2-9. Schism

484 to 519 CE

Divisions within the church have consequence for Theodoric’s relationship with the Emperor.

Against my better judgment, this episode is mostly about religion. So, remember when I was talking about Boethius and I mentioned the Acacian Schism, and I said it was just too obscure to get into? Well guess what.

The Acacian Schism was a conflict between the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople which led to each of them excommunicating the other. It grew out of controversies about the nature of Christ, which is the obscure part, and ultimately had consequences for the relationship between the emperor and the King of the Ostrogoths. 

I’ve set myself a few challenges for this episode. First, we haven’t really been into the relationship between Theodoric and Constantinople in any depth, other than to say it was complicated. So we’ll need to catch up on that, since knowing how it changed will require knowing where it started.. Second, the relationship between the Bishop of Rome, AKA the pope, and the emperor will need to be talked about, 

and third, the actual meat of the controversy that led to schism, as well as how the schism played out. I’m not going to lie to you guys, this episode is deep in the weeds, with a lot of names and back and forth. We’ll go through four different popes and three emperors in the process, so strap in. Or go back and RE listen to On War or Beyond the River. Those are a couple of my favorites. I’m stalling. Stop that.

The question of Theodoric’s relationship to the Eastern capitol is a subject for continuous debate among scholars. 

The problem is, as usual, the paucity of detail in the sources, and the differing agendas of those sources. The relationship also shifted over time, as emperors succeeded each other, and their policies changed, often in response to internal politics just as much as external events, so what was true last year didn’t necessarily pertain to this year. Which I guess is just the nature of politics, isn’t it?

From the beginning, it was understood that Theodoric reigned over the Ostrogoths as their king, but over the Romans as a viceroy of the emperor. In maintaining this separation of roles, he found a winning formula for stability and internal harmony. In practice, the emperor was too far away to exercise direct control over Italian affairs, and was often distracted by the business of, you know, running what was still a massive, complex, and wealthy empire. 

If we could know the actual terms of the agreement between Zeno and Theodoric that had sent the latter to Italy in the first place, it probably would be of great help in settling the debate. Or maybe it wouldn’t. It was a treaty that had been aimed at solving a specific problem – the inability of the two to get along, and which was vague enough about the future that both could feel good about things as long as they didn’t think too far ahead. Maybe when Theodoric got to Italy, the law of unintended consequences kicked in for Zeno, and the emperor found he regretted his decision. We can’t know for sure. What we can know for sure is that whatever the original fudge, once his foot was in the Italian door, Theodoric started renegotiating with a vengeance.

A first embassy went to Zeno in 491, but didn’t achieve much except recognition and reward for the senators that carried the messages. That same year, Zeno died, and Theodoric had to adjust his approach to the new man in the hot seat, Anastasius.

Anastasius I

Anastasius was in his sixties when he took the throne. He was still tall, strong, and popular, and had spent his life in imperial service, mainly the financial side. When Zeno died his widow, Ariadne, was the only remaining source of imperial legitimacy left, but sole rule of an empress was out of the question. The mob of Constantinople made their feelings clear on the matter of succession, shouting “give us a Roman emperor!” and “give us a Christian!”  Zeno’s Isaurian heritage meant that he had never really been accepted, and he had also gotten himself into religious trouble that we’ll get into later. So Ariadne chose Anastasius, married him, and had him crowned.

He was exactly what the crowd had wanted, impeccably Roman and impeccably Orthodox. Also rigid and thrifty to the point of miserliness. Theodoric’s first embassy to the new emperor arrived almost immediately, in 492, but again got nowhere. It wasn’t until 497 or 498 that progress was finally made, and Anastasius agreed to return the “ornaments of the palace” as the relevant letter in the Variae puts it, and accept whatever terms Theodoric had put forward.

From then on, Theodoric half-inched the powers and perks of an emperor of the West, while never actually taking the title, as we’ve been over. He kept on gathering new territories, including some traditionally the preserve of the East, and if Anastasius made diplomatic attempts to rein him in, they were apparently paid lip service, then consigned to the round file. Anastasius was gradually coming to see Theodoric as a rival rather than a junior partner. Whatever his claims to be the defender of Romanitas, the rules of Realpolitik still applied. It isn’t too surprising that Anastasius would seek to balance Theodoric’s growing power, and did, making friendly overtures to Gundabad the Burgundian, mobilizing his Bulgar mercenaries, and the agreement with Clovis to distract Theodoric with seaborn raids while the Frank made his play against the Visigoths. Anastasius couldn’t have known that that play would backfire so spectacularly.

If all that wasn’t enough, tensions within the church made their own complex contribution to the relationship. And with that slightly ham-fisted segue, we can move along to the second of my challenges and talk about the state of the church under the new rulers of the west.

When Odoacer had seized control of Italy in 476, there must have been considerable trepidation on the part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. After all, Odacer was an Arian and so were most of his men, which put the military establishment in the hands of heretics. Truth be told though, this wasn’t much different from the status quo ante, since the barbarization of the Roman army meant that a significant portion of its manpower probably had been Arian for generations. But there had always been orthodoxy at the very top of the pyramid. 

I need to pause for a second and note that I have been and probably will continue to be sloppy and imprecise about my nomenclature here. When I talk about the dominant Christian sect, which constituted the official religion of the empire, I may call it the Catholic church, Orthodox Christianity, or sometimes Nicene Christianity, interchangeably. There are arguments for and against using all of these names in this time in history, but since I’m not a real historian, I can ignore those arguments, and go for clarity and dare I say style over precision. Basically, whenever I use any of those words, Catholic, Orthodox, Nicene, I mean that branch of Christianity that became the monolithic religious establishment across all of western and central Europe in later centuries. Any variations from that, I will call by their specific names. Okay? Have I done this speech before? Well it bears repeating, if I have.

Anyway, both Odoacer and Theodoric enjoyed pretty harmonious relations with the Catholic Church, especially Theodoric. Some churches were commandeered and converted for Arian use, and some new ones built to purpose, but there’s not much sign in the chronicles of any kind of persecution of Catholics or any other faith. 

The bishop of Rome had acquired immense status when Constantine legitimized Christianity, and that status grew along with the meteoric growth of the faith in the following two centuries. With the withdrawal of the emperor to Ravenna, the pope became the most influential figure in Rome, a position that was unchanged when Odoacer took command of Italy in 476. He and Pope Simplicius seem to have gotten along just fine, and when Simplicius died in 484, Odoacer did nothing to interfere in the election of his successor. 

When Theodoric came along, as we have seen, he put considerable effort into keeping the old civilian power structures in place alongside his militarized Goths, and keeping the church on-side was a key part of that strategy. So he plied the Pope with gifts and flattery, as well as improvement projects for the city of Rome. The pope responded in kind, making very little fuss about Thedororic’s Arianism. A strict separation between Arian and Catholic was maintained, and religious tolerance was the official position of the state, extending even to the Jewish communities of the peninsula. Famously, a letter from the Variae (book 2, number 27, if you’re interested) noted that “We cannot order a religion, as no one can be forced to believe against his will.” 

That does not mean that there was no religious prejudice in the Ostrogothic kingdom, and the status of Jews and other minority faiths could easily be the subject of its own episode, but Theodoric was generally not a fan of persecution. Theodoric recognized the political power of the Church and courted it. If he could win the approval and support of the bishops of Italy, it could be a sturdy pillar of his legitimacy. As Theodoric’s power grew and his influence spread, this became a two way street, and the church was happy to provide its support in return for protection by the Ostrogoths. 

A digital reconstruction of the façade Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, as it may have appeared in the 4th and 5th centuries. From https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2022/05/envisioning-old-st-peters-at-end-of.html

“The Church” was of course given a face and a name in the person of the Pope, the bishop and patriarch of Rome.

The word patriarch denotes the lead bishop in a particular region. In our period there were four, in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. The primacy of Rome among these was never seriously questioned by the other patriarchs. Rome had the benefit of the apostolic line of Saint Peter, who had been the first bishop of Rome and ordained the line of bishops. To him, the scripture said, had been given the keys to the kingdom of God, and that was taken to mean that he had special authority. 

The Roman pontiff’s position was further strengthened by the philosophical relationship between the empire and the church. The thinking began with the entirely accurate assessment that the spread of Christianity had been facilitated by Roman dominance of the western world. The political hegemony, efficient communication, and trade infrastructure of the empire made proselytizing easy, the disorganized and slightly bloodless old civil religion cried out for an alternative, and Christianity was there to fill the breach. Extrapolating from that, it was clear to the church fathers that the Roman empire had been successful so that it could spread Christianity. The victories of the Caesars, in this equation, had been granted by God so that conditions would be right for the salvation of the world. That place in the divine plan gave the city at the heart of the empire an important prestige point, and the city’s bishop shared in that prestige. 

Everyone agreed on this. In 381, a church council definitively placed Constantinople second in the church hierarchy. And yet, for some reason, popes were incredibly touchy about this. They saw threats to their position everywhere. It’s possible that the Roman pontiff’s insecurity stemmed from the city of Rome’s loss of primacy, first with the emperor’s move to Ravenna, then the successive humiliations of two sacks, and finally with the dissolution of the Western Empire entirely. 

The Roman empire was baked into the structure of the Church. Its practices of documentation, its bureaucratic structure, even the map of the diocese, all were mirrors of an imperial example. As the empire crumbled away, this organizational residue would be a key to the Church’s success in the coming centuries, but the church felt the loss of its protector and institutional patron.

As part of its position of primacy, the Roman diocese saw itself as the defender of orthodoxy. There was a clear procedure for determining dogma; a question would arise, and come to the attention of the emperor, who would call a council of bishops – an ecumenical council – to discuss the matter. The council would debate the issue and arrive at a conclusion, which would or would not be signed off on by the emperor, and become orthodoxy. The Roman see would then push for adherence to the newly concluded dogma.

The pope was not a disinterested party in these councils of course, they sent their own representatives and positions to them, and could and did object to specific clauses (canons) of the resulting documents. Key to the relationship was the understanding that the emperor, while head of the church and God’s viceroy on earth, did not decree matters of doctrine. He would initiate councils, mediate them, weigh in, but decisions pertaining to the belief of the whole church must be made in consultation with the whole church. In principle. As in all human endeavors, Popes were perfectly capable of standing on principle and kicking against their own principle when in conflict with other interests.

The Popes also had it relatively easy in the maintaining orthodoxy department. Once things started to go pear shaped in the western empire, there wasn’t much time for folks to sit and think about new ways to conceptualize the nature of Christ. While the churches of Gaul and Spain could be stroppy, even downright hostile, to papal authority, they weren’t out there fomenting heresy. The east, by comparison, was a mess and a half.

It was so much of a mess, in fact, that when Theodoric took the throne, as far as Rome was concerned, the whole Eastern Church was in a state of schism. Better take cover, everyone, theology incoming.

“Hail Mary, Mother of God” is a simple enough and well known phrase and prayer. In Greek, “mother of God” is Theotokos. While discussing the refinement of the church liturgy in the 430s, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, objected to the use of the title Theotokos for Mary, on the grounds that Mary could only have been mother to the human part of Jesus, not the divine. Have you ever said something in a meeting or at the dinner table, and everyone goes silent and looks at you, waiting for someone else to respond to the nonsense that just came out of your mouth?

The response in this case came from Cyril, the Patriarch in Alexandria. Much like John Chrysostom, Cyril strikes me as a revered church father who I would prefer never to be in the same room with. He had opinions, and he needed you to know about them, up to and including whipping up mobs to murder women you disapprove of (allegedly). 

Anyway, Cyril accused Nestorius of heresy. He preferred an understanding of the nature of Jesus called hypostasis, of the divine and human combined and inseparable in the person of Jesus, which would indeed make Mary the Mother of God. They went back and forth, Nestorius had his supporters, Cyril had his, until eventually Cyril gained the upper hand and the Council of Ephesus deposed Nestorius in 431. Nestorius wasn’t going to just retire and shut up though, and kept loudly deafening his position. He was ultimately excommunicated in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. His supporters migrated east, into the Persian empire, set up the Church of the East, and excommunicated everyone else right back.

The bishop of Rome wasn’t silent in all of this of course, the pope at the time was Leo I, just a few years away from his famous meeting with Attila and then the Vandal sack of Rome. He didn’t attend Chalcedon, but did send a statement of his position, a major document called the Tome of Leo. It ultimately shaped the final outcome of the council, a feather in the papacy’s cap, and helpfully settled the matter declaring that Jesus was both man and God, constructed “in two natures”.

It didn’t settle anything of course. It was enough to push out the hardest of hardliners, but enough fuzziness remained for Nestorian supporters to find relief, and since this whole thing was at least partly as battle for status between Constantinople and Alexandria, the debate went right on going, now focused on the results of Chalcedon and the exact definition of the word Nature.

 Along the way the lines were eventually drawn between the supporters of the Council and a group called monophysites, who believed, and I’m oversimplifying massively, that the human had been absorbed into the divine in the person of Jesus, and so rejected the two-natures statement. This was the extreme opposite of Nestorius’ belief, and equally irreconcilable to the ultimate result of the council.

The debates went on for, and I’m not kidding, thirty damn years, before Zeno finally got sick of the whole thing and took a shot at getting everyone to shut up. He prevailed on his Patriarch, in Constantinople, Acacius, to issue a compromise statement, called the Henotikon (act of union in Greek). Being a compromise statement, the Henotikon was successful … in pissing everyone off. Monophysites were mad that it held up the condemnation of their position, Nestorians were mad that it also held up the condemnation of their hero, and everyone was ticked that the emperor had unilaterally attempted to dictate doctrine, he wasn’t supposed to do that.

In Rome, Pope Felix III was just as hacked off as everyone else, more so, actually, since the henotikon flew in the face of Leo’s earlier brilliant, shining, and incorruptible statement that had turned the Chalcedonian argument. Matters were made worse when John Talaia, the patriarch of Alexandria arrived in Rome as a fugitive, telling stories of Monophysites persecuting Orthodox Christians in Egypt, encouraged by what they saw as tacit approval of their position in Constantinople.

Felix was new in the job, and didn’t want to rock the boat too much right away. He sent a perfectly cordial letter to Zeno, announcing his election and assuring the emperor of his loyalty. Silence followed, so a second messenger was sent. This one carried letters to Zeno and Acacius calling on them to respect and maintain the decision of Chalcedon, along with a summons to Acacius to come to Rome and answer the charges made by John Talaia.

When I say messenger, it conjures up an image of a dusty rider galloping hard across the balkans. Let that image go. This was an embassy from one prince of the Church to another, only the best would do. It was headed by the bishops of Truentum and of Cumae, with their full entourages in tow. Word of their mission must have preceded them, though. When they arrived at Abydos they were arrested, bullied, threatened, and cajoled into taking communion with Acacius and the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria, which pretty thoroughly undercut the whole point of the embassy. Well, maybe they could get away with it, I mean, how would Felix even know?

He would know thanks to the sinisterly named Sleepless Monks, the akoimetae, a community of ultra-orthodox hardliners who acted as the pope’s eyes and ears in the imperial capital. They sent word to Felix of his bishops’ transgressions right away, and when they returned, the bishops were put on trial before a synod of their peers, and excommunicated and deposed. The same synod excommunicated Acacius, and we are off and running on the Acacian Schism.

The Akoimetae had a fairly wicked sense of humor, I’ll give them that, when they received the pope’s excommunication of Acacius, they snuck up on the patriarch as he was celebrating mass and pinned it to his back. The ecclesiastical equivalent of a kick me sign. Acacius didn’t find it funny for some reason, and excommunicated Felix right back.

Right from the start it’s clear that this isn’t really about the theological argument, which probably could have, and actually would, simmer in the background for decades. This is a question of personalities. By suborning the western bishops, Acacius had made the thing personal, he’d deliberately sought to humiliate the pope, and that couldn’t stand. Granted, Felix had been pretty high-and-mighty, just a few months into the job, and he’s issuing summons to other patriarchs to come and hear his judgment. There was also the issue of the dispute between John Talaia and his monophysite replacement, Peter Mogus. The other patriarchs acknowledged that the pope took precedence, but in a “he can have the good chair on movie night” kind of way. It didn’t  automatically make him the sole arbiter of disputes between them. I mean, who does this guy think he is? There were plenty of issues at the root of the Acacian schism, and theology was way down the list.

No one was happy with the separation, including the emperors. Alienation from the senior prelate of all Christendom was embarrassing, regardless of the circumstances. A continuous stream of letters made their way up and down the Via Egnatia, trying to resolve the conflict, but with no success. It was impossible for Felix to reach any kind of agreement with Acacius, he had sought to humiliate the Papacy, and could not be forgiven for it, but when he died in 489 there seemed to be room for accommodation. The new patriarch, called Fravitta, sent a letter to Felix indicating his orthodox inclinations, and Felix responded with joy and praise for both him and Zeno. “All the difficulties which have previously arisen, I believe have been removed by this appointment.” All Felix needed to close the rift was official condemnation of Acacius and Peter Mongus, who had also died.

Well. Dang. That wasn’t going to happen. Felix ordered the monks of Constantinople not to communicate with the bishop of the city, and stressed that condemnation of the two previous patriarchs was absolutely prerequisite for resolving the schism. No headway at all had been made by the time Zeno died in 491. I would point out that we are now four years into this argument. Brief hopes were dashed when it turned out that Anastasius was, if anything, even less flexible than his predecessor. A new generation inherited the problem in 492, when Felix died. He was succeeded, after a barely contested election, by his secretary, Gelasius I. It was Gelasius who would establish a working relationship with Theodoric, once the war with Odoacer was resolved, and is one of the most important early medieval popes, in spite of a very short tenure, so we’ll probably be hearing from him more as we go along. I suppose that means I should cast an actor for him. He was deeply conservative, orthodox, and personally austere. I don’t know, I’m seeing Chris Cooper. I found a line from historian Jeffrey Richards that Gelasius’ ideological innovations were “in the main merely manifestations of spleen”, which should give you an idea of the kind of personality we’re dealing with here. Much less compromising than his predecessor, and it’s not like Felix had been a pushover.

Okay, I hear you thinking, (I can do that, it’s my superpower) that’s all very interesting, but what does any of this have to do with Theodoric and his problems with Anastasius? Good question, and I don’t have a super clear answer, except to say that the parties at the time certainly saw the schism and the legitimacy of rule in Italy as connected. After the bishop’s debacle, no more ecumenical embassies were sent to Constantinople, and the emissaries that negotiated on behalf of Theodoric also worked on the religious issue, and the first two got no further on that issue than they did on the political ones. The third embassy, sent after Gelasius died in 497, was successful in winning those imperial ornaments, and recognition of Theodoric as king, but quid pro quo, Clarice. Anastasius’ condition was acceptance by Theodoric of Zeno’s Henotikon. So that was going to be another problem. 

The Council of Chalcedon, depicted in the Nuremburg Chronicle (1493). The council was attended by over 600 bishops and is the best documented of the seven Ecumenical councils of the early chuch.

Gelasisus’ successor, annoyingly also named Anastasius, was more amenable to compromise, but the conflict had taken on a life of its own by now. The bishops of the west rejected the henotikon, which made things awkward for Theodoric, since it now seemed that he had accepted the emperor’s recognition on false pretenses. Evidence of the new pope’s reasonableness became its own problem, as the hardline bishops objected to his peace overtures, especially his reconciliation with the bishop of Thessalonica, but the problem was quickly out of Pope Anastasius’ hands, when he died in 498, to the vicious satisfaction of his enemies. The entry in the Liber Pontificalis, clearly not written by a fan, put it this way:

“Without consulting the priests or bishop of the whole catholic church he had shared communion with … Thessalonica… because he wished secretly to restore Acacius and could not. Then he was struck dead by divine will.” So there.

The authority of the pope was shaky, with the hardliners withdrawn from communion with their own patriarch, so it was the perfect time for an election. Actually two, separate elections, held in different places by different groups of clergy. That will work out well.

Faction one elected a deacon named Symmachus, the other a priest named Laurentius. Both the clergy and lay nobility were divided about the election, which made compromise nigh impossible, and the parties appealed to the king for arbitration. On one level, this is perfectly normal, this is what kings did, especially in the gothic tradition, mediate disputes between their mightiest subjects. On another level it was extraordinary, here was an Arian barbarian choosing the Roman Catholic pope. Theodoric found in favor of Symmachus, on the basis that he had been first ordained. The Laurentians of course furiously asserted that Symmachus had won thanks to lavish bribery of officials, but that was probably a pot and kettle situation, money most likely flowed into the court from both parties. It was confirmation of this settlement that prompted Theodoric’s triumphant entry into Rome in 500.

But settled it was not. The enemies of Symmachus set about plotting to depose him. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of their attempts, since they are both tiresome and deeply petty-seeming. Just as an example, one of their charges was that Symmachus had celebrated Easter on the wrong date. Three synods were called, each of them ultimately vindicating Symmachus, but each one then declared illegitimate by his opponents for one reason or another. And lest you think that all of this was just esoteric drama, happening in corridors unnoticed by the public, consider this passage from the Liber Pontificalis, describing in this case the retainers, clients, and slaves of Laurentius’ noble supporters:

“In their hatred they visited slaughter and murder on the clergy. Those who rightly held communion with the blessed Symmachus were openly put to the sword when found within the city [of Rome]. Consecrated women and virgins were expelled from their convents and houses, stripped and beaten. Every day they waged war against the church in the midst of the City … so that it was unsafe for any of the clergy to walk abroad in the city by day or night.”

If that passage is even a little bit true, then the situation was clearly dire. We need to read it with some caution though, especially the bit about nuns. If you were running a smear campaign in medieval days and didn’t accuse your target of defiling nuns and virgins, then you really weren’t even trying. Theodoric tried to stay above it as long as he could, in spite of pretty much continuous badgering by representatives from both sides to reenforce his earlier decisions. There is a sense that Theodoric wasn’t entirely comfortable at this stage with such a direct role in a church that wasn’t even his, but ultimately something had to be done to stop the violence. He ordered the Laurentians to hand over control of all the churches they held to Symmachus, on pain of Royal displeasure, and issued a decree urging unity. Many submitted and came over to Symmachus, but Laurentius himself took himself off to an estate and fasted so rigorously that he died shortly thereafter. I’d hate to trivialize it by calling it a tantrum, but, you know. There were still plenty who bitterly resented Symmachus and remained defiant, and writings from their side suggest that the pope reveled in his victory and immediately started selling off offices to enrich himself, but who knows how true that is. He certainly did make sure that all the important posts went to men whose loyalty and support were assured.

Now, if your brain isn’t slowly dripping out your ears, you may be wondering what happened to the whole issue with the East? With Acacius and all that stuff? The conflict in Rome had been triggered by conflict over the handling of the eastern question, with Symmachus firmly in the anti-Acacian camp, and Laurentius probably supported by the emperor, but events had rather overtaken them. Symmachus made his position clear in a letter to eastern orthodox bishops who wrote to him for guidance when they were threatened with persecution for refusing to deal with Acacius’ successors, saying they should stand firm and be prepared for martyrdom. I imagine that wasn’t the answer they’d been hoping for.

One would hope that the death of Symmachus in 514 would produce another opportunity for reconciliation. He had nominated as a successor one Hormisdas, who was duly elected. Hormisdas was just as orthodox as his successor, but of a much less strident frame of mind. Emperor Anastasius wrote to him hopeful that the division could at last be healed.

Anastasius needed a win, but his own personal qualities were against him. Opposition to the henotikon grew throughout his reign, and in response, he dug in his heels. It went as far as open rebellion in the orthodox Balkans, which initially was successful against the forces the emperor sent in opposition. Pope Hormisdad thus found himself with the initiative. He was surrounded by a supportive hard-line clergy, and when a letter arrived inviting the pope to a new council to resolve the schism, there was cautious optimism. Hormisdas consulted with his bishops and was careful to seek and receive permission from THeodoric before agreeing to send an embassy with his proposals. The proposals hadn’t changed though, if anything they were even harder, as Hormisdas sought to exploit his position of strength. It still included the condemnation of Acacius, the re-confirmation of Chalcedon, and the extradition to Rome of six prominent bishops considered heretics by the pope.

None of it was acceptable. As far as Anastasius was concerned he had never done or said anything against Chaslcedon, two of the heretics in question had already been condemned and were dead anyway, and further condemnation of the others or of Acacius would lead to  bloodshed, which the emperor would not countenance.

Word of Anastasius’ rejection led to renewed rebellion in the Balkans, but this time the emperor’s military intervention was successful. Now feeling himself in a position of strength, Anastasius tried to get the Roman senate on his side and put pressure on Theodoric. But Symmaachus’ death had healed the divisions in the senate, and they were united behind their pope. Hormisdas. Agents of the pope, allegedly in Constantinople to negotiate, instead were found to be drumming up support among the increasingly frustrated orthodox clergy in the east, and when efforts to bribe them failed, Anastasius wrote to the pope in a bit of a snit:

“From henceforth we will suppress in silence our requests, thinking it absurd to show the courtesy of prayers to those who obstinately refuse even to be entreated. We can endure being insulted and thwarted, but we cannot endure being commanded.”

Annie, are you okay?

The death of Anastasius at age 88 proved that he had remained the last blockage to reconciliation. He was succeeded by the commander of the imperial bodyguard, Justin, an Illyrian peasant made good. He, as well as his leading advisors, were firmly Orthodox, and invited Hormisdas to send a new delegation for discussions. Once again the cautious Hormisdas sought approval and advice from his bishops and king, but this time the outcome was no longer in doubt. In 519, the envoys were met outside Constantinople by Justin’s nephew and second-in-command, a fellow named Justinian. They were escorted to the city amid cheers and celebration. Hormisdas’ conditions for reunion were accepted by Justin in full, they declared Acacius, his four successors as patriarch, as well and Zeno and Anastasius, had all been hertics. Those last two hadn’t been requested by the pope, and he was probably surprised when he heard about it. It never seems to have come up again, and did no damage to Justin’s credibility as emperor, so it must have been just thrown in there as a bonus, with no real attention paid to it, like the mint leaf on top of a dessert. The whole thing was an unalloyed triumph for the pope. 

It wasn’t long before things began to sour again, and it became clear that Rome had not actually gained any additional power or precedence over the see of Constantinople, but that hadn’t really been the point. Removal of the offensive Acacius from the reverence of the eastern church, and reaffirmation of Chalcedon and the rejection of both Nestorianism and Monophysitism were the keys, and all of that had been achieved. It allowed for new closeness between the clergy and the nobility of Rome and Constantinople, who shared of course the common heritage of romanitas and christianitas

Theodoric seems to have been annoyed by the bickering and happy to remove this constant undercurrent of strife from the body politic. But in the long run, the presence of the schism had probably been good for his own security on the throne of Ravenna. Reconciliation of east and west would give birth to a new destabilizing element in his court, the same destabilization that would lead to the execution of Boethius. It exposed the real problem that Theodoric faced when dealing with the east – the essentially split loyalties of his Aristocracy. No matter how much he pushed his own Romanizing agenda, no matter how much he insisted on the trappings of a Roman ruler, for many he couldn’t compete with the actual emperor in Constantinople. Once the religious difference was resolved, that pull toward the east for some became even stronger.

The last years of theodoric’s reign were increasingly unsettled, and it seems to have rattled him. His carefully constructed diplomatic edifice began to crumble, he suffered personal loss, and his ability to defend his Arian brethren began to slip. It may be that the great king, so assured and respected, started to go off the rails himself a little bit. We’ll see whether that was so or not next time, as we bring down the curtain on Theodoric the Great.

Well I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted. I was slightly surprised when I realized that I have now spent seven episodes on this one man and his rule. Hopefully it’s been worthwhile to you. We’ll take a break for a thematic episode, probably not about the papacy, since I think there’s been more than enough of that today, but something fun. Then on to the next larger-than-life character of the drama, the mighty, and mighty intimidating Clovis, king of the Franks.


Heather, Peter J. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. Oxford, Oxford University Press, USA, 2014.

Richards, Jeffrey. The popes and the papacy in the early Middle Ages, 476-752. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.


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