Thursday, August 09, 2018

"Prepare for Him a Bed of Coals" ~ Prudentius’s 4th Century poem in honor of Saint Lawrence

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence ~ Engraving taken from
Shea's Pictorial Lives of the Saints.
Saint Lawrence is one of the most famous early martyrs of the Roman Church. One of the seven deacons of Rome under Pope Sixtus II, Lawrence found himself a primary target during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Valerian in AD 258.

Sadly, none of the close contemporary documentary accounts of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence survived the subsequent persecutions of the Church, though his story was well enough known that the principal facts were passed on for 100 years or so via oral tradition. His story was again set down on parchment after the time of Constantine, the earliest surviving sources being a mention in On the Duties of the Clergy by Saint Ambrose of Milan in the late 4th century, a very brief epitaph by Pope Damasus from about the same time, and a homily of Pope Leo the Great in the mid-5th century.

However, the most detailed ancient account of the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence comes from a work by the Spanish Latin poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, which was written, most likely, in the late 4th century. Though obviously embellished, the key facts of Lawrence's martyrdom are clear through the interpolated speeches. Please enjoy these extended excerpts from the poem which formed part of Prudentius's larger work known as The Peristephanon or The Martyr's Garland. It is from this ancient poem that most of the unique details of Saint Lawrence's martyrdom are drawn.
Hymn in honor of the passion of the blessed martyr Lawrence
Once mother of unholy fanes,
Rome, dedicated now to Christ,
By Lawrence led to victory
You trample on the heathen rites.

Proud kings have bowed before your sword
And conquered peoples felt your sway;
Now pagan gods are made to pass,
Beneath the yoke of your empire.

Though savage tribes had been subdued,
The city of the toga lacked
One glorious title of renown,
The triumph over wanton Jove,

Not by Camillus’s stormy might,
Nor Cossus’ arms or Caesar’s power,
But by the bloody combat waged
By Lawrence in his martyrdom.

Embattled Faith took up the fight,
Of her own blood most prodigal;
For she destroyed death by death
And lost her life to save her life.

The Pontiff Sixtus, from the cross
On which he hung, saw at its foot
His deacon Lawrence weeping sore,
And these prophetic words he spoke:

“Let tears of sorrow cease to flow
At my departure from this life;
My brother, I but lead the way,
And you will follow in three days.”

The holy bishop’s dying words
Sure glory for his friend announced,
For Lawrence on the day foretold,
Victorious, won the martyr’s palm.

. . .

The prefect of imperial Rome,
The agent of an insane prince,
Athirst for money and for blood
Is driven by his greed for gold

To wrest the sacred shrines by force
Suspected riches lurking there,
The talents gathered in vast sums,
And hidden in their secret vaults.

He summons Lawrence to the court
And questions him on coffers filled
With massive ingots of pure gold
And hoarded coins in shining heaps.
The prefect then makes a long speech, enjoining Lawrence to hand over the Church’s treasures. Here’s the gist of it, along with Lawrence's reply:
“This wealth is hid in secret crypts
Of churches where the Christians meet,
And to despoil your dear offspring
Is deemed the highest piety.

“Bring forth the gold you have amassed
By force and evil trickery,
The hoarded treasures you now keep
Enclosed in subterranean vaults.

“The public welfare now demands
That you give up your boundless wealth
To fill the coffers of the state
And pay the armies of your prince.”

. . .

Untroubled, Lawrence made reply
To this perfidious overture,
And as if ready to obey
He gently nodded his assent.

“Our church is very rich,” he said.
“I must confess that it has wealth;
Our treasuries are filled with gold
Not found elsewhere in all the world.

“Not even high Augustus holds
Such wealth within his mighty grasp,
Though every silver coin forged
His image and inscription bears.

“Yet I refuse not to yield up
The riches of our Lord and God;
I shall display for all to see
The treasures that belong to Christ.

“However, one request I make:
Vouchsafe to me a short delay
That I may carry out my pledge
With greater ease and richer gain.

“I need this time to take account
Of all the goods possessed by Christ,
And then to estimate their worth
And reckon up the total sum.”
The prefect, in his greed, grants Lawrence three days to collect the wealth of the Church. Lawrence does this, but the wealth he collects is not exactly what the prefect had in mind.
He hastens through the city streets
And in three days he gathers up
The poor and sick, a mighty throng
Of all in need of kindly alms.
Here, Prudentius gives an account of the various infirmities of the mass of beggars Lawrence has collected. Soon enough, however, he must face the prefect again.
By now the fated day had come:
The cruel judge, insane with greed,
Commanded Lawrence angrily
To bring at once the promised gold.

To him the martyr made reply:
“I pray you come with me and view
The wondrous riches of our God
Displayed for you in the sacred shrines.

. . .

The prefect deigns to follow him;
The sacred portal soon they reach,
Where stands a ghastly multitude
Of poor drawn up in grim array.

The air is rent with cries for alms;
The prefect shudders in dismay,
And turns on Lawrence glaring eyes,
With threats of dreadful punishment.

The saint, undaunted, answers him
“Why do you gnash your teeth in rage
At this unwelcome spectacle?
Do you scorn these as foul and mean?

. . .

“These poor of ours are sick and lame,
But beautiful and whole within.
They bear with them a spirit fair
And free from taint and misery.

“Your followers are strong of frame,
But marred by inward leprosy.
Depravity is halt and lame,
And sightless fraud is blind indeed.”
Lawrence continues in this vein and gives a lengthy speech which is very likely a poetic embellishment added by Prudentius, but perhaps containing a kernel of fact. He finishes as follows:
“These riches are now yours; take them
To beautify your lofty Rome,
To fill the treasury of your prince,
And your own fortunes to augment.”
The prefect responds, enraged:
“Do you imagine, slippery knave,
That this buffoonery you have staged,
This sanctimonious farce, this hoax,
Will go without due punishment?

. . .

“But I will see to it forthwith
That you will quit this earthly life,
Not by the short and easy route
Of sudden death, as you desire.

“I will prolong and stay your life
In pains and anguish without end,
And death in lingering agony
Will bar a merciful release.

“Prepare for him a bed of coals,
Lest raging flames that burn too high
May seize too soon the upstart’s face
And penetrate his inmost heart.”
The executioners do as they are told, and Lawrence is laid upon the fire. Prudentius describes how the odor of the martyr’s burning flesh smelled noxious to the heathens, but sweet to the faithful. Then, the poet records a literal example of gallows humor that has since been one of the traditionally recognized unique markers of Lawrence’s martyrdom.
When slow, consuming heat had seared
The flesh of Lawrence for a space,
He calmly from his gridiron made
This terse proposal to the judge:

“Pray turn my body, on one side
Already broiled sufficiently,
And see how well your Vulcan’s fire
Has wrought its cruel punishment.”

The prefect bade him to be turned.
Then Lawrence spoke: “I am well baked,
And whether better cooked or raw,
Make a trial by a taste of me.”
Lawrence then offers a very historically literate prayer for Rome, that the city in all its past earthly glory, may come to reject its pagan pantheon and accept the heavenly glory of Christ and His redeeming grace. At the end of his prayer, Lawrence offers a prophecy, probably invented or exaggerated by Prudentius who already knew the outcome.
“I see in future times a prince,
Adorer of the one true God,
Who will not suffer Rome to serve
The idols foul of pagan cults.

“The heathen temples he will close,
Wall up their doors of ivory,
And make secure their brazen bolts,
That none may pass their vile thresholds.

“Of bloody sacrifices cleansed,
The marble altars then will gleam,
And statues honored now as gods
Will stand, mere harmless blocks of bronze.”
This future prince is most likely Theodosius the Great who closed the pagan temples of Rome during the time when Prudentius was active. Prudentius then brings his hymn to an end, making the martyrdom of Lawrence the beginning of the end of pagan worship in Rome:
From that day forth the worship paid
To sordid pagan gods grew cold;
The temples unfrequented stood,
While people to Christ’s altars thronged.

. . .

The holy martyr’s valiant death
Of pagan temples was the end;
Then Vesta saw Palladian fires
Untended with impunity.

The Roman people, who were wont
The cup of Numa to adore
Christ’s sanctuaries now frequent
And hymn the holy martyr’s praise.

Illustrious senators themselves,
Once flamins and Lupercal priests,
Now kiss the threshold of the shrines
Where martyrs and apostles rest.

We see patrician families,
The parents, both of noble birth,
Their children dedicate to God,
The dearest pledges of their love.

The pontiff once with chaplet crowned
Is signed now with the cross of Christ,
And, Lawrence, to thy temple comes
The vestal of the Claudian house.
Thus we see how about 130 years after the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, and about 80 years after the last persecution in Rome, the Christian religion now reigns supreme in the city.

Click for info.
The full poem of Prudentius on the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is well worth reading. The above excerpts were taken from the English translation of Prudentius's Poems, Volume 1, done by Sister M. Clement Eagan in 1962 which may be found in this excellent edition published by The Catholic University of America Press. I highly recommend purchasing the entire book (if you can find it), filled as it is with Prudentius’s late 4th century poetical take on the ancient martyrs, many of whom are known to us only from his accounts. Other poems from the Peristephanon which have appeared on this blog in the past include the Martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul and an excerpt from the Martyrs of Calahorra.

Click for info.
More about Saint Lawrence and many other early Christian martyrs may be found in the forthcoming book, I Am a Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources. This book is due at the end of August 2018. If you have enjoyed my posts about the saints and martyrs of antiquity and the various persecutions endured by the Church in late Roman times, this book distills a good number of the authentic accounts in one place, beginning with the earliest martyrs and proceeding through the soft persecution of Julian the Apostate. It is history that every Christian ought to know but is sadly neglected in modern education.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Shepherds and millstones

"To execute is inadmissible!" 
The shepherds cry perched on corrupted thrones.
Their declaration's oddly risible
as angry flocks are searching for millstones.

Our Catholic bishops have had nearly 20 years to clean out the rats nests that have grown up in the chancery offices of the various American dioceses. They have failed, and failed miserably.

Indeed, to characterize the nonfeasance (and in some cases, blatant malfeasance) of the American bishops as merely failure seems an understatement. Sixteen years have now passed since the bishops' conference in Dallas during which the problem of homosexual abuse in the parishes, schools, and seminaries was directly addressed. But the bishops have fixed nothing. Instead, some of them have taken a somewhat different tack in recent years, mounting a public relations campaign to help normalize and welcome those who actively engage in homosexual practices which were, are, and always will be acts of "grave depravity" which can never be approved.

Worse, it is now revealed that a Prince of the Church, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick—a man who played a key role in drafting the weak and ineffective Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in Dallas in 2002—is himself an abuser of young men. In this light, it is perhaps not surprising that the bishops exempted themselves from the above guidelines.

Now that McCarrick is formally and publicly disgraced, his brothers in the episcopacy have piously disowned him, claiming that they didn't know of his taste for young men. For some of them, at least, this claim is simply not credible. It seems evident that some or even many of our shepherds may entertain tastes similar to "Uncle Ted." The laity can be forgiven for harboring such thoughts as our bishops have done little by their words and actions to dispel the idea.

Our Lord was very explicit about the fate that awaits those who lead young people to sin and destruction:
"It is impossible that scandals should not come: but woe to him through whom they come. It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones." [source: Luke 17:2]
I am certainly not the only one who sees irony in the fact that the Vatican saw fit to release with fanfare this very week an unprecedented change to the Catechism which declared the death penalty "inadmissible". That this change contradicts millennia of Church teaching is, depressingly, unsurprising. The motto of our present age seems to be: "Tota confunditur Jerusalem." [source: Acts 21:31]

As the corrupt bishops have shown little taste for reform, and no inclination to resign—even when clearly engaged in activities which are sinful and destructive of the Catholic faith—it falls to the laity to act. Will enough answer the call to do battle? The first step, I think, is prayer, lest our actions end up being more destructive than salubrious:
Let the devout cry out to God for justice. May our Lord Jesus Christ, the Just Judge, purge His Church of the abominable corruption that has infected it. May He lance the boil of perversion, heal the wounds of the injured, and drive out the legions of satan who have entrenched themselves in our sacristies. Save your flock, O Christ, from the wolves in shepherd's clothing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Saint Benedict Chases the Devil off a Boulder

A Miracle of Saint Benedict by Luca Giordano (ca. 1678).
Today is the feast of one of my all-time favorite saints, Benedict of Nursia. To celebrate, here is a passage from a biography written shortly after Saint Benedict's death in the 6th century AD by none other than Pope Saint Gregory the Great, detailing one of the great hermit's many miracles:
Upon a certain day, when the monks were building up the cells of the same Abbey, there lay a stone which they meant to employ about that business: and when two or three were not able to remove it, they called for more company, but all in vain, for it remained so immovable as though it had grown to the very earth: whereby they plainly perceived that the devil himself did sit upon it, seeing so may men's hands could not so much as once move it: wherefore, finding that their own labors could do nothing, they sent for the man of God, to help them with his prayers against the devil, who hindered the removing of that stone. The holy man came, and after some praying, he gave it his blessing, and then they carried it away so quickly, as though it had been of no weight at all.
This passage is found in The Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great which is an excellent read. For another anecdote about Benedict meeting with Totila, king of the Goths, click here.

Here is my own version of this vignette which I have added to the forthcoming third volume of my Belisarius series. Here's a pre-edited excerpt. See what you think:
Arriving at the town of Casinum, Belisarius was surprised to find a thriving community of monks diligently building cells on the hillside high above. Directing the army to bivouac outside the town for the evening, Belisarius and a few of his guardsmen scaled the steep hill to see what information they could glean from these hermits.
“Greetings, good brothers,” Belisarius shouted. “Can you spare a little water for my friends and I?”
Forthcoming. Click here
for info on the previous
volumes in the series.
“Yes, tribune, you are most welcome,” a stout monk replied, throwing down his mattock. “Your arrival provides a timely excuse for us to rest from our labors. We have been trying to move this rock for hours now, yet it will not budge. We have summoned Father Benedictus to help us.”
“Allow us to assist,” Belisarius replied, removing his helm and unbuckling his corselet. “As soldiers, we are used to imposing our will upon the stubborn earth.”
He gratefully accepted a full skin of water from the monk as he appraised the great boulder before them. He perceived that the monks had cleared the earth from its base, yet the stone remained firmly stuck in the ground as if attached to the mountain itself. With help from his biscuit-eaters, Belisarius leaned into the bolder attempting to push it free by main strength. Unigastus swung a pick at its base while Athenodorus used a mattock for a lever. Sweating and straining, the three were unable to move it at all. After an hour of such fruitless labor and two broken picks, the three collapsed at the base of the boulder, worn out.
On a ridge above them, a tall monk with a long brown beard appeared in the company of two others. He had penetrating pale green eyes the color of cut white grapes that seemed to radiate sanctity, and a stern face that reflected the divine authority bestowed upon him by the Almighty. Surveying the obstinate stone, the the tall monk quickly offered a diagnosis: “It is plain that the devil sits upon this rock. Until he is removed, none of you will be able to move it.” Raising his eyes and spirit to heaven, he offered a blessing over the boulder, then turned and departed the way he had come.
Belisarius looked skeptically at Unigastus and Athenodorus. “Dare we try it now?” he said with a laugh. His two men leapt to their feet. To their astonishment, the stone immediately shifted as they put their shoulders to it. With a further push, they dislodged it, then rolled it easily onto a great wheeled oxcart as the long-laboring monks rejoiced.
“Who was he who offered the blessing?” Belisarius demanded. “Was that Father Benedictus of whom you spoke? If so, I would meet with him at once.”
The stout monk smiled, and began to lead Belisarius up the rocky hill, but they were intercepted by one of those who had gone previously to fetch the holy man. “Father Benedictus told us that he will not meet with you, Belisarius. Yes, he knows who you are, and he knows why you are here. You serve the great and the powerful of this world, while he is humble and weak. No, it is better that you don’t speak with him.”
“Why?” Belisarius retorted. “I wish to do him honor. Did we not just help his monks in their labor?”
“But for God, your help would have been in vain. Father Benedictus said that a man of your stature is too tall to hear someone as diminutive as he.”
Stinging from the rebuke, Belisarius felt a hot rage boiling up inside him. A thought entered his mind: Do they think they can shrug me off so easily? I am the emperor’s representative in Italy. If I wish to speak to this hermit, by God, I will speak to him. These haughty monks won’t thwart me.
But his anger subsided as quickly as it had arisen. Unbidden, an image of the Theotokos and her heavenly Child appeared before his mind’s eye, and he recalled his failure to visit the Hodegetria shrine before leaving Constantinople. Now downcast, he picked up his helm and armor, and turned to leave.
“Be of good cheer, though, Belisarius,” the monk said. “Father Benedictus also said that his prayers will go with you to Rome. You are to greet the Holy Father on his behalf.”
I am happy to report that I am now more than halfway through this third book, which has consumed more time than either the previous two. Hopefully, it will be worth the wait!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The 1,500th Anniversary of Accession of Justin I as Roman Emperor

A gold tremissus of Justin I.
When the elderly Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius died on July 8, AD 518, he left no son and no clear successor. This unsettled situation led immediately to a mad scramble by the powerful in Constantinople to win the throne for one of their own candidates. As a result of this struggle, the throne ended up belonging to an elderly man who could take a punch: Justin I.

By all accounts, Justin came from peasant stock in the hinterlands of Thrace, long one of the most productive recruiting grounds for the late Roman army. Of his family, little is known. They are thought to have been poor herdsmen from an area which, at the time of Justin’s birth (ca. AD 450), had been devastated repeatedly by the Huns. To escape the poverty and poor prospects of his home, Justin set out to try his luck in the capital, Constantinople. Like many young men at that time, he was recruited into the Roman army where he found great success and rose steadily through the ranks. Eventually, he was made a senator and became the Comes (or Count) of the Excubitors under emperor Anastasius—a position equivalent to the general of the palace guards. Already in his late 60s by this point, he had enjoyed a brilliant career, going from poor peasant to a member of the elite in Constantinople.

When Anastasius died without an heir, however, Justin suddenly found himself in the middle of a welter of court intrigue. What followed is best described in the epochal book, Justin I. Here A. A. Vasiliev paraphrases a near-contemporary account of the events written by Peter the Patrician and saved for posterity in a 10th century compilation called On Ceremonies by Constantine Porphyrogenitus:
Since there was neither Augusta nor Emperor to influence the election, and since almost no provision had been made to meet the situation, a certain confusion took place….Immediately, the Silentiaries, personal attendants of the emperor of senatorial rank with the title Clarissimi, sent word to Celer, the master of offices, and to Justin, who at that time was commander of the Excubitors, to come to the palace. Upon their arrival, Celer summoned the Candidates and other Scholarians who were in a strict sense bodyguards of the imperial person and were under the control of the master of offices. And Justin called together the Excubitors, soldiers and ordinary officers as well as those of higher rank, that is, the whole body of the palace guards who were under his command, and he said to them: “Our lord as man has passed away. We must all deliberate together and elect [an emperor] pleasing to God and useful to the empire.” In the same way, Celer addressed the Candidates and chiefs of the Scholarians.
While these maneuverings were going on in the palace, word apparently got out about the emperor’s death to the demes – the Blue and Green race factions who flexed considerable political muscle in Constantinople. They gathered in the Hippodrome and began chanting to make their desires known:
“Long live the Senate! Senate of the Romans, you conquer!” We demand the emperor, given by God, for the army. We demand the emperor, given by God, to the world.”
Inside the palace, the political and ecclesiastical authorities began to deliberate, no doubt feeling the heat from the chanting factionists nearby in the Hippodrome. The senators, officers, and the Patriarch gathered in the great hall known as the Triklinos of the Nineteen Akkubita, but were unable to agree on a candidate. Vasiliev, paraphrasing Peter, continues:
As time was passing by, the Magister Celer said to them: “While it is still possible to us, let us decide and act. If we decide promptly on the name, all will follow us and keep silent. But if we fail to come promptly to a decision, then we shall have to follow others.”
Even following this urgent appeal, the palace officers were unable to agree, and the disputes became violent. First, the Excubitors went ahead and proclaimed a certain John as emperor. This candidate was immediately rejected by the Blue factionists who started a riot during which several people were killed. The Scholarians, meanwhile, put forth a candidate of their own, but the excubitors seized him violently and would have killed him had he not been saved by Justin’s nephew—a certain Petrus Sabbatius, otherwise known as Justinian. This Justinian was also put forward as a candidate by the Excubitors, but he adamantly refused to accept. Meanwhile, Vasiliev continues:
As each of these persons had been proposed, their advocates knocked at the Ivory Gate, through which probably the shortest way led to the imperial personal quarters in the palace, and called upon the chamberlains to deliver the imperial robes. But on the announcement of the names of the proposed candidates, the chamberlains refused to do so.
With the situation in chaos and continuing to deteriorate, a strong faction of senators was able to convince their colleagues that Justin, the count of the Excubitors, should be named as emperor.
Some of the Scholarians resented this choice and rushed upon Justin, and in the heat of the altercation one of them struck the future emperor a blow of the fist and split his lip. The decision of the senators, however, backed by the army and the demes prevailed. Justin was brought to the Hippodrome; even the antagonistic factions of the Blues and Greens agreed upon him; the chamberlains immediately sent him the imperial robes….Standing on a shield Justin received a chain which was placed upon his head….The military insignia, the labara and the standards, which lay on the ground, were immediately raised, as was customary on such proclamations….The soldiers held their shields over his head, and under this shelter, he donned the imperial garb in the box [the Kathisma of the Hippodrome]. Then the Patriarch John placed the crown on his head. Justin took the lance and the shield, and reappeared in the Kathisma. All cried: “Justin August, you conquer!”
The new emperor first announced his donative to the army—five nomismata of gold and one pound of silver for each soldier. He then gave an address which Vasiliev renders from Peter’s account as follows:
Justin, Victorious, ever Augustus: “Having received the imperial power through the will of Almighty God and your unanimous choice, we invoke celestial providence.”

All cried: “Abundance to the world! Reign as thou has lived! Abundance to the government! Celestial Lord, save the earthly one! Justin August, you conquer! Long live the new Constantine! We are slaves of the emperor!”
Justin: "May God, through his grace, enable us to achieve everything that is beneficial to you and to the state!”

All cried: “Son of God, have pity on him! Thou hast elected him! Have pity on him! Justin August, you conquer!”
Justin: Our concern is to provide you, by divine grace, with every kind of prosperity, and to conserve all of you with all benevolence, affection, and in a state of full tranquility.” 
All cried: “Worthy of the Empire! Worthy of the Trinity! Worthy of the City! Long may thou live, Imperator! We demand honest magistrates for the world.”

Justin: “Because of the celebration of our happy enthronement I will grant everyone of you [the soldiers, that is] five nomismata and a pound of silver.”

All cried: “May God protect a Christian emperor! Such are the unanimous vows of the world!” 
Justin: “God be with you!”
Thereafter, Justin processed to the great Church, Hagia Sophia [that is, the second Hagia Sophia as built by Theodosius II which burned during the Nika Rebellion 14 years later] and the coronation ceremony continued.

A gold solidus of Justin I.
Given the number of eminent and wealthy men who could have stepped into the role at that moment, it is noteworthy that the senate, the court, the demes and the army settled on a grizzled old soldier who was one of the unlikeliest individuals ever to sit upon the throne. A man of humble birth, Justin had serious shortcomings, foremost of which was his lack of formal education. Vasiliev casts doubt on the legends that Justin was illiterate to the point that he couldn’t sign his own name. But it’s clear that the new emperor realized that his dearth of formal academic training would make him easy prey for the clever men of letters who inhabited the court. To make up for this deficiency, Justin employed a secret weapon—a young man of unquestionable loyalty whom he had caused to be educated in the capital and who had already shown a unique spark of intellect and depth of vision—his nephew, Justinian.

Vasiliev's book, Justin I, published in 1950, remains the most authoritative source on Justin and his reign and is well worth reading. Fortunately, it is readily available on

Friday, June 29, 2018

"The feast ennobled by the blood of Peter and of Paul" ~ One of the oldest accounts of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome

Christ enthroned between St. Paul (left) and St. Peter (right).
4th or 5th century AD, from the Catacomb of Marcellinus in Rome.
June 29 is commemorated as the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, co-founders of the Roman Church. To celebrate this feast, here is a poem written in the late 4th century AD by the Latin poet Prudentius as part of his work, the Peristephanon or Martyr's Garland. The poem follows the way of a pilgrim visiting the shrines in Rome on the very feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and dwells a little on the details of the martyrdoms of the two Apostles.

The poem is significant as one of the earliest accounts of Saint Peter's inverted crucifixion. It also gives an indication of the types of shrines that existed in Rome (or immediately outside) to commemorate Peter and Paul's grave sites during late antiquity.
The Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul
By Aurelius Prudentius Clemens
May, friend, what means this stir today? What summons gathers all
   These happy troops along the streets of Rome?
The feast ennobled by the blood of Peter and of Paul
   Calls forth the worshippers to leave their home. 
The self-same day with interval of one revolving year
   Beheld the pair by death triumphant crowned.
Full well doth Father Tiber know, gliding those marshes near,
   Hallowed with trophies twain that turfy ground. 
Both Cross and Sword he witnessed, twice the ghastly shower saw fall,
   The self-same herb bedewed with martyr’s blood.
A victim first fell Peter, in Nero’s judgment-hall
   Condemned to hang upon the towering wood.  
But he, in fear to emulate his Master, cannot brook
   To court the doom that our salvation earned:
And he claimeth from his murderer one boon, that he may look
   On the Tree’s nether limb with head down-turned. 
So then his hands transfixed below, the top his feet upbore:
   Greater in spirit as more vile in guise,
Remembering “Who abaseth self exalted shall he soar,”
   To give his soul to heaven, he bowed his eyes. 
Soon as the circling seasons brought the swift recurring date,
   And Orient Sun reushered in the day,
The tyrant spat on holy Paul the venom of his hate,
   Christ’s world-worn Teacher resolute to slay.  
He had seen the goal—had written “I am ready to depart
   And be with Christ,” with heaven-inspired pen.
The headsman does his office. Beats no more that noble heart;
   Nor day nor hour has failed his prescient ken.  
On either bank, nigh each to each, their ashes now repose,
   Where winds the stream between the two hallowed graves;
The gilded shrine that on the right doth Peter’s bones enclose
   ’Neath sough of olives sacred Tiber laves. 
Trickling adown the slope from brow of overhanging hill,
   There oozes a perennial source of oil.
That fountain flows through fabric now of costly marble, till
   In gleaming bath its circling eddies boil. 
Below with hollow undertone the rushing streams descend
   From sparkling basin, white as drifted snow;
Art’s many-colored hues above with amber wavelets blend
   Resplendent moss and gold’s green-tinted glow. 
Lo! where with mantling purple overshadowed lies the pool,
   The fretted roof reflected seems to swim.
Christ the true Shepherd there portrayed, to waters clean and cool,
   Is leading on His flock that thirst for Him. 
By Tiber’s current, where the turf on the left bank is grazed,
    And Ostia’s road guardeth the hallowed ground,
Our prince’s favor there to Paul a stately fane upraised,
   And pranked with golden plates the circuit round. 
With branching foil of metal blaze on high the burnished beams,
   The aisles are ruddy as the morning ray;
Of pillars white ’neath gilded vault a fourfold order gleams,
   And arches dyed as green as leas in May.  
The Father gave these pledges to the nation of the gown:
   To be revered for aye twin temples spring;
Two roads lead forth Rome’s worshippers, to feasts one light doth crown,
   To each we hasten, and at each we sing.  
Where Tiber’s spanned by Hadrian’s bridge, we reach the stream’s left side:
   From vigil and from ritual the priest
Thither hies back to offerings fresh. Thus Rome keeps holy tide:
   Now homeward wend and celebrate each feast.
This version in English is taken from Translations from Prudentius by Francis St. John Thackeray, a text that is, sadly, out of print. It will be rendered along with other selections from Prudentius in the forthcoming book entitled, I Am A Christian: Authentic Accounts of Christian Martyrdom and Persecution from the Ancient Sources pictured at right.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

"You have received us with bombs" ~ The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the end of Christian Europe

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It is not too far-fetched to say that Christian Europe officially died on June 28, 1914. On that day, the heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife were gunned down on the streets of Sarajevo. In modern parlance, we would call the assassin, 19 year-old Serbian radical Gavrilo Princip, a terrorist. His act would lead directly to the outbreak of the Great War a little over a month later.

Following is an article that appeared in The Outlook, an important New York-based political and social journal, from a week after the assassinations. It is notable that the terrible ramifications of the slaying had yet to be recognized—stories regarding the political maneuvering of Theodore Roosevelt and the situation in Mexico were given priority in this issue.
The Assassinations at Sarajevo 
All friends of Austria-Hungary were shocked by the murder on June 28 of the heir to the throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg. Those in exalted stations are never free from some sudden attack by some crazed man, as the cases of Lincoln and Garfield and McKinley, of King Humbert of Italy and King George of Greece, remind us.

In the present instance, murder has removed those who were about to succeed to great power. Franz Ferdinand was not a popular prince. He was reserved, taciturn, moody, opinionated, supposed to be under Jesuit control, a jingo, a militarist—not all together a happy combination. Accident made him, as the nephew of the venerable Austrian Emperor, heir to the throne. The world looked on with misgiving. For of all monarchs the Emperor of Austria-Hungary has best known how to manage the conglomeration of the many different nationalities which make up the Dual Empire. It might well be triple, as Franz Ferdinand himself suggested not long ago, the third part to be Slav.

With bitter irony, the Prince met his death at the hands of a Slav—a Serb. The Archduke and his wife were entering Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, when a bomb was burst immediately behind their motor, shattering the motor which followed it and injuring its occupants. Moved by this circumstance, the Archduke, before replying later to the Mayor’s message of welcome, said: “An amazing indignity has been perpetrated. You have received us with bombs.” With his wife, he then drove towards the hospital to inquire after the condition of the sufferers from the bomb, when a young man sprang out of the crowd and aimed a pistol at the Duchess. Her husband immediately threw himself in front of her to shield her. The weapon used was an automatic pistol. Both occupants of the motor received mortal wounds from which they soon expired…

The tragedy gains deeper pathos because it leaves the venerable head of the house of Hapsburg (Emperor Franz Joseph) so utterly alone. His has been a life overborne by grief. A quarter of a century ago, he lost in a most tragic way, his only son. Sixteen years ago, his wife was murdered. His brother, Maximilian, became Emperor of Mexico, only to be shot there, and Carlotta, Maximilian’s wife, became an inmate of an insane asylum. The Emperor’s sister-in-law, the Duchess of Alencon, was burned to death in Paris. The Archduke John, who suddenly renounced his rank and became plain Johann Orth, disappeared. And now comes the loss of another nephew, the heir presumptive.

As the children of Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic marriage are debarred from the throne, the new heir presumptive is Charles Francis Joseph (later Blessed Karl of Austria), the son of the late Archduke Otto, who married Josefa, daughter of the late King of Saxony.

The assassination of the Archduke and his wife was followed by bloody riots at Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina, between Mohammedan Croats and the Serbs. In the attempts of the Croats (aided by Austrians) to drive the Serbs back into their own quarters many serious incendiary fires were started, which at one time threatened the destruction of the city. It was reported that in the street fighting in Mostar, over two hundred Serbs were killed. Rioting also broke out in other towns in Herzegovina.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie destroyed their young family—their three children, Sophie, Maximilian and Ernst were sometimes described as the first orphans of the Great War. The assassination also led directly to the destruction of the last vestiges of Christian Europe. Considering the events that have followed up to the present, and the dark and uncertain future that Europe faces today, it is perhaps not out of place to remember these victims as signs of contradiction to the mess that liberal democracy and socialism have made of the once cultured and prosperous nations of the continent.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"You have won, O Galilean!" ~ Who killed Julian the Apostate?

Julian receives the mortal wound as depicted
in this 19th century engraving.
On the 26th of June AD 363, the last pagan Roman Emperor, Flavius Claudius Julianus, known to history as Julian the Apostate, perished from a wound he received while fighting off a Persian ambush. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus—a witness to the event and an admirer of Julian—described the scene as follows:
When we marched on from this place, the Persians, since their frequent losses made them dread regular battles with the infantry, laid ambuscades, and secretly attended us, from the high hills on both sides watching our companies as they marched, so that the soldiers, suspicious of this, all day long neither raised a palisade nor fortified themselves with stakes. And while the flanks were strongly protected and the army, as the nature of the ground made necessary, advanced in square formation, but with the battalions in open order, it was reported to the emperor, who even then unarmed had gone forward to reconnoiter, that the rear guard had suddenly been attacked from behind.
Excited by the misfortune, he forgot his coat-of‑mail, and merely caught up a shield in the confusion; but as he was hastening to bring aid to those in the rear, he was recalled by another danger — the news that the van, which he had just left, was just as badly off. While he was hastening to restore order there without regard to his own peril, a Parthian band of mailed cavalry on another side attacked the center companies, and quickly overflowed the left wing, which gave way, since our men could hardly endure the smell and trumpeting of the elephants, they were trying to end the battle with pikes and volleys of arrows.
But while the emperor rushed hither and thither amid the foremost ranks of the combatants, and as the Persians turned in flight, they hacked at their legs and backs, and those of the elephants. Julianus, careless of his own safety, shouting and raising his hands tried to make it clear to his men that the enemy had fled in disorder, and, to rouse them to a still more furious pursuit, rushed boldly into the fight. His guards, who had scattered in their alarm, were crying to him from all sides to get clear of the mass of fugitives, as dangerous as the fall of a badly built roof, when suddenly — no one knows whence — a cavalryman's spear grazed the skin of his arm, pierced his ribs, and lodged in the lower lobe of his liver. While he was trying to pluck this out with his right hand, he felt that the sinews of his fingers were cut through on both sides by the sharp steel. Then he fell from his horse, all present hastened to the spot, he was taken to camp and given medical treatment. [Taken from the Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, Book XXV, Chapter 3]
Julian's wound was mortal and though he lingered a few days, ultimately died of a hemorrhage.

The identity of Julian's slayer has remained a mystery to this day. As seen above, Marcellinus indicates that no one knew who threw the javelin that pierced Julian. Another of Julian's friends, the pagan philosopher Libanius, was quick to affix blame to those whom Julian hated most. The Christian historian Sozomen, writing about 60-70 years after the event, explains:
Click here for info.
Libanius, the sophist, a native of Syria, the most intimate friend of Julian, expressed himself in the following terms concerning the person who had committed the deed:
"You desire to know by whom the emperor was slain. I know not his name. We have a proof, however, that the murderer was not one of the enemies; for no one came forward to claim the reward, although the king of Persia caused proclamation to be made, by a herald, of the honors to be awarded to him who had performed the deed. We are surely beholden to the enemy for not arrogating to themselves the glory of the action, but for leaving it to us to seek the slayer among ourselves.
"Those who sought his death were those who lived in habitual transgression of the laws, and who had formerly conspired against him, and who therefore perpetrated the deed as soon as they could find an opportunity. They were impelled by the desire of obtaining a greater degree of freedom from all control than they could enjoy under his government; and they were, perhaps, mainly stimulated by their indignation at the attachment of the emperor to the service of the gods, to which they were averse."
In the document above quoted, Libanius clearly states that the emperor fell by the hand of a Christian, and this, probably, was the truth. It is not unlikely that some of the soldiers who then served in the Roman army might have conceived the idea, since Greeks and all men until this day have praised tyrannicides for exposing themselves to death in the cause of liberty, and spiritedly standing by their country, their families, and their friends. [Taken from: The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapters 1-2]
It is notable that Sozomen, though a Christian, is persuaded by Libanius's logic and agrees that the culprit was probably a Christian. Interestingly, Libanius elaborates on the identity of the culprit in a separate tract entitled, Avenging Julian, in which he warned the newly crowned emperor Theodosius I to be wary of assassins. Writing in about AD 380, Libanius says the following:
"Our renowned Julian received that blow in the side as he strove to unite part of his line that had broken, spurring his horse towards them, cheering and threatening. The assailant who inflicted the wound was a Taiene [Saracen], acting in obedience to their leader’s command. This action, indeed, would probably secure for the chief a reward from the people who were keen to have him killed." [Taken from: Selected Works of Libanius: The Julianic Orations as found in the article Killing Julian by Benjamin James Rogaczewski]
Libanius insinuates that this Saracen was in the pay of Christian masters because, as above, no one had come forward among the Persians to claim the reward for having slain the Roman Emperor. Of course, there are numerous problems with this type of logic, for example: the slayer may himself have been killed in the heat of battle; or the javelin may have been a random lucky cast from a Persian, or accidental friendly fire from a Roman. Writing in the early 5th century, the Christian historian Socrates offers a completely different explanation, as follows:
"Some say that a certain Persian hurled the javelin, and then fled; others assert that one of his own men was the author of the deed, which indeed is the best corroborated and most current report. But Callistus, one of his body-guards, who celebrated this emperor's deeds in heroic verse, says in narrating the particulars of this war, that the wound of which he died was inflicted by a demon. This is possibly a mere poetical fiction, or perhaps it was really the fact; for vengeful furies have undoubtedly destroyed many persons." [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates, Book III, Chapter 21]
Writing later in the 5th century, the Christian historian Theodoret lists the extant theories regarding the slayer, but maintains that ultimately the identity doesn't matter and in the process, provides one of the most memorable vignettes regarding the death of Julian:
"The name of the man who dealt that righteous stroke no one knows to this day. Some say that he was wounded by an invisible being, others by one of the Nomads who were called Ishmaelites [that is, a Saracen]; others by a trooper who could not endure the pains of famine in the wilderness. But whether it were man or angel who plied the steel, without doubt the doer of the deed was the minister of the will of God. It is related that when Julian had received the wound, he filled his hand with blood, flung it into the air and cried, 'You have won, O Galilean.'" [Taken from: The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret, Book III, Chapter 20]
Socrates offers the following summation of both the man Julian and his inglorious death, which strikes me as a pretty accurate assessment:
Be the case however as it may, this is certain, that the ardor of his natural temperament rendered him incautious, his learning made him vain, and his affectation of clemency exposed him to contempt. Thus Julian ended his life in Persia, as we have said, in his fourth consulate, which he bore with Sallust his colleague. This event occurred on the 26th of June, in the third year of his reign, and the seventh from his having been created Cæsar by Constantius, he being at that time in the thirty-first year of his age. [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates, Book III, Chapter 21]
For a detailed scholarly analysis of the death of Julian, check out Killing Julian by Benjamin James Rogaczewski.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"The Oblivion of a Silent Age" ~ The effort of Diocletian and Galerius to wipe out Christian literature during the Great Persecution

A later representation of Saints Emeterius and Celedonius in Calahorra Cathedral.
In a previous post entitled The Scriptures Destroyed by Fire ~ An official Roman transcript of the Great Persecution of AD 304, we examined the transcript of an investigation of several Christians in Roman north Africa. The accused were under suspicion of possessing and hiding Christian literature which had been banned by imperial edict. This document gives an idea of how thorough the Roman legal apparatus could be when enforcing the law, even as far from the centers of power as the town of Cirta, situated about 200 miles west of Carthage.

We know that destroying Christian books and literature was a facet of the Great Persecution because it is explicitly mentioned by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. Aside from the above-mentioned transcript of the investigation in Cirta, there are other ancient sources which back up this aspect of the persecution—that is, the desire of Diocletian and and Galerius to completely extirpate all written knowledge of Christianity from the face of the earth. Here are a few additional examples.

In the authentic acts of Saints Chionia, Agape and Irene who were martyred during the Great Persecution in Thessalonica, there exists another official trial transcript which is believed by most scholars to be genuine. In it we find the following exchange between Dulcetius, governor of the province of Macedonia, and Saint Chionia:
Dulcetius: "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."
Soon after, Chionia and Agape were condemned to death, while Irene was sent back to prison. It seems that a search was done of Irene's home and Christian writings were indeed found there. Dulcetius called Irene before him to face cross-examination regarding this new evidence.
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."

Traditional image of Saints Agape,
Irene and Chionia.
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."

Dulcetius: "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."


Dulcetius: "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."

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."
A hint of how successful the efforts had been to annihilate Christian writings during the Great Persecution may be found in The Peristephanon or Martyr's Garland of the late 4th century Spanish poet, Prudentius. In the poem celebrating the martyrs of Calahorra, Saints Emeterius and Celedonius, written about 80 years after their deaths, we read the following lines:
But oh, the oblivion of a silent age!
     Extinguishing the record of such deeds,
The infidel long since destroyed the page,
     Which else had taught us how a martyr bleeds,

Envying to learned times that they should tell
     That passion’s history for all future years,
The order, time, and way how it befell—
     Sweet words to sound forever in men’s ears.

Yet this alone is what we cannot say,
     Whether, in prison pent, their hair grew long,
Or of their torments reckon the array...
[Taken from: A Hymn of Prudentius, published in The Month, Magazine and Review, 1873]
This provides a reasonable explanation as to why so many accounts of the ancient martyrs are fantastic stories of considerably later provenance, no doubt generated from dubious oral tradition. In many cases, probably little more was known than the name of the saint and the place of his or her martyrdom. It also makes the several authentic accounts that somehow survived the flames—such as that of Chionia, Agape, and Irene—that much more precious.

Monday, May 28, 2018

"Chaplain Ironsides" ~ Naval Chaplain Fr. William Henry Reaney (1863-1915)

Fr. Reaney in 1905.
Those who have died defending the country are worthy of remembrance. Those who died wearing the nation's uniform while at the same time serving Almighty God deserve special notice. Though he did not die in combat but of a stomach ailment, here is one such man who spent his whole life serving God while serving in the US Navy:

Father William Henry "Ironsides" Reaney was born in 1863, the son of a naval commander. He obtained the name "Ironsides" either because he was born aboard a steamer of that name, or because his father served on that ship -- the records are unclear. He was raised in Detroit, but heeding the call of the priesthood, he trained at Saint Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, MD. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1888.

Fr. Reaney's most noteworthy assignment was as chaplain aboard the USS Olympia, Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay. The men aboard ship soon came to love him, as reported in the ship's newspaper, The Bounding Billow:
"The evening concerts inaugurated by Father Reaney of the OLYMPIA are a series of roaring successes (no pun is meant) and are working wonders on passing away the time, making everybody happy and the Father himself more popular if it is possible to do so. He has won the hearts of this crew as well as of all others with whom he has come in contact."
In Three Years Behind the Guns, a memoir of a sailor's life aboard Olympia during those years, John B. Tisdale describes an incident involving Fr. Reaney (whom he mistakenly calls Reamy):
Think of sailors taking a piano and carrying it for three miles after hoisting it over a stone wall! When we had landed it in shipshape at the water's edge, one of our officers came along and said, "Good! We will have it in our ward-room." 
In the ward-room! Not on your life! He was no sooner out of sight than the souvenir battle-axes were were bearing were wielded with a vim that reduced an upright Steinway to a condition that Frank May would have scorned as kindling for the galley-fire....
But back to the piano: its destruction engendered much feeling, but as the real name of its acquisition could only be spelled l-o-o-t, there was no complaint entered by the officer who would have appropriated it, and the sailormen's disappointment was solaced by Chaplain Father Reamy, who bought a piano and presented it to the gun-deck. That priest is truly paving himself a path to heaven by deeds of generosity. Every year he spends more than his pay on amusement for the boys.
Fr. Reaney between Lt. T. D. Griffin and Lt. Jr. Grade W. P. White
aboard USS Charleston ca. 1895.  
But Fr. Reaney wasn't merely a philanthropist or a social worker. He truly knew how to connect with the men, even if that meant occasionally connecting with a right upper-cut:
First and last, Chaplain Reaney was a priest. Therefore he took considerable umbrage when a sailor, Tom Sharkey, created a disturbance while he was saying Mass. After Mass, Father Reaney challenged the man to put on the boxing gloves with him, although he knew that Sharkey, who would have a distinguished career as a boxer, was formidable in the ring. Before a packed audience of sailors, Father Reaney, who was a great amateur boxer, defeated Sharkey. Ever afterwards he was known as “The Fighting Chaplain”, alongside his more regular nickname of Chaplain Ironsides. Throughout his career he organized boxing clubs for the sailors, and among his sparring partners was President Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend of the Chaplain. [Taken from: The Fighting Chaplain.]
Father Reaney served aboard several other ships during his career, including the battleships Utah, Connecticut and Vermont. He was chaplain of the New York Navy Yard when he was rushed to the hospital suddenly in October of 1915. He passed a month later. An excerpt from his obituary, published in the New York Times, is offered below:
How Father Reaney's Diplomacy Served Admiral Dewey Made Known at His Funeral.
Marines and Sailors as Guard of Honor for the Dead Chaplain of the Navy.
Thousands of the personal friends and associates of Rev. Father William Henry Ironsides Reaney, who was the son of the commander of the USS Ironsides, and Chaplain in the navy for twenty years, attended his funeral services yesterday morning in St. Patrick's Cathedral. There were many who could not get into the crowded church, but stood in the throngs of people on Fifth Avenue during the ceremony, where companies of marines and sailors from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with arms draped, were posted as an honor guard.
The Rev. Father Lopez, a cousin of the late Chaplain, was celebrant of the mass, assisted by Rev. Thomas Duffy and the Rev. John J. Brady, Chaplain of the battleship Arkansas. Among the clergymen within the chancel were the rector of the cathedral, Monsignor M. J. Lavelle, Monsignors Mooney, Connolly, and McNichol, and Chaplain Vincent McGean of the Fire Department. A special choir was composed of thirty young priests from the Dunwoodie Seminary. Chaplain John Chidwick of the battleship Maine, in a eulogy of Fr. Reaney, said:
"The public does not know that this man brought together in the Bay of Manila the Commander in Chief of the American fleet, Admiral Dewey, and the Archbishop of Manila at a time when such an occurrence seemed impossible. Nor has the public ever heard the story of the night on the Pacific when, with a typhoon raging, the carpenter of the Charleston went overboard and Fr. Reaney was seen sneaking to the rear of the battleship to plunge into the water to save him from the furious sea. 
"There are some folk who would tear from the soldier or sailor the uniform they wear, who would demolish the statues of heroes, because that is their idea of peace. Those men may not look on Chaplain Reaney as you and I, but can there be anything more glorious, more eloquent, than a man who has two objects in life—one to work for God, and other for his country. For twenty-three years, Father Reaney did that."

Monday, May 21, 2018

Constantine's Execution of Crispus and Fausta

A cameo on the ornate cover of the Ada Gospels believed to show the family
of Constantine. A possible identification is, from left: Fausta, Constantine,
Constantius II, Crispus, Constantine II. [From Pohlsander, p. 95]
As the emperor who brought Christianity out of the catacombs and into the palace, Constantine had many admirers in his own time. However, he had just as many detractors. The same holds true in our own time: for every plaudit Constantine receives from a modern commentator, one can expect to see an equal number of condemnations.

The event most commonly brought up by Constantine’s detractors when attacking his character are the scandalous executions of his second wife, Fausta, and his eldest son, Crispus. It is noteworthy that most of Constantine’s contemporary Christian biographers exclude this incident completely when recounting his life. Constantine’s detractors, however, are not so shy. Here are some examples.

The Arian Christian historian Philostorgius, writing in the early 5th century AD, asserts that “Constantine was induced by the fraudulent artifices of his step-mother to put his son Crispus to death.” [Epitome of Philostorgius's Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter 4, ]

Crispus was the product of Constantine’s first marriage to a woman named Minervina about whom little is known. Constantine’s second wife, Fausta, was Crispus’s step-mother. It should also be noted that Fausta was the daughter of the western emperor, Maximian Herculius, and the sister of the Maxentius, self-proclaimed Augustus at Rome. Both Maximian (via suicide following an abortive attempt to reclaim imperial power) and Maxentius (via death in battle) met their ends due to the actions of Constantine.

The early 6th century pagan historian, Zosimus, fills in some more details, “His son Crispus, who had been honored with the rank of Caesar…came under the suspicion of being involved with his stepmother Fausta; Constantine destroyed him without any regard to the laws of nature.” [Zosimus, Historia Nea, 2.29, as translated by Hans A. Pohlsander.]

As a hostile critic of Constantine, one would expect Zosimus to put the scandal in the worst possible light. That said, a Christian chronicler, Zonaras, writing much later in the 12th century, basically corroborates him, adding additional detail either from his own speculation or sources unknown to us: 
“His (Crispus’s) stepmother Fausta was madly in love with him but did not easily get him to go along. She then announced to his father that he (Crispus) loved her and had often attempted to do violence to her. Therefore, Crispus was condemned to death by his father, who believed his wife.” [Zonaras, Epitome, 13.2, as translated by Hans A. Pohlsander.]
Given the above accounts and what we know about the dynastic situation in Constantine’s household, along with the moral legislation put into effect by Constantine at about the same time, it is possible to conjecture what the actual course of events might have looked like.

In AD 324, Constantine was able to vanquish the last of his rivals, Licinius, for complete control of the Roman Empire. During this campaign, the young Crispus played a signal role having defeated the naval forces of the Licinians in two major battles. These victories formed the vital prelude to the climactic Battle of Chrysopolis where Licinius was decisively defeated by Constantine. It is no surprise, then, that following the victories, Crispus—already named a Caesar or junior emperor—was at the height of his power and well-positioned to be Constantine’s heir apparent.

A medallion showing Crispus as Caesar.
Fausta, however, had borne three sons of her own by Constantine. All of them were too young to take up the purple in the year 326, the eldest, Constantine II, being only 10. In order for Fausta’s sons to succeed to the imperial throne and not be subject to their illustrious older brother, something would have to happen to Crispus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, something did. If we combine the claims of Philostorgius, Zosimus and Zonaras, it is relatively straightforward to conclude that Fausta conspired to accuse Crispus of rape. The credibility of the accusation might be enhanced if young Crispus (himself a married man with a child) actually allowed himself to be seduced by the empress.

In April of AD 320, Constantine had promulgated a law with regard to rape and the various parties involved. This new law, "added the voice of imperial authority to the cause of private morality, which was thus translated into the realm of public concern. Adultery and elopement, like rape, were species of theft from husband and father but also offenses against morality which husband and father had no business to ignore, whatever their personal inclinations.” [Dixon: Reading Roman Women, page 52]

The punishment for rape under Constantine was very severe—it was actually softened in AD 349 by Constantius II to capital punishment. According to Judith Evans Grubbs, “The original penalty may have been summum supplicium (‘the supreme penalty’), a particularly atrocious and degrading form of death such as condemnation ad bestias [that is, to be torn apart by wild beasts] or burning.” [Grubbs: Law and Family in Late Antiquity, page 186]

Events came to a head sometime in AD 326. Perhaps Fausta accused Crispus directly to her husband of attempting to rape her. Perhaps Crispus, knowing himself guilty of adultery and incest, could not convincingly refute the charge. In any event, Constantine evidently believed the accusation and found himself forced to inflict the penalty of his own laws upon his beloved son. Anything less would have been supremely un-Roman, hearkening back to stories such as the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquin—an event which led to the overthrow of the last Roman king—and the pitiless but legendary resolution of Manlius Torquatus, who enforced Roman law even to the point of executing his own son.

Compared to an ignominious death by fire or in the arena, Constantine’s supposed mandate of death by poison to his first-born appears almost merciful, though details are lacking.

A gold solidus showing the bust of Fausta on the obverse. The reverse shows
Fausta holding two of her children, probably Constantine II and Constantius II.
What then happened to Fausta is equally mysterious. On April 25, AD 326 at Nicomedia, Constantine amended the historical Julian Law on Adultery. Within this law, is the following statement:
“The husband above all ought to be the avenger of the marriage bed, since to him the former Emperors of olden time granted the right to accuse his wife even on suspicion and not be bound by the bond of inscription within the statutory time limits.” [Pharr: The Theodosian Code, Book IX, Title 7.2]
Whether this law was promulgated before or after Fausta met her fate is unknown. What is known is that Constantine’s mother, Helena, who had herself raised Crispus, severely rebuked her son for his precipitate action. Charles Odahl describes the circumstance as follows:
“When Constantine entered the city [of Rome], Helena approached him in mourning, and reproached him for the death of her grandson. With her imperial resources, she may have been able to gain some damnatory evidence that Fausta had deceived him; or, at the very least, she convinced Constantine that he had acted too swiftly and needed to investigate the case more deeply.” [Odahl: Constantine and the Christian Empire, p. 183]
It seems that Constantine did receive some sort of evidence implicating his wife. But Fausta’s crime had been more than conspiracy, seduction or adultery—it was treason. According to another of Constantine’s laws, “since a person convicted in a case of this kind is not protected by the privilege of any high rank from a very severe inquisition, he also must be subject to torture if he should not be able to prove his accusation by other clear evidence.” [Pharr: The Theodosian Code, Book IX, Title 5.1]  Thus, Fausta would have been subject to torture if credibly accused.

Perhaps the evidence was so strong that Fausta admitted her scheme before torture could be applied. Once convicted, there could be only one possible punishment for such a crime—death by the sword—and as before, Constantine could not exempt even his own wife from the just penalty lest he be accused of holding his own family above the law. Perhaps any desire Constantine had to save his wife dissipated once he recalled that Fausta had previously betrayed both her father and her brother, and had now played him for a fool and had her stepson judicially murdered. As in the case of Crispus, however, it seems that Constantine chose not to expose the mother of his sons to death by beheading. Instead, according to Zosimus, he had Fausta placed in a superheated sauna where she perished of hyperthermia.

But Fausta had achieved her ends. She had very effectively removed Crispus, clearing the path to imperial power for her own sons, while at the same time insulating them from implication in the crime. The names of both Crispus and Fausta were effectively erased from Roman biographies, historical works, coins and inscriptions after AD 326. Rumors were bandied about that the reason Constantine became a Christian was because Christian bishops promised that he could be cleansed from his sins via baptism. Sozomen effectively refutes this gossip as “the invention of persons who desired to vilify the Christian religion.” [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 5].

The depth of grief felt by Constantine and Helena at this horrific family tragedy can only be guessed. As Odahl posits, there may be clues in that Helena began her epochal pilgrimage to the Holy Land shortly thereafter, and Constantine himself redoubled his munificence toward building and enhancing Christian shrines and churches throughout the empire after these events.

An excellent brief biography of Crispus may be found in Hans Pohlsander’s article entitled: Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End.

An equally excellent survey of Roman laws on rape may be found in Nghiem L. Nguyen's article, Roman Rape: An Overview of Roman Rape Lawsfrom the Republican Period to Justinian's Reign.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"He excluded from the altar all who had perpetrated crime or formed evil resolutions" — A 5th century account of participation in Holy Communion

Last Communion of St. Mary of Egypt by Sebastiano Ricci, ca. 1695.
There is an interesting passage in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, written about AD 445, regarding two priest-monks in Egypt. These two, Dioscorus and Eulogius, appear as part of a list of holy men who flourished during the reign of the emperor Valens (AD 364-378) who “devoted themselves to a life of philosophy.” (Note that when Sozomen says, “philosophy”, he means ascetic Christian theology.)

For each holy man on the list, Sozomen provides a brief anecdote detailing his most notable virtue. For Dioscorus, Sozomen says:
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Dioscorus had not more than a hundred disciples. He was a presbyter, and applied himself with great exactness to the duties of his priesthood. He examined and carefully questioned those who presented themselves as candidates for participation in the holy mysteries, so that they might purify their minds and not be without a consciousness of any evil they might have committed.
It is fairly clear that Sozomen is talking here about candidates for Holy Communion, given that those being considered as catechumens would be purified by the waters of Baptism. The reference to the Eucharist is even more obvious in the next passage which follows immediately afterward:
The presbyter Eulogius was still more scrupulous in the dispensation of the Divine mysteries. It is said that, when he was officiating in the priestly office, he could discern what was in the minds of those who came to him, so that he could clearly detect sin, and the secret thoughts of each one of his audience. He excluded from the altar all who had perpetrated crime or formed evil resolutions, and publicly convicted them of sin, but, on their purifying themselves by repentance, he again received them into communion. 
Eulogius seems to possess the mystical charism known as the ability to read hearts. In more modern times, this gift was famously granted to Saint Jean Vianney (aka, the Curé of Ars) and Saint Padre Pio. It is worth noting that both of these great saints also had a deep and abiding love for the Holy Eucharist. Saint Jean Vianney, in his Eucharistic Meditations, warned:
"How many there are who have the temerity to come to the Holy Table with sins unconfessed or disguised in Confession. How many have not the contrition that the good God demands of them, and keep a secret will to commit sin again and not to make every effort to correct themselves. How many do not avoid the occasions of sin when they could do so, and bring to the Holy Table enmities in their heart! If ever you have been in these dispositions when going to Holy Communion, you have been guilty of sacrilege." [Eucharistic Meditations, page 20]
We moderns would do well to heed these warnings. Indeed, in our time we do not suffer from an abundance of scrupulosity, but quite the opposite. We suffer from an unwillingness to properly form our consciences and a subsequent inability to discern and condemn our own faults.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The 21st Century Parable of the Rigid Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, ca. 1669.
When the Left gets around to re-writing Sacred Scripture in their own image, the parable of the Prodigal Son will probably get a pretty thorough re-boot. I suspect it will end up reading something like this. 

(Note, before you read this, make sure you read the authentic Parable of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Saint Luke which reflects the true teaching and intention of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, rather than the revised gospel which attempts to reconcile His teaching with the demands of the prince of this world. My additions below are in blue.)
A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father: "Father, give me the portion of substance that falleth to me." And he divided unto them his substance. 
And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously. And after he had spent all, there came a mighty famine in that country; and he began to be in want. And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him.  
And returning to himself, he said: "How many hired servants in my father's house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger? I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.'"
And rising up he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and running to him fell upon his neck, and kissed him.
And the son said to him: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, I am not now worthy to be called thy son."
And the father said to his servants: "Bring forth quickly the first robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it, and let us eat and make merry: Because this my son was dead, and is come to life again: was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry."
And then the father gave unto him more money and said to him, "Son, thy lifestyle among the harlots is not chosen but is of an unexplained psychological genesis. Inviteth therefore, the harlots to come and live among us that we may welcome them, learn from them, and allow them to enjoy our table. Continue to do as you please with them and I shall support thee with joy."  
And struck with wonder, the son sayeth unto his father, "Verily? I shall do as you have proposed at once."
Now his elder son was in the field, and when he came and drew nigh to the house, he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
And he said to him: "Thy brother is come, and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe. And he hath also decided that he is incapable of ajudging your brother's lifestyle as wicked, and hath turned over more money to him so that he may continue to live riotously as seems well to him. 
And the elder son was angry, and would not go in. His father therefore coming out began to entreat him.
And he answering, said to his father: "Behold, for so many years do I serve thee, and I have never transgressed thy commandment, and yet thou hast never given me a kid to make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son is come, who hath devoured his substance with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And more, thou hast encouraged him to continue enriching the harlots, thinking that it would be judgmental and intolerant to condemn his evil lifestyle choices."
But his father sayth unto him: "Son, thy brother hast formed his conscience and adjudged his situation to be without grave sin even though he hath transgressed moral law on several points and knows it. Clearly, reforming his life would do him greater harm than continuing to live as he does. Who am I to judge? But I can see that thou art a self-absorbed promethean neo-Pelagian. Get thee from my house, for thou art rigid and can not abide with thy brother and his new companions whom we are welcoming. Your portion shall be the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
I have always loved the true parable with its focus on repentance and mercy, and am dismayed to see its meaning distorted by too many Catholics, both lay and religious, who ought to know better. One can not separate the Father's mercy from the vital humility and repentance on the part of the son. Though infinitely merciful, the Father is not an enabler of wickedness.

It is also worth noting that in the true parable, the father shows equal understanding and mercy to the virtuous elder son even though he is initially envious, saying to him: "Thou art always with me, and all that I have is thine."