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Archive for the ‘Roman Empire’ Category

Reading Plutarch

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Plutarch in his book “Parallel Lives” compares the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Always a good read. He tells of the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, Solon, Pericles and so on.

What I liked best were the lives of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Lycurgus, and Theseus. Sometimes it is the man I like (Brutus), sometimes it is the times he lived in (Alcibiades), and sometimes it is the tragedy of his life (Crassus).

Plutarch writes about men’s lives to see how their virtue and vice, their moral decisions, their character – what we  in our time call “values” – affected their lives. If I had read Plutarch when I was younger he would have affected me more deeply.

The book is about long as the Bible and, surprisingly, makes a far better case for living a moral life. The Bible’s case is based mainly on fear of God and has few down-to-earth examples to model your life on (King David comes the closest). Even though Plutarch’s examples are generals and statesmen, they seem far closer to everyday men than do Moses or Jesus. Plutarch’s feet are planted on this earth, and that too makes him easier to believe.

Although he is a follower of Plato, he also makes a better case than Plato himself, and for the same reasons: he writes about this earth and its men and their lives, not all this hot air about a higher plane of being.

Things I learned from Plutarch:

  1. Sometimes it’s safer to be brave than not.
  2. Philosophy, like religion, can be a way of life and not simply a way of making sense of the world. (The respectable religions of his day were worn out.)
  3. Moral character  rests on a base of self-control.
  4. Men are defined by their actions, not by their position or property. But then the Bible tells that too.
  5. One of the best things about television is that it shows the terror and waste of war far more than its glory. Plutarch is blinded by the glory. He tells the story from the general’s camp, not from the streets that run with blood.
  6. That maybe Sparta, not Athens, was the crown of Greek achievement.
  7. That war and prison are true tests of a man’s character. I used to hate prison films. No more.

Like the earlier Greeks, he places a lot of value on courage, especially the physical kind. Like them, he sees the glory of war far more than its blood and waste – and this even though he knows from his grandfather’s knee what Mark Antony put Greece through in his failed attempt to rule the world.

Yet unlike the earlier Greeks, Plutarch  does not have the tough, clear mind they had, people like Sophocles, Thucydides and Aristophanes. His thought is based more on hopes and feelings than on reason and a clear eye.

– Abagond, 2008.

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gus

If you believe what you like in the gospels and reject what you do not like, it is not the gospel you believe but yourself.

– Augustine

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Ephesus is an ancient Greek city about halfway down the western coast of what is now called Turkey. It is where the Ephesians of the Bible lived. Paul preached there. It is where John wrote his gospel and they say that it is where the Virgin Mary went up to heaven. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus comes from Ephesus.

In our time Ephesus is just some broken-down remains of ancient buildings near the sea.

In Greek and Roman times, Ephesus was:

  • The centre of the Roman slave trade from -100 to +100;
  • The centre of the cult of Diana, the virgin goddess, known as Artemis to the Greeks;
  • One of the main ports of the Mediterranean Sea;
  • The main city in Ionia;
  • The capital of the Roman province of Asia.

It reached its height about -150 when it had 300,000 people – a giant city in those days, though not as big as Rome or Alexandria.

Giant is right: it had the largest theatre in the Roman empire, one with 50,000 seats. And its Temple of Diana was huge too. One visitor said it “mounted to the clouds”. It took 120 years to build.

The Temple of Diana was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was the centre of Diana’s worship. Inside the temple was a big black rock that fell from the sky. (The Kaaba, that square building in Mecca, also has such a rock.) The temple of Roman times was built in -550, but there had been a temple there since the days of Troy.

The temple is gone. In the 300s the Roman Empire became Christian, so the temple was shut down in 381 and destroyed in 405. And then, in 431, all the top bishops of the Church came to Ephesus for the famous Council of Ephesus. In order to stamp out Nestorian Christianity, they said that the Virgin Mary was the “Mother of God”. (The Nestorians said that made no sense, but that is another post.)

Not only is it strange how the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, took the place of Diana, a virgin goddess, but even the old name of the city, Apasas, means “city of the mother goddess.”

The Virgin Mary and Ephesus: When Jesus was on the cross he gave the care of his mother into the hands of John. That much is in the Bible. But there are old stories that go on to say that he went to Ephesus to live and brought Mary with him. And so there is a house on a hill near the city that they say was hers. It has become a place where both Christian and Muslim pilgrims go. August 15th is a special day there – the day they she went up to heaven.

Ephesus was killed by mud, malaria and Christianity: without the temple one of its main industries was lost. Then mud filled up the river on its way to the sea, creating a marsh that spread malaria. The rise of Constantinople to the north did not help either.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Vulgate

Vulgate-manuscript_1The Vulgate (405) is the Bible as it was put into Latin by Saint Jerome. It was the main Bible people read in the West till the 1500s. It was the only book that Gutenberg ever printed. Even today the Catholic Church still uses it.

It is written in easy Latin: although Jerome wrote to his friends in the old-fashioned Latin of Cicero, for the Vulgate he used the Latin of the streets, which was already beginning to turn into Portuguese and French and so on. His starting point was the (cringey) Old Latin Bible.

Some English Bibles are based on the Vulgate: Wycliffe, Douai-Rheims, Confraternity and Knox. But not the King James or Authorized Version: it goes back to the Greek and Hebrew that the Bible was written in.

Some English words that come from the Vulgate: creation, salvation, justification, rapture, testament, regeneration, apostle, angel and the phrase “far be it”.

The Vulgate’s New Testament is far better than anything in English:

  1. It is much easier to turn the Greek of the New Testament into Latin than into English.
  2. It is more faithful to the wording of the New Testament.
  3. Jerome had much older copies of the New Testament than we do. He even had the book of Matthew in Hebrew. We have it only in Greek, which came later.
  4. The koine Greek that the New Testament was written in was still a living language in Jerome’s day. He would know the shades of meanings of words much better than we possibly can.

For the Old Testament, Jerome started out by basing it on the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Christians had always used up until then. But then he gave that up and based it on the Masorah instead, the Hebrew Bible that Jews used.

It is because of this decision by Jerome that Catholics and Protestants now use the Masorah for the Old Testament while Orthodox Christians still use the Septuagint.

The part of the Old Testament that Christians know best is the book of Psalms. Since Christians knew the wording of the Septuagint psalms so well, Jerome translated them twice: once from the Septuagint and once from the Masorah. That is why you see the book of Psalms twice in some Vulgates.

The Catholic Church says the Vulgate has no errors that would affect religious teachings. That is a natural thing for it to say: it has been using the Vulgate for over a thousand years. Until the 1960s Latin was the language all the priests and bishops knew. It was even the language used in part of the church services.

There are two sorts of Vulgates that you can get these days:

  1. The Stuttgart: an attempt by scholars to get as close to what Jerome wrote as possible. It is based on the oldest copies of the Vulgate that we can find.
  2. The Nova Vulgata: the Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. Not all of it is Jerome’s: some of it is new.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Saint Catherine of Alexandria (early 300s) is a Christian saint who is not well-known these days, but she was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Raphael painted her; she spoke to Joan of Arc.

Catherine said she was the daughter of King Costas. She was born rich and had a fine Greek education. She lived alone in palace with her servants.

This was in the time of emperor Maximinus, when the Roman Empire was still trying to wipe out the Christian faith. When Maximinus came to Alexandria he forced Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. The old stories say it was emperor Maxentius, but it was Maximinus who ruled the east in those days. Since the names are so alike they were probably mixed up.

Many Christians offered sacrifice to the gods out of fear of the emperor.

When Catherine saw this she went to the emperor and tried to reason with him, even though she was only 18. Standing at the doors of a temple, she pointed out that as beautiful as the temple was, it was nothing compared to the beauty of the heavens and the earth. We should worship the god who created those things, not the gods inside a temple which will one day turn to dust.

The emperor could have killed her right there, but he took up her challenge. He would prove to her that Christianity was nothing but a pack of lies.

He tried to do it himself, but soon found that he could not match her education and wit. So he gathered together 50 of the most learned men in the empire and brought them to Alexandria to debate her.

They wondered why they were brought from so far away to do such a simple thing. But she wound up persuading them that she was right! She did it with their own books which they took to be true, like those of Plato and Sibyl.

The emperor threw Catherine into a dark cell for 12 days without food. The queen visited her secretly in the middle of the night. Catherine brought her and the guards over to Christ.

After 12 days the emperor brought Catherine before him. He gave her a simple choice: either offer sacrifice to the gods and be made a queen or be put to death. Her king and master was not the emperor nor the devils that he worshipped as gods, but Jesus Christ. She had no doubt what to do.

They were going to kill her on a breaking wheel, which would cut her to pieces. But she prayed to God and it fell apart. So they cut off her head instead.

They say that when she died milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Then angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses once talked to God. There is an ancient monastery in her name that stands there to this day.

Feast day: November 25th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Clement-of-Rome-icon-206x300.jpgSaint Clement (000s) was a Christian martyr and one the first popes. He was pope from 88 to 99. That was in the time of emperor Domitian of Rome, who wanted to get rid of the Christians and Jews.

Clement wrote a long letter to the Corinthians, now called “1 Clement”. It was found in some early Christian Bibles. It is one of the earliest Christian writings apart from the New Testament itself. It used to be read in churches. Even today it should be read by anyone who wants to know the history of the popes and their powers.

There is also “2 Clement”, but scholars say it was written in a later time.

Clement was raised in Rome by his father, who believed men’s fates were written in the stars. He gave his son a good education in Greek letters and philosophy. Clement later became a Christian.

When he was a boy his mother and his two older brothers went to Athens but were never heard from again, apparently lost at sea. His father went looking for them. He did not come back either. Then Clement set out to look for them. He met St Peter, who brought him together with not just his father but his mother and two brothers too.

He and Peter became friends. He followed Peter first to Antioch and then to Rome. He brought some of the top people of Rome to Christ. Later he became pope, as the bishop of Rome is called.

Clement refused to offer sacrifice to the emperor, as if he were a god. So he was sent away across the sea of Pontus (the Black Sea) to an island. Thousands of other Christians had already been sent there. They lived there cutting marble out of the earth.

Because the marble was far from any water, the water had to be carried from springs from far away. When Clement heard this he prayed. Then he saw a lamb that no one else could see. He knew was Jesus Christ. The lamb showed him where there was water nearby. Clement struck the ground and out came water.

The Christians on the island rose up against Rome and tore down all the temples and built churches in their place. But then Rome sent a general to put them back under Roman rule.

The general put an anchor round Clement’s neck and threw him into the sea. He died. But the Christians all prayed to see the body of their dead hero. The sea withdrew and showed a temple that was under the waves. In that temple was Clement’s body.

The sea withdrew every year at that time. But then when the people started to turn against God, the miracle stopped too. But the old stories of it lived on. Later they found his body and brought it back to Rome and built the church of St Clement.

Feast day: November 23rd.

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