellects and wills? If so, how did these natures communicate with each other? As God, he knew all things; as man, his knowledge was necessarily limited. In the gospels, Jesus does not seem always to know what will happen next, so did God keep things from himself? As man, Jesus was capable of committing sin. Since all human beings commit sins, what, if anything, stopped Jesus from becoming a sinner?

Such speculations ensured unending controversies and ever-multiplying theological-political factions throughout the Greek world. Often enough, the controversies were so strident that considerable blood would be shed, sometimes spilled by slogan-reciting mobs of simpleminded monks. But in their secluded monasteries and chapels, monks and other clerics turned the esoteric into the palpable: the still point of Christian contemplation became the unapproachable Trinity, and invocations of the Trinity became essential to liturgical prayer. “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Deathless,” sang the chanters in their tripartite prayer as clouds of spiced incense billowed heavenward. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence / And with fear and trembling stand / Ponder nothing earthly minded.” Ponder the ineffable and bow before the mystery.

For practical, can-do Romans, this was a bit much. Roman Christians found Greek distinctions tiresome, and the endless theological disputes occasioned by those distinctions made them cross-eyed with weariness. Yes, yes, Jesus is both God and man; now let’s move on. And the liturgies of the East, in their attempts to evoke the ineffable, certainly put one in mind of eternity, for they seemed just about endless. How many Kyrie eleisons is that damned deacon going to make us warble before he brings this litany to a conclusion?

For Romans, liturgy was not a mystical end in itself. What the Greeks called the Sacred Liturgy, the Romans called missa (or mass) after the deacon’s last words, “Ite, missa est” (Go, you are dismissed). If that sounds to you as if their main interest was in getting out of church as soon as decently possible, you wouldn’t be so very far from the truth. Public prayer is not an end in itself, only part of a Christian life, a caesura of recollection; fortunately, it comes to an end and we are sent back to our lives. In fact, we come to this prayer not for some unspeakable spiritual high but to renew ourselves for further work in the world. We don’t even need always to chant the Eucharistic celebration or bother ourselves with arranging elaborate processions of vested acolytes or choke the air with incense. Sometimes, we can even celebrate a short, stationary, said mass, a low mass, with just one officiant and a handful of worshipers—which pared-back arrangement the Greeks thought an abomination. Such stylistic differences between East and West implied significant differences in theological perspective.

Instead of getting off on the unutterable Trinity, Roman Christians found their attention drawn to the most down-to-earth aspect of Trinitarian doctrine: the Infleshing, the Incarnation, the Making of the God-Man. What, they asked themselves, are the practical consequences—to human beings—of the Word becoming flesh? From this question will flow, with some notable divagations, the main course of what was to become Western Christianity.

Despite the aspirations of so many mystical Greeks, human beings are not disembodied spirits. What should matter to us is not so much the inner life of God—and whatever that may be, the truth is that not one of us knows squat about it—as the impact of divine revelation on our own lives. The only point at which we can sensibly connect with the Trinity is the point at which, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” If God became man and took on our weakness, our pain, even our death, these things can no longer be the woeful embarrassments we have always conceived them to be, for they are now shot through with his grace and elevated by his willing participation in them. If God became man, lived an earthly life as all of us do—suckled, sweat, shat, wept, slept, loved, feared, bled, died—but also rose and returned to Heaven, the same route has been opened to all of us, to all “mortal flesh,” now impregnated with divinity. Our despised humanity entitles us, for it is now the humanity of God.

How are we to follow such a path? The four gospels of the New Testament tell us how, for each recounts the story of Jesus’s earthly pilgrimage from a somewhat different personal angle—the angle of each writer—and in this story Jesus shows us the Way, the way to live our lives so that we may reach the same conclusion his life reached, eternal union with God. “No one has ever seen God,” states John’s Gospel, for, like Plotinus’s One, he-she-it is in himself-herself-itself unknowable. There is nothing you can assert positively about God (including gender) that is secure from falsehood. But, says Jesus conclusively in the same gospel, “If you know me, you will also come to know my Father. Henceforth you do know him—for you have seen him.” The face of the Father-God that we have seen is his ikon, his veritable image in flesh, Jesus.

And what shall we say of this face of God turned toward us? Only that it is compassionate beyond all imagining, willing to live, suffer, and die for each of us, so compassionate that it excludes no one, not even the most stupid, the most craven, the most outrageous, the most corrupt. What must we do to follow the face of God? Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel: “You must … include everyone, just as your heavenly Father includes everyone.” No one is negligible.g

It would be arrogant to claim that Roman Christians understood this business better than Greek Christians. Both were working from the same gospels and the same basic creed. It is a question not of evangelical understanding or credal positions but of cultural emphasis, of almost gustatory preference. If Greeks preferred to contemplate the Trinity, Romans preferred to celebrate the Incarnation. If Greeks, more theologically precise, understood the Anastasis, the Day of Resurrection, to be the supreme Christian feast, Romans agreed in principle—but in practice they came to prefer Christmas, the feast of Christ’s birth, the supreme celebration of his humanity. In fact, the Romans invented Christmas. For the Greeks, the first celebration of Christ’s infancy was not Christmas Day but January 6, the Epiphania, or Showing Forth, the feast of the infant Jesus’s recognition by the Persian magi who seek him out in Matthew’s Gospel.

There is a telling passage in the Roman Martyrology, the record kept by the Roman church to commemorate the acts of Christian martyrs (and, eventually, of other saints) and to ensure that their valorous deeds would never be forgotten. It is a curious, ramshackle collection, full of information and misinformation, fact, legend, and supposition, the work of many anonymous hands over many centuries, some contributors more scrupulous than others. It grew over time to voluminous proportions, and its thumbnail vitae sanctorum, its daily entries on the saints to be commemorated at mass the following day, were read aloud in monastic refectories during the evening meal.

The most eloquent entry in the whole unwieldy collection is for the birth of Jesus, a summation of salvation history that presages the colorful tableaux of seminal scriptural moments that would one day shine from the many-paneled windows of stained glass in the great cathedrals of the high Middle Ages. Though some of the dating in the entry appears fanciful to us, it was based on the best calendrical calculations of late antiquity, both Hellenic and Hebraic. In his rolling cadences, the writer means to summon all the dignity of his pagan Latin inheritance; in his simplicity, he foreshadows the mystery plays, those tinseled, tumbledown scriptural pageants that guilds of workmen would one day perform in every town square; in his extravagant use of capital letters, he is already entering into the playful, childlike spirit of illuminated manuscripts. The entire entry consists of a single periodic sentence. As in all such sentences that have come down to us from classical antiquity, this one builds in a triumphant crescendo, like a chorus by Handel. Its most significant words are those that end its final three phrases:


    In the 5199th year since the creation of the world,

    when in the beginning God made heaven and earth;

    the 2957th year since the Flood;

    the 2015th year since the birth of Abraham;

    the 1510th year since Moses

    and the going forth of the People of Israel from Egypt;

    the 1032nd year since David’s royal anointing;

    in the 65th week, according to the Prophecy of Daniel;

    in the 194th Olympiad;

    the 752nd year from the Foundation of the City of Rome;

    the 42nd year of the Rule of Octavian Augustus, all the world

      being at peace,

    in the sixth age of the world,


    eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,

    desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,

    being conceived by the Holy Spirit,

    and nine months having passed since his conception,



    the Birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

He is born! He is human!h He is made of flesh and blood! Such concrete, happy, almost merry statements were to have more impact on the shaping of Western Christendom than all the airy musings of the Greeks. As the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman rite proclaims, this Jesus is “like us in all things,” adding only the necessary qualifier “but sin.” He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, God-for-us, God never distant, God on the side of humanity.

To say these things with the sheer élan they inspired in Christians of the dawning Middle Ages is to find oneself very nearly singing a Christmas carol. “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” sings the Second Person of the Most Exalted Trinity in an English carol in which he contemplates his coming Incarnation, his “dancing day.” It is a song to be sung on Christmas Eve:

    Tomorrow shall be my dancing day:

    I would my true love did so chance

    To see the legend of my play,

    To call my true love to my dance:

    Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;

    This have I done for my true love.

    In a manger laid and wrapped I was,

    So very poor, this was my chance,

    Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,

    To call my true love to my dance.

    Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;

    This have I done for my true love.

(Photo Credit itr.3)

This text, in which the Dancer goes on to point to the major events of his life, death, and resurrection, is one in feeling with the Christmas Martyrology, the illuminated manuscripts, the stained glass, and the mystery plays. In such boldly unsubtle celebrations, one is seldom stumped by precious ambiguities or disoriented by educated profundities beyond the grasp of an illiterate commoner. The angels are always known by their wings, the saints by their halos. Christ always wears his bloodred robe; Mary is always cloaked in bright blue.i The God-Man finds his home on earth among the poor, the outcast, the forgotten—whether shepherds, prostitutes, or “an ox and a silly poor ass.” He and his parents are just a mite uncomfortable when three exotic kings arrive to pay homage. There is no shallow cleverness; what profundity there is rests only in the depths of humane meaning that the images can conjure up.

In the last verse of “My Dancing Day,” the Dancer takes his largest leap:

    Then up to heaven I did ascend,

    Where now I dwell in sure substance

    On the right hand of God, that man

    May come unto the general dance.

    Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;

    This have I done for my true love.

This is a love story in which Christ the Lover seeks out Mankind his Beloved in order to welcome human beings back into “the general dance,” the fantastic, if hidden, harmony of creation. In a searching theological exposition, such a thought might not appear simple, but here it is presented as if in a child’s picture book.

It is impossible to date the text of “My Dancing Day.” We find it printed on many extant broadsides, one-page handouts from the early age of printing. There is, however, every reason to believe that the text originated in the later Middle Ages, perhaps in the fourteenth century. For one thing, the phrase “the legend of my play” appears to be an allusion to a mystery play; and it is likely that the song was written to be performed at the beginning or end of one of those plain people’s dramas. Its chorus has also suggested to many scholars that it was once a secular love song to a lady—one of the type that became popular throughout Western Europe in the twelfth century—later conjoined to the story of Jesus.

It is no easier to date the Christmas Martyrology, except to say that its literary quality seems to place it in the very early Middle Ages, perhaps in the sixth century, when Latin texts still retained echoes of classical style. Taken together, this early Christmas proclamation and the late Christmas carol, however different from each other their use of language and flights of imagination, provide a frame for us. In each of the chapters to come, as we journey through the centuries that separate carol from proclamation, we shall encounter—in prayer and piety, architecture and art, legend and social ritual, theology and alchemy, science and poetry—the all-compassionate God-Man, the tenderhearted One-for-others.

The fathers of the Eastern church would surely have found “My Dancing Day” heresy and hurled anthemas at it. Why, the cheek of pretending to get inside the unknowable mind of God, to characterize the psychology of the divine Logos! They themselves stuck unpoetically to far more abstract assertions, even if they did ask themselves why God was prompted to become man. Their answer assumed a Platonic-Plotinian scheme: our world is a world of corruption and decay, so corrupt and so very mortal that, despite the aspirations of the great philosophers, we could never reach incorruptible immortality unaided. The Logos came to our aid.

Early Western theologians found this schematically arid. Sure, Jesus’s advent had saved us from eternal corruption; more important, he had saved us from our sins, our hopeless sins. Thus was introduced into theology—in large measure by the guilt-obsessedAugustine of Hippo, the greatest of the Western fathersj—the guilt we have never since been able to shed. Of course, it is possible to feel too guilty. We all know anxious souls whose upbringing impels them to second-guess their every action. But when we consider the actions that continue to render our world dysfunctional—whether the actions of the current Caesar or of the malicious family member—we know without question that if only these sinners were to heed their guilt, the world would be a far better place. And when we consider the rendings and regrets of our own life, we know in sadness that our sense of guilt is warranted. Guilt, as the psychotherapist Willard Gaylin has said, “is the guardian of our goodness.” Without it, we would lose “the sense of anguish that we have fallen short of our own best standards.” We would fall to the inhuman level of the sociopath. Guilt, in its articulation as the necessary concomitant to sin—as the “still, small voice” of conscience that forces even so monstrous a villain as Lady Macbeth to walk in her sleep and wash her hands—is one of the supreme gifts of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the Western world.

It is meaningful to bear in mind that this “Western world,” which will one day be divided into “Catholic” and “Protestant,” was for many centuries a cultural unity that came—and this exceedingly slowly and by infinitesimal degrees—to exclude Eastern (or “Greek”) Christians, known to us as “Orthodox.” The “Catholic” Middle Ages belong as much to Protestants as to Catholics. Looking backwards now from a vantage point more than five hundred years beyond the first stirrings of reformation, our eyes can see more starkly the continuity of medieval and reformation sensibilities. Martin Luther, no less than any medieval saint, understood the tenderhearted drama and poured-out love of the Incarnation. He sang in notes that summon up both Christmas Martyrology and Christmas carol. “You are to look at this little baby in the crib,” said he, “and this poor man on the cross and say: This is God.” And he understood as well as the anonymous lyricist of “My Dancing Day” that this Incarnation implied the impoverishment of God for the sake of our enrichment.

The great tragedy of Christian history is not the conversion of Constantine, followed by the corrupting union of church with state. From a religious point of view, there have surely been three greater tragedies: the alienation of Judaism from Christianity (and the subsequent and more horrendously consequential alienation of Christianity from Judaism); the gradual fracture of Christendom into warring “churches”; and the division of Christians into professionals and amateurs, clergy and “faithful.” To the last of these we now turn.

Affirmations of Incarnation, with their mixture of many flavors—Greek intellectual distinctions, stripped-down instructions by plainspoken Roman catechists, warmly florid responses from ordinary believers—were hardly the only things happening in papal Italy in the early Middle Ages. Once the all-powerful emperor withdrew his saving presence to the Asian shore, the Italian peninsula experienced an unprecedented power vacuum. Would Italians continue to wait on the word of the faraway emperor, remaining his obedient if abandoned subjects? And what, by Christ, was to be done about the noxious barbarians, attempting to sneak over the Rhine in ever larger numbers, a looming and smelly threat to Pax Romana?

The pope and his brother bishops, all public men in the classical mode, moved quickly and deftly to secure the peace of their increasingly fractured realms (and, in the process, to aggrandize themselves). By the early fifth century, the barbarian hordes were pouring into Italy from the north and east, attracted mightily by settled farmlands and sweet vineyards. By mid-century, one massive influx—the Huns under Attila—looked to march on Rome, now a defenseless former capital. Pope Leo the Great, a bishop of massive dignity, intelligence, and purpose, traveled north to Mantua and met with Attila. The pope used every trick he had—from eloquent words to elegant panoply to a tangible aura of spiritual authority—and so impressed the Hun that he agreed to desist. It was an encounter of mythological proportions and would bolster the reputation of Rome’s bishop for centuries to come. The pope could not be withstood, not even by an unbaptized savage.

A century and a half after Leo, the battle against the barbarians was long lost. Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Alans, and Sueves had overwhelmed the old order and were settling down everywhere in Italy, Spain, and north Africa—in all the old Latin-speaking territories. Gaul and Britain, once fiercely Celtic domains—and later Roman provinces—were being subdued by yet other Germanic insurgents, Gaul by Franks, Britain by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.k Rome itself had been reduced to a depressed and defeated backwater, its ancient Senate gone, its enormous population shrunk to a tenth (and by the late sixth century a twentieth) of its former size, its marvelous water delivery system of ancient aqueducts in ruins from which water leaked into the plain, creating stagnant pools of disease. Even easy communication with the outside world was blocked—by Lombard barbarians, who had come in droves to inhabit the northern half of the Italian peninsula.

Gregory the Great, scion of a noble Roman family, served as pope at the end of the sixth century and into the seventh. He lived in a monastery of his own foundation, built on his property, the Coelian Hill, most southerly of the seven hills of Rome. He was a serious monk and would have preferred to remain in monastic solitude, but he accepted his election and made the most of it. His fasts had left him with a weak constitution and a delicate stomach, for which the obvious remedy was typically Italian: his mother Sylvia’s specially prepared vegetarian dishes, which she sent him daily on a silver salver from her own home atop the Aventine Hill, a much better address than his.

Such a familial detail gives us only a fraction of Gregory and his time. By his day, the sense of aristocratic entitlement was almost the only surviving remnant of classical tradition. Science and philosophy were lost beyond recovery, buried beneath legends of saints and miracles. Beyond the confines of a few monasteries and bishops’ palaces, literacy itself was in danger of extinction, so radically had the barbarian onslaught altered the Latin world. Gregory, himself a constant scribbler, yet knew no language but Latin, though he’d spent many years at the Greek-speaking imperial court in Constantinople as the previous pope’s apocrisius (ambassador). His was an age not of academic accomplishment but of illiterate fear and fantasy. Will the barbarians attack today or tomorrow? Will the remaining urban population be wiped out entirely in the next wave of plague? Will Christ and his holy mother take pity on us? Let us fast for seven days and visit seven churches and pray before her seven images till our two knees are scraped raw.

Gregory, whose imagination was credulously medieval, not skeptically classical, was still enough of a Roman to take with consummate seriousness his role as a public man and his duty to the commonweal. He was a champion letter writer, reminding the stewards of the far-flung papal estates that they must be vigilant over their charges, keep accurate accounts, and administer the bounty to God’s poor. “Promote not so much the worldly interests of the Church,” scratched one of his secretaries at his dictation, “as the relief of the needy in their distress.” He made certain that no resident of his city was starving; and anyone in need received abundant weekly gifts from the fruits of the episcopal farms. At his own table, still to be seen in a chapel on the Coelian Hill (as pretty and secluded today as it was in his time), he broke bread each afternoon with a dozen poor people, making sure they ate abundantly while he consumed a few spoonfuls of his mother’s broth of boiled vegetables.

He sent a mission of his monks almost to the end of the earth—to the English compound of Canterbury—for the purpose of spreading the gospel among the Anglo-Saxons. The leader of the expedition was a monk named Augustine (not Augustine of Hippo but a timid librarian), who tried repeatedly to get out of his commission, since he had every expectation that the savages would eat him when he arrived. Once he landed and was accepted by the English, however, he found himself raised to the office of bishop and soon began to administer his diocese of Canterbury with rigid Romanitas. Gregory wrote one letter after another,l admonishing Augustine not to prefer Roman customs to English ones. “My brother, customs are not to be cherished for the sake of a place, but places are to be cherished for the sake of what is good about them.” There was no need, advised Gregory, the practical Roman, to tear down the pagan temples—just remove the idols and replace them with decent Christian images. Nor was there any need to outlaw the old festivals or the customs that accompanied them. Just baptize them a bit.

By such encouragement were the customs of the northern barbarians allowed to enter the European mainstream. The masks and ghosts of Hallowe’en, the vernal and venereal tomfooleries of May Day, as well as the lustral bathings and lantern-hung forests of Midsummer Night, taken from the Celts; the toasted cheese, toasts of warm ale, and rich desserts of northern winters and the ritual of sweetening with pine branches the claustral air in houses sealed against the cold, taken from the Germanic tribes; the wordEaster,originally the goddess of spring accompanied by her fertility symbols of rabbits and decorated eggs, taken from the Saxons; the word Yule and the burning Yule log, taken from the Vikings—these and a thousand other customs of the savage heathens (which men likeClement of Alexandria would only have looked down their noses at) rolled into the former empire and were christened and absorbed. For this we have Gregory and many of his now nameless brother bishops to thank. Of course, they were not especially attracted to these outlandish customs, but they were too sensible to attempt to remake human beings from the ground up. They knew we all need our Christmas cookies or mug of grog or whatever we learned from childhood to associate with happiness if we are to be contented human beings.

In that time and place, zealotry was no longer in fashion among Christians. But there were certainly zealots among the barbarians. They burned things down, used books as kindling, left chaos in their wake. Christians, led by their clergy, saw their task as preservation of whatever remained intact, renovation of whatever could be salvaged, transformation of even barbarian things so long as these were not explicitly diabolical and contained even a smidgen of goodness.

All things considered, Gregory was the greatest and most humane pope in history (at least till the appearance of John XXIII in 1958). But his openness to the barbarians is characteristic of the openness of the entire Western episcopate in this period, which went a long way toward the weaving of a variegated European tapestry of characteristic personalities, specialized localities, and delightfully idiosyncratic customs and even products. (Where would we be today without French wines and cheeses, Belgian fried potatoes, Neapolitan pizza, Irish whiskey, German sausage, Hungarian goulash, and Czech beer?)

The times were against these bishops. Depredations or disease might overwhelm them at any moment. Gregory, like many other readers of the Book of Revelation, believed most sincerely that the world was nearing its final conflagration. They had neither time nor mind to waste on subtle points of doctrine or church order. They hoped only to keep themselves and others afloat as long as God allowed.

Meanwhile, in the Greek East, the barbarians remained an unreal threat. In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a droll poem in modern Greek, Constantine Cavafy presents us with the daydream of a Byzantine of this period, who imagines with mounting excitement that the barbarians will descend upon his city and save it from boredom. But nothing happens, and the Byzantines are left in their changeless immobility and cultural stasis:

    So now what will become of us, without barbarians?

    Those men were one sort of resolution.

Well, there was plenty of exciting upheaval and catastrophic resolution in Western lands, more than anyone among the surviving Old Romans like Gregory ever wished to experience. In the East, there was consternation that the Western lands of the great Roman Empire were slipping away, sometimes it seemed with the connivance of Western bishops! In the East, not a peep was heard in objection to the absolute lordship of the emperor. In the West, however, bishops, left to fend for themselves, usually came to terms with barbarian chieftains, offered them titles and even clerical help (since the chieftains, who could neither read nor write, were incapable of long-distance communication and diplomacy). Eventually, the bishops found themselves assisting their chieftains’ hegemony. What else were they to do? In this new world, nominally the emperor’s realm, little principalities were growing into what would become in time medieval kingdoms. Why should the helpless emperor continue to be acknowledged overlord of these startlingly novel, but unopposable, political entities?

A new political theory came gradually into being. There are two swords, the sword temporal and the sword spiritual, the first wielded by the emperor and, in their fashion, by local monarchs, the second wielded by the church, its power vested especially in the pope and (one must add under one’s breath) his brother bishops. In the end, the temporal sword must yield to the spiritual. For the East, it was a shocking development. It would trigger in time the pope’s claim to be master of Christendom and king of kings. More shocking, however, than such a claim was a presumption almost hidden within it: one could challenge the Thirteenth Apostle, the emperor, the king, the state supreme, in the name of a higher good. “You have no business issuing dogmatic constitutions,” Gregory the Great’s successor Gregory II scolded the emperor in the early eighth century. “When it comes to dogmas, you haven’t the brains; yours are too crude and militaristic.”

This train of thought will lead at last to the concept of the separation of church and state and to practical challenges against law and against lawfully constituted authority by figures as diverse as the reformers of the fifteenth century, the Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the philosophes and other Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, the abolitionists of the nineteenth century, and the civil rights leaders of the twentieth century. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the “fellow clergymen” who had criticized him for breaking the law:

I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

In this way, a man of the twentieth century, fighting against an evil unknown to (or at least unrecognized by) people of the distant past, joined hands across a millennium and more with Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, the most profound and lucid thinkers of the Middle Ages.

The episcopal and papal claim to a separate realm—against the emperor’s claim to absolute authority—and the subsequent papal claim to absolute authority over absolute authority will grow more shrill as century follows century, eventually undermining all absolute authority (and much relative authority), as we shall discover by book’s end. Leaders and rulers, whether classical, medieval, or modern, can be good or bad, their leadership and authority humane or destructive, uplifting or degrading. Only their followers and subjects—we, the laymen and laywomen, the foot soldiers and amateurs, the dissenters and protesters, the free and imprisoned, the tortured and condemned, the anathematized and damned—can finally judge.











As early as the ninth century, a maxim was making the rounds among Western Europeans, who now spoke a simplified Latin that was already on its way to forking out into the modern Romance languages. It was a maxim that slyly subverted the worst excesses of duly (and unduly) constituted authority. We can trace it to a letter of advice that the English monk Alcuin sent his Frankish master Charlemagne, who had been awarded the newly minted title Roman Emperor of the West and crowned as such in Rome on Christmas Day 800 by Pope Leo III. Even though it is a maxim unthinkable in classical Greek, it owns deep roots in earliest Christian history: in the primitive church’s universal practice of submitting all candidates for bishop (as well as lesser ministers) to popular election, since it was then assumed that this was the best way to assure that the winner was also Heaven’s candidate. “Vox populi, vox Dei,” Alcuin reminded Charlemagne. “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”



106–43 B.C.


63 B.C.–A.D. 14


A.D. 285–337


D. 461


D. 604


D. C. 605


D. 731


D. 816

a Alexander the Great had created what was called “the Greek East,” comprising greater Greece (Greece as it is today with the additions of the southern Balkans and the European territory now occupied by Turkey), Greek Asia (from the east coasts of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean to the Indus), and Greek Africa (Egypt and some noncontiguous territories that lay along Africa’s Mediterranean coast west of Egypt but that did not include the lands of ancient Carthage, where Latin came to be spoken). What became “the Latin West” began as Latium (modern Lazio), the territory surrounding the city of Rome, and came to comprise most of the Italian peninsula, Istria (modern Italy’s extreme east and most of Croatia), Illyria (the rest of the former Yugoslavia), Gaul (modern France), the Iberian Peninsula, north Africa, and eventually parts of Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and southern Britain—that is, the Roman Empire at its farthest extent. By 1054, the year of the final division between Greeks (who were now Orthodox) and Latins (who were now Catholic), the Latin West had grown to include all of Europe except Greece and the Orthodox Slavic countries.

b Caesar Augustus, originally named Octavian, was adopted as son by his uncle Julius Caesar prior to the older man’s assassination. Rome’s first dictator-for-life, Julius Caesar was well on his way to becoming emperor but was never in fact awarded the title. Octavian upon his adoption assumed his uncle’s name, Caesar. The Senate, in awarding this second Caesar the new (and supposedly temporary) title imperator, also bestowed on him the honorific augustus.

c I have more personal experience of this request than I would wish. A dear friend, Dominique Jerome Green, was executed by the state of Texas on October 26, 2004. By the time of his death, after years of solitary confinement in a tiny cubicle on death row, Dominique was probably as much a saint as a human being can hope to be, a man of deep humanity and expansive forgiveness. It is unlikely that he was guilty of the crime he was convicted of, murder in the course of an armed robbery with three other (then) teenagers. He was surely guilty, however, of being poor and black. The one white participant in the robbery was never charged with any crime; and as we all know, there are no millionaires on death row, nor will there ever be. In death Dominique has been awarded the dignity he was denied in life: at his request, his mortal remains have been interred not in Huntsville’s brutal burial ground but in the shadow of the beautiful basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the very spot where Christianity first took root in the imperial city of Rome.

d The pope, to begin with, was not in any sense head of the church. He was just bishop of Rome, one of several dioceses thought to have been founded by apostles and therefore especially ancient and venerable. The head of the church was Christ, as the New Testament pellucidly states. If the church could be said to have an earthly head, it was Constantine, who styled himself “the Thirteenth Apostle” and whose express confirmation the popes needed for their elections to be considered valid. The popes addressed the emperor with the same obsequious formality as everyone else; and the very appellation “pope” (or “papa”) was not reserved to them but was used widely in addressing bishops and even priests. Though this account—for simplicity’s sake—employs the word pope only for the bishop of Rome, the reader should bear in mind that such exclusive usage is anachronistic.

e For more on the gradual schism that divided East from West and for the role of the papacy in that process, see my Pope John XXIII, which contains a useful overview of papal history that cannot be repeated here.

f Constantine’s intervention in church affairs was hardly an unalloyed good. But I find myself at odds with purists who regularly insist that he ruined Christianity by making it part of the power structure. There was no way that this increasingly powerful movement could have remained on the cultural sidelines. But following imperial approval, Christianity’s besetting temptation, to which it has repeatedly succumbed, has been to use its political power for evil ends, even as it has justified its actions by the need to protect the church as an institution. We should not for this reason wish to deprive Christianity of its power as (at times) a uniquely positive social force, which has been employed to lasting effect at significant historical moments—as in our time, for instance, by such “establishment” Christian figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dom Helder Camera, Mother Teresa, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu—in behalf of the powerless on four different continents.

The depiction of Christianity in the popular thriller The Da Vinci Code as a fraud perpetrated by Constantine not only is preposterous to any reader with a modicum of historical knowledge but rests on melodramatically anti-Christian assumptions. The book’s further premise that the Catholic Church sends out Opus Dei hit men to murder anyone who has stumbled on the truth is a straightforward anti-Catholic libel. And its notion that Jesus fathered progeny by Mary Magdalene is a fantasy lacking the least historical support.

g For a far more complete treatment of the impact of Jesus on Western civilization, see the third volume in this series, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. Readers of the series will note how much the original identity of Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah)—an identity proclaimed by the first Christians and necessitated by a Jewish conceptual framework—has given way to the identification of Jesus as Word/Son of God—an identification necessitated by a Greco-Roman conceptual framework. By the time of Constantine, Jesus was already shedding his Jewishness; and the Greek word Christos (Christ), meaning “Anointed One,” a translation of the Hebrew mashiach (messiah), had become in effect Jesus’s surname. It is unlikely that many Christians gave much thought to the meaning of this title or to the origin of Christianity as a form of Judaism.

h In the original Latin, the phrase I have translated “made man” is factus homo, which bears no hint of sexism, since Latin has a separate word for “man” in the sense of “male,” vir. Homo designates a human being.

i Earth tones were not popular in the Middle Ages. People preferred primary colors and failed to see the point even of diamonds, inevitably choosing (if they could) large carbuncular gems of intense color. Tastefulness had yet to make its début.

j You will find my presentation of Augustine’s life and thought, as well as my quarrel with him, in Chapter II of How the Irish Saved Civilization. Here I wish only to touch lightly on one positive aspect of his immense, if ambiguous, contribution.

k The end of the classical world under the impact of the barbarian “invasions” is the story with which How the Irish Saved Civilization, Volume I in this series, begins.

l Gregory’s enormous output of letters remains with us, one of the many priceless treasures of the papal (now Vatican) library, which Gregory founded. In an age of constant crisis, the number of his accomplishments is astonishing. It is his name, for instance, that is attached to “Gregorian” chant, for he managed in his spare time to collect and document the musical traditions of the Roman church. He died of exhaustion on March 12, 604, still in his early sixties.

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