Roald Dijkstra & Dorine van Espelo

Popes and Expressions of Roman Power: Anchoring Religious Politics in Periods of Change (AD 200 – 800)

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Popes and Expressions of Roman Power: Anchoring Religious Politics in Periods of Change (AD 200 – 800)

Perhaps the most far-reaching innovation in Antiquity was the transition from pagan religion to Christianity. This was not just a major cultural shift, but also one with substantial institutional consequences. Ultimately, Roman popes would come to function as clear heads of western Christianity, in sharp contrast to earlier pagan practice, in which ‘religious leadership’, if it existed at all, fell within the imperial mandate.

Popes and Expressions of Roman Power

This politico-religious innovation took place in a society in which (religious) innovation was suspect, meaning that the early popes had to develop modes through which they could anchor their ‘pontifical’ position in minds of the many inhabitants of the Roman world. The innovation was twofold. Not only was a religious supreme position an innovation in respect to pagan practice, it was also a change from established Christian custom. Research on early Christianity has made it abundantly clear that it took a long time for ‘the church’ to develop. In the first centuries, different Christian groups and communities existed alongside one another, and listened to different ‘leaders’. The supreme position of popes was a major, and ultimately extremely successful, innovation.

One mode through which early popes seem to have tried to anchor their position is by making use of traditional imperial titles and symbols. Thus, soon after the Roman emperors had refused to use the title Pontifex Maximus, the popes incorporated Pontifex Summus into their titulature. The ‘supreme pontificate’ had been the prerogative of Roman Emperors from Augustus onwards, establishing emperors as crucial intermediary between men and gods, and guarantors of the pax deorum. This was one function which the papacy would take over. Increasingly, popes were presented as rulers of Rome (both religious and ‘secular’). After the political ‘failing’ of the Roman West, they would increasingly compete with secular leaders about political authority over the city of Rome, whilst trying to expand power outside of the city. From the middle of the 8th century onwards, they aimed to strengthen their often precarious position by linking themselves to the Carolingians; military and political support in exchange for religious legitimacy of the new Frankish dynasty. This alliance was continuously maintained through use of Roman-Byzantine concepts, phrased in papal terms (such as the bestowal of the title patricius Romanorum to Pippin by Stephanus II). The coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III in 800 highlighted this mutually advantageous scenario, in which the Carolingian rulers anchored their reign in Christian legitimacy, and the popes gained a military foundation to their position.

This postdoc project investigates the extent to which popes used Roman monarchic claims and imagery to anchor their changing position in the period under discussion. Which Roman rulers were they compared with (if any), and which traditions were chosen to form the framework in which they were positioned? Which other modes of representation were used to make their politico-religious authority acceptable to their surroundings and as a way to establish and foster communication and relations with rulers of the Christian West? The expectation is that the adoption of Christianity as ‘official’ religion of the Roman Empire forms a water-shed in the process. This means that this postdoc project can be divided into two separate studies: ca. 200-380 and ca. 380-800.