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7-08-2015, 20:39

The three chapters

But at this very time of the centrality of Constantinople in western affairs, events were under way which threatened its position and, as often happened in late antiquity, tensions were expressed in disputes over religion. Imperial policy had long sought to bring together adherents of the council of Chalcedon (451), who recognised the ‘unity of Christ’s person in two natures’, and their monophysite opponents, and Justinian made an important attempt to bring about reconciliation between the disputing parties.28 He asked the five patriarchs of the church to anathematise the person and works of Bishop Theodore ofMopsuestia, some of the writings of Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and a letter attributed to Bishop Ibas of Edessa. These three theologians, all long dead, were held to show Nestorian tendencies, and Justinian believed that their condemnation would be a painless way of conciliating the monophysites, who held an opinion contrary to that of the Nestorians. But the council of Chalcedon had accepted the orthodoxy of Theodoret, and the letter of Ibas had been read out there, so an attack on these thinkers could be construed as an attack on the council. Pope Vigilius refused to accept Justinian’s proposal, whereupon, to the astonishment of the populace of Rome, he was arrested in a church in 545 and conveyed to Constantinople. Years of intrigue followed, in which Vigilius was alternately vacillating and resolute. Finally, in 553, the council of Constantinople condemned the Three Chapters, as they came to be called, and Vigilius accepted its decision. In 554 he set out to return to Rome, but died at Syracuse in June 555, a broken man. As it turned out, Justinian’s efforts did nothing to reconcile the monophysites and the adherents of Chalcedon, but there was an immediate hostile reaction in the west, where it was felt he had gone against the position adopted by the council. So intense were feelings in Italy that it proved difficult to find bishops prepared to consecrate Vigilius’ successor, Pelagius, and a schism broke out in northern Italy (see above, p. 118). There was considerable disquiet in Gaul, and throughout the Visigothic period the Spanish church failed to accept the council of Constantinople. Opposition was, however, strongest in Africa where an episcopate which had seen off the persecuting Arian Vandals was in no mood to be dictated to by a catholic emperor, and the African church flung itself into the controversy with the learning and vigour which had characterised it for centuries. As early as 550 a synod excommunicated Vigilius, and a series of authors wrote attacking Justinian’s position; it was an African chronicler who observed that the council of Constantinople was followed by an earthquake in that city!29 Small wonder that a bishop from northern Gaul, Nicetius of Trier, wrote a strongly worded but theologically incoherent letter to the emperor, reporting that all Italy and the entirety of Africa, Spain and Gaul wept over him: ‘O sweet Justinian of ours, who has so deceived you, who has persuaded you to proceed in such a way?’