Oct 272018
 

Several ancient Roman chroniclers say that on this date in 312, the emperor Constantine had a vision that marked the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. Modern historians doubt that Constantine actually became a Christian convert in the strict sense, but, rather, that he added Christianity to his bag of beliefs, and, in the process, halted the persecution of Christians. I covered the whole process of Constantine’s change of attitude towards Christians here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/edict-of-milan/  In this post I want to focus solely on the vision which occurred on the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge between Constantine and Maxentius on 28th October 312. It takes its name from the Milvian Bridge, an important route over the Tiber. Constantine won the battle and started him on the path of ending a period of multiple emperors and becoming the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

It is commonly understood that on the evening of 27th October with the armies preparing for battle, Constantine had a vision which led him to fight under the protection of the Christian God. Some details of that vision, however, differ between the sources reporting it. Lactantius states that, during the night before the battle, Constantine was commanded in a dream to “delineate the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors 44.5). He followed the commands of his dream and marked the shields with a sign “denoting Christ”. Lactantius describes that sign as a “staurogram”, or a Latin cross with its upper end rounded in a P-like fashion. There is no certain evidence that Constantine ever used that sign, as opposed to the better-known Chi-Rho sign described by Eusebius.

From Eusebius, two accounts of the battle survive. The first, shorter, one in the Ecclesiastical History makes the claim that the Christian God helped Constantine win the battle, but does not mention any vision. In his later Life of Constantine, Eusebius gives a detailed account of a vision and stresses that he had heard the story from Constantine himself. According to this version, Constantine with his army was marching (Eusebius does not specify the actual location of the event, but it clearly is not in the camp at Rome), when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα”, usually translated into Latin as “in hoc signo vinces”. The literal meaning of the phrase in Greek is “in this, conquer” while in Latin it is “in this sign, you shall conquer.” At first he was unsure of the meaning of the apparition, but during the night he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign against his enemies. Eusebius then continues to describe the Labarum, the military standard used by Constantine in his later wars against Licinius, showing the Chi-Rho sign.

The accounts of the two contemporary authors, though not entirely consistent, have been merged into a popular notion of Constantine seeing the Chi-Rho sign on the evening before the battle. Both authors agree that the sign was not widely understood to denote Christ (although among the Christians, it was already being used in the catacombs along with other special symbols to mark and/or decorate Christian tombs). Its first imperial appearance is on a Constantinian silver coin from c. 317, which proves that Constantine did use the sign at that time, though not very prominently. He made more extensive use of the Chi-Rho and the Labarum later, during the conflict with Licinius.

Some historians have considered the vision in a solar context (e.g. as a sun dog), which may have preceded the Christian beliefs later expressed by Constantine. Coins of Constantine depicting him as the companion of a solar deity were minted as late as 313, the year following the battle. The solar deity Sol Invictus is often pictured with a nimbus or halo.

Various emperors portrayed Sol Invictus on their official coinage, with a wide range of legends, only a few of which incorporated the epithet invictus, such as the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, claiming the Unconquered Sun as a companion to the emperor, used with particular frequency by Constantine. Constantine’s official coinage continues to bear images of Sol until 325/6. A solidus of Constantine as well as a gold medallion from his reign depict the Emperor’s bust in profile jugate with Sol Invictus, with the legend INVICTUS CONSTANTINUS. The official cults of Sol Invictus and Sol Invictus Mithras were popular amongst the soldiers of the Roman Army. Statuettes of Sol Invictus, carried by the standard-bearers, appear in three places in reliefs on the Arch of Constantine. Constantine’s triumphal arch was carefully positioned to align with the colossal statue of Sol by the Colosseum, so that Sol formed the dominant backdrop when seen from the direction of the main approach towards the arch.

Time for another recipe from Apicius. This time sala cattabia apiciana or aspic in the style of Apicius. The recipe comes from the section labeled Odds and Ends. I include it more for interest, and perhaps to get some ideas, rather than because I think you might actually make it. I’ve given my loose translation only, but you could check out the original online if you know a bit of Latin and Italian. It is in what is called vulgar Latin, the street language of the day, which is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) like Italian. The recipe calls for bread from Picenum, which was especially favored. It was made from alica, a valued form of coarsely-ground emmer wheat which, made a highly prized bread with a rough texture.  Both the poet Martial and Pliny the Elder sing the bread’s praises. The first sentence describes making a dressing that does not go in the mould, but is added as a garnish at the end. The instructions do not say that after chilling the aspic and letting it set, it should be unmoulded before adding the sauce.

Sala Cattabia

Put celery seed, dried pennyroyal, dried mint, ginger, fresh coriander, seedless raisins, honey, vinegar, oil and wine into a mortar and crush them together. Place three pieces of Picenum bread in a mould, layered with pieces of chicken, calf or lamb sweetbreads, Vestinum cheese, pine nuts, pickled cucumbers, and finely chopped. Cover with rich aspic. Bury the mould in snow up to the rim. Sprinkle with the prepared sauce and serve.

Jun 132016
 

milan4

On this date in 313 the Edict of Milan was posted in Nicomedia. The precise dating of the Edict and its exact nature is still under dispute, but in general it was a Roman proclamation (one of several) to declare that Christians were to be treated fairly throughout the empire. It was originally devised in February of that year, but no other definitive dates are known, nor has the original document survived. Western Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, met in Milan and among other things, agreed to change policies towards Christians following the Edict of Toleration by Galerius issued 2 years earlier in Serdica. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status, but did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

The document we now call the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense) is found in Lactantius’ De Mortibus Persecutorum and in Eusebius of Caesarea’s History of the Church with marked divergences between the two. Whether or not there was actually a formal ‘Edict of Milan’  is debatable. The version found in Lactantius is not in the form of an edict. It is a letter from Licinius to the governors of the provinces in the Eastern Empire he had just conquered by defeating Maximinus later in the same year and issued in Nicomedia.

Ever since the fall of the Severan dynasty in 235, rivals for the imperial throne had bid for support by either favoring or persecuting Christians. The previous Edict of Toleration by Galerius had been recently issued by the emperor Galerius from Serdica and was posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311. By its provisions, the Christians, who had “followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity”, were granted an indulgence:

Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.

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Their confiscated property, however, was not restored until 313, when instructions were given for the Christians’ meeting places and other properties to be returned and compensation paid by the state to the current owners:

. . . the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.

It directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy so that public order may be restored and the continuance of divine favor may “preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state.”

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The actual letters have never been retrieved. However, they are quoted at length in Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De mortibus persecutorum), which gives the Latin text of both Galerius’ Edict of Toleration as posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311 and of Licinius’s letter of toleration and restitution addressed to the governor of Bithynia and posted at Nicomedia on 13 June 313.

Eusebius of Caesarea translated both documents into Greek in his History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica). His version of the letter of Licinius must derive from a copy posted in the province of Palaestina Prima (probably at its capital, Caesarea) in the late summer or early autumn of 313, but the origin of his copy of Galerius’s Edict of 311 is unknown since that does not seem to have been promulgated in Caesarea. In his description of the events in Milan in his Life of Constantine, Eusebius eliminated the role of Licinius, whom he portrayed as the evil foil to his hero Constantine.

The Edict was actually directed against Maximinus Daia, the Caesar in the East who was at that time styling himself as Augustus. Having received the emperor Galerius’ instruction to repeal the persecution in 311, Maximinus had instructed his subordinates to desist, but had not released Christians from prisons or virtual death-sentences in the mines, as Constantine and Licinius had both done in the West. Following Galerius’ death, Maximinus was no longer constrained. He enthusiastically took up renewed persecutions in the eastern territories under his control, encouraging petitions against Christians. One of those petitions, addressed not only to Maximinus but also to Constantine and Licinius, is preserved in a stone inscription at Arycanda in Lycia:

Christians, who have long been disloyal and still persist in the same mischievous intent, should at last be put down and not be suffered by any absurd novelty to offend against the honor due to the gods.

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The Edict of Milan is popularly, but falsely, thought to concern only Christianity, and even to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire (which did not actually occur until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380). In fact, the Edict expressly grants religious liberty not only to Christians, who had been the object of special persecution, but goes even further and grants liberty to all religions:

When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.

Because Licinius composed the Edict with the intent of publishing it in the east following his hoped-for victory over Maximinus, it expresses the religious policy accepted by Licinius, a pagan, rather than that of Constantine, who was already practicing some form of Christianity. Constantine’s own policy went beyond merely tolerating Christianity: he tolerated paganism and other religions, but he actively promoted Christianity.

People commonly point to the Edict of Milan as Constantine’s first great act as a Christian Emperor, although, it is unlikely that the Edict of Milan was an act of genuine Christian faith on Constantine’s part. The document instead should more accurately be seen as the first step in creating an alliance with the Christian God, whom Constantine considered the strongest deity – among many. Constantine at that time was more concerned about social stability and the protection of the empire from the wrath of the Christian God than he was for justice or care for the Christians. The Edict of Milan is more indicative of the Roman culture’s genuine desire for seeking the gods’ intervention – which ones might prove profitable –  than of Constantine’s or Licinius’ religious beliefs.

The Edict of Milan required that the wrong done to the Christians be righted as thoroughly as possible. From the state’s perspective all wrongs should be righted as it claims “it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever.” The edict further demanded that individual Romans right any wrongs towards the Christians as well. These provisions indicate that more than just the establishment of justice was intended. After stating that they should return what was lost to the Christians immediately, the edict states that this should be done so that “public order may be secured,” not for the intrinsic value of justice or even for the glory of God. The sense of urgently righting wrongs reflects the leaders’ desires to avoid unfavorable consequences, which in this case included social unrest and both internal and external weakness.

Constantine is known to have been superstitious and believed in the existence of a number of gods. Because Constantine actually revered all the gods worshiped in the Roman Empire at that time, his fear of, and desire to form an alliance with, the Christian God (as demonstrated in the Edict of Milan), is insufficient to claim he was actually a Christian in the conventional sense. He was just trying to cover all bases. Nonetheless, the Edict stopped the persecution of Christians, which many historians see as both a blessing and a curse.

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Constantine was first exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with the Christian symbol in accordance with a vision that he had had the night before. After winning the battle, Constantine was able to claim the emperorship in the West. How much Christianity Constantine had adopted at this point is difficult to discern. The Roman coins minted up to eight years subsequent to the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. Nonetheless, the accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church. After his victory, Constantine supported the Church financially, built various basilicas, granted privileges such as exemption from certain taxes to clergy, promoted Christians to some high-ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.

Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital that came to be named for him: Constantinople. It had overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls, and had no pagan temples. In accordance with a prevailing custom, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.

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Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council. Constantine thus established a precedent for the emperor as responsible to God for the spiritual health of his subjects, and, thus, with a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. As far as I am concerned this is the curse.

Constantine’s son’s successor, known as Julian the Apostate, was a philosopher who upon becoming emperor renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism shocking the Christian establishment. He began reopening pagan temples and, intent on re-establishing the prestige of the old pagan beliefs, he modified them to resemble Christian traditions such as the episcopal structure and public charity (previously unknown in Roman paganism). Julian’s short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.

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Subsequently Church Fathers such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, John Chrysostom and Athanasius published extensive theological texts, and argued non-stop about the correct interpretation of canonical texts including the gospels and the Pauline epistles. This all led to the entrenchment of the rigidly dogmatic and hierarchical Catholic Church that was opposed periodically by various elements, leading to the kaleidoscope of sects we have today. I suspect that the Christian Church was a great deal more faithful to the precepts of Jesus before the Edict of Milan than it ever was subsequently, even following the Protestant Reformation.

I could give a recipe from De Re Coquinaria of Apicius. The period is right (4th century) as well as the general provenance. But I’ve given quite a few already. Search for Apicius in the search box and you’ll find plenty. They are really very much all on the same theme and are not easy to understand. A lot of the time he just gives lists of ingredients which all seem to be limited to the same items, such as here:

Piper, cuminum frictum, ligusticum, mentam, uuam passam enucleatam aut Damascena, mel modice. uino myrteo temperabis, aceto, liquamen et oleo.

Pepper, roasted cumin seeds, mint, grapes or raisins, honey, myrtle wine, vinegar, liquamen (fermented fish sauce) and olive oil.

These are pretty standard seasonings for Apicius, and, trust me, I’ve searched his work extensively. What we’re looking at is a sauce that is sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Could be classic Chinese!

Let’s take a small, and slightly anachronistic detour. The village of Gorgonzola is in the Milan district and gives its name to the famous blue cheese, which can be found easily throughout Lombardy, and is immensely popular. The cheese was probably not made until the 9th century at the earliest, so it does not fit the period of the Edict, but it is regionally suitable. Like Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, I’m fond of a midday snack of a Gorgonzola sandwich because I usually have some on hand, and it’s quick and easy – nothing additional necessary because Gorgonzola is rich, complex, and tangy. Gorgonzola is a good addition to pasta sauces too.

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For a basic Gorgonzola sauce, heat one or two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium heat. Add some finely diced onion and cook gently until soft (2 to 3 minute). Add equal quantities of shredded gorgonzola and heavy cream, and stir until the cheese melts. Then add small cooked pasta, such as penne, farfalle, or conchiglie, and stir until the sauce coats the pasta completely. I like to add a little cooked spinach to the sauce for both color and flavor. Very traditional.

May 212013
 

santa helena

Napoleon-surf-check

Today is a double threat. It is the feast day of St Helena of Constantinople, and, not by coincidence, a public holiday on St Helena Island.

St Helena (the saint) has two main claims to fame.  She was the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, and she is credited in legend with finding the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 326-28, when Constantine was emperor, Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. Jerusalem was still being rebuilt following the destruction caused by Emperor Hadrian. He had built a temple over the site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary, and renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. Accounts differ concerning whether the Temple was dedicated to Venus or Jupiter. According to tradition, Helena ordered the temple torn down and on excavating the site found three crosses. There was a feeling among the discoverers that these were the three crosses from Calvary but Helena needed proof. So she had a woman who was near death brought from the city. When the woman touched the first and second crosses, her condition did not change, but when she touched the third and final cross she suddenly recovered and Helena declared that cross to be the True Cross. On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace’s private chapel, where they can still be seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries. Tradition says that the site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with earth brought from Golgotha by Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of earlier Roman emperors.

The Island of St Helena, located in the south Atlantic 1,200 miles west of the coast of Africa, is one of the most remote islands in the world. Most historical accounts state that the island was discovered on 21 May 1502 by the Galician navigator João da Nova sailing at the service of the Portuguese Crown, and because of the date he named it Santa Helena after Helena of Constantinople.  Henceforth, control of the island went back and forth between the Spanish, Portuguese, British, and Dutch, although the Spanish and Portuguese dropped out of the picture quite early on leaving the British and Dutch to fight it out.  It was an important stop for their ships going to and from the Cape of Good Hope and beyond so they could take on fresh water and supplies.

Although St Helena was under the control of the Dutch East India Company at the time, the British government selected St Helena in 1815 as Napoleon Bonaparte’s place of exile following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.   He was eventually built a permanent home on the island where he died on 5 May 1821. During this period, Saint Helena remained in the East India Company’s possession, but the British government met additional costs arising from guarding Napoleon. The island was strongly garrisoned with British troops, and naval ships circled the island. In 1834 Britain gained control of the island, and it is now one of the last vestiges of the British Empire.

With the advent of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, St Helena was no longer needed as a port of call for ships heading for the Pacific, and became increasingly isolated.  Nowadays there is one main way to get to the island, which is to fly to Cape Town and then take the RMS St Helena to the island.  It calls about once every 12 days.  Otherwise you need to sail your own boat. Tourism is almost entirely centered on visits to Napoleon’s home and grave promoted by the French government. Because of the difficulty getting to the island, tourism represents a very small part of the economy (3% of GDP).  There are plans in the works to build an airport on the island although no airlines have expressed interest in the route.  The hope is to build sport fishing tourism because of the plentiful fish in surrounding waters.

Fish cakes with distinctive flavorings are a signature dish on St Helena.  The recipe below is adapted from the one used on board RMS St Helena.  Local fish, such as tuna and wahoo, are usual, but any firm white fish will work.  The recipe uses a blend of mixed spices available only on the island.  I give a substitute here which is close.

St Helena Fish Cakes

Ingredients:

1 lb (450 g) fish filets (fresh tuna or wahoo in preference)
1 lb (450 g) potatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 strips of bacon, finely chopped (optional)
Hot chiles to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon St Helena mixed spice (see below)

Instructions:

Cook the potatoes in salted water until tender, then drain and mash them. Put the mashed potatoes in a large bowl and leave until cool.

Wash the fish, and chop it very fine.

Heat the oil over medium heat in a skillet and sauté the onion , parsley , thyme, chiles and bacon (if used) until the onion just starts to brown.

Take the skillet off the heat and add the mashed potato, fish, mixed spice, and beaten egg.

Mix the ingredients thoroughly and form round patties with your hands, about the size of a tennis ball.  Flatten them into a fat disk somewhat thicker than a hamburger.

Shallow fry the fish cakes slowly to be sure they are cooked through and then raise the heat and continue frying until both sides are brown.

Serve the fish cakes as a main meal with rice and vegetables, or as a snack on a bread roll with ketchup.

Substitute St Helena Mixed Spice

Thoroughly mix together these ingredients and store in an airtight jar.

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano