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.

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