Book Review: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders

by Karl Liam Saur

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013/2014).

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Pope Francis was the advent of the first non-European to the Petrine office since Gregory III (r. 731-741) of Syria. Many Pray Tell readers are probably aware that the papacy of the eighth century was not the same office as the papacy of the modern era. Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical letter, Ut Unum Sint, referred back to the structures of Christian unity during first millennium of the Christian era as a touchstone for Christian unity in the third millennium. Currently, Pope Francis and his advisors are contemplating the restructuring of the Roman Curia, and perhaps even more fundamental changes to the governance structures of the Roman church. As many of us read reports (and hear alarms ringing) concerning their agenda and work, I thought a review of a recent history of how the papacy of the first millennium became the papacy of the second millennium would be topical.

Peter Heather is Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London. (Heather should not be confused by casual readers with the legendary Peter Brown of Princeton University; the two Peters were both born on the island of Ireland and specialize in the Western history of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (indeed, Brown might be said to have invented the specialty in modern English-language histories), but they represent different generations of scholarship.) Heather’s latest book is the third of a series of high-concept popular histories of the transition of Europe between Late Antiquity and the high Middle Ages. His 2010 book, “Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe,” covered a somewhat smaller span of time but a considerably greater scope of terrain and peoples than his latest book, and was preceded in 2007 by “The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians.” Of the three accounts, I would venture that his 2010 book should take the prize for ambitious yet careful historiography, but his latest book (eventually) treats at length a topic that is likely of more immediate interest to the readership at Pray, Tell: how and why did the First Millennium papacy evolve into the Second Millennium papacy?

“The Restoration of Rome” might be characterized as a kind of “history from above,” more or less. The book does not involve the exploration of archaeology, economics, and culture that Heather displayed in “Empires and Barbarians,” let alone the imaginative cultural weavings found in Peter Brown’s narratives. Heather organizes his narrative in “The Restoration of Rome” around the persons of Theodoric the Goth (“A Copy of The Only Empire”), Justinian I (“The Conqueror of Many”), and Charlemagne (“The Father of Many”), and then treats the evolution of the Second Millennium Papacy (“Second Coming”), which Heather eventually refers to as the Papal Empire (with the pope as “The Godfather”).

Heather’s treatment of Theodoric is unusual in its relative curiosity and weight as compared to conventional accounts. This Theodoric is likely to leave a much greater impression on readers than is typically the case – Heather assembles a reasonable argument for judging Theodoric to be a more sophisticated state-builder than anyone else in the book, though the author does not himself argue that. Heather impliedly contrasts Theodoric’s lack of ego need for explicit imperial status with Charlemagne’s sub rosa campaign for it, but anyone hoping for more in the way of psychological history will be disappointed.

In Heather’s account, all of Rome’s immediate “barbarian successor states” in the West ultimately fell prey to a universal problem in their fiscal base. Each state’s expansion was premised on being able to reward warriors with property of conquest, with the former Roman fiscal base either expiring entirely or withering into maintaining taxes only on conquered Roman (non-“barbarian”) subjects. Once each state reached its expansionary limits, loyalties invariably fragmented, and with that each state. (“Empires and Barbarians” offers a richer and more layered exploration of this process than “The Restoration of Rome.”) Theodoric remains important in the arc of Heather’s book because Theodoric is the first of the successful innovators in the metamorphosis of the earthbound Roman imperial organism that eventually becomes the butterfly of Papal Empire. Remember to thank or blame Theodoric for allowing the idea of some form of state that transcended what might be called mere “peoples” (imputing national identity to them at this point in the manner of historians of more recent centuries is anachronistic, as Heather demonstrates in his earlier books) to survive the collapse of the old empire. As things turned out, the idea had resilient and flexible legs.

Heather’s Justinian, by contrast to Theodoric, is dialed-back in sophistication of statecraft as compared to conventional accounts; his Justinian is much less of a First Millennium Felipe II and more of a muddler. The author treats the Gothic Wars as something of a Hail Mary pass by Justinian’s vulnerable regime, made possible only by the happy defeat of the Vandal kingdom. Heather dips into the kind of analysis used in “Empires and Barbarians” to argue that the northern part of the Italian peninsula experienced greater long-term economic dislocation from the wars than the southern part, which Heather argues remained economically robust for more centuries than convention admits. Heather also acquits Justinian of fundamental responsibility for the collapse of the Eastern empire in the seventh century. Heather reserves his greatest admiration for Justinian’s legal innovation: not merely the fact of codification, but the intrepid methodological genius of Tribonian and his team of scholars. In the arc of the book, Justinian’s legal innovation becomes part of the DNA of the Papal Empire.

Heather’s account of Charlemagne has two salient themes. The first is Charlemagne as a useful foil to illustrate what was and was not important about the office of bishop of Rome (meaning not just the pope but also those who did his bidding) during the First Millennium: in sum, the office had unequaled prestige (which is typically underestimated in conventional treatments), and was inventive and opportunistic, but was very much a junior partner – sometimes, even a mere handmaid – of the successor states. By way of example, in Heather’s telling, Pope Leo III is blackmailed into crowning Charlemagne. The second is Charlemagne’s thorough campaign of correctio to revolutionize morals, learning and religious expression. The author argues that this campaign was far more effective, both in breadth and depth of society, than is conventionally allowed. More significantly in this account, it had such enduring effects that it survived the “pornocracy” of the tenth and early eleventh century papacy, and, in one of the great ironies of Western history, helped beget the process whereby the papacy became the senior partner of governance in the West in a supraregional empire of ideas and law.

Heather concisely traces the descent of the papal office into a serious tool of powerful Italian families that were both more and less than, say, the Corleone family. Heather even more briefly explains why East Francia became the most vital successor state to the Carolingian empire in the late First Millennium. Finally, it is the Salian dynasty, amplifying on the efforts of its Ottonian predecessor, that causes one of its own family to be elected as Leo IX.

The result is one of Western history’s great boomerangs. Heather joins convention in depicting Leo IX’s pontificate as the inflection point in the curve of development of the papacy claiming a universal supremacy more powerful in some ways than the Roman Empire itself ever did. This was not, however, what the Salians had bargained for, and therefore this transformation is not a top-down coopting of Church by State in the manner of Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian, or Charlemagne. It is not “Constantine’s sword,” as it were.

For this last transformation, Heather’s innovation is arguing that the Second Millennium papacy arose in response to “consumer demand” from northern Europe that was fundamentally informed by (1) Theodoric’s rescue of the idealization of a supranational (imperial) state, (2) Justinian’s legal innovation, and (3) Charlemagne’s correctio. A passage from the author’s introduction is better than anything I could offer in alternative summary:

That the Papacy as we understand it now – CEO, effectively, of the Latin Church – has not always existed is the fact about medieval history which most surprises my students. What most surprised me, in writing the book, was the realisation that it was eventually created by consumer demand from outside Rome, and was not the product of some cunning plan hatched inside the Lateran. Charlemagne’s reforms created for the first time a Latin western Christendom which operated with self-consciously unified standards. When Charlemagne and his immediate heirs ran a big enough Empire to provide it, the Churchmen were happy to operate their unified church under imperial leadership. But when tenth century political fragmentation set in, the heirs of Charlemagne’s reforming Churchmen looked elsewhere for the unified leadership this new Church required. The bishop of Rome was the only serious possibility, and, when existing Papal structures proved inadequate for the role, reform-minded eleventh-century Churchmen marched south from what old Rome’s barbarian north to make the Papacy fit for purpose.

These are the barbarian Popes of the book’s subtitle, and, consciously modelling themselves on Roman law, they and their heirs generated a new authority structure with the Pope at the centre. In the first Roman Empire, as the conquered acquired citizenship, the spread of Roman law had allowed an institution created by conquest to reestablish itself on the basis of consent. The Papal Roman Empire originally emerged on the back of widespread consent, but its developing legal structures quickly created a medieval Christianity based firmly on constraint.

For readers whose assumptions and understandings of the development of the papacy are largely formed by the long-lived residue of Whig historiography – in my experience, that includes the vast majority of American (very much including American Catholic) people – Peter Heather’s work represents a relatively accessible and interesting door to perspectives opened by newer generations of scholarship.

Karl Liam Saur is a regular reader and commenter at Pray Tell.

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