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Gold Out of Rome

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

A young boy sits at a desk, his chin propped on his fists. 


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prudentiusHe peers over a papyrus upside-down, while a man in the full vigor of middle age, his pen in hand and his brow contracted, scratches out just the right word to finish a line of fiery dactylic hexameter, the great epic meter of ancient Greece and Rome. 

"What may I do for you, young Ambrosianus?" he says, cocking his head and squinting one eye, as if to get a better sense of the music of what he has just penned. 

"Master," says the boy, "I have a question." 

"Ask, then."  The master taps out with one finger the rhythm of the next line he has in mind, then shakes his head and tries another. 

"You're writing a poem against the senator Symmachus, who has demanded that the statue to the goddess of Victory be retained in the Senate house." 

"That I am," says the poet. 

"You're writing it in the same meter that Virgil used for his Aeneid, to celebrate the founding of the Roman people." 

"That I am," says the poet. 

"But the Romans were pagans." 

"That they were." 

"Then I don't understand." 

The Providence of God

At that the Christian poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius laid down his pen and looked up, warming to the discussion, because it touched upon the great ambition of his life.  "Would you prefer, Ambrosianus, to dwell among the beer-guzzling pagans of the far north, where sometimes in winter the sun hardly shines, there are no senate houses at all, or cities, or aqueducts, or even roads, and even the chieftains have to take off their shoes to count to twenty?" 

The boy laughed.  "Not me!" he said.  "I like the sunshine." 

"And the roads, and the laws, and the peace?"

"You're writing it in the same meter that Virgil used for his "Aeneid," to celebrate the founding of the Roman people." 

"I guess so," said the boy, for whom laws and peace were not the most exciting things in the world. 

"You prefer not to be a bar-bar-barbarian?" said Prudentius, making as if to speak a language that sounded like blah-blah-blah. 

The boy laughed again.  "Who wants to be a bar-barbarian?  Once I saw a big yellow-haired fellow in the market who didn't know where to go, but all at once he — "

Prudentius interrupted him.  "That will be enough of that," he said. 

"I still don't understand.  The Germans are pagans, and Symmachus is a pagan, yet you write against Symmachus in the pagan way, while you would never write against the Germans in the German way." 

"I do not speak their language," said Prudentius. 

"And you do speak Latin." 

"Not only do I speak Latin," said the poet, "I'm delighted to speak it.  It is a gift.  So too this music I'm using is a gift.  Rome is a gift." 

"But Rome murdered Saint Peter and Saint Paul."

"Yes, Rome did that, and much more." 

"I still don't understand." 

"Ambrosianus," said the poet, "let's suppose that the Christ had not been born in Bethlehem during the days of Caesar Augustus.  Where and when would you have had him born instead?  Keep in mind that he comes to us in the midst of our wickedness and desolation.  Would you have had him born among the barbarians of the north?  Or the sunburnt Garamantians of the south?  Or in farthest India?  Or when Carthage and her child-murdering ministers governed Our Sea?" 

"No, not when you put it that way." 

"He had to be born at some time, in some place," says the poet. "We must believe that it lay in the providence of the Father that the Incarnate Word should dwell among us at just that time, and in just that place." 

"Why do you think he chose them?"

"Do you believe I can fathom the mind of God?"  the poet smiled.  "But perhaps it was that the true Prince of Peace would be born at a time of peace, and even though the Romans put Peter and Paul to death, it was the Roman law to which Paul appealed, and it was Roman government that gave the Apostles the liberty to preach far and wide.  The Greeks had their wisdom, and the Romans had the power and the law, and Christians had the truth that the Greeks couldn't reach, and the eternal law that the Romans didn't know." 

"Is that why you write in the Roman way?"

"Why not?  I too am a Roman," he said, exaggerating just a little his native Spanish accent.

Of the Father's Love Begotten

The boy pressed on.  "Symmachus says that you are no true Roman, because if you were you wouldn't wish the statue to Victory to be removed." 

"Symmachus is confused.  He wants to retain the lesser when the greater has been given." 

"That's like wanting to remain a barbarian," said the boy. 

"Ambrosianus, you are a clever fellow!" said the poet "As the Roman is to the barbarian, so is the Christian to the Roman, and more.  You see," he went on, "just as God made the whole world from nothing, to grow little by little from the smallest seeds of things that he willed into being, so the Word came among us as a little child, at the perfect time, when the world was made ready for him little by little." 

"Master, I can recite the song you wrote about that," said the boy, standing up and brightening, delivering the first stanza of Corde natus ex parentis

Of the Father's love begotten, 
Ere the worlds began to be, 
he is Alpha and Omega, 
he the source, the ending he, 
Of the things that are, that have been, 
And that future years shall see, 
Evermore and evermore! 

"Splendid!" said Prudentius.  "Can you recite for me the stanza that bears most upon our little discussion?" 

The boy thought about it for a while.  "They all do," he said, "but this one most." And he continued: 

This is he whom seers in old time, 
Chanted of with one accord, 
Whom the voices of the prophets, 
Promised in their faithful word. 
Now he comes, the long-expected; 
Let creation praise its Lord, 
Evermore and evermore! 

"You have a beautiful voice, Ambrosianus, and a mind beyond your years.  Thank you for that recitation.  I am quite moved." 

The boy blushed.  "I know another of your hymns," he said, and began with the first stanza: 

Salvate, flores martyrum, 
Quos lucis ipso in limine 
Christi insecutor sustulit 
Ceu turbo nascentes rosas. 

Which is, in English: 

All hail, ye infant martyr flowers! 
Cut off in life's first dawning hours, 
As rosebuds, snapped in tempest's strife, 
When Herod sought your Savior's life. 

When he finished, the boy said, "Master, the little children whom Herod slaughtered were the first witnesses of Christ, and they paid for it with their blood.  So I have been taught." 

"You have been taught well," said Prudentius. 

"They were not soldiers, but we honor them as if they had been." 

"That's true, and we ought to honor them so.  Think of the honor that we give to the man who lays down his life for the emperor on earth.  How much more then should we honor them who do the same for the emperor of all the universe?" 

"Even if they were small?"

"Especially because they were small." 

Patriot and Poet

Rome, in her old age, Prudentius wrote, had finally turned red in the face for her past and her pagan ways, and for the blood of innocents that had filled the ditches round her cities' walls.  Those were the words of a man who loved his native land, because when we love, we want the best for the beloved, not the worst.  We want truth, not falsehood.  We want salvation and victory, not a pat on the head and a sham.

The Church did not heave overboard the artistic traditions and the philosophical learning of the pagans before her.

Because he was a patriot, Prudentius did not hesitate to adopt for his Christian purposes the great heritage of poetry with which his native tongue endowed him.  This was not to use something alien in the service of the Church.  That is because Christ is the Savior of all people, the "desire of nations," in whom Rome finally became what God had intended her to be. 

What might be the lesson for us in the modem world?  The Church did not heave overboard the artistic traditions and the philosophical learning of the pagans before her.  She was not a modernist despiser of all things past.  She did not reinvent the wheel simply because an unnamed pagan had invented it before her. 

Nor did she merely accept that heritage only to put a Christian veneer upon it.  She preserved and transformed; she judged, leaving the worthless but exalting what warranted respect and reverence.  In the battle for the imagination of Rome, Symmachus represented the past, and so did Prudentius, but Prudentius did so in the happy hope of eternal life in Christ. 

He was the first great poet of Christian Rome.  Who will be the Prudentius of our time, a time as cruel as that of pagan Rome, without the reverence and the piety?  Let the new poets come, Lord, and the artists, and the philosophers.  We need them more than ever.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "Gold Out of Rome." Magnificat (April, 2018).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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