Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Dream of Scipio - 2. The Saint

In the fifth century the Western Roman empire was coming to its sorry end under constant batterings of wandering barbaric tribes. The Vandals sacked Rome in 455 AD and after them the Visigoths took possession of what remained of the Eternal City. Gaul, for its greater part, was overrun as well by Visigoths and to the east Burgundians had settled north of the Rhône valley. Gallia Narbonensis, southern France, including what later became known as ‘Provence’, was the last remaning part of Gaul under Roman rule, but in an appalling state of decline. The Gallo-Roman nobility that owned large stretches of land, saw their slaves and serfs, wary of ever rising taxes, flee their properties and try their luck as freer men under pagan lords leaving farms depopulated and the lands untilled. Left to their own, the well-educated elite had to endure the encroachment of Christian values on their cultural environment, a development they greatly despised as Christians, in general, were of low birth and lacked any regard for philosophy and knowledge.

One of those nobles was Manlius, who lived in the neighbourhood of Vaison, the then richest city of ‘Provence’. After his father was murdered, probably on instructions from Rome, Manlius retired to his estate and, though being the richest man in the province and one of the most influential by that, spent all of the next twenty years as a landowner shunning politics and pursuing knowledge and the pleasure of literature, while marauders began ravaging the countryside and the tribes prepared to invade.
His mentor was a Greek girl from Alexandria, Sophia by name, who taught Neoplatonic philosophy in Marseille as a way of life. Manlius, on their first meeting still an adolescent, became deeply impressed by her independent personality, her disdain of fame and worldly goods and the practical style of her teachings, which, of course, she delivered in dialogue form.
Over the years, he kept consulting her, learning to use his reason properly, bridle his emotions and become a man of humane standards, in the meantime growing a deep affection for her, even a great love that might have made him cross the boundary of the Platonic once, if only he had dared.

Eventually, Sophia prods him into action. If he wants his precious Roman province preserved he ought to do something about it. There’s no one more qualified than he is, being the richest, the mightiest and, before all, trained by her. Manlius follows her advice. Considering there’ll be no more help from Rome forthcoming and that secular power has shifted from her hands to the Christian clergy’s, he sets out on a path of his own design. To everyone’s surprise, he has himself baptized by the Bisshop, becomes a Christian, has himself anointed bisshop of Vaison and clad in the robes of his new dignity and power opens negotiations with the king of the Burgundians.
Manlius has reached the conclusion that the best way to save Provence from destruction by barbarians is to peacefully hand it over to the least barbarous of them, that they may shield it from being overrun and devastated. To secure his objectives Manlius doesn't shy from killing, a casual execution of his own adoptive son in front of the opposition to break their morale, a cold-blooded murder of his once best friend, now a potential enemy; the scant resistance remaining is efficiently dealt with by Burgundian troopers.
Some years afterwards, when he has settled everything to his satisfaction, Manlius retires to his estate to write ‘The Dream of Scipio’, the vindication of his acts. He is proud of himself. The Church holds him in high esteem; they’ll even make him into a saint for converting the Jews of Vaison to Christianity, truly a miracle, though it involved some more killings to get it underway.

When finished he sends a copy of his treatise to Sophia, whom he hasn’t seen or heard of for years now. She doesn’t respond. She’s outraged, not by his interpretation of Neoplatonic principles so much as by his high-handed use of authority, by killing innocent people.
She doesn’t spare him when, finally, he shows up to see her. He’s utterly failed her, never understood anything of her teachings; curtly, she orders him away and resumes her reading as if he never existed.

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