Of all the world’s great works of art, the ceiling and altar wall of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel are among the most difficult to properly appreciate. This is not because they lack for immediacy or relatability; your first glimpse of the hand of God touching that of his creation Adam up there on the chapel’s ceiling can still amaze you, no matter how many times you’ve seen it reproduced and parodied out of context. No, the problem is the simple fact that so many other people are there to see the same thing that you are. For Rome is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and the Vatican Museums, a tour of which features the Sistine Chapel as the grand finale after a staggering parade of other artistic treasures, is one of the city’s two most popular attractions of all, each of which bids welcome to more than 6 million visitors every year. The other one is the Colosseum, and is as massive as a modern soccer stadium; the Sistine Chapel, by comparison, is just 6000 square feet (550 square meters) in size, smaller than many a hotel ballroom. Every day during high season, 30,000 people troop through this space, craning their heads and resisting — or not — the urge to snap a picture. (Photography is officially forbidden.) They come from all over the world, and their motivations for being there range equally widely, from devout Catholic pilgrims who have been saving up for years to visit the holy heart of their faith to slightly bored-looking package-tour travelers wishing only to check one more tourist trap off of their bucket lists. The contrasts among the members of the sweaty, shuffling crowd, not to mention between the crowd and the magnificent scenes above them, makes its own sort of commentary on the multifariousness of human existence.

But what it doesn’t make for is reflective art appreciation. Jostled by purses and elbows, wilting under the pointed gaze of the guards who make it all too clear that they’d prefer for you to move on quickly, please, so as to make room for others, even the most determined culture vultures among us must find it hard to engage in the quiet, awe-filled contemplation that the artist Michelangelo intended. As sad as it is to say, you probably will get more value out of an investment in a good Sistine Chapel picture book than a ticket to see the real thing.

This, however, is not such a book, which I possess neither the requisite high-quality photographs nor the requisite background in art history and technique to write. This book is rather predicated on the principle that all human-made wonders, no matter how majestic and other-worldly they may appear, spring from a specific place, time, and culture, and can thus become a window into that very specific past which formed them.

The historical context of the Sistine Chapel can be summed up in three dates. Michelangelo painted the chapel’s ceiling between 1508 and 1512, when the Catholic Church was at the height of its power and glory; the English word “catholic” stems from a Greek word meaning “universal,” and in Western Europe at this time the version of Christianity defined, administered, and practiced by the Catholic Church from Rome truly was the universal religion. In 1517, though, a disenchanted German theologian named Martin Luther produced a document known as the Ninety-five Theses, signalling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the second great schism in the history of Christianity. Then, between 1536 and 1541, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint his masterpiece The Last Judgment on its altar wall, during a much more uncertain time for his faith, when the Catholic Church was rushing simultaneously to reform itself, to stamp out the heresies of Protestantism, and to demonstrate to the world through new spectacles like this one that its own power and glory were ongoing and undiminished.

So, fair warning: this book will take the roundabout way to what those 6 million visitors to the Vatican see every year, although I promise that it will get there in the end. My not-so-secret agenda is to show you how something so beautiful, so seemingly above worldly concerns as the Sistine Chapel — literally so, in the case of the chapel’s ceiling — nevertheless comes complete with an origin story indelibly bound up with the temporal social currents and concerns of its day. To fully understand how and why the Sistine Chapel came to be, we will first have to consider how the Catholic Church came to be, and how it gradually came to exert such a hold over the political as well as the spiritual life of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. That, then, will constitute the beginning of our journey through time. When we arrive at the extraordinary flowering of culture we call the Italian Renaissance, we will slow our march toward the early sixteenth century in order to learn how that world-shaking event came to be, and how it could in the due course of time produce an artist like Michelangelo. Only then will we turn to the artist himself and the popes for whom he worked, and to the bubbling discontent in Europe about the Catholic Church and its allegedly decadent ways, the background music to the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Call this book the essential companion to your Sistine Chapel picture book — the story behind the stories portrayed in those timeless frescoes.

At the broadest level, the recorded history of the West can be divided into four epochs: the Archaic period, spanning from about 3000 BC to 500 BC; Classical Times, from 500 BC to AD 500; the Middle Ages, from 500 to 1500 or so; and our own current epoch of Modernity. Catholicism is very much a creature of — in fact, in many ways the author of — the third of these. The Catholic Church’s rise corresponds with the gradual passing of Classical Times into the Middle Ages, and its troubles during the period of the Sistine Chapel’s creation correspond with the passing of the Middle Ages into Modernity. So, it is with the dawning glimmers of the Middle Ages that we must begin our journey.

This period of Western history tends to get not so much a bad rap as a confusing one these days. As its somewhat dismissive-sounding name would suggest, many folks wish to persist in seeing it as little more than a waste of 1000 perfectly good years, the long, benighted interregnum between the glory that was ancient Greece and Rome and the triumphant return of human genius in Early Modern figures like Copernicus, Shakespeare, Newton, and Bach. Our newspapers still use “Medieval” — a Latin-derived adjective meaning literally “middle-aged” — as a catchphrase for the frightfully barbaric and primitive; on the street, “getting Medieval on your ass” is what happens when the talking stops and the knives come out. At the same time, though, the Medieval lore of knights and ladies, chivalry and dragons is an evergreen staple of our novels, films, television shows, and videogames. Medieval castles and mislabeled Renaissance Faires fascinate a plastic-sword-waving public, and avid players of Dungeons & Dragons learn more about the details of real Medieval weaponry than the average Medieval peasant who got run through by one of those pointy objects ever got the chance find out. There are, it seems, aspects of the epoch that repel us, but also aspects that we find almost irresistibly alluring.

Of course, 1000 years is a long time, with room for plenty of bad and good alike. Both our skeptics and our fantasists tend to work from an incomplete picture of the real Middle Ages. The most scornful scoffers might want to reconsider their position in light of the fact that this alleged time of entrenched stagnation and chaos gave us the vibrant patchwork of cultures and languages that still defines the Europe of today. And as for the “lazy Medieval” romantics whose most cherished idylls are filled with the likes of Frodo and Tyrion, they overlook the all-dominating role that the Christian faith played in the daily life of all levels of society. The Middle Ages were not a complete intellectual desert; they were not so much bereft of thinking as marked by a different kind of thinking, as described by the twentieth-century historian of civilization Will Durant.

To understand the Middle Ages we must forget our modern rationalism, our proud confidence in reason and science, our restless search after wealth and an earthly paradise; we must enter sympathetically into the mood of men disillusioned of these pursuits, standing at the end of a thousand years of rationalism, finding all dreams of utopia shattered by war and poverty and barbarism, seeking consolation in the hope of happiness beyond the grave, inspired and comforted by the story and figure of Christ, throwing themselves upon the mercy and goodness of God, and living in the thought of His eternal presence, His inescapable judgment, and the atoning death of His Son.

This is Roman Catholic thinking.

That the would-be universal church of Christianity should wind up centered on Rome, from which much of the known world had been ruled for centuries before the birth of its savior, was by no means foreordained. On the contrary, “it should not be forgotten how unpredictable this outcome was,” as the historian of Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch has written. If you had told a Christian of the first or second century that Rome would someday become the epicenter of their faith, they would have laughed you out of the room — or done something much worse to you. Early Christians hated Rome. For proof, we need only look to the Book of Revelation, that strange, deeply unnerving final statement of the Bible, probably written around the turn of the second century. Considered in its historical context, this supposed book of prophecy is really an elaborate and lavishly violent revenge fantasy against Rome, which is personified as the grotesque “Whore of Babylon,” “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth,” “drunken with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs.”

How did Rome go from whore to home of the Holy Mother Church? To find out, we must look back to the time when that older Roman Empire was at its peak, and Christianity was just a strange, albeit rapidly growing cult well outside of the polytheistic pagan mainstream.

The Roman Empire at its maximum extent, in the year 117. (ESKEHL)

Although the legends of thousands of Christian martyrs being fed to the lions in the Colosseum year after year are probably grossly exaggerated if not outright false, the Roman emperors were definitely not always friendly toward the new monotheism in their midst. Secular historians today consider it possible or even likely that Jesus Christ’s apostle Peter really did come to Rome after the crucifixion to spread the good word, as the Catholic Church has always insisted, only to be himself martyred there in the year 64 by Emperor Nero, who had infamously fiddled while much of Rome burned in a terrible conflagration and sought to shift the blame to the city’s nascent Christian community, an easy scapegoat to accuse of arson.

Church historians also insist that Peter was the first person in Rome to be called the Christian pope, but secular historians are far more skeptical on this point. And even if he was called pope, they are doubtful that he founded the papacy as a coherent, ongoing institution to be passed down from one holy man to another. For those popes whom the Church claims to have immediately followed Peter are shadowy figures of dubious historical veracity, existing only in the records of the Church itself, and then only well after the stated dates of their deaths. It isn’t until a century or so after the time of Nero that their claim to being real historical figures begins to firm up.

Whenever it came to be, to ancient elites the title of pope had a downright childish ring, on which grounds they didn’t hesitate to mock it: “pope” in Latin was originally an affectionate term for “father.” (It is the linguistic root of the word “papa” which is still to be found in English and other European languages). The oddly casual title serves to illustrate what a small-scale affair Christianity really was in Rome in the early years, a matter of an informal father figure presiding over a tiny flock of metaphorical children.

Regardless of whether Peter was martyred there or not, Roman writers appear not to have contributed overmuch to the canon of Christian texts that was gradually cobbled together from the word of mouth about Jesus’s actions and teaching in far-off Palestine. The nearest thing to an intellectual heart of early Christianity was rather Alexandria, Egypt. It was in Alexandria well before the time of Jesus that the books of the Hebrew Bible — what Christians would later call the Old Testament — were first translated into Greek, which was along with Latin one of the two linguae francae of the ancient Mediterranean world. It was largely in Alexandria that the status of Jesus as a divine incarnation of God rather than a more typical sort of mortal prophet became Christian orthodoxy, not without much heated debate and even bloodshed. And it was in Alexandria in 367 that the selection of disparate older texts that constitutes the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible was first compiled into a single holy book for the religion. For more on how all of this came about, I refer you to the earlier volume in this Wonders of the World series on Alexandria.

For now, though, let’s look at the state of Christianity, in Rome and elsewhere, in 382, fifteen years after the finalization of the Bible. Far from the tiny, intermittently persecuted movement it began as, Christianity has been the religion of Rome’s emperors since Constantine’s earthshaking conversion 70 years earlier (excepting only one two-year interruption during the reign of the “apostate” pagan Emperor Julian). Christianity is by no means free of lingering internecine disputes over the nature of Jesus, but these have grown steadily more fine-grained as time has gone by. Now, the raging debate of the age is whether Jesus was and is an inseparable, eternal aspect of God — the orthodox position held by the bishops in Rome and most of the other more “civilized” parts of the Western world — or the alternative known as Arianism that is popular in many of the hinterlands, which claims that there was a time when Jesus did not exist, that he was created in the course of time by God from his own essence and is thus a separate, junior deity.

Even the orthodox version of Christianity is still a rather anarchic, diffuse affair, with nothing like a single mortal leader and an associated hierarchical bureaucracy. Indeed, many Christians in 382 still consider such a thing anathema. They remember that their religion slowly rose to dominance in the Roman Empire by following the example of Saint Paul, that early  “planter of churches,” who during the decades immediately after the crucifixion traveled all over the known world and preached the new faith, then left his converts to practice it as they saw fit. The freshly minted New Testament makes no explicit statement about any need for a single supreme leader for the religion, beyond the obvious ones of the eternal holy father and his son.

Nevertheless, the popes in Rome did occasionally try to assert a claim to authority beyond their city’s limits in the years before 382. Some of their insistence must surely have stemmed from an arrogance that was endemic to most of the inhabitants of the city of Rome itself — a sense that they ought naturally to be so privileged, situated in the imperial capital as they were. But they did also cite a passage from scripture, which still serves as the Catholic Church’s one indelibly Biblical claim to its role in the world to this day. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter, whom he often addresses first among his twelve disciples and to whom he sometimes seems to show a special favoritism in other respects, that

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

There is a linguistic wrinkle that’s worth mentioning here. The Greek name of Peter, Petros, reads and sounds like a masculated version of a feminine noun meaning “rock,” petra. In the Greek of the Alexandrian Bible, then, Jesus was punning on Peter’s name, a bit of wordplay that gets lost in translation.

This selfsame Peter, you’ll recall, went to Rome after the crucifixion and died there, according to Catholic historians after founding the institution of the papacy to carry forward his legacy as the anointed “rock” of Christianity. Upon these empirically unproven events and upon these two somewhat vaguely worded sentences from the Bible rests the entire claim to legitimacy of the Catholic Church, the most far-reaching, long-lasting, and influential trans-national institution in the history of the world, an institution which today has almost a billion and a half members.

But it would take quite some time to get from here to there. The first Roman pope that we know of who made a concerted attempt to lay claim to special God-granted authority beyond Rome was Victor I, who was in office from 189 to 198. It didn’t go well: when he tried to order all Christians to celebrate Easter on the date that seemed to him most logical, and threatened them with excommunication if they should refuse, he was greeted only with derisive laughter and a stern rebuke from Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, an important early Christian theologian who was far more respected inside the faith as a whole than Victor was. The surviving reports from the early ecumenical councils which hammered out so much of Christian doctrine as we still know it today — such as the Council of Nicaea of 325, which gave us the Nicene Creed, a fundamental statement of belief that is still repeated in only slightly modified form by modern Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike — make little to no mention of any Roman delegation, an indication that that city’s clerical hierarchy was still not an especially valued participant in the most pressing theological debates of the time. One reason for this was doubtless that the intellectual culture of Christianity as a whole was largely a Greek-speaking one; the books of the New Testament had first been written in that language, after all, and the first complete Bibles to come out of Alexandria were also in Greek. The more westerly, Latin-speaking parts of the Roman Empire were left somewhat on the outside looking in.

That began to change in 382, when the current Roman pope, whose name was Damascus, asked his secretary, a brilliant man of letters named Jerome, to translate the complete Alexandrian Bible into Latin. Several years later, Jerome delivered his Biblia Vulgata, meaning literally “Bible in the Common Tongue.” This Vulgate Bible, as we know it today, was a monument of Latin literature in its own right, a text so well-formed that the Catholic Church would employ it virtually unchanged for more than 1000 years, until long after Latin had ceased to be a common tongue at all, had become instead the rarefied communications medium of scholars and priests alone. Jerome was canonized for his achievement.

But it was left to another saint to go beyond translation, to articulate a distinctly Latin Christian theology — and with it a new, distinctly Medieval worldview.

The man whom we now know as Saint Augustine was born in North Africa in 354 to a pagan father and a Christian mother. For the first few decades of his life, he hewed more to the beliefs of the former than the latter. After making a name for himself as a promising young scholar in the city of Carthage, he came to Rome to teach rhetoric at the age of 29, but soon followed other career opportunities to Milan. It was during these years that he first began to flirt with Christianity. As a scholar, he was drawn at first to the Gnostic strand of the faith, long since deemed heretical by orthodox Christianity for its belief in salvation through esoteric knowledge rather than faith and quite a number of other deviances, such  as the belief by some Gnostics that the Gods of the Old and New Testaments were actually separate beings. Eventually, though, Augustine’s orderly mind became disenchanted with Gnosticism, a mystical labyrinth that seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He turned instead to Neoplatonism, a metaphysical elaboration on the theories of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato that shared some marked similarities with Christianity, albeit without the central figure of Jesus and his great sacrifice for the love of humanity. This suited Augustine fine: even at this time, religion remained more of an intellectual than a moral concern for him. Certainly his spiritual questing did nothing to stop him from enjoying all of the usual pleasures of the flesh of a successful young man about town.

Then, walking through a Milanese garden one day, he heard an angelic voice chanting something that sounded to him like “take it and read.” Following this advice, he pulled out the Vulgate New Testament, the only book he happened to have on him, and opened it to a random page. There he read a passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.

On Easter Sunday, 387, the 33-year-old Augustine was baptized a Christian. Soon after, he returned to the region of his birth, to be ordained a priest and then a bishop in the city of Hippo Regius (modern-day Annaba, Algeria). Here he “lived in the Country of the Mind, and labored chiefly with his pen,” as Will Durant writes.

The great minds of antiquity may in many cases have believed in gods and other divine manifestations, but, whether they happened to be Stoics or Epicureans, their overwhelming concern had been this life in this world, not the rewards or punishments of any real or potential afterlife. Now, though, Augustine boldly stated that the concerns of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and all of the other storied ancient wise men were frivolous, even childish.

Those who think that the supreme good and evil are to be found in this life are mistaken. It is in vain that men look for beatitude on earth or in human nature. As the text is quoted by Saint Paul, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise that they are vain.” For what flow of eloquence is sufficient to set forth the miseries of human life?

Over the course of thousands and thousands of written pages, Augustine wrestled into existence a philosophy and a theology that still rings profoundly Catholic today. He emphasized as never before the fallen nature of humanity, stemming from that original sin in the Garden of Eden. For Augustine, Eve’s tasting of the forbidden fruit was a metaphor for sexual intercourse, the unseemly means by which humans now reproduced themselves. They were thus the corrupted products of Eve’s betrayal from the time of their conception, redeemable only through the divine grace of God, who alone could forgive them their endless transgressions and cleanse them of their innumerable, ever-multiplying sins, as long as the latter were freely and honestly confessed.

Because pigments tend to fade with time, we have relatively few paintings dating from before about the year 1000. This portrait of Saint Augustine is a welcome exception. It was found in the early twentieth century by archaeologists excavating what appears to have been a library in a Roman palace. It is believed to stem from the fifth century, not long at all after Augustine’s death. (Public Domain)

Augustine’s version of Christianity was an aggressive one; he had no interest in making accommodations with those who embraced other systems of belief. The stakes were too high for that, given that he believed unquestioningly in the eternal torments of a Hell for the unconfessed and the unbelieving, a counterpart to the eternal joy of Heaven for the saved. The Bible itself fails to describe Hell as a physical space, but the notion had been creeping into Christian theology gradually over the last couple of centuries, being increasingly used as stick to be wielded against possible converts who could not be swayed by the carrot of an eternal life of peace, ease, and fellowship. “Mankind is divided into two sorts,” Augustine now wrote. “Such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we mystically call the ‘two cities’ or societies, the one predestined to reign eternally with God, the other condemned to eternal torment with the Devil.” He expected the governments of Christian lands to be on the side of God, expected them to support the one true faith and to punish heresy; in practice, this meant that they must take their orders from the religion’s leaders. Will Durant calls The City of God, Augustine’s theological magnum opus, “the first definitive formulation of the Medieval mind,” thanks to its advocacy of a muscular Christianity not afraid to use the full power of the state to achieve its ends, its fear of Satan that at times threatens to overpower even its love of God — and its tortured relationship to the sexual act, which it tends to associate so closely with the horrors of Hell.

Still, Augustine wasn’t an unremitting scold. His surprisingly readable Confessions is a far more personal, humane work than The City of God, telling of his own struggles with faith from the time of his boyhood, written not without the occasional note of wry humor. Recalling his errant youth, for example, he says that his prayer to God (or the gods) at that time was, “Give me chastity — but not yet!” Many another young, earnestly questing soul has been able to relate all too well in the centuries since. One might wish this side of Augustine had been more in evidence during the Medieval epoch of history that was still to come. As it was, though, the Confessions was written fairly early in his career, and his later works like The City of God became both denser and more inflexibly harsh in their view of human nature.

The reasons for this likely had much to do with the circumstances around Augustine during his elder years. The fact was that, for all the gains their religion had made over the last century and a half or so in moving from the periphery of Roman life into the very halls of power, Christians in general were in some ways a disappointed bunch, having seen two of their fondest hopes fail them. The first of these was tied to what has become one of the most theologically problematic passages in the entire Bible, Jesus’s statement to his followers in the Gospel of Mark that “verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” Taking these words at face value, the earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return to pass judgment on all people and inaugurate the end-of-days kingdom of God within decades rather than centuries of the crucifixion. This belief does much to explain why early Christianity was so lackadaisical about putting together the Bible and the other appurtenances of an organized religion; what was the point when the apocalypse was so urgently close at hand? Only when the last of those who might have met Jesus in the flesh died and the apocalypse had not come did theologians set about the gnarly task of explaining away the problematic passage and institutionalizing Christianity for a longer haul, as it were.

When Constantine converted to Christianity in 325, the religion’s adherents thought they had been awarded something of a consolation prize:  if not the kingdom of God precisely, they had inherited the greatest temporal kingdom that had ever existed. With them to lead it into God’s grace, they believed the world to be on the cusp of a golden age the likes of which it had never known; many associated it with the Book of Revelation’s prophecy of a thousand-year period of peace and prosperity for the righteous that was to come just before the end of days. But this too proved a false hope. Scholars have been debating for over 1500 years now whether Christianity was a cause of the Roman Empire’s slow unraveling in the years after Constantine or merely an innocent bystander, a witness to the inevitable ending stages of a process that had begun as early as the second century. Either way, the fall from glory instilled a fatalism about mortal existence — a palpable sense of a world in irredeemable decline — that would become another hallmark of the fast-approaching Middle Ages.

The Roman Empire split in two in 395, with one emperor in Rome, another in Constantinople. The western empire especially was all too clearly coming apart at the seams, losing control of its territory everywhere. In 402, Emperor Honorius moved his capital out of Rome, which was badly exposed to the tribes of “barbarians” who roamed the plains to its north, in favor of the more defensible seaside redoubt of Ravenna. In 410, his judgment was shown to have been correct, when a Germanic tribe known as the Visigoths almost casually wandered down and sacked the erstwhile imperial capital before moving on. (Luckily, Pope Innocent I happened to be visiting Emperor Honorius in Ravenna when they arrived. Honorius’s sister, who still resided in Rome, was not so lucky; she was carried away along with many of the city’s treasures, never to be seen again.)

Augustine died in Hippo Regius in 430 when it was under siege by the Vandals, another Germanic people that had by now overrun most of the old Roman dominions in North Africa. The bitterness one senses in his later writings becomes more understandable in this light; his world was almost literally collapsing around him. In a final cruel twist of the knife, both the Visigoths and the Vandals were actually Christians — but Christians of the hated Arian persuasion, whose fallacies Augustine had devoted many a tract to describing in fulsome detail. Hippo Regius itself finally fell to the Vandals the year after Augustine’s death.

The increasing ineffectuality of the traditional secular arbiters of Roman life strengthened the role that Christianity — in some places of the Arian stripe, in some places of the orthodox — played in civil society. Everywhere bishops and priests stepped into the breach to minister to the physical as well as spiritual needs of their flocks, in some cases even taking personal command of armies on the battlefield. Not coincidentally, this era of secular breakdown led to the only two popes who have ever been given the usually martial sobriquet “the Great.”

The first of them was Leo I, who took office in 440. He was the first pope to actually succeed to any appreciable degree in exerting his authority beyond Rome itself. “The stability which ‘the Rock’ [i.e., Peter] himself received from that rock which is Christ,” Leo said, “he conveys also to his heirs.” As for himself, he managed to combine modesty and arrogance in one epithet by calling himself “the unworthy heir of blessed Peter.” He exercised firm control — arguably more so than the last dregs of the secular Roman imperial succession — over all of mainland Italy, and also enjoyed considerable influence over what was left of the rest of the western empire as a whole. Only the eastern empire rejected outright his claim to special authority as the heir of Peter.

Indeed, the two halves of orthodox Christianity were now in the midst of a slow divergence. Having agreed to reject the Arian heresy and to accept the eternal co-equality of God the Father and Jesus the Son, they were arguing heatedly over yet another crazily fine-grained theological question: that of whether the human and divine halves of the nature of the Christ who had died on the cross were inextricably mixed, like water and wine, or were separately suspended in his prodigious soul, like water and oil. Leo took the former position, the eastern establishment the latter. Tellingly, when another ecumenical council was convened in 451 to settle the issue, this time in the city of Chalcedon in modern-day Turkey, the Roman delegation under Leo was a very prominent participant in the debate. Less auspiciously, the council’s attempt to forge a compromise by saying that Jesus could at different times be either water and wine or water and oil satisfied no one. The grumbling discord between Latin and Greek Christianity, over this issue and others — not least the overweening claim to universal authority by the Roman papacy, which the east continued to reject out of hand — was destined only to grow.

Just one year after the Council of Chalcedon, Leo well and truly earned his title of “the Great.” Rome and the rest of Italy were being threatened at the time by another army out of the north, the most fearsome yet, under the leadership of the infamous pagan warlord Attila the Hun. When all other remedies had been exhausted and Rome lay defenseless in the path of the invaders, Leo bravely rode out and met personally with Attila under a flag of truce. Exactly what was said at their meeting will never be known for sure, but Church historians later claimed that Attila saw “the apostles Peter and Paul, clad like bishops, standing by Leo, the one on the right hand, the other on the left. They held swords stretched over his head, and threatened Attila with death if he did not obey the pope’s command.” Most modern secular historians, on the other hand, incline more to the point of view that Attila had overextended himself in penetrating this far south and had been planning to withdraw soon anyway. But regardless, the optics of the episode are clear: a Roman pope had succeeded in turning back an invading army where a Roman emperor had failed, thereby preserving the tattered remnants of the latter’s empire for him. In this milieu of chaos and dissolution, the nascent Roman Catholic Church was the only institution that could still offer the people living on the Italian Peninsula even a modicum of protection. The worldly and the spiritual were becoming ever more intertwined.

The empires in 476, just before the last western emperor abdicated. (ESKEHL)

But nothing could hold off the final imperial collapse for much longer. In 476, fifteen years after Leo’s death, the western Roman Empire was finally put out of its misery, when yet another Germanic warlord forced the last emperor to abdicate from Ravenna. Now only the Church was left standing when it came to institutions with any authority at all beyond a very localized geography. Yet even it was embattled. Many of the new kingdoms that were arising to fill the power vacuum all over the Latin world adhered to Arianism. In the early sixth century, the Roman Empire of the east, which is more commonly known today as the Byzantine Empire, actually reconquered Rome and many of the other old western dominions under the slogan of “restoration.” But this did little for the cause of Roman Catholicism, given the hostility that Greek-speaking Christians still demonstrated toward the Roman pope’s claims of supremacy and some of the other theology he preached. Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantines attempted to broker compromises between the two increasingly entrenched camps, but achieved only limited success. The Catholics may thus have been more pleased than not when Rome fell once again within ten years of the would-be permanent imperial restoration to another Germanic people, this time one known as the Ostrogoths. Although the leader of the Ostrogoths pledged his official allegiance to Arianism, he wasn’t overly interested in the sorts of theological debates that priests and bishops found so all-consuming, and was happy enough to let the Roman popes have it their way among their own people if it helped to maintain order.

If all of this is starting to become a bit confusing, rest assured that you are only vicariously reliving the spirit of the age. This really was a confusing, febrile time across the formerly Latin world, a swirling maelstrom of clashing groups and cultures, where the dictum of might makes right was the only one that still reigned supreme in political terms. Until fairly recently, historians typically referred to it as “the Dark Ages.” Most have now rejected that term as too prejudicial by half, but there is at least one sense in which it undeniably applies: literacy rates and with them literary culture declined precipitously, meaning that history quite literally goes dark for us during this era. We possess almost no secular texts dating from the years between 550 and 800. But the loss to history extends even beyond that window of time: because paper and ink could be expected to hold up only for a few centuries, those documents from the past which were not semi-regularly copied and recopied were doomed to be lost. The holes this period has left in our bibliography of Classical times frustrate and infuriate scholars to this day.

The one exception to this retreat from the life of letters and the mind in the West was the Church, whose priests and monks continued to read and write the old language of Latin, even as it passed out of the vernacular forever. In one of those supremely ironic twists that history sometimes likes to give us, a religion that had been born among the illiterate poor of Palestine and been mocked for centuries as suitable only for “foolish and low individuals and slaves,” as one irate Alexandrian intellectual put it in 175, was now the last remaining beacon of learning west of Greece.

Which isn’t to say that the Christian life of the mind was a particularly optimistic one. In such an environment as this, the thoughts of many Christians, lettered and unlettered alike, turned again to the apocalypse and the second coming; the Book of Revelation did, after all, prophesy a period of just such unprecedented chaos as this as the prelude to Jesus’s return. One of these believers in an imminent apocalypse was the second and last pope to be called “the Great,” an even more important figure than Leo.

Gregory was born in Rome in 540, the scion of a prominent and wealthy family. Like Saint Augustine, whose writings would later have a huge impact on him, he was focused on worldly things as a young man; he rose to become the prefect, or mayor, of Rome by the time he was 33 years old. But soon after, he had a spiritual awakening. Convinced that the second coming of Christ was just around the corner, he resigned his post and used his fortune to found seven monasteries around Italy, then gave the rest of it away to the poor of Rome. He himself went to live in one of the monasteries, subsisting on raw vegetables and fruits when he deigned to eat at all, shattering his health forever through his extreme asceticism. Church tradition credits him with the invention of Gregorian chant as a way of coming closer to God, although most secular historians now believe that that meditative, indelibly Medieval form of music stems from a somewhat later date. Either way, the fact that he is believed to be responsible for such a pillar of Catholic worship says much about the reverence with which he has been regarded within the Church for a millennium and a half. Even when he went to Constantinople to serve as a sort of diplomatic liaison between the two halves of orthodox Christianity — a thankless task if ever there was one! — he continued to live like a monk in the heart of one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

In 590, his example of absolute devotion to God caused him to be consecrated pope, because the city of Rome was in the midst of a terrible plague that seemed well-nigh apocalyptic in itself, and it needed all the help from on high that it could get. Legend says that his first act in his new office was to lead a penitential procession through the streets. When they set off, the people saw a vision of the archangel Michael hovering above them, menacing them with a flaming sword. But when they reached the procession’s end, they saw the angel sheath his sword. Gregory’s faith had led them back to God’s grace and mercy; the plague among them dissipated. It set the pattern for the rest of his tenure, that of a profoundly spiritual man who nevertheless had an uncanny knack for getting practical things done.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

19 Comments for "Chapter 1: A Dawning Age of Faith"

  • Ilmari Jauhiainen

    Intriguing topic for the new series and a good start! I was just a bit perplexed by one sentence:

    “It was in Alexandria that the doctrine of salvation through faith alone rather than knowledge or works was enshrined”

    I have a really hard time figuring out what movements in Alexandria you are referring to here. Usually the phrase “salvation through faith alone” is associated with Martin Luther’s fight against indulgences. The closest equivalent in late antiquity I can think of is the Pelagian controversy around the first decades of 5th century, which centred on the very question whether humans could gain salvation through their own choice and deeds or whether they were so tainted by the original sin that they needed the divine grace for this. The problem is that the Pelagian controversy was clearly a battle within Latin Christendom, with Augustine and Jerome being the ones leading the fight against Pelagius (also a person from the Western side of the empire).

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, I was conflating some things there. I’ve removed the offending sentence. Thanks so much!

  • Andrew McCarthy

    Excellent article! As I recall, the surviving letters of Pliny the Elder include letters from his time as governor of a Roman province, in which capacity he was required to execute unrepentant Christians at a time when the religion was illegal in the Roman Empire. I vaguely remember reading that he would interview suspected Christians and ask them three times (I think) to deny their membership of the religion and/or agree to the divinity of the emperors. For his part, Pliny would’ve vastly preferred it if they just committed a bit of minor perjury to save their lives, but many Christians (perhaps not wanting to follow the bad example of Peter in the New Testament) preferred to profess their religion openly and thus achieve martyrdom – a death sentence which Pliny figured they had had ample opportunity to evade if they wished.

    • Jimmy Maher

      There was indeed a huge cult of martyrdom in early Christianity. The writings of the early church fathers are filled with lovingly detailed descriptions of bloody deaths. It can almost read like a sort of mass masochism today.

  • Martin

    I think in the text of the St Augustus picture you are missing the word “few” in the first sentence.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Joe Vincent

    Superb start to yet another epic walk through an epoch!

    Minor edit – ‘Many of the new kingdoms that were arising to fill the power vacuum all over the Latin world adhered to Arianiam.’ I suppose the last word in that sentence should be ‘Arianism’.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Eriorg

    Even the orthodox version of Christianity is still a rather anarchic, defuse affair
    Do you mean “diffuse”?

    Paul’s epistles, which make up 21 of the 27 books of the freshly minted New Testament
    (According to Wikipedia:) 21 is the number of all the epistles, including the ones not by Paul. There are only 13 Pauline epistles.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Ouch. I was confusing the contemporary debate about the Pauline epistles, which many scholars no longer believe to be all the work of a single person, with the epistles as a whole. Thanks!

  • Michael Russo

    Great start to the new book (I feel like a reader of Dickens back in the day, reading my books in a serial fashion). I feel like a bit of a cliffhanger ending with Gregory there, I just wanted to keep going! Can’t wait for the next installment.

    • Jimmy Maher

      I’m a huge lover of Victorian literature (although not such a huge fan of Dickens), so this comparison is dear to me. 😉

  • Peter Olausson

    Excellent beginning of a worthy subject. Eagerly looking forward!

    One thought, is it general knowledge that the name of Peter means “rock”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Good point. I added a couple of sentences of explanation. Thanks!

  • David Boddie

    “…those documents from the past which were not semi-regularly copied and recopied was doomed to be lost”
    was -> were

    It’s interesting to think of the Catholic church as a surviving institution of the Roman Empire, particularly during the years following its collapse, preserving the language and some of its traditions. It’s not something I’d reflected on very much.

  • BL

    You appear to have completely overlooked the fact that early Christianity was essentially an offshoot of Judaism. Christianity may have been a new monotheism in the midst, but given that the Romans ruled Judea well before the emergence of Christianity, the concept of monotheism wasn’t new to them at all.

  • Will Moczarski

    An excellent start to another intriguing book, Jimmy!

    Some nitpicks:
    Honorious’s sister
    -> Honorius‘s sister

    -> participant

    was doomed to be lost
    -> were

    • Jimmy Maher



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