Posts filed under 'Ancient'

Feast Day of Saints Cosmas and Damian

Add comment September 27th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico.

September 27 is the traditional* feast date of early Christian saints Cosmas and Damian.

Martyred in Syria during the Diocletian persecution, these Arabian brothers were reputedly physicians who did not charge their patients, even for premium services like transplanting an entire leg.

Cosmas and Damian graft an Ethiopian’s leg onto a white patient.

This has made them patron saints to doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and dentists but decidedly not to insurers.

They were once much more widely known and revered than today, back when the mysteries of medicine and of faith intertwined with one another. The two are named in the Canon of the Mass, and multiple churches in Europe dubiously claim the honor the ancient doctors’ relics; their skulls alone reside simultaneously in Bremen, Vienna, and Madrid, while a church in Venice allegedly holds their non-cranial remains. Visitors to the Roman Forum will behold the beautifully preserved pagan Temple of Romulus, which was rededicated in 527 as the basilica of Santi Cosma de Damiano and still hosts weddings beneath its impressive Cosmas and Damian mosaic.

A reliquary for the skulls of Cosmas and Damian in St. Michael’s Church, Munich.

The saints’ day is observed in Brazil, where children on September 27 receive candies (Cosmas and Damian also count confectioners and children among their devotees). St. Anthony’s Church in Utica, New York, also hosts an annual Cosmas and Damian pilgrimage attracting thousands of people from across North America.

As two men intimate with one another who traveled and ministered together, they are sometimes speculatively ventured as early gay exemplars. (They’re traditionally accounted as brothers.)

* The Vatican’s 1969 calendar revision moved the feast to September 26, leaving September 27 to St. Vincent de Paul.

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258: St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage

Add comment September 14th, 2015 Headsman

The Christian bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, was condemned by Roman authorities on this date and immediately beheaded.

Not one of your dubious ancient martyrs fogged with legend, Cyprian was a major public figure in his own time; dozens of epistles and treatises of his survive. An epidemic that ravaged the Roman Empire in the 250s and 260s is known from his description of it; hence it is remembered as the Plague of Cyprian.

The real-life Cyprian had different plagues to fight.

The essential challenge of Cyprian’s day — and the one that would see him to martyrdom — was the onset of anti-Christian persecution after the relative tolerance of the 240s. Cranky senator turned general Decius claimed the purple in 249 on a programme of traditional values that included a demand that all* obtain a magistrate’s certificate confirming that they had performed public sacrifice to the pagan gods. We don’t want anyone tempting divine vengeance here.

The Christian community had grown, little molested of late, to encompass many peaceable adherents who were not necessarily prepared to sell their lives over a stick of incense. Now, it fragmented under the Decian persecution — which was applied by different governors with varying levels of severity. Some Christians made the requisite sacrifices; others paid bribes to get the paperwork. Some fled to hiding: Cyprian himself did so, and some Christian ultras criticized him for failing to embrace martyrdom.

Decius died in 251, leaving the Christian minority with a controversy over how to handle the so-called lapsi who had made some concession to the idols of Rome: perspectives arrayed from the most lax (welcome everyone back with minimal hassle) to the most punitive (expel them all: this was the Novatian heresy). Cyprian had a middle-ground position in this dispute; his De Lapsis preserves his intervention, accepting readmission but under conditions of suitable penance administered by the clergy.

In such a case there remains only penitence which can make atonement. But they who take away repentance for a crime, close the way of atonement. Thus it happens that, while by the rashness of some a false safety is either promised or trusted, the hope of true safety is taken away.

But you, beloved brethren, whose fear is ready towards God, and whose mind, although it is placed in the midst of lapse, is mindful of its misery, do you in repentance and grief look into your sins; acknowledge the very grave sin of your conscience; open the eyes of your heart to the understanding of your sin, neither despairing of the Lord’s mercy nor yet at once claiming His pardon. God, in proportion as with the affection of a Father He is always indulgent and good, in the same proportion is to be dreaded with the majesty of a judge. Even as we have sinned greatly, so let us greatly lament. To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin. Think you that the Lord can be quickly appeased, whom with faithless words you have denied, to whom you have rather preferred your worldly estate, whose temple you have violated with a sacrilegious contact? Think you that He will easily have mercy upon you whom you have declared not to be your God? You must pray more eagerly and entreat; you must spend the day in grief; wear out nights in watchings and weepings; occupy all your time in wailful lamentations; lying stretched on the ground, you must cling close to the ashes, be surrounded with sackcloth and filth; after losing the raiment of Christ, you must be willing now to have no clothing; after the devil’s meat, you must prefer fasting; be earnest in righteous works, whereby sins may be purged; frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, whereby souls are freed from death.

This is more or less the position the Church as a whole arrived at — a fairly liberal readmissions policy in the scheme of things. Unfortunately for Cyprian and his flock, the question would soon grow pressing once again: the emperor Valerian resumed the persecution in 257.

Cyprian was first sent into exile, then brought to Carthage for examination at a villa thronged with his supporters, who are said to have roared in support when Cyprian refused to sacrifice and demanded, “Let us be beheaded with him!”

The bishop attained his hieromartyr‘s laurels directly after the verdict, with Carthage’s Christians clamboring alongside him to the execution grounds. Afterwards, the faithful collected his remains and interred them lovingly, erecting a church over the bones that the Vandals would eventually ravage.

Even in his death under persecution, Cyprian’s biography reflects the growing weight of Christianity in Rome — not least in the fact that it was consequential enough to attract imperial backlash under the right circumstances. The reluctance of provincial magistrates to make hecatombs of their neighbors whatever the edicts demanded has been widely noted — like the proconsul Antoninus, who sent away confessing Christians who wished to solicit their own martyrdoms with the exasperated words, “if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?”

“The life of Cyprian is sufficient to prove that our fancy has exaggerated the perilous situation of a Christian bishop,” Edward Gibbon wrote — a paradoxical observation to make of a martyr, but we notice that Cyprian’s noisy Christian supporters don’t seem to have been harried even in the midst of the prelate’s execution. Thereafter, “the funeral of Cyprian was publicly celebrated without receiving any interruption from the Roman magistrates; and those among the faithful, who had performed the last offices to his person and his memory, were secure from the danger of inquiry or of punishment. It is remarkable, that of so great a multitude of bishops in the province of Africa, Cyprian was the first who was esteemed worthy to obtain the crown of martyrdom.”

* Jews were exempted; Romans had respect for the antiquity of that monotheistic religion which was not extended to the novel concoctions of Christianity.

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90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

Add comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

-Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.

The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.

Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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Feast Day of Popes Cletus and Marcellinus

Add comment April 26th, 2015 Headsman

Back before being pope meant jeweled slippers and your own guillotine, the bishopric of Rome — at least as chronicled in the early histories of the Church — was a virtual halfway house to a pagan executioner.

Granted, the very earliest pontiffs are mostly ciphers to posterity; little dependable information about most of them survives. We have sketchy documentation, conflated names, and traditions of legendary hagiography further to the glory of Christianity’s earliest fathers. They are almost universally ranked as both saints, and martyrs.

But is it really right that literally none of these heirs of St. Peter for three centuries reached leadership positions by dint of being venal political hustlers? Or that none just dropped dead of some inglorious disease before they could exalt their deaths in martyrdom?

Persecutions of Christianity were not, after all, literally continuous throughout this age; indeed, prominent as they are in our latter-day remembrance, instances where they turned deadly were likely rather few and far between. Roman governors had provinces to administer; not many of them viewed hunting down and killing otherwise law-abiding cultists as the most important thing to prioritize.

“Christians and pagans could live on very good terms with each other,” Victor Duruy writes in his History of Rome, and of the Roman People, from its Origin.

Asper declared openly that he was disinclined to prosecutions of that kind … Severus furnished them the reply which permitted him to discharge them … Candidus treated them as contentious persons, and sent them back to their towns with these words: “Go, and be at peace with your fellow-citizens.” “Unhappy men,” said another to them [i.e., to Christians seeking their own martyrdom], “if you are resolved to perish, are there not ropes or precipies enough for you?” and he drives them from his tribunal.

Little as we know of these men, it is a sure thing that, pre-Constantine, they did run some risk of life and limb to profess Christianity under the noses of Rome’s rulers. Even a period of toleration could turn ugly with the rise of a hostile emperor or some chance shift of the political winds; the first persecution, after all, is supposed to have been initiated by Nero as an expedient to deflect anger over the Great Fire of Rome. But despite this site‘s use of the martyrology, we can hardly take for granted that any early Christian of significance was put to a baroque death by bloodthirsty Romans.

April 26 is or was the shared feast date of two of these popes from Rome’s antiquity — both of them traditionally considered martyrs, but both now on the outs with Rome’s official chronicle. It’s a reminder that even the ancient past isn’t really past and that history, like religion, is not so much holy writ as an eternal process of becoming.

Pope Cletus was the third pope, and the second in a row after Peter’s direct successor Pope Linus to make you think of a cartoon character. One early chronology named Cletus and Anacletus (or Anencletus) as the third and fourth popes; it is generally understood now that these were merely two different names for one single man. In 1960 a distinct July 13 feast for “Saint Anacletus” was removed from the calendar, collapsing everything to April 26.

Still, basically nothing definite is known of Pope St. Cletus — including the occasion or circumstances of his death, which may well have been promoted to a martyrdom simply from reverence of Cletus’s Erdos numberChrist number of 3 or less. Cletus is said to have ordained 25 priests, and died in the year 88 or 92. He was ultimately removed from Catholicism’s liturgical calendar in 1969, though he still remains in the Roman Martyrology.

Near the opposite chronological end of Rome’s era of official intolerance we find Pope St. Marcellinus.

Marcellinus was the 29th pope, and had the tiara* when the Diocletian persecutions began in 303. While such information as survives about Marcellinus is also not very substantial, it is quite interesting.

When anti-Christian persecutions did crop up, those Christians who weren’t in active pursuit of martyrdom had a difficult choice to make: either apostasy, or punishment. Confronted in the breach with a demand to make the requisite obeisance to the gods of Rome, many ordinary Christians preferred the expedient burning a few sacrificial herbs to the prospect of, if not death, prison, torture, exile, harassment, property seizure, or whatever else was on offer for their sect at that moment. These were the lapsi — the lapsed ones.

Such episodes tended to create post-persecution friction between the go-along, get-along crowd on the one hand, and the purists who refused any such accommodation on the other. Could lapsi be re-admitted to the communion after renouncing their faith to please a Roman proconsul? (Broadly speaking, the official church did welcome lapsi back with some kind of penance and absolution.)

Pope Marcellinus is interesting because he too is said to have lapsed under the initial pressure of Diocletian’s persecution. The Liber Pontificalis, likely combining distinct traditions that were in circulation about Marcellinus, says that he burned incense to the Roman gods when it was demanded of him — and that only afterwards did he repent his weakness and confess Christianity unto martyrdom.

It is not at all certain that Marcellinus did apostatize, but it is clear that a story to that effect (disputed by ex-apostate St. Augustine, among others) was out there in late antiquity — and it’s a bit suspicious that Marcellinus’s name is omitted from some early lists of popes. (It’s possible he was being conflated with his successor, Marcellus: the opposite of what happened with Pope Cletus.) It’s also very uncertain that Marcellinus was in fact martyred; the Catholic encylopedia considers his “in all probability, a natural death” in 304. And it was probably not in April that this death occurred.

Given all those question marks, Marcellinus’s April 26 celebration was booted from the liturgical calendar in the same 1969 cleanup that fixed Pope Cletus.

* The papal tiara did not yet literally exist at this point, of course.

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Feast Day of Saints Agape, Chionia, and Irene

Add comment April 3rd, 2015 Headsman

In honor of Good Friday (in 2015), we pay tribute today to the Diocletian-era Christian martyrs Agape, Chionia and Irene.

The three virgin sisters whose names mean Love, Purity, and Peace in Greek were not, per tradition, actually martyred all together. However, they do share an April 3 feast date.

They are said to have made their illicit faith conspicuous to the governor of Macedonia by refusing to eat meat that had been burned as a pagan sacrificial offering. Agape and Chionia suffered immediate martyrdom, while Irene escaped to the mountains only to be captured and burned later with her Christian books.

The remarkable medieval canoness and playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim — by some reckonings the West’s first known dramatist since antiquity — made the .

An English translation of her 10th century play Dulcitius is available online here:

IRENA. You wretched Sisinnius! Do you not blush for your shameful defeat? Are you not ashamed that you could not overcome the resolution of a little child without resorting to force of arms?

SISINNIUS. I accept the shame gladly, since now I am sure of your death.

IRENA. To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned in Tartarus. But I shall receive the martyr’s palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!

Bad Gandersheim‘s Roswitha Prize is awarded (nearly) annually in Hrosvita’s honor. It’s the oldest German literary laurel that’s conferred exclusively upon women.

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4 BCE: Antipater, disinherited Herodian

Add comment March 29th, 2015 Headsman

The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.

Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.

But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.

Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.

Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.

But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.

Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”

Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.

The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.

Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …

But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.

As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.

So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.

* There’s also a Herod Agrippa who appears in the Acts of the Apostles, executing St. James the Great. He is still another king of the same line.

** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus famously moaned upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.

Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.

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628: Khosrau II, Sassanid emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.

Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.

Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.

Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.

The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, bringing that longtime rival of Persia to the brink of outright destruction. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”

The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.

The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.

The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.

Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:

  • The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
  • The (defuunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
  • The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.

* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.

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205: Plautianus, purple proximity

Add comment January 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.

Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.

And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.

Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.

But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)

Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**

The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†

The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.

* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.

** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”

† Caracalla had his former wife murdered in 212.

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Feast Day of St. Andrew

1 comment November 30th, 2014 Headsman

Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

-Mark 1:14-18

“Walks on the Water” by the Russian band Nautilus Pompilius
Translation from friend of the blog Sonechka; alternate version here

Apostle Andrew was fishing from a wharf.
While the Savior was walking on the water.
Andrew was pulling fishes from the sea,
While the Savior – fallen men.

Andrew cried out: “I will leave the wharf,
If you reveal the secret to me.”
And the Savior answered: “Be calm, Andrew.
There is no secret here.

“You see, yonder, on the mountain
Towers a cross,
Underneath are a dozen soldiers.
Hang on it for a while.
And when you get bored,
Return back here
To walk on the water with me.”

“But, Master, the helmets are adorned with glistening horns,
A black raven circles the cross.
Explain to me now, take pity on the fool,
And leave the crucifixion for later.”

The Messiah gasped and with ire
Stamped his foot on the smoothness of water.
“You are indeed a fool.” — And Andrew in tears
Shuffled off home with his fishes.

November 30 is the feast date of St. Andrew the Apostle, Christ‘s very first disciple along with his brother St. Peter.

Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.

Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.

After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.

The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.

The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**

Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.

Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.

The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, by Charles Le Brun (1646-1647).

St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.

Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.

Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.

* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.

** It was Archbishop James Hamilton — later executed — who gave the residents of St Andrews standing access to golf’s Holiest of Holies, the Old Course at St Andrews.

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Feast of St. Clement

Add comment November 23rd, 2014 Headsman

Today is St. Clement’s Day, the feast day of the first century Pope Clement I — who, tradition has it, was martyred by the Romans under Trajan at the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus by being pitched into the Black Sea weighted down with an anchor.*

The Martyrdom of St. Clement, by Bernardino Fungai.

The documentary trail for leadership of the Christian community in these embryonic years is a little thin but officially, the Vatican rates Clement the fourth Pope following St. Peter, Linus, and Cletus; Tertullian says he was ordained by Peter’s very on hand.

He’s the earliest of these successors of the Apostle who can still speak to posterity. The First Epistle of Clement,** which might very well be from the pope’s own hand, is among the oldest extant Christian texts outside of the books actually gathered in the New Testament. Clement wrote it to recall the Corinthian congregation to obedience after “no small sedition” challenged its presbyters; by way of a voluminous review of authority both scriptural and natural,† the Bishop of Rome unsurprisingly concludes that folk ought submit to the constituted ecclesiastical authorities.

Forasmuch then as these things are manifest beforehand, and we have searched into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do all things in order, as many as the Master hath commanded us to perform at their appointed seasons. Now the offerings and ministrations He commanded to be performed with care, and not to be done rashly or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons.

And where and by whom He would have them performed, He Himself fixed by His supreme will: that all things being done with piety according to His good pleasure might be acceptable to His will.

They therefore that make their offerings at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed: for while they follow the institutions of the Master they cannot go wrong.

For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the levites their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances.

Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.

Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.

They therefore who do any thing contrary to the seemly ordinance of His will receive death as the penalty.

-1 Clem 40:1 – 41:3 (via)

Presumably in consequence of the device used to sink the pope into the Euxine, St. Clement is honored as the patron of smiths and metalorkers; little-observed now, St. Clement’s Day once saw clanging processions of cloaked, and tanked, blacksmiths answering to Old Clem and belting out tunes at every tavern they passed. Pyromaniacs and Warner Brothers cartoon characters might also wish to honor St. Clement with a good old-fashioned anvil firing.

* Chersonesus, which is the city where the prince Vladimir the Great was baptized en route to Christianizing all of Russia, has gorgeous ruins that can be seen adjacent to present-day Sevastopol. St. Cyril, missionary to the Slavs and fountainhead of the Cyrillic alphabet(s), is supposed to have dug up Clement’s relics during his sojourn and hauled them, anchor and all, back to Rome.

** There’s a Second Epistle of Clement, too, but it is not thought to be a genuine product of Clement.

† And unnatural! Viz. “There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years; and when it hath now reached the time of its dissolution that it should die, it maketh for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into the which in the fullness of time it entereth, and so it dieth.” The phoenix is supposed to be evidence and/or metaphor for the Resurrection and the afterlife.

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