Zeno and Gallienus
Two Gentlemen of Verona

Mark Humphries[1]

University of St. Andrews

There are few cities other than Verona where it is so easy to imagine the vibrancy of life in the Roman colonies of Cisalpine Gaul. With its impressive monuments it outshines all other cities in the Veneto in terms of interest for the Roman historian. Indeed, it seems that the Veronese have long been proud of their Roman heritage. In 1798 they rose in revolt against the occupying forces of Bonaparte's army. The insurrection was ruthlessly suppressed, and the remaining period of Napoleon's domination proved to be an unhappy one for Verona. In 1805 the French troops tore down one of the city's best loved monuments, the Arch of the Gavii (dating from around 24 B.C.), but the local citizens carefully gathered the dismembered pieces and stored them in the vault of the amphitheatre. Here they remained for over a century until they were reassembled at their present riverside location during the upsurge of interest in the Roman past which accompanied Mussolini's régime.[2]

The amphitheatre itself is a lasting testimony to the interest the Veronese maintained in their ancient heritage. Commonly known simply as the Arena, it is host to an annual opera festival, where the use of real elephants in productions of Verdi's Aida evokes the wild beast shows that would have taken place there in antiquity. But the fascination with the building is much older. In the fifteenth century the municipal government slapped a preservation order on the Arena, thus saving it from use as a quarry for building material, a fate which proved so destructive to many other ancient monuments. This interest was not merely altruistic: the Arena seems have continued to play a quasi-ceremonial role in the life of Verona as the site of public executions.[3] Less spectacular, but no less important for the preservation of the Roman atmosphere of the city, was the strictness with which successive medieval administrations of Verona governed new building in the city, ensuring that it stayed within the boundaries of the Augustan street grid laid out in about 24 B.C.[4]

Here I want to examine one particular aspect of this continuity between the pagan Roman past and the Christian middle ages at Verona. It has long been noted that in northern Italy generally, the period around the time of the Carolingian conquest in the late eighth century saw a revival of interest in the Roman past.[5] Another widely acknowledged phenomenon is that in the Po valley, unlike in other parts of what had been the western Roman empire, the institutions of urban life introduced by the Romans proved remarkably tenacious: cities like Turin, Aosta, Brescia, Pavia and Bologna, as well as Verona, maintained their ancient street grids throughout the medieval period, a fate which eluded Rome itself. In such a context, I believe, as Bryan Ward-Perkins has suggested, `that in towns like Verona...dominated as they were by antique buildings, an interest in these in both the popular and scholarly imagination can never have died entirely.'[6]

I will demonstrate this by examining a largely ignored Latin text: the Life of Zeno (Vita Zenonis), a hagiography dealing with the most illustrious of Verona's early bishops, written at the end of the eighth century by one Coronatus, a secretary of the city's church.[7] It is impossible to be precise as to when the historical Zeno lived, since he never participated in any dated event, such as an ecclesiastical council, which would allow us to put a chronological fix on his episcopate. We can, however, slot him into general historical context. In the catalogues enumerating the bishops of Verona he appears as the second successor of bishop Lucius who attended the ecclesiastical council at Serdica in 343. Some decades later, in about 380, Ambrose of Milan wrote a letter to Syagrius, whom the episcopal catalogues of Verona list as Zeno's successor, referring to `Zeno of blessed memory' (Letter 5.1). Thus Zeno seems to belong to the third quarter of the fourth century, a time when north-Italian Christians were still a minority, but even so were sharply divided by the so-called `Arian' dispute over the nature of Christ's relationship to God. This hypothesis is confirmed by an examination of Zeno's voluminous writings. Here we find a bishop concerned about the purity of his small congregation in the face of their constant contacts with Jews, pagans and, worst of all, heretics.[8]

Bearing this context in mind, we can only be surprised when we turn to the early-medieval hagiographical traditions surrounding Zeno which were gathered together in Coronatus' biography. The Life presents the popular version of Zeno's life which found monumental form in the twelfth century in a series of sculptures along the architrave above the main portal of San Zeno Maggiore, the most important church at Verona dedicated to his memory.[9] Coronatus' narrative begins with Zeno in his monastery, which he shortly leaves to go on a fishing trip, during which he prevents the Devil from drowning the driver of a cart in the swift waters of the Adige (Coronatus, Life of Zeno, 2-3). This led to Zeno's fame spreading, so that it comes to the attention of the emperor Gallienus, then resident in Verona, whose daughter is possessed by a demon. Some soldiers are sent to find Zeno and bring him to the palace, where he effects a miraculous cure of Gallienus' daughter (4-5). Having thus earned the emperor's gratitude--which includes a gift of his `royal' crown which Zeno uses to provide for the poor--Zeno launches into an evangelical campaign which provokes the hostility of local pagans (6-7).

There are two serious problems with this version of events. First, the campaign of evangelisation is treated as if Verona was a thoroughly pagan city, which goes some way to explaining how Zeno came to be identified as its patron saint.[10] The difficulty here is that Zeno was not the first bishop of Verona's Church, but is nevertheless presented as its founder. Yet the inconsistency may be more apparent than real. Witness the testimony of the Versus de Verona, an anonymous verse panegyric of Verona, written around 800, and so roughly contemporary with Coronatus' Life. [11] The Versus list seven previous bishops before turning to Zeno `who by his preaching led Verona to baptism' (Versus de Verona 45-7). So Zeno as eighth bishop and Zeno as evangeliser of Verona are harmonised in the poem, as is Zeno's status as patron and the most important link in Verona's sacred panoply: he is the only one of the many saints mentioned by the Versus whose miracles are described at all (Versus 45-54) and the poem ends with a prayer to him (Versus 100).

A more serious anomaly is Zeno's imperial audience, where both Coronatus and the author of the Versus present their most surprising detail: the emperor named is Gallienus, who reigned from 253 until 268, a full century before Zeno's episcopate.[12] This link between Zeno and Gallienus may not have been Coronatus' invention, so much as a reflection of local Veronese traditions, since there is no evidence to show that either the Life or the Versus depended on one another. That these traditions have juxtaposed Zeno with an emperor he could never have met seems to confirm every prejudice that laughs off hagiography as bad history. I would suggest, however, that the choice of Gallienus is not as capricious as it first seems, but fits a tradition of active commemoration of the Roman past in Verona in the late-eighth and ninth centuries.[13]

The Versus de Verona make explicit reference to the visible Roman remains, many of them identifiable today. They describe the stone bridges spanning the Adige, and undoubtedly this includes the Ponte Pietra, the sole surviving Roman bridge in the city.[14] The description of the Arena is touching in its effort to display the poet's classical learning:

[The city] has a high labyrinth, in the form of a great ring
from which whoever enters unwittingly cannot escape
unless by a lantern's light or with a ball of thread (Versus 7-9).

Other verses describe the walls and their towers, and the forum.[15] When it comes to describing the temples to the pagan gods, however, the poet is having fun with us:

Its shrines and temples were constructed in honour of the gods:
Luna, Mars, Minerva, Jove and Venus
and Saturn and the Sun, who outshines everyone (Versus 13-15).

The number of gods, seven, gives the game away: they are the days of the week. The day of Luna (dies Lunae in Latin, giving lunedě in modern Italian) is Monday; and so on for the remaining six days.[16] In stark contrast to what we might expect from a Christian poet who goes on to devote much time to Verona's heritage of saints,[17] our author is not entirely dismissive of these pagan accomplishments. These may well have been effected `by wicked men' who worshipped idols, but they provided a fine foundation (`Behold how well the city was founded!': Versus 22) for the Christian city (Versus 22-25). This is far removed from the suspicious mentality towards pagan antiquities found in more monastic, less urbane parts of Christendom.[18]

Some impression of the impact the Roman remains had on the appearance of the city in the Carolingian period can be gleaned from the Iconographia Ratheriana, an eighteenth century copy of a mid-tenth century topographical drawing of the city showing various ancient monuments, including the amphitheatre, theatre, walls, marble bridge, and palace.[19] The period when such materials as the Versus, the Life, and the Iconographia were produced--the eighth to tenth centuries--coincides at Verona with a renaissance of interest in the heritage of antiquity which found institutional form in the famous Capitular Library founded by the archdeacon Pacificius (776-844).[20]

In this context of active commemoration of the Roman past, the choice of Gallienus as the emperor whom Zeno meets begins to make sense. The circuit of walls which defended Verona and defined its limits in the early middle ages depended on a refortification of the city undertaken at Gallienus' behest in A.D. 265.[21] This work of restoration would have been well-known in early medieval Verona. Above the arches of one of the principal gates of the city ran an inscription recording Gallienus' work of restoration which justified him, with egotistical panache, in renaming the city after himself: Colonia Augusta Verona Nova Gallieniana. [22] This gate retained its importance in the middle ages as the very portal leading to the basilica of San Zeno Maggiore.[23] For a local tradition seeking to have Zeno meet an emperor resident in Verona, then, Gallienus was a logical choice: he was the Roman ruler who had left his stamp most indelibly on the form of the city in the Carolingian period.

It is time for some conclusions. To comprehend the apparent inconsistencies in Coronatus' Life of Zeno it is necessary to look at it in terms of the specific context in which it was produced. To be sure, it tells us nothing about the life of the Zeno who lived in the third quarter of the fourth century. But we should not expect it to do so: this would be to thrust a burden of proof onto the text which it was never designed to take. Whereas for us personalities like Zeno and Gallienus belong to a precise and remote temporal locale, this would not have been the view taken of them by people like Coronatus.[24]

The final event narrated in the Life demonstrates this neatly. Zeno's most famous achievement did not occur during his lifetime, but in 589, some two centuries after his death. This year saw particularly atrocious weather throughout Italy, with incessant rainstorms so fierce that, writing some two centuries later, Paul the Deacon doubted whether the world had seen such a deluge since the time of Noah (History of the Lombards, 3. 23). Flooding and destruction were widespread throughout the peninsula, and at Verona on 17 October the river Adige burst its banks and surrounded the basilica Zenonis, most probably to be identified as San Zeno Maggiore.[25] Although the waters rose to the level of the windows, it did not rush in through the open doors of the church, thus preserving the lives of those sheltering inside.[26] This miracle demonstrates a fundamental aspect of the medieval attitude to saints. Stemming the floodwaters was Zeno's achievement, regardless of the fact he had died centuries before. Writing in Gaul in the sixth century, Gregory of Tours neatly encapsulates the concept in the introduction to his account of the miracles of one of Zeno's north-Italian contemporaries:

Bishop Eusebius of Vercelli was a great supporter of Hilary [of Poitiers] against heresies, and he shows that he is still alive after his burial [post tumulos] by his current miracles (Glory of the Confessors, 3).

Historical past and miraculous present blended imperceptibly in Gregory's mind. The same is true with Coronatus' little life of Zeno. Verona's great bishop was not constrained by the strait-jacket of a fourth-century existence, but was free to roam in search of the period in which he could demonstrate best those symbolic abilities which marked him out as the city's patron.

In north-Italian saints' lives of the early middle ages, this symbolic reality often required a meeting with an emperor.[27] At Verona, during a period which saw an upsurge in interest in the ancient past--as the Versus, the Iconographia, and Pacificius' library show--the logical choice was Gallienus. His programme of refortification had given the city its shape. Furthermore, anyone returning from San Zeno Maggiore and entering the city who looked up at the architrave over the arches of the gate would have seen Gallienus' name. His choice, then, should not be read as historiographical ineptitude, but as a sensitive reaction to the living past of Carolingian Verona, where Zeno's life was slotted into the most visible Roman context presented by the city.

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