Friday, December 30, 2005

December 30: Feast Day of Pope Sabinianus

Today's feast day honors a man whose name ought to ring a bell ... but probably doesn't.

Indeed, I haven't even found his birth name online, but if anybody knows it, please post a comment.

Anyway, the man we know as Pope Sabinianus began his papacy on September 13, 604 and ended it on February 22, 606. His time in the papal office followed that of Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, whose known life has a lot more details than our man Sabinianus.

Still, we are stuck with today's man and must seek to do him justice.

In justice, then, it must be said that he strikes Gypsy Scholar as neither particularly competent nor especially popular.

Pope Gregory had sent him to Constantinople as Apostolic nuncio, or envoy, but he seems not to have performed his office there as well as desired. Though I don't know all of the details, the online Catholic Encyclopedia states that "He was not astute enough for the rulers of Byzantium," meaning (as I have learned since first posting this entry) that Pope Gregory found him lacking in competence and recalled him for being insufficiently "firm . . . with Patriarch John IV the Faster," who seems to have considered himself equal or superior to the pope. Sabinianus returned in 597 to Rome and somehow rose to the office of St. Peter when Pope Gregory died, so he must have been good for something.

Rodolfo Lanciani, in chapter 1 of his Pagan and Christian Rome (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892), citing the Liber Pontificalis (vol. i. p. 315), informs us that as pope, Sabinianus had no easy time, for during his short tenure of office, Rome faced a siege by the Lombard king Agilulf in 605 along with a poor harvest due to heavy frosts and rats. After paying Agilulf 12,000 solidi (gold coins of about 4.5 grams) to induce him to stop besieging the city, Pope Sabinianus opened the Church's granaries and auctioned the wheat at the rate of thirty modii (or pecks) per solidus -- to refill the Church's coffers, I suppose.

Lanciani adds that this was not a popular act, for the grain was intended not to be sold but to be distributed among the needy. Moreover, the price was "almost exorbitant," we are told, for grain is said to have cost only half as much in the time of Theodoric (meaning Theodoric the Great, 454-526?). While I would suggest that the law of supply and demand might account for some of the difference, I find myself overruled by Gregory the Great, who is said by Paulus Diaconus, in his Life of Gregory (chapter 29), to have appeared to Sabinianus in a vision three times, twice entreating him to act with more generosity but the third time returning to strike him dead.

Thus did the bell toll for Pope Sabinianus.

And appropriately so, for it is said that Sabinianus, through issuing a papal bull, was the first to have bells hung in turrets and rung to call the faithful to mass and to announce the seven canonical hours during which monks pray their daily prayers.

A related tradition attributes to him a command that sundials be placed on churches to show the hour of the day.

For these two things, at least, let us ring the Great Jubilee Bell above and raise our cups across the time zones in honor of a man otherwise obscured by time.


At 8:09 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

I couldn't dig up his original name either, though I did learn that an angry mob forced his funeral procession to go outside the city walls to St. Peter's (Catholic Online). Maybe we should toast to the mob.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

From the link provided, I see that he's also called Sabinian, which I find easier to remember and pronounce.

Also this tidbit:

"Gregory recalled him (from Constantinople) because he felt his representative was not firm enough with Patriarch John IV the Faster, who had begun to call himself the Ecumenical Patriarch."

So, it was Pope Gregory himself who found Sabinianus not astute enough for the Byzantines. This means that the Catholic Encyclopedia article could use some rewriting in the interests of clarity, at the very least.

As for the mob, they were probably still angry about Sabinianus having sold the grain rather than distributing it for free. Still, he had his reasons, among them the fact that the Church had just paid a huge amount to ransom the city of Rome from the Lombard siege.

Speaking as a historian, I'm always suspicious of bad reports that come down to us from the past.

Still, let's also toast the mob. They may have been in the right.

Besides, I'm always in favor of another drink...

Jeffery Hodges

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