Saturday, May 08, 2021

“Alas! You propose men unfit for the charge of public affairs.” ~ The abdication of Diocletian and his fascinating dialogue with Galerius

A gold solidus of Diocletian (left) and a bronze follis of Galerius (right)

Late Antiquity is full of epoch-making, history-changing events, but up there among the most momentous was the voluntary resignation of Diocletian Jovius and Maximian Herculius from the height of imperial power to private life in AD 305. The announcement of this occurrence must have sent shockwaves throughout the Roman world, particularly considering both men had together celebrated their Vicennalia, or 20th anniversary of their reign, less than two years before. This made them the longest reigning Roman emperors since Antoninus Pius who ruled nearly 150 years previous. And considering how short, miserable, and bloody the reigns of their predecessors of the third century had been, the longevity and relative stability of the joint reigns of Diocletian and Maximian were accomplishments truly worthy of note. 

Why Diocletian chose to abdicate has been a matter of speculation since ancient times. Aurelius Victor, writing in the later 4th century AD, said that Diocletian had received an augury of disasters threatening to disintegrate the Roman state and, as a result, decided to retire while still in good health. Furthermore, he convinced Maximian to likewise step down, but only with the greatest difficulty. Adding his own opinion, Victor dismisses other theories and attributes the abdication to Diocletian’s lack of ambition and excellence of character. [See Bird: De Caesaribus, Chapter 39, page 46]

Similarly, Eutropius writing at about the same time as Victor, praises Diocletian’s decision, saying: 

"He alone of all men, since the foundation of the Roman empire, voluntarily returned from so high a dignity to the condition of private life, and to an equality with the other citizens. That happened to him, therefore, which had happened to no one since men were created, that, though he died in a private condition, he was enrolled among the gods." [Eutropius: Breviarium, Book IX, Chapter 28].

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Having a quite different opinion, however, was an ancient writer who was not only a contemporary of Diocletian and Galerius, but who resided at the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia and was likely an eyewitness to much of what happened at the end of his reign and afterwards: Firmianus Lactantius. Writing in his fascinating work, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Lactantius gives more than just the brief summaries offered by Aurelius Victor and Eutropius. He provides blow-by-blow details of events, including an extraordinary dialogue between Diocletian and Galerius on who best to choose as their successors. 

Leading up to this dialogue, Lactantius offers a description of the Vicennalia of Diocletian as celebrated at Rome, and the subsequent long illness suffered by that emperor which nearly led to his death in AD 304. Indeed, Lactantius reports that on December 13, AD 304: 

There was heard in the palace sorrow, and weeping, and lamentation, and the courtiers ran to and fro. There was silence throughout the city [Nicomedia], and a report went out of the death and even burial of Diocletian. But early on the morrow, it was suddenly rumored that he still lived. At this the countenance of his domestics and courtiers changed from melancholy to gay. Nevertheless, there were those who suspected his death to be kept secret until the arrival of Galerius Caesar.” [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVII].

It wasn’t until March of AD 305 that Diocletian again appeared in public. Lactantius says that the man who was displayed appeared so thin and haggard that he was hardly recognizable. Furthermore, he reports that Diocletian was never again of sound mind, appearing sometimes sane and sometimes insane.

It was at this point that Galerius arrived in Nicomedia to discuss the future of the empire with the now partially recovered Diocletian. Sensing the old man’s weakness, Galerius suggested that Diocletian and Maximian leave the government of the empire to younger, healthier men. According to Lactantius, Diocletian balked, arguing:

It was unfit for one who had held a rank eminent above all others and conspicuous to sink into the obscurity of a low station. Neither indeed was it safe because in the course of so long a reign, he must unavoidably have made many enemies. [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVIII]

Galerius, however, was tired of playing games. He had reigned as Caesar, or junior emperor, for nearly 15 years and was anxious to obtain the exalted rank of Augustus, or senior emperor, promoting other men to do the dirty work associated with defending the vast frontiers of the Empire. He was ready to enjoy the privileges of pre-eminent power and was not about to take no for an answer. According to Lactantius:

On hearing his discourse, the spiritless old man [Diocletian] burst into tears and said, “Be it as you will.” [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVIII]

And with that, the way became clear for the Caesars, Galerius and Constantius, to be promoted to Augustus while Diocletian and Maximian embarked upon an honorable retirement. Receiving Diocletian’s assent, Galerius now turned the conversation toward which candidates to promote as Caesars. Diocletian had some suggestions and recommended that the advice of Maximian and Constantius be considered. But it turned out that Galerius had already made up his mind. Lactantius records this fascinating conversation as follows:

“But,” said Galerius, “why ask the advice of Maximian and Constantius, since they must needs acquiesce in whatever we do?”

“Certainly they will,” replied Diocletian, “for we must elect their sons.”

Now Maximian Herculius had a son, Maxentius, married to the daughter of Galerius, a man of bad and mischievous dispositions and so proud and stubborn withal, that he would never pay the wonted obeisance either to his father or father-in-law, and on that account he was hated by them both. Constantius also had a son, Constantine, a young man of very great worth and well meriting the high station of Cæsar. The distinguished comeliness of his figure, his strict attention to all military duties, his virtuous demeanor and singular affability, had endeared him to the troops and made him the choice of every individual. He was then at court, having long before been created by Diocletian a tribune of the first order.

“What is to be done?” said Galerius, “for that Maxentius deserves not the office. He who, while yet a private man, has treated me with contumely, how will he act when once he obtains power?”

“But Constantine is amiable, and will so rule as hereafter in the opinion of mankind to surpass the mild virtues of his father.” 

“Be it so, if my inclinations and judgment are to be disregarded. Men ought to be appointed who are at my disposal, who will dread me and never do anything unless by my orders.”

“Whom then shall we appoint?”

“Severus.”

“What! That dancer, that habitual drunkard who turns night into day and day into night?”

“He deserves the office, for he has proved himself a faithful paymaster and purveyor of the army. And, indeed, I have already dispatched him to receive the purple from the hands of Maximian.”

“Well, I consent, but whom else do you suggest?”

“Him,” said Galerius, pointing out Daia, a young man, half-barbarian. Now Galerius had lately bestowed part of his own name on that youth and called him Maximin, in like manner as Diocletian formerly bestowed on Galerius the name of Maximian, for the omen’s sake because Maximian Herculius had served him with unshaken fidelity.

“Who is that you present?”

“A kinsman of mine.”

“Alas!” said Diocletian, heaving a deep sigh, “you propose men unfit for the charge of public affairs!”

“I have tried them.”

“Then do you look to it, who are about to assume the administration of the empire. As for me, while I continued emperor, long and diligent have been my labors in providing for the security of the commonweal and now, should anything disastrous ensue, the blame will not be mine.” [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVIII].

Following this rather contentious discussion, Galerius and Diocletian would go on to make their decision public with a solemn procession and ceremony that Lactantius likely witnessed himself. But that fascinating event and its fallout will be the subjects of a subsequent post.

Of course, many scholars consider this dialogue to be nothing more than a rhetorical reconstruction of what may have passed between Diocletian and Galerius, heavily colored by the author’s own biases—and that certainly may be the case. It should be remembered that when writing On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Lactantius was most likely residing at the court of Constantine in Gaul, some time around AD 316. Therefore, the likelihood is strong that his account reflects the official narrative of events put forth by Constantine’s supporters. It is not out of the question that Lactantius received this information directly from Constantine himself or other high-ranking officials in his circle as he served as the tutor to Constantine's eldest son, Crispus, at this time. 

With that in mind, it should be noted that while Constantine is praised and Maxentius derided in the above dialogue, the words of praise are put into the mouth of Diocletian—one of the primary villains of Lactantius’s narrative. Were Lactantius merely a mouthpiece for Constantinian propaganda and not a subjective but faithful reporter of events as he remembered them, would he have done that? 

Furthermore, the subsequent course of events as recorded in other sources meshes well with Lactantius’s take. Other contemporary historians agree that Severus and Maximin Daia were largely incapable and unworthy of imperial authority. Severus would soon be stripped of his armies and killed by Maxentius in Italy. Daia would live in the shadow of Galerius for a decade only to be defeated and killed by Licinius when the two grappled for supreme power in the East. 

It is also interesting to note Diocletian’s last statement, warning Galerius that his ill-considered decisions would bring on disastrous results and thus washing his hands of them. This theme may have been picked up later by Aurelius Victor who, as noted above, mentions that Diocletian retired because he foresaw catastrophes in store for the empire in the immediate future.

Finally, Diocletian’s concern that he would be vulnerable in retirement proved valid as well. In later chapters, Lactantius would describe how Diocletian’s wife, Prisca, and daughter, Valeria, were persecuted by Maximin Daia, the old man being unable to protect them despite appealing directly to Daia. The now powerless Diocletian would apparently expire a short time later having witnessed the destruction of his monuments and in anxiety that he had aroused the ire of Constantine and Licinius.

See some other posts on Diocletian and Galerius from this blog as follows:

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

The Roman Emperor Who Had Books about “Chemeia” Burned in Alexandria

A fanciful modern engraving of the Library of Alexandria aflame.

It is a common these days to hear folks opine about how the glories of ancient science were snuffed out ignominiously by triumphalist, fanatical Christians sometime in the Dark Ages. Normally, specific instances of this destruction are not called out, save for the case of Hypatia of Alexandria who has been elevated by modern audiences to a sort of proto-feminist demi-goddess of science for her slaying at the hands of a Christian mob. 

Yet, for those who maintain the trope that Christianity was responsible for the destruction of centuries of amazing scientific advancements wrought by Greco-Roman civilization, please allow me to present this interesting tidbit.

There is a great, encyclopedic work of the Byzantine middle ages called the Suda. The Suda is a lexicon of Greek terms which was compiled in about the 10th century AD. Far from a mere word-list, the Suda contains definitions and context for the terms listed (over 30,000 of them all told) and includes toponyms, the names of persons, and biographies of numerous ancient and medieval figures. It seems to have been created from a variety of ancient sources, many of which are now no longer extant. For more about this massive work of ancient scholarship, and the brilliant efforts of many dedicated contemporary scholars to make it accessible to everyone, see The Suda Online

I recently ran across a random passage in James Partington’s 1957 book entitled, A Short History of Chemistry. In this book, Partington explains that little is known today about ancient chemistry because much of what was written down did not survive antiquity. He says that the word “Chemistry” first appeared in a Roman edict in which all books of the Egyptians in Alexandria on the topic of chemeia are ordered to be burnt. Partington explains that the chemeia refers to the making of gold and silver, or what we would think of today as alchemy, which Partington points out is nothing more than the word chemeia with the Arabic article al affixed to it. Partington intimates that his source for this information is the Suda.

So off to the Suda Online I went. Lo and behold, here’s the entry for chemeia (χημεία)

[Meaning] the preparation of silver and gold. Diocletian sought out and burned books about this. [It is said] that due to the Egyptians' revolting behavior Diocletian treated them harshly and murderously. After seeking out the books written by the ancient [Egyptians] concerning the alchemy of gold and silver, he burned them so that the Egyptians would no longer have wealth from such a technique, nor would their surfeit of money in the future embolden them against the Romans.

So did you get that? The Roman emperor who mandated that books on chemeia be burned was not Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian or any other Christian emperor. It was Diocletian, the architect of the Great Persecution of Christians himself. Recall that it was also Diocletian who decreed that Christian books should be burned, so this is certainly not out of character for him.

And yes, as we can find in other sources, there was a serious rebellion in Egypt during Diocletian’s reign. This insurrection caused him such distress that when he finally re-conquered the city after a siege of eight months, he determined that he would put everyone who supported the rebellion to the sword and would not stop killing until the blood reached up to his horse's knees. Read more in Diocletian and the Roman Recovery.

Finally, I will point out that the works of at least two authors writing on alchemy post-Diocletian have survived antiquity, largely thanks to the preservation efforts of Christian Byzantine and Muslim Arabic scholars of the Middle Ages. The first is Zosimus of Panopolis in upper Egypt of the 4th century AD. The second is Stephanos of Alexandria, an philosopher who later migrated to Constantinople in the early 6th century AD.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The enigmatic Saint Vitalis and his magnificent shrine in Ravenna

Mosaic of Saint Vitalis (left) being offered the crown of martyrdom by Christ (right)
with an angel (center) from the apse of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna.

April 28 is the feast day of Saint Vitalis, an ancient Roman martyr about whom very little is known. The summary of his life from Butler's Lives of the Saints contains much of what is known and can reasonably be speculated about Saint Vitalis:

Saint Vitalis is honored as the principal patron of the city of Ravenna, in which he glorified God by martyrdom in the persecution of Nero. He was a citizen of Milan, and is said in his acts to have been the father of SS. Gervasius and Protasius. The divine providence conducted him to Ravenna, where he saw a Christian named Ursicinus, who was condemned to lose his head for his faith, standing aghast at the sight of death, and seeming ready to yield....Vitalis was extremely moved at this spectacle...he therefore boldly and successfully encouraged Ursicinus to triumph over death, and after his martyrdom carried off his body, and respectfully interred it. The judge, whose name was Paulinus, being informed of what he had done, caused him to be apprehended, stretched on the rack, and, after other torments, to be buried alive in a place called the Palm-tree, in Ravenna, as Fortunatus and his acts relate. These acts add that his wife, Valeria, returning from Ravenna to Milan, was beaten to death by certain peasants, because she refused to join them in an idolatrous festival and riot. 

The relics of St. Vitalis are deposited in the great church which bears his name in Ravenna, and was magnificently built by the emperor Justinian, in 547.

Exterior of San Vitale in Ravenna as it looks today.

The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna still exists to this day and is considered one of the finest examples of Late Roman/Byzantine architecture to have survived antiquity. An octagonal structure which may have been modeled on the lost Domus Aurea in Antioch, the Church of San Vitale contains the famous mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, along with numerous other outstanding works depicting Christ, the saints, biblical scenes, etc., including the image at the top of this post showing Vitalis receiving the crown of martyrdom from the hands of Christ. Here are some additional examples:

San Vitale mosaic depicting the hospitality of Abraham. Click to enlarge.

San Vitale mosaic showing the sacrifices of Abel and Melchisedec. Click to enlarge.

Detail of the Theodora Mosaic in San Vitale, possibly showing the
Gothic princess, Matasuntha, granddaughter of King Theodoric. 
Click to enlarge.

Ceiling of the cupola of San Vitale with Lamb of God motif. Click to enlarge.

The famous Justinian mosaic from San Vitale. Click to enlarge.

Most of these images were borrowed and adapted from Wikimedia Commons. To peruse numerous other images of the interior of San Vitale, click here

Ravenna remains on my bucket list for future travels. Until then, I'll have to settle for these 360-degree views provided by Columbia University. By clicking through these, you can get a sense of how utterly awe-inspiring the great Christian basilicas of the Late Antique period must have been.

360-degree view of the nave.

360-degree view of the apse.

Friday, April 23, 2021

"What the fairy tale provides is a Saint George to kill the dragon." ~ An obscure martyr whose tale became an enduring legend

 

"The baby has known the dragon intimately since he had an imagination.
What the fairy tale provides for him is a Saint George to kill the dragon."
—G. K. Chesterton

April 23 is the feast of Saint George. This legendary saint did indeed exist, though details of his life and martyrdom, probably under Diocletian, have been lost is the mists of time and covered over by a tremendous amount of legendary and fantastical accounts written centuries after his life. He is mentioned in the so-called Gelasian Decretal which contains a list of works which Catholics are encouraged to accept and reject, thought to have been compiled by Pope Gelasius in the late 5th century AD. Though the provenance of the Decretal has problems of its own, St. George (called Georgius) is mentioned in it as an authentic martyr, though his Passio is considered to have been written by heretics and is, therefore, unreliable.

Despite his obscurity, the cult of Saint George took off in the Middle Ages, transforming the nearly unknown Roman soldier martyr into the prototypical medieval knight who slays the dragon and rescues the princess. A very readable and familiar version of this tale may be found in the Golden Legend, originally compiled in the late 13th century AD. It is interesting to note when reading this account that George supposedly met the dragon in Libya where it was consuming the children of that land. It should be recalled that North Africa was the seat the Carthage, a nation which once practiced child sacrifice on a large scale. One wonders how much, if at all, that very ancient memory informed the fable.

The quote featured here from G. K. Chesterton and may be found in his work entitled, Tremendous Trifles, Chapter XVII: The Red Angel. Here is the quote in context:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. I do not speak of the man in the green tie, for him I can never count truly human. But a lady has written me an earnest letter saying that fairy tales ought not to be taught to children even if they are true. She says that it is cruel to tell children fairy tales, because it frightens them. You might just as well say that it is cruel to give girls sentimental novels because it makes them cry. All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you keep bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. There is just as much difficulty in saying exactly where pure pain begins in his case, as there is in ours when we walk of our own free will into the torture-chamber of a great tragedy. The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul.

The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. When I was a child I have stared at the darkness until the whole black bulk of it turned into one negro giant taller than heaven. If there was one star in the sky it only made him a Cyclops. But fairy tales restored my mental health, for next day I read an authentic account of how a negro giant with one eye, of quite equal dimensions, had been baffled by a little boy like myself (of similar inexperience and even lower social status) by means of a sword, some bad riddles, and a brave heart. Sometimes the sea at night seemed as dreadful as any dragon. But then I was acquainted with many youngest sons and little sailors to whom a dragon or two was as simple as the sea.

And indeed, the legend of of the brave Saint George slaying the dragon—who is certainly a metaphor for the ancient serpent, Satan—has been comforting children and adult Christians for centuries.

The image above is an illumination depicting St. George slaying the dragon which appears in a Book of Hours and Missal created between 1485 and 1490. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

"There is such poverty and destitution in this city" ~ Pope Pelagius I begs for desolate Rome following the Gothic Wars in Italy

A fanciful portrait of Pope Pelagius I based on the roundel portrait in the
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.

In the year of our Lord 556, on April 16, Pelagius I assumed the papal throne in Rome after an interregnum of about 10 months. His advent was not without controversy. His predecessor, Pope Vigilius, had died in Syracuse, Sicily, while on his way back to Rome from a long exile in Constantinople. Vigilius had spent the last ten years of his eighteen year reign as an unwilling captive in the Eastern capital, fighting a vain theological battle with Justinian over the so-called Three Chapters controversy. See this post for some details of Vigilius's reign: "I am receiving the reward for my deeds" ~ The Miserable Reign of Pope Vigilius, AD 537-555.

If Vigilius had inherited an untenable situation when assuming the papacy in AD 537, Pelagius’s situation was only marginally better. When he became Pontiff, the seemingly interminable war in Italy between the Romans and Goths had just drawn to a close. Rome had been taken and lost by both sides several times, leaving the Eternal City desolate, depopulated and in ruins. In fact, during one of these reversions, Pelagius in his role as deacon, had confronted the victorious Gothic king, Totila, as he entered St. Peter's Basilica. The Gothic soldiers, in their wrath, had begun slaying the soldiers and citizens that they found there. To arrest this unfolding slaughter, Pelagius approached Totila with the Sacred Scriptures in his hands, saying, "Spare thine own, O Master."

"Now at last you make yourself suppliant before me," Totila mocked. 

"Yes, at a time when God has made me your slave," Pelagius replied, holding the Sacred Scriptures up before him. "Nay, spare your slaves O Master, from now on."

Procopius records that Totila was pleased with this speech, and though he allowed his men to plunder the Romans of their possessions, he forbade them from killing the people. [Procopius, History of the Wars, Book VII, Chapter 20].

Fortunately, Justinian’s general, Narses, would crush the remaining Gothic armies at the battles of Taginae and Mons Lactarius. Though a tenuous peace would then exist in the war-ravaged peninsula, the entire country had been devastated by nearly two decades of brutal warfare.

As for his theological situation, that too was complicated. Pelagius had at first stood steadfast with Pope Vigilius against the demands of Justinian to condemn the Three Chapters. But when Vigilius later buckled, Pelagius did likewise. This created fierce opposition to Pelagius in Italy, the bishops in that forlorn province viewing their new Pope as little more than a toady for Justinian and his theological novelties.

Worse than this, Pelagius was viewed by some in Italy as having a hand in the death of Pope Vigilius in Sicily. So despite his noble birth and his history of putting his life and treasure on the line for Rome, Pelagius I found himself with very few friends upon attaining the Papacy.

His backstory established, here’s what the Liber Pontificalis, a near contemporary source, has to say about the reign of Pope Pelagius I:

Pelagius, by nationality a Roman, son of John, the vicarius, occupied the see 4 years, 10 months and 18 days. And there was no bishop to ordain him but two bishops were found, John of Perusia and Bonus of Ferentinum, and Andrew, priest of Ostia, and they ordained him pontiff. At that time there was no one among the clergy who could be promoted. The monasteries and the multitude of wise and noble devout withdrew from communion with Pelagius, saying that he had had a part in the death of Pope Vigilius and therefore was punished with such troubles. 

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Then Narses and Pope Pelagius took counsel and when the litany had been said at Saint Pancratius they proceeded with hymns and spiritual songs to Saint Peter, the apostle. And Pelagius, holding the Gospels and the cross of the Lord above his head, mounted the pulpit and thus he satisfied all the people that he had done no harm to Vigilius. Likewise Pope Pelagius continued and said: ''I beg of you to grant my request, that whoever deserves promotion in the holy church and is worthy of it, from a doorkeeper even to a bishop, should accept advancement, though not for gold nor any promises. You all know that that is simony. But whoever is taught in the works of God and leads a good life we bid him, not by bribes but by honest conversation, to rise unto the first rank." 

At that time Pelagius appointed Valentinus, who feared God, as his notary and had all the gold and silver vessels and the vestments restored in all the churches. Then he began to build the basilica of the apostles Philip and James. But when the building was begun he died and was buried in the basilica of blessed Peter, the Apostle, March 2. [Loomis, The Liber Pontificalis, Pelagius, pp. 160-162].

Pelagius I has also left considerable correspondence which has come down to us from antiquity. Unfortunately, most of his letters have never been translated into English. If you can read Latin, you can find the complete corpus available here. For those not so inclined to dive into the Latin, Louise Ropes Loomis provides the following summary of Pelagius I’s epistles which are particularly useful in understanding the dire situation in Italy in the immediate aftermath of the Gothic Wars:

Pelagius' correspondence is full of allusions to the impoverished state of the Roman Church and of directions for collecting the rents and other revenues which had long been unpaid. In one instance he orders that a slave, the son of a slave woman belonging to the church, who was attempting to escape from servitude by calling himself a curial, should be returned to the ecclesiastical estates. He writes to the bishop of Arles, commending to his protection various Romans who had fled from their homes for fear of the enemy and asking that the garments bought with the dues paid by the local church should be sent by ship to Rome, "because there is such poverty and destitution in this city that we cannot look without grief and anguish of heart upon men whom we know to be meritorious and born to honorable position." Jaffe, Regesta, pp. 126-134, 943, 947, 949, 950, 951, 953, 956, 963, 1022, 1023. There is no mention of church  furniture in the letters now extant but Pelagius may probably have tried to replace what had been lost and destroyed.

Such was the situation in Rome that Pelagius was forced to beg for the city. Aside from the clothing requested from Gaul mentioned above, he also begged assistance from Africa in settling refugees. From the papal estates in Italy, he brought provisions into Rome for the relief of starvation. He also carried on a lively correspondence with King Childebert of the Franks and the bishops of Gaul, attempting to defend himself from charges of having compromised the faith while in Constantinople. 

Other of Pelagius's letters encouraged the secular authorities—both the Roman commanders in Italy and the Frankish king—to suppress theological dissenters by force. In a commonly cited letter to Valerianus, a Roman officer in northern Italy, Pelagius says that evil should be punished, and if the Church appears to be acting as a persecutor, it is rather acting as a father who chastises an erring son. See a summary of this letter in Tyrrell, Merovingian Letters and Letter Writers, p. 279. These appeals seem to have gone unheeded. 

Pope Pelagius I should not be confused with the early 5th century heresiarch of the same name.

Like his predecessor Pope Vigilius, Pope Pelagius I is not considered a saint.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Rebel Usurper who Became a Saint ~ Saint Hermengild, prince of Visigothic Spain

Saint Hermengild with the angels in Heaven, by Corrado Giaquinto , AD 1757

On April 13, AD 585, the Visigothic prince, Hermengild, was slain while in prison. His crimes were multitudinous. To begin with, he had rebelled against his father, King Leovigild. He made alliances with his father’s enemies, the Seuvi and the Byzantines, both of whom had strong presences on the Iberian peninsula and sought gains at the expense of King Leovigild. Hermengild was subsequently betrayed by the Byzantines who made a separate peace with Leovigild in exchange for a tribute in gold. The young prince and his remaining forces were soon defeated by the king and he was made prisoner. His father forgave him, but within a year of his pardon, Hermengild rebelled again, calling forth the neighboring Franks to come to his aid against his father. This enterprise was no more successful than the first attempt, and Hermengild was again thrown into prison, this time to be killed at his father’s order.

Given this wretched story of intra-familial intrigue and political double-dealing, how did someone like Hermengild come to be recognized as a Saint of the Catholic Church? Of course, there is a religious aspect to the story that makes it even more fascinating, pathetic, and ultimately heroic. 

Similar to all of his predecessors in Visigothic Spain, King Leovigild was an Arian ruling over a predominantly Catholic kingdom. Upon taking the throne in AD 569, he also found himself surrounded by powerful potential enemies. The Byzantines and Suevi have already been mentioned above. But the most dangerous of Leovigild’s enemies was the nearby Catholic kingdom of the Merovingian Franks. In order to neutralize this threat, Leovigild did what monarchs have done throughout the centuries—he sought a matrimonial alliance, marrying his son, Hermengild, to the Catholic Frankish princess, Ingundis. This was no novel idea as Leovigild himself had been married to a Catholic princess named Theodosia. Theodosia became the mother of Hermengild and his brother Reccared, both of whom were raised as Arians but, no doubt, with strong Catholic sympathies. Theodosia later perished, and was replaced as queen by a woman named Goswintha. Unlike her predecessor, however, Goswintha was a fanatical Arian who soon came into conflict with her step-daughter-in-law, Ingundis, who utterly and steadfastly refused to abandon her Catholic faith.

The intensity of this feminine conflict eventually led to both Ingundis and Hermengild leaving the Visigothic capital of Toledo at the contrivance of King Leovigild who empowered his son as viceroy of Baetica with a court at Seville. 

There was one problem with this move, which effectively cemented Hermengild’s position as crown prince of Visigothic Spain—Seville was the see of the Leander, a zealous, brilliant and powerful Catholic bishop. Leander was also, apparently, the brother of the deceased queen Theodosia and therefore the uncle of Hermengild [See Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, Book III, Note 32). Within a short time, Hermengild publicly abandoned the Arianism of his youth and embraced the Catholicism of his wife and uncle.

When King Leovigild heard of his son’s conversion, he immediately summoned him back to Toledo. Fearing his step-mother’s fanaticism and his father’s history of severe treatment of Catholics, Hermengild refused the summons and decided to take up arms instead. In this effort, he was encouraged by Leovigild’s enemies on the Iberian peninsula who soon joined his banner. However, as mentioned above, these allies were neither trustworthy nor militarily able to resist the capable martial efforts of Leovigild who put down the rebellion in short order, besieging Hermengild in Seville for two years. When the city finally fell, Hermengild fled to Cordoba and sought sanctuary in a church. He was eventually drawn forth with promises of forgiveness from the king, transmitted to him by his own brother, Reccared.

Once in the king’s power, however, Hermengild was stripped of his royal robes and sent into banishment at Valencia. His wife Ingunthis, meanwhile, escaped to Roman Africa along with her son, Athanagild. She attempted to reach Constantinople, but perished on the journey, her young son arriving alone to be cared for by the court of the emperor Maurice. It is said that Hermengild again tried to raise a rebellion from his place of exile but was again thwarted by forces loyal to his father.

After this second attempt, it seems that Leovigild decided that his son would have to renounce his conversion to orthodox Catholicism and again become Arian. Writing in his Dialogues, Saint Gregory the Great relates the rest of the story which he likely heard from the lips of Leander himself while the two men were together in Constantinople some years later:

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The young Prince [Hermengild], upon his conversion, his father [Leovigild], being an Arian, labored both by large promises and terrible threats to draw again to his former error. But when most constantly his son answered, that he would never forsake the true faith which he had once embraced, his father in great anger took away his kingdom, and besides deprived him of all wealth and riches. And perceiving that, with all this, his mind was nothing moved, he committed him to straight prison, laying irons both upon his neck and hands. 

Upon this, the young king Hermengild began now to contemn his earthly kingdom, and to seek with great desire after the kingdom of heaven: and lying in prison fast bound, he prayed to almighty God in hair-cloth to send him heavenly comfort. And so much the more did he despise the glory of this transitory world, by how much he knew himself in that case that he had now nothing that could be taken from him.

When the solemn feast of Easter was come, his wicked father sent unto him in the dead of the night an Arian bishop, to give him the communion of a sacrilegious consecration, that he might thereby again recover his father's grace and favor. But the man of God, as he ought, sharply reprehended that Arian bishop which came unto him, and giving him such entertainment as his deserts required, utterly rejected him. For albeit outwardly he lay there in bands, yet inwardly to himself he stood secure in the height of his own soul. 

The father, at the return of the Arian prelate, understanding these news, fell into such a rage that forthwith he sent his officers of execution to put to death that most constant confessor, in the very prison where he lay. And the unnatural and bloody commandment was performed accordingly, for so soon as they came into the prison, they clave his brains with an hatchet, and so bereaved him of mortal life, having only power to take that from him which the holy martyr made small account of. 

Afterward, for the publishing of his true glory to the world, there wanted not miracles from heaven: for in the night time singing was heard at his body. Some also report that, in the night, burning lamps were seen in that place, by reason whereof his body, as of him that was a martyr, was worthily worshipped of all Christian people. But the wicked father and murderer of his own son, albeit he was sorry that he had put him to death, yet was not his grief of that quality that it brought him to the state of salvation. For although he knew very well that the Catholic faith was the truth, yet, for fear of his people, he never deserved to be a professor thereof. [Taken from, The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, Book III, Chapter 31]

So it seems that the execution of Hermengild affected his father to the extent that he later regretted it. Some sources, such as Gregory the Great above, claim that though he mourned his son, Leovigild did not convert to Catholicism before his death. Others, including Gregory of Tours, maintain that he did finally renounce Arianism.

Saint Leander by Corrado Giaquinto, AD 1757
The death of Hermengild in AD 585 ended up bearing good fruit for the Catholics in Visigothic Spain. Following the death of King Leovigild the next year, Hermengild’s brother Reccared became king. Under the auspices of Bishop Leander, King Reccared accepted the Catholic faith and formally abandoned Arianism. Most of the Visigothic nobility followed his example and thus Spain became a Catholic kingdom for the next century until the arrival of the Moors.

As for Hermengild, he would be formally recognized as a saint of the Catholic Church 1,000 years after his death, canonized by Pope Sixtus V in AD 1585. A hymn to Saint Hermengild written in verse by Pope Urban VIII reads in part:

By no blandishments could thy father seduce thee
Nor wert thou captivated by the leisure of a life of affluence,
Nor by the sparkling of gems,
Nor by the desire of reigning.

The sharp edge of the sword, with dire threats,
Did not terrify thee, nor did the destructive rage of the executioner
For thou didst prefer the abiding joys
Of the Blessed to transitory ones.

[Taken from: Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, edited by Matthew Britt, 1922]

Monday, April 12, 2021

"Hey, it's a free country." ~ Things Americans Don't Say Anymore

When I was a kid, it was not uncommon to hear someone say, “Hey, it’s a free country,” in response to someone else’s opinion or decision. Normally, if you said this, it meant that you disagreed with the opinion or decision, or even felt that their statement was wrong or stupid, but you recognized their right as a free person in a free country to make that call for themselves.

Today, this phrase is rarely heard. At least, I can’t recall the last time I heard it. The more contemporary correlate to this phrase, at least on social media, seems to be: “Your opinion is offensive. If you do not change it, I will report you to the authorities.”

America was a better place when people used to just shrug and say: “It’s a free country.” The truly sad thing is that the younger generations (those born in the 1990s and later) never really knew that America. They only know the grotesque parody of that America as seen through the history-distorting prism of propagandist textbook authors like Howard Zinn. They have been inculcated into a warped society that feels that the best way to fight what you perceive to be fascism is to act like a fascist.

How few of them realize that they have become what they purport to despise.

The image included above is one of Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech.