Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin 3 and 4

In the last installment of the Life of Martin, we learned about Martin's upbringing and his conversion. The next passage deals with the famous incident in which Martin gives a beggar half of his military cloak, only to discover that the beggar was Christ. Since I translated that passage on the occasion of the St. Martin's Day, last November, I refer my readers back to that post here.

Let's continue the story with the story of Martin's discharge from the army.


(4) Meanwhile, after barbarians attacked Gaul, Julian Caesar gathered an army at the city of Amiens and began to pay a donative to the soldiers. As was the custom, each man was summoned until it was Martin’s turn. (2) Martin, thinking it was truly the opportune time to seek a discharge because he did not think it honest, if he who will not serve received a payment. “Until now” he said to the Caesar, “I have served you. (3) Allow me to be a soldier for God: one who will fight should receive the bonus. I am a soldier of Christ. It is not right for me to fight.” (4) Then, the tyrant turned to him and growled that Martin withdrew from military service because of his fear of the battle, not because of religious devotion. (5) Martin, unshaken, on the contrary even more resolute because terror inflicted on him, said “If you impute this to cowardliness, not to faith, tomorrow, I will stand unarmed in the battle line and, protected by the name of the Lord Jesus and the sign of the cross, not by shield or helmet, I will break through the enemy’s army unharmed.” (6) Therefore, it was ordered that he be thrust into custody, so that he would prove that that he would be thrown unarmed before the barbarians. (7) On the next day, the enemy sent peace emissaries and surrendered. From this, would anyone doubt that this victory belonged to that blessed man who was saved from being sent unarmed into battle. (8) Although, to be sure, the Holy Lord would have been able to save his soldier amid the shields and spears of the enemy, nevertheless saint’s gaze would have been violated by the deaths of others, He took away the necessity. (9) Christ held back no another victory for His soldier than that no died and that the enemy was subdued without bloodshed.

I find this incident interesting on several levels, but I think we need to place ourselves historically first before we can explore the theological implications of this passage.

Presumably, this event would have happened sometime after August, 355 AD, when Julian (later the Apostate) had been appointed Caesar in Gaul by his cousin, the Emperor Constantius II. The frontiers of Gaul had been under severe strain for much of the decade after the overthrow of Constantius' brother, Constans, who had been murdered by the usurper, Magnentius. Magnentius had taken advantage of Constans' unpopularity in the army (possibly due to his rather authoritarian personality and his propensity for disappearing into the shrubbery with young men) and taken control of the West. This immediately led him into conflict with Constantius II who was rushing westward, eager to avenge the death of his brother and uphold the claims of the Constantinian dynasty. This forced Magnentius to strip the Rhine/Danube defences to confront Constantius in Pannonia (modern day Yugoslavia) where he lost in a hard fought battle at Mursa. The Germans and Sarmatians on the border quickly perceived the weakened forces facing them and quickly broke through the defences. With the renewal of Persian activity in the East, Constantius found himself overwelmed with the need to restore the defences on the Rhine and the Danube as well as shoring up the defences in the East.

His solution was to turn to a cousin to lead the army. The problem, of course, was that Constantius II had, early in his reign, murdered most of his family in Constantinople in order to remove threats to his imperial power. Julian's father died and he and his brother was sent to honourable, if obscure captivity. This couldn't fail to embitter Julian against Constantius. Nor did it help that, when Constantius faced the revolt of Magnentius, he made Julian's brother, Gallus, Caesar in the East and quickly deposed and executed him for plotting for more power. The charges probably had some basis as Gallus was rather rash in his enjoyment of power, but it did little to endear Constantius to Julian. When the time came for his elevation to the status of Caesar, Julian accepted it with the air of a man condemned to death.

Constantius, of course, was no fool and he placed more controls on his cousin than on Gallus. The idea was that Julian would be a mere imperial figurehead and that Constantius' generals would conduct the efforts to restore the Gallic defences. Fortunately (or unfortunately for Constantius), Julian proved less pliable and more talented in military matters than expected. Quickly, Julian gained real command in Gaul and achieved significant successes against the German defenders. This, ultimately, would lead to Julian's revolt against Constantius and, after Constantius' death on his way to confront the rebels, Julian's rise to power. Julian, of course, is the last pagan emperor and only ruled for three years before being killed in an ill-advised invasion of Persia.

One of the interesting elements here is that Severus describes Julian as a tyrant which strikes me as somewhat premature. Julian did persecute the Church to mild degree (there were indications that that persecution was escalating), but only when he was sole emperor. At the time of this incident, presumably around 356 AD, he was ostensibly Christian and was maintaining a very conciliatory policy with pagans and Christians in general. By all accounts, Julian's administration in the West was unusually benign and it was only in the last year of his life that he began to adopt a less reasonable position on the Christian question. This can be shown that Julian's objection to Martin's request for discharge was that of a general addressing a shirker, not a pagan attacking a Christian. With the growth of monasticism, these kinds of withdrawals were beginning to be become common and, I'm sure, Julian was not interested in encouraging the trend, given his concern in defending the Empire and the general crisis in recruiting sufficient manpower for the army in the Empire at this time.

Yet, one wonders what led to Martin's decision to withdraw from the army at this point. It is entirely possible that most of Martin's career had been spent in garrison duty, so that this mustering of the army and the imminence of battle the next day is what brought on the crisis which led to Martin's withdraw from the army. In garrison duty, it would be entirely possible that Martin could pursue the nearly monastic life he was leading in the army without the necessity of killing anyone which would be a grave breach of the 10 Commandments and the teachings of Jesus at the time of his arrest. This would explain that, when his courage is doubted, Martin offers to stand unarmed in front of the army to prove that he was no coward. It also explain why Severus states that the surrender of the enemy was to allow Martin's gaze from being violated by the inevitable slaughter around him, even if he did not participate in it. I think this is what Severus seems to be setting up, although I must admit I find it hard to believe Martin had seen no combat in the 350s, amid the collapse of the Gallic defences. Still, it does say interesting things about the conflict of Christian values and war, doesn't it?

The miracle, of course, is an interesting one when we start thinking about the early Christian attitude to war. There is no doubt that Christians were in the army and that this was permitted by many Christian communities. Indeed, the most severe problems with this military service tended to be the necessity to sacrifice to pagan gods on a regular basis which would have forced the Christian soldier to confront idolatry quite regularly. Yet, there is an undertone of repugnance for killing which makes these military saints interesting in the light of debates over Christian pacifism. That, of course, is another discussion.


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