Gregory was born around 540 in Rome. The exact date of his birth is unknown. Although the Western Roman Empire had collapsed long before his birth, many ancient Roman families still commanded great wealth and influence in the city. Gregory was born into one such family. His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III who reigned from 483 to 492. (Astute readers may suspect this to be a scandal, but this was at a time before the clergy took vows of celibacy.)
His father was named Gordianus, and he was a senator and a Prefect of Rome. Gordianus also held a position in the Church with the title of Regionarius, but there are no records from the time which describe the post. Gregory’s mother was Silvia, also from a noble family. Silvia’s sister (Gregory’s aunt), Pateria are both recognized as saints in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Gregory had a brother, but nothing is recorded, neither his name or his fate.
Gregory’s family was very wealthy and owned estates on the island of Sicily which provided income.
When Gregory was just two years old in 542, the Plague of Justinian swept through the region. This plague was caused by a now-extinct strain of Yersinia Pestis, more commonly known as the Black Death. The plague was the most severe outbreak of deadly disease the world had ever known and remained the worst such incident until the Black Death in the 14th century. About a third of the population in Italy was wiped out by the disease.
In addition to disease, the barbarian Ostrogoths sacked Rome in 546. The Franks attempted an invasion in 554. Both of these incursions were short lived. It is unclear how these massive events impacted Gregory’s development as a child, but it is thought his family retreated to Sicily during part of that time. Peace followed in Italy after these upheavals.
Gregory was well educated and excelled in all his studies. He also became an expert in law. He excelled so much he became the Prefect of Rome, just as his father had been. Gregory was only 33 years old.
After Gregory’s father had died, Gregory had the family villa in Rome converted into a monastery. Today the monastery still stands as the San Gregorio Magno al Celio. This famous monastery fell into ruin in the following centuries but was restored during the 17th and 18th centuries.
As a monk, Gregory was hard and strict. When a monk on his deathbed confessed to stealing three pieces of gold, Gregory ordered he be left to die alone. After the poor monk had died, Gregory ordered his body thrown on a dung heap along with the three coins. Then, in a turn of heart, Gregory offered 30 Masses for the deceased monk.
Learn more on Pope Saint Gregory the Great: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=54