Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Unconquerable Ricimer Dies ~ August 18, AD 472

A fanciful later European engraving of Ricimer. Though he
ruled from behind the throne of the Western Empire for
16 years, his likeness was never preserved.
On August 18, in anno Domini 472, the powerful generalissimo of the Western Roman Empire, Ricimer, passed from this life.

A barbarian of noble birth, half Visigothic and half Suevian, Ricimer first appears in history as a soldier in the Western Roman army under the command of Flavius Aetius. It is in this capacity that he became allied with Majorian, another follower of Aetius. Both men, it seems, participated in the campaigns of Aetius against the Franks, though Majorian later had a falling out with the great commander prior to his famous victory over Attila.

After the assassination of Aetius and Valentinian III in AD 454-5 and the subsequent sack of Rome by the Vandals, Ricimer and Majorian would rise to power together, overthrowing the weak emperor, Avitus. The following brief passage may be found in the Fragmentary History of Priscus:
“Now that they were free from their fear of the Goths, both Majorian and Ricimer openly revolted. Avitus, disquieted partly by the domestic turmoil, partly by the Vandalic wars, retreated from Rome and held fast to the road to Gaul. Majorian and Ricimer attacked him on the road and forced him to flee to a sacred precinct, where he abdicated his rule and removed his imperial attire. No sooner had Majorian’s men lifted the siege than Avitus’s life ended in starvation, after eight months on the throne. Others say that he was strangled.” [Given, Fragmentary History of Priscus, p. 133]
Avitus was the first in a line of emperors who would be dominated and undone by the efforts of Ricimer who soon became invested as Magister Militum, attaining supreme military power in the West. He was not, however, able to take the throne himself due to his clear non-Roman lineage. His Roman colleague Majorian was made emperor in AD 457, but after four years of rule, he was deposed by Ricimer, who viewed him as a threat to his power, and later beheaded. Ricimer then put the more pliable Libius Severus on the throne to serve as a puppet. When Severus died of natural causes four years later (though Cassiodorus claims that Ricimer had him poisoned), Ricimer took full control of the Western Empire during a two-year interregnum.

At the height of his power, Ricimer was called “the unconquerable” by the late Roman poet Sidonius Apollinaris and it was said that he never once lost a battle. Sidonius says further:
“If the Norican is restraining the Ostrogoth, it is that Ricimer is feared. If Gaul ties down the armed might of the Rhine, it is he that inspires dread. And because the Vandal foe plundered me [Italy] while the Alan, his kinsman, swept off what remained, this man took vengeance by the force of his own arms.” [Anderson, Sidonius: Poems and Letters, Volume 1, p. 41]
At this point, the Eastern Roman emperor Leo I intervened, naming Anthemius, a general in Illyricum, as Western Emperor. Ricimer accepted this and soon after married Alypia, the daughter of Anthemius, to solidify his position. Not willing to depend on his powerful new son-in-law as his sole military support, Anthemius appointed his Illyrian colleague Marcellinus to command his army as counter-balance to Ricimer. But if Anthemius thought that Ricimer would meekly surrender his authority in the West, he was sorely mistaken.

When Leo and Anthemius put together a vast armada to destroy the Vandal menace in north Africa in AD 468, Ricimer joined the cause, but under the nominal command of Marcellinus. The great campaign, which emptied the coffers of both the Eastern and Western empires, ended up a complete disaster for the Romans, but a boon for the scheming Ricimer. The Roman fleet was destroyed and the army captured by the Vandals. Both halves of the empire found themselves devoid of troops and bankrupt as a result of the catastrophic defeat. Ricimer, however, had remained on the sidelines, losing none of his soldiers, and many blamed him for not fully supporting the effort and secretly wanting it to fail. Further enhancing Ricimer's position, Marcellinus was later assassinated in Sicily, and some suspected a conspiracy hatched by Ricimer had been responsible for his rival's death.

Following this debacle, Ricimer decided that he’d had enough of Anthemius. Priscus explains what happened next:
Click for more info.
Ricimer began a conflict between himself and the Western emperor Anthemius, and moreover, although he was betrothed to Anthemius’s daughter Alypia, he instigated a civil war in the city [of Rome] that lasted for five months. The magistrates and the people fought for Anthemius, the mass of domestic barbarians for Ricimer. Also present was Odoacer, a man of the Skirian race….

Anthemius lived in the palace, but Ricimer barricaded the locations near the Tiber and plagued those inside with hunger. During an engagement fought by the two sides, much of Anthemius’s party fell. Ricimer deceitfully concluded a treaty with the remaining men and then introduced Olybrius as emperor. For five months altogether, a civil war controlled Rome until Anthemius’s supporters surrendered to the barbarians and left the emperor naked. Anthemius joined the crowd of beggars and placed himself under the protection of the martyr Chrysogonos. There he was beheaded by Gondoubandos, Ricimer’s brother [actually, his nephew], after a reign of five years, three months, and eighteen days.

Ricimer thought Anthemius worthy of a royal burial, while he introduced Olybrius into the royal court. Within thirty days after Olybrius succeeded to the Roman throne in the way described, Ricimer lost his life by vomiting most of his blood. Then Olybrius died of edema. [Given, Fragmentary History of Priscus, p. 170]
Following Ricimer’s death in AD 472, the expiring Western Empire passed through the hands of several weak emperors and warlords until the above-mentioned Odoacer was able to consolidate his power, shrug off attempts of the East to assert authority, and rule in his own right as a barbarian King over Italy.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Lustinian ~ A review of H. N. Turtletaub's novel, Justinian

This is a review I wrote over a decade ago. I am posting it here now because I have had reason to refer to it a few times over the past several weeks in response to people asking if this book is any good. I guess there are so few enjoyable novels set in Byzantium that those who are fans of the history eventually stumble across whatever is out there. 

Click for more info.
There's nothing I love better than reading a good novel about Byzantium--The Rome That Did Not Fall, in the words of Gerard Friell. And given Harry "Turtletaub's" reputation as a writer, I thought that this one would be tailor-made for me. I wanted so much to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, I didn't. The reasons for this are several. First, I couldn't find a single sympathetic character in the entire book. Justinian II is presented as a loathsome monomaniac. His faithful companion Myakes, whose conversations with a monk named Elpidios punctuate the narrative, is a lackey who excuses the emperor's excesses and in general plays the part of a lecherous old man. The aforementioned Elpidios is presented as a hypocrite. The lesser characters are all similarly presented with nary a good or honorable motive among any of them. This lack of virtuous characters is a hallmark of much modern fiction and I'd like to say here and now that I *hate* it. Such works are every bit as obnoxious as the saccharine tales of heroism and good hygiene that used to dominate the genre of historical fiction. As Aristotle said, we should aim for the golden mean, but as doing this can prove difficult, we should err on the side of the lesser vice. In Justinian, Turtletaub has chosen to err on the side of the greater.

That said, Turtletaub (or Turtledove, if we drop the pretense) certainly knows his history. Having translated the Chronicle of Theophanes, a Greek primary source which provides much of what we know about the 7th and 8th century in Byzantium, Turtledove's academic qualifications are not to be despised. However, having read his translation of Theophanes, I have a good idea of how he 'enhanced' the Justinian story for modern readers, and to me, that says a lot about what the author thinks of his potential readers and his misanthropic view of mankind in general. It's not a pretty picture.

Perhaps the most dismaying thing about this book is that it is completely unsuited for young readers. I love reading historical fiction with my kids, and there's precious little on Byzantium available for this purpose. But the copious graphic sex scenes, underage sex scenes, rape scenes, etc. in Justinian make the book completely anathema from this perspective. Indeed, I felt at times that someone had pasted some passages from "Penthouse Letters" into the book.

Turtletaub also treats religious figures shabbily, invariably making them either liars, weirdos, hypocrites, weaklings, or stooges--as if religion is always the mark of the scoundrel. And, of course, the supreme villain, Justinian himself, is presented as something of a religious fanatic, believing that God guides and approves his every wicked action. Here again Turltetaub hews closely to the modern secular conventional wisdom that becomes increasingly trite with each passing day.

So in short, unless you are looking for a depressing read that will leave you feeling like you need a shower and a visit to the confessional after you read it, I'd look elsewhere for an enjoyable novel about Byzantium.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Guest Post ~ "Old Days"

Tooner's Schooners of South Philadelphia, late 1940s.
Anthony "Speed" Schiavo is top row, third from left.
Presenting a retrospective guest post from Anthony P. Schiavo, Sr., written over a decade ago when he was about 75. Anthony, or "Speed" as he was known in South Philadelphia, passed away earlier this week after a full life at the ripe old age of 87.

I look out the window and watch them play in our circle, “the boys” as my wife calls them. When not in school, neighborhood boys regularly play baseball with a hollow bat and wiffle ball or ball hockey on inline skates with hockey sticks, goals, and goalies with pads and masks. It's a small field so I park our car in our driveway to give them room to play. My wife would prefer I park in the street, away from bird droppings and debris from monstrous Christmas trees, planted yearly by our house's original owner. But she's a good neighbor and I'm ... well they don't know it and I don't look it, but I'm one of the boys.

Once, a very long time ago, I played with my friends in our 'ballpark'. We were luckier than these boys, we had 'Abbotts', a dairy maintenance yard at the end of my street in South Philly, bigger and less traveled than the circle they play on. And though my sons on visits ridiculed its size as the place I've told them held epic athletic contests, we were extremely lucky to have it. The best part was that there were few Abbotts vehicles in the yard on weekdays and none on weekends. The place was ours except for occasional visitors who parked there. Even that was hardly ever a problem since cars then were parked unlocked in neutral, there was no 'park'. We simply pushed them into empty parking space out of our way. Cars left unlocked, empty parking space, in South Philly? Yes, it was very long ago.

We played 'halfball' with a broomstick and halves of 'pimple' balls, 'miniature ball' in a ten by ten yard chalked baseball field (ball slapped underhand must hit in the field), and two-hand touch football with a real football or a rolled up and tied newspaper. We played often and long, sometimes into the darkness, as long as we had a critical mass of players, as few as two for halfball and even football. My friend Yogi and I sometimes played football one on one, where we had to pass to ourselves. I was quicker but he was smart and made it hard for me to get started. And he was bigger and muscle counted when the ball was in the air. Yogi is gone now but writing this brings him back clearly, facing me, blocking my way to the goal.

Abbotts was also an informal casino with gambling from pennies to big money. On a concrete platform along a wall with a protective overhang, we played penny ante poker, old men (seventies and eighties) played hilarious pinochle for change with angry outbursts and blatant cheating, and in the center of the yard, returned WWII veterans played dice for enough money to attract hustlers from distant places. They had a lookout for cop cars but with big games, nobody ran, the organizer, who took cuts from big pots, went over and explained the gathering to the cops who always left satisfied.

But my favorite memories of Abbotts were the football games we played against the veterans. Barely past our mid teens, we were no match physically for them and to make matters worse, hitting these guys like we hit each other was unthinkable – they were heroes to us. They slaughtered us but we always looked forward to another game hoping they wouldn't tire of the ease of it. Finally we lured them into a schoolyard to play where speed trumped size and we beat them. Sadly some never played again – it was the end of their youth.

Anthony P. Schiavo, Sr.
I'm not going to try to persuade the boys outside that I'm one of them, me playing in their games is too grotesque to imagine – especially after my spectacular flop on the first pass I had them throw me. But if I could get a message through the age communication barrier, it would be this: enjoy playing but also take it all in, the games, the plays, and especially the faces, not to tell others, they won't care, but to recall how good it was, when they are old men watching new boys play.

Even to his final days, "Speed" felt he was one of the boys, always up for a game of frisbee with his grandkids.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Fulton J. Sheen ~ Santo subito?

"We become like that which we love. If we love what is base, 
we become base; but if we love what is noble, we become noble."
—Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Deo gratias! The cause of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen appears to be moving forward again after his earthly remains were removed from Babylon-on-Hudson to Peoria, Illinois.

With the renewed interest in Archbishop Sheen, I noticed an up-tick in folks sharing some of my oldest memes on social media, including the one above.

This quote may be found in Sheen’s book entitled, Life is Worth Living, which the same title as his celebrated TV show from the 1950s. The reason for this is not coincidental. The essays in the book were transcribed from the TV show. As Archbishop Sheen wrote in the preface with his typical good humor:
“Let it never be said again that it is difficult to write a book. It is now proven that if a person talks only half and hour a week for twenty-six weeks, he already has enough material for a book.”
Here is the context of the quote, from a section in the book entitled, Knowing and Loving:
The will, when it loves anything above it in dignity, goes out to meet the demands of whatever it loves. When the will loves anything that is below it in dignity, it degrades itself. Suppose the dominant love of man was money. Man would degrade himself by loving what is less worthy than himself. In loving it, he becomes like gold. If a man loves only lust, carnality, and the pleasure of the flesh above all things, he thereby degrades his spirit to the level of sex.

We become like that which we love. If we love what is base, we become base; but if we love what is noble, we become noble. Hence the importance of the right kind of ideals and the right kind of heroes. As Our Lord said, Where your treasure is, there is your heart also. “Hence, the least love of God is worth more than the knowledge of all created things. [Sheen: Life is Worth Living, page 47]
This passage is immediately followed by another that is eminently quotable and to which I previously gave the meme treatment as follows:

Here are a few more Sheen posts from the archives:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"We found two men of stupendous size" ~ The discovery of the relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius by Ambrose of Milan

Detail from Phillipe de Champaigne's painting entitled: The Discovery of
the Relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius
June 19 is the feast of the ancient martyrs Gervasius and Protasius. Though nearly forgotten today, these twin brothers were well known in both the early Church and throughout the Middle Ages. To this day, their names may be found in the Litany of the Saints among those of better remembered early martyrs.

Very little is known for sure about the lives and martyrdoms of Gervasius and Protasius, only that they perished before the lifetime of Saint Ambrose in the late 4th century AD. A very brief account of their martyrdom is given in a letter purported to be written by Saint Ambrose. Though of ancient provenance, this letter is believed by most scholars to be a fabrication written by a hand other than Ambrose's somewhat after his time. But it is interesting nonetheless as it contains the text of a libellus (or booklet) that was supposedly found along with the relics of Gervasius and Protasius when they were discovered in late 4th century Milan. The text of this libellus runs as follows:
I the servant of Christ, Philippus, with my son, stole and buried in my house the bodies of the saints: their mother was called Valeria and their father Vitalis; they begot them as twins in a single birth, and called one Protasius, the other Gervasius.
Vitalis, a soldier, was martyred for the crime of being a Christian. His wife, Valeria, was later beaten to death on the same charge while on her way back to Milan. Upon her death, Gervasius and Protasius are left as orphans. The libellus continues:
Gervasius and Protasius sell the house and all the possessions inherited from their parents, giving the money to the poor. They retire for ten years, reading, praying and fasting, then they are martyred.
The count Astasius comes by Milan as he is going to fight the Marcomanni. Pagans ask him to compel Gervasius and Protasius to sacrifice. He orders them to be arrested and brought to him, and tries to convince them to sacrifice, but Gervasius speaks against worshipping idols. Astasius orders him to be scourged until he dies.
Similarly Protasius refuses to sacrifice, fearing no punishment. Astasius orders him to be beaten and again tries to convince him. Protasius tells him that he hopes that he will be forgiven, as Christ wished forgiveness on those who crucified him, and that he is ready for martyrdom. Astasius orders him to be beheaded.
After that, I, the servant of Christ, Philippus, with my son, took away the holy bodies secretly at night and buried them in my house and in this marble sarcophagus, with God alone as a witness, trusting through their prayers to obtain the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever, Amen.' [Taken from The Cult of the Saints in Late Antiquity database]
It is not clear when the martyrdom of these two saints occurred, with some scholars saying during the reign of Nero, others the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and others during the Great Persecution of Diocletian. The connection of Saint Ambrose with these two saints runs deep for it was he who discovered their remains. In the Life of Saint Ambrose written by his secretary, Paulinus, in the early 5th century AD, we find the following passage relating to the discovery:
Click here for info.
At this same time, the holy martyrs Protase and Gervase revealed themselves to the Bishop [that is, Ambrose]. For they had been placed in the basilica in which today are the bodies of the martyrs Nabor and Felix. And the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were visited very frequently, but just as the names of the holy martyrs Gervase and Protase were unknown, so also were their burial places, so much so that all walked over their graves who wished to come to the grates by which the sepulchers of the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were protected from injury.
But when the bodies of the holy martyrs were taken out and placed on biers, thereupon the diseases of many were shown to have been cured. Even a blind man, Severus by name, who to the present day devoutly serves in that same basilica which is called Ambrosian and into which the bodies of the martyrs were carried, as soon as he touched the clothing of the martyrs, immediately received his sight. Bodies also possessed by unclean spirits were cured and returned home with the greatest gratitude. And as the faith of the Catholic Church increased by these blessings effected by the martyrs, so did the heresy of the Arians diminish. [Paulinus, Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter 5]
Amazingly, this passage is corroborated by Saint Ambrose himself in an extant letter to his sister, Saint Marcellina. Here is the relevant passage:
As I am wont to keep your holiness informed of all that goes on here in your absence, I would have you know that we have found the bodies of some holy martyrs. After the consecration of a Church, many began to interrupt me crying with one voice; “Consecrate this as you did the Roman Basilica.” 

“I will do so,” I replied, “if I find any relics of Martyrs,” and immediately my heart burned within me as if prophetically.

In short the Lord lent us aid, though even the very clergy were alarmed. I caused the ground to be opened before the rails of the Church of Saints Felix and Nabor. I found the suitable tokens; and when some persons were brought for us to lay our hands upon, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest that before I began to speak, one of them, a woman, was seized by an evil spirit and thrown down upon the ground in the place where the martyrs lay.

We found two men of stupendous size, such as belonged to ancient days. All their bones were entire, and there was much blood. The people flocked thither in crowds throughout the whole of those two days. We arranged all the bones in order, and carried them when evening set in, to the Basilica of Fausta; where we kept vigils throughout the night, and some possessed persons received imposition of hands. The following day we transferred them to the Basilica which they call Ambrosian.

During their transportation a blind man was healed. [Taken from: Saint Ambrose to Saint Marcellina, Letter XXII]
This took place in AD 386. Perhaps even more amazingly, this event is also corroborated by Saint Augustine who was present in Milan at the time, a year before his baptism in AD 387. Writing in his City of God, Augustine says:
The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people that had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown, but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream, and discovered by him. By virtue of these remains the darkness of that blind man was scattered, and he saw the light of day. [Augustine, City of God, Book XXII, Chapter 9]
The relics of Saint Ambrose (in white) with Saint Gervasius and Protasius (in red).
[By BáthoryPéter 13:53, 5 October 2008 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0]
Saints Gervasius and Protasius became popular intercessors for the next thousand plus years with numerous shrines erected to their honor. Their remains may be seen in Milan to this day, along with those of Saint Ambrose himself, at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.

Also in this basilica are 9th century mosaics of saints Ambrose, Gervasius, Protasius, Ambrose's sister Marcellina, Ambrose’s brother Satyrus, and Candida, who is likely the long-time friend of Marcellina mentioned in Paulinus’s Life of Saint Ambrose.

Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan showing Christ flanked
by Saints Gervasius (right) and Protasius (Left). Below in the medallions are
Saint Candida (right), Saint Satyrus (center) and Saint Marcellina (left).
Click to enlarge.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

"The ship was utterly consumed with all on board" ~ The persecutions of the Arian Emperor Valens

Eighty orthodox clerics are burnt to death by the order of the Emperor Valens
in this 18th century etching.
The Roman Emperor Valens is an enigmatic and paradoxical historical figure. Placed on the throne of the Eastern Empire by his brother, Valentinian I in AD 364, Valens was a reasonably effective ruler for much of his reign, but lacked much of the political, military and religious acumen of his elder sibling. In his Ecclesiastical History, Hermias Sozomen compares the religious views of the two brothers as follows:
Valens, when he was baptized, employed Eudoxius as his initiator, and was zealously attached to the doctrines of Arius, and would readily have compelled all mankind by force to yield to them. Valentinian, on the other hand, maintained the faith of the council of Nicæa, and favored those who upheld the same sentiments, without molesting those who entertained other opinions. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 6]
As an Arian and an active persecutor of the orthodox Nicean Christians, Valens occasionally attempted to enforce his will with brutal tactics reminiscent of his pagan predecessors like Diocletian, Decius and Valerian. One such instance occurred after rioting broke out in Constantinople between Arian and orthodox factions over the election of a new bishop for the city. Having been thoroughly beaten and abused by the ascendant Arians, eighty clerics of the orthodox faction approached Valens in Nicomedia with a petition for redress. Sozomen describes Valens reaction as follows:
Click for more info.
Although exceedingly angry, the emperor did not openly manifest any wrath, but secretly commanded the prefect to seize and slay the whole deputation. But the prefect, being apprehensive that a whole popular insurrection would be excited if he were to put so many good and religious men to death without any of the forms of justice, pretended that they were to be sent into exile, and under this pretext compelled them to embark on board a ship, to which they assented with the most perfect resignation. When they had sailed to about the center of the bay, which was called Astacius, the sailors, according to the orders they had received, set fire to the vessel and leaped into the tender. A wind arising, the ship was blown along to Dacibiza, a place on the sea-coast of Bithynia, but no sooner had it neared the shore, than it was utterly consumed with all the men on board. [Eccelsiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 14]
On another occasion, Valens visited the city of Edessa and was infuriated to discover large crowds of orthodox Catholics worshiping in the open air outside the city walls in defiance of his edict which had stripped them of their churches. The emperor’s fury nearly turned into a wholesale slaughter, but his wrath was deflected by the willingness of the Edessenes to suffer martyrdom en masse. Sozomen describes the scene:
[Valens] beheld the members of the Catholic Church assembled for worship in the plain before the walls of the city, for there, too, they had been deprived of their houses of prayer. It is said that the emperor reproached the prefect thoroughly and struck him on the jaw with his fist for having permitted these congregations contrary to his edict. Modestus (for this was the name of the prefect), although he was himself a heretic, secretly warned the people of Edessa not to meet for prayer on the accustomed spot the next day, for he had received orders from the emperor to punish all who should be seized. He uttered such threats with the forethought that none, or at least but a few, would incur danger, and with the desire to appease the wrath of the monarch. But the people of Edessa, totally disregarding the threat, ran together with more than their customary zeal, and filled the usual place of meeting.

Modestus, on being apprised of their proceedings, was undecided as to what measures ought to be adopted, and repaired in embarrassment to the plain with the throng. A woman, leading a child by the hand, and trailing her mantle in a way unbefitting the decency of women, forced her way through the files of the soldiers who were conducted by the prefect, as if bent upon some affair of importance. Modestus remarked her conduct, ordered her to be arrested, and summoned her into his presence, to inquire the cause of her running. She replied that she was hastening to the plain where the members of the Catholic Church were assembled.

"Know you not," replied Modestus, "that the prefect is on his way there for the purpose of condemning to death all who are found on the spot?"

"I have heard so," replied she, "and this is the very reason of my haste, for I am fearful of arriving too late, and thus losing the honor of martyrdom for God."

The governor having asked her why she took her child with her, she replied, "In order that he may share in the common suffering, and participate in the same reward."

Modestus, struck with astonishment at the courage of this woman, went to the emperor, and, acquainting him with what had occurred, persuaded him not to carry out a design which he showed to be disgraceful and disastrous. Thus was the Christian faith confessed by the whole city of Edessa. [Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter 18]
Valens continued vacillating between persecution and mercy with regard to non-Arians throughout the remainder of his reign. According to Sozomen, his death was predicted by an orthodox monk named Isaac who warned him that victory against the Goths would only be gained if the churches which had been given over to the Arians were returned to the orthodox.

Valens refused.

Shortly thereafter, he was killed by the Goths following the disastrous Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378.

Friday, June 07, 2019

A Pagan Convert Becomes Empress of the Romans ~ Theodosius II marries Aelia Eudocia, June 7, AD 421

A modern mosaic portrait of Empress Eudocia featured on the exterior of
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria.
On June 7, AD 421, the 20 year-old Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II married a beautiful young Greek girl. Though born into a pagan family and given the name Athenais, the young bride had converted to Christianity shortly before her nuptials and took the name Aelia Eudocia. She would go on to become a devout Christian and a controversial figure in the Eastern Roman court dominated by another powerful woman, the empress Pulcheria.

Here is the brief biography of Eudocia provided in the 6th century Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus, written about a century after her death:
Theodosius II espoused Eudocia, who had previously participated in the saving baptism—an Athenian by birth, and distinguished by poetic skill and beauty of person—through the offices of his sister, the princess Pulcheria. By her he had a daughter, Eudoxia, whom when she had reached a marriageable age, the emperor Valentinian afterwards espoused, for which purpose he made a voyage from the elder Rome to the city of Constantine.
Eudocia later went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and made a stop in Antioch on her way. There, she delivered a celebrated speech to the people in which she said, paraphrasing Homer: “It is from your blood I proudly trace my line,” in reference to the Greek colonists who had founded Antioch centuries before. Evagrius continues:
Click for more info.
On this occasion, the sons of the Antiochenes honored her with a skillfully executed statue in brass, which has been preserved even to our times. At her suggestion, Theodosius considerably enlarges the bounds of the city, by extending the circuit of the wall as far as the gate which leads to the suburb of Daphne: of which those who are disposed, may assure themselves by visible proof; for the whole wall may still be traced, since the remains afford a sufficient guidance to the eye. Some, however, say that the elder Theodosius extended the wall. He gave, besides, two hundred pounds' weight of gold for the restoration of the baths of Valens, which had been partially burnt.
Evagrius then tells how Eudocia proceeded to Jerusalem, hinting at the scandals and accusations that had forced her out Constantinople and letting the reader know that he does not believe them to be true. He describes the work she did in the city as follows:
When visiting the holy city of Christ, she did many things for the honor of our Savior God, even so far as to erect holy monasteries, and what are termed laurae.…
Evagrius here goes on a long tangent about the life and practices of the various anchorites near Jerusalem. Getting back to Eudocia, he concludes:
After having conversed with many persons of this description, and founded, as I have already said, many such seats of contemplation, and, besides, restored the walls of Jerusalem, the consort of Theodosius also erected a very large sanctuary, conspicuous for elevation and beauty, in honor of Stephen, the first of deacons and martyrs, distant less than a stadium from Jerusalem. Here her own remains were deposited, when she had departed to the unfading life.
Eudocia’s Church of Saint Stephen would later be destroyed by the Persians in AD 614, restored by Saint Sophronius and destroyed again in the aftermath of the Crusades. It would be rebuilt in the late 19th century by French Dominicans.

The above passages were taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, Book I, Chapters XX through XXII, a work that is well worth reading for those interested in this period.

Later in her life, Eudocia became embroiled in the theological controversies surrounding the Council of Chalcedon. Uncertain of which side to follow, Eudocia wrote a letter seeking advice to one of the most famous saints of the age: Saint Simeon the Stylite. From atop his pillar, 60 feet off the ground, Saint Simeon responded to the Empress, and his letter has been preserved as follows:
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"Know, my child, that the devil, seeing the wealth of your virtues, sought to sift you as wheat; moreover, that corrupter Theodosius, having become the receptacle and instrument of the evil one, both darkened and disturbed your God-beloved soul. But be of good courage, for your faith has not left you. I wonder, however, exceedingly at this, that having the fountain close at hand you do not recognize it, but hasten to draw the water from afar. You have near by the inspired Euthymius; follow his counsels and admonitions, and it will be well with you." [Taken from The Life of Saint Simeon Stylites translated by Frederick Lent]
For the record, Saint Euthymius was a champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Though by most accounts a very devout Christian (and considered a saint in the Eastern Churches to this day), Eudocia retained the classical education imparted to her by her pagan father, Leontius, a teacher of rhetoric at Athens. She wrote poetry, including a lyrical rendering of the legendary passion of the early 4th century martyr saints, Cyprian and Justina. Here is an excerpt from this work which may, in fact, contain elements of Eudocia’s own conversion story:
Followers of Christ!
You who truly cherish in your hearts
the well-praised Savior,
see my streaming tears
and learn whence flows my grief.

And you who are still snared
in the dark illusions of idolatry,
mark what I relate of its lies and deceptions.
For never has one lived
more wholly devoted to false gods than I.

To none but me have the demoniac arts
been so deeply taught.

Yes, I am Cyprian, whom my parents
dedicated to Apollo as a child.

The orgiastic tumults of the festival
of the grey dragon were my lullaby.

At seven, I was presented
to the sun-god Mithras.

I lived in the glorious city of Athens
and as it pleased my parents, became its citizen.

When I had attained the age of ten,
I kindled the torch of Demeter
and immersed myself in Cora’s dirge.
I bore Palla’s serpent
to the citadel as a temple-lad.

Then, to the summit
of wooded mount Olympus
I climbed like the fools
who seek there the radiant habitation
of the holy gods.

I saw the hours and found there
the multitudinous winds,
day’s clamorous chorus,
and all the winged fantasies
in whose illusions life slips away….

Then, for the first time,
the demons’ weakness was revealed to me….
[Taken from: Teetgen: The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria, pp. 88-89.]
A more thorough biography of this fascinating late Roman woman, including a detailed look at the scandals that caused her exile from the Capital, may be found at the De Imperatoribus Romanis site here.