The Papacy: Vigilius (537-555)

A mere fifteen years after the death of Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome who had saved the city from certain destruction at the hands of Attila the Hun, the Roman Empire in the West officially collapsed. Italy became a province which was battled over by the Byzantines in the East, and the Goths in the West. At this time, Theodoric was a great flourishing ruler in the West, unparalleled until the rule of Charlemagne. He populated his court with educated renaissance aristocrats like Boethius (who sadly met his grisly demise after being accused of heresy as detailed in his master work The Consolation of Philosophy). However, just eleven months after the passing of Theodoric came the rise of Emperor Justinian of the Byzantines along with his fearsome general Belisarius who sought to bring Italy under the heel of imperial Byzantium.

Meanwhile, the Churches of the East and West sought to unify their divergent theological doctrines which were increasingly at odds. The issue of the day was a question regarding the extent to which Jesus was human or divine –issues pertaining to non-authoritative theologians, and the so-called “Three Chapters” controversy. Now, while away in Constantinople, the reigning Pope Agapetus I suddenly died without warning. His anticipated successor, Vigilius, a Roman nobleman accompanying him abroad, suddenly found himself caught in the schism between east and west. He was furious when he discovered that in Rome Silverius was elected pope in his stead (Vigilius had been ingratiating himself for many years among the bishopric, a well-trod path that all popes must walk en route to power). In fact, he had previously sought to secure the power of the papacy for himself through an illegitimate appointment. Previously in the West, a series of successive popes had bowed the knee before the military might of the Goths in order to ensure their own rule, and Pope Silverius was quickly overthrown in a conspiracy between famed Byzantine general Belisarus and Pope-expectant Vigilius (under the explicit condition that Vigilius endorse certain hitherto heretical doctrines held by Justinian and Theodora –namely the condemning of the “Three Chapters”). It was a delicate time for political leaders as fanaticism had risen among the claimants of the monophysites and a clutch of non-canonical Eastern monks like Jacob Baradeus as well as sects like the Nestorians. Each of them were found to be squabbling over the finer points of fanciful theological claims.

At this time, Rome hung in the balance with relatively few defenses and Justinian decided to capture the new Pope for himself. Justinian’s hope was to subordinate the faithful in Rome under the imperial rule of Byzantium. Thus in the year 545, officers of the Imperial guard detained Pope Vigilius while he was ending mass at the Church of St. Cecilia. He was quietly ushered into a boat which was then cast down the Tiber toward Constantinople. The Pope had been effectively kidnapped, and was being held under watch in Sicily for over a year before he was brought before Justinian in Constantinople. Here, the imprisoned Pope was forced to embrace the controversial “Three Chapters,” though the act was widely condemned. Rather than unite the church, it became fractured more than ever –Pope Vigilius became widely despised as an apostate and he was even excommunicated by his own bishops. He fled out a window and across the Bosphorous but he survived only at the mercy of Justinian. Pope Vigilius later walked back his claims over the “Three Chapters” which then incurred the ire of Justinian and Theodora who sent an armed guard to his dwelling place at the church of Peter and Paul on the Marmara just south of the St. Sophia. Here, a scuffle ensued as the guards attempting to snatch the Vicar of Christ while he clung tightly to the pillars of the church. With each pull of the guards, the Pope clung tighter to the church’s edifice. A crowd began to gather around the commotion and the imperial guards were forced to retire while the Pope was left to survey the damage. By public outcry, Justinian issued an apology to the Pope, however the Pope now found himself living under tighter surveillance. Eventually, he fled in the night, sneaking out a window and crossing the Bosphorous, but his reputation was now in tatters. Vigilius had become a disgraced pope: imprisoned and living on an island off the Marmara until he repented and acquiesced to Justinian’s preferred doctrine. In agony, he attempted a late-in-life return voyage home but he died in Syracuse. There was to be no burial in St. Peter’s for this pope.

Per John Julius Norwich, “The story of Vigilius did untold harm to the Papacy; and when his successor, Pelagius I, on his accession instantly added his voice to the condemnation, papal prestige lay in tatters… But less than thirty after the death of Pelagius in 561 there was to be consecrated a new pontiff who, though failing to heal those particular breaches, would utterly transform his office, giving it new energy and direction: he was to be known as Gregory the Great” (38).


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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