Thursday, June 14, 2007

Grip harsh iron rather than the tender wheat

Piazza San Silvestro, Rome
By 799, they didn't observe the Robigalia in Rome anymore. Gods of mildew were a thing of the past, as were vile sacrifices of dog and sheep guts. But people still knew that a higher power had to be enlisted on April 25 to prevent the crops from succumbing to blight and mold. They turned to the bishop, as they had done for most things since the days when chunks of masonry first began falling off the empty buildings on the Palatine Hill. Just as his fifth-century namesake had interceded on Rome's behalf against other, more immediate (and better armed) threats to the public interest, Pope Leo III stepped into the void.

His service was not welcomed by all. Leo struggled to establish himself in the long shadow of his dynamic predecessor, Pope Hadrian, who had been dead for less than four years. Most of the awestruck pilgrims lining the papal procession route hadn't heard the rumors swirling around the new pope, which were scandalous. He had told lies before God, some said. He was an adulterer, whispered others. These were not the sorts of things that were said about popes, even unpopular ones. The rumors were a matter of concern even in distant Aachen, where the Frankish king Karl—the man later generations would call Charles the Great, or Charlemagne—worried that his pious friend, Hadrian, had been succeeded by a moral midget.

Two of Hadrian's relatives who served on Leo's staff were determined, with the help of some friends, to resolve the problem. The Major Litany, as the Christianized vestiges of the Robigalia were now called, took Leo from the Lateran to the Milvian Bridge by way of the monastery of SS Stephen and Silvester, eventually winding up at the fourth-century Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill.

It was near the monastery that they made their move, according to the Liber Pontificalis:

They suddenly leapt out of their place of ambush so as to slay him impiously...when this happened, all of the people round him, who were unarmed and ready for divine service, were scared of the weapons and turned to flee...without mercy, they [the attackers] cut his clothes off him and attempted cruelly to pluck out his eyes and totally blind him. They cut off his tongue and left him, or so they thought, blind and dumb in the middle of the street.

Unfortunately for the attackers, they couldn't bring themselves to deliver the coup de grace. They locked Leo up in a monastery on the Caelian Hill, near the great round church of San Stefano Rotondo. Grievous as his wounds were, Leo made a full recovery within a few weeks. Soon after that, while his erstwhile assassins debated what to do with him, Leo's chamberlain successfully executed a late-night jail break. He would return to the immediate safety of St. Peter's, yes, but then what...?

You'll have to buy the book to find out what happened next, but Jeff Sypeck's "Mutilation of Pope Leo III Commemorative Walking Tour" proved just as unexpected a highlight of our whistle-stop trip to Rome as did our twilight visit to the Salarian Gate. When he's not nagging Charlemagne to stop leaving funny little hairs stuck to the soap, Jeff can often be found at his new blog, Quid plura?

(Title is from Ovid: Fasti, Book IV.)

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