This essay explores how Gregory I (bishop of Rome, 590–604) depicted two Lombard sieges of Rome, traditionally dated to 592 and 593. These events, when they are discussed, are typically presented in a litany of disasters that befell Rome at the end of the sixth century. Plague, famine, flooding, and ultimately the “swords of the Lombards” were the depressing context of Gregory’s pontificate. However, a close examination of Gregory’s letters, the principal source for Rome in this period, reveals that the bishop’s presentation of these Lombard attacks evolved considerably between 591 and 595. Indeed, it was only in response to several controversies with the East, including criticisms by the exarch Romanus and especially the use of the title universalis episcopus (typically translated into English as ecumenical patriarch) by Patriarch John IV of Constantinople (582–95), that Gregory came to recast the Lombard campaigns as disasters for Rome and the causes of great suffering. Rome’s suffering then served as a rhetorical foil against which Gregory contrasted what he saw as the callous neglect of imperial officials and especially John’s prideful asceticism performed in the safety of Constantinople.

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