Thursday, September 17, 2009

A still-wandering warlord

My slow journey to the completion of a MA in history is leading me, this semester, through the Protestant Reformation and its attendant upheavals. As someone who has taken every opportunity offered by his program requirements to focus on the third through seventh centuries, with occasional forays into earlier times, I approached this seminar with a certain amount of trepidation. Here was the far side of the bridge spanning the great, fermenting river that is medieval history. I have spent the bulk of my studies pawing through the silt of that river's near side, marveling over found gewgaws and sometimes pausing to wonder how, or whether, eddies near the shore affected the greater flow of the river. The task of crossing to the opposite bank and appreciating its landscape promised to take me well outside my comfort zone.

You might imagine my surprise when, in the midst of Luther's screeds and classic studies of the period, I encountered a man whose mark on the historical record took place more than 15 centuries earlier...and 2,000 years ago this month. Germany's soil had long since reclaimed the bleached bones of Publius Quinctilius Varus by the time Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, ruled over it. Nonetheless, there, standing alongside Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, and pleading his case before Minos, judge of the dead in Hades, was Hermann the German:

[Tacitus] calls me "the deliverer of Germany," and not wrongly, for it was I who tore the German land from the grip of Roman armies, restoring freedom to my countrymen who had grown accustomed to their slavish yoke...inasmuch as everyone admits that no greater might than Rome's ever existed on the earth, and seeing that I succeeded in vanquishing this might at the moment of its apogee, I believe to be entitled fairly to the name of greatest general of all times.

The author of this spectral dialogue was Ulrich von Hutten, who found Hermann--or, as the Romans called him, Arminius--a convenient standard bearer in his propaganda war against the Roman church. More than a thousand years after the Rhine and Danube frontiers had lost their ancient significance, Rome still regarded its German co-religionists as a horde of barely civilized barbarians who'd only found Christian salvation with Rome's missionary assistance...and who were quite ungrateful for the favor.

Hutten's Romans had a predictably dimmer view of Arminius:

SCIPIO: Among the Romans, Arminius stands accused of breach of faith and is charged with having abused his victory over Varus by excessive cruelty.
ARMINIUS: If that accusation were to stand, Scipio, all tyrannicides and liberators would be judged faithless, most notably your own patriots who drove out the Tarquins and assassinated Julius Caesar. And yet these heroes enjoy fame and glory among you. I, for my part, call those men faithless who trim their sails to the winds of good fortune, who offer their loyalty for sale to the highest bidder. I myself was driven by the sacred merit of my nation's enemies' jealousy is responsible for the invention of this malicious calumny...I am not the first to be slandered, nor will I be the last.

Expurgating the record of anti-German slander has been a popular pastime in the centuries since Hutten wrote, and Arminius has often reprised his role as mascot. The dark side of German nationalism has made many wary of his appearances, which is why Germany's acknowledgement of the anniversary has been carefully moderated. On my side of the ocean, however, German ethnic pride has more or less successfully rid itself of its more distasteful associations, which permits Arminius to serve as an emblem of freedom in the American iconic tradition.

That's the case in the little town of New Ulm, Minnesota, where a monumental statue of Arminius was first dedicated in 1897. He's since been refurbished, and today, he presides over a weekend-long celebration of "the great achievements of Germanic-Americans." There will be re-enactors, a German car show (!), and an academic symposium held, appropriately enough, at Martin Luther College.

For my money, though, the can't-miss attraction is Saturday morning's Cherusci Breakfast. Get there early to enjoy "Battle Biscuits," "Thusnelda's Scrambled Eggs," and "Hermann Ham" with "Black Forest Fruit Salad." Your meal will be served by costumed waitstaff. What are you waiting for?

Of course, before you go, you should do some background reading to help you get in the proper spirit of things. The blogosphere's undisputed expert on Arminius is Adrian Murdoch, who has also written a book on his victory over Varus.

Adrian's blog, however, does not include breakfast. Get on that, Adrian.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites." *

Just stopped by Wikipedia and noticed that the Diocletianic Persecution is subject of today's featured article.

* Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De Mortibus Persecutorum) 10

Monday, September 07, 2009


One day in June of 594, Gregory the Great had to excuse himself from his daunting daily responsibilities to field a letter from Constantina, Empress of the Romans and still, in theory, Gregory's temporal superior. The Empress was erecting a glorious church for St. Paul in the middle of the palace environs in Constantinople, and she'd made an extraordinary request of the Bishop of Rome: the Apostle's head.

Gregory must have found the Empress's letter exasperating. It was only a year earlier that he'd negotiated a fragile truce with the barbarian Lombards (with virtually no help, it must be said, from the imperial administration). Protected from their pillaging, the shrunken, tattered city had finally begun to stabilize under Gregory's tireless ministrations. Now, though, the wife of the distant Augustus, who had never set foot in Rome, sought to relieve the former capital of one of its most precious assets.

Gregory's response was carefully worded:
Being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favor towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin.

The Apostles, Gregory explained, did not take kindly to having their relics carved up into lots and sent hither and thither. Most people who'd attempted to do so, or who'd even looked as though they might be considering it, had been struck down for their presumption. These were real, Roman, saintly relics, you see; not cheap Eastern knockoffs:
For certain Greek monks who came here more than two years ago dug up in the silence of night near the church of Saint Paul, bodies of dead men lying in the open field, and laid up their bones to be kept in their own possession until their departure. When the monks were arrested and questioned about this act, they confessed that they were going to carry the bones to Greece to pass for the relics of saints.

He offered the Empress the consolation prize of some iron filings from the chains that St. Peter had worn on the way to his crucifixion. Even these, though, could not be guaranteed:
For, while many come frequently to seek a blessing from these same chains, in the hope of receiving a little part of the filings, a priest attends with a file, and in the case of some seekers a portion comes off so quickly from these chains that there is no delay: but in the case of other seekers the file is drawn for long over the chains, and yet nothing can be got from them.

I suspect the Empress's reply may have included a tart instruction for the priest to please apply the file for as long as necessary, thank you very much.

Gregory thus managed to preserve the integrity of Paul's remains, and with them, the uncompromised sanctity of one of Rome's most celebrated shrines. That sanctity was highly valuable, not only as an attraction for pilgrims and their money, but as a religious buttress to the growing temporal authority of the Pope.

It's not surprising, then, that as Christianity's roots deepened across Europe, the pressures of supply and demand eroded Gregorian inhibitions against the packaging and distribution of saint parts. Some of these transfers were made with the approval of prevailing authorities. Many others, including incidents of so-called furta sacra (holy theft) were not, giving rise to a black market in real and bogus relics that defied the laws (CT 9.17.7) of the Emperor Theodosius and persists to this day.

Regardless of their provenance, relics were not borne casually. They had to be carefully labeled and wrapped in fine silk in keeping with the requirements of reverentia. This practice, too, has survived, and has itself been translated over to the reverence of modern, secular martyrs, as we learn today from the New York Times:

As the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches on Friday, pieces of the World Trade Center rubble from that day have never been more accessible. A new campaign is under way to speed up the process and increase the volume of giving away pieces of steel big and small from the debris.
The requests are deferential. “All we need is a 1-foot-by-1-foot-by-4-feet tall piece of steel,” read a letter from the mayor and the president of a memorial in Glens Falls, N.Y. “It’s a small piece of steel to fill our big hearts.”
On Friday, Jack Sommer, the president of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pa., came to Hangar 17 to collect a piece, watching as a cemetery employee strapped a chunk of steel, concrete and gnarled rebar to a trailer. In an added flourish, the men had spread an American flag under the steel. A Port Authority police car escorted them out.

Photo credit: dweekly