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!

Monday, March 13, 2017

An agent of Popery? The persecution of John Mason Neale and his family

John Mason Neale from the
frontispiece of The Letters of
John Mason Neale
as compiled
by his daughter, Mary Sackville
Lawson in 1909.
Though little remembered today, John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was a 19th century Anglican clergyman. He was a poet, hymnodist, novelist, scholar of the ancient classics, and is perhaps best known for writing or translating the lyrics of several familiar hymns and Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas, Good Christian Men Rejoice, and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel among them.

Neale was associated with the Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century which sought to re-introduce ancient practices of the Catholic Church into the Church of England. With a keen interest in patristics and as founder of the Sisterhood of Saint Margaret in 1854--a community of Anglican sisters that survives to this day--Neale regularly faced accusations of being too sympathetic to the Catholic Church. Sometimes, these accusations transcended mere verbal disagreement from his peers. The persecution he endured from this position was lasting and occasionally furious. His daughter would later write:
"To us, familiar as we were with his stories of the persecutions of the Church, it perhaps seemed to be the natural lot of a Christian, especially as our parents bore it in a quiet matter-of-fact way. When abusive language was shouted at her outside our window, our mother would pull down the blind and send one of us to practise the piano." 
Anti-Papist hooligans attempted to burn down his home at Sackville College in November of 1848: 
"The disturbances last night reached a climax. There were two incendiary fires the night before. Last night we had an attempt to set the College on fire in three different places; and a man knocked me down in the kitchen, and yet escaped, though we had five watchers at the time! Anonymous letters are now the order of the day; also pictures of me. This is all part of the same attempt to force us out; but they have mistaken their man. I sometimes really think they will try a bullet before they have done, and so murder me..." 
In March of 1851, he and his wife were roughly handled as "agents of popery." Here is a description of the incident from Neale's own letters:
"Now that the unhappy excitement which has recently prevailed in the town seems in some measure abated, I think that perhaps a few words of comment on and explanation of, late circumstances, may not be out of place. And therefore I adopt the only method in my power of addressing you, namely, a printed letter.
I shall be very glad if you will spend a few minutes in considering with me what has lately happened... 
The facts are these: That on a certain Tuesday night a mob of about 150 persons, many of them disguised, paraded the town; that they carried torches, firepans, oil, shavings, straw, and other combustibles; that they disturbed the place with their rough music; that they came up to this College, burnt a bier, a pall, and crosses in our field; smashed many of our windows, the stones being thrown with such force as to indent the wall on the opposite side; lighted a fire against our house, which absolutely melted the lead of one of the windows, and the flame of which was seen above the roof; that the mob retired two or three times, and returned to the assault, after having had beer in the town; that, when I went out to speak to them, they first attacked me, and had afterwards the cowardice to attack Mrs. Neale; that this took place when my children were, and were known to be, lying seriously ill; and that their illness was very much aggravated by the fear and excitement, and the dense smoke with which the house was filled. The fact also is that, during this riot, which lasted nearly three hours, of the thirty or forty respectable tradesmen in this town not one volunteered to come to our assistance."
In a later letter, Neale paid tribute to his wife's bravery:
"You have no idea of my wife's courage, for she persisted in speaking to the rabble, even after they had pelted her, and at last they listened."
Despite such indignities and outright cruelty from his co-religionists, John Mason Neale remained an Anglican to his death. Unlike Cardinal Newman, he never swam the Tiber despite his obvious affinity toward Catholic practices.

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Nevertheless, as an immensely prolific writer, he scattered numerous little literary gems in his wake which may well be appreciated by modern audiences, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. His gifts as a classicist give these works a wonderfully authentic flavor, which allow the reader a familiarity and intimacy with the characters even though the events described are set nearly 2,000 years ago. Several of these works which are set in patristic times, are thoroughly enjoyable for young Catholic readers in particular, including The Egyptian Wanderers, Exiles of the Cebenna, The Quay of the Dioscuri, and the soon-to-be-republished Daughters of Pola from Arx Publishing.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Saint Frances of Rome ~ March 9

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“Hope every thing from the mercy of God; it is as boundless as His power.”
–Saint Frances of Rome
This quote is taken from an anecdote in The Life of Saint Frances of Rome. Saint Frances (b. AD 1384, d. AD 1440) was an amazing holy woman who was married 40 years and then became foundress of a religious order after her husband died. It is said that during 40 years of marriage, she and her husband never once had a disagreement.

Here is the context of the above quote:
“Cecca Clarelli, a relation of the Ponziani, is delivered of a little girl in such apparent good health that no one thinks of baptizing her; a grand ceremony for the purpose is preparing in a neighboring church, to take place the following day; but in the middle of the night Francesca arrives, and entreats that the child may be instantly baptised. The parents and the priest object, but the Saint is urgent; she will take no denial; with reluctance her request is complied with, and no sooner has the sacrament been conferred than the infant expires. 
"A child of the same parents, a lovely little girl, is dumb; she is four years old, and not a single word has she ever pronounced. Andreozzo, her father, entreats his wife to carry her to the Saint, and implore her assistance. Francesca's humility cannot endure this direct appeal, and she tries to put them off; but, deeply affected by their tears, she at last touches with her finger the tongue of the little Camilla, and says, "Hope every thing from the mercy of God; it is as boundless as His power." The parents depart full of faith and comfort; and ere they reach their house, the child has uttered with perfect distinctness the blessed names of Jesus and Mary; and from that day forward acquires and retains the power of speech.” 
Click here to read the full Life of St. Frances of Rome by Lady Georgiana Fullerton on Archive.org. A shorter summary of her life may be found here: St. Frances of Rome, Catholic Encyclopedia at NewAdvent.org.

The image is a detail taken from a painting by 17th century artist Giovan Battista Gaulli entitled: Santa Francesca Romana which shows the saint distributing food to the poor. Click here to see the entire painting. It's quite beautiful.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Who was Saint Pontius the Deacon?

St. Cyprian as portrayed by the excellent
Catholic artist, Cecilia Lawrence.
March 8 is the Catholic feast day of Saint Pontius the Deacon, companion of the great Saint Cyprian of Carthage. Pontius is most well known for writing a first-hand account of the martyrdom of Cyprian in AD 258. Saint Jerome calls Pontius out briefly in his work On Famous Men (Chapter 68) as follows:
Pontius, deacon of Cyprian, sharing his exile until the day of his death, left a notable volume on the life and death of Cyprian.
Little more is known about him, save what he himself says in his famous account of his shepherd and colleague. He apparently witnessed the execution of Cyprian with his own eyes, supplying several vivid details:
When [Cyprian] had come to the praetorium, as the proconsul had not yet come forth, a place of retirement was accorded him. There, as he sat moistened after his long journey with excessive perspiration...one of the officers (Tesserarius), who had formerly been a Christian, offered him his clothes, as if he might wish to change his moistened garments for drier ones.
Once the proconsul interrogated Cyprian and read the sentence, Pontius describes how the saint was led to the place of execution and had to encourage his unwilling executioner to perform his office:
And when he left the doors of the praetorium, a crowd of soldiery accompanied him; and that nothing might be wanting in his passion, centurions and tribunes guarded his side....And now, having with his own hands bound his eyes, he tried to hasten the slowness of the executioner, whose office was to wield the sword, and who with difficulty clasped the blade in his failing right hand with trembling fingers, until the mature hour of glorification strengthened the hand of the centurion with power granted from above to accomplish the death of the excellent man, and at length supplied him with the permitted strength. 
 At the end of the document, Pontius rejoices that Cyprian has been accounted worthy of the martyr's laurel, but laments that he himself had not, to that point, suffered for the sake of Christ:
What shall I do now? Between joy at his passion, and grief at still remaining, my mind is divided in different directions, and twofold affections are burdening a heart too limited for them. Shall I grieve that I was not his associate? But yet I must triumph in his victory. Shall I triumph at his victory? Still I grieve that I am not his companion. Yet still to you I must in simplicity confess, what you also are aware of, that it was my intention to be his companion. Much and excessively I exult at his glory; but still more do I grieve that I remained behind.
Read Saint Pontius's Life and Passion of Saint Cyprian, along with all of Saint Cyprian's voluminous writings in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, which may be ordered in book form here or here.

This edition has the virtue of including footnotes and commentary that are more Catholic-friendly than previous editions done by 19th century Protestant scholars. It also includes one of my favorite features: The Quotable Cyprian.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas

St. Perpetua rebuffs her father's entreaties.
On March 7, AD 203, during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, five Christians were martyred in the amphitheater of Carthage under the procurator Hilarian. The three men were named Revocatus, Saturus, and Saturninus. The two women, however, are more famous, having their names entered into the Roman Canon of the Mass: Felicitas, a slave eight months pregnant, and Perpetua, a young Roman matron of noble birth who had recently given birth to a child.

Unlike many of the Acts of these early martyrs, the antiquity and authenticity of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas is not seriously challenged by most scholars. Indeed, the first piece of the Acts is thought to have been written or dictated by Perpetua herself, in Latin. Here she describes her father's reaction to the fact that she was under official suspicion of being a Christian:
"When we were still under legal surveillance and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love: 
'Father,' said I, 'Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?' 
And he said, 'I see it.' 
And I said to him, 'Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?' 
And he answered, 'No.'
'So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian?'
Then my father angry with this word came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil."
A few days later, Perpetua was thrown into prison along with other Christians. There she experienced visions and was troubled that she was unable to breast-feed her child. Adding to her worries, her father came to see her and entreated her to apostasize in dramatic fashion, grovelling at her feet and tearing out his beard. When this availed nothing, the five abovementioned Christians were brought to public trial. Perpetua continues:
"We went up to the tribunal. The others being asked, confessed. So they came to me. And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: 'Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.'
And Hilarian the procurator—he that after the death of Minucius Timinian the proconsul had received in his room the right and power of the sword—said: 'Spare your father's grey hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors' prosperity.'
And I answered: 'I am a Christian.'
And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father's harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. 
Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon...."
After recording several other visions and conversations that she experienced in prison, Perpetua's account ends and the climax of the martyrdom is recounted by another voice. Felicitas is delivered of a baby girl a few days before the scheduled execution, and the child apparently survived her mother to be raised by a sister. On the day of their execution, the martyrs parade to the amphitheater is described as follows in the Acts:
Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheater as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism. 
And when they had been brought to the gate and were being compelled to put on, the men the dress of the priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres, the noble Perpetua remained of like firmness to the end, and would not. For she said: "For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives, that we might do no such thing as this; this we agreed with you."
Injustice acknowledged justice; the tribune suffered that they should be brought forth as they were, without more ado. Perpetua began to sing, as already treading on the Egyptian's head. Revocatus and Saturninus and Saturus threatened the people as they gazed. Then when they came into Hilarian's sight, they began to say to Hilarian, stretching forth their hands and nodding their heads: "You judge us," they said, "and God you."
At this the people being enraged besought that they should be vexed with scourges before the line of gladiators (those namely who fought with beasts). Then truly they gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord. 
Mosaic of a prisoner gored by a leopard
in the arena, Tunisia, 3rd century AD 
The Christians were then made to fight the wild beasts. Saturninus as mauled by numerous beasts. Revocatus was torn by a leopard, then by a bear. Saturus was dragged by a boar and faced a bear, but emerged largely unharmed from both encounters to be slain finally by the bite of a leopard. Both Perpetua and Felicitas were made to face a cow that had been trained and goaded to behave like a wild bull:
Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her loins. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her dishevelled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair dishevelled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity smitten down, she went up and gave her her hand and raised her up.
Not killed by the mad cow, Perpetua cried out to her brother and the other catechumens present:
"Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion."
It seems that four of the five survived their ordeals with the beasts and were slaughtered, in the end, by sword strokes from the gladiators present. In Perpetua's case, however, the gladiator was inexperienced in killing and made a mess of her execution:
Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it. 
So perished these five to the glory of God the Father Almighty, and His Son Jesus Christ. The entire Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas may be read at the Early Christian Writings site.

Septimius Severus from the
British Museum.
Though this persecution occurred during the reign of Septimius Severus, it is thought to have been a local persecution only, not empire-wide. The reputation of Severus is quite mixed regarding his attitude toward Christianity. The Historia Augusta records that he promulgated an edict making it illegal to convert to Judaism or Christianity. Meanwhile, Tertullian, writing in AD 212 (or 217) in his Ad Scapulam, admits that though persecutions have taken place under Severus, that emperor was:
"graciously mindful of the Christians...Both women and men of highest rank, whom Severus knew well to be Christians, were not merely permitted by him to remain uninjured; but he even bore distinguished testimony in their favour, and gave them publicly back to us from the hands of a raging populace."

Friday, March 03, 2017

March 3 ~ Feast of Saint Katharine Drexel

Mother Drexel by Lori Kauffmann
in The American Martyrology.
Katharine Mary Drexel was quite an unlikely candidate for sainthood. Though brought up in a devoutly Catholic family, Katharine's youth was one of wealth and luxury. Daughter of one of Philadelphia's elite families, she was expected to do what most girls of her age and status did which was marry the scion of another wealthy family.

When she first revealed her inclination to the religious life, both her parents and her spiritual director, Father James O'Connor (later the first bishop of Omaha, Nebraska) were opposed. Katharine herself had doubts. In one of her notebooks, she made a list of pros and cons. The cons included:
  • I do not know how I could bear the privations and poverty of the religious life. I have never been deprived of luxuries.
  • I hate community life. I should think it maddening to come in constant contact with many different old maidish dispositions. 
Despite her misgivings, God's call won out in the end in a big way. Here is the rest of the story, as told in Religious Orders of Women in the United States (1913), compiled by Elinor Tong Dehey:
Her heart was yearning to embrace the religious life, and if she had followed her own desires she would probably have chosen a contemplative community, and not as might have been expected an active one. Bishop O'Connor still deferred giving Miss Drexel a decision in regard to her vocation. All the pent up longing of her heart was to give herself to God without delay. The more she prayed, the greater became the attraction to leave all for Christ. Bishop O'Connor had always in mind the new Congregation, and fearful of acting hastily had allowed time to elapse before determining to unfold his views to Miss Drexel.

In January, 1887, Miss Drexel and her sister were travelling abroad; while in Rome, Leo XIII. received them in private audience. Miss Katharine, in speaking to His Holiness, mentioned the great need of missionaries among the Indians, and in the simplicity of her soul begged the Holy Father to send some devoted missionary communities to labor among them. With the smile for which he was remarkable lighting up that singularly clear eye by which he seemed to pierce the future, and with a voice the tones of which touched the innermost depths of Miss Drexel's soul, he replied: "Why not become a missionary yourself, my child?"

Coming at the moment when she was struggling between the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit and the prohibitory mandate of her director, this seemed, as undoubtedly it was, the voice of God Himself. Shortly after this, Bishop O'Connor announced to Miss Drexel what he believed to be the will of God in her regard. Divine Providence, he thought, wished to make use of her to form the nucleus of a new society for the conversion of the Indian and negro races. In obedience to the direction of Bishop O'Connor, Miss Drexel entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy, in Pittsburg, Penn., May 6, 1889. St. Mary's Pittsburg, first House of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States, was destined to be the cradle of the new community. It was not long before Miss Drexel was joined by others who wished to share her mission labors, and with her to pre- pare themselves for the work which God was unfolding. Under the direction of the saintly Mother McAuley, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament began their novitiate.
This scene is described quite poignantly in Ellen Tarry's Saint Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed. Part of the Vision Series by Ignatius Press, this book is an excellent short biography of Mother Drexel, suitable for kids ages nine and up. As an adult, I found it edifying as well, and wrote a review of it several years ago that may be found here.

Also notable for kids, if you can find a copy, is Katie--The Young Life of Mother Katharine Drexel, which I reviewed here.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

The "Gloria Romanorum" Medallion of Justinian

Here are two photos taken at the British Museum in 2011, featuring the obverse and reverse of an electrotype replica gold medallion which was struck during the reign of Justinian I. The original coin was stolen from Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 1831 and has been lost ever since. This representation is a reproduction made from a sulfur cast taken before the medallion was lost.

The Dictionary of Roman Coins of 1889 describes this medallion as follows:
Distinguished not only by its unique character but also by its unusual volume and weight (for, according to Eckhel), it equals five ounces and nearly three drachms, and Mionnet gives its diameter as 38 lines (French measure), this splendid coin was found in the year 1751, near Caesarea ad Argaeum (Mazaca), formerly the capital of Cappadocia, amongst some rubbish in the foundations of an old building, cast out from the depth of twenty feet underground.
The inscription on the obverse reads: "D. N. Justinianus P. P. Aug." or, to expand, "Dominus Noster Justinianus Perpetuus Augustus" ~ Our Lord Justinian, Eternal Augustus. The figure on the obverse is Justinian himself, carrying a lance and wearing the toupha, or feathered crown which can also be seen in drawings of the colossal Justinian statue that once sat atop a column in Constantinople.

The inscription on the reverse reads, "Salus et Gloria Romanorum" ~ Salvation and Glory of the Romans. The word "CONOB" at the bottom indicates that the original medallion was minted in Constantinople. Some have speculated that the warlike rider featured on the reverse being led by a winged victory is a representation of Belisarius, however the presence of the toupha on the rider's head, and the lack of beard, seems to indicate that it is another representation of Justinian.

Historians and numismatists have speculated that the medallion was meant to commemorate the great victory of Belisarius over the Vandal Kingdom in AD 534.

The Shack ~ Heretical literary awfulness comes to the big screen

So apparently they've made a movie out of The Shack. This is not a surprise. If any novel was specifically written to be made into a really bad film, this was the one.

I have not seen the film and have no intention of seeing it. But since the marketing campaign for it has penetrated Catholic media, I recall that I had written a review of this piece of literary detritus about seven years ago when it was at the height of its ill-deserved popularity. That review may be found here in full, but the key points of my criticism were as follows.

The primary problem with The Shack is that the author takes the outrageous liberty of writing long passages in the voice of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a personification of Wisdom (the Quadrinity?). Doing so in a work of fiction is fraught with peril even when such dialogue is scrupulously aligned with Sacred Scripture and Church tradition. Needless to say, William Young, the author of The Shack, has no such scruples.

When reading The Shack, we learn:
  • Our view of God as "Father" is a product of religious conditioning. 
  • Jesus's life was not meant to be an example to follow. 
  • Jesus did not come to build an institution called the Church. 
  • The real church is about "relationships and sharing life". 
  • Jesus is "not too big on religion." 
  • Jesus isn't a "Christian" and has no desire that others become "Christians." 
  • God doesn't expect us to obey the Law. In fact, "all things are lawful."
Yeah, don't bother.
Are you getting the gist yet? My conclusion in the original review is that The Shack was meant specifically for rich Americans who desire to reconcile a depraved lifestyle with an external embrace of Christianity. Seven years later, I don't feel compelled to revise that assessment.

Interestingly, the supernatural being known as "Lucifer" does not make an appearance in The Shack. The reason for that omission seems obvious. On that note, I would recommend that anyone who is tempted to read The Shack, or watch the movie, would be better served by reading The Screwtape Letters instead.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Ash Wednesday ~ Blessed John Henry Newman

"We must go through pain, we must practise self-denial, we must curb our wills, and purify our hearts, before we are capable of any lasting solid peace." ~Blessed John Henry Newman

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent.

This quote from Blessed Cardinal Newman seems to capture the essence of why penitence--prayer, fasting and almsgiving--are crucial as preparation for the Paschal triduum. As Our Lord fasted 40 days in the desert in preparation for His mission, ought we not to follow His example?

Here is Cardinal Newman's quote in context, taken from his sermon: Jeremiah: A Lesson for the Disappointed:
"Left to ourselves, we seek good from the world, but cannot find it; in youth we look forward, and in age we look back. It is well we should be persuaded of these things betimes, to gain wisdom and to provide for the evil day. Seek we great things? We must seek them where they really are to be found, and in the way in which they are to be found; we must seek them as He has set them before us, who came into the world to enable us to gain them.
We must be willing to give up present hope for future enjoyment, this world for the unseen. The truth is (though it is so difficult for us to admit it heartily), our nature is not at first in a state to enjoy happiness, even if we had it offered to us. We seek for it, and we feel we need it; but (strange though it is to say, still so it is) we are not fitted to be happy. If then at once we rush forward to seek enjoyment, it will be like a child's attempting to walk before his strength is come. If we would gain true bliss, we must cease to seek it as an end; we must postpone the prospect of enjoying it. For we are by nature in an unnatural state; we must be changed from what we are when born, before we can receive our greatest good. And as in sickness sharp remedies are often used, or irksome treatment, so it is with our souls; we must go through pain, we must practise self-denial, we must curb our wills, and purify our hearts, before we are capable of any lasting solid peace. 
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To attempt to gain happiness, except in this apparently tedious and circuitous way, is a labour lost; it is building on the sand; the foundation will soon give way, though the house looks fair for a time. To be gay and thoughtless, to be self-indulgent and self-willed, is quite out of character with our real state. We must learn to know ourselves, and to have thoughts and feelings becoming ourselves. Impetuous hope and undisciplined mirth ill-suit a sinner. Should he shrink from low notions of himself, and sharp pain, and mortification of natural wishes, whose guilt called down the Son of God from heaven to die upon the cross for him? May he live in pleasure here, and call this world his home, while he reads in the Gospel of his Saviour's life-long affliction and disappointment?"
To read the entire sermon, visit: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume8/sermon9.html