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“Majorum Atque Nostris” – A New Military Motto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope St Leo the Great on the Passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vocabula Mira: “Glossator”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emperor Justinian and the Corpus Juris Civilis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vocabula Mira: “Encaeniare”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Largest Medieval Manuscript of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Patron Saint of the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Raising of Lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cicero’s Best Friend Atticus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ancient Poet Describes Today’s Station Church

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

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

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

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

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

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


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