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The devotion of Rome’s Christian Empresses to saints is a model for our hard-edged politicians

If only David Cameron could enthuse about St Edward the Confessor, say, or St Bernadette of Lourdes

By on Thursday, 3 May 2012

The fifth-century mausoleum of Galla Placidia is decorated with mosaics of Christ the Good Shepherd and eagles symbolising St John the Evangelist

The fifth-century mausoleum of Galla Placidia is decorated with mosaics of Christ the Good Shepherd and eagles symbolising St John the Evangelist

Never mind Mary Beard’s hair and teeth, or her clothes – all of which have been the subject of an infantile discussion online – what really matters about her is her scholarship and, perhaps even more importantly, her boundless enthusiasm for her subject, which she communicates quite effortlessly to the viewer. If you have not seen Meet The Romans, do buy it on DVD, watch it yourself, and make sure your children watch it too. Never have the Classics seemed less dry and dusty.

Mary Beard reminds me of the reasons the Classics are called such. A classic is a work of art that does not go out of date and which continues to yield meaning for every generation. This means that by studying the Romans we can learn timeless truths.

I am lucky in that I had a Latin teacher who, though very different from Mary Beard, communicated a love for the subject. His name was Mike McDonnell, and he taught at Ratcliffe College in the 1970s and 1980s; he may well be in the Elysian Fields by now, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for opening up for me the treasures of Lucretius, Virgil, and Petronius. Yes, we did Petronius as fifth formers. There was no dumbing down in those days! I still read Virgil for the only real reason to read a poet – for pleasure.

Once the Classics grab you, there is no way of getting away from them. I have recently caught up with an excellent book by Annelise Freisenbruch called The First Ladies of Rome. This history of the wives and sisters of the Roman Emperors is both scholarly and racy, which is a good combination. We all know about Agrippina Minor and her collapsible boat, but it is fun to hear about it again. But perhaps the best part of the history is towards its end, when the author tells us about Rome’s Christian Empresses – people like Pulcheria, Galla Placidia and of course St Helen.

All these ladies were closely associated with the Christian religion, and each of them was linked with a particular devotion. St Helen was associated with the True Cross, but less famously, Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, was a consecrated virgin who championed the doctrine of the Blessed Virgin’s Divine Motherhood; Galla Placidia had a special devotion to St John the Evangelist, whose intercession saved her from shipwreck; she built a basilica dedicated to him in Ravenna, which was sadly destroyed by enemy action in World War Two.

The alliance between first ladies and the faith might seem political, and even an instrumentalisation of religion; but I would see it as something more subtle and profound. It shows the benign effect faith can have on government. The patron saint sheds a glow on the ruler, and softens the harshness of the administration of power. The patron saint can, by the operation of divine grace, turn power into service.

I seem to remember that some years ago, Pierferdinando Casini, on becoming president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, made a speech in which he mentioned his dedication to the Madonna di San Luca, the miraculous image of the Virgin that is venerated in Bologna, his home town.

Was this a cynical play for the Catholic vote? I hope not. I rather like the idea of politicians who associate themselves with saints. Mrs Thatcher might have been less hard-edged if she had followed the example of St Helen, one no less determined than she. Cameron and Osborne might be a little more like ordinary people, if they could convince us of an enthusiasm for, let us say, St Edward the Confessor, or St Bernadette of Lourdes. But we do not live in a Catholic country, sadly.

I think this is a pity because the Catholic religion, like all religions, is a tie that binds: a shared faith is something that really would mean that “we are all in this together”. Moreover, devotion to a saint, and devotion to God, reminds us of the essential equality we all share when we stand before the throne of God as suppliants. Pulcheria, Galla Placidia and St Helen knew this. Though Empresses, they were mere unworthy servants of the Most High – a very sobering thought for those in leadership positions. Our politicians could learn from these classical ladies.

  • Parasum

    “If only David Cameron could enthuse about St Edward the Confessor, say, or St Bernadette of Lourdes”## They are probably too distant in time or space to mean much in this country. Willam Wilberforce, or W. E. Gladstone, OTOH, were both Christians in public life. The problem with Catholics is that they are too much identified with one segment of the population. John wesley was never a Methodist, but a methodist; & always thought of himself as a member of (what is called) the C of E; & he has largely transcended confessional boundaries. Wm. Wilberforce is remembered as something more than an Anglican Evangelical – for his work in abolishing slavery. OTOH, his younger contemporary the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury seems to have sunk without a trace from popular memory. Perhaps figures are remembered nationally because they are not popularly identified with any sectional interest; & did some great work which helps people to remember them. John Howard’s memory is kept alive by the name of the J.H. League for Penal reform. St. Bernardette, OTOH… And St. Edward the Confessor belongs to the dim and distant past. All this may explain why they are not mentioned. They are not familiar enough outside their own group.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The nearest most conservatives get to having a “patron” from the past is Disraeli – or so it used to be – but I haven’t heard him invoked for many years now. On the Labour side it is Nye Bevan…. Interesting re Shaftesbury, who was of course a Tory…. why have we forgotten him? London’s most famous landmark is the Shaftesbury Memorial, though never called that!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Sorry, that was meant to be in reply to Parasum’s comment below.

  • jiejie