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    Once Upon a Time Near Verona

    Is the rootedness of the farmer a Christian or a pagan ideal?

    By Nadya Williams

    July 25, 2022
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    • Jane Clark Scharl

      This is lovely, Nadya. Thank you!

    • Ron Compton

      I love the painting!

    • Judith Robinson

      In our own time of extreme change, many want to find a door to another world that implies that order still exists that we can find if we are brave enough. Even for adults, finding the door at the back of a wardrobe would be welcome since the clear choice between good and evil becomes quickly clear. We, like children, want adventure but also protection from disorder which is frightening in its proximity to meaninglessness. Poetry opens both poet and reader to many doors, turning away or toward societal or personal disruption. The late pagan poet Claudian created a world of an imagined rural landscape that can be counted on to sustain a tranquil life, an ideal no matter what is raging elsewhere. Likewise, the early Christians’ hymnal poems to God suggested that all of earth is God’s garden where the Christian is always in a place of belonging. In parallel, the Christian view that this world is “not my home,” assures belonging to God while striving to reach the heavenly home. Even a heaven imagined as an eternity of marvelous adventures assumes the underlying order that is and will gloriously contain all. And so, poetry. How one structures experience in a poem assumes the need to create order. What is unconstrained chaos in the “real world”—suffering, loss, cruelty, even great joy that escapes our full understanding--enters the poem. For both poet and reader, the selection of language, the placement of words, and even the rhythm, or none, says, “Here is a new way to see. Here is a way to order understanding of something unbearable or inexpressible on the other side of the door. Here in this arrangement essentials can be discovered that point to a way of order. What the source of that order is for each poet and reader is of course personal—but also shared. Like Claudian, we too turn our hopes to an imagined peaceful landscape. But we recognize that our yearnings for a place of idealized safety must not distract from efforts to recreate harmony within our own spheres, however small. Both G.K. Chesterton and Vachel Lindsay in their poems about St. Francis of Assisi evoke for all of us not merely a revered but distant icon, but one who as a true human met the disorder of his own world with the radiance of love.

    • Brad Davis

      Though it may have traction in the study of history, it seems to me that pitting the pagan agrarian (and in-place-ness) against the Christian urban (and missional) is an oversimplification. The Christian vision of what's on the way, eschatologically speaking, is first and foremost a new earth, with all of the rural-ness of unspoiled nature. And the vision of the heavenly city's arrival onto this new earth is metaphorical of a "made new" humanity inhabiting a "made new" planet in the fullness intended from the beginning. Agrarianism may be a pagan ideal as you suggest, but in its pre-Christian way, paganism intuits (and distorts) what the biblical imagination understands as the original intent of the Creator for the human creature: to fill the earth and exercise loving stewardship of earth's abundance for the benefit of all, thus creating a culture that is, in large measure, agrarian. In other words, we are to love what God loves, in the Spirit of God. This of course will require purified agrarian knowhow (Gen. 3:6a) coupled with purified communitarian wisdom (Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35). What to make of Revelation's heavenly city (described initially as a bride then as an environment – cf., Rev. 21-22)? It is an imagistic foil to earth's Babylon (described as a whore). The new Jerusalem ("City of God's Peace") is not a city but a people—the redeemed—and is an imagistic transformation like what is found in chapter five when a lion turns out to be a seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb—who is the risen Jesus. In our present world, we would perish without farmers who choose to remain in place. In the world to come, there will be no thriving without what farmer-gatherers represent. Jesus did, of course, anticipate that, until the palingenesis ("renewal of all things" Mt. 19:28), his followers would be going into all the world. For some of us this will mean going into and/or staying out in fields as farmers, a missional service that requires such in-place commitment and community as severely limits one's freedom to drift from country to country to country. Please, if I've misread your excellent article and fallen headlong down a rabbit hole, forgive me.

    • Debbie Dicarlantonio

      Distance is a relativity speculation of time and space. A Christian can be called and is called to go forth,to proclaim the Good News The going forward though is a move of the Spirit as well as a moving of our bodies location. Many are called to distant lands but all are called to move in the Spirit Augustine lived in a time when travel was limited and ways of communicating the Gospel was limited.

    There was a farmer once. In an age when so many of his peers were eager to spread their wings and leave their ancestral farmlands to seek new opportunities in exotic locales, he chose to stay put. Radically rooted to the land, he lived out his entire life on the same farm and in the same farmhouse where he had breathed his first breath three generations before. In his old age, he walked with a cane over the same terrain where decades earlier he had first learned to crawl.

    Observers could not help but think of the excitement of a fuller life that he deliberately chose to forego. A career in the military or trading or even local politics would surely have offered him pleasures of a different sort. There is, after all, something so unspeakably thrilling about seeing unfamiliar sights, eating unfamiliar foods, hearing sounds of foreign birds and men. But not for this farmer. Even the city of Verona, mere miles away, might as well have been for him “farther away than sun-scorched India.” For those observing him, and marveling at his remarkable rootedness in the one and only place he has ever known, it is impossible not to conclude: “Let someone else wander about and explore the farthermost reaches of Spain: such a man experiences more of the journey; but this (farmer) experiences more of life” (translation mine).

    This farmer’s tale of extraordinary rootedness to both his land and its values in an age of uprooting and turmoil seems fantastical, and indeed it is. No creature of flesh and blood, he is the subject of a short poem by the Roman writer Claudian, who composed it in the early fifth century AD, shortly before the vicious sack of Rome by the Visigoths would decisively mark the end of an era. But then for Claudian, who died shortly before the sack of Rome and has been dubbed Rome’s last pagan poet, his entire life was marked by harbingers of a dying age.

    Who is this “Old Man of Verona”? The poem’s opening overtly harkens back to the great literary masters of the late Roman Republic and the age of Augustus. They, too, living in an age of crisis, with memories of a not-so-distant civil war, wrote of the agricultural ideal as the key to human flourishing and happiness. It is no coincidence that the opening words of Claudian’s poem – “Felix qui” (“lucky/happy is he who…”) directly repeat a phrase from Vergil’s Georgics, a work of agricultural propaganda from the Age of Augustus. It also recalls a similar statement, “beatus ille qui” (“blessed is he who …”) from Horace’s “Epode 2.” Those working the land with their hands are the most blessed and lucky of us all, movingly wrote Horace and Vergil, who almost certainly never worked the land a day in their lives.

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    Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary, Blossoming Almonds (Landscape in Italy), 1902

    In adapting their words for the portrait of his farmer, Claudian used this farmer’s life to present a powerful manifesto of pagan virtue ethics in an age when Christianity had triumphed and the last vestiges of the world Claudian so admired were passing away in front of his eyes. The “last pagans of Rome” faded away not with a bang, but a whisper, contends Alan Cameron in his magisterial volume by this title. In the process, Claudian subtly presents a strong response to the Christians of his age, whose own world was so busy and chaotic. They, by implication, represent the people who, unlike the “Old Man of Verona,” have chosen these other paths that took them away from their ancestral lands and their old gods. It is no coincidence, after all, that the term paganus, meaning “civilian,” came to define in late antiquity the non-Christians, as opposed to the soldier’s life of the Christian. But lest we forget, the original meaning of paganus was “villager,” “country dweller,” or “rustic.” Look who has truly overcome restlessness, Claudian seems to quip to Augustine and his ilk.

    Augustine, Claudian’s contemporary, wrote powerfully about the wretched restlessness that defined his pre-conversion life. But Claudian sees such restlessness, instead, as the lot of Christians, who do not live the same life as his heroic paganus. Would it not be the ultimate antithesis of restlessness if, like this farmer, one could go through life never drinking from any streams other than those on your own property?

    And yet this farmer’s life is a lie caught up in a time-warp bubble of Roman Republican virtues that have not really been in effect for over half a millennium. After all, already by the time Horace and Vergil were glorifying the common farming life in the late first century BC, much of Italy’s farmland had long become consolidated into massive farms owned by wealthy senators. Could this be the reason why Verona, not far from this mythical farmer’s land, became one of the main areas for recruitment for the Roman legions during the early empire? Faced with no agricultural prospects, young men of Verona joined the legions in droves.

    Tombstones for Roman soldiers, found throughout the empire, tell a consistent demographic tale, as they note the deceased’s city of origin, years of service, and a brief family history. And so, we know that these recruits from Verona were likely to end up serving across the empire. If they lived through their quarter century of service to retirement age, they then often retired where they had previously served – perhaps in Britain, or on the Danube frontier. Even in death, these old men from Verona never returned to their ancestral homes.

    Surely Claudian knew that his entire narrative in this poem was nothing but vapor, a beautiful lie, as he presented his farmer as living unawares of the world around. … But such lies have a way of comforting when the truth hurts too much.

    Furthermore, the evidence of the tombstones shows that those who left Verona and its surrounding cities, such as Cremona, were overwhelmingly firstborn sons. Refusing to stay behind and inherit the family farm or business, they chose the life of excitement that Claudian’s mythical farmer rejected. But then, maybe already by the time of the Late Republic – and certainly by the day of Claudian – was there even much good left to inherit and reject?

    Surely Claudian knew that his entire narrative in this poem was nothing but vapor, a beautiful lie, as he presented his farmer as living unawares of the world around. Marking the passage of years by agricultural seasons, rather than names of consuls, the farmer apparently doesn’t even know that the Roman Republic, led by consuls, has been replaced by the rule of emperors 450 years before. And besides, one of Claudian’s other works, The Gothic War, tells of the events that will eventually build up, shortly after the author’s own death, to the sack of Rome.

    But such lies have a way of comforting when the truth hurts too much. No simple glorification of the old Roman agricultural ideal, therefore, we should see Claudian’s poem as a cri de coeur of a pagan who chose, strikingly, to remain one of the last to cling to the old Roman gods at a time when there was no longer any advantage or benefit for such decision. Why did he do so? We do not know, but perhaps we can see the poet’s outright rejection of Christianity in his concluding statement that while someone who has traveled far and wide has experienced more of the journey (viae), the Old Man of Verona has experienced more of life (vitae). After all, Christianity was described as a road or the Way from its earliest days.

    Across the Mediterranean, writing from his seat in North Africa a little over a decade later, Augustine of Hippo would respond to the last pagans of Rome and the Christians all at once in his final magnum opus, The City of God. Its full Latin title, De civitate Dei contra Paganos (On the City of God against the Pagans) took up the vision of Christianity as the faith of cities, rather than the farmlands, even if its end goal was a city seemingly far removed from the cities of the here and now.

    Which, then, is the Christian ideal, and which the pagan: the restless pilgrim whom Claudian scorned or the rooted farmer he idealized? Perhaps Christians hoping to arrive at Augustine’s glorious destination by sticking in one place and putting down roots in the soil need look no farther than the example of their itinerant master, who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Should his followers, whom he called to go forth from their native homes and forsake all else for his kingdom, expect any more or less?

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