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Theodosius Augustus

A few days ago, we noted the anniversary of the granting of the title “Augustus” to the first Roman Emperor. On this day in 379, it was granted to one of the most important figures in late antiquity, the emperor Theodosius I. By this time, the Roman Empire had already been divided into two parts, East and West, and reunited more than once; Theodosius would be the last man to hold the title as ruler of both.

He was born in Spain around 347 to a lower-ranked aristocratic family; very little is known of his ancestry or the first years of his life. In his early twenties, he accompanied his father, also named Theodosius, the head of a military expedition to Britain, and then received his own command on the Danube frontier in the Balkans. In circumstances that remain unclear to modern historians, his father fell from imperial grace and was executed in 374, compelling the son to retire to the family’s estates in Spain. But another shift in the game of imperial politics overthrew those who had conspired against his father, and he was restored to his command about three years later.

In August of 378, while fighting against the invading Goths, the eastern Roman Emperor Valens was killed at the disastrous battle of Adrianople, along with many other prominent members of the Roman political and military hierarchy. This paved the way for Theodosius to be chosen by the Western emperor, Gratian, to take his place. Within a few years, he managed to bring peace with the Goths by settling them in the Roman lands south of the Danube, and recruiting them into the army. A year later, Gratian died, and although Theodosius still had various rivals and usurpers to contend with, he was now effectively sole emperor. He would eventually reinstitute the division of the empire into two halves, originally made by Diocletian, and leave one to each of his sons. From this point until the fall of the Western empire in 476, the division would remain.

In the mid-6th century, the historian Jordanes, himself a Goth, gave the following summary of Theodosius’ career in his work “On the Origin and Deeds of the Goths.” (De Origine Actibusque Getarum, 27-29 excerpta.)

“Sed Theodosio ab Spania Gratianus imperator electo et in orientali principatu loco Valentis patrui subrogato, militaremque disciplinam mox in meliori statu, reposita ignavia priorum principum et desidia exclusa, Gothus ut sensit, pertimuit. Nam inperator acri omnino ingenii virtuteque et consilio clarus dum praeceptorum saeveritate et liberalitate blanditiaque sua remissum exercitum ad fortia provocaret. At vero ubi milites principe meliore mutato fiduciam acceperunt, Gothos impetere temptant eosque Thraciae finibus pellunt. Sed Theodosio principe pene tunc usque ad disperationem egrotanti datur iterum Gothis audacia…Vbi vero post haec Theodosius convaluit imperator repperitque cum Gothis et Romanis Gratiano imperatore pepigisse quod ipse optaverat, admodum grato animo ferens et ipse in hac pace consensit, Aithanaricoque rege… datis sibi muneribus sociavit moribusque suis benignissimis ad se eum in Constantinopolim accedere invitavit. … Defuncto ergo Aithanarico cunctus eius exercitus in servitio Theodosii imperatoris perdurans Romano se imperio subdens cum milite velut unum corpus effecit… Postquam vero Theodosius amator pacis generisque Gothorum rebus excessit humanis coeperunt(que) eius filii utramque rem publicam … adnihilare…

(A gold solidus minted early in the reign of Thedosius; image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5)

But when Theodosius the Spaniard had been elected emperor in the Eastern Empire in place of his uncle Valens, the Emperor Gratian, when the Goths realized that military discipline was soon restored to a better level, and the cowardice and sloth of former princes was ended, they became afraid. For the Emperor was famed everywhere for acuteness and intelligence, while by the sternness of his commands, and by generosity and kindness, he encouraged a demoralized army to mighty deeds. But when the soldiers, who had gotten a better leader by the change, gained new confidence, they sought to attack the Goths and drive them from the borders of Thrace. But as the Emperor Theodosius fell so sick at this time that his life was almost despaired of, the Goths were again inspired with courage. But when the Emperor Theodosius afterwards recovered and found that the Emperor Gratian had made a compact between the Goths and the Romans, as he had himself desired, he took it very graciously and gave his assent. He gave gifts to King Athanaric… who made an alliance with him and in the most gracious manner invited him to visit him in Constantinople. … Now when Athanaric was dead, his whole army continued in the service of the Emperor Theodosius and submitted to the rule of Rome, forming as it were one body with the imperial soldiery. … But after Theodosius, the lover of peace and of the Gothic race, had passed from human affairs, his sons began to destroy both empires …”

St Anthony the Abbot and St Augustine

Yesterday, for the feast of St Anthony the Abbot, we noted that the Latin translation of his biography by St Athanasius of Alexandria made him one of the most popular and influential Saints in the West throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The most famous example of this influence comes from the autobiography of St Augustine, the Confessions. In book 8, 15 he writes that two officials of the imperial court (then at Trier, where Athanasius passed the first of his five exiles), on reading the life of Anthony, renounced their position and worldly ambitions to become monks, the one saying to the other,

“ ‘ego iam abrupi me ab illa spe nostra et Deo servire statui, et hoc ex hac hora, in hoc loco aggredior. Te si piget imitari, noli adversari.’ Respondit ille adhaerere se socium tantae mercedis tantaeque militiae.

‘Now I have broken loose from that hope of ours (for preferment in the court), and am resolved to serve God; and this I undertake from this hour, in this place. If thou like not to imitate me, do not oppose me.’ The other answered that he would cleave to him, and be his fellow in so great a reward and service.”

Not long after comes the crucial moment of Augustine’s own conversion (8.29).

“… flebam amarissima contritione cordis mei. et ecce audio vocem de vicina domo cum cantu dicentis et crebro repetentis, quasi pueri an puellae, nescio, “Tolle lege, tolle lege.’ Statimque mutato vultu intentissimus cogitare coepi utrumnam solerent pueri in aliquo genere ludendi cantitare tale aliquid. nec occurrebat omnino audisse me uspiam, repressoque impetu lacrimarum surrexi, nihil aliud interpretans divinitus mihi iuberi nisi ut aperirem codicem et legerem quod primum caput invenissem. Audieram enim de Antonio quod ex evangelica lectione cui forte supervenerat admonitus fuerit, tamquam sibi diceretur quod legebatur, ‘vade, vende omnia quae habes, et da pauperibus et habebis thesaurum in caelis; et veni, sequere me,’ et tali oraculo confestim ad te esse conversum. Itaque concitus redii in eum locum ubi sedebat Alypius: ibi enim posueram codicem apostoli cum inde surrexeram. arripui, aperui, et legi in silentio capitulum quo primum coniecti sunt oculi mei: ‘Non in comessationibus et ebrietatibus, non in cubilibus et impudicitiis, non in contentione et aemulatione, sed induite Dominum Iesum Christum, et carnis providentiam ne feceritis in concupiscentiis.’ Nec ultra volui legere nec opus erat, statim quippe cum fine huiusce sententiae quasi luce securitatis infusa cordi meo omnes dubitationis tenebrae diffugerunt.

(The “Tolle, lege” episode, 1463, by Benozzo Gozzoli; part of a cycle of the major episodes of St Augustine’s life in the choir chapel of the church dedicated to him in the town of San Gimignano, Italy. The man to the right is his boyhood friend St Alypius, who ended his days as bishop of their native place, the town of Tagaste in north Africa. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

… I was weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, and lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighboring house, chanting, and oft repeating, ‘Take up and read; take up and read.’ Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such a thing; nor could I remember ever having heard the like, and restraining the rush of tears, I rose up, interpreting it as nothing other than a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should come upon. For I had heard of Anthony, that, from a reading of the Gospel which he had come upon by chance, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, ‘Go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.’ (Matt 19, 2l) And by such oracle was he immediately converted unto You. (The addressee of the Confessions throughout is God.) So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the Apostle (Paul) when I got up from there. I took it, opened, and read in silence that chapter on which my eyes first fell: ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its lusts.’ (Rom. 13, 13-14) And I would not read further, nor did I need to, for immediately, with the end of this sentence, a light, as it were, of surety was infused into my heart, and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions 8.29)

St Anthony the Abbot, Terror of Demons

Today is the feast of one of the great founders of the Christian monastic and ascetic tradition, the Egyptian Saint Anthony (250 ca. – 356). In the West, he is often called Anthony the Abbot, to distinguish him from his namesake of Padua; in the East, he is simply “Anthony the Great.” Shortly after his death, St Athanasius (295 ca. – 373), the patriarch of Alexandria, wrote his biography in Greek; within less than 15 years, a priest named Evagrius translated this work into Latin. By means of this translation, Anthony became one of the most popular and influential Saints in the West throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

He was not the first monk or hermit, as Athanasius makes quite clear; and indeed, the Church honors a saint named Paul with the title “the First Hermit.” Anthony was ninety years old, and had been living as an ascetic for over 70 years, before he first met Paul, shortly before the latter’s death at the age of 113. He also had as a contemporary St Pachomius, who greatly honored in the East as the author of an important monastic rule. Nevertheless, Anthony may rightly be called the Father of Monasticism in the East, as St Benedict is in the West, for it was by his example, more than any other, that so many men and women of his own time and subsequent eras were inspired to embrace the monastic life.

(A 19th century Coptic icon of Ss Anthony and Paul; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Athanasius tells of many times when Anthony struggled against devils, both by resisting temptations, and suffering bodily harm that the devil was permitted to inflict upon him. On one such occasion, early in his life as an ascetic, “a multitude of demons … so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain.” He was discovered unconscious by the local villagers, who thought him dead, and brought him to their church. On recovering, he fearlessly returned to the place where he had been tormented, and

“post orationem clara voce dicebat, ‘Ecce hic sum ego Antonius, non fugio vestra certamina, etiamsi majora faciatis, nullus me separabit a charitate Christi.’ … bonorum hostis diabolus, admiratus quod post tot verbera fuisset ausus reverti, congregatis canibus suis, et proprio se furore dilanians, ‘Videtis, ait, quia nec spiritu fornicationis, nec corporis doloribus superatus, insuper audacter lacessit nos. Omnia arma corripite, acrius a nobis impugnandus est!’ … Sonitus igitur repentinus increpuit, ita ut loco funditus agitato, et parietibus patefactis, multifaria daemonum exinde turba se effunderet; nam et bestiarum et serpentium formas induentes, omnem protinus locum replevere phantasiis leonum, taurorum, luporum, aspidum, serpentium, scorpionum, necnon et pardorum atque ursorum. … Antonius flagellatus atque confossus sentiebat quidem asperiores corporis dolores, sed imperterritus durabat mente pervigili. Et licet gemitum vulnera carnis exprimerent, sensu tamen idem permanens, quasi de inimicis luderet, loquebatur, ‘Si virium aliquid haberetis, sufficeret unus ad praelium; sed quoniam Domino vos enervante frangimini, multitudine tentatis inferre terrores, cum hoc ipsum infirmitatis indicium sit, quod irrationabilium induitis formas bestiarum.’ … Multa contra sanctum Antonium minantes, fremebant dentibus suis, quod nullus eorum tentamenta consequeretur effectus, sed maxime e contrario gigneretur illusio.

(Triptych of the Temptations of St Anthony, ca. 1501, by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 ca – 1516); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

After prayer, he said in a loud voice, ‘Behold, here am I, Antony; I do not flee from any contest with you; even if you inflict greater ones, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.’ (Rom. 8, 39) … the enemy of all good, the devil, marveling that he had dared to return after so many blows, gathered his hounds and, tearing at himself in his fury, said, “You see that he is not overcome by the spirit of fornication, not by the pains of the body, and even dares to summon us! Seize all your arms; we must attack him the more harshly!” … Therefore, a sound suddenly burst forth, such that the whole place was shaken from its foundation, the walls were laid open, and a crowd of many sorts of demons poured forth from it; for putting on the forms of beasts and serpents, they immediately fill the whole places with the likeness of lions, bulls, wolves, asps, serpents, scorpions, as well as leopards and bears. … But Antony, though he was beaten and run through, and felt more harshly the pains of the body, still remained unshaken and watchful in mind, and though the wounds of the flesh made him groan, he remained the same in his senses, and as if he were mocking his enemies, said, ‘If you had any strength, one would be enough for the battle,  but since the Lord makes you weak and you are broken, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: though this itself shows your weakness, that you put on the forms of irrational beasts.” … Making many threats against St Anthony, they gnashed their teeth, since their assaults had no effect on him, but rather engendered mockery of themselves instead.”  (The Life of Anthony, chapter 8)

This passage and others of a similar vein in Athanasius’ biography have provided artists with the opportunity to indulge their strangest fantasies in depicting the demons who attack Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch, not surprisingly, painted a complete triptych on the subject (above), which was also tackled (also not surprisingly) by Salvador Dalí.


The First Emperor and the First Tsar

On this day in 27 BC, the first Roman emperor, Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavian, officially received the title “Augustus” from the Roman Senate, during his seventh consulship. This date is attested in a calendar originally set up in the very early first century in the public square of Praeneste, now known as Palestrina, a town about 22 miles east of Rome. On the Ides of January, it notes that the Senate had voted that a crown of oak be placed over the door of his home, because he had restored the Republic; this is most likely why Ovid in his Fasti says, mistakenly, that he was granted the title on this day.

The Greek historian Cassius Dio (53.16.8) comments on the choice of title as follows: “… when Caesar (i.e. Octavian) had actually carried out his promises (the fictitious restoration of the Republic), the name “Augustus” was at length bestowed upon him by the senate and by the people. For when they wished to call him by some distinctive title … Caesar was exceedingly desirous of being called ‘Romulus’, but when he perceived that this caused him to be suspected of desiring the kingship, he desisted from his efforts to obtain it, and took the title of ‘Augustus’, signifying that he was more than human; for all the most precious and sacred objects are termed augusta.”

In the famous inscription known as the “Res Gestae Divi Augusti – the Deeds of the Divine Augustus”, the man himself writes this about the event. (cap. 34)

“In consulatu sexto et septimo, bella ubi civilia exstinxeram per consensum universorum potitus rerum omnium, rem publicam ex mea potestate in senatus populique Romani arbitrium transtuli. Quo pro merito meo senatus consulto Augustus appellatus sum et laureis postes aedium mearum vestiti publice coronaque civica super ianuam meam  fixa est clupeusque aureus in curia Iulia positus, quem mihi senatum populumque Romanum dare virtutis clementiae iustitiae pietatis caussa testatum est per eius clupei inscriptionem. Post id tempus praestiti omnibus dignitate, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam qui fuerunt mihi quoque in magistratu conlegae.

In my sixth and seventh consul­ships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and the Roman people. For this service on my part I was given the title of Augustus by decree of the senate, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, and a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the senate and the Roman people gave me this in recognition of my valour, my clemency, my justice, and my piety. After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.”

(A famous statue of the Emperor Augustus, known as the Augustus of Primaporta, the location of its discovery. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Till Niermann.) 

It is said that history never repeats, but it often rhymes, and as an example of this, on this same day in 1547, the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan IV was crowned as the first “Tsar of All Russia.” His title is qualified as “of All Russia” because the Russians had long been divided into many principalities, which were now united under a single ruler. But even with the establishment of this monarchy, Latin documents still often referred to the new state as “Moscovia”, after the capital of the principality whose ruler became the tsar.

The title “tsar” was not invented for this occasion; it occurs in Church Slavonic translations of the Bible well before then. I make note of it in reference to Augustus not only because of the coincidence of date, but also because the word is derived from the Latin “Caesar”, the name of his uncle which Augustus had previously used as a title; the same is true of the German word “Kaiser.” For a sense of historical perspective, the last known military veterans to serve under the men who held these titles both died in 2008.

Ivan IV is also known by the epithet “Grozny – the Terrible”, which was given to him in the sense of “one who strikes awe into others”, but is also appropriate in the common sense of “very bad.” He was a brutal man who committed more than one purge of the nobility of the old principalities, allowed fierce oppression of the peasantry, and laid the foundations for totalitarian rule. In 1581, he murdered the oldest of his sons who had survived to adulthood, also called Ivan. Thus, when he died three years later, he was succeeded by his son Fyodor, who proved a weak and ineffectual ruler. In 1598, the latter’s death without issue not only brought the extinction of his dynasty, the Ruriks, who had ruled several states since 862 AD, but also plunged Russia into a fifteen-year-long catastrophe known as the Time of Troubles. Violent political disorders, coupled with three years of severe famine, reduced the country’s total population by almost one-third, according to modern estimates, and in some areas by half. This ended with the election of a new tsar in 1613, Michael Romanov, a relative of Ivan the Terrible’s first wife; the new dynasty would last until the revolution of 1917.

(Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 1883-5, by the Russian painter Ilya Repin, 1844-1930. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Two New Inscriptions in Honor of Pope Benedict XVI

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificu, which greatly liberalized permission to celebrate the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite. Less than a year later, he established a parish in Rome for the older rite, which he entrusted to the Fraternity of St Peter, at the church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims near the Ponte Sisto. This church was never previously a parish, but rather, the home of a religious confraternity established in the mid-16th century under the auspices of St Philip Neri, to take care of pilgrims visiting Rome. In recent years, the confraternity has begun to flourish again, and engages in many charitable activities on behalf of the poor.

Last Saturday, the church celebrated a funeral Mass for Pope Benedict, who passed away on the morning of December 31st. Following the standard custom of the usus antiquior, a large catafalque was set up in the church’s crossing, representing the deceased as if his body were present. After the Mass, a very beautiful prayer called the Absolution is said for the departed person, and the catafalque is incensed and sprinkled with holy water. This symbolizes the fact that the prayers of each individual congregation and its members all participate in the Church’s commendation of the soul of the deceased to God, even though they are not celebrating the funeral presente cadavere.

The catafalque was also decorated with two commendatory inscriptions in Latin, one on either side. Our thanks to the clergy of the parish for permission to share the text of the inscriptions and these photos.

Aeternae memoriae Benedicti XVI Pontificis Maximi, moderatoris de sacra liturgia solliciti, qui Non. Iul. an. sal. MMVII litteris apostolicis motu proprio datis Summorum Pontificum, ut debita reverentia erga divinum cultum denuo instauraretur sacra mysteria iuxta antecedents maiorum usus servanda decrevit. Parochus et fideles hoc grati animi monumentum reliquerunt.

To the everlasting memory of Pope Benedict XVI, a judicious moderator of the sacred liturgy, who on July 7, in the Year of Salvation 2007 [1], by the Apostolic letter given motu proprio [2], titled Summorum Pontificum, decreed that the sacred mysteries were to be kept according to the prior customs of our forefathers, so that due reverence for the worship of God might again be restored. The parish priest and faithful have left this monument as a witness of their gratitude.

Benedicti XVI Pontificis Maximi auctoritate a.d. x kal. Apr. an. sal. MMVIII, die Resurrectionis Dominicae, per decretum Vicarii Urbis Camilli S.R.E. Presb. Card. Ruini, templum ad peregrinos accipiendos labore ac pietate S Philippi Nerii olim extructum in paroeciam cum cura fidelium priscis ritibus liturgicis adhaerentium sub titulo Ss Trinitias Peregrinoum ad maiorem Dei gloriam erectum est.

By the authority of Pope Benedict XVI, on March 23, in the Year of Salvation 2008, on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, by decree of the vicar of the city Camillo Cardinal Ruini [3], the church formerly built by the effort and piety of St Philip Neri to receive pilgrims was erected as parish with care of the faithful who are attached to the earlier liturgical rites, under the title of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims, for the greater glory of God.

[1] In Latin inscriptions of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, various permutations of “anno salutis – in the year of salvation” are often used instead of “anno Domini.” This custom was especially common in Italy.     

[2] This is a technical term for a law issued by the Pope “of his own initiative”, rather than one issued after consultation with the various departments of the Roman Curia.

[3] The cardinal vicar is the bishop who takes care of the diocese of Rome on behalf of the Pope. Every cardinal has either an episcopal see close to Rome of which he is formally the head, or a church in Rome of which he is formally the archpriest or deacon. Hence the title in Latin “cardinalis presbyter – cardinal priest”, which I have omitted in the English version to avoid a clumsy translation. When the decree mentioned here was issued, His Excellency Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, was the cardinal archpriest of the Pope’s cathedral, St John in the Lateran. He retired from both of these positions on June 27, 2008.

Alea Jacta Est!

January 10th is traditionally said to be the day on which Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, precipitating the great civil war that began the end of the Roman Republic, and its transformation into an empire. I say “traditionally”, however, because the exact date is not reported in any ancient source, but is rather reconstructed from what is known about the events in question.

The Rubicon was the boundary between the province of Italy and that of Cisalpine Gaul, the latter being Caesar’s field of military action for the previous decade. Since it was illegal for a commander to bring an army into Italia, and the Senate had ordered him to stand down from his command and disband his army, this action was effectively a double defiance of the Republic, and a declaration of war against it. Had he been defeated and captured by the forces supporting the Senate in its opposition to him, he would certainly have suffered the ignominious death of a traitor. Caesar was thus committing himself at this point to either achieve complete political domination of the Republic by military means, and hence its effective overthrow, or die trying.

It was on this occasion, therefore, that Caesar famously pronounced the words which Suetonius reports (Divus Julius 32) as “Alea jacta est – the die is cast”, which is now a proverbial expression in many languages for reaching a point of no return. Plutarch, however, in his Parallel Lives, claims that Caesar said them in Greek, quoting the comic poet Menander, and in a slightly different grammatical form: “ἀνερρίφθω κύβος – let the die be cast.”

(Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, 1875, by French painter Adolphe Yvon (1817-93). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Either way, perhaps the strangest thing about this affair is that the precise cause of the conflict, in terms of WHY Caesar felt the need to do this, is not clear, and was not clear in antiquity. Two chapters before the crossing of the Rubicon, Suetonius discusses various explanations for his behavior. The last of these is a direct and cited quotation from the De Officiis, a philosophical treatise on political ethics written by Cicero in the latter months of 44 BC, after Caesar’s assassination.

“Quidam putant captum imperii consuetudine, pensitatisque suis et inimicorum viribus, usum occasione rapiendae dominationis, quam aetate prima concupisset. Quod existimasse videbatur et Cicero scribens de Officiis tertio libro semper Caesarem in ore habuisse Euripidis versus, quos sic ipse convertit: nam si violandum est ius, regnandi gratia, violandum est: aliis rebus pietatem colas. (εἴπερ γὰρ ἀδικεῖν χρή, τυραννίδος πέρι / κάλλιστον ἀδικεῖν, τἄλλα δ᾽ εὐσεβεῖν χρεών.)

Some think that he was seized by habit of ruling, and that, weighing his own strength and that of his enemies, he used the opportunity to seize domination, which had lusted. (“Concupire” is a highly negative word in Latin.) This seems to have been the estimation of Cicero as well, when he wrote in the third book of the De Officiis that Caesar always had upon his lips these verses of Euripides (Phoenissae, 524-5), which he himself translated thus: ‘If, for the sake of ruling, the law must be violated, then it must be violated; in all other matters, keep to duty.’ ”

Cicero’s attempt at delicacy in the original passage, which names neither Caesar nor Pompey, did not, of course, stave off his eventual proscription and execution after the defeat of Caesar’s assassins, and the ascent to power of his supporters.

“Est ergo ulla res tanti aut commodum ullum tam expetendum, ut viri boni et splendorem et nomen amittas? Quid est, quod afferre tantum utilitas ista, quae dicitur, possit, quantum auferre, si boni viri nomen eripuerit, fidem iustitiamque detraxerit? Quid enim interest, utrum ex homine se convertat quis in beluam an hominis figura immanitatem gerat beluae? Quid? qui omnia recta et honesta neglegunt, dummodo potentiam consequantur, nonne idem faciunt, quod is, qui etiam socerum habere voluit eum, cuius ipse audacia potens esset. Utile ei videbatur plurimum posse alterius invidia. Id quam iniustum in patriam et quam turpe esset, non videbat. Ipse autem socer in ore semper Graecos versus de Phoenissis habebat, quos dicam ut potero; incondite fortasse sed tamen, ut res possit intellegi: ‘Nam si violandum est ius, regnandi gratia, violandum est; aliis rebus pietatem colas.’

Is there, then, any object of such value or any advantage so worth winning that one should sacrifice the reputation and name of a good man? What is there that so‑called expediency can bring which is as great as what it takes away, if it steals from you the name of a good man, and strips you of the sense of honor and justice? For what difference does it make whether a man changes himself into a beast, or bears savagery of a beast under the figure of a man? Again, those who disregard all that is right and honest as long as they secure power, are they not doing the same as he who wished to have as a father-in‑law that man by whose effrontery he might gain power for himself? (This refers to Pompey, who married Caesar’s daughter.) It seemed to him advantageous to secure supreme power by the odium which fell upon another; and he did not see how unjust this was to his country this was, and how wrong morally. But the father-in‑law himself used to always have on his lips the Greek verses from the Phoenissae… ‘If, for the sake of ruling, the law must be violated, then it must be violated; in all other matters, keep to duty.’ ”

A Sermon of Pope St Leo the Great on the Epiphany

The friend and mentor of many of us at VSI, Fr Reginald Foster, was a great admirer of the writings of Pope St Leo I, and liked to say that “all you need to know about theology, you can find in Leo’s glorious Latin!” This is a little bit of hyperbole (a rhetorical device at which Fr Foster excelled), but Leo’s Latin is certainly as beautiful as his theology is profound, and we can hardly do better than to turn to him when we wish to learn about the Church’s great feast days. Here then is excerpt from one of his sermons on today’s feast day of the Epiphany, which is traditionally read in the Roman breviary.

“Gaudete in Domino, dilectissimi, iterum dico, gaudete: quoniam brevi intervallo temporis, post solemnitatem Nativitatis Christi, festivitas declarationis ejus illuxit: et quem in illo die Virgo peperit, in hoc mundus agnovit. Verbum enim caro factum, sic susceptionis nostræ temperavit exordia, ut natus Jesus et credentibus manifestus, et persequentibus esset occultus. Jam tunc ergo cæli enarraverunt gloriam Dei, et in omnem terram sonus veritatis exivit, quando et pastoribus exercitus Angelorum Salvatoris editi annuntiator apparuit, et Magos ad eum adorandum prǽvia stella perduxit: ut a solis ortu usque ad occasum veri Regis generatio coruscaret, cum rerum fidem et regna Orientis per Magos discerent, et Romanum imperium non lateret.

Nam et sævitia Herodis volens primordia suspecti sibi Regis exstinguere, huic dispensationi nesciens serviebat: ut dum atroci intentus facinori, ignotum sibi puerum indiscreta infantium cæde persequitur, annuntiatum cǽlitus dominatoris ortum insignior ubique fama loqueretur: … Tunc autem etiam Ægypto Salvator illatus est, ut gens antiquis erroribus dedita, jam ad vicinam salutem per occultam gratiam signaretur: et quæ nondum ejecerat ab animo superstitionem, jam hospitio reciperet veritatem.

Agnoscamus ergo, dilectissimi, in Magis adoratoribus Christi, vocationis nostræ fideique primitias: et exsultantibus animis beatæ spei initia celebremus. Exinde enim in æternam hereditatem coepimus introire: exinde nobis Christum loquentia Scripturarum arcana patuerunt, et veritas … omnibus nationibus lumen suum invexit. Honoretur itaque a nobis sacratissimus dies, in quo salutis nostræ Auctor apparuit: et quem Magi infantem venerati sunt in cunabulis, nos omnipotentem adoremus in cælis. Ac sicut illi de thesauris suis mysticas Domino munerum species obtulerunt, ita et nos de cordibus nostris, quæ Deo sunt digna, promamus.

(The Monforte Altarpiece; ca. 1470, by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (1435 ca. – 1482))

Rejoice in the Lord, dearly beloved; again I say, rejoice, for after the passage of a brief time since the solemnity of Christ’s Birth, the feast of His Manifestation has shone upon us, and in it, the world has recognized Him whom the Virgin bore on that day. For the Word become Flesh arranged the beginnings of the taking on of our nature in such wise that when Jesus was born, He was both revealed to believers, and hidden from persecutors. Therefore, then already did the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the sound of truth went out into all the earth, when the host of angels appeared to announce the Savior’s birth to the shepherds; and the star went forth and led the Magi to adore Him; so that from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Birth of the true King might shine forth, since the kingdoms of the East learned the truth of these matters through the Magi, and they did not lay hidden from the Roman Empire.

For even the savagery of Herod, wishing to destroy at His birth the King Whom he feared, served this arrangement unknowingly, so that while he was intent upon the atrocious crime, and sought out the boy unknown to him by the indiscriminate slaughter of infants, the report (of his action) spoke the more clearly of the Birth of the Lord proclaimed from heaven, … Then also was the Savior taken into Egypt, so that a nation given over to ancient errors might already be marked through hidden grace for the salvation drawn nigh, and receive the truth in hospitality, though it had not yet cast away superstition from its mind.

Let us therefore, dearly beloved, recognize in the wise men who worshipped Christ the first fruits of our calling and our faith, and with rejoicing souls, celebrate the beginnings of our blessed hope. For it was from that time that we begin to enter into the eternal inheritance; from then did the secrets of the Scriptures that speak of Christ lie open to us, and … the truth brought its light unto all the nations. Therefore, let this most holy day be honored by us, on which the author of our Salvation appeared, and let us adore the Almighty in Heaven, whom the Magi venerated as an infant in His crib. And just as they offered from their treasures gifts of spiritual meaning, so also let us bring forth from our hearts those things which are worthy of God.”

The Deed of Pope Benedict XVI’s Burial

Earlier today, the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who passed away on the morning of New Year’s Eve, was celebrated in the Piazza San Pietro. He will be interred in the grotto of the Vatican basilica, in the same place where first St John XXIII, and later St John Paul II, were previously buried, before they were beatified and their relics brought up to the church. As is customary, a deed of the principal acts of his papacy has been composed in Latin, which is then written on parchment, sealed into a glass bottle, and buried along with the body. This was customarily done not only for popes, but also for cardinals and secular dignitaries of all kinds. Here are some excerpts from the newest example; the full text can be read on the official Vatican website.

(His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, during his Apostolic visit to Brazil in May of 2007. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Agência BrasilCC BY 3.0 BR)

“In lumine Christi a mortuis Resurgentis, die tricesimo primo mensis Decembris anno Domini bismillesimo vicesimo secundo, hora nona, triginta quattuor momentis elapsis, ante meridiem, dum annus ad finem vergebat et iam ad Te Deum canendum parati eramus propter diversa beneficia a Domino concessa, Ecclesiae dilectus Pastor emeritus, Benedictus XVI, de hoc mundo ad Patrem migravit. Eius transitum tota Ecclesia orans una cum Summo Pontifice Francisco comitata est.

Benedictus XVI ducentesimus sexagesimus quintus fuit Pontifex. Cuius memoria in universae Ecclesiae atque omnium hominum cordibus perseverans manet. Iosephus Aloisius Ratzinger, die undevicesimo mensis Aprilis anno bismillesimo quinto Summus Pontifex electus, in vico v.d. Marktl am Inn, intra fines dioecesis Passaviensis, die decimo sexto mensis Aprilis anno millesimo nongentesimo vicesimo septimo ortus est. Pater eius munere publici ministri fungebatur, ex agricolarum Bavariae inferioris familia natus, cuius fortuna admodum erat exigua. Mater opificum de vico v.d. Rimsting ad lacum Chiemense erat filia, quae ante nuptias opus coquae varia apud deversoria exercuerat. Infantiam et adolescentiam in vico v.d. Traunstein deguit, parvo oppido prope Austriae fines, quod triginta circiter chilometra a Salisburgo aberat, ubi institutione sua christiana, humana et culturali exornatus est. …

Pontificatus sui fulcrum Benedictus Pp XVI propositum Dei et fidei posuit, necnon perseverantem vultus Domini Iesu Christi perquisitionem, ad cuius cognitionem omnes adiuvit opere potissimum suo, cui titulus Iesus de Nazareth, in tria volumina diviso. Ampla altaque doctrina biblica ac theologica praeditus, mira facultate enituit perspicua de summis capitibus doctrinae et spiritualitatis compendia concipiendi, sicut et de hodiernae aetatis vita Ecclesiae et humano cultu praecipuis. …

Doctrinae magisterium Benedicti Pp XVI in tribus Litteris encyclicis Deus caritas est …, Spe salvi … et Caritas in veritate … expositum videtur. Ecclesiae quattuor Adhortationes Apostolicas tradidit, plurimas Constitutiones Apostolicas, Litteras Apostolicas, praeter catecheses in Audientiis Generalibus et Allocutionibus habitis, additis illis in viginti quattuor itineribus Apostolicis ubique per orbem pronuntiatis.


In the light of Christ risen from the dead, on 31 December in the year of our Lord 2022, at 9:34 a.m., as the year came to an end and we were ready to sing the Te Deum for the many benefits granted by the Lord, the beloved Pastor Emeritus of the Church, Benedict XVI, passed from this world to the Father. The entire Church together with the Holy Father Francis in prayer accompanied his transit.

Benedict XVI was the 265th Pope. His memory endures in the hearts of the whole Church and of all men. Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger, who was elected Pope on April 19, 2005, was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, in the diocese of Passau (Germany). His father was a public official and came from a farming family in Lower Bavaria, of modest economic resources. His mother was the daughter of artisans from Rimsting on the shore of Lake Chiem, and before marrying she worked as a cook in a number of hotels. He spent his childhood and adolescence in Traunstein, a small village near the Austrian border, about thirty kilometres from Salzburg, where he received his Christian, human and cultural education. …

Pope Benedict XVI placed the theme of God and the Faith at the center of his pontificate, and the continuous search for the face of the Lord Jesus Christ, and helped all men to know Him especially by his work in three volumes Jesus of Nazareth.

Endowed with vast and profound biblical and theological knowledge, he was outstanding in his ability to formulate clear syntheses on the principal doctrinal and spiritual themes, as well as on crucial issues in the life of the Church and contemporary culture. …

Benedict XVI’s doctrinal magisterium is summarized in the three Encyclicals Deus caritas est …, Spe salvi … and Caritas in veritate (29 June 2009). He gave to the Church four Apostolic Exhortations, numerous Apostolic Constitutions and Apostolic Letters, as well as the Catecheses held at the General Audiences and the allocutions, including those delivered during his twenty-four apostolic journeys around the world.”

Tertullian on the Persecutors of the Church

The Roman Martyrology notes today as the commemoration of a martyr named Mavilus, who was killed at Hadrumetum, a city on the north African coast about 60 miles south of Carthage, by being thrown to wild beasts in the public arena. This took place during a persecution in 212 AD instigated by Scapula, the proconsul of Africa, under the emperor Septimius Severus.

The only source of information about Mavilus is a passing reference in an open letter to Scapula by the Christian writer Tertullian. (ca. 155-220 A.D.) Even though he died outside the peace of the Church as a member of an heretical sect, Tertullian remained very influential in the Latin-speaking church, and is regarded as the first of the Latin Fathers. St Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in the mid-3rd century, used to refer to him simply as “the master”, and would never pass a day without reading something from his writings.

In the letter to Scapula, Tertullian reminds him of the many persecutors of the Church who had come to a bad end, a theme picked up at the very end of the age of persecutions by Lactantius. However, he does so not as a threat or in a spirit of vengeance, but out of concern for the welfare of the persecutors themselves. This passage alone would suffice to show the newness of the spirit which Christianity brought to the Roman empire, the willingness to forgiveness one’s enemies, as the Lord Himself commanded. This was, of course, dismissed by most Romans no more than weakness, but Tertullian understood that it was a weakness that was strong enough to conquer their world. One of his most famous dicta, from his Apology for the Christian faith, states this with a lapidary simplicity: “Hesterni sumus, et omnia vestra implevimus. – We (i.e. the Christians) are of yesterday, and we have already filled everything that was yours.”

(The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1883, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

“…qui videntur sibi impune tulisse, venient in diem divini judicii. Tibi quoque optamus admonitionem solam fuisse, quod cum Adrimeticum Mavilum ad bestias damnasses, et statim haec vexatio subsecuta est, et nunc ex eadem caussa interpellatio sanguinis. …

Non te terremus, qui nec timemus: sed velim, ut omnes salvos facere possimus, monendo μὴ θεομαχεῖν. Potes et officio jurisdictionis tuae fungi, et humanitatis meminisse, vel quia et vos sub gladio estis. …

Magistrum neminem habemus, nisi Deum solum. Hic ante te est, nec abscondi potest, sed cui nihil facere possis. Caeterum quos putas tibi magistros, homines sunt et ipsi morituri quandoque. Nec tamen deficiet haec secta, quam tunc magis aedificari scias, cum caedi videtur. Quisque enim tantam tolerantiam spectans, ut aliquo scrupulo percussus, et inquirere accenditur, quid sit in causa, et ubi cognoverit veritatem, et ipse statim sequitur.

… the persecutors who seem to themselves to have acted with impunity will come to the day of divine judgment. For you we wish that it may prove to have been only a warning, that immediately after you had condemned Mavilus of Adrumetum to the wild beasts, you were overtaken by those troubles, and that even now for the same reason you are called to a blood-reckoning. …

We do not seek to frighten you, and we also do not fear you; but I would that we could save all men by warning them not to fight with God. You can perform the duties of your charge, and yet remember the claims of humanity, if on no other ground than that you are liable to punishment yourself.

We have no master but God. He is before you, and cannot be hidden from you, but to Him you can do nothing. For the rest, those whom you regard as masters (i.e. the emperors) are only men, and one day will themselves die. And yet still this community will not fail, which you should know is then being built up when it seems that it is being destroyed. For whoever witnesses the great patience (of its martyrs), as if struck with misgivings, is inflamed with desire to examine the matter in question; and as soon as he learns the truth, at once begins to follow it.” (ad Scapulam, 3 in fine, 4 in init. 5 in fine)

The Birth of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on this day in the year 106 BC, in a town in southern Lazio called Arpinum. This was also the birthplace of the famous Gaius Marius, who held the consulship seven times in the late 2nd and early 1st century BC, and an unverified tradition claims Augustus’ lieutenant Marcus Agrippa as a native son. From this comes a motto often associated with the town, “Hinc ad imperium – from here to empire.” Cicero himself liked to note that both he and Marius, although they were not natives of Rome, and therefore famously regarded (and by many despised) as “new men”, proved to be saviors of the city, Marius in the Cimbrian War, and Cicero in the Catilinarian conspiracy.

(A statue of Cicero in the central piazza of the modern town of Arpino; image from Wikimedia Commons by pietro scerrato, CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is difficult to overstate the importance of his influence on the Latin language. The definition of “proper Latin” as that of Cicero has too often been exaggerated, to the needless despite of other perfectly good expressions of the language. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that it was he above all others who transformed it into the powerful medium for the writings of so many different cultures and eras that it has been for over two millennia.

In one sense, then, it is rather ironic that one of the most important sources for his life, and especially his early life, is a Greek work, the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, who pairs him with the great Athenian orator Demosthenes. But in another, this is highly appropriate, since it was the Greek language and philosophical tradition that formed so much of Cicero’s work as both an orator and writer.

Here is an excerpt from the Latin translation given in a bilingual edition of Plutarch, published in England in 1723. It was, of course, taken for granted that Latin was the medium by which an educated person might approach the Greek language, a fact which itself testifies to the extraordinary endurance of Cicero’s legacy.

“Editum ferunt Ciceronem, facili partu et nullo matris dolore, tertio Nonas Januarias; quo die magistratus nunc vota faciunt et sacrificant pro incolumitate principis. Nutrici ejus spectrum aiunt se obtulisse, ac praedixisse ingens eam bonum omnibus Romanis nutrire. Hac quum somnia esse et vana alioquin viderentur, ipse brevi ostendit certum fuisse oraculum. Nam ubi literarum fuit per aetatem capax, tanta in eo eluxit indoles, tantumque nomen inter pueros et laudem comparavit, quae parentes eorum excitaret ut ad ludum pergerent ad Ciceronem oculis contemplandum, celebratumque ejus in discendo acumen et solertiam considerandam: agrestiores succenserent filiis, quum cernerent in media eos caterva Ciceronem honoris causa per vias stipantes. Hic quum esset, qualem esse Plato vult studiosam et philophophiae naturam amantem, ad omnes natus artes complectendas, nec ad ullum doctrinae aut eruditionis praetereundum genus, ad poesim sane fuit proclivior. Extat poema quoddam parvum, quod puer etiamnum edidit, Pontius Glaucus, versibus tetrametris compositum. Progressu temporis, quum magis ac magis hoc studium excoleret, non modo orator habitus est, sed et poeta inter Romanos praetantissimus. Caeterum laus oratoria, licet multa in dicendo novata fuerint, vel hac manet aetate: poetica vero, quia multi ei insignes successerunt, neglecta jacet et obsoleta.

(The Young Cicero Reading, ca. 1464, by Vincenzo Foppa; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

It is said that Cicero was born, without travail or pain on the part of his mother, on the third day of the new kalends,​ the day on which at the present time the magistrates offer sacrifices and prayers for the health of the emperor. It would seem also that a phantom appeared to his nurse and foretold that her charge would be a great blessing to all the Romans. And although these presages were thought to be mere dreams and idle fancies, he soon showed them to be true prophecy; for when he was of an age for taking lessons, his natural talent shone out clear and he won name and fame among the boys, so that their fathers used to visit the schools in order to see Cicero with their own eyes and observe the quickness and intelligence in his studies for which he was extolled, though the ruder ones among them were angry at their sons when they saw them walking with Cicero placed in their midst as a mark of honor. And although he showed himself, as Plato​ thought a nature should do which was fond of learning and fond of wisdom, capable of welcoming all knowledge and incapable of slighting any kind of literature or training, he lent himself with somewhat greater ardour to the art of poetry. And a little poem which he wrote when a boy is still extant, called Pontius Glaucus, and composed in tetrameter verse. Moreover, as he grew older and applied himself with greater versatility to such accomplishments, he got the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet among the Romans. His fame for oratory abides to this day, although there have been great innovations in style; but his poetry, since many gifted poets have followed him, has altogether fallen into neglect and disrepute.”


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