Monday, April 24, 2017

Late Medieval and Renaissance Art at the Gardner Museum in Boston

During a recent trip to Boston, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I had been there once over 20 years, and had a vague recollection of the place--enough to remind me that a return trip was necessary.

Though unassuming from the outside, once you enter the Gardner Museum, you are basically stepping into an Italian villa from the 17th century, complete with central courtyard and cloisters. Beyond the gorgeous architecture, the museum houses a first-class collection of artworks from around the world. Frankly, I had forgotten how stunning the collections are, particularly the impressive holdings of Catholic religious works from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

Here are a few photos I took, representing a tiny fraction of the museum's works on display. Please forgive the quality--I went in the evening, so the lighting wasn't great. While these photos don't convey the full experience of visiting this utterly gorgeous edifice, tucked neatly in among some fairly ordinary-looking buildings less than half a mile from Fenway Park, they should be tantalizing enough to entice a visit, no?

Click to enlarge any of these.

Effigy of a knight, tomb sculpture from Salamanca, Spain, ca. 1500.

French altarpiece showing scenes from the Passion of Jesus, ca. 1425.

German statue of St. George
slaying the dragon, ca. 1500.

Risen Christ. Date unknown
(to me, anyway).

The Virgin and Child by Bernardino Pinturicchio, Italian, 1494.

Flemish tapestry from the story of Abraham,
late 16th century.

Saint Engracia, Bartolomé Bermejo, Cordova,
Spain, 1474.

The Resurrection, German or Austrian, 16th century.

Though not Medieval or Renaissance,
here is Ms. Gardner as portrayed by
John Singer Sargent in 1888. She was
48 years old at the time.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The courage of St. Theodore of Sykeon ~ AD 608

"You must first pray that your inward man may be reformed and grow healthy;
for when that is healed, the outward man, too, will be restored to health."
 ~St. Theodore of Sykeon to the east Roman consul Bonosus, ca. AD 608

April 22 is the feast of St. Theodore of Sykeon, a bishop from central Asia Minor who lived during the reign of the murderous Roman emperor, Phocas.

An extensive biography of St. Theodore written by one of his disciples has come down to us from antiquity which makes for exceptionally good reading for historians and devout Christians alike. St. Theodore had the God-given courage to speak the truth fearlessly to those in power, having humbled the cruel Bonosus and rebuked Phocas himself to his face on another occasion.

Here is the above quote in context, taken from The Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon:
About that time the inhuman consul Bonosus was traveling to the eastern parts of the Empire and as he passed near the monastery he heard tell of the inspired man's holiness and felt a reverence for it, violent and cruel though he was. So he sent a messenger in advance to him beseeching him, if he could endure the fatigue, to come down to the oratory of the holy martyr Gemellus near the posting­station in order that he might do reverence to him there and be deemed worthy of his prayers, saying that he himself was unable to go up to the monastery owing to the pressure of urgent affairs. So the Saint went down and received him and whilst he was praying for him the consul stood but did not bend his neck, so the Saint took hold of the hair of his forehead and pulled it and in this way bent his head down (virtue is wont to act thus with courage and not fear human authority 'For the righteous', it is said, 'is bold as a lion.' [ Prov 28:1]) 
We who were present were thunder­struck and terrified at the just man's daring and imagined that the consul would turn insolent and furious, for we knew well by report that his savagery was like that of a wild beast. But he readily accepted the prayer and the rebuke and showed honor to the Saint by kissing his hands, and then putting his hand on his own chest because of a pain which oppressed him he begged the Saint to pray that he might be freed from it. But the Saint gently tapped with his fingers on the consul's chest and said to him, "You must first pray that your inward man may be reformed and grow healthy; for when that is healed, the outward man, too, will be restored to health. Therefore I will pray for you and do you devote yourself to the good and fear God in order that my prayers may be effective. But if I pray and you neglect to amend your ways, my prayers will be unavailing. Be merciful then and pitiful to all Christian people and do not use harshly the authority entrusted to you, but while examining your own consciousness of sins, sympathize with those that go astray and never shed innocent blood. For if there is to be punishment for the mere insult of a spoken word-for calling another a 'fool'—how much more will blood, shed unjustly, be avenged by God?"  
These counsels the Saint gave him like a man sowing seed in unfruitful ground, and the consul fetched out a few coins and offered them to him in token of gratitude. But as the Saint did not deign to accept them, he drew back his hand and took out some 'trimisia' begging the Saint at least to accept those and to give one to every brother in the monastery. But before looking at them Theodore said, "There are only fifty and not sufficient for giving one to each, however, they can be changed into smaller money and then distributed equally."  
But the consul marveled at his discerning words, as being God­-inspired and answered, "Yes, reverend father, by thy holy prayers, there are only fifty as your holy mouth has said; however, I will send as many more at once as are needed to make up the number." This he did, for after being dismissed by the Saint he went to his baggage and sent what he had promised.
Thus the virtue of the righteous knows how to correct the violent and the savage, and by persuasion makes them yield to those who practice it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

"Quid est veritas?" What is the truth about Pontius Pilate?

Christ before Pilate by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Sienna, 14th century AD.
The weak, vacillating and ultimately cruel and cowardly figure of Pontius Pilate is one of the most enigmatic figures in Sacred Scripture. From the Gospel accounts, he seems to be a man who almost wants to be a hero, to defend the innocent victim, Jesus, against the murderous lynch mob besetting Him. Indeed, Pilate is urged by his wife to "have nothing to do with that just man." In the end, however, he lacks the courage to act virtuously. He condemns Christ to a horrible death, despite knowing with certainty that He is innocent.

But who was Pontius Pilate? Did he even exist? Or is he a figment of the evangelists' imagination, as some modern anti-Christian polemicists claim with anything associated with the historicity of Sacred Scripture?

Interestingly, two of the earliest sources who mention Pontius Pilate are both Jews. Philo of Alexandria, writing in the first half of the first century AD—that is, roughly contemporary with the time of Jesus—offers the following account which is instructive regarding the character of Pilate:
Pilate was one of the emperor's lieutenants, having been appointed governor of Judaea. He...dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod, in the holy city; which had no form nor any other forbidden thing represented on them except some necessary inscription, which mentioned these two facts, the name of the person who had placed them there, and the person in whose honor they were so placed there.
But when the multitude heard what had been done, and when the circumstance became notorious, then the people...entreated him to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields...
But when he steadfastly refused this petition (for he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate), they cried out: "Do not cause a sedition; do not make war upon us; do not destroy the peace which exists. The honor of the emperor is not identical with dishonor to the ancient laws; let it not be to you a pretence for heaping insult on our nation. Tiberius is not desirous that any of our laws or customs shall be destroyed. And if you yourself say that he is, show us either some command from him, or some letter, or something of the kind, that we, who have been sent to you as ambassadors, may cease to trouble you, and may address our supplications to your master."
But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity. Therefore, being exceedingly angry, and being at all times a man of most ferocious passions, he was in great perplexity, neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do any thing which could be acceptable to his subjects, and at the same time being sufficiently acquainted with the firmness of Tiberius on these points.
And those who were in power in our nation, seeing this, and perceiving that he was inclined to change his mind as to what he had done, but that he was not willing to be thought to do so, wrote a most supplicatory letter to Tiberius. And he, when he had read it, what did he say of Pilate, and what threats did he utter against him!...Immediately, without putting any thing off till the next day, he wrote a letter, reproaching and reviling him in the most bitter manner for his act of unprecedented audacity and wickedness, and commanding him immediately to take down the shields and to convey them away from the metropolis of Judaea to Caesarea... [Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII, 299]
This anecdote is fascinating because the description of Pilate's character corresponds well with the Pilate who appears in the Gospels: a man of violent passions and stubborn, but only up to the point when his personal power and comfort is threatened. At that point, he becomes craven and fickle.

The Pilate Stone discovered in Caesarea in 1961, containing a 1st century AD
inscription referencing Pontius Pilate. Now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The great Jewish historian, Josephus, writing in the late first century AD, mentions Pontius Pilate several times. One of his passages which references Pilate is the famous and controversial Testimonium Flavianum as follows:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3] 
In another interesting passage, Josephus details how Pilate's ten-year term of office in Judea came to an end. An unnamed rabble-rouser had convinced the Samaritans that he knew the location of the mountain where Moses had secreted certain sacred vessels. When they gathered to collect the vessels, Pilate intervened with violence:
So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable, and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain. 
But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria [later emperor for a short time], and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but before he could get to Rome Tiberius was dead. [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 4] 
Why Pilate decided to attack the Samaritans here is left unsaid. Josephus also doesn't offer any additional information on the fate of Pilate after he returned to Rome. For this, the most reliable surviving record is that of Eusebius Pamphilus from the early 4th century. Drawing on more ancient sources, he records:
The so-called "Tomb of Pilate" in Vienne.
It is worthy of note that Pilate himself, who was governor in the time of our Savior, is reported to have fallen into such misfortunes under Caius [Caligula], whose times we are recording, that he was forced to become his own murderer and executioner; and thus divine vengeance, as it seems, was not long in overtaking him. This is stated by those Greek historians who have recorded the Olympiads, together with the respective events which have taken place in each period. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter 7]
Interestingly, the Roman pyramid at Vienne in southeastern France was traditionally called the tomb of Pilate. There is, however, very little actual history that supports this identification and the association of Pontius Pilate with this structure is probably a later legendary interpolation.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Judas Iscariot and Spy Wednesday


Today is Spy Wednesday, when the Church traditionally remembers the initiation of the betrayal of Jesus by his apostle, Judas Iscariot. It is interesting in the Gospel of Matthew that Judas approaches the chief priests with his proposal of conspiracy immediately after Our Lord rebukes the disciples for false compassion:
And when Jesus was in Bethania, in the house of Simon the leper, There came to him a woman having an alabaster box of precious ointment, and poured it on his head as he was at table. And the disciples seeing it, had indignation, saying: To what purpose is this waste? For this might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. And Jesus knowing it, said to them: "Why do you trouble this woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For the poor you have always with you: but me you have not always. For she in pouring this ointment upon my body, hath done it for my burial. Amen I say to you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she hath done, shall be told for a memory of her." [Matthew 26:8-13]
In the Gospel of St. John, the evangelist names names, identifying the principle agitator in the scene above:
Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was about to betray him, said: "Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein."John 12:3-6.
Returning to Matthew's account, Judas then immediately goes and seeks out the enemies of Our Lord:
Then went one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, to the chief priests, And said to them: "What will you give me, and I will deliver him unto you?" But they appointed him thirty pieces of silver. And from thenceforth he sought opportunity to betray him. [Matthew 26:14-16]
Thus, Judas becomes a spy for those seeking to destroy Jesus--hence, Spy Wednesday. Though the term has fallen out of parlance today, Spy Wednesday was used with regularity in English-speaking countries through the 19th century. The Irish Ecclesiastical Record says, in some places, that Spy Wednesday was a day of strict abstinence. It is also one of three days on which the Tenebrae ceremony is celebrated in traditional Catholic practice.

Satan chewing on Judas
by Gustav Doré
For his crime, Judas is considered one of the worst sinners in history. In the Divine Comedy, Dante puts the soul of Judas in the deepest, darkest, most horrifying place in Hell--one of the three mouths of Satan:
In each mouth he mashed up a separate sinner
With his sharp teeth, as if they were a grinder,
And in this way he put the three through torture.

For the one in front, the biting was as nothing
Compared to the clawing, for at times his back
Remained completely stripped bare of its skin.

"That soul up there who suffers the worst pain,"
My master said, "is Judas Iscariot —
His head within, he kicks his legs outside."
For the record, Satan's other two mouths, according to Dante, are occupied by two other famous betrayers, Brutus and Cassius.

Let us pray along with the Tenebrae service for Spy Wednesday, that God may not forsake the Church in our distress and may not allow us to be sent down into darkness:

Save me from the mire; do not let me sink;
let me be rescued from those who hate me
   and out of the deep waters.
Let not the torrent of waters wash over me,
   neither let the deep swallow me up;
do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me.

Monday, April 10, 2017

"City to add twelve foot cops" ~ Some delightfully ambiguous newspaper headlines

Excerpt from Refurbishing our Foundations: Elementary
Linguistics from an Advanced Point of View
A friend of mine on Facebook recently posted a favorite headline:

"Dudley pooh-poohs public pooping in park"

This amusingly alliterative headline brought to mind a book I worked on years ago at John Benjamins entitled, Refurbishing Our Foundations: Elementary Linguistics from an Advanced Point of View by Charles Francis Hockett. This book was memorable to me for one reason--the author's list of headlines cited as examples of ambiguity of language. These headlines were made humorously ambiguous or simply bizarre due to homophones, odd capitalization, missing punctuation or articles, or other linguistic idiosyncrasies in the English language.

For your entertainment, here is the list of headlines:
  • BASEBALL TALKS IN NINTH INNING
  • SMOKING RISKIER THAN THOUGHT 
  • HOT DOG FIRM IN NEW HANDS
  • QUEEN DUCKS RIDE TO U.S. ON CONCORDE 
  • TEXTRON INC. MAKES OFFER TO SCREW COMPANY SHAREHOLDERS 
  • FARMER BILL DIES IN HOUSE 
  • FORD GIVES SWAN SONG 
  • TUNA BITING OFF WASHINGTON COAST 
  • CROWD RUSHING TO SEE POPE TRAMPLE SIX TO DEATH 
  • CITY TO ADD TWELVE FOOT COPS 
  • BUILDINGS SWAY FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO LA 
  • HE FOUND GOD AT THE END OF HIS ROPE 
  • NONSWIMMER DROWNS A HERO
Well, I thought they were funny, anyway.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Onolatry: Did early Christians worship the head of an ass?

Jesus separating the ass (symbolizing
heresy) from the sheep. A 3rd century
fresco from the catacomb
of Prætextatus
.
     Then it flashed on me that they were Christians.
     "Oh nurse, nurse, how can you? How can you? Oh what will become of you and of me?"
     "Become of me?" she said. "Why, by God's goodness, in a few hours I shall be where that poor beggar now is. And there, sweet lamb, I want you to be."
     "Never! Never! Worship an ass's head? Never!"
     “My child,” said the old man, “Some day you will learn, I hope, that we do none of these wicked things that are imputed to us; that we worship none but God, and His only Son, our Lord; with Whom your dear nurse is soon going to live.” 
The above scene is drawn from John Mason Neale's novella, The Daughters of Pola, and it describes the moment when the main character, Agnella, discovers that her beloved dying nurse, Apollonia, is a Christian.

"Alexamenos worships his god."
3rd century graffito from the
Palatine in Rome.
When I first read this passage, I was struck by the accusation that Christians worship the head of an ass. I had heard of the various slanders attributed to early Christians by hostile pagans: that Christians engaged in cannibalism, incest, and drank the blood of infants. But worshiping an ass's head was a new one.

With a little research, I soon discovered that this slander even had a name: onolatry—literally "ass worship." I was aware of the famous Alexamenos graffito (ca. 3rd century AD) which may be seen to this day at the Palatine Museum in Rome (see at right). But I did not know that the onolatry slander has a history which predates Christianity, at least as far back to an accusation leveled against the Jews by the Greco-Egyptian historian, Apion. Though Apion's works have not survived, we have fragments of them from Josephus's response, Against Apion, which was likely written in the early 1st century AD. Josephus writes:
Apion hath the impudence to pretend, that “The Jews placed an asse’s head in their holy place.” And he affirms, that “this was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes spoiled our temple; and found that asse’s head there made of gold; and worth a great deal of money.” [Against Apion, Book II]
Josephus then goes on to effectively dismantle Apion's claim at some length.

The slander was repeated, along with numerous other half-truths and outright falsehoods, by the Roman historian, Tacitus, at about the same time. In describing the origins of the unusual religious practices of the Jews, Tacitus says that the Jews were expelled from Egypt and cast out into the desert. Here is where their ass-worship began:
Thus a multitude of sufferers was rounded up, herded together, and abandoned in the wilderness. Here the exiles tearfully resigned themselves to their fate. But one of them, who was called Moses, urged his companions not to wait passively for help from god or man, for both had deserted them: they should trust to their own initiative and to whatever guidance first helped them to extricate themselves from their present plight. They agreed, and started off at random into the unknown.
     But exhaustion set in, chiefly through lack of water, and the level plain was already strewn with the bodies of those who had collapsed and were at their last gasp when a herd of wild asses left their pasture and made for the spade of a wooded crag. Moses followed them and was able to bring to light a number of abundant channels of water whose presence he had deduced from a grassy patch of ground....
     In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind....In the innermost part of the Temple, they consecrated an image of the animal which had delivered them from their wandering and thirst. [Tacitus, Histories, Book V:2]
That this slander was later applied to Christians, presumably as a sect or offshoot from Judaism, can be seen in the works of two Christian apologists from the third century. The first, Minucius Felix, a Roman from Africa, writes the following to dispute the slander:
Thence arises what you say that you hear, that an ass's head is esteemed among us a divine thing. Who is such a fool as to worship this? Who is so much more foolish as to believe that it is an object of worship? Unless that you even consecrate whole asses in your stables, together with your Epona [pagan goddess, protector of horses, ponies, mules and donkeys], and religiously devour those same asses with Isis. Also you offer up and worship the heads of oxen and of wethers, and you dedicate gods mingled also of a goat and a man, and gods with the faces of dogs and lions. Do you not adore and feed Apis the ox, with the Egyptians? [Minucius Felix, Octavius, Ch. 28]
At about the same time or somewhat later, Tertullian also sought to dispel the attribution of onolatry to Christians. He also turns the tables quite effectively on the pagan critics of Christianity, writing:
We are (said to be) guilty not merely of forsaking the religion of the community, but of introducing a monstrous superstition; for some among you have dreamed that our god is an ass's head—an absurdity which Cornelius Tacitus first suggested....The same Cornelius Tacitus, however—who, to say the truth, is most loquacious in falsehood— forgetting his later statement, relates how Pompey the Great, after conquering the Jews and capturing Jerusalem, entered the temple, but found nothing in the shape of an image, though he examined the place carefully. Where, then, should their God have been found? Nowhere else, of course, than in so memorable a temple which was carefully shut to all but the priests, and into which there could be no fear of a stranger entering. But what apology must I here offer for what I am going to say, when I have no other object at the moment than to make a passing remark or two in a general way which shall be equally applicable to yourselves? Suppose that our God, then, be an asinine person, will you at all events deny that you possess the same characteristics with ourselves in that matter? (Not their heads only, but) entire asses, are, to be sure, objects of adoration to you, along with their tutelar Epona; and all herds, and cattle, and beasts you consecrate, and their stables into the bargain! This, perhaps, is your grievance against us, that, when surrounded by cattle-worshippers of every kind we are simply devoted to asses! [Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book I.]
Click for more information.
Perhaps the fictional priest Anastasius in The Daughters of Pola would have used a similar line of argument to persuade Agnella that the scandalous tales told about the Christians were nothing more than fables made up by people of ill will. He says:
"At that time, we talked for two hours, and I do not mean to say that all her difficulties, nay, that the half of them, were removed. The fables of the ass’s head and the infants’ blood I think she no longer regards. But her stumblingblock, as of old, is a suffering God."
Here, John Mason Neale gets to the heart of the difficulties faced by early Christians in carrying out Our Lord's great commission to teach the Gospel to all nations. Particularly when dealing with the Romans, early Christians faced a civilization for whom the highest goods were personal glory, victory, comfort, and the pleasures of life. For them, disgrace and suffering were anathema and the greatest evils. Thus, Christians who suffered willingly had to be despicable and it was therefore easy to give credence to any slanders offered against them and their practices. It was easier for Romans to believe that Christians worshiped the head of an ass than a God who suffered an ignominious death on a cross.

For early Christians, forced to defend themselves against the charge of onolatry and all variety of ridiculous lies and calumnies, the prophetic words of Jesus must have been constantly recalled to their minds:
"Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you." [Matthew 5:11-12].

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The coronation of Justinian as Co-Emperor in AD 527

Justinian from the mosaic at San Vitale
in Ravenna.
With his uncle Justin I sick to the point of death in early April, AD 527, Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus, long the heir-apparent to the throne of the eastern Roman empire, was crowned co-emperor. This happened on either April 1 or April 4. We have an idea of what went on that day, thanks to some fragmentary writings of Peter the Patrician, who held the high position of Master of Offices (magister officiorum) under Justinian for over twenty years. These fragments were preserved for posterity in Constantine Porphyrogenitus's work, De Ceremoniis. Peter wrote:
When Justin I was lying seriously ill, upon the advice of the senate, he proclaimed Justinian co-Emperor in the Great Triclinium of the palace. On April 4th, 525 [all other sources say April 1, 527], Justin ordered an audience to be held in the building of the palace called the Delphax, where the scholarians and all the corps of soldiers were assembled. The Bishop was present, offered prayer, and crowned Justinian. [From: Boak: Imperial Coronation Ceremonies of the Fifth and 6th centuries]. 
Peter then reports that everything else took place along the lines of the previously described coronation of Leo II, which wrapped up as follows:
The Bishop departed and the senior Emperor took his seat. The new Emperor saluted the people who hailed him as Augustus. After the Urban Prefect and the senate had made him the usual present of a crown of gold he addressed the soldiers, promising them the customary donative. [As above].
At the news of the donative, which was usually a gift of gold and silver, the soldiers would have rejoiced and offered acclamations like the following, which are based on the shouts recorded in De Ceremoniis at the elevation of the emperor Anastasius I in AD 491:
"Abundance for the world! God will preserve a Christian emperor! These are common prayers! These are the prayers of the world! Lord, help the pious! Holy Lord, uplift the world! The fortune of the Romans conquers! Justin Augustus, you conquer! Justinian Augustus, you conquer! God has given thee, God will keep thee! God be with you!" [Taken from: Brightman: "Byzantine Imperial Coronations" in The Journal of Theological Studies, 1901]
It should be noted that this sort of ceremonial—where an ailing senior emperor crowns a co-emperor—seemed to be more somber affairs. They tended to be shorter and more bare-bones than the full coronation ceremony when a new emperor was crowned in his own right. The full ceremony included additional opportunities for prayer, procession, proclamation and acclamation.
Late Roman soldiers, possibly scholarians, from the Brescia Casket, late 4th century AD.

Monday, April 03, 2017

"I condemn Agape and Chionia to be burnt alive." ~ April 3, AD 303

Saints Chionia, Agape and Irene listen
to the preaching of Saint Demetrios
in a modern painting.
April 3 is the Catholic feast day of three sisters who were executed during the persecution of Diocletian in AD 303: Agape, Chionia and Irene. The three were citizens of the city of Thessalonica in Macedonia which was also the hometown of Diocletian's Caesar, or junior emperor, Galerius. It was Galerius who first instigated Diocletian to commence an empire-wide persecution of Christians, so it is perhaps not surprising to find the attack being pressed so vigorously there.

We are fortunate that the authentic acts of these martyrs have come down to us from antiquity largely intact. The transcript of their trial begins with the Roman authorities making two accusations against the three sisters and four others—three women and a man—namely that they refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and that they were suspected of hiding Christian books which, by the decree of the emperors, were to be surrendered for destruction. For more on the burning of Christian literature under Diocletian, click here.
In the year 303, the emperor Diocletian published an edict forbidding, under pain of death, any persons to keep the holy scriptures. These saints concealed many volumes of these sacred books, but were not discovered or apprehended till the year following, when, as their acts relate, Dulcetius, the governor, being seated in his tribunal, Artemesius, the secretary, said: "If you please, I will read an information, given in by the Stationary, concerning several persons here present."

Dulcetius: "Let the information be read."
The solicitor read as follows: "The Pensioner Cassander to Dulcetius, president of Macedonia, greeting. I send to your highness six Christian women, with a man, who have refused to eat meats sacrificed to the gods. They are called Agape, Chionia, Irene, Casia, Philippa, Eutychia, and the man's name is Agatho. Therefore I have caused them to be brought before you."

The president, turning to the women, said: "Wretches, what madness is this of yours, that you will not obey the pious commands of the emperors and Cæsars?" He then said to Agatho: "Why will you not eat of the meats offered to the gods, like other subjects of the empire?"

He answered: "Because I am a Christian."

Dulcetius: "Do you still persist in that resolution?" 
Agatho: "Certainly."

Dulcetius next addressed himself to Agape, saying: "What are your sentiments?"

Agape answered: "I believe in the living God, and will not by an evil action lose all the merit of my past life."

Then the president said: "What say you, Chionia?"

She answered: "I believe in the living God, and for that reason did not obey your orders."
The president, turning to Irene, said: "Why did not you obey the most pious command of our emperors and Cæsars?"
Irene: "For fear of offending God."

President: "But what say you, Casia?"

Casia: "I desire to save my soul."

President: "Will not you partake of the sacred offerings?"

Casia: "By no means."
President: "But you, Philippa, what do you say?" 
She answered: "I say the same thing."
President: "What is that?" 
Philippa: "That I had rather die than eat of your sacrifices."

President: "And you, Eutychia, what do you say?"
Eutychia: "I say the same thing, that I had rather die than do what you command."
President: "Are you married?"
Eutychia: "My husband has been dead almost these seven months."
President: "By whom are you with child?"

Eutychia: "By him whom God gave me for my husband."

President: "I advise you, Eutychia, to leave this folly, and resume a reasonable way of thinking; what do you say? Will you obey the imperial edict?" 
Eutychia: "No: for I am a Christian, and serve the Almighty God." 
President: "Eutychia being big with child, let her be kept in prison." 
Afterwards Dulcetius added: "Agape, what is your resolution? Will you do as we do, who are obedient and dutiful to the emperors?"

Agape: "It is not proper to obey Satan; my soul is not to be overcome by these discourses."

President: "And you, Chionia, what is your final answer?"

Agape: "Nothing can change me."

President: "Have you not some books, papers, or other writings, relating to the religion of the impious Christians?"
Chionia said: "We have none: the emperors now reigning have taken them all from us."

President: "Who drew you into this persuasion?"
She said, "Almighty God."

President: "Who induced you to embrace this folly?"
Chionia repeated again, "Almighty God, and his only Son our Lord Jesus Christ."

Dulcetius: "You are all bound to obey our most puissant emperors and Cæsars. But because you have so long obstinately despised their just commands, and so many edicts, admonitions, and threats, and have had the boldness and rashness to despise our orders, retaining the impious name of Christians; and since to this very time you have not obeyed the stationaries and officers who solicited you to renounce Jesus Christ in writing, you shall receive the punishment you deserve." Then he read their sentence, which was worded as follows: "I condemn Agape and Chionia to be burnt alive, for having out of malice and obstinacy acted in contradiction to the divine edicts of our lords the emperors and Cæsars, and who at present profess the rash and false religion of Christians, which all pious persons abhor." He added: "As for the other four, let them be confined in close prison during my pleasure."
One of the Tetrarchs, possibly Galerius, on the
famous statue now at Saint Mark's in Venice. 
After Agape and Chionia were burned to death, Dulcetius brought Irene back for further questioning. It seems that in the interim, he had discovered some sacred books in her possession. Confronting her with this evidence, he hopes to convince her to recant and sacrifice, or failing that, to get her to implicate other Christians, including her own father. Saint Irene, however, is having none of it, and Dulcetius passes a barbaric interim sentence.
Dulcetius: "Your madness to plain, since you have kept to this day so many books, parchments, codicils, and papers of the scriptures of the impious Christians. You were forced to acknowledge them when they were produced before you, though you had before denied you had any. You will not take warning from the punishment of your sisters, neither have you the fear of death before your eyes: your punishment therefore is unavoidable. In the mean time I do not refuse even now to make some condescension in your behalf. Notwithstanding your crime, you may find pardon and be freed from punishment, if you will yet worship the gods. What say you then? Will you obey the orders of the emperors? are you ready to sacrifice to the gods, and eat of the victims?" 
Irene: "By no means: for those that renounce Jesus Christ, the Son of God, are threatened with eternal fire."
Dulcetius: "Who persuaded you to conceal those books and papers so long?" 
Irene: "Almighty God, who has commanded us to love him even unto death; on which account we dare not betray him, but rather choose to be burnt alive, or suffer any thing whatsoever than discover such writings."
President: "Who knew that those writings were in the house?"
Irene: "Nobody, but the Almighty, from whom nothing is hid: for we concealed them even from our own domestics, lest they should accuse us."
President: "Where did you hide yourselves last year, when the pious edict of our emperors was first published?" 
Irene: "Where it pleased God, in the mountains."
President: "With whom did you live?"
Irene: "We were in the open air, sometimes on one mountain, sometimes on another."
President: "Who supplied you with bread?"
Irene: "God, who gives food to all flesh."
President: "Was your father privy to it?"
Irene: "No; he had not the least knowledge of it."
President: "Which of your neighbors knew it?"
Irene: "Inquire in the neighborhood, and make your search."
President: "After you returned from the mountains, as you say, did you read those books to anybody?"
Irene: "They were hid at our own house, and we durst not produce them; and we were in great trouble, because we could not read them night and day, as we had been accustomed to do."
The Rotonda of Galerius, originally part of his palace
complex in Thessalonika, now the Rotonda of St. George. 
Dulcetius: "Your sisters have already suffered the punishments to which they were condemned. As for you, Irene, though you were condemned to death before your flight for having hid these writings, I will not have you die so suddenly; but I order that you be exposed naked in a brothel, and be allowed one loaf a day, to be sent you from the palace; and that the guards do not suffer you to stir out of it one moment, under pain of death to them."
The infamous sentence was rigorously executed; but God protecting her, no man durst approach her, nor say or do any indecency to her. The president caused her to be brought again before him
President: "Do you still persist in your rashness?"
Irene: "Not in rashness, but in piety towards God."
Dulcetius: "You shall suffer the just punishment of your insolence and obstinacy."
And having called for paper, he wrote this sentence: "Since Irene will not obey the emperor's orders and sacrifice to the gods, but, on the contrary, persists still in the religion of the Christians, I order her to be immediately burnt alive, as her sisters have been." 
Dulcetius had no sooner pronounced this sentence but the soldiers seized Irene, and brought her to a rising ground where her sisters had suffered martyrdom, and having lighted a large pile, ordered her to mount thereon. Irene, singing psalms, and celebrating the glory of God, threw herself on the pile, and was there consumed in the ninth consulship of Diocletian, and the eighth of Maximian.
The Roman Martyrology says that the martyrdom of St. Agape and Chionia took place on April 3, with St. Irene following on the 5th of April. The fates of Casia, Eutychia, Philippa and Agatho are unknown.

The above is taken from Butler's Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principle Saints, Volume 1 (1833), which introduces it as: "From their original acts, abridged out of the presidial court registers of Thessalonica, in Surius, Ruinart, p. 421, Tillemont, t. 5, p. 240 and 680. Cellier, t. 3, p. 390.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Social Justice and Individual Justice

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"Sometimes, people are interested in social justice to cover up the want of individual justice."
~Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

I found this quote, or rather heard it, in one of Sheen's talks entitled: Identity Crisis, originally broadcast in 1966. The full talk may be seen here:


Sheen used this potent line in other contexts as well. A particularly scalding example may be found in a conference he gave for priests of the Diocese of Washington, DC in 1974, where he offers an explanation for why priests fall away from the Faith via the actions of Judas Iscariot. When Judas complained to Our Lord that the perfume poured on him by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, Jesus rebuked him [John 12:1-8].

Sheen calls this incident out as Judas putting an emphasis on social justice while forgetting about individual justice. Judas, after all, was the treasurer of the twelve and was guilty of the sin of avarice. Because of his greed, he was about to commit the worst sin ever committed by a man. Our Lord recognized that Judas was using the pretense of concern for the poor as a way to cover up his own personal sins.

A more contemporary example then followed, in Sheen's own words:
A bishop, one day came to me with a letter written by a priest in his office. It was two or three pages long, single space. A very vicious attack on the bishop because he had no interest in ecumenism; particularly because he had no concern for the poor. Well, I knew that the bishop did have concern for the poor, ecumenism as well. And I said to him.

“Why don’t you find out how much he stole?”

Actually he stole over $25,000.00 from the chancery and then stole a wife who was a mother of four children. It was the story of Judas lived all over again.
The entire lecture on Judas may be found here.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think Sheen's observation here explains very clearly why we see so many celebrities who live lives of open rebellion against Christian morality, and yet deign to lecture society on topics related to social justice. The amazing thing is that anybody listens to them.

For any of us who dare to spread the Gospel in a public place, it is well to remember that we ought not to use our concern for social justice to mask those areas of our personal lives where we fall short. It is better to make amends for our personal sins, rectify our irregular situations, and refrain from enabling or promoting immoral situations in others before becoming social justice warriors, lest we be accurately accused of hypocrisy.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Roman Amphitheater of Pola and Persecution Denial

     Before us rose the three tiers of the amphitheater, of snowy marble, but then reflecting the western rays of a cloudless April evening, and arrayed in a vesture of pink like a sunset Alp....
     “Oh, what perfect loveliness and peace!” said I to an Istrian priest who resided in the city, and who had come aboard at Rovigno.
     “And yet what different associations that amphitheater gives,” he replied....
The above snippet is taken from John Mason Neale's novella, The Daughters of Pola: Family Letters Relating to the Persecution of Diocletian which is about to be republished after being generally unavailable for over a century. Written in 1861, this little gem of a book is a great way to introduce the present generation of readers to an aspect of history that is often downplayed or purposely ignored—namely the eight years of empire-wide persecution of Christians by the Roman government in the early 4th century AD.

The magnificent amphitheater of Pula as it exists today.
The climax of The Daughters of Pola takes place here.
This is important because even among fairly erudite people today, there is a strong undercurrent of revisionist disbelief regarding the persecutions. Some critics will even go so far as to deny that persecutions happened at all, claiming that they were completely made up by later Christian historians.

Anyone who has actually studied the existing primary sources knows well that the persecutions are matters of historical fact. Sadly, the literature of that age, though extant, is often hard to access for modern readers. The critics are right to the extent that many of the numerous martyrdom stories that have come down to us from that age were greatly embellished by later copyists, to the point that the truth behind them is obscured or even lost. However, numerous authentic histories exist, including detailed legal transcripts taken by pagan Roman officials describing the investigations and trials of unrepentant Christians. I have attempted to collate a few of these accounts here on this blog, such as the following:
In The Daughters of Pola, John Mason Neale tells a story that echos all of the above accounts. Trusting his vast erudition as a classicist and scholar of ancient languages, Neale successfully created a narrative from a sequence of letters among the characters. In tone, some of the letters sound uncannily like those of Ausonius whose works have come down to us from the later 4th century. Neale set his tale in the Roman city of Pola (modern day Pula in Croatia), whose fantastically preserved Roman ruins exist to this day. Indeed, the climax of the novel takes place in the magnificent amphitheater of Pola, whose size and state of preservation rivals even the great Colosseum in Rome, as can be seen in the photo above. And indeed, we know of at least one martyrdom that took place in this amphitheater, namely that of Germanus in AD 284.

So while a work of fiction itself, The Daughters of Pola makes for a brief, accessible and beautifully crafted introduction to the authentic sources for modern readers. The novella successfully captures the sound and feel of late antiquity, exploring the tensions that the rise of Christianity and its official condemnation introduced into Roman families and society. As such, it provides a realistic window into the late Roman world when paganism launched its final, furious campaign to crush Christianity, and when the blood of the martyrs led directly to the complete triumph of the Christian faith within a generation.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Saint Fernando III ~ Spain's great Catholic king

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"Christ redeemed us on the hard arms of the Cross, and His knight will not serve Him in any other way." 
 ~Saint Fernando III, King of Castile and Leon

Few saints embody the three pillars of Lent as well as Saint Fernando III. In fact, it may be accurately said that he lived via prayer, fasting and almsgiving all year long, not just during the holy season.

Though little remembered today, Saint Fernando III (1198-1252) was perhaps the greatest king of Castile and Leon. Via his military prowess, he recovered large territories in Spain from Islam, while remaining personally pious and just toward the citizens of his kingdom. He made it an especial goal to keep taxes as low as possible and is credited by the Catholic Encyclopedia as saying that he had greater fear of the curses of one old woman than of a whole army of Saracens.

Saint Fernando was the father of seven children--six sons and a daughter--and was personally virtuous. He fasted regularly, did penance for his sins and spent nights in prayer before battle. He also insisted that his soldiers be virtuous, and had a deep personal devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

His incorrupt remains may be seen to this day on display in the Cathedral of Seville in Spain.

We are fortunate that an outstanding modern biography of this saint is available: Saint Fernando III: A Kingdom for Christ by James Fitzhenry. Here is a snippet of a review I wrote some years ago for this book:
"Everything he did, he offered to God without reservation. In his willingness to suffer personal hardships, unfailing mercy toward his enemies, love for his wife and children, and care for the poor and afflicted, St. Fernando was a model of Christian virtue. In his everyday life, and especially when he faced a crisis, he turned to the Virgin and believed to the depths of his soul that she would intercede for him. And based on the magnificent achievements of his life, who can doubt that she did?... in short, this book is a gem. St. Fernando III is a Catholic hero who deserves to be more widely known."
If you would like to purchase a copy of this book, you can get it at The Young Catholic's Bookshelf.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Romans are easily killed in war because they rely on others for safety" ~ Priscus and the notion of Romans voluntarily becoming Huns

The Roman Embassy to Attila by Cecilia Lawrence.
Priscus is one of the men in the background.
Yesterday, an interesting article appeared in the Daily Mail with a slightly revisionist take on Attila and his Huns, carrying the headline: How Roman farmers deserted the Empire's modern charms for the simple life of the cone-headed Huns. A similar article also appeared in the Washington Post yesterday entitled: Ancient Romans depicted Huns as barbarians. Their bones tell a different story.

The premise presented in the article is that some Roman frontier farmers voluntarily gave up their status as Roman citizens to join the Huns because of "a more relaxed lifestyle and tastier diet." The article cites Dr. Susanne Hakenbeck from Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology who says: "Far from being a clash of cultures, alternating between lifestyles may have been an insurance policy in unstable political times."

I don't doubt that Dr. Hakenbeck's opinion has been simplified for publication in the Daily Mail and WaPo and admittedly, I have not yet read her article in PLOS. But what is not explained in the news articles is that those living in the frontier provinces of Pannonia, Illyricum and Thrace in the 4th through 6th centuries AD were a mish-mash of Romans, Greeks, native Thracians, and various fully and semi-civilized former barbarians including Goths, Alans, Heruls, and others. All of these Germanic tribes were very familiar with the Huns, having been pushed by them out of the central Asian steppe in the mid-4th century AD. Indeed, much of Atilla's patchwork empire was peopled by these subject tribes. Thus, it would not be surprising that a Gothic farmer from Thrace (particularly a young man) might become tired of the settled Roman system with its laws and taxes and opt for the "ravage and relax / plunder and party" system favored by the Huns and, incidentally, by the Gothic tribes living outside of the empire at the time.

Later in the article, Dr. Hakenbeck hypothesizes about the possibility that "citizens at the edge of Rome’s empire were drawn to the Hun lifestyle, just as some nomads took to a more settled way of life." She blames the lack of documentary evidence to support this hypothesis on the "bad press" that the Huns received from their more civilized neighbors. While that sounds dangerously like drawing assumptions from a lack of evidence, in fact, Dr. Hakenbeck cites a tantalizing bit of documentation for this trend. She describes an eye-witness account recorded by the 5th century Roman historian, Priscus, with a Roman citizen who lived among the Huns.
"The merchant was freed, but he was enjoying his life there and didn’t want to go back. The Roman emissary tried to persuade him to go back, but the guy said: ‘Why, I don’t have to pay taxes, and I’ve a nice life.’ The merchant also said of the Huns, ‘they live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed."
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This anecdote is drawn directly from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, a lost ancient history that has been pieced back together centuries later from long quotations that have come down to us in other sources. But perhaps more intriguing than the above statement from this Roman-turned-Hun is the list of grievances that he launches at Priscus with regard to his former country. If one closes his eyes while reading this, these words from 1,600 years ago sound hauntingly like a condemnation of the modern post-Christian West:
"Romans are easily killed because they rely on others for safety. Because of their tyrants, not everyone carries arms, and those who do bear arms are in still more peril due to the cowardice of generals who undermine war efforts. What happens in peace is even more painful than wartime troubles because of the burdensome tribute [tax] collection and unprincipled men’s abuses, since laws are not established equally. If a criminal belongs to the upper class, he does not pay the penalty for injustice; but if he is poor, with no experience in legal affairs, he awaits his penalty under law—unless he loses his life prior to the decision." [Taken from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, pg. 63]
Also left out of the Daily Mail article is how this fascinating conversation wrapped up. Priscus remonstrated with the Roman-turned-Hun and gives an able defense of the Roman system. The man's response to Priscus's words is surprising:
“In tears he said that the laws [of the Romans] were noble and the Roman constitution good, but the rulers, since they do not think like rulers of old, had corrupted it.” [Taken from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, pg. 65]
The tears make this poor fellow sound very much like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome who, as a former captive of the Huns, is now trying to make the best of a bad situation. Priscus tells us that the man was originally a wealthy merchant, but when his city of Viminakion on the Danube came under the control of the Huns, he was stripped of his possessions and given to one of the Hun chieftains as spoils. So this man, at least, didn't migrate to Atilla's empire of his own volition. He was one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of Roman civilians who were swept up by Hun raiding parties as slaves when the Roman defenses along the Danube collapsed in the mid-5th century. Earlier in his history, Priscus describes the scene of Naissos [modern day Niš in Serbia], a large town in Illyricum that was devastated by the Huns in the invasion of AD 441:
"Arriving near Naissos, we found the city bereft of people because it had been overturned by the enemy, though there were some people in the sacred lodgings who were suffering from diseases. We camped a little upriver in a clearing, since the bank was everywhere covered with the bones of war casualties." [Taken from The Fragmentary History of Priscus, pg. 49]
It should be kept in mind that Naissos was just one of the many cities in the Roman Danuban provinces destroyed by Attila. For a full account of the utter annihilation wrought by Attila and his Huns, read The Fragmentary History of Priscus as translated by John Given -- a truly fascinating ancient document.

I salute Dr. Hakenbeck for calling attention to this intriguing and often neglected period of history.

Roman villa in Gaul sacked by the Huns by Georges Rochegrosse (1910)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“The Scriptures Destroyed by Fire” ~ An official Roman transcript from the Great Persecution of AD 304

Modern depiction of the Library of Alexandria aflame ~
not by Christians but by Julius Caesar in 48 BC.
It is a common theme in our post-Christian age to tar the early Church with certain atrocities against philosophy and science. One of the accusations most commonly trotted out is that the Christians burned the world-famous library at Alexandria. This "perniciously persistent" myth is tidily demolished by David Bentley Hart in a 2010 article in First Things. But even if the myth were true, the Roman Christians had a model to follow in that Hellenistic pagans themselves consigned Christian books to the flames during the persecutions. For a period of about eight years in the early 4th century AD, it was mandated by law that Christian books be burned, and Roman authorities went door-to-door in certain cities searching for them.

During the earliest phase of the Great Persecution under the emperors Diocletian and Galerius, beginning an AD 303, an edict was promulgated demanding that all Christian books be burned. Here is the mention of this edict from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, written about 20-30 years after the event:
"It was the nineteenth year of Diocletian's reign [AD 303] and the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, and the festival of the Saviour's Passion was approaching, when an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire...
Early Christian churches often housed libraries of valuable scriptural, catechetical, and historical works. But because churches were easy targets for persecutors, copies of Christian Scriptures and other books were dispersed in the homes of the minor orders: subdeacons, lectors and even grave-diggers.

Young man holding a codex.
Fresco from the catacomb of
Sts. Peter and Marcellinus,
Rome, 3rd century AD.
We know that the burning of Christian books by imperial mandate did happen thanks to notices in other historical sources, including a fascinating Roman legal report taken in the city of Cirta in the province of Numidia. This report was read out during a trial in AD 320 and is drawn from the municipal acts of Cirta recorded by the curator Munatius Felix, a pagan.

This transcript is interesting for at least three reasons. First, it corroborates that the persecution initiated by Diocletian and Galerius in the east, took place in Africa as well, which was a province under the control of the co-Augustus of the west, Maximianus. Second, it reveals the level of thoroughness and stark detail that went into Roman legal reporting. Third, it demonstrates quite clearly that not all Christians died heroic deaths during the persecution--indeed, many became "traditores" who willingly handed over the Sacred Scriptures to save their own lives.

Here is the full transcript dated May 19, AD 304:
In the consulate of Diocletian the Eighth, and Maximinian the Seventh, on the nineteenth of May, from the Acts of Munatius Felix the perpetual flamen, the guardian of the colony at Cirta.

When they came to the house in which the Christians were accustomed to assemble, Felix the flamen and guardian of the state said to Paul the Bishop: "Bring out the Scriptures of the Law, and anything else that you may have here, as has been commanded, that you may obey the order."

Paul the Bishop said: "The lectors have the Scriptures. But we surrender what we have here."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Paul the Bishop: "Show us the lectors or send to them."

Paul the Bishop said: "You all know them."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said: "We do not know them."

Paul the Bishop said: "The public officers know them—that is Edusius and Junius, the notaries."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said: "Let the matter of the lectors stand over. They will be pointed out by the public officers. Do you surrender what you have."

In the presence of Paul the Bishop (who remained seated), of Montanus and Victor of Deusatelium, and Memorius priests, Mars and Helius the deacons, Marcuclius, Catullinus, Silvanus and Carosus the subdeacons standing by with Januarius, Meraclus, Fructuosus, Migginis, Saturninus, Victor and the rest of the grave-diggers, Victor of Aufidus made this brief inventory against them.

Two golden chalices, also six silver chalices, six silver pots, a silver chafing vessel, seven silver lamps, two torches, seven short brass candlesticks with their lamps, also eleven brass candlesticks with their chains, eighty-two women's garments, thirty-eight veils, sixteen men's garments, thirteen pair of men's shoes, forty-seven pair of women's shoes, eighteen pattens for the country.'

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius, Silvanus and Carosus the grave-diggers: "Bring forth whatever you have."

Silvanus and Carosus said: "All that was here we have thrown out."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius, Silvanus and Carosus: "Your answer is set down in the Acts."

After the cupboards in the bookcases had been found to be empty, Silvanus brought forth a silver casket, and a silver candlestick, for he said that he had found them behind a jug.

Victor of Aufidus said to Silvanus: "Had you not found these things, you were a dead man."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Silvanus: "Search more carefully, lest anything else should have been left behind."

Silvanus said: "Nothing has been left behind. This is all----what we have thrown out."

And when the dining-room was opened, there were found in it four casks and six jugs.

Felix the perpetual flamen and life-guardian of the state said: "Bring forth whatever Scriptures you have, that we may obey the precepts and commands of the Emperors."

Catullinus brought forth one very large codex.

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius and Silvanus: "Why have you given us only one codex? Bring forth the Scriptures which you have."

Catullinus and Marcuclius said: "We have no more, for we are sub-deacons, but the lectors have the codices."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Marcuclius and Catullinus: "Show us the lectors."

Marcuclius and Catullinus said: "We do not know where they live."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Catullinus and Marcuclius: "If you do not know where they are living, tell us their names."

Catullinus and Marcuclius said: "We are not Traitors, behold we are here. Order us to be killed."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said: "Let them be taken into custody."

And when they came to the house of Eugenius, Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Eugenius: "Bring forth the Scriptures which you have, that you may obey the decree."

And he brought forth four codices.

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Silvanus and Carosus: "Show us the other lectors."

Silvanus and Carosus said: "The Bishop has already told you that the notaries Edusius and Junius know them all. Let them point out their houses to you."

Edusius and Junius said: "We will point them out to you, my lord."

And when they came to the house of Felix, the worker in marbles, he brought forth five codices. And when they came to the house of Victorinus, he brought forth eight codices. And when they came to the house of Projectus, he brought forth five large and two small codices.

And when they came to the house of Victor the Grammarian, Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to him: "Bring forth whatever Scriptures you have, that you may obey the decree."

Victor the Grammarian brought forth two codices, and four quinions. Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Victor: "Bring forth the Scriptures. You have more."

Victor the Grammarian said: "If I had more, I would have given them."

And when they came to the house of Euticius of Caesarea, Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Euticius: "Bring forth the Scriptures which you have, that you may obey the decree."

Euticius said: "I have none."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Euticius: "Your statement is set down in the Acts."

And when they came to the house of Coddeo, his wife brought forth six codices.

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state then said: "Look and see whether you have not got more. Bring them forth."

The woman said: "I have no more."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Bos the public official: "Go in and search whether she has not any more."

The public official said: "I have searched and have not found anything else."

Felix the perpetual flamen and guardian of the state said to Victorinus, Silvanus and Carosus: "If anything has been kept back, the danger is yours."
This translation of the text is taken from Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (1917). More background information on this transcript and how it came down to us may be found there.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

March 16 ~ Anniversary of the Assassination of Valentinian III in AD 455

Gold solidus showing Valentinian III
March 16 marks the anniversary of the assassination of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III in AD 455.

Though he reigned for thirty years, Valentinian III presided over the slow but steady dismemberment of the Western Empire and was considered a weak and vacillating emperor. He had risen to the throne at the age of six or seven and was therefore under the thumb of powerful figures at court for most of his reign. Fortunately for him, one of these figures was the capable general Aetius who successfully defended the empire from the potentially cataclysmic invasion of Attila and his Huns in AD 451.

After Attila's death in AD 453, Valentinian felt secure enough to consider dispensing with Aetius, whom others at court considered a threat and a roadblock to their own ambitions. In a dramatic scene, Valentinian confronted Aetius while the latter was reviewing imperial finances with him. The emperor accused Aetius of being a drunk and of trying to take the empire from him. Then, without warning, he and his eunuch chamberlain, Herakleios, drew swords and slew Aetius where he stood. Later, when the emperor boasted of how well he had done in removing Aetius, one of his counselors replied famously:
“Whether well or not, I do not know. But know that you have cut off your right hand with your left.”
Not long after this foolhardy act, Valentinian was himself struck down. Another courtier, Petronius Maximus, sought to obtain the honors previously held by Aetius. He was blocked in this ambition by Herakleios who felt that the emperor would not do well to exchange one powerful general for another. What happened next is recorded in the History of Priscus:
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"Maximus grew angry because of his failure to obtain both ranks [consul and patrician]. He summoned Optelas and Thraustelas, Scythian men who were excellent in war, who had fought alongside Aetius and who kept company with Valentinian. After discussing the situation and exchanging pledges with them, he blamed the emperor for murdering Aetius and explained why it was a good idea to stalk him...

"Not many days later, Valentinian decided to ride his horse on the Field of Ares together with a few bodyguards and Optelas’s and Thraustelas’s men. As soon as he dismounted and was preparing to practice archery, Optelas and his men attacked. Drawing the swords hanging at their sides, they advanced. Optelas struck Valentinian on the side of the head and, as Valentinian turned to see who had assaulted him, Optelas struck a second blow, and felled him. Thraustelas took down Herakleios. Taking the emperor’s diadem and horse, both men ran off to Maximus. Their attack proved innocuous to them, either due to their unexpected boldness, or perhaps because the others present were terrified at their reputation in war."
Priscus also records something truly bizarre in the aftermath of the attack:
"Something divine happened at the death of Valentinian. A swarm of bees appeared and drew up the blood flowing from his body into the earth. They sucked up all of it. And so Valentinian died at the age of thirty-seven."
The immediate result of this assassination was the further weakening of the already tottering Western Empire. Petronius Maximus took the throne, but could not gain the support of the Eastern court or the people in Rome. Within two months, a huge army of Vandals led by their king, Gaiseric, arrived at Rome from north Africa, bent on pillage. Unable to defend the city, Maximus was stoned to death by the people. Three days later, Gaiseric entered Rome and sacked the Eternal City for two weeks.

Much of our knowledge of these events was obtained from the History of Priscus which has come down to us from antiquity in fragmentary form. If you enjoy reading about this period of history, I highly recommend it!