We saw earlier that a several churches honored one individual as the monarchical bishop by 107. We also noted how the presbyter became "priest" as he administered sacraments as his bishop directed. All bishops enjoyed equality of position although some served in prestigious communities. Rome's bishop possessed tremendous prestige because he served in the Empire's capital city. We also noted a growing political involvement, particularly by Ambrose.
No popes sat in Rome throughout the second through the sixth centuries. Western bishops attained greater power in the larger cities. How came Rome's bishop to have such great power? I address this question here.
I. The construction of Constantinople.
Constantine's decision to establish a new capital city set up the Roman bishop for acquisition of power. Constantine built Constantinople effectively govern the Empire. Any map shows Rome west of the Empire's geographical center. Constantinople appears to be east of that same center, but the new city rested closer to the population center than Rome. Population centered on the old Roman province of Asia and most of the Empire's population resided in the east. Constantine simply relocated closer to his subjects. At the same time, Constantinople stood at a more strategic location enabling Constantine to get to trouble spots quickly.
A community known as Byzantium rested on Constantinople's site for almost 1,000 years. The Greeks originally settled the site about 657 B.C. Some said that "no site on earth surpasses it as a location for a capital." Constantine refurbished and expanded this community as his new capital.
Constantine first traced out the city's boundaries in November, 324. He then employed thousands to raise walls and adorn the city. Constantinople became the Empire's capital on May 11, 330. It then became the richest and most civilized city in the world. Population grew from 50,000 in 337 to 100,000 in 400 and then to almost a million by 500. The city housed five imperial palaces, six palaces designated for ladies at court, three for high dignitaries, 4388 mansions, 322 streets, 1,000 shops, 100 places of amusement, numerous public baths and brilliantly ornamented churches. Romans comprised most of the population followed next by Greeks.
As a new city, Constantinople had no bishop. To provide for orthodox apostolic succession, Constantine moved a small chapel into the city along with its bishop. In time the bishop of Constantinople became one of the five Metropolitans, recognized as important because of association with one of the Empire's chief cities.
Constantinople was a socially diverse city. At the top of the social scale, where you would expect them, were the governmental officials and senators. Next came the landowners who almost always owned both a town home and a rural estate. Then came the rich merchants, bureaucrats, shopkeepers and tradesmen. Nearer the bottom of the pyramid were the poor made up of displaced farmers and freedmen. At the very bottom were the slaves.
II. The Roman episcopacy and representatives.
With the capital's move to Constantinople Rome's bishop grew in importance for six reasons.
Rome claimed apostolic succession to Peter. As I've pointed out, tradition placed Peter in Rome about A.D. 67. Catholic scholars prefer to put Peter and John in Rome prior to Claudius's expulsion of the Jews in 49. Catholics insist that Peter "founded" the Roman church. As I've indicated, this simply means that Peter ordained the church's first leaders. Since Peter held the "keys" and "was the rock upon which the church is built," Rome enjoyed tremendous prestige.
Rome had no local rivalries for its power. The Roman bishop had prestige simply because his church rested in the largest city in the Empire's western half. In the east Alexandria and Antioch wrestled for recognition as the chief church. Once Constantinople entered the picture, the competition increases. No one challenged Rome's position. Everyone recognized Rome as one of the five metropolitan churches -- and the only one in the west!
The transference of the capital to Constantinople left a power vacuum in the west. When Alaric besieged Rome only the bishop had sufficient power and ability to negotiate with him. The Roman government left the bishop to his own devices without direct government supervision. When the barbarian invasions occurred Roman bishops formed alliances and made treaties to keep the invaders at bay.
Christian expansion moved westward after the fifth century. More and more new congregations formed in the west. Each of these naturally looked to older, more established churches for leadership and counsel. Rome, having one of the oldest and richest traditions around, naturally became a primary source of help and advice.
The churches in the Empire's eastern half were constantly embroiled in turmoil. Whether it was Providence, shrewd maneuvering or blind luck, Rome always came out on the right side in the controversies. Subsequent bishops always pointed to this fact maintaining that Rome decided each issue. While that wasn't the case, it was true that Rome always supported the right side.
Let's look at just three.
Sylvester occupied the bishop's chair during Constantine's reign and the Nicene Council. Since he was bishop who received the gift of the Lateran Palace many older historians traced the "Donation of Constantine" back to him. Actually, Sylvester tried his best to stay out of difficult situations and didn't even attend the Council at Nicaea.
Julius took Athanasius's side during the Arian controversy. Julius maintained that churches should direct appeals to Rome for decisions. To a council assembled at Sardica about 343 Julius said:
The council agreed. Such appeals enhanced Roman prestige.
Innocent also tried to get churches to make appeals to Rome. Writing to African bishops approving their appeal to him to support Pelagius's condemnation, Innocent said:
Note the steps. Julius encouraged appeals. Innocent says such appeals should be made and carry the Roman bishop's approval relative to the disposition of church problems.
Later Innocent claimed the Roman See held custody of apostolic Christianity and was the "foundation" of all western Christianity.
III. Differences between East and West.
You can't separate the Roman bishop's growing power from the Empire's political system. The Byzantine Empire continued while the Germanic peoples over ran the western Empire. The eastern government remained stable with adequate police power and tax base. Western government was in chaos. As the barbarians invaded governmental structures fell apart and the tax base decreased. Since Emperors no longer felt strongly about propping up the western provinces, they merely appointed the Roman bishop as a functional governor. Gregory the Great, for example, administered the state's welfare, raised armies, repaired and maintained the city, fed the poor and kept Rome's enemies at bay long enough to negotiate a peace.
In the east bishops remained under imperial control. Since the government held political and secular control, eastern bishops found their power greatly restricted. In the west the bishop stood over the secular government. In the east the secular government stood over the bishops. Even today eastern churches are national bodies subservient to their governments.
Strictly speaking, no governmental structure limited their power. Roman bishops assumed more and more power ultimately wielding both secular and political clout. Later we'll see how the Roman church actually determined that western rulers derived their power and the right to rule from Roman bishops.
Some historians mark the beginning of the Middle Ages with Constantine's rise to power. I think the Early Middle Ages coincided with the Roman capital's move east and the power growth in the Roman See.
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