From its very beginning, Christianity had to struggle with the question of what to do with the culture of the pagan world into which it was born. Some early Christian writers saw nothing useful in it, as exemplified by Tertullian’s famous question, “Quid ergo Athenis Hierosoymis? Quid academiae et ecclesiae? – What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the academy to do with the Church?” (De Praescript. 7) In contrast, the great Biblical scholar Origen wrote in a letter to his disciple Gregory, (commonly known as “the Wonderworker”, the future bishop of Neocaesarea in Cappadocia), “…extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity.”
In this debate, it was Origen who prevailed. It is to this that we owe the preservation of the literature of the classical world by the diligence of medieval copyists, almost all of them monks, and the tradition of putting the “wisdom of the ancients” to the service of the preaching and teaching of the Faith. Nevertheless, misgivings remained, and one of the most notable expressions of them comes from the Saint whose feast we celebrate today, another great scholar and the Latin translator of the Bible, Jerome.
In a letter to one of his spiritual children, a young woman named Eustochium, St Jerome recounts an episode in which he was personally rebuked by Christ for taking too much interest in classical literature.
“Cum ante annos plurimos domo, parentibus, sorore, cognatis et, quod his difficilius est, consuetudine lautioris cibi propter cælorum me regna castrassem et Hierosolymam militaturus pergerem, bibliotheca, quam mihi Romæ summo studio ac labore confeceram, carere non poteram. Itaque miser ego lecturus Tullium jejunabam; post noctium crebras vigilias, post lacrimas quas mihi præteritorum recordatio peccatorum ex imis visceribus eruebat, Plautus sumebatur in manibus. Si quando, in memet reversus, prophetam legere cœpissem, sermo horrebat incultus et, quia lumen cæcis oculis non videbam, non oculorum putabam culpam esse, sed solis. Dum ita me antiquus serpens illuderet, in media ferme quadragesima … febris corpus invasit exhaustum… parabantur exsequiæ, et vitalis animæ calor, toto frigente jam corpore, in solo tantum tepente pectusculo palpitabat,
cum subito raptus in spiritu ad tribunal Judicis pertrahor, ubi tantum luminis et tantum erat ex circumstantium claritate fulgoris ut, projectus in terram, sursum aspicere non auderem. Interrogatus condicionem, Christianum me esse respondi; et ille qui residebat, Mentiris, ait, Ciceronianus es, non Christianus; ubi thesaurus tuus, ibi et cor tuum. Ilico obmutui et inter verbera – nam cædi me jusserat – conscientiæ magis igne torquebar, illum mecum versiculum reputans, In inferno autem quis confitebitur tibi? Clamare tamen cœpi et ejulans dicere, Miserere mei, Domine, miserere mei. … Tandem ad præsidentis genua provoluti qui astiterant precabantur ut veniam tribueret adulescentiæ, ut errori locum patientiæ commodaret, exacturus deinde cruciatum si gentilium litterarum libros aliquando legissem. Ego… dejurare cœpi et nomen ejus obtestans dicere, Domine, si unquam habuero codices sæculares, si legero, te negavi.
Many years ago, when I, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven I had separated myself from home, parents, sister, relations, and, what was harder, from the rich food I was used to, and was going Jerusalem to fight (i.e. to serve God as a monk), I could not be without the library which I had put together at Rome with the greatest care and labor. And thus, wretch that I was, I would fast, only to read Cicero afterwards; after frequent nights in vigil, after the tears which the remembrance of my past sins drew out of inmost heart, I would take up my copy of Plautus. Whenever I returned to my senses and began to read a prophet, the uncouth language made me bristle, and because I did not see the light with my blind eyes, I thought the fault to be not of my eyes, but of the sun. While the old serpent was thus mocked me, about the middle of Lent a fever attacked my weakened body… preparations were made for my funeral, my whole body was now cold, and life’s vital warmth only beat faintly in my lukewarm breast, when suddenly, I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the Judge’s seat, where there was so much light, and so much brightness from the glory of those who stood around, that I was cast down upon the ground and dared not look up. Asked of my condition, I replied that I was a Christian, and He who presided said, ‘Thou liest; thou art a Ciceronian, not a Christian. Where thy treasure is there will thy heart be also.’ Straightway I became dumb, and amid the blows – for He had ordered me to be beaten – I was tormented all the more by the fire of conscience, as I thought over the verse, ‘In hell who shall praise thee?’ (Ps. 6, 6) Nonetheless, I began to cry out and wail, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, o Lord, have mercy on me.”
At last those who stood near fell at the knees of Him who presided, and prayed that He grant my youth pardon, and allow a place for repentance of my error, thenceforth to exact punishment if I should ever again read the books of the gentiles. I … began to sweat and calling upon his name to say, ‘O Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books or read them, I have denied thee.’ ”
(St Jerome in His Study, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480)
Like any well-educated man of his age, St Jerome knew well how to use rhetorical exaggeration for effect. His point here is not that the literature of the classical world is itself always bad. Writing as he was to a young person under his spiritual direction, his point was rather that the love of such literature ought never to distract a Christian from the service of Christ. Jerome himself continued to cite classical authors in his Biblical commentaries and other theological writings, and was of course followed in this by other Fathers of the Church over the centuries.
Today’s feast of St Michael the Archangel originated with the dedication of a basilica in his honor about seven miles from Rome up the via Salaria, sometime before the mid-6th century. The memory of this is retained in the feast’s title in the usus antiquior, “The Dedication of St Michael”, even though this basilica disappeared centuries ago. In the Novus Ordo, the only other angels named in the Bible, Ss Gabriel and Raphael, have been added to the title; a separate feast of all of Guardian Angels has been kept on October 2 throughout the Roman Rite since 1670.
The very oldest liturgical texts of the Roman Rite attest to the custom by which this feast also celebrates all of the holy angels. Despite its title, many such texts make no reference at all to St Michael, but speak more broadly of angels in general. For example, one of the prayers for this day in the very first collection of Roman Masses reads as follows: “Oblatio tibi, Domine, sit nostra semper accepta, quae angelis tuis sanctisque praecantibus et indulgentiam nobis referat, et remedia procuret aeterna. – May our offering be always acceptable to Thee, o Lord, that by the prayers of Thy angels and saints, it may bring us forgiveness, and obtain for us everlasting healing.”
This tradition is also reflected in the sermon of Pope St Gregory the Great which is read on the feast day in all the traditional forms of the Roman Divine Office. (Homily 34 on the Gospels.) This text has been very influential in forming the traditional division of the angels into nine choirs, and consequently on the depiction of them in art.
“Novem Angelorum ordines dicimus, quia videlicet esse, testante sacro eloquio, scimus: Angelos, Archangelos, Virtutes, Potestates, Principatus, Dominationes, Thronos, Cherubim atque Seraphim. Esse namque Angelos et Archangelos pene omnes sacri eloquii paginæ testantur. Cherubim vero atque Seraphim sæpe, ut notum est, libri prophetarum loquuntur. Quatuor quoque ordinum nomina Paulus Apostolus ad Ephesios enumerat, dicens: Supra omnem Principatum, et Potestatem, et Virtutem, et Dominationem. Qui rursus ad Colossenses scribens, ait: Sive Throni, sive Potestates, sive Principatus, sive Dominationes. Dum ergo illis quatuor, quæ ad Ephesios dixit, conjunguntur Throni, quinque sunt ordines; quibus dum Angeli et Archangeli, Cherubim atque Seraphim adjuncta sunt, procul dubio novem esse Angelorum ordines inveniuntur.
(The central section of the mosaic in the dome of the baptistery of Florence, with Christ (at bottom) and the nine choirs of Angels; the Cherubim and Seraphim are to either side of Christ, but unlabeled. Image from Wikimedia Commons (cropped) by Matthias Kabel, CC BY-SA 3.0.)
We say that there are nine orders of angels, for we know this by the witness of the sacred word; namely, Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. For indeed, nearly every page of the holy word bears witness that there are Angels and Archangels. The books of the prophets, as is well known, often speak of Cherubim and Seraphim. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians (1, 21), also lists the names of four orders, saying, ‘above every Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Dominion.’ And again, writing to the Colossians (1, 16) he says, ‘whether they be Thrones, or Dominions, or Principalities, or Powers.’ Therefore, when the Thrones are joined to those four (orders) of which he spoke to the Ephesians, there are five orders; and when the Angels and Archangels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim are added to them, beyond all doubt there are found to be nine orders of angels.”
He goes on to explain the proper meaning of the word “angel”, from the Greek word for “messenger.”
“Sciendum vero quod Angelorum vocabulum nomen est officii, non naturæ. Nam sancti illi cælestis patriæ Spiritus, semper quidem sunt Spiritus, sed semper vocari Angeli nequaquam possunt; quia tunc solum sunt Angeli, cum per eos aliqua nuntiantur. Unde et per Psalmistam dicitur, ‘Qui facit Angelos suos spiritus’; ac si patenter dicat, ‘Qui eos, quos semper habet Spiritus, etiam, cum voluerit, Angelos facit.’ Hi autem qui minima nuntiant, Angeli; qui vero summa annuntiant, Archangeli vocantur. Hinc est enim quod ad Mariam Virginem non quilibet Angelus mittitur; ad hoc quippe ministerium, summum Angelum venire dignum fuerat, qui summum omnium nuntiabat.
(Two folios of a collection of patristic homilies for the Divine Office copied out at the monastery of San Gallen in Switzerland in the third quarter of the 9th century, with the text of St Gregory quoted above. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 433: CC BY-SA NC 4.0)
But one should know that ‘angel’ is the name of an office, not of a nature. For those holy spirits of the heavenly fatherland are always spirits, but by no means may they always called angels (i.e. messengers), since they are angels only when things are announced by them. Whence also it is said by the Psalmist (103, 5) ‘Who maketh spirits his angels,’ as if he were saying expressly, ‘Who makes those spirits that He always has with Him His messengers, whenever He so wills.’ They who announce lesser matters are called angels, but they who announce the greatest, archangels. For hence it is that not just any angel was sent to the Virgin Mary; of course, for this service, it was worthy that the highest angel should come, to deliver the highest message of all.”
On this day in the year 48 B.C., Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar’s rival, was assassinated, less than two months after he was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece, and the day before his 58th birthday. Following the battle, Pompey fled through various parts of Greece, first to collect some money at Amphipolis, then to the island of Lesbos to retrive his wife and son. His plan was then to continue the fight against Caesar and his domination of the Roman Republic, but he was prevented from entering several places. He eventually decided to go to Egypt, which was then caught up in a civil war between the king Ptolemy and his far more famous sister Cleopatra for control of the throne, and request the aid of the former. Ptolemy himself, however, was just a boy, and his counselors decided that the safest course for them politically would be to ingratiate themselves with Caesar by killing Ptolemy.
After he had anchored his ship near Pelusium, the coastal city where Ptolemy and his court were, Pompey was approached by a ship bearing among others the head of Ptolemy’s army, a man named Achillas, and one Lucius Septimius, who had served under Pompey as an officer during the campaigns that had brought much of the eastern Mediterranean under Rome’s control.
Here is Caesar’s account of the assassination from the third book of his De Bello Civili (103-4).
“…Pompeius deposito adeundae Syriae consilio, pecunia societatis sublata, et a quibusdam privatis sumpta et aeris magno pondere ad militarem usum in naves imposito duobusque milibus hominum armatis, partim quos ex familiis societatum delegerat, partim a negotiatoribus coegerat, quosque ex suis quisque ad hanc rem idoneos existimabat, Pelusium pervenit. Ibi casu rex erat Ptolomaeus, puer aetate, magnis copiis cum sorore Cleopatra bellum gerens, quam paucis ante mensibus per suos propinquos atque amicos regno expulerat; castraque Cleopatrae non longo spatio ab eius castris distabant. Ad eum Pompeius misit, ut pro hospitio atque amicitia patris Alexandria reciperetur atque illius opibus in calamitate tegeretur. Sed qui ab eo missi erant, confecto legationis officio liberius cum militibus regis colloqui coeperunt eosque hortari, ut suum officium Pompeio praestarent, neve eius fortunam despicerent. In hoc erant numero complures Pompei milites, quos ex eius exercitu acceptos in Syria Gabinius Alexandriam traduxerat belloque confecto apud Ptolomaeum, patrem pueri, reliquerat. His tum cognitis rebus amici regis, qui propter aetatem eius in procuratione erant regni, sive timore adducti, ut postea praedicabant, sollicitato exercitu regio ne Pompeius Alexandriam Aegyptumque occuparet, sive despecta eius fortuna, ut plerumque in calamitate ex amicis inimici exsistunt, his, qui erant ab eo missi, palam liberaliter responderunt eumque ad regem venire iusserunt; ipsi clam consilio inito Achillam, praefectum regium, singulari hominem audacia, et L. Septimium, tribunum militum, ad interficiendum Pompeium miserunt. Ab his liberaliter ipse appellatus et quadam notitia Septimii productus, quod bello praedonum apud eum ordinem duxerat, naviculam parvulam conscendit cum paucis suis: ibi ab Achilla et Septimio interficitur.
…Pompey gave up his plan of visiting Syria, took the funds of the association (of tax-farmers), borrowed money from certain private persons, and deposited on ship a great weight of bronze coinage for the soldiers’ use; and having armed two thousand men, partly those whom he had selected from the households of the tax-farmers, partly those whom he had requisitioned from the merchants and those of their own men whom each owner judged to be fit for the purpose, and arrived at Pelusium. There by chance was King Ptolemy, a boy in years, waging war with large forces against his sister Cleopatra, whom a few months before he had expelled from the throne by the help of his relations and friends; and the camp of Cleopatra was not far distant from his. Pompeius sent to him asking to be received in Alexandria, and to be supported in his calamity by the king’s resources, for the sake of the hospitality and friendship that he had shown his father.
But his messengers, having fulfilled the duty of their embassy, began to speak more freely with the king’s soldiers and to exhort them to show their dutiful loyalty to Pompey, and not to despise his fortunes. In the number of these men were very many of Pompey’s soldiers, whom Gabinius had taken over from his army in Syria and had brought to Alexandria, and when the war was over, had left them with Ptolemy, the boy’s father. Then, on learning of these things, the king’s friends, (who, on account of his youth, were in charge of the kingdom), whether moved by fear, as they afterwards gave out, lest Pompey should seize Alexandria and Egypt after tampering with the royal army, or because they despised his fortunes, as it generally happens that in misfortune friends become enemies, in public gave a generous reply to his messengers and bade him come to the king, but in secret, they took counsel, and sent Achillas, the king’s prefect, a man of singular audacity, and Lucius Septimius, a military tribune, to assassinate Pompeius. And he, being courteously addressed by them and being lured forth by some previous knowledge of Septimius, because he had been a centurion under him in the war against the pirates, got on board a little boat with a few of his friends, and there was assassinated by Achillas and Septimius.”
September 27th is the traditional date for the feast of Ss Cosmas and Damian, two brothers who were killed in the persecution of Diocletian ca. 304 A.D. The written accounts of their lives and martyrdom are considered to be historically unreliable; they are said to have been doctors who treated their patients for free, and are thus honored by the Eastern churches with the title of “moneyless” Saints. Having moved from their native Arabia to the port city of Aegea in Cilicia, modern south-east Turkey, their Christians charity attracted the attention of the Roman governor, and they were eventually killed alongside their three brothers, Anthimus, Leontius and Euprepius. In the post-Conciliar reform of their calendar, they were moved back a day to make way for St Vincent de Paul, who died on their feast day in 1660.
The Roman basilica named for them represents two important firsts in the history of the Eternal City’s Christianization. Shortly after the Emperor Constantine legalized the Christian religion in 313, he began to build churches in several places, including six in Rome, but also in Naples, Jerusalem, and the New Rome which he founded on the site of ancient Byzantium. But of his six Roman churches, two are just inside the city, right up against the walls, and the other four outside; the new religion had gotten a toe-hold in the pagan city, but just barely. Over the next two centuries, other churches would be built closer and closer to the Forum, the ancient heart of the city’s public and religious life. The churches of St Anastasia and St Clement (early to mid-4th century), Ss John and Paul (later 4th cent.), Mary Major (late 430’s) and St Peter’s Chains (already considered old by the 430s) are all less than a mile from the Forum.
The apsidal mosaic of the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian in Rome. On the far left, Pope Felix IV offers the church which he has built to Christ and His Saints. One of the two brothers is presented to Christ on the left by Saint Paul, the other by St Peter on the right. Peter and Paul, as the patron Saints of Rome, are closer to Christ, and dressed as Roman senators; Cosmas and Damian are wearing clothes that evidently would have look foreign to the eyes of a sixth-century Roman, and their faces are darker. On the far right, St Theodore, whose church is not far away on the other side of the Forum, balances the composition; as a Greek, he is also dressed as a foreigner. Above St Paul’s head, a phoenix, the symbol of the resurrection of the body, perches on a leaf of a palm tree.
Finally, in 527, Pope St Felix IV brought Christianity into the Forum itself by constructing the basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian. His church reutilized two older buildings, a hall that formed part of the Emperor Vespasian’s Forum of Peace, and a library built at the beginning of the 4th century by Maxentius, the man whom Constantine defeated to become master of the Roman world. (The original door of this later structure still works with the original key after more than 17 centuries!) This arrangement places the entrance on the Via Sacra, the Sacred Way, so called from the many temples that lined it, which ran through the Forum from one end to the other, leading up to the Capitoline Hill.
The significance of this is shown by the Gospel which the Roman Rite traditionally read at this church during Lent, Luke 4, 38-44, which recounts Christ’s healing of St Peter’s mother-in-law, followed by various other healings of physical ailments and the expulsion of many demons. At the end of the Gospel, the people of Capharnaum “stayed (Jesus) that he should not depart from them, to whom he said, ‘To other cities also I must preach the kingdom of God.’ ” When these words about preaching to other cities are read in the first Christian church built in the Forum, the heart of ancient Rome, they remind us of the providential role which the Roman Empire played in the spread of the Gospel: first, by uniting the various parts of the Mediterranean world in a transnational culture; and second, by building the road system which Christian missionaries used to travel to every corner of the empire.
Standing at the church’s door, one can look into the Forum and see several of Rome’s most important religious monuments, including the regia, the ancient home of the pontifex maximus, and the temple of the first divinized emperor, Julius Caesar. More than anything else, it was the refusal of the early Christians to participate in the cult of the divinized emperors that led the Romans to persecute them. The establishment of a Christian church in the Forum also speaks, therefore, of the victory of Christianity over its now-converted persecutor, which has renounced its ancient and false gods, and, as the seat of the Church’s head on earth, leads other peoples to do the same.
Apart from those dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary, the earliest churches in Rome, including four of Constantine’s six, were built either on the graves or houses of early Saints, and took their names from them. The basilica of Cosmas and Damian was also Rome’s first “sanctuarium”, a church dedicated to Saints who have no material connection to the site. This choice clearly also expresses the Church’s acceptance of her duty to evangelize the entire world, even beyond the borders of the Rome Empire, such as the native land of Ss Cosmas and Damian.
The basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian, seen from the Palatine Hill. The bronze doors seen near the bottom of this photo are the ones mentioned above. Going left from this point of view, but right when exiting the church, the regia is just a few steps down the Via Sacra, which passes in front of it, and the temple of Julius Caesar is next to the regia.
As we noted yesterday, the traditional account of the martyrs of the Theban Legion has long been regarded as historically unreliable. However, more modern research has revealed that it may very well not be as unreliable as formerly thought. This was demonstrated by Prof. Donald O’Reilly in an article published in Vigiliae Christianae in 1978, The Theban Legion of St Maurice, followed by his book Lost Legion Rediscovered: The Mystery of the Theban Legion. (Pen and Sword Military, 2011)
Some people have raised the objection against the story was that there was no reason why a legion assembled in Egypt should be sent so far away as the area around Lake Geneva, where the martyrdom took place. This assumption is clearly incorrect prima facie; Roman legions were often moved considerable distances for all sorts of reasons. Such a move becomes all the more likely in a period like the early reign of Diocletian and Maximian. The two co-emperors were literally pulling the empire back from the brink of destruction, and it is reasonable to assume that they might well have needed to bring in fresh troops from afar to deal with one crisis or another.
Prof. O’Reilly makes several very interesting observations regarding some of the other historical difficulties about the story. One refers to a papyrus dated to the year 282, and found at Panopolis, which is not far from Thebes, the ancient Egyptian city where the legion was recruited. This papyrus records the requisition of a quantity of bread large enough to support a legion-sized unit for three months, roughly the time needed to travel at a military march from Egypt to Gaul. In the same period, coins were minted in Egypt of a type specific to the commemoration of the founding of a legion. This proves that a legion was in fact recruited in Egypt and then sent somewhere very far away.
He then argues that the principal objection to the legend, the massacre of an entire legion of over 6000 men, is also the result of a misunderstanding. Among the many things that Diocletian did to resolve the long-standing crisis of the third century, he effected a major reorganization of the Roman army, in which many legions were brought down to only 1000 members. By 293, we have a document called the Notitia Dignitatum, a detailed explanation of the Roman imperial administration which includes the names of many military offices and titles. This document lists four such units as the bodyguard corps of the four co-emperors (or “tetrarchs”); each unit was named after one of them (e.g. “Legio Diocletiana”), and qualified with the words “Thebaeorum – of Thebans.”
A page from a 15th century copy of the Notitia Dignitatum, with the shields of military units under the “magister peditum – master of the footsoldiers”; the “Thebans” are in the middle of the 4th rank from the top. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9661)
Thinking of the fate of their predecessors over the last sixty years, almost all of whom were murdered by their own troops, what better guards could the Tetrarchs find than the members of a predominantly Christian legion, men who believed, as a matter of strongly held religious conviction, that assassinating an emperor, allowing his assassination, or conniving at it, would be a grave offense against God? If we suppose that Diocletian and Maximian took the members of a predominantly Christian legion as their bodyguards, the original Theban legion would therefore not have been massacred to a man for their Christian faith. Rather, after suffering a decimation (and that, very possibly for some matter having to do with their religion), they were imply organized out of existence as a unit, and its former members assigned to the four newly created corps of imperial bodyguards. This fact would then later have been forgotten in the light of the fact that these same two emperors would later stir up the last and greatest ancient Roman persecution of the Christians.
September 22 is traditionally the feast of a group of soldiers martyred in 287 A.D, known as the “Theban Legion” from the Egyptian city of Thebes where they were recruited. The story recounts that the whole legion was Christian; sent to the area around Lake Geneva, they were placed under the command of the Emperor Maximian. The first account of their martyrdom was written by St Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, who was born about a century after their time, and died ca. 450; he represents Maximian as a ferocious persecutor of the Christians, one who, “beset by greed, lust, cruelty and the other vices … had armed his impiety to extinguish the name of Christianity.”
The emperor therefore ordered the legion to participate in the persecution of their coreligionists, which they refused absolutely to do, withdrawing to the town of Agaunum, a short distance from the main encampment. For this, they were then “decimated”, a traditional Roman disciplinary practice by which every tenth man of a refractory military unit was killed. Encouraged particularly by three of their officers, Mauritius, Exsuperius and Candidus, the soldiers remained wholly unintimidated. Eucherius’ account includes a text purporting to be their written statement to the Emperor, expressing their continued refusal to obey him:
“Milites sumus, imperator, tui; sed tamen servi, quod libere confitemur, Dei. Tibi militiam debemus, illi innocentiam; a te stipendium laboris accepimus, ab illo vitae exordium sumpsimus. Sequi te imperatorem in hoc nequaquam possumus, ut auctorem negemus Deum, utique auctorem nostrum, Dominum, auctorem, velis nolis, et tuum. Si non ad tam funesta compellimur, ut hunc offendamus, tibi, ut fecimus hactenus, adhuc parebimus; sin aliter, illi parebimus potius quam tibi. … Christianos ad poenam per nos requiri jubes. Jam tibi ex hoc alii requirendi non sunt: habes hic nos confitentes Deum Patrem auctorem omnium, et Filium ejus Jesum Christum Deum credimus. … Tenemus ecce arma, et non resistimus: quia mori quam occidere satis malumus, et innocentes interire quam noxii vivere peroptamus. Si quid in nos ultra statueris, si quid adhuc jusseris, si quid admoveris; ignes, tormenta, ferrum subire parati sumus. Christianos nos fatemur, persequi Christianos non possumus.
(The Martyrdom of St Maurice and Companions, by El Greco, 1580-2. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
We are thy soldiers, o emperor, but yet servants of God, which we freely confess. To thee we owe our military service, but to Him our innocence. (i.e., the duty to remain free from sin.) From thee we have receive the wage of our work, but from Him, the very beginning of our life. In this, we can in no wise follow the emperor, that we should deny God, who is indeed our maker and Lord, and thy maker too, will thou or no. If we are not forced so grievously to offend Him, we will obey as we have hitherto; otherwise we will obey him rather than thee. … You order that the Christians should be sought out by us for punishment. Already, there is no need for you to seek out any more on that score; you have us here who confess God the Father, the creator of all, and we believe that his Son Jesus Christ is God. … Behold, we have weapons, and we do not resist; because we prefer to die than to kill, and we choose to perish in innocence, rather than live in guilt. If you make any further decree against us, any order, any move, we are ready to undergo fire, torture and sword. We confess ourselves to be Christians; we cannot persecute Christians.”
The legion, numbering 6000, was then massacred without offering any resistance. Eucherius also reports that a veteran named Victor happened to pass by as the soldiers who had perpetrated the massacre were dining off the spoils of their victims, and invited to join them. On learning the cause of the party, he refused to participate; when asked whether he too was a Christian, he replied that he was and always would be, for which he was immediately killed, “caeterisque martyribus in eodem loco, sicut morte, ita etiam honore conjunctus est. Haec nobis tantum de numero illo martyrum comperta sunt nomina: id est beatissimorum Mauricii, Exsuperii, Candidi atque Victoris; caetera vero nobis quidem incognita; sed in libro vitae scripta sunt. – And as he was joined to the other martyrs in that same place in death, so also he is joined to them in honor. Of that company of martyrs, only these names are known to us, those of the most blessed Maurice, Exsuperius, Candidus and Victor; the rest are unknown to us, but are written in the book of life.”
This account has long been regarded as historically unreliable. It is well-established that Maximian was in the region of Lake Geneva in 287 not to institute or enforce a general persecution of Christians, but to put down a rebellion that had broken out against the Romans among several Gallic tribes in the area. Furthermore, in that period, Diocletian and Maximian were literally pulling the Roman Empire back from the brink of collapse, and had neither the means not the time to institute such a persecution. It seems likely, therefore, that Eucherius assumed too much about the events of Maximian’s earlier career from his later actions during the great persecution. The broad scholarly consensus now holds that although he exaggerated or misunderstood their numbers, the martyrdom of a substantial company of Egyptian soldiers really did take place near Lake Geneva.
(A 12th century reliquary bust of the skull of St Candidus, from the treasury of the Abbey of St Maurice, which is located on the site of their martyrdom in ancient Agaunum, now known as Saint Maurice. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)
In addition to the feast of the Apostle and Evangelist St Matthew, in the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, today is the first of the September Ember days. These are fasting days that each occur toward the end of each season, on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the third week of Advent, the first week of Lent, Pentecost week, and the third week of September. St Leo I, who was Pope from 440 to 461, preached on them frequently, and believed them to be of Apostolic origin; while we cannot be certain that this is indeed the case, they are certainly very ancient. In Sermon 93 on the Ember fast of September, he says “licet tempus omne sit congruum, hoc tamen habemus aptissimum, quod et apostolicis et legalibus institutis videmus electum, ut sicut in aliis anni diebus, ita in mense septimo spiritalibus nos purificationibus emundemus. – Although every time is suitable for the medicine (of fasting), this time is most fit because we see it as chosen by the decrees of the Apostles and the laws, so that just as on other days of the year, so in the seventh month (i.e. September), we should cleanse ourselves by spiritual purifications.”
Here is an excerpt from one of his other sermons for the September Ember days (87), in which he explains the spiritual value of fasting.
“Deus humani generis conditor et redemptor, qui nos ad promissiones vitae aeternae per semitas vult ambulare justitiae, quia non defuturae erant tentationes quae nobis in itinere virtutum insidiosis adversarentur occursibus, multis nos praesidiis, dilectissimi, quibus laqueos diaboli obtereremus, instruxit: inter quae hoc famulis suis saluberrimum contulit, ut contra omnes inimici dolos fortitudine se continentiae et operibus pietatis armarent. …
… nos saluberrimae observantiae ratione informavit, praefiniens nobis per temporum recursus quosdam jejuniorum dies in quibus castigatione corporum virtus roboraretur animorum. Hujus autem remedii munus, dilectissimi, etiam in isto qui septimus est mense dispositum est, quod nos prompta convenit alacritate suscipere; ut praeter illam abstinentiam, qua quisque se peculiariter atque privatim secundum modum suae possibilitatis exercet, haec quae omnibus simul indicitur animosius celebretur. Nam in omni agone certaminis Christiani, utilitas continentiae plurimum valet, ita ut quidam saevissimorum spiritus daemonum, qui ab obsessis corporibus nullis exorcizantium fugantur imperiis, sola jejuniorum et orationum virtute pellantur, dicente Domino: Hoc genus daemoniorum non ejicitur nisi in jejunio et oratione (Marc. 9, 28). Grata ergo est Deo et terribilis diabolo jejunantis oratio…
God, the creator and redeemer of the human race, who wishes us to walk along the paths of justice toward the promises of eternal life, since temptations would always be present to oppose us as treacherous obstacles on the way of virtue, he has endowed us with many defenses, dearly beloved, with which to trample the devil’s snares. Among these, he bestowed this most salutary means upon his servants, so that they might arm themselves against all the enemy’s wiles with courage and the works of mercy. …
he instructed us with an understanding of a most salutary observance, prescribing for us certain days of fast through the course of the seasons, on which the strength of our souls may be confirmed by the chastisement of our bodies. 2. A duty to apply this remedy, dearly beloved, has also been laid down in this month of September, which it befits us to undertake it with a readily and eagerly, so that apart from that abstinence by which one might discipline himself individually and privately, according to the degree of his own ability, this abstinence (which has been appointed for us all) should be celebrated more devotedly.
For in every contest of the Christian struggle, the use of self-restraint has very great value, such that certain spirits of the most fierce demons, which are not been driven out of possessed bodies by the commands of any exorcists, have been expelled solely by the power of fasting and prayers, as the Lord said, ‘This kind of demon is cast out only by prayer and fasting.’ (Mark 9, 28) Therefore, the prayer of someone fasting is pleasing to God, and terrifying to the devil…”
The words of the Lord cited above, “This kind of demon is cast out only by prayer and fasting,” come from the Gospel for today’s Ember day Mass, Mark 9, 16-28. This may indicate that this Gospel was already a part of the Roman liturgical tradition when Pope Leo preached this sermon in the mid-5th century. But of course, it might also be that the compiler of the Roman Mass lectionary was inspired to make this choice by Pope Leo’s sermon.
The word “laterculus”, the diminutive form of the third declension masculine noun “later – a brick”, is one of Latin’s most curious examples of semantic evolution. Already in the early 2nd century BC., it had come to mean a small cake or biscuit shaped like a brick or tile, as attested in Plautus’ Poenulus (“the Little Carthaginian”), 1, 2, 115. Among surveyors, on the other hand, it meant a tile-shaped piece of land. (Lewis and Short ad vocem.)
In the Christian era, the word evolved in a completely different direction. Small bricks or tiles of stone or terracotta were very often used to inscribe lists of various kinds, such as a calendar of events or a list of provinces. The word therefore changed to mean “a list or register”, regardless of the material on which the list was written or inscribed. Thus at the end of the second century A.D., Tertullian writes, “Vos certe estis, qui etiam in laterculum septem dierum solem recepistis – you certainly are the ones who also took the sun onto the list of seven days.” (Ad Nationes, 1, 13, 3) From this derives “laterculensis – a keeper of lists or registrar”, which appears in the Code of Justinian. At the same time, it also came to mean an abacus; in his commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel (4.1), St Jerome says that the Greek word πλίνθιον (itself a diminutive of a Greek word for “brick”), can be translated as either “laterculus” or “abacus.” (A. Souter, A Glossary of Later Latin, ad voces.)
For Christians, one of the most important lists of all was the “computus”, the cyclical list of the dates of Easter; thus for St Isidore in his Etymologies (6.17.4), the neuter form “laterculum” becomes a synonym for the computes: “Hinc et laterculum dictum, quod ordinem habeat stratum annorum. – Hence it is called a list (or ‘table’) because it has the order of the years laid out in rows.”
Several lists called “laterculi” in ancient or medieval manuscripts provide important historical information about the classical world. The Laterculus Veronensis, preserved in a single manuscript of the 7th century, now at the library of Verona Cathedral, gives the names of the roughly 100 provinces into which the Roman Empire was divided by the reforms of Diocletian in the later 3rd or early 4th century, grouped into twelve “dioceses”, six eastern and six western. (This division would form the basis of the division of the Empire into two parts, which would become permanent under Theodosius at the end of the fourth century.)
Another laterculus, qualified as “Malalianus”, is a work of the later 7th century attributed to St Theodore of Tarsus, the Greek archbishop of Canterbury whom we noted yesterday on the anniversary of his death. Its name comes from a Byzantine author of the 6th century, John Malalas, from whose Chronographia most of the material in the first half is taken, a history of the world from Adam to the Emperor Justinian. The second half is an original exegetical work about the life of Christ, which concludes with a chronology of the Roman Emperors based on Malalas. In The ‘Laterculus Malalianus’ and the School of Archbishop Theodore, (Cambridge, 1995) Prof. Jane Stevenson presents a case that this work shows a marked influence of Syrian theology. This is best explained, she contends, by attributing it to Theodore, who was from the region of Antioch and Edessa in Syria. While she recognizes in the book that her case is circumstantial, it has won broad scholarly acceptance. The author explains his purpose thus in the first chapter:
“Nunc igitur – si placet, ut certum sit – ipsa mundi consilia perquiramus: quo tempore, qua aetate mundi adfuerit Christus saluator in carne, cuius etiam consulatu adque imperio mundo in hoc agebatur in terris, dum e caelo Dei filius in utero uirginis uelut rex insederit thalamo.
Now, therefore – if it pleases you that it should be made certain – let us seek out the very counsels of the world: at what time, in which age of the world Christ the Savior came in the flesh; and also in whose consulship and reign he dwelled in this world and upon the earth, when the Son of God came from heaven to earth into the womb of a virgin like a king entering a bridal chamber.”
Lastly, we may note a similarly disparate evolution in the Greek word πλίνθιον cited above, which came to mean almost anything square or divisible into squares. Liddel and Scott’s Greek lexicon lists the following varied definitions: “a square of troops; a sundial; a bandage; a rectangular box; a checker-board; a table of numbers divided into squares; fields (specifically in a religious context); squares or checks of tartan; the front frame of a torsion-engine; the case or chamber in which mechanism is fitted; (any) rectangle.”
Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most interesting characters in the history of the English people, a seventh-century archbishop of Canterbury named Theodore. His life and career perfectly show the endurance of the transnational culture created by the Roman Empire, and the role that culture played in spreading the Gospel, which St John XXIII spoke of in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia.
Theodore was born ca. 602 in southeast Asia Minor at Tarsus, more famous as the birthplace of St Paul. Little is known of his early life, but it seems clear that if he did not move west when his region was invaded by the Persians in 613-14, he certainly did when it was taken by the Arabs in 637. It has been guessed that before this, he was educated at Antioch and possibly also Edessa. After living in Constantinople for many years as a monk, but not a priest, he moved to Rome. Despite the disintegration of the Empire, and the city’s very considerable drop in population, the ancient capital was still very much a crossroads of humanity, and Theodore settled in one of the Greek monastic communities that were still numerous there. He learned Latin and became as familiar with its literature as he was with that of his native language.
In 664, the first native English archbishop of Canterbury, St Deusdedit, died. The see had been founded less than 70 years earlier by Roman monks whom Pope St Gregory the Great had sent to England, and the new English hierarchy still felt a strong dependence on Rome. His successor, Wighard, was therefore sent to Rome to be consecrated, but died before this could happen. Pope Vitalian wished to nominate in his place a Benedictine abbot from Naples named Adrian, who refused the honor, and recommended Theodore in his place. St Vitalian accepted on condition that Adrian go with him as an adviser. Thus did a Greek from Asia Minor, who could boast that he was a fellow-citizen of one of the authors of the New Testament, and had perhaps studied in the place where the word “Christian” was invented, find himself bishop of a see more than 2,200 miles from his birthplace. Adrian was in origin a North African Berber; his specific birth place is unknown, but the chief see of that region, Carthage, is well over 1,200 miles away from Canterbury.
Theodore was highly successful as archbishop, and helped to give the organization of the church in England a permanent form which in many ways would endure until the Reformation, nearly nine centuries later. He made Adrian abbot of the monastery of Ss Peter and Paul in Canterbury, (later renamed for St Augustine, the leader of St Gregory’s English mission), and together they established a school there, of which St Bede the Venerable writes:
“Et quia litteris sacris simul et saecularibus … abundanter ambo erant instructi, congregata discipulorum caterua, scientiae salutaris cotidie flumina inrigandis eorum cordibus emanabant; ita ut etiam metricae artis, astronomiae, et arithimeticae ecclesiasticae disciplinam inter sacrorum apicum uolumina suis auditoribus contraderent. Indicio est, quod usque hodie supersunt de eorum discipulis, qui Latinam Grecamque linguam aeque ut propriam, in qua nati sunt, norunt. Neque umquam prorsus, ex quo Brittaniam petierunt Angli, feliciora fuere tempora; dum et fortissimos Christianosque habentes reges cunctis barbaris nationibus essent terrori, et omnium uota ad nuper audita caelestis regni gaudia penderent, et quicumque lectionibus sacris cuperent erudiri, haberent in promtu magistros, qui docerent.
And because they were both very well instructed in both sacred and secular letters, … they gathered a group of disciples, and daily poured forth rivers of saving knowledge to water their hearts; and thus taught their students, together with the books of holy writ, the sacred disciplines of the arts of poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic. As a testimony of this is the fact to this very day, there are still living some of their students, who know Latin and Greek just as well as they know their native language. Nor were there ever happier times since the English came into Britain; since they had kings who were most brave and Christians, and were a terror to the barbarous nations, and the prayers of all men hung upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom of which they had just heard; and all who desired to be instructed in sacred reading had masters at hand to teach them.” (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, 4.2)
Many pupils of the school at Canterbury became bishops and abbots, and continued their teachers’ tradition of learning elsewhere. Theodore himself died in 690 at the age of 88, after serving as archbishop for twenty-two years. The success of his mission may be judged from these words of Christopher Dawson, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, who wrote this about Bede (671-735) as a product of the generation of scholars trained by Theodore and his contemporaries: “No one could guess from the study of his work that a man like Bede … was hardly two generations removed from pagan barbarism.” (Medieval Essays, p. 144)
As we noted on Wednesday, St Cyprian of Carthage was martyred on September 14th, 258, but his feast day is the 16th, bumped forward by the Exaltation of the Cross. Since at least the mid-6th century, the Roman Church has kept his feast jointly with Pope St Cornelius, who was martyred five years before him. This custom may derive at least in part from an erroneous statement of St Jerome (De viris illustribus 67) that they died on the same date, but it is also possible that that statement reflects what was already an established liturgical custom in the later 4th century.
In any case, their joint celebration also reflects their close collaboration in dealing with the two great crises that beset the Church in the mid-3rd century: the outbreak of the first general persecution in 250, and the thorny question that emerged from it of what to do about those who under threat of persecution, had denied their faith by sacrificing to the pagan gods, known as “lapsi – the lapsed”, or pretending to do so.
This persecution had caught the Church largely unawares, since previous persecutions had been local and sporadic, and by 250, had hardly occurred at all for about five decades. However, after the scandalously large number of lapsi in the first wave, the Roman Church saw none at all in the second wave in early 253, which prompted St Cyprian to write this letter of congratulations (Ep. 56) to his brother bishop Cornelius.
(Saints Anthony the Abbot, Cornelius and Cyprian, 1565-71, by Paolo Veronese. Cornelius is dressed in the gold cope, with the papal tiara next to him, Cyprian in red, the color of martyrs; Anthony, the titular Saint of the abbey for which this painting was made, sits above them wearing a green cope.)
“Cognovimus, frater carissime, fidei ac virtutis vestræ testimonia gloriosa: et confessionis vestræ honorem sic exsultanter accepimus, ut in meritis ac laudibus vestris nos quoque participes et socios computemus. Nam cum nobis et Ecclesia una sit, et mens juncta, et individua concordia; quis non sacerdos in consacerdotis sui laudibus tamquam in suis propriis gratuletur? aut quæ fraternitas non in fratrum gaudio ubique lætetur? Exprimi satis non potest, quanta istic exsultatio fuerit et quanta lætitia, cum de vobis prospera et fortia comperissemus, ducem te illic confessionis fratribus exstitisse; sed et confessionem ducis de fratrum confessione crevisse: ut dum præcedis ad gloriam, multos feceris gloriæ comites, et confessorem populum suaseris fieri, dum primus paratus es pro omnibus confiteri; ut non inveniamus quid prius prædicare in vobis debeamus, utrumnam tuam promptam et stabilem fidem, an inseparabilem fratrum caritatem. Virtus illic episcopi præcedentis publice comprobata est, adunatio sequentis fraternitatis ostensa est. Dum apud vos unus animus et una vox est, Ecclesia omnis Romana confessa est. Claruit, frater carissime, fides quam de vobis beatus Apostolus prædicavit. Hanc laudem virtutis et roboris firmitatem jam tunc in spiritu prævidebat, et præconio futurorum merita vestra contestans, dum parentes laudat, filios provocabat. Dum sic unanimes, dum sic fortes estis, magna et cæteris fratribus unanimitatis et fortitudinis exempla tribuistis. Docuistis granditer Deum timere, Christo firmiter adhærere, plebem sacerdotibus in periculo jungi, in persecutione fratres a fratribus non separari; concordiam simul junctam vinci omnino non posse; quidquid simul petitur a cunctis, Deum pacis pacificis exhibere.
We have learned, dearest brother, of the glorious testimonies of your faith and courage, and have received the honor of your confession with such exultation, that we count ourselves also among those who share in and are companions of your merits and praises. For as we have one Church, a mind united, and a concord undivided, what priest does not glory in the praises of his fellow-priest as if on his own; or what brotherhood would not rejoice in the joy of its brethren wherever they are? It cannot be sufficiently declared how great was the exultation here, and how great the joy,when we had heard of your success and bravery, that you had stood forth there as a leader of confession to the brethren; and, moreover, that the confession of the leader had increased by that of the brethren; so that, while you precede them to glory, you have made many your companions in glory, and have persuaded the people to become a confessor by being first prepared to confess on behalf of all; so that we are at a loss as to what we ought to commend in you first, whether your ready and unwavering faith, or your inseparable love of the brethren. Among you the courage of the bishop going before has been publicly proved, and the union of the brotherhood following has been shown. Since among you there is one mind and one voice, the whole Roman Church has confessed. The faith, dearest brother, which the blessed apostle commended in you has shone brightly. He even then in the spirit foresaw this praise of courage and firmness of strength; and, attesting your merits by the commendation of your future deeds, in praising the parents, he stirs on the children. While you are thus unanimous, while you are thus brave, you have given great examples both of unanimity and of bravery to the rest of the brethren. You have taught them to fear God greatly, to cling firmly to Christ; you have taught them that the people should be joined to the priests in peril; that the brethren should not be separated from brethren in persecution; that a concord, once established, can by no means be overcome; that the God of peace will grant to the peaceful whatever is at the same time asked by all.”
Cornelius himself was exiled to Centumcellae (the modern port city of Civitavecchia, about 50 miles up the coast from Rome), and died there in June of 253.
Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most interesting characters in the history of the English people, a seventh-century archbishop of