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Ch. 4: Arsenius

I shall give one more figure, and that a truly tragical one, from these "Lives of the Egyptian Fathers," namely, that of the once great and famous Arsenius, the Father (as he was at one time called) of the Emperors. Theodosius, the great statesman and warrior, who for some twenty years kept up by his single hand the falling empire of Rome, heard how Arsenius was at once the most pious and the most learned of his subjects; and wishing--half barbarian as he was himself--that his sons should be brought up, not only as scholars, but as Christians, he sent for Arsenius to his court, and made him tutor to his two young sons Honorius and Arcadius. But the two lads had neither their father's strength nor their father's nobleness. Weak and profligate, they fretted Arsenius's soul day by day; and, at last, so goes the story, provoked him so far that, according to the fashion of a Roman pedagogue, he took the ferula and administered to one of the princes a caning, which he no doubt deserved. The young prince, in revenge, plotted against his life. Among the parasites of the Palace it was not difficult to find those who would use steel and poison readily enough in the service of an heir-apparent, and Arsenius fled for his life: and fled, as men were wont in those days, to Egypt and the Thebaid. Forty years old he was when he left the court, and forty years more he spent among the cells at Scetis, weeping day and night. He migrated afterwards to a place called Troe, and there died at the age of ninety-five, having wept himself, say his admirers, almost blind. He avoided, as far as possible, beholding the face of man; upon the face of woman he would never look. A noble lady, whom he had known probably in the world, came all the way from Rome to see him; but he refused himself to her sternly, almost roughly. He had known too much of the fine ladies of the Roman court; all he cared for was peace. There is a story of him that, changing once his dwelling-place, probably from Scetis to Troe, he asked, somewhat peevishly, of the monks around him, "What that noise was?" They told him it was only the wind among the reeds. "Alas!" he said, "I have fled everywhere in search of silence, and yet here the very reeds speak." The simple and comparatively unlearned monks around him looked with a profound respect on the philosopher, courtier, scholar, who had cast away the real pomps and vanities of this life, such as they had never known. There is a story told, plainly concerning Arsenius, though his name is not actually mentioned in it, how a certain old monk saw him lying upon a softer mat than his fellows, and indulged with a few more comforts; and complained indignantly of his luxury, and the abbot's favouritism. Then asked the abbot, "What didst thou eat before thou becamest a monk?" He confessed he had been glad enough to fill his stomach with a few beans. "How wert thou dressed?" He was glad enough, again he confessed, to have any clothes at all on his back. "Where didst thou sleep?" "Often enough on the bare ground in the open air," was the answer. "Then," said the abbot, "thou art, by thy own confession, better off as a monk than thou wast as a poor labouring man: and yet thou grudgest a little comfort to one who has given up more luxury than thou hast ever beheld. This man slept beneath silken canopies; he was carried in gilded litters, by trains of slaves; he was clothed in purple and fine linen; he fed upon all the delicacies of the great city: and he has given up all for Christ. And what hast thou given up, that thou shouldst grudge him a softer mat, or a little more food each day?" And so the monk was abashed, and held his peace.

As for Arsenius's tears, it is easy to call his grief exaggerated or superstitious: but those who look on them with human eyes will pardon them, and watch with sacred pity the grief of a good man, who felt that his life had been an utter failure. He saw his two pupils, between whom, at their father's death, the Roman Empire was divided into Eastern and Western, grow more and more incapable of governing. He saw a young barbarian, whom he must have often met at the court in Byzantium, as Master of the Horse, come down from his native forests, and sack the Eternal City of Rome. He saw evil and woe unspeakable fall on that world which he had left behind him, till the earth was filled with blood, and Antichrist seemed ready to appear, and the day of judgment to be at hand. And he had been called to do what he could to stave off this ruin, to make those young princes decree justice and rule in judgment by the fear of God. But he had failed; and there was nothing left to him save self-accusation and regret, and dread lest some, at least, of the blood which had been shed might be required at his hands. Therefore, sitting upon his palm-mat there in Troe, he wept his life away; happier, nevertheless, and more honourable in the sight of God and man than if, like a Mazarin or a Talleyrand, and many another crafty politician, both in Church and State, he had hardened his heart against his own mistakes, and, by crafty intrigue and adroit changing of sides at the right moment, had contrived to secure for himself, out of the general ruin, honour and power and wealth, and delicate food, and a luxurious home, and so been one of those of whom the Psalmist says, with awful irony, "So long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee."

One good deed at least Arsenius had seen done--a deed which has lasted to all time, and done, too, to the eternal honour of his order, by a monk--namely, the abolition of gladiator shows. For centuries these wholesale murders had lasted through the Roman Republic and through the Roman Empire. Human beings in the prime of youth and health, captives or slaves, condemned malefactors, and even free-born men, who hired themselves out to death, had been trained to destroy each other in the amphitheatre for the amusement, not merely of the Roman mob, but of the Roman ladies. Thousands sometimes, in a single day, had been

"Butchered to make a Roman holiday."

The training of gladiators had become a science. By their weapons and their armour, and their modes of fighting, they had been distinguished into regular classes, of which the antiquaries count up full eighteen: Andabatae, who wore helmets without any opening for the eyes, so that they were obliged to fight blindfold, and thus excited the mirth of the spectators; Hoplomachi, who fought in a complete suit of armour; Mirmillones, who had the image of a fish upon their helmets, and fought in armour with a short sword, matched usually against the Retiarii, who fought without armour, and whose weapons were a casting-net and a trident. These, and other species of fighters, were drilled and fed in "families" by Lanistae; or regular trainers, who let them out to persons wishing to exhibit a show. Women, even high-born ladies, had been seized in former times with the madness of fighting, and, as shameless as cruel, had gone down into the arena to delight with their own wounds and their own gore the eyes of the Roman people.

And these things were done, and done too often, under the auspices of the gods, and at their most sacred festivals. So deliberate and organized a system of wholesale butchery has never perhaps existed on this earth before or since, not even in the worship of those Mexican gods whose idols Cortez and his soldiers found fed with human hearts, and the walls of their temples crusted with human gore. Gradually the spirit of the Gospel had been triumphing over this abomination. Ever since the time of Tertullian, in the second century, Christian preachers and writers had lifted up their voice in the name of humanity. Towards the end of the third century, the Emperors themselves had so far yielded to the voice of reason, as to forbid by edicts the gladiatorial fights. But the public opinion of the mob in most of the great cities had been too strong both for saints and for emperors. St. Augustine himself tells us of the horrible joy which he, in his youth, had seen come over the vast ring of flushed faces at these horrid sights; and in Arsenius's own time, his miserable pupil, the weak Honorius, bethought himself of celebrating once more the heathen festival of the Secular Games, and formally to allow therein an exhibition of gladiators. But in the midst of that show sprang down into the arena of the Colosseum of Rome an unknown monk, some said from Nitria, some from Phrygia, and with his own hands parted the combatants in the name of Christ and God. The mob, baulked for a moment of their pleasure, sprang on him, and stoned him to death. But the crime was followed by a sudden revulsion of feeling. By an edict of the Emperor the gladiatorial sports were forbidden for ever; and the Colosseum, thenceforth useless, crumbled slowly away into that vast ruin which remains unto this day, purified, as men well said, from the blood of tens of thousands, by the blood of one true and noble martyr.

Charles Kingsley