Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes

Southern Italian Christianity is almost a world unto itself. Neither Greek nor Roman, it straddles the divide between eastern and western forms of Christianity. In particular, the areas of Calabria and Sicily have retained the cultural imprint of Magna Grecia. However, it is often forgotten that the Greek influence was exerted up to Montecassino and Rome itself. For a period of time during the Byzantine papacy, Southern Italian or Italo-Greek Christianity began to define the liturgy of Rome (the implications of which we're still trying to unpack). Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the Papacy from Gregory the Great to Zacharias, A.D. 590-752 provides readers with possibly the most comprehensive one volume study on the resurgence of Greek in the Roman church over a nearly two hundred year period. For students of Southern Italy, author Andrew Ekonomou plumes the historical record to highlight the begins of central and northern Italy's suspicion of the south in late antiquity. For students of the Roman liturgy, the historical record of Greek popes (originally of the Greek liturgical rites) and the resurgence of Greek being utilized in the Roman liturgy adds yet another obscure dimension to consider in the often times murky past of the Roman rite, that of later Greek influence after the period of Latinization.

The Greek presence in Italy has been both the source of Roman high culture and Latin suspicion. Gregory the Great, himself bearing a Greek name, reflects the tensions that came with a Greek resurgence on the Italian peninsula. Ekonomou provides enough citations from Gregory's works to demonstrate that one of history's renowned pontiffs was paranoid when it came to the Greek language. Gregory found surety of faith in the Latin language; his own ignorance of the Greek language, coupled with the speculative theology popular among "Greek" Christian figures, made Greek Christianity (and Greek Christians) a mysterious other. However, many of Gregory's remarks about Greeks, including those on Italian soil, being untrustworthy and devious seem to be the earliest negative stereotypes of Southern Italy from the pen of an Italian author. Ekonomou presents Gregory in stark contrast to the reputation he has garnered via papal devotion. The pontiff who now possesses a towering reputation (largely due to his influence among medieval monastics) was largely forgotten after his death. Despite his suspicions of Greek, the twilight of Gregory's pontificate appears to have coincided with the emergence of Greek customs in the Roman liturgy. The Greek influence upon the Roman liturgy made the Roman rite bilingual for roughly two centuries and if Ordo Romanus XI is to be believed, Greek recaptured primacy of place in the Roman rite over Latin. The evidence appears to be found in the baptismal liturgy. In Ordo Romanus XI, the priest asks a parent of Greek lineage what language he desires the child to be named in, and then follows the Creed recited in Greek (see pages 291-292; 344-345). After, and only after, the all of the Greek infants have been baptized and the Creed recited in Greek are the "Latin" children baptized and the Latin creed recited. This instruction indicates the greater numbers of Greeks in Rome than Latins, a demographic shift that would also encompass the Roman clergy and introduce Greek hymnology into the Roman liturgy. The Greeks who ascended to the papacy, although fostering adoption of Greek influence in the liturgy, were respectful of the uniquely Roman customs that became traditional for the Roman church and staunchly defended them from Byzantine displacement.

Ekonomou provides a thorough historical lesson for his readers. Context is everything and the reader quickly learns how changing political fortunes (including the collapse of Rome and rise of Constantinople) and ambitions contributed to an influx of Greeks beginning with Gregory the Great and leading to a nearly two hundred year reversion to Greek in the Roman church. We are presented with detailed portraits of many of the Greek pontiffs and their own often complicated roles in the political changes that ran parallel to their lives.

Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes offers interested persons insight into complicated era of the Roman church, one that, ultimately, has crucial importance for our own day. At a time when Latin exclusivity has become a retro fad among more "traditionally inclined" clergy and laity, this book demonstrates the very positive effects of Greek Christian influence upon the Roman church, even if only in the use of Greek chant over the more reserved Gregorian variety that has become the standard in the West.