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7-08-2015, 20:40

Western antagonism to the empire

Early Christian history is full of controversies on issues apparently so abstruse that modern scholars have often felt they were really about subjects far removed from the matters being overtly debated, and the controversy over the Three Chapters in the west may have been one where the real issue was unstated. It is possible to interpret the strong stance the west took against Justinian’s line as constituting a response to the impact of his wars of conquest. Doubtless the heads of churches in Africa and Italy sincerely welcomed the coming of Justinian’s armies, but while governed by non-Roman Arians, they had come to enjoy de facto independence from imperial oversight, which they would not surrender willingly. It is no coincidence that one of the most famous assertions of ecclesiastical power ever made vis-`a-vis the emperor was enunciated by Pope Gelasius (492–6) during the period of Ostrogothic power in Italy. The wars created a situation in which an emperor, for the first time in a long while, was able to attempt to impose his will directly on western churches, and some of the opposition to Justinian’s policies may simply have been a reaction against the new reality. But it may also be that opposition to the Three Chapters was a vent for hostility towards, or disillusionment with, the outcome of the wars in the west. If we accept this, we will not be surprised to find Cassiodorus, the best-known collaborator with the Goths among the Romans, writing towards the middle of the century in terms which suggest sympathy for the theologians whose condemnation Justinian was seeking. Nor are other indications of western coolness towards Byzantium lacking in the period after the conquests. The indigenous inhabitants of Africa and Italy initially welcomed the Byzantine armies. In Italy the Gothic government was worried about the loyalty of the populace even before the war began, and the detailed narrative of Procopius makes it clear that its fears were justified. Yet early in the war a Gothic spokesman told the people of Rome that the only Greeks who had visited Rome were actors, mimes or thieving soldiers, suggesting there was already some resentment towards the Byzantines, which the Goths sought to exploit. We are told that during the pontificate of Pope John III (561–74) the inhabitants of the city maliciously told the emperor that ‘it would be better . . . to serve the Goths than the Greeks’.31 The use of the term ‘Greeks’ is interesting, for in Procopius it is a hostile word placed in the mouths of non-Romans. Perhaps the Romans had come to accept, or at least pretend to accept, the barbarians’ assessment of the easterners. The dire state of the Italian economy after the long war, and the corrupt and grasping nature of the Byzantine administration imposed in both Africa and Italy, made imperial government unpopular. Further, Italy’s integration into the empire did not imply reversion to the position of independence from the east which it had enjoyed before the advent of barbarian power, nor were its Roman inhabitants able to enjoy the positions of influence they had held under the Goths; Italy was now a minor part of an empire governed by a far-away autokrat¯or who never troubled to visit the west. Power in Africa and Italy passed to Greek-speaking incomers, and we have evidence for cults of eastern saints, which they presumably brought with them. Needless to say there were loyalists and careerists who supported the Byzantine regime, for example the African poet Corippus, whose epic Iohannis was partly an attempt to justify the imperial cause to his fellow Africans;32 but these represented minority opinion. If this were not enough, opposition to Justinian’s wars even developed in the east. This can be traced through the works of Procopius, which move from a sunny optimism in describing the Vandal war to the sombre tone which increasingly intrudes in the Gothic war and the animosity towards the emperor displayed in the Secret history; but one can also deduce from other sources a feeling that resources had been committed in the west to little profit. However impressive their outcome in bringing Africa and Italy back into the empire, Justinian’s wars had in some ways the paradoxical result of driving east and west further apart.