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The Roman Empire in the West, centred on Old Rome, then for a time on Ravenna, had collapsed in the fifth century. It was overrun by people who had never been intrinsically part of the Empire, mainly pagans or, in the case of the Goths, non-Orthodox Christians. The case of the Goths has a certain irony to it. They had been converted in the fourth century by Ulfilas, a missionary from Constantinople who seems to have had all the qualities that might have made him a great Saint. Unfortunately he was operating at a time when Constantinople under the Emperors was in reaction agains the findings of the Council of Nicaea and had adopted what has been called a 'Semi-Arian' position - Christ as Word and Son of God was 'of like substance' with the Father, not of 'the same substance'. The Goths took old Rome which meant that for a time the Orthodox Pope was obliged to work with semi-Arian rulers who seem to have treated him with respect but did not recognise his authority. This is a major theme in the letters addressed to the Pope by the Irish missionary, St Columbanus.

The work of converting Anglo Saxons and Germans was largely conducted from Ireland, which itself had never been part of the Empire. The British, forced by the Anglo Saxon invasions into Wales had been part of the Empire but were reproached by Gildas (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae) for their failure to attempt the conversion of their persecutors.

As a result the church that emerged in the late eighth century in the court of Charlemagne, made up of Irish, Anglo Saxons, Franks, Visigoths, Germans, could be regarded as a new church, intellectually independent of the Roman Church, anxious to separate itself (and the papacy) from the Eastern Empire. The Pope was recognised as single head of the universal church and the eastern churches, because they refused to recognise this claim, treated as schismatic. There were thus two rival claims to universal sovereignty over Christendom - the papacy in the West (the 'Roman Catholic' church) and the Emperor in the East (the 'Orthodox' church). As late as the fifteenth century, on the eve of the fall of Constantinople, the Eastern Emperor was still, in correspondence with the Tsar of Russia, claiming universal sovereignty. 

The Church of the Empire was divided into five great historical patriarchates - Old Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and New Rome (Constantinople).

Old Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were represented at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

The Council of Constantinople in 381 established the patriarchate of Constantinople, recognising it, on the grounds of its status as capital of the Eastern Empire, as second in importance to old Rome, thus causing great resentment, especially in Alexandria.

Jerusalem was recognised as a patriarchate independent of Antioch at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 when the historic patriarchate of Alexandria separated, forming what is now referred to as the 'Coptic' church.

Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were all taken by the Persians under Khusro II, 613-619 and soon after that, as we have seen, the Persians fell to the Arabs under the second Muslim caliph, Omar.

We shouldn't forget that there were important churches outside the historic Empire, notably in Armenia, Georgia (Iberia) and Ethiopia.

From at least the seventh century Constantinople was under continuous threat, at first mainly from the South and East (Persians and Arabs) but increasingly from the North (Slavs, Bulgars, Magyars, Russians). Here is a crude list of occasions when the 'barbarians. got as far as the walls of the city:

813   Bulgars under their leader, Krum
860   Vikings from Kiev
887   Magyars attacking through Thrace and Macedonia
907   Constantinople threatened by a fleet from Kiev under Oleg
913 and 914  Bulgarians under their Christian King, Symeon
934   Magyars
941   Kiev under Oleg again
969   Kiev under Svyatoslav, son of Oleg and of his Christian wife, Olga
1014  A major revolt throughout the North West Balkans (theoretically incorporated through conversion to Christianity into the imperial system).
1043  Russian fleet
1072  Another major revolt in the North West Balkans
1172  Revolt by the (Christian) Serb Stephen Namanja
1180  Another revolt by the same
1185  Bulgarian revolt
1204  Constantinople falls to the Fourth Crusade (restored to Roman rule in 1261 under Michael VIII Palaiologos)