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June 2004: Cooney's St. George
St. George: Knight of Lydda is Anthony Cooney's new historical novel based on the real St. Giorgios, martyred in 303. The dragon he defeated was the Roman emperor, when he refused to burn incense to him and his martyrdom rallied the people. The book can be ordered from www.familypublications.co.uk, or write to Family Publications, 6a King St., Oxford OX2 6DF, United Kingdom. It lists at 12.95 pounds.
Cavalryman Anastasius and his household are returning home to Lydda in Galilee from Cappadocia where he has been governor, when his wife, Kira, goes into labor. Luckily, they find a mysterious inn that is not on the tax maps, and Giorgios is born there. Even as a baby Giorgios is known for a way he has of furrowing his brow in a frown of concentration. It turns out there is a whole secret settlement here, veterans of the IX Hispana legion that was stood down for corruption and settled here secretly by the Tribune Galerius, in striking distance of Antioch. The patron is an old soldier of the IX Hispana named Rufio.
We see the intimate domestic life of this Christian household. Lighthearted Kira is not worried what the bishop will think of her going to a soothsayer because "he is a friend of my father and besides which he depends upon our family for his villa." Her father is the Count of Lydda, a Greek Syrian shaikh, "a river to his people." Would-be gruff Nanny promises to throw Kira's impudent maid Claudia off "at the next stop." Thoughtful, practical Anastasius is fascinated to observe how the Huns handle their horses. Anastasius' Samaritan secretary the bookworm Mansour (in whom one recognizes the author) is vexed by incompetent mapmakers; he is also, we learn, part of a Samaritan secret intelligence network.
Throughout the novel we see the Christians as a modern and progressive element in society. They dislike blood sports, they like emancipating slaves, they like love-marriages, they are as happy to have a girl baby as a boy, and they like the Saturnalia with its class role-reversals.
Anastasius and Mansour observe that the Pax Romana is disintegrating: "The blond giants with the cold eyes are massing beyond the great rivers, the horsemen gather in the east, and men like Galerius rob the taxes and prosper. . . . Bribes cannot save the Empire; only a new spirit, a new faith, can do that." "And from where, Mansour, shall we get that?" "From one who will make the kingly sacrifice for the life of the People." "You are a gloomy fellow."
They arrive at Antioch, where Claudia is formally emancipated and married to Mansour. "And Mansour, the dry scholar whose passion had been learning, and the things of the intellect, was flooded with a new tenderness and knew a new truth."
The eastern empire is conquered by Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. Lydda perforce submits, and Anastasius notes an ominous shout from the crowd, "Better the barbarian than the tax gatherer." Roman forces under the new emperor, Aurelius, force Zenobia to retreat. The first thing Dionysius and Anastasius do is subscribe personal funds to replenish the despoiled treasury and compel other leading citizens to do likewise.
Anastasius accompanies Diocletian to the desert, where Zenobia is defeated. Aurelius treats the city well. His policy is too "woo, not coerce." Anastasius goes home for the winter. But Zenobia revolts again, sealing her city's fate. Fortunately, Anastasius is not called. In words his son will always remember, he says, "I would have refused an order to join the army at Palmyra. . . . I am a soldier, not a butcher. . . . We all know that one day we must choose between God's law and Caesar's."
The following spring, Anastasius is with the Gallic campaign, which is won without bloodshed. At Rome for the Triumph, Anastasius is offered a career-making opportunity to stay, but he longs only for home and tactfully withdraws: "There was something diseased in the city and in the Roman soul which only the Faith could cure."
Galerius knows that Dionysius (who has since died) helped Samaritans escape to Persia with their gold. He uses this knowledge to set up Mansour and have him murdered outside the Golden Ass. Gold on his person is supposed to implicate Anastasius, but Mansour had the presence of mind to jettison it. In a moving passage, Anastasius assures Claudia as to the future of herself and her sons. She replies: "I do not understand your Christian God. He chastises the just and lets the wicked prosper; but if my sons are to be your sons, let them learn about him. Perhaps they will understand."
Anastasius is determined to track down Mansour's killer, but Diocletian orders him to drop it. But when Anastasius spies the keeper of the Golden Ass at Caesarea, where the caravans depart for Persia, he follows him. Thus led, he is lured to a spot where he himself is murdered by Galerius' man Rufio and two confederates.
With the death of his father, thirteen-year-old Giorgios is the dominus, and he notices with pain a new social barrier between himself and his childhood playmates: "Suddenly the days of childhood were gone. . . . Giorgios, bereaved of his father and of Mansour, was now bereaved of comradeship, suffering the pangs of desolation, the past locked against him, the present miserable and the future unknowable."
After the assassination of Aurelius and several years of civil war, Diocletian is emperor, naming Maximian his heir in the West.
The new governor, Justus, a Christian, brings in a Hebrew teacher, Raphael ben-Ezra, who conducts classes in the Residency; and Giorgios is soon in love with Justus' daughter, Justina.
Giorgios wants to be a soldier like his father, but Justina objects that soldiers kill people. This sends him to the bishop, Theodore, who says that the "enemy" to whom the scriptures enjoin him to do good is in Latin inimicus, the personal enemy. The hostis, or public enemy, it is the soldier's job to oppose and, if necessary, harm but without any personal hatred. Giorgios is so happy he runs back to Justina and says he's going to marry her!
The connection between Mansour and Anastasius' murder is revealed when Claudia discovers the letter telling Mansour to keep a rendezvous at the Golden Ass. Giorgios says, "He laid down his life for his friends." These words, making of Mansour's death a sacrifice, rather than a meaningless waste, affect Claudia instantly and profoundly. She says: "I told your father I did not understand your Christ. Now I do. Take me to Abba Theodore so that I may become a Christian."
Giorgios and Justina wait impatiently for weeks while a betrothal is discussed and negotiated by the two families.
At length, early one morning, a slave arrived with a peremptory message that the Governor wished to see him at the Residency, right away. Giorgios' heart sank; such a message, and such a manner of delivering it, could only mean that Justus had refused to allow the betrothal. . . . He set off in trepidation, walking along the path to Claudia's cottage until he came to the wicket gate and the short cut to the Residency. He hesitated; but then, with a silent prayer, opened the gate. Before him was the gentle slope of goat-cropped pasture, dotted with Rose of Sharon shrubs in bloom and wet with the morning dew. . . . He looked up the slope to the hedge which marked its crest. A girl was standing there among the golden blooms. She waved and laughed and began to run down the hill."
Christians celebrate Christ's birth at the time of the Saturnalia, when masters and servants reverse roles. This Christmas is the happiest of Giorgios' life as Justina joins him "in waiting upon the slaves, pouring their wine and serving their food with a cheerful grace and humility which brought tears of joy to the eyes of the old gray-haired retainers and their wives." She gives him for his Christmas present a white Arab filly whom he names Assjadah, Daughter of the Morning.
In the new year, Giorgios enters the military academy at Nicomedia. A year later, he is on the training staff and makes friends with a new cadet, Constantine, son of Constantius Chlorus, Maximian's Chief of Staff. Constantine's natural charisma and sensitivity on the subject of his mother (put away by Constantius for a political marriage) quickly become evident.
Britannia revolts against Rome under Carausius, who has proclaimed himself an emperor and seized the northern fleet, the beginning of a nine-year secession. Carausius is half Saxon, and his Saxon pilots are superb. Maximian's rash invasion in disregard of Constantius' advice is a total loss.
Giorgios comes home from school only to be crushed by tragedy. His beloved Justina is no more, dead of the fever. The cadets were in the field, and letters from home never caught up with him. He is nineteen.
Grieving, he visits his estate in Cappadocia to find that the factors have abused their position and failed to carry out the emancipation his father had ordered. Giorgios throws himself into a little distributist social experiment, not only emancipating the slaves but dividing up the land and giving each a smallholding. He is quite the opposite of the tax gatherer. Rather than taxing his people, he is a river to his people. So fierce is the energy he brings to the task that the people look on him as some sort of god. We see the cultus of St. George beginning to emerge.
Passing the same way that Anastasius had nineteen years before, Giorgios comes to the inn where he was born. When he walks in on Rufio, the latter, haunted by guilt for six years, takes Giorgios to be his father's ghost, confesses the murder, and dies of a stroke. Giorgios, remembering that Rufio is an inimicus, puts hate aside and buries his father's killer.
News comes that Constantius in the West and Galerius in the East are to be named Caesar and so put in line for the succession. Hearing Galerius named, Kira exclaims, "He will murder us!"
Constantius retakes Britannia, and Giorgios is promoted to count and sent to accept the reconciliation of four garrisons who had taken the path of least resistance by collaborating with the secessionist regime. He travels up the coast with a Briton pilot, Geraint. Giorgios feels a strange attraction for Britannia. It is the most beautiful land he has ever seen, and he is fascinated by its people and their ways. He learns from Geraint that the romanized people are called the Britanni, but the people who keep the old ways are called the Britons; and that among the latter the land of a childless man is divided among many kin. Geraint says: "There will be no trouble between us [and them] while the legions keep the peace. . . . But if the barbarian should sweep the land, we are the stronger, for every man has land to fight for. Who among the Britanni will fight for a brother's inheritance when he is excluded?" This is in line with Giorgios' own distributist instincts. Giorgios successfully completes his mission. He meets Constantius at Eboriacum (York), who sends him back east.
Egypt revolts. Giorgios as Tribunus Militum participates in the siege of Alexandria. By compelling a siege, Alexandria is condemned by law to be destroyed; but Alexandria is a greater city than even Rome herself. Finding superstitious Diocletian under the influence of a prophesy that the blood of the city must touch the knees of his horse, Giorgios takes advantage of an accident to declare the prophesy fulfilled and avert further slaughter, becoming the Savior of Alexandria.
On the Persian front, the Queen of Persia is captured. To thank Giorgios for her good treatment, she gives him a large ruby. At Rome for the Triumph, Giorgios has audience with Diocletian, who humors Giorgios' declining the new custom of prostration. Diocletian entrusts him with a secret scroll to put personally in the hands of Constantius. Although Giorgios reads it, only at the end of the novel do we learn the contents of the scrolla rescinding of the edict that sons may not succeed their fathers to the purple, thus opening the way for Constantine.
Under cover of a shopping trip, the Empress takes Giorgios to St. Peter's tomb: "His faith had grown in the hard ground of reason. . . . Now standing before the tomb of Peter, he experienced emotion. . . . The Empress of Rome, humble before his tomb, was a Christian."
Giorgios catches up with Constantius at Londinum and delivers himself of the scroll. Constantius keeps him on to avert suspicion about the purpose of his journey, and he ends up staying two years. He sees many signs of prosperity from Constantius' able governance and is again feels a strange attraction to this land. He loves their Christianity and the joyous spirit in which they celebrate Christmas in Eboriacum: "The church was garlanded with holly and ivy and ablaze with candles." "I wish that I could stay in Britannia forever!" he exclaims.
Giorgios is then called back east. Saying farewell to the land he has come to love, at Britannia's oldest church he pledges his most precious possession, his grandfather's sword (reputed St. Peter's) in whose hilt he has set the Queen of Persia's ruby.
Galerius, who is now acting as spokesman for the ailing Diocletian, sends Giorgios home, which Giorgios doesn't mind a bit, being quite happy to be "a country squire, shaikh of his clan, and a river to his people."
Unbeknownst to anyone, a carpenter with a grudge only half-repairs the floor under the emperor's bust in the audience hall of the palatium in Lydda.
In the year 303, there comes to pass the thing Kira had most dreaded. Galerius drums up paranoia against the Christians and uses this as pretext to outlaw the sect. Priests are arrested, churches razed, books burnt, Christians stripped of citizenship (making their estates vulnerable). The terrified Christians of Lydda sprinkle their pinches of incense and get their certificates, releasing them from the teeth of the law. Giorgios prays and recognizes his moment of truth. He must go see Diocletian and bear witness to his faith, even unto death. The reason for Justina's death is now revealed to him: it was to leave him free for this martyrdom.
Giorgios goes to Nicomedia with three members of his household, to one of whom he entrusts his sword to take to Britannia. The only way to see Diocletian is to court arrest. He bears witness to his faith before Galerius, but they see through the plan and send him on his way. A new anti-Christian edict has just been posted. Giorgios takes the opportunity to tear it up in front of a police decurion and is promptly arrested.
He is brought before Galerius, but his appeal to Diocletian is refused. Galerius realizes that the world is watching, and that he needs to get Giorgios to sacrifice. He tempts him even with the promise of being emperor, but Giorgios refuses. He tries torture. He offers to stage a sacrifice in which Giorgios would not really have to do it, but Giorgios, remembering the biblical story of Eleazar and the swine's flesh that his Grananna once told him, refuses. Galerius sends a Neoplatonic philosopher to convert Giorgios, but Giorgios converts him. Between bouts of torture, Giorgios is lovingly cared for by his old standard-bearer from the Persian front, Scipio, who has cleverly gained access to the prisoner. Scipio feeds him broth for strength and opium for the pain and applies salves to his wounds and bathes his bleeding feet.
Giorgios' resistance is bearing fruit as Christians begin to recant their sacrifices. Galerius decides his only recourse is to drug Giorgios and fake a sacrifice, but in answer to Giorgios' prayer, at the critical moment, the floor left weak by the carpenter's grudge gives way and the bust goes crashing to the floor.
After twelve days in prison, Giorgios is condemned to death by beheading. In a tender moment, loyal Scipio gives voice to his new faith and receives baptism. Giorgios is confessed by Eusebius, who "was to say later that it was the confession of a child." Opening his eyes as the axe descends, Giorgios sees not the scene before him but Justina running down the hill and reciting the marriage vow. It is April 23, St. George's Day. His "seconds" bury him and mark the grave with the Greek monogram chi rho (Chr).
Diocletian abdicates, leaving Constantius emperor in the West, Galerius in the East. Constantine's life is in danger from Galerius. He escapes by night and makes his famous ride "from the Euphrates to the Tyne" to join his father and mother in Britannia. Constantius is mortally wounded and, in the presence of his wife and son, receives baptism. Next morning Diocletian's secret scroll is opened and read. Constantius dies, and Constantine is emperor.
Giorgios' family exhumes Giorgios' body and finds it is incorrupt. Saint-worshipping crowds follow its progress as it is brought back to Lydda for burial next to Justina.
Constantine's last rival, Aurelius Maxentius, is preparing to invade Gaul, and Constantine has amassed all his forces at the spot where he guesses the invasion will be; but he may be wrong. His doubts are not cleared till he sees ahead of him a horseman in white and the letters chi rho. As the figure turns, he recognizes his best friend.
The first half of the novel takes us down only to Giorgios' sixteenth year. Why? He has just become betrothed, and fortune seems to smile on him. But it dawns on us that this teenager's life is half over. Like Christ, he dies in his thirty-third year.
Giorgios' life is defined by grief. He loses everything not once but twice. At age thirteen he loses both his father and his beloved tutor by cruel murder. At age nineteen, he loses his fiancée. It is immediately after this that he first throws himself into what we might call his "social work" (in Cappadocia) and begins to inspire people with his godlike goodness and energy. Out of the womb of grief is born the hero and the saint.
In his nonfiction book, The Story of St. George, Cooney summarizes George's significance:
His example saved the Church. Those who were wavering became resolute and the persecution failed. Within a few years of George's martyrdom, Galerius and Diocletian were dead, Constantine was Emperor, the indefatigable St. Helen was building the churches on the Mount of Olives and in Bethlehem (and finding, many believe, the true cross), Christianity was the official religion of the Empire and persecution ceased. . . . Through the merits of his martyrdom the Dragon was bound by the Church's girdle and led, meekly as a lamb, into the service of Christ. (pp. 32, 58)
The writing in the novel is superb, especially in the early chapters, each of which seems to end with a memorable sentence that brings the characters at once down to the intimate and human. A wonderful little set-piece is the description of Antioch.
My only real disappointment with the novel is the anticlimactic farewell between Giorgios and his mother. Maybe we are supposed to think their feelings are too deep to express. But we care too much about Kira, who has been with us from page one, and it doesn't seem a time for mutual reticence.
Even from childhood, we see little Giorgios with his characteristic frown questioning everything, a habit his tutors encourage. He is brilliant in argument as we see him use Neoplatonism to convert the Neoplatonist in his last days. However, after the tragedies of his youth, the seed of something new begins to grow in him, a deep longing for God. It is nourished by the sight of the very Empress of Rome as a humble child of God at the tomb of St. Peter. It is nourished by his love affair with the land of Britannia. And it is this growing love that carries him through to the end and enables him to bear up under torture and inspire others as he meets his moment of truth.