Today, 18th of March , we are just starting our second week in isolation. The streets are empty and everything is incredibly silent, without the...
On New Year’s Eve, Romans stagger into Piazza Pasquino and pelt me with dry lentils. Resembling coins, they symbolize good luck and are consumed in January throughout Lazio. Gourmands in Viterbo feast on lentils and cotechino. Rangers in the Aurunci Mountains warm themselves on lentil and escarole soup. Fishermen on Ponza caulk their boats while lentils and eels stew in a cast-iron pot.
This tradition honors St. Sylvester, the pope who managed the church during its first years of earthly prosperity. According to legend, Sylvester converted and received a generous donation from the Emperor Constantine. With this money, Sylvester built four basilicas: St. John Lateran, Holy Cross, Old St. Peter’s, and a memorial church over the Catacombs of Priscilla.
Nothing in his past suggested that Sylvester would become God’s investment banker. Born around 280 AD, he came from poor stock. His father Rufinus, a lame ex-soldier, could not support his family. His mother Justa indentured the boy to a Christian priest named Quirinus, who taught him to read and write and tasked him with feeding missionaries. The boy washed their feet and cooked lentils with coriander.
Despite the apron, Sylvester was bold as a lion. When Timothy of Antioch was martyred, Sylvester rescued and buried his body. Tarquinius, the city prefect, arrested the lad and accused him of hiding the dead bishop’s treasure.
“The only treasure I’ve kept,” Sylvester said, “is Timothy’s faith.”
This retort stuck in the prefect’s throat. So did a fishbone. The night before the trial, Tarquinius choked to death. Sylvester was released, but his courage attracted Pope Marcellinus, who made him a deacon and then a priest at twenty. Sylvester’s grit helped the church to survive the next fifteen years.
At the turn of the fourth century, Rome became a tetrarchy. To prevent mutiny, stabilize trade, and cut red tape, Diocletian divided the empire into four administrative regions. Rule was shared by two senior co-emperors and their junior sub-emperors. Unity, however, depended on piety. Unfortunately, the Oracle of Didyma complained, static prevented the gods from broadcasting their will.
Diocletian blamed the Christians, who worshipped a crucified carpenter, and vowed to eradicate the sect. He banished Pope Eusebius to Sicily and forced priests to muck out stables in their vestments. He tore out the tongues of preachers, burned churches, and executed thousands in the arena. None of these entertaining diversions prevented civil war from breaking out.
After Diocletian retired, the tetrarchs fought for control. At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, Constantine, son of Diocletian’s junior partner, defeated Maxentius and became sole emperor.
When his army rode into Rome, I gasped. Their standard and shields bore the Chi Ro, the Greek monogram of the Christian God. On the evening before the battle, Constantine had seen a cross above the setting sun. “In this sign,” a voice had told him, “you will conquer.”
After staging a triumph in the Forum, the new emperor tracked down Pope Miltiades, placed him in a litter, and moved him into the Lateran Palace. The poor man squirmed as if he were being hustled to his execution. Sylvester, Miltiades’ secretary and successor, was made of sterner stuff.
When Constantine contracted leprosy, Pope Sylvester ordered him to do penance. Then he baptized the emperor and cured his disease. Abjectly grateful, Constantine surrendered his insignia, placed Sylvester on a white horse, and held the bridle like a common groom. Sylvester demanded a donkey and insisted on returning the crown. Constantine agreed only if Sylvester accepted a tenth of the Senate treasury and the lands that would become the Papal States. The emperor abandoned Rome to the pope and took up residence in Constantinople.
As Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440, the imperial decree corroborating this story (the Donatio Constantini) is an eighth-century forgery. But counterfeit coins buy real bread. Should Sylvester have rejected the emperor’s money? Dante claims that Constantine’s donation seduced the church away from the Gospels; but in the Gospels Jesus allows himself to be anointed with expensive nard and perfume, and only Judas objects.
Still, Romans prefer pontiffs who spend their own cash. After Francis I was elected, he returned the next morning to Piazza delle Cinque Lune and paid his hotel bill at the Domus Internationalis Paulus VI. (A suite costs €85 a night. Very reasonable for the historic district.) Now he lives in Casa Santa Marta and takes his meals in a cafeteria. I hope His Holiness enjoys a hot bowl of lentils.
Pasquino’s secretary is Anthony Di Renzo, associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.