Saturday, April 26, 2014

BOOK: Platina, "Lives of the Popes" (Vol. 1)

Bartolomeo Platina: Lives of the Popes. Vol. 1: Antiquity. Edited and translated by Anthony F. D'Elia. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 30. Harvard University Press, 2008. 0674028198. xxxi + 328 pp.

This book contains short biographies of the early popes. After you subtract the introduction, notes, index, and the Latin text, there's about 130 pages of biographies themselves; in this amount, Platina covers 47 popes, from Peter to Leo, who was pope in the middle of the 5th century. He even added a life of Jesus for good measure.

Thus most of these biographies are fairly short, which is probably a good thing; I suspect I'd find them boring if they were longer, but in their present form they made for pretty interesting reading. I suspect that there isn't much reliable information about some of these early popes anyway; but Platina made good use of whatever information he could find, synthesizing the work of numerous ancient historians and theologians. (The translator made a very impressive effort to track down the sources from which Platina derived his information, and which are now extensively quoted in the translator's notes.)

In fact Platina spends quite a bit of time writing not about the popes themselves, but about the general history of their times — the actions of Roman emperors, various wars, barbarian invasions, he mentions who were the notable scholars of the time, and the like. Thus this book isn't just about the lives of the popes, but can also be seen as a short overview of Roman history from the 1st to 5th century AD. I was already to some extent familiar with these things, from reading Gibbon and other works, but it was interesting to see them here from a slightly different perspective.

Platina is not as fanatical as some other christian authors are, and he does not hesitate to praise even the pagan emperors when they deserve it, describing their legal reforms, the public buildings they commissioned, and the like. At the same time, he of course also writes extensively about the numerous waves of persecution directed against the christians, and the life of nearly every pope in the first couple of centuries AD ends with a note of how he was “crowned with martyrdom” (though for the most part without any gruesome details; one of the more bizarre stories is that of pope Marcellus, who was imprisoned by the emperor Maxentius in a stable “where, after living in filth and discomfort, he died of the stench and squalor” after a few months; 31.2). Gradually, you can see the persecution slow down and finally cease altogether, and the popes start dying of natural causes :P Another prominent feature in the second half or so of the book are the numerous (and invariably ridiculous) heresies which proliferated in the christian world at the time.

Although the lives of some of the early popes are told very briefly and with little detail, some remarkably specific facts about nearly each of them seem to have nevertheless been preserved: Platina ends nearly every biography with a paragraph detailing the length of that pope's reign (not only years, but months and days) and the exact number of priests and bishops which he had appointed during that time. Quite often the burial spot is known as well. I can't help being curious just how accurate and reliable these factoids really are (not that it matters very much, of course).

I suppose that from Platina's perspective, and that of other christians, the period discussed in this book is one of success and progress, perhaps even triumph. Christianity goes from being an obscure fledgling cult to being the state religion of a huge country, and the popes go from hiding in basements and catacombs to hobnobbing with emperors. But from the point of view of someone like me, the story is a more melancholy one. Although I don't like the Roman empire, I'm nevertheless sorry to see it disintegrate and collapse, and be overran by barbarians; and I'm particularly sad to see its people abandon their former beliefs in favor of christianity, which is surely no less absurd and ridiculous than their previous religion was. Over the course of this book, as I saw the church gradually growing in power and solidifying its stranglehold on society, I couldn't help being reminded again and again of Swinburne's wistful lines: What ailed us, O gods, to desert you/ For creeds that refuse and restrain?”

In fact that seems to be one of the running themes that appears again and again in these biographies: almost every pope introduces some new rule, prohibition, constraint and so on. The church becomes more and more rigid, hierarhical, and farther and farther removed above the ordinary person. “Anacletus decreed that no prelate or cleric grow a beard or long hair” (5.3); Alexander “ordained that the Eucharist be made from unleavened bread, not leavened as before” (7.2); Anicetus “ordained that [. . .] no cleric should by any means have long hair” (12.2); Eutychian “ordained that those who wished to bury martyrs should not dare to do so without wearing a dalmatic or a purple tunic, and especially not without his knowledge” (28.2); Sylvester decreed that “no layman should call a cleric into court” (34.8); Anastasius “ordained that the infirm and crippled and those missing limbs should not be accepted into the clergy” (41.3); Zosimus “forbade servants to become clerics” (43.4; but I suspect that he really meant slaves; the same Latin word is translated as slaves in the next passage); and Boniface ordained “that no slave, no person under obligation, nor any debtor should be admitted to the clergy” (44.3).

Another frequently recurring topic, which TBH somewhat surprised me, was that Platina uses example of the early church (not just popes, but also bishops and so on) to criticize the church of his own day, which fell far short of the (supposed) piety and simplicity of earlier times, and in which corruption, greed, and immorality ran rampant. See e.g. 18.3, 20.2, 30.6, 34.7, 36.4, 43.4; and also pp. xxv–xxvii in the translator's introduction.

All in all, this book was an interesting read. Platina's original work apparently continues with biographies of popes all the way up to his own day, and I'd be interested to read the rest of it. According to the front flap of the dustjacket, this volume was intended to be the first of four, but in the 6 or so years since it was published, no further volumes have been even announced, let alone published, so perhaps they gave up on translating the rest :(

On restaurants

The translation of the life of Sylvester says that the emperor Constantine “donated Maro's garden, many baths, restaurants and bakeries for the use of priests”. The mention of restaurants struck me as jarringly anachronistic; according to the Wikipedia, the word only emerged in the 18th century, long after Platina's time.

Judging by the Latin text on the opposite page, the word that is translated as “restaurant” is “popina”. The dictionary on translates it as “cook-shop, eatinghouse, low tavern”, which gives me the impression that the translation “restaurant” is odd for another reason, namely because it implies a much fancier establishment than the original word.

This seems to also be supported by a passage from Pliny (Nat. Hist. 9.71), which I found on the same website. Pliny writes: “A lower kind of inn was the popina, which was principally frequented by the slaves and lower classes, and was mostly used as a brothel as well.” That's definitely not my idea of a restaurant :) But maybe the meaning of the word was slightly different in Platina's time.


The council of Nicaea “decreed that no one should be admitted to holy orders who had castrated himself as unable to endure lust” (34.7) Was this common enough that they had to issue a decree about it? o.O

Arius, the founder of the celebrated heresy that bears his name, apparently met a most ignominious (and hilarious) end: “When he tried to discharge his bowels, he released all of his intestines into the hole of the latrine. Thus Arius suffered a death worthy of his most wretched life.” (36.2) If you have a hard time imagining what that looks like, look at the picture on this web page :))

And there's more toilet humor in 33.3: “Divine vengeance suddenly made Maximin's intestines swell up and his bowels suppurate until he exactly resembled a stinking corpse. Worms poured from every orifice and decay slithered about; so great was the filth that the stench became intolerable.”

Constantine the Great deserves a place of honor in the history of trolling. He named his sons Constantine, Constans, and Constantius, thereby ensuring no end of confusion among those unlucky enough to read, or study, the history of his age. Judging by the Wikipedia, he also had a daughter named Constantina, who added to the confusion by being “also named Constantia and Constantiana”.

In this sign…

In the biography of Sylvester, who was pope during the reign of Constantine the Great, Platina mentions the well-known anecdote of Constantine's vision: “While he was moving his troops against the usurper Maxentius, he had seen and adored this sign in the clear sky, and heard angels saying: ‘Constantine, conquer in this sign.’ ” (34.2) I vaguely remembered that the original Latin version of this phrase was ‘in hoc signo vinces’, so I peeked on the Latin text on the opposite page — and was surprised to see that there this phrase is given in Greek, “ἐν τούτῳ νικᾶ” (except that the last alpha didn't have a tilde but an inverted breve, and there doesn't even seem to be a precomposed Unicode character for an alpha with inverted breve; but the Wikipedia says that the inverted breve is “identical in form to the Ancient Greek circumflex”, which in turn seems to be more usually equivalent to our modern tilde than to our circumflex).

It was nice to see the Greek form of this phrase, but I also became curious why there would be a Greek phrase in an otherwise Latin text. The translator's note to that paragraph mentioned Cassiodorus's Tripartite History 1.4–5, and Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History 9.9–10. I started by looking in various English translations of Eusebius online, but couldn't find anything about that vision in those two chapters (even though they do mention Constantine).

Eventually I found an article on the Vision of Constantine in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, about which I seem to have now heard for the first time. Judging by this particular article, in seems to be written in a skeptical and pleasantly sarcastic style. Voltaire writes: “Further, Eusebius of Casarea himself, who has given the example to all other Christian historians on the subject, speaks not of this wonder, in the whole course of his ‘Ecclesiastical History,’ though he enlarges much on the exploits of Constantine against Maxentius. It is only in his life of this emperor that he expresses himself in these terms”.

Now I could go look in English translations of Eusebius's life of Constantine, and soon found the relevant passage in book 1, chapter 28. Eusebius originally wrote in Greek, so I thought that maybe Platina got his Greek form of the phrase there. Fortunately by now Google has scanned so many old books that finding such things isn't particularly difficult; it turns out that the Greek text of that passage in Eusebius is e.g. in Migne's Patrologia Graeca, vol. 20, col. 943, where the phrase is written as “τούτῳ νίκα”, i.e. without the first word and without the accent mark on the last α, but with an acute accent on the ι. The Latin translation in the adjacent column is simply “hac vince”.

I guess this is not where Platina got this phrase from anyway, since (judging by the English translation of Eusebius's life of Constantine) the story there is slightly different: Eusebius says that Constantine saw the phrase written in the sky, whereas Platina says that he heard it spoken by angels. (So it's also perfectly reasonable that the ITRL translator doesn't mention this passage from Eusebius in his note; and the reference to Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History must be related to things further down in Platina's paragraph 34.2.)

Then I went to look into Cassiodorus's Tripartite History, which seems to be a considerably more obscure source and I couldn't find any English translations of it. But the original Latin text, from Migne's Patrologia Latina, vol. 69, is on Google books, and there (in book 1, chap. 4; col. 888) the phrase appears (in Latin only) as “in hoc vince”. The text seems to mention angels as well, so I guess this is where Platina got his version of the anecdote. But I still have no idea where he got his Greek version of the phrase :)

The Patrologia Graeca text of Cassiodorus cites Sozomen's 1.3 (Cassiodorus's history is basically a summary of several other histories, including one by Sozomen); with a bit of googling it turns out that Sozomen's Ecclesiastical History is in Patrologia Graeca, vol. 67, where chapter 3 of book 1 appears in col. 865; the Greek text says “ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” and the Latin translation in the opposite column says “in hoc vince”. Perhaps Platina got the Greek phrase from there, although all his mentions of Sozomen seem to be in the context of the Tripartite History (see pp. xiv, 187, 191); maybe he had access to some manuscript of it that happened to include some phrases from the Greek sources such as Sozomen?

Anyway, I still don't know how we got from “νίκα” to “νικᾶ”, and whether there's any difference (probably not); and more importantly, where does the now-standard “in hoc signo vinces” form come from, if all the Latin versions mentioned above are different. In any case, all of this is thoroughly irrelevant, especially for someone like me who understands neither Greek nor Latin; but it was pleasant and entertaining to see how easily one can hunt down these obscure passages with the help of Google Books nowadays.

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