Wednesday, November 22, 2017

USS Baltimore heading for home from Yokohama in 1895.

USS Baltimore flying the "Homeward Bounder" from the
foremast from Three Years Behind the Guns.
For Thanksgiving 2017, here is an excerpt from the excellent memoir of US navy life near the turn of the 20th century, Three Years Behind the Guns. In this passage, we catch a glimpse of how landsman John B. Tisdale spent his first holidays abroad aboard USS Olympia. There is a tinge of melancholy to his words as he and his fellows watch the joyous departure of their companion, USS Baltimore, from Yokohama, flying the "homeward bounder." 

While reading, we should spare a prayer for our good and honorable service men who are spending this Thanksgiving encamped in hostile lands. May all of them be protected by the hand of Almighty God and brought safely home to their loved ones in America.
All night long, unceasingly, in feathery flakes the snow had fallen. At daybreak I should have thought the magic of the night had transplanted us to the Arctic, only there was the undeniable outline of the sacred mountain. It seemed that the old volcano had belched in the night, for the white of his crest had run down over his sides even to the water edge, while on the shore not a red tile remained. The steps of the hettabas and the roofs of our turrets were alike upholstered in ermine. From sky to sea it was one great undulating drift of snow. Specks of emerald breaking through told where the dwarf pines were buried, while streaks of crimson and gold pricked out the outline of temple and towers. I had never thought to realize the beauty of Bret Harte's snow picture in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"—I cannot write about it; but I have seen snow.
The crisp air is invigorating, but the shoveling of snow from the decks has a tendency to take the poetry out of things, and I am bothered about the poor naked devils who live on the water. How is a handful of charcoal burning in a tea cup going to keep them from freezing to death?  
"When Music, heavenly maid, was young," she took no more joy into early Greece than the brass band that came with other belongings of a flagship, to us from the Baltimore. It plays twice a day, and in the evening it is a full orchestra, to whose strains we while away the dog watch in waltz, hornpipe, or cake walk, as the tune invites.
Last Thursday, November 28, was Thanksgiving. We had turkey on board and behaved like the Americans that we are.  
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Yesterday, the Baltimore signaled to us for permission to get under way. Granted the bo's'n piped, "A-l-l  h-a-n-d-s on deck to cheer ship!" From the captain and the bandmaster, down we came. The Jackies on both ships stood on the rails or went into the rigging. From the main truck of the Baltimore streamed a "homeward bounder." It is a pennant two hundred and fifty feet long. At its tip a bladder is attached to keep it afloat when it dips to the sea. The homeward bounder has its superstitions too sacred to write, but it is the talisman that will carry the ship through wind and storm until "Safe, safe, at last, the harbor passed," she will anchor in San Francisco Bay. 
I do not quite retain the picture, for "Auld Lang Syne" from the quarter deck sounded so startlingly new to me that everything else became subdued to my wondering where and when I had ever heard it before. But my memory could muster nothing but my first night in a little white alcove, where I cried myself to sleep after mother had left me at Tyler Hall, and when the last note of the blessed song climbed the masts and the Baltimore rode alongside, the band struck up "Home Sweet Home." It was a signal for every man on the Baltimore. Their cheering drowned every other sound, while, from excess of joy, they swung their caps and threw them overboard. It was said that the bay was blue with them. I do not know. There was a mist came in just then, that made everything uncertain except that the men of the Baltimore were going home, while we are anchored here for three long, long years.
If you enjoy antique seafaring lore with a sense of humor, order a copy of Three Years Behind the Guns. It's a fun, entertaining read for powder monkeys and old sea dogs alike.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"The imperial majesty should be armed with laws" ~ Justinian publishes the Institutes, November 21, AD 533

Renaissance depiction of Justinian receiving the law books
from Tribonian from the Vatican Museum.
In November of AD 533, Justinian was truly in his glory. He had just heard news of his general Belisarius's victory over the Vandals at the battle of Ad Decimum outside of Carthage, and was expecting additional good tidings from the expedition to reconquer Africa. To this triumph over barbarism, Justinian would add another victory over the confusion and chaos gnawing away at the foundations of his empire by officially publishing his Institutes on November 21, AD 533.

Meant to simplify and codify the morass which the Roman legal code had become, the Institutes were to be the basic textbook of Roman law, suitable for beginning students. We can get a sense of Justinian's pride in his epochal accomplishment by reading his own words as recorded in the preface of the work:
In the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Emperor Caesar Flavius Justinian, conqueror of the Alamanni, the Goths, the Franks, the Germans, the Antes, the Alani, the Vandals, the Africans, pious, prosperous, renowned, victorious, and triumphant, ever august,
To the youth desirous of studying the law: 
The imperial majesty should be armed with laws as well as glorified with arms, that there may be good government in times both of war and of peace, and the ruler of Rome may not only be victorious over his enemies, but may show himself as scrupulously regardful of justice as triumphant over his conquered foes. 
Justinian, relief from the
U.S. Supreme Court. 
With deepest application and forethought, and by the blessing of God, we have attained both of these objects. The barbarian nations which we have subjugated know our valor, Africa and other provinces without number being once more, after so long an interval, reduced beneath the sway of Rome by victories granted by Heaven, and themselves bearing witness to our dominion. All peoples too are ruled by laws which we have either enacted or arranged.
Having removed every inconsistency from the sacred constitutions, hitherto inharmonious and confused, we extended our care to the immense volumes of the older jurisprudence; and, like sailors crossing the mid-ocean, by the favor of Heaven have now completed a work of which we once despaired. When this, with God's blessing, had been done, we called together that distinguished man Tribonian, master and exquaestor of our sacred palace, and the illustrious Theophilus and Dorotheus, professors of law, of whose ability, legal knowledge, and trusty observance of our orders we have received many and genuine proofs, and especially commissioned them to compose by our authority and advice a book of Institutes, whereby you may be enabled to learn your first lessons in law no longer from ancient fables, but to grasp them by the brilliant light of imperial learning, and that your ears and minds may receive nothing useless or incorrect, but only what holds good in actual fact.
And thus whereas in past time even the foremost of you were unable to read the imperial constitutions until after four years, you, who have been so honored and fortunate as to receive both the beginning and the end of your legal teaching from the mouth of the Emperor, can now enter on the study of them without delay. After the completion therefore of the fifty books of the Digest or Pandects, in which all the earlier law has been collected by the aid of the said distinguished Tribonian and other illustrious and most able men, we directed the division of these same Institutes into four books, comprising the first elements of the whole science of law. In these the law previously obtaining has been briefly stated, as well as that which after becoming disused has been again brought to light by our imperial aid. Compiled from all the Institutes of our ancient jurists, and in particular from the commentaries of our Gaius on both the Institutes and the common cases, and from many other legal works, these Institutes were submitted to us by the three learned men aforesaid, and after reading and examining them we have given them the fullest force of our constitutions.
Receive then these laws with your best powers and with the eagerness of study, and show yourselves so learned as to be encouraged to hope that when you have compassed the whole field of law you may have ability to govern such portion of the state as may be entrusted to you. 
Given at Constantinople the 21st day of November, in the third consulate of the Emperor Justinian, Father of his Country, ever august.
Taken from: The Institutes of Justinian, 5th edition, 1913, translated by J. B. Moyle.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Legalizing Marijuana is a Terrible Idea

It seems that many states, my home state of New Jersey included, are hell-bent on legalizing recreational use of cannabis. The arguments in favor of this, though loud and dominant in the media, are not particularly convincing.

Most of the advocates tout the desire to legalize the drug so that the state can raise additional tax revenue off of the sales. Enhancing the ability of an over-bearing confiscatory high-tax state like New Jersey to extract even more revenue from its citizens is never going to be a compelling argument for me.

Slightly better is the argument that legalizing the drug will result in fewer individuals in prison for usage. While I agree that we have far too many individuals in jail for such petty crimes, full-scale legalization of recreational usage seems like an over-reaction to a problem which may be fixed by simply reducing the penalties involved.

But the absolute worst argument in favor of legalization is that cannabis is harmless or somehow beneficial to users. You will find these types of claims all over websites which market marijuana-related products, and they are absolutely false and extremely dangerous. If there are any mild benefits for a healthy person using cannabis, they are far outweighed by the negatives. Sadly, the proponents of marijuana usage will often laugh off any suggestion that using their drug of choice can do harm as a return to "Reefer Madness," a supposedly comical early 20th century belief that using cannabis can cause you to go crazy.

The sad facts are these: the more research that's done, the more science has realized that cannabis usage for healthy people is detrimental, both on a personal neuro-cognitive level, and on a societal level. It is particularly bad for youth as the impact of the active ingredient in cannabis--tetrahydrocannabinol or TCH--on the developing brain can be profound and long-lasting. Here is a list of articles detailing some of these findings. I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to at least skim over these studies:

Cannabis as a Neuro-Toxin:
  • Does Cannabis Cause Lasting Brain Damage? (2012)
    "Recent studies using high-resolution imaging techniques, combined with more robust delineations of specific brain regions in very heavy cannabis users, have revealed evidence of dose-related alterations, mostly in the hippocampal and parahippocampal regions."
  • Is Cannabis Neurotoxic for the Healthy Brain? (2013)
    "Our results suggest that in the healthy brain, chronic and long-term cannabis exposure may exert significant effects in brain areas enriched with cannabinoid receptors, such as the hippocampus, which could be related to a neurotoxic action."
Impact of Cannabis on Memory
Impact of Cannabis on Executive Function
(Note: Executive function is the set of mental skills that govern time management, attention, planning and the ability to cope with multiple tasks at the same time.)
Impact of Cannabis Usage on the Developing Brain
  • Effects of Cannabis on the Adolescent Brain (2014)
    "Teens who engage in heavy marijuana use often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning."
  • Cannabis and Adolescent Brain Development (2014)
    "Accumulating evidence from both animal and human studies suggests that regular heavy use during this period is associated with more severe and persistent negative outcomes than use during adulthood, suggesting that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of cannabis exposure."
  • Adverse Effects of Cannabis on Adolescent Brain Development (2016)
    "These data provide compelling longitudinal evidence suggesting that repeated exposure to cannabis during adolescence may have detrimental effects on brain resting functional connectivity, intelligence, and cognitive function."
Societal Impact of Cannabis Legalization
While the above articles are mostly from scholarly journals, here are some news stories on the impact of cannabis legalization is having on society, largely from mainstream media sources that are otherwise favorable toward legalization:
The message here is that even if voters and state legislatures are stupid enough to legalize this substance, if you care about the health of your brain, you would do well to avoid smoking weed. Fears of "reefer madness" may be overblown, but the conventional wisdom regarding the degraded behavior and reduced prospects of "pot heads" is pretty much on the money.

And let's not forget the ulterior motives of politicians and businesses who are looking to reap the benefits of legalization. Do they really care about the health and safety of the people they supposedly serve? Or are they simply looking for a way to make society more docile, stupid and ultimately easier to rule, while raking in big money? On this question, history is instructive:

A Disgraceful Little War -- The Opium War and Commissioner Lin

Friday, October 27, 2017

Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory


Constantine's great victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, AD 312. The day before — October 27 — is the date traditionally given for the miraculous vision and dream which Constantine experienced prior to the battle. This vision has been the subject of debate in both scholarly and popular imagination for hundreds of years. But what really happened on that day 1,705 years ago that changed forever the course of human history?

As a prelude to the famous accounts of this vision, it should be noted that Constantine also seems to have had pagan theophany in the early years of his reign. Writing sometime between AD 307 and AD 310, an anonymous Gallic panegyricist describes Constantine’s presence on the frontier as almost miraculous in restoring order after a barbarian incursion. He explains the reason why as follows:
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"Fortune herself so ordered this matter that the happy outcome of your affairs prompted you to convey to the immortal gods what you had vowed at the very spot where you had turned aside toward the most beautiful temple in the whole world, or rather, to the deity made manifest, as you saw. For you saw, I believe, O Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel wreaths, each one of which carries a portent of thirty years. For this is the number of human ages which are owed to you without fail—beyond the old age of Nestor." [In Praise of the Later Roman Emperors, page 248-50] 
This reputed vision of Apollo took place at least two years prior to Constantine’s more famous vision of a cross in the sky. Interestingly, this vision fits in well with the Christian accounts of later events.

In his treatise entitled Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died (written before AD 320), Lactantius offers the earliest account of Constantine's Christian theophany. Incidentally, this passage also provides the date for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge:
"A civil war broke out between Constantine and Maxentius. Although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because the soothsayers had foretold that if he went out of it he should perish, yet he conducted the military operations by able generals....At length Constantine, with steady courage and a mind prepared for every event, led his whole forces to the neighborhood of Rome, and encamped them opposite to the Milvian bridge. The anniversary of the reign of Maxentius approached, that is, the sixth of the kalends of November [i.e. the 27th of October], and the fifth year of his reign was drawing to an end.
"Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ (XP). Having this sign , his troops stood to arms.” [Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter 44] 
Writing perhaps 20 years later, Eusebius Pamphilus offers a more detailed account in his Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine—and what’s more, claims that he heard it directly from Constantine’s own lips, confirmed with an oath. When reading the following, note especially Constantine’s confusion and doubts about the source of the vision and the identity of the God he saw:
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"Being convinced, however, that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he sought Divine assistance, deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but believing the co-operating power of Deity invincible and not to be shaken. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance….
"Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of aftertime has established its truth?

"He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
"He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness...and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies….
"Being struck with amazement at the extraordinary vision, and resolving to worship no other God save Him who had appeared to him, he sent for those who were acquainted with the mysteries of His doctrines, and enquired who that God was, and what was intended by the sign of the vision he had seen." [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapter 29-32]
It should be noted that Christians at this time, Constantine included, didn’t think that the pagan gods were non-existent. On the contrary, they believed that they were demonic spirits who could and did appear to men. Furthermore, Constantine himself provides evidence that he believed that pagan prophecy was, in fact, true and pointed directly, if inadvertently, toward the salvation of the world under the auspices of Jesus Christ. In his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, Constantine puts forward his belief 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.

Furthermore, in the same speech, Constantine calls out Virgil’s 4th Eclogue as a further prophetic writing to support the premise that the coming of Christ was predicted not only by the Hebrew prophets, but by pagan ones as well.

Many, no doubt, look for political reasons behind Constantine’s shift from pagan piety to Christian devotion. But frankly, the political explanations make very little sense. Why would an emperor motivated purely by power, abandon the religious practices favored by an estimated 80-90% of Roman citizens in AD 312 to take up the banner of a small and despised sect which, as recently as six years before was subject to the harshest penalties of Roman law?

It seems clear that Constantine was willing, no matter what the consequences, to follow what he perceived as the divine will. An edict of Constantine, written later in his reign and recorded in Eusebius's Life, gives a glimpse into his mindset, now clearly Christian and devoid of any trace of doubt or pagan syncretism which may have existed earlier:
"To all who entertain just and wise sentiments respecting the character of the Supreme Being, it has long been most clearly evident, and beyond the possibility of doubt, how vast a difference there has ever been between those who maintain a careful observance of the hallowed duties of the Christian religion, and those who treat this religion with hostility or contempt. But at this present time, we may see by still more manifest proofs, and still more decisive instances, but how unreasonable it were to question this truth, and how mighty is the power of the Supreme God: since it appears that they who faithfully observe His commandments, are rewarded with abundant blessings, and are endued with well-grounded hope as well as ample power for the accomplishment of their undertakings. On the other hand, they who have cherished impious sentiments have experienced results corresponding to their evil choice….

"For whoever have addressed themselves with integrity for purpose to any course of action, keeping the fear of God continually before their thougths…such persons, though for a season they may have experienced painful trials, have borne their afflictions lightly, being supported by the belief of greater rewards in store for them. And their character has acquired a brighter lustre in proportion to the severity of their past sufferings….

"I would desire never to be forgetful of the gratitude due to His grace….I am most certainly persuaded that I myself owe my life, my every breath, in short, my very inmost and secret thoughts, entirely to the favor of the Supreme God.” [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book II, Chapters 26-29]
For more on the life of this amazing historical personage and his family members, see the following:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Catholic Origins of Halloween

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Contrary to popular misconceptions, All Saints Day and its vigil, Halloween, are not the same as the pagan feast known as Samhain. The feast of All Saints developed independently among Christian churches within the territory of the later Roman Empire. Halloween is merely the vigil of the feast of All Saints -- hence, All Hallows Eve.

Samhain, meanwhile, was theoretically a festival of those pagans in Celtic regions outside the Roman Empire, specifically Ireland, about which almost nothing is known prior to the 12th century AD.

The two feasts seem to share a common date, but beyond that, their provenance is quite different.

If you run into someone who insists that Halloween is actually the pagan celebration of Samhain, ask them to provide a primary source reference demonstrating that point. They will struggle to do so because the earliest extant literary references to the pagan festival don't occur until the Middle Ages, and much of what passes for descriptions of pagan Samhain traditions and practices are nothing more than fanciful modern imaginings. Ronald Hutton, writing in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain offers the following about traditional pagan practices during Samhain according to sources from the 10th through 12th centuries:
In Serglige Con Culaind, which exists in a twelfth-century version, it is stated that the feis of the Ulaid (Ulstermen) lasted ‘three days before Samuin and the three days after Samuin and Samuin itself. They would gather at Mag Muirthemni, and during these seven days there would be nothing but meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting.” These activities (together with a great deal of boasting and brawling) are precisely those portrayed at the feis in this and other accounts of it. No doubt there were religious observances as well, but none of the tales ever portrays any, and a text like Sanas Chormaic, which is so informative on Beltane, furnishes nothing for the winter festival. [Hutton: The Stations of the Sun]
It should be noted that the above passage was written by a scholar who is largely sympathetic to the pagan side of the argument, but is honest enough to admit that there is no ancient evidence to support it. Indeed, the holiday described in the 12th century source above seems to have more affinity to American Thanksgiving, with its feasts, games and brawling than All Hallows Eve.

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Meanwhile, there is considerable ancient literary evidence to support the Catholic feast of All Saints and All Hallows Eve. The feast was originally celebrated on various dates in various churches as early as the 4th century AD, and began to be officially established on November 1 in many places throughout Europe by the early Middle Ages.

Here is a passage from a homily of Saint Bede's written in the early 8th century:
"Today, beloved, we celebrate in the joy of one solemnity, the festival of All Saints, in whose companionship the heaven exults; in whose guardianship the earth rejoices; by whom triumphs the Holy Church is crowned; whose confession, as braver in its passion, is also brighter in its honor—because while the battle increased, the glory of them that fought in it was also augmented. And the triumph of martyrdom is adorned with the manifold kind of its torments, because the more severe the pangs, the more illustrious also were the rewards; while our Mother, the Catholic Church, was taught by her Head, Jesus Christ, not to fear contumely, affliction, death, and more and more strengthened—not by resistance, but by endurance—inspired all of that illustrious number who suffered imprisonment or torture, with one and equal ardor to fight the battle for triumphal glory. 
"O truly blessed Mother Church! so illuminated by the honor of divine condescension, so adorned by the glorious blood of triumphant martyrs, so decked with the inviolate confession of snow white virginity! Among its flowers neither roses nor lilies are wanting. Endeavor now, beloved, each for yourselves, in each kind of honor, to obtain your own dignity—crowns, snow white for chastity, or purple for passion. In those heavenly camps, both peace and war have their own flowers wherewith the soldiers of Christ are crowned."
The rest of this sermon may be read here.

As for the date of November 1, here is a quote from the Chronicon of Sigebert of Gembloux, detailing the official movement of All Saints Day to November 1 throughout the Holy Roman Empire as of the year AD 835:
DCCCXXXV: Monente Gregorio Papa et omnibus episcopis assentientibus, Ludovicus Imperator statuit, ut in Gallia et Germania festivitas Omnium Sanctorum in kalendis Novembris celebrarentur, quam Romani ex instituto Bonefacii Papae celebrabant. 
Forgive my rough translation: 835 AD: Following the instruction of Pope Gregory [IV] and the assent of all the bishops, Emperor Louis [the Pious] established that in France and Germany the feast of All Saints would be celebrated on the first of November, when the Romans celebrate following the custom established by Pope Boniface [IV].
See the original here
A good summary of other references to All Saints Day in early Medieval sources may be found in this article On the Origins of All Saints and All Souls Day.

Writing from a more syncretist point of view not unsympathetic to the pagan side, Alexei Kondratiev says the following, which gives a plausible explanation of why, in Medieval times, those still holding semi-pagan beliefs may have consolidated their beliefs about the dead around All Saints/Souls day, following the lead of the Church:
“Whatever the specific elements had been that determined the proper date of the end-of harvest honoring of the dead in various places, by the ninth and tenth centuries the unifying influence of the Church had led to concentrating the rituals on November 1st and November 2nd. The first date was All Hallows, when the most spiritually powerful of the Christian community's dead (the Saints) were invoked to strengthen the living community, in a way quite consistent with pre-Christian thought. The second date, All Souls, was added on (first as a Benedictine practice, beginning ca. 988) as an extension of this concept, enlarging it to include the dead of families and local communities. Under the mantle of the specifically Christian observances, however, older patterns of ancestor veneration were preserved.” [Kondratiev: Samhain - Season of Death and Renewal]
This is an honest assessment that seems to capture quite well the actual history behind All Saints Day / Halloween and its relationship to co-existing pagan death rituals and ancestor worship.

As Catholics, we have not done a particularly good job informing the modern culture of the Christian meaning behind All Hallows Eve. As a result, we have ceded the field to the purveyors of popular culture who have turned the feast into a celebration of monsters, gore and neo-paganism. The correct response, in my opinion, is not to opt out completely, but to bring the holiday back to its uniquely Christian roots. Doing so will not only serve to dispel myths propagated by an increasingly hostile secular society, but will also help Catholics young and old to be inspired by the stories of "that illustrious number who suffered imprisonment or torture, with one and equal ardor to fight the battle for triumphal glory."

One idea I particularly like is to read more about the lives of the saints during this time of year, particularly with your kids. Here is a list of about 40 novels and short biographies of a variety of Catholic saints and heroes, courtesy of The Young Catholic's Bookshelf.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"You shall die in your bed under the sharpest torments" ~ The martyrdom of St. Theodoret and the horrible death of Julianus

The passion of St. Theodoret, from Shea: Pictorial Lives of the Saints, 1894.
If you've read Lactantius's work known as Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, you know that it was a widely-held belief in Christian antiquity that those who made war against the Church tended to suffer particularly atrocious deaths. Heresiarchs, also, were cursed with a similar fate, as we saw previously in the gruesome death of Arius in AD 336.

Today is the feast of Saint Theodoret of Antioch. This obscure saint deserves to be better known today as he was one of the last to be slain under the auspices of a pagan emperor of Rome. His slayer was the uncle of the apostate emperor Julian, coincidentally also named Julianus. This Julianus was at the time serving as prefect of the East. Seeking to curry favor with his imperial nephew, Julianus attempted to seize the treasures of the Antiochene Church, and when his intentions were made known, all the clergy of Antioch fled—except one. The ecclesiastical historian, Sozomen, continues the tale:
One presbyter, by name Theodoritus, alone did not leave the city; Julian seized him, as the keeper of the treasures, and as capable of giving information concerning them, and maltreated him terribly; finally he ordered him to be slain with the sword, after he had responded bravely under every torture and had been well approved by his doctrinal confessions. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter 8]
Alban Butler offers the following prophecy uttered by Saint Theodoret, as he was about the be slain following his torments, as taken from the Bollandist’s Acta Sanctorum:
“You, Julian[us], shall die in your bed under the sharpest torments; and your master who hopes to vanquish the Persians, shall be himself vanquished: an unknown hand shall bereave him of life; he shall return no more to the territory of the Romans.” [Butler: The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other Principal Saints]
Immediately thereafter, Julianus had the saint’s head struck off. The date given is October 22, AD 362.

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After a short space of time, the prophecy of Saint Theodoret came to pass in a most horrible way. Here is Sozomen’s description:
When Julian[us] had made a booty of the sacred vessels, he flung them upon the ground and began to mock; after blaspheming Christ as much as he wished, he sat upon the vessels and augmented his insulting acts. Immediately his genitals and rectum were corrupted; their flesh became putrescent, and was changed into worms. The disease was beyond the skill of the physicians. However, from reverence and fear for the emperor, they resorted to experiments with all manner of drugs, and the most costly and the fattest birds were slain, and their fat was applied to the corrupted parts, in the hope that the worms might be thereby attracted to the surface, but this was of no effect; for being deep buried, they crept into the living flesh, and did not cease their gnawing until they put an end to his life. It seemed that this calamity was an infliction of Divine wrath, because the keeper of the imperial treasures, and other of the chief officers of the court who had made sport of the Church, died in an extraordinary and dreadful manner, as if condemned by Divine wrath. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book V, Chapter 8]
The second part of the prophecy was also fulfilled, as the emperor Julian the Apostate was slain while on campaign in Persia less than a year later.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Battle of Soissons (AD 486) ~ The final fall of Roman power in Gaul

Approximate extent of the domain of Syagrius, AD 486.
What if I told you that the Western Roman Empire didn't actually fall until AD 486? Yes, most know that Odoacer deposed the puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 476, and Julius Nepos reigned as "emperor of the West" from Dalmatia until AD 480. But in Gaul, a sizable territory remained under Roman control for another six years after the death of Nepos. This is the so-called “Kingdom of Soissons”, and it had been carved out originally by Aegidius, the last Magister Militum per Gallias.

Aegidius was a former lieutenant of the great Roman commander, Flavius Aetius. After Aetius’s assassination, Aegidius became a partisan of the emperor Majorian, helping him in his campaign against the Visigoths in southern Gaul. When the barbarian Magister Militum Ricimer toppled Majorian, Aegidius refused to recognize Ricimer’s puppet emperor, Libius Severus, and established a separate polity in northern Gaul. Given Aegidius’s apparent facility with creating alliances with his barbarian neighbors and Ricimer’s inability to project power beyond the Alps, Aegidius was able to hold his domain successfully until his death of plague in AD 465. Upon that event, his son Syagrius took control of Soissons and was able to protect it from barbarian incursions for over 20 years.

Things came apart for Syagrius and Soissons, however, with the arrival on the scene of the powerful Frankish king, Clovis I, who desired to add Soissons to his growing possessions. The account of Gregory of Tours, written in the mid-6th century AD, offers a summary of what happened next:
“Childeric died and Clovis his son reigned in his stead. In the fifth year of his reign Siagrius, king of the Romans, son of Egidius, had his seat in the city of Soissons which Egidius, who has been mentioned before, once held. And Clovis came against him with Ragnachar, his kinsman, because he used to possess the kingdom, and demanded that they make ready a battlefield. And Siagrius did not delay nor was he afraid to resist. And so they fought against each other and Siagrius, seeing his army crushed, turned his back and fled swiftly to king Alaric at Toulouse.” [Gregory of Tours (Brehaut, ed.), History of the Franks, pg. 36]
This small passage is the last written remnant we have of a significant Western Roman army doing battle to defend the Empire.

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Interestingly, several years ago this tiny fragment of history was expanded into a full-fledged novel by Justin Swanton entitled Centurion’s Daughter. The book is one of those rare pieces of historical fiction that successfully shines light on a very obscure time without engaging in ridiculous revisionism, allowing the extant history to speak for itself while providing a completely plausible framework.

Here is an excerpt from Swanton’s well-written narrative, told from the point-of-view of Aemilia, a Franco-Roman maiden from Soissons. It has always struck me as a very good representation of a clash of arms between late Romans and Franks:
Over the wind the murmur of a clamor reached her ears: a faint cry that rose and fell. With it came a sound as of a vast drumming. One of the cavalry guards turned to Ennodius. “Doing their warcry, My Lord, and hitting their weapons against their shields. They’ll be coming now.”

For a full minute the cry lingered on the wind, then, drifting like a heavy mist over the land, the thin line of Frankish skirmishers approached the Romans.

Aemilia did not hear the command that let loose a rainstorm of arrows upon the Franks. She saw figures fall. It took a moment for the truth to impact on her mind—within her sight, men were wounded, dying, dead. All she had read about the epic clash of arms, the renown of great soldiers and the glory of battle melted before the reality like wax in a fire….

The Battle of Soissons as imagined by
Justin Swanton in Centurion's Daughter
After a few moments, the Frankish skirmishers reached their own bowshot range and stopped to shoot back. A number of them ran closer and hurled javelins at the front ranks. In their turn the Romans added darts and javelins to the blizzard of arrows enveloping the Franks. More and more fell and finally, as if on a signal, the survivors broke and ran.

The horse archers surged after them, individual horsemen pausing now and then to shoot arrows at the retreating Franks. Their pursuit followed up all the way to the main Frankish lines which became their next target.

Some moments passed. Finally, through the front Frankish line, the Frankish cavalry charged. The horse archers ceased shooting and turned, making for their lines at a full gallop with the Franks close behind.

With her attention on the horsemen, Aemilia did not immediately notice what was happening in the center. Once the remnants of the Frankish skirmishers had retreated through the main lines, the frontmost of these began to advance rapidly towards the Roman infantry. At the same time the Frankish cavalry halted in their pursuit of the retreating horse archers. There was a murmur from the riders surrounding Aemilia and Ennodius.

“What’s happening?” Ennodius asked.

“The Franks have stopped their charge,” replied the one who had spoken to Ennodius earlier. “First time I’ve ever seen barbarians do such a thing…My Lord.” Aemilia heard the note of concern in his voice.

The horse archers reached their starting positions and began milling around, slowly reforming their line. Aemilia sensed that Syagrius’s plan had met a hitch: the Franks were not doing what was expected of them.

Thwunk, thwunk, thwunk. The noise startled Aemilia. She glanced to the left. The ballistae, enormous crossbow-like weapons mounted on wheeled bases, were firing their missiles at the Frankish line. The bolts flew with incredible speed over the heads of the Plumbarii and disappeared into the enemy ranks, with what effect she could only imagine.

A few moments later, the archers loosed on the Franks, followed shortly after by a volley of large war darts from the Plumbarii. Then, as the Frankish first line drew near, Aemilia heard the centurions crying out an order, “Second line!” …

[© Justin Swanton. Centurion’s Daughter, page 184-5. Reprinted with permission.]
Needless to say, the situation soon deteriorates for Syagrius, but this excerpt should give you an idea of how well the author captures the action. Swanton offers some additional comments on the research he put into this novel here. He provides a very detailed hypothetical reconstruction of the Battle of Soissons here.

If you like this sort of thing, as I do, you will enjoy Swanton’s writing and thoughtful attention to historical detail. Given the scant information available on these events, he has done an admirable job piecing together a plausible scenario for the final stand of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of Clovis's powerful kingdom of the Franks.