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A fascinating look at life in the Middle Ages that focuses on eight extraordinary medieval men and women through realistically invented conversations between them and their counterparts.
The Advent of the Middle Ages
"The old Jewish whore is coming down the road with the bishop of Caesarea and the rest of her entourage," said Spero, the innkeeper, to Petra, the head of his assembled staff of six people. "They will be here very soon and they will be thirsty, hungry, tired, and dirty from the dusty road. They have been on the road from Caesarea since early this morning. Remember she wants to be treated like an empress and the Emperor Constantine expects us to treat his mother Helena as an Augusta, an empress. Remember there is good money for all of us if we please old Helena the Jewish bitch."
It was late in the afternoon of a hot September day in the year 326, at a crossroads a mile east of the Palestinian coast halfway between Caesarea in the north and Jaffa in the south.
As the cloud of dust signaling that the Augusta's party was approaching increased in size, Spero became more nervous and fussy. He turned to the stable boy and made sure there was enough hay for the horses in the Augusta's entourage.
"Remember, Petra," Spero said to the young woman whose special responsibility it was to supervise the dining room, "the meals must be not only well prepared but elegantly served and only our best vintages from the Golan Heights will do."
Spero came from one of the Greek pagan families that the imperial government had settled in ancient Judea after Roman arms crushed the last Jewish revolt and the province's name was changed to Palestine.
The Romans had treated the Jews generously and the imperial government's reward for this generous treatment had been two fierce revolts within sixty years by theJewish freedom fighters. After revolts were suppressed and the Jewish Temple destroyed, the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and coastal plain where Caesarea was located and they were confined to the Galilee and the Golan Heights in the north of the country. .
From the eastern Mediterranean the imperial government brought in Greek-speaking Gentile immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds to replace the exiled Jews. Fourth-century Palestine was still a rich agricultural land. It still as in biblical time provided bounteous crops. It was not yet desiccated by millennia of mining the soil, back to the time of the Canaanites, and perhaps a deterioration of the climate through a radical drop in rainfall that occurred under Arab rule.
After the Jews were expelled from southern Palestine, it became a quiet land. No more the clogging of the roads with families headed up to Jerusalem to pray and offer sacrifices at the Temple. No more rabbinical schools where bearded young men shook themselves while they studied, syllable by syllable, the sacred text of the Torah. No more the litigants assembled before rabbis, awaiting their judicial decisions. No more the crowds gathered around prophets declaiming the Word of God on hilltops and in market squares. No more the lineups at the ritual slaughterhouses awaiting precious supplies of kosher meat. Southern Palestine was a quiet land now, like Poland in the late 1940s after the Jews were dead.
The villa, the gymnasium, and the amphitheater were now the prominent features of the Palestinian landscape, signaling the triumph of Greek culture in the Holy Land. Paganism prevailed in the land of the prophets.
Like so many Greeks in Palestine, Spero hated the displaced Jews, just as the Israelis now detest the displaced Palestinians.
"Spero, why do you call Empress Helena a Jewish whore?" said Petra. "I know you don't like the Emperor Constantine and his family because they are Christians and you have stayed passionately loyal to the old gods. I know that you are disappointed that for the first time a Christian has become emperor. But why do you call Helena a Jewish whore?"
Spero came originally from Alexandria in Egypt. He was a product of that mercantile middle class in the cities of the eastern Mediterranean upon whom both the economic and intellectual vitality of the Roman Empire heavily depended. He had attended the schools of Greek philosophy there, where traditional Graeco-Roman polytheism had been refined through the prism of Platonic philosophy and Middle Eastern mysticism. In Alexandria, Spero had also imbibed the intense anti-Semitism that had developed among the pagan intellectuals as the conflict endured between the Greek-speaking majority and the large Jewish minority in the Egyptian metropolis. Like so many scholars and intellectuals in the later Roman Empire, especially those who remained loyal to the old religion and did not join the Christian Church and become bishops and priests, Spero could not make a living as a scholar and philosopher. He had to find a trade. He migrated to Palestine, where the Roman government had welcomed pagan immigrants, and became an innkeeper.
Spero drew Petra aside, out of the earshot of the rest of his staff.
"Because that is how Helena started out--a half century ago in a small city in Bythinia, in Asia Minor, among the proletarian Jewish masses in those stinking cities there. She was a barmaid and a stable girl, and one day a Roman officer named Constantius took her as his concubine and Constantine our emperor was the product of that union of these two pathetically obscure people--the soldier and the barmaid--in a provincial town. But then Constantius showed his political mettle and rose in the ranks, and his Jewish barmaid concubine became an obstacle to his advancement. So he abandoned her and took a proper wife, and you know the end of the story--Constantius got to be the assistant emperor in the north, in Britain, and Constantine his son inherited his army and marched on Rome and gained the imperial purple."
"Where was Helena all that time?" asked an intrigued, wide-eyed Petra.
"Who knows? Probably back in that town in Bythinia--today absurdly called Helenopolis--serving wine, cleaning the stables, and putting out for the soldiers. This is our great imperial family. May the gods preserve us."
"But Constantine didn't forget his momma, did he? That says something for the Christian emperor you don't like," said Petra.
"Yes, give Constantine credit for that, if raising whore mothers to the imperial purple is a good thing--Constantine deserves the credit," said Spero.
The Augusta's entourage turned off the main road and wound up the path to the inn. Four soldiers in heavy armor rode at the front, followed by the empress' litter, its sides covered in heavy brocade and the monogram of Christ, Chi Rho, rising in a gold ornament from the top of the litter, which was carried by four huge swarthy slaves. Behind the litter rode the elegantly dressed bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea, the senior ecclesiastic of all Palestine, and chief court propagandist and confidant of the emperor. A dozen servants and six more soldiers on foot shuffled on behind the bishop.
When the Augusta's litter reached the front of the inn, Spero and Petra and the rest of the staff were stiffly assembled to greet Helena and the bishop. Helena opened the side of the litter and looked cautiously at Spero and his group. With the help of a personal maidservant who had emerged from the crowd that had followed the empress and the bishop, Helena got out of the litter and stood erect and looked around. She was an old woman of seventy-six years, but still handsome, vigorous, and dignified. She had white hair, bright brown eyes, and a large Semitic nose. Spero prostrated himself face-down on the ground at Helena's feet until she motioned to him to get up.
Spero rose and quickly dusted himself off.
"How great an honor it is that the Helena Augusta, mother of the most exalted Emperor Constantine, should stay at our humble inn, Supreme Majesty. We shall do everything to make you and his grace, the bishop of Caesarea, the famous theologian and historian Eusebius, and all your soldiers and servants in Your Excellency's entourage welcome and comfortable for tonight."
Helena ignored Spero and motioned to Petra.
"Young woman," said Helena in a loud and firm voice. "I call upon you to help me. I am tired and thirsty from the trip to Caesarea. We have a long way to go before we reach our destination in Jerusalem. You can show me to my room."
Petra led the way into the inn and upstairs to its best room. A silent Eusebius, a tall, thin figure with a dour face, a silver cross dangling from his neck, followed Spero to the room assigned to him.
Spero's inn lay at the busiest crossroads in Palestine, where the road eastward to Jerusalem intersected with the coastal road between Caesarea and Jaffa. This intersection is still one of the busiest in Israel, the site today of lengthy traffic jams. The intersection lies about 20 miles south of Caesarea, the leading city in Roman Palestine at this time, while Jerusalem still lay devastated from the Jewish wars against Rome and the failure of the great Jewish rebellions against imperial power. Medieval Lives. Copyright © by Norman F. Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted January 19, 2002
The idea is good--to explore the Middle Ages by through novelistic accounts of influential people over the centuries--but the result is neither exciting nor strictly factual. The author may be an expert on medieval history, but he does not handle conversational dialogue well, which is a problem in a book composed mostly of conversations. For instance, the characters' conversations on feminist topics are right out of the twentieth century. Stick with Eileen Power's Medieval People for a concise and lively overview of the Middle Ages.
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