A message from Father Nick 66

Roman Statue Wars …

It is difficult not to feel sorry for the Roman emperor Julian (361-363): known to history as “Julian the Apostate”. Although he was a nephew of Constantine, he resented Christianity’s growing influence and did his best to reinstate the old philosophy and worship. His short reign was Paganism’s last hurrah.

His efforts were doomed to fail, and Antioch – or rather the sacred groves at Daphne – would be associated with that failure. This was Apollo’s own special shrine, with a magnificently gilded wooden statue over forty-two feet tall. Julian decided that Antiochene Daphne would offer both a setting and a symbol for his restoration programme. Alas for him, that proved to be true.

Julian planned a great event. He later said in dismay, “I saw in my mind’s eye, the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream – beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city attired in white and splendid raiment surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness.” He arrived to find that nothing had been prepared. When he asked what sacrifice the city proposed to make, the priest came forward with a goose he had brought from home.

In a way, this was the end of the ancient world. But some changes would prove more controversial. Among them was the de-paganization of the senate, and the emergence of a new kind of bishop.

From 294 BC, there had been a temple to the goddess of Victory on the Palatine hill. After the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Augustus placed a statue of Victory in the Senate house, with an altar where senators could offer incense and pray for the welfare of the empire. Here they pledged their loyalty, remembering Rome’s past and looking forward to its future. Obviously, this engendered strong emotional attachment.

At first, Christians did not object, but over time their mood changed. In 382, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, teacher of St Augustine and one of the four great western Fathers of the Church, insisted on a permanent removal of such symbols. Despite an apparent majority in the senate, Christian senators seem not to have tried to impose their will. Ambrose was uncompromising.

He was equally firm against the empress when she demanded that a church be handed over to “Christians” who denied Christ’s divinity. Ambrose refused to comply and staged a sit-in in the disputed building (While there, he urged his followers to sing – possibly the beginning of our practice of congregational hymn singing).

Ambrose exercised a different kind of power. Of noble family himself, he understood Rome’s structures well – and also how the Church could use them. Meanwhile, popes too grew more powerful. Papal jurisdiction became a world-defining force (for good and ill). And in 1660 the Senate’s old bronze doors dating from the reign of Domitian (81-96) were moved at the pope’s request to his own cathedral, the basilica of St John Lateran. There, in the middle of its façade, they may be seen by visitors to Rome today.