Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Valens Says, ""Julian, Are You Friggin' Nuts?"

What a fantastically ironic (indirect) quote, delivered by the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate in 361 A.D., as per Ammianus Marcellinus:
While [Julian] was so arranging these matters, tolerating no slackness in action, his intimates tried to persuade him to attack the neighbouring Goths, who were often deceitful and treacherous; but he replied that he was looking for a better enemy; that for the Goths the Galatian [slave] traders were enough, by whom they were offered for sale everywhere without distinction of rank.

Seventeen years later, at the terrible Battle of Adrianople in 378 A.D., those Goths would destroy the cream of the Roman Eastern army and kill its leader, the Emperor Valens.

Hat tip to Michael Kulikowski, whose wonderfully opinionated yet balanced and transparent book Rome's Gothic Wars is highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Counting Holiness

A society prepared to vest fellow humans with such powers was ever vigilant. Men watched each other closely for those signs of intimacy with the supernatural that would validate their claim. Holiness itself might be quantifiable. Symeon Stylites, we are told, touched his toes 1,244 times in bowing before God from the top of his column. The true horror of this story lies not in the exertions of the saint, but in the layman who stood there counting.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wolfen in the Streets of the Roman Empire

In The Making of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown startled me with this:
The towns of the Mediterranean were small towns. For all their isolation from the way of life of the villagers, they were fragile excrescences in a spreading countryside. As in medieval Italy, "Everywhere the country thrust its tendrils into the town." Not every tendril was innocent: wild animals drifted into the towns of North Africa, making their lairs in the basements and eating the citizens.
Needless to say, I had to check out where the wild animals eating the citizens came from. An accompanying footnote cites to Tertullian's Ad Martyras (c. 197 AD):
How often have wild beasts, both in their own woods and in the middle of cities, having escaped from their dens, devoured men!
I, of course, immediately thought of Wolfen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Sarapion the Loincloth" and the Naked Pious Virgin

So there I was, innocently reading Averil Cameron's The Later Roman Empire, when I ran into this description of “Sarapion the loincloth”, an Egyptian Christian ascetic from the late Third or Fourth Century:
[A] certain “Sarapion the loincloth”, an Egyptian by birth who wore only a loincloth, sold himself as a servant to some Greek actors, whom he converted, and travelled to Greece, where he begged for money from some “philosophers” in Athens, converted a Manichaean at Sparta, and then went to Rome, where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade a pious virgin to walk naked through the city to prove that she really was as dead to the world, as she claimed.
Now an ancient Egyptian monk named “Sarapion the loincloth” trying to talk a “pious virgin” out of her clothes is not something you hear about every day, so I decided that further investigation was warranted. The story was cited as coming from the Lausiac History, described in Wikipedia as “a seminal work archiving the Desert Fathers (early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert) written in 419-420 by Palladius of Galatia, at the request of Lausus, chamberlain at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II.“ I therefore grabbed my handy copy of the Lausiac History off the nightstand (that's where you keep yours, isn't it?) and flipped to Chapter 37, which catalogs the exploits of “Sarapion the Sindonite”, so named because “apart from a sindon (loincloth) he never wore clothes.”
So having come to Rome he [Sarapion] inquired who was a great ascetic in the city, man or woman. Among others he met also a certain Domninus, a disciple of Origen, whose bed healed sick persons after his death. So he met him and was benefited, for he was a man of refined manners and liberal education, and learning from him what other ascetics there were, male or female, he was told of a certain virgin who cultivated solitude and would meet no one.
And having learned where she lived he went off and said to the old woman who attended her: "Tell the virgin, 'I must meet you, for God has sent me.' " So after waiting two or three days at last he met her, and said to her: "Why do you remain stationary?" She said to him: "I do not remain stationary, I am on a journey." He said to her: "Where are you journeying?" Said she to him: "To God." He said to her: "Are you alive or dead?" She said to him: "I trust in God that I am dead, for no one who lives to the flesh shall make that journey." He said to her: "Then do what I do, that you may convince me that you are dead." She said to him: "Order me possible things, and I will do them."
He answered her: "All things are possible to a dead person except impiety." Then he said to her: "Go out and appear in public." She answered him: "This is the twenty-fifth year that has passed without my appearing in public. And why should I appear?" "If you are dead to the world," said he to her, "and the world to you, it is all the same to you whether you appear or appear not. So appear in public." She did so, and after she had appeared outside and gone as far as a church, he said to her in the church: "Now then, if you wish to convince me that you are dead and no longer live pleasing men, do what I do and I shall know that you are dead."
"Follow my example and take off all your clothes, put them on your shoulders, go through the middle of the city with me leading the way in this fashion." She said to him: "I should scandalize many by the unseemliness of the thing and they would be able to say, 'She is mad and possessed by a demon.'" He answered her: "What does it concern you if they say, 'She is mad and possessed by a demon?' For you are dead to them." Then she said to him: "If you want anything else I will do it; for I do not profess to have reached this stage."
Then he said to her: "See then, no longer be proud of yourself as more pious than all others and dead to the world, for I am more dead than you and show by my act that I am dead to the world; for impassively and without shame I do this thing." Then having left her in humility and broken her pride, he departed.
Unfortunately I could find no image of Sarapion the Loincloth. The image at the top is of the most famous Desert Father, Anthony the Great.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget

Never forget the evil. And never forget who your enemies are.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Eusebius Transforms the Church

In the year 168 AD, the pagan anti-Christian philosopher Celsus quipped that "If all men wanted to be Christians, the Christians would no longer want them." Within 150 years, Christianity was on its way to becoming the dominant religion in the great cities of the Mediterranean.

What accounts for the dramatic expansion of the Christians during the Third Century? Peter Brown posits that the most important factor was a fundamental rethinking by Christian leaders such as of Christianity's relationship to the Roman state and Roman society. They "found that they could identify themselves with the culture, outlook and needs of the average well-to-do civilian." Leaders such as Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 - c. 254) and Eusebius, bishop of Caesaria, thus transformed Christianity from "a sect ranged against or to one side of Roman civilization" to "a church prepared to absorb a whole society."

This is probably the most important aggiornamento in the history of the Church; it was certainly the most decisive single event in the culture of the third century. For the conversion of a Roman emperor to Christianity, Constantine in 312, might not have happened - or, if it had, it would have taken on a totally different meaning - if it had not been preceded, for two generations, by the conversion of Christianity to the culture and ideals of the Roman world.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Roman World Merges Into the Medieval

I ran across a picture of the above sculpture yesterday in Peter Brown's so-far excellent The World of Late Antiquity and was stunned.

When do you think the sculpture was made? 800 AD? 1000 AD?

In fact the sculpture is of the Emperor Diocletian and the three other members of the Tetrarchy - circa 300 AD.

Prof. Brown notes that "This simplified, military group was so medieval in tone that the individuals were long mistaken for Christian crusaders, and even worshipped as statues of Saint George!"

This is what a Roman bust of Diocletian should look like - except that it was created in the 17th Century:

I could go on about how this symbolizes perfectly the impossibility of identifying a specific date on which late Roman civilization transformed into the medieval world, but I'll spare you.
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