Archive Page 2

Two Pannonian monuments connecting Mithras with 25 Dec.?

The Hungarian scholar Istvan Toth died this year.  I learn this from his page at Academia.edu, where may be found all his papers and books in electronic form.  This is no small thing, for many are quite inaccessible in the west, even in major research libraries.  Well done, Dr Toth, for making all this mass of information available.

Among the papers one caught my eye: 2004 Mithras kultusz és a Karácsony Poetovioban = Cult of Mithras and the Christmas in Poetovio.  This paper is in Hungarian, but very sensibly provided with an English translation at the back.  The translation is imperfect, but this is of small importance; the point is that the article is readable by the world.

We all know that Franz Cumont, in his rather slack way, supposed that there was a festival of Mithras on 25 Dec., by presuming that the cultists of Mithras ‘must’ have participated in the Natalis Solis Invicti, attested only after 354 AD.  No evidence of this exists, of course.  But this carelessness has created a modern myth, often expressed in the unpleasant jeer “Mithras is the reason for the season.”

So what does Toth say? (I shall correct the English, for readability)

It is a fact that, although scholarship connected the festival of natalis Invicti with one of Mithras (too) since F. Cumont(2), until now there was nothing to show this from epigraphical evidence collected for the Cult of Mithras (3). This situation changed because of the epigraph from Poetovio which was found in 1970, and this epigraphical evidence has since been published in several publications (4).

The epigraphical evidence was found at Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia) in the immediate vicinity of so-called Mithraeum IV (5), at the same place as the other epigraphical evidence listed for this sanctuary (6). The lead prong, on the top face of the undecorated marble base (7), shows that the object was originally the pedestal of a statue, probably a statue of a figure being born out of a rock. The first line of the inscription is lost. The remaining lines of the text are as follows:

[— ] | M Gong(ius) | Aquilei|ensis pro | salute | sua suor|umq(ue) om|nium v(otum)
s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) | d(e)d(icavit) VIIII K(alendas) Ian(uarias) | p(osuit) p(ater)
p(ientissimus) Florentiu[s]
.

The damaged first line, according to J. Sasel, should be read: [D(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae)] accounting this: “verisimiliter colligendum est, cum in vicinia vestigia quarti Mithraei reperta sint”(8), and this is all respects acceptable.

Unquestionably the most important element of the inscription is the date on the 9th readable line: 24th December, that is, vigil of natalis Invicti (the “Christmas Eve”), which appears here for the first time in epigraphical evidence related to the cult of Mithras.

The dating of relic can fairly certainly be given as the first half of the third century A.D., possibly about the middle of the third century. J. Sasel pointed that another bearer of this nomen was a certain Gongius Nestorianus who, between 198-211 was procurator of publicum portorium Illyrici and resided in Poetovio; then between 213-217 he was a praefectus classis Ravennatis(9). Considering that the nomen gentilicum of Gongius may be unique(10), it seems very likely that the person who dedicated the inscribed monument under discussion had some relationship to this man of high standing, for example he was his libertus.(11)

All this is interesting; but why a dedication of a monument on what is now 24 Dec. ‘must’ be connected to what is today Christmas Eve is not made clear.  The fact that, in 354 AD, there would be a festival of the sun on the following day is not necessarily relevant.  Any monument must be dedicated on some date; what the inscription does not show is that the date here was in any way significant.

The article then continues with material of no great relevance, until we reach this section:

It is absolutely certain, that every class of society was imbued with the need to have knowledge of the ceremonies and articles of the cult of Mithras. That social stratum was the one from which was descended Victorinus, the martyred bishop of Poetovio, the first exegete who wrote in Latin (22). However Victorinus of Poetovio – who was executed at the latest in the time of the great persecution of Christians under the reign of Diocletian – in the 260s would have been already adult, and meditating on religious matters as a young man.

The theological interest of Victorinus was exceptionally wide-ranging. He examined besides his exegesis, works on heterodoxies, the origin of world, apocalyptical doctrines(23) and there remains a fragment of his chronological work too(24). In this fragment he concluded the following inferences referring to document of a certain Alexander of Jerusalem: “VIII. Kal Ian. natus est Dominus noster Iesus Christus… etc.” (That is Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December) – The latest research places the origin of this fragment in the years after 260 (25).

Amongst the monuments of Mithras of Poetovio there are presented in remarkably great strength of those, that which relating to the birth of the god. … One of the representative stone monuments (30) of the Mithraeum founded by Flavius Aper and his officers represented the figure of Mithras being born out from a rock: in the background of the scene appears the figure of Saturn, wreathed by Victoria; to all intents and purposes showing, that in dedication named of god to D(eus) S(ol) i(nvictus) M(ithras) was born on 25 December, and the birth of god means that beginning of the new epoch of world.

We expect so: if we are not mistaken, that in this chronological fragment of Victorinus of Poetovio, indicating the date of natalis Invicti, we can recognise the inner history of the reference to the birth of Jesus and we recognize the events from the history of religion in the native town of the martyred bishop, which happened in his youth, and in our opinion that the Christian exegetist who wrote in Latin earliest and in all probability he was among the first (31) who connected the one of the central ideas of cult of Mithras of Poetovio with the articles of Christian faith.

I think something may have dropped out of the argument here.  For it is quite unclear to me just why the presence of Saturn in a Mithraic monument of the rock birth must connect the monument to 25 Dec. – Saturnalia, after all, finished on 23rd Dec.  Otherwise a monument of the rock birth is just nothing.

The material about Victorinus is likewise very loosely argued (allowing, always, for the translation difficulties).

It all falls apart, once you look closely, sadly.

A previously unpublished ancient Greek lexicon

A few months ago I wrote a post summarising the lexica that have reached us from antiquity.  Often ancient material is embedded in the Byzantine lexica, which were also included.

Via Peter Head at ETC I learn today that a previously unpublished Byzantine lexicon has made it into print, in an inexpensive edition: Eva Villani, Il lessico Ambrosiano inedito ΑΝΤΙΧΕΙΡ (C 222 inf., ff. 207r-208v).   Milano:  EDUCatt, 2014.  Pp. 248.  ISBN 9788867800865.  €15.00 (pb).

The work is reviewed by Eleanor Dickey – the go-to scholar on lexica – at BMCR, in a review which is itself incredibly useful.

This critical edition of a hitherto unpublished Byzantine (Greek-Greek) lexicon, originally the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Messina, consists of a brief introduction (pp. 7-50, of which nearly half is occupied by a list of abbreviations), the edition proper (pp. 51-210), and extensive indices (pp. 211-48). The edition is presented with a brief critical apparatus and a detailed apparatus of parallel passages….

No translation is provided; a reviewer can hardly complain about this, since editions of ancient scholarly lexica never do include translations, but I wonder if that custom is sensible in today’s world. Would the interesting information these lexica contain be more widely appreciated if editors provided translations?

Villani provides no commentary, so all the discoveries that could be made about these new entries are open to everyone to make. In order to illustrate the possibilities available and the type of new material found in this lexicon, I reproduce below a few of the new entries from this lexicon, using Villani’s text and my own translations and comments:

Κ 75: κρύφαλα αἱ πέτραι αἱ κεκρυμμέναι παρὰ τῆς ἁλός·
Κρύφαλα (are) rocks hidden by the sea.’ [As far as I can tell, this information is new to modern as well as ancient and Byzantine scholarship. LSJ’s entry on κρύφαλον reads only ‘κρύφαλον· σαβάκανον, Hsch.’, a definition that does not get us much further since σαβάκανον is unattested elsewhere; the entry is bracketed as corrupt in Latte’s edition of Hesychius (where it is entry κ 4259). The other dictionaries I consulted have no entry for κρύφαλον at all.]  …

In short, this work is good and useful and provides scholars with the rare opportunity to explore a previously unknown text containing a significant amount of ancient material; it would be lovely if there were more dissertations of this type.

Emphasis mine.

These items would indeed be infinitely better known to scholarship if translations were provided.  Full marks for raising the question!

It increasingly seems that Eleanor Dickey combines a rare knowledge of ancient scholarship with the ability to see what the world needs in this area, and the gumption to do something about it.  We need someone like her, working with these awful technical texts.  Everything she does makes the path far, far easier for everyone else.  An example is that she published this review in BMCR.  Because that is well-known and online, her notice has been read and noted in scholarly blogs; because she provided some sample translations, she has aroused interest in the world in general, such as myself.  This in turn builds support for scholarship, and the need to fund it.

I rarely take an interest in academic careers but … gentlemen of Oxford and Cambridge, you need to find this lady a chair.  She will do you a power of good in the fight for funding and notice in the next twenty years.

Primary sources for the Eleusinian mysteries

At Eleusis stood the most important temple of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the crops and fertility.  The mysteries there were famous.  But what happened there?

Needless to say there is a load of hogwash available in printed and web form averring that it was all exactly like a Christian ceremony, or maybe slightly like, or some other form of anachronistic drivel.  It would seem that some US scholars even encourage this kind of mental confusion, which tells us something about the state of US universities.  So where do we start, to get hold of reliable information?

As ever, the first thing to do, if we want to examine the question, is to look at the primary sources.

It seems that a website has collected all the primary sources, mingled with ancient testimonia about the myth of Demeter (which bulks them out a bit).  They are here:

The site is not a scholarly one, but the author has gone to some trouble to collect these materials, and deserves our gratitude.  The labour must have been considerable!

UPDATE: It looks as if the sources have been copied from elsewhere, and perhaps derive from George Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton, 1961.  Apparently this is a compilation of data, and was the life’s work of the author.  I couldn’t find a PDF, tho – anyone got one?

Ps.Chrysostom, De Salute Animae, now online in English

A rather splendid Greek sermon appears in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum as entry 4622 (vol. 2, p.577-8), among the spuria of Chrysostom, with the title De salute animae (on the salvation of the soul).  Some mss. attribute it to Chrysostom, others to Ephrem Syrus.  It exists in two versions in Greek, and also in Coptic, Georgian and Arabic versions.

The content of the sermon is terrific!  It is an exhortation to Christians not to be led astray by the things of this world, but instead to strive to work out our salvation and to be what Christ wants us to be.  The writer points out how futile the distractions will look on judgement day.

Adam McCollum drew my attention to this obscure work, and he has kindly translated the two Greek versions for us.  The translation is given in parallel columns, so that the differences can be seen.  As is quickly apparent, this is one sermon that has been reworked by a secondary author.

Here it is:

Since the two are in parallel format, there’s only a PDF of this at the moment.  (It is also on Archive.org here)

As with all my commissions, I place this in the public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

Norwich cathedral – no entrance unless you pay $8?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  All public institutions in our time seem to be in decay, with ever fatter salaries for those nominally in charge, and ever less concern as to whether the job gets done at all.  This is sometimes eerily remniscent of the 18th century.  Yesterday I found myself thinking of a passage in the Memories of Dean Hole, the Victorian Dean of Rochester, where, looking back on the wretched state of things as they were at that period, and imagining a foreigner visiting, he writes[1]:

But most impressive, at first sight, to me was the sight, not only in cities and in towns, but in every village, of the church tower or spire, rising over the roofs and the trees, and hard by the pastor’s peaceful home. Surely, I thought, we have here, not only a prosperous, intellectual, energetic, brave, and accomplished people, but they are devout and religious also. Imagine then my disappointment when, as I drew near, I found the graveyards were uncared for, the tombstones broken, defaced, defiled, the church doors barred and locked, and when I obtained admission, for which I was manifestly expected to pay, I looked on desolation and decay, comfortable apartments for the rich, with cushions and carpets, bare benches for the poor; and was told that the church was only used once in the week, and that the chief shepherd resided a hundred miles from his sheep!

Emphasis mine.

Yesterday I visited the ancient city of Norwich, and, taken by a whim, walked over to the cathedral close in the deliciously named Tombland district of the city.  Once inside the close, an oasis of peace after the busy traffic without, I walked across to the west door, the entrance to the cathedral.  But … it was closed.  Instead, signs directed me to a little doorway, in the dreadfully inappropriate modern extension, with gift shop, restaurant and other commercially-driven features.  Not that I have any objection to a cathedral restaurant; but visiting it was not the purpose of my visit.

norwich-entrance

Rather gingerly I ventured into this entrance, and found myself looking at plate glass sliding doors, rather like an upmarket shop for women’s clothes.  The doors opened as I approached, and I stepped inside, and looked to see where the entrance to cathedral might be.  None was visible; but I was instantly buttonholed by an attendant who opened a leaflet she was proferring with a plan of the cathedral, and started heaping on me advice and help.  All of which was very unwelcome.

The need for all this was caused solely by the fact that the Dean and Chapter had closed the west door and diverted me to a side door in a different building.  It was, frankly, very intrusive to be forced to engage in conversation with this tourist guide.  I wasn’t there for commercial purposes; she, on the other hand, was there for no other purpose.

I declined the map, and obtained the information that entrance might be found to the left, behind some building work.  I walked, already feeling rather unsettled by all this, and found another doorway.  On the other side of this was an admissions desk, of the kind familiar from every tourist attraction, and prominently featured in very large letters was a statement along the lines of “Recommended Donation: £5″.  The whole view gave a very definite message to the visitor, and not by accident either.  If I went through that door, the message was, I had better be prepared for a fight, or to lose a substantial amount from my wallet.

Of course I could have hardened my heart and strode through.  But what manner of man comes to a cathedral in that frame of mind?  Other than perhaps Oliver Cromwell, whose attitude towards cathedrals at that moment struck me as more reasonable than it usually does.

What sort of church creates conditions in which sensitive visitors are guilt-tripped into handing over money, or else made to feel uncomfortable throughout their stay, or encouraged to make themselves insensitive?  We’re not children.  We know how modern fund-raising is done.  We all know that such people are sharks, whatever they say.   All this flummery was merely manipulation, deliberate, cold-blooded, by design, and for no other purpose than to shake down the visitor for money.  And the visitor was presumed to be comfortably middle-class; for what poor man would enter, faced with this?

I’m not ashamed to say that I turned around and walked back to the entrance that I had come in.  I didn’t want to be subjected to such psychological abuse.  I didn’t have to be here, after all.

Not that I could get out so easily; the “automatic” door only admitted people, and it required the assistance of the tourist person to find a button to let me out.  It was noticeable how much less friendly my reception was on trying to leave!

Outside I was accosted by a young man, dishevelled, his face bearing the marks of habitual insobriety, and with the urgency of one in need of his next fix.  On seeing my face he quickly abandoned his effort to get money, and I saw him approach several old ladies, and then he scampered out of the close.

I wandered back to the town centre, and there I found a group of old men preaching and handing out leaflets.

20140930_streetpreachersnorwich

They weren’t slick.  Indeed their amateurishness was rather embarassing, and everyone gave them a wide berth.  But they kept on trying, and were still there a couple of hours later.

One of them was trying to give away leaflets, without much luck.  I took one, and found that for the price of a stamp I could get more booklets and a free bible (which would otherwise cost £10).

I was reasonably sure that none of these old men were members of the chapter of Norwich cathedral.

The contrast between the two ways of following God struck me forcibly.  On the one hand was a vast estate of prime real estate, filled with lovely ancient buildings, providing those who ran it with every comfort and nice incomes.   These saw their task as extracting money from the visitor, in order to improve their own situation and that of the estate.  They were, in some respects, no different to the beggar at their door, seeking money for his fix; except that he was in need and they, conspicuously, were not.

On the other hand were a group of men, asking nothing, unpaid, giving away what they had and willing to give more for the price of a stamp, and willing to be unpopular and mocked for doing so.

It was an uncomfortable reflection, and somewhere in it is the root of all anti-clericalism, and indeed all atheism.

It would be easy to be unfair on the Dean and Chapter, of course.  They owe their appointment to the state, which controls all church appointments by a Byzantine system of committees,[2] and appoints men principally for their loyalty to the establishment, their flexibility in principle, and their ability to shuffle the paper and utter pieties when needed.  But what it does not provide is funding to go along with it.  The appointees must make do with whatever historic funds their institution has; and this is rather slender.  Naturally men of this kind will try to make ends meet by whatever methods are available, as any of us might in the same position.  They are not sensitive to the claims of Christianity, and its responsibility to others, for otherwise they would not have been appointed.[3]  So … they do as such men have always done.  What else could they do?  They do, indeed, as the Jewish priests in Roman times did.  They act pragmatically.  But I do believe that a certain Jesus of Nazareth commented unfavourably on such behaviour.  On the other hand, since he could never have afforded the “recommended donation”, perhaps it doesn’t matter?

It’s all rather sad.  I hope that I live long enough to see, as Dean Hole lived long enough to see, the end of such things.  Let us hope that we too can say, of our imaginary foreigner, looking at what we see now:

How great would be his surprise of joy could he return to us now!

Let us hope it will be so with us too.

Postscript: I commented on this on Twitter. This drew the following curious response:

I enjoyed the irony of this: the bland denial of the extraction process, followed by an email address starting with the word “marketing@…”.

No thank you, gentlemen; I am not part of your “marketing”.

  1. [1] Online here, p.137.
  2. [2] Those who question whether Anglican appointments are indeed of this nature – for I have seen it questioned – should ponder on the appearance of an Old Etonian archbishop recently, appointed by an Old Etonian Prime Minister with a cabinet full of Old Etonians.  The appointment provoked an outbreak of mirth and cartoons in major  newspapers.
  3. [3] I am told that it is now almost 20 years since any bible-believing Christian was made a bishop, and that 80 appointments have been made since.  Not one bishop now believes the bible.  Such are the perils of a state church.

Some translations by Anthony Alcock from Syriac, Coptic and Arabic

Anthony Alcock has been busy on a number of texts, creating new translations.  He has kindly sent a number of these to me for upload here, although I think that they are also available on Academia.edu and perhaps on Alin Suciu’s blog also.

In each case he provides a useful introduction.

Here they are (all PDF):

  • Chronicle of Séert I – A rather important Syriac chronicle, written by a Nestorian writer in the 9-11th century.  A detailed study of the text by Philip Wood (Oxford, 2013) is accessible on open access (yes!!!) here.
  • Chronicle of Séert II – Part 2 of the same.
  • Preaching of Andrew – A fresh translation of one of the Christian Arabic apocrypha from Mount Sinai.
  • Sins1 – A Coptic text on the Sins of priests and monks, by ps.Athanasius.  An Arabic version also exists.  This is the first English version, so is very welcome.  The text is interesting because of the interaction with Islam, and may be one of the sources used by the Apocalypse of Samuel of Kalamoun.  However I wasn’t able to locate this text in either the Coptic Encyclopedia or Graf’s GCAL – does anyone know where it is?
  • Sins2 – Part 2 of the same.

It is profoundly useful to have this kind of material available in English and online, and our thanks to Dr Alcock.

UPDATE: Dr Alcock has now provided part 3 of the Chronicle of Seert here:

Severian of Gabala – On the Holy Spirit, now online in English

Severian of Gabala (ca. 398 AD) was a member of the Antiochene school of biblical interpretation.  In consequence his sermons tend to be expository, and consequently still of value today.  Regrettably they have not been translated into English, for the most part.  Regular readers will be aware that I have commissioned translations of a number of them.

Bryson Sewell has just finished wrestling with Severian’s sermon De Spiritu Sancto (CPG 4188), as printed by Migne in the Patrologia Graeca 52, cols.813-826.  This makes it one of the longer works preserved.

The text gets obscure at points.  Severian has a bit of a tendency to address his audience; then switch to address some imaginary Arian or Macedonian; then back again.  I’m not sure that either of us quite followed him at every point!  On the other hand it has some very useful arguments from scripture for the divinity of the Holy Spirit (as well as some less good ones).

Here it is:

These may also be found at Archive.org.

As usual I place these in the public domain; do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.[1]

There will now be a pause in translating Severian’s works, but I hope that we will return to him sometime.  However the next translation that we do will be something else.

A translation of another early sermon – not by Severian – is in flight, and should appear in the next few days.  But that will be it for a little while.  Fear not; there will be more!

  1. [1] Just don’t claim exclusive ownership, tho!

Managing the photocopies!

Alright.  Confess.  Is there anyone who does NOT have a large pile of photocopies of articles, book excerpts, and even complete books, somewhere in their house or study area?  No?  I thought not. Dratted nuisance, aren’t they?

Clearing the decks!

Clearing the decks!

Years ago I used to file them, in hanging folders in filing cabinets.  This week I have been emptying a drawer of such copies.  Most of these were on A3 paper, so very hard to scan; but I simply drew a trimmer down the middle and scanned them in anyway.  And then, most importantly, I threw away the paper.  And the hangers.

At this moment I am going through a pile of off-prints, and guillotining the spines and shoving them through my document scanner.  They scan beautifully.  And … I am throwing the paper away.  The PDFs that I get from the scanner I make searchable, and then, for once, I can use them.

It’s a bit nostalgic, in a way.  I’m finding papers that I ordered in 2001, via my local library.  This was before PDFs existed.  The library charged a substantial sum per paper, and it arrived in weeks, not days.  In those days it was the only available method to obtain a copy of anything.  Now … we have electronic methods.  It’s not so long ago, and yet it’s a different world.

Most of the papers relate to my interest in Tertullian.  I’m scanning in a bunch of copies of the Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea as I type – the key bibliography for Latin ante-Nicene patristics.  They will be far easier to search in PDF form!

Also found were a bunch of papers by Canadian academic James Carley, about the English antiquary John Leland.  Leland lived in the times of Henry VIII, when the monasteries were being suppressed, and inspected their libraries.  Many volumes from English monasteries went overseas; most were destroyed.  A post on his work might not go amiss, perhaps.

Meanwhile, I need to scan some more stuff and declutter!  It’s a good task for a rainy day.

Have you purged your filing cabinet lately?

The Green collection founder and his bible museum

A commenter draws my attention to a most interesting article in the Washington Post:

Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green has big plans for his Bible museum in Washington

The Bible museum taking shape in the building over the Federal Center SW Metro station started out in a very different location and with a very different message.

The project was planned for Texas in the late 2000s. Green told reporters he intended to put it in Dallas because so many church-going Christians live there. The mission statement on its initial nonprofit filing documents was clear: to “bring to life the living word of God … to inspire confidence in the absolute authority” of the Bible’s words. Green wanted to hand out Bible tracts to visitors, who would exit the museum singing “Amazing Grace,” said Scott Carroll, a specialist in biblical manuscripts who advised Green’s Bible-collecting and museum efforts from their start in 2009 through 2012.

Today, the message has undergone a drastic revision. The Web site for Green’s traveling Bible exhibit, “Passages,” says the museum “will be dedicated to a scholarly approach to the history, narrative and impact of the Bible.” Green says he now supports a museum approach that is nonsectarian and non-proselytizing.

The skeptics have another reason to embrace this new museum. Substantive funding for Bible scholarship and exploration is scarce. At a time when polls show that Americans are increasingly ignorant about the Bible and religion, the Greens are happily pouring hundreds of millions into preserving, researching and taking public what’s called the Book of Books.

… things turned sharply in 2009, as Green worked with Carroll to start building his collection.

The economy crashed, and several private donors and major institutions started dumping assets. Green went on a three-year buying spree. “We were looking at good buying. We thought: ‘This is worth much more than they’re asking. Let’s buy it.’ ”

Green bought Dead Sea Scroll fragments, Babe Ruth’s Bible, the Codex Climaci Rescriptus — a bundle of manuscripts from the 5th to the 9th centuries that includes the phrase that Christianity teaches Jesus uttered on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Green owns the world’s largest collection of Torah scrolls.

As word spread of the Green Collection, some scholars panted at the possibility that items long held in completely private collections might be available for study.

It’s an interesting article on an interesting subject.

In the ruling class of the USA there seems to be a terrifying degree of bigotry towards their own backwoods Christianity, from which Green has emerged.  I have already seen vituperation from scholars which I can only characterise as motivated by the idea that “this is our space” and based purely on religious animosity.  But it would be a great pity if this antipathy was allowed to derail a project that should be of universal benefit.

H.V.Morton on Gregory the Great and the deserted Palatine

This morning I read these words:

I descended the noble steps [from the church of St Gregory on the Caelian hill].  Every day of his life, I reflected, St Gregory while in Rome, and before he went to live at the Lateran Palace as Pope, must have seen the Colosseum; a few paces would take him past the Circus Maximus, already weed-grown and deserted, above which rose the imperial palaces, unoccupied for centuries but still capable of housing a stray Exarch from Ravenna.  The last time they received an emperor was twenty-five years after Gregory’s death, in 629, when Heraclius visited Rome and was invested with the diadem in the throne room on the Palatine.  What a ghostly moment that must have been; for the middle ages were ready to be born.

These words are from H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Rome, published in 1957.[1]

I know nothing of that visit to Rome by Heraclius, I must say, but that portrait in words moves me to find out.  Which, in a way, says that the book is doing its job!

I’m reading the book because it’s a gentle, restful book to read.  For those unfamiliar with them, Morton’s books are a mixture of personal observation and material rewritten from books such as the popularisations of Lanciani, and are perfectly targeted at the educated but non-specialist reader.   They are uneven; but the best are very good indeed.

But it is a wistful experience, reading Morton’s Through Lands of the Bible, where he travels through Palestine and Iraq in the 1930’s.  It is a portrait of a peaceful, quiet world.  Under the rule of the honest, efficient colonial powers, the region knew the first enlightened, progressive, civilised government that it had ever had.

How sad that it was also the last.  I am by no means anti-American, but America has been the dominant power in the region since WW2, and the policies pursued by its ruling class, often well-intentioned but invariably counter-productive, have condemned its inhabitants to ceaseless, pointless strife, poverty and misery.

Let us take up the books written in better days, and dream of a better world than our own.

UPDATE: Later in the book Morton refers to a visit by Constans II to stay in the Palatine, some 20 years later than Heraclius.  I have a feeling that his books were serialized, which may explain how episodic they sometimes can be; and mistakes like this!

  1. [1] By Methuen; In the 1984 paperback reprint this is p.208


css.php