Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Kristina Sessa: “Domestic Emergencies: Pelagius (556-561) and the Challenges of Managing the domus dei in Post-Gothic War Italy.”

Pelagius I (556-561) became bishop of Rome just two years after the end of the Gothic wars (535-554).  By all accounts, Justinian’s twenty-year campaign to reclaim the Italian peninsula from its Ostrogothic rulers and to reintegrate it into the Roman Empire was a mixed success.  In a narrow political sense, the emperor achieved his goals since the barbarian kingdom was overthrown and Roman civil and military authorities returned to govern the peninsula.  However, the material and human costs of the war were enormous.  Thousands of Romans and Goths were killed from war and disease (the plague had hit the region in 541-2); infrastructure was destroyed; major cities such as Rome, Naples and Milan fell under siege and some were subsequently depopulated; agricultural land was expropriated or even destroyed and villas vanished; bishoprics disappeared and martyr shrines were desecrated.  In short, Justinian’s efforts to reconquer Italy had disastrous effects on late Roman Italian society, its economy, its cultural institutions and its religious life.  This was the Italy that Pelagius encountered when he was selected in 556 to lead the Roman church.
     While many scholars are aware of the devastation that the Gothic wars wrought on the Italian peninsula, few have studied its immediate impact on the level of the individual or even individual institutions.  The correspondence of Pelagius I is an extraordinary and understudied body of evidence on how lay elites and non-elites, clerics monks and imperial officials experienced the chaos and instability of post-Gothic war Italy.  In my workshop contribution, I shall discuss a number of Pelagius’ letters, which present the bishop responding to a wide range of emergencies related to the quotidian and spiritual life of the church and other private households, from identity theft and stolen church property to neglected estates, clergy-less churches and fugitive slaves.  I shall argue that these crises – many of which were direct casualties of the war – provided Pelagius with opportunities to develop a reputation for “troubleshooting” precisely at a moment when troubles hit every level of society.  Thus in addition to offering a more textured picture of post-Gothic war Italy, my presentation will complicate our understanding of Roman episcopal leadership as an increasingly civic form of administration, such as it was defined by Justinian in the Pragmatic Sanction and has been characterized by scholars.  Rather than providing a moment when the bishop “takes over Rome,” the Gothic wars offered Pelagius chances to develop his authority throughout Italy “from the bottom up.”

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