What emerges from this brief tour of the horizons of Christianity in around the year 600 is the crucial importance of what were seen as the imperial "heartlands" within which Christianity had grown to prominence. Whether it was in the post-Roman kingdoms of the West, in the surviving Roman Empire of Constantinople, or in the Sasanian territories of the "Empire of the East," the majority of Christians still moved in a world where grandiose imperial structures seemed the norm. They were a fitting foreground for the invisible Kingdom of Christ.
It is easy to forget how long-established Christianity felt itself to be in such a world. Antiquity was now on the side of Christianity. By 600, the conversion of Constantine (in 312) lay three centuries in the past. The Roman Empire had already been a Christian empire for almost as long as it had been pagan. In Rome, the most splendid basilicas of all (Saint Peter's and the Lateran) had been built in the reign of Constantine. Their income was assured by complexes of estates in the Roman countryside and elsewhere, whose title deeds, preserved in the archives for the clergy of this time to read, reached back almost three hundred years. In a very ancient Italy, the boundaries of these estates themselves had not changed since the days of the Roman Republic.
But it was not only around the Mediterranean that Christianity had aged gracefully. In Trier, near the Rhine frontier, the awesome dimensions of the city's first cathedral (probably built by Constantine's pious son), its naves supported on gigantic columns of black Rhineland granite, was a standing reminder, in an age of smaller and less stable states, of what the concentrated power and wealth of a united Christian empire had been like. It was repaired at the end of the sixth century by an aristocrat bishop, Nicetius.
Nicetius himself represented a class with a long past. He came from a group of Christian aristocratic families, some of whom were proud to trace their descent back four hundred years, to a senator who had been martyred at Lyons in 177. As the writings of Gregory, bishop of Tours (d. 594), made plain, the clerical aristocracy of Gaul associated themselves with a "deep"
16 Pelliot and Forte, L'inscription nestorienne; Brown, Rise of Western Christendom, 279-85.
17 Julian of Toledo, De comprobatione sextae aetatis, 1.13,160.
past, associated with the tombs of martyrs and saints (many of them in elegant classical marble) which lay in ancient crypts and in family mausolea scattered in Roman cemeteries outside the cities. Many such saints were the ancestors of living bishops. Their history led back into the long past of Christian Gaul. This continuity meant more to a man such as Gregory than did the conventional turning points of Roman history. Gregory, for instance, seemed oblivious to the end of the Roman Empire.18
For Gregory and his contemporaries the great mutation had already occurred. They lived in a world of Christian cities, under Christian rulers. His works contain a Latin translation of a legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The Seven Sleepers retired to a cave at the time of the persecution of Christians in the third century. They woke up again in the fifth century. There was one sign of the times which instantly drew their attention. The Sign of the Cross was carved above the gates of every city. They saw what any sixth-century Christian of the Mediterranean and much of the Middle East could have seen every day.19
Christianity as a whole was far from being exclusively an urban religion in the year 600. But it had remained a religion whose "nerve centers" had remained urban bishoprics, many of which dated back for half a millennium. Cities still stood for solidity. In Roman Britain, where urban life had always been tenuous, Christianity had mutated in such a way as to become almost invisible to outsiders by the year 600 - as we shall see. Once one crossed the Channel, the cities with their walls began, growing ever more dense as one reached the Mediterranean. Frankish Gaul had 116 bishoprics, Visigothic Spain had 66. With 237, for its relatively small size, Italy positively buzzed with bishops, as did North Africa, with 242, increasingly clustered along the eastern coastal regions. With over 680 bishops, the territories of the Roman Empire of Justinian and his successors remained the true center of gravity of the Christian world, especially as many of its cities were considerably larger than those of the West. Across the Roman frontier, the very different cities and large villages of the Sasanian Empire supported over 50 bishops. The church of Armenia could rally some 20 bishops, distributed, rather unevenly, according to the holdings of the noble families of the region.
With the exception of Lombard adventurers in northern and central Italy and the "stateless" chieftaincies of the Slavs who had moved into the Balkans under the hegemony of the nomadic pagan Avars, from the Euphrates to the
18 Mitchell, "Marking the Bounds."
19 Gregory of Tours, Passio sanctorum martyrum septem dormientium apud Ephysum, 401.
Channel coast, and even in western England and Wales, all organized society was headed by Christian rulers. The power and ideological pretensions of these states varied. But all thought of themselves as existing through the protection of Christ. All thought that the duty of a ruler was, at the very least, to secure the observance of Sunday and respect for other Christian festivals, to suppress pagan sacrifices, and to make sure that the Jewish communities in their midst did not get above themselves. The empire of Justinian was a model for them all because it appeared to do this more effectively than did any other kingdom.
Subjects of Justinian were left in little doubt that they lived in a Christian state. A mosaic on the floor of the tax office of Caesarea Maritima (on the coast of modern Israel) cites a blunt passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "If you would not fear the authority, do good."20
Christian preaching upheld the authority of the ruler. Christian prayers, publicly offered at every liturgy, secured the safety of the empire. The divinely ordained "harmony" of Church and State, which Justinian had proclaimed in his legislation, was more than a rhetorical flourish. It grew from the ground up in 680 cities. Ecclesiastical and secular were intextricably mixed through the collaboration of the bishop and clergy with the local elites in order to handle the day-to-day business of government. The bishop was now a principal agent in the communication between the capital and the provinces.21 Imperial edicts on matters as thoroughly secular as the control of banditry would be received by the bishop and read out to the local council in the bishop's audience hall adjoining the Christian basilica. They would be posted on the walls of the church.22 In Gerasa (Jerash, Jordan), it was the bishop who built and ran the local jail: "to the advantage of the city."23 As Severus, the patriarch of Antioch, told a local bishop in no uncertain terms in around 515: bishops were there to keep the cities going. "It is the duty of bishops to cut short and to restrain the unregulated movements of the mob ... and to set themselves to maintain good order in the cities and to watch over the peaceful manner of those who are fed by their hand."24
It is important to remember that the crushing load of administrative duties which Gregory the Great took over when he became pope in Rome (between 590 and 604) was in no ways unusual. It did not reflect any sudden crisis by which the pope was forced to rescue ancient Rome, by subjecting the city to
20 Rom. 13.3 quoted in Holum, "Inscription in the Imperial Revenue Office."
21 Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall, 104-68.
22 Feissel and Kaygusuz, "Un mandement impérial."
23 Gatier, "Nouvelles inscriptions de Gérasa."
24 Severus of Antioch, Select Letters, 1.8, 43.
the spiritual power. Still less did Gregory's care for Rome reflect a wish to become independent of the empire. It was simply "business as usual" for a bishop in the empire of Justinian and his successors.25
It was with a sense of representing a stable social order, with a long past behind it, that the inhabitants of a "heartland" of Christian kingdoms turned to the outside world.
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