Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lesson 4 - The Church at the Fall of the Western Roman Empire

ROMULUS AUGUST(UL)US (475-476) and  ODOACER (433-493)

Meantime, the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 by Odoacer, son of the Scirii (a Germanic tribe) chief. He reigned as emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 475-476.

The historical record contains few details of Romulus' life. He was installed as emperor by his father Orestes, the Magister militum (master of soldiers) of the Roman army after deposing the previous emperor Julius Nepos. Romulus, little more than a child, acted as a figurehead for his father's rule. Reigning for only ten months, Romulus was then deposed by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer and sent to exile and afterwards disappeared from the historical record.

Odoacer held the distinctions of being the first non-roman king of Italy or the first Germanic/barbarian king of Italy.

This photo depicts the peaceful resignation of the crown of Italy from the hands of Romulus Augustulus to Odoacer. This one marks not only a simple transition of power but historically this is the transition of the new age from ancient times to the medieval ages.

There was problem: Odoacer was an Arian[1] Christian. He believed that Jesus Christ is not equal to the Father but subordinate to the Father. The Son of God for him is just a mere creature of God though greater than humans. And so, if the king is Arian, many of his subjects and followers would follow his faith.

Odoacer raised an Italic-Germanic army with which he defeated the Vandals in Sicily. He was able to conquer the whole island by 477. By 480, he and his Italic-Germanic army annexed all of ancient Dalmatia. He made pacts with the Visigoths and Franks and joined them in battle against the Burgundians, Alemanni, and Saxons.

As Odoacer's kingdom expanded, his popularity among the Italic people grew, and his pacts with the Franks and Visigoths gave him increased influence.  In the Middle Ages, as one leader gains power and influence, another one is threatened with anxiety. Remember that only the Western Roman Empire collapsed. The Eastern Roman empire remained intact despite the presence of Germanic tribes in their territories. The increase of power started to worry Zeno, the Eastern Roman Emperor, who increasingly saw Odoacer as a rival.

In 488, Emperor Zeno started a verbal campaign against Odoacer. There was a verbal character assasination. What Zeno cannot do with his weapon, he did it with his mouth. He convinced his Ostrogothic vassals that Odoacer was an enemy and should be removed. Zeno promised Theodoric the Great and his Ostrogoths, the Italian peninsula if they were to defeat and remove Odoacer.

In the same year, 488, Theodoric led the Ostrogoths across the Alps and into Italy. With this betrayal, the Byzantines led by Zeno killed two birds with one stone:
  1. Zeno removed the Ostrogoths from the Balkans and their border and at the same time,
  2. He conveniently caused Odoacer to disappear from the scene


After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Roman Catholic Church stood as the leader of the West both of the Church and of the State which were now divided into different barbaric kingdoms. The church was headed by Pope Leo I (the Great). He was an Italian aristocrat, and is the first pope of the Catholic Church to have been called "the Great". He is perhaps best known for having met Attila the Hun in 452, persuading him to turn back from his invasion of Italy.

The significance of Leo I's pontificate lies in his assertion of the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Bishop. This assertion is commonly referred to as the doctrine of Petrine supremacy. According to Leo and several Church Fathers, as well as certain interpretations of the Scriptures, the Church is built upon Peter, in pursuance of the promise of Matthew 16:16-19. Peter participates in everything which is Christ's; what the other apostles have in common with him, they have through him. What is true of Peter is true also of his successors. Every other bishop is charged with the care of his particular flock, the Roman Pontiff with that of the whole Church.

ULFILAS (310-380)
As Pope Leo the Great asserted his universal jurisdiction as the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, somebody among the barbarians or Germanic tribe has been convincing the other pagan barbarians to convert to Arianism. And that is no other than Ulfilas (ca. 310 – 383;), bishopmissionary, and Bible translator, who was a Goth or half-Goth and half-Greek from Cappadocia who had spent time inside the Roman Empire at the peak of the Arian controversy.

Ulfilas was ordained a bishop by Eusebius of Nicomedia[2] and returned to his people to work as a missionary. In 348, to escape religious persecution by a Gothic chief he obtained permission from Constantius II (Roman Emperor) to migrate with his flock of converts to Moesia, in what is now northern Bulgaria. There, Ulfilas translated the Bible from Greek into the Gothic language. For this he devised the Gothic alphabet.

His parents were of non-Gothic Anatolian origin but had been enslaved by Goths on horseback. Ulfilas converted many among the Goths, preaching Arian Christianity. The Goths through Ulfilas were able to persuade other barbarians to be Arians .

What happened to the Romans? Who remained true Christians? How did the Roman Catholic Church perceive the new age?

At the level of the Universal Church:
  1. The people regarded the Pope as their as their only protector and provider during war and famines.
  2. The Pope conducted highly political negotiations at their own risk. Ex. Leo the Great pleaded to spare Rome before the Huns and the Vandals.
  3. The Pope provided food from the ecclesiastical estates for starving people which was the traditional role of the emperors.

At the level of the Local Church (notably in Gaul):
  1. The dioceses or Episcopal towns became the first mission centers.
  2. The bishops were able to command the respect of the conquerors.
  3. The bishops also provided protection and security for the native population.
  4. Mission was concerned only to those people who invaded the empire.

Prominent Local Church figures after 476 in Gaul

1. St. Martin of Tours (+397)
He was a Bishop of Tours, whose shrine became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Around his name, much legendary material accrued, and he has become one of the most familiar and recognizable Christian saints. He is considered a spiritual bridge across Europe, given his association with both France and Hungary. He is a patron saint of soldiers and horses.

2. St. Liborius of le Mans (+397)
He was the second Bishop of Le Mans. He is the patron saint of the cathedral and archdiocese of Paderborn in Germany.

3. St. Severinus of Cologne (+ca. 400)
He was the third known Bishop of Cologne, living in the later 4th  century. Little is known of him. He is said in 376 to have founded a monastery in honor of the martyrs Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian.

4. St. Avitus of Vienne (+518)
He worked zealously for the conversion of the Burgundians. He was a Latin poet and archbishop of Vienne in Gaul.

5. St. Remigius of Reims (+ca.533)
He worked zealously for the conversion of the Franks. He baptized Clovis, the King of the Franks in 496 or 498/499. He established 5 additional Episcopal sees.

6. St. Caesarius of Arles (+542)
Caesarius’ Regula Virginum (512) is the first western rule written exclusively for women. He also composed a letter of guidance, Vereor, for the women of his religious community in its early stages. He built a monastery for women outside of Arles. The monastery was built for a group of ascetic women living under the spiritual direction of his sister, Caesaria. There had been no monastery for women in Arles which allowed Caesarius, possibly in the imitation of Augustine, to provide women with an equal opportunity for a monastic life.


Even after 476 when the Germanic tribes establish kingdoms in the West, the Roman culture persisted because of the following factors:
  1. The Franks in Gaul permitted the Roman citizens in Gaul to live according the traditional Roman law.
  2. The Church also lived according to the Roman Law.
  3. Only the Catholic Church could convey the Roman tradition and true Christianity. The Arian barbarians cannot.
The Conversion of the Franks

In the beginning of the 5th century, the Franks were among the many tribes of Teutonic origin who helped to dismember the Roman Empire. They took possession of part of Gaul, which, in time, became known as Frankland, and which formed the nucleus of the state which we know today as France. When the Franks invaded the Empire they did so in a manner different from that of the other Teutons/Germans. They did not cut themselves off from Germany. They did not wander far into the Empire, making conquests now here, now there. They simply crossed the border, and taking possession of a small portion, settled there.

Nor were they like the Goths and Vandals, a single people, who marched to war in a body. They were made up of various tribes who moved about independently of each other and who settled in various places. Their great strength lay in the fact that they kept their line of communication open. While plundering the Roman Empire, they still kept in touch with the great unexploited forces of the heathen world behind them.

The chief of these Frankish tribes were the Salians (who settled near the sea) and the Riparians (who settled near the river. It was the Salian Franks which at length became the dominant tribe. Their first king of any account was Clovis. He traced his descent from a mythical sea-king called Merovée, and from that the dynasty to which he belonged is called the Merovingian dynasty.


CLOVIS (ca.466-511) (Supplement to the previous discussion in lesson 3)

Clovis was the first King of the Franks to unite all the Frankish tribes under one ruler. He was also the first Catholic King to rule over Gaul (France). He was the son of Childeric I and Basina. In 481, when he was fifteen, he succeeded his father.  Clovis conquered the neighboring Salian Frankish kingdoms and established himself as sole king of the Salian Franks before his death.

Clovis was converted to Catholicism, as opposed to the Arian Christianity common among the Goths who ruled most of Gaul at the time, at the instigation of his wife, Clotilde, a Burgundian Gothic princess who was a Catholic in spite of the Arianism which surrounded her at court. He was baptized in a small church which was on or near the site of the Cathedral of Rheims, where most future French kings would be crowned. This act was of immense importance in the subsequent history of Western and Central Europe in general, for Clovis expanded his dominion over almost all of the old Roman province of Gaul (roughly modern France). He is considered the founder of the Merovingian dynasty which ruled the Franks for the next two centuries.


Q: What is the impact of the conversion of Clovis to Christianity?
A: It was decisive for winning the other Germans to the Catholic faith.

So, if you converted the king of one of the Germanic tribes, it means you converted his family and his people. In all Clovis’ military conquests, he opened the gates to Catholic Christianity among the other Germanic people. Imagine, he was supported by the bishops, the Eastern Roman Emperor and the Roman people themselves.

Thanks also to Bishop Remigius who converted Clovis! He was able to preserve the Catholic faith. Without him, chances are, we all might be Arians today.


In time, the Frankish kingdom headed by Clovis became the most powerful of all Germanic kingdoms. The government was stable and the kingdom was well-known. He destroyed the plan of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great of Italy of creating a unified Arian state,

Clovis was acclaimed as “the governor of the Imperium Romanum”. Since he was the governor, he felt oblige to exercise the supreme Auctoritas Romana (Roman authority) to protect the Roman Catholics in the Frankish Kingdom.

Inevitably, the Franks became the new imperial people called upon to represent the Regnum Christi. So formerly, the representatives of the Regnum Christi were the citizens of the Roman Empire that stretched from Britain to Persia, from the rivers Rhines and Danube to North Africa. Now, the territory might be significantly smaller but the new imperial people, the new defenders of the faith, arose from the Franks themselves together with the other Roman citizens and bishops. 


But behind this religious triumph was shallowness of the spiritual intention and motivation.
1.     Many become Christians not because they were persuaded by preaching and witnessing but because their king is Christian.
2.     Many became Christians because of the spectacle of the Christian divine service and not knowing the meaning behind the liturgical celebrations.
3.     Many were baptized without proper instruction of the faith.
4.     Furthermore, the Merovingian royal house provided bad examples. They look up to their leaders but their life is not a witnessing of Christian life: murder, fraternal quarrel, war, greediness, selfishness, moral degeneration and a nadir of education.



  1. The king made himself Lord of the Church
  2. He appointed bishops
  3. He convoked synods
  4. He determined all affair (church and state)
  5. He stopped theological thoughts completely
  6. He reverted religious life to its rudimentary form.
  7. He lost connection with the universal church His relation with Rome died completely, even if no formal separation existed as he established the Merovingian National Church.

[1] Arianism is the theological teaching attributed to Arius (ca. AD 250–336), a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt, concerning the relationship of the entities of the Trinity ('God the Father', 'God the Son' and 'God the Holy Spirit') and the precise nature of the Son of God as being a subordinate entity to God the Father.
[2] Eusebius of Nicomedia (+341) was a pupil at Antioch of Lucian the Martyr, in whose famous school he learned his Arian doctrines. He was a bishop of Berytus (modern-day Beirut) in Phoenicia, then of Nicomedia where the imperial court resided in Bithynia, and finally of Constantinople from 338 up to his death.

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