Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tales From the Slippery Slope VI: The Justice of Trajan

We’ve missed a few Thursdays recently at The Slippery Slope. Lots of things have come up, such as Ascension Day and the Opera, and this week we all met on Sunday to celebrate a birthday. John Strype turned fifty. Keith closed the pub so that he could sit down and join in. John and his wife Gal were there. (Gal hates her name, by the way. In a clear sign of insanity, and for no apparent reason, her parents called her Galathea. One day she read Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham; early on in that story a cow named Galathea is troden on and squashed by a giant. This was bad enough, but when she learned that Galathea means Goddess of Milk she was furious. I’ve never had the nerve to ask Gal if she has a middle name, and even less nerve to ask why she never changed it.) Their son Brad was there too, nervously fiddling with his cellpone in case he was needed at Remains to be Seen, the family funeral parlour. There was Canon Hawker, a little exhausted from the Pentecost mass, Tom from the bookstore, Susan from Vanity of Vanities. Mike and David were going to join in when the dinner was cooked and served. Even Mark from Simpson’s Hardware came. (He seems to have finally heard Hawker’s gossip story[1] and started watching what he said.)
It was a grey and somewhat chilly day; the great windows overlooking the river were closed, and the fire blazed. The atmosphere was warm and convivial. David brought in a rich cream of mushroom soup, sat down beside Mike; after the Canon said grace we all began to eat. The soup was followed by a chicken casserole with carrots, parsnips and turnips, boiled potatoes, and green peas with butter and a touch of lemon. For desert there was, of course cake. After a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday we all sat back to enjoy a glass of port, and Keith said, “I ran across a story that you might like. I found it in Dante, and then tracked some other versions on Google. I suppose you all know it, but you might like to hear it again.
Tom said, “For my part I don't mind hearing a story again. And I suppose that if you were tracking down versions of the story, you’ve gone some way to making it your own.”
“Right,” said Keith. “and anyway, that’s what you all seem to do. Well then, if you’re all sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.”

The Justice of the Emperor Trajan and the Pity of Pope Gregory
One day the emperor Trajan was leading the armies of Rome to march against the Dacians up in the Balkans; the eagles were held proudly aloft and banners waved; crowds pressed around to cheer the troops as they marched off. Sudenly a woman crying out “Grant me justice, lord!” threw herself on her knees in the road before the emperor’s horse. Trajan had to stop.
She cried again, “Grant me justice, lord; my son has been slain! I am a poor widow and can get no justice on his murderers ”
Trajan said to her, “I cannot stop now. Wait until I return, and I will give you the justice you seek.”
“And, lord, if you do not return,” returned the widow, “who will do me justice?”
“My successor will do you justice”, replied Trajan, who thought that went without saying.
The woman retorted, “Will Trajan leave to another the duty he is appointed to perform?”
Hearing this the emperor of Rome dismounted, left all his troops to cool their heals, and settled the widow’s case before he resumed the march. (One version of this story has it that he gave her his own son in place of the one she had lost and bestowed on her a rich dowry!)
Now the story doesn’t end there. A legend of Pope St Gregory the Great tells that as he was passing through the Forum one day, he saw a bas-relief carving of Trajan on horseback with a woman sadly kneeling before him.
[2] On seeing this he thought of the justice and good deed of
Trajan, and in particular his mercy towards the poor widow, which seemed to him more Christian than pagan. Sorrowing at the thought that such an excellent pagan should be damned, he began to pray and weep, until at last a voice came from heaven declaring that his prayer was answered, and Trajan freed from the pains of hell, but that he should never make such a prayer again.

Keith added, "Not everyone has been comfortable with this story. Dante has no difficulty placing Trajan in Purgatory,[3] but a later moralist insisted that, since Baptism is necessary for salvation, Trajan was brought back from Hell to life and baptized, whereupon he died again and went to Purgatory."
Canon Hawker said, "By the time this legend was retold in The Golden Legend, it was added that an angel told Gregory that because he had prayed for a pagan, he had a choice of punishment: either the pains of purgatory for two days, or sickness for the rest of his life. He chose the sickness."
We all agreed that the story was familiar, but that Keith had told it well. I said, “It sounds familiar, but I remember the widow being even bolder”.
Canon Hawker said, “Dio Cassius in the Roman History tells the same story of the Hadrian. He says that

Once, when a woman made a request of Hadrian as he passed by on a journey, he at first said to her, "I haven't time," but afterwards, when she cried out, "Then stop being emperor!" he turned about and granted her a hearing.[4]

“That’s the one I know!" I said. “I think I heard from Timothy Barnes in a class way back when I was an undergrad at Trinity.”
Canon Hawker said thoughtfully, “I wonder if any scholar has commented on the parallels with the Gospel story of the Syro-Phoneician woman who rebukes Jesus for refusing to heal her daughter? Could it be that that was what prompted Pope Gregory’s pity for Trajan?”
"That's if the legend is true,” said Susan, "or maybe the gospel story prompted the pity of whoever first told the story about Pope Gregory. I don't know if anyone's made the connection. Will, maybe sometime when you have time you can look all this up.”
“Perhaps, when I have time,” I said wryly.
After that the conversation turned to other things, and the party went on until it was nice and late and we all felt young and irresponsible, except for Mike and David who, though they are young enough to be irresponsible, pleaded that they had work the next morning and went upstairs.

[1] See Tales from the Slippery Slope: I.
[2] There is a discussion of the relation of this bas-relief to the origin of the legend in the New York Times of 7 December 1879.
[3] Purgatorio X.73-94
[4] lxix.6

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