Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire’

Patrician Noster

Posted in General, On This Day on January 21st, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

January 21st, around 304: Agnes Lives Up To Her Name

This is the feast day of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr.  (Yes, the two are often synonymous).  Agnes was a young Roman patrician…and so were Saints Agatha, Lucia, Cecilia, Catherine, etc.  Why must they always be young Roman virgin aristocrats?  Was the Early Church so snobbish that it would not let a shepherdess or fishmonger throw herself to the lions?  And the stories are always the same: rather than marry a pagan, the young lady chooses death.  Well, a Church that needs four Gospels to tell the same story is not blessed with originality; and the redundancy of these martyred debutantes might suggest why plagiarism is not a cardinal sin.

Ironically, the very triteness of these stories proves that they are reasonably true.  (We still might doubt that, when threaten with rape, Saint Agnes immediately grew billows of body hair that deterred even Latin men.)  All this incredulous repetition is the fault of the Romans.  The Empire was specifically persecuting Christian patricians.  Pagans are usually quite tolerant; what difference is one more God in the pantheon?  In fact, the imperial authorities were quite prepared to accept Christianity within certain constraints.

The evangelists were welcome to preach sufferance to peasants and slaves.  Sedating the lower classes did the Empire a favor.  (What a pity Jesus missed Spartacus by some 90 years.)  Furthermore, Christianity seemed a very nice religion for women.  Virtue, mercy and charity are delightful household precepts; but they are no way to run an empire.  The Christian principles might undermine the martial ardor that built and maintained Rome.  The religion could not be allowed among patrician males.

By the third century, many patrician families kept a theological balance.  The women were permitted to be Christian while the men were required to be pagans.  The women’s Christianity was not even a secret.  Consider the names Agnes, Agatha, Lucia and Catherine.  They were not traditional Roman monikers but reflected the Christian policy of naming a child for a virtue. Their names respectively mean chaste, good, light and pure.  (Cecilia must have had a domineering conservative father; her name adheres to Roman custom and identifies her as a member of the Caecilii family.) 

So long as Christianity remained a woman’s fad, there were no problems.  Unfortunately, some dogmatic maidens did not know their place.  Agnes, Agatha, Lucia and Catherine revolted against all propriety by refusing to marry eminently eligible pagans.  That was a scandal.  And Cecilia was worse; she actually tried converting patrician males.  That was a crime!  Since these young ladies demanded attention, they got the most fatal form of it.

Agnes died during the last major persecution of Christians. It was in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who incidentally had a Christian but discreet wife.  In 304 there was an up-and-coming Roman general named Constantine.  He, too, grew up in a theologically mixed household, with a pagan father and a Christian mother; in his case, however, Constantine turned out to be a a mama’s boy.  If only Agnes had shown a little patience and tact, she could have been persecuting pagans.

How To Achieve Infamy

Posted in On This Day on January 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 25th:

GensericIf “Only the good die young,” that would explain Genseric’s long life. He died this day in 477 at the age of 87 or so. We are not quite sure of his actual birthday; being the illegitimate son of a chieftain of a minor barbarian tribe, who noticed? His departure was more conspicuous. After all, by that time he was the King of North Africa, the terror of what was left of the Roman world, and the scourge of the Church. Even today, his legacy lingers. Through his deeds, his tribe is remembered as a felony: Vandal.

Genseric’s career would make a suitable case study for any MBA program. If anyone deserved to be named Entrepreneur of the Fifth Century, it certainly was him. Of course, the early fifth century was a great time to be a barbarian. The Rhine River was all the defense that the Roman Empire had in the West, and it was hardly impassable. (The Germanic tribes waded into the Empire or–to use the Latin pronunciation– in-vade.)

Most of the tribes were competing with one another as to who would loot Gaul. The Vandals, led by Genseric and his annoyingly legitimate half-brother Gunderic, decided to avoid the mob and a losing battle by moving on to Iberia. They were among the first German tourists there. Unfortunately for the Vandals, the Visigoths also heard about Hispania and migrated there, too. Preferring to be the sole barbarians on the peninsula, the Visigoths began wiping out the Vandals. Half of the tribe was gone, Gunderic was dead, and Genseric was now the king of this sorry remnant; in 429, however, the Roman governor of North Africa saved the Vandals. The governor was rebelling against the Emperor and needed mercenaries, so he transported the entire tribe to North Africa.

Ironically, the Roman governor called off his rebellion, but the Vandals didn’t. Genseric liked North Africa; in those days the land was fertile and had not become yet an extension of the Sahara. Prosperous provinces but with meager defenses–what more could Genseric ask! Within ten years, the Vandals occupied the territory extending from Libya to Morocco. (Yes, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was actually the second German invasion there, and the less successful of the two.) Carthage, the capital of Roman North Africa surrendered without a fight; the Vandals occupied the city while most of the populace was at the chariot races.

Genseric’s next venture was piracy. The Vandals proved quite adaptive and quickly developed a fleet that terrorized the western Mediterranean. They conquered the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. What could Rome do but flatter him. In 442 the Emperor Valentinian III recognized Genseric as the King of everything he had seized; the official title was supposed to make him behave with regal decorum. Genseric would be further placated by a marriage into the imperial family. The Emperor’s three-year-old daughter was betrothed to Genseric’s oldest (and adult) son; it would be a long engagement. So for the next 13 years Genseric seemed content to administer his realm, restoring to North Africa the stability and prosperity that the disintegrating Roman Empire had failed to maintain. He did tax the patrician landowners and the Catholic clergy (who usually were one and the same) but most of the populace found Vandal rule an improvement.

And Genseric was bored! Although now was in his sixties, he definitely had not mellowed. Yet he felt constrained by his treaty with Valentinian III and the western half of the Roman Empire. True, he was free to attack the Byzantines or his old enemies the Visigoths, but they had the inconvenient capacity to defend themselves; and Genseric really did not like fair fights. However, the life expectancy of a Roman Emperor was rarely long, and Valentinian III made enemies. He was assassinated in March, 455, and two months later Genseric was at the gates of Rome, proclaiming himself the avenger of Valentinian and the protector of his family.

For all his lofty proclamations, his basic demands were “give us everything and no one will be hurt”. Two years earlier, Pope Leo I had persuaded Attila the Hun not to sack Rome; the Pope would not find Genseric to be such a softie. The Visigoths in 410 had sacked Rome, indulging in murder, rape and pillage; but they had refrained from looting churches. The Vandals lacked that sense of etiquette; of course, after the Visigoths, Rome had little left to loot except the churches. Genseric’s sack was bloodless and platonic, but his irrreverent attitude to church property would earn the Vandals their lasting infamy. The medieval monk chroniclers would not forgive the Vandals’ transgression, and their animosity became our perception: VANDALS!. Although usually left to the victor, history is always written by the literate.

Furthermore, despite his agreement with the Pope, Genseric did not strictly observe his pledge of good behavior. Apparently kidnapping was still permissible. No, Genseric was not tacky enough to seize the Pope; but he did take the widow and two daughters of the late emperor. The dowager empress was a Byzantine princess, so Constantinople would be sent the ransom note. Genseric was only offering the widow and one daughter; the other–now nubile–girl was going to marry his son. The ransom negotiations lasted six years. In that time, the Byzantines were hoping that Genseric would succumb to enemies or old age. Both were reasonable expectations but he proved equally adapt at outfoxing his foes and time itself.

In 468, the Byzantines amassed an overwhelming force to crush the Vandal kingdom. More than 1100 ships, with 100,000 soldiers, ascended on Carthage. Unfortunately, the Byzantine emperor appointed his brother-in-law the commander. Genseric offered to surrender and, while the peace terms were being negotiated, the Vandals attacked the lulled Byzantines. Half of their fleet was lost. The idiot brother-in-law returned to Constantinople where he sheltered in a church until the emperor agreed only to exile him.

And the 80 year-old Genseric would outlast another two Byzantine emperors, five Roman emperors and the Western Empire itself. But his kingdom would only survive him by 57 years; he had left his sons an empire but none of the vision or the abilities to preserve it.

Apocrypha Now

Posted in General, On This Day on January 25th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

St. Artemas

Feastday: January 25

Martyr of Pozzuoli, Italy. He is traditionally described as a teenage boy in the Roman Empire who was stabbed to death with iron pens by pagan school classmates.

Artemas prayed to get a perfect score on his trig test. The miracle was granted but it ruined the curve for everyone else. His martyrdom ensued immediately.

St. Artemas is the patron saint of adolescent geeks, the ones who eagerly accept celibacy and who belong to the high school Math Club.

The Decline and Decline and Decline of the Roman Empire

Posted in General on November 24th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

The fall of the Roman Empire was somewhat exaggerated. There was no massive barbarian offensive that overran and annihilated civilization; the fifth century Germans were more subtle than their modern descendants. Indeed, many of the tribes were invited into the enfeebled empire. Rome hoped that the barbarians might be better behaved as guests than invaders.

Given the Italian male’s increasing reluctance to leave an orgy to stand guard on the Rhine, Rome had to employ barbarians as mercenaries. If five centuries of mutinies, assassinations and civil wars give any indication, Roman armies were not conspicuously loyal. Now, however, they were not even Roman. The legions and the tribes became ethnically indistinguishable. Rome merely had the better dressed Germans.

In Western Europe the Empire simply succumbed to reality. Germanic armies had been ruling in the name of Rome, pledging their nominal allegiance to whichever powerless cipher was sitting on the throne that day. But the etiquette grew tiresome; the pretense was simply abandoned. It was not a cataclysmic end. The roads did not disappear or the aqueducts collapse overnight. With the exception of the Angles and Saxons–who destroyed Londinium before they decided that it might be a nice place to live, most barbarians genuinely admired Roman civilization. Looting was just their form of affection. The Germanic kinglets and chieftains actually tried to perserve the civilization they had conquered. The day to day administration of their realms was entrusted to Roman councilors; who else knew how to read and count?

The deterioration was gradual but unavoidable. Without the knowledge and resources to maintain aqueducts, cities dried up into villages. Provinces that had once been integral parts of an thriving empire now were insular and isolated. Furthermore, the Germanic invasions continued, and the semi-civilized Visigoths and Ostrogoths were supplanted by more barbaric tribes. (The Franks were especially notorious for their treachery, but after 1500 years you have to admire their consistency.)

A century after the Roman Empire had collapsed in Europe, so had civilization. A few vestiges would tenuously survive; the local mispronunciations of Latin would become Spanish, Portuguese and French. And there still was a church that identified itself with Rome. (The barbarians showed a superstitious consideration for other peoples’ religions; their religion would not receive the same courtesy.)

However, Europe was only half of the Roman Empire. The Mediterranean Sea was a little harder to ford than the Rhine, and the Germans had yet to invent the U-Boat. The Empire’s richest and most cultured regions–Anatolia, Syria and Egypt–were more threatened by Byzantine bureaucrats than barbarian tribes. The Dark Ages were Europe’s embarrassment. If the Byzantines felt superior, they had every reason to think so.