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Prophetic Marker-Posts. A Historical Context for 538AD.

"Who shall be greatest?"

Christian bishops strive among themselves for primacy/ dominance. (1)

A.D. 533.

Emperor Justinian (based in Constantinople) moves to END the contest. He sends a personal letter to "John, Patriarch and most Holy Archbishop of the fair city of Rome" :


"...We do not suffer anything which has reference to the state of the Church... to be discussed without [it] being brought to the notice of Your Holiness, because you are the head of all the Holy Churches, for We shall exert Ourselves in every way... to increase the honor and authority of your See." (2)


Legal enactment is undertaken the following year (534).

Two powerful nations, the Vandals (in North Africa) and the Ostrogoths (in Italy), oppose the primacy of the Roman Church.


Justinian tries to pacify the two powers. (See note A.)



"He developed personal ties with the Vandalic and Ostrogothic ruling families. [But] this was self-defeating. It produced only a backlash... [So] Justinian turned to force."



"In 533 he dispatched his general, Belisarius, against the Vandalic kingdom of Carthage" North Africa. (3)


Many of Justinian’s ministers opposed the venture and attempt to dissuade him. Only church-men are enthusiastically in favor of the expedition against the heretical [Arian] Vandals.


Justinian had almost come to the point of abandoning his plan when "an artful or fanatic bishop" cried, "I have seen a vision. It is the will of heaven, O emperor! That you should NOT abandon your holy enterprise for the deliverance of the African [Catholic] church." (4)




(Plucked up by the roots.)

"The iron hand of the Republic shattered a whole civilization...". There was scarcely left "a wreck behind" (5). "The nation of the Vandals had disappeared". (6)

Justinian then "proceeded without delay to the FULL ESTABLISHMENT OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH" in a nation which had formerly been a stronghold of Arianism. (7)


December 534


Justinian enacts his Legal Code, in which he formally grants the Roman Pope religious seniority:


"We further ordain that in accordance with their [i.e. the Church Council's] determinations, the holy pope of ancient Rome is the first [i.e. foremost] of all the priests ['sanctissimus senioris Romae papam']. [T]he archbishop of Constantinople, the new Rome, occupies the place next after the holy apostolic seat of ancient Rome..." (7.1)


Italy, including Rome, remains under the control of the Ostrogoths, and now Justinian sends his General, Belisarius, with an army, against them.



The Ostrogoths retreat ahead of the invading army, having decided "to delay till the next spring" before taking an offensive stance. They leave "a feeble garrison" in Rome, and as Belisarius "made his entrance through... [one] gate, the [Gothic] garrison departed without molestation" through another. Belisarius, unopposed, enters Rome at the invitation of the deputies of the Pope and clergy, Senate and people. "Rome hailed Belisarius as a liberator, the clergy welcomed him as a Trinitarian" (as opposed to an Arian). (8).


The Ostrogoths return to Rome under a new king (Vittiges) and besiege the city "one year and nine days". (The siege begins early March, 537.) (9.) "About the middle of the siege, the Pope Sylverius, convicted [or at least accused] of having sent a letter to the Goths, promising to open one of the gates to them, was banished from the city." Sylverius is replaced by Vigilius as Pope. (10.)


Jan-Feb 538.

About 200 miles North of Rome was situated the capital city of the Ostrogoths, Ravenna.


Forces loyal to Belisarius "begin operations" south of Ravenna, and advance Northward against the Ostrogothic capital. Vittigis’ uncle confronted them with an army of Goths, but he, and "almost the whole army" are killed by the Imperial forces.

(Procopius Bk.6 sec.10)


March, 538.


The Ostrogoths besieging Rome learn that Ravenna (their capital city) is threatened by forces loyal to Belisarius.

"As soon as Vittigis and the army of the Goths heard that Ariminum was held by [the enemy], they were plunged into great fear regarding Ravenna [which was only 33 miles North of Arminum], and abandoning all other considerations, they straightway made their withdrawal" from Rome, both for the recovery of Ariminum, and for the defense of Ravenna. (Procopius, Gothic Wars, Bk.6 sec.10; Gibbon chp.41 p.25)


During their withdrawal from Rome, the Goths receive another heavy blow.


In order to withdraw and travel Northward, the Goths needed to cross the River Tiber over the Milvian Bridge. Belasarius employs this bottle-neck to his significant advantage.

"When he saw that more than half of the enemy had crossed the bridge," Belasarius led his army out. The Goths that had not yet crossed, panicked, "and brought upon themselves a great and overwhelming calamity; for each man for himself was rushing to cross the bridge first."

Many Goths "were being killed, both by each other and by the enemy... Many, too, fell off the bridge... sank with all their arms, and perished." They lost, "in this way, the most of their number". [That is, the majority of those that had not crossed the river were killed.] (Procopius, ibid.)



"The whole nation of the Ostrogoths had been assembled for the attack, and was almost entirely consumed in the siege of Rome... one third at least of their enormous host was destroyed" (11).

This commonly used statement calls for careful consideration, because in the same paragraph Gibbon goes on to say, "Yet so powerful was this flying army, that Vittiges spared 10,000 men for the defense of [various places], and detached... an adequate force for the chastisement of rebellious Milan. At the head of the principle army he" sought to re-take Ariminum [also called Rimini], "only 33 miles distant from the Gothic capital."

As much as 2/3 of the Ostrogothic army remained intact subsequent to their withdrawl from Rome. They continue as a formidable force.


May, 538.


In May of 538, another notable event occurred that signaled the ascendancy of the Papal power. Far from Rome, in the French city of Orleans, the Roman Church began to be freed from secular jurisdiction:

"As early as 538, even before the carefully guarded grants of Justinian, the third Council of Orleans thus was able to enact a canon [law] rendering episcopal assent necessary before [any member of the clergy] could appear in a secular court, either as plaintiff or defendant. This virtually placed in the hands of the Bishops complete control over all [legal] cases in which ecclesiastics were concerned; and the principle was more fully developed three years later at the fourth council of Orleans." (Studies in Church History, Lea (1883) p.184.) See note 11.1,11.2.

540 "In the very flush of his victorious honors, Belisarius was recalled by the jealousy of Justinian." (12.) Emperor Justinian begins to perceive [the very popular] Belisarius as a threat.

540-541 Hildibadus becomes king of the Ostrogoths. He with many of his people "had hoped" that his uncle, the king of Spain, "would aid them in their... war with the Byzantines."

No support comes. Hildibadus is assassinated. (12.1)



Totila (Hildibadus’ nephew) becomes king of the Ostrogoths. "It was his constant theme, that national vice and ruin are inseparably connected; that victory is the fruit of moral as well as military virtue". (13.)


With Belisarius removed from command, "eleven generals of equal rank" replaced him, but these argue among themselves, and provide poor leadership. In the absence of Belisarius, the Ostrogoths defeat Justinian’s forces stationed in Italy. (14.)


Belisarius returns to Italy and resumes command of the forces opposing the Ostrogoths. (15.)

Pope Vigilius is "summoned to Constantinople" by Emperor Justinian over a doctrinal dispute commonly called "The Three Chapters". (16.)


Following Pope Vigilius’ move from Rome to Constantinople, no Pope is resident in Rome again until about AD555. Thus the Papal ‘seat’ during 544-555 was actually Constantinople, not Rome.


546 (Dec).


The Ostrogoths (under Totila) recapture Rome. The city is emptied of its inhabitants. "The citizens... were dispersed in exile, and during 40 days Rome was abandoned to desolate and dreary solitude." The Ostrogoths also abandon the city.


547 (Feb).


Belisarius (Justinian’s general), taking advantage of the situation, re-occupies Rome. Totila hastily returns "to avenge the injury and disgrace", but is repulsed three times, losing "the flower of his troops". (17.)


Justinian might have broken all Ostrogothic resistance at this point, and ended the war, but he loses interest/momentum in the campaign:


"The indolence... of a prince who despised his enemies and envied his servants [i.e. Belisarius, etc.] protracted the calamities of Italy." Justinian might have "terminate[d], by a strong and seasonable effort, the war which he had ambitiously undertaken... but he neglected the prosecution of the war". (17.1)


Again, Belisarius is recalled/removed from Italy.



Totila captures "Rome again, and Cicily, Corsica, Sardinia, almost the entire peninsula." (18.) [The Pope is still resident in Constantinople.]

Justinian sends his general, Narses, "to oppose the startling advance of the Gothic king (Totila)".




Totila apparently "renounced his [Arian] religion, and embraced the Nicene [Catholic] dogma; but it was too late." (19)

The Ostrogoths are defeated and Totila is killed in battle.

Teia (Totila’s successor, and last of the Ostrogothic kings) is killed in battle.

Then occurred "the annihilation and disappearance of a [formerly] great and powerful people from the world’s history". (20)


"The overthrow of the Gothic kingdom was to Italy an unmitigated evil... In their overthrow began the fatal policy of the Roman See, fatal at least to Italy..." (Milman vol.1 p.446-447)


"By 554 the Ostrogothic kingdom was gone." (21)

Pope Vigilius "obtained permission to return to Rome", but died in Sicily, during his return journey.

Emperor Justinian appoints Pelagius as the new Pope. (22)


Note A.

Some assert that the Ostrogoths did not oppose the primacy of the Roman church. It must be acknowledged that the Ostrogoths maintained a policy of separation of church and state for some years. Theodoric, chief of the Ostrogoths (from AD471 to 526) "allowed [the Pope]... to assert his ecclesiastical supremacy over Constantinople." (23.) It is quite striking to find also that Theodoric's mother and some of his favorite Goths were allowed to embrace the Catholic faith without incurring any reprisals whatsoever. (See Gibbon chp.39 p.642.) Theodoric

maintained a high degree of religious liberty in Italy. However, in Theodoric's last years a change did occur, and he actively opposed the Roman Church. (24)


523-524 Theodoric (an Arian), had been "tolerant in general, and very liberal toward the Catholic church", but now he adopts a "policy of reprisals" against the Catholics. (24.)

525 Theodoric imprisons Pope John I.

526 Theodoric dies (Schaff vol.3, p.136; Sheppard p.769), and with him dies the last vestiges of religious liberty in Italy.

527 Emperor Justin dies. Justinian (Justin’s nephew) becomes Emperor.


The historian Milman cites a notable address given by Theodoric to the Emperor Justin -"that [i] to pretend to a dominion over the conscience is to usurp the prerogative of God; that [ii] by the nature of things the power of sovereigns is confined to external government; that [iii] they have no right of [inflicting] punishment but [i.e. except] over those who disturb the public peace, of which they are the guardians; that [iv] the most dangerous heresy is that of a sovereign who separates from himself a part of his subjects because they believe not according to his belief." (Milman vol.1 p.409) This is a very early, very striking statement regarding the truth of religious liberty.


1. The Papacy, McKnight (1953) p.163

2. Code of Justinian Bk.1 Titles 1,4 (Scott's translation).

3. Byzantium, Angold (2001) p.21

4. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon chp.41, p.2

5. Fall of Rome, Sheppard (1892) p.307;

6. Gibbon chp. 43 p.53. See also "Huns, Vandals, and the Fall of the Roman Empire" (Hodgkin) p.295

7. Gibbon chp.41, para 11

7.1 Justinian’s Code. Novellae 131, c.2. Blume’s Translation.

8. Gibbon chp. 41, p.19; Story of Civilization (Durant) Bk.4, p.109

9. Procopius Bk.5, sec. 24

10. The Age and Laws of Justinian (W.F. Collier) p.565; Gibbon chp.41, p.23

11. Gibbon chp.41, p.24; Procopius describes the Goth’s predicament in sterner terms. He says they were "reduced from many tens of thousands, to a few men... and while in name they were carrying on a siege, they were in fact being beseiged by their opponents [in Rome], and were shut off from all necessities." (Procopius, Gothic Wars, Bk.6 sec.6)

Also from "Italy and her Invaders" (Hodgkin) Bk.5 chp.9, last para. "With heavy hearts the barbarians must have thought, as they turned them[selves] northwards, upon the many graves of gallant men which they were leaving on that fatal plain. Some of them must have suspected the melancholy truth that they had dug one grave, deeper and wider than all, the grave of the Gothic monarchy in Italy."

11.1 Hefele Bk.13, sec.251 canon #32 (538AD).

"No cleric may bring a layman before a secular tribunal without permission of the bishop; nor any layman a cleric without the same permission."

11.2 Hefele Bk.13, sec.253 canon #20, 21 (541AD).

"#20. No layman may arrest, try, or punish a clergyman without permission of the bishop or other ecclesiastical superior. If the cleric is required by his ecclesiastical superior to appear before the secular judge, then he must give speech and answer there without hesitation. In a trial between a cleric and a layman the judge must make no examination except in presence of the priest or archdeacon who is the superior of the cleric. If two contending parties (a cleric and a layman) wish to carry their trial before the secular tribunal, permission to this effect may be given to the cleric. #21. The right of asylum of churches is confirmed anew." [Re: canon law #21. If a man sought by the State was accepted into a Church building, then no Civil authority could apprehend the man while he remained within the Church.]

12. Sheppard p.306

12.1 A History of the Ostrogoths (Burns) p.100

13. Gibbon chp 43, p.54-55

14. Sheppard p.770; Gibbon chp.43 p.53

15. Gibbon chp 43 p.55

16. Latin Christianity (Milman) vol.1, p.436. The dispute over the "three chapters" brought about a schism [division] between Rome and Constantinople that lasted nearly 300 years. Justinian, in this dispute, challenged the authority of Church Councils.

17. Gibbon chp.43, p.57-58

17.1 Gibbon chp.43 p.58-59

18. Story of Civilization (Durant) Bk.4, p.110 & Gibbon chp.43, p.59

19. Fall of Rome, Sheppard (1892) p.749, 307

20. ibid. p.307

21. A History of Ostrogoths, Burns (1984) p.215

22. Schaff vol.3, p.137

23. Schaff vol.3, p.136.

24. Schaff, ibid.; Sheppard p.749, 769. See also, Hodgkin, chapter entitled, "Theodoric begins to persecute".


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