Sunday, October 2, 2016

Royalist Submarine Ace Longanesi-Cattani

One of the most prominent Italian submarine commanders of World War II was Captain Luigi Longanesi-Cattani. Born in Bagnacavallo, in the province of Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna on May 4, 1908, he attended the naval academy at Livorno, graduated and began his career as an undersea naval officer on the submarine Marcantonio Bragadin. Later, he was posted to Italian East Africa on the submarine Benedetto Brin. He was serving as commander of the Benedetto Brin, one of the Brin-class of submarines, in Taranto when the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II. His was then the only boat of his submarine squadron, the rest being on service in the Red Sea when war broke out. He served in the Mediterranean and earned the Cross of War for Valor after successfully saving his boat from an Allied air attack. In October of 1940 he was ordered to make the perilous journey through the Straits of Gibraltar to Bordeaux, home base of the Italian submarines operating in the North Atlantic.

The Italian submarine Benedetto Brin
Longanesi-Cattani crossed Gibraltar on November 4 but, upon surfacing, was surprised by two British destroyers which immediately opened fire. Thanks to his quick thinking, Longanesi-Cattani and his boat survived and escaped but he was forced to put in at Tangiers for repairs. Earlier that summer, Tangiers had been occupied by Spanish troops and, after the Brin was joined by another submarine, the Spanish were able to shield the Italians from the British destroyers. After a period of frenzied repairs, as well as a great deal of play-acting to fool British spies, both submarines were able to slip out of Tangiers in December and arrive in Bordeaux a few days later. For this little adventure, Captain Longanesi-Cattani was awarded his first Bronze Medal for Military Valor. However, that was not his only achievement. While on route to Bordeaux Longanesi-Cattani happened upon the British submarine HMS Tuna. The British mistook the Italian sub for one of their own and there was an exchange of signals before they realized they were in the presence of the enemy. The British sub fired one full salvo of six torpedoes followed by another of four torpedoes but, though extremely close, the Brin avoided them and fired two torpedoes of their own. These missed as well, though fire from the Italian deck gun did appear to hit the British sub, both survived the encounter.

Once arriving in Bordeaux, it took some time to repair the Brin and fully restore it to fighting shape after the ordeal it went through on the way there. Everything was finally in order for a proper war patrol in the summer of 1941 and on June 13, 1941 Longanesi-Cattani and his men participated in an attack on an Allied convoy. It was a great success with the Brin, in only about fifteen minutes, sinking two merchant ships (one a Greek vessel and the other a French ship in use by the British) as well as damaging two more. For this achievement, Longanesi-Cattani was awarded the Silver Medal for Military Valor as well as the German Iron Cross second class. The commander of all German submarines and all Axis submarines in the Atlantic, Admiral Karl Doenitz met with Captain Luigi Longanesi-Cattani and the two became good friends. However, little more than a month later he was ordered to return to Italy, making the dangerous passage in front of Gibraltar again, but arriving safely in Naples with several victory pennants flying.

Longanesi-Cattani on Leonardo daVinci
On October 6, 1941 Longanesi-Cattani was given a new command, the Marconi-class submarine Leonardo da Vinci, which would be the most successful Italian submarine of the war. He returned to France but was soon sent on something of a ‘refresher course’ in the latest submarine warfare tactics in what is now the Polish city of Gdynia, at the time part of Germany. Once completed, he took his boat to hunt in the waters around the Azores but soon had to turn back due to mechanical problems, even being forced to pass on attacking an Allied convoy a couple of days later. Still, his service was further recognized by promotion to lieutenant commander in December. In January of 1942, while on patrol northeast of the West Indies, Longanesi-Cattani had better luck, sinking a Brazilian ship by torpedo attack and two days later a Latvian ship with a combination of torpedoes and gunfire. Upon returning to port, he received a second Silver Medal for this.

By this time, pressure was being placed on Brazil to join the war and with Allied convoys in the North Atlantic so heavily guarded, it was correctly thought that the Brazilian shipping lanes would offer greater opportunities for the larger Axis submarines such as the Italian boats and the German Type-IX’s that had sufficient range to operate in the South Atlantic. Longanesi-Cattani was sent in and patrolled off the coast of Brazil but was later diverted to the African coast. On June 2, 1942 he sank a large schooner with his deck gun, the Reine Marie Stuart, and a few days later sank the British ship Chile with a single torpedo. On June 10 he successfully torpedoed the Dutch ship Alioth (also with gunfire which was not uncommon for Italian submarines since their torpedoes were not as effective as the German magnetic type) and later another steamer, the Clan McQuarrie. Longanesi-Cattani had become an “ace” sub skipper, sinking more than five ships and returned to port to receive another Silver Medal and the Iron Cross first class from his German ally. After a job well done, in August he was ordered back to Italy for a new assignment, his boat to be given to Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia who would gain fame as Italy’s most successful submarine commander.

Greeted by the admiral returning to port
All in all, Captain Luigi Longanesi-Cattani had, during his participation in the Battle of the Atlantic, sunk eight Allied merchant ships for a total of 34,439 tons of Allied shipping destroyed. Once back home, he was given what seemed to have been an even more critical assignment, being attached to the elite Xth Flotilla MAS, which was rather like the special forces branch of the Italian submarine fleet. These were the men who launched attacks on ships in heavily guarded enemy ports using “human torpedoes” or mini-subs and it was intended that Longanesi-Cattani would command a special team of CB-class midget submarines in operations against the Soviets in the Black Sea. However, that assignment never came to be. Instead, he was attached to the command of the zealous Fascist and overall X Flotilla MAS commander Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, aka “the Black Prince” and was to command the submarine Murena for a special mission against an Allied pipeline that was under construction. However, before that could get underway, the entire Italian war effort was thrown into confusion by the dismissal of Mussolini by King Vittorio Emanuele III and his replacement by a new government led by Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio.

Longanesi-Cattani on the bridge of his submarine
The military had no warning about this and Marshal Badoglio announced publicly that he would be continuing the war alongside the Germans (in reality, he immediately began trying to secretly arrange an armistice with the Allies). Longanesi-Cattani put aside his personal views and remained committed to his duty and carried on preparing his submarine for the attack on the pipeline at Gibraltar. Everything was just about in order when Marshal Badoglio announced an armistice with the Allies and ordered all Italian forces to cease hostilities. Longanesi-Cattani had been at sea performing tests when this happened and learned of it only after returning to port. Like many, he was shocked and rather bewildered by this abrupt change. He almost had to sink his own boat until the last-minute intervention of Prince Borghese had the order revoked. Many Italian soldiers, sailors and airmen were torn by this sudden turn of events. Prince Borghese gathered his men and asked who among them would stay with him to carry on the fight against the Allies alongside Germany. Most agreed and Longanesi-Cattani decided to as well but only after being assured by Borghese that this would not compromise his oath of loyalty to the King of Italy.

During the confusion of the armistice period, Longanesi-Cattani was dispatched to Florence to protect the family of Prince Aimone, nominal King of Croatia. The Prince’s wife, Princess Irene of Greece & Denmark, who was heavily pregnant and her sister-in-law Princess Anne of Orleans, Duchess of Aosta, were there. The veteran submariner was there, watching over the family in Florence, when Prince Amedeo the current Duke of Aosta was born on September 27, 1943. He was also there when, only a few days earlier, the Italian Social Republic was proclaimed, formed by Mussolini at the insistence of Hitler, and that was a deal breaker for Captain Longanesi-Cattani. He refused to break his oath of loyalty to the King of Italy, which came before all else for him, and immediately wrote to Prince Borghese informing him of this. He also wrote to the republican Secretary of the Navy, Captain Feruccio Ferrini, handing in his resignation. This was a major risk for him as he was trapped in northern Italy which had been occupied by the Germans and were taking into custody anyone who opposed the Italian Social Republic. Regardless, his loyalty to the King was all that mattered and he willingly surrendered himself to the authorities and, along with Princess Irene and Princess Anne, was sent to the concentration camp at Hirschegg near Innsbruck, Austria on July 26, 1944.

The camp was eventually liberated by American troops and, as King Umberto II of Italy had, upon going into exile after the farcical referendum, released everyone from their oath, Captain Longanesi-Cattani returned to duty with the navy of the new Italian republic, eventually rising to the rank of Squadron Admiral. His only other prominent part in a public issue was sitting on the commission of inquiry into the former commander of the BETASOM Italian submarine base in Bordeaux during the war, Captain Enzo Grossi, where Longanesi-Cattani had served. Captain Grossi was ultimately cleared. After a lifetime of service to his country, including becoming one of the top Italian submarine commanders of World War II and earning four Silver Medals, two Bronze Medals, the War Cross and the first and second classes of the Iron Cross from Germany, Admiral Luigi Longanesi-Cattani died in Rome on March 12, 1991.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Knights of St Stephen of Tuscany

In the old days of Christendom, there were religious military orders subject to the Roman Pontiff, such as the Templars, as well as religious military orders subject to a particular dynastic house. One of these was the Order of St Stephen of the Italian Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Officially, the “Holy Military Order of St Stephen Pope and Martyr”, it was founded on October 1, 1561 by the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici with the permission of Pope Pius IV. This could be seen as part of the normalization of the transition in Tuscany to monarchy, away from the city-state Republic of Florence, taking on more of the trappings associated with monarchy as Florence became the seat of power of a hereditary Grand Duke rather than a republican leadership. The order was named for Pope St Stephen the Martyr because his feast day (August 2) corresponded with the victories that Grand Duke Cosimo had won at the Battle of Montemurlo (August 2, 1537) against republican insurgents who wanted to restore the Florentine republic and the Battle of Marciano (August 2, 1554) in which the Medici grand duke had conquered the city-state Republic of Siena.

Grand Duke Cosimo I
Grand Duke Cosimo had actually been trying to establish such an order for some time and more than one attempt was thwarted by Church opposition, largely for political reasons which was typical of the period in which Italy was divided among feuding states. That, however, finally changed with the reign of Pope Pius IV who was a Medici. The primary purpose of the order was to combat the Islamic pirates who were raiding the Mediterranean at will and who had increasingly threatened the Tyrrhenian Sea where Grand Duke Cosimo had built a new, modern port at Livorno. He also wished to demonstrate his support for the cause of Christendom and to unite his people, including the more recently conquered regions such as Siena and Pisa, against a common, non-Italian and non-Christian enemy. The Grand Duke also hoped it would add prestige to his newly established grand duchy, standing alongside other dynastic orders and adding fame to the name of Tuscany and the House of Medici for fighting on the front-lines against the forces harassing Christendom.

Based on the religious rule of St Benedict, the order took as its symbol a red eight-point cross on a white background, incorporating the red and white colors of Florence, with a heraldic lily flower in between the arms of the cross, again using a symbol associated with Florence as well as that of the House of Medici due to their ties with the Royal House of France. Grand Duke Cosimo served as the first Grand Master of the order and, as it was a dynastic order, this would be passed on to every subsequent Grand Duke of Tuscany. The headquarters of the order were originally in Portoferraio but later moved permanently to the city of Pisa where one can still find the magnificent Palazzo dei Cavalieri and the church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. The knights focused primarily on coastal defense but also took the fight to the enemy in cooperation with larger allies. The first of three, broad “campaigns” that the Knights of St Stephen fought was done in cooperation with the Spanish in their fight against the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean.

war galley of the Order of St Stephen
The Knights of St Stephen, with their own war galleys, fought alongside the Spanish (and other allied Italian states) at the siege of Malta in 1565 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. They also participated in the attack and capture of Annaba in Algeria in 1607 under Admiral Jacopo Inghirami in which the city was devastated. This phase in their campaigning was, such as at Malta and Lepanto, defensive and focused on stopping major Turkish offensives against southern Italy. However, once that was done, low level harassment on the part of Turkish and, more often, Barbary pirates remained a problem and the Order of St Stephen focused its second campaign on dealing with this problem. They also concentrated on areas closer to home with raids on the Turkish-held islands of the Aegean as well as launching attacks on Islamic forces in Dalmatia, Negroponte and the island of Corfu. These were successful enough that offensive military operations by the Knights of St Stephen decreased, their last major campaign, coming around the year 1640, during the reign of Grand Duke Ferdinando II, focused on coastal defense and aiding the Republic of Venice in their on-going struggle against the Ottoman Empire.

Grand Duke Ferdinando III
The year 1719 saw the last time that the Order of St Stephen was used in combat by Grand Duke Cosimo III. Later, in 1737, a major change came when the House of Medici was supplanted by the Austrian dynasty of Hapsburg-Lorraine. The second Hapsburg grand duke, Pietro Leopoldo I, formally ended the military aspect of the order and reorganized it as an order that would focus on education for the elites of Tuscany. It became more a feature of social status and no longer an order focused on war and military defense. The Order of St Stephen lost its fighting capacity under the Hapsburgs but things soon became even worse. In 1791 Emperor Leopold II abdicated the throne of Tuscany in favor of his son Ferdinando III who has the dubious distinction of being the first monarch to recognize the revolutionary First French Republic. However, that was not enough to save him. French expansion continued and the Austrians eventually agreed to hand over control of northern Italy to the French Republic in exchange for half of the territory of neutral Venice. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was occupied by the French, the Grand Duke was forced to abdicate and the Order of St Stephen was suppressed.

Grand Duke Leopoldo II
Thankfully, that situation did not endure. In due time Napoleon was defeated and the Grand Duke of Tuscany was put back in his place in 1814 and, the following year, the Order of St Stephen was restored. It was, however, restored in its reformed form, not a military order but became more of a sign of favor with the grand ducal family. The French experience also seemed to have an affect on the Italian populace as so many years of division, feuding and foreign rule or foreign occupation prompted the growth and spread of a new Italian nationalism. It was an unfortunate period for the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, who were good men of good motives and intentions but their natural inclination to support their Austrian relatives was not matched by their subjects and many deserted the forces of Tuscany to join the Piedmontese and the Italian national movement in fighting to expel the Austrians from Italian soil. Grand Duke Leopold II, a noble and tragic figure, made the mistake of so many of his contemporaries in granting constitutional government, only to later revoke it and he was forced to abdicate. Grand Duke Ferdinando IV, his successor, ruled for only about a year before he too was forced out in 1859 by the Italian nationalists. In 1860 Tuscany was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.

Neither the Kingdom of Italy nor the current Italian republic officially recognize the Order of St Stephen, though it does still exist but as a purely private organization under the leadership of the Hapsburg-Lorraine heirs of the former grand duchy. Prince Sigismund, Archduke of Austria, is the current Grand Master and the order is considered, by the Catholic Church, as a “public association of the faithful” with historic papal foundations. The Knights of Malta still recognize it but membership is extremely limited, mostly to close friends and family. One must have extensive documented proof of aristocratic ancestry to even be considered for membership and the costs required, as with most such orders today, ensure that only quite wealthy people could ever hope to be invited. Nonetheless, what exists today is a valuable reminder of what a glorious and formidable military-religious order the Knights of St Stephen once were and one can still see their educational facility and naval war college in Pisa, a testament to their past as one of the major forces on the front lines of defending Christendom in the Mediterranean area.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Anglo-Italian Royal Connections

Throughout the earliest periods of British royal history, after the Roman conquest of course, there were few official connections with Italy but probably more than most realize. In terms of royal consorts, the English monarchs originally took local wives and after the Norman conquest brides from France were preferred. However, one of those, Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III of England, was a daughter of the Count of Provence and Beatrice of Savoy, daughter of Count Tommaso I of Savoy, the Imperial Vicar of Lombardy. This was the first connection between the English Royal Family and the Italian House of Savoy. Later, during the reign of the Tudor dynasty, as the Italian city-states gained dominance in trade and banking, one first began to see English monarchs who could speak fluent Italian with Queen Elizabeth I. It was also the first Tudor monarch, King Henry VII, who employed "John Cabot" (actually Giovanni Caboto of Genoa) in his expedition of discovery to Canada. His son, King Henry VIII, employed Italian mercenaries (as well as Germans) in the suppressing of the "Prayer Book Rebellion" of 1549. It is remembered that when the Italian soldiers, who were of course Catholic, learned what their employer had them fighting for, that they went to confession, sorry for what they had done.

After the House of Stuart came to the throne of England, there were to be more Italian connections than ever before. King Charles I was married to Henrietta Maria of France who was the daughter of Queen Marie de' Medici and it was their son, King James II, who had as his consort Queen Mary of Modena, the daughter of the Duke of Modena and Laura Martinozzi. When the end of the Stuart reign, British monarchs mostly restricted themselves to German spouses but the Italian connections to the House of Stuart were only strengthened. The son of King James II and his Italian bride Queen Mary of Modena, who would have been King James III, spent the final years of his life in Italy, living in a palace gifted to him by the Pope in Rome. His son, "Bonnie Prince Charlie", who would have been King Charles III, spent most of his life in Italy, growing up largely in Rome and after the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745 and some years in France, returned to Italy and lived in Florence. In fact, he had his first experience of battle in Italy at the 1734 siege of Gaeta. He died with no legitimate heir and was succeeded by his brother, Cardinal York, who of course had no children and so the Stuart claim to the British throne then passed to the Italian royal house.

A daughter of King Charles I and his half-Italian bride Henrietta Maria was Princess Henrietta of England. She married the French Duke of Orleans and it was her daughter, Anne Marie of Orleans, who married King Vittorio Amadeo II of Piedmont-Sardinia, House of Savoy. Because of that union, when Prince Henry, Cardinal York, last male heir of the Stuart line died, their claim to the British throne fell to King Carlo Emanuele IV of Piedmont-Sardinia, making the head of the House of Savoy the pretender to the British throne as "King Charles IV" in 1807, though he never pressed such a claim. The Stuart claim remained with the House of Savoy until the death of Princess Maria Beatrice of Savoy, wife of the Duke of Modena after which it fell to a cadet branch of the House of Habsburg and finally the Bavarian royal House of Wittelsbach (it is next set to pass to the princely House of Liechtenstein). Had then things gone differently in the course of history, the British and the Italians might have shared a royal family, at least for a period of time.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Papal Walls in Rome

Everyone today will certainly be aware of the waves of Muslim peoples moving into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Italy has been greatly impacted by this with huge numbers of people coming ashore on the southern islands, depending entirely on the Italian tax-payers for support. This is, of course, not the first time that large groups of Muslims have come into Europe and Italy in particular. In the past they came armed for battle but were met by Italian and other European Christians ready to defend themselves. Today that seems unnecessary given that they are being taken in willingly. This has become part of a larger, global narrative of people from poorer countries fleeing to wealthier countries, almost exclusively Western Europe and North America. Pope Francis has been rather outspoken on the subject that these Muslims should be accepted into the European countries and, while on a visit to the United States, called building walls to protect national borders something that a true Christian would not do. This would, however, put the Holy Father at odds with his saintly predecessor Pope Leo IV.

Elected in 847 AD, Pope Leo IV was a native Roman and reigned during a time of great danger for Italy and Christendom as a whole. By this time, Muslim armies had come out of the deserts of Arabia to invade and conquer the Middle East, all of North Africa and were well advanced into Spain. The island of Sicily, for example, had been conquered and made into a Muslim emirate for almost twenty years when Leo IV came to the Throne of St Peter. That same year, 847, saw the Islamic conquest of Bari in Apulia and the establishment of the Emirate of Bari. Muslim raids on Italian coastal towns and cities were a frequent occurrence and the Eternal City of Rome was not immune from danger. Most worrisome to the Pope was the number of people who, in return for special treatment for themselves, aided the Saracen invaders in making war and pillaging the lands of their fellow Italians in rival cities. The year before his election, Muslim invaders had sailed up the Tiber River and pillaged the outskirts of Rome itself, desecrating the churches of Old St Peter's and St Paul's Outside-the-Walls. Further damage was prevented only by the still standing Aurelian Wall, built in the Third Century by the Emperor of Rome.

Pope St Leo IV waving to crowds below
Pope Leo IV thus began his pontificate with cleaning up after this attack and trying to improve the defensive fortifications of the city as best he could while also trying to organize an Italian coalition to drive out the Islamic invaders. Gaeta was already under siege at the time of his election and when the Muslims moved against Portus it was Pope Leo IV who called for the Italian cities known for their naval forces to come together in defense of Italy and Christendom. Naples, Amalfi and of course Gaeta answered the call and an effective Italian fleet was assembled, including papal vessels from Rome, that was led by Caesar of Naples (son of Duke Sergius I) who won a dramatic victory over the Muslims in the 849 Battle of Ostia. Pope Leo IV had come out to see the fleet off, give them his apostolic blessing and to say mass for the Italian sailors. His prayers certainly seemed to be effective as a storm erupted during the middle of the battle which split the Saracen fleet and enabled the Italians to win the day.

Map of the Leonine City
This was a great offensive victory but, as mentioned, Pope Leo IV did not neglect defensive measures either and so it was he who had built a massive new wall forty feet high with towers at intervals of 'an arrow shot' completely around the Vatican hill, covering some three kilometers to enclose that part of the city not protected by the Aurelian Wall. The Castel Sant Angelo (the tomb of Emperor Hadrian) stood at one end as the primary fortress and strong point of the new fortifications. The Pope employed his own laborers as well as local builders and even Saracens who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Ostia. Donations, funds from the papal treasury and a donation from the Frankish monarch funded the project. The end result was what has become known as the Leonine Wall which was a success in that Rome was never victimized by Muslim forces again. The area enclosed by the wall is also sometimes known as the Leonine City. This was also, it might be mentioned, the area originally offered to Pope Pius IX by King Vittorio Emanuele II as a papal state after Rome became part of the Kingdom of Italy but the offer was rejected by the Pope.

Monday, August 22, 2016

King Odoacer in the Roman System

It was on this day in 476 AD (according to some sources anyway) that Odoacer was proclaimed by his soldiers as the first “King of Italy”. Such a proclamation, needless to say, did not actually make him the King of Italy but such was finally accomplished when the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was forced by Odoacer to abdicate. This was a case of recent history repeating itself as Odoacer was the top military commander of Emperor Romulus, a boy who had been placed on the throne by his father Orestes who had been the top military commander of Emperor Julius Nepos, whom he had overthrown and driven into exile in the east. That being the case, in order to add legitimacy to his rule of Italy, King Odoacer enlisted the support of the exiled Emperor Julius Nepos and received it and so based his authority on the recognition that he ruled Italy on behalf of the absent Emperor. This reveals how Odoacer fit in to the remnants of the Roman imperial system, even though he was himself not a Roman. Historians have never come to an agreement on what exactly his ethnic background was but do agree that he was a barbarian and not an Italian.

St Simplicius
Aiding Odoacer was the fact that the young Romulus Augustulus had never received widespread recognition for the legitimacy of his rule (which was actually the rule of his father Orestes). Beyond central Italy, few regarded Romulus Augustulus as the rightful emperor. King Odoacer tried to strengthen the legitimacy of his rule by obtaining the recognition of as many established authorities as possible, such as the exiled Julius Nepos, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno and, of course, the Bishop of Rome who was at the time Pope St Simplicius. King Odoacer was a Christian, an adherent of the Arian heresy which was widespread in those days. Pope Simplicius had long been known for his opposition to the Eutychian heresy at the Council of Chalcedon. Keeping in mind that most of the latter Western Roman Emperors had not ruled from Rome itself, the administration of the Eternal City had effectively fallen to the Pope and King Odoacer made no effort to interfere with this existing system, other than a few administrative changes, he effectively left Pope Simplicius to carry on as before while he focused his attention on consolidating and expanding his Kingdom of Italy.

Odoacer's Italy
In this, he was rather more successful than he is usually given credit for. Through diplomatic means alone he gained the island of Sicily from the Vandal king Gaiseric and in 480, when Julius Nepos was murdered by two of his servants, King Odoacer launched a military campaign on the pretext of apprehending and punishing the assassins which saw the reach of his Kingdom of Italy extended all throughout the region of Dalmatia, effectively making the Adriatic an Italian lake once more. Almost immediately thereafter he was also enlisted in a plot against the Eastern Emperor Zeno led by Illus, the Eastern Emperor’s top military commander in a repetition of events in the west. Odoacer was not too concerned with what became of Zeno but seized the opportunity to conquer to territories then being held by the Eastern Emperor, in the area of what is today Austria. Oddly enough, the territories which Odoacer extended his rule over at the height of his Kingdom of Italy is almost identical to those which British prime minister Churchill offered to Mussolini in an effort to influence him to abandon the Axis and join the Allied side at the start of World War II.

Theodoric's tomb
If Odoacer was not terribly concerned about Emperor Zeno, Zeno was certainly concerned about him and endeavored to save himself by turning his barbarian vassals against each other. Needless to say, he immediately withdrew his recognition of Odoacer’s rule over Italy and invited another barbarian chieftain, Theodoric the Goth, to invade Italy and receive imperial recognition of his rule if he could defeat and overthrow Odoacer. So it was that King Theodoric and his Goths invaded and came pouring down the Italian peninsula, forcing Odoacer, as other barbarians had forced the Western Roman Emperors before him, to take refuge in the fortified coastal city of Ravenna. The Goths soon attacked and in 493 the city surrendered after which Odoacer fell victim to a murderous plot. King Theodoric, thereafter known as Theodoric the Great, invited him to a banquet as a show of reconciliation and friendship. Odoacer, unfortunately, accepted the invitation only for Theodoric to poison his food and Odoacer, King of Italy, died on March 15, 493.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Tiburtine Sybil and Imperial Prophecy

In the old days of Christendom, one could mention the Tiburtine Sybil and the prophecies regarding the Roman emperors and many people, certainly educated people, would know immediately what was being talked about. Today that is certainly not the case and so some background information must be provided as, aside from experts in this particular field or, perhaps, art history aficionados, no average person will know what this is all about. First of all, we have the figure of the Sybil. The sybils were women who acted as oracles, usually associated with a particular holy site in pagan times. The custom originated in ancient Greece but soon spread to Italy, Asia Minor and other areas. The Oracle of Delphi is probably the most well known example of a sybil. These women were often sought out for prophecy and divine guidance as it were by powerful people. In the time of the Roman Empire one of the most prominent was the Tiburtine Sybil, known as such because she resided at the town of Tibur, an old Etruscan town, which is today the Italian city of Tivoli. Many stories grew out of this particular sybil later on among Christians concerning the Roman emperors.

One thing to clarify at the outset was that the sybils were, obviously, not Christian religious figures but were associated with paganism. However, once upon a time, this did not cause Christians to discount stories about their prophecies. They knew from their Bible stories that the pagan priests of Pharaoh were able to perform seemingly miraculous deeds or that the witch of Endor had been able to summon up the spirit of Samuel for King Saul, for example. It was taken for granted that people who were not worshippers of the Christian God could still possess amazing gifts and that God could use such people for His own purposes. Later examples of such things might include the Native American shamans who, according to various stories, made prophecies about the coming of the Spanish or had visions of the Blessed Virgin to prepare them to receive the Gospel when Christian missionaries later arrived. There was also, it must be said, an effort by the Christians of the “Ages of Faith” to look back at classical history and to incorporate it into their new, Christian, world view. The story of Pope St Gregory the Great, momentarily resurrecting the Roman Emperor Trajan in order to baptize him, is an example of this. Virtually everyone discounts this story now but it reflects the wish of people to see so great a man, such a revered emperor, saved from eternal damnation for not having been a Christian.

The first recorded instance of the Tiburtine Sybil crossing paths with a Roman emperor came in the time of Augustus Caesar. The story goes that Emperor Augustus approached the Tiburtine Sybil, Albunea, at the Temple of Vesta to ask if he should be worshipped as a god. This meeting was once a very common thing to see depicted in art. An Archbishop, Jacobus de Voragine, later recorded this story, stating that it had been handed down to him by Pope Innocent III, that Augustus met the Sybil and that the Sybil revealed to him one who would come after him, greater than he, and showed him a vision of the birth of Christ, referring to the Blessed Virgin as “the Altar of Heaven” where a church was later built and dedicated as such. According to Virgil, the Cumaean Sibyl also made such a prophecy about the birth of Christ and stories such as these, which became widespread, explain why the sybils were included in Renaissance works of art, such as by Michelangelo, alongside Old Testament prophets in foretelling the coming of the Christian era. These would also coincide with other stories, once popular, about the early Roman emperors taking a “hands off” approach to Christ. Stories circulated, for example, that Emperor Tiberius, who did not exactly have a reputation for kindness, ordered that Christians not be persecuted or accused and even talked of including Jesus Christ in the pantheon of Roman gods.

If such stories were true, the prophecies of the Tiburtine Sybil to Emperor Augustus might help explain why such an attitude was taken or why someone like St Paul would prefer to put his fate in the hands of the Emperor Nero rather than his own Jewish countrymen of the Sanhedrin. There were actually a great many such accounts of miraculous events and Christian prophecies concerning the pagan Roman emperors before the more famous events after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the baptism of Emperor Constantine the Great. There was the story of Pope St Clement I being a cousin of the Emperor Diocletian (in all likelihood he was a freedman who had been in his employ), Emperor Antoninus Pius condemning any illegal attacks on the Christian community, the dramatic story of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the “Thundering Legion” or his son Emperor Commodus having a Christian mistress which is often pointed to as a reason for this fairly irascible Caesar refraining from persecuting Christians. She is also credited with influencing Emperor Commodus to release Pope St Calixtus I from prison. A revelation, passed down the imperial line, originating in a pagan source that they would not question, would be a possible explanation for such behavior.

However, other than foretelling Emperor Augustus of the birth of Christ, the most famous prophecy of this sort from the Tiburtine Sybil concerning an apocalyptic vision about a certain Emperor Constans. This prophecy foretold of a Greek king who would rise to become “king of the Romans and the Greeks” or, in other words, the Roman Emperor of East and West alike again, who would be very tall, very handsome, very wealthy, will destroy the enemies of Christianity, end all pagan worship, convert the Jews and defeat the massive, mysterious powers of Gog and Magog, after which he will retire to the Holy City of Jerusalem, abdicate his throne and hand the empire over to God. At that point, the Sybil describes what we would recognize as the rise of the Anti-Christ, coming from the tribe of Dan, who will win the people over by miraculous acts, who will destroy the Roman Empire and only then reveal himself as the agent of evil from the Temple of Jerusalem. This, of course, is very similar to other prophecies concerning “the Final Emperor” or the “Great Catholic Monarch” who will lead a last revival of Christian power before the end of the world.

An interesting point in the prophecy of the Tiburtine Sybil is that this monarch is named as Emperor Constans and that the prophecy was made, as near as we can tell, around the year 380 AD, a few decades after Rome had already had the reign of the historic Emperor Constans, the son of the Christian Emperor Constantine the Great, who came to the throne in 337 and ruled until he was assassinated in 350. If we were to be skeptical and presume that the Sibyl was trying to tailor her message for the audience, or that the story was invented later to appeal to Christian sensibilities, naming this future Christian hero after Emperor Constans would not make much sense. He was not known for being a terribly nice man or a terribly good emperor, though he too was part of a prophecy of his own concerning his grandmother, the Christian Empress St Helena. The prophecy said he would die in the arms of his grandmother and when he was assassinated it was after being cornered in a military post named Fort Helena.

So, what is the point of all this? I will be the first to admit it is largely just an act of indulgence on my part since I am interested in this sort of stuff. As with anything of this nature, some people will be inclined to believe and others will be inclined to disbelieve it and there really isn’t anything that anyone can say to prove either side right or wrong. I will say, at the very least, the existence of these stories and that they were passed on for so long reveals something to us about the people and the faith of Christendom. Sources of revelation were not rejected for being pagan, the people of the time recognizing that God can use anyone to participate in His plan. It shows also the centrality of the Roman Empire and the Roman emperors in the hearts of minds of Christian people and how central that Roman imperial tradition was to Christendom itself. The Christians of the late Roman Empire, even with all that was going on around them, did not cease to believe that their ‘realm’ on earth was something special, that Christianity had sprang up in that empire was no accident and that the Roman Empire was something that others would strive to bring back, that they hoped ultimately would come back, with all Christian, European peoples united under one divinely ordained Caesar.

Thursday, August 4, 2016