Monday, February 21, 2011


            Vienne...not to be confused with Vienna. That is o.k. everyone does, even train ticket salesmen.  Not that you could mistake the two cities, mind you (though both are Roman).  Vienna has emerged as a great city with a long and very distinguished history that could stand on its own without the Roman basis (in fact, it does: it being the home of Marcus Aurelius is NOT what you think of, is it?)  But Vienne, which is in the southern part of France, by the way, a few kilometers from Lyon and, like it, on the Rhone, has survived as a very small place whose Roman origins are nearly as hard to avoid as they are in Ravenna...including the fact that in the "Roman" neighborhood, nearly all the buildings boast at least a few huge chunks of re-used marble from. 

            If Aquileia was hard to get to because of its geographical isolation, Vienne was hard to get to because I tried to get there from Aquileia in one day.  I didn't make it, quite.  Ended up having to halt in Lyon.  You know it is harder to book a train through Europe now than it was prior to the EU.  No one seems to be able to get me any further than the first trainstop into the next country, and then I have to get out, get a new ticket, and reboot the trip.  Crazy.  So I ended up in Chambery, France needing to get to Lyon.  I knew that there was one more train going that night and that it left in 30 minutes.  I had an electronic ticket and instructions to get a hard ticket printed, so I started asking for help from this nice kid in an information booth ("kid" means he looks like one of my students).  At this point I could not dredge up any college French through the thick layers of Italian so I went rookie:

Which machine can I use to print up my ticket?
"*****" (which is to say, he said something I couldn’t understand)
"Yellow one: you know (now he sings) 'we all live in a yellow submarine'?" 
We both laugh

            Yellow machine doesn't accept my card, I go back, and he enlists help from a person whom, I presumed, was enlisted because he spoke English, nope.  After two more tries they both concluded that it was a shame that the machine wouldn't accept my card, but that it was o.k. as I could just get on the train and pay then.

            This does not work for me: in Italy, even if you have a TICKET, you have to have known to activate it yourself--no one tells you this-- or you get fined 500 E.  I sneak past these two helpful joes to try to just buy another ticket at a RED machine.  Twice it tried to eat my card: hands full of documents and pen and notebook, about 1mm of card sticking out of the machine and me prying it out of the jaws of the Cerberus of credit cards.  Yellow Submarine kid comes up behind me and says:

It is O.K.  You can get your ticket on the train.  That he said this in French and that I got the gist of it is part of the miracle of this story.

            I looked him in the eye, put my hand on his shoulder and said, in English,
"I trust you."  Which was one of the more serious acts of faith I have made lately, mostly because I just wanted to trust him, I was pretty sure I was, well, in a jam.

            I went to the track that older guy had told me to go to and Yellow Submarine kid, who by now has earned the appellation "Guardian Angel of the French Rail System" approaches me yet again (remember he is supposed to be snuggly sitting in a heated room waiting for people to talk to him through panes of glass that convert human language into 
the sound of birds singing under water) with a schedule to point out to me that I am on the wrong track.

            I board the train, I seek out the conductor, I explain (90% English, 10% clearly my French is improving under stress).  He stares into space and stands there for a very long time without saying anything.  Now, I am the only person in this part of the train car, so it is a bit having Sr. Mary Blandina standing over your desk in 4th grade.  Finally he announces that I owe him 16 E.  I try to argue that I have already paid for the ticket, I just can't print it, but nevermind.  I offer him a 50.  He rolls his eyes, I shrug, it is all I have.  He walks away.  The train has left, so at worst I will end up at Gare Part Dieu with a whopping fine to pay, with which, by this point, I am fine.  Then I find a 10E note in a pocket, and some change.  I track him down.  He's chatting with a young girl (meaning high school) who looks "goth" and anyway has a boyfriend with her and anyway the conductor is at least my age, but anyway, I offer him the bill and the coins.  He shrugs and prints something into his little electronic devise and I get a bill for 12 E, which is exactly what I have in my hand.

            Arriving at Lyon at 11:00 p.m. I made my way, by memory (I'd googled a map earlier and had committed to memory and notebook the streets I needed to make a bee line to the hotel).  Unfortunately the most direct route to the hotel takes me through a neighborhood that reminded me of that French rat chef movie...all gutters and piles of restaurant garbage and no street lighting, just a bunch of young Near Eastern guys lounging around the Hamam, the Kabab shop, the place with the water pipe...I would say that it felt like I was back in Istanbul except that I never felt that uneasy in Istanbul.

            I made it to the hotel, tapped to be let in, got my key, and could not get my door unlocked for nothing, especially when the hallway light kept going out--motion sensitive, but not catching my rattling and shaking the damn door.  Finally the young bored guy at the desk had to come help me, but not before making a big deal of taking the 18E in petty cash to some undisclosed destination, taking every postcard off of every rack in the stand, and letting in 2 other sets of guests.  You guessed it: he opened it immediately: in 1/3 way, turn clockwise, in 100%, turn counter clockwise.  I made him wait to demonstrate that I could not work that alchemy, but he shrugged and said he had to get back to his desk.  "Why?" I thought, "there are no postcards to steal."  But I was tired and despite the bed that felt like it was stuffed with straw and the walls that emitted a sound like pebbles dropping through cracks till they get stuck again, I went to bed. O.K. I feel better for having told that story.

            So: how did Ambrose get to Lyon, or Vienne, or Aquileia, or Bologna...?   Since Constantine, Bishops had had the use of the Royal Post, which meant, presumably, they could not only send letter carriers, but go themselves.  Anyway, Ambrose was often travelling in the service of the State, even after being made bishop, so I am sure they would have outfitted him well.  But he had no choice about when he travelled, that being dictated by circumstances--no moreso than on his ill fated trip to Vienne--and my travails (hmmm is that word related to travel?  Should be) were nothing to what he would have taken for granted.  He would have gone about 20 miles a day.  He would have stayed in the home of an acquaintance, or the acquaintance of an acquaintance, or a public house, or, I can well imagine, outside.  At least I had a warm shower waiting for me, well, mostly: once in a while it has been dang cold...but still.

            Vienne, and Lyon, for that matter, are Roman cities because they found little niches along the huge canyon that is the lower Rhone River out of which to carve a city.  So, did Ambrose come by water from Arles (yet another Roman city)?  I don't think so.  There was a good Roman road through the Alps and a much shorter route from Milan straight to Vienne.  The other night, having come back from Vienne to my nasty smelling and creepy sounding and disturbingly located hotel in Lyon, I walked a new route...longer but a little less unnerving and anyway it was earlier.  It had rained all day.  Going through an underpass I glanced to one side and saw an older gentleman lying in a little nook in the passage and wrapping an old carpet around himself.  No, I had nothing at all to complain about.  I can well imagine Ambrose, up on a wagon with a roof but no suspension system, rocking and rolling through a muddy French countryside feeling rather sorry for himself until he caught sight of the barefoot and sodden peasants walking to and from their fields.  How did that make him feel?

            We know that part of everyday Ambrose administered what we'd call a soup kitchen out of the church of Milan.  Obviously he did not personally attend to those good folks all the time--he travelled a lot, and travel takes a lot of time...months at a time at least--and those sorts of services have to be regular and reliable or they are worthless, so I am sure he had a system going.  But I also bet that when he was in town he made it a point to go to those in need personally and directly.  Am I romanticizing to imagine this well groomed aristocrat sitting with a homeless woman over a bowl of soup talking about her 

            But what did I make that trip for?  Why did I end up in Vienne?  To be honest, it was not on my itinerary, but the few days in Roccantica and the longer time I spent in Bologna and Aquileia forced me to make some changes.  At Milan the other night I had to decide: Vienne, in France, or Srijemska, in Croatia?  The latter was more important, it was where Ambrose spent 5 years as a magistrate before coming to Milan.  But it took me a lot further away from Trier, where I had to be in 3 days, so Vienne.

            But again, why Vienne?  The short answer is Valentinian II.  Quick synopsis of his life: he was the 2nd son of Valentinian I.  When he died and Gratian, Valentinian II's older half brother, was made emperor--at the age of 16 I think--the troops, or at least folks interested in having a handle on power--insisted that the 3 year old (I think) little half brother be named co-Emperor.  Gratian graciously accepted this which means that at the age of 16 (I think) he had mastered a crucial virtue: accept that which you cannot change.  Gratian survived a few years, and did well, until he was lured to a trap and murdered by Magnus Maximus, who had come from Britain to wrest the West from the boy emperors.  After the debacle that killed his uncle Valens and destroyed the armies of the East, Gratian had recalled the son of the general that his own father, Valentinian I, had killed, and had set him up as the Emperor of the East.  This was Theodosius and he was several years older and much more experienced than was his "senior" Emperor.

            Maximus claimed to be a distant relative of Theodosius (they were both from Spain) and he made a big deal to Ambrose that he was a Nicaean.  Valentinian II, still a boy, had been raised by his mother (Justina: try to keep up) as an "Arian."  Maximus was well aware that Ambrose had been having troubles with Justina and thought it would be easy to enlist the bishop to lure the boy to him so that, as he said, he could "take care of him."  He had, you know, killed Gratian by now, but anyway, that story will have to wait for Trier, as that is where Maximus had set up shop.  Leave it for the moment that Valentinian survived and even helped Theodosius destroy Maximus in a brilliant series of carefully orchestrated attacks, subtly nuanced and disingenuous promises, and not a little fast purchasing of barbarian help.

            Maximus' head was delivered to Theodosius at Aquileia.  Theodosius had married Galla, the sister of Valentinian II.  Valentinian II, by the way, had acquitted himself well, for a boy of 16 (I think).  But Theodosius had two sons and only one empire.  Justina had died, who was the only bulwark of her dynasty.  Theodosius assigned the boy-emperor to Vienne and gave him a care-giver whom he considered to be loyal, one Arbogastes, the nephew of a trusted general.  Is this boring?  Are there too many names?  Take a break and come back: this is important and I need you to care about it.

            Are you ready?  Good.  Re-read the last 3 paragraphs, then join me here.  O.K.  Valentinian II was relegated to Vienne with a powerful and confident overseer in the service of Theodosius.  He could not act independently, apparently he could not even govern his own palace.  He was in despair.  He wrote Ambrose of Milan a despairing letter and begged the good bishop to come to him: he wanted to be baptized.

            Now there a few interesting and unsolvable questions here.  Why wasn't Valentinian II resident at Milan--the capital of the West?  Was it to keep him away from Ambrose?  Theodosius had not met Ambrose yet, but he had good intelligence on his relationship with Valentinian I (for whom he worked) and Gratian (whom he taught).  So maybe Theodosius wanted to keep the kid away from a powerful, but untrusted, mentor?  Was it just to marginalize him?  Vienne was no mean city but it should be noted that despite the best archaeology I have seen, they have not uncovered any imperial palace.  Think about that: what if he were shunted off to a place where there wasn't even a temporary imperial residence?  The signal from Theodosius to Arbogastes would have been quite clear: this kid is nothing (and oh, by the way, I don't want you to become anything either).  In other words: was this an exile?  Was it a double exile?  (get rid of Valentinian II, but also tether Eugenius to an obscure location).  And finally: we know that it was still customary to delay baptism until one was dying.  Was Valentinian II sending a code to Ambrose that he was that desperate?

            We don't know.  Vienne was no mean city.  It was small, to be sure, but any city other than Rome was small, even Constantinople or Milan...and all other imperial cities (Trier, Ephesus, Vienne, Ravenna) were smaller yet.  It wouldn't have been mean, but it would have been out of the way...I hesitate to make analogies, but say the Church wanted to send a message that a priest was not Bishop material, but still competent?  Would he be sent, say, to Bluegrass, Iowa (that was a joke, just to see if anyone there is reading!).

            But Valentinian II itched.  He was of imperial blood and he seemed to be competent.  He had been through a lot and had come through it well.  He wanted out, but had no way to dodge Arbogastes.  I can't get this out of my head.  If found the forum, I found the city basilica, the baths, the circus, the theatre, even an odion (one of only three in all of France), but according to the very pretty and nice young girl (meaning she looked like one of my students) who ran the history information room--yes, there is such a thing--archaeologists have found no trace of an imperial palace.  Was there one?  For my money, I'd start digging out near the race track and city walls.  That is where you'd find it in Rome, in Constantinople, in Thessaloniki, but that is me.  Maybe there wasn't one.  Anyway, Valentinian II felt trapped and after some time of it, he wrote a letter to Ambrose and asked him to come baptize him.

            For whatever reason Ambrose delayed (I can't help but think of the Gospel story wherein Jesus delayed coming to Lazarus).  By the time he had started out on the not particularly comfortable trip he received word that he'd come too late: Valentinian II was dead...he'd been found hung. 

            Did he commit suicide?  Did he give up waiting on Ambrose?  Was he murdered?  In his funeral homily for the boy, Ambrose insists that Gratian himself receives his little brother into paradise.  This is odd, since he died without being baptized and may have been a suicide.  Ambrose was walking a very, very dangerous line here.  Was he suggesting that he had been murdered?  That would put him in an awful place against Arbogastes, who immediately moved by making one Eugenius (a fairly non-descript, but respected PAGAN) as emperor of the West.  It is also theologically awkward, since suicides are--according to one rather cold reading--guilty of the sin of despair and so not eligible for paradise.  Ambrose has no such quibbles: Valentinian II is in Paradise. This is a bold theological position to take and a dangerous political position to take...Eugenius and Arbogastes were headed for Milan.

            Why did he stake that claim?  I think there are several reasons: first, whatever he might have believed about death prior to baptism before, his love for Valentinian (which means his devotion to the whole clan, despite his frustrations with Justina) made him consider options.  Theology is like a long difficult journey...when it comes down to it, one has to have faith.  His prior experience could not dictate to him what his next move was: he had to believe that his heart was right.  Secondly, I think he took the position because he knew there was no dealing with Arbogastes anyway.  The latter had swiftly appointed a certain Eugenius as his titular Emperor...Eugenius was one of the leaders of the Pagan assembly of the Roman senate and this was a last (as it turned out) bid to reclaim the Empire for the ancient gods of Rome.  Besides, Arbogastes might have considered that his foreign sounding name would not make him the most popular candidate with those traditionalists whose money would be needed to win this campaign.

            Eugenius and Arbogastes headed out from Vienne at the head of an army to take on Theodosius.  In a way, Theodosius brought this on himself.  He had two sons for whom he had dynastic ambitions of his own, and Valentinian II was something of an obstacle.  Not to say that he killed, or wanted killed, the emperor of the West, but in an odd way, it played into his hands too.  If he should defeat his one-time general and company, the road was open to the succession of both his sons to the thrown at the same time. 

            He did win, at the Battle of Fridigus, near Aquileia.  Though some of his barbarian Goth warriors switched sides at the last minute (they being mercenaries for hire) a fortuitous wind came up that, chronicalists say, blew the enemy arrows back into their own ranks.  Further, SS John and Phillip were seen hovering over the heads of Theodosius' armies (much as had, the Diascori--Castor and Pollux--in older, pagan times).  It was the last time that Romans would bear the banners of Hercules and Zeus into battle.  From now on, it would be the banner of Constantine only: the Chi Rho the anagram for the name of Christ.  Theodosius was the last man to rule the West and the East.  He set up his two sons to inherit the two halves and was dead a few months after Fridigus.

            Did Ambrose even get to Vienne?  Or did he hear the news and turn back?  To continue on would have been, perhaps, to walk into a trap...if the boy had been murdered.  Personally, I imagine that he went on into the city, anointed the body, and accompanied it back to Milan where he delivered his well known homily and established in no uncertain terms that the Church would not be intimidated by the machinations of usurpers--he hadn't backed down to Maximus, who claimed to be a Nicaean--he wasn't about to back down to a man who signaled clearly his intention to re-establish the precedence of the pagans.  No, he continued down the road...regardless of the inconveniences and the uncertainty of the destination.  He looked his own guardian angel in the eyes, put his hand on his shoulder and said: "I trust you."

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