QUICK TAKE: Lawrence of Rome

From the History Blog’s “Well, the Legend is Real” Department:

Laurentius – known to history as Lawrence of Rome – was born in 225 AD, and served as a deacon of the Catholic Church under Pope Sixtus II. Sixtus and Lawrence lived in Rome during the reign of Valerian the Elder, who ruled from 253 to 260. And if there was one thing Valerian couldn’t stand, it was Christians. In 258, Valerian went on a rampage, ordering the executions of as many deacons, priests and bishops as he could get his hands on. Sixtus was beheaded on August 6, and Lawrence was scheduled to die on August 10.

But, according to legend, Lawrence wasn’t beheaded or crucified. So the story goes, he was taken to the area of what is now the church at San Lorenzo in Panisperna and burned on a gridiron. And supposedly, as he sat roasting over the fire, his last words were “turn me over … I’m done on this side”… which is why St. Lawrence is the patron saint of both comedians and chefs. He’s also the patron saint of related culinary professions, such as brewers, butchers, confectioners, cutlers, restaurateurs and vintners. Because of his work with preserving early church documents he’s also the patron saint of archivists and librarians. He did a lot for the poor, especially children, so he’s also the patron saint of paupers and school children. For reasons I’m not really clear on, he’s also the patron saint of armorers, glaziers, laundry workers, tanners and the diocese of Amarillo, Texas.

Although it’s kind of an amusing story – who even knew that comedians had a patron saint? – evidence for or against it is kind of murky. The first written account of the story comes from the book Liber Peristephanon, written by the Roman Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. But Prudentius was born in Tarraconensis (northern Spain) in 348, ninety years after Lawrence had been martyred.

One theory – from the fabulously named Father Pio Franchi de ‘Cavalieri – says that the whole thing boils down to a transcription error. At the time, Christian authors and record keepers would note the death of a martyr with the phrase passus est, meaning “he suffered”. Maybe someone somewhere accidentally wrote it down as assus est (“he was roasted”), and someone else made up a story to fit the text. I mean, can’t you just imagine a modern day DMV worker typing  “Lawrence of Rome” into his computer? “Look lady, it says here he was ROASTED, okay? Unless you got paperwork from the Department of Health that says otherwise, he’s ROASTED to the State of New York, OK?”

It’s thought that Constantine built a small chapel on the site in Lawrence’s honor, and there is an actual gridiron – said to be from the martyrdom, naturally – under the altar at the Church of St Lawrence at Lucina. However, the gridiron was given to the church by Pope Paschal II, who reigned as pope from August 13, 1099 until his death on January 21, 1118. I’m not going to research where the gridiron allegedly was for 800 years before ending up at the church, but you can draw your own conclusions. Incidentally, Paschal II was the first pope to appoint a bishop to North America, and he did it 400 years before Columbus sailed to the New World: Erik Gnupsson (in his native tongue, Eiríkr Gnúpsson, but also known under the Latinized name Henricus) was appointed Bishop of Greenland and Vinland, the latter of which many historians think was Newfoundland.

Whether or not Lawrence died joking about being “ready to turn”, the real joke ended up being on Valerian. Two years after he’d ordered the death of Lawrence, Sixtus and the others, Valerian found himself at the Battle of Edessa against an army of Persians led by Shapur I.

According to most accounts, the battle was something of a stalemate, so Valerian decided to meet with Shapur to work out some kind of truce. But Shapur decided to seize Valerian instead, which caused the entire Roman army to surrender. What happened next depends on who you read. Persian and secular authors say that Valerian was taken to a city called Bishapur and lived out the rest of his life in relative comfort. Edward Gibbon, the English author and historian whose six volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published between 1776 and 1788, tells it a bit differently:

We are told that Valerian, in chains, but invested with the Imperial purple, was exposed to the multitude, a constant spectacle of fallen greatness; and that whenever the Persian monarch mounted on horseback, he placed his foot on the neck of a Roman emperor. Notwithstanding all the remonstrances of his allies, who repeatedly advised him to remember the vicissitudes of fortune, to dread the returning power of Rome, and to make his illustrious captive the pledge of peace, not the object of insult, Sapor still remained inflexible. When Valerian sunk under the weight of shame and grief, his skin, stuffed with straw, and formed into the likeness of a human figure, was preserved for ages in the most celebrated temple of Persia; a more real monument of triumph, than the fancied trophies of brass and marble so often erected by Roman vanity.

Other accounts say that Valerian was killed after being made to swallow molten gold, or by being flayed alive. The source for most of these tales, it should be noted, was a Roman Christian author named Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (“Lactantius” for short), who just might have had an ax to grind against Valerian for martyring Sixtus, Lawrence and the others. But Lactantius would go on to become an advisor to Constantine I, and Valerian would remain the only Roman Emperor in history to be captured and held as a prisoner of war.

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