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February is Black History month! While other, better-informed sources have covered the biographies and histories of recent African American luminaries, we are stepping far back in time (and far away on the map) to find a subject for this post. This (conveniently) spares us from looking into the nightmarish Atlantic slave trade and the centuries of associated injustices which have formed the foundation of Black history in the new world, but, it also means we must examine the mindsets and mentalities of Ancient Roman and Medieval societies. The prejudices and projections of those eras are…different from what we might expect, but writing about that time from a modern vantage poses all sorts of moral and epistemological quandaries. And that is before we even ask about whether any of this is real.

Saint Maurice (Lucas Cranach, ca. 1520) oil on panel

Alright…enough historicism. Above is Mauritius of Thebes AKA Saint Maurice, a third century Roman general who led the vaunted Theban Legion, an elite infantry squadron of a thousand Roman legionaries based in Egypt. Born around AD 250 in Thebes, Mauritius was a Coptic Christian, however he was also a Roman soldier who understood how to navigate the mélange of languages, cultures, and faiths at the borders of the vast empire. Or so it seemed–the third century was a time of profound crisis for the Roman Empire, and the Theban Legion was sent across the seas and high mountains to Alpine Gaul (modern Switzerland) to fight against rebels. These rebels were bagaudae, peasant insurgents who revolted against the mercurial rapacity of the Roman elites (who, in turn, found time and resources within the larger cycle of ruin, civil wars, and famine to crush the insurgents utterly). At a pass in the Alps (today known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass), Emperor Maximian ordered Mauritius’ legion to massacre some local Christians. When Mauritius refused to carry out the orders, the Theban legion was punished with decimation (every tenth man was executed), and when Mauritius refused Maximian’s order a second time, the Caesar ordered that Mauritius and all of his men be killed.

And that was it for Mauritius…or would have been except, as with Saint Nicholas, stories and legends began springing up around Mauritius after his death. As an Egyptian soldier in northern lands, Mauritius took on more and more fabulous trappings and appurtenances after his death. Maurice was said to have worn magnificent armor emblazoned with a red cross. He was reputed to have gone into battle bearing the holy lance, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. Otto I (here is his crown!) had Maurice’s sacred remains interred at the great cathedral of Magdeburg,

Soon Maurice was the patron saint of infantrymen, swordsmiths, weavers, alpine soldiers, gout sufferers, dyers, and (maybe best of all) Holy Roman Emperors! In the 12th century, as the German Empire entered a zenith, Maurice’s image was everywhere, and instead of being pictured as a stereotypical Roman, he was portrayed as an African dressed in armor. The rather splendid statue of Maurice at Magdeberg is a fine medieval example. Carved around 1250, the statue portrays Maurice in 13th century chainmail and with ebony skin and undisguised (and un-caricatured) Nubian features.

Saint Maurice (Anonymous sculptor, ca 1250) painted wood

The Cult of Maurice became more prominent up until the mid-16th century when suddenly everything changed (as the burgeoning African slave trade spread its racist lies and cruel stereotypes to Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Switzerland). Suddenly Maurice turned white (and less important within his own story)!

So, uh, who was Maurice? Was he a Roman soldier or a holy man? Was he Black or a Roman or an Egyptian or what? Why is he dressed as a 15th century German courtier? Was he even a real person? Unfortunately none of the answers to those questions are straightforward or even satisfactory. Neither Romans (some of whom were Black) nor Medieval lords (some of whom were Black) thought of race in the same way as 18th century plantation owners (some of whom were Black). Maurice could have been Black and Egyptian and a Roman general. Saint Maurice is thought of as the first black Christian Saint except for maybe, uh, Jesus, who is equally ambiguous and hard to pin down (and also maybe not real). If I had to guess, I would say Maurice was not real–or rather he was real in the way that Jesus was real: which is to say that there were indeed military commanders and problematic street rabbis roaming around the Roman world and Christian writers used these figures to tell the story they wanted to tell.

Meeting of St Erasm and St Maurice (Mathias Grünewald,ca.1517-23) oil on panel

And what a story this is! At its heart, Saint Maurice’s story is a transcendent story of moral bravery and sacrifice. It is also a dangerous story capable of unending all social hierarchies. When the Emperor of known civilization gives one of his generals an order to kill innocent people, the soldier decides to give up his social standing, his men, and even his life rather than follow the unjust command. Such radical compassion is truly Christlike! It immediately illustrates that there are bigger things going on than rank, status, victory, empire..or even survival. Saint Maurice makes us think hard about human choices. It would be lovely to think that racial identity is likewise a fungible choice to be dispensed with in the face of larger moral imperatives, but, alas, in this world of continuing bigotry, such idealism is also apparently still a myth.

My family has an old saying. It is on the darker side of adages, however over the years I have found it to be disconcertingly true. “You become what you hate.” It is a dark truth which operates within the parameters of classical tragedy. Like an oracle’s haunting words, a monster’s riddle, or an evil god’s curse, it is a difficult (or maybe impossible) to escape from this paradoxical trap.
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I was thinking about this troubling concept because of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” which has been in today’s news because some sponsors dropped out when “Shakespeare In the Park” performed the play with the Roman depot and senators dressed in the garb of contemporary American politicians. Of course, the play is not about how you should go out and kill tyrants (unlike some state seals, Virginia) instead it shows that when the Republic’s defenders abandoned their rules and morals in order to defend their system from a strongman, they ultimately wound up destroying what they were trying to protect. I am unsurprised that people jumped in to condemn something based on its appearance without thinking about what it really meant. People are fools and don’t read! Except…I haven’t read Julius Caesar myself.
Hate has twisted me into an obscurantist…see how fast the curse takes hold!

Anyway. For 8 years we all watched the tea party and the American right work themselves into a froth of hatred over how President Obama was destroying democracy and diminishing America’s standing in the world. They claimed he spent all of his time golfing and was an agent of foreign powers. They said he undemocratically jammed his health plan down our throats without even really knowing what it would accomplish. They said he was a liar, and a fool and a tyrant. Now those same people control the executive and legislative branches of government and just look at what they are doing with their power!

Lately it has become progressively harder to talk about our elected leaders without frothing at the mouth. What is going to happen the next swing of the pendulum? My mild-mannered friends are transmogrifying into harpies sharpening their poisoned talons. If this keeps up, we are not going to get Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders…we will end up with Pol Pot.
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But I jumped to the national level too fast in this essay. This is a family saying and it is meant to be applied liberally to the user. I remember when I first moved to New York, my father and alluded to morphing into what you hate, so I cleverly said “Well, I will hate the rich.”

He stopped in his tracks and very seriously said “You don’t hate wealthy you hate the twisted avarice which blinds the greedy to everything but wealth. You hate the conceit and arrogance with which the powerful are inclined to treat the world. If you continue in such a vein you will not be rich…but you will become grasping and mean and angry.” Way to ruin the joke, Dad. Except…
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Years later I was in a business. It gradually became evident that my business partner was an alcoholic who was twisted by greed and rage. (Don’t judge. It was so exciting at the beginning and I got to design beautiful toys…and for a while we sold millions of dollars worth of them…until I asked where all the money was going). After our feud ripped the company apart, I denounced this untrustworthy, drunk, venial lout every day over a dozen beers and a lot of uncivil talk until I noticed myself in a swirling mirror: red-faced, bibulous, and angry about that stupid company and the wealth that should have been mine! mine! mine!

So what is the solution? I suppose the Dali Lama, Yoda, or Saint Veronica would advise us not to hate, but, if you have been watching the news and you have a limbic system, you will recognize that this solution works best for rich monks, alien puppets, and long-dead saints. Instead we must keep thinking! It is easy to become what you hate which is why the Middle East is filled with blood feuds, walled ghettos, military police, and mass graves. Be aware of it. Stay mindful of how you are being manipulated, not just by politicians and the media, but by your own heart and mind. We don’t all need to follow the fringes off into their world of despicable vitriol. Put away your puglias and your sharpened tongues. The mind is sharper than such base implements. We need to think about how to reform the system within the parameters left us by our great founders. We need to take the best, brightest, uncorrupted ideas from both sides and build them into an edifice for everyone. Above all, we need to be honest. Not just about how this era is changing those despicable people on the other side* into hateful strangers but how it is doing the same to us.
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