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Umbria and the Goths (476 - 527 AD)

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King Odoacer (476-93)

By the 470s, the imperial army in Italy was almost entirely made up of Goths who were organised into units along tribal lines.  They were badly paid, hungry for land and increasingly disillusioned with the ability of their political masters.   In 476, Odoacer, the leader of one of the units of Goths, seized power and deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustus.  He then dispensed with the fiction of an imperial title in the west sent the imperial insignia to the eastern Emperor Zeno, who was in no position to oppose this new arrangement.

Odoacer left the Roman senate in place and the legal, administrative and fiscal system of Italy undisturbed.   He distributed land to his soldiers and their families, perhaps from the estates of Roman nobles but more probably from the public landbank, and they constituted a largely separate military class.  Ravenna, his capital, had both an Arian and a Catholic bishop, a practice that was probably also followed at other important Italian cities.  

Pope Felix III (483-92), the first pope to be elected in the new political order, seems to have enjoyed good relations with Odoacer.  More problematic were the upheavals he faced within the Church:

  1. His most pressing problem concerned the resurgent Monophysite heresy, which remained strong in Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  When Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople tried to effect a compromise with the Monophysite hierarchy in 482, Felix III excommunicated him, thereby creating the so-called Acacian schism between the eastern and western Churches.

  2. Persecution of Catholics in North Africa by their Arian Vandal rulers came to an end in 484 with the accession King Gunthamund.  Many Catholics who had accepted Arianism through fear now tried to return to the Church, but they met with resistance from those who had held to their faith.  Felix III was forced to convene a synod in Rome in 487 to deal with the circumstances in which they could return.

Six Umbrian bishops attended this synod of 487:

  1. Martianus of Amelia;

  2. Innocentius of Bevagna;

  3. Urbanus of Foligno;

  4. Herculeus of Otricoli;

  5. Epiphanius of Spello; and

  6. Cresconius of Todi.

We might reasonably assume that Bishop Amasius of Spoleto was absent through ill health: his epitaph records his death in 489, aged 85.

King Theodoric (493-526)

Theodoric, another Goth, seized power from Odoacer in 493, with the support of (and perhaps at the instigation of) the Emperor Zeno.  His reign was noted for good government and for works of restoration of the ravaged cities of Italy. 

Theodoric established Spoleto as the administrative heart of central Italy, and this probably marks the start of Spoleto's period of dominance over the region.  He repaired the fortifications of the city, as well as those of Orvieto, Perugia and Todi.  He also kept garrisons at Assisi, Narni and Norcia.

Popes Gelasius I and Anastasius II

Pope Gelasius I (492-6) maintained an excellent relationship with the Arian Theodoric, but he had a close but more difficult relationship with the Emperor Anastasius I (see below).  He was equally involved in the more mundane matters of discipline within the Italian dioceses:

  1. in 496, he wrote to Bishops John of Spoleto and Cresconius of Todi directing them to investigate legal claim against the recently-deceased Bishop Urbanus of Foligno [civitas Fulginia ??]; and

  2. at an unknown date, he directed Bishop John of Spoleto to investigate a claim by a nun called Olibula, who claimed that she had been unfairly excluded by her siblings from the estate of her parents.

The Patriarch Acacius had died in 489, but the Monophysite heresy remained strong in the east and cause continual unrest in the Church there.  The intransigence on the part of Gelasius I on this matter was at the heart of his often difficult relationship with the Emperor Anastasius I (491-518). 

Gelasius’ successor, Pope Anastatius II (496-8) sent two bishops (one of whom seems to have been Bishop John of Spoleto) to Constantinople to announce his election to Anastasius I in an attempt to ease the tension and this was initially successful.  However, the problem was soon to return (see below).

Papal Schism

When Pope Anastasius II died, two popes, Symmachus and Laurence, were elected by rival factions in Rome.  Theodoric was called on to adjudicate, and found in favour of Symmachus, who had the decision confirmed by a synod held in Rome on 1st March 499. However, the enemies of Symmachus laid serious charges against him in 501, one that accused him have having celebrated Easter on the wrong day and another that involved his personal morality.  Theodoric insisted that he should face trial, and three synods were held in Rome for that purpose in 501 (in April/May, September and October, attended by essentially the same, mainly Italian, bishops).  Symmachus proved to be uncooperative and Theodoric refused to allow the bishops to leave Rome until they reached a verdict.  They therefore decided that Symmachus should remain in post, and that judgement of the offences should be left to God.  Symmachus soon faced another charge: that he had raised money against Church property, in defiance of a decree of Odoacer.  This matter was resolved at a synod in Rome on 6th November 502, at which the decree in question was judged to be invalid.  Laurentius, however, returned to Rome and managed to run a parallel papal court there with the help of a prominent senator called Festus.  Theodoric finally gave his unqualified support to Symmachus in 506, and Laurentius disappeared into obscurity.

Sixteen bishops from Umbria attended at least one the synods of 499, 501 and 502:

  1. Salustius of Amelia;

  2. Vitalian of Arna [or, perhaps, Narni];

  3. Innocentius of Bevagna;

  4. Marius and Innocentius of Città di Castello;

  5. Fortunatus of Foligno;

  6. Boniface of Forum Flaminii;

  7. Gaudentius of Gualdo Tadino;

  8. Stephanus of Norcia;

  9. Constantinus of Otricoli;

  10. Maximilian of Perugia;

  11. Florentius of Plestia;

  12. Veneriosus of Spello;

  13. John of Spoleto;

  14. Felix of Terni;

  15. [Laurentius and Propinquus of Trevi - perhaps Trebo in Lazia]; and

  16. Cresconius of Todi.

Monasticism in Umbria

Monasticism seems to have become established in Umbria in the late 5th century.  The most famous exponent of this new form of life is St Benedict.  According to Dialogues of Pope Gregory I (which is our only source of information), he and his twin sister St Scolastica were born in Norcia in ca. 480  

St Benedict left Norcia at an early age to study in Rome.  He soon rebelled against the laxity of life in Rome and “with a resolute mind [he decided] to lead his life in the wilderness”.  Later, when he could shake off his nurse, he went to Subiaco, some 40 miles from Rome, where he “lived in a strait cave, where he continued three years unknown to all men, except to Romanus [a monk from a nearby monastery]”.   This cave is now the Sacro Speco (Holy Cave) at Subiaco.  He later established a monastery at Montecassino (in ca. 529), and it was here that he wrote the monastic rule that bears his name.  He and St Scholastica died within weeks of each other in ca. 543.

Return of the Acacian Schism in the East

The schism in the east erupted again in the early 6th century when Anastasius I appointed a number of Monophysite patriarchs including, in 512, Patriarch Severus of Antioch.  This precipitated a revolt led by Vitalian, the magister militum of Thrace, and Anastasius I retained his throne only by offering to compromise.   His attempt to appoint a Monophysite Patriarch of Jerusalem in 516 provoked riots and he was again forced to relent.  However, the uproar continued until he died in 518, at which point the anti-Monophysite Emperor Justin I (518-27) ascended to the imperial throne.

Legend of the Twelve Syrians

There is a persistent hagiographic tradition in Umbria that revolves around the legend of  “Sanctii Anastasii et 11 fratrum, qui cum eo de Syriae partibus” (St Anastasius and 11 brothers who came from Syria), otherwise known as the Legend of the Twelve Syrians.  The hagiographic texts place these events in the reign of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (360-3), but some scholars have suggested that the underlying events that inspired it actually occurred against the backdrop of the Acacian Schism.

One incident is particularly suggestive in this respect: in  517, Abbot Alexander of St Maron at Antioch wrote to Pope Hormidas (514-23), whom he described as “the Patriarch of the whole world”, to complain that the Patriarch Severus had massacred some 350 of his colleagues at the instigation of Anastasius I.  Whatever the precise truth of these allegations, it is clear that there were a number of Syrian monks at this time who felt persecuted and who regarded Pope Hormidas as their hope of salvation.  It is therefore reasonable to presume that many of them fled to Rome.  This leads to the possibility that an early copyist perhaps wrote Julian (IVLIANVS) for Justin (IVUSTINVS), since they might have arrived in Rome at around the time that Anastasius I died and Justin became emperor.

This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the author of the legend seems to have incorporated into it a number of saints who can otherwise be placed in the early 6th century (the first three of which in the list below featured in consecutive paragraphs of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I):

  1. St Herculanus, Bishop of Perugia, who was executed in 548;

  2. SS Isaac, who (as noted above) lived as a monk outside Spoleto;

  3. St Eutychius, who (as noted above) lived as a monk at this time outside Norcia:

  4. St John Penariensis, whose legend (as noted above) says that he settled outside Spoleto at the time of Bishop John of Spoleto; and

  5. (possibly) Bishop Laurence of Spoleto.

However, SS Isaac and John of Penariensis are the only two of these saints that are said in the other sources to have come from Syria: the tradition that St Laurence came from Syria seems to derive from the Legend of the Twelve Syrian itself.  There is no other hard evidence of a mass exodus of monks from Syria at this time, so the hypothesis has to remain no more than that.

After Theodoric

Theodoric’s hold on power began to unravel even before his death.  He seems to have badly over-reacted when Justin I began to act against Arians including Goths, in the east.  He began to suspect the loyalty of his own Catholic subjects and in 522 he executed the renowned Boethius, the most powerful member of his administration and a close friend of Pope John I (523-6).

In 526, he sent John I at the head of a high-powered embassy to Constantinople with a series of demands.  He was enraged by the fact that John I received an impressive welcome at the imperial court and that he failed to secure all the objectives that he had been set.  (It is not clear whether the issue of contention was the forced conversion of Arians or the confiscation of their property).  When the ambassadors returned to Ravenna, they were thrown into prison.  The already sick John I died there and the fate of the others is unknown. 

Theodoric himself died soon after and civil war broke then out among the Goths.  The Emperor Justinian I (527-65) used this opportunity to re-assert direct control of Italy.

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