A message from Father Nick 45

Little wandering Soul…

The historian Edward Gibbon, no great defender of the Church, stated that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (i.e. from 96AD – 177AD). This was the period of the five so-called “good emperors”: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

It was also a period before the Roman Empire had become Christian. For obvious reasons, our faith affects the way we think about the past. When we look back to that time, we remember our martyrs and the first Eucharistic gatherings and the men, women and children buried in the catacombs – and of course we have a pretty good idea of where the whole story is leading. But the five “good emperors” were inevitably seeing things from the other side of the glass.

They were thinkers. Marcus Aurelius is famous as a stoic philosopher. Trajan, with his early-Beatle haircut, is considered by many to have been the greatest of all Roman emperors. (A correspondence is preserved between him and Pliny the Younger, governor of Bythinia and Pontus, on how Christians should be treated. Trajan wants them to be judged by law if they have been brought to trial, but says that Christians must not be sought out, and all anonymous denunciations must be ignored.)

What was in the mind of such a person? Hadrian offers us a tiny glimpse. Born in Spain like Trajan, he lived a life of constant travel. His villa outside Rome – the size of a small town – is like a memory-box of all the different parts of his empire. He strove to fix that empire’s boundaries to make it more defensible (hence the famous “wall”), and he remained in love with all things Greek, including beard-wearing which he brought back into fashion.

How did he face eternity? Inside his tomb he leaves a little message to his soul. Behind its lightness there is real pathos:

Animula vagula blandula  

Hospes comesque corporis

Quae nunc abibis in loca

Pallidula, rigida, nudula

Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.

Where, o my soul, my darling, art going,

Poor little wanderer, all unknowing?

Comrade and guest of the body, thou’rt leaving Naked now, shivering, pale and grieving,

No more sprightly fancies weaving.

Henry Duncan Skrine

The English translation is one of many standard ones (our classicists are free to supply their own!). But in each case the poignancy of Hadrian’s words remains. However admirable his time as emperor might be, he too lacks a meaning. That is still to come. No emperor can supply it, and it is that which makes all the difference.

Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli