The Papacy - a political history






 Origins of the Papacy

The title Pontifex Maximus means Supreme Bridgebuilder in Latin. An office of that name goes back to the beginnings of the Roman Republic, and perhaps earlier into the tribal past of the Latin speakers. (see below).

The rise of religions within the Roman Empire perhaps reflects the changes in Roman society as the institutions of the Republic decayed and were replaced with the institutions of the Empire - a military dictatorship in which ordinary people played no role and had no influence over the government.

Various forms of religion arose within the early years of the empire. The official rites of the Republic - the various temples of the gods which commemorated events during the history of the Republic and the rise of Rome as a state - fell into disuse. The city filled with people from all over the area where Rome ruled, especially from the eastern provinces, and Egypt. The immigrants brought with them their own religious practices. People became more attached to these groups than to the institutions of the State which no longer gave any role to the former popular assembly.

The soldiers, whose main role was to defend the empire from Persians, another vast empire to the east, began to adopt the beliefs and ceremonies of their enemies. (This was an example of a dual power situation, in which the two enemies come to resemble each other). Thus the idea of a society of priests operating across the whole empire replaced the idea of local gods and ceremonies attached to each city state (which never went away, as can be seen in many cities in the Mediterranean cultural area where each town still has its own festivals to local "saints" replacing or renaming the old local gods).

Thus culturally people became attached to these organisations of priests, rather than to political ceremonies.

At some point, not easy to discern, the rulers, the military aristocracy who became emperors, decided to make use of these new religions to organise and control the ordinary people, finally taking away all semblence of popular influence on government, something lost when Augustus reorganised the Republic. The emperors did not want to consult with the people but to make them obey.

They were of course imitating their enemy the King of Kings in Ctesiphon. They liked his ceremonies, the way people had to prostrate themselves before the ruler. They liked the elaborate hierarchy of social statuses, the clothes, and the diadem or crown the Persian kings wore. Even more they liked the way he was obeyed. Thus Rome and Persia became, as was referred to by writers, the "two eyes" of the world, very similar states. Persian ways of doing things influenced the way things were done in Rome. Culturally Persia conquered Rome.

In preparation

 Interesting Reading

John Julius Norwich - History of the Popes

The Popes: A History

From this book we can learn how little most of the popes were concerned with religion, and how much with war and politics. Indeed we can argue that they only became interested in religion full time after they lost all the Papal States, on the final unification of Italy in 1870.

By the times of the later Republic the office of Pontifex was the regulator of the state religion of Rome. He appointed the priests of the different temples and prescribed the rites. When Augustus became the first of the Roman emperors, with the intention of reforming the whole system, both political and religious, he took the title for himself. He used the powers of the office to reform the state religion. The emperors continued to hold this title until they adopted the Christian religion. The title then passed to the Christian bishop of Rome. The emperor Gratianus (375-382) renounced the title. Did he formally pass it to the Bishop of Rome (Damasus) or did Damasus simply adopt it? It is not clear what happened. It is not even clear that the title is one formally used by the bishops, but it does appear on stone inscriptions in Rome and the pope is often referred to as "Supreme Pontiff". When he is issuing his pronouncements or rulings on doctrine he is often said to be "pontificating".

The first named bishop of Rome was Linus. According to Irenaeus he came to office in 66 CE. (Traditionally of course the first bishop is said to be Peter, but there is no documentary evidence for this.)

Who were these early bishops and what were their functions? We have very little information about the religious activities said to be derived from Jesus at this period and almost nothing about Linus, other than as a name on a list. For one thing there was not at that time a single organisation representing the religion. Instead it is known there were a number of groups of students of the original teaching. Among them seem to have been those associated with Paul, a man who did not study with Jesus or with his students. Writings by his associates were approved for use by the later church, and his group came to prevail over all the others. Whether Paul's teachings actually were the same as those of Jesus is something that historians and theologians have argued over for centuries. The other groups - some of whom were labelled as Gnostics - have faded into obscurity as most of their writings were suppressed - a few to resurface in the documents found at Nag Hammadi, to remind us that the Orthodox line was not the only line of teaching in the early days.*

There is a period of undocumented development of the church when there are no records of what happened. We can suspect that Paul's group fought a battle against other followers of Jesus, perhaps even of those descended from the actual students of Jesus. As in the Soviet Communist party the losers were labelled as "heretics" and deviationists and the winners were able to declare that their version was the only correct version and even deny the existence of the other groups. They called themselves Orthodox - Greek for "right thinking" - a concept we can recognise as totalitarian - though what was actually defined as Orthodox could change with the party to which the Byzantine emperor belonged - as can be seen in the controversies associated with Nestorius who received some imperial support at one point during the struggle which eventually led to him being condemned as heretical. When the emperor happened to be Monophysite or Arian that was the officially approved doctrine throughout the empire. The term Catholic (Katholikos in Greek) means "universal" and was another indication of totalitarian intentions. It indicated that the doctrine should be spread to all people.

What is clear is that by the time we can observe the Christian church in the form that has come down to us it had become so similar to the Mazdaist state church of the Persian empire that it looks like an imitation. There was a hierarchy of officials from the humble Presbyter at the bottom, to the Patriarch at the top. This was at the same time when the emperors, beginning with Diocletianus (284 - 305), had imitated the state ceremony of the kings of Persia. It was a long time since Augustus had claimed his office was no more than a first citizen (Princeps) of a reformed Roman Republic - a sort of President. From Diocletian the emperor was to be a sacred king like his enemy in Persia. This represented a profound change in the nature of the Roman state. It had become an oriental monarchy. Like Persia it needed a state religion to control the thoughts of the people and conduct the state ceremonies. Diocletian himself promoted the cult of the Sun and persecuted the Christians. Also originating in Persia, Mithras worship spread among the soldiers (some of whose rituals and stories became incorporated in the later Church). The kings of Persia were paralleled by a hierarchy of religious officials of the officially approved Mazdaist Church.

Because we are used to this structure of the Roman and Orthodox churches, many people are not aware of how similar this structure is to the older Persian system (which disappeared with the arrival of Islam - though influencing the hierarchy of Shi'ism), and how different it is to anything found in the Roman empire before. The anthropologist, uncommitted to either religion, is bound to be struck by the similarity of the two churches, and to assume that the newer one was imitated from the older. How the imitation actually occurred is probably not discoverable from documents. One telling similarity is the prominence given to a second deity - Satan - in Christianity, an entity not found in Judaism but a vital part of the dual god system of the Mazdaists who considered the universe to be the stage for a conflict between a good god - Ahura Mazda - and a bad god - Ahriman.

Because of the absence of documents the historian cannot come to any conclusion about whether any of the official stories about the formation of the Church are "true". We may note that although the Church claims its origins from Judaism its actual practice has until recent times been of hostility to Judaism and Jews, and its ceremonies show no continuity with those of Jews, but some similarity with those of the Persians.

Very early Bishops of Rome

  • 66 - Linus
  • 79- Anacletus
  • 91 - Clement I
  • 100-Euarestus
  • 109-Alexander I
  • 119- Sixtus I
  • 127-Telesphorus
  • 139-Hyginus
  • 142-Pius I
  • 150-Anicetus
  • 162-Soter
  • 171-Eleutherus
  • 185-Victor I
  • 197-Zephyrinus
  • 217-Callistus I

Constantinus was an emperor like his predecessors - a ruthless military leader - son of a previous emperor Constantius (305-6), chosen by his father's soldiers in York in 306, who behaved with great brutality, even to his own sons and other members of his family. His origin, like Diocletianus, was in Illyria (modern Yugoslavia). The Illyrians are believed to have been the ancestors of the modern Albanians. At that period many of them were recruited into the army. As he began to conquer the western part of the empire from the many other claimants he halted the persecution of Christians in 307. One reason was that he needed the unity of the soldiers and people as he conquered the rest of the empire. For obvious political reasons (he was not himself a Christian, and was only baptised on his death bed) Constantine declared toleration of Christianity - a move that led to it becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire by his successors. The political reasons seem to have been that the Christians were more numerous than their rivals the Mithraists - though as the Christians were using the same sort of ceremonies, it might be true to say a merger had taken place.

His predecessors, especially Diocletianus and Decius, had tried to suppress the Christians but they were already too numerous. The older emperors had regarded them as subversive of the traditional Roman religion, inherited from the early Republic. However, since Rome had expanded into many other cultural areas it was obviously impossible for any government to control what people believed and practiced. Numerous religious practices had been imported into Rome, especially from the Middle East and Egypt - the cult of Isis was one of the most prominent. As long as the adherents of these "new" religions acknowledged the State rituals and temples they were tolerated. The dictatorship represented by the emperors was always suspicious of private societies which might conceal plots against the the emperor. As the empire grew the Christians were one of the empire-wide organisations that could be a rival to the power of the emperor. Others of course were the Mithraists - followers of a god from the Persian empire. The Mithraists were popular among the soldiers.

Can we speculate that the reason for the rise of religion in the Roman Empire was that the institutions of the Republic had faded away after all power had been seized by Augustus? Ordinary people, and even Senators, no longer had any influence over the government. Thus the "group feeling" of people no longer centered on the institutions of state. Instead they became attached to religions, usually based on the cultures that Rome had conquered, especially in Egypt (Isis, for example) or the Levant in general (Elagabulus's Black Stone, Mithraism). For the emperors this was convenient as the religions did not attempt to control the political power. Later, they came to see the religions as the means of controlling the masses in a state that resembled a modern totalitarian tyranny much more than the original Roman Republic.

Emperors from the time of Diocletian came to be crowned (the crown or diadem was itself imitated from the Persian ruler) and from the son of Constantine by the chief of the Christian priests - the Patriarch of Constantinople, just as the Persian emperor was crowned by the Mazdaist chief priest. It is difficult to avoid the thought that the later Roman empire represents a cultural conquest of Rome by Persia. The emperors, beginning with Constantine, wished to influence the teachings of the new church and Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to determine the only allowable doctrines of the church. The council ruled against one of the main factions - the Arians - with the assistance of the emperor's military forces who excluded the supporters of Arius from the meeting - reminding the modern student of the behaviour of Party Congresses in Stalin's Russia or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. (The Arians - followers of a bishop Arius - argued that there was a hierarchy between god the father and god the son, one being "higher" than the other. This was considered seriously wrong by the more numerous party and Constantine backed the majority.)

Whereas the pre-Christian religious regime had been tolerant of variations in religion as long as people respected the state, in the new religion intolerance became the rule. In 315 already Constantine had issued an order to burn Jews alive who had persecuted converts to Christianity. The same applied to people with the "wrong" kind of Christianity.

Thus from the time of Constantine religion and politics were closely associated. Tolerance was only to be re-established in 1789 in the new constitution of the United States of America, followed by the French Republic.

A patriarch was the supervisor of a number of archbishops. As now, the hierarchy was:

  • Archbishops - archdiocese
  • bishop - diocese
  • archdeacon
  • priest - parish
  • deacon (apprentice priest)

There were of course subdivisions including Deans. In addition, some churches especially in the Greek orthodox world had other designations:

  • Archpriest

In fact there were a number of Patriarchs who presided over the churches in the main cities of the empire: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and later Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine moved his capital there. The patriarchs worked together by holding Councils from time to time, perhaps the analogy of modern party Congresses.

The Greek speaking eastern half of the empire was of course the most prosperous part and avoided the economic and military decline of the Latin half in the west - until the rise of Islam. The eastern half was to survive, as the Byzantine empire, until the 15th century, even after the western half had dissolved into a number of German dominated kingdoms.

There were also Christians, and organised churches, to the east. Some of these were considered "heretics". But at least one group, the Nestorians (followers of the dissident bishop Nestorius), built churches as far east as China. Their descendants can still be found as minorities in many otherwise Muslim countries. To the west similar organisations outside the empire could be found in Ireland and Scotland.

After 476 there was no longer an emperor in the west - Romulus Augustulus was the joking name of the last powerless western emperor - as power in Italy had passed to the German king Odoacer.

The political power of the bishop of Rome gradually increased from this time.

The bishops of Rome began to claim the powers of a Patriarch with authority over the western Latin-speaking empire, where there was no longer any Roman state.

After the empire
Gibbon refers to the Papacy as the "Ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned on the ruins thereof". What did he mean by that?

After the wandering German tribes entered and settled in the territory of the empire, often because the people had died of plague, lead poisoning, exhausted soil and too much taxation, the political and military structure collapsed. There were no longer governors from Rome, no official Roman army. The only organisation able to survive over areas bigger than the new tribal states was the church, headed by the Bishop of Rome. It survived as an information system and provider of rituals. It also came to provide literate advisors and secretaries to the new rulers - who remained illiterate until well into the era of feudalism. The new states gave up the gods of their own tribal peoples and converted to the religion of the empire. The prestige of the old Roman empire was so high that the new kings wanted to imitate it - even as they destroyed it. Thus they too came to regard the Bishop of Rome as the head of things. The empire was now a cultural area, even if there was no political power (rather like the modern Commonwealth, the successor to the British Empire). No-one could send armies from one end to the other but letters could be sent. Kings could not be compelled by law but they could sometimes be shamed by religious messages.

Monastic communities preserved some of the literature of the ancient world, curiously, more in Ireland outside the control of the popes, than in the areas controlled from Rome itself.

Emperor versus Papacy.
The Popes consciously tried to exercise control over the empire, even if it was only a phantom, after Charles the Great (Charlemagne, Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse) re-established something called the western empire - later known as the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed it can be argued that whereas Charlemagne had created an enlarged Frankish kingdom, amounting to a European state, it was the Pope who wished it to be headed by an Emperor and re-establish, as he thought, the old western Roman Empire. He crowned Charles in 800. This would give the Pope a standing in relation to the patriarch of Constantinople - the two churches had not yet formally separated though they were developing in different ways. Rome claimed control over all the priests and bishops of the Latin cultural area. But being crowned, whether willingly or not, gave Charles no more political power than he had before.

Dual Rulership
The position of Tenno or Mikado in Japan may have had the same kind of origin. There have been many examples of two rulers in a state - one running the politics; the other the rituals. In Japan the person known as Tenno was the ritual director, the equivalent of Pontifex. Until the 19th century the political head was the Shogun, also hereditary. Bhutan had a dual rulership, though the religious head died out. In the "Holy Roman Empire" the same pattern emerged. There was a contest between the person crowned as Emperor and the Pope. Which was to be supreme? Both claimed to dominate.

Modern Britain is another example where the Monarch is in fact ritual head of state, without real political power while the Prime Minister takes the decisions of government.

Total control?
Did the Catholic Church actually control the beliefs of all the people? Norman Cohn's famous book gives evidence that there were many variant beliefs during the medieval period. Only some of them, such as the Cathars, were radically destroyed - mainly because they were popular and threatened political power in the area where they flourished (300 years later the people of that area became Protestant). Many others continued even though disapproved of. Unlike some modern totalitarian systems the medieval popes were not able to exercise total control, however much they may have wanted to.

Some of the pre-Christian beliefs and practices may have survived in unobtrusive ways, despite the disapproval of the priests. Practices from the neighboring Muslim civilisation crossed the border also. The apparently harmless folk custom of Morris Dancing seems to have entered England via Portugal from North Africa, or from Muslim Spain (with John of Gaunt's Portuguese wife). What else came with it? Notice how the Scots eightsome reel looks like a Dervish dance. (see RILKO)

Edward Gibbon - Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Verfall und Untergang des Römischen Reiches

Histoire du déclin et de la chute de l'Empire romain d'Occident

Norman - Cohn - Pursuit of the Millennium

The Pursuit Of The Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages

Die Sehnsucht nach dem Millennium. Apokalyptiker, Chiliasten und Propheten im Mittelalter.
Les fanatiques de l'Apocalypse

Popes as ruler of Rome
Papal States in Italy

Began when the exarchate of Ravenna was transferred to the jurisdiction of the pope in 756.
  (Wikipedia on Exarchate) Quote When in 756 the Franks drove the Lombards out, Pope Stephen II claimed the exarchate. His ally Pippin the Younger, King of the Franks, donated the conquered lands of the former exarchate to the Papacy in 756; this donation, which was confirmed by his son Charlemagne in 774, marked the beginning of the temporal power of the popes as the Patrimony of Saint Peter. The archbishoprics within the former exarchate, however, had developed traditions of local secular power and independence, which contributed to the fragmenting localization of powers. Three centuries later, that independence would fuel the rise of the independent communes.

From this beginning - ruling the former province of the Byzantine Empire - papal rule extended to much of middle Italy until the mid 19th century.

Disputes with kings of England, such as Henry the second.

Role in encouraging Crusades 

When did the bishop of Rome come to be called Pope? All village priests in Greece are known as "pope"

1059 Council of Rome decrees that popes should be elected by the cardinals and confirmed by the people and clergy of Rome, and by the emperor.But this was not the real practice which saw the papacy controlled by the aristocratic families of Rome, and other forces such the Emperor and the kings of France.

Murder of John Paul I?
This pope only lasted a few days. Was he murdered because he threatened to "reform" the Vatican and expose the various connections with the Mafia? Or is that just fiction from the Godfather film series? Probably we shall never know.

Modern political influence of the Popes.
It is difficult to assess the actual influence the Popes have on politics today. They no longer wage war with their neighbors, having lost control of actual land and armies. But they influence social policy in a number of countries. One example in Europe is Ireland. The Church used to control the social policies of governments in Ireland where it is said that for several decades no Irish prime minister could decide anything without consulting the Archbishop of Dublin. Education and Health services were under the control of priests and nuns, rather than the government. When Ireland began to develop economically after decades of stagnation the church began to lose its influence. When it was revealed that the immunity from legal control they had enjoyed had concealed huge corruption the Church lost the allegiance of many of the people. Divorce is now legal, after a referendum.

The most serious influence of this kind may be in the Philippines, where prohibition of contraception from its irrational doctrine has helped create a huge increase in population. Apparently the Vatican does not care that most of these people are desperately poor and cannot be provided with food, housing and education.

A similar situation can be found in Central America where Nicaragua and El Salvador have an absolute ban on abortion - something the Vatican appears to be obsessed with - and the population also increases. One result in Latin America is large numbers of street children often targeted in some countries by police death squads. In Nigeria where some states have a large influence from Catholic missionaries the number of children who cannot be supported by their parents has led to a cult of accusing children of being witches, allowing their killing.

How far was Vatican policy in Rwanda responsible for the massacres, which may well have been a response to over-population?

Continually being revised

 Warning - this box contains some controversial ideas.

Pontifex Maximus

Robert Graves suggests (in his book: The White Goddess) that the meaning of the title was a Shaman priest who metaphorically "built a bridge" between the ordinary world and that of the gods. Possibly, like modern shamans in Siberia, he used various techniques to create an altered state of consciousness in which he could prophesy. This practice would have been at a time before written history when the early Latin speakers were still a tribal people (which means there is no written record and therefore the idea is imagination based on anthropology rather than documented history - but it is not incompatible with what is known about early Greek religion, especially at such sites as Delphi where there was a famous Oracle, speaking in a trance influenced by the ethylene gas emerging from a fissure in the rocks and the smoke of laurel leaves).

Moreover, Graves argues from the use in early Latin of the word "religion" that its original meaning was to choose the very (right) thing - rem ligere. That is, the word religion refers to the act of a Shaman speaking in a trance to declare right conduct. This is in contrast to other definitions of the word which interpret it as either "to read duly" (from rem legere) or third to bind back - religare. The third would be to control people's behaviour.

Related to that concept is the word for law in Latin - lex, originally, argues Graves, the decision not of a rational judge or deliberative assembly but of a shaman in a trance. (Although some of the rulings of the popes in later years appear to be irrational, no-one has suggested that they make these decisions in a trance or have passed through the Druid course for preparing a shaman to make decisions).

Of course, these arguments go to the heart of what religion actually is or was. Perhaps they are not relevant to the history of the Papacy as an essentially political organisation, but perhaps also they throw some light on what may be its deficiencies and disadvantages. Even if this had been the origins of the position - tribal soothsayer - by the time of the Republic it had become a more prosaic position - regulator of the rites - which the popes still are, at least within their own organisation - though it is no longer compulsory to belong to it.

Robert Graves - The White Goddess

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth

Die Weiße Göttin. Sprache des Mythos.

Last revision 5/06/11


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