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Gregory I the Great

Early Life

Gregory was born in Rome around 540 and 545 AD—a time when the city was only a shell of its past self after the repeated invasions of the barbarians. His prominent family members included Pope Felix IV, his father, Giordanus who served as an administrator for the church, and his pious mother, Silvia, who also came from a distinguished family. Silvia was later canonized as a saint along with her husband. Gregory is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History in 590 AD.

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Although Rome had collapsed long before his birth, his family still retained their wealth over the years. Gregory was born in his parents’ villa on the Caelian Hill which, at that time, was one of the richest districts in Rome. The estate was later converted to Saint Andrew’s Monastery, and Gregory’s parents were honored with a lavish picture in the property. He was born during a chaotic era; the plague of Justinian had wiped out the population of many Mediterranean cities while Gothic rulers rose and fell in Italy. He and his mother lived on the family estate in Sicily to weather Totila’s invasion of Rome in 546 AD. They only came back when peace was restored.

Gregory received an education fit for his social class, so over the years he became adept in grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and law. Lessons in theology, however, were given at home since both of his parents were renowned for their piety. All the lessons he learned from his childhood would come in handy for him to navigate the political scene in Constantinople, as well as in Italy during the rule of the Lombards.

Saint Gregory

Gregory as Roman Prefect

In 552 AD, the Emperor Justinian hired Lombard mercenaries as soldiers to reinforce the Byzantine army in the Battle of Taginae against the Ostrogoths. It was a decision he would come to regret as it showed how rich the land of Italy was at that time. The first wave of invasion was led by the Lombard king Alboin in 568 AD. By the following year, the tribe had dominated the city of Milan and well into the region of Liguria. Their march into Italy left a trail of destruction in their wake which made the Lombard invasion the biggest challenge Gregory faced.

Gregory served as a junior administrator in the bureau of the Prefect during the earliest years of his career as a government worker. It seemed that he excelled in his responsibilities because he was rapidly promoted as Prefect of Rome in 573 AD at the age of thirty. The role Gregory took over was still illustrious at that time, but the influence had somewhat diminished over the years. He was the city’s top administrator with responsibilities that included the supervision of local officials, food distribution, maintenance of city infrastructure, as well as the head of the military.

Gregory, however, needed to confront the results of the Lombard invasion as well as Rome’s increased isolation from the seat of Byzantine rule in Constantinople. By 574 AD, the great Byzantine general Narses and Pope John III were dead. Which meant Gregory was left alone to rule Rome. To rule alone might have been the dream of other rulers, but Gregory was different; after much inner struggle and prayers, he eventually decided to become a monk which suited his quiet disposition. Perhaps the responsibilities of the prefect weighed heavily on his shoulders, or it was possible that the position left a bitter taste in his mouth after many Byzantine ministers rose and fell through the whims of the emperor.

The Monk

Whatever the reason, Gregory left the position of the prefect after three years in the office and started to convert his family’s villa in the Caelian Hill to the Monastery of St. Andrew. He was one of the richest men in Rome at that time and the owner of some of the greatest estates in the city, as well as in distant Sicily. He endowed these estates to the church which were later converted into various monasteries and nunneries. He became a monk at St. Andrews for three years which were the happiest of his life.

Gregory in Constantinople

Those three years Gregory spent as a simple Benedictine monk would not last after he was summoned by Pope Benedict in 578 AD out of the monastery and ordained him as the “Seventh Deacon.” The Lombards besieged Rome in the same year while the plague and the death of Pope Benedict worsened the city’s situation. Pope Pelagius was appointed to replace Pope Benedict, and the new pontiff sent Gregory as a papal apocrisiarius (a representative) to Constantinople. His mission was to beg the emperor Tiberius II Constantine to send reinforcements to the beleaguered city of Rome during the Lombard invasion. However, Tiberius was also busy with the Persians in the east and could not afford to send the required troops that would counter the Lombard threat. Instead, he sent a few soldiers with the rest of the delegation to Rome while Gregory remained in Constantinople as representative of the pope.

Gregory would not see Rome for another six years, and Constantinople would have another change of hands after Tiberius was replaced by Maurice as emperor in 582 AD. Gregory, once again, made a petition to the new Emperor to send troops to the city of Rome, but Maurice would not relent. He inherited the Byzantine empire’s problem with the Persians, as well as the new threat of the Slavs and Avars who pressed in from the north. In 585 AD, Pope Pelagius II sent an urgent letter to Gregory in Constantinople and told him to appeal to the emperor again to send for soldiers to besieged Rome, but this request was also denied. These repeated appeals for troops annoyed the emperor, and it seemed the feeling was mutual as Gregory did not hold Maurice in high regard. Although the emperor repeatedly declined his requests, Gregory’s time in Constantinople was not in vain as he developed close friendships with some people and his skills in diplomacy were sharpened through his observation of Maurice’s court.

Return to Rome

Pope Pelagius summoned him back to Rome in 586 AD—he must have breathed a sigh of relief to be back in the city and upon his return, the monks of St. Andrew elected him as the abbot. Gregory spent his time managing the daily affairs of the monastery. He wrote the Magna Moralia or the Exposition of the Book of Job during this period. He also attempted a mission to Britain, but Pope Pelagius recalled him immediately before he could travel out of continental Europe. Back in Rome, Gregory worked as the Pope’s secretary and was appointed as pope when Pelagius died of the plague that raged in the city in 590 AD.

Pope Gregory I

Gregory was initially unwilling to accept his appointment. He greatly enjoyed the secluded life of a monk, and he wrote a letter to Emperor Maurice to ask him not to confirm his appointment. But this was intercepted by the Roman prefect who sent Gregory’s appointment documents to Constantinople. He was ordained as the new pope on the fifth of September in the year 590 AD. He had no time to rest as the plague that raged on inside the city and beyond its walls needed to be addressed. The refugees driven out by the Lombard invasion fled into Rome, and many of the patrician families who might have helped him cope with the crisis had left long ago for Constantinople, so Gregory needed to direct the relief to a city in crisis himself. For many Italians at that time, Gregory was the epitome of charity and godly leadership.

After his successful peace negotiation with the Lombard king Agilulf in 598 AD, Gregory now had time to focus on the people’s spirituality. He addressed the spiritual needs of the citizens of Rome and sent a mission across to convert the Anglo-Saxons who conquered Britain a few years back. The mission was a success, and the group of monks led by Augustine soon established Canterbury as the Catholic church’s center in England.

Gregory was never healthy for much of his life and suffered from various ailments over the years which included gout and indigestion. Perhaps it was the years of austerity inside the monastery that weakened his body or the stress of administering a city during a period of great crises, but he was eager to go when death approached him during the last years of his life.Gregory died in March, 604 AD. His body was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He was one of the few popes who were canonized soon after his death. He would be remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the church during the disintegration of Italy.

Picture By José de Ribera – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome; User Gerald Farinas on en.wikipedia(Uploaded using CommonsHelper or PushForCommons), Public Domain,
Dudden, Frederick Homes. “Gregory the Great : His Place in History and Thought.” Gregory the Great : His Place in History and Thought. Accessed July 27, 2016.
“Pope Gregory the First.” Saint Gregory the Great Church. 2013. Accessed July 27, 2016.
“Pope St. Gregory I (“the Great”).” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Gregory the Great. Accessed July 27, 2016.
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