The Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 2a (Revision 1)

Two important features of all modern polities are (1) an emphasis on proper procedure and (2) a systematic ensurance of popular consent. Contrary to common expectation, these do not come directly from ancient Greece, leapfrogging into the present, nor do they spring ex nihilo from later Enlightenment conceptions of political life. Rather, they first take on their later forms by way of Late Antique and Medieval monastic and ecclesiastical environments. While we should not wish to make history tidier than it is –the lines of influence are messy ones– this particular line is significant enough that, even if it is later joined by other tributaries, it deserves to be singled out.

In this set of posts we shall look at a trajectory from roughly Benedict of Nursia to Marsilius of Padua, looking over our shoulder, later on, at Aristotle and Cicero. At the end, we shall ask some questions about the meaning of the secular, secularism, and secularity, as illuminated by this history.

In the previous entry, we looked at the Rule of Benedict. Here, we look at the lead-up to a crucial stage in the secularization (i.e., an exportation into the saeculum) of features of the Rule in the writings and life of Gregory I, Roman Pope, also known as Gregory the Great, or (less fortunately) as Gregory the Dialogist.  


Benedict of Nursia (ca. A.D. 480-547) died of old age in his monastery at Monte Cassino, which was founded ca. 530, and which was housed entirely within the hill fortress on that site known as the “Citadel of Campania”. The monastery was destroyed in 580 by pagan Germanic Lombards who had come down from the upper Danube and settled in Italy in 568, “allegedly summoned […] by East Roman generals.” [1] The Lombards overran the Citadel (Monte Cassino), which was “sacked by the […] war-band of duke Zotto” [†591]. [2]

Monte Cassino’s fate was not unique: “[t]he monasteries of Italy were practically all destroyed during the Lombard period.” [3] Furthermore, prior to the attack of the Lombards, the wars (from A.D. 535–554) between the barbarian Goths and the East Roman Empire in the previous decades “left much of [Italy] a wilderness”. [4] Even Rome was left sorely underpopulated, its soundscape punctuated by the crash of falling masonry from the crumbling of untended pagan monuments [5], as Gregory himself notes:

We have watched the walls of Rome crumble and have seen its homes in ruins, its churches destroyed by violent storms, and its dilapidated buildings surrounded by their own debris. [6]

Add to this scene floods, plagues (wiping out a third of the population), and famine, and the environment is bleak. Despite this background of savagery, Benedict’s monks seem all to have survived the Lombard sack, and to have fled, with their abbot Bonitus (A.D. †584), to the Lateran in Rome (bringing with them a written Rule); a monastery would not be re-established at Monte Cassino until the dawn of the Carolingian period in 720, under the abbacy of Petronax. [7]

The first Life of Benedict was written down in A.D. 593/594, about half a century after Benedict died, by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604, in papal office from 590-604) [8]. Gregory’s aim was not purely biographical (“in some instances I retain only the substance of the original narrative; in others, the words as well” [9]), or even strictly hagiographical, but pastoral. Nonetheless, he formed his Life of Benedict, at least in part, on the stories he had heard directly from some of Benedict’s disciples, and he rather frequently names his sources.

The heritage of a figure is often determined by who remembers him or her, and how. Gregory’s dissemination of many of Benedict’s themes is what concerns us here. This begins the migration of Benedictine themes by translating many of the monastic models into ecclesiastical models, although, because the Western Church had largely absorbed the secular world by Gregory’s day, the distinction between an ecclesiastical model and a civic model or a model for all of society was hard to maintain with any consistency. (Gregory was quite aware that bishops and kings or emperors were distinct offices.) Gregory’s translation of the Benedictine model of the abbot into the model of the secular bishop used the Latin word “rector” —i.e., “ruler”– for this figure. Similarly, Gregory’s model of authority’s shape and legitimating grounds was largely convertible from episcopal to royal or imperial offices. Thus, the Benedictine monastic model of the abbot migrates, through Gregory, everywhere.


To get a sense of this change that Gregory brings to the model of the bishop, however, it helps to see what it transforms. (We shall look at this from III.ii — III.iv.) In the previous entry in this series, we looked at Benedict’s model of the abbot, which was indebted to those of his monastic predecessors, modified by Benedict’s own wisdom and experience.

Benedict’s model of the abbot was certainly not indebted to the middling or even aristocratic model of the bishop that had developed in the wake of the freedoms afforded by Constantine’s legislation and privileges. That model was one of rhetor and, increasingly, that of civic functionary — including sometimes judge or arbiter of civil court cases, manager of finances, retriever of stray horses, and even inspector of brothels. [10] Even responsibilities within the sphere of Church functions required an administrative competence –the management of church property and other financial machinery, the supervision of clerical support staff, and the oversight of numerous charitable foundations and activities– that was best filled by men who had been trained for such things. This is true regardless of whether possible candidates were taken from either the great land-owning or aristocratic families (vi&., the super-rich, which was rather rare at first) or else the families of local notables (vi&., the not-terribly-rich-but-rather-relatively-well-off families, which was overwhelmingly the case at first). These administrative functions were self-consciously accepted. The bishop Ambrose of Milan’s (ca. A.D. 340–397) manual for clerics, De Officiis, was modeled quite deliberately after a work by the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106 B.C.–43 B.C.) of the same title. Ambrose’s work

treated the office of the priesthood like that of a public administrator. Ambrose (like Augustine after him) understood the priest’s primary responsibilities to involve three things: the instruction of elementary doctrinal beliefs, the distribution of the sacraments, and the supervision of charity. Neither Ambrose nor Augustine encouraged ascetic struggle, apart from celibacy, in their priests. Neither author emphasized a pastoral relationship in which the priest monitored the gradual spiritual growth of their lay congregants; nor did they actively encourage their clerical subordinates to promote ascetic disciplines in those persons under their care. [11]

Ambrose, it is true, resisted the Emperor Theodosius (A.D. 347–395, reigned from 379–395), resulting in Theodosius’ public penance. This should not obscure the matter at hand, the increasing civic models for clerics, and their increasing civic functions and responsibilities. To lean too heavily on a narrative of conflict or opposition would draw too sharp a line between clerical offices and civic offices. Theodosius was rebuked by Ambrose as a member of the Church. Ambrose saw the Church as a universal society, capable of transforming the Empire. Ambrose’s spiritual offspring Augustine (354–430) may have lamented the time he spent judging court cases as a bishop [12], but he did not refuse these cases outright. Augustine himself carefully distinguished between the City of God and the City of Man, and identified the Empire as a disenchanted thing, as a proximate and worldly set of loves shared by the two cities, and open to the participation of both. Nonetheless, he could still view public officials who were Christian as acting on behalf of the Church, or rather, could see that the acts of public officials who were Christians were public acts of the Church. The secular, public office of a public official was not thought to be such a thing that it would preclude the Christian official from acting as a Churchman in that office. In East Rome, this convertibility of secular and sacred office was more common, as the figure of the holy man was more free-floating than it was in West Rome (where it became much more attached to the clerical office). Thus, in the East Roman Life of Daniel the Stylite (ca. 409–493) we read about one public figure who became a cleric when commanded, only to voluntarily leave the clerical office and return to civil service, without any sense of moral failure:

[…] there came to the Saint one Cyrus, an ex-consul and ex-pretorian prefect. He was a very trustworthy and wise man who had passed through all the grades of office owing to his extreme sagacity. But late in life he suffered from a plot hatched by Chrysaphius, the Spatharius, and was sent as bishop to a small town, namely to Cotyaeum in Phrygia, and realizing the treachery of Chrysaphius he yielded so as not to bring his life to a miserable end. After the death of the Emperor Theodosius he divested himself of his priestly dignity and resumed his secular rank and so continued to the end of his life, for he lived till the reign of Leo of most pious memory. He used to distribute all his belongings to the poor. [13]

This ex-cleric Cyrus is spoken of as having all of the virtues of the Ambrosian-Augustinian Christian aristocratic ideal — liberal in his charity, and sagacious. Cyrus came to the layman [14] ascetic Daniel, bringing his daughter who was “afflicted by an evil spirit”. Daniel prayed and wept, and eventually drove the demon away. “Consequently from that time forth the two men had a passionate affection for each other.” There is no hint of Daniel’s or the author’s judgment against either a bureaucratic command to take up the clerical office or opprobrium against his rather casually leaving it — it seems to be one more office within the Christian commonwealth. It is the ascetic that is truly exceptional, and “angelic”. [14a] To sum up: bishops were not held to the ideals of ascetics, but to those of the rhetor and the wise man and administrator, while the Empire was seen as potentially renewed by –or absorbed by– the Church.


How did the bishops become so involved in the administration of the Empire, take on such civic roles, and draw candidates from middling and even aristocratic families? Local notables from the cities of the Roman Empire had, prior to the emperor Diocletian (A.D. 244–311, reigned from 284–305), existed in symbiosis with the emperor and the imperial administration; however, after Diocletian began his reforms, which entailed the centralization and bureaucratization of the Empire’s administration, the duties of civic notables became onerous, and the financial burdens placed upon them became much greater. [15] Notable families looked for ways to relieve themselves of this burden. After Constantine I (ca. 272–337, reigned, effectively, from 306–337), serving in the rapidly-ballooning imperial senate became one way; the exemptions extended to clerics, however, became another way.

From the fourth century most of the known bishops with known origins were from the class of local notables who would otherwise have been expected to serve as municipal magistrates and decurions. [16]

Even the countervailing forces of world-renouncing asceticism could not sunder this relationship between clerics and secular rulers. During the fourth century, the figure and ideals of the ascetic began to attach to the figure of the bishop, such as we see in the Life of Martin of Tours (ca. 316/336–397), where it shows a hostility towards the Church being absorbed by the Empire. Martin’s biographer, Sulpicius Severus (ca. 363–ca. 425), laments that

Our age has become so depraved and corrupted that it is almost exceptional for a priest to have the strength not to yield to flattery of the emperor. When a number of bishops from different parts of the world came together to visit the emperor [Magnus] Maximus [A.D. ca. 335–388, a usurper at first, recognized by the East Roman Emperor Theodosius as Emperor in the West, sans Italy, from 383 until his defeat, after Maximus invaded Italy in 387, by the same Theodosius in 388], a man of a fierce nature who was proud of his victory in the civil wars, the revolting sycophancy of all of them towards the emperor was noted, as was the fact that their priestly dignity had, as a result of their despicable weakness, stopped to the level of imperial clients: in Martin alone did the apostolic authority remain intact. [17]

Nonetheless, Martin had been an enlisted man, and Martin’s father had been involved in the Empire’s apparatus as a senior officer in the Roman Army, not a stranger to the elevated world of administrative duties — but now Martin would be a soldier for Christ. His debt to Roman training and culture cannot be ignored. Furthermore, Martin did not extend his asceticism to the lay-world, and his clerical world was not modeled on the monastic world.

Other figures have more clearly imported their administrative skills into the Church. Ambrose of Milan came from enormous wealth, and had been “a Roman provincial governor of senatorial standing” [17a] — and not yet even baptised.  Augustine’s father was a local decurion, and Augustine himself sought to be a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. In his De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Teaching/Instruction” or simply “DDC“, written A.D. 396/427), Augustine set out a transformation of Ciceronian rhetoric for the sake of the orations of Christian bishops: “wisdom and eloquence” are the model, together with the “cleans[ing]” of the mind so as “to see that light and cling to it”, together with “good endeavors and good habits”. [18] This not the model of a desert ascetic (and in DDC he even cautions against the contempt that some ascetics have for learning). This is the model of an illumined man of culture, and, caveats aside, it seems rather typical of the men of this period. It is no wonder that Augustine, when he wrote (later in life in his Retractationes) of his retreat to Cassiciacum during the year 386, he described it as “a period of “otium devoted to the Christian life”, using the word otium that, as Peter Brown carefully explains, “had unmistakable aristocratic overtones.” [18a]

Ascetical ideals had also begun to leaven the model of bishops in the Eastern Church, particularly in figures like Basil the Great (A.D. 329/330–379) and Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–390), although the classical training of these figures is as clear as their family pedigree. Gregory came from a family of local notables; it would be folly to insist that his asceticism supplanted his classical education and grooming (e.g.: he wrote a poem about salvation history in strict hexameter). [18b] The family of his friend Basil the Great (including Basil’s younger brother, another Gregory, Gregory of Nyssa [ca.335–ca.395], who would hungrily read the hand-me-down books of classical learning that Basil would bring home after his years studying with elite teachers in other cities) owned estates in three provinces. (Basil was a strong influence on Benedict, and, indeed, Basil himself had championed the model of the monk-bishop in the East, even if it took time to spread and take root, and even if the monastic model of spiritual direction was not exported as it was in Gregory the Great.) Basil himself takes a stand on classical pagan literature that is virtually the same as Plato’s, namely, that if the classics teach what is good, they should be read; if not, and insofar as they do not, they should be shunned. [18c] John Chrysostom’s (ca. 349–407) family had been civil servants for generations.

Becoming a bishop in the fourth century had a definite ceiling, however: one could not rise higher than a local level (bishops were attached to their sees), and there was not the kind of turnover in office-holders that could be seen in the imperial administration, where appointments were very brief. In the fourth century, also, bishops did not have large amounts of money (the wealth of the churches had not yet accumulated). There were other and better options for political advancement in the fourth century: in the East, Gregory of Nazianzus’ brother, Caesarius, was a physician to emperors, eventually becoming quaestor before his death. The West slowly decayed after the (first) sack of Rome in 410. In the wake of this blow, however, in fifth-century Gaul

the shrinking of Roman rule meant that local aristocrats who managed to acquire senatorial rank had fewer opportunities to hold additional high offices in the imperial administration. […] Eventually some great families became episcopal dynasties […]. As these senators became bishops, they transferred some of the language and ideals of aristocratic ideology. [19]

Bishops were married to their cities, and this allowed these families to retain their local sway; eventually episcopal service had the same dignity as serving in the imperial administration. This also extended the rivalry between cities, and within cities between local notable families, into ecclesiastical rivalries. [20] Also, while most fourth-century churches had little wealth, churches do not lose wealth as families did, but (ordinarily) continued to acquire wealth (even when it was occasionally dumped to ransom hostages, &c.) from government subsidies, individual gifts, and income from estates. During the crises of the fifth century in Roman Gaul, however, with bands of barbarians raiding the countryside, anything without a strong wall was easy to prick and bleed just enough to make it submit to the rule of the local strongmen. The upper aristocracy could always flee, as they might be inclined to; their villas were unwalled, and difficult to defend. [21] When Roman civic or military authorities were absent, cities might turn to their bishops to deliver them clean water or to lead the military against those who threaten them. [21a] Unlike the villas of the aristocrats, the cities did not lack walls. Their walls contained only the nucleus –much less than the entirety– of the Roman cities, but these walls became important. The bishops of these walled cities likewise took on an importance they didn’t have previously, negotiating with these men, defending their people. So Simplicius of Bourges (†A.D.477) is written to have “acted as spokesman of the city, before skin-clad [111] kings and purplerobed emperors.” [22] This aristocratic task was often blended with ascetic commitments, changing both.

The aristocratic model was still alive in Benedict’s day, and shortly after in Gregory the Great’s. It may inform a vignette about Benedict and a seemingly comfortable priest in Gregory’s Dialogues where, when God wished to reveal the ascetic wilderness-dweller Benedict (early on, while Benedict was still alone), he

appeared in a vision to a priest some distance away, who had just prepared his Easter dinner. ‘How can you prepare these delicacies for yourself,’ He asked, ‘while my servant is out there in the wilds suffering from hunger?’ [23]

The priest is not set up as a fool or a villain: he and Benedict speak profitably about spiritual things. The contrast is still noteworthy.


The previous section indicates the aristocratization of the episcopal model, which, it must be admitted, had already had very serious administrative duties to begin with, and, in Rome, even more with the rise of episcopal monarchy in the second century. To the aristocratization of the episcopacy must be added the episcopalization of the imperium.

There is some ideological precedent that might be cited for this in the New Testament. In Romans 13:1, Paul wrote that

Every soul is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. [NASB, modified, exchanging “person” for “soul” to reflect the Greek literally]

Πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω. οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ Θεοῦ, αἱ δὲ οὖσαι ὑπὸ Θεοῦ τεταγμέναι εἰσίν. [Nestle-Aland, 28th ed.]

making “the governing authorities” –clarifying what in Greek is simply “authorities”, “ἐξουσίαις”– and not simply the king or the emperor or the state, sent by God, to punish injustice and evil. More than that, the authority, or the ruler (ἄρχοντες in Rom 13:3, in the plural, but then spoken of with a singular pronoun), is “a servant of God to you for good” (Θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν σοὶ εἰς τὸ ἀγαθόν) [Rom 13:4], having a positive, and not merely a negative function, in the dispensation of things. (Of course, read canonically in the context of the other books of the Bible, or even historically in terms of the variety of positions that different Christians took over the course of the first century of the Jesus movement, in times of persecution, such as we see in the Revelation to John, the rulers can be figured as monstrous beasts straight out of the book of Daniel.)

The role of the emperor in the rational cosmology of the classical world is pronouncedly organic and divine. Seneca (“the Younger”) could speak of the Emperor Nero as the soul of the organism of the Roman Empire, and, thus, as possessing a kind of divinity through his higher position (divinity was generally thought to cascade, dwindling in measure as it moves down the levels of the order of the world), a higher position received, as Seneca wrote, from the Fates. The anonymous 4th-century Christian Ambrosiaster will go so far as to insist that, as Robert Markus reports it,

[s]ubordination to the Emperor’s authority is analogous to the body’s subjection to rational control by the mind; the imperial officials (comites) stand to the emperor –as in much Christian iconography– as the angels to God. The emperor receives adoratio on earth as God’s vicar […]. [24]

Before the anonymous author known as Ambrosiaster, however, it is Eusebius’ praise of Constantine which offers the model that would, more or less, be standard in the East. Not unlike Ambrosiaster, Eusebius writes in his Oration in Praise of Constantine that Constantine receives

as it were a transcript of the Divine sovereignty, [and] directs, in imitation of God himself, the administration of this world’s affairs. [25]

In the same Oration, Eusebius states that Constantine

steers and guides men on earth according to the pattern of his prototype, confirmed by that example of monarchical authority. [26]

Further, he is “interpreter to the Word of God,” and “aims at recalling the whole human race to the knowledge of God”. [26a] This, as we shall see, is significant, for it places the Emperor Constantine in the role of teacher, and it is the distinction between teachers and learners that is used shortly after in the Western tradition by Ambrose to delimit the roles of bishop and emperor. [26b] The distinction appears again in a text of Pope Gelasius, writing in 494 to the Emperor Anastasius, where Gelasius states that as “the vicar of the apostolic see”,

the stewardship of the divine word has been imposed on me: woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel! […] Most Merciful Son, you have been allowed to preside over humankind in dignity. However, devoutly incline your head to those who rule in the divine sphere, wait for your source of salvation from them, and recognize that you should be placed under the rule of religion rather than rule over it when the question concerns receiving or setting aside heavenly mysteries. [26c]

This is not quite theocracy, for “The bishops who are the leaders in the sacred sphere obey your laws in such a manner that their opinions concerning the world […] do not seem to be opposed to those laws.” Nonetheless, the ambiguity is real, and not much more clarified than Constantine’s role was. Constantine, moreover, looms large in Christian memory as an example. Gregory the Great will later encourage the English king Aethelberht to imitate Constantine in turning his people from idols to the living God. [26d] As Constantine was hailed by Eusebius as “a faithful shepherd” –a very episcopal-sounding title– so too was Aethelberht to imitate Constantine in this.

It is as though, for Eusebius, Constantine were an earthly mirror of the divine Logos. In Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, it is written that

When some [within the Church] were at variance with each other in various places, like a universal bishop appointed by God he convoked councils of the ministers of God. [27]

It was Constantine himself, if Eusebius reports rightly, who, while entertaining bishops at dinner, stated that

‘You are bishops of those within the Church, but I am perhaps a bishop appointed by God over those outside.’ In accordance with this saying, he exercised a bishop’s supervision over all his subjects, and pressed them all, as far as lay in his power, to lead the godly life. [28]

Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall note that, “the remark is made in the context of a dinner-party” and that, “while it does express both the Emperor’s sense of mission and his way of acting, perhaps it should none the less not be taken too seriously” as it is “a kind of aside”. [29]

The emperors could be, and were, often criticized in the wake of Eusebius’ praise. Constantine himself emphasized his desire to be found as “God’s slave.” [30] The ambiguity was secure, however much the lay-status of the emperor would be reinforced by ritual boundaries in later decades and centuries.

Christomimesis may well have succeeded to Eusebius’ own more ambiguous and more purely Hellenistic Logomimesis, but his general vision, with its beguiling evocation of the parallelism between divine and human regality, was destined for an extraordinarily long life. […] [98] [I]n the Byzantine East where, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Eusebian vision was clearly reflected […] it was destined to enjoy nothing less than a millennial career. [31]

Byzantine examples of the same abound — and in proximity to Benedict and Gregory the Great. One sixth-century Byzantine writer by the name of Agapetus (possibly a deacon attached to the cathedral of Hagia Sophia), addressing Justinian I (A.D. ca. 482–565, reigned 527–565) hortatorily, writes of the generic figure of the emperor that

[i]n his bodily essence, [he] is the equal of every man, but in the power of his rank he is like God over all men. He has no one on earth who is higher than he. Like a man, therefore, he must not be puffed up; like God, he must not be angry. For if he is honoured for his divine image, he is nevertheless bound to his earthly image through which he is taught his equality with other men. [32]

As we shall see, Gregory the Great, though he acknowledges a distinction between secular and clerical office, and esteems the latter above the former, has no interest in theoretically distinguishing the two. This is one of several features that makes his episcopal models so convertible with royal and imperial models, combined with his language for the bishop as “ruler” (rector) and his enjoining of the model of Constantine on the kings of the English people, which people he sent missionaries to. As Robert Markus notes,

Gregory had no interest in what distinguished royal from other sorts of authority, could not be bothered to pursue the implications of his images, indeed, did not see that they could have implications of interest. [33]

Indeed, more strongly,

The absence of any interest in institutions is what distinguishes Gregory’s approach to political matters. [34]

This infelicitous fumbling of the distinctions between the sphere of the Church and the secular sphere that Augustine of Hippo had been so careful to make (even if he himself seems to blur and violate it at certain points, such as we saw above, when Christian public officials can act ex persona Ecclesiae) sets up the arrangements of the early Middle Ages in the West, as well as the migration of Benedictine models into the secular sphere.




[1] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 192

[2] Brown, Rise, 210

[3] R.B. 1980: The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English with Notes ed. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. et al. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981), 114

[4] Gregory the Great, Dialogues transl. Odo John Zimmerman, O.S.B. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1959/2002), vi

[5] Brown, Rise, 199

[6] Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 81

[7] Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 86, n43

[8] Early Christian Lives, ed. Carolinne White (New York: Penguin, 1998), 163

[9] Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 6

[10] Brown, Rise, 208

[11] Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, transl. George Demacopoulos (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 17

[12] Epistle 24, see Raymond Van Dam, “Bishops and Society” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 2: Constantine to c.600 ed. Augustine Casiday and Frederick W. Norris (New York: Cambridge, 2007/2014), 358

[13] “Life of St. Daniel the Stylite” ch.31 in Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies Translated from the Greek transl. Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H Baynes (London: Mowbrays, 1948/1977), 25

[14] Daniel was not yet ordained. See ch.43 of the same work for that.

[14a] For “angelic presence”, see Three Byzantine Saints, 27; for “angelic nature”, Three Byzantine Saints, 49; there are likely more references that I simply did not catch, but for the roots of this language in angelomorphic soteriology, see both Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology, and Soteriology, and the numerous articles by Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin, many of which are available on the Marquette University “Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism” webpage

[15] For a more detailed narrative of this change, see the earlier chapters of Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012)

[16] Van Dam, “Bishops and Society”, 346

[17] Early Christian Lives, 152

[17a] Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 63

[18] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine transl. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958), 13 (DDC I.x)

[18a] Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle, 164

[18b] Gregory of Nazianzus, Poemata Arcana transl. D. A. Sykes (New York: Oxford, 1997)

[18c] “To Young Men, On How They Might Derive Profit From Pagan Literature”, in Basil, Letters 249-368, On Greek Literature transl. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), 379-435

[19] Van Dam, “Bishops and Society”, 348

[20] Van Dam, “Bishops and Society”, 350-351; 356-357

[21] Brown, Rise, 107

[21a] Herrin, Formation, 72-75

[22] Brown, Rise, 110-111

[23] Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 58

[24] “The Latin Fathers” in The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, vol. 2, 100

[25] Eusebius, Oration in Praise of Constantine I.6,

[26] From Alexander to Constantine: Passages and Documents Illustrating the History of Social and Political Ideas 336 B.C. — A.D. 337 transl. Ernest Barker (Lanham, MD: Oxford University Press/University Press of America, 1956/1985), 478

[26a] Oration in Praise of Constantine II.4

[26b] “The Latin Fathers” in The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, vol. 2, 102

[26c] George Demacopoulos, The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 173-174

[26d] Robert Markus, Gregory the Great and His World (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 85

[27] Eusebius, Life of Constantine transl. Averil Cameron & Stuart G. Hall (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 87 [I.44 (1)]

[28] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 161 [IV.24]

[29] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 320

[30] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 172 [IV.48]

[31] Francis Oakley, Empty Bottles of Gentilism: Kingship and the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (to 1050) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 97-98

[32] Agapetus, “Advice to the Emperor”, in Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian transl. Peter N. Bell (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 107

[33] Robert A. Markus, “Gregory the Great on Kings: Rulers and Preachers in the Commentary on 1 Kings” p.15, in Sacred and Secular: Studies on Augustine and Latin Christianity (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1994)

[34] Markus, “Gregory on Kings”, 16


10 thoughts on “The Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 2a (Revision 1)

    • You’re too kind, Georgios. I hope you found it profitable.

      To answer your question: the reasons are several, but few.

      1) Collapsing his life’s significance to one popular literary work, or even his literary merits to that one popular work, seems narrow — it enshrines the dim awareness that the East Roman people had of Gregory through what was the only written work of his that had any lasting circulation in the Greek-speaking world, rather than dealing with him objectively. It would not be terribly un-like if we called Kim Jong-un “Kim Jong-un, the Fountain of Memes”, because that’s our awareness of him as Americans.

      2) In some ways the Dialogues signal his largest break with the Late Antique Christianity that came before him. To offer one example: while earlier Christians largely (there are exceptions) thought of the Christian life as a war against sin, and subordinated spiritual warfare to this theme, Gregory seems to subordinate the problem of sin to spiritual warfare. Gregory also represents a break with Benedict on these themes in the Dialogues. Benedict sees the monastic life as the struggle for humility and mutual charity, not warfare against demons.

      3) The Dialogues are very much unlike his other works in spirit, tone, and often even content. They are likely the worst possible entry-point into his literary oeuvre. There is a reason why some people have made their careers suggesting –not crazily, but not persuasively, either– that the Dialogues are a forgery.

      These are some of the reasons. Is this helpful? What do you think?


      • Thank you for the response! I think those are fair reasons. Now that I think of it, it would be like calling Augustine of Hippo “St. Augustine the Confessionist,” or even more like calling him “St. Augustine of the 83 Questions” – which would make people overlook his other, more major works.

        That being said, it’s common to both East and West. St. John of Damascus seems known in the West only for De Fide Orthodoxa, when in his own time he was best known as a preacher and hymnographer.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I suppose the main difference between those examples and the title “Gregory the Dialogist” is that the _Confessions_ has enormous literary and spiritual merit, so much so that its merit is recognized even by non-Christians, and incorporated into curricula; the _83 Questions_, likewise, I remember being not a jarring transition from the rest of his works. Likewise with John of Damascus — even if he is not up to the philosophical level of Pseudo-Dionysius or Maximus Confessor, he is still valuable. None of these works could be said, except with the most cynical mindset, to risk fostering superstition.

          To anticipate some small bit of what I’ll write about in a few weeks when I get to return to Gregory (I need to skip forward to Marsilius because of a variety of deadlines): Benedict, when he advocates for corporal punishment in some situations, does not treat them as punitive, but medicinal, and highly-specific to the situation at hand. I’m not interested in defending this, but I do wish to contrast it to Gregory’s Benedict, who strikes some people to drive out the demons that are leading them astray and possessing them — and these are professed monks. It reminds me of the practice that Julian the Apostate mentioned when he went to the tomb of a pagan hero that was being looked after by the local civic official, who happened to be a Christian bishop. Julian wished to see the tomb, and the bishop, a man of culture, showed it to him. Julian wrote that he was amazed that this man of culture did not hiss when he entered the pagan site, which was something that, apparently, some Christians did. More often was simply the invocation of the name of Jesus. The hissing-away the demons is a rather superstitious, popular practice, and not far from what Gregory’s Benedict does, and quite contrary to the actual suggestions of Benedict, where striking is not at all part of spiritual warfare. I can’t think of anything in John or Augustine that might serve as an analogue.


    • Contextually, however, I don’t know that there were other viable alternatives. These cities needed officials whose welfare was married to the cities, and whose wealth was not possessed, nor portable. There was only one case I know of where a bishop opened the gates of his city to a barbarian overlord; Peter Brown, as I recall, notes that at least some contemporaries of the 410 sack of Rome believed that some of the super-rich families of Rome were the ones to open the gates to the Visigoths in exchange for safe passage.


  1. Undeniably, there were times and places in which the Church provided the only stability and normality possible for the state, but it is not an ideal situation for the long term in any place larger than Andorra.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andorra might be too big — it’s less than 1/6 the size of Rhode Island, so maybe it’s not, but it’s still out of scale for the era I was trying to cover. We’re talking about walled cities and their immediate environs. Without a clear sense that the body of the state and the body of the Church are two different things, however, the offloading of civic responsibilities to bishops, who had been performing many of these functions internally for the Church previously, is nearly inevitable.

      I wrote about an author who wrote about this:


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