Saturday, January 14, 2017

"Where Christ is with us, a spider’s web our wall shall be...

...where Christ is not, our wall a spider’s web shall be."

Thus wrote Saint Paulinus of Nola in the early-5th century AD in his biography of Saint Felix of Nola, a confessor who passed to eternal life on January 14 during the persecutions of the 250s AD. In some traditions, St. Felix is a martyr, but in the poetic biography of Paulinus, he is acclaimed a confessor--one who fearlessly preaches the Gospel during dangerous times and who suffered for it but who is not granted the grace of martyrdom. Here is an excerpt from Saint Paulinus's life of Saint Felix, as put into prose by Venerable Bede in the 8th century AD, telling the story of how Felix was rescued from capture by the quick thinking of an industrious arachnid:
But the persecution was not yet over. Felix was again sought for, the enemy came to his house, and again essayed to seize him and deliver him over to death. He was by chance away from home, standing in the market-place with his friends, and teaching to the surrounding people, as was his wont, the word of God. His adversaries, hearing that he was there, rushed thither with drawn swords, but when they came to the place, either his countenance or their hearts were changed by a sudden act of Divine Providence, and they no longer knew him, though up to that day they had known him well. They therefore asked the priest himself where Felix was: the prudent man perceived that it was the work of God, and replied, smiling, "I do not know the man you are looking for." And in this he spoke the truth, for nobody does know himself.

Upon this the persecutors turned their attention elsewhere, and asked those whom they met, where Felix was. One of them, by chance, ignorant of their motives, and thinking they were out of their wits, began to reprove them for their folly in not knowing the man they had been talking to, and at the same time pointed out to them where he was gone. Fired to madness they rushed after Felix, who, warned of their coming by the multitude of citizens that preceded, and by the clamors of the people who were confounded at the enemy’s approach, withdrew to a secret place, which had no other defense than a fragment of a half ruined wall.

No sooner, however, had the man of God entered that place, than he was protected by a work of the Divine hand: for a mound of rubbish suddenly arose and closed in the place, and a spider, by Divine warning, immediately hung its floating web on the abandoned spot. The adversaries approached and halted in awe, saying among themselves, "Is it not foolish for us to look for anyone in this place? It is quite clear that no one has been here before ourselves, for if any one had entered, these spider’s webs could not have remained whole, for even the smallest flies will sometimes break through them. The man who told us he was here must have done so deceitfully, to delay us longer from finding him. Let us return, and refrain from searching this place, the very appearance of which shows that no one has been here before us."

Interior of the paleochristian basilica of St. Felix at Cimitile,
Nola, Italy (near Naples).
Thus foiled, they retraced their steps in anger, and fired with rage against him who had by his deceit led them to the place, to witness the wisdom of our pious Creator and Protector. Surely, the highest walls sometimes betray a beleaguered city, as well as defend it: for Christ protected his humble servant from detection and imprisonment at the hands of his armed enemies by a frail spider’s web: as the venerable father Paulinus says truly on this subject,—"Where Christ is with us, a spider’s web our wall shall be; where Christ is not, our wall a spider’s web shall be."

The evening was approaching when his enemies departed; and Felix, when they were gone, withdrew to a safer place of refuge, rejoicing in the Divine protection, and singing within himself,―“Though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil, for Thou art with me.” When day dawned, he withdrew to a more retired place among the buildings of the city, where for six whole months he lived apart from men, relying on the protection of the Divine presence, according to the words of the Psalmist―“His countenance was hidden from the fear Miraculous food and water.of men;” and Providence fed him during this long space of time in a manner wonderful and unknown to men.
Read the complete life of St. Felix by Paulinus/Venerable Bede here or here.

For a delightful modern retelling of the above story, perfect for young children ages 4-9, see Saint Felix and the Spider by Dessi Jackson and Lydia Grace Kadar-Kallen. Nicely illustrated, the book features a brief biography of Saint Felix after the story. My own children loved it. Highly recommended!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

January 12 ~ On this day, AD 532, the burning of Hagia Sophia II

Original steps leading up to the entrance of Theodosius's
Hagia Sophia. Taken from here.
Many people know of Justinian’s monumental basilica, Hagia Sophia, which has stood in Constantinople/Istanbul for nearly 1,500 years. Few people, however, realize that Justinian’s church is actually the third monumental basilica to be built on that site.

Originally completed in about AD 415, the second of the three great basilicas was burnt to the ground on the night of January 12, AD 532 during the Nika riots in Constantinople. For an overview of this tragic revolt that ended in the slaughter of over 30,000, see my previous post: Justinian 31, Factionists 10: The Nika Rebellion of AD 532.

Procopius of Caesarea, possibly an eye-witness, described the destruction of the church as follows:
The lowest dregs of the people in Byzantium once assailed the Emperor Justinian in the rebellion called Nika, which I have clearly described in my History of the Wars. To prove that it was not merely against the emperor but no less against God that they took up arms, they ventured to burn the church of the Christians which the people of Byzantium call Sophia, a name most worthy of God. God permitted them to effect this crime, knowing how great the beauty of this church would be when restored. Thus the church was entirely reduced to ashes. (Taken from The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople).
Sadly, descriptions of the great church of Theodosius II in the surviving literature of the time are few and far between. We get a small sense of what it may have looked like in this brief notice from the Paschal Chronicle within the narrative of the Nika rebellion:
Thereafter, the rioters set fire to the bronze-roofed entrance to the Palace [the Chalke Gate], and it was burnt, together with the portico of the scholarii and the protectors and candidate, and there was a breach. And similarly both the Senate-house, by the Augustaeum as it is called, was burnt, and the whole of the Great Church together with its awesome and marvelous columns was completely demolished on all four sides. (Taken from “The account of the nika riots as evidence for sixth-century constantinopolitan topography,” by Nigel Westbrook.)
Remains of Hagia Sophia II, destroyed AD 532. Taken from here.
Filling in the gaps, we have some archaeological evidence that was unearthed in the open area in front of the existing Hagia Sophia in 1935 by A. M. Schneider. There is an excellent gallery of photos showing some of the monumental stonework associated with Theodosius II’s church on WikiMedia Commons, including the above frieze showing several lambs in a row.

Also floating around out there is this tentative reconstruction of the façade of Theodosius II’s church, showing the “awesome and marvelous columns” as described above in the Paschal Chronicle’s account.

The great church itself is supposed to have had a five-aisle nave and featured a golden altar donated by Saint Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II. The altar is described as follows by Sozomen in his Ecclesiastical History:
In token of her virginity and the headship of her brother, she [Pulcheria] consecrated in the church of Constantinople, a holy table, a remarkable fabric and very beautiful to see; it was made of gold and precious stones; and she inscribed these things on the front of the table, so that it might be patent to all.
Unfortunately for this structure, it was roofed with wood which made it particularly susceptible to fire. Justinian's grand replacement, would not have this defect.

Monday, January 09, 2017

January 9, AD 475 ~ Beginning of the disastrous reign of Basiliscus as Eastern Roman Emperor

Gold solidus of Basiliscus, ca. AD 476.
That the dissolution of imperial government in the Western Roman Empire took place in September of AD 476 is largely due to the ambitions and failures of one man: Flavius Basiliscus. For a guy whom almost no one today has ever heard of, he was the sine qua non for several major events that sent disruptive waves rippling across the history of the world.

Brother-in-law of the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I, Basiliscus was entrusted with command of the one of the largest military expeditions in Roman history – the 468 AD assault on the Vandalic kingdom which had squatted on Roman territory in north Africa for over 30 years. So crucial was this campaign to restoring the territorial integrity of the Empire that the treasuries of the Western and Eastern empires were emptied to finance it. The overwhelming force of 100,000-plus Roman troops and mercenaries led by Basiliscus reached Africa with little trouble. They were in the process of negotiating a surrender of the Vandals when their fleet was ambushed and destroyed by the elderly but wily Vandal King, Gaiseric, and his fire-ships.

This catastrophic defeat precipitated military, economic and political crises across both halves of the empire, but impacted the already tottering West most heavily. Basiliscus was able to escape the carnage and return to Constantinople where his sister, Verina, was Leo I's wife. When Leo died six years later, and the unpopular Isaurian general Zeno succeeded to the throne, Basiliscus began to agitate for a revolt.

The following passage from the Life of Saint Daniel the Stylite, was written by one of the saint’s disciples who was an eye-witness to these times. In this excerpt, we see the emperor Zeno approaching the famous pillar saint who resided at Anaplus, about 10 miles north of Constantinople, to ask his advice on the plots against him:
The Roman government was being well administered by the will of God, and the State was enjoying a time of quiet and order, and the holy churches were living in peace and unity, when the ever envious and malignant Devil sowed seeds of unjust hatred in the hearts of some who claimed to be the Emperor Zeno's kinsmen, I mean Basiliscus, Armatus and Marcianus and some other senators. When Zeno became aware of the treachery that was being planned against him, he went up to the holy man and confided to him the matter of the plot. The holy man said to him, 'Do not let yourself be troubled about this; for all things that have been foreordained must be accomplished upon you. They will chase you out of the kingdom, and in the place where you find a refuge, you will be in such distress that in your need you will partake of the grass of the earth. But do not lose heart; for it is necessary that you should become a second Nebuchadnezzar, and those who are now expelling you, having felt the lack of you, will recall you in the fullness of time. You will return to your Empire, and more honor and glory shall be added unto you and you shall die in it. Therefore bear all with gratitude; for thus must these things be'. The Emperor thanked him for these words (for he had already put him to the test in the case of other prophecies of his) and after being blessed by the holy man he took his leave and went down to the City.

Now the malicious men whom I mentioned above had free access to the blessed Empress Verina, Basiliscus because he was her brother and chief of the Senate, and Armatus as being her nephew and Zuzus as being the husband of her sister, and Marcianus the husband of her daughter and son of an emperor. They were constantly at her side and by their guile persuaded her to conspire with them to drive Zeno from the throne. As he knew of their wickedness and that he was in danger of assassination, he took his own wife, the Empress Ariadne, and some eunuchs, and unbeknown to all he left the palace one night during a very heavy storm. They crossed the straits and landed at Chalcedon because of their pursuers, and they escaped and reached the province of Isauria. The Empress Verina so controlled the revolution that she secured the crown for her brother Basiliscus; who shortly afterwards attempted to do away with his own sister. However, she fled to the oratory of the Ever-Virgin Mary in Blachernae and remained there as long as Basiliscus lived.
Basiliscus’s brief reign as emperor, which began on January 9, 475, was an unmitigated disaster. His alienation of the orthodox Christians eventually resulted in St. Daniel descending from his pillar for the first time in decades, causing a sensation in Constantinople that ended with both Basiliscus and the patriarch bowing down at the saint’s mutilated feet to beg forgiveness.

St. Daniel the Stylite.
Within a few months, whatever was left of Basiliscus’s base of support was gone. Zeno returned from Isauria and reclaimed the imperial diadem, casting Basiliscus and his family into the outer darkness of Phrygia to eventually die of starvation while locked in a cistern.

It was while Zeno was reconsolidating his power in Constantinople in September of AD 476 that Odoacer made his move and deposed the last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Zeno was too weak to respond with any measure other than to ratify Odoacer as Dux of Italy, which merely confirmed his rule as an accomplished fact.

The excerpt above was taken from the Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook.

The complete life of Daniel the Stylite in book form may be found in an excellent compilation entitled Three Byzantine Saints, edited by Elizabeth Dawes. I own this book and highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

5th century bishop, Possidius of Calama, describes the last days of St. Augustine and the Vandal Conquest of Roman Africa

Saint Augustine, one of the greatest intellects in human history and a Catholic apologist par excellence, lived and proselytized during the twilight of the Roman Empire. As his life drew to a close, however, his homeland of Roman Numidia was overrun by an army of marauding Vandals--a barbaric host which had carved a swath through the enervated provinces of Gaul, Spain and Mauritania. By the time the Vandal armies reached Augustine's province of Numidia in about AD 430, the great bishop lay on his deathbed. His city of Hippo Regius was besieged and the remaining Roman forces under Count Boniface were defeated, leaving all of Africa open to the invaders.

With Augustine at the time of his death was his friend, Possidius, bishop of Calama. Possidius's town had already been captured by the Vandals and he had sought refuge behind the walls of Hippo. Later, Possidus would write his Vita Augustini, which provides one of the few contemporary accounts of the Vandal invasion of Roman Africa. The excerpt in the video above and pasted below is taken from the Vita Augustini of Possidius, Chapter 28.
"...It came about, in accordance with the divine will and command, that a great host of savage foes, Vandals and Alans, with some of the Gothic tribe interspersed, and various other peoples, armed with all kinds of weapons and well trained in warfare, came by ship from the regions of Spain across the sea and poured into Africa and overran it. And everywhere through the regions of Mauretania, even crossing over to other of our provinces and territories, raging with cruelty and barbarity, they completely devastated everything they could by their pillage, murder and varied tortures, conflagrations and other innumerable and unspeakable crimes, sparing neither sex nor age, nor even the priests or ministers of God, nor yet the ornaments or vessels of the churches nor even the buildings. 
Now the man of God did not believe and think as other men did regarding the causes from which this most fierce assault and devastation of the foe had arisen and come to pass. But considering these matters more deeply and profoundly and perceiving in them above all the dangers and the death of souls (since, as it is written, "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow," and "An understanding heart is a worm in the bones"), more than ever tears were his meat day and night, as he passed through and endured those days of his life, now almost ended, which beyond all others were the most bitter and mournful of his old age. For he saw cities overthrown in destruction, and the resident citizens, together with the buildings on their lands, partly annihilated by the enemy's slaughter and others driven into flight and dispersed.
He saw churches stripped of priests and ministers, and holy virgins and all the monastics scattered in every direction. Here he saw some succumb to torture and others slain by the sword, while still others in captivity, losing their innocency and faith both in soul and body, received from their foes the harsh and evil treatment of slaves. He saw the hymns and praises of God perish from the churches; the church buildings in many places consumed by fire; the regular services which were due to God cease from their appointed places; the holy sacraments no longer desired, or if some one did desire them, no one could easily be found to administer them. When they gathered in flight amid the mountain forests, in the caves and caverns of the rocks or in any other kind of retreat, some were captured and put to death while others were robbed and deprived of the necessary means of sustenance so that they gradually perished of hunger. 
Even the bishops of the churches and the clergy who, by the help of God, did not chance to meet the foe or, if they did meet them, escaped their hands, he saw despoiled and stripped of all their goods and begging in abject poverty, nor could they all be furnished with that by which they might be relieved. Of the innumerable churches he saw only three survive, namely those of Carthage, Hippo and Cirta, which by God's favor were not demolished. These cities too still stand, protected by human and divine aid, although after Augustine's death the city of Hippo, abandoned by its inhabitants, was burned by the enemy. Amid these calamities he was consoled by the thought of a certain wise man who said: "He is not to be thought great who thinks it strange that wood and stones should fall and mortals die."
"But Augustine, being exceeding wise, daily bewailed all these events. And it increased his grief and sorrow that this same enemy also came to besiege the city of the Hippo-Regians which had so far maintained its position. With its defence at this time the late Count Boniface had been entrusted with an army of allied Goths. For almost fourteen months they shut up and besieged the city; and they even cut off its sea-coast by blockade. 
We ourselves with other of our fellow-bishops from the neighboring regions took refuge in this city and remained in it during the whole time of the siege. Consequently we very frequently conversed together and meditated on the awful judgments of God laid bare before our eyes, saying: "Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments." And in our common grief, with groanings and tears, we besought the Father of mercies and the Lord of all consolation that He vouchsafe to sustain us in this tribulation."
The English translation of the whole Vita Augustini of Possidius is available in an inexpensive English translation as part of the Christian Roman Empire series.

It may also be found on in print and Kindle editions.

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Epiphany - Some Ancient Sources

The arrival of the Magi as depicted
on a Roman sarcophagus fragment,
ca. 4th century AD.
The Scriptural recounting in the Gospel of Saint Matthew of the mysterious wise men who visited the baby Jesus bearing gifts is one of the most enduring and compelling scenes in Sacred Scripture. The rudimentary nature of St. Matthew’s description of the Magi’s arrival has encouraged a flowering of apocryphal literature across the centuries which has added depth and detail to the occasion of the Epiphany.

There are numerous references to the Magi in early post-Scriptural literature. Saint Justin Martyr mentions them prominently in his debate with Trypho (Chapter 78) in the mid-first century AD. Magi were of the priestly caste in Persia and were considered wonder-workers throughout the East. Christians did not deny that the Magi were capable of supernatural acts. Justin, for example, termed such “miracles” as counterfeits wrought by the devil. A converted pagan himself, Justin uses the Magi as a kind of archetype for the pre-Christian gentiles more generally who believed in false divinities because of the deceits of demons. However, upon finding Christ, the Magi were converted to the true belief. St. Justin says:
“For the Magi, who were held in bondage for the commission of all evil deeds through the power of that demon, by coming to worship Christ, shows that they have revolted from that dominion which held them captive.”
Artistic images of the Magi also date back to the earliest days of Christianity. The image above is from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome and shows a faded fresco of the Magi offering gifts to the Virgin and Child above the archway. (Click for a larger image). The artwork in this catacomb is thought to have originated in the mid-third century AD.

With the arrival of Constantine and toleration of Christianity, artistic representations of the Magi become more plentiful. Above is an example from an early 4th century Roman sarcophagus. The three Magi offer their gifts to the Christ Child and Blessed Mother, while St. Joseph looks on from behind. The first Magi points to a set of three dots above the Virgin’s head. Normally a star was represented here. Perhaps three dots represent the Trinity. (Click for a larger image.) For an excellent discussion of the Epiphany in art, please see this site maintained by Prof. Richard Stracke.

The names of the Magi are drawn from a later source: the apocryphal Armenian Gospel of the Infancy. This work, which is believed to date from the early 6th century AD, gives a detailed and fanciful account of the arrival of the Magi, making them kings in command of an army 12,000 strong. Here is a short excerpt drawn from Abraham Terian’s English translation:
And Joseph and Mary, together with the child, stayed (there) not openly but secretly—they say—lest anyone should know. After two days had passed, which was the 23 of the month Tebeth and 8 January, behold, behold the Magi from the east, who had left their land with many armies, arrived in the city of Jerusalem within nine months. And the three Magian kings were brothers. The first, Melkon, was king of the Persians; the second, Gaspar, was king of the Indians; the third, Baltasar, was king of the Arabians…. And the Magi came with joy to the entrance of the cave and saw the child seated in the manger for brute animals, and falling prostrate they worshipped him, both kings and princes and the whole multitude of their throng. And bringing gifts, they presented them to him….

They [the other two] asked Gaspar, the king of India: ‘How did you see him when you were presenting him the frankincense?” Gaspar said: “I saw him as Son of God embodied, seated on the throne of glory and armies of bodiless beings were serving him.” They said to him, “Well said.”

Then they asked Baltasar, the king of Arabia: “How did you see him when you were presenting him the treasure?” Baltasar said, “Physically, I saw him as Son of Man, son of a king, seated on the highest of thrones and countless armies before him.” They said to him, “You too have spoken well.”

Then they asked Melkon, the king of Persia, “How did you see him when you were presenting the myrrh?” Melkon said: “I saw him bodily tortured and dead, then risen from the dead.” They said to him: “You too have spoken well.”

When the kings heard this, they marveled with amazement and said to one another: “What are these new wonders that were shown to us, (our) testimonies being different from one another? We believe the facts we saw with our eyes!”
You have to purchase the book to read more. Warning, it’s an Oxford monograph, so it’s pricey.

Another ancient source, the so-called Incomplete Commentary on Matthew, which appears to be a transcription of homilies delivered by an Arian priest of about the sixth century AD, relates that the Magi continued as believers in the Christ after returning to their homelands, and were later baptized by the apostle, Saint Thomas:
“When they returned, they continued to worship and glorify God all the more eagerly than before, and they proclaimed to everyone in their nation and made many learned. At last, when the apostle Thomas went to that province after the resurrection of the Lord, they joined themselves to him, were baptized by him and assisted in his preaching.”
This excerpt is taken from a translation by James A. Kellerman, available for purchase here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Saint Genevieve and barbarism: From Attila to the Republic

January 3 is the feast of Saint Genevieve. History tells that this great late Roman saint was born in the Western Empire about the year AD 422, and passed to eternal life on January 3, AD 512. During her life, she witnessed the momentous events which transformed her home in Roman Gaul to a province of the new Frankish kingdom, and indeed she played an integral part in these events.

Enjoy this excerpt from the Vita Sancta Genovefa, translated into 17th century English. Though reproduced in The Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographical literature compiled in the mid-13th century, the Life of Genevieve is reckoned to have originated from a much earlier source, possibly roughly contemporary with the life of the saint. This excerpt tells of how Genevieve convinced the merchants of Paris to leave their goods in the city during the invasion of Attila, prophesying that Paris would remain safe, while other cities would be devastated:

St. Genevieve and Attila, though these Huns look more like Franks to me.
"Tidings came to Paris that Attila, the felon king of Hungary, had enterprised to destroy and waste the parts of France, and to subdue them to his domination. The burgesses of Paris, for great dread that they had, sent their goods into other cities more sure. Saint Genevieve warned and admonished the good women of the town that they should wake in fastings and in orisons, by which they might assuage the ire of our Lord and eschew the tyranny of their enemies, like as did sometime the two holy women Judith and Esther. They obeyed her, and were long and many days in the church in wakings, fastings and in orisons. She said to the burgesses that they should not remove their goods, ne send them out of the town of Paris, for the other cities that they supposed should be more sure, should be destroyed and wasted, but by the grace of God, Paris should have none harm. And, some had indignation at her, and said that a false prophet was risen and appeared in their time, an began among them to ask and treat whether they should drown her or stone her. Whilst they were thus treating, as God would, came to Paris, after the decease of Saint Germain, the archdeacon of Auxerre, and when he understood that they treated together of her death, he came to them, an said: Fair sirs, for God’s sake do not this mischief, for she of whom ye treat, Saint Germain witnesseth that she was chosen of God in her mother’s belly, and lo! here be the letters that he hath sent to her in which he recommendeth him to her prayers. When the burgesses heard these words recited by him of Saint Germain, and saw the letters, they marvelled and feared God, and left their evil counsel and did no more thereto. Thus our Lord kept her from harm, which keepeth alway them that be his, and defendeth, after that the apostle saith, and for her love did so much that the tyrants approached not Paris, thank and glory to God and honour to the virgin."
Read the entire Vita as taken from the Golden Legend here. 

The relics of Saint Genevieve survived in Paris for nearly 1,300 years. Sadly, the anti-Catholic lunacy of the French Revolution brought about the destruction of the relics in 1793. In a bizarre satanic mimicry of justice, the Revolutionaries seized the relics on November 6, 1793 and held a mock trial. An excerpt from Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present by Boldrick et al. tells the rest of the story:
"That evening, the revolutionary committee of the Section du Pantheon delivered up the reliquary of Saint Genevieve to the national Mint where it was broken up to be melted down to support the Republic’s war efforts. They then took the relics to the Hotel de Ville where they derided the objects’ efficacy in eliciting divine intervention, saying that, ‘The transit of this patron of Parisians took place with great tranquility and without miracles.”…They added derisively that ‘As the Parlement [of the ancient regime] could not be present, Saint Genevieve and her reliquary were lowered and transported to the Mint.’…To make the point unambiguously clear, on the municipality’s order, on 3 December 1793 the relics were taken to the Place de Greve and burnt, transforming objects deemed by Catholics to be saintly into profaned ashes that were scattered in the Seine…Indeed, as Sluhovsky has written, citing the contemporary newspaper Moniteur, ‘these bones were put on trial, were found guilty of collaboration with the royal authorities, and were condemned to be burned…to expiate thereby for the crime of participating in the propagation of error."
But Saint Genevieve would have the last word. The Revolutionary Republic would prove as short lived as Attila's empire--devoured just as thoroughly by God's cleansing fire.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The prophecy of the Christ in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue

Marble bust of Publius Virgilius Maro.
In a previous post, I described the messianic prophecy of the Erythræan Sibyl as expounded upon by the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, delivered in the early 4th century AD. In this same oration, Constantine cites the prophetic nature of one of Virgil's Eclogues to further support his premise that the coming of the Christ was predicted not only by the Hebrew prophets, but by pagan oracles as well.

Calling Virgil the "prince of the Latin poets," Constantine praises the 4th Eclogue, saying:
"We perceive that these words are spoken plainly and at the same time darkly, by way of allegory. Those who search deeply for the import of the words, are able to discern the Divinity of Christ. But lest any of the powerful in the imperial city might be able to accuse the poet of writing anything contrary to the laws of the country, and subverting the religious sentiments which had prevailed from ancient times, he intentionally obscures the truth. For he was acquainted, as I believe, with that blessed mystery which gave to our Lord the name of Savior: but, that he might avoid the severity of cruel men, he drew the thoughts of his hearers to objects with which they were familiar."
Constantine then proceeds to offer a line-by-line parsing of the text, providing his own commentary on the prophetic nature the verses. He lauds Virgil without reservation, pointing out that he remains a poet via his use of lyrical pagan religious language, and engages in prophecy almost accidentally and without presumption:
"Well said, wisest of bards! You have carried the license of a poet precisely to the proper point. For it was not your purpose to assume the functions of a prophet, to which you had no claim. I suppose also he was restrained by a sense of the danger which threatened one who should assail the credit of ancient religious practice. Cautiously, therefore, and securely, as far as possible, he presents the truth to those who have faculties to understand it."
Here is a complete translation of the Fourth Eclogue done by Paul Carus in 1918.

O ye Sicilian Muses,
   let higher our strains be and grander.
Tamarisks do not please all,
   nor a song of the vineyards, the lowly.
Take we our theme from the woods,
   let the woods of the consul be worthy.
Now comes the era described
   in the verse of the Sybil of Cumae,
From the beginning is started again
   the great order of ages,
Now does the virgin return,
   the Saturnian Kingdom appeareth;
Now from the heavens on high
   is descending a new generation.
"Thus" spake in concert the Fates
   addressing their spindles, according
To the eternal decree of the gods:
   "Run on, oh ye ages!
Bless him, the infant with whom
   discontinues the era of iron;
Bless him with whom will arise
   the new race that is gloriously golden,
Bless, chaste Lucina, the boy;
   now reigneth thy brother Apollo.
Now is beginning this wonderful age
   while thou rulest as consul.
Pollio, under thy sway,
   in thy year, the great months are proceeding.
Thou art the leader, and traces of crime
   that are not yet abolished
Will be forever removed,
   and the earth will be free from its terror.
First will the earth without culture,
   dear boy, bring thee gifts for thy childhood,
Vines of green ivy, and ladygloves
   lovely with wonderful fragrance;
Mixed with the cheerful acanthus
   will grow Colocasian lilies.
Yea, at the cradle for thee,
   there shall blossom the sweetest of flowers;
Goats will return by themselves
   to our homesteads with udders distended,
Nor any longer our cattle
   shall fear huge terrible lions.
Then will the serpent die out,
   and the herbs disappear that bear poison,
While the Assyrian spikenard
   will thrive in most bountiful plenty.
But when the age thou attainest
   to read of the deeds of thy fathers,
And of the heroes, and when thou
   beginnest to know what is virtue,
Then will the ripening ears of the fields
   by and by turn to yellow.
Then will be found the luxurious grape
   upon briars and brambles.
And the hard oaks will be dripping
   with honey, like dew in the morning.
But that boy will partake of the life of the gods,
   he will meet them,
Meet all the heroes; and he
   will in turn by the gods be beholden.
Over a pacified world will he rule
   patriarchic in virtue.
Yet some traces remain
   of the ancient insidious vices
Which will induce bold sailors
   the ocean to dare. It will prompt us
Walls round the cities to build
   and to cleave our acres with furrows.
Then will another ship Argo,
   well steered by a helmsman like Tiphys,
Carry new heroes to Colchis
   and other great wars are expected.
Then against Troy will be sent
   for a second time mighty Achilles.
Afterwards when thine own age
   has endowed thee with vigorous manhood,
Sailors no longer will sail on the sea,
   for no ships will be needed
For an exchange of our goods.
   All produce will grow in each country.
Neither the soil will be tilled with the hoe,
   nor the grape vine need pruning;
Even the bullocks will stray
   from the plow set free by the farmer.
Wool will no longer be dyed
   to exhibit the various colors,
For in the meadows the ram will
   himself grow a fleece that is sometimes
Reddish like purple and sometimes
   will turn into yellow like saffron.
Lambs when they feed, of themselves
   will be dizened in hues that are scarlet.
Deign to accept — for the time is fulfilled —
   the illustrious honors,
Thou, O loved offspring of gods,
   O son of great Jove, the Almighty.
See how the world toward thee
   with its ponderous mass is inclining.
See all the countries, the tracts of the sea,
   and the depth of the heaven,
See how they hail the arrival,
   they all, of the age that is coming.
Oh that my life for the future
   would last but sufficiently longer,
Also my spirit, that I thy glory
   might praise in my verses;
Neither should Orpheus the Thracian,
   nor Linus excel me in singing,
E'en though the former were helped
   by his mother, the last by his father.
Son of Calliope, Orpheus,
   and Linus, the son of Apollo,
Even if Pan would contest
   and Arcadians acted as umpires!
Even God Pan (may Arcadians judge!)
   will confess to be beaten.
Show, little boy, by thy smile
   that already thou knowest thy mother
Who for thy sake hath endured
   ten months of solicitous trouble.
Smile, little infant! on Thee
   have not yet been smiling thy parents,
Nor hast thou dined with the gods,
   nor been wedded as yet to a goddess.

In reading this, it is perhaps more clear why Dante chose Virgil as the first among the virtuous pagans and as a worthy guide for his descent down into the Inferno. For a brief history of Virgil's reputation as a crypto-prophet of Christ, see this excellent article by Ella Bourne (1916): The Messianic Prophecy in Vergil's Fourth Eclogue.

Constantine's complete Oration to the Assembly of the Saints may be found here. His commentary on Virgil's Fourth Eclogue may be found in Chapters 19, 20 and 21.

The Erythræan Sibyl's prophecy of the Christ

Michelangelo's Erythræan Sibyl
from the Sistine Chapel.
Most semi-conscious Christians are aware that the coming of Jesus was foretold in the Hebrew sacred books, particularly the prophetic writings of Isaiah. That said, almost no one today realizes that it was a common belief among early Christians that Our Lord’s advent was predicted by pagan oracles as well. It is for this reason that we see the various pagan Sibyls included among the Hebrew prophets in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Though normally possessed by demonic spirits in the form of pagan divinities, it was believed that these prophetesses would occasionally be compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak the truth in order to help prepare the gentile world for the coming of Jesus.

One of the earliest proponents of this theory was, in fact, the emperor Constantine himself. In his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, transcribed by Eusebius Pamphilius in the early 4th century AD, Constantine presents evidence that the Erythræan Sibyl, writing in Asia Minor hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, predicted both His coming and His judgment upon mankind. Constantine explains:
"The Erythræan Sibyl, then, who herself assures us that she lived in the sixth generation after the flood, was a priestess of Apollo, who wore the sacred fillet in imitation of the God she served, who guarded also the tripod encompassed with the serpent's folds, and returned prophetic answers to those who approached her shrine; having been devoted by the folly of her parents to this service, a service productive of nothing good or noble, but only of indecent fury, such as we find recorded in the case of Daphne. On one occasion, however, having rushed into the sanctuary of her vain superstition, she became really filled with inspiration from above, and declared in prophetic verses the future purposes of God."
He then goes on to cite the Sibyl's verses. A straight reading of the words reveals an eschatological text concerning the world's end and divine judgment using terminology which, though generally Judeo-Christian in tone, does not mention anything specifically Christian. The verses are remarkable, however, because the lines form an acrostic--that is, a poetic form in which a hidden message is related via the first letter of each line. In the Greek, these letters spell out the words: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Cross. These verses in the original Greek, and in a literal translation into English with explanation, may be found here.

The Erythræan Sibyl from the Duomo in Siena.
"It is evident," Constantine continues, "that the virgin [meaning, the Sibyl] uttered these verses under the influence of Divine inspiration. And I cannot but esteem her blessed, whom the Savior thus selected to unfold his gracious purpose towards us."

The first thought of skeptical moderns when confronted with these verses is that they are forgeries written by a Christian hand after the fact and dropped into the so-called Sibylline literature. Apparently, such arguments were current in Constantine's time as well, for the emperor mentions these types of doubts and has the refutation immediately at hand:
"Many, however, who admit that the Erythræan Sibyl was really a prophetess, yet refuse to credit this prediction, and imagine that someone professing our faith, and not unacquainted with the poetic art, was the composer of these verses. They hold, in short, that they are a forgery, and alleged to be the prophecies of the Sibyl on the ground of their containing useful moral sentiments, tending to restrain licentiousness, and to lead man to a life of sobriety and decorum. Truth, however, in this case is evident, since the diligence of our countrymen has made a careful computation of the times; so that there is no room to suspect that this poem was composed after the advent and condemnation of Christ, or that the general report is false, that the verses were a prediction of the Sibyl in an early age. For it is allowed that Cicero was acquainted with this poem, which he translated into the Latin tongue, and incorporated with his own works. This writer was put to death during the ascendancy of Antony, who in his turn was conquered by Augustus, whose reign lasted fifty-six years. Tiberius succeeded, in whose age it was that the Savior's advent enlightened the world, the mystery of our most holy religion began to prevail, and as it were a new race of men commenced."
Read the full Oration of Constantine (Chapters 18 and 19) here.

This testimony of the Erythræan Sibyl is later cited by Saint Augustine in his magnum opus, The City of God, Book 18, Chapter 23. Augustine provides his own translation of the acrostic verses along with additional information borrowed from the late 3rd century Christian apologist, Lactantius. The writings of Lactantius regarding the Sibylline prophecies and their relationship to Christianity may be found here.

See the second part of this post in which Constantine calls out and parses the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, written in 40 BC, as another prophecy of the Christ.