Friday, February 26, 2021

The Last Triumph in Rome ~ Diocletian and Maximian's Vicennalia Jubilee of AD 303

Detail of a sculpture from the Arch of Constantine showing the Decennalia or
Five Columns Monument in the background.

Roman triumphs, those vast and glorious celebrations that followed Roman military victories, are beloved of Hollywood directors and epic novelists alike. The vision of the conquering hero riding in a chariot car pulled by a quadriga of white horses with his soldiers marching behind, leading a train of captive enemies through cheering throngs of grateful citizens, scattering coins and good will all around while colossal statues and monuments loom overhead and a humble slave whispers in his ear, “remember thou art mortal” — it is an irresistible scene full of vibrant colors and superlative contrasts. For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed describing one myself at the end of my second book, Belisarius: Glory of the Romans.

But the triumph of Belisarius after his conquest of Vandal Africa happened not in Rome but in Constantinople. This begs the question: when was the last imperial triumph celebrated in the city of Rome itself? The answer seems to be that of Diocletian and Maximian in AD 303 to celebrate their vicennalia as senior Augusti and the decennalia of the Caesars, Galerius and Constantius I. 

Diocletian, who took the throne in AD 284, spent most of his reign at his capital at Nicomedia in the East. It is very likely that he had never visited the Eternal City before arriving there late in AD 303 to begin the celebration of his 20th year as emperor. His plan was to use this event to showcase the achievements of the Tetrarchy he had instituted, including splendid military victories achieved by Galerius over King Narseus of Persia, and Constantius over the usurper Carausius in Britain. 

Details of the triumph of Diocletian are scanty but they do exist both in the ancient sources and in some tantalizing archaeological remains. Writing in On the Deaths of the Persecutors within 10-15 years of the event, Lactantius offers an overview of the triumph from the perspective of a highly educated Christian convert hostile to Diocletian and Maximian:

Click for more info.
The wicked plan having been carried into execution [for the Great Persecution of Christians], Diocletian, whom prosperity had now abandoned, set out instantly for Rome, there to celebrate the commencement of the twentieth year of his reign. That solemnity was performed on the twelfth of the kalends of December [November 20, AD 303]. And suddenly the emperor, unable to bear the Roman freedom of speech, peevishly and impatiently burst away from the city. The kalends of January [December 31] approached at which day the consulship for the ninth time was to be offered to him. Yet, rather than continue thirteen days longer in Rome, he chose that his first appearance as consul should be at Ravenna. [Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter 17]

This passage tells us that Diocletian was most likely in Rome from mid-November through mid-December, so approximately a month. The more sympathetic Eutropius also mentions this triumph hinting that during this time, Diocletian and Maximian may have discussed resigning from office: 

Both of them [Diocletian and Maximian], in the same day, exchanged the robe of empire for an ordinary dress, Diocletian at Nicomedia, Herculius [Maximian] at Milan, soon after a magnificent triumph which they celebrated at Rome over several nations, with a noble succession of pictures, and in which the wives, sisters, and children of Narseus [King of Persia] were led before their chariots.” [Eutropius, Breviarium, Book IX, Chapter 27]

Whether the actual wives and children of the Persian king were displayed, or merely their images is a matter of some debate, with most modern scholars assuming that the family of Narseus had been returned to him long before this time.

Another brief notice of this triumph may be found in the Chronicle of the City of Rome which is part of the Chronography of AD 354, though it is difficult to determine if the items listed here occurred or were dedicated during the triumph itself, or simply during the 22 years that Diocletian was on the throne:

Diocletian and Maximian ruled 21 years, 11 months, 12 days. They gave a largess of 1,550 denarii.  While they were ruling many public works were (re)built: the senate, the forum of Caesar, the basilica Julia, the stage of the theatre of Pompey, 2 porticos, 3 nymphaea, 2 temples, the temple of Isis and Serapis, the new arch, and the baths of Diocletian. They scattered in the circus gold and silver coins. The wall which formed the base of the seating for the boxes in the circus collapsed and crushed 13,000 people; and a woman named Irene gave birth to three boys and a girl. They placed the king of the Persians with all nations and their tunics of pearl in number 32 around the temples of the Lord.  They brought 13 elephants, 6 drivers and 250 horsemen into the city.” (Chronography of AD 354

Among the architectural works usually included in the rebuilding of the Roman Forum by Diocletian is the so-called Monument of the Five Columns. This work featured five tall columns set up at the rear of the Rostrum in the Roman Forum to celebrate the decennalia of the Tetrarchy. Each of the columns was topped with a statue—one each of the four Tetrarchs (Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius) flanking the middle one featuring a portrayal of Jupiter. We have an idea of what this monument looked like because it is apparently represented in the background of one of the reliefs on the Arch of Constantine. See the photo at the top of this post.

A compact summary of what we know about the Five Columns Monument may be found in this lecture by Prof. Diana Kleiner: The Decennial or Five-Column Monument in the Roman Forum

Detail of the surviving base of the Decennial Monument. Click to enlarge.
Image borrowed from here.

Of this monument, only a single column base remains today. Often neglected in the Roman Forum, the base shows a pagan sacrificial procession on two sides, one of the Tetrarchs sacrificing to the gods on the third side, and on the fourth side two winged victories holding a shield inscribed “Caesarum Decennalia Feliciter.” In putting together this blog post, I was struck by the similarity in style and motif between this sculpture and one of the illustrations included with the Chronography of AD 354. See below. 

Illustration from the Chronography of AD 354 (left) compared with the column base
of the Decennalia monument (right). Click to enlarge.

Given that these works were created within fifty years of each other, perhaps the similarities are not surprising. For more on the Tetrarchs Jubliee in Rome, see the chapter: "Memorials of the Ability of Them All": Tetrarchic Displays in the Roman Forum’s Central Area by Gregor Kalas.

Scholars have speculated as to why Diocletian left Rome to accept the consulship for the ninth time in the provincial backwater of Ravenna. Lactantius provides a tantalizing bit of evidence, saying that Diocletian “could not bear the Roman freedom of speech.” What the Romans actually had to say which repelled Diocletian is unclear. We know that Diocletian had imposed eastern customs upon the Roman imperial court, including the usage of ostentatious imperial garb, the expectation that subjects would prostrate themselves in his presence, addressing the Augustus as “Dominus” (Lord), and the proliferation of eunuchs as courtiers. We also know that Roman citizens were not averse to boldly ridiculing an emperor in public. See, for example, the mocking chants which the Romans in the Circus directed at Maxentius in AD 312 while his foe Constantine stood outside the city: “Constantine can not be conquered!” A prolonged encounter between an emperor like Diocletian with a hugely inflated self-image, and a raucous multitude with a tradition of engaging in public mockery of its leaders, could easily have led to ill feelings. 

It is also possible that the garbled account of the Chronography of AD 354 contains a clue. In the passage shown above, mention is made of Diocletian and Maximian scattering gold and silver coins in the Circus. Immediately after is recorded that a retaining wall of the Circus collapsed, killing thousands of people. If such a tragedy happened during the celebration of the jubilee, it certainly would have cast a dreadful pall over the event, and may have been considered a portent of ill omen, (juxtaposed with the more fortuitous news of the birthing of quadruplets). Perhaps the reaction of the Augusti to the disaster was seen by the Romans as unsympathetic or insufficient, and spurred them to speak out loudly against Diocletian, causing the latter’s hasty withdrawal from the city. 

Another possibility is that the ongoing persecution of Christians caused public unrest and antipathy toward Diocletian, who may have discovered upon his arrival that Christianity had a much stronger hold on the Eternal City than he had imagined. According to the account in the Liber Pontificalis, Pope Marcellinus was called to sacrifice to the pagan divinities by Diocletian himself. Lamentably, the Pope conceded and offered incense to the idols. The scandal and outrage caused by such a betrayal must have been furious among the Christian community in Rome, for Marcellinus quickly repented of his perfidy and made a public declaration of his Christian faith. He was condemned to death and beheaded along with four companions. By order of Diocletian, their bodies were left to rot in the streets for 26 days. If this public martyrdom of the Pope in Rome did in fact occur during the triumphal jubilee of the Tetrarchs, one could imagine how it might put a damper on the celebration. Conversely, if this martyrdom had played a role in Diocletian leaving the city early, one might have expected Lactantius to mention it at least in passing.

For a more scholarly but perhaps just as fanciful look into this question, check out Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, page 188. 

Of course, all of the above is speculation and we can not know for certain why Diocletian left Rome when he did, apparently in a lather, never to return to the Eternal City again. On his trip back to Nicomedia, he toured the Danube frontier and at some point contracted a persistent illness that plagued him all throughout his vicennalial year. By December of AD 304, reports were circulating in Nicomedia that Diocletian had died. 

But the end of Diocletian’s reign and retirement are subjects for a separate post.

Diocletian has featured prominently in numerous other posts on this blog, including:

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Maxentius and His Ill-Fated Reign ~ The last pagan emperor to rule from Rome or a usurper and "inhuman beast"?

Background: The four original Tetrarchs: Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius I.
Foreground left: Constnatine the Great. Foreground right: Maxentius.
Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, more commonly known as simply Maxentius, ruled in Rome as a usurper from AD 306 until AD 312. His reign came to an abrupt end when he drowned in the Tiber after being defeated at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge by Constantine the Great.

As usurpers go, Maxentius had some impressive familial connections. He was the son of the emperor Maximian Herculius, who was raised to the status of co-Augustus by Diocletian in AD 286. He was also the son-in-law of the emperor Galerius, whom Diocletian would create Caesar in AD 293 and name as his successor as primary Augustus in AD 305. Finally, he was the brother-in-law of Constantius I, the Caesar of the West, who had married his half-sister, Theodora, the daughter of Maximian. Constantius I was, of course, the father of Constantine the Great.

Though he was connected to three imperial families within Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, Maxentius was apparently not well-liked by anyone. Aurelius Victor, a likely pagan writing in the mid-4th century about 50 years after the events, mentions that Maxentius “was dear to no one at all, not even to his father or father-in-law, Galerius.” [See Epitome De Caesaribus, Chapter 40]

Agreeing with this assessment is Lactantius, a well-educated convert to Christianity who served both at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia and later under Constantine as tutor for the latter’s son, Crispus. In his polemical work of history entitled, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Lactantius gives the following reason for why neither Maximian nor Galerius had any love for Maxentius:
Click for more info.
“Now Maximian Herculius had a son, Maxentius, married to the daughter of Galerius, a man of bad and mischievous dispositions and so proud and stubborn withal, that he would never pay the wonted obeisance either to his father or father-in-law, and on that account he was hated by them both.” [Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter 18]
Later, in the same chapter, Lactantius elaborates on the above, putting words directly into the mouth of Galerius as part of a fascinating dialogue in which Galerius and Diocletian discuss the immediate future of the empire and who shall succeed to the imperial college upon the resignation of Diocletian and Maximian:
“What is to be done?” said Galerius, “for that Maxentius deserves not the office. He who, while yet a private man, has treated me with contumely, how will he act when once he obtains power?”
Diocletian and Galerius eventually ended up setting aside both Maxentius and Constantine, young men with hereditary claims to the empire, in favor of two lackies of Galerius, namely, Maximin Daia and Severus. This decision would have repercussions which would eventually result in the complete dissolution of the Tetrarchy. Less than a year after this decision, Constantine would be declared emperor by his father’s army at York upon the death of Constantius I in Britain in AD 306. This act was eventually ratified by Galerius, making Constantine a formal member of the Tetrarchy which now included Galerius and Severus as the Augusti, or senior emperors, and Maximin Daia and Constantine as Caesars, or junior emperors.

On the outside looking in, Maxentius began seeking ways to acquire that which he felt had been wrongfully denied to him. Zosimus, a pagan historian writing in the early 6th century, claims that Maxentius was incensed at the good fortune of Constantine and decided to take matters into his own hands. Taking advantage of the newly imposed and extremely unpopular taxes of Galerius on the City of Rome, Maxentius plotted a coup with the assistance of two tribunes of the Praetorian Guard, and a swine merchant. The conspirators assassinated the prefect of Rome, Abellius, and had Maxentius declared Emperor. [See Zosimus, New History, Book 2, Chapter 9]

A bronze follis showing the
fleshy profile of Maxentius.
Click the image to enlarge.
Angered at this usurpation, Galerius ordered his creature Severus to deal with Maxentius. But Maxentius had an ace up his sleeve. He recalled his father to Rome—the retired Maximian Herculius who had ruled as Diocletian’s colleague for twenty years. Maximian had retired unwillingly and had been cooling his heels in southern Italy, so as soon as this opportunity arose for him to regain the purple, he responded eagerly. When Severus arrived in the vicinity of Rome, his army promptly defected to their previous patron and Severus was handed over to be killed. A further campaign by Galerius himself ended in similar ignominy, as the Eastern Augustus fled from Italy before his army could defect to Maxentius and Maximian as well.

Fortune had certainly favored Maxentius to this point, but his situation was still precarious. Not helping matters was that neither he nor his father were men of particularly high character. Maximian soon tired of playing second fiddle and attempted regain his preeminent position by a public denunciation of his upstart son. Lactantius describes the scene:
“He called an assembly of the people of Rome and of the soldiers, as if he had been to make an harangue on the calamitous situation of public affairs. After having spoken much on that subject, he stretched his hands towards his son, charged him as author of all ills and prime cause of the calamities of the state, and then tore the purple from his shoulders. Maxentius, thus stripped, leaped headlong from the tribunal and was received into the arms of the soldiers. Their rage and clamor confounded the unnatural old man and, like another Tarquin the Proud, he was driven from Rome.” [Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XXVIII]
Though the soldiers and the people resoundingly rejected the father on this occasion, it wasn’t long before they wearied of the son as well. Zosimus commented that Maxentius “conducted himself with cruelty and licentiousness towards all the inhabitants of Italy, and even to Rome itself.” [New History, Book II, Chapter 14]. Eutropius, writing in the later 4th century, says that Maxentius was “spreading death among the nobility by every kind of cruelty.” [Breviarium, Book X, Chapter 4]

Maxentius’s unpopularity at home probably excited a revolt of the African provinces against his rule under an elderly usurper named Alexander in AD 308. As the loss of Africa meant the cutting off of Rome’s grain supply, Maxentius was forced to act, sending an army to crush the rebellion in short order. But he won no love by this victory, going overboard in punishing Africa, as reported by Aurelius Victor:
Click for more info.
“Maxentius, the inhuman beast, made more abominable by his excessive lust, had ordered Carthage, the glory of the world, along with the loveliest parts of Africa to be ravaged, pillaged and burned.” [De Caesaribus, Chapter 40]
Later in the same chapter, Aurelius Victor gives another reason why the people and the nobility came to despise Maxentius:
“He had oppressed them so much that on one occasion he permitted the praetorians to massacre the common people, and was the first, through a most reprehensible edict issued under the pretext of obligatory state taxation, to compel the senators and farmers to contribute money for him to squander.”
An anonymous Latin panegyricist provides a few more details, claiming that Maxentius had used the wealth of Rome to hire henchmen whose purpose was to strip every Roman citizen of his goods, saying:
Click for more info.
“The riches collected from the entire world over the course of 1,060 years that monster had given to gangs of men hired to rob citizens. What is more, indiscriminately granting other men’s wives and the heads of the innocent along with their possessions he bound the murderers in devotion even to death; all who either plotted against him or openly attempted anything for their freedom he afflicted with punishments and subdued by armed force. And while he enjoyed the majesty of the city which he had taken, he filled all Italy with thugs hired for every sort of villainy.” [Nixon: In Praise of the Later Roman Emperors]
Considering Maxentius's misrule, as reported in a multiplicity of ancient sources, it is perhaps not surprising that Constantine was aroused against Maxentius, and that the senate and the people of Rome celebrated when Constantine drew near in AD 312. As reported by Eusebius who knew him personally, Constantine could no longer endure the oppression of Maxentius, saying, “that life was without enjoyment to him as long as he saw the imperial city thus afflicted.” [Eusebius, Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapter 26].

What followed was Constantine’s epic campaign to re-take Rome—a campaign that succeeded where those of Severus and Galerius had failed. This effort culminated with the dramatic Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, AD 312.

In more modern times, attempts have been made to rehabilitate the memory of Maxentius. Some have sought to eulogize him as the last pagan emperor to rule from Rome. He is also occasionally lauded as the builder of the so-called Basilica of Maxentius in Rome and is given credit for rebuilding parts of the city that had fallen to neglect while Diocletian ruled the empire from Nicomedia. Others have found reason to praise Maxentius following the amazing discovery of what may have been his imperial insignia, saying that they represented, "the greatness of Maxentius, buried by his loyal people to save something that belonged to him.
The imperial insignia discovered in Rome in 2006.
Borrowed from: Romeinen Weblog.
Given what the ancients, both pagan and Christian, had to say about him however, it seems clear that the only things truly great about Maxentius were his vices and his atrocities.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

"Volumes could be written on the multiform works of succor of Pius XII" ~ The testimony of Eugenio Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome during World War II

“No hero in history has commanded such an army; none is more militant, more fought against, none more heroic than that conducted by Pius XII in the name of Christian charity.” 

These are the words of an elderly Italian Catholic known as Professor Eugenio Maria Zolli. He was not always known by this name, however. Prior to 1945, he was known as Rabbi Israel Zolli, and before that, as Israel Anton Zoller. He was born in 1881 in what was then a Polish region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother was a German Jew and on her side of the family, a rabbinic tradition stretched back at least a century.

Zolli as a younger man. See additional
photos here.
Israel Zoller’s life would be shaped during the tumultuous years of the Great War. Spending most of his life in Italy, he would change his name to the more Italian-sounding Zolli and go on to become the chief rabbi of Trieste when that city was annexed by Italy following the defeat and dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918.

In 1939, Zolli was named chief Rabbi of the city of Rome and would serve until 1944. As such, he would preside over the darkest days for the Jewish community in Rome. He would also witness first-hand the efforts of the Catholic Church in general and of Pius XII in particular, to protect and succor the Jewish people, particularly during the period of Nazi occupation from October 1943 through June of 1944. 

At the same time, all three of Zolli’s brothers would be killed in the Holocaust. 

The quote in the image above may be found in Zolli’s autobiography entitled, Before the Dawn, originally published in 1954. In this work, Zolli provides a robust defense of Venerable Pope Pius XII from which the above quote is drawn. Here is the quote in more context:

“There is no place of sorrow where the spirit of love of Pius XII has not reached. Volumes could be written on the multiform works of succor of Pius XII. The Catholic priesthood throughout the world, religious men and women and the Catholic laity, stand behind the great Pontiff. Who could ever tell what has been done? The rule of severe enclosure falls, everything and all things are at the service of charity. As the sufferings grow, so grows the light from the heart of Christ, and from His Vicar; more vigilant and ready for sacrifice and martyrdom are his sons and daughters in Christ. Young Levites and white-haired priests, religious of all orders, in all lands, dedicated Sisters, all in quest of good works and ready for sacrifice. There are no barriers, no distinctions. All sufferers are children of God in the eyes of the Church, children in Christ, for them and with them all suffer and die. No hero in history has commanded such an army; none is more militant, more fought against, none more heroic than that conducted by Pius XII in the name of Christian charity….

...Like a watchful sentinel before the sacred inheritance of human pain stands the angelic Pastor, Pius XII. He has seen the abyss of misfortune toward which mankind is advancing. He has measured and foretold the greatness of the tragedy. He has made himself the herald of the serene voice of justice and the defender of true peace. He took into his heart all the pain of all the sufferers. He bent over the world saying, “The way you chose was not the just way. The true way is that which leads from the Gospel to Jesus. The good way is marked by a simple and clear word: from the Gospel, with Christ, toward the Kingdom of God.” [Before the Dawn, pages 194–196]

Eugenio Zolli in Rome accompanied by his
godfather, Fr. Gosselino Birola. ca. 1945.
Zolli would formally convert to Catholicism, along with his wife and daughter, as the war was winding down in Europe in February of 1945. As a tribute to his confessor Pius XII (whose name at birth was Eugenio Pacelli), Zolli would take the Christian name Eugenio. 

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of Rome’s Jewish community to Zolli’s action was harsh. Zolli was considered an apostate and shunned by former friends. Worse, slanders began to emerge regarding his reasons for converting. When it was suggested that he had become Catholic for very worldly reasons, Zolli replied: “No selfish motive led me to do this. When my wife and I embraced the Church, we lost everything we had in the world. We shall now have to look for work; and God will help us to find some.” [Before the Dawn, page 16]

It was also theorized that he had converted out of gratitude to Pius XII for saving him during the Nazi occupation. In response to this, Zolli wrote: 

“I did not hesitate to give a negative answer to the question whether I was converted in gratitude to Pius XII for his numberless acts of charity. Nevertheless, I do feel the duty of rendering homage and of affirming that the charity of the Gospel was the light that showed the way to my old and weary heart. It is the charity that so often shines in the history of the Church and that radiated fully in the actions of the reigning Pontiff.” [Before the Dawn, page 196]

Given these statements, it becomes difficult to give any credence to the continuing calumnies heaped upon Venerable Pope Pius XII as a do-nothing during World War II in the face of Nazi atrocities.

Interestingly, though he had studied New Testament theology for many years, it seems that the culminating impetus behind Rabbi Zolli’s conversion to Catholicism was a mystical experience. In a later biography by Judith Cabaud, we read Zolli's account:

“During the feast of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in October 1944, he presided over the prayers of Great Pardon in the synagogue in Rome. 'Suddenly,' he wrote, 'I saw, with the eyes of the mind, a large prairie, and standing in the middle of the green grass was Jesus, dressed in a white robe... At the sight of this, I felt a great interior peace, and, from the depths of my heart, I heard these words: 'You are here for the last time. From now on, you will follow Me.' I received them in the greatest serenity, and my heart immediately responded, 'As it shall be, so it must be.'... An hour later, after supper, in my room, my wife declared to me, 'Today, while you were standing before the Ark of the Torah, it seemed to me that the white figure of Jesus was laying His hands on you, as if He were blessing you.' I was stupefied.” [Taken from Cabaud: Eugenio Zolli, Prophet of a New World

Eugenio Zolli was an amazing man whose extraordinary life and thoughtful works deserve greater attention. Maybe start by reading his autobiography, Before the Dawn. Now that I have sampled it, I intend to read it in full.

Monday, January 25, 2021

"A monarch more wicked than all the nations of the earth" ~ Julian the Apostate and the martyrdom of Saints Juventius and Maximus

The martyrdom of Saints Juventius and Maximus taken from the
early 11th century Menologion of Basil II.

January 25 is the feast day of the ancient martyrs, Juventius and Maximus (sometimes called Juventinus and Maximinus). These two were soldiers during the time of Julian the Apostate and suffered martyrdom at his hands, most likely in AD 363. 

You may remember from similar posts on this blog that although Julian had a deep animosity toward Christianity, he refrained from enacting a wholesale persecution in the style of Diocletian because he had seen that such methods failed to suppress the Faith and indeed, seemed to enhance its appeal. As a result, Julian had taken a more subtle approach to suppressing Christianity, as demonstrated in a previous post on Saint Eupsychius, a martyr who had participated in the destruction of the Temple of Fortune in Caesarea.

Unlike many of the semi-legendary martyrs of the late 4th century, we can be fairly certain that Juventius and Maximus not only existed, but that their acts are authentic. They are recorded in two near-contemporary sources: a homily of Saint John Chrysostom who eulogized the martyrs about 30-40 years after their deaths, and the Ecclesiastical History written by Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus who wrote in the mid-5th century AD.

The account of Theodoret is rather detailed, and seems to jive nicely with the historical portrait of Julian gleaned from friendly sources like Ammianus Marcellinus and hostile ones like Hermias Sozomen and Socrates Scholasticus, as well as Julian's own surviving writings. The whole of Theodoret's account of the deaths of Juventius and Maximus runs as follows:

Julian continued to oppose religion with greater and greater boldness and effrontery, while he assumed the specious appearance of clemency, in order to lay snares to entrap men, and seduce them to irreligion. He cast things offered to idols into the fountains of the city of Antioch, and into those of Daphne, so that no one could drink of the streams without partaking of the hateful sacrifices. He defiled in the same way everything that was sold in the marketplace, for he had water which had been offered to idols sprinkled on the bread, meat, fruit, herbs, and all the other articles of food. 

The Christians wept and lamented at witnessing these abominations, yet they partook of the food according to the precept of the apostle, for it is said, "Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake." (1 Corinthians 10:25). 

Two of the emperor's guards, who were his shield-bearers and companions in arms, vehemently deplored, at a certain convivial party, the perpetration of such hateful deeds, and borrowed the admirable words used by the young man who gained so high a celebrity at Babylon: "You have delivered us," they said, " to a monarch who is more wicked than all the nations of the earth." 

One of those at table acquainted the emperor with this speech. The emperor sent for these two men, and asked what it was that they had said. This question giving them an opportunity of speaking freely, they, in the warmth of their zeal, made the following reply: 

"Having been brought up, O emperor, in the true religion, and having been accustomed to obey the admirable laws enacted by Constantine, and by his sons, we cannot but be deeply grieved at witnessing everything filled with abominations, and the very food contaminated by being mixed with the sacrifices offered to idols. We have lamented over this in our own houses, and now, in your presence, we publicly express our regret. This is the only cause of sorrow which we experience under your government." 

On hearing these words the mildest and wisest of emperors, as he is called by those who resemble him, threw off the mask of clemency, and disclosed his real impiety. Such excruciating tortures were at his order inflicted on these two men, that they expired under them or, rather, they obtained a release from the misery of the age, and received the crowns of victory. It was declared, that their boldness of speech, and not the religion which they defended, was the cause of their execution: they were punished, it was said, because they had insulted the emperor. This account of the transaction Julian ordered to be universally circulated, for he was apprehensive lest these champions of truth should obtain the honor of being regarded as martyrs. 

Their names were Juventius and Maximus. The church of Antioch honored them as defenders of religion, and interred them in a magnificent tomb; and even to this day an annual festival is celebrated in their honor. [Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 15]

These martyrs are also mentioned in a homily given by Saint John Chrysostom. As one-time bishop of Antioch, Saint John no doubt was very familiar with these two martyrs who would have been slain during his own lifetime. Indeed, he would have been a young man at the time, most likely living in Antioch during the reign of Julian. 

I could not locate a full literal English translation of this homily, but fragments may be found in Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other scholarly sources around the internet. The account in Butler’s mentions that when the martyrs refused to retract their statements about the emperor, they were scourged, their property was confiscated and finally, they were beheaded in prison. Following the execution, some local Christians in Antioch obtained the bodies and built for them a magnificent tomb. In his homily, John Chrysostom urges his listeners to visit the shrine of these martyrs regularly and embrace the relics, feeling confident that they may obtain blessings. In fact, this homily provides yet another example of the early Church believing in the efficacy of prayers to the saints in heaven as mediators with God as St. John makes clear in a very dramatic fashion:

“For just as soldiers, showing off the wounds received in battle, boldly converse with the emperor, so too these [martyrs], by brandishing in their hand the heads which were cut off and putting them on public display, are easily able to procure everything we wish from the King of Heaven.” [See Garbarino, Resurrecting the martyrs: The role of the Cult of the Saints, AD 370-430 – page  128]

A final ancient source on these martyrs is also worth citing. In a hymn of Severus of Antioch, a Monophysite bishop of the early 6th century AD, a third martyr is mentioned along with Juventius and Maximus—another soldier named Longinus, who along with his companions, was accounted a valiant man, a champion and a soldier of Christ who confounded Julian and stripped off his cloak of deceitfulness. See Hymns of Severus in Patrologia Orientalis, Tomus Septimus, page 612 [200] 

For more posts on Julian the Apostate, see:

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

On the Death of Nero ~ Classical and Early Christian Perspectives

The Death of Nero as shown in an engraving from The Story of the Greatest
, 1901.

I recently ran across a passage written by Lactantius in his enigmatic and fascinating work entitled On the Deaths of the Persecutors about the demise of the original persecutor of Christians, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus—that is, Nero. Writing in the early 4th century AD, or about 250 years after the fact, Lactantius says the following of Nero:

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When Nero heard of those things [that is, the growth of Christianity in Rome] and observed that not only in Rome but in every other place a great multitude revolted daily from the worship of idols and, condemning their old ways, went over to the new religion, he being an execrable and pernicious tyrant, sprung forward to raze the heavenly temple and destroy the true faith. He it was who first persecuted the servants of God. He crucified Peter and slew Paul. Nor did he escape with impunity, for God looked on the affliction of His people, and therefore the tyrant, bereaved of authority, and precipitated from the height of empire, suddenly disappeared, and even the burial-place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be seen. [Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter II]

There are several things that are interesting about this passage. Most obviously, it seems to run contrary in some of its details to the accounts of earlier secular historians. For example, in Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, written about fifty years after the facts recorded, we find that Nero committed suicide with the help of one of his freedmen. Far from disappearing after his death, Suetonius records that Nero's corpse was...

...buried at a cost of two hundred thousand sesterces and laid out in white robes embroidered with gold….His ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress, Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens, which is visible from the Campus Martius. [Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars: Nero]

Furthermore, Suetonius claims that the location of Nero's tomb was not only well known but that “there were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers.” 

Based on these details, some might assume that Lactantius was merely ignorant of Roman history. I consider this unlikely. Lactantius was brilliantly educated in the best Roman tradition prior to his conversion to Christianity and his Latin prose was so fine that later scholars would call him "the Christian Cicero." 

Suetonius himself may provide a clue to the answer. In another passage directly following the ones quoted above, he mentions that some of Nero's admirers pretended that the emperor was still alive and would return shortly to bring vengeance upon his enemies. This rumor had enough legs that even decades later, the Parthians would protect a man who claimed to be Nero, probably in an attempt to cause political chaos among the Romans. Suetonius relates:

Twenty years later, when I was still a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared, who gave out that he was Nero, and the name was still in such favor with the Parthians that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him with great reluctance. [Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars: Nero]

This rumor and the impostor associated with it brings us back to Lactantius and early Christian traditions about the death of Nero. Clearly, the admirers of Nero who put forth the rumors of his continuing Elvis-like existence in hiding were not Christians. However, Christians may have picked up on these rumors and placed them into a completely different context. Curiously, following his description of Nero’s fall and death, Lactantius echoes Suetonius, saying that some persons of “extravagant imagination” believed that Nero had been taken to a distant place where he remained alive even 250 years after his death. He even incorporates pagan prophecy, saying:  

To him they apply the Sibylline verses concerning, “The fugitive, who slew his own mother, being to come from the uttermost boundaries of the earth,” as if he who was the first should also be the last persecutor, and thus prove the forerunner of Antichrist. [Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter II]

That this was a popular view among early Christians is corroborated by St. Sulpicius Severus writing near the end of the 4th century, about 80 years after Lactantius. In the following passage from his Sacred History, St. Sulpicius writes:

Nero, now hateful even to himself from a consciousness of his crimes, disappears from among men, leaving it uncertain whether or not he had laid violent hands upon himself: certainly his body was never found. It was accordingly believed that, even if he did put an end to himself with a sword, his wound was cured, and his life preserved, according to that which was written regarding him,—“And his mortal wound was healed,”—to be sent forth again near the end of the world, in order that he may practice the mystery of iniquity. [Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, Book II, Chapter 29]

The phrase, “And his mortal wound was healed” quoted by St. Sulpicius above is taken from the Apocalypse of Saint John (Revelation) 13:3 as part of St. John’s description of the Beast with Seven Heads: “And I saw one of his heads as it were slain to death: and his death’s wound was healed. And all the earth was in admiration after the beast.”

It seems that some Christians with "extravagant imaginations" had interpreted this passage to identify Nero as the beast with the healed wound, and furthermore extrapolated that he would return again as the forerunner of the Antichrist. Lactantius, however, is much more cautious when it comes to offering such speculations on the meaning of prophetic utterances in Sacred Scripture. He wraps up his short history of the reign and persecution of Nero as follows:

But we ought not to believe those who, affirming that the two prophets Enoch and Elias have been translated into some remote place that they might attend our Lord when He shall come to judgment, also fancy that Nero is to appear hereafter as the forerunner of the devil, when he shall come to lay waste the earth and overthrow mankind. [Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter II]

As a reporter of history, Lactantius certainly favors the Christian viewpoint, but it is noteworthy that he is not prone to accept the wilder flights of fancy associated with some Christian Roman writers of his day. 

Certainly, On the Deaths of the Persecutors is among the most fascinating and informative works of history from the late Roman period relating a myriad of accounts and anecdotes that appear nowhere else among the contemporary histories of that era. For those of you who have visited this blog before, you may remember seeing numerous quotes from On the Deaths of the Persecutors in a variety of posts, including:

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The United States in 2020—and Mexico in 1988

The mural decorating the bedroom wall in Mexico City featuring Che and Pancho.

As we bid farewell to 2020, a year overloaded with the ridiculous and the outrageous, full of comfortable lies and unacceptable truths, I find myself pondering death. Not so much the death of 350,000 who, we are told, succumbed to a plague unleashed from China, but the otherwise unheralded death of our dear Uncle Sam. 

Admittedly, the patient had been declining for some time. Since the 1960s, the elderly gentleman had ceased making the really hard decisions in his deliberative centers. In the early stages of his dementia, he devolved all of the truly difficult, unpopular, and detrimental decisions onto an unaccountable committee made up of black-robed trustees who cared not a whit for his best interests. 

More recently, Uncle Sam found that he could no longer manage his finances. Instead of making a budget and sticking to it, his dereliction had progressed to the point where he could only pay his bills by taking on more debt. Yet, despite his economic straits, his list of dependents, heirs and hangers-on grew longer. It seemed that every verminous bloodsucker on earth wished to attach itself to the old man as he fumbled confusedly with his checkbook.

Over the past twelve years, we have watched the pitiable old man's executive functions fail him. Foreign pathogens were introduced into his system which spread corruption throughout his central command pathways. One by one, he lost control of even his most vital organs.

During the past four years, the patient was placed on life support with little hope of survival. In private, his heirs gathered around him like vultures, anxiously awaiting his coming demise while upholding the public fiction that he was still perfectly healthy. They recorded the time of his death in secret: 2:00 AM on November 4, 2020. Some say that he died peacefully in his sleep. I, however, think that the old man was snuffed by his unscrupulous heirs while those meant to stand guard were bribed or drugged.

Rather than continue on with this somewhat maudlin metaphor, let us return to reality wherein we find that the American Republic has ceased to function as it was meant to. For how can a republic built on the bedrock of free elections of representatives by a free and virtuous people, continue on in a circumstance where that foundation has been drilled away by individual corruption and corporate vote fraud on an unimaginably galling scale? 

Blatant, widespread electoral fraud on the scale needed to overturn a national election, as we have witnessed in 2020, is the hallmark not of a free republic, but of a banana republic. We are presented with a situation where the the chosen candidate of the DC oligarchy (Uncle Sam's corrupt heirs mentioned above) said overtly before the election that they had, "put together I think the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics." Some maintained that Mr. Biden's words have been taken out of context or that he simply misspoke. Personally, I think we witnessed in that instant the demon speaking through him, forcing his pride-addled brain to say the quiet part out loud, much like the way he had previously bragged about bribing Ukraine to stop investigating Burisma

Mr. Biden's stolen victory has wakened many Americans to the fact that the free republic represented in our traditional schooling is now largely a fiction, much as the Roman republic under Lucius Domitus Ahenobarbus, though maintaining the forms and offices, was a fiction. 

As of 2021, we must face the fact that we are not a shining city on a hill. We have no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. We are Venezuela. We are Argentina. We are Mexico. 

I was in Mexico City when the PRI stole the Mexican presidential election in 1988. At that time, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional or Revolutionary Institutional Party) made up most of the Mexican federal government, having ruled Mexico for 59 uninterrupted years. By 1988, the PRI were entrenched, unaccountable and disconnected from the average Mexican—much like the the DC oligarchy is in the US. Hence, they were deeply unpopular with the people who nonetheless felt powerless to change things. Like the American oligarchs, the PRI controlled most of the institutions along with the broadcast media.

In the immediate aftermath of the election of 1988, there were mass protests. I distinctly remember lying in a bedroom decorated with murals of Pancho Villa and Che Guevara and hearing fireworks or gunfire go off outside in the early evening. One of my roommates said, somewhat nervously, "Let's hope they're not coming for the gringos."

Our Lord or Rambo? You decide. 
The people I was staying with were middle-class Mexican Catholics but with a distinct tilt toward the radical left. In their dining room was a picture of Jesus well-equipped with bandoleras. These folks insisted that there was clear evidence of fraud and were furious that the government had cheated them out of their victory. The official results had been withheld, with the Secretary of the Interior blaming the delay on a computer system failure. The opposition party candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, claimed that the computer failure was caused by a manipulation of the system used to count votes. It turned out that he was right.

Cardenas was kept out of the presidency, despite maintaining that he had won. In the end, the election was upheld by the PRI-dominated media and institutions, and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI became president of Mexico. Three years later, all of the ballots from the 1988 election were burned. 

Then, in 2004, Miguel de la Madrid, Mexico's PRI president at the time of the 1988 election, admitted in his autobiography that, on the evening of the election, he received news that the PRI was going to lose. That same year, the New York Times published this article:

Ex-President in Mexico Casts New Light on Rigged 1988 Election. 

The article read in part as follows:

Initial results from areas around the capital showed that Salinas was losing badly to the opposition leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. “I felt like a bucket of ice water had fallen on me,” de la Madrid recalled. “I became afraid that the results were similar across the country and that the PRI would lose the presidency.” 

Thus began the frantic staging of a fraudulent victory. In his writing of the event, the all-powerful former president chooses his words carefully and describes himself more like a supporting actor than the lead strategist. If he did anything wrong, it was on the advice of his staff, and for the stability of the nation. 

On election night 1988, de la Madrid said, the secretary of the interior advised him that the initial results were running heavily against the PRI. The public demanded returns, de la Madrid wrote. And rather than giving them, the government lied and said that the computer system tabulating the votes had crashed.

What was Mexico in 1988 is now America in 2020.

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in the suburbs of Mexico City, 1988.

It should be recalled that Mexico under the PRI was described by leftist Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as "the perfect dictatorship."

"The perfect dictatorship is not communism, not the Soviet Union, not Cuba, but Mexico, because it is a camouflaged dictatorship. It may not seem to be a dictatorship, but it has all of the characteristics of a dictatorship; the perpetuation, not of one person, but of an irremovable party, a party that allows sufficient space for criticism, provided such criticism serves to maintain the appearance of a democratic party, but which suppresses by all means, including the worst, whatever criticism may threaten its perpetuation in power." [Mario Vargas Llosa]

The United States enters 2021 as a one-party system under even deeper cover than Mexico in 1988. The Kabuki-style conflicts between Republicans and Democrats are merely part of the costume. If nothing else, the rigged election of this past November, which removed the outsider Trump and replaced him with the ultimate corrupt DC uniparty insider, with the consent and tacit support of both political parties, has helped the average American peek through the disguise.

It is worth remembering that the 1988 election was a watershed moment for Mexico and marked a period of sharp decline for the PRI which would ultimately lose the presidency to Vincente Fox in 2000. It remains to be seen if the 2020 elections will signal the ultimate downfall of the DC oligarchy, the renewal of the American Republic, and a general national recovery, or serve simply as a way-station on the road to terminal decay and decline.

A dim photo of the tilma of St. Juan Diego from 1988.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for the US and for Mexico.

Monday, December 07, 2020

The Miracle-Attended Death of Saint Ambrose of Milan as Recorded by His Secretary, Paulinus

Detail from The Death of Saint Ambrose by Bon Boullogne, ca. 1706.

Readers of this blog will recall that I have written frequently on the eventful life of Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, including his acclamation as bishop even before he was baptized, his discovery of the remains of Saints Protase and Gervase, his conflicts with the Empress Justina, and his confrontation with Theodosius the Great.

On this feast day of Ambrose, let us examine some of the strange and portentous events which attended his death in AD 397, as attested by his secretary, Paulinus, who was witness to these things and wrote at the behest of Saint Augustine shortly thereafter. 

Writing in his Life of Saint Ambrose, Paulinus records that when Ambrose fell sick, the potential loss of so great a man was dreaded by all, including the military commander of the Roman west, Stilicho, who likely feared the instability that the naming of a new bishop of the important see of Milan might bring:

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But after these days, when a bishop was ordained for the church of Ticinum, [Ambrose] fell ill and while he was being confined to his bed for many days by this illness, Count Stilicho is reported to have said that with the departure of so great a man from this life, ruin would threaten Italy. Therefore after calling together into his presence the nobles of the city whom he knew were beloved by the bishop, partly with threats and partly with soft words, he persuaded them to go to the holy bishop and induce him to seek of the Lord the privilege of a longer period of life for himself. When he heard this from them he answered: “I have not so lived among you that I am ashamed to live nor do I fear to die, because we have a good Lord!” 

In the meantime, the Church authorities in Milan took to discussing who Ambrose's successor might be while the old man was on his sickbed:  

At the same time when Castus, Polemius, Venerius, and Felix, then deacons, were together in the farthest part of the portico in which he lay, and were conversing among themselves in such a low tone that they could scarcely hear each other, as to who should be consecrated bishop after his death, and when they spoke of the name of Saint Simplicianus, Ambrose as if taking part in the conversation—although he lay placed far away from them—exclaimed thrice in approbation: “Old but good.” For Simplicianus was ripe in years. When they heard this voice, they fled greatly terrified. But when he died, no other succeeded him in the episcopacy than he whom he had designated three times as good but old. And to this Simplicianus, Venerius was the successor, whom we have mentioned above, while Felix to this day ruled the Church of Bonona. And Castus and Polemius, however, nourished by Ambrose, the good fruits of a good tree, are performing the duties of the diaconate in the church of Milan. 

Other holy bishops from the region had premonitions of Ambrose's impending death, one of whom was wakened from sleep in time to give the last rites: 

In the same place, however, in which he lay, as we have learned from the report of Saint Bassianus the Bishop of the Church of Lodi who had heard it from the Saint himself, when he saw the Lord Jesus advance to him and smiling upon him. And not many days after he was taken from us. But at the very time when he departed from us to the Lord, from about the eleventh hour of the day until the hour in which he breathed forth his spirit, he prayed with his arms extended in the form of a cross. We indeed saw his lips move but his voice we did not hear. Honoratus also, the bishop of the Church of Vercelli, when he had lain down to rest in the upper part of the house, heard a voice calling him three times and saying to him: “Arise, hasten, because now he is about to depart.” And he going down offered the Saint the Body of the Lord and when he took and swallowed it he breathed forth his spirit, bearing with him a good viaticum so that his soul refreshed by virtue of this food now rejoices in the company of the angels, according to whose life he had lived on earth, and in the society of Elias, because just as Elias never feared to speak to kings or any powers, so neither did he for fear of God. 

The day after his death, the newly baptized claimed that they could see his spirit in the basilica:

And then at the hour before daybreak in which he died, his body was carried to the greater church and it was there on the same night in which we kept the vigil of Easter. And many baptized children as they were coming from the font saw him, so that some said he was sitting on the throne9 in the sanctuary, while others pointed him out with their fingers to their parents as walking, but the latter, on looking, were unable to see him because they did not possess clean eyes. And many related, moreover, that they had seen a star over his body. 

The unholy were also impacted by Ambrose's death and reacted accordingly:

But on Sunday at daybreak when, after the sacred rites had been performed, his body was being taken away from the church to be carried to the Ambrosian Basilica in which it was placed, thereupon a crowd of demons so cried out that they were being tormented by him that their wailing could not be endured. 

As was common among Christians, a huge crowd of the devout sought relics from the remains of the deceased saint, including what modern Catholics would term "second class relics": 

And this grace of the bishop remains even to the present day not only in that place, but also in great many provinces. Crowds of men and women also threw their handkerchiefs or girdles that the body of the Saint might in some way be touched by them. For the crowd at the obsequies was numberless, of every rank and of every sex and almost all ages, not only of Christians but also of Jews and pagans. Yet the ranks of those who had been baptized led the way because of their greater favor. 

Amazingly, a letter was received after Ambrose's death in which the correspondents claimed that they had seen a vision of him. This letter was dated, according to Paulinus, on the precise day of Ambrose's death. 

But on the very day on which he died (as the text of the letter says which was received by his successor, the venerable man Simplicianus, sent from the East to Ambrose himself as if still living with us, which letter even to this day is preserved in a monastery at Milan), he appeared to certain holy men, praying with them and placing his hands upon them. For the letter which was sent has the date, and when we read this letter we found that it was the day on which he died.

Paulinus goes on to describe other miracles associated with Ambrose after his death, including a vision in which he appeared to the general Mascezel during his campaign against the rebel Gildo in Africa. This vision heartened Mascezel and he was able to defeat the rebellion. For the complete account as well as several others, read Paulinus's The Life of Saint Ambrose in full. 

For details on Ambrose's early life, here's a quick video complete with a few images of Ambrose and his family from ancient and Medieval art.