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Paul the Deacon

Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most important literary figures of the Carolinigan era, a monk who is generally known as Paul the Deacon; the exact year of his death is uncertain, from 796 to 799. Born ca. 720, and originally called Winfrid, he was descended from a noble family of the Lombards, who had migrated into the north of Italy in the late 560s and early 570s, and extended their domain much further south in the following decades. In 774, the northern territories of their kingdom were conquered by Charlemagne, at which point Winfrid is believed to have entered first a monstery in the north, and then to have moved down to Monte Cassino, the burial place of St Benedict, in southern Latium. There he would later meet Charlemagne in person, a great patron of arts and letters, and become an important contributor to the great cultural flourishing known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Paul became his name in religious life, and he is called “the deacon” as an epithet since in those days, it was the custom that fairly few monks were ever ordained.

Among his more significant works are a History of the Lombards, which give the chronicle of his people from their migration down through Europe from Scandinavia to the death of their king Liutprand in 744. He also wrote a continuation of the Breviarium of Eutropius, a widely used 4th century compendium of Roman history, bringing it down to the middle of the Byzantine reconquest of Italy, and adding many details about the Church which were left out by the original author, a pagan. A biography of Pope St Gregory is attributed to him, and the translation from Greek of the life of a Saint widely venerated in the East, Mary of Egypt.

Two of his works retain a notable place in the Church’s liturgy to this very day, one of which also occupies a very notable place in the history of music. He wrote the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, which is sung in the Divine Office on the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Guido di Arezzo, a monk who born about 200 years after Paul’s death, created the diatonic scale by identifying the rise of one note in each part of the stanzas of this hymn. He therefore named the notes in succssion from the first syllable of each of these parts: “Ut quaeant laxis resonare fibris / Mira gestorum famuli tuorum”, etc. The Italians later changed “ut” to the more musical sounding “do”, and “si”, from “Sancte Ioannes” to “ti.”

Paul the Deacon also composed a collection of sermons and homilies from the early Church Fathers for use in the Divine Office; this collection forms the basis of the corpus of such texts used in the traditional form of that prayer to this day.

(Paul the Deacon represented in a manuscript of the 10th century, Laurentian Plut. 65.35, fol. 34r. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

“Majorum Atque Nostris” – A New Military Motto

VSI was recently contacted by Major David Lessani of the United States Air Force about a new Latin motto for the 700th Airlift Squadron, based in Atlanta, Georgia, with which he serves. The English starting point for this was “Protecting and honoring what is and was.” After 25 centuries of continuous use, Latin has a remarkable ability to say a great deal with a very few historically and culturally weighty words. So, for this motto, our Vice-President, Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, proposed just three words, “Majorum Atque Nostris”, a perfect example of the most classically Roman rhetorical succinctness and simplicity.

Naturally, the major wanted to know more about how so much could be squeezed into so little, and so here is the explanation which we wrote for him.    

The word “majorum” literally means “of those who are greater”; in the sense of “greater than us in age”, the Romans commonly used it to mean “ancestors.” Their culture and society had the most profound respect for what they called the “mos majorum – the custom of the ancestors”; merely by saying that a custom, a way of acting and living, belonged to their ancestors, was to say that it was intrinsically worth honoring and protecting. By definition, any such custom comes from the past, so that gives us the sense of “what was.” And because it comes from the ancestors, it is intrinsically worth “protecting” and “honoring”, so that covers the two verbs.

“Nostra” means “for the things that are ours”, which is to say, ours in the present (“what is”). The dative plural form “nostris” harkens back to the old motto “Deo et patriae – for God and country.”

“Atque”, rather than “et” or “-que”, was chosen because it “indicat(es) a close internal connection between single words or whole clauses.” (Lewis and Short) This expressed a close and intrinsic union between the things that are “of our ancestors”, and therefore worth protecting and honoring, with for those things “of our own”, which are likewise worth protecting and honoring, which is, of course, the unit’s mission.

Maj. Lessani also provided us with an explanation of the rest of the squadron’s crest. Originally known as the 700th Bombardment Squadron, its first combat action took place on Dec. 13, 1943, from the RAF station at Tibenham, England; this is represented by the English crown on top. The upper left section of the shield is the state seal of Georgia, where the squadron is now based. The upper right has three B-24 Liberator bombers, the unit’s original plane, with the grey and white stripes used during the Allied invasion of Europe to distinguish friend from foe. The lower left has stripes in the colors of the Atlanta United soccer club, and a propellor from one of the squadron’s legacy planes, the C-130 military transport, known as “Hercules”, from when the squadron was repurposed for tactical airlift operations. The bomb at the lower right is taken from the sign on one of the squadron’s WW2 B-24s, known as “Absestos Alice.”

Pegasus, the flying horse on the right (another classical reference), was helped both gods and heroes in their exploits, while the griffin is half eagle, the king of birds, and half lion, king of beasts. Together, they symbolize the airborne squadron’s mission of protection on both land and air.

The major also wrote us to say that “the squadron was looking for a coat of arms that would symbolize the whole of its history. Since its formation in 1943, we’ve changed names and locations, but the core of what we believe has always remained the same. A Latin motto on our coat of arms will always be the same and mean the same, no matter what other changes the squadron may see in the future.”

VSI thanks Maj. Lessani and his squadron very kindly for permission to share this with our readers!

Pope St Leo the Great on the Passion

Pope St Leo I is one of only two Popes (alongside St Gregory I, 590-604) to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church, and one of only three (along with the same Gregory, and Nicholas I, 858-67), who are traditionally given the epithet “the Great.” Born in Tuscany sometime around the turn of the 5th century, after serving as the chief deacon of the Roman church for roughly a decade, he was elected to the papacy on Sept. 29, 440, and reigned for 21 years, dying on November 10, 461. His feast is traditionally kept on this date, the anniversary of one of the translation of his relics; in the post-Conciliar reform of the calendar, it was moved to date of his death.

Of Leo’s writings, there survive over 140 letters, and over 90 sermons. His Latin is universally recognized to be superb, a product of the best of Roman rhetorical training: clear, practical, and logical, polished, but never effusive. Merely from reading him, one would hardly realize that the society whose traditions formed him stood so close to the edge of the precipice, and yet the fall of the Western Roman Empire took place less than 15 years after his death. He is particularly famous for having persuaded Attila the Hun to turn back from his planned invasion of Italy and plundering of Rome, in 452; three years later, he was unable to stop the Vandals from doing the same, but was at least was at least able to prevent a wholesale massacre and destruction.

(The Confrontation of Pope St Leo I and Attila the Hun, fresco by Raphael and students in the Stanza di Eliodoro, now a part of the Vatican Museums. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped.)

Since it is also Holy Week, which is, of course, celebrated in preference to his feast day, let us take a look at one his twenty-one sermons on the Lord’s Passion. Of course, this can only be a small sample of his beautiful Latin.

St Leo loves to begin his sermons with a reminder that the feast or season on which he is preaching represents something which should always be on the a Christian mind.

“Omnia quidem tempora, dilectissimi, Christianorum animos sacramento Dominicae passionis et resurrectionis exercent, neque ullum nostrae religionis officium est quo non tam mundi reconciliatio quam humanae in Christo naturae assumptio celebretur.

All times, indeed, dearly beloved, engage the minds of Christians in the mystery of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, nor is there any observance in our religion in which both the reconciliation of the world and the taking up of human nature in Christ are not celebrated.”

This is then followed by a reminder of the importance of the observance itself, by which the feast or event becomes not a mere commemoration of an event in the past, but the way in which we live in and are present for that event. This theme is very prominent in his work.

“Sed nunc universam Ecclesiam majori intelligentia instrui, et spe ferventiore oportet accendi, quando ipsa rerum dignitas, ita sacratorum dierum recursu, et paginis evangelicae veritatis exprimitur, ut Pascha Domini non tam praeteritum recoli quam praesens debeat honorari.

But now, it is becoming that the universal Church be instructed with greater understanding and inflamed with more fervent hope, since the dignity of these events itself is expressed in the recurrence of these sacred days, and in the pages of the truth of the Gospel, such that the Lord’s Passover ought not so much to be so much remembered as an event in the past, as honored like a matter present.”

The contemplation of these mysteries is always tied to the reality of the incarnation; the events of Christ’s life are truly present to us, just as He Himself is truly present to us. In St Leo’s time, the Church had long been occupied with the controversies over Christ’s nature, and the fullness of both His Divinity and and His Humanity. He therefore recalls this most important of doctrines to his listeners’ mind as the touchstone for understanding what Christ did for us in the individual events of His earthly life.

“Quam itaque sibi in hujus sacramenti praesidio spem relinquunt, qui in Salvatoris nostri corpore negant humanae substantiae veritatem? Dicant quo sacrificio reconciliati, quo sanguine sint redempti. Quis est qui tradidit semetipsum pro nobis oblationem et hostiam Deo in odorem suavitatis (Ephes. V, 2)? Aut quod umquam sacrificium sacratius fuit quam quod verus Pontifex altari crucis per immolationem suae carnis imposuit?

Therefore, what hope do they leave for themselves in the protection of this mystery, who deny the reality of human substance in the body of our Savior? Let them say by what sacrifice they have been reconciled, by what blood they have been redeemed! Who is it ‘who has given himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God unto the odor of sweetness?’ Or what sacrifice was ever more sacred than that which the true High Priest placed on the altar of the Cross by the offering of His own flesh?”

(A statue of Pope St Leo I in the basilica of St Ann in Altötting, Bavaria. Note the figure of God the Father holding the Son on the Cross with the Holy Spirit above it, resting upon the book of his sermons: a perfect visual summation of his theology and the focus of his preaching. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Mattana, cropped; CC BY 2.0)

Vocabula Mira: “Glossator”

Since yesterday we looked at the Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, today we turn to the foundational role which this text played in the intellectual life of the medieval West.

During the reign of Justinian (527-65), the Eastern Roman Empire (as historians now call it) regained control of most of Italy, which it had lost with the “fall” of the Western Empire in 476. Thus, when the various parts of the Corpus Juris Civilis were promulgated, their use became mandatory also at the school of law in Rome, which was later moved to the new capital of Byzantium’s Italian possessions, Ravenna. The province formed by these possessions, known as the Exarchate of Ravenna, collapsed in 751, when Ravenna was taken by the Lombard kingdom. With Byzantine influence thus greatly diminished, and the Corpus itself now over two centuries old, and in many respects either obsolete or impossible to apply, it was mostly forgotten in the West. The Germanic kingdoms that emerged from the ashes of Rome based their law codes on their own traditions, and where they were influenced by Roman law, they tended to draw from the older and more widely known Code of Theodosius.

In the mid-11th century, the Church in western Europe, led by the Roman pontiffs, was undergoing one of the most important reform movements in its long history, sometimes called “the Gregorian reform” after one of its most significant leaders, Pope St Gregory VII (1073-85). Like many movements of its kind, it looked upon the past not as a mere historical record of long-lost beliefs and customs, but as a role model by which the Church could recover what was best about itself.

Early on in the course of the reform, the texts of the Corpus Juris Civilis were rediscovered; the details of exactly how and where this happened are a matter of scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that before the end of the 11th century, a new school for the study of ancient Roman law had emerged in the city of Bologna, the beginnings of the world’s first university. The jurists of this school are called “glossators” from their manner of teaching; they would first read a sentence from the part of Justinian’s Corpus that was being studied, then offer their own explanations and comments on the text, or “glosses”, from the Greek word “glossa”, meaning “tongue” or “language.” From this practice derive the medieval Latin verb “glossare”, and the nouns “glossator” and “glossatio”, etc.

(The tombs of three of the famous glossators of the University of Bologna, outside the church of St Francis; that of Accursius, who is named below, is the one on the left. Other tombs similar to these can be seen in various parts of the city. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Polickap, CC BY-SA 4.0

Just as the Catholic Faith was intertwined with every aspect of medieval society, so also medieval civil law was intertwined with canon law, such that that it was often said, “Ecclesia vivit lege Romana – the Church lives by Roman law.” The newly rediscovered Roman law provided the model by which canon law could be applied to effect the necessary reforms in the Church, and each step in the development of the study of civil law is paralleled by similar developments in the study of canon law.

It was the first teacher of law at Bologna, Irnerius, who invented the practice of “glossing”; he was followed by a group known as the Four Doctors, who dominated the field in the 12th century; then by Peter of Piacenza (or “Placentinus”), who in 1160 founded a school at Montpellier in France that would come to rival the prestige of Bologna; and Azo of Bologna, whose commentaries on the whole of Justinian’s legal corpus were considered authoritative for centuries.

In the 13th century, a pupil of Azo called Accursius then did for the written bodies of glosses what Justinian had done for Roman law, namely, he produced a digest and synthesis of them which itself became a definitive reference point, replacing many earlier such compilations. This corpus, which contains over 100,000 separate entries, was called either the “glossa ordinaria” or “glossa magistralis.”

Both of these terms are, however, more broadly used outside the field of law. A similar procedure of commentary and interpretation was also applied to the Bible, and over time, an authoritative corpus of such glosses emerged, and was generally called “glossa ordinaria”. This became one of the standard textbooks of the high medieval universities. Outside the field of law, “glossa magistralis” is commonly applied to a commentary on the Psalms by Peter Lombard, who was to theology in the 12th century what the glossators of Bologna were to law.

(A page of an early (1495) printed edition of Justinian’s Digest with Accursius’ Glossa Ordinaria around it. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Emperor Justinian and the Corpus Juris Civilis

Today marks the anniversary of the promulgation in 529 AD of the Codex of Justinian, the first part among four of the great body of Roman law now known as the “Corpus Juris Civilis – the Body of Civil Law”, promulgated from 529-34 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527-65. However, the title “Corpus Juris Civilis” itself dates only from an edition printed at Geneva in 1583.

Since respect for the past was so deeply rooted in their whole culture and society, the Romans tended not to repeal old or obsolete laws; instead, they would either ignore them, or more often, interpret them in a way that conformed with more recent laws. This inevitably led to a great deal of confusion and debate within the legal process as to which among various laws could or should be applied to a particular matter. The purpose of Justinian’s project, therefore, was to provide a definitive and universally valid body of legislation for the whole Empire.

It was entrusted to a committee headed by a jurist called Tribonian, who supervised the first three parts of the work, and contributed to the fourth which was added to it later. This commission had the authority to edit and emend the earlier legal texts which they decided to keep in the compilation, and remove material which was either obsolete or otherwise contradicted. As a result, the originally version of many of these texts has been lost, since it was definitely supplanted by this new collection.

Tribonian Presents the Pandects to Justinian: fresco designed by Raphael, executed by his students, in the Stanza della Segnatura, now a part of the Vatican Museums. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped.

The first part is the Codex of Justinian properly so-called, although this term is often extended to the whole body of the legal work issued by his authority. It contained the Latin text of those pronouncements issued by the emperors as far back as Hadrian which had the force of law (known as “constitutions”), and material from earlier compilations, all duly  edited for continued use. This was, however, supplanted by a second edition published five years later, and that so thoroughly that text of the first edition does not survive.

The second part of the project, known as the “Digests” in Latin and “Pandecta” in Greek, is a compilation of the opinions and writings of recognized jurists who had previously commented on the application of the law, and on discrepancies between contradictory laws. The third part, known as the Institutes (Institutiones), is a textbook, the use of which was made legally mandatory for the Empire’s two major law schools, one at Constantinople, and the other at Berytus, now called Beirut. Of course, the emperors did not cease to enact new laws once the project was completed in 534, and the fourth part of the Corpus is known as the “Novella Constitutiones – the New Constitutions”, sometimes abbreviated (confusingly, for English speakers) as the “novels.” These underwent numerous revisions in the following centuries.

Like the older laws from which they were compiled, the official version of the Corpus was issued in Latin, which in the 6th century was still the legal language of the Roman Empire, even though the great majority of its subjects spoke Greek. (For this period, modern historians use the term “Eastern Roman Empire”, although it did not so distinguish itself at the time, and Justinian had recovered a good part of the territory which it has previously lost in the West.)  However, in the reign of the Emperor Heraclius (610-41), Greek officially replaced Latin as the language of law and governance. The Corpus Juris Civilis was then translated, and underwent various revisions and simplifications, until a final major revision at the end of the ninth century, known as the Basilika (imperial laws); this would remain the law of the Empire until its fall in 1453.

A page of an edition of the Digest printed in 1502; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Vocabula Mira: “Encaeniare”

In the traditional Mass lectionary of the Roman Rite, the Gospel for today is St John 10, 22-38, which begins as follows: “In illo tempore: Facta sunt Encaenia in Jerosolymis, et hiems erat. Et ambulabat Jesus in templo, in porticu Salomonis. – At that time: it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem; and it was winter, and Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch.”

In the Divine Office, a commentary on this is read from St Augustine’s Treatises on the Gospel of St John, in which he says, “The festival called ‘Encaenia (ἐγκαίνια)’ was the dedication of the temple. For in Greek, the word ‘caenon (καινόν)’ means ‘new.’ Whenever any new thing is dedicated, this is called ‘encaenia.’ This word now has a common use: if someone puts on a new coat, he is said to ‘encaeniare.’ For the Jews solemnly celebrated that day on which the temple was dedicated; this feast-day was being observed when the Lord spoke the words which have been read.” This makes for an interesting testimony to the way the common speech of the Latin world absorbed words from Greek.

From the very beginning, Christian Latin retained a number of Greek words as technical terms, which in some cases served to distinguish them from their pagan counterparts. A Christian church had a “diaconus”, not a “servus” or “famulus”, was led by a “presbyter”, not (at first) by a “sacerdos”, and the local community of churches was ruled by an “episcopus.” These words are still in common use today in English, as “deacon”, “priest” and “bishop.” Although it has left no trace in English, “encaenia” seems to have been regarded in the same way by the original Latin translators of the Gospels, since they left it untranslated in the passage cited above. Likewise St Jerome, who left it unaltered when he revised their work to produce the Latin version of Gospels which we now call the Vulgate. To some degree, this may have also been because “novus – new” had a lot of negative connotations for the Romans, and the translation of “ἐγκαίνια” as “innovatio” would sound to them more like “novelty” or “innovation” rather than “renewal.”

The Jewish people called the feast of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem by this term, derived from the word for “new”, in memory of the two occasions on which it was rebuilt: first, after the return from the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century BC., and again in the reign of King Herod I, from roughly 20-10 BC. By the time the Christians were granted freedom of worship by the Emperor Constantine in 312, and began to build large public churches, the temple in Jerusalem had long been since been destroyed, in the great sack of the Holy City in 70 A.D.

The word was therefore taken over as the name of the annual commemoration of the dedication of the most important church in Jerusalem, the basilica of the Resurrection, which is today more generally called the church of the Holy Sepulcher. The various churches of the Byzantine Rite still celebrate this feast every year on September 13. The Georgian Church also took the word into its liturgy without translating it (enk‘eniay), indicating that it was also treated as a technical term better left untranslated in the East.

(The church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; image from Wikimedia Commons by Gerd Eichmann, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Largest Medieval Manuscript of All

Yesterday, for the feast of St Isidore, we looked at his work known as the Etymologies, the widely used general encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. One of the indications of how important this work was to medieval culture is the fact that nearly 1000 manuscripts of it survive. Of these, one is a book also famous for being the single largest medieval manuscript in existence, known as the “Codex Gigas – the giant codex.”

The date and place of its production can be fixed by internal evidence between 1204 and 1230, in the Kingdom of Bohemia. There are a total of 310 folios (ten others have gone missing), measuring just shy of three feet in length (90cm), and over a foot and a half (50cm) in width. We may get a better sense of what this means by noting that almost the entire books of Psalms, the longest book of the Old Testament by word count, and the full text of a prologue by St Jerome, fit onto only 14 pages. By comparison, in the oldest complete Biblical codex that exists, the Psalms occupy a bit more than 80 pages (measuring 15 x 13.6 inches.)

Just under half of the book (folios 1-118 and 253-286) is taken up by the Old and New Testaments, but between them are included Latin translations of two works by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, the Antiquitates Iudaicae and De bello Iudaico, followed by St Isidore’s Etymologies, and a group of eight medical treatises. Of these, the first five are Latin translations of Greek and Arabic works, produced at the famous medieval school of medicine in the southern Italian city of Salerno, and collectively known as the Ars medicinae or Articella. The last three are works of a monk of Monte Cassino known as Constantine the African, who migrated there in the mid-11th century, after studying medicine at Salerno.

After the New Testament, there are two full-page illustrations which face each other, one of the Heavenly Jerusalem as described in the Apocalypse, the other of the devil. This latter has given rise to a rather silly nickname for the codex, “the devil’s Bible.” There follows a chronicle of the early history of Bohemia by one Cosmas of Prague (early 12th century); then, formerly, the rule of St Benedict on some folios that have gone missing, and on the last fourteen pages, a calendar.

(Folios 289v and 290 recto of the Codex Gigas, depicting the Heavenly City and the devil; public domain images from Wikimedia Commons, cropped and joined.)

The history of the codex after its creation is quite interesting, and ties in with something we wrote about two months ago. From the time of its creation, it was owned by four different Bohemian monasteries, until 1593, when the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Rudolf II (1552-1612; crowned 1575), who kept his court at Prague, “borrowed” it from its previous monastic owners, and never returned it. (Rudolf occupied himself with the study of the occult much more than he did with governance, and it has been speculated that the above-mentioned picture of the devil may have piqued his interest in the book.) During the Thirty Years’ War, the royal library in Prague was looted by the Swedish army, and most of its contents brought to the royal library in Stockholm. When Queen Christina of Sweden absconded with most of that library in 1654, the Codex Gigas was left behind, perhaps because it weighs almost 165 pounds.

The castle in Stockholm was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1697, and along with it, most of that portion of the library left behind by Christina, but the Codex Gigas was saved by being thrown out a window, supposedly injuring a bystander.

An excellent and much fuller account of the codex and its history can be read at this archived page of the website of the Royal Library in Stockholm:


Wikimedia Commons also has a high resolution scan of every single page of the manuscript on the dedicated pages, starting here:


The Patron Saint of the Internet

The Catholic Church has a patron Saint for almost everything, and in many cases, several for the same thing. One useful website (https://catholicsaints.info/) classifies them by the specific field of human endeavor they watch over, from accountants to yachtsman, in over 700 different categories. However, despite the omnipresence of the internet in modern life, the Church has yet to assign it its own official patron Saint.

In the meantime, Catholics who make frequent use of the internet have granted the title informally to a Spaniard called Isidore, who was born ca. 560 A.D., and died on this day in 636, after serving for about 35 years as archbishop of Seville, a position in which he had succeeded his own brother, whose name was Leander. Another brother, Fulgentius, was bishop of Écija (then called ‘Astigi’ in Latin), about 50 miles to the east-northeast of Seville, and their sister Florentia was a nun; all four siblings are venerated as Saints.

This choice was made very sensibly in light of a work of Isidore which was hugely influential in the Middle Ages, the Etymologies. Its twenty books form a kind of general encyclopedia, ranging from the classic late antique trivium and quadrivium (grammar and rhetoric, mathematics etc.) through medicine, law, and various aspects of the Church, to men, animals, and all the different parts of the material world. The book is called “Etymologies” since most of the entries give the putative origin and meaning of the names of things, in the fanciful manner typical of the ancient world. For example, in the very first paragraph, he derives the word “disciplina” from “discitur plena – it is fully learned.”

The ancient Roman world of which St Isidore was a product (a very late one, to be sure, but a product nonetheless) generally valued originality far less than we do, and a good portion of the Etymologies is borrowed from other writers, including three whole books mostly taken from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. To some degree, this is what has given the work an historical importance that lasts to our own time, since it preserves a great deal of material from writers whose works are otherwise lost to us. For example, an encyclopedia called the Prata (meadows) by Suetonius is known to us only from the citations of it preserved by Isidore. In other words, much like a large portion of the internet, it is essentially a digest, and useful in the same way, but not as a long-term substitute for in-depth investigation of any given topic. The circumstances of Isidore’s time, the early centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, were such that it could hardly be otherwise, whereas we, of course, have far more and better tools for research at our disposal than he could have dreamed of.

The influence of the Etymologies may be gauged from the fact that nearly 1000 manuscript copies of it survive, and that it was one of the first books to be printed after the invention of movable type. However, like many of the specific etymologies, much of the scientific knowledge which it seeks to impart is speculative at best, and often merely imaginary, a problem which permeates all the science of the ancient world. As the empirical and observation-based science born in the medieval universities of Europe flourished in the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, St Isidore’s work was inevitably eclipsed. Nonetheless, for the sake of his theological writings, and his essential contribution to the transmission of knowledge within the limits of his era, he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722.

(Ss Braulio of Saragossa, to whom the Etymologies were originally sent and dedicated, and Isidore, depicted in a manuscript of the work from the second half of the 10th century; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Raising of Lazarus

One of the most commonly occurring Biblical stories in early Christian art, most of which is to be found in the ancient cemeteries known as the catacombs, is the raising of Lazarus, as recounted in the Gospel of St John 11, 1-45. This is an obvious choice in a funerary context, as an expression of the belief, almost unique to the Christian faith, in the resurrection of the body at the end of the world. Commenting on this passage in his Treatises on the Gospel of St John, (Tract 49), St Augustine says, “(Christ) raised one that stank, but nevertheless in the stinking cadaver there was yet the form of its members; on the last day, with one word He will restore ashes to the flesh.” Dozens of depictions of this story may be seen in frescoes on the walls of the catacombs, and many more carved into marble sarcophagi, almost all of which have long since been removed to various museums.

The Raising of Lazarus, depicted in a 4th-century fresco in the catacomb of the Via Latina.

A considerable number of other Biblical stories which frequently occur in the catacombs (the healing of the blind man in John 9, the story of Susanna in Daniel 13, etc.) are traditionally read at Mass during Lent in the Roman Rite. From this, we may well suppose that a repertoire of such stories, aimed at instructing those who were preparing to be baptized at Easter, already existed when the Church’s liturgical tradition was still in the earliest first stages of its formation. This tradition was then, with the peace of the Church, brought out of the catacombs and into the churches.

As we noted a month ago, each day in Lent has a “station church” in the Roman Rite, a church where it was anciently the custom for the Pope to go and celebrate Mass. Today, the Friday of the Fourth week of Lent, is the day on which the Gospel of the Raising of Lazarus is traditionally read, and the station church is the basilica of St Eusebius on the Esquiline Hill, which fronts on the modern Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, the largest piazza in Rome. This church was chosen for today because it stands right next to the site of a large necropolis, a “city of the dead”, which dates back even before the founding of Rome itself. Cicero mentions it in his one of his Philippic Orations (4, 17), but it ceased to be used as a burial are thanks to the invention of the Maecenas, the patron of Virgil and Horace, who had area buried and included within his vast gardens. However, when construction of the modern piazza began after 1870, dozens of burials were found throughout the area.

By reading the story of the Raising of Lazarus in this particular place, the Church, led by the bishop of Rome, proclaimed to the ancient pagan world Her belief in the resurrection of the body, made possible by the death and resurrection of the Savior, the celebration of which takes place two weeks from today on Good Friday.

The modern façade of the church of St Eusebius; image from Wikimedia Commons by Udine2812, CC BY-SA 4.0)  

Cicero’s Best Friend Atticus

Today is the anniversary of the death in 32 BC of one Titus Pomponius, who is generally known by the nick-name Atticus. Born in Rome towards the end of the 2nd century BC, to a family of the equestrian order, he studied alongside his contemporary Cicero, with whom he became close friends. He moved to Athens when he was in his mid-twenties, as Cicero himself would later do, and became particularly interested in philosophical studies. He gave himself the nickname “Atticus” as a sign of his love for the city and the culture which it represented, and of which, long after its complete political decline, it was still very much the capitol.

Having inherited a great deal of wealth from his noble family, and having made a great deal more himself, Atticus used his money to promote literature and the arts by publishing the works of his friend Cicero, and new editions of those of some of the great classical authors of Greece such as Plato and Demosthenes. Unlike Cicero, however, Atticus stayed aloof from politics, although he supported his friend in his political career, and in the troubles that came to him as a result in the final, chaotic years of the Roman Republic, as civil wars that brought it to an end. This explains why he outlived Cicero by over a decade.

Unfortunately, none of Atticus’ own literary production survives, but we know a good deal about him from the nearly four hundred of Cicero’s letters to him which do survive. These letters were discovered in Verona by the poet Petrarch in 1345, along with many others addressed to several other people.

Cicero frequently protests in his letters to Atticus that he does not hear from him often enough, so frequently, that these protestations are regarded by some scholars as effectively little more than a rhetorical device. Be that as it may, it is a rhetorical device that evinces a deep and genuine friendship, despite the evident differences in the characters of the two men, and of which this sample may be sufficient indication.

“Believe me there is nothing at this moment of which I stand so much in need as a man with whom to share all that causes me anxiety: a man to love me; a man of sense to whom I can speak without affectation, reserve, or concealment. For my brother is away—that most open-hearted and affectionate of men. …

While you, who have so often lightened my anxiety and my anguish of soul by your conversation and advice, who are ever my ally in public affairs, my confidant in all private business, the sharer in all my conversations and projects—where are you? So entirely am I abandoned by all, that the only moments of repose left me are those which are spent with my wife, pet daughter, and sweet little Cicero. For as to those friendships with the great, and their artificial attractions, they have indeed a certain glitter in the outside world, but they bring no private satisfaction. And so, after a crowded morning levée, as I go down to the forum surrounded by troops of friends, I can find no one out of all that crowd with whom to jest freely, or into whose ear I can breathe a familiar sigh. Therefore I wait for you, I long for you, I even urge on you to come, for I have many anxieties, many pressing cares, of which I think, if I once had your ears to listen to me, I could unburden myself in the conversation of a single walk. And of my private anxieties, indeed, I shall conceal all the stings and vexations, and not trust them to this letter and an unknown letter-carrier. These, however—for I don’t want you to be made too anxious—are not very painful: yet they are persistent and worrying, and are not put to rest by the advice or conversation of any friend.”

Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus at his villa in Arpinum, ca. 1771, by Richard Wilson (1714-82); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

An Ancient Poet Describes Today’s Station Church

The Lenten station church in Rome today is the great basilica of St Paul on the Ostian way, which houses the Apostle’s tomb. The original church was one of the six built by the Emperor Constantine in the first years of the peace of the Church, but it was a rather small affair, hardly becoming the tomb of so glorious a Saint, and far from being large enough to accommodate the large groups of pilgrims that flocked to it. In the year 386, the Emperor Theodosius began rebuilding it on a far larger scale, a project that was substantially completed by about 402, although the major decorations were not completed until the reign of Pope St Leo I (440-61). This church, which was larger than the old basilica of St Peter, remained standing until 1823, when it was mostly destroyed by an accidental fire. The modern replacement, which was built to reproduce the former of the original as closely as possible, was begun two years later, and dedicated by Bl. Pius IX on December 10, 1854, although as with its ancient predecessor, work continued on the decorations for a long time after.

The poet Prudentius, who was born in Spain in 348, and died there in the early years of the following century, saw the church when it had just been completed, and described it in the following verses of his book Peristephanon (On the Crowns of the Martyrs), 12, 45-54. The meter is rather complex one called the Fourth Archolochean.

Parte alia titulum Pauli via servat Ostiensis,
Qua stringit amnis cespitem sinistrum.
Regia pompa loci est: princeps bonus has sacravit arces,
Lusitque magnis ambitum talentis.
Bracteolas trabibus sublevit, ut omnis aurulenta
Lux esset intus, ceu jubar sub ortu.
Subdidit et parias fulvis laquearibus columnas,
Distinguit illic quas quaternus ordo.
Tum camuros hyalo insigni varie cucurrit arcus:
Sic prata vernis floribus renident.

“On the other side (i.e., of the Tiber), the road to Ostia keeps the memorial church of Paul, where the river touches its left bank. Its splendor is that of a palace; the good emperor dedicated this citadel (of the Faith), and decorated its whole extent with great wealth. He covered the beams with gold leaf, so that all the light within might be golden like the rays of the sun at its rising. He set columns of Parian marble beneath the gold-paneled ceiling, which are set out in four rows. Then he covered the curves of the arches with splendid glass of different colors; even so are the meadows bright with the flowers of spring.”

Note some of the unusual vocabulary here: “titulus – title” is an early Christian technical term for a church titled to a particular Saint, or to the person who built or, or in whose house it was situated; “lusit”, from “ludĕre – to play” is here used in a thoroughly atypical sense derived from the meaning “to play a song”, hence, “to compose or arrange something”; “bracteola” means “gold leaf”.

(The basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls; image from Wikimedia Commons by Dnalor_01, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

Rome Recycled

Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination, we visited the area of the modern Largo Argentina and the ancient Theater of Pompey, the building where the meeting of the Senate took place during which Caesar was killed. Today, the Lenten station church is held fairly close by, at a church called San Lorenzo in Damaso, which has an interesting connection to the Theater of Pompey.

This church was originally built by Pope St Damasus I, who reigned from 366 to 384, in honor of St Lawrence, who was roasted alive on a grill during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian, ca. 257 AD. Since there are so many churches dedicated to the great Roman martyr, it is traditionally called “in Damaso” to distinguish it from the others, and is said to have been constructed within the Pope’s family’s house. However, as is the case with so many Roman churches, the ancient structure was completely torn down and replaced, in this case, in 1483, when Cardinal Raphael Riario commissioned an enormous new building to house the offices of the Papal chancery. The new church of San Lorenzo in Damaso is enclosed completely within this structure, and indeed, doesn’t even have any external architecture features that would indicate that it is a church. Traces of the ancient basilica have been discovered have been underneath it.

Rome has often been described as the city that invented recycling, since so many of its more recent buildings are made out of material recovered from older buildings, and the Palazzo della Cancelleria, as it is called in Italian, is the perfect example of this. The white marble of its exterior was largely despoiled from the ruins of the nearby Theater of Pompey. The columns of Egyptian granite in its internal courtyard were also taken from the complex that surrounded the theater, originally in the later 4th century, to make the first version of the basilica of St Lawrence, and then removed from it when it was torn down and reused as we see them today.

The interior of the palazzo was also the scene of a famous episode in the life of Michelangelo. Giorgio Vasari, better known nowadays as an art historian than a painter, filled one of the palazzos largest gallery with frescoes; when he brought the older artist to see them and told him that he had done the whole project in only 100 days, Michelangelo is said to have replied, “Si vede – it shows.”

(The exterior of the Palazzo della Cancelleria)

A nice view of the interior courtyard; image from Wikimedia Commons by Emmanuel Brunner, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Oldest Latin Versions of the Bible

If you were fortunate enough to attend a Mass yesterday at which the Introit was sung in Gregorian chant, you heard the following words which have given the 4th Sunday of Lent is traditional nickname, Laetare Sunday.

“Laetáre, Jerúsalem, et conventum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam: gaudéte cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultétis, et satiémini ab ubéribus consolatiónis vestrae. Ps. 121 Laetátus sum in his, quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Dómini íbimus. Gloria Patri. Laetáre…

Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Ps. 121 I rejoiced at the things that were said to me, We will go up to the house of the Lord. Glory be… Rejoice, O Jerusalem…”

In the Roman Missal, this text is cited as Isaiah 66, 10-11, but if you look for these verses in your copy of the Vulgate, you will find that they read as follows:

“Lætamini cum Jerusalem et exsultate in ea, omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum ea gaudio, universi qui lugetis super eam: ut sugatis et repleamini ab ubere consolationis ejus.

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad in her, all you that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn over her, that you may suck, and be filled with the breasts of her consolation.” (Challoner Douay-Rheims translation)

The term Vulgate, from the Latin “vulgata”, which means, broadly speaking, “commonly known” (hence the English word “divulge”), has been used for centuries as the name of the Church’s official Latin Bible. It is often referred to for simplicity’s sake as the work of the great scholar and translator St Jerome, a case where a little imprecision saves a great deal of explanation. Most of the Old Testament is indeed his work, but some of the books (e.g., Wisdom, Sirach and the two books of Maccabees) were done by other translators whose names are unknown to us. In the New Testament, at the request of Pope St Damasus (366-84) he did only the Gospels, and not a fresh translation, but a revision of an earlier translation, made by carefully comparing it with the Greek original. The rest of the New Testament (Acts, Epistles and Apocalypse) is all the work of other translators, likewise anonymous.

Long before Jerome’s time, however, Latin-speaking Christians had produced many different translations of the various books of the Bible. For the Old Testament, these were made not from the Hebrew original (where applicable), but from the pre-Christian Greek translation known as the Septuagint. (With the New Testament, of course, Greek is its original language.) These varied in quality, and were apparently revised by many different hands over time, such that by the end of the 4th century, Jerome himself could say, “tot sint exemplaria quot codices – there are as many versions (of the Bible) as there are copies.” (Preface to the Book of Joshua.) Collectively, these translations are referred to as the Old Latin version, or more commonly, by the technical term “Vetus Latina.”

Hoping to recover for the Latin-speaking West the original text of the Sacred Scriptures, the great Biblical scholar originally thought to revise the Old Latin by meticulously comparing it with the Septuagint. However, on discovering that the text of the latter had become just as much of a hopeless muddle, he abandoned the project, and decided instead to make a new translation of the Old Testament directly from the “Hebraica veritas”, as he habitually called it, “the Hebrew truth.”

The Church saw the merits of Saint Jerome’s new version, and adopted it in place of the older one. Indeed, no complete Bible of the Old Latin now exists; of some books, we have only fragments of the older version, of others, nothing at all. But of course, the sacred liturgy was being celebrated all along, and therefore, many liturgical texts were created while the Vetus Latina versions were still in common use. And thus we find many such texts, including the Introit “Laetare”, still following these older versions to this day, over a millennium after they were generally replaced by Jerome’s Vulgate. There are innumerable examples of these in both the Roman Missal and Breviary, and in this regard, we can well say that the liturgical texts of the Roman Rite still stand in perfect continuity with the very earliest days of Latin-speaking Christianity.

(The Introit Laetare in a manuscript of the mid-11th century, from the library of the monastery of San Gallen in Switzerland. Cod. Sang 338, p. 143: CC BY-NC 4.0.)

New Latin Hymns for the Virgin Mary

Since today is one of the most ancient and important feasts of the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation, here is a look at two Latin hymns recently composed in Her honor for use in the sacred liturgy. I say “recently” speaking in relative terms, since they are only a bit more than 50 years old; the feast itself dates to at least the 7th century.

In the concluding cantos of his Divine Comedy (Paradiso 31-33), Dante is guided to a final vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” by St Bernard of Clairvaux, who at the opening of canto 33, delivers this beautiful prayer to the Virgin Mary. (Translation by Alan Mandelbaum.)

“Virgin mother, daughter of your Son,
more humble and sublime than any creature,
fixed goal decreed from all eternity,

you are the one who gave to human nature
so much nobility that its Creator
did not disdain His being made its creature.

That love whose warmth allowed this flower to bloom
within the everlasting peace—was love
rekindled in your womb; for us above,

you are the noonday torch of charity,
and there below, on earth, among the mortals,
you are a living spring of hope.

Lady, you are so high, you can so intercede,
that he who would have grace but does not seek
your aid, may long to fly but has no wings.

Your loving-kindness does not only answer
the one who asks, but it is often ready
to answer freely long before the asking.

In you compassion is, in you is pity,
in you is generosity, in you
is every goodness found in any creature.”

An illustration of the Divine Comedy by Giovanni di Paolo (1403 ca. – 1482), in a manuscript now in the British Library. At the left, Beatrice, Dante’s guide through heaven, introduces him to St Bernard, while at the right, the Angel Gabriel speaks to the Virgin Mary; below them are St Peter and St Anne. (Paradiso XXXII, 133-135; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Fr Anselmo Lentini OSB (1901-89), a monk of Monte Cassino and a skilled Latinist, headed the subcommittee which revised the Latin hymns of the Divine Office as part of the general revision of the liturgy after Vatican II. It cannot be denied that the group made many questionable decisions in their collective work, not the least of which is that Lentini himself became the single most represented author in the new corpus of hymns, by a margin of four-to-one over second-place Prudentius, and almost five-to-one over third-place St Ambrose. However, one of his best ideas was to translate this text into Latin, so it could be used as a hymn for the Saturday Office of the Virgin; the first part, which is assigned to Matins, would also be highly appropriate for today’s feast.

Here is the Latin text, and a prose translation.

O Virgo Mater, Filia
tui beata Filii,
sublimis et humillima
præ creaturis omnibus,

Divini tu consilii
fixus ab aevo terminus,
tu decus et fastigium
naturæ nostræ maximum:

Quam sic prompsisti nobilem,
ut summus eius Conditor
in ipsa per te fieret
arte miranda conditus.

In utero virgineo
amor revixit igneus,
cuius calore germinant
flores in terra cælici.

Patri sit et Paraclito
tuoque Nato gloria,
qui veste te mirabili
circumdederunt gratiæ. Amen.

O Virgin Mother, blessed daughter of Thy Son, exalted and most humble above all creatures, Thou art the goal of the divine counsel, fixed from eternity; Thou are the glory and highest dignity of our nature, which Thou didst manifest so noble that its Maker Most High, by marvelous design, through Thee became part of it. In the virginal womb that fiery love so revived by whose heat the flowers of heaven bud forth upon the earth. To the Father and the Paraclete and to Thy Son be glory, who clothed Thee in a wondrous garment of grace. Amen.

The second part is assigned to Lauds, and concludes with the same final stanza.

Quæ caritatis fulgidum
es astrum, Virgo, superis,
spei nobis mortalibus
fons vivax es et profluus.

Sic vales, celsa Domina,
in Nati cor piissimi,
ut qui fidenter postulat,
per te securus impetret.

Opem tua benignitas
non solum fert poscentibus,
sed et libenter sæpius
precantum vota prævenit.

In te misericordia,
in te magnificentia;
tu bonitatis cumulas
quicquid creata possident.

Who art the gleaming star of charity, o Virgin, for those on high; for us mortals, the living and flowing font of hope. Such power Thou hast, o exalted Lady, over the most loving heart of Thy Son that he who asks with confidence surely obtaineth through Thee. Thy kindliness bringeth aid not only to them that ask, but often and willingly comes before their prayers. In Thee are mercy and magnanimity; Thou dost heap goodness on whatever any created thing possesseth.

Perhaps the most famous painting of the Annunciation by a Tuscan artist, a fresco of Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco, the second Dominican church of Florence, 1442.

Vocabula Mira: “Tubilustrium” and “Quinquatrus”

On the Roman calendar of religious observances, March 23rd sees the convergence of two different festivals, although it seems that not very much is known about either of them. One was called the “tubilustrium – the purification of trumpets”, a ritual that was repeated on May 23rd. The trumpets in question were either war-trumpet used by the army, or those used during ritual sacrifices, or both. If it was primarily for war trumpets, this would fit with the fact that it was done in March, the month named for Mars, the god of war; this month was not only originally the beginning of the year for the Romans, but also the start of the military campaign season. Varro says that it was performed in a building called the “atrium sutorium – the shoemakers’ hall”, the location of which is unknown.

Connected with this was a festival held on October 19th called the “armilustrium – the purification of arms”, when the campaign season would be coming to an end, and weapons put away for the winter. This was held on a site on the Aventine Hill called the “armilustrum.”

(Military trumpeters seen on the cast of Trajan’s column in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

The “tubilistrium” coincides with the final day of the “Quinquatrus”, a festival dedicated to the goddess Minerva that also marked the beginning of the military campaign season. Varro states that its name comes from “quinque – five” because it was held on the fifth day (reckoning inclusively) from the Ides of March, which we call the 19th of that month. He also agrees with Festus that it was celebrated for only one day, but Ovid says that it was five days long. A second festival of the same name, known as the Lesser Quinquatrus, was celebrated on the Ides of June, on which trumpet players (tibicines) held a procession to the temple of Minerva, also on the Aventine.

As we have noted previously, the original significance of the three cardinal points around which the Roman month was arranged, and from which the days of each month were named, the Kalends, Nones and Ides, is unknown. However, it is perhaps not just a coincidence that March, May and October, three of the months in which the Nones are on the 7th day rather than the 5th, and the Ides on the 15th rather than the 13th, are months in which these festivities connected with the military take place. Likewise, the Ides of July was the date of the “Transvectio Equitum – the riding-past (for a military review) of the knights.” On this occasion, young members of the military class would ride in a long procession from a temple of Mars on the via Appia, and enter the city at the Porta Capena, one of the gates of the ancient Servian walls of Rome. They then went through the Roman Forum to the temple of Castor and Pollux, the patron divinities of the army, and ended at the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, the place where military triumphs traditionally ended.

St Benedict, Patron of Europe (Part 2)

Yesterday, for the feast of St Benedict, we posted the first part of our translation of the Apostolic Letter Pacis Nuntius, by which Pope Paul VI declared him to be the Patron Saint of Europe. This decree shares many of the same concerns about the role of the Faith and of the Church in human civilization of which St John XXIII speaks in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, and is pertinent in no small measure to the mission of our institute because of the absolutely essential role which Benedictine monks played in the preservation of the “wisdom of the ancients.”

In 1980, Pope St John Paul II declared Ss Cyril and Methodius, the evangelizers of the Slavs, to be Co-Patrons of Europe along with St Benedict, and in 1999, bestowed the same title on Saints Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. May they all intercede for the restoration of justice and peace among the nations of Europe.

(The abbey of Monte Cassino, which, as mentioned in the Pope’s decree below, was destroyed during World War, but painstakingly and beautifully rebuilt. This was the fourth time the abbey was rebuilt since its original foundation by the Saint in the 530 A.D. Multa cecidere ut altius resurgerent. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Serdir, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This same predecessor of ours (Pius XII) then desired that by the prayer of so renowned a man (as St Benedict), God might favor the undertakings of those who seek to unite these same people (i.e. the nations of Europe) in bonds of true fraternity. John XXIII, with that loving concern for which he was so eminent, also desirous of the same happy outcome. And we ourselves, heartily approve of these sorts of plans, which pertain to fostered unity among the nations of Europe. Wherefore we happily accede to the requests by which, from various parts of Europe, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, the heads of orders and religious congregations and prominent laymen have asked us to declare Saint Benedict the patron of Europe. An outstanding opportunity is given to us two publicly proclaim his heavenly protection, since when today we reconsecrate to God in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Benedict the church on Monte Cassino which was destroyed in 1944, as war was raging throughout the world, but has been rebuilt by invincible piety. This we are assuredly very glad to do, in imitation of some of our predecessors, who through the course of ages dedicated this same house of religion and monastic life, which is celebrated above all as the burial place of St Benedict.

Therefore, may this excellent Saint favor our prayers, and as once he dispelled the darkness with the light of Christianity and imparted the gifts of peace, so now may he watch over the affairs of Europe, and mercifully promote them with all the more greatly each day. And thus, having consulted the Sacred Congregation for Rites, with certain knowledge and mature deliberation, and with the fullness of our Apostolic authority, by force of these letters, and perpetually, we establish and declare Saint Benedict the Abbot the principal heavenly patron of all of Europe before God, with all of the privileges and honors which rightly belong to the chief patrons of a place.

The remainder is a traditional series of legal formulas by which the authority of the Papacy made such acts binding on the Church.

All things to the contrary notwithstanding. These things we put forth and establish, decreeing that these present letters are and shall always remain unchanged, valid, and in effect; that their full and complete effects obtain; and that they most fully favor those to whom they pertain or shall ever pertain now and henceforth; and are duly so to be judged and defined; and henceforth, if anything whatsoever shall happen to be attempted to the contrary in these matters, by any one, and on whatsoever authority, whether knowingly or unknowingly, it shall be  invalid and without effect.

St Benedict, Patron of Europe (Part 1)

Today marks the anniversary of the death of St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and is the traditional date of his feast, still kept as such by many houses of his order. In 1964, Pope Paul VI, by the Apostolic Letter Pacis nuntius, declared him to be the patron Saint of Europe, in recognition of the vast contribution which Benedictine monasticism made to every aspect of European civilization. What is particularly interesting about this is the degree is that it shares many of the same concerns which Pope St John XXIII outlines in Veterum Sapientia. Like his predecessor, Paul VI talks about how the preservation and cultivation of classical languages and literature, so characteristic of the Benedictines, was essential to fostering the unity of both the Church and the various human societies within it.

Since there does not appear to be any translation of Pacis Nuntius readily available, we here offer own in honor of St Benedict. The second part will be published tomorrow.

(A statue of St Benedict in the main public square of the town of Norcia, where he was born. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

“St Benedict the Abbot is most deservedly proclaimed to be a messenger of peace, a creator of unity, a teacher of civilization, and most especially herald of the Christian religion and the father of monastic life in the West. When some regions of Europe seemed to be falling into darkness, as the Roman Empire, corrupted by old age, was collapsing, while others had no part in the achievements of education or the goods of the spirit, by the strenuous effort of his most constant virtue, brought a new dawn, as it were, to shine upon the continent. For by the Cross, by the book, and by the plow, he above all, by his own effort and those of his sons, brought Christian civilization to those people which dwell in the lands from Mediterranean Sea to Scandinavia, and Spain to the broad reaches of the Poland.

By the Cross, which is to say, by the law of Jesus Christ, he strengthened and increased the institutions of both private and public life. It is also pleasing/helpful to remember also that by the ‘work of God’, which is to say, a fixed and regular rule of prayer, he taught that the worship of God is of the greatest importance in human fellowship.

In this way, therefore, did he firmly join together that spiritual union of Europe by which nations that differed in language, descent, and temperament felt themselves to be the one people of God. And this unity, towards which the monks faithfully strived, learning from the discipline of so great a parent, became a particular characteristic of the Middle Ages. In our times, all men of goodwill labor to restore that unity, which, as Saint Augustine says is the form of all beauty, but which was torn apart by the deplorable vicissitudes of human affairs.

‘By the book’, which is to say, by the cultivation of character, that same venerable patriarch from whom so many monasteries drew their name and their activity, with diligent care preserved the ancient works of literature, when the liberal disciplines and arts were being overwhelmed with darkness, and transmitted them to posterity, diligently cultivating their teachings.

In this way, therefore, did he firmly join together that spiritual union of Europe by which nations that differed in language, descent, and temperament felt themselves to be the one people of God. And this unity, towards which the monks faithfully strived, learning from the discipline of so great a parent, became a particular characteristic of the Middle Ages. In our times, all men of goodwill labor to restore that unity, which, as Saint Augustine says is the form of all beauty, but which was torn apart by the deplorable vicissitudes of human affairs.

Finally ‘by the plough’, that is, by farming, and by other useful activities, he changed vast and wild spaces into fertile fruits and pleasant gardens, and by joining skilled work to prayer, according to the words ‘Pray and work’ (the motto of the Benedictine Order) brought greatness to man’s work. Deservedly, therefore, did Pope Pius XII call Saint Benedict ‘the father of Europe’, since he inspired in the peoples of that continent the love and zeal for right order upon which their social life depended.”

Marcus Aurelius and the Thundering Legion

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death, we saw the equestrian statue of him on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the only one of its kind that survives intact from antiquity. Today we will look at the city’s other great monument dedicated to him, the giant victory column in the center of the city which dominates the modern piazza Colonna, right in front of the Italian Prime Minister’s official residence, the Palazzo Chigi.

After the mostly peaceful reign of his predecessor Antoninus Pius, Rome was engaged in significant military conflicts for the entire reign of Marcus Aurelius, first with her long-standing enemy on her eastern border, Parthia, from 161 to 166. But even before the Parthian campaign had ended, various Germanic tribes had begun pushing into Roman territory across various parts of its frontier on the Danube river, north of the Balkan peninsula. The conflicts resulting from Rome’s ensuing attempts to repulse them are now usually called the Marcomannic Wars after one of the most important such tribes, the Marcomanni, but there several other tribes were also involved. These wars would occupy the rest of Marcus’ life.

After a particularly disastrous defeat in 170, the Marcomanni attacked the northern Italian town of Opitergium (the modern Oderzo) and laid siege to Aquileia, the first time a foreign army had touched Italy in 270 years. Marcus Aurelius personally went to the frontier to organize Rome’s defenses. Within a year, the siege of Aquileia had been lifted; shortly thereafter, the Germans were driven out of Roman territory, and the Romans had crossed the Danube to beat them into long-term submission. By 176, Marcus was able to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph for his victories. In 177, war broke out again, and Rome was victorious again, thoroughly routing her enemies, but as the campaign neared its end, the emperor died, and it was left to his son Commodus to conclude a peace treaty with the Germans and celebrate another triumph.

The great column which celebrates these victories no longer has its dedicatory inscription, and so we cannot be certain whether it was made after the celebration of the triumph in 176, or after Marcus’ death in 180, when he divinized. In imitation of the earlier column of Trajan, the events of the campaign are depicted in a continuous frieze about five feet in height, spiraling upwards through twenty-one turns. The column by itself, including its torus and capital, is about 100 feet high, and an ancient inscription refers to it as the “centenaria – the hundred-footer.” However, this does not count the base, part of which is still buried, or its pedestal, which is completely buried, or the statue of the Emperor which originally stood on top. (Amanda Claridge, Oxford Archeological Guide to Rome, p. 219. This last disappeared long ago, and was replaced by a statue of St Paul in the later 1580s.)

The column of Marcus Aurelius; photo by Radomil from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The chronology of the events depicted on the column is a matter for scholarly debate; there is one particularly famous episode, however, the depiction of which unmistakable. In 173 or 174, while the Romans were fighting against a tribe called the Quadi, one of their legions, the Twelfth, was surrounded by a much larger Quadi force after much fighting, but laid low by fatigue, combined with extreme heat and lack of water. Their position was in fact so unfavorable that the Quadi drew back to let the heat and thirst do most of their work for them. As the legion faced the prospect of surrender or destruction, a sudden storm not only brought them water, but, in the account of the historian Cassio Dio, severely damaged the ranks of their enemies with both hail and lightning.

Within a generation, Tertullian attributed this unexpected deliverance to the prayers of the Christians among the legionaries. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea repeats the story, citing both him and a pagan historian called Apollinaris of Hierapolis, “who says that from that time the legion through whose prayers the wonder took place received from the emperor a title appropriate to the event, being called in the language of the Romans the Thundering Legion.” (“fulminata” or “fulminea”, but in reality, this nickname of the Twelfth legion dates back to the time of Augustus.) The story is repeated by several other writers, both Christian and pagan; the latter, of course, attribute it to the pagan gods, with Dio saying that it was done by an Egyptian magician who accompanied Marcus Aurelius.

Detail of the column’s frieze, with the episode of the thunderstorm. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Barosaurus Lentus; CC BY 3.0 

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Today marks the anniversary of the death of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, a few days after the 19th anniversary of his accession to the throne. His reign is traditionally grouped with that of his four predecessors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius), going back to the year 96, as the period of the Five Good Emperors; this is an historiographic conceit of the later Italian Renaissance, of Machiavelli specifically, and reinforced by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, one that has long outlasted its usefulness. It is fair to say, however, that his reign marks the end of a long period of relative peace for the Roman Empire; he himself spent a good part of his reign commanding troops on the German frontier to push back new waves of barbarian invaders. It is also fair to say that the accession to the throne of his son and successor Commodus represented as much of a decline for the Antonine dynasty as Nero had for the Julio-Claudian.

One of the most famous monuments in Rome today is the large bronze equestrian statue of him which sits in the middle of the main plaza on the Capitoline Hill. This is the only one of its kind that now survives, although we know of the existence of several others from literary sources and images on coins. Its original location in Rome is unknown, as is the precise time of its making, whether towards the end of the emperor’s life, when he had successfully halted (for a time) further incursions into the empire, or after his death and divinization. Sometime in the 8th century, for reasons also unknown, it was moved to an area very near the cathedral of Rome, which is traditionally called “St John in the Lateran”, but officially, the archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior.

In the Middle Ages, for lack of any other source for most metals, it was common practice to recycle them from ancient Roman objects of various kinds. Hence, the numerous other equestrians statues in Rome and other Italian cities were almost all destroyed, although fragments of some of them have survived. The statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran, however, was preserved because it was believed to be an image of Constantine, the liberator and great benefactor of the Church, who had donated the property and palace of the Lateran to become the cathedral of Rome and the first official Papal residence.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Burkhard Mücke; CC BY-SA 4.0)

By the end of the 15th century, scholars had come to realize that the statue could not be of Constantine, since the figure is bearded, where other surviving images of Constantine, including a colossal marble head now on display in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums, always show him clean-shaven. It was rather Marcus Aurelius who wore the beard which was one of the marks of a philosopher, and indeed, he is also known to posterity as the last writer of the Stoic school, although his Meditations were not intended for publication, and are really more of a private, philosophical diary.

In 1538, as part of a complete reorganization of the Capitoline Hill, Pope Paul III had Michelangelo bring the statue there from the Lateran, and set it up on the middle of the new piazza that now dominates the place. This decision may have been motivated at least in part by the fact that persecution of the Church intensified notably in Marcus Aurelius’ reign, although it very much debatable whether or to what degree he was personally responsible for this. It remained there until 1981, when it was removed for preservation reasons, and has now been replaced on its pedestal by an exact copy. The original stands in its own room, along with several other fragmentary bronzes, in the Capitoline Museums. When it was first made, it was completely gilded, but the gilding has largely worn off, and the bronze is now oxidized, and hence green. A popular tradition in Rome would have it that when all of the gilding is finally worn off, the horse will speak, and the world will end; this has now been staved off for a good long while by its being kept indoors.

Although, as noted above, the majority of equestrian statues were destroyed by medieval recycling, there was another that survived much closer to our own time, in the northern Italian city of Pavia, known as the “Regisole – the Sun King.” Its age and subject are unknown; Petrarch expressed his admiration of it in a letter to Boccaccio, and a drawing of it by Leonardo da Vinci survives. Sadly, as an image of a monarch, it was destroyed by Jacobins in 1796, and it now represented by a copy based on the various drawings of it.

(The reconstructed Regisole in front of the cathedral of Pavia; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Saint Cecilia and the Bona Dea

Today, the Lenten station in Rome is kept at the basilica in the Trastevere region dedicated to St Cecilia, the patron Saint of musicians. She was a Roman noblewoman martyred for the Faith around the year 220, and the traditional account of her life states that she requested the contemporary Pope, St Urban I, to consecrate her house as a church after she had received the crown of martyrdom. While the historicity of all the details concerned with Cecilia and her martyrdom is highly doubtful, there can be no doubt that the church is one of the oldest Christian sites in the city, and was certainly an important parish already in the 5th century.

In the traditional Roman Rite, the Epistle on this day is taken from the deuterocanonical additions to the book of Esther, the only reading from that book in the Missal. In chapter 13 (vss. 9-11 and 15-17), Mardochai prays for the delivery of the Jewish people from their enemy Haman, who has arranged for the Persian Emperor to order the massacre of all the Jews in his dominions.

“In diébus illis: Orávit Mardochaeus ad Dóminum, dicens: Dómine, Dómine, Rex omnípotens, in dicióne enim tua cuncta sunt pósita, et non est, qui possit tuae resístere voluntáti, si decréveris salváre Israël. Tu fecisti caelum et terram, et quidquid caeli ámbitu continétur. Dóminus omnium es, nec est, qui resistat maiestáti tuae. Et nunc, Dómine Rex, Deus Abraham, miserére pópuli tui, quia volunt nos inimíci nostri pérdere, et hereditátem tuam delére. Ne despicias partem tuam, quam redemisti tibi de Aegypto. Exaudi deprecatiónem meam, et propitius esto sorti et funículo tuo, et converte luctum nostrum in gaudium, ut viventes laudémus nomen tuum, Dómine, et ne claudas ora te canentium, Dómine, Deus noster.

In those days, Mardochai prayed to the Lord, saying, ‘O Lord, Lord, almighty king, for all things are in thy power, and there is none that can resist thy will, if thou determine to save Israel. Thou hast made heaven and earth, and all things that are under the cope of heaven. Thou art Lord of all, and there is none that can resist thy majesty. And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish thy inheritance. Despise not thy portion, which thou hast redeemed for thyself out of Egypt. Hear my supplication, and be merciful to thy lot and inheritance, and turn our mourning into joy, that we may live and praise thy name, O Lord, and shut not the mouths of them that sing to thee, O Lord, our God.’ ”

Esther and Mardochai Write the First Purim Letter, 1675, by the Dutch painter Aert de Gelder (1645-1727); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Originally, however, this reading began with the words, “In those days, Esther prayed to the Lord, saying…”, despite the fact that it is Mardochai who offers this prayer in the Bible. This probably seemed like nothing more than a mistake to the editors who reformed the Missal at the behest of Pope St Pius V, and so “Esther” was changed to “Mardochai” in the edition which he promulgated in 1570, to conform the reading to the Biblical text. Subsequently, archeological research has revealed that the original reading was actually quite deliberate.

In 1744, three inscriptions were found very close to the basilica, each of which refers to the presence of a small shrine of the “Bona Dea”, as she was called, “the good goddess.” Although she was quite popular in ancient Rome, we know very little about her, since it was forbidden to write down any of what took place at her two annual festivals. In point of fact, “Good Goddess” is a euphemistic name, since men were absolutely excluded from any participation in either of her two festivals, and not allowed to speak or even know her true name. One of these festivals was held at a temple dedicated to her on the Aventine hill, the other in the house of the senior magistrate of the Republic, presided over by his wife. A famous episode of the late Roman Republic, involving all of the leading political figures of the day, including Cicero, Pompey and Julius Caesar, took place when these rites were held in the latter’s house in 62 BC. A man named Clodius Pulcher dressed as a woman in an attempt to sneak into the rites and seduce Caesar’s wife, creating an enormous and long-lasting scandal.

The Bona Dea was a goddess very much associated with female chastity, and therefore, anything to do with the goddess of sexual desire, Venus, was also removed from the house where the rites of the Bona Dea were held. This included any statues and images of Venus, and most particularly the plant myrtle, which was woven into crowns and worn on the head by her worshippers at her principal festivals.

It might seem that by taking the words of a man and putting them in the mouth of a woman, the Church had somehow adopted or absorbed an aspect of the Bona Dea cult when reading them at the basilica of St Cecilia right next door to her shrine. However, the exact opposite is the case. In the Biblical book, chapter 2, verse 7, states that Esther, who becomes the Queen of Persia, and saves the Jews from Haman, was called “Hadassah,” (הֲדַסָּה) which is the Hebrew word for “myrtle”, the plant of Venus that was excluded from the rites of the Bona Dea. This reading would therefore be a deliberate critique of the cultus of the Bona Dea, and a statement of rejection of the many pagan cults that excluded one class of persons or another, while Christianity accepted all persons without regard to their class, status, or condition of life.

By coincidence, this evening is the beginning of the feast of Purim, by which the Jewish people commemorate their deliverance from destruction as recounted in the book of Esther. This feast has sometimes been described as the Jewish Mardi Gras. It has been a common custom since the late 15th century for people to dress up in costume on Purim, as it was formerly very common to do during the Catholic carnival. During the liturgy of Purim, the whole Biblical story of Esther is read at one go; harsh-sounding rattles are passed to out to all the children, and each time the name of Haman, the villain of the story, is said, they use them to drown it out. To all our Jewish readers, Chag Purim Sameach!

(A building in the city of Hamadan in west-central Iran, traditionally venerated as the tomb of Esther and Mardochai. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Philippe Chavin: CC BY-SA 3.0)


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