Tuesday, July 11, 2017

When Saint Benedict met Totila, King of the Goths

Totila kneels before Saint Benedict by Spinello Aretino (1388).
In the mid 6th century, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, launched a campaign to reconquer the lost province of Italy for the Empire. Though his great general, Belisarius, was able to cripple the Gothic kingdom in Italy and capture its capital at Ravenna, he not able to complete the conquest at that time. Soon after he returned to Constantinople, a fierce new Gothic king arose, Totila by name, who revived the fortunes of the Goths and very nearly undid all of the gains made by Belisarius.

One of the lesser known acts of Totila was his visit the famous abbot Benedict at his monastery at Monte Cassino. This event was not recorded in Procopius, the primary classical historian of the age, but rather in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. The Dialogues include the oldest extant biography of the Saint Benedict and this account may be found therein. Since July 11 is the feast day of Saint Benedict, it seems fitting to present Pope Gregory's description of this extraordinary encounter:
In the time of the Goths, when Totila, their king, understood that the holy man had the spirit of prophecy, as he was going towards his monastery, he remained in a place somewhat far off, and beforehand sent the father word of his coming: to whom answer was returned, that he might come at his pleasure. The king, as he was a man wickedly disposed, thought he would try whether the man of God were a prophet, as it was reported, or no.
A certain man of his guard he had, called Riggo, upon whom he caused his own shoes to be put, and to be apparelled with his other princely robes, commanding him to go as it were himself to the man of God; and to give the better colour to this device, he sent three to attend upon him, who especially were |74 always about the king: to wit, Vultericus, Rudericus, and Blindinus; charging them that in the presence of the servant of God, they should be next about him, and behave themselves in such sort as though he had been king Totila indeed: and that diligently they should do unto him all other services, to the end that both by such dutiful kind of behavior, as also by his purple robes, he might verily be taken for the king himself. Riggo, furnished with that brave apparel, and accompanied with many courtiers, came unto the Abbey: at which time the man of God sat a little way off, and when Riggo was come so near that he might well understand what the man of God said, then, in the hearing of them all, he spake thus: "Put off, my good son, put off that apparel, for that which thou hast on, is none of thine."
Riggo, hearing this, fell straightways down to the ground, and was very much afraid, for presuming to go about to mock so worthy a man, and all his attendants and servitors fell down likewise to the earth, and after they were up again, they durst not approach any nearer to his presence: but returned back to their king, telling him with fear, how quickly they were discovered. [Dialogues, Book II, Chapter 14]
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After his strategem failed, Totila approached the abbot in his own right and sought an interview with him. Things did not go as well as he might have hoped:
Then Totila himself in person went unto the man of God; and seeing him sitting afar off, he durst not come near, but fell down to the ground: whom the holy man (speaking to him twice or thrice) desired to rise up and at length came unto him, and with his own hands lifted him up from the earth, where he lay prostrate: and then, entering into talk, he reprehended him for his wicked deeds, and in few words told him all that which should befall him, saying: "Much wickedness do you daily commit, and many great sins have you done: now at length give over your sinful life. Into the city of Rome shall you enter, and over the sea shall you pass: nine years shall you reign, and in the tenth shall you leave this mortal life."
The king, hearing these things, was wonderfully afraid, and desiring the holy man to commend him to God in his prayers, he departed: and from that time forward he was nothing so cruel as before he had been. Not long after he went to Rome, sailed over into Sicily, and, in the tenth year of his reign, he lost his kingdom together with his life. [Dialogues, Book II, Chapter 15]
Procopius records that Totila, while besieging the city of Rome in AD 546, had a bishop's hands cut off, and furthermore threatened to raze the city to the ground and execute the entire Roman senate. Soon afterwards, he thought better of his threats, and when he finally took the city he spared both its inhabitants and its monuments. Procopius attributes this clemency to a letter written by his adversary, Belisarius, which read, in part: 
"[Rome's] monuments belong to posterity, and an outrage committed upon them will rightly be regarded as a great injustice to all future generations...Remember that your reputation in the eyes of the world is at stake." [Procopius, History of the Wars, VII, xii]
It's quite possible that this letter turned aside the wrath of Totila. However, it could also be that the Goth king's moderation was brought about by a stern warning given to him by the holy founder of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict of Nursia.

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