Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

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by John Julius Norwich

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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

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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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Editorial Reviews

Eric Banks
Of all the things one might observe about the history of the papacy, the simplest fact—that after almost two millennia, the institution constitutes the longest uninterrupted monarchy in the world—might also qualify as the most astonishing. Even the papacy's perseverance across the earliest swath of church history seems unlikely in retrospect. More than 300 years passed after the death of St. Peter before Siricius (384-99) assumed the title of pope, with something like the unique significance it has today. In between, the Christian church in Rome experienced long periods of persecution, which waxed and waned with the predilections of imperial rule.

The threat of the church's annihilation was only lifted with the rise of Constantine the Great, who in 320 began the construction of a basilica on Vatican Hill where a shrine to Peter had been established. Yet even then, the nascent authority of the bishop of Rome faced a novel problem that would recur with regularity over the centuries to come—the split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, which threatened the universal authority of the inheritor of the apostolic line descending from St. Peter and reflected the shifts in political power from Rome to Constantinople. Papal precariousness reached an early height by the fifth century, when it was left to Pope Innocent I to negotiate the safety of the teetering city from the first of several invaders, King Alaric the Visigoth. And there were still some 1,500 years to go.

Those centuries are filled with everything that should have brought the papal run, at some point, to its earthly end: schisms, invasions, and sackings; fights with emperors and dukes and Roman autocrats, Orthodox patriarchs, Calvinists, and Lutherans, and the great partisans of the Risorgimento; the humiliations, both financial and political, of failed crusades, the seventy-year abandonment of Rome in favor of the much less malarial and far more French Avignon, the hundred-year reign of debauched mediocrities known as the Pornocracy. This doesn't even include all the anti-popes, simonists, perfidious Borgias and menacing Medicis, and a host of deadly schemers.

In his Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, John Julius Norwich argues that the last is hardly a thing of the hoary past. "I hear nothing but malice, directed against everything and everyone," he reports John Paul I saying in 1978 about the jealously and rivalries among those in the Vatican. "Also, I have noticed two things that appear to be in very short supply: honesty and a good cup of coffee." Norwich goes as far as to admit his initial belief in the theories that John Paul I was a victim of murder weeks later, a mere thirty-three days into his reign.

Norwich, a member of the House of Lords and popular historian best known for his three-volume history of Byzantium, becomes an outspoken commentator as his history of the papacy gets to the present—he chides John Paul II for his "berserk canonizations of everyone in sight," a criticism that seems comically trivial on the heels of his skeptical characterization of the former Karol Wojtyla as a "reactionary" who did little to alter Catholic policy on birth control, homosexuality, or the ordaining of women. Norwich is far more fulsome in his admiration of John XXIII and Paul VI, who rose to the papacy following the tenure of Pius XII and did their best, in his view, to bring the church into step with the difficult and complex realities of a new, postwar world through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1960.

Mostly, though, Norwich is less contentious, a conscientious and jovial pilot surveying a vast landscape. This is a tremendous amount of historical ground to cover in a single volume, and the pace is a rapid one. If Norwich's emphasis settles more on politics, international affairs, and military history than on theology, it attempts to ground what was at stake in doctrinal disputes and what role they might subsequently play in the spiritual and temporal power of the office. The treatment of the Reformation is exasperatingly slight—about the same amount of space is given to Luther as to the curiosity of the erstwhile Joan, a fictional ninth-century pope who concealed her sex until she gave birth and was killed by an angry mob (thanks to her, the myth goes, a porphyry chair with a little hole in the seat was subsequently incorporated into papal elections in order to ensure that the newly chosen pope was "of the approved gender"). In his historical narrative, though, Norwich entertainingly pictures an institution that shaped the direction of western Europe no less decisively than any political or cultural force, persevering through change and adapting to the environments it has faced. To judge by the tenacity of the papacy that he records, it would be foolhardy to expect its future to look otherwise.

Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Financial Times and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

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                                                          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 actually known them - it was generally accepted that Peter and Paul had both been martyred in Rome.  There were even two places associated with their martyrdom:  and not specifically Christian burial-places like the Catacombs either, but non-denominational cemeteries, one in the Vatican, the other outside the walls on the road to Ostia. 
                                                   *   *   *   *   *  
•   *
            When, in about 320 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great decided to build a basilica dedicated to St Peter on the Vatican Hill, he was clearly determined to build it on that precise spot and nowhere else.  This caused him appalling difficulties.  Instead of settling for the more or less level ground at the base of the hill, he chose a site on a steep slope - a decision which involved cutting away a vast mass of the hillside above, and constructing three heavy parallel walls beneath, the spaces between them densely packed with earth.  Moreover the chosen site was already a huge necropolis, teeming with burial-places, and was still in use.  Hundreds of tombs must have been destroyed, thousands of bodies desecrated.  There was no time for demolition:  the buildings simply had their roofs removed, after which they were filled with rubble to make a foundation for the new basilica - a practice, incidentally, which proved a blessing to twentieth-century archaeologists.  The  orientation of the Emperor's new building was also curious:  the liturgical east end faced due west.  For all this, there can have been only one reason:  Constantine built directly over the spot where he believed the bones of St Peter to lie.
            Was he right?  Well, he may have been.  We have one more piece of near-contemporary evidence.  The historian Eusebius[iv] quotes a Roman priest named Gaius, who wrote in about 200 AD:  "If you go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way, there you find the trophies (tropaia) of those who founded this Church."  The Ostian Way refers to St Paul and does not concern us here;  but the Vatican refeence surely suggests some sort of memorial - tropaion means a monument of victory or triumph - to St Peter that was clearly visible on the Vatican Hill, at that time an open cemetery.
            Excavations undertaken in the sacre grotte - the crypt of the basilica, below the floor of the Constantinian church - during and immediately after the Second World War revealed a two-tiered, three-niched construction, usually known as the aedicula and datable to 160-170 AD.  In front of it are several earlier burial-places - a fact which may well be more significant than first appears.  Since these contain no tombs or sarcophagi we cannot be sure whether they are Christian or pagan;  we know however that in Rome, up to at least the middle of the second century, bodies were normally cremated;  the absence of cremations from this particular corner of the old cemetery suggests that it may have been reserved for people holding special beliefs, in which case they were most probably Chris­tians.  Moreover, the presence of a considerable number of votive coins - a few from as early as the first century - strongly suggests that here was a much-visited shrine.
            For reasons too long and complicated to go into here[v], the aedicula is now generally believed to be Gaius's "trophy".  Pope Pius XII, however, went a good deal further when, in his 1950 Christmas Message, he confidently claimed it to be the burial-place of St Peter.  Such certainly seems to have been the generally-held belief in Rome towards the end of the second century;  but, perhaps inevitably, there have been objections.  Peter was not, as Paul was, a highly sophisticated Roman citizen;  he was an uneducated Galilean fisherman.  If he had been executed - whether or not by crucifixion - his body would normally have been thrown into the Tiber and would have been difficult indeed to recover.  If he had met his death by fire among the countless other victims of Nero's per­secutions, his remains are still less likely to have survived.  Perhaps, then, it is more probable that the aedicula was intended as a sort of cenotaph, a memorial rather than a mausoleum. 
            We can speculate for ever;  but we shall never know for sure.  Nor, on the other hand, is it really necessary that we should.  Even if that enigmatic little construc­tion has no connection with him at all, St Peter may still have come to Rome.  If it does, and does indeed mark his final resting-place, it still gives no real support to the claims of all succeeding Popes to have inherited from him their divine commission.        And here, surely, is the crux of the matter.  Peter's function, if we are to accept the testimony of St Matthew, was to be a foundation stone for the Church;  and foundation stones, by definition, are unique.  The doctrine of the Apostolic Succession, which is accepted by both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, holds that bishops represent a direct, uninterrupted line of descent from the Apostles, by virtue of which they possess certain special powers, including those of confirming church members, ordaining priests and consecrating other bishops.  So far so good;  but there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that they may inherit the distinctive commission which was given to Peter alone.

Chapter I:
     [i]Matthew xviii,17.
     [ii]A treatise known as The Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome at the beginning of the second century, always speaks of "the rulers of the Church" or "the elders that preside over the Church".  It is hard to say who was the first true Pope, or supreme bishop;  but the process seems to have been complete by the time of Anicetus (c.155-166), though until well into the third century the Christian community in Rome remained dangerously fissile.
     [iii]Later, according at least to legend, he was exiled to the Crimea and martyred by being tied to an anchor and hurled into the sea.
     [iv]Historia Ecclesiastica, ii.
     [v]Readers wishing to know more are referred to J. Toynbee and J. Ward-Perkins, The Shrine of St Peter and the Vatican Excavations, London 1956.

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"Norwich doesn't skirt controversies, ancient and present, in this broad, clear-eyed assessment." —-Kirkus

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Absolute Monarchs 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Hamlet007WI More than 1 year ago
If your expecting even a semi-scholarly look at the entire history of the papacy in one short book for $15.99, your going to need to keep looking. If your expecting attacks on your faith from the mainstream media, you can find confirmation of your expectations here. If your looking for a short fun look at the papacy, this book delivers! It's an enjoyable read and it's mostly accurate. If this book were to peak your interest in the relationship between the catholic church and nazi Germany great, start researching, but this isn't the book on which to base your doctoral thesis. Relax and enjoy this light read. I did.
Doubting_Thomas More than 1 year ago
I simply can't fathom the vitriol of some of the reviews here. The author states on page 2 that he's not a historian but a raconteur of a tale that's 2000 years old and packed with wise men, schemers and sinners. Perhaps his personal admission that he's an agnostic Protestant has something to do such umbrage over the writer here. But as near as I can tell, his recounting of the story is based on fact. He even carefully notes when a tale is unsubstantiated. His review of any religious issue is centered only as to how it affected the growth of the papacy as a political and state power. He takes no position on the Arian heresy or the Albigensian debacle led by the French king (with the muted approval of the Pope in Avignon) as a spiritual matter. He emphasizes that this is history...and sometimes history (such as the crusades) is very, very messy. No, he does not go on and on about every Pope. No, he does not notate every source, but to do so only would bog down the average viewer looking for a good read and lead to an overly complex and dull tome that no one but a person writing a doctoral thesis would find illuminating. I found his discussion on whether or not Peter visited Rome (and the topic of his martyrdom there) to be highly lucid, well-balanced, and lively. Though I'm sure some would find his jab at Pius XII as an anti-Semite to be a bit harsh, that kind of sentiment is not unprecedented among biographers today and various historians. Indeed it is part of the problem being faced by the Church now as it works to beatify the Pope. Look, if you're looking for an academic book or something that glosses over any flaws in the institution, you'd better look somewhere else. But I majored in History, have taught it myself, am an admirer of the Papacy, and find the book (and the expense of nearly $25) to be a good value. That's pretty much it. If your faith can be so severely shaken by one book that shows two sides of an issue, maybe you should've either read a page or two while standing in line in the store's Starbucks, or bothered to review a page or two online (there's plenty of places to do so). But don't act shocked when the author delivers exactly what he said he'd do. Seriously, that's just nuts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately, this is the type of debris that gets published and praised as history. The lack of scholarship and cliched thinking is an affront to historians, and true scholars. The entire book lacks critical thought, and insight into the "origins" of power that created the Papacy. This book has as much value as a "Historical" treatise of the Anglican Church and English Monarchy written by Idi Amin. Don't waste your time or money as you can read the same stories for FREE on many internet sites.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a great read on the history behind the papacy. A devout Catholic would probably be upset to hear about murder, mayhem, mistresses and malice. But it happened (happens) in all religions. The author is just giving the highlights and cannot document every fact. As a history buff I was very intrigued when I visited Vatican City. Now I have a greater feel for the church and the papacy. When I was in Rome, our guide was a professor of archaeology in Rome who is the head of the commission that licenses all other guides in Rome. Many of her stories were similar or the same as related in the book. Read this book with an open mind knowing that no author even one approved by the church can get all of the facts 100% correct just as witnesses to a car crash or murder in modern times cannot be 100% sure of what happened. Just enjoy the tale.
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KenCady More than 1 year ago
The Holy Spirit, I was taught, entered the conclave of cardinals to ensure that a man of God's Choice would become a pope. Little did I realize that the Holy Spirit was absent more often than not. It a sad history, one hidden from most Catholics, It seems that Holy Pontiff worked part time. With this background, one can seem to discern what works in a pope, and what desn't.
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