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Pliny the Younger and the Eruption of Mt Vesuvius

Yesterday and the day before, we marked the anniversary of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius with some excerpts from a letter which Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend, the historian Tacitus. This letter recounts the attempt of his uncle and namesake to rescue people from the town of Stabiae, a mission which ended in his death. At the conclusion of the letter, Pliny begin an account of the disaster from his own point of view, but then breaks off saying that he would omit that part, since Tacitus had only asked about his uncle’s fate. Tacitus’ reply does not survive, but we know from a second letter of Pliny (6.20) that he was anxious to hear the story from the latter’s point of view as well.

Pliny had stayed behind at Misenum, the headquarters of the Roman fleet where he lived with his uncle and mother. Following the eruption, which had begun early in the afternoon, the area was shaken with increasingly intense earthquakes. After passing a rough night in the courtyard of their villa, for fear that the building itself might collapse on top of them, they decided to leave the city. His description of a tsunami effect often observed in such situations, by which the sea retreats from the shore, is particularly interesting.

“Tum demum excedere oppido visum; sequitur vulgus attonitum, quodque in pavore simile prudentiae, alienum consilium suo praefert, ingentique agmine abeuntes premit et impellit. Egressi tecta consistimus. Multa ibi miranda, multas formidines patimur. … mare in se resorberi et tremore terrae quasi repelli videbamus. Certe processerat litus, multaque animalia maris siccis harenis detinebat. Ab altero latere nubes atra et horrenda ignei spiritus tortis vibratisque discursibus rupta, in longas flammarum figuras dehiscebat; fulguribus illae et similes et maiores erant.

(A satellite view of the bay of Naples. Misenum, where Pliny the Elder was stationed, and from which Pliny the Younger fled, as narrated in this letter, is at the bottom of the peninsula located on the north side of the bay, close to the island of Procida, and about 20 miles away from the crater of Vesuvius. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Then at last we decided to leave the town. There followed a stunned crowd, which, in its terror, prefers someone else’s judgment to its own as the closest thing to prudence, and in a huge mass pushed and pressed those departing. Once past the buildings we stopped; there we saw many astonishingly things, and underwent many terrors. … we saw the sea drawn back upon itself, and, as it were, driven away by the shaking of the earth. The shore had certainly widened, and many sea creatures were stranded on the sands. On the other side, a fearful black cloud of fiery vapor burst into long twists and zigzags, and gaped apart into long flames resembling lightning flashes, but larger.”

As Pliny and his mother continued their flight amid the crowd, she at one point urged him to go on without her, which he refused to do. They had just were then overtaken by a massive black cloud of ash, which fortunately was now at enough of a distance from Vesuvius that it had cooled, but had not thinned.

“Vix consideramus, et nox — non qualis illunis aut nubila, sed qualis in locis clausis lumine exstincto. Audires ululatus feminarum, infantum quiritatus, clamores virorum; alii parentes alii liberos alii coniuges vocibus requirebant, vocibus noscitabant; hi suum casum, illi suorum miserabantur; erant qui metu mortis mortem precarentur; multi ad deos manus tollere, plures nusquam iam deos ullos aeternamque illam et novissimam noctem mundo interpretabantur.

We were considering what to do, and (suddenly it was night), not like a moonless or cloudy night, but like closed places when the light is extinguished. You could hear the wailing of women, the screams of little children, and the shouts of men; some were trying to find their parents, others their children, others their wives, recognizing them by their voices alone. Some were commiserating their own lot, others that of their relatives; some even prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many were lifting up their hands to the gods, but more took it to mean that now there were no more gods, and that that night would last forever, and was the world’s last.”

(The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, ca. 1821, by the English painter John Martin (1789-1854), which seems to be based at least in part on these words of Pliny. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

At last even this dissipated, and “mox dies verus; sol etiam effulsit, luridus tamen qualis esse cum deficit solet. Occursabant trepidantibus adhuc oculis mutata omnia altoque cinere tamquam nive obducta. – soon (came) the real light of day, and the sun even shone, but blood-red as it usually appears at its setting. With eyes still trembling, we saw that everything had been changed, and covered with a deep layer of ashes, like snow.” Pliny and his mother returned to Misenum, and another anxious night filled with earth-tremors, but from the fact that he then breaks off the narration, it seems clear that the worst had passed. The news of his uncle’s death reached him the next day.

The Death of Pliny the Elder

Yesterday, we noted the anniversary of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. One of the most famous letters in all of Latin literature is the eyewitness account of this by Pliny the Younger, written about 25 years at the request of a friend, the historian Tacitus. At the time of the eruption, he was staying with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was commander of the Roman fleet in the bay of Naples. As one might expect from the author of the Natural History, his uncle wished to set out across the bay to see the phenomenon more closely, clearly not realizing the seriousness of the danger. Before he departed, he received a letter from a woman named Rectina, who lived in a villa on the shore near the volcano, asking him to come rescue her, which he then set out to do.

Before reaching the shore, the ship was already being hit with an ever-increasing rain of ash and pumice. Being unable to land near Rectina, the boat made for the villa of a man called Pomponianus at Stabiae, only four miles away from Pompeii. Here they put to shore, and were unable to depart because of the adverse winds. Pliny faced the situation bravely, having a bath, then dinner. His nephew describes the terrifying spectacle of what was happening on the mountain at night, and how his uncle tried to explain it in a way that would calm his hosts:

(The Last Days of Pompei, by Karl Bryullov, 1830-3. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

“Interim e Vesuvio monte pluribus locis latissimae flammae altaque incendia relucebant, quorum fulgor et claritas tenebris noctis excitabatur. Ille agrestium trepidatione ignes relictos desertasque villas per solitudinem ardere in remedium formidinis dictitabat. – Meanwhile, broad sheets of flame and towering fires were blazing up from Mount Vesuvius in several places, and their glare and brightness was all the more striking for the darkness of the night. My uncle, to allay their fear, kept saying that the farmers in terror had left their fires burning, and that it was their abandoned villas burning in the midst of the desolation.”

Incredible as it may seem, he then went to bed and slept for a while, but the court of the villa was filling up with ash and pumice, quickly enough that, and the building itself shaken by earthquakes, that its residents soon determined to escape on foot. And thus does Pliny the Younger describe his uncle’s final hours. (Ep. 6.16)

“Cervicalia capitibus imposita linteis constringunt; id munimentum adversus incidentia fuit. Iam dies alibi, illic nox, omnibus noctibus nigrior densiorque; quam tamen faces multae variaque lumina solvebant. Placuit egredi in litus, et ex proximo adspicere, ecquid iam mare admitteret; quod adhuc vastum et adversum permanebat. Ibi super abiectum linteum recubans semel atque iterum frigidam aquam poposcit hausitque. Deinde flammae flammarumque praenuntius odor sulpuris alios in fugam vertunt, excitant illum. Innitens servolis duobus assurrexit et statim concidit, ut ego colligo, crassiore caligine spiritu obstructo, … Ubi dies redditus – is ab eo quem novissime viderat tertius – corpus inventum integrum illaesum opertumque ut fuerat indutus: habitus corporis quiescenti quam defuncto similior.

They placed pillows on their heads and secured them with cloths, as a defense against the falling materials. Elsewhere it was day, there it was night, darker and thicker than any other night, which, however, they tried to relieve by torches and various other lights. They decided to go out to the shore, and to see from the nearest point whether the sea would let them to put out, but it was still high and contrary. There he lay on a sheet spread on the ground, and twice he called for cold water, which he drank. Then the flames, and the smell of sulphur which gave warning of them, turned the others to flight, and roused him. Leaning on two young slaves, he rose to his feet and immediately fell down again, due, I gather, to his breathing being obstructed by the thickness of the fumes … When daylight returned – two days after the last day he had seen – his body was found untouched, uninjured, and covered just as he had been dressed; the condition of his body was more like that of a man sleeping then one dead.”

Then letter then breaks off with Pliny the Younger saying that this was the full account of everything he knew concerning his famous uncle’s death. In a second letter, he details his own experiences in fleeing from the disaster, which we will look at another time. As an interesting side-note, only one of the four towns that was destroyed by the eruption, Stabiae, is mentioned in these two letter. The very existence of the other three, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis, remained completely unknown until their ruins were rediscovered in relatively modern times.

(The Garden of the Fugitives, in the ruins of Pompeii. These are not preserved bodies, but reverse casts of the spaces left behind by bodies that disintegrated under the ashes. They were not all found together on this spot, but rather in three separate groups in the vicinity, and have been placed here by modern archeologists. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lancevortex, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Eruption of Mt Vesuvius (or “How A Latin Homework Assignment Saved My Life.”)

On this day in the year 79 AD, there occurred one of the most famous events in classical history, the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, and the destruction of four cities in its vicinity, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae. In the account of Pliny the Younger (letter 6.16), who witnessed the eruption from Misenum on the opposite side of the bay of Naples, it began early in the afternoon on the 24th with a sudden and extremely violent ejection from the top of the volcano. It continued through the night and lasted until the evening of the next day with numerous pyroplastic flows, currents of hot gas and volcanic matter which can reach speeds of well over 400 miles per hour. Lava flows were clearly seen on the mountain over the night, but thought at first to be the fires of burning farms and villas by those watching from a distance.

Vesuvius is not the only volcano on mainland Europe, but the others were either far away and unknown to the Romans (such as Beerenberg in Norway), or had long been dormant or extinct by the time of this eruption. (The closest to Vesuvius, Mt Vulture in the Basilicata, last erupted 40,000 years ago.) They were therefore thought to be an insular phenomenon, since the active ones known to the Romans, Etna, Stromboli and Vulcano, are on Sicily or the Aeolian islands. However, although it was not so understood at the time, Vesuvius was stirring well before 79. In 62, the bay of Naples was hit with a very powerful earthquake; when the ruins of Pompeii were uncovered, some of the major buildings, such as the city amphitheater, were discovered to have been still under repair at the time of the eruption. Suetonius and Tacitus both mention another earthquake in 64 which occurred while Nero was visiting Naples. Many other tremors were felt in the days leading up to the great eruption, but such tremors were common enough that no one had any reason to see them as the harbinger of a much greater disaster.

(A fresco discovered in Pompeii which shows a riot that broke out in 59 A.D. in the city amphitheater between natives of the city and visitors from nearby Nucera. As a result of this, the facility was closed for ten years. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I used to have a regular occasion to bring students to the top of Mt Vesuvius, where we would read this passage from Pliny’s letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus, with the introductory title, “How A Latin Homework Assignment Saved My Life.”

“Erat Miseni classemque imperio praesens regebat. Nono Kal. Septembres hora fere septima mater mea indicat ei apparere nubem inusitata et magnitudine et specie. … poscit soleas, ascendit locum ex quo maxime miraculum illud conspici poterat. Nubes – incertum procul intuentibus ex quo monte; Vesuvium fuisse postea cognitum est – oriebatur, cuius similitudinem et formam non alia magis arbor quam pinus expresserit. Nam longissimo velut trunco elata in altum quibusdam ramis diffundebatur, credo quia recenti spiritu evecta, dein senescente eo destituta aut etiam pondere suo victa in latitudinem vanescebat, candida interdum, interdum sordida et maculosa prout terram cineremve sustulerat.

Magnum propiusque noscendum ut eruditissimo viro visum. Iubet liburnicam aptari; mihi si venire una vellem facit copiam; respondi studere me malle, et forte ipse quod scriberem dederat.

(My uncle) was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet, with full powers. On the 24th of August, about the seventh hour, my mother indicated to him that a cloud of unusual size and shape had appeared. … he called for his sandals, and climbed up to a spot from which the best view of the strange phenomenon could be had. A cloud was rising – to those looking from a distance, it was unclear from which mountain; afterwards it was learned to have been Vesuvius – which in likeness and form more closely resembled a pine-tree than anything else; for it was lifted by a very long trunk, so to speak, and then spread out into various branches. I believe this was because it was carried up by fresh vapor, then as it waned, it lost its strength, or was overcome by its own weight, and dissipated sideways. At times it was white, and at other times dirty and spotted, as it picked up earth and ash.

To such a very learned man, this seemed like something he ought to study more closely. He ordered a Liburnian galley to be readied, and gave me leave to come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to study, and perhaps he had given me an assignment to write.”

Following this description, vulcanologists still use the adjective “Plinian” as a formal scientific term to describe this kind of eruption.

Pliny the Elder died at Stabiae, one of the cities destroyed by the eruption, as we will see tomorrow from the conclusion of this letter.

(Mt Vesuvius seen from the excavations of Pompeii. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Morn the Gorn. CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Festival of Vulcan

On the ancient Roman calendar of religious festivals, August 23rd was the day of the Vulcanalia, a sacrifice offered to the god Vulcan at his principal shrine in the Forum. The location of this shrine is not precisely known, but it was certainly at the foot of the Capitoline, close to the later constructions of the rostrum, the Curia Julia, the temple of Concordia, and the arch of Septimius Severus. (This was one of the first parts of the Forum to be built up, and also where one of the oldest known Latin inscriptions, the Lapis Niger, was discovered.) Its founding is attributed to the Sabine king Titus Tatius, who was contemporary to Romulus; a second temple to the god in the Campus Martius is attested in the 3rd century BC. After the great fire of 64 AD, from which Rome took many years to fully recover, another major altar to him was erected by Domitian on the Quirinal Hill, close to where the fire had started.

(Part of a map of the Roman Forum from the 1926 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with the presumed location of the Volcanal. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Early on in Rome’s history, he was identified with the Greek Hephaestus as the god of all things having to do with the constructive use of fire, where in his original Latin guise and name, he appears to have been treated rather as the god to invoke against its destructive power. This became more of a concern as the city became more and more built up, largely with wooden buildings, over the passage of the centuries. It is therefore likely not a coincidence that the festival occurs in high summer, when the risk of fire was highest, and likewise, the risk that the wooden barns which stored the all-important summer crops, newly harvested and gathered, might be destroyed.

The Vulcanalia is for this reason connected to several other feasts concerned with agriculture and fire that occur in August from the Ides forward.

– On the 13th, the Nemoralia, in honor of Diana “of the woods” (< nemus, a grove), in which a procession by torch and candlelight was held in her shrine at the Lake of Nemi.

– On the 17th, the Portunalia, in honor of Portunus, the god of ports and livestock, whose temple was close to the main cattle market.

– On the 19th, the Vinalia Rustica, a festival of the grape harvest, dedicated to Venus, with sacrifices offered at her various temples.

– On the 21st, the Consualia, in honor of Consus, a god of harvests and stored grain. His shrine was actually buried underground, and uncovered only for this day and a second festival on December 15th.

– On the 25th, the Opiconsivia, in honor of the goddess Ops (plenty, abundance), whose name is the first element of its title, and who also had a second feast in December, on the 19th.

Vulcan was also the principal god of the port city of Ostia, where his priest was the most important magistrate, equivalent to the Roman pontifex maximus, with jurisdiction over all sacred buildings. His connection with the port, and the proximity of his feast to that of Portunus, may also refer to the preservation from fire of food imported from other parts of the empire. After the destruction wrought by the Carthaginian invasion in the 3rd B.C., and the civil wars of the later 2nd and most of the 1st cent., Rome and Italy became ever less productive, and ever more dependent on foreign agriculture, the products of which would also have to be stored long-term in warehouses.

(A bronze statue of Vulcan from the 1st half of the 2nd century AD, found at Sens in France. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Maria-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5)

The Romans also identified Mt Etna on Sicily, and one or more of the Aeolian islands off the great island’s north coast, as the chimneys of Vulcan’s forge. The closest of these to Sicily is now called “Vulcano”, a name which gave rise, through Spanish, to the English word “volcano.” They did not, however, use the name of the god or any of its derivative forms to describe the phenomenon per se of lava-spewing mountains. Coincidentally, August 24th, the day after the Vulcanalia, is when the famous eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD began, which we will discuss more tomorrow. Suffice it for today to say that there is no mention of the name Vulcanus or any of its derivatives in the eyewitness accounts given by Pliny the Younger in two letters to his friend, the historian Tacitus.

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti

On Friday, we marked the anniversary of the death of the Emperor Augustus in 14 A.D. One of the most interesting sources for the events of his life is a monumental inscription titled the “Res Gestae Divi Augusti – the Deeds of the Divine Augustus.” As Suetonius mentions (Div. Aug. 100), the original was engraved on two bronze plaques placed on either side of the door of his great mausoleum in Rome. Substantial remains of this mausoleum can still be seen to this day, but the plaques have long since disappeared, either destroyed by the frequent flooding of the nearby Tiber, or plundered for their material. Fortunately, many copies were set up in various parts of the Empire, and have been rediscovered in modern times. A nearly complete version, accompanied by a Greek translation, was found at a temple dedicated to the divinized Augustus in the city of Ancyra in central Asia Minor (now known as Ankara, the capital of Turkey). This was brought to the world’s attention in the mid-16th century by a Fleming named Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-92), who discovered it while he was serving as the Austrian emperor’s ambassador to the Turkish Sultan.

The inscription is Augustus’ first-person account of the most significant events of his career, from the assassination of his uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, until almost the end of his life. (The last words are “When I wrote these things, I was in my seventy-sixth year”, and he died just little more than a month before his seventh-seventh birthday.) His genius as a politician lay in the fact that even as he made himself absolute master of the Roman empire, he was able to maintain the illusion that all of the institutions and customs of the Republic remained in place. This pretense dominates the inscription from the beginning to the end. At the same time, of course, Augustus certainly deserves credit for bring peace to Rome after nearly 90 years of civil strife, a fact to which he also frequently refers. Here are a couple of typical excerpts, one from the beginning, and one from the end.

(The remains of the temple of Augustus in Ancyra/Ankara. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Klaus-Peter Simon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

1. Annos undeviginti natus exercitum privato consilio et privata impensa comparavi, per quem rem publicam dominatione factionis oppressam in  libertatem vindicavi. Quas ob res senatus decretis honorificis in ordinem suum me adlegit C. Pansa A. Hirtio consulibus, consularem locum sententiae dicendae simul dans, et imperium mihi dedit. Respublica ne quid detrimenti caperet, me pro praetore simul cum consulibus providere iussit. Populus autem eodem anno me consulem, cum cos. uterque bello cecidisset, et trium virum rei publicae constituendae creavit.

At the age of nineteen, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army, by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed by the tyranny of a faction; for which services, the senate, with decrees of honor, enrolled me in its order, in the consulship of Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius, giving me at the same time consular precedence in voting, and gave me the imperium. It ordered me as propraetor along with the consuls to see to it that the Republic might suffer no harm.  In the same year, moreover, as both consuls had fallen in war, the people elected me consul and a triumvir for settling the constitution. (Note that he does mention the other two triumvirs, Marc Antony and Lepidus, by name, since he would later overthro them both in the final phase of the civil war.)

34 (the penultimate section). 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 power to the will of the senate and the Roman people. For this service on my part, by decree of the senate, I was given the title of Augustus, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia (the principal Senate house) 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 modern reconstruction of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti – the Deeds of the Divine Augustus, an inscription in which August recounts the deeds of his reign in the first person. Copies of this were set up all over the empire; this reconstruction was set up on the side wall of the Ara Pacis monument in Rome facing his mausoleum. Image from Wikimedia Commons by G.dallorto.)

The Death of the Emperor Augustus

Today marks the anniversary of the Emperor Augustus’ death in the year 14 AD, a few weeks shy of his 77th birthday. It also marks the anniversary of his first election as consul 56 years earlier, in 43 BC, in the wake of the assassination of his uncle, Julius Caesar.

The Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, two of our most important sources for the early years of the principate, treat his death very differently. Tacitus’ Annals begin with a rapid summary of Rome’s transition from republic to principate, largely effected by Augustus; with the final consolidation of his power in 27 BC, “verso civitatis statu nihil usquam prisci et integri moris – the condition of the state being overturned, there remained nothing of (the Romans’) old, unspoiled character.” (1.4.1) He therefore says of Augustus’ death quite simply:

“… gravescere valetudo Augusti, et quidam scelus uxoris suspectabant. … Tiberius properis matris litteris accitur; neque satis compertum est, spirantem adhuc Augustum apud urbem Nolam an exanimem reppererit. Acribus namque custodiis domum et vias saepserat Livia, laetique interdum nuntii vulgabantur, donec provisis quae tempus monebat simul excessisse Augustum et rerum potiri Neronem fama eadem tulit.

… Augustus’ illness take a graver turn; and some suspected foul play on his wife’s part . … Tiberius was recalled by an urgent letter from his mother (Augustus’ wife Livia); and it is not certainly known whether on reaching the town of Nola, he found Augustus still breathing or lifeless. For Livia jealously kept the house and (nearby) streets surrounded by guards, and good reports (i.e. of Augustus’ recovery) were issued at intervals, until the measures dictated by the situation had been taken; then one report announced simultaneously that Augustus had died, and that Nero (i.e. Tiberius) was taken the reins of power.” (1.5)

Having thus dispatched him, Tacitus sets the tone for his account of Tiberius’ reign with the words, “Primum facinus novi principatus fuit Postumi Agrippae caedes – The opening crime of the new principate was the murder of Agrippa Postumus.” Although he does say that Livia was suspected of foul play, he gives no details. The story that she poisoned some figs that Augustus liked to pick while they were still on the tree, which appears in the famous I, Claudius series, is mentioned later in the Greek historian Cassio Dio (ca. 200 A.D.; 56.30.2), although he also specifies that she was only “suspected”, without substantiating the accusation.

(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.) 

Suetonius, on the other hand, has no such suspicions.

“Supremo die … admissos amicos percontatus, ecquid iis videretur mimum vitae commode transegisse, adiecit et clausulam:

                                                    εἰ δέ τι
Ἐπεὶ δὲ πάνυ καλῶς πέπαισται, δότε κρότον
Καὶ πάντες ἡμᾶς μετὰ χαρᾶς προπέμψατε.

Omnibus deinde dimissis, …  dum advenientes ab urbe de Drusi filia aegra interrogat, repente in osculis Liviae et in hac voce defecit: Livia, nostri coniugii memor vive, ac vale! sortitus exitum facilem et qualem semper optaverat.

On his last day… calling in his friends and asking whether it seemed to them that he had played the comedy of life fitly, he added this tag:

“If well I’ve played my part, then clap your hands,
And all with joy do send me from the stage.”

Then he sent them all off, … and suddenly passed away as he was kissing Livia, uttering these last words: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell.” (Div. Aug, 99)

Earlier in his account of Augustus (28.3), Suetonius says this: “Urbem neque pro maiestate imperii ornatam et inundationibus incendiisque obnoxiam excoluit adeo, ut iure sit gloriatus marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset. – Since the city was not adorned as the dignity of the empire demanded, and was exposed to floods and fires, he so beautified it that he could rightly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble.” Dio also claims, immediately after the passage cited above, that Augustus made this statement on his deathbed, adding that “He did not thereby refer literally to the appearance of its buildings, but rather to the strength of the empire.”

(A modern reconstruction of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti – the Deeds of the Divine Augustus, an inscription in which August recounts the deeds of his reign in the first person. Copies of this were set up all over the empire; this reconstruction was set up on the side wall of the Ara Pacis monument in Rome facing his mausoleum. Image from Wikimedia Commons by G.dallorto.)

The Year of the Four Popes

The Church has on several occasions seen “a year of three Popes”, when a Pope died shortly after his election, and another was then chosen. The most recent such year was 1978, when John Paul I died on the 33rd day of his papacy, making him the twelfth shortest-reigning Pope in history. There has also been one “year of four Popes”, 1276, when two Popes died after very brief reigns, the second of them on August 18th. (Three other Popes, St Sixtus III (432-40), Alexander VI (1492-1503) and Paul IV (1555-59) also died on this day.)

Gregory X was elected on September 1, 1271, at the end of the longest conclave in history, which lasted for 33 months. His reign was brief, though not unusually so for his era, less than four and half years, but highly important. In 1272, he convened the Fourteenth Ecumenical Council, the second to be held in the French city of Lyon, which took place in six sessions in the summer of 1274. This council brought about a reunion of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, although sadly, this only lasted for a short time. Plans were also put forth for a renewal of the Crusades, and, in the wake of the absurdly long recent conclave, a new set of rules for the Papal elections was promulgated. These rules were made definitive in 1298; the constitutions that govern Papal elections have been modified in many ways since then, but the basic principles given in Gregory X’s bull Ubi periculum are still essentially in force to this day.

Following his death on January 10, 1276, a cardinal who had been one of his close collaborators, Peter of Tarantaise, was unanimously elected to succeed him on the first ballot, taking the name Innocent V. Born ca. 1225, he joined the Dominican Order as a teenager, and became one of its most prominent members. (He is the first of four Dominican Popes.) Together with Ss Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, he helped to establish the Dominican “ratio studiorum – program of study”, which would build the Order’s well-deserved reputation for learning. He also held one of the two chairs of theology that were reserved for Dominicans at the University of Paris, the most important center for theological study in the later Middle Ages. Gregory X appointed him archbishop of Lyon and made him a cardinal; as such, he became the host of the ecumenical council. When St Bonaventure, the first Franciscan cardinal and also a well-respected theologian, died during the council, it was Peter who celebrated his funeral.

(A portrait of Bl. Innocent V, 1352, by Tommaso da Modena, in the chapterhouse of the Dominican convent in Treviso. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Risorto Celebrano, CC BY-SA 3.0)

By the time of this election, Gregory X had been so taken up with the affairs of the council that he had not been to Rome for 3½ years. Innocent decided to be crowned there; after a month’s travel from France, the ceremony took place on February 22, the feast of St Peter’s Chair, in the Lateran basilica. However, he died almost exactly 5 months into his reign. The Church now honors both him and Gregory X as Blesseds.

Three weeks later, the Cardinals elected Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, who was roughly seventy years old, a member of an old noble Genovese family. His uncle, Pope Innocent IV, had made him cardinal deacon of the Roman church of St Adrian in 1251; in that role, he had done several important jobs for the Church, and participated in five previous conclaves. In the 1260s, he served as Papal legate to England, and had great success in bringing peace between King Henry III and his rebellious barons. On his election, he chose the name Adrian in honor of Adrian IV, the only English Pope (1154-59), and in honor of the Saint of his cardinalitial church.

This conclave took place with much duress inflicted upon the cardinals by its “guardian”, the powerful king of Naples, Charles of Anjou, who was trying to force the election of a Pope favorable to his interests. (Many of the later changes to the papal election rules were designed to exclude this kind of undue external influence.) Adrian was deliberately chosen as a transitional Pope, so that the cardinals could leave the conclave and escape from both Charles’ control and the Roman summer heat. It is not clear if they understood just how transitional he would prove to be; after moving the court to Viterbo, about 50 miles north of Rome, he died on the 39th day of his papacy, August 18th, without being crowned, or even ordained a priest.

The third conclave of the year was held three weeks later, and elected the one and only Portuguese Pope. By a strange error, Cardinal Pedro Julião Rebolo chose the name “John XXI”, even though there was never a John XX. Like many of his recent predecessors, he spent most of his reign in Viterbo, and added to the papal palace in that city a large studio and bedroom. Eight months after his election, the ceiling of this room collapsed in the middle of the night, severely injuring him; he died ten days later.

(A view of the surviving part of the Papal Palace in Viterbo, and to the left, part of the façade of the cathedral. Image from Wikimedia Commons by  Claudio Caravano, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

The Election of Pope Benedict XIV

Today marks the anniversary of the election in 1740 of Pope Benedict XIV, who is rightly regarded as one of the most learned men ever to sit on the throne of St Peter. He was born in 1675 as Prospero Lambertini, to a noble family of Bologna, the second city of the Papal States. When he was 13, he was sent to Rome to pursue the typical course of ecclesiastical studies, including Latin, philosophy and theology; by the age of 19, he had obtained his doctorate in theology, and the prestigious laurea utriusque, a doctorate in both canon and civil law. In 1698, he was ordained a priest, and soon after began his career as a canon lawyer in the Roman Curia, where he would serve for over a quarter of a century. He was also the “Promotor Fidei” (popularly known as “the devil’s advocate”) for the causes of various Saints, whose job was to raise every possible objection to a canonization, so as to guarantee its credibility when every possible objection had been answered. This led him to write a massive treatise called “Doctrina de servorum dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione – the teaching on the beatification of the servants of God, and the canonization of blesseds”, still to this day considered an essential work on the subject.

In 1727, he was made bishop of Ancona in the Italian Marches, a major Adriatic port, then also part of the Papal States. The following year he was made a cardinal, and thus participated in the conclave of 1730 that saw the election of Clement XII, who transferred him to his native Bologna ten months later. During his time as archbishop, he wrote another major treatise on diocesan synods, which has been as influential as his work on canonizations.

Clement XII died in February of 1740, leading to one of the longest conclaves in history (six months), long enough for four of the fifty-five participants to die, including the initial favorite. After several different candidates had failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority of votes, Cardinal Lambertini was proposed as a compromise candidate unlikely to offend any of the political interests that had thus far blocked all others. He is famously supposed to have clinched his own election by saying to his fellow cardinals, “If you wish to elect a Saint, choose Gotti; if you want a statesman, choose Aldrovandi; and if you want an honest man, choose me.” (This statement is also reported with the cardinal describing himself rather more colorfully; Lambertini was known all his life for the use of language not wholly befitting his clerical station.) He was elected on the 255th ballot, and took the name Benedict in honor of his predecessor-but-one, Benedict XIII, who had made him a bishop.

(Portrait of Benedict XIV by Pierre Subleyras, 1741. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Popes of that era had to govern not only the Church as a whole in matters spiritual, but also rule as the sovereigns of the Papal states. On both fronts, Benedict XIV had many difficulties to confront: the Papacy was in conflict with several of the Catholic states of Europe over matters pertaining to the governance of the Church; anti-clericalism and anti-Christian sentiment were on the rise, fueled by the so-called Enlightenment; and the finances of the Papal state were in very rough shape. (In regard to this last matter, he once said of Benedict XIII that “he simply had no idea how to govern.”) On all these fronts, over the course of his nearly 18-year reign, he served very well. He restored peace between the Church and the Catholic states, and achieved a tremendous amount by way of stabilizing the finances and improving the civil administration of the Papal states, thus earning the admiration and good-will of his temporal subjects. The arts and sciences flourished in Rome during his pontificates: he established two important new collections of the Vatican Museums, and another of Apostolic library.

He was well-known as a cheerful and talkative man, and respected by many non-Catholics, with whom he enjoyed very good relations. Exemplary of this is the Latin epigram composed for him by the most notorious Church-hater of the era, Voltaire:

“Lambertinus hic est, Romae decus et pater orbis,
qui mundum scriptis docuit, virtutibus ornat.

This is Lambertini, the glory of Rome and father of the globe, who taught the world by his writing, and adorned it with his virtues.”

St Alypius, A Patron Saint Against Addiction

In the Roman Martyrology, a lists of Saints compiled for liturgical use, one of the entries on August 15th is St Alypius. He was a close friend of St Augustine from boyhood, and eventually became bishop of their native place, a town called Thagaste in North Africa. A few religious orders of the Augustinian tradition keep his feast on various dates, including today, since the anniversary of his death, which is when a Saint is normally celebrated, coincides with the much greater feast of the Assumption.

(The moment of St Augustine’s conversion, from the cycle of frescos in a church dedicated to him in San Gemignano, Italy, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1464-65. St Alypius was present for this episode, and is believed to be the figure standing to the right in this image.)

In book 6 of the Confessions, Augustine describes how, when they had both moved to Carthage as young men, he as a teacher and Alypius as a student, his friend had become obsessed with the violence of the gladiatorial games. Augustine did not deliberately try to cure him of this; neither of them was yet a Christian. But Alypius, inspired by the words of a lesson which he happened in upon at Augustine’s school, “shook his mind free with mighty temperance, and all the filth of the circus games flew off him.” He then went to Rome, and was recaptured by his obsession, as Augustine describes in this passage. (Conf. 6.8.13)

“quidam eius amici et condiscipuli … recusantem vehementer et resistentem familiari violentia duxerunt in amphitheatrum crudelium et funestorum ludorum diebus, haec dicentem: “Si corpus meum in locum illum trahitis et ibi constituitis, numquid et animum et oculos meos in illa spectacula potestis intendere? Adero itaque absens ac sic et vos et illa superabo.” … Quod ubi ventum est…, fervebant omnia immanissimis voluptatibus. Ille clausis foribus oculorum interdixit animo, ne in tanta mala procederet. Atque utinam et aures obturavisset! Nam quodam pugnae casu, cum clamor ingens totius populi vehementer eum pulsasset, curiositate victus et quasi paratus, quidquid illud esset, etiam visum contemnere et vincere, aperuit oculos et percussus est graviore vulnere in anima quam ille in corpore, quem cernere concupivit, … Ut enim vidit illum sanguinem, immanitatem simul ebibit et non se avertit, sed fixit aspectum et hauriebat furias et nesciebat et delectabatur scelere certaminis et cruenta voluptate inebriabatur. Et non erat iam ille, qui venerat, sed unus de turba, … Spectavit, clamavit, exarsit, abstulit inde secum insaniam, qua stimularetur redire… Et inde tamen manu validissima et misericordissima eruisti eum tu et docuisti non sui habere, sed tui fiduciam, sed longe postea.

(A 4th century mosaic of a gladiatorial combat; the gladiator to the right, Kalendio, has the Greek letter Θ next to his name, for “thanatos – death”, to indicate that he was killed by his opponent Astyanax. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Some of this friends and fellow-students … with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheater, on the days of these cruel and deadly shows, as he said, “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you direct my mind and eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be present while absent, and so shall overcome both you and them.” … When they had arrived there…, the whole place became excited with those monstrous delights. Shutting up the doors of his eyes, he forbade his mind to go after such great evils; and would that he had stopped his ears also! For, at the fall of one in the fight, when a huge cry from the whole audience struck him mightily, overcome by curiosity, and prepared, as it were, to despise and overcome the sight, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than he (i.e. the wounded gladiator), whom he longed to see, was in his body; … For as he saw that blood, he imbibed savagery with it, and did not turn away, but fixed his gaze, and drank in madness unknowingly, and was delighted in the crime of the contest, and became drunk with the bloody passion. And now, he was not the same as when he came in, but one of the crowd …, He watched, he shouted, he was excited, he carried the madness away with him which would stimulate him to return… And from all this did Thou, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, rescue him, and teach him not to have trust in himself, but in Thee — but not till long after.”

The last statement reflects a fundamental point of St Augustine’s theology, one which he would elaborate much more in the Pelagian controversies, that we can only be freed from sin by God’s grace, and not by our own efforts.

Although Alypius has never been widely venerated, he would be a most appropriate Saint in our times as a Patron for those who suffer from addiction to pornography, which has the same exploitative and soul-killing role in our society that the gladiatorial games did in his.

Pius XII and the Dogma of the Assumption

The feast of the Assumption, which is celebrated today, was brought into the Roman Rite by Pope St Sergius I (687-701) at the end of the 7th century from the Byzantine tradition. However, the Church’s belief that the Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul at the end of Her earthly life certainly predates the feast by some centuries. This teaching was long accepted and celebrated without being officially defined as part of the Faith, and had hardly ever been disputed within the Catholic Church.

(The Dormition of the Virgin; apsidal mosaic in the basilica of St Mary in Trastevere in Rome, by Pietro Cavallini, 1296-1300) 

Nevertheless, in the wake of the numerous crises that beset the Church and civil society in the 19th and 20th centuries, many people, both ecclesiastics of all ranks and laymen, as well as various Catholic institutions, had petitioned the Holy See to formally define the Assumption. In 1950, Pope Pius XII determined that a favorable time had come to do so, as part of the celebrations of the Holy Year. (Due to the political disturbances of the previous century and a half, this was the first Jubilee which the Church had been able to celebrate with full public solemnity since 1825.) As he himself wrote, this declaration served first of all to glorify God and the Virgin Mary, but also to show in Her a “glorious example” by which society might be “more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others”, in an age in which “the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows … threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin men’s lives…”

Here then is an excerpt from the final sections of the Pope’s beautifully composed Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, defining the dogma of the Assumption.

“Quoniam igitur universa Ecclesia, in qua viget Veritatis Spiritus, qui quidem eam ad revelatarum perficiendam veritatum cognitionem infallibiliter dirigit, multipliciter per saeculorum decursum suam fidem manifestavit, et quoniam universi terrarum orbis Episcopi prope unanima consensione petunt, ut tamquam divinae et catholicae fidei dogma definiatur veritas corporeae Assumptionis Beatissimae Virginis Mariae in Caelum, quae veritas Sacris Litteris innititur, christifidelium animis penitus est insita, ecclesiastico cultu inde ab antiquissimis temporibus comprobata, ceteris revelatis veritatibus summe consona, theologorum studio, scientia ac sapientia splendide explicata et declarata – momentum Providentis Dei consilio praestitutum iam advenisse putamus, quo insigne eiusmodi Mariae Virginis privilegium sollemniter renuntiemus. …

Quod autem hoc sollemne eventum in Sacrum, qui vertitur, Annum Providentis Dei consilio incidit, Nobis laetissimum est; ita enim Nobis licet, dum Iubilaeum Maximum celebratur, fulgenti hac gemma Deiparae Virginis frontem exornare, ac monumentum relinquere aere perennius incensissimae Nostrae in Dei Matrem pietatis.

Quapropter, postquam supplices etiam atque etiam ad Deum admovimus preces, ac Veritatis Spiritus lumen invocavimus: ad Omnipotentis Dei gloriam, qui peculiarem benevolentiam suam Mariae Virgini dilargitus est, ad sui Filii honorem, immortalis saeculorum Regis ac peccati mortisque victoris, ad ejusdem augustae Matris augendam gloriam et ad totius Ecclesiae gaudium exsultationemque, auctoritate Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, Beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli ac Nostra pronuntiamus, declaramus et definimus divinitus revelatum dogma esse: Immaculatam Deiparam semper Virginem Mariam, expleto terrestris vitae cursu, fuisse corpore et anima ad caelestem gloriam assumptam.

(Pope Pius XII reads the formal definition of the Dogma of the Assumption from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.)

Since the universal Church, within which thrives the Spirit of Truth who infallibly directs it toward an ever more perfect knowledge of revealed truths, has made its faith (in the Assumption) manifest in many ways over the course of the centuries, and since the bishops of the entire world ask with nearly unanimous consent that the truth of the bodily Assumption of the most blessed Virgin Mary into heaven should be defined as a dogma of divine and Catholic faith, a truth which rests up on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the Christian faithful, which has been approved in the Church’s worship from the most ancient times, which is fully in harmony with the other revealed truths, and which has been beautifully explained and expounded in the work, the knowledge, and the wisdom of the theologians, we believe that the moment appointed in the plan of divine providence for the solemn proclamation of this outstanding privilege of the Virgin Mary has already arrived. …

It is a cause of the greatest rejoicing for us that this solemn event falls, according to the design of God’s providence, during this current Holy Year; for thus can we to adorn the brow of the Virgin Mother of God with this shining gem, while the great Jubilee is being observed, and leave a monument more enduring than bronze of our own most fervent love for the Mother of God.

For which reason, after we have brought prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth: for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”


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