Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2011
In the spring of 593, gregory received some disturbing news about the church of Sipontum, an important see located in the fertile southeastern region of Apulia. The bishop's grandson had seduced the unmarried daughter of a local deacon, and Gregory had been summoned to straighten out what was by all accounts a messy situation. The same deacon had also raised questions about the bishop's financial administration. The deacon had been kidnapped not long before, and expected his local church to repay his ransom. Thus far, his bishop had not provided any funds. Incensed by the local prelate's failure to manage his household and church responsibly, Gregory took action. He ordered the bishop to present an inventory of his church's property and to resolve the domestic crisis according to Gregory's terms: his grandson must either marry the girl or submit to a beating and spend the remainder of his life in a monastery.
It is an obvious but often overlooked fact that many late antique clergy were married and had their own households. Scholars commonly characterize clerical identity in terms of membership in distinct ecclesiastical orders: the episcopate, priesthood, deaconate, subdeaconate, and so on. As Gregory's interactions with the clergy of Sipontum reveal, this presentation is at best a half-truth. Although an ecclesiastical cursus defined an ideal system of advancement, it did not yet translate into corporate clerical identities, nor did it universally order clerics in a lockstep hierarchy. In Rome, for instance, deacons occupied a more powerful and perhaps an even more distinguished status than presbyters, despite their technically subordinate position in the church. An ecclesiastical office certainly was a badge of honor as well as a specific religious duty, but it did not exclusively define a cleric's position or role in the church, let alone in society at large. Many clergy, probably the majority, had households of their own. Their domestic obligations and ties were not simply incidental. They constituted an important facet of a cleric's life and identity.