Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

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46 B.C.E.: Vercingetorix the Gaul

2 comments September 19th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date around this time — sort of — in 46 B.C.E., the Gallic chief Vercingetorix was marched as Julius Caesar’s star captive in Rome, then strangled in prison.

A nobleman who in the course of things would have been destined for that class of domestic elites bought off by Rome for orderly management of conquered provinces, Vercingetorix instead mounted a massive and effective semi-guerrilla resistance. A few months after Caesar had declared “Mission Accomplished” and Gaul at peace, it rose in arms … and, as Vercingetorix rolled out a scorched-earth defense, in flames.

Julius Caesar, then serving a long and lucrative career as Governor of Gaul, managed only with difficulty — and staggering bloodshed — to pacify the province at the Battle of Alesia. It was a signal military engagement in the development of the Roman Empire, cementing Roman power in Gaul for centuries to come.

The wily barbarian’s revolt and the very serious danger it posed to Caesar’s ambitions are the subject of a five-part BBC documentary.

Vercingetorix’s allegedly theatrical surrender to Caesar essentially ended the Gauls stubborn, centuries-long resistance to Roman dominion.


Reddition de Vercingétorix à Alésia – Christophe Lambert
Uploaded by EvivaEuropa

Yes, that’s the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, playing the French Braveheart version of barbarian heroism in Druids. HBO’s series Rome went with a less romantic version:

Either way, the once-intractable province became the bastion from which Caesar would overthrow the foundering Roman Republic.

Political rivals in the capital for whom Caesar’s Gallic campaign was nothing to celebrate denied Caesar a ceremonial Triumph and maneuvered to check the ambitious general. When the conflict came to a head in 49 B.C.E., Caesar’s bold move from the provincial borders of Gaul into Italy — crossing the Rubicon — ignited civil war in Rome.

Vercingetorix languished in Roman chains all along, until Caesar finally mopped up his enemies in the field and returned to Rome, where he celebrated an extravagant quadruple Triumph for his various military achievements.

As described by Appian,

when he returned to Rome he had four triumphs together: one for his Gallic wars, in which he had added many great nations to the Roman sway and subdued others that had revolted; one for the Pontic war against Pharnaces;* one for the war in Africa against the African allies of L. Scipio, in which the historian Juba (the son of King Juba), then an infant, was led a captive. Between the Gallic and the Pontic triumphs he introduced a kind of Egyptian triumph, in which he led some captives taken in the naval engagement on the Nile.** Although he took care not to inscribe any Roman names in his triumph (as it would have been unseemly in his eyes and base and inauspicious in those of the Roman people to triumph over fellow-citizens), yet all these misfortunes were represented in the processions and the men also by various images and pictures, all except Pompey, whom alone he did not venture to exhibit, since he was still greatly regretted by all. The people, although restrained by fear, groaned over their domestic ills, especially when they saw the picture of Lucius Scipio, the general-in-chief, wounded in the breast by his own hand, casting himself into the sea, and Petreius committing self-destruction at the banquet, and Cato torn apart by himself like a wild beast. They applauded the death of Achillas and Pothinus, and laughed at the flight of Pharnaces.

It is said that money to the amount of 60,500 silver talents was borne in the procession and 2822 crowns of gold weighing 20,414 pounds, from which wealth Caesar made apportionments immediately after the triumph, paying the army all that he had promised and more. Each soldier received 5000 Attic drachmas, each centurion double, and each tribune of infantry and perfect of cavalry fourfold that sum. To each plebeian citizen also was given an Attic mina. He gave also various spectacles with horses and music, a combat of foot-soldiers, 1000 on each side, and a cavalry fight of 200 on each side. There was also another combat of horse and foot together. There was a combat of elephants, twenty against twenty, and a naval engagement of 4000 oarsmen, where 1000 fighting men contended on each side. He erected the temple to Venus, his ancestress, as he had vowed to do when he was about to begin the Battle of Pharsalus, and he laid out ground around the temple which he intended to be a forum for the Roman people, not for buying and selling, but a meeting-place for the transaction of public business, like the public squares of the Persians, where the people assemble to seek justice or to learn the laws. He placed a beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess, which stands there to this day. He caused an enumeration of the people to be made, and it is said that it was found to be only one half of the number existing before this war.

War is hell.

At the Gallic triumph, Vercingetorix — by far the most fearsome enemy Caesar had to display vis-a-vis a five-year-old child and the sister of his lover — was at last the center of attention again for a day. Still defiant, he was marched through the Eternal City, then strangled at the Tullianum, or Mamertine Prison.

But which day? The bare fact is that we just don’t know, but this one has more than the typical imprecision that characterizes dating ancient events. This footnote on a page about Egyptian royalty grapples with the timing.

Suetonius gives us that his Triumphs were celebrated

four times in one month, each Triumph succeeding the former by an interval of a few days.

Since Cassius Dio claims that Caesar dedicated the Temple of Venus (datable to late September of 46) on the last day of the last Triumph, that presumably makes September the “one month” of the various celebrations.

That’s about as close as it gets, but even “September” comes with a caveat. During his few months in Rome between campaigns, Caesar accomplished a frenetic civil agenda (it helps to be dictator). Perhaps none is of such recognizable consequence for posterity as reform of the wacky solar-lunar hybrid Roman calendar — and 46 B.C.E. was the very year he implemented it.

Disdaining incrementalism, Caesar tackled the mess the Roman calendar had become at once, by stuffing the year 46 up to 445 days. As a result, 365 days after the execution of Vercingetorix was not September of 45, but July (or possibly June) — and those months are sometimes given for the dates of Caesar’s Triumphs on this basis. Since Caesar actually won his decisive battle in April of 46 B.C.E. and returned to Rome that July, the potential for confusion multiplies: if you’re not accounting for the exceptional calendar, July Triumphs appear initially plausible.

It is here that one beholds the essential subjectivity behind a putatively mechanistic device like a calendar: if Vercingetorix was executed in spring or summer, was he executed in September?

Whenever it was that he was throttled in the Mamertine, Vercingetorix did not go quietly. If his cause of resistance to Roman authority was doomed for the time being, the eternal allure of rebellion — and, as the Gallic lands later germinated France, the proto-nationalism of his cause — secured him his own symbolic immortality.


Napoleon III, with his complex relationship to the Gallic and Italic dreams of another age, was just the man to put up this statue of Vercingetorix where the barbarian was thought to have made his last stand. Its inscription reads:

La Gaule unie
Formant une seule nation
Animée d’un même esprit,
Peut défier l’Univers.

* The speedily resolved Pontic War gave us Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”.

** It was at the Egyptian triumph that Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe was marched, though she was not executed afterwards.

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