Monday, 21 September 2009

Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari

A recent holiday in Sardinia took me to the (alleged) tomb of Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari in the mid-fourth century. Lucifer of Cagliari's reputation is founded on being the most wackily-named bishop of late antiquity, and also for his trailblazing status as a bishop who used his status to call a Christian emperor (Constantius II) names (the anti-Christ, etc.). He was exiled to Egypt, but was treated altogether more pleasantly that Constantius treated civilian enemies. A translation of his works is being made by Richard Flower of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
When the cattedrale di S. Maria was built in the early seventeenth century, the crypt was almost wholly dedicated to relics of martyrs brought over from the old church named for San Saturnino. There is row upon row of little wall monuments. Lucifer's statue is placed at the east end of the chapel on the right. It has three inscriptions. The one on the statue base records the role of Archbishop Ambrogio Machin (1627-40) and refers, quite anachronistically, to Lucifer as a spirited speaker in the Roman curia. The next one reads:
+die xxi iunii MDCXXIII inventum corpus S. Luciferi ar[chiepisco]pi Cal[aritani] in capellam hanc eius nomini per ill[ustrem] d[ominum] Franc[iscum] Desquivel Ar[chiepisco]pu[m] Cal[aritanum] dicatam translatum fuit die xxi [M]aii MDCXXVI
On the 21st day of June 1623 was found the body of S. Lucifer archbishop of Cagliari, transferred to this chapel, dedicated to his name by the illustrious Don Francesco d'Esquivel archbishop of Cagliari, on the 21st day of May 1626.
For a late Romanist, it is amusing to see the convenient 'discovery' of bodies, as pioneered by Ambrose of Milan, still in practice (not that there aren't more recent examples). I also wonder why Lucifer was translated on 21st May and not on his feast day, the 20th. The third inscription (below) also calls Lucifer an 'archbishop', anachronistically, and additionally makes him primate of Sardinia and Corcica [sic!] (I don't know if this is an anachronism but would expect so). But the weird thing is that it calls him B.M., which I think has to mean Beatus Martyr (by the way, if anyone can explain the first half of line 4, let me know!).

Lucifer was no martyr, and he was a questionable sort of Catholic saint, when you consider that he inspired a sect, the Luciferians, who were castigated as heretics by Jerome. What is most interesting here is the (literal) rediscovery and reuse by seventeenth-century archbishops of a predecessor who might have been thought quite problematic. I wonder how far their factual slips were based on ignorance, and how far they were calculated. It would be a fine subject for a historian who combined an expertise in the history of patristic scholarship and seventeenth-century Sardinia!

The church of Cagliari also commemorated several doublets of Lucifer: the cr
ypt contains wall memorials covering the remains of S. Lucifer the Presbyter, and S. Lucifera, both martyrs of Cagliari. Whether Lucifer was a common name in Cagliari, or whether this is a neat illustration of how catholic cult despised birth control when it came to engendering martyrs, I leave to readers to decide.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Harry Sidebottom's Ballista

A recent short review of mine from the Times Literary Supplement of 7 August.

Harry Sidebottom

King of Kings is the second volume in a trilogy of military-historical novels set in the mid-third century AD Roman empire. Few people know as much about this shadowy period of Roman history as Harry Sidebottom: the title page credits him with his doctorate, and there are over twenty pages of historical apparatus, with suggestions for further reading and a glossary. Such academic material may seem jarring in this rollocking page-turner. In fact, the author’s learning, though lightly worn, combines with his narrative skills to produce a superior example of genre fiction, with unusual depth, authenticity, and sense of place.

The lack of known names and dates in the period gives plenty of scope for the historian’s and novelist’s imagination; the first volume, Fire in the East (2008), focused on the fiectional Persian siege of a fictional Roman city in AD 256, modelled on the siege of Amida a century later. The present tale is woven around a military campaign of 257, contemporary persecutions of Christians, and the capture of the emperor Valerian by Shapur I of Persia in 260. This division into three separate narratives means that this story is perhaps not quite as consistently successful as the previous volume (which should certainly be read first); but the climax is very well done.

Sidebottom captures the group psychology of soldiers, and he is good on the peculiar role of ‘barbarian’ soldiers in the Roman army. His hero, Ballista, is an Angle (his chief sidekicks are a large-hearted Irishman and a grumpy Caledonian). Although he has as much culture, and greater linguistic ability and strategic intelligence, than Roman colleagues, Ballista is seen as suspect and is expendable when the chips are down. Having the Romans viewed through the eyes of semi-outsiders also helps the novelist to avoid didacticism. The text offers a number of hints as to Ballista’s future career, and in the next volume he will merge with the little that’s known of the historical Ballista.

One colleague wrote wondering how favourable I had meant to be, perhaps because quite a few of my adjectives were removed in order to fit this on a page with three other reviews. Lest there be any doubt, these books are a great read. There is plenty of good robust historical military fiction about, but it is striking to see it combined with such academic expertise without loss of narrative vigour.

I did think that the second volume was not quite as unremittingly exciting as the first; and I should expand on an oblique comment above. It seemed clear to me that the central and recurring model for the siege which is the principal episode of Fire in the East is a later event, the Persian invasion of Roman Mesopotamia and the sack of Amida (Diyarbakir) in AD 359, described in detail by Ammianus Marcellinus in books 18 and 19. Sidebottom has detailed supplementary material about ancient sources and further reading, but he never mentions Ammianus. I don't see that this is wrong - it's a work of fiction, after all - but it is odd. I shall put the novel in the bibliography when I teach Ammianus books 18 and 19 in the new year, and take pleasure in the thought that my favourite historian inspired - as well, perhaps, as exhibiting - 'the creative and imaginitive powers of a novelist'.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Symmachus to Ausonius (2)

So what is Symmachus letter 1.13 all about (incidentally, I decided to add the Latin text to the previous post)? Perhaps I should have read more widely, but I have yet to see the context of this letter properly explained. Here is my take.

Symmachus was a prominent and aristocratic young member of the Roman senate in January 376. But he was not yet what he was to become: a Prefect of the City (in 384-5) or a consul (in 391). Indeed, his father L. Aurelius Avianus Symmachus had on the very same day returned to Rome from unofficial exile, after after an unwise alleged remark prompted the plebs to burn down his townhouse. But Symmachus did have one advantage over his peers: most of them had never been to court – indeed, the senate had a notoriously bad relationship with the emperor Valentinian – but Symmachus had, on an embassy at the turn of the 360s/370s. At Trier he had given panegyrics of the emperor Valentianian and of his young son Gratian and been promoted to Count, third class; he had also met Gratian’s tutor, Ausonius. And Ausonius, like his imperial masters, had never been to Rome. They maintained a correspondence thereafter (occasionally, as the opening lines of this letter suggest).

On 17 November 375, a month and a half before the events described in this letter, the emperor Valentinian died of a stroke, in Brigetio, near modern Budapest. The heir to the western empire was Gratian, who had held the title of Augustus since 367, but who was many hundreds of miles away in Trier. The civil and military high command on the ground, aided by Valentinian’s widow, decided on the quite unconstitutional promotion to Augustus of Gratian’s half-brother, Valentinian II, in Aquincum (Budapest) on 23 November.

Imagine the position of the teenage Gratian, hearing, perhaps in late November, that his father is dead and that he is the sole western ruler, and then a week later, that the army in Illyricum, many hundreds of miles away, has proclaimed his four year old half-brother as an emperor. He can’t disown his brother, but neither can he allow the civil and military authorities in Illyricum, abetted by his stepmother, to establish a puppet emperor (it is vitally important, I think, that Gratian is in a separate Prefecture, that of Gaul, which also covered Britain and Spain, from that of Illyricum, which also covers Italy and north Africa).

Gratian needs to exercise his control over the whole of the Roman west, the Gallic and Illyrican prefectures, and particularly over Rome itself; he needs to make sure that Valentinian II is not a threat to him. So he needs to win over the senate, who have suffered under his father from investigations on charges of magic and treason. Torture and executions have occurred. A message of conciliation needs to be got to them – by New Year’s day they have spent weeks wondering how Gratian will react to Valentinian II. If you consider that Gratian in Trier may not have heard of his father’s death and the threat from his younger brother till well into December 375, it is not incredible that his messenger to the senate may only have arrived in Rome on the night of the New Year, the day when the new consuls were announced. The messenger’s breathless haste may not be a commonplace! He may really have been in a desperate rush.

To whom had Gratian turned to compose his message to the senate, asserting conciliation and control? Roman emperors had on official who drafted laws and speeches, the quaestor sacri palatii – and Gratian’s quaestor was Ausonius. This is why Symmachus represents Ausonius as so keen to know how the message went down (though preserving the established fiction that the speech is Gratian’s own). In a different sense, the fact that Ausonius was Gratian’s quaestor, and that Symmachus is one of the only senators who has actually met him, is why Symmachus is so keen to exploit the connection. Gratian’s and Ausonius’ concessions to the senate obviously helped to establish their control over the whole of the west. And, as I shall show in future posts, Symmachus’ sycophancy worked in making him a leading spokesman of the Roman senate and in reestablishing his and his father’s credentials.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A letter to Ausonius (Symmachus Ep. 1.13)

Soon after 1 January 376, Q. Aurelius Symmachus wrote from Rome to Ausonius, who was serving as Quaestor to Gratian, now the senior emperor in the west. Perhaps, as with Festus, this has actually been published in English translation before, but if so I don't remember seeing it anywhere in complete form.

Symmachus to Ausonius

Joyfulness is accustomed to be eloquent and, spurning the narrows of a closed heart, to exult: as for you, my friend, good fortune has made you forget to write. This could not be a point for me to imitate, whom our Lord Gratian’s heavenly speech has filled with good hope and joyfulness. So I have not refrained for my own part from addressing a sluggard, because it’s my duty to do so, or my joy: our friendship suggested one of these options, public felicity the other. 2. If you can spare the time, please cast your mind back just a bit for my purposes.

Janus was opening the first Kalends of the year. We had come, a packed senate, into the curia that morning, before clear day could undo the dark of night. By chance a rumour had been brought, that the words of a longed-for prince had arrived far into the night. And it was true, for a courier stood there exhausted from his sleepless nights. We rush together when the sky was not yet white: with the lamps lit, the destinies of the new age are recited. Need I say more? We welcomed the light which we were still awaiting. 3. ‘Tell me’ you say – for this is important to hear – ‘what did the Fathers feel about that speech.’ May Nature herself answer with those wishes with which longed-for piety is heard. We know to embrace our blessings. If you can believe it, I even now suffer a certain indigestion of that joy of mine. Good Nerva, toiling Trajan, guiltless Pius, Marcus abounding in responsibility were helped by the times, which then did not know other morals: it is the nature of the prince that is a matter of praise now, then it was the blessing of olden times. Why, with order reversed, should we think these examples of outstanding traits and those remnants of an earlier age? 4. May Fortune preserve her blessing, and desire at least to save for the Roman name this beloved! Let the public joy be bitten by no witchcraft! You have heard everything – but only the very first tiny effusions from my lips. The glories of our curia will talk more fully with you. Then, when you find more written to you, think how much more eloquent are the thoughts of one man’s mind than all our effusions of applause. Farewell.

Symmachus Ausonio

Solet facundia esse laetitia et angustias clausi pectoris aspernata gestire; tibi, amice, scribendi officium oblivionem peperit res secunda. id mihi imitationi esse non potuit, quem domini nostri Gratiani caelestis oratio bonae spei et hilaritatis implevit. Ultro igitur adloqui residem non peperci vel officii vel gaudii mei gratia, quorum alterum familiaritas nostra, alterum felicitas publica suggerebat. 2. nunc si operae est, utendum mihi tantisper animum fac remittas. primores Kalendas Ianus anni aperibat. frequens senatus mature in curiam veneramus, priusquam manifestus dies creperum noctis absolveret. forte rumor adlatus est sermonem desiderati principis multa nocte venisse. et erat verum; nam tabellarius vigiliarum fessus adstabat. nondum caelo albente concurritur; luminibus accensis novi saeculi fata recitantur. quid multa? lucem, quam adhuc opperiebamur, accepimus. 3. dic mihi, inquies - nam id praestat audire - quid nostri patres super ea oratione senserunt? rerum tibi natura respondeat quibus suffragiis exoptata pietas audiatur. novimus bona nostra complecti. si credis, etiamnum illius gaudii mei quandam patior cruditatem. bonus Nerva, Traianus strenuus, Pius innocens, Marcus plenus officii temporibus adiuti sunt, quae tunc mores alios nesciebant: hic in laude est natura principis, ibi priscae munus aetatis. cur verso ordine ista optimarum artium putemus exempla et illa de saeculo priore vestigia? 4. beneficium suum fortuna tutetur et has saltem Romano nomini velit servare delicias! nullo fascino felicitas publica mordeatur! audisti omnia, de summo tenus ore libata; monumenta curiae nostrae plenius tecum loquentur. ubi cum plura scripta reppereris, aestima quanto uberiora unius mens optaverit, quam plausus effuderit. vale.