Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

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9781400067152: Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

Critical praise for ABSOLUTE MONARCHS

Absolute Monarchs sprawls across Europe and the Levant, over two millenniums, and with an impossibly immense cast: 265 popes, feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more. Norwich manages to organize this crowded stage and produce a rollicking narrative. He keeps things moving at nearly beach-read pace.”
—Bill Keller, New York Times Book Review, Cover review
 
“Renowned historian Norwich offers a rollicking account of the men who held the papal office, their shortcomings and their virtues, and the impact of the papacy on world history. He conducts us masterfully on a tour of the lives of the popes from Peter to Benedict XVI. . . . Entertaining and deeply researched, Norwich’s history offers a wonderful introduction to papal lives.”
—Publishers Weekly
 
“Historian, travel writer, and television documentarian Norwich presents an excellent, often surprising history of that 2,000-year-old institution....he focuses on political history as he traces the evolution of the papacy as an institution, while at the same time providing entertaining profiles of the most historically significant popes....An outstanding historical survey.”
—Booklist
 
“When Norwich writes, I read; this member of the House of Lords is a notable and engrossing historian, perhaps best known for his monumental study of Byzantium. Here he offers a history of the nearly two-millennia-old papacy that should be popular with many readers.”
—Library Journal
 
“A spirited, concise chronicle of the accomplishments of the most noteworthy popes. . . . Norwich doesn’t skirt controversies, ancient and present, in this broad, clear-eyed assessment.”
—Kirkus Reviews
 
 A SWEEPING CHRONICLE OF ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT—AND CONTROVERSIAL—INSTITUTIONS IN HISTORY
 
With the papacy embattled in recent years, it is essential to have the perspective of one of the world’s most accomplished historians. In Absolute Monarchs, John Julius Norwich captures nearly two thousand years of inspiration and devotion, intrigue and scandal. The men (and maybe one woman) who have held this position of infallible power over millions have ranged from heroes to rogues, admirably wise to utterly decadent. Norwich, who knew two popes and had private audiences with two others, recounts in riveting detail the histories of the most significant popes and what they meant politically, culturally, and socially to Rome and to the world.

Norwich presents such brave popes as Innocent I, who in the fifth century successfully negotiated with Alaric the Goth, an invader civil authorities could not defeat, and Leo I, who two decades later tamed (and perhaps paid off) Attila the Hun. Here, too, are the scandalous figures: Pope Joan, the mythic woman said (without any substantiation) to have been elected in 855, and the infamous “pornocracy,” the five libertines who were descendants or lovers of Marozia, debauched daughter of one of Rome’s most powerful families.

Absolute Monarchs brilliantly portrays reformers such as Pope Paul III, “the greatest pontiff of the sixteenth century,” who reinterpreted the Church’s teaching and discipline, and John XXIII, who in five short years starting in 1958 “opened up the church to the twentieth century,” instituting reforms that led to Vatican II. Norwich brings the story to the present day with Benedict XVI, who is coping with a global priest sex scandal.

Epic and compelling, Absolute Monarchs is the astonishing story of some of history’s most revered and reviled figures, men who still cast light and shadows on the Vatican and the world today.

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About the Author:

John Julius Norwich is one of Britain’s preeminent historians and travel writers. He has written the histories of Norman Sicily, Byzantium, Venice, and the Mediterranean. Other books have been on Shakespeare’s history plays, on music, and on architecture.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER I
 
 
                                                          Saint Peter
 
 
            After nearly two thousand years of existence, the Papacy is the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world.  To countless millions, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth, the infallible interpreter of divine revelation.  To millions more, he is the fulfilment of the Biblical prophecies of Antichrist.  What cannot be denied is that the Roman Catholic Church, of which he is the head, is as old as Christianity itself;  all other Christian religions - and there are more than 22,000 of them - are offshoots or deviants from it.
            It all started, according to the generally accepted view, with St Peter.  To most of us he is a familiar figure.  We see his portrait in a thousand churches - painted, frescoed or chiselled in stone:  curly grey hair, close-cropped beard, his keys dangling from the waist.  Sometimes he stands beside, sometimes opposite, the black-bearded, balding St Paul, armed with book and sword.  Together they represent the Church's joint mission - Peter to the Jews of the diaspora, Paul to the Gentiles.  Peter's original name was Simon, or perhaps Symeon.  (Oddly enough, the two names are unrelated:  the first is Greek, the second Hebrew, but both languages were current in Bethsaida in Galilee where he was born.)  Profession:  fisherman, and quite a successful one.  He and his brother Andrew were in partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee;  he seems to have had his own boat, and he could certainly afford to employ a number of assistants.  His brother Andrew is described by St John as having been a disciple of John the Baptist, and it may well have been through the Baptist that Simon first met Jesus.  At any rate he soon became the first of the disciples, and then of the twelve Apostles whom Christ selected from them - seeing them, perhaps, as a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel;  and he had already reached this position of pre­eminence when, at Caesarea Philippi, St Matthew (xvi, 18-19) reports Jesus as saying to him: "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.... I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven."  On those few words - the Latin version of which is inscribed around the base of the dome of St Peter's - rests the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church.
            The name Peter is so familiar to us today that it comes as something of a surprise to learn that until those words were uttered it was not a name at all, but a perfectly ordinary noun:  the Aramaic kephas, translated into the Greek petros, meaning a rock or stone.  There seems little doubt that Jesus did indeed bestow it upon Simon;  the fact is confirmed by St Mark, and also (albeit writing some time afterwards) by St John, although the two admittedly disagree about the actual occasion when the event occurred.  Matthew's, however, is the only gospel that adds Jesus's stated reason for the choice of name, and it is this addition that has led scholars to suggest that the whole passage may be a later interpolation.  The very fact that it does not appear in the other gospels has struck some of them as suspicious -though there are plenty of other incidents that are reported by only one of the evangelists and have gone unques­tioned.  A stronger objection is that the word for "church" - the Greek ecclesia - occurs only twice in all four gospels, its other appearance[i] being in a context that is suspect for other reasons.  In any event, would Jesus really be thinking at this early stage of founding a church? 
             If Jesus never uttered the words at all, then the Roman Catholic Church, far from being founded on a rock, rests on very shaky foundations indeed.  But even if he did, another question remains:  what precisely did he mean?  Was Peter, having established the Church, to be followed by an infinite number of successors, each in turn inheriting Peter's own apostolic commission?  And if so, in what capacity?  Not, certainly, as Bishops of Rome, a city which Christ never mentioned - to him Jerusalem was far more important.  The evidence, such as it is, suggests that he meant nothing of the kind.
            And what happened to Peter anyway?  The New Testament tells us virtually nothing, either about him or about his colleague St Paul.  According to a very early tradition, they were both in Rome in the year 64 AD, when a terrifying fire raged through the city.  The Emperor Nero was accused of "fiddling", or singing to his lute, during the conflagration, and was later rumoured to have started it himself.  Tacitus tells us that
            to be rid of this rumour, Nero fastened the guilt on a class hated for their abominations, which the populace called Christians.  Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths.  Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn apart by dogs and so perished.  Others were nailed to crosses or consumed by the flames.  Nero even threw open his garden for the spectacle and mounted a performance in the circus.
            According to that same tradition, both Peter and Paul were among the victims.  The Acts of the Apostles, however - written, almost certainly after these per­secutions, by St Luke, whom we know to have accom­panied Paul to Rome - is once again maddeningly uninformative.  It does not even mention Paul's martyrdom, merely remarking in its penultimate verse that he stayed in the city for two years;  As for Peter, he fades out of the book for ever halfway through Chapter XII, when we are told, quite simply, that "he departed, and went to another place".  The spotlight then turns on Paul, and remains on him till the end.
            There are so many questions that Luke could have answered.  Was Peter indeed crucified head downwards, at his request?  Was he even crucified at all?  Did he ever actually travel to Rome?  He certainly had good reason to, simply because to him was entrusted the mission to the Jews, and - with some 30-40,000 Jews living in Rome at that time - the embryonic Roman Church would have been very largely Jewish.  But nowhere in the New Testament is there any evidence that he went to Rome at all.  He certainly does not seem to have been there when Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, probably in 58 AD.  The final chapter of the Epistle gives a long list of names to whom the writer sends his greetings;  the name of Peter is not among them.  If, then, he did indeed meet his death in Rome, he could not have been there for very long - certainly not long enough to found the Roman Church, which in any case had already begun to take shape.  It is worth pointing out, too, that there is no contemporary or even near-contemporary reference to Peter as having been a bishop;  nor, according to all the indications, was there even a bishop in Rome before the second century.[ii]
            There are however two pieces of evidence that suggest that Peter did indeed visit the capital and die there, though neither is altogether conclusive.  The first comes from his own First Epistle, the penultimate verse of which contains the words "She [presumably the Church, such as it was] that is in Babylon..... salu­teth you".  This is at first sight nonsense, until we discover that Babylon was a recognised symbolic name for Rome, used in this sense no less than four times in the Book of Revelation.  The second testimony comes in a letter from a certain Clement, a Roman presbyter, or elder of the Church - he usually appears as third or fourth in the list of Popes - who seems to have known St Peter personally[iii].  It was written in about 96 AD to the Church at Corinth, where a serious dispute had arisen.  The key passage here (in Chapter V) reads: "Let us set before our eyes our good apostles:  Peter, who because of unrighteous jealousy suffered not one or two but many trials, and having thus given his testimony went to the glorious place which was his due.  Through jealousy and strife Paul demonstrated how to win the prize of patient endurance:  seven times he was imprisoned;  he was forced to leave and stoned;  he preached in the East and the West;  and, finally, he won the splendid renown which his faith had earned." 
            Why, we ask ourselves for the thousandth time, did the early fathers have to do quite so much beating about the bush?  Why could they not say in so many words that people were martyred or crucified?  But there:  we know that Paul met his death during the persecutions under Nero - Tertullian tells us that he was beheaded - and the way Clement mentions the two in almost the same breath strongly suggests that Peter met a similar fate.  All that can be said for sure is that by the middle of the second century - which could well be during the lifetime of the grandchildren of people who had actu...

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Norwich, John Julius
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