We are now safely in our car an en route out of the city. The Rome of St Augustine and St Gregory was a much-reduced, unhappy place. 120-odd years before the monks set out on their journey, the Western Empire had finally fallen, and found itself ruled by a variety of Barbarian peoples. Italy then suffered decades of war as the Eastern Empire attempted a reconquest.
In 596 Rome was ruled by the Eastern Empire and was part of the globalised economy the Empire allowed to flourish. Although much smaller than its height, Rome was a trading centre, and one of the main goods being traded was slaves.
Slavery plays a large part in the story of the conversion of the English, as the Venerable Bede tells us:
It is said that one day, when some merchants had lately arrived at Rome, many things were exposed for sale in the market place, and much people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and saw among other wares some boys put up for sale, of fair complexion, with pleasing countenances, and very beautiful hair. When he beheld them, he asked, it is said, from what region or country they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, and that the inhabitants were like that in appearance.
He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism, and was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, "Alas! what pity," said he, "that the author of darkness should own men of such fair countenances; and that with such grace of outward form, their minds should be void of inward grace.
He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. "Right," said he, "for they have an angelic face, and it is meet that such should be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven. What is the name of the province from which they are brought?" It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. (Note: Southern Northumbria) "Truly are they Deira*," said he, "saved from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that called?" They told him his name was Aelli;' and he, playing upon the name, said, "Allelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts."
*A pun on de ira, Latin for ‘from wrath’.
(Ecclesiastical History of England, II.1, translation by A. M. Sellar, 1907)
We’re not sure where the slave market might have been in the sixth century. It might have still been behind the Saepta Julia (which is not much further north than the Anglican Centre is now) or it might have been in the Forum.
This is therefore a good opportunity to quote one of my favourite works of history, 1066 and all that:
NOTICING some fair-haired children in the slave market one morning, Pope Gregory, the memorable Pope, said (in Latin), `What are those?' and on being told that they were Angels, made the memorable joke `Non Angli, sed Angeli' (`not Angels but Anglicans') and commanded one of his Saints called St Augustine to go and convert the rest.
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