Novena to St Benedict Day 2 (March 13): St Benedict of Rome

So picking up from the first part of this series, throughout the early Middle Ages, St Benedict was generally viewed as Roman abbot, probably as a result of St Gregory the Great's efforts.  St Gregory relates that though St Benedict was born in Norcia, he studied in Rome (the house he may have lived in, which was owned by his parents, is pictured above).  St Gregory says that he was:

"...brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. But for as much as he saw many by reason of such learning to fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance therewith, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf: wherefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father's house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose: and in this sort he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom."

The collapse of Rome

Rome in St Benedict's time was in a sorry state.  At the height of the Empire, its population had been over a million people.  By 450 AD that had been reduced to 500,000.  By 500 AD epidemics, floods and war had reduced this to around 100,000.

It was also a time of great political tensions: in 493, when Benedict was thirteen, the Arian Ostrogoth Theodoric conquered Italy.

The old system of classical education was still in place, as the work of Boethius, born the same year as Benedict, 480, attests.  But it was in the process of collapse in the face of the inability of cities to pay for the system of tutors it required, and the continuing tension between the classical tradition of training in rhetoric on the one hand; and the Christian claim to be a philosophy in its own right, with its focus on the study of Scripture and the Fathers on the other. 

The tension is illustrated in the approaches of Benedict's two contemporaries Boethius and Cassiodorus: Boethius worked to preserve the study of Greek, attempting a synthesis of the Graeco-Roman heritage and Christianity, but ending up imprisoned for his efforts on suspicion of collusion with the Eastern Empire; Cassiodorus (b circa 485) on the other hand, though not rejecting altogether the use of classical works, saw the Fathers as the Christian answer to the classical oeuvre, and tried (unsuccessfully) to found a Christian University in Rome to preserve Christianized versions of the classical tools of grammar for the purpose of the study of Scripture. 

St Gregory's description of St Benedict's 'unlearned wisdom', which does not mean unlearned in modern terms, but rather not fully trained in the classical curriculum, suggests that he was in the Scripture as philosophy camp.  And there were good reasons for this given the association of the classics with a lingering attachment to paganism.

Paganism and immorality

Historian Peter Brown argues that the old Senatorial aristocracy maintained Rome as a kind of theme park celebrating its pre-Christian glory. 

In 495, for example, the pope was horrified when, despite his repeated warnings, a group of (nominally Christian) Roman senators insisted on organising the annual pagan lupercalia ceremonies to 'cleanse' the city and appease the pagan gods after a string of natural disasters. 

Was it the debate over this, and perhaps pressure to join the gang of well-born supposedly Christian youths ("the young wolves"), who ran naked through the streets of Rome, that made St Benedict flee? 

Whether it was that year or later that the saint fled, the incident certainly illustrates the immorality and tensions that might have contributed to St Benedict's need to flee the city in order to save his soul.

You can find the novena prayer to St Benedict here.

And you can read the next part of this series on the Life of St Benedict as told by St Gregory the Great here.


lmroces said...

Hi Kate,

The house of St. Benedict's parents is in Norcia, or Rome?

Thanks! Happy feast for tomorrow.

Sr. Lucy.

Kate said...


St Benedict was born in Norcia, where his father was probably a civil magistrate, whose house was located next to the current church (the town of St Benedict's time is a a layer or two below the current level of the village there, so his birthplace is thought to be the crypt of the current church).

But as many well-to-do families did, they are also thought to have had a Roman townhouse, where St Benedict was established with a household to look after him while he studied, and that is the building pictured here in this post.