Reluctant churchmen in late antiquity

December 23 2013

Three historic figures, who each gave a decisive turn to the development of the Catholic Church in the West, were recruits from the secular Roman imperial public service.

The section called Civil Services in which this appears mentions, but doesn’t discuss, the survival of a Roman civil service in Italy and Gaul under the barbarians. He had earlier discussed the survival of Roman law.

Ambrose.

Ambrosius (vivebat circa A.D. 340-97) was the son of a civil servant who had reached the peak of his profession by attaining the office of praetorian prefect in the Gauls; and the future Saint Ambrose was following in his father’s steps as a young and promising governor of the two North Italian provinces of Liguria and Aemilia when in A.D. 374, to his astonishment and consternation, he was dragged out of the rut of an assured official career and was hustled into the episcopal see of Milan by a popular impetus that did not wait to ask his leave.

Cassiodorus.

Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (vivebat circa A.D. 490-585) [sic] spent his working life on the thankless – and, as his [lay] colleague Boethius’s fate proved, perilous – task of administering a Roman Italy in the service of a barbarian war-lord [Theodoric, who had Boethius executed in 524]. It was only after his retirement from secular public life that Cassiodorus found a creative use for a literary archaism that had been an impediment to his draftsmanship as a Minister of State. In his latter days he turned a rural property of his in the toe of Italy – the Vivarium, in the district of Squillace [Calabria] – into a monastic settlement that was the complement of Saint Benedict’s foundation at Monte Cassino. Saint Benedict’s school of monks broken-in, by the love of God, to hard physical labour in the fields could not have done all that it did do for a nascent Western Society if it had not been wedded, at the start, to a Cassiodoran school that was inspired by the same motive to perform the mentally laborious task of copying the Classics and the Fathers.

Gregory.

As for Gregory the Great (vivebat circa A.D. 540-604), he abandoned the secular public service, after serving as Praefectus Urbi, in order to follow Cassiodorus’s example by making a monastery out of his ancestral palace in Rome, and he was thereby led, against his expectation and desire, into becoming one of the makers of the Papacy.

Two country gentlemen.

After citing the names of these three great luminaries, we may single out, among the lesser lights, two country gentlemen, Gaius Sollius Modestus Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne (vivebat A.D. 430-83) and Synesius of Cyrene [Libya] (vivebat A.D. 370-415), who were both drawn out of a life of innocent but uncreative literary dilettantism when their local countryside was engulfed in the oecumenical catastrophe of their age. Both of them responded nobly to this personal challenge by taking on their shoulders the burdens, anxieties, and perils of local leadership; and each found that he could best perform an arduous duty, that he would not shirk, by allowing himself to be made bishop of his local community.

Five careers.

Diverse as the origins and histories of these five personalities were, they had four things in common. For all of them except, perhaps, Cassiodorus, their ecclesiastical career went against the grain. Ambrose was aghast at being made a bishop, while Synesius and Sidonius half-whimsically acquiesced in a role which evidently struck them as being, to say the least, incongruous. Gregory was as reluctant to be made seventh deacon [one of the seven deacons of Rome], apocrisiarius [papal ambassador to Constantinople], and pope, and even to become abbot of his own monastery, as he had been eager to enrol himself as an ordinary monk. The second common feature in these five ecclesiastical careers was that all these ci-devant lay notables were constrained, willy-nilly, to employ their secular administrative gifts and experience in the Church’s service. In the third place, they found a scope for the use of this mundane faculty in the ecclesiastical field which they had not found in secular life. And, finally, they eclipsed their own performance as ecclesiastical administrators by their prowess on the spiritual plane. Thus, when the break-up of the universal state for whose administrative service they had been educated had deprived these Roman honestiores of the possibility of following secular public careers, they responded to this formidable challenge by entering the service of the Christian Church and devoting all their powers to assisting in the creation of a new order of society.

Was Ambrose’s appointment to Milan connected with the “break-up” of the Empire? It happened under Valentinian I.

Cassiodorus and Gregory lived during the upheaval caused by the reconquest of Italy from the Goths by Justinian, the epidemics and famine that followed, an abortive invasion by the Franks and then the arrival of the Lombards, leaving Byzantium with a foothold mainly in the south (535-68).

Cassiodorus retired to his monastery after Justinian had retaken the south.

Gregory was Prefect of Rome under the Lombards. Was he deprived of the possibility of following a secular public career? Did Gregory follow the rule of St Benedict?

Sidonius and Synesius had both held secular office. Sidonius lived through the invasion of Arian Visigothic Gaul by pagan Franks.

Synesius must, in Ptolemais, have been affected by the disruption caused by the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, but the Vandals did not arrive in Africa until after his death. Was he ever a country gentleman?

The Church’s history is full of stories of reluctance. Basil Hume received the news of his appointment to the archbishopric of Westminster during dinner at Ampleforth in 1976 and remarked later “I must confess I did not enjoy the rest of the meal”.

A tap on the shoulder in a monastery is different from a tap during a Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang or a Baath Party plenum in Baghdad.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

One Response to “Reluctant churchmen in late antiquity”


  1. […] Reluctant churchmen in late antiquity (old post). […]


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