Thursday, February 25, 2010

This Day in Late Roman History ... February 25

On this day in AD 493, Odovacar, the Scirian king of Italy concluded a treaty with Theodoric the Ostrogoth which effectively ended the war between them.

Odovacar had deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in AD 476 and had ruled Italy himself under the title of "rex" or king for the next 17 years. Attempts by the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno to get Odovacar to recognize even the appearance of Roman suzerainty over Italy were continually rebuffed.

In 489, when faced with a dangerous Ostrogothic horde outside the walls of Constantinople under the command of Theodoric the Amal, Zeno made a virtue out of necessity by offering Theodoric the rule of Italy if he could wrest it from Odovacar. Theodoric accepted the offer and after plundering his way across the Balkans, he invaded Italy and defeated Odovacar in a series of battles. The treaty concluded on February 25 officially ceded Ravenna, the capital of the Western Empire, to Theodoric and allowed for joint rule of Italy between Odovacar and Theodoric.

Within a short time, however, the more powerful Theodoric had Odovacar slain and took the title of king for himself alone. He ruled Italy in his own right for nearly 40 years and was, for most of that time, considered an enlightened monarch by his Roman subjects.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review of The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton

In G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, we have an author of true genius and incredible literary ability covering an enormous range of subjects with the philosophical acumen of a Renaissance polymath. I, on the other hand, am an average fellow with decent reading skills and a rudimentary understanding of theology and philosophy. Therefore, it is fairly ludicrous for me to attempt a critique of this book.

But don't think that will stop me.

I read 100% of The Everlasting Man. But I readily admit that if I understood 50% of it, I did well. Like much of Chesterton's work, the book is more like 40,000 aphorisms strung together than a systematic treatise on a single subject. In it, Chesterton attempts to parallel the celebrated Outline of History by H. G. Wells which had been published in 1919, some 5 years before. But while Wells's work was a materialist history that was criticized by Hillaire Belloc as giving less space to Christ than to the Persian campaign against the Greeks, Chesterton's work focuses on how the reality of Christ and the truth of Christianity has infused all of human history.

As someone who already believes this thesis, Chesterton's work was mostly preaching to the choir in my case. So perhaps the book did not have the same impact on me as it might have on someone who subscribes to the materialist version of history going in. It certainly impacted C. S. Lewis, who gave the work a good bit of credit for his conversion to belief in Christianity.

Chesterton makes the point repeatedly that Christianity is unique and should not be compared to other religions. Unlike Jesus, the founders of other religious traditions never claimed to actually be God. Chesterton writes: "Mahomedans did not misunderstand Mahomet and suppose he was Allah. Jews did not misinterpret Moses and identify him with Jehovah." Instead, the claim made by Christ stands alone among philosophers and great lawgivers. Any others who actually did make such a claim, were deemed madmen: "No one can imagine Aristotle claiming to be the father of gods and men, come down from the sky; though we might imagine some insane Roman Emperor like Caligula claiming it for him, or more probably, for himself."

And that leaves us with a dilemma that utterly demolishes the comforting popular notion that Jesus was merely a wise rabbi who passed on a moral code to his disciples. As C. S. Lewis would later put it more succinctly: "Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse."

There is so much more to this book than I can do justice to here. Rather than go on at length, I will simply give the reader a few choice quotes which will exhibit Chesterton's point of view and rhetorical style far better than my continued rambling:
"Far away to the east there is a high civilization of vast antiquity in China; there are the remains of civilizations in Mexico and South America and other places, some of them apparently so high in civilization as to have reached the most refined forms of devil-worship."
"Now it is very right to rebuke our own race or religion for falling short of our own standards and ideals. But it is absurd to pretend that they fell lower than the other races and religions that professed the very opposite standards and ideals. There is a very real sense in which the Christian is worse than the heathen, the Spaniard worse than the Red Indian, or even the Roman potentially worse than the Carthaginian. But there is only one sense in which he is worse; and that is not in being positively worse. The Christian is only worse because it is his business to be better."
"The truth is that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or a status by which to criticize the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city; the gods of the hearth."
As should be readily appreciated from these quotes, there is much in this book that is directly applicable to our own times. But these are only the barest sample of Chesterton's wit and wisdom. Practically every fourth line of this book is quotable.

In short, I heartily recommend The Everlasting Man. However, let the reader beware: Chesterton assumed a level of knowledge and intellectual patience that is quite honestly beyond most of us today. As a result, I found the book to be somewhat frustrating because so much of it is so clearly over my head.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New study debunks claims of systematic infant sacrifice in Carthage -- or does it?

This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy. A press release is put out making the claim that a new study "debunks millennia-old claims of systematic infant sacrifice in ancient Carthage." Sounds intriguing, right?

Then, you read the release. About half-way down is this very curious statement:
"The idea of regular infant sacrifice in Carthage is not based on a study of the cremated remains, but on instances of human sacrifice reported by a few ancient chroniclers, inferred from ambiguous Carthaginian inscriptions, and referenced in the Old Testament."
Ok, do you get that? Apparently, documentary evidence in written sources dating from thousands of years ago is now considered inferior to scant archaeological remains--at least by these guys.

For the record, here is one of the pieces of documentary evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice, taken from Diodorus Siculus:
In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.
Child sacrifice is also mentioned in Sacred Scripture as being associated with the Caananite god, Moloch, for example:
"Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: If any man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers, that dwell in Israel, give of his seed to the idol Moloch, dying let him die: the people of the land shall stone him." Leviticus 20:2
Here is a list of references to Moloch in Scripture.

Carthage was a colony of the Caananite/Phoenician trading cities.

But there is a real zinger in this press release:
"Our results show that some children were sacrificed, but they contradict the conclusion that Carthaginians were a brutal bunch who regularly sacrificed their own children."
Did you get that? So far from debunking anything, the research actually confirms that the Carthaginians did practice child sacrifice. The best this research team can do is comfort themselves with the knowledge that it may not have been on a massive scale.

Good grief.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

This Day in Late Roman History . . . February 11

On this day in AD 641, Heraclius, one of the most heroic — and tragic — late Roman emperors, died. He ruled for 30 of the most crisis-plagued years the Roman empire had ever experienced.

Under the rule of his predecessor, the cruel usurper Phocas, the Slavs had overrun the Balkans. At the same time, Syria, Egypt, and much of Asia Minor had been conquered by the Persians. The Persian king Chosroes II had even sacked Jerusalem, taking the True Cross back to Persia with him.

Rising from Africa where his father was exarch, Heraclius overthrew Phocas, but was faced with the daunting task of saving the empire from powerful enemies attacking on two fronts. Melting down gold given to him from the churches, Heraclius recruited and trained a new army. Rather than await the coming siege of the capital, Heraclius took the war to the Persians, defeating them in several pitched battles.

His campaign became a crusade. It was a fight to the death between the Christian Romans and fire-worshiping Persians — and in the end, the great Persian empire of the Sassanids lay prostrate on the ground. Heraclius recovered the relics from Jerusalem, and in AD 630, he returned to Jerusalem carrying the True Cross before him.

But his triumph was not long lived. Within six years, the Romans were again defeated in Palestine at Yarmuk by an invading army driven by a new power sweeping out of Arabia—Islam. By the end of his life, nearly all Heraclius had fought so hard to re-conquer had again been swept away, never to be recovered by the empire.

More detailed information on the eventful reign of Heraclius may be found here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Friday, February 05, 2010

Book Review: Saint Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed

We purchased this book at the St. Katharine Drexel shrine in suburban Philadelphia. My oldest daughter, who is six, was interested in learning more about St. Katharine's life, so we sat down together a few nights each week and I read it out loud to her. The book caught her imagination immediately and never let go.

From St. Katharine's girlhood with her sisters, to their summers in the country, to their various family trips, the author captures the spirit of family life in the Drexel household with good humor that makes them come across as real people, not unapproachable models of sanctity. My daughter and I particularly enjoyed the stories of their various joys and mishaps while on their European trips. What comes through unmistakably is that the Drexel girls, though surrounded by every material comfort the world could offer, never lost their focus on God, performing their devotions, and enriching their spiritual lives.

Without doubt, this book shows the Drexels as extremely wealthy--which in fact they were. However, this is contrasted with the family's unfailing charity, starting with their practice of the Dorcas where those in need came to the backdoor of the Drexel house. Of course, the ultimate example of that generosity was Katharine herself. Like her hero St. Francis of Assisi, Katharine gave up everything--even millions of dollars--to serve God. One of the most poignant passages for me was toward the end of the book where Mother Katharine is described as wearing her habits until they were threadbare. Having been to her shrine, examples of her austerity abound there, too--such as the tiny pencils, sharpened down to mere nubs, that she used until they could no longer be held.

So in short, this is a charming story about an inspiring modern saint. If you want to encourage a love of Christian charity and an openness to the religious life in your children, read this book with them.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Alexander the Great meets Diogenes the Cynic

Fr. Rutler on EWTN's series, Christ in the City, mentioned this little story in passing, and it's just so good that I couldn't resist posting it, if only so that I can refer back to it later.
Alexander, passing through Corinth, had a curiosity to see Diogenes, who happened to be there at the time: he found him basking in the sun in the grove of Craneum, where he was mending his tub.

"I am," said he to him, "the great king Alexander."

"And I," replied the philosopher, "am the dog Diogenes."

"Are you not afraid of me?" continued Alexander.

"Are you good or bad?" asked Diogenes.

"Good," rejoined Alexander.

"And who need be afraid of one that is good?" answered Diogenes.

Alexander admired the penetration and freedom of Diogenes; and after some conversation, he said to him, "I see, Diogenes, that you are in want of many things, and I shall be happy to serve you; ask of me what you will."

"Retire, then, a little to one side," replied Diogenes, "you are depriving me of the sun."

It is no wonder that Alexander stood astonished at seeing a man so completely above every human concern.

"Which of the two is richest," continued Diogenes: "he who is content with his cloak and his bag, or he for whom a whole kingdom does not suffice, and who is daily exposing himself to a thousand dangers in order to extend it?"

The courtiers of the king were indignant that so great a monarch should thus honor such a dog as Diogenes, who did not even rise from his place. Alexander perceived it, and, turning about to them, said, "Were I not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes."
Taken from:

Lives of the Ancient Philosophers
Translated from the French of Fenelon with notes and a life of the author
by REV. JOHN Cormack, 1842, pg. 227-228