The new emperor was Maurice, whose virtues seem to be backed up with a bit more actual achievement. He too was from a military background. His grounds for getting the job were that he was picked out from the crowd for his great qualities by Tiberius, and he seems to have chosen well. This was a period of relative military and diplomatic success for the Byzantines. The Persians were pushed back a little. The Avars were countered in the Balkans. Gibbon doesn’t seem to have been aware of the Strategikon – a military manual that is sometimes attributed to Maurice himself. Like all such pleasing historical details, the tedious attention to actual facts of professional historians has cast doubt on whether this was indeed the case. But there is no doubt that Maurice was an effective general so even if he didn’t actually write the book on the subject, we can at least conclude that he would have been able to had he put his mind to it.

In Italy he reorganised the area around Ravenna into a semi-autonomous region with local power in the hands of a single man answerable directly to the emperor. This enabled a much more efficient response to the threat from the Lombards. The official was known as the Exarch and the region as the Exarchate of Ravenna. At its founding it covered about a third of the peninsula.

But Maurice was not able to re-establish Byzantine control over the whole of Italy. In particular Rome was left to the mercy of the barbarians. It wasn’t inconceivable that it could have vanished altogether like ancient Carthage or Babylon. But there was still one thing that marked Rome out from all other cities. It was the seat of the bishop of Rome who claimed authority over all other bishops and by extension to all Christians worldwide.

The Pope was box office. He drew people in and he had influence. There was no longer an emperor or a Senate, but as long as Rome still counted spiritually it still had some clout. Indeed the papacy was probably a lot stronger by not having to compete with an emperor. Over time there was a tendency for the popes to fill the power vacuum left in the west by the collapse of the empire. This made them a lot more worldly and ultimately undermined some of their religious prestige. In fact the role of the Church was to be a key historical theme of the medieval history of the continent. But for now the popes were probably a net benefit to Western Europe, and most certainly were for Rome itself.

A lot depended on the character of the pope himself as a man at any given time. But chance had it that one of the most impressive men to hold the post happened to come along at the point in time where it was most valuable. Gregory the First, the only pope ever to have been canonised, was an efficient administrator. He was a brilliant strategist. He was an able diplomat. He may well have been a sincere and pious believer as well. It’s actually easier to believe that he was than that he was just an effective spin doctor – but we can’t discount the possibility that he was just a really really good spin doctor. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Gregory started his career outside the church as an envoy to Constantinople on behalf of the prefect of Rome, which he did very effectively. But although his abilities were noted they were not sufficient to actually get the help the Romans needed out of the emperor. Gregory didn’t take it well. He gave up on secular politics. He had a spell as a monk after which his obvious virtues made him the choice of both the clergy and the people when the top job fell vacant. The only person who didn’t think he was the man for the role was the man himself. His modesty was so great that he ran away and hid alone in a forest to avoid it. Modern head hunters will confirm that the best hires are never the easiest to sign up. But his location was given away by a divine light. So with Heaven throwing a vote in the reluctant penitent became the pontiff.

Gregory was the only pope who got a good press in the England I grew up in. He was the man who sent a team of monks to Kent to convert the heathen Saxons to Christianity. The story was that he saw slaves on sale in the market in Rome with blond hair. He asked about them and was told they were Angles. “Non Angli Sed Angeli” was his comment. Not Angles but Angels. There was a joke translation which went “not Angles but Anglicans”. It was funny at the time. You had to be there.

His compassion for the unfortunate lost souls who were beyond the reach of the church’s offer of redemption was all the motivation he needed to do something about it.

The expansion of the Roman church into England was very much the kind of strategic move that Gregory was good at identifying, and was implemented with the attention to detail for which he was famous. And it also shows his people skills in that he was able to find a suitable person to delegate it to. The conversion was put into the hands of Augustine, a top ranking monk and another able administrator.

It was certainly a tough gig. But he pulled it off and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglo-Saxons at the time were still largely pagan, but there was a local Christian church in the parts of the island still controlled by Celts and Romano-Britons. It was the latter that were more of a threat. It isn’t hard to imagine the island as a whole coming under their sway and creating a religious setup independent of the rest of the continent. Indeed exactly that was to happen a thousand years later when Henry broke from Rome and set up the Anglican Church. (If you didn’t get the joke first time around, and if you are not English you might well not have done, you should be able to work it out now. The Church of England is an unremarkable religious organisation in many ways but it does have the rather unique feature of having been founded by an act of parliament. The church is headed by the monarch, so the UK is on paper a theocracy. This makes the Anglican church very much the church of the establishment. Anglicans are not just the adherents to a particular faith, they are a particular kind of English person. But I digress.)

Despite having been taught about Gregory at school I was rather hazy on the details of his life and had to look them up. I discovered that Gibbon’s account simply assumes we know them. He leaves out his background that his grandfather had been the pope before him. He also doesn’t tell the most famous story about Gregory. He is supposed to have visited the camp of the Lombard king, a particularly vicious example of the class according to the story, unarmed and unguarded and obtained a promise that Rome would not be attacked by pure force of character.

Attention to detail was one of Gregory’s hallmarks, and he was particularly attentive to maintaining the goodwill of the inhabitants of Rome. This provided the groundwork on which the Papal States were founded shortly afterwards and which would provide the papacy with some much needed secular security. He was also attentive to the needs of his flock. He once penalised himself on account of a beggar dying of hunger in Rome. He also used diplomacy backed up with some force to keep the Lombards in check. This obliged the Church to become a political entity, which would lead to trouble down the road. But it was more or less forced on him by the inability of Constantinople to support Italy militarily. There wasn’t much else he could do.

Gregory is, as I said, the only Pope to have ever been canonised. Whether that is justified on a spiritual basis is not really for me to say. But he certainly made a difference historically. I don’t think it impossible that without Gregory the Catholic Church might not have become the dominant force in Western European culture from around this point to the Reformation. Basically he is one of the most significant figures in European history.

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