My conservative, stubborn, persecuted farmer-ancestors in the Emmental

From Lake Thun we traveled to the Emmental Valley. Still part of the canton of Bern, it features even more of my ancestors—and a lot of shared characteristics.

First, our Bernese ancestors—both the Thun and Emmental varieties—were conservative. They were slow moving, reluctant to change their ways, especially in comparison with their regional rivals—the big-city Zurichers. The story is told of a Zuricher and a Bernese who decided to collect snails. Meeting after their hunt, the Bernese asked his friend, “How many?” “A basketful,” replied the Zuricher. “And you?” Five, but two got away!”

Here’s another: A Zuricher had to be called in to finish painting a tower clock after a Bernese had given up the job since the hour hand had kept knocking the brush from his hand.

And another: A Zuricher offered a Bernese reward if he could knock his head through what appeared to be a wheel of cheese. Bernese tried but on the first try go only halfway through; given a second try, he succeeded and when he asked for the reward, the mightily impressed Zuricher said, “I’ll triple the money. That was a grindstone!”

What that looked like religiously for my family is that they joined a new Anabaptist sect that started in 1693. As my friend Gerald Mast put it on my Facebook page, “They were a bunch of stubborn Amish.”  Followers of Jacob Ammann, the Bernese Amish followed his lead in being firm disciplinarians, expecting every member of the community to “conform to the teachings of Christ and His apostles.” Ammann opposed long hair on men, shaved beards, and clothing that “manifested pride.” He excommunicated liars. Until recently, Ammann, seen as angry and harsh, was blamed for the division between the Amish and Mennonites. But that may be due to one-sided documentary accounts. Ammann could not write, and Mennonites left all the letters for historians.

Second, our Bernese ancestors were medieval yokels. They did not live in the chalets on the shore of Lake Thun. They lived in the countryside, the hinter Thun, of Trachelwald, Landau, Trub. Lisa’s family, the Ewys (spelled Aebi then) worked as dairy farmers in the Emmental Valley. They distinguished themselves as pioneers in progressive agriculture—crop rotation, selective breeding, and the use of minerals as fertilizers. They were also active in milling, linen weaving, and baking. But they were kept back from other occupations, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

After visiting Landau, we drove to Trub, home of the Schwarzentruber clan. Some sources say that Schwarzentruber meant “seller of black grapes,” but most scholars now say that this is certainly incorrect. More likely, it orginated from a man who lived on a farm called “Schwarze Trub” in the village of Trub. The name of this farm traces back to a creek called “Trub.” It is said that the creek was somewhat dark or cloudy, much different than the clear mountainous water of other nearby creeks. A nearby charcoal burning may have been the cause. Whatever the case, the Schwarzentrubers, like all the rest of my ancestors, were Swiss farmers living out in the sticks.

Exploring Trub
Aebi equipment at the former Schwarzentruber farm. It’s like another marriage between Lisa and me.

Third, our Bernese ancestors were persecuted Anabaptists. I’ll explain more about Anabaptism once we get to Zurich, where the Anabaptist movement began in 1525. For now, I’ll focus more on persecution. The Anabaptist faithful, despised by Catholic and Reformed authorities, gathered secretly in homes and barns to worship. Their services were frequently interrupted by Taufer-Jager (Anabaptist hunters)—or they were waylaid on their way home and then taken to the city of Bern for prosecution and punishment.

My mother, who led us on a walking tour of the city of Bern, explained what happened next. First, we stopped at the Rathaus, the town hall where Anabaptists and Reformed adherents debated fine theological points—and then where death sentences were announced from the balcony when the Anabaptists “lost” the debate. We stopped at a street corner where Anabaptists on their last day on earth were chained to a public “shame post.” Citizens mocked them, shouted at them, and pelted them with rocks and filth. Then they were led to be burned at the stake or beheaded in the middle of the street (named the Gerechtigkeitsgasse). We stood on a platform where down below rafts on the river took exiled Anabaptists toward the Rhine River and places beyond. Sometimes they were publicly executed by drowning as thousands watched from where we stood.

Walking tour of Bern
The platform where Bernese citizens watched Anabaptists get sent down the river and drowned by execution

In the Emmental Valley we stopped at the Trachselwald Castle. We happened to stop by on a festival day. We bought sausages and a Swiss cow bell and watched children get their faces painted and jump in bouncy houses and watched adults eat cheese and drink beer. We also climbed the castle’s tower, which told a darker story. Anabaptists were held there from 1527 to 1743. In 1670, officials looking for the Anabaptist Durs Aebi, found him, seized him, found him again after he escaped, and took him to Bern. There he was branded with an iron and expelled from the territory. Later he was seized again and let go with a warning not to preach. His name appears the last time in 1682-83 in a report by a rural magistrate that three pounds had been paid “to seek the old Anabaptist Durs Aebi again” and bring him back to Bern. He ended up moving to eastern France and southern Germany on the invitation of princes trying to restore the land that had been devastated by the Thirty Years War.

Trachselwald Castle
Sitting in a cell
Torture chamber
Chains that bound Anabaptists

The Trachselwald stories were awful—and to locals’ credit, they told them with unsparing detail. We saw cold cells of captivity, even a torture chamber with a ball and chain to swing the prisoners in circles. In the middle was a hole meant for bowels that loosened during the exercises of torture.

Bouncy houses with the tower in the background

Part of why this was such a profound visit was that the stories have been redeemed. The Swiss Mennonite Conference, the Bernese Government Council, and the Reformed Church worked together to created a permanent exhibit called “Paths to Freedom” that includes nine stations that describe the persecutions and encourages visitors to consider the nature of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We encountered another happier story at Trub, the home of the Schwartzentrubers. There we learned about the “Hiding Place.” When friendly neighbors saw the Anabaptist-hunters skulking around, they sent out a secret alarm, and the Schwartzentrubers would hide under a trap-door in the barn. In part because of these persecutions, there are no more Schwarzentrubers in Trub. “Hans from Trub” was expelled in 1711, and in 1719 a Vinzenz Schwarzentruber moved to Waldeck to manage a dairy farm. But these are stories for when we get to Hessen, Germany, in a few days . . .

I guess I’m Swiss!

As a historian, I know I shouldn’t do this, but we’re going to skip ahead in time a full millennium. Unfortunately, we only have three weeks, and the records are spotty. As we move south from Italy and north to Switzerland, we’re fast-forwarding a thousand years to the seventeenth century.

The very earliest records I have put my family roots in central Switzerland. We began our exploration pulling into Bern Bahnhof on a train, dragged our bags to a car rental place, and headed south in a van into the rural environs of the canton. Almost immediately, we found some familiar names: Schwarzenburg, Schwarzsee, and Schwarzengg. We drove through Schwarzenburg, stopping at the local castle for a picnic lunch.

Inside the castle courtyard in Schwarzenburg

Then we headed to Guggisburg, where Jacob Beiler, an immigrant ancestor was born. In the German language, a “beil” is an axe, and a “beiler” was someone who makes axes, or uses them to cut wood. He immigrated to America on October 8, 1737, on the Charming Nancy, ending up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and then to the Kishacoquillas Valley. Somewhere along the way, the family changed the spelling to “Byler.” That’s the maiden name of my grandmother Anna Mae Byler Swartz, who is currently ninety-eight years old. We saw quite a few recent “Beyeler” gravestones in Guggisburg’s cemetery. They’re probably her eighth cousins! On the day we visited, there happened to be a big festival with lots of cheese, beer, singing, storytelling, and fun.

My father looking for Beiler/Beyeler/Byler gravestones

From Guggisburg, we headed to beautiful Lake Thun. This is semi-famous for a scene in the TvN drama Crash Landing on You. But we were more interested in a constellation of villages—Reutigan, Diemtigen, Sigriswil, and Oberhofen—on the shoreline. Nicholas Raber was born in Diemtigen in the early 1600s. Jacob von Gunten came from Sigriswil, where he served as a corrichter, a judge of the ecclesiastical court, which decided what punishments should be given to lawbreakers. And the earliest date on my homemade ancestral fan chart—1622—comes from Reutigan, where Hans Buttschi was born; Oberhofen, the village across the lake from Reutigen where Margaret zum Bach was born; and the city of Thun, where the happy couple was married. This was one of the most captivating places we’ve been on our trip, and I wondered how I ended up growing up on the flat plains of Ohio.

I had grown up thinking that my ancestry was German—and that’s true to an extent. Many of the ancestors—and their children—I just mentioned did end up in Germany or in the Palatinate (eastern France and southwestern Germany) for reasons I’ll explain in my next post. And almost everyone spoke German. But it turns out that almost all of them originated in Switzerland.

That’s not hard to believe as we walk around in 2022. The cemeteries are full of Schwartzes and Beyelers and Joders. And everyone looks like us. When people talk with us, they don’t begin with English, assuming that we’re American like Italians did in Rome last week. Every gray-haired Swiss lady looks like my mother, and when we were shopping in an Aldi Suisse supermarket the other day, Lisa approached at least four Swiss dudes from the side and back thinking they were me. It’s a little disorienting, but I guess I’m Swiss!

Vulnerability of the road

In my second post, I wrote, “Like Adam and Eve, Abraham, and the Hebrews in Egypt and Babylon who pilgrimed on dusty roads through the precarious landscape of the ancient near east, we do not know what we will encounter. Certainly, we will experience fatigue, discomfort, and tedium. We will wish for familiar food. We will want to be there already. Will there also be logistical nightmares caused by Covid testing? Closed borders because of a new variant? Ukrainian refugees? Russian troops? Always, as they say, there is the vulnerability of the road.”

For us, it was Eurail pass activation and a train that left five full minutes earlier than it was supposed to. I won’t give you all the gory details, but at one point our group of eight was separated into three groups: my parents on a train headed toward Switzerland, me in Milan, and Lisa and all the kids in Rome–with eight people’s suitcases and backpacks, no cell phone service, and no Eurail passes. About fifteen things in a row had gone wrong involving cell phones, passes, passports, spotty wifi, miscommunication, and a split-second decision by me and my parents to dart on the train as the doors were closing on us.

Preparing to leave Rome for Milan

The last time we saw each other in person, Lisa and I simultaneously (and very pointedly) told each other opposite things. Lisa: “I will not get on this train if I don’t see you!” Me: “Get on that train no matter what!” We both stuck to our guns—and paid for it!

Our only form of communication was intermittent email (Lisa found one spot in the train station with free wifi—a very posh perfume store). Here’s a very small taste of our exchanges as we tried to sort things out over the next twelve hours.

Laura: David, Lisa and the kids didn’t get on the train. They didn’t see you and didn’t want to get on without you. They are stuck at Termini. Lisa said they will try to stay put. I don’t think they have wifi at the station. Hopefully if she finds wifi she will see your email.

Lisa: We’re stuck. Limited WiFi. Should I try to get another train to Milan? Should they really cost ***?

David: As quickly as possible. To Milano Centrale

Lisa: Did you get the message? We have 11:20 tickets Should arrive at 14:40. Please tell me the tickets look ok

David: Good job. Tickets look good. Unfortunately We’re going to miss the next route to St. Moritz by 20 minutes. I’m working on some solutions. At least we’ll be reunited. I’m so, so sorry.

Lisa: Are you in milan? I’m afraid some of my emails got stuck and confused you. I had so much trouble with gmail at the station that I switched to Asbury email but now on the train only gmai! Is working well. I got your message about meet at the main train ticket station when we get to milan .

Lisa: Bad news. I think we have a 50 minute delay. Am I reading this right?

Lisa: On a train. Pretty sure it’s the right one. Barely made it on with all our bags but I think we’re ok.

Lisa: We’re stuck. Limited WiFi. Should I try to get another train to Milan? 

David: I’m confused. Are you stuck or on the train?

Lisa: Yes, we’re on. Someone just checked our tickets so I think that means we’re in the right place. Screen says we’re running 1 hour + 10 minutes behind schedule but seems like we’re going fast now

David: Yes, we’re in Milan. My parents are leaving in 50 minutes. Unbelievably I think if we can catch the 4:20 train, we might make it to Moritz. So don’t leave the platform area. I’ll find you. Then we’ll go to the correct platform. Do you have a projected arrival time?

Lisa: You should make backup plans for missing the 4:20 train. It looks like we stop in Bologna at 14:35, but I haven’t seen an ETA for Milan yet. I do know that we’re currently1 hour and 15 minutes behind schedule, which means that we’re slowly losing time. The train is going really slow right now, for some reason. But yes i will plan now to stay on the platform (we’ll probably walk to the end of our track and look for you there) unless I hear otherwise before we arrive. 

Lisa: It does seem like we may be doing better now. It says 1 hr, 8 minutes late now and we are just pulling into bologna. We’re in coach 7

David: I think you’ll get here in time. It’s not far from Bologna. What car number are you on?

Lisa: It says next stop is Milano Rogoredo. Is that right or are. There more than one Milano stops?

Lisa: Stopped at rogoredo. Should be about 20 minutes from here, I think.

David: I’ll meet you on the platform.

Lisa: We’re on track 13. 

Lisa: Arrived. Where are you? [I was on the wrong track, but we managed to find each other in the crowded terminal with twenty-four tracks to make our next connection anyway—barely]

Transferring from one of our five train trips to a bus, trying to catch up with my parents

Phyllis: Lisa!!!!!!!!! Tell her she is absolutely amazing!!!!!!!!!! She has been so generous about welcoming us on this trip! Tell her we are so sorry about this!

Realizing that we were going to make it!

The experience was far more harrowing than this shows. It was a costly experience that almost turned catastrophically expensive and nearly caused us to miss a long-anticipated train ride through glaciers in the Alps. But we somehow—just barely—figured it out. About six things in a row went right. I reunited with Lisa and the kids in Milan, and then we made four train segments and the last bus ride of the night. My parents met us at the train station at 10:30 p.m.. We walked two kilometers around a beautiful lake shivering (Rome had been 93 degrees when we left, and the temperature in the Swiss mountains was in the 40s), and then fell into bed soon after midnight, very grateful for safety and shelter.

Merging Church and State: Day 3 in Rome

On our third day in Rome, we visited the following sites:

  • Vatican: Having spent eight years in South Bend, Indiana, and having earned two doctoral degrees at the University of Notre Dame, we have come to deeply appreciate the Catholic tradition. So we were delighted to learn that our visit to Rome coincided with one of Pope Francis’s papal audiences that he holds every Wednesday at 10 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square—at least when he’s in town. Even though we’re not Catholic ourselves, it felt like we could legitimately include this as part of our pilgrimage.
  • Milvian Bridge: Our next stop was at Milvian Bridge. The historical context is that Rome had twenty-six rulers in forty-nine years. Most of them met with violent ends. Diocletian introduced the idea of tetrarchy in order to stabilize conditions. He divided the empire into two halves, each governed by a senior emperor and a junior emperor. But rivalries and ambition derailed the system, and Constantine, one of the young aspiring emperors, moved his army of 40,000 Gauls toward Rome from the north to engage the 100,000 soldiers of Maxentius.

Maxentius could have easily outwaited Constantine’s siege. But he misapplied an oracle. Wrote the historian Lactantius. “He ordered the Sibylline books to be inspected; in these it was discovered that ‘on that day the enemy of the Romans would perish.’ Led by this reply to hope for victory, Maxentius marched out to battle.”

Constantine too felt inspired by the divine. According to Lactantius, “Constantine was advised in a dream to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers and then engage in battle. He did as he was commanded and by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round, he marked Christ on their shields. Armed with this sign, the army took up its weapons.” (44.5) He was, he said, wondering to himself what the manifestation might mean; then, while he meditated, and thought long and hard, night overtook him. Thereupon, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign which had appeared in the sky, and to use this a protection against the attacks of the enemy” (1.28).

The historian Eusebius narrated it like this: “About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he [Constantine] said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, ‘By this conquer’. Amazement at the spectacle seized both him and the whole company of soldiers which was then accompanying him on a campaign he was conducting somewhere, and witnessed the miracle.”

Then the battle happened. On October 28, 312 CE, Maxentius’s forces attempted to retreat across the Tiber by way of the Milvian Bridge, but the bridge quickly became overcrowded. As Lactantius records in De Mortibus Persecutorum, or The Deaths of the Persecutors, “the army of Maxentius was seized with terror, and he himself fled in haste to the bridge which had been broken down; pressed by the mass of fugitives, he was hurtled into the Tiber” (44.9 ). According to Eusebius, Constantine then “rode into Rome with songs of victory, and together with women and tiny children, all the members of the Senate and citizens of the highest distinction in other spheres, and the whole populace of Rome, turned out in force and with shining eyes and all their hearts welcomed him as deliverer, savior, and benefactor, singing his praises with insatiate joy.” (HE 294)

Given my own theological orientation, I question whether God enabled Constantine’s military career or victory. But there is no question of this battle’s significance: It merged church and state. Given some things I learned in my research, I’ve softened my critique somewhat. The moderating influence of Christianity, for example, tamped down the excesses and atrocities at the Colosseum. And according to the historian Edward Gibbon, Christianity “instilled “patience and pusillanimity” until the “last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister.” And the Edict of Milan in 313 CE did not mandate Christian faith, as I had thought. Instead, it proclaimed that “Christians and all other men should be allowed full freedom to subscribe to whatever form of worship they desire, so that whatever divinity may be on the heavenly throne may be well disposed and propitious to us, and to all placed under us.”

Nevertheless, the new Christendom, in my opinion, was not a positive development on balance. Many sectors of the Church lost their peace tradition and deemphasized ethics taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The “Constantinian shift,” as I heard it termed in my Anabaptist childhood, was at the least unfortunate—and at most, catastrophic. As a believer in invitational, not coercive, religion—along with the free exercise and establishment clauses in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution—I hold that state and church should be separate. Clergy should not be relieved from paying taxes, as Constantine decreed. Grand basilicas should not be funded by the empire. Christian prayer should not be privileged in schools or at city council meetings. And crosses belong in churches, not on water towers.

Early Church: Day 2 in Rome

On our second day in Rome, we wanted to get a sense of what Paul and Peter and other early Christians saw and experienced as they entered the heart of the Roman Empire. Here are the sites we visited:

  • Appian Way: In the late spring of 58 CE, Paul was at the end of his third missionary journey when he was arrested in Jerusalem’s temple. The governor put him in prison for more than two years. When a new governor was in place, Paul made an appeal, arguing that because he was a Roman citizen, he wanted his case to be heard by Caesar himself. The request was granted, and a centurion boarded him on a ship for Rome. After a shipwreck on the Mediterranean Sea, Paul was brought to Puteoli, a town near Naples about 125 miles from Rome. From there Paul took a road the rest of the way. That road was called the Appian Way.

The Appian Way was about 400 years old by that point, and it had become part of a much larger network of roads that helped create the economic and military might of the empire. It’s hard to believe now (especially after having just taken a one-hour train from Naples to Rome), but it was an engineering marvel. Well over 100 miles long and paved with huge stones made of basalt and a standard width of 14 Roman feet, it was wide enough to allow two carriages to pass each other in opposite directions. There were rest stations every ten miles. Impressive for its time.

For our family, it was a beautiful walk and fun to imagine Paul on the same stretch. Although I’m sure he had less fun than we did with a centurion by his side and probably anxious about his reception in Rome. But as he approached, probably near the same stretch we walked, he was cheered by Roman Christians who heard he was coming. They accompanied him all the way to Rome (Acts 28:11-16).

A pilgrim stopping for refreshment
  • Carcere Mamertino (Mamertine Prison): Where Peter and Paul were imprisoned. In an attempt to shift the blame from himself for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, Emperor Nero began executing Christians. Paul himself became one of the targets of persecution. He was arrested and placed in Mamertine Prison. According to legend, he was joined there by Peter, who miraculously made water appear and converted many prisoners in the dungeon. After two years, Paul was released and traveled to Spain, where he wrote two more epistles. But then he was imprisoned again in the Mamertine, this time for the last time. Before he died, he wrote to Timothy: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:6–7).”

As we descended to the dungeon, I was most struck by the depressing conditions. It was deep below ground and dark and dank and damp. I was also struck by the location, just meters away from the Roman Forum, the center of imperial politics. Paul and Peter were incredibly bold, proclaiming the Jesus was lord, not Nero.

  • Tomb of St. Paul: Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit Acquae Salviae, where St. Paul was beheaded upon orders of Emperor Nero. Legend says that his head bounced to the ground three times, miraculously causing three streams of water to spring up. In premodern times Christian pilgrims collected water from these three springs believing that they held miraculous qualities.

At any rate, Paul was buried in a Roman necropolis on Ostiense Way inside the family tomb of a devotee named Lucilla. This was unusual for a Christian, but it was probably possible because he was a Roman citizen. Eventually, the magnificent Saint Paul Outside the Walls Basilica was built on the location to honor Paul.

The magnificent Saint Paul Outside the Walls Basilica was built on this location to celebrate the Saint. In 2016 the sarcophagus that may be holding his remains was uncovered below the main altar. Vatican archeologist Giorgio Filippi found a marble tombstone dating back to 390 CE bearing the inscription “Paulo Apostolo Mart.” (“Apostle Paul, Martyr.”)

To see it, we descended a spiral staircase at the altar. Displayed above were chains that allegedly had bound Paul in the Mamertine Prison. The space and moment really moved me.

  • Catacombs of St. Callixtus: Finally, we visited some catacombs located on the Appian Way. Like the many others scattered outside the Roman walls, followers of Jesus prayed and worshipped here during periods of persecution. But mostly they buried their dead. A guide with a flashlight led us through the tunnels, pointing out inscriptions left nearly 2,000 years ago. We got to see the burial niches of several popes.

Our itinerary on this day took us to sites less often visited by tourists. It showed us how this small cult of Christians, who bridged the Ancient Near East context of Judaism with the Western world, objected to the emperor worship we learned about the day before. Caesar Augustus, the emperor when Jesus was born, was hailed as divine by nearly the entire Mediterranean world—except for Jews and Christians. That Christians continued to deny imperial divinity made Nero—and then Domitian—angry, and he blamed the terrible Roman fire of 64 CE on the Christians. It’s likely, says Nelson Kraybill, that Peter and Paul both died in Nero’s bloodbath.

Just a couple of years later, the Apostle John fought back with visions and words. In the Book of Revelation, he lampooned the emperor. Stranded on the tiny island of Patmos, John dismissed Rome as a harlot and its empire as a beast. It was the opposite of what true worship should look like. John wrote, “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’”

Anyone familiar with court ceremonies of the Roman emperors would recognize the subversive subtext here. John is calling Jesus “Lord,” using the exact title that emperors claimed. He’s using political language to call for an alternative allegiance.

In Revelation 13, John is not just for Jesus, he’s against empire. He sees beasts, seven of them. The first beast represents empire, says Kraybill, and the second embodies the institutions of emperor worship. John contemptuously refers to Rome as Babylon. In Revelation 18, John blasts the waste and debauchery of Babylon/Rome. He is likely thinking of Rome’s massive, debaucherous building projects.

For his sedition, scholars think that John was probably imprisoned in 95 CE on the island of Patmos. He is there, he wrote in the first verses of the Book of Revelation, “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

The Roman Empire, of course, ended up falling. But there are strongmen always trying to build empire. In 1938, many years after the so-called Altar of Peace had been constructed by the Roman Senate in 9 BCE to celebrate the return of Caesar Augustus to Rome after successful military campaigns in Gaul and Spain, Benito Mussolini used the ancient monument to garnish his own imperial pretense. The Altar of Peace had fallen apart, but the fascist dictator hired archaeologists put the pieces back together so that it could once again exude the propaganda of empire. There are scenes from founding of Rome that are pastoral and peaceable, but on the same side is the goddess Roma, who embodies the military power of the Roman Empire.

With sword in hand, she proudly sits on a pile of armaments. In some other representations, Roma’s breast is exposed. This, says Kraybill, exposes a truth about empire: the Pax Romana (Roman peace) is seductive, but it was really was pacification, compliance enforced by threat of arms. The many provinces that experienced Pax Romana would have testified to Rome’s brutality. Tellingly, the original location of the Altar of Peace was at the Field of Mars, where the army conducted exercises at the edge of Rome.

At this point in Christian history, the Church and empire are diametrically opposed. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll explore how that changed.

Empire: Day 1 in Rome

During our first day in Rome, we visited the following sites:

  • Lupa Capitolina: A bronze sculpture depicting the founding of Rome. A she-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders. We were already familiar with this sculpture, having seen a replica in Eden Park in Cincinnati, a sister city to Rome. In 1929 Mussolini, fancying himself as a new Caesar, sent it to the United States to promote his fascist regime. But it was good to see a replica in Rome itself.
  • Colosseum: Built by the Flavian emperors after the disastrous Emperor Nero, this spectacular structure hosted gladiator fights, executions of prisoners, and big game hunts. The emperor Titus inaugurated the Colosseum with 100 days of games, which took the life of more than 2,000 gladiators. It was a gift to the Roman people. Entry was free, and food was given gratis to the 50,000 Romans who attended each event. It is thought that many early Christians died in the arena.
  • Palatine Hill: The imperial palaces were built on this hill, one of the famous seven hills of Rome. A beautiful and quiet site now filled with beautiful gardens. This is where the emperors lived in luxury. In 2006, archaeologists announced the discovery of the Palatine House, believed to be the birthplace of Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus.
  • Forum: The center of everyday life in Rome, the Forum is where public debate, criminal trials, commerce, and processions took place.

In short, we discovered that Rome was unimaginably strong, wealthy, and depraved.

In his terrific book Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation, scholar Nelson Kraybill tells the story of Tiridates making the long trek in 66 CE from Armenia to Rome. It took nine months, and he came with an entourage of 3,000 Parthian horsemen. Wanting to make an alliance in an effort to be protected from Parthia (now Iran), he came to become a client state of Rome. Nero spent 300,000 sesterces out of an annual imperial budge of 800,000 to host Tiridates. Rome was decorated with torches and garlands. Thousands of spectators, dressed in white and carrying laurel branches, pressed into the forum before dawn.

As the sun rose, Nero, wearing purple, entered with the Senate and Praetorian Guard. He ascended a platform and sat on the throne. As Tiridates approached, he knelt before Nero and clasped his hands over his breast. The throngs thundered so loudly that Tiridates momentarily feared for his life. When they fell silent, Tiridates said, “Master I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings of Vologeses and Pacorus, and your slave. I have come to you, my god, worshiping you as I do [the sun god] Mithra. The destiny you spin for me shall be mine, for you are my Fortune and my Fate.”

Nero replied, “You have done well to come here in person, that meeting me face-to-face you might enjoy my grace. For what neither your father left you nor your brothers gave and preserved for you, this do I grant you. King of Armenia I now declare you, that both you and they may understand that I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them.”

With that, Nero invited Tiridates to the platform. The Armenian sat at Nero’s feet, and the emperor placed a diadem on his head.”

Nero was lord.


For much more, check out Nelson Kraybill’s Apocalypse and Allegiance and Mary Beard’s SPQR.

Pilgrims on the Path of the Gods

Once you start paying attention, there are signs of pilgrimage everywhere. On a recent hike on the “Path of the Gods” trail just south of Naples, Italy, we encountered so many.

There were remnants of polytheism. The heads of Roman gods lined the trail from Praiano to the top ridge.

There were shrines to Mary and various Catholic saints. At one cave, candles were lit around Christian symbols in a way that overwhelmed pagan iconography in a kind of spiritual warfare.

Indeed, in a famous hole in a mountain we hiked nearby at Montepertuso, legend has it that the birth of the hole was the work of the Virgin Mary during a clash with the devil, who to demonstrate his strength tried to crumble the mountain but without success. The compassionate Madonna showed him her power by succeeding in the enterprise in which the demon had failed, simply by touching the mountain with her hand. The defeated devil fell down from the mountain falling on the rocks below, where still today, according to the faithful, his footprint imprinted in the stone is visible.

As if to confirm Christianity’s superiority, we soon happened upon a convent. Inside we saw frescoes painted in the sixth century. Pilgrims had signed their names in the guest book.

Convent of San Domenico

Near the end, we found a cache of cairn in a dense forest. Usually used to point the correct way on unmarked trails, these stone piles clearly were not meant for navigation. This enormous field of hundreds—maybe even thousands—of stone piles had some more profound significance that reminded me of Iceland. In the Westfjords (the most remote of the five regions in the country), I saw more rock piles than people (about 7,000).

These piles had not been built by Christian or pagan pilgrims. Most of them, I would guess, were constructed by secular people who don’t often attend church services. Our fellow hikers, along with many bloggers, seem deeply inspired by the cairns. They speak of good luck and challenge. As a recent CNN travel article noted, “Pilgrimages aren’t only for the religious. They can be fun and inspiring, challenging yet rewarding and don’t necessarily involve prayer.”

Italy, like many other Western nations, faces declining church attendance. And yet . . . it is hard to find an atheist. Its citizens continue to view the church as an important institution. In Italy the state subsidizes the Catholic church. In Iceland the state does the same; all taxpayers over the age of sixteen pay a church tax called the sóknargjald. The constructs of secularism and the supernatural, as it turns out, are much more complex than we usually think. Everyone is on a search for meaning.

We remembered this hike for days after because of the brutal effects of climbing 1,900 steps at the start of this seven-kilometer route. But we’ll remember it for decades after because of the fascinating relics and people we encountered.

Other pilgrimages this summer

The other two great monotheistic religions, which all descend from the patriarch Abraham, also practice pilgrimage.

Muslims go on hajj at least once in their lifetimes. This year’s pilgrimage begins in Mecca on the evening of July 7 and ends on the evening of July 14.

An example of a Jewish pilgrimage is the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to Mount Meron. Here’s a fascinating article I read this evening about what took place on May 18:

Vico Equense

We’ve made it to Vico Equense from Venice on a six-hour train ride via Rome and Naples.

We were only in the train station in Naples, but I think I agree with Detective Brunetti, the fictional Venetian police officer: “For a moment, he wished himself back in Naples, where he’d spent those awful years dealing with people who ignored the subtlety of words and responded to kicks and blows” (“Death at La Fenice”). We made it out of the station without any bruises–and more importantly, with our wallets.

The views of the ocean and Mt. Vesuvius are stunning here. We can see it all from the rooftop of our Airbnb.

Benjamin and David playing chess with a view

And here’s a time-lapse sunset from the rooftop with Vesuvius in the distance. Courtesy of Jonathan Weaver Swartz.

Pilgrimage and empire

All fun and no study makes Jack a dull boy. So while our visit to Venice is mostly about tourism, I’m learning some interesting things along the way that relate to the trip’s purpose. Mostly that this place played a central role in facilitating pilgrimage in the medieval world.

When journeys to the Holy Land were taken overland, Venice wasn’t much of a waypoint. But the Crusades and the overrunning of the Byzantine empire by Seljuk Turks effectively closed land routes. Over time, the preferred route became the sea. And there was no more dominant maritime power than the Venetian Republic. They controlled the seas through a chain of ports and an extensive fleet of mercantile galleys. Venice was well placed to exploit the pilgrim traffic from western Europe to the Holy Land. The government basically ran a travel agency service. In fact, if pilgrims had complaints about a voyage, they could register them with authorities upon their return to Venice.

Part of a larger political and economic empire. Center of commerce for silk, grain, and art from 13th to the 17th centuries. Became the printing capital of the world. The city-state of Venice is considered the first real international financial center, emerging in the ninth century and reading its greatest prominence in the fourteenth century.

One of the most famous pilgrims who went through Venice included St. Francis of Assisi. Along with a band of missionaries, he landed at Acre in 1219, visited the Holy Places, and entered a Saracen (Muslim) camp. Possibly because no one understood what he was saying, St. Francis managed to preach a sermon criticizing the Koran without giving any offence.

The pilgrim traffic wasn’t a complete windfall. Venice had to deal with lots of pirates and sometimes navigate war with the Ottoman empire. But the Venetians did get quite wealthy off of this trade. Sometimes wealthy pilgrims were detained by Venetian authorities for special taxes. Writes John Ure, “Clearly to Venetian officials, pilgrims to the Holy Land were a useful source of revenue rather than a category of visitor to be treated with any special consideration.”

Empire is simultaneously easing the way for modern-day pilgrims and profiting off of them too. Our U.S. passports get us pretty much anywhere we want to go. Is it because Europeans care about cosmopolitan multiculturalism and want to sing “kum-ba-ya” with us? Perhaps. We’ve encountered a lot of really friendly people already. I was touched, as we walked this morning through Venice’s Jewish Ghetto (Did you know that the word ghetto originally came from Venice; also it was where Shylock, the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice lived), where Jews for many centuries were not allowed to leave after sunset and where Jews during WWII were rounded up and sent to extermination camps, to see long lines of Italian schoolkids learning about their past. It was poignant to observe two schoolmates—one Middle Eastern boy with a turban on his head and one very Italian-looking girl—walking side by side and hand in hand through the ghetto. It was a hopeful vision of loosening cultural and geographic boundaries.

I found this taped to a storefront in the Jewish Quarter

But let’s be honest, we’re also bringing in dollars to the European Union, Italy, and, yes, Venice. We’re happy to do so. Venice is less of an empire now, and the New York Times has called it “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” We agree—it’s a captivating place.

An empire powered by water
A boy powered by water
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