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Rome Diaries - Week 79

May 1, 2009

Last night, just before a fundraising event at a fortress-like building on Janiculum Hill, my dinner companion noticed a photo of Pope John XXIII wearing his wide-brimmed “Saturno” hat. I mention that Pope Benedict revived this practice soon after he was elected. “That’s true,” she said, “but he also went through the papal closets and wore the Santa Claus-style camauro, of Sixtus V and a cape of Pius IV.” Papal tailors quickly fashioned reproductions. The pope had made his point. May 2, 2009

When he was nearing death, Hadrian (76-138), perhaps the most cultured and inquiring of Rome’s emperors, composed five felicitous lines about his soul that have intrigued scholars and poets ever since:

Animula vagula blandula Hospes comesque corporis Quae nunc abibis in loca Pallidula rigida nudula Nec ut soles dabis iocos

Genial, little, vagrant sprite,

Long my body’s friend and guest,

To what place is now thy flight?

Pallid, stark, and naked quite,

Stripped henceforth of joke and jest.

translation by Thomas Spencer Jerome in “Roman Memories”

Although Christianity threatened the pagan enterprise, Hadrian was determined to treat its ideas with the kind of objectivity that only a fancier of Greek philosophy could muster. In History of the Origins of Christianity, Ernest Renan quotes Hadrian’s Christian-friendly reply to the governor of Asia on how to handle Christians:

Hadrian to Minicius Fundanus. I have received the letter which Licinius Granianus, an illustrious man whom you have succeeded, wrote to me. The matter seemed to me to demand inquiry, for fear lest people who are otherwise peacefully disposed may be disquieted, and so a free field be opened to calumniators. If therefore the people of your province have, as they say, any weighty accusations to bring against the Christians, and if they can maintain their accusation before the tribunals, I do not forbid them to take legal steps; but I will not allow them to go on sending petitions and raising tumultuous cries. In such a case, the best thing is for you yourself to hear the matter. Therefore if anyone comes forward as an accuser, and proves that the Christians break the laws, sentence them to punishments commensurate to the gravity of the offence. But, by Hercules, if anybody denounces one of them calumniously, punish the libeler still more severely according to the degree of his malice.

The emperor was known to be a superstitious man who wished to be inducted into the mystery cult at Eleusius; he also possessed a facile mind and enjoyed a good argument (so long as he won). In short, Hadrian was the kind of ruler Christianity might have done business with, but he was only interested in Christianity’s philosophical side, not in its potential to unify and reinvigorate the empire. It would take two more centuries before the new religion would be seen as an asset rather than a managed threat. Nevertheless, I like to think Hadrian’s tomb, that the magnificent pile on the Tiber with its roof garden of cypress trees and racing chariot touching the sky, might have hinted at a bright future for his “genial, little, vagrant sprite.”

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