I have only been here a couple of days, so it might seem odd that Thessaloniki would get two entries, but I left a lot unsaid that needs to be addressed. I wonder what the city looked like when Theodosius brought his family here? It had been an imperial residence for 50 years or so, so much of the necessary building had been done for him. Yesterday I stood in the imperial palace (free entrance, and I was the only visitor...the caretaker had to leave his warm little kiosk to check on me, wondering, I suppose, why I was taking so long on such a cold windy day to poke around). It was something to be in the place that he lived, that is all.
Besides the round audience hall and the baths and the peculiar courtyard and the basilica that he converted into, well, a basilica, and the cisterns, there was a massive race track that ran along one side of the complex. It shared one wall with the basilica and the other with the city walls. This is uncanny, in a way: the same lay out is found in the imperial palace in Milan. I suppose it makes sense, even in Rome the great Circus Maximus sits just below the brow of the Palatine (hence 'palace') Hill. The point is that the emperor was expected to be seen by the public at the races.
Romans took their races as seriously as we do the Super Bowl (has that happened yet?) and the emperor was expected to exhibit his down-home demeanor by getting as into it as everyone else. The great stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius once nearly caused a riot because he was seen to be working on matters of state while in the imperial box. I guess they thought he was being elitist. Have we always mistrusted smart leaders?
According to a little book I bought today at the nicely done archaeological museum, the people of Thessaloniki never did take to Theodosius. I doubt there is any evidence for this, to be honest, but it might make sense. As I mentioned in the last post, Theodosius had had to make some very difficult choices and had enlisted a great number of barely integrated barbarian Goths into the army. Moreover, it had been a long trend that governors would be taken, not from the traditional Senate class, but from among the best of the rising new men from the ranks...this had been going on for 100 years, so the fact that Theodosius employed such men as Arbogastes, Stilico, and Richomer doesn't mean that they were barbarians...these were Romanized tribals from the Franks, Saxons, and Goths...as Roman as folks like General Patraeus are Americans.
But perhaps there was an anti-barbarian undertone to the crowds. After Hadrianopolis, this would have been understandable. Anyway, to the point...
Theodosius had moved to Constantinople after his self-imposed internship at Thessaloniki. He had stabilized the East and was beginning to pay more and more attention to the goings on in the West. In fact, he was on his way to Milan when he received word of a crisis in Thessaloniki that demanded an immediate response.
The city's favorite athlete had been arrested by the governor of the province (apparently for having pursued the same girl who was the object of the governor's desire). This was just before the great race was to be run and the city went crazy...they stormed the prison, liberated their hero, and managed to exact vigilante justice on the governor...they killed him.
Governors, like Ambrose in Milan, knew themselves to be in very precarious positions. They were to keep the peace, but they never had access to the forces necessary to ensure it. There were assorted constabularies at their disposal, but no trained "national guard" so to speak. When a riot broke out (euphemistically, and chillingly, this was called a "situation that called for arrows") their options were not good. We know that various stratagems were employed, including one governor using his own children as a human shield, another simply ran. Only one that I know of actually used violence: when a riot broke out over food in Rome the Prefect of the Annonea plunged into the crowds with a few guards, picked out the ring leaders, and hung them on the spot...it worked. Did Ambrose, when he was governor, ever use violence? His great critic these days, one Neil McLynn, shrugs in saying that he must have: it was part of his job, but the evidence suggests otherwise...virtually no other governor did, and he was disinclined to it by his own convictions. Anyway, if he had, surely one of his many critics would have brought it up (it was, in fact, a disqualifier for religious orders).
Back to Thessaloniki. The crowds won the day, but Theodosius was livid. Without stopping to think he issued an order to the local army (Thessaloniki, like Milan, seems to have had a standing army presence because of its Imperial status, this was not the case in Antioch, say). They were to round up those responsible and execute them.
A few days later he realized he had over reacted and issued a retraction, but it was too late. The Gothic army deemed as many as 7000 people to be "responsible" and killed them. Tradition has it that they were taken to the circus next to the imperial residence to execute the order (some historians think this logistically improbable, but we know that the circus of Rome was used for capital punishment...there is no documented evidence that Christians were killed in the coliseum, but there is for the Circus).
I forgot to mention something critical here. While in residence at Thessaloniki, Theodosius had gotten gravely ill and thought he was going to die, so he was baptized--by a Nicaean. With this slaughter on his hands he may well have considered that he had put his eternal salvation at risk....it was common to believe that sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven, which is why so many delayed baptism till their death beds, as had Constantine and, he thought, Theodosius himself.
Word got round fast that the man responsible for the safety of his people had executed thousands of citizens without a trial. Word reached Ambrose in Milan even as Theodosius himself was approaching the city. What to do? Ambrose sent a discrete and appropriately obsequious letter that laid out his plan: Ambrose would absent himself from the city so as not to have to insult the emperor by not greeting him and, more importantly, refusing him the Eucharist. This would give the emperor time to consider his options and consider an act of public penance. If he agreed, they could meet in private and work through this terrible offense.
And that, simply, is what happened. Theodosius entered the church after a period (till Christmas? till Easter?) of quite public penance where he had to sit with the other repentant sinners in simple garb on Sundays and not receive the sacrament. He was barefoot and without any imperial trappings. He entered the church and knelt down before the altar (NOT before Ambrose, as the 17th century Catholic counter-reformation artists have recorded it). Ambrose met him, raised him, embraced him, and the people of the city were ecstatic: the crisis was over, the emperor was redeemed and, through him, the empire itself forgiven.
It is time to end this blog, but we should consider how important the idea of forgiveness is to us. I remember once saying to my students that the best thing the Church as given humanity is the idea that they can be forgiven. This comment was met with the most exquisite silence of appreciation and acknowledgment. We know this. Ambrose himself writes about his own need for forgiveness very often. He wrote beautifully--I think it is his best theological work, personally--against those heretics who insisted that there could be no forgiveness after baptism. Theodosius? I believe that he knew his sin and desperately believed that he was damned. He embraced the Church's offer of forgiveness the way you would water in a desert. Furthermore, I believe that Ambrose was a genuine saint in all of this: he must have considered that his actions might well have resulted in his death (this guy had, after all, just killed thousands); he loved the man in the emperor enough to offer him a way out; he worked with him as a spiritual director throughout this period. I believe that they were bonded to one another through this crisis. I imagine both of them weeping at the final reconciliation...between God and emperor, ruler and his people, bishop and king...and, I want to think, for those sad victims of omnipotent despotism. I wish I could say that such episodes are only historical, even as I marvel that the forgiveness of sin is as yearned for today as it ever was. To Ambrose we owe some debt: he fought against the ultimate intolerance which refuses to forgive.
Today, outside the great round building intended as Galerius' tomb, I saw a carefully stacked set of tomb coverings. They struck me because they were from the graves of Jews. Since St. Paul (a Jew, remember) visited the agora 2000 years ago, Thessaloniki has enjoyed the reputation of religious tolerance. When Jews were expelled from re-Christianized Spain they came here. Jews have come here for centuries knowing they were accepted. When under Ottoman control, Thessaloniki was home to more Jews than either Christians or Muslims. The city has been called the "Mother of Israel" since it nurtured so many for so long. It was only with the Nazi occupation during WWII that ended that extraordinary beacon of religious harmony. Over 90% of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki was sent to the death camps. Today only a few hundred remain, along with a very few Muslims. After WWII Greece won this region back from the Turks who then expelled Greek Christians from Turkey...they came here.
The city is strewn with beautiful Greek Cross churches, but I found no mosques and no synagogues (though I am sure there are both). Yesterday I entered the church of Thessaloniki's great martyr Saint Demetrius. I stood in the entry, feeling as awkward in an Orthodox Church as if I had been in a mosque. A woman had entered in front of me and had immediately set to kissing the feet of the iconic images of George, John, Jesus, and a couple of others. She turned to frown at me and said, in Greek, "Aren't you a Christian?!" I nodded that I was. She nearly spat out the words that I did not need to translate to understand. She was saying, "then why don't you act like one." I have not entered another church since.