Friday, March 30, 2018

The Shroud of Turin ~ A (theorized) early provenance

A 16th century image showing the Shroud of Turin by Giulio Clovio.
Click here to see the full image.
Today being Good Friday for Christians around the world, it is a fitting time to look at one of the most enigmatic and widely debated relics of history: The Shroud of Turin. While there have been no end of scientific attempts to determine what this fascinating image might be and how it was made, I find the historical attempts to trace its provenance to be more interesting.

The earliest reference to a shroud associated with Jesus may be found in Sacred Scripture. In the Gospel of Saint John we find the following passage:
"Then cometh Simon Peter, following him, and went into the sepulcher, and saw the linen cloths lying, And the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place. Then that other disciple also went in, who came first to the sepulcher: and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead." [John 20:6-9]
The question has been: what did the other unnamed disciple (traditionally Saint John himself) see to make him immediately believe? Of course, as evidence of the Shroud of Turin, this passage is cryptic at best.

A 10th century painting of Abgar V
of Edessa receiving the Image.
Some investigators, foremost among them, Ian Wilson in his book The Blood and the Shroud, have attempted to explain what happened to this linen cloth. They link the burial cloth with the fabled Image of Edessa (also called the Mandylion of Edessa), a likeness of Jesus that purportedly protected the city of Edessa from attack for nearly 600 years. As the theory goes, the image was brought to King Abgar V of Edessa who had requested that Jesus come to visit him and cure him of a disease. It was borne by one of the disciples—Addai or Thaddæus—along with a letter from Jesus himself. The account of this visit was recorded in the early 4th century in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History:
“Now, when they were come up, his princes happened to be standing there. And immediately, as he was entering in, a great vision appeared to Abgar on the countenance of Thaddæus the apostle. And, when Abgar saw Thaddæus, he prostrated himself before him. And astonishment seized upon all who were standing there: for they had not themselves seen that vision, which appeared to Abgar alone."
Eusebius's account also includes the supposed letter from Jesus to Abgar which was declared apocryphal by later Church authority. Eusebius claims, however, that he had seen the original documents himself, saying: "There is, however, nothing to prevent our hearing the very letters themselves, which have been taken by us from the archives, and are in words to this effect, translated from Aramaic into Greek." There is, however, in Eusebius's account, no direct mention of the famous image.

In AD 544, Edessa was attacked by the Persians. A generation later, an account of the siege was recorded by the historian Evagrius Scholasticus. His Ecclesiastical History contains the first mention of the Image of Edessa protecting the city from attack. The Persians had built a siege ramp against the walls. In an attempt to collapse the ramp, the Edessenes dug a mine beneath it and filled the cavity with wood and combustibles:
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"The mine was completed; but they failed in attempting to fire the wood, because the fire, having no exit whence it could obtain a supply of air, was unable to take hold of it. In this state of utter perplexity, they bring the divinely wrought image, which the hands of men did not form, but Christ our God sent to Abgarus on his desiring to see Him. Accordingly, having introduced this holy image into the mine, and washed it over with water, they sprinkled some upon the timber; and the divine power forthwith being present to the faith of those who had so done, the result was accomplished which had previously been impossible: for the timber immediately caught the flame, and being in an instant reduced to cinders, communicated with that above, and the fire spread in all directions. [The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, Book IV, Chapter XXVII]
Interestingly, Evagrius links the "divinely wrought image" directly to King Abgar.

A Medieval miniature showing the Image of Edessa arriving in Constantinople. 
Later, so the theory goes, the Image of Edessa was brought to Constantinople. In a sermon commemorating this event in AD 944, the archdeacon of Hagia Sophia, Gregory Referendarius gives a very detailed account of the Image's history. He also gives a description of the image which seems, perhaps not coincidentally, to have a certain affinity to the appearance of the Shroud of Turin:
"For this is not the art of painting, which provides a door for the mind to consider the original and depicts images. This reflection was imprinted from a living original....This reflection...has been imprinted only by the sweat from the face of the originator of life, falling like drops of blood, and by the finger of God. For these are the beauties that have made up the true imprint of Christ, since after the drops fell, it was embellished by drops from his own side. Both are highly instructive – blood and water there, here sweat and image." [The Sermon of Gregory Referendarius, as translated by Mark Guscin]
The image on the Shroud as it exists today.
Finally, in AD 1204, the city of Constantinople was taken and sacked by the rogue armies of the Fourth Crusade. A French knight, Robert of Clari, participated in the sack and later wrote a chronicle. In it, he records what he saw in the ancient Church of Saint Mary in the Blachernae section of Constantinople:
But among the rest, there was also another of the minsters, which was called the Church of my Lady Saint Mary of Blachernae, within which was the shroud wherein Our Lord was wrapped. And on every Friday that shroud did raise itself upright, so that the form of Our Lord could clearly be seen. And none knows – neither Greek nor Frank – what became of that shroud when the city was taken. [Robert of Clari's Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade, Chapter 93]
Click for more info.
While these tid-bits do not provide a complete, authentic provenance for the Shroud of Turin stretching back to ancient times, they are nonetheless tantalizing clues for the historian. As many times as skeptics try to bury the shroud as a forgery, the relic continues to raise itself up and provide an endless source of fascination for a modern world which considers the divine distant and the miraculous impossible.

For a much more filled-out version of the above provenance written in a compelling style that draws the reader in like a mystery novel, I highly recommend Ian Wilson's The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence that the World's Most Sacred Relic is Real as mentioned above.

Click to see a high-resolution image of the shroud with incredible detail.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Paul, Apostle of Christ ~ Telling part of the story

Click here to view the trailer.
With the idea of supporting religious film-making, I took the family out to see Paul the Apostle last night. Despite the PG-13 rating, I brought the whole crew, including the six year-old. As it turned out, there was really nothing in there that he couldn’t handle. The only scene of frightening violence is when one of the crucified Christians was set ablaze to become one of “Nero’s torches.”

That said, this movie wasn’t made for the six year-old crowd. Compared to most modern major market movie fare, it had a much slower pace, much more artistic use of camera work, particularly the manipulation of light and shadow and the incorporation of frequent hazy, cryptic, slow-motion flashbacks. Indeed, this was a very dark film about a dark time in human history, and I left the theater feeling contemplative but not wholly satisfied.

Here are three lauds and caveats if you are thinking of going to see this film during the Easter season:

Lauds:
  1. Luke. Jim Caviezel, playing the part of Luke, dominates the screen. Indeed, a couple of my kids came out of the theater wondering why the film hadn’t been called “Luke”. Caviezel is at the top of his game in this film and the character of Saint Luke as the writer and physician is very compelling.

  2. The history. The film gets several aspects of the historical situation of Rome during the reign of Nero spot-on. I particularly liked the incorporation of Nero’s Torches. This is a important because it serves to introduce our historically illiterate generation to the famous passage in Tacitus’s Annals:

    “And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.” [Tacitus, Annals, Book XV, Chapter 44]

    It should be recalled that Tacitus was not a Christian and had no particular sympathy for them. That the film takes place in the immediate aftermath of the great fire of Rome helps to explain some of the grimy condition of the Christian community and the dark, smoky, gritty settings within Rome itself. This was very effective, I thought.

    Nero's Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876.
  3. The ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but the end tied things up very well for Saint Paul. It also made my wife cry which, admittedly, is not difficult. It was, however, a very poignant scene.
Caveats:
  1. The accents. It’s clear that several of the main actors were not native English speakers. Normally, I find this to be a positive in that it tends to add flavor to the characters. However, in the case of Olivier Martinez, his accent occasionally descended into utter unintelligibility. This was a shame because I thought he was otherwise very engaging as Mauritius, the brutal prefect of the Mamertine prison who eventually comes to see his prisoner, Paul, in a different light.

  2. The poetic license was off. The writers of the film introduced numerous fictional characters into the early Christian community in Rome. While this is not a flaw of itself, it could have been done better. For example, a Roman boy who plays a prominent role is named “Tarquin”. Given that Tarquin was the name of the last hated king of Rome, it’s fairly unlikely that such a name would be used in 1st century Imperial Rome. It would almost be like naming a kid “Adolph” today.

    Another mild problem was the “rebellion” of Cassius, the cousin of Tarquin. Tired of simply knuckling under to the Romans, one of the Christians decides to recruit young men and break into the Mamertine to rescue St. Paul. As far as I know, this incident is made up of whole cloth, and while it helps with the story-telling, it does not really reflect the historical attitude of the Christian community in Rome in the first century AD.

    The inclusion of Aquila and Pricilla as the leaders of the Roman Christian community is also problematic. Though they are historical and appear in St. Paul’s letters, there is no indication anywhere that they were leaders of the Roman church.

  3. The Protestant slant on early Church history. Make no mistake, the story-telling here is a version of history that is not well-informed by the traditions of the Church Fathers. In fact, it’s almost as if the early fathers (and mothers) of the Roman church were specifically disregarded and replaced by the writers’ poetic license as mentioned above. This is evident not so much in what is presented as what is not presented. First, as we know from his Gospel and from later tradition, St. Luke was close with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Yet, the Blessed Virgin’s name is not mentioned once in the film. The other glaring omission is Saint Peter—who is only mentioned in passing twice—and his successors Linus and Clement. These men would have been the leaders of the Roman Christian community. Yet Linus and Clement warrant not even a mention. From the perspective of viewer with any knowledge of the early Church, this seemed bizarre and unnecessary. One is forced to assume that the writers were more comfortable with the idea of a married couple leading the Christian congregation like a pastor and his wife, than the successor to St. Peter. The omission of Linus is especially egregious because he is even mentioned in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy as someone who was with Paul in Rome near the end of his life [2 Timothy 4:21] while Aquila and Priscilla were not. 
Keeping these flaws in mind, I would encourage Catholics to support this film. While it is not the second coming of the Passion of the Christ, it is a well-done production with some memorable, poignant moments. It was one of those films that I will have to watch again after some time has passed in order to catch things that I missed the first time around.

That said, to echo another reviewer of this film, this is not the definitive epic about the life and works of Saint Paul that many of us were hoping for. I guess we'll have to wait a bit longer for that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Pulcheria ~ Princess. Empress. Saint. A brief video biography.



The daughter of the Eastern emperor Arcadius, Aelia Pulcheria (AD 398-453) was the granddaughter of Theodosius the Great, the last man to rule the combined Roman Empire.

When her father Arcadius died suddenly in AD 408, Pulcheria was a mere 10 years old. Her brother, Theodosius II, the heir to the throne, was only 8. At the age of 15, Pulcheria became regent for her brother, pledged her virginity to God, and was named Augusta. Perhaps no one had a greater influence on young Theodosius than Pulcheria, as the video excerpt from Sozomen above clearly demonstrates.

Sozomen wrote the brief biography of Pulcheria featured in the above video clip in the mid-440s AD, that is, while Pulcheria was still alive but probably during that period of rivalry with the Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II, when her power was in eclipse. I posted a variation of this text a while back from a different English translation of Sozomen. Here is a little more from Walford's translation of Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History:
CHAPTER III: THE VIRTUES AND PIETY OF PULCHERIA AND OF HER SISTERS.

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It is said that God on many occasions revealed future events to Pulcheria and conferred on her and on her sisters many special indications of favor. They all pursue the same mode of life. They are sedulous in their attendance in the house of prayer and evince great charity towards strangers and the poor. These sisters generally take their meals and walks together and pass their days and their nights together in singing the praises of God. Like other exemplary women, they employ themselves in weaving and in similar occupations. Although of royal birth and educated in palaces, they avoid idleness as unworthy of the life of virginity to which they have devoted themselves. The favor of God has been, for their sakes, manifested towards their family and the state and the emperor in proportion, as he has grown in years, has increased in power, while all seditions and wars undertaking against him have spontaneously come to nought. [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 3]
Pulcheria was influential at the court of the Eastern Roman Empire for nearly 50 years and played a key role during the reigns of two important emperors—Theodosius II and Marcian. She helped them steer a difficult course during a time when the Empire was under assault from every direction as well as internally. Her devotion to orthodox Christianity and particularly her role at the Council of Chalcedon and her veneration of the Blessed Virgin helped set a solid course for Christianity that is clearly perceptible even to this day, more than 1,500 years after her death.

Friday, March 23, 2018

March 23, AD 536 ~ Mutiny of Justinian's Army in Africa under Solomon the Eunuch

6th century mosaic of Saint Vitalis attired as a gray-haired late Roman soldier.
After his stunning re-conquest of Roman north Africa, and destruction of the Vandalic kingdom, Belisarius returned to Constantinople late in AD 534. He left prematurely because a conspiracy had sprung up accusing him of seeking to usurp the imperial power and set himself up as king of Africa. To defuse suspicion, he packed up his household and returned to the capital, his ships laden with the Vandal royalty as captives and the legendary Vandal treasure.

Once in Constantinople, Belisarius received a traditional Roman triumph. But while the imperial court celebrated, the situation in Africa deteriorated. Belisarius had left his former steward, Solomon, to govern the province and he was effective. However, three aspects of the situation in the region worked dangerously against him. Procopius describes them as follows:
After the Vandals had been defeated in the battle, as I have told previously, the Roman soldiers took their daughters and wives and made them their own by lawful marriage. And each one of these women kept urging her husband to lay claim to the possession of the lands which she had owned previously, saying that it was not right or fitting if, while living with the Vandals, they had enjoyed these lands, but after entering into marriage with the conquerors of the Vandals they were then to be deprived of their possessions. And having these things in mind, the soldiers did not think that they were bound to yield the lands of the Vandals to Solomon...This was one cause of the mutiny.  
And there was a second, concurrent, cause also...It was as follows: In the Roman army there were, as it happened, not less than one thousand soldiers of the Arian faith; and the most of these were barbarians, some of these being of the Erulian nation. Now these men were urged on to the mutiny by the priests of the Vandals with the greatest zeal. For it was not possible for them to worship God in their accustomed way, but they were excluded both from all sacraments and from all sacred rites. For the Emperor Justinian did not allow any Christian who did not espouse the orthodox faith to receive baptism or any other sacrament....
And as if these things were not sufficient for Heaven, in its eagerness to ruin the fortunes of the Romans, it so fell out that still another thing provided an occasion for those who were planning the mutiny. For the Vandals whom Belisarius took to Byzantium were placed by the emperor in five cavalry squadrons, in order that they might be settled permanently in the cities of the East; he also called them the "Vandals of Justinian," and ordered them to betake themselves in ships to the East. Now the majority of these Vandal soldiers reached the East, and, filling up the squadrons to which they had been assigned, they have been fighting against the Persians up to the present time; but the remainder, about four hundred in number, after reaching Lesbos, waiting until the sails were bellied with the wind, forced the sailors to submission and sailed on till they reached the Peloponnesus. And setting sail from there, they came to land in Libya at a desert place, where they abandoned the ships, and, after equipping themselves, went up to Mt. Aurasium and Mauretania. [Procopius, History of the Wars, Book III, Chapter XIV]
These causes combining, the mutiny came to a head during the Easter season in AD 536. Procopius tells us that even the guards and servants of Solomon became embroiled in the conspiracy due to their desire for lands. Despite this, Solomon remained completely in the dark. Easter Sunday, March 23, 536, was set as the day for the uprising. But something went wrong. Procopius continues:
Click for more info.
And when the appointed day had now come, Solomon was sitting in the sanctuary, utterly ignorant of his own misfortune. And those who had decided to kill the man went in, and, urging one another with nods, they put their hands to their swords, but they did nothing nevertheless, either because they were filled with awe of the rites then being performed in the sanctuary, or because the fame of the general caused them to be ashamed, or perhaps also some divine power prevented them. And when the rites on that day had been completely performed and all were betaking themselves homeward, the conspirators began to blame one another with having turned soft-hearted at no fitting time, and they postponed the plot for a second attempt on the following day. [Procopius, History of the Wars, Book III, Chapter XIV]
They tried again the next day, and failed again for the same reasons. At this point, some of them panicked. Worried that they would be discovered, a contingent of the mutineers fled Carthage and began acting as a rebellious army, plundering the countryside and manhandling the common folk.

Recognizing the danger, Solomon begged the soldiers who remained in Carthage to remain loyal to the emperor. He still had little idea of exactly how far the mutiny had progressed among his own men. At first, he seemed to be succeeding. However...
....On the fifth day, when [the soldiers] heard that those who had gone out were secure in their power, they gathered in the hippodrome and insulted Solomon and the other commanders without restraint. And Theodorus, the Cappadocian, being sent there by Solomon, attempted to dissuade them and win them by kind words, but they listened to nothing of what was said. Now this Theodorus had a certain hostility against Solomon and was suspected of plotting against him. For this reason the mutineers straightway elected him general over them by acclamation, and with him they went with all speed to the palace carrying weapons and raising a great tumult. There they killed another Theodorus, who was commander of the guards, a man of the greatest excellence in every respect and an especially capable warrior. And when they had tasted this blood, they began immediately to kill everyone they met, whether Libyan or Roman, if he were known to Solomon or had money in his hands; and then they turned to plundering, going up into the houses which had no soldiers to defend them and seizing all the most valuable things. [Procopius, History of the Wars, Book III, Chapter XIV]
With the revolt now raging in Carthage itself, Solomon and his few loyal guardsmen fled. They made for the harbor and set sail for Syracuse where Belisarius was quartered with his army in preparation for his impending campaign in Italy. Interestingly, Procopius himself was with Solomon, having been an eyewitness to the mutiny he records.

What happened next was but a footnote in the legendary career of Belisarius--but no less amazing than any of his other accomplishments. Here is snippet of the event I wrote for the forthcoming third novel of my Belisarius trilogy, The Final Victory. At this point in the tale, Stozas has taken control of the rebel army outside of Carthage and young Theodorus, to whom Solomon had entrusted the city, has just seen his envoy, Joseph, slain in cold blood:
“He slew Joseph like an animal, Theodorus! We have to surrender or we’re all dead men,” said Philip, a young tribune of barely 24 years. 
The tribune Theodorus sighed as he collapsed onto a waiting chair. A young man himself with hardly two years of seniority on Philip, he felt overwhelmed, overmatched and more than a little fearful. Outnumbered a hundred to one. How long can I hold the city against such odds? But dare I surrender to those butchers?
“Tribune, a dromon has entered the harbor,” a balding dekarch announced. “They are disembarking without permission. Please come.”
“I am coming,” Theodorus replied. “Philip, guard the walls. Let me know immediately if Stotzas makes any moves.” Donning his helmet, he ran from the governor’s palace to the harbor with the dekarch and two bodyguards at his side. As he arrived, a gasp escaped his lips.
“You look as if you’ve seen a vision of Hell, Theodorus,” Belisarius said, clapping the man on the shoulder.
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“Magister! Thank the good Theotokos!” Theodorus replied.
Within minutes a chattering crowd had gathered around Belisarius, and a path had to be cleared for him and his men as they marched into the city toward the palace, followed by three-score stevedores hauling heavy handcarts. As they went, Theodorus became aware of the paucity of Belisarius’s force and his jubilation soon turned back to anxiety.
“Where are the rest of the men?” he whispered to Procopius.
“This is more than enough,” Procopius replied without expression.
“But it’s barely a hundred.”
Procopius shook his head. “Tribune, do you not know that the name Belisarius alone is worth 10,000 men? When we get to the palace, you will see how he can create an army from the winds and sand.”
Book three, tentatively titled, The Final Victory, is still in progress, so you'll have to wait until I'm finished to find out what happened. Or, if you can't wait, check out Procopius's account and read the original source material for yourself!

Monday, March 19, 2018

"An object of dread to the demons" ~ A brief video bio of Saint Moses the Black


Presenting a brief video biography of one of the most fascinating saints of antiquity, Moses the Black, as extracted from the 5th century work, The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen.

Abba Moses is known by numerous other names including Moses the Strong, Moses the Ethiopian, Moses of Scetis, Moses of Abyssinia and Moses the Robber. He was an anchorite of the Egyptian desert and lived in the generation immediately after Saint Anthony the Abbot—that is, from about AD 330-400. He was famous among his peers for his legendary physical strength, and his even more amazing conversion from the depths of vice and wickedness, to the heights of self-denial, humility and sanctity.

Here is the video excerpt in text form:
Click for more info.
"Moses was originally, a slave, but was driven from his master's house on account of his perversity. He joined some robbers, and became leader of the band. After having perpetrated several murders and other crimes, he embraced a life of asceticism, and attained the highest point of philosophical perfection. 
As the healthful and vigorous habit of body which had been induced by his former avocations acted as a stimulus to his imagination and excited a desire for pleasure, he resorted to every possible means of macerating his body. Thus, he subsisted wholly upon bread, subjected himself to severe labor, and prayed fifty times daily. During six years, he spent all his nights in prayer. He prayed standing, without bending his knees or closing his eyes in sleep. He sometimes went, during the night, to the cells of the monks, and secretly filled their pitchers with water, although he had sometimes to go ten, sometimes twenty, and sometimes thirty stadia in quest of the water. Notwithstanding all his efforts to macerate his body, it was long before he could subdue his natural vigor of constitution. 
Four robbers once broke into the dwelling where he lived alone. He bound them, threw them across his shoulders, and bore them to the church, that the monks who were then assembled might deal with them as they thought fit, for he did not consider himself authorized to punish any one. 
So sudden a conversion from vice to virtue was never before witnessed, nor such rapid attainments in monastical philosophy. Hence God rendered him an object of dread to the demons, and he was ordained presbyter over the monks at Scetis. After a life spent in this manner, he died at the age of seventy-five, leaving behind him numerous eminent disciples."
This excerpt from Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History is a simple summary of the eventful life of Abba Moses. More details may be drawn from the Lausiac History of Palladius.

Sozomen's History also includes capsule biographies of numerous other noteworthy monks and holy men and women from that period, particularly those in Egypt and Palestine and is well worth reading for anyone interested in early Church history or Roman history of the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fortune Cookies for Geeks -- The Top 60 Fortunes


Several years ago, when I still thought Fantasy/Sci-Fi conventions were good places to sell books, we came up with a promotion to give away fortune cookies stuffed with "alternate" fortunes.

This met with mixed results.
  • About 50% of the recipients laughed.
  • About 40% said "huh?"
  • The remaining 10% got mad (including one miscreant who crumpled up the fortune and threw it at us).
Anyway, here are the 60 fortunes we came up with. Which one do you like best?
  1. Eeewww. You got the fortune cookie that fell on the floor.

  2. You will join a political party headed by Patrick Stewart.

  3. Something awful will happen to you on November 31.

  4. Your clone will become Emperor of Greenland.

  5. People will say you remind them of Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

  6. Never trust anyone named Marvin Backstabber.

  7. Your next saving throw versus petrification will fail.

  8. Your cell phone number will be in Al Sharpton's rolodex.

  9. Never take a class in javelin catching.

  10. You have a strange fascination with stinging arthropods.

  11. This fortune was meant for someone else.

  12. A Ugandan social servant will send you a big check.

  13. A broken watch is right twice a day—unless it's digital.

  14. sdrawkcab siht gnidaer er'uoY

  15. Your favorite elements are tungsten and boron.

  16. You will not need a brain transplant for at least three months.

  17. Never buy a car made in Portugal.

  18. Your true love is currently married to a 40 ton coelenterate on the planet Gortox.

  19. You will get a thank you card from the IRS.

  20. You know how to play Domjod.

  21. Ill fortune will stalk you like a three-legged platypus.

  22. The next fortune is true. This one is false.

  23. You will buy 36 million lottery tickets and still lose.

  24. You will be the ship's lawyer on Star Trek: Generation X

  25. You secretly root for the daleks.

  26. Never let anyone convince you that you can breathe liquid oxygen.

  27. A law degree will come in handy.

  28. You will start a website called "www.chewbacca-obsession.com"

  29. You will accompany Spock and Bones on an away mission.

  30. You've called the writers of Sesame Street, "a nest of vipers."

  31. Your true love's alignment is chaotic evil.

  32. A mental disorder will be named in your honor.

  33. You will have an exhibit at the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum.

  34. You will be made fun of on a Simpson's episode.

  35. You will write a letter to your senator demanding that dihydrogen monoxide be removed from the water supply.

  36. Nothing of note will happen to you next Thursday.

  37. Yours will be the first Yeti-related death caught on film.

  38. At least three people will mistakenly call you "Ralph" before the end of the day.

  39. You will become wealthy after responding to a spam email message.

  40. You will become famous playing the part of "Grimace" in the off-Broadway production of Golden Arches.

  41. Beware of clairvoyant confections.

  42. An anime series will be based on your life called "Happy Danger Power Student"

  43. You will become famous making organic meat products out of roadkill.

  44. Barbara Walters will interview you from prison.

  45. You will be Scott Bakula's running mate in 2024.

  46. You'll realize your comic book collection is worth millions exactly one day after your mother throws them all out.

  47. You will receive a nasty paper cut from this fortune.

  48. You will join a religious cult that thinks Dennis Miller is the messiah.

  49. You will be mangled in a horrible weedwacking incident.

  50. You will claim the world record for longest duodenum.

  51. You will be fired from the Windows 2020 project for lack of ignorance.

  52. Your entire future can be summarized in one word: reticulated.

  53. You will utter the word "spirochete" in your State of the Union address.

  54. You will die performing a stunt as Adobe's "Acrobat" mascot.

  55. You will have exactly 8,314 bad hair days, including today.

  56. You will lose proprietary data after accidentally ejecting your hard drive.

  57. Your head will grow another head, and so on.

  58. You will be Wendy Jo Sperber's running mate in 2028.

  59. Your friends will start calling you Tom Bombadil after you read them this fortune.

  60. Mr. Tumnus will eat all your Turkish delight.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Belisarius smashes the retreating Goths -- Procopius's description of the end of the great siege of Rome, AD 538

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Of all Belisarius’s victories, the defeat of the great Gothic host under King Vittiges which had besieged Rome from February of AD 537 through March of AD 538 must rank as his greatest feat. In this, he was able to defend successfully a gigantic city that had been considered indefensible against a siege while outnumbered at least 20 to 1 – and maybe more.

March 12 is the date commonly given for the break-up of the siege, when the remnants of the great Gothic army pulled up stakes and retreated for Ravenna. For the previous few months, they had sat quietly before Rome parlaying with Belisarius and looking to negotiate a face-saving treaty. However, time was not on their side. Pestilence was rampant in the Gothic camps and provisions were becoming harder and harder to extract from the devastated countryside around Rome.

Plus, Belisarius had sent a sizable portion of his cavalry under the command of John, the nephew of Vitalian (otherwise known as Bloody John), around the Gothic flank to occupy key cities along the route to Ravenna, the capital of the Gothic kingdom. Worse, rumors were rampant that the disgruntled queen of the Goths, Matasuntha, had made favorable overtures to John to betray Ravenna into his hands. When word of this maneuver reached Vittiges, he acted quickly, fearing that his escape route might be cut off, and his capital and treasure might fall into the hands of his enemies.

Here is how Procopius, an eyewitness to events, described what happened next:
Now it was about the spring equinox, and one year had been spent in the siege and nine days in addition, when the Goths, having burned all their camps, set out at daybreak. 
[The entry on Pope Silverius in the Liber Pontificalis gives a date for the beginning of the Siege as February 21, AD 537. Thus, it seems from Procopius’s reckoning that the siege broke up some time in early-to-mid March in AD 538. Procopius continues:]
And the Romans, seeing their opponents in flight, were at a loss how to deal with the situation. For it so happened that the majority of the horsemen were not present at the time, since they had been sent to various places as has been stated by me above, and they did not think that by themselves, the were a match for so great a multitude of the enemy. However, Belisarius armed all the infantry and cavalry. And when he saw that more than half of the enemy had crossed the bridge, he led the army out through the small Pincian Gate, and the hand-to-hand battle which ensued proved to be equal to any that preceded it.
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At the beginning, the barbarians [that is, the Goths] withstood their enemy vigorously, and many on both sides fell in the first encounter. But afterwards the Goths turned to flight and brought upon themselves a great and overwhelming calamity; for each man for himself was rushing to cross the [Milvian] bridge first. As a result of this they became very much crowded and suffered most cruelly, for they were being killed both by each other and by the enemy. Many, too, fell off the bridge on either side into the Tiber, sank with all their arms, and perished.
Finally, after losing in this way the most of their number, the remainder joined those who had crossed before. And Longinus the Isaurian and Mudilas, the guards of Belisarius, made themselves conspicuous for their valor in the battle. But while Mundilas, after engaging with four barbarians in turn and killing them all, was himself saved, Longinus having proved himself the chief cause of the rout of the enemy, fell where he fought, leaving the Roman army great regret for his loss. [Taken from: Procopius: History of the Wars, Book VI, Chapter X].
It is notable that Belisarius used tactics similar to those of Constantine the Great some 200 years before when he defeated the armies of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. In both cases, the victorious army was able to stampede their retreating enemies toward the bridge and use it as a choke-point. Once the rout was on, the defeated troops trampled their own comrades and pushed them off the bridge in their haste to cross the Tiber and reach safety on the other side. Given that Belisarius seemed a student of military history, it would be no surprise if he were cognizant of Constantine's victory when planning his attack on the fleeing Goths.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The second-most-famous vision of a cross in the sky

Cross in the sky over Jerusalem - as imagined by Jan Luyken, ca. 1700.
Most people are aware of the famous vision seen by Constantine the Great of a cross in the sky with the words, "In hoc signo, vinces" — by this sign you will conquer. Having seen this miraculous vision, Constantine would cause his soldiers to march under Christian symbols, be victorious in his wars, and eventually convert to Christianity. Many citizens of the Roman Empire would follow him.

But not all.

During the reign of Constantine's sons, paganism continued to be practiced throughout the empire. Indeed, thanks to the weak rule and the rumored personal scandals of Constans, a pagan usurper named Magnentius was able to rise in the West in AD 350. Magnentius's henchmen soon captured Constans and put him to death. This dangerous uprising would have to be confronted by the last remaining son of Constantine, Constantius II, the Augustus of the East.

While these political and military maneuverings were going on in the West, a miraculous event occurred in the East. In Jerusalem, another cross appeared in the sky, this time huge, long lasting and unmistakable. Here is how the event is described by the historian Hermias Sozomen writing in the 440s AD:
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At the time that Cyril administered the church of Jerusalem after Maximus, the sign of the cross appeared in the heavens. It shone brilliantly, not with divergent rays like a comet, but with the concentration of a great deal of light, apparently dense and yet transparent. Its length was about fifteen stadia from Calvary to the Mount of Olives, and its breadth was in proportion to its length. So extraordinary a phenomenon excited universal terror. Men, women, and children left their houses, the market-place, or their respective employments, and ran to the church, where they sang hymns to Christ together, and voluntarily confessed their belief in God. The intelligence disturbed in no little measure our entire dominions, and this happened rapidly; for, as the custom was, there were travelers from every part of the world, so to speak, who were dwelling at Jerusalem for prayer, or to visit its places of interest, these were spectators of the sign, and divulged the facts to their friends at home. The emperor was made acquainted with the occurrence, partly by numerous reports concerning it which were then current, and partly by a letter from Cyril the bishop. It was said that this prodigy was a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy contained in the Holy Scriptures. It was the means of the conversion of many pagans and Jews to Christianity. [Taken from The Ecclesiastical History of SozomenBook IV, Chapter VI]
Sozomen likely picked up his description of this event from an eye-witness account written by Saint Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem. Cyril wrote a letter to Constantius announcing the advent of this strange apparition which he himself had witnessed. His letter has come down to us, and contains some additional details:
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The trophy of victory which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, won over death—I refer to the blessed Cross—has been seen flashing like lightning over Jerusalem. 
In these holy days of the Easter season, on 7 May at about the third hour, a huge cross made of light appeared in the sky above holy Golgotha extending as far as the holy Mount of Olives. It was not revealed to one or two people alone, but appeared unmistakably to everyone in the city. It was not as one might conclude that one had suffered a momentary optical illusion; it was visible to the human eye above the earth for several hours. The flashes it emitted outshone the rays of the sun, which would have outshone and obscured it themselves if it had not presented the watchers with more powerful illumination than the sun. It prompted the whole populace at once to run together into the holy church, overcome with fear and joy at the divine vision. Young and old, men and women of every age, even young girls confined to their rooms at home, natives and foreigners, Christians and pagans visiting from abroad, all together as if with a single voice raised a hymn of praise to God’s Only-begotten Son the wonder-worker. They had the evidence of their own senses that the holy faith of Christians is not based on the persuasive arguments of philosophy, but on the revelation of the Spirit and power; it is not proclaimed by mere human beings but testified from heaven by God himself. [Excerpted from: Yarnold: Cyril of Jerusalem]
What is perhaps most interesting about the above accounts is that we see here yet another occasion where, apparently, a mass conversion of pagans and Jews to Christianity took place as a direct result of witnessing a miraculous event.

As for Constantius, Cyril assures him in the abovementioned letter that the miracle will allow him to "face his enemies with greater heart." Later that year, in September AD 351, Constantius II and Magnentius would clash in the epic battle of Mursa Major in Dalmatia. Magnentius was defeated and forced to retreat. He would survive another two years before meeting his end after the battle of Mons Seleucus in Gaul.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

"This scoundrel does not even have a bone in his body" ~ Theodoric the Ostrogoth becomes king of Italy

Theodoric slays Odoacer, March 15, AD 493.
On March 5 in AD 493, Theodoric the Ostrogoth entered Ravenna, having forced Odoacar the Scirian, who had ruled Italy as rex for 17 years, to agree to joint rule. This agreement ended the war between them which had been ongoing for nearly four years.

Odoacar had deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in AD 476 and had ruled Italy himself since then. Attempts by the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno to get Odoacar to recognize even the appearance of Roman suzerainty over Italy were continually rebuffed.

In 489, when faced with a dangerous Ostrogothic horde outside the walls of Constantinople under the command of Theodoric the Amal, Zeno made a virtue out of necessity by offering Theodoric the rule of Italy if he could wrest it from Odoacar. Theodoric accepted the challenge and invaded Italy. He defeated Odoacar in a series of battles, eventually concluding a treaty on February 25 in AD 493 which officially ceded Ravenna, the capital of the Western Empire, to Theodoric and allowed for joint rule of Italy between Odoacar and Theodoric. Theodoric officially entered Ravenna on March 5. This arrangement, however, did not endure for long. Following is an ancient account of what happened next:
Theodoric and Odoacer made an agreement with each other to the effect that they both should rule over the Roman empire and they used to meet with each other quite often thereafter. The tenth day had not yet passed when, while Odoacer was visiting Theodoric, two of Theodoric’s men approached Odoacer as suppliants and grasped both his hands; at once those who were lying in ambush in the small chambers on either side rushed upon him with drawn swords, but, terrified at the sight, they did not attack him, and so Theodoric leaped forward and struck him on the collar bone with his sword, while Odoacer cried out, “Where is God?”  
Theodoric replied, “This is what you have done to my people.”  
The blow was mortal for it pierced Odoacer’s body through to the lower part of the back, and Theodoric is reported to have said, “This scoundrel does not even have a bone in his body.” [Taken from the Chronicle of John of Antioch, p. 445]
Theodoric and his henchmen then went about systematically murdering all of Odoacer’s family. With Odoacer and all other potential claimants to the throne of Italy slain, Theodoric took the title of king for himself, and ruled Italy in his own right for nearly 40 years, though nominally as viceroy under the suzerainty of the Eastern Roman Empire. He became known to history as Theodoric the Great and was considered an enlightened monarch by many of his Roman subjects.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

"Cut off a thong of his skin" ~ The martyrdom of Saint Herculanus AD 549

The Burial of St. Ercolano outside the Gates of Perugia
by Benedetto Bonfigli, ca. 1460.
March 1 is the feast day of the ancient Italian Saint Herculanus of Perugia. (He is also remembered on November 7). Though little-known today, Herculanus was bishop of that city and died a martyr in AD 549 during the disastrous Romano-Gothic War in Italy. Along with Saint Constantius, he is one of the ancient patrons of Perugia.

Practically all we know of the life and death of Herculanus comes from a passage in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, written down about fifty years after the event. Having surrendered to the Roman armies of Belisarius upon his arrival in central Italy in AD 537, Perugia endured sieges by the resurgent Goths in the 540s, culminating with the city's fall to the Gothic king, Totila, in AD 549.

Here is Pope Gregory’s account of what happened in the aftermath of the siege:
The virtuous Bishop Floridus told me a notable miracle, which was this:
"The great holy man," quoth he, "Herculanus, who brought me up, was Bishop of Perusium, exalted to that dignity from the state of a monk: in whose time the perfidious king Totila besieged it for seven years together, and the famine within was so great that many of the townsmen forsook the place: and before the seventh year was ended, the army of the Goths took the city. 
"The commander of his camp dispatched messengers to Totila, to know his pleasure what he should do with the Bishop, and the rest of the citizens: to whom he returned answer, that he should, from the top of the Bishop's head to his very foot, cut off a thong of his skin, and that done, to strike off his head. And as for the rest of the people, to put them all to the sword.
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"When he had received this order, he commanded the reverent Bishop Herculanus to be carried to the walls, and there to have his head strooken off, and when he was dead, that his skin should be cut from the very crown down to the very foot, as though indeed a thong had been taken from his body—after which barbarous fact they threw his dead corpse over the wall. Then some upon pity, joining the head to the body, did bury him, together with an infant that was there found dead.
"Forty days after, Totila making proclamation that the inhabitants, which were gone, should without all fear come back again, those, which upon extremity of hunger departed, returned home to their houses, and calling to mind the holy life of their Bishop, they sought for his body, that it might, as he deserved, be buried in the church of St. Peter. And when they came to the place where it lay, they digged, and found the body of the infant that was buried together with him, putrefied and full of worms: but the Bishop's body was so sound as though it had been newly put into the earth, and that which is more to be admired, and deserveth greater reverence, his head was so fast joined to his body as though it had never been cut off, neither did any sign of his beheading appear at all. Then they viewed likewise his back, whether that were also whole and sound, and they found it so perfect and well, as though never any knife had touched the same." [Taken from: The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, Book III, Chapter 13]
For a good deal more on Saint Herculanus and the legends that grew up around him in medieval Perugia, The Key to Umbria has some excellent information.