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The True History of the World

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

The true history of the world is written by God, and so we should not be surprised if it is quite different from histories written by men.


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peter1 On the Appian Way, south of Rome, there's a little church whose real name is Santa Maria in Palmis — Holy Mary among the Soles of the Feet — but whose popular name is La Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, the Church of "Lord, Where Are You Going?"  It's not much to see, with its late and plain classical front, and its attachment to a brick office building on one side and a limestone wall on the other.  And yet it testifies to an event more significant in the history of the world than anything commemorated within the walls of the great city, more than Trajan's Column or the Baths of Diocletian or the Temple of Jupiter or the Senate where the great orator Cicero put down the rebellion of Catiline and saved the corrupt and decadent city for the empire that was to come. 

So I wonder what a true history of the world would look like, if we saw things in proper perspective, in the eyes of God. 

It's a sunny and quiet day, with not much traffic on the road.  An old man and a boy are walking away from the city.  The old man is troubled in his heart.  He's been persuaded to leave Rome because the henchmen of the wicked Emperor Nero are seeking his life.  "You must not die!  " his friends pleaded with him. 

The boy, Nazarius, asks him whether there is something wrong, but the old man's replies are few and distracted.  Then suddenly he sees someone approaching on the road, going toward the city.  He knows who it is, and falls to his knees. 

"Domine, quo vadis?" the old man asks.  "Lord, where are you going?"

The Lord looks upon the old man with mingled disappointment and love.  "My people in Rome have need of you," he says to Peter.  "And because you have left them, I must go to Rome to be crucified a second time."

And the vision is gone.  Peter rises, and turns about, and begins walking. 

The boy is puzzled.  "Domine, quo vadis?" he asks. 

"To Rome," Peter replies. 

And when Saint Peter was led outside of the city to be crucified, when he stood upon one of the hills that banked that teeming heart of sinful humanity, no one among his tormentors could have guessed that the city belonged to him as it never had belonged to Nero or any of the Caesars, nor ever would. 

A cloud of witnesses

It's not an isolated incident, this martyrdom of Saint Peter.  Let's travel across the waters to Asia Minor, to the busy port of Smyrna.  There as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the Christians were hated as enemies of mankind, because they held themselves aloof from such common pastimes as sodomy, infanticide, and divorce, and because they did not hedge their bets by giving sufficient notice to every god on the block, including those gods that used to be Roman emperors before they died by assassination or venereal disease or hardening of the arteries. 

A Christian named Germanicus is being led into the arena to be mauled by wild beasts.  His is the most Roman of names.  It doesn't mean that he is German.  His name recalls the laudatory title given to Julius Caesar for conquering the German tribes, just as Scipio was surnamed Africanus for having defeated Hannibal in Africa.  Yet he proves himself to be a greater conqueror than they were, because he fights in the noblest cause of all, the cause of the Truth, who came down among us in the flesh.  Imagine the thousands in their seats in the stadium, eating roasted walnuts, rubbing their hands or thrusting them under their tunics, because it's not yet March and there's a nip in the air.  They want to see that man crawl.  They want to see him beg for his paltry life — not that he will necessarily win it if he begs.  They want vindication.  They want their version of a happy ending. 

But Germanicus won't give it to them.  It's as if he scorns them and their colossal arena and the whole military despotism that keeps it all standing from one century to the next.  He does not buckle.  He refuses to give false witness against God.  Instead he throws his arms wide and defiantly incites the beasts to make short work of him.  And the crowds grow enraged.  "Let's kill all the atheists!  " they cry.  "Bring Polycarp to the arena!  Let Polycarp die!  "

Saint Polycarp was a very old man when this happened, "four score and six," as he said to the Roman officer.  And just as friends had tried to safeguard the life of Saint Peter by urging him to leave Rome, so the friends of Polycarp had hustled their bishop to a farmhouse on the outskirts of Smyrna.  They loved him, no question, but there was more to it than that.  For the Roman Christians in the time of Nero, Saint Peter was their great living connection with Jesus himself.  Peter could sit and tell them of the time when he and James and John accompanied Jesus to the top of the mountain, where the Lord's raiment became dazzlingly white, "whiter than any fuller's soap could make it," says Saint Mark, and we hear the voice of Peter the eyewitness himself in that verse, with its homely comparison.  Peter could tell them of the time when Jesus offended his sense of importance — a carpenter advising a fisherman on how and where to catch fish!  But when they brought the nets back in, strained to the utmost and in danger of ripping, Peter stood before Jesus abashed, and said, "Lord, depart from me, because I am a wicked man."  Was this Peter no longer to be with them?

But Peter is with us still! 

And the Christians in Smyrna felt the same way about Polycarp.  For when Polycarp was a boy, he sat at the feet of the Apostle John himself, who was by then an old man.  They could point to the tree in whose shade the Apostle would teach.  Polycarp was their living connection to that dearly beloved Apostle, he who wrote those most earth-shaking words, "God is love."  Just as strangers in a strange land might be especially solicitous for the life of the eldest among them, the last who remembered the homeland they had left behind, so did the Christians wish to save the life of their good old bishop and disciple of Saint John.  And Polycarp, like Peter, initially let them have their way. 

But he had a dream that his pillow was on fire, and when he woke he told his friends that he would be burnt to death at the stake.  After that, Polycarp did not trouble to hide, and the authorities found him.  He chatted with them, ordered his friends to give them something to eat, and prayed for them and for all the people he had ever met, and for the holy Church throughout the world.  Then they took him back to Smyrna. 

He would not recant.  He had served his Lord all his life, and blessed him, and would not curse him now.  So they bound him to the stake and piled the tinder around him and lit the fire, but it ringed him like a billowing sail, and did not harm him.  When the tormentors saw this, they stabbed him through and through, and the man's blood issued forth bountifully, quenching the flames before it.  The account comes to us from eyewitnesses, reported in a letter from the Christians in Smyrna to the Christians in Philomelium and in all the churches of the world. 

History, on the way to God

The true history of the world is written by God, and so we should not be surprised if it is quite different from histories written by men.  That's another way of saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.  It isn't just that people are inspired by heroism.  Many people were inspired by the land-lust of Napoleon, and the race-bigotry of Hitler, and the fearless ambitions of Alexander.  It's that the martyr, the witness, introduces a new thing into this old and dying world.  A lot of people will kill for what they want.  But the martyr allows himself to be killed for what other people need, even his persecutors.  He testifies to the Lord, who said, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  With every such witness, it's as if God himself has reached down into the world to transform it.  And we Christians rightly say, "This is the day when Saint Polycarp went forth to battle and, in Christ, overcame the world," or, "In this place Saint Peter heard the voice of Christ, and he turned toward Rome and took possession of it for all of his successors."  Eventually even the historians may notice.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The True History of the World." Magnificat (October, 2014): 203-207.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, 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 Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies 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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