Saints, Romans, Emperors

Quite a bit has changed since imperial engineers designed and built a bridge in Emerita Augusta, today’s Mérida.

The Pax Romana died with Marcus Aurelius.1 The Roman Empire kept going until around Isidore of Seville’s day.

The name Isidore started as a Greek phrase: “gift of [the goddess] Isis.” Maybe someone’s decided that since Isis is an ancient Egyptian deity, and Catholics remember Saints named Isidore, we’re Satan-worshiping pagans.

I’d like to think that’s unlikely, but exchanging Christmas gifts was classified as a “Satanical practice” and forbidden not all that long ago.2

There are at least three Saint Isidores, and Saint Isidora. They’re an assorted lot: a Roman naval officer, an obscure nun with an unflattering nickname, an archbishop and a farmer. Farm worker, actually, a hired hand on land owned by Juan de Vargas.

We recognize them as Saints because they acted like God’s grace mattered, practicing “heroic virtue.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 828)

Isidore’s Choice

Isidore of Chios served in the Roman navy during the third century.

The Empire wasn’t enjoying good times.

Trouble had been brewing before Emperor Severus Alexander led an army to Sicula on the Rhine.

Alexander and his troops apparently had a difference of opinion about whether to attack or try bribing Germanic forces — which resulted in his abrupt death in March, 235.

My guess is that the emperor’s lenient attitude toward Christianity, and concerns that he might become a Christian, didn’t help. With Severus Alexander dead, the Roman army said Maximinus Thrax was Emperor. Part of the army, at any rate.

The announcement didn’t solve Rome’s problems.

Barbarians kept moving into Roman territories. The Cyprian Plague made economic woes worse. Folks occasionally started rebellions. Some of those became civil wars. Rome had 26 emperors, officially sanctioned and otherwise, during the next five decades.

Back to Roman naval officer Isidore.

He was suspected of Christian sympathies while Emperor Decius was defending Rome by stamping out Christianity. Trying to, anyway.

Isidore admitted his guilt, was executed on May 14, 251, and buried on a nearby Aegean island: Chios. Upwards of 17 centuries later, we still recognize May 14th as his feast day.

“The Monastery Sponge”

Saint Isidora was born, probably in or near the eastern Roman provinces, in the year 300 or thereabouts.

She joined the Tabenna Monastery in Egypt, spending her time doing the monastery’s dirtiest jobs. That earned her “the monastery sponge” as a nickname.

Sort of like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character. And that’s another topic.

Isidora apparently took St. Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 1819 to heart. That may explain both her lack of popularity in the monastery and dearth of documentation regarding her life.

I strongly suspect current events helped maintain her comparative anonymity.

She died before 365. We’re not sure when. Maybe while Constantius II, Constans I, and/or Vetranio was/were emperor. Or maybe Julian and/or Jovian.

The Roman Empire was recovering from the Thrax-to-Carinus/Numerian imperial brouhaha by that time.

Emperor Jovian, for example, died of natural causes. Officially. He’d eaten too many mushrooms with too much wine. Or maybe a faulty heating unit smothered him.

Ammianus Marcellinus — who survived the Julian, Jovian and Valens reigns — said that Jovian’s death, and the investigation that didn’t follow, were odd.

Edward “Decline and Fall” Gibbon, an 18th century English Whig, said the official version of Jovian’s death was right and that’s yet another topic.

Back in the fourth century, Rome’s imperial government became increasingly bureaucratic. Senators replaced their togas with nifty-looking silk outfits. Emperor Constantine ended the policy of blaming Christianity for imperial problems, allegedly got baptized just before dying — and didn’t, apparently, die because he was baptized.

I see making Christianity legal as a good idea. Outlawing everything except ‘official’ Christianity, not so much. We have Theodosius I to thank for that.3

An Archbishop

Isidore of Seville may be the most generally-famous St. Isidore. He was born in a city we call Cartagena. It’s been called Mastia, Qart Hadasht, Colonia Vrbs Iulia Nova Carthago and Cartago Spartaria.

A few millennia from now, it’ll probably have collected a few more monikers, and that’s yet again another topic.

His parents, Severianus and Theodora, were among the area’s upper crust.

Isidore became a scholar and, for three decades, archbishop of Seville.

That city’s been called Hisbaal, Tartessos, Hispal and Gilipolis, and I’m wandering off-topic. Again.

Archbishop Isidore died in 636, was recognized as a Saint in 653, and is famous as a scholar who helped organize and preserve part of the Roman world’s knowledge.

He’s the patron Saint of the Internet, computer and technicians, programmers and students. That’s what Pope John Paul II said in 1997. I don’t have a problem with St. John Paul II’s decision, but apparently some Catholics do.

I can see their point, sort of. The Pope didn’t go through the usual bureaucratic channels before announcing his decision, John Paul II was Pope after Vatican II, the Internet is newfangled technology, and that’s still another topic. Topics.4

A Hired Hand

St. Isidor the Farmer, patron Saint of farmers, is ‘the’ St. Isidore for folks around here. His feast day is May 15.

He’s also called San Isidro Labrador and St. Isidor Agricola.

English-language resources I’ve seen often call him “Isidor the Laborer.”5

Maybe that’s because the word “Labrador” in “San Isidro Labrador” sounds like my language’s “laborer.”

It could be worse.

Folks could have translated “San Isidro Labrador” as “Isidore the Labrador Retriever,” and that’s — what else? — even more topics.

My father-in-law talked about ‘our’ St. Isidore, families and Jesus, back in 2011. I’ll post that in a few minutes. Today, anyway.

Posts that aren’t completely unrelated:


1 Rome’s heyday, and after:

2 Names and attitudes:

3 Saints and emperors:

4 A Saint and cities:

5 ‘Our’ St. Isidore:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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