Ascension of Christ

[9.1]. Arian Missions & Germanic Invasions   [9.2]. Growth of Papacy
[9.3]. Ambrose & Chrysostom






The Germanic Tribes

Throughout the history of the empire the defense of the frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube against the Teutonic peoples beyond had been an important military problem. Under Marcus Aurelius a desperate, but ultimately successful war had been waged by the Romans on the upper Danube (167-180). Considerable shifting of tribes and formations of confederacies took place behind the screen of the Roman frontier; but by the beginning of the third century the group known as the Alemans had formed across the upper Rhine, and half a century later, that of the Franks on the lower right side of that river. Between these two developments, about 230-240, the Goths completed their settlement in what is now southern Russia. In 250 and 251 the Roman hold in the Balkans was seriously threatened by a Gothic invasion, in which the persecuting Emperor, Decius, lost his life. The Goths effected a settlement in the region north of the lower Danube. They invaded the empire, and the peril was not stayed till the victories of Claudius (269), from which he derived his title, “Gothicus.” The stronger Emperors, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine, held the frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube effectively; but the danger of invasion was always present. By the fourth century the Goths north of the Danube, who were most in contact with Roman civilization of any of the Germanic tribes, were known as the Visigoths, while their kinsmen in southern Russia were called Ostrogoths. The exact meaning of these names is uncertain, though they are generally regarded as signifying West and East Goths.

The Work of Ulfila

There was, indeed, much interchange between Romans and Germans, especially from the time of Aurelian onward. Germans served, in increasing numbers, in the Roman armies. Roman traders penetrated far beyond the borders of the empire. Germans settled in the border provinces and adopted Roman ways. Prisoners of war, taken probably in the raid of 264, from Cappadocia, had introduced the germs of Christianity among the Visigoths before the close of the third century, and even a rudimentary church organization in certain places. The Visigoths, as a nation, had not been converted. To that work Ulfila was to contribute. Born about 310, of parentage sprung, in part at least, from the captives just mentioned, he was of Christian origin, and became a “reader” in the services of the little Christian Gothic circle. In 341 he accompanied a Gothic embassy, and was ordained bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, then bishop of Constantinople, whether in the latter city, or in Antioch where the synod (ante, 3.4) was then sitting, is uncertain. His theology, which seems to have been very simple, was thenceforth anti-Nicene, and after the formation of the Homoiousian party he was to be reckoned one of its adherents. For the next seven years he labored in his native land, till persecution compelled him and his fellow Christians to seek refuge on Roman soil, living and laboring for many years near the modern Plevna, in Bulgaria. His great work was the translation of the Scriptures, or at least of the New Testament, into the Gothic tongue. In 383 he died on a visit to Constantinople. Unfortunately, the complete oblivion into which these Arian labors fell, owing to their unorthodox character in the view of the following age, allows no knowledge of Ulfila’s associates, nor a judgment as to how far the credit of turning the Visigoths to Christianity belonged to him, or to the Gothic chieftain Fritigern, about 370.

But, however brought about, the Visigoths, in spite of pagan persecution, rapidly accepted Arian Christianity. Not only they, but their neighbors the Ostrogoths, the Vandals in part, and remoter Germanic tribes, such as the Burgundians and Lombards, had embraced the Arian faith before invading the empire. Indeed, so widely had Christianity penetrated that it seems not improbable that, had the invasions been a couple of generations delayed, all might have entered the empire as Christians. As it was, those tribes only which were the farthest removed from the influences going out from the Visigoths —those of northwestern Germany, of whom the chief were the Franks and the Saxons—remained overwhelmingly pagan at the time of the invasions. Such rapid extension of Christianity shows that the hold of native paganism must have been slight, and that many, whose names have utterly perished, shared in the work of conversion. It was of the utmost significance that when the walls of the empire were broken the Germans came, for the most part, not as enemies of Christianity. Had the Western empire fallen, as well it might, a century before, the story of Christianity might have been vastly different. [N.B it is now regarded as unlikely that the majority of Goths were Christian prior to entering the Roman Empire: conversion to Christianity was a precondition for entry, and it was this that likely spurred the conversions to Arian Christianity]

The German Invasions

Pressed by an invasion of Huns from western Central Asia, the Visigoths sought shelter across the frontier of the lower Danube in 376. Angered by ill-treatment from Roman officials, they crossed the Balkans and annihilated the Roman army near Adrianople, in 378, in a battle in which the Emperor Valens lost his life. The strong hand of Theodosius (379-395) restrained their further attacks; but on his death the empire, divided between his son of eighteen, Arcadius, in the East, and his eleven-year-old son, Honorius, in the West, was no longer able to resist the attack. Under Alaric, the Visigoths undertook raids from the Balkans almost to the walls of Constantinople, and thence moved into Greece, penetrating as far as Sparta. By 401 the Visigoths were pressing into northern Italy, but were resisted for the next few years by Theodosius’s able Vandal general, Stilicho, whom he had left as guardian for the young Honorius. Stilicho’s murder, in 408 [orchestrated by anti-barbarian senators], opened the road to Rome, and Alaric promptly marched thither. It was not till 410, however, that the Visigothic chieftain actually captured the city. The poppular impression of this event was profound. The old mistress of the world had fallen before the barbarians. Alaric, desirous of establishing a kingdom for himself and of securing Roman Africa, the granary of Italy, marched at once for southern Italy, and there died before the close of 410. Under Ataulf the Visigothic host marched northward, entering southern Gaul in 412. Here the Goths settled by 419, developing ultimately a kingdom that included half of modern France, to which they added most of Spain by conquest during the course of the century. The Roman inhabitants were not driven out, but they were subjected to their Germanic conquerors, who appropriated much of the land, and placed its older occupants in a distinctly inferior position. [The older local Roman beurocracy was often left intact, although it has traditionally been claimed that ] commerce was hampered, the life of the cities largely broken down, and civilization crippled.

While these events were in progress, the tribes across the Rhine had seen their opportunity. The Arian Vandals and pagan Alans and Suevi invaded Gaul at the close of 406, ultimately pushing their way into Spain, where they arrived before the Visigoths. The Franks had pressed into northern Gaul and the Burgundians conquered the region around Strass- burg, and thence gradually the territory of eastern Gaul which still bears their name. Britain, involved in this collapse of Roman authority, was increasingly invaded by the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, who had been attacking its coasts since the middle of the fourth century. There Roman civilization had a weaker grasp than on the continent, and as Germanic conquest slowly advanced, it drove the Celtic element largely westward, and made much of Britain a pagan land. The Vandals from Spain, having entered Africa by 425, invaded it in full force in 429, under Gaiseric. They soon established there the most powerful of the early Germanic kingdoms, whose piratical ships speedily dominated the western Mediterranean. A Vandal raid sacked Rome in 455. A fearful invasion of Gaul in 451, by the Huns under Attila, was checked in battle near Troyes by the combined forces of the Romans and Visigoths. The next year Attila carried his devastations into Italy, and was barely prevented from taking Rome by causes which are now obscure, but among which the efforts of its bishop, Leo I, were believed to have been determinative.

Though the rule of the Emperors was nominally maintained in the West, and even the Germanic conquerors, who established kingdoms in Gaul, Spain, and Africa were professedly their dependents, the Emperors became the tools of the chiefs of the army. On the death of Honorius, in 423, the empire passed to Valentinian III. His long reign, till 455, was marked by the quarrels of Boniface, count of Africa, and Aetius, the count of Italy, which permitted the Vandal conquest of North Africa. Aetius won, indeed, about the last victory of the empire when, with the Visigoths, he defeated Attila in 451. Between 455 and 476 no less than nine Emperors were set up and deposed in the West. The real ruler of Italy was the head of the army. From 456 to 472 this post was held by Ricimer, of Suevic and Visigothic descent. After his death the command was taken by a certain Orestes, who conferred the imperial title on his son, Romulus, nicknamed Augustulus. The army in Italy was recruited chiefly from smaller Germanic tribes, among them the Rugii and Heruli. It now demanded a third of the land. Orestes refused, and the army rose in mutiny in 476 under the Germanic general Odovakar, who, in order to establish his own rule as king, deposed the nominal Western Emperor. This date has usually been taken as that of the close of the Roman Empire. In reality it was without special significance. Romulus Augustulus was deposed and his imperial regalia sent to Constantinople by Odovacar. There was no further Emperor in the West till Charlemagne. But Odovakar and his contemporaries had no thought that the Roman Empire was at an end. He ruled in Italy as the Visigoths ruled in southern France and Spain, a nominal subject of the Roman Emperor, who sat on the throne in Constantinople.

Odovakar’s sovereignty in Italy was ended in 493 in the struggle against new Germanic invaders of Italy, the Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric. Under that successful conqueror a really remarkable amalgamation of Roman and Germanic institutions was attempted. His capital was Ravenna, whence he ruled till his death in 526. The Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy was brought to an end by the long wars under the Emperor Justinian, which were fought, from 535 to 555, by Belisarius and Narses, who restored a ravaged Italy to the empire. Contemporaneously (534) the imperial authority was re-established in North Africa and the Vandal kingdom brought to an end. Italy was not long at peace. Between 568 and 572 a new Germanic invasion, that of the Lombards, founded a kingdom that was to last for two centuries. Masters of northern Italy, to which region they gave their name, the Lombards did not, however, win Rome and the southern part of the peninsula, nor did they gain Ravenna, the seat of the imperial exarch, till the eighth century. Rome remained, therefore, connected with the empire which had its seat in Constantinople, but so distant and so close to the Lombard frontier that effective control from Constantinople was impossible— a condition extremely favorable for the growth of the political power of its bishop.

The Conversion of the Franks

Contemporaneously with the earlier of the events just described, changes of the utmost significance were in process in Gaul. The Franks, of whom mention has been made, had long been pressing into the northern part of the ancient provinces. Divided into several tribes, the King of the Salic Franks, from about 481, was Clovis. A chieftain of great energy, he soon extended his sovereignty as far as the Loire. He and his people were still pagan , though he treated the church with respect. In 493 he married Clotilda, a Burgundian, but, unlike most of her fellow countrymen, a Catholic, not an Arian. After a great victory over the Alemans, in 496, he declared for Christianity, and was baptized with three thousand of his followers in Rheims, on Christmas of that year. His was the first Germanic tribe, therefore, to be converted to the orthodox faith. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, and Lombards were Arians. This agreement in belief won for Clovis not only the good-will of the old Roman population and the support of the bishops whom he, in turn, favored but, added to his own abilities, enabled him before his death, in 511, to take from the Visigoths most of their possessions north of the Pyrenees and to become so extensive a ruler that he may well be called the founder of France, his territories stretching even beyond the Rhine. That the Franks were Catholic was ultimately, though not immediately, to bring connections between them and the papacy of most far-reaching consequences.

The conversion of the Franks had also much influence on the other Germanic invaders, though the example of the native population among whom they were settled worked even more powerfully. The Burgundians abandoned Arianism in 517, and in 532 became part of the Frankish kingdom. The imperial conquests of Justinian ended the Arian kingdoms of the Vandals and Ostrogoths. The rivalry of the creeds was terminated in Spain by the renunciation of Arianism by the Visigothic King, Recared, in 587, and confirmed at the Third Council of Toledo, in 589. About 590 the gradual conversion of the Lombards to Catholicism began—a process not completed till about 660. Thus all Arianism ultimately disappeared.

[9].2. THE GROWTH of the PAPACY



[9.2] THE GROWTH of the PAPACY



To the distinction already attaching to the Roman Church and its bishop the period of the invasions brought new eminence. Believed to be founded by Peter, situated in the ancient capital, the guardian of apostolic tradition, the largest and most generous church of the West, it had stood orthodox in the Arian controversy, and in the ruin of the Germanic invasions it seemed the great surviving institution of the ancient world which they were unable to overthrow. While most of the bishops of Rome in this period were men of moderate abilities, several were the strongest leaders of the West, and to them great advancement in the authority of the Roman bishop —the development of a real papacy—was due. Such a leader of force was Innocent I (402-417). He claimed for the Roman Church not only custody of apostolic tradition and the foundation of all Western Christianity, but ascribed the decisions of Sardica (ante, 3.4) to the Council of Nicaea, and based on them a universal jurisdiction of the Roman bishop.[1] Leo I (440-461) greatly served Rome, in the judgment of the time, during the invasions of the Huns and Vandals, and largely influenced the result of the Council of Chalcedon (§3.9). He emphasized the primacy of Peter among the Apostles, both in faith and government, and taught that what Peter possessed had passed to Peter’s successors.[2] These claims Leo largely made good. He ended the attempt to create an independent Gallic see in Arles; he exercised authority in Spain and North Africa. In 445 he procured an edict from the Western Emperor, Valentinian III, ordering all to obey the Roman bishop, as having the “primacy of Saint Peter.” [3]On the other hand, the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, by its twenty-eighth canon placed Constantinople on a practical equality with Rome.[4] Against this action Leo at once protested; but it foreshadowed the ultimate separation, far more political than religious, between the churches of East and West.

In the struggle with Monophysitism (§3.10), the bishops of Rome resisted the efforts of the Emperor Zeno (474-491) and the Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople to modify the results of Chalcedon by the so-called Henoticon,[5] with the result that Pope Felix III (483-492) excommunicated Acacius, and a schism began between East and West which ended in 519 in a papal triumph. During this controversy Pope Gelasius (492- 496) wrote a letter to Zeno’s successor, the Eastern Emperor Anastasius, in which he declared “ there are . . . two by whom principally this world is ruled; the sacred authority of the pontiffs and the royal power. Of these the importance of the priests is so much the greater, as even for Kings of men they will have to give an account in the divine judgment.” [6]In 502 Bishop Ennodius of Pavia urged that the Pope can be judged by God alone.[7] The later claims of the mediaeval papacy were, therefore, sketched by the beginning of the sixth century. Circumstances prevented their development in full practice in the period immediately following. The rise of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and the reconquest of Italy by the Eastern empire, diminished the independence of the papacy. Outside of Italy the growth of a new Catholic power, the Franks, and the gradual conversion of Arian Germanic rulers, brought about a harmony between the new sovereigns and their bishops that gave to the latter extensive independence of Roman claims, though accompanied by great dependence on the Germanic sovereigns. The full realization of the papal ideal, thus early established, was to be a task of centuries, and was to encounter many vicissitudes.








The contrast between East and West is in many ways illustrated by the unlike qualities and experiences of Chrysostom and Ambrose. Ambrose was born in Trier, now in western Germany, where his father held the high civil office of praetorian prefect of Gaul, about 337-340. Educated in Rome for a civil career, his talents, integrity, and likableness led to his appointment, about 374, as governor of a considerable part of northern Italy, with his residence in Milan, then practically an imperial capital. The death of the Arian bishop, Auxentius, in 374, left the Milanese see vacant. The two factions were soon in bitter struggle as to the theological complexion of his successor. The young governor entered the church to quiet the throng, when the cry was raised, “Ambrose Bishop !” and he found himself, though unbaptized, elected bishop of Milan. To Ambrose, this was a call of God. He gave up his wealth to the poor and the church. He studied theology. He became a most acceptable preacher. Above all, he possessed to the full the Roman talent for administration, and he soon became the first ecclesiastic of the West.

Strongly attached to the Nicene faith, Ambrose would make no compromise with the Arians, and resisted all their attempts to secure places of worship in Milan—an effort in which they were aided by the Empress Justina, mother of the youthful Valentinian II. In the same spirit he opposed successfully the efforts of the pagan party in Rome to obtain from Valentinian II the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Senate chamber, and other privileges for the older worship. His greatest triumph was in the case of the Emperor Theodosius. That quick-tempered ruler, angered by the murder of the governor of Thessalonica, in 390, caused a punitive massacre of its inhabitants. Ambrose, with rare moral courage, called on the Emperor to manifest his public repentance.[8] It throws pleasing light on the character of Theodosius that he obeyed the admonition.

Ambrose was a theological writer of such reputation that the Roman Church reckons him as one of its “Doctors”—or authoritative teachers. His work, however, in this field was largely a reproduction of the thoughts of Greek theologians, though with a deeper sense of sin and grace than they. “I will not glory because I am righteous, but I will glory because I am redeemed. I will not glory because I am free from sin, but because my sins are forgiven.” [9]Ambrose’s bent was practical. He wrote on Christian ethics, in full sympathy with the ascetic movement of the time. He contributed much to the development of Christian hymnology in the West. Forceful and sometimes overbearing, he was a man of the highest personal character and of indefatigable zeal—a true prince of the church. Such men were needed in the shock of the collapsing empire if the church was to survive in power. He died in 397.


Very different was the life of Chrysostom. John, to whom the name Chrysostom, “golden-mouthed,” was given long after his death, was born of noble and well-to-do parents in Antioch about 345-347. Losing his father shortly after his birth, he was brought up by his religious-minded mother, Anthusa, and early distinguished himself in scholarship and eloquence. About 370, he was baptized and probably ordained a “reader.” He now practised extreme asceticism, and pursued theological studies under Diodorus of Tarsus, one of the leaders of the later Antiochian school. Not satisfied with his austerities, he became a hermit (c. 375), and so remained till ill-health compelled his return to Antioch, where he was ordained a deacon (c. 381). In 386 he was advanced to the priesthood. Then followed the happiest and most useful period of his life. For twelve years he was the great preacher of Antioch—the ablest that the Oriental Church probably ever possessed. His sermons were exegetical and eminently practical. The simple, grammatical understanding of the Scriptures, always preferred in Antioch to the allegorical interpretation beloved in Alexandria, appealed to him. His themes were eminently social—the Christian conduct of life. He soon had an enormous following.

        Such was Chrysostom’s fame that, on the see of Constantinople falling vacant, he was practically forced by Eutropius, the favorite of the Emperor Arcadius, to accept the bishopric of the capital in 398. Here he soon won a popular hearing like that of Antioch. From the first, however, his way in Constantinople was beset with foes. The unscrupulous patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, desired to bring Constantinople into practical subjection. Himself the opponent of Origen’s teaching, he charged Chrysostom with too great partiality for that master. Chrysostom’s strict discipline, for which there was ample justification, was disliked by the loose-living clergy of Constantinople. Worst of all, he won the hostility of the vigorous Empress Eudoxia, by reasons of denunciations of feminine extravagance in dress, which she thought aimed at herself. Chrysostom was certainly as tactless as he was fearless in denouncing offenses in high places. All the forces against him gathered together. A pretext for attack soon arose. In his opposition to Origen, Theophilus had disciplined certain monks of Egypt. Four of these, known as the “tall brothers,” fled to Chrysostom, by whom they were well received. Theophilus and Chrysostom’s other enemies now secured a synod, at an imperial estate near Constantinople known as “The Oak,” which, under the leadership of Theophilus, condemned and deposed Chrysostom in 403.

        The Empress was as superstitious as she was enraged, and an accident in the palace—later tradition pictured it probably mistakenly as an earthquake—led to Chrysostom’s recall shortly after he had left the capital. Peace was of brief duration. A silver statue of the Empress, erected near his cathedral, led to denunciations by Chrysostom of the ceremonies of its dedication. The Empress saw in him more than ever a personal enemy. This time, in spite of warm popular support, he was banished to the miserable town of Cucusus, on the edge of Armenia. Pope Innocent I protested, but in vain. Yet from this exile Chrysostom continued so to influence his friends by letter that his opponents determined to place him in deeper obscurity. In 407 he was ordered to Pityus, but he never reached there, dying on the journey.

The fate of this most deserving, if not most judicious, preacher of righteousness illustrates the seamy side of imperial interference in ecclesiastical affairs, and the rising jealousies of the great sees of the East, from whose mutual hostility the church and the empire were greatly to suffer.



[1] Letters, 2, 25; Mirbt, Quellen zur Geschichte des Papsttums, 54, 55.

[2] Sermons, 3.2,3.; Ayer, p. 477.

[3] Mirbt, p. 65.

[4] Ayer, p. 521.

[5] Ayer, p. 527.

[6] Ayer, p. 531.

[7] Mirbt, p. 70.

[8] Ayer, pp. 390, 391.

[9] De Jacob et vita beata, 1; 621.



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