Monday, March 19, 2018

"An object of dread to the demons" ~ A brief video bio of Saint Moses the Black

Presenting a brief video biography of one of the most fascinating saints of antiquity, Moses the Black, as extracted from the 5th century work, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen.

Abba Moses is known by numerous other names including Moses the Strong, Moses the Ethiopian, Moses of Scetis, Moses of Abyssinia and Moses the Robber. He was an anchorite of the Egyptian desert and lived in the generation immediately after Saint Anthony the Abbot—that is, from about AD 330-400. He was famous among his peers for his legendary physical strength, and his even more amazing conversion from the depths of vice and wickedness, to the heights of self-denial, humility and sanctity.

Here is the video excerpt in text form:
Click for more info.
"Moses was originally, a slave, but was driven from his master's house on account of his perversity. He joined some robbers, and became leader of the band. After having perpetrated several murders and other crimes, he embraced a life of asceticism, and attained the highest point of philosophical perfection. 
As the healthful and vigorous habit of body which had been induced by his former avocations acted as a stimulus to his imagination and excited a desire for pleasure, he resorted to every possible means of macerating his body. Thus, he subsisted wholly upon bread, subjected himself to severe labor, and prayed fifty times daily. During six years, he spent all his nights in prayer. He prayed standing, without bending his knees or closing his eyes in sleep. He sometimes went, during the night, to the cells of the monks, and secretly filled their pitchers with water, although he had sometimes to go ten, sometimes twenty, and sometimes thirty stadia in quest of the water. Notwithstanding all his efforts to macerate his body, it was long before he could subdue his natural vigor of constitution. 
Four robbers once broke into the dwelling where he lived alone. He bound them, threw them across his shoulders, and bore them to the church, that the monks who were then assembled might deal with them as they thought fit, for he did not consider himself authorized to punish any one. 
So sudden a conversion from vice to virtue was never before witnessed, nor such rapid attainments in monastical philosophy. Hence God rendered him an object of dread to the demons, and he was ordained presbyter over the monks at Scetis. After a life spent in this manner, he died at the age of seventy-five, leaving behind him numerous eminent disciples."
This excerpt from Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History is a simple summary of the eventful life of Abba Moses. More details may be drawn from the Lausiac History of Palladius.

Sozomen's History also includes capsule biographies of numerous other noteworthy monks and holy men and women from that period, particularly those in Egypt and Palestine and is well worth reading for anyone interested in early Church history or Roman history of the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fortune Cookies for Geeks -- The Top 60 Fortunes

Several years ago, when I still thought Fantasy/Sci-Fi conventions were good places to sell books, we came up with a promotion to give away fortune cookies stuffed with "alternate" fortunes.

This met with mixed results.
  • About 50% of the recipients laughed.
  • About 40% said "huh?"
  • The remaining 10% got mad (including one miscreant who crumpled up the fortune and threw it at us).
Anyway, here are the 60 fortunes we came up with. Which one do you like best?
  1. Eeewww. You got the fortune cookie that fell on the floor.

  2. You will join a political party headed by Patrick Stewart.

  3. Something awful will happen to you on November 31.

  4. Your clone will become Emperor of Greenland.

  5. People will say you remind them of Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

  6. Never trust anyone named Marvin Backstabber.

  7. Your next saving throw versus petrification will fail.

  8. Your cell phone number will be in Al Sharpton's rolodex.

  9. Never take a class in javelin catching.

  10. You have a strange fascination with stinging arthropods.

  11. This fortune was meant for someone else.

  12. A Ugandan social servant will send you a big check.

  13. A broken watch is right twice a day—unless it's digital.

  14. sdrawkcab siht gnidaer er'uoY

  15. Your favorite elements are tungsten and boron.

  16. You will not need a brain transplant for at least three months.

  17. Never buy a car made in Portugal.

  18. Your true love is currently married to a 40 ton coelenterate on the planet Gortox.

  19. You will get a thank you card from the IRS.

  20. You know how to play Domjod.

  21. Ill fortune will stalk you like a three-legged platypus.

  22. The next fortune is true. This one is false.

  23. You will buy 36 million lottery tickets and still lose.

  24. You will be the ship's lawyer on Star Trek: Generation X

  25. You secretly root for the daleks.

  26. Never let anyone convince you that you can breathe liquid oxygen.

  27. A law degree will come in handy.

  28. You will start a website called ""

  29. You will accompany Spock and Bones on an away mission.

  30. You've called the writers of Sesame Street, "a nest of vipers."

  31. Your true love's alignment is chaotic evil.

  32. A mental disorder will be named in your honor.

  33. You will have an exhibit at the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum.

  34. You will be made fun of on a Simpson's episode.

  35. You will write a letter to your senator demanding that dihydrogen monoxide be removed from the water supply.

  36. Nothing of note will happen to you next Thursday.

  37. Yours will be the first Yeti-related death caught on film.

  38. At least three people will mistakenly call you "Ralph" before the end of the day.

  39. You will become wealthy after responding to a spam email message.

  40. You will become famous playing the part of "Grimace" in the off-Broadway production of Golden Arches.

  41. Beware of clairvoyant confections.

  42. An anime series will be based on your life called "Happy Danger Power Student"

  43. You will become famous making organic meat products out of roadkill.

  44. Barbara Walters will interview you from prison.

  45. You will be Scott Bakula's running mate in 2024.

  46. You'll realize your comic book collection is worth millions exactly one day after your mother throws them all out.

  47. You will receive a nasty paper cut from this fortune.

  48. You will join a religious cult that thinks Dennis Miller is the messiah.

  49. You will be mangled in a horrible weedwacking incident.

  50. You will claim the world record for longest duodenum.

  51. You will be fired from the Windows 2020 project for lack of ignorance.

  52. Your entire future can be summarized in one word: reticulated.

  53. You will utter the word "spirochete" in your State of the Union address.

  54. You will die performing a stunt as Adobe's "Acrobat" mascot.

  55. You will have exactly 8,314 bad hair days, including today.

  56. You will lose proprietary data after accidentally ejecting your hard drive.

  57. Your head will grow another head, and so on.

  58. You will be Wendy Jo Sperber's running mate in 2028.

  59. Your friends will start calling you Tom Bombadil after you read them this fortune.

  60. Mr. Tumnus will eat all your Turkish delight.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Belisarius smashes the retreating Goths -- Procopius's description of the end of the great siege of Rome, AD 538

Click to share on Facebook.
Of all Belisarius’s victories, the defeat of the great Gothic host under King Vittiges which had besieged Rome from February of AD 537 through March of AD 538 must rank as his greatest feat. In this, he was able to defend successfully a gigantic city that had been considered indefensible against a siege while outnumbered at least 20 to 1 – and maybe more.

March 12 is the date commonly given for the break-up of the siege, when the remnants of the great Gothic army pulled up stakes and retreated for Ravenna. For the previous few months, they had sat quietly before Rome parlaying with Belisarius and looking to negotiate a face-saving treaty. However, time was not on their side. Pestilence was rampant in the Gothic camps and provisions were becoming harder and harder to extract from the devastated countryside around Rome.

Plus, Belisarius had sent a sizable portion of his cavalry under the command of John, the nephew of Vitalian (otherwise known as Bloody John), around the Gothic flank to occupy key cities along the route to Ravenna, the capital of the Gothic kingdom. Worse, rumors were rampant that the disgruntled queen of the Goths, Matasuntha, had made favorable overtures to John to betray Ravenna into his hands. When word of this maneuver reached Vittiges, he acted quickly, fearing that his escape route might be cut off, and his capital and treasure might fall into the hands of his enemies.

Here is how Procopius, an eyewitness to events, described what happened next:
Now it was about the spring equinox, and one year had been spent in the siege and nine days in addition, when the Goths, having burned all their camps, set out at daybreak. 
[The entry on Pope Silverius in the Liber Pontificalis gives a date for the beginning of the Siege as February 21, AD 537. Thus, it seems from Procopius’s reckoning that the siege broke up some time in early-to-mid March in AD 538. Procopius continues:]
And the Romans, seeing their opponents in flight, were at a loss how to deal with the situation. For it so happened that the majority of the horsemen were not present at the time, since they had been sent to various places as has been stated by me above, and they did not think that by themselves, the were a match for so great a multitude of the enemy. However, Belisarius armed all the infantry and cavalry. And when he saw that more than half of the enemy had crossed the bridge, he led the army out through the small Pincian Gate, and the hand-to-hand battle which ensued proved to be equal to any that preceded it.
Click for info.
At the beginning, the barbarians [that is, the Goths] withstood their enemy vigorously, and many on both sides fell in the first encounter. But afterwards the Goths turned to flight and brought upon themselves a great and overwhelming calamity; for each man for himself was rushing to cross the [Milvian] bridge first. As a result of this they became very much crowded and suffered most cruelly, for they were being killed both by each other and by the enemy. Many, too, fell off the bridge on either side into the Tiber, sank with all their arms, and perished.
Finally, after losing in this way the most of their number, the remainder joined those who had crossed before. And Longinus the Isaurian and Mudilas, the guards of Belisarius, made themselves conspicuous for their valor in the battle. But while Mundilas, after engaging with four barbarians in turn and killing them all, was himself saved, Longinus having proved himself the chief cause of the rout of the enemy, fell where he fought, leaving the Roman army great regret for his loss. [Taken from: Procopius: History of the Wars, Book VI, Chapter X].
It is notable that Belisarius used tactics similar to those of Constantine the Great some 200 years before when he defeated the armies of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. In both cases, the victorious army was able to stampede their retreating enemies toward the bridge and use it as a choke-point. Once the rout was on, the defeated troops trampled their own comrades and pushed them off the bridge in their haste to cross the Tiber and reach safety on the other side. Given that Belisarius seemed a student of military history, it would be no surprise if he were cognizant of Constantine's victory when planning his attack on the fleeing Goths.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The second-most-famous vision of a cross in the sky

Cross in the sky over Jerusalem - as imagined by Jan Luyken, ca. 1700.
Most people are aware of the famous vision seen by Constantine the Great of a cross in the sky with the words, "In hoc signo, vinces" — by this sign you will conquer. Having seen this miraculous vision, Constantine would cause his soldiers to march under Christian symbols, be victorious in his wars, and eventually convert to Christianity. Many citizens of the Roman Empire would follow him.

But not all.

During the reign of Constantine's sons, paganism continued to be practiced throughout the empire. Indeed, thanks to the weak rule and the rumored personal scandals of Constans, a pagan usurper named Magnentius was able to rise in the West in AD 350. Magnentius's henchmen soon captured Constans and put him to death. This dangerous uprising would have to be confronted by the last remaining son of Constantine, Constantius II, the Augustus of the East.

While these political and military maneuverings were going on in the West, a miraculous event occurred in the East. In Jerusalem, another cross appeared in the sky, this time huge, long lasting and unmistakable. Here is how the event is described by the historian Hermias Sozomen writing in the 440s AD:
Click for more info.
At the time that Cyril administered the church of Jerusalem after Maximus, the sign of the cross appeared in the heavens. It shone brilliantly, not with divergent rays like a comet, but with the concentration of a great deal of light, apparently dense and yet transparent. Its length was about fifteen stadia from Calvary to the Mount of Olives, and its breadth was in proportion to its length. So extraordinary a phenomenon excited universal terror. Men, women, and children left their houses, the market-place, or their respective employments, and ran to the church, where they sang hymns to Christ together, and voluntarily confessed their belief in God. The intelligence disturbed in no little measure our entire dominions, and this happened rapidly; for, as the custom was, there were travelers from every part of the world, so to speak, who were dwelling at Jerusalem for prayer, or to visit its places of interest, these were spectators of the sign, and divulged the facts to their friends at home. The emperor was made acquainted with the occurrence, partly by numerous reports concerning it which were then current, and partly by a letter from Cyril the bishop. It was said that this prodigy was a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy contained in the Holy Scriptures. It was the means of the conversion of many pagans and Jews to Christianity. [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of SozomenBook IV, Chapter VI]
Sozomen likely picked up his description of this event from an eye-witness account written by Saint Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem. Cyril wrote a letter to Constantius announcing the advent of this strange apparition which he himself had witnessed. His letter has come down to us, and contains some additional details:
Click for more info.
The trophy of victory which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, won over death—I refer to the blessed Cross—has been seen flashing like lightning over Jerusalem. 
In these holy days of the Easter season, on 7 May at about the third hour, a huge cross made of light appeared in the sky above holy Golgotha extending as far as the holy Mount of Olives. It was not revealed to one or two people alone, but appeared unmistakably to everyone in the city. It was not as one might conclude that one had suffered a momentary optical illusion; it was visible to the human eye above the earth for several hours. The flashes it emitted outshone the rays of the sun, which would have outshone and obscured it themselves if it had not presented the watchers with more powerful illumination than the sun. It prompted the whole populace at once to run together into the holy church, overcome with fear and joy at the divine vision. Young and old, men and women of every age, even young girls confined to their rooms at home, natives and foreigners, Christians and pagans visiting from abroad, all together as if with a single voice raised a hymn of praise to God’s Only-begotten Son the wonder-worker. They had the evidence of their own senses that the holy faith of Christians is not based on the persuasive arguments of philosophy, but on the revelation of the Spirit and power; it is not proclaimed by mere human beings but testified from heaven by God himself. [Excerpted from: Yarnold: Cyril of Jerusalem]
What is perhaps most interesting about the above accounts is that we see here yet another occasion where, apparently, a mass conversion of pagans and Jews to Christianity took place as a direct result of witnessing a miraculous event.

As for Constantius, Cyril assures him in the abovementioned letter that the miracle will allow him to "face his enemies with greater heart." Later that year, in September AD 351, Constantius II and Magnentius would clash in the epic battle of Mursa Major in Dalmatia. Magnentius was defeated and forced to retreat. He would survive another two years before meeting his end after the battle of Mons Seleucus in Gaul.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

"This scoundrel does not even have a bone in his body" ~ Theodoric the Ostrogoth becomes king of Italy

Theodoric slays Odoacer, March 15, AD 493.
On March 5 in AD 493, Theodoric the Ostrogoth entered Ravenna, having forced Odoacar the Scirian, who had ruled Italy as rex for 17 years, to agree to joint rule. This agreement ended the war between them which had been ongoing for nearly four years.

Odoacar had deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in AD 476 and had ruled Italy himself since then. Attempts by the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno to get Odoacar to recognize even the appearance of Roman suzerainty over Italy were continually rebuffed.

In 489, when faced with a dangerous Ostrogothic horde outside the walls of Constantinople under the command of Theodoric the Amal, Zeno made a virtue out of necessity by offering Theodoric the rule of Italy if he could wrest it from Odoacar. Theodoric accepted the challenge and invaded Italy. He defeated Odoacar in a series of battles, eventually concluding a treaty on February 25 in AD 493 which officially ceded Ravenna, the capital of the Western Empire, to Theodoric and allowed for joint rule of Italy between Odoacar and Theodoric. Theodoric officially entered Ravenna on March 5. This arrangement, however, did not endure for long. Following is an ancient account of what happened next:
Theodoric and Odoacer made an agreement with each other to the effect that they both should rule over the Roman empire and they used to meet with each other quite often thereafter. The tenth day had not yet passed when, while Odoacer was visiting Theodoric, two of Theodoric’s men approached Odoacer as suppliants and grasped both his hands; at once those who were lying in ambush in the small chambers on either side rushed upon him with drawn swords, but, terrified at the sight, they did not attack him, and so Theodoric leaped forward and struck him on the collar bone with his sword, while Odoacer cried out, “Where is God?”  
Theodoric replied, “This is what you have done to my people.”  
The blow was mortal for it pierced Odoacer’s body through to the lower part of the back, and Theodoric is reported to have said, “This scoundrel does not even have a bone in his body.” [Taken from the Chronicle of John of Antioch, p. 445]
Theodoric and his henchmen then went about systematically murdering all of Odoacer’s family. With Odoacer and all other potential claimants to the throne of Italy slain, Theodoric took the title of king for himself, and ruled Italy in his own right for nearly 40 years, though nominally as viceroy under the suzerainty of the Eastern Roman Empire. He became known to history as Theodoric the Great and was considered an enlightened monarch by many of his Roman subjects.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

"Cut off a thong of his skin" ~ The martyrdom of Saint Herculanus AD 549

The Burial of St. Ercolano outside the Gates of Perugia
by Benedetto Bonfigli, ca. 1460.
March 1 is the feast day of the ancient Italian Saint Herculanus of Perugia. (He is also remembered on November 7). Though little-known today, Herculanus was bishop of that city and died a martyr in AD 549 during the disastrous Romano-Gothic War in Italy. Along with Saint Constantius, he is one of the ancient patrons of Perugia.

Practically all we know of the life and death of Herculanus comes from a passage in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, written down about fifty years after the event. Having surrendered to the Roman armies of Belisarius upon his arrival in central Italy in AD 537, Perugia endured sieges by the resurgent Goths in the 540s, culminating with the city's fall to the Gothic king, Totila, in AD 549.

Here is Pope Gregory’s account of what happened in the aftermath of the siege:
The virtuous Bishop Floridus told me a notable miracle, which was this:
"The great holy man," quoth he, "Herculanus, who brought me up, was Bishop of Perusium, exalted to that dignity from the state of a monk: in whose time the perfidious king Totila besieged it for seven years together, and the famine within was so great that many of the townsmen forsook the place: and before the seventh year was ended, the army of the Goths took the city. 
"The commander of his camp dispatched messengers to Totila, to know his pleasure what he should do with the Bishop, and the rest of the citizens: to whom he returned answer, that he should, from the top of the Bishop's head to his very foot, cut off a thong of his skin, and that done, to strike off his head. And as for the rest of the people, to put them all to the sword.
Click for more info.
"When he had received this order, he commanded the reverent Bishop Herculanus to be carried to the walls, and there to have his head strooken off, and when he was dead, that his skin should be cut from the very crown down to the very foot, as though indeed a thong had been taken from his body—after which barbarous fact they threw his dead corpse over the wall. Then some upon pity, joining the head to the body, did bury him, together with an infant that was there found dead.
"Forty days after, Totila making proclamation that the inhabitants, which were gone, should without all fear come back again, those, which upon extremity of hunger departed, returned home to their houses, and calling to mind the holy life of their Bishop, they sought for his body, that it might, as he deserved, be buried in the church of St. Peter. And when they came to the place where it lay, they digged, and found the body of the infant that was buried together with him, putrefied and full of worms: but the Bishop's body was so sound as though it had been newly put into the earth, and that which is more to be admired, and deserveth greater reverence, his head was so fast joined to his body as though it had never been cut off, neither did any sign of his beheading appear at all. Then they viewed likewise his back, whether that were also whole and sound, and they found it so perfect and well, as though never any knife had touched the same." [Taken from: The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, Book III, Chapter 13]
For a good deal more on Saint Herculanus and the legends that grew up around him in medieval Perugia, The Key to Umbria has some excellent information.

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Remain quiet and leave me to act as an emperor" ~ The accession of Valentinian I as Roman Emperor

The "Colossus of Barletta" which may
be a likeness of Valentinian I. 
February 26 in the year AD 364, Valentinian I succeeded the deceased Jovian as Roman Emperor. Valentinian was one of the last truly effective rulers of the Roman Empire in the West.

Jovian had died suddenly after a reign of merely eight months, having successfully extricated the beleaguered army of Julian the Apostate from Persia. Jovian's death was somewhat mysterious--some attributed it to over-eating, others to sleeping a damp room recently plastered with "unslaked lime."

Valentinian was proclaimed emperor by the army. A brief portrait of his life before ascending to the throne may be found in Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History, as follows:
He was a good man and capable of holding the reins of the empire. He had not long returned from banishment, for it is said that Julian, immediately on his accession to the empire, erased the name of Valentinian from the Jovian legions, as they were called, and condemned him to perpetual banishment, under the pretext that he had failed in his duty of leading out the soldiers under his command against the enemy.
The true reason of his condemnation, however, was the following: When Julian was in Gaul, he went one day to a temple to offer incense. Valentinian accompanied him, according to an ancient Roman law, which still prevails, and which enacted that the leader of the Jovians and the Herculeans (that is to say, the legions of soldiers who have received this appellation in honor of Jupiter and of Hercules) should always attend the emperor as his bodyguard. When they were about to enter the temple, the priest, in accordance with the pagan custom, sprinkled water upon them with the branch of a tree. A drop fell upon the robe of Valentinian. He scarcely could restrain himself, for he was a Christian, and he rebuked his asperser. It is even said that he cut off, in view of the emperor, the portion of the garment on which the water had fallen, and flung it from him.  
From that moment Julian entertained inimical feelings against him, and soon after banished him to Melitine in Armenia, under the plea of misconduct in military affairs, for he would not have religion regarded as the cause of the decree, lest Valentinian should be accounted a martyr or a confessor....
Click for more info.
As soon as Jovian succeeded to the throne, Valentinian was recalled from banishment to Nic├Ža, but the death of the emperor in the meantime took place, and Valentinian, by the unanimous consent of the troops and those who held the chief positions in the government, was appointed his successor. When he was invested with the symbols of imperial power, the soldiers cried out that it was necessary to elect some one to share the burden of government. To this proposition, Valentinian made the following reply:
"It depended on you alone, O soldiers, to proclaim me emperor; but now that you have elected me, it depends not upon you, but upon me, to perform what you demand. Remain quiet, as subjects ought to do, and leave me to act as an emperor in attending to the public affairs."
[Taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 6.]
Valentinian would go on to have a successful reign, stabilizing the frontiers in the West, while devolving power in the East upon his brother, Valens. With Valentinian's death in AD 375, things began falling apart very rapidly for both halves of the empire.