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The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D. had huge consequences for the Church and for the construction of a new Europe, now ruled by the conquering and victorious Germanic tribes. These tribes, however, did adopt many things from the Romans, religion being one of them.

What was the impact of religion, the Catholic Church in this case, for the construction of a post-Roman Europe?

Disclaimer: The majority of Christians within the Western Roman Empires followed the “Nicene Creed”, called Catholicism in this article for simplicity.

The Church and Constantine. Catholicism during the Late Roman Empire

In the year 313 d.C. the Roman Emperor Constantine started by putting an end to oppression against Christians, giving the Church their lands taken in previous persecutions.

During the Battle of the Milvian Bridge between Constantine and Maxentius, the former stated that his victory came by the grace of a foreign and unknown God who had nothing to do with the Roman Pantheon, whilst the Pagan Haruspices” foresaw a defeat. Identifying this new deity as the Christian God, the Roman Emperor increase the privileges given to the Christians, regarding himself as one of them since the year 313.

That same year, in the Edict of Milan, freedom of cult was granted throughout the Empire.

Christianity by this time was a rising religion that had won over a significant part of Roman citizens, whilst the Church’s influence grew exponentially, this being one of the reasons why it was heavily persecuted in previous centuries.

Constantine realized that the spread of Christianity was almost impossible to stop by this point, so he decided to use it to his advantage. Pledging his faith and loyalty to God and Christ, he aimed to use the influence of the Church to fulfill his ambition of having a unified and controlled Empire, after the hard war required to take it back in the first place.

The “Imperial” Church.

However, Constantine failed to realize that the Church used him just as much as he did the Church.

To the Catholic faith, every Earthly power is subjugated to God, since He is the one who gives power to every monarch, thus marking them as His representatives on Earth. This is why phrases like “King by the grace of God” are used, as a way to point out their God-given power and authority.

This means that for Christians, all authority came from God, not man, rejecting the Roman Pagan faith and ideas, like the deification of Emperors after their death, and rejecting the authority of the Emperors, since it wasn’t a power legitimated by God. Evidently, this last principle would change after the Romans embraced Christianity as their official religion.

The Church drastically increased its power using their Imperial connections, even using Roman administration to set up their Bishoprics (also called Dioceses after the original Roman provincial division issued by Diocletian).

The Pope as a substitute of the Emperor

Furthermore, the Papacy took for itself many elements of the Imperial court. The colour purple, often used by Emperors as a symbol of their predominant status, was taken and used by Cardinals. Moreover, the title of “Pontifex Maximus“, held by Emperors since the rule of Augustus, was now used directly by the Pope, turning it into “Supreme Pontiff“.

The Papal Tiara was allegedly given to Pope Sylvester I by Constantine I.
The Papal Tiara was allegedly given to Pope Sylvester I by Constantine I.

As was previously mentioned, the Church rejected the deification of the Roman Emperors, thus justifying their power as representatives of God on Earth. This concept would also be assumed by the Pope in later years, who also sought to maintain Catholicism as the main religion in all of former Roman Europe, as a way to keep the influence and power that the Church amassed during the days of the last Caesars.

Bishops and dioceses as the new sources of power within the Empire

Bishops, now considered as Roman aristocrats, where given many civilian responsibilities in their dioceses, acting much like consuls or prefects would. This brought them social status and wealth, but most importantly, it would secure their power and popular support in later periods.

With the reduction of the Emperor’s authority during the IV and V centuries A.D., Christian Bishops gained immense power and influence amongst the people of their dioceses, since the people turned to them during the transition between the fall of Roman authority and the implementation of the Germanic law.

A change in course

After three long centuries of repression and suffering, Christianity managed to take hold of the Empire, winning the faith of many of its subjects, and most importantly, winning over the loyalty of the Roman upper class, including Emperors.

However, Christianity soon saw the need of having to win over the faith of more than just Romans. Germanic tribes came closer and closer to the Roman borders, either escaping from the Huns, a nomadic tribe that was making their entrance in the West from the Eastern steppes, or a major climate change that damaged their way of life.

Dozens of tribes started to migrate into the Roman Empire, either peacefully or forcefully. The Church saw these Germanic tribes as barbarians, pagans, and even heretics, since some tribes were already converted to Arianism, a Christian faith deemed as a heresy by the Church. Motivated by need and self-survival, this view on the Germanic tribes would soon change.

Providentialism

The Church tried to give an explanation to their faithful about why these heathens and barbarians shattered their peace. The answer was Providentialism, this is, that the Germanic invaders were the tool that God was using to punish the Roman Empire for its sins.

The sack of Rome by Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, in the year 410, was the main event that installed the Providential view on Church clergymen since Alaric’s men respected the Churches of the Eternal City whilst punishing those Romans who remained Pagan, according to Paulus Orosius.

Providentialism saw the collapse of Roman authority as inevitable, thus focusing on a union between Germans and Christians that would require a cultural synthesis with the Germanic innovations and the Roman-Christian long-lived tradition, creating the Universal Kingdom of God.

For the Church, the way for a barbarian to stop being considered as such was by converting to Christianity (excluding heresies such as Arianism or Donatism, amongst many others) and accepting the guidance of the Church. Nevertheless, relations between Germans and the Church were constant even if the former were still Pagan.

The conversion of the Germanic tribes

Leaving aside dogmatic and religious reasons, the Germanic tribes found themselves being a minority with little support amongst the Roman citizens they now ruled over. Integration and compromise were paramount for establishing a long and stable rule in tumultuous times such as the V and VI century A.D.

Furthermore, the Germanic tribes didn’t want to destroy the Roman culture, but to be a part of it. This meant that, even though they arrived as pagans or Arians, they issued a policy of understanding and communication with the Romans, who were Catholics.

Ironically, Pagans and Catholics had an easier time working together than Arians and Catholics. Most of the Germanic persecutions against the Church were made by those who were Arian, as the Vandals in Africa or the Visigoths in Hispania.

With this in mind, transitioning to Catholicism seemed like a natural step to take, securing the support of the Church and their clergymen, and thus, higher popular support and acceptance. Visigoths and Franks take a protagonist role in this aspect, for their longevity and relevance in the building of future nations.

By the end of the VI century, most of the European lands previously owned by the Roman Empire had already embraced the Holy Trinity, with the conversions of Visigoths and Franks in 589 and 500 respectively, and the end of Vandal and Ostrogothic Arian rule over North Africa and Italy, annexed by Justinian’s Eastern Roman Empire, whose Eastern Orthodox Church still shared communion with the Catholic Church.

Symbiosis State-Church

Bishop Gregory of Tours, one of the most influential and powerful characters in VI century France
Bishop Gregory of Tours, one of the most influential and powerful characters in VI century France

Bishops, who acted as representatives of the Roman people, gained political power after the conversions, acting as counsellors to the king, whom also promoted the construction of new Churches and gave them numerous privileges, like the exemption of taxes or a high autonomy. Legal privileges were also granted to clergymen.

In return, the Germanic kings gained something paramount for their rule: Legitimacy. The Germanic concept of kingship was that of a military leader chosen by the people in times of need for his military and leadership skills.

After the conversion to Catholicism, this view was soon to change. Society was now viewed as a creation of God, being the king chosen by Him to rule it in His name. For this pact to happen between God and King, the latter had to receive a sacred anointment in his coronation, thus distinguishing him from the rest of society and giving them almost divine power, even to intervene in Church affairs, as was their God-given authority to rule.

However, the Church had a huge role to play in this sacred covenant, since they were the ones that introduced God to the Germanic kings in the first place, and they were also the ones who had to officiate every religious act, being the sacred anointment the most relevant in this case. Symbolically, the King was chosen by God, but his power was given by the Church.

Medieval Europe was birthed from the result of the cooperation between the Germanic tribes and the Catholic Church, being the V and VI century when most of the most notable principles of Medieval power were birthed, like the already mentioned sacred monarchy.

Sources

  • WARD-PERKINS B. (2005) The fall of Rome: And the end of Civilization.
  • ORLANDIS ROVIRA J. (1998) La Historia de la Iglesia: La Iglesia Antigua y Medieval (History of the Church: Ancient and Medieval Church).
  • GONZÁLEZ GARCÍA J. (2003) The Story of Christianity Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation.
  • FOX R. (1986) Pagans and Christians
  • Encyclopedia of European Peoples.
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Michele Leandro Polacci

Michele Leandro Polacci

History student at Málaga University (UMA). Passionate about History since a very early age, and looking forward to sharing that same passion.

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