Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rome, 5: St. Cecilia

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 15, 2017—
SHE IS OF COURSE the patron saint of music and I’ve always been fond of that idea. I’m not sure I’d have acted as she did: it took courage, she must have known the dangers involved, and anyway I myself feel it both a little bit immoral and in general quite useless to try to convince other people to change their religions. I certainly think it wrong for a government, or a society, to do that, let alone to punish recalcitrance in the matter. Religion may be a social attitude, as I wrote the other day, but it must be motivated by individual devotion.

She’s the patron saint of music, as I recall — I’m writing from memory — because she sang and played the organ. Of course the organ was quite different in those days. For one thing, it was powered by water: which, when it runs through a pipe, sucks air in its wake, the more air pressure the greater the water speed. Cecilia’s house was close to the Tiber and pretty well-equipped for that sort of thing. It had a steam room, too.

Unclear to me: was it originally her house, or her husband’s? Maybe they were cousins? Okay: now I resort to Wikipedia ( to help memory. In any case she was a member of the Christian cult, but her parents wanted her to marry a non-Christian nobleman, Valerian. She sang to herself during the ceremony, and told him on the wedding bed that she had vowed virginity: an angel watching over her would punish him if he violated her, but would love him if he respected her.

He asked to see the angel, perhaps a little skeptical, and she told him to go out to the third milestone on the Via Appia where the Pope would baptize him, and then he’d see the angel. (I get this version from Wikipedia.

It all proved true, but someone complained about this forced conversion of Valerian (and his brother Tiburtius, and a soldier named Maximus who was apparently part of Valerian’s menage), and the authorities showed up at Cecilia's Trastevere home to seize them all. Cecilia was apparently saved for last and executed in her house. Some say she was struck on the neck three times with a sword but lived on for three days, steaming to death in her own sauna, singing on.

She was buried in a vault in a catacomb out on the Via Appia -- I’ve been in it. The tourist guide pointed out the ledge where here sarcophagus had lain — of course it's empty now, but the setting is dramatic in the extreme. A teen-aged girl in the crowd fainted dead away and had to be carried out into the fresh air.

It's thought that Cecilia and the rest of her household died about 230 CE, under the Emperor Alexander Severus. (Others say she died about fifty years earlier in Sicily, which ruins the whole story. Christianity was of course famously repressed in the Roman Empire of the time, along with Judaism. I wonder if it wasn't considered an aberrant version of Judaism. Their were many other influences on the new religion: Mithraism particularly. What set followers of Judaism and Christianity apart was the followers themselves; they deliberately went against the tides, and even — the Christians at least — made every attempt to convert others to their beliefs. (There will be a disquisition, later, on the words belief, faith, knowledge. You can't do everything in one blog post.)

I can't quite get hold of the institutionalized idea of "pagan" religion in Rome. (Greece either, for that matter.) I can understand the idea of cults — Pythagoreans, say, who liked to gather at sunrise to greet the rising sun; worshippers of Mithra who gathered on the contrary underground to practise their elaborate rituals (rather like the Masonic business portrayed in Mozart and Schikeneder's Zauberflöte), These groups were social, but small, quasi-private clubs.

It’s my impression Christianity was disapproved to the point of persecution because of its own refusal to countenance the existence of other religions. It seems to me the “pagan” cults centered on the various gods were largely a matter of personal negotiations (for good weather, easy childbirth, plentiful crops, military victory, whatever), with occasional larger public celebrations at temples devoted to the major gods. I don’t think the idea of their intervention for a happy afterlife had occurred to many.

These various pagan cults and concepts, as I believe, were mutually tolerant: what was not tolerated was any cult threatening the State — or its youth. Hence the trial of Socrates, centuries before. Hence the persecution of Christianity, which displaced loyalty to the State and its established norms — in spite of the famous injunction to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s — with something else, perhaps not fully comprehended at the time, but allied, I think, with the evolving fact of Self within Society.

Christians had a hard time of it three hundred years, give or take. Wikipedia again:

This persecution lasted until Constantine I, along with Licinius, legalized Christianity in 313. It was not until Theodosius I in the later 4th century that Christianity would become the State church of the Roman Empire. Between these two events Julian II temporarily restored the traditional Roman religion and established broad religious tolerance renewing Pagan and Christian hostilities.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Estimates of Christians killed for religious reasons before the year 313 vary greatly, depending on the scholar quoted, from a high of almost 1,000,000 to a low of 100,000.

(These numbers might be set against current casualty reports concerning the Syrian war, and refugees from there and Africa, in a considerably shorter length of time.)

After Constantine legalized Christianity (and more or less criminalized other religions) a church was built on top of Ceclia's house, or the ruins of her house, or the site of her house. I am always interested in the general rise of ground level in cities over the centuries. Rome at the time of the Empire seemed to have been about six feet lower than it is now. We visited a church yesterday, Santa Maria in Monticelli: the monticelli, “little mountains,” were apparently garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years.

Once permitted, the Christian church evolved its own administration, with chief executive popes succeeding Saint Peter, and occasional Councils arguing and estabishing theological procedure and texts and their interpretations. And through the next few centuries Christianity gradually took on the role of persecutor:

The Edict of Milan of 313 finally legalized Christianity, with it gaining governmental privileges and a degree of official approval under Constantine, who granted privileges such as tax exemptions to Christian clergy. In the period of 313 to 391, both paganism and Christianity were legal religions, with their respective adherents vying for power in the Roman Empire. This period of transition is also known as the Constantinian shift. In 380, Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. Paganism was tolerated for another 12 years, until 392, when Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting all pagan worship. Pagan religions from this point were increasingly persecuted, a process which lasted throughout the 5th century. The closing of the Neoplatonic Academy by decree of Justinian I in 529 marks a conventional end point of both classical paganism and Late Antiquity, after which most of its scholars fled to more tolerant Sassanid Persia.

Lay Christians took advantage of these new anti-pagan laws by destroying and plundering the temples [14] Theologians and prominent ecclesiastics soon followed. One such example is St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. When Gratian became Roman emperor in 375, Ambrose, who was one of his closest educators, persuaded him to further suppress paganism. The emperor, on Ambrose's advice, confiscated the property of the pagan temples; seized the properties of the Vestal Virgins and pagan priests, and removed the statue of the Goddess of Victory from the Roman Senate.[15]

When Gratian delegated the government of the eastern half of the Roman Empire to Theodosius the Great in 379, the situation became worse for the Pagans. Theodosius prohibited all forms of Pagan worship and allowed the temples to be robbed, plundered, and ruthlessly destroyed by monks and other enterprising Christians and participated in actions by Christians against major pagan sites. Pagans openly voiced their resentment in historical works, such as the writings of Eunapius and Olympiodorus; some writers blamed the Christian hegemony for the 410 Sack of Rome. Christians destroyed almost all such political literature and threatened to cut off the hands of any copyist who dared to make new copies of the offending writings.

In the year 416, under Theodosius II, a law was passed to ban Pagans from public employment.[citation needed] All this was done to coerce Pagans to convert to Christianity.

Let’s stop here for the present; I’m out of breath. I’ll post later on Cecilia and her marvelous likeness.

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