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St Leo the Great Preaches on St Lawrence and the Riches of the Church

As we noted yesterday, the church of Rome has from the most ancient times celebrated the deacon and martyr Lawrence as one of her most important patron Saints, alongside the Apostles Peter and Paul. Since yesterday we read a bit about him from St Ambrose, a bishop of Milan, it is only right that we should also read something from a bishop of Rome, and savor some of the beautiful Latin of Pope St Leo the Great (444-61). This sermon is one of the earliest witnesses to the tradition that St Lawrence was martyred because he was the deacon in charge of the Church’s charities. When he was ordered by the prefect of Rome to turn over “the riches of the Church”, he gave away all the money, then brought the poor who had benefitted from this charity to the prefect’s house, and showed them to him, saying, “These are the riches of the Church.” Because of this, he was then roasted alive on a grill, during which he very famously said to the persecutors, “You can turn me over, I’m done on that side.”

…beatus martyr Laurentius, cujus passione dies hodiernus illustris est; quam gloriosa polleat dignitate, etiam persecutores ipsius sentire potuerunt, cum illa mirabilis animi fortitudo, de Christi principaliter amore concepta, non solum ipsa non cederet, sed etiam alios exemplo suae tolerantiae roboraret. 

Cum enim furor gentilium potestatum in electissima quaeque Christi membra saeviret, ac praecipue eos qui ordinis erant sacerdotalis impeteret, in levitam Laurentium, qui non solum ministerio sacramentorum, sed etiam dispensatione ecclesiasticae substantiae praeeminebat, impius persecutor efferbuit, duplicem sibi praedam de unius viri comprehensione promittens, quem si fecisset sacrae pecuniae traditorem, faceret etiam verae religionis exsortem. … 

Postulat sibi ab immaculato sacrarii praesule opes ecclesiasticas, quibus avidissimus inhiabat, inferri. Cui levita castissimus ubi eas repositas haberet ostendens, numerosissimos sanctorum pauperum obtulit greges, in quorum victu atque vestitu inamissibiles condiderat facultates, quae tanto integrius erant salvae, quanto sanctius probabantur expensae.

(The Charity of St Lawrence, 1640, by Bernardo Strozzi (1581 ca. – 1644); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Fremit ergo praedo frustratus, et in odium religionis, quae talem divitiarum usum instituisset, exardescens, direptionem thesauri potioris aggreditur; ut apud quem nullam denariorum substantiam reperisset, illud depositum, quo sacratius erat dives, auferret. Renuntiare Christo Laurentium jubet, et solidissimam illam levitici animi fortitudinem diris parat urgere suppliciis. Quorum ubi prima nihil obtinent, vehementiora succedunt. Laceros artus et multa verberum sectione conscissos subjecto praecipit igne torreri: ut per cratem ferream, quae jam de fervore continuo vim in se haberet urendi, conversorum alterna mutatione membrorum, fieret cruciatus vehementior et poena productior.

Nihil obtines, nihil proficis, saeva crudelitas. Subtrahitur inventis tuis materia mortalis, et Laurentio in coelos abeunte tu deficis. Flammis tuis superari charitatis Christi flamma non potuit, et segnior fuit ignis qui foris ussit quam qui intus accendit. …

Gaudeamus igitur, dilectissimi, gaudio spiritali, et de felicissimo inclyti viri fine gloriemur in Domino, qui est mirabilis in sanctis suis (Ps. 67, 36), in quibus nobis et praesidium constituit et exemplum; atque ita per universum mundum clarificavit gloriam suam, ut a solis ortu usque ad occasum, leviticorum luminum coruscante fulgore, quam clarificata est Jerosolyma Stephano, tam illustris fieret Roma Laurentio.

(The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, 1548-59 by Tiziano Vecellio (Titian, 1490 ca. – 1576); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Even his persecutors were able to feel how mighty and glorious in dignity was the blessed martyr Lawrence, by whose passion this day is honored, when they found that his wondrous courage, born principally of love for Christ, not only did not yield itself, but also strengthened others by the example of his endurance. For when the fury of the heathen powers was raging against Christ’s most chosen members, and especially attacked those who were of the priestly order, the wicked persecutor burned with rage against the deacon Lawrence, who was pre-eminent not only in the ministry of the sacraments, but also in the management of the Church’s property, promising himself a two-fold spoil from one man’s capture: for if he forced him to betray the sacred treasure, he would also deprive him also of the true religion. … He demands of the sanctuary’s blameless guardian that the riches of the Church, for which his greed-filled mind longed, should be brought to him. But the most holy deacon, showing where he had them stored, offered him the most numerous flocks of the holy poor, in whose feeding and clothing of whom he had laid up riches which cannot be lost, and which were all the more completely safe for that the money had been spent on so holy a cause.

The disappointed thief, therefore, rages, and burning with hatred of the religion, which had established such a use for riches, sets out on the plunder of a greater treasure, so as to carry off that deposit, by which (Lawrence) was enriched in a holier way, though he had no hoard of money in his possession. He orders Laurentius to renounce Christ, and prepares to press the courage of that mighty deacon’s soul with dire torture. When the first of these has no success, fiercer ones follow. When his limbs had been torn and cut up by many blows, he commands that they be roasted by fire on an iron grill, which had already been kept hot enough to burn him, by the turning of his limbs, to make the torture fiercer, and the death more lingering.

You gain nothing, you prevail nothing, o savage cruelty. His mortal frame is taken away from your devices, and, when Lawrence departs to heaven, you fail. The flame of Christ’s love could not be overcome by your flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. 

Let us rejoice, then, dearly-beloved, with spiritual joy, and glory in the happy end of this illustrious man in the Lord, Who is wonderful in His saints, in whom He has given us both a help and an example, and has so made bright his glory throughout the world, so that from the rising of the sun unto its setting, as the brightness of His deacon’s light shines, Rome becomes as famous for Lawrence as Jerusalem was made glorious by Stephen.

(A statue of Pope St Leo I in the basilica of St Ann in Altötting, Bavaria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Mattana, cropped; CC BY 2.0)

The Feast of St Lawrence

Today is the feast of one of Rome’s most famous Saints, the deacon Lawrence, who was martyred by being roasted alive on a grill during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian in the mid-3rd century. The Roman church has long honored this native son as one of her chief Patrons, alongside Ss Peter and Peter; there are, in point of fact, more churches and chapels dedicated to him in the city than there are to the two Apostles.

There are several Saints from the early years of Christianity for whom indisputably authentic eye-witness accounts of their deaths survive: the martyrs killed at Lyon in 177, their close contemporaries martyred at Scillium in Roman Numidia, the Carthaginians Perpetua and Felicity 25 years later, etc. However, we have no such documents from the city of Rome itself. A professor of mine once explained this with a theory that during the persecutions of Diocletian in the early 4th century, the archives of the Church of Rome were destroyed. Nevertheless, by the the end of the 4th century, devotion to St Lawrence was already a solidly established tradition.

In roughly 388-90, St Ambrose, who was elected bishop of Milan in 374, composed a treatise called “De Officiis”, a title copied from a work of Cicero, and imitates the latter’s general scope. In the wake of the chaos that engulfed the Roman Republic after the assassination of Caesar, Cicero offered a treatise of moral guidance to the addressee, his son Marcus, and thence, of course, to the many others whom he knew would read it because of his reputation as an elder statesmen of the Republic. St Ambrose offers the same for the clergy of his diocese, knowing that his treatise will also be widely read as the work of a respected elder statesman of the Church.

In the first book, he offers this rhetorical account of the events leading up to the death of St Lawrence. (chapter 41)

“Non praetereamus etiam sanctum Laurentium, qui cum videret Xystum episcopum suum ad martyrium duci, flere coepit, non passionem illius, sed suam remansionem. Itaque his verbis appellare coepit: ‘Quo progrederis sine filio, pater: quo, sacerdos sancte, sine diacono properas tuo? Numquam sacrificium sine ministro offerre consueveras. quid in me ergo displicuit, pater? Num degenerem probasti? Experire certe utrum idoneum ministrum elegeris. Cui commisisti Dominici sanguinis consecrationem, cui consummandorum consortium sacramentorum, huic sanguinis tui consortium negas?’ …

(The Ordination of St Lawrence as Deacon, 1447-9, by Fra Angelico. In keeping with one of the Church’s most ancient customs, he receives the chalice from the Pope’s hand as part of the ordination rite, since the distribution of the Precious Blood at Mass was under the care of the deacons.)  

Tunc Xystus ait, ‘Non ego te, fili, relinquo ac desero: sed majora tibi debentur certamina. Nos quasi senes levioris pugnae cursum recipimus: te quasi juvenem manet gloriosior de tyranno triumphus. Mox venies, flere desiste; post triduum me sequeris.’ …

And let us not pass over St Lawrence, who, on seeing Xystus his bishop led to martyrdom, began to weep, not at his suffering, but at the fact that he himself was to remain behind. Therefore with these words did he begin to address him: ‘Where, does thou go without thy son, father? Where, holy priest, dost thou hastening without thy deacon? Never wast thou wont to offer sacrifice without thy minister. At what art thou displeased in me, father? Hast thou found me unworthy? Prove thou, then, whether thou hast chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom thou hast entrusted the consecration of the Lord’s blood, to whom you have granted fellowship in partaking of the Sacraments, to him dost thou refuse a part in thy blood?’ …

Then Xystus said, ‘I leave thee not, my son, nor do I forsake thee, but greater struggles yet await thee. We as old men undergo the course of an easier fight; a more glorious triumph over the tyrant awaits thee as a young man. Soon shalt thou come, cease weeping; after three days thou shalt follow me.’ … ”

Referring then to the astonishing courage by which St Lawrence showed in mocking his tormentor as he lay on the grill:

“Hic Laurentium sanctum ad hoc nullus urgebat, nisi amor devotionis; tamen et ipse post triduum, cum illuso tyranno, impositus super craticulam exureretur, ‘Assum est’, inquit, ‘versa et manduca.’ Ita animi virtute vincebat ignis naturam.

Here nothing urged holy Lawrence so to act but his love and devotion. Yet after three days he was placed upon the gridiron by the tyrant whom he mocked, and was burnt. He said, ‘The flesh is roasted, turn it and eat.’ Thus by the courage of his spirit did he overcome the power of the fire.”

In the absence of an eyewitness account of Lawrence’s death, and knowing that St Ambrose was born of a Roman family, and was fully conversant with the traditions of the Church in that city, the medieval Church very reasonably took these as literally the last words of Ss Xystus and Lawrence. Several parts of the liturgy for the feast day of the latter were therefore composed using these words as the text, as for example, this responsory from Matins.

R. Quo progréderis sine fílio, pater? quo, sacérdos sancte, sine diácono próperas? * Tu numquam sine minístro sacrifícium offérre consuéveras. V. Quid ergo in me displícuit paternitáti tuæ? numquid degénerem me probásti? Experíre utrum idóneum minístrum elégeris, cui commisísti Domínici sánguinis dispensatiónem. Tu nunquam…

(The responsory cited above, in the summer volume of the Hartker Antiphonary, copied out at the Swiss monastery of St Gall in the last decade of the 10th century. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 391: Antiphonarium officii. CC BY-NC 4.0)

The Battle of Pharsalus

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., Julius Caesar’s definitive defeat of Pompey the Great and the Senatorial party in the civil war that ended the Roman Republic. The war had begun the previous year, when Caesar was ordered by the Senate to lay down the command of the forces which he had led in the conquest of Gaul for the previous decade. He refused this order, and instead brought one of his legions into Italy, the famous episode known as “the crossing of the Rubicon.” This took place on January 10, at which point, Pompey was charged by the Senate to bringing him to heel militarily. Caesar, however, and the other generals allied to him defeated Pompey and other forces allied to the Senate’s cause in almost every encounter; by October, he had control of Rome itself and was appointed dictator for life, while Pompey and the senatorial forces withdrew into Greece.

At a confrontation in 48 BC at Dyrrhachium on the Balkan coast of the Adriatic (modern Albania), which lasted for nearly four months, from April to late July, Pompey came very close to defeating Caesar, who retreated into the region of northern Greece called Thessaly. This was where Pompey caught up with him, and engaged him in battle at the town of Pharsalus, the precise location has been a subject of much scholarly debate. Pompey was decisively defeated, and fled from the scene, leaving his troops to fend for themselves, and eventually died an ignominious death in Egypt. From Pharsalus until his assassination, Caesar was sole master of the whole of the Roman world.

One of the principal sources for our knowledge of the battle comes from an epic written by a poet from Spain, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, generally known in English as Lucan. The proper title of the work is “De Bello Civili – on the Civil War”, but it is often called simply “Pharsalia”, since the battle occupies the whole of the seventh book. Lucan was born more than eighty years after the battle, in the reign of Caligula. What perhaps strikes the modern reader as strange about the work is that it is not a glorification of Caesar’s triumph, even though it was that triumph that established the principate and the empire, and hence also the reign of the emperors under whom he lived and died. It is a highly pessimistic work, which dwells at great length on the slaughter of the civil war. As with any epic, the prologue sets the theme; in conscious imitation of the Iliad, it consists of seven lines.

(The Battle of Pharsalus, ca. 1457, by Apollonio di Giovanni.)

“Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos
jusque datum sceleri canimus, populumque potentem
in sua victrici conversum uiscera dextra
cognatasque acies, et rupto foedere regni
certatum totis concussi uiribus orbis
in commune nefas, infestisque obuia signis
signa, pares aquilas et pila minantia pilis.

I sing of a worse than civil war, of war fought between kinsmen over Pharsalia’s plains, of wickedness deemed justice; of powerful people that turned its own right hand against itself; of strife within families; how, with of a broken pact, of the forces of the shaken world contended in mutual sinfulness; of standard ranged against standard, of eagle matched against eagle, of spear threatening spear.”

And after the battle itself VII 597-98, 617-20

“Hic patriae perit omne decus: iacet aggere magno
patricium campis non mixta plebe cadauer. …
inpendisse pudet lacrimas in funere mundi
mortibus innumeris, ac singula fata sequentem
quaerere letiferum per cuius uiscera uolnus

There all the glory of our country perished: a great pile of noble corpses, unmixed with common soldiers lay there on that field. … Since a whole world died there, it seems shameful to spend tears on each of the innumerable dead, follow individual fates to ask whose vital organs the death-dealing sword penetrated.”

Unfortunately, the work is unfinished, and it is not known whether Lucan intended it to continue in the same pessimistic spirit all the way to the end. He died quite young, at the age of 26, in 65 A.D. after getting involved in the conspiracy of the Pisos to assassinate Nero, which was discovered that year.

The Birth of St Dominic

The Church traditionally celebrates the feasts of the Saints on what it has from time immemorial called their “dies natalis”, Latin for “birthday.” This is a specifically Christian technical use of the term, in that it really means the day of their death, which is to say, the day on which they are born into eternal life in heaven. However, some Saints cannot be celebrated on the anniversary of their death, since it coincides with another feast; these are usually assigned to next free day on the calendar. Such a one is Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of Friars Preachers, who died on August 6th in the year 1221. That date has been occupied since at least the mid-7th century, first by the feast of Pope Sixtus II, who was martyred for the Faith in 258, in the 11th month of his papacy, and more recently, by the feast of the Transfiguration. Dominic is therefore moved forward to today on the calendar of the Novus Ordo, which happens to be the anniversary of his earthly birth in the year 1170.

Despite his success as the founder of one of the Church’s greatest religious orders, and that Order’s well-deserved reputation for learning, we have no writings from the Saint himself besides a handful of letters. The earliest biographical information about him comes from a book called the “Libellus de principiis Ordinis Praedicatorum”, written by his successor as the head of the Dominicans, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, whom Dominic had personally had recruited. Here are a few excerpts about Dominic’s youth; note that Jordan’s Latin is not at all lacking in rhetorical sophistication, as is often unjustly said of the whole of his age.

“… fuit quidam adolescens, nomine Dominicus, in … villa, quæ dicitur Chaleruega, oriundus, quem ab annis puerilibus parentum suorum, specialiter autem cujusdam archipresbyteri avunculi sui diligentia nutriebat. Hunc primitus in usu ecclesiastico erudiri fecerunt, ut quem sibi Deus vas electionis futurum præviderat, in ipsa adhuc puerili ætate, velut testa recens exhiberet (a quo nec postmodum immutaretur) sanctitatis odorem.

Postmodum autem missus Palentiam, ut ibi liberalibus informaretur scientiis, quarum studium eo tempore vigebat ibidem; postquam eas, ut sibi videbatur, satis edidicit, relictis iis studiis, tamquam in quibus temporis hujus angustias minus fructuose vereretur expendere, ad theologiæ studium convolavit, cœpitque divinis vehementer inhiare eloquiis, utpote dulcioribus super mel ori suo.

Itaque in iis sacris studiis annos transegit quatuor, per quos hauriendis sacrarum Scripturarum rivulis tam incessanter, tamque avide inhiabat, ut præ discendi infatigabilitate noctes pene insomnes perageret, et veritatem, quæ auribus ingerebatur, profundo mentis repositam sinu, tenaci memoria retineret. Ea nempe, quæ facilitate capiebat ingenii, piis irrigabat affectibus, et ex iis salutis opera germinabant. Beatus in hoc sane juxta Veritatis sententiam dicentis in Euangelio: Beati, qui audiunt verbum Dei, & custodiunt illud. …

Iste fuit ab ipsis cunabulis indolis valde bonæ, et jam magnum aliquid insignis præconizabat infantia, quod futurum maturiori præstolaretur ætate. Non se cum ludentibus miscuit, nec cum iis, qui in levitate ambulant, participem se præbuit; sed instar placidi Jacob vagos Esau cavebat excursus, sinum matris ecclesiæ ac domestica sanctæ quietis tabernacula non relinquens. Juvenem simul ac senem aspiceres, quoniam et paucitas dierum loquebatur infantiam, et senem jam ipsa conversationis maturitas et morum constantia prædicabat.”

(Saint Dominic, and Episodes from His Life, ca. 1305, by Giovanni da Taranto. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

“… there was a boy named Dominic born … in the town of Caleruega (in north central Spain), who was raised from childhood under the care of his parents, and especially of one of his uncles, who was an archpriest.

They had him taught in the ways of the Church from an early age, so that he, whom God had destined to be a vessel of election, was from his earliest years pervaded with an odor of holiness which never left him in later life.

Afterwards, he was sent to Palencia for instruction in the liberal sciences, the study of which flourished there at that time. When he was satisfied that he learned them sufficiently well, he gave them up, as if he feared to spend his limited time in this world less fruitfully, and turned to the study of theology, and began to gaze with mighty eagerness upon the word of God, as something sweeter than honey to his mouth.

Therefore, he passed four years in these sacred studies, during which he drank with such unending eagerness from the streams of the Sacred Scriptures that, in his untiring desire to learn, he spent his nights with almost no sleep at all, retained with a sharp memory in the very depth of his mind the truth. Indeed, the things which he easily understood were watered by the pious bent of his mind and blossomed into salutary works. Truly was he blessed in this, according to the statement of Truth in the Gospel: “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11, 28)

From his earliest days he had a good disposition, and his infancy heralded a greatness which his future would reveal. He did not engage in play or join those who walk in frivolity, but, after the example of gentle Jacob, he avoided the wanderings of Esau, not leaving the bosom of Mother Church and the familiar tabernacles of a quiet, holy life. You could see at once the child and the man, since the fewness of his days spoke of his childhood, and the maturity of his conduct and firmness of character already bespoke the adult man.”

The Dog-Days of Summer

Since yesterday we talked about dogs in connection with both pagan and Christian religious observances in the early days of August, today we look at the “dog-days” of summer, and a Christian feast which is related to the heat of this season.

The term “dog-days” comes from the Latin “dies caniculares”, a translation of the Greek “κυνάδες ἡμέραι.” The dog in question is the constellation Canis Major, the brightest star of which, Sirius (also the brightest star in the whole night sky), currently rises for the first time in the solar year on August 12. In antiquity, it rose within the last week of July, and its first appearance was seen as the herald of the hottest and unhealthiest days of the summer. Already in the Iliad, Homer refers to “Orion’s dog” as the “brightest star, but which appears as an evil sign, and brings great heat to wretched mortals.” (22, 30-31). The star is called “Orion’s dog” because Canis Major appears to follow the hunter Orion through the sky; the name “Sirius”, which means “bright” or “searer”, then appears in Hesiod: “for then the star Sirius passes over the heads of men, who are born to misery, … Sirius parches head and knees, and the skin is dry through heat. … ” (Works and Days 417-19; 587-89). Hesiod also says that “when Orion and Sirius have come into midheaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus”, that is the time to “cut off all the grape-clusters… and bring them home.” To this very day, a blessing of grapes and other fruits is celebrated by the Greek church on August 6th, and is found in many Western liturgical books as well.

(The constellations Canis Major, Monoceros (i.e. the Unicorm) and Canis Major, with Orion and the Hare to the right, 1776, by the English astronomer John Flamsteed (1646-1719) Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Among the Latin authors, Virgil says that “swift blazing Sirius parched the thirsty Indians” (Georgics 4, 425-6), and elsewhere calls it “Canis aestifer – the heat-bearing dog” (2, 353), an expression which also occurs in Seneca’s Oedipus. “Canicularis”, however, is post-Classical, first cited by Lewis and Short in the mid-3rd century grammarian Solinus. In the later 6th and early 7th century, St Isidore writes:

“Canicula stella, quae et Sirius dicitur, aestivis mensibus in medio centro caeli est: et dum sol ad eam ascenderit, coniuncta cum sole duplicatur calor ipsius, et dissolvuntur corpora et vaporantur. Vnde et ex ipsa stella dies caniculares dicuntur, … Canis autem vocatur propter quod corpora morbo afficiat, (vel) propter flammae candorem, quod eiusmodi sit ut prae ceteris lucere videatur. … Virginis etiam signum idcirco intra astra conlocaverunt, propter quod isdem diebus, in quibus per eum sol decurrit, terra exusta solis ardore nihil pariat. Est enim hoc tempus canicularium dierum.

The dog-star, which is also called Sirius, in the summer months is in the mid-center of the sky, and when the sun goes up to it and joins it, its heat is doubled, and bodies are dissolved and turn to vapor; whence also from that star, the days are called ‘dog-days’, … now it is called ‘the Dog’ because it affects bodies with disease (i.e., like the bite of a rabid dog), … because of the heat of its flame, which is such that it is seen to shine brighter than the other (heavenly bodies) of its kind. … (Astronomers) placed the sign Virgo among the stars for this reason, that in the same days in which the sun passes through it, the earth is scorched by the heat of the sun, and bears nothing. For this is the time of the dog-days.” (Etym. 3.71.14-15 and 28)

Rome also celebrates an ecclesiastical event connected with the heat of these days, the dedication of the basilica of St Mary Major on the Esquiline Hill. This is the oldest church in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is known by several names, among which is Our Lady of the Snows. This title refers to a medieval legend that in the 4th century, a childless couple named John and Mary wished to dedicate their patrimony to the Virgin, and therefore prayed to Her to let them know in what way they might do this that would be most pleasing to Her. On the night of August 5th, when Rome is usually very hot, She appeared to them both in a dream, and told them go up to the Esquiline Hill in the morning; there they would find a patch of snow, and should build a church to Her on that spot. Pope Liberius (352-66) had exactly the same dream, and met the couple on the Esquiline in the morning. Although this legend rests on fairly dubious historical foundations, the Church still honors it every year with a shower of white flower petals dropped from the basilica’s ceiling during the principal Mass of the feast day, to represent the snowfall.

(The Foundation of St Mary Major, ca. 1415, by Masolino da Panicale (1383-1447). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Dogs of August

One of the strangest aspects of ancient Roman religion was an annual sacrifice known as the “supplicia canum – the punishments of the dogs”, which an early Byzantine writer, John the Lydian (ca. 495-565), says took place on August 3rd. (Earlier sources give no specific date for it.) This consisted of suspending live dogs on a forked pole, and carrying them in a procession; at the same time, geese were dressed in gold and purple, the colors of royalty, and carried in a litter. This story was connected with one of the more famous episodes in the history of the early Roman Republic, the Gaulish invasion of Italy in the early 4th century BC, and the first sack of Rome.

When the Gauls had occupied most of the city, but not the fortress on the Capitoline Hill, they made an attempt on the hill at night, seeking to take it under cover of darkness. Neither the guards nor the watchdogs heard them approach, but the geese kept in the precinct of the temple of Juno did, and began to honk furiously, alerting the defenders of the citadel, and thus saving the day. Ancient writers understood that the supplicia canum was instituted to punish the dogs for their failure to do their duty as watchdogs. In the Natural History, Pliny the Elder writes:

“Et anseri vigil cura Capitolio testata defenso, per id tempus canum silentio proditis rebus, quam ob causam cibaria anserum censores in primis locant. – The vigilant guard of the goose is also well attested by the defense of the Capitol, at that time when the commonwealth had been betrayed by the silence of the dogs; for which reason, the censors attend first of all to the feeding of the geese. (10.26.22)

“De anserum honore, quem meruere Gallorum in Capitolium ascensu deprehenso, diximus. eadem de causa supplicia annua canes pendunt, inter aedem Iuventatis et Summani vivi in furca sabucea armo fixi. –  We have already spoken of the honor paid to the geese, which they earned by detecting the Gauls in their attempt to scale the Capitol. For the same reason, punishments are yearly inflicted upon the dogs, by crucifying them alive upon a fork of elder-wood between the temple of Juventas and that of Summanus.” (29.14.57)

(Juno’s Geese Warn the Romans as the Gauls Attempt to Scale the Capitoline, 1883; lithograph after a lost painting by the French artist Henri-Paul Motte (1846-1922). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

John the Lydian, however, also offers another explanation for this strange ritual. “…others say that they used to do this so that [the dogs] would not be troublesome to those who were ill at night. And others [say they did this] so that rabid [dogs] would not harm people. For at that time [of year] rises Sirius, which appears to cause rabies in them.” (De mensibus 4, 114; transl. by Mischa Hooker.) This later explanation is partly corroborated by another statement of Pliny (2.40.107), that at the rising of the Dog-star, “canes quidem toto eo spatio maxime in rabiem agi non est dubium. – There is no doubt that dogs throughout the whole of that period are specially liable to rabies.”

By a happy coincidence, the day after the supplicia canum is the traditional date of the feast of St Dominic, which is still kept on this date by many houses of his order, although he has been moved to the 8th on the general calendar of the Novus Ordo. A traditional story has it that when his mother, Bl. Juana de Aza, was pregnant with him, she had a dream that she gave birth to a dog with a torch in its mouth, which then ran out and set the world on fire. This was taken to symbolize that the preaching of St Dominic and the members of his order would set the world on fire with the love of God, much as Christ Himself said, “I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled?” (Luke 12, 49) The members of his order are called in Latin “Dominicani”; a popular medieval pun made this into “Domini canes – the dogs of the Lord,” referring to their zeal for the truth and the salvation of souls, which they pursued as eagerly as hunting dogs.

(St Dominic, ca. 1685, by the Spanish painter Claudio Coello (1642-93). Note the dog with the torch in its mouth at the lower left, with which it is about to set the world on fire for Christ. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Vocabula Mira: ‘Macte Virtute’

Yesterday, we presented a selection from Livy’s account of the death of the consul L. Aemilius Paullus at the Battle of Cannae. (Ab Urbe Condita 22, 49 and 50) When a military tribune offers to carry him off the battlefield to safety, the consul begins his reply with the words “tu quidem … macte virtute esto.” This puzzling phrase has given rise to various explanations.

Lewis and Short list the adjective “mactus, -a, -um”, which is used in religious language to speak of the gods, meaning “glorified, worshipped, honored, adored.” They connect it etymologically with the Greek word “makar – blessed”, which seems to be generally accepted, although other origins have been proposed. It occurs almost exclusively in the vocative “macte”, rarely in the nominative “mactus”, and in no other forms, but “macte” is often used as if it were the nominative. For this reason, Gildersleeve and Lodge (85.2) give “macte” as an indeclinable adjective like “frugi” or “potis.”

In his De Agricultura (also known as De Re Rustica), Cato the Elder provides several expressions in which “macte” is used while addressing a god in the context of offering a sacrifice. For example, in 139, a sacrifice of a pig is made with the words “macte hoc porco piaculo immolando esto – be honored by the sacrifice of this pig as an expiation.”

In authors of the so-called Golden Age, it then evolved into “an exclamation of applause or congratulation” (L&S), or of encouragement. It occurs either by itself, or more often, with the noun “virtute” as an ablative of specification, or other nouns such as “animo” and “gloria.” “Macte virtute” therefore means “well done!” in regard to a deed of valor. In book nine (641) of the Aeneid, after the hero’s son Ascanius acquits himself well in battle and kills an enemy for the first time, the god Apollo says to him, “macte nova virtute, puer; sic itur ad astra! – Well done with this new act of courage, boy; thus does a man rise to the stars!” Cicero gives another good example in one of his letters to Atticus (12, 6, 2): “ ‘macte virtute esto’ sanguinolentis et ex acie redeuntibus dicitur. – ‘macte virtute esto’ is said to those who return all bloodied from the lines of battle.”

(Ascanius Kills Numanus, 1525-30, by the anonymous enameller of Limoges, France, known as the Master of the Aeneid. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

What makes this use of “macte” difficult to parse is that it very often occurs with the imperative form “esto – be”, even when it is clear from the context that the speaker is not giving a command or expressing a wish. In the examples given above from Cicero and Virgil, the speaker seems not to be wishing that the fighter be “honored by a manly deed”; he is congratulating him because he has already done “virtutes – manly deeds.” Perhaps the best explanation for this is simply that since “macte” was originally used in sacrificial language with “esto” attached it as part of a common formula, the expression became fossilized, and the imperative force of “esto” was just not heard. English has many examples of words that have become so fixed into a single expression that their original meaning is no longer perceived. For example, the word “lurch” is both a noun and a verb, but the noun is now used exclusively in the expression “to leave someone in the lurch.” Likewise, “kith” is used only in the expression “kith and kin”, and English-speakers no longer even remember that it is a collective noun meaning “friends and acquaintances.”

The oddity of “macte” was also noticed by St Isidore of Seville (560 ca. – 636). In his Etymologies, one of the most important textbooks of the Middle Ages, he tried to reconcile it with the imperative force of “esto” by proposing that “macte” derived from “magis auctus – increased all the more.” The Ciceronian expression would then say to the soldier, “may you be increased even more in your virtue.” This is, of course, completely fanciful, like almost every etymology proposed by every author of the classical world, but no less clever for that.

In his Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Michiel de Vaan connects “mactus” with the verb “mactare – to slay”, as in the slaying of a sacrificial animal. It is also linked to a word that occurs in Varro, “magmentum – part of a sacrificial animal”, whence also “magmentarium – a shrine for the reception of such sacrifices.”

The Battle of Cannae

August 2nd is the anniversary of one of ancient Rome’s great military disasters, the Battle of Cannae, which took place in the year 216 BC, during the Second Punic War. This was the Romans’ third major defeat in as many years after the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal had invaded Italy in 218, and was followed within weeks by yet another, although on a different front.

Cannae is in the southern Italian region of Puglia, about 8 miles from the Adriatic coast, roughly halfway between Bari and Foggia. Hannibal had marched his army south and seized it in the spring, because it was both an important supply depot, and a location from which one could control the surrounding area. The Roman consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro, therefore combined their respective armies, and brought them south and east from Rome to confront him. In the historian Livy’s account, Varro, who had no previous military experience, is the villain of the day, since he caused the disaster by his reckless command decisions, ignoring the better advice of the more prudent and experienced Paullus. It should be noted that many modern scholars view Livy’s account as prejudiced against men of plebeian background like Varro, whose father had been a butcher, and whose political populism clashed with the senatorial ranks that Livy favored. In any event, Paullus was killed towards the end of the battle, while Varro escaped, and continued to play a role in the war, albeit fairly minor, for many years after.

Here is Livy’s account of Paullus’ death, a classic example of Roman courage and stoicism.

“Cn. Lentulus tribunus militum cum praetervehens equo sedentem in saxo cruore oppletum consulem vidisset, ‘L. Aemili’ inquit, ‘quem unum insontem culpae cladis hodiernae dei respicere debent, cape hunc equum, dum et tibi virium aliquid superest, [et] comes ego te tollere possum ac protegere. Ne funestam hanc pugnam morte consulis feceris; etiam sine hoc lacrimarum satis luctusque est.’

Ad ea consul: ‘tu quidem, Cn. Corneli, macte virtute esto; sed cave, frustra miserando exiguum tempus e manibus hostium evadendi absumas. Abi, nuntia publice patribus urbem Romanam muniant ac priusquam victor hostis adveniat praesidiis firment; … Me in hac strage militum meorum patere exspirare, ne aut reus iterum e consulatu sim [aut] accusator collegae exsistam ut alieno crimine innocentiam meam protegam.’

Haec eos agentes prius turba fugientium civium, deinde hostes oppressere; consulem ignorantes quis esset obruere telis. Lentulum in tumultu abripuit equus. Tum undique effuse fugiunt. …

Consul alter, seu forte seu consilio nulli fugientium insertus agmini, cum quinquaginta fere equitibus Venusiam perfugit. …

Haec est pugna [Cannensis], Alliensi cladi nobilitate par, ceterum ut illis quae post pugnam accidere levior, quia ab hoste est cessatum, sic strage exercitus gravior foediorque.”

(The Death of Aemilius Paullus at the Battle of Cannae, 1773, by the American painter John Trumball (1756-1843). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

When Cn. Lentulus, a military tribune, saw, as he rode by, the consul covered with blood sitting on a boulder, he said, “Lucius Aemilius, the one man whom the gods must hold guiltless of this day’s disaster, take this horse while you have still some strength left, and I can lift you (into the saddle) and keep by your side to protect you. Do not make this day of battle still more fatal by a consul’s death; there are enough tears and mourning even without that.”

To these words the consul replied, “Well said, Cn. Cornelius, but take that thou not vainly waste in pity what little time remains in which to escape from the enemy’s hands. Go, announce publicly to the senate that they must fortify Rome and make its defenses strong before the victorious enemy approaches, … Allow me to breathe my last amid my slaughtered soldiers, lest I be liable to judgment when I am no longer consul, or appear as the accuser of my colleague, and protect my own innocence by placing the guilt on another.”

As they spoke, a crowd of fugitives came suddenly upon them, then the enemy, who, not knowing who the consul was, overwhelmed him with missiles. Lentulus escaped on horseback in the rush. Then there was flight in all directions. …

The other consul, who either by accident or design had not joined any of these bodies of fugitives, escaped with about fifty cavalry to Venusia. …

Such was the battle of Cannae, as famous as the disaster at the Allia; although not so serious in its results, owing to the enemy’s inaction, but more serious and more horrible for the slaughter of the army. (Ab Urbe Condita 22, 49 et 50)

“The enemy’s inaction” refers to Hannibal’s decision to take a day to consider his next move, rejecting the plan urged by his cavalry commander Maharbal to march on Rome at once. To this decision, the commander replied, “You know how to win, Hannibal, but not how to use your victory”, and perhaps he was right, since despite this series of crushing defeats in the first years of the war, Rome would recover, and finally bring Carthage to disaster. Livy himself comments, “mora eius diei satis creditur saluti fuisse urbi atque imperio. – that one day’s delay is believed to have been enough to save the city and the empire.”

(Hannibal Counting the Rings of the Roman Knights Killed at Cannae, 1704, by the Flemish sculptor Sebastiaen Slodtz (1655-1726); image from Wikimedia Commons by Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Chains of St Peter

Today is the tradition date of a feast which is called in Latin “Sancti Petri ad Vincula”, translated literally as “(the feast of) St Peter at the chains”, although it is usually given in English less exactly as “the feast of St Peter’s Chains” or “of St Peter in Chains.” Like many specifically Roman feasts, it began in commemoration of the dedication of a basilica, which in this case is located on the Esquiline hill, within sight of the Colosseum. When a city has more than one church dedicated to the same Saint, they are often distinguished from each other by nicknames; the appellation “at the chains” would therefore serve to distinguish it from the Vatican basilica.

The tremendous antiquity of this church is demonstrated by the fact that it was restored by Pope St Sixtus III in the 430s. An inscription which records the restoration mentions that the building was already considered old, and that the Pope re-dedicated it to both Apostolic founders of the See of Rome. It is written in five elegaic couplets, a favored poetic form for dedicatory inscriptions in that era. The priest Philip to whom it refers had served as delegate of the previous Pope, St Celestine I, to the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431.

Cede, prius nomen, novitati, cede vetustas;
   Regia laetanter vota dicare libet.
Haec Petri Paulique simul nunc nomine signo
   Xystus apostolicae sedis honore fruens
Unum, quaeso, pares unum duo sumite munus,
   Unus honor celebret quos habet una fides.
Presbyteri tamen hic labor est et cura Philippi
   Postquam Ephesi Christus vicit utrique polo.
Praemia discipulus meruit vincente magistro
   Hanc palmam fidei rettulit inde senex.

“Yield, former name, to one that is new, yield, what is old: it is pleasing to joyfully dedicate royal offerings. I, Xystus, who enjoy the honor of the Apostolic See, now seal this place in the name of Peter and Paul together. As equals, I pray, do ye both accept this single gift: let a single honor celebrate those whom a single faith embraces. This work and the care thereof nevertheless belong to the priest Philip, after Christ won at Ephesus for East and West. As a student, with his teacher’s victory he deserved his rewards: as an old man, he brought back thence this trophy of the Faith.”

The Roman Breviary refers very obliquely to a tradition stated more explicitly in the Golden Legend and elsewhere, namely, that the Romans dedicated the month of August to honoring the Emperor Augustus’ memory, and that this second feast of St Peter was created to supplant this holiday. It is true that the Latin names for the seventh and eighth months of the year were originally “Quintilis” and “Sextilis”, and that the Emperor Augustus renamed the former for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and the latter for himself. However, it is not likely that the cult of “the divine Augustus” was so vibrant in the mid-5th century as to require serious opposition from the Church. There are 32 days between June 29th, St Peter’s principal feast day, and August 1st; this perhaps suggests the tradition that Peter was bishop of Antioch for seven years, and bishop of Rome for twenty-five, a total of 32 as the visible head of the Church, one less than the 33 years of Our Lord’s earthly life.

The breviary also gives the traditional story of the church’s famous relic. When the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II, went to Jerusalem in the year 438, she received as a gift the chain by which St Peter was held in prison under King Herod, as narrated in the epistle of the feast day, Acts 12, 1-11. She then sent it to her daughter Eudoxia in Rome, who in turn presented it to the Pope. When it was exposed for the veneration of the faithful together with the chain by which Peter had been held during his imprisonment in Rome under the Emperor Nero, the two chains were miraculously united, so as to appear to be a single chain.

(The chains of St Peter, displayed in front of the high altar of the basilica. Photo by Agnese Bazzuchi, reproduced courtesy of New Liturgical Movement.)

In the year 1706, the painter Giovanni Battista Parodi decorated the basilica’s ceiling with a fresco of a famous miracle attributed to the chains, which is also recounted in the breviary. A count of the Holy Roman Empire was possessed by an evil spirit which caused him to bite himself; when he accompanied the Emperor Otto II to Rome in 969, Pope John XIII placed the chain around his neck, at which the demon was expelled.

Many other miracles have been attributed to the numerous fragments of the chain that were shaved off and given by the Popes as gifts, a practice to which Pope St Gregory refers several times in his letters.

To Childebert II, King of Austrasia: “Claves praeterea sancti Petri, in quibus de vinculis catenarum ejus inclusum est, excellentiae vestrae direximus, quae, collo vestro suspensae, a malis vos omnibus tueantur. – Moreover, we have sent to your excellency the keys of St Peter, in which there is included a piece from the bonds of his chains, that they may be hung upon your neck and protect you from all evils.” (Epist. Reg. VI.6)

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Marcos Mraz, CC BY 2.5)

St John XXIII and St Lawrence of Brindisi

St Lawrence of Brindisi was born on July 22nd, the feast of St Mary Magdalene, in 1559, and died on the same day in 1619, at the age of sixty. His family was Venetian, but lived in the major port city of Brindisi, then in the Kingdom of Naples, far down Italy’s Adriatic coast. After entering the Capuchin Order at the age of 16, he studied at the University of Padua, then the major university of the Venetian Republic, and showed a remarkable facility for languages, learning several modern ones in addition to Latin and the languages of the Bible. He was instrumental in establishing the Capuchin Order, then still a fairly new branch of the Franciscans, in Germany as a bulwark against the further spread of Protestantism, but also in rallying the German princes against the invasion of the Ottoman Turks. He was chaplain to their army, which he helped to organize, stirred to attack with a rousing address, and led in battle armed only with a crucifix in his hand.

Despite these and many other activities, including a period as the head of his Order, and despite the extreme austerity of Capuchin life and the full round of liturgical and devotional prayer, St Lawrence also found time to write hundreds of sermons, almost all in Latin, covering a very wide variety of topics, as well as a commentary on Genesis and some writings against Lutheranism. As is noted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, when these writings were examined during his canonization process, it was said that “Indeed, he is fit to be included among the holy Doctors of the Church.” This honor was bestowed upon him by Pope St John XXIII in 1959, the fourth centennial year of his birth. His feast is kept on July 21st.

Here are a few excerpts from the Apostolic letter Celsitudo ex humilitate, promulgated by Pope St John on March 19th of that year, the feast of St Joseph, in which he expounds some of the reasons for making St Lawrence a Doctor.

O inaestimabilis dilectio caritatis Christi, qui numquam temporibus Ecclesiae Sponsae suae passus est se deesse, et, quae ei ingerebantur malis, praesentia invenit remedia; qui, cum novatorum vecors insurgeret audacia nomenque catholicum infestis peteretur assultibus, fides in christiana plebe passim languesceret moresque praecipites irent, Laurentium excitavit, ut defenderet, quod impugnaretur, vindicaret, quod periisset, proveheret, quod omnium conduceret saluti.

Quem, cum rursus pestes importentur nefariae et falsarum opinionum commentis aliisque corruptelis illaqueentur homines, in clariore expedit luce collocari, ut eius virtutum splendore ad rectum confirmentur Christifideles eiusque salutaris doctrinae praeceptis innutriantur.

Quemadmodum igitur Roma gloriatur de Laurentio, invicto Christi athleta, qui dirissimis exhaustis cruciatibus robur addidit Ecclesiae, hostili divexatae furore, ita honestum est Brundusio se alterum progenuisse Laurentium, qui illam, domesticis externisque malis afflictam, studio religionis et ingenii sui ubertate solidavit.

Quo in viro alto et excellenti haec duo sunt praecipua: studium apostolicum et magisterium doctrinae: ore docuit, calamo erudivit, utroque militavit. Non sibi satis esse arbitratus in se ipsum recedere, precationibus litterisque se dedere in umbra coenobii atque adeo in domestica versari exercitatione, foras prosiluit, quasi impetum animi, Christi eiusque fratrum amore sauciati, non posset continere. E templorum suggestu de dogmate christiano, de moribus, de litteris divinis, de Sanctorum Caelitum dicens virtutibus, catholicos ad pietatem exstimulavit et peccatorum caeno ingurgitatos ad eluenda admissa et emendatioris vitae rationem ineundam permovit; scilicet audientium animos ingenii mentisque igne, quo ipse inflammabatur, incendit suarumque lacrimarum vi eorum lentitudinem excussit.

Habent igitur, qui divinas tractant disciplinas, maxime qui dogmati catholico exponendo defendove dant operam, quo mentes alant, quo ad veritatem tuendam suadendamque se instruant et ad aliorum procurandam salutem se comparent. Hunc si sequantur auctorem, qui errores evellit, obscura declaravit, dubia expedivit, certa se noverint via incedere.

(A painting of St Lawrence in the Monte dei Capuccini church in Turin, Italy, photo by Toma Blizanac.)

Oh, the inestimable affection of the love of Christ, Who has never at any time allowed Himself to be lacking to the Church, His Bride, and finds present remedies for the evils that are hurled against her. When the insane daring of the innovators rose up, and the Catholic name was attacked by hostile assaults, when the Faith was languishing in many places among the Christian people, and morals were in steep decline, He raised up Lawrence to defend what was under attack, to avenge what had been destroyed, and to promote that which was conducive to the salvation of all. And since wicked plagues are again being introduced, and men are being ensnared by the inventions of false beliefs and other corruptions, it is useful that this many be placed in a brighter light, so that the Christian faithful may be confirmed towards what is right by the glory of his virtues, and nourished by the precepts of his salutary teaching.

Therefore, just as Rome boasts of Lawrence, Christ’s unconquered champion, who by the most dire torments which he suffered, increased the strength of the Church as She was rent by persecution, so Brindisi is held in honor for begetting another Lawrence, who strengthened Her by his zeal for religion and the abundance of his talents as she was afflicted by evil from within and from without. …

In this noble and excellent two things are especially outstanding: his apostolic zeal, and his mastery of doctrine. He taught with his word, he instructed with his pen, he fought with both. Not deeming it enough to withdraw into himself, and dedicate himself to prayer and study in the refuge of his monastery, and occupy himself only with domestic matters, he leaped forth as if he could not contain the force of his spirit, wounded with the love of Christ and his brothers. Speaking from many pulpits about Christian dogma, about morals, the divine writings, and the virtues of the denizens of heaven, he spurred Catholics on to devotion, and moved those who had been swallowed up by the filth of their sins to wash away their crimes, and undertake the emendation of their lives. …

Therefore, those who treat of the sacred disciples, and especially those who seek to expound and defend the catholic faith, have in him the means to nourish their minds, to instruct themselves for the defense and persuasion of the truth, and to prepare themselves to work for the salvation of others. If they follow this author who eradicate errors, who made clear what was obscure or doubtful, they may know they walk upon a sure path.

Church Fathers

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Roma Christiana

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