teacher-martyrs defy authority for peace, justice, and truth

Governments address domestic violence with billions of dollars directed through the highest fora. The world needs good government action. Looking for a way out of the COVID-19 quarantine, the greatest problem in the world today, I hoped to receive the favor of wisdom from what has been and is. I knelt before my Internet-connected computer, a marvel of human engineering. In tears I thought of my wasted intellectual efforts and the stinging pain of my failures. I lifted my face to Heaven and remembered my inspiring second-grade teacher. Then I read a story from Livy.

ancient Roman students beating their teacher

In 406 BGC, the city of Rome went to war against its rival Etrurian city Veii. The Roman consular tribune Marcus Furius Camillus led a siege of Veii’s allied city Capena. The Romans under Camillus won Capena’s surrender and looted that city in 398 BGC. Two years later, Camillus led a Roman force that violently overcame Veii. The Romans then killed all the men of Veii.

The Etrurian city of Falerii, Veii’s only remaining major ally, still defied Rome. Brutal violence against men and many men’s deaths seemed inevitable. However, the foremost scholar in Falerii undertook a daring initiative for peace:

The Faliscans customarily employed the same person as teacher and attendant of their children. They entrusted a number of boys simultaneously to the care of one man. This practice still obtains in Greece. As is commonly the case, the sons of the city leaders were under the tuition of the man regarded as their foremost scholar. This man had in peacetime regularly led the boys out in front of the city for play and exercise. During the war, he made no change in his routine. With this and that game and story, he would draw them sometimes a shorter, sometimes a longer distance from the city gate. One day, being farther away than usual, he seized the opportunity to bring the boys to the enemy Roman outposts, then into the Roman camp to the headquarters of Camillus.

{ Mos erat Faliscis eodem magistro liberorum et comite uti, simulque plures pueri, quod hodie quoque in Graecia manet, unius curae demandabantur. Principum liberos, sicut fere fit, qui scientia videbatur praecellere erudiebat. Is cum in pace instituisset pueros ante urbem lusus exercendique causa producere, nihil eo more per belli tempus intermisso, modo brevioribus modo longioribus spatiis trahendo eos a porta lusu sermonibusque variatis, longius solito ubi res dedit progressus inter stationes eos hostium castraque inde Romana in praetorium ad Camillum perduxit. } [1]

The teacher-scholar explained to Camillus that by holding the sons of the leading men of Falerii, the Romans would be able to take Falerii without having any men killed.

With all-too-prevalent contempt for men’s lives, Camillus scornfully refused this opportunity to take Falerii without any violence against men. Instead, Camillus engaged the Faliscan students in humiliating their peace-seeking teacher:

Then Camillus had the teacher stripped naked and his hands bound behind his back. He gave him up to the boy-students to lead back to Falerii. He provided them with rods to scourge the traitor as they drove him back into the city.

{ Denudatum deinde eum manibus post tergum inligatis reducendum Falerios pueris tradidit, virgasque eis quibus proditorem agerent in urbem verberantes dedit. }

A large crowd of Faliscans watched the naked teacher being flogged by his students on the way back into Falerii. Camillus’s action so impressed the men of Falerii that they decided to yield peacefully to Rome.[2] The teacher-scholar thus succeeded in preventing brutal violence against the men of Falerii — except for the brutal violence against himself. That teacher-scholar, whose name has not even been preserved, is an unrecognized martyr-hero of ancient Roman history.

Teachers who defy authority to promote peace, justice, and truth too often are martyred. Perhaps recognizing the dangers of gyno-idolatry that Lucretius so brilliantly depicted, a medieval teacher sought to teach young men about women. He urged them:

Listen to a learned
alphabetical song
about what kind is the love
and favor of women.

{ Audite alphabetica
Cantica sophistica,
Cuius sit amor generis
Et favor muliebris. } [3]

Unlike different tribes, ethnicities, or races, women and men have always led intimately related lives in all societies not doomed to extinction. What could be more important teaching for men than teaching them about women? The teacher began his alphabetic instruction with a stern warning, in the classical tradition of Lucretius, about how women affect even very learned men:

The deeply thinking academic
often turns dreamer
burning, gorged with crime
and work of perversity.

{ Altum scolasticum
Sepe facit fantasticum
Fervens, fartum sceleris
Et opus pravitatis. }

That’s a plausible description of much modern academic work on courtly love. The medieval teacher then drilled his students with the rest of the alphabetical lesson:

A woman is two-tongued,
as unstable as air;
she deceives multitudes
like thieves in the night.

A bloody beast,
she stretches out on the earth,
deriding and deceiving
the clerical estate.

A cunning Delilah,
strong in all harm,
confounding and destroying
a person’s reputation.

Eve is announced,
the deceiver of man;
beware of her presence
as one leading to damnation.

Furtively withdraw,
flee from the dancing girl;
your mind becomes demented —
recognize the courtesan.

Garrulous and fatuous,
empty of all honor,
messenger of falsehood,
collector of gossip.

He owning, not being needy,
is made into a beggar;
the proud lord
transformed into a servant.

Hellish fire,
Gehenna-like punishment,
anger and envy
for all those who are married.

Divine charity
she by herself obscures,
a wicked one creating chaos.
Cease loving her!

She circles the streets
in processions and choruses,
visits parishes,
schools, and taverns.

Mediator of Mammon
for the wretched wicked,
the death of body and soul
comes without repenting.

Neither wants to leave,
everyone wants to love,
you have the cleric ensnared
and the layman defrauded.

She deceives all men:
popes, cardinals,
monks, elders,
the one defying bishops.

She gives birth to many children
outside the law; she makes bastards.
She wants to be heirs those
she produces as common servants.

She seeks écu and obol,
groat and florin.
She doesn’t seek honor,
but stretches away from chastity.

Director of the old and young,
the poor and the rich,
she herself is dirty,
and so she makes the whole world.

She sucks in the wise,
swallows the prudent;
thus was done to Samson,
Plato, and Solomon.

She shaves off yours, keeps what’s hers;
she benumbs and tortures the soul.
She makes the good-willed
frivolous and jealous.

Vanity, silliness,
vanity of vanities —
let us render honor to God
and with him we will live.

To works of Christ
and of her husband she’s contrary;
her words and acts
are nefarious.

She sells the sacraments
of the church of Jesus;
thus she herself grabs
the benefit of divine honor.

Jealous and unstable,
frequently making changes,
on account of your gifts
she is shown to be lovable.

{ Bilinguis mulier
Instabilis ut aer
Decipit quam plures,
Velut in nocte fures.

Cruenta bestia,
Tendit ad terrestria,
Derisio, delusio
Status clericalis.

Dolosa Dalila,
Ad omne malum valida,
Confusio, destructio
Fame personalis.

Euam pronuntiat,
Viri fallatricem,
Cuius cave praesentiam
Velut damnatricem.

Furtive subtrahit,
Fugias saltatricem;
Mentis tue dementiam,
Agnosce meretricem.

Garrula et fatua,
Omnis honoris vacua,
Gerula mendacii,
Verborum comportatrix.

Habentem, non egentem
Facit mendicantem,
Dominum superbum
Transmutat in servum.

Ignis infernalis
Pena gehennalis,
Ira et invidia
Per ipsa committuntur.

Karitas deifica
Per ipsam obfuscatur;
Chaos creans malefica;
Desiste, amator.

Lustrat per plateas
Pompas et choreas,
Visitat parochias,
Scholas et tabernas.

Mediatrix Mammone,
Miseri mechantis
Mors carnis et anime
Fit non penitentis.

Neutrum vult dimmitere,
Quemquam vult amare,
Clericum decipere
Et laicum defraudare.

Omnes fallit homines,
Papales, cardinales,
Monachos, presbiteros
Discordat prelatos.

Plures parit filios
Abs lege, facit spurios,
Quos vult esse heriles,
Servos facit viles.

Querit es et obolum
Grossum et florenum
Non querit honorem
Sed tendit ad pudorem.

Rectrix senis, iuuenis,
Pauperis et diuitis,
Ipsa lutibundum
Totum facit mundum.

Sorbet sapientiam
Deglutit prudentiam,
Ut fecit Samsoni,
Platoni, Salomoni.

Tondet tua, tenet sua
Torpet, torquet animum,
Frivolum, zelotypum,
Facit benivolum.

Vanitas, fatuitas,
Vanitatum vanitas
Honorem Deo demus
Et cum eo vivemus.

Xristiani operibus,
Viro suo contraria,
Verbis et factis
Est nefaria.

Yesi vendidit
Ecclesie sacramenta,
Sic ipsa rapuit
Honoris incrementa.

Zelotypa et instabilis,
Fit sepe variabilis,
Propter tua munera
Ostenditur amabilis. }

Those are harsh, upsetting lessons. Yet they don’t encompass at length medieval paternity fraud, men’s suffering in medieval marriage, and gender-disparate medieval punishment for adultery. To understand the problem, imagine that a teacher today, even a law-school professor, taught students about imprisonment of men for sex-payment debts, abortion coercion, and rape of men. What do you think would happen to that teacher?[4]

students killing Saint Cassian of Imola

The fourth-century teacher Cassian of Imola testifies to the fate of teachers who defy authority. Cassian taught stenography to boys. As a teacher, he sternly pushed his students to learn. Cassian was also a Christian at a time when the Roman Empire persecuted Christians. Cassian refused to sacrifice at the altars of traditional Roman gods such as Cybele, Venus, Minerva, and especially Juno, goddess-wife and ruler of Zeus. A Roman official thus arranged for Cassian to be brutally killed:

He is stripped of his clothing and his hands are bound behind his back.
His flock of students, armed with their sharp pens, arrives.
As much hate as each had held in silent anger,
each freely pours forth at length, burning with gall.
Some throw their brittle tablets against his face.
The tablets shatter, with fragments flying from his brow,
waxed box-wood rumbling from impact with his blood-stained cheeks,
the broken slabs red and wet from the hits.
Others now thrust forward sharp iron pricks
whose bottom part digs furrows in wax for writing,
and whose tops efface the letter-cuts so that the rough
surface is again restored to be smooth and shining.
Christ’s follower is stabbed with one; with the other, cut up.
One part penetrates the soft guts, the other part carves off skin.
All two hundred hand-limbs together have pierced him,
and from all these wounds drops of blood drip at once.
A greater torturer was the child who pricked the skin-top,
compared to the one who penetrated deep guts.
That one, the light hitter who prevents death,
knows to be cruel through the pain of only sharp stings.
This one, as much as he strikes the interior, hidden vitals,
gives more relief by bringing death nearer.

{ Vincitur post terga manus spoliatus amictu,
adest acutis agmen armatum stilis.
Quantum quisque odii tacita conceperat ira,
effundit ardens felle tandem libero.
Coniciunt alii fragiles inque ora tabellas
frangunt, relisa fronte lignum dissilit,
buxa crepant cerata genis inpacta cruentis
rubetque ab ictu curta et umens pagina.
Inde alii stimulos et acumina ferrea vibrant,
qua parte aratis cera sulcis scribitur,
et qua secti apices abolentur et aequoris hyrti
rursus nitescens innovatur area.
Hinc foditur Christi confessor et inde secatur,
pars viscus intrat molle, pars scindit cutem.
Omnia membra manus pariter fixere ducente
totidemque guttae vulnerum stillant simul.
Major tortor erat, qui summa pupugerat infans,
quam qui profunda perforarat viscera,
ille, levis quoniam percussor morte negata
saevire solis scit dolorum spiculis,
hic, quanto interius vitalia condita pulsat,
plus dat medellae, dum necem prope applicat. } [5]

Cassian begged his students to strike him harder so that he would die more quickly and suffer less. But his students, tiring in writing with the flesh and blood of their teacher, took breaks from their work. Their teacher deprived them of holidays, yet now they had no need to ask him for a break. The students taunted their teacher with his teaching. His suffering was drawn out at length. Only Christ, showing mercy, ultimately liberated Cassian into death. Any teacher who attempted to teach his students uncomfortable truths about gender would probably suffer a similar fate.[6]

A teacher who doesn’t challenge students acts as a servant, not a teacher. Today the teacher Cassian of Imola is a little-known saint-martyr. Only a teacher with great faith, or exceptionally understanding students, would dare to follow the example of Cassian of Imola. Servants are prevalent. True teachers can scarcely be found.[7]

Saint Cassian of Imola, how wonderful is your witness! Great and praiseworthy was your courage as a teacher. You have renewed my hope. Toward true teachers may all students always show kindness and compassion.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Livy, History of Rome / From the Founding of the City {Ab urbe condita} 5.27, Latin text and English translation (modified insubstantially to be more easily readable) from Foster (1924). Here’s an alternate, freely accessible English translation of Canon Roberts (1912). The subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted, are similarly sourced from Livy, Ab urbe condita 5.27.

[2] Regarding the men of Falerii, Camillus declared to his fellow Romans and the Faliscan teacher:

I, through the Roman practice of manliness, work, and weapons, will conquer them as I conquered Veii.

{ ego Romanis artibus, virtute opere armis, sicut Veios vincam. }

Livy, Ab urbe condita 5.27.8, my English translation. Camillus’s Roman practice probably would have caused the deaths of many Roman men and of all the men of Falerii.

[3] Gaspar de Rossis de Perusio (attributed), Alphabetical song concerning the evil woman {Canticum alphabeticum de mala muliere} st. 1, Latin text from Puig (1998), my English translation, benefiting from the Spanish translation of Puig (1995), pp. 40-7, and the Portuguese translation of Dias (2014) pp. 109-12. Puig (1995), p. 39, described Canticum alphabeticum de mala muliere as probably from the thirteenth century. Puig (1998) convincingly places the poem in the first half of the fifteenth century. Cf. Dias (2014). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Canticum alphabeticum de mala muliere and cover the whole poem seriatim.

Stanzas 2 through 24 of Canticum alphabeticum de mala muliere form an alphabetic acrostic, an abecedarius. Each Latin stanza begins with a successive letter of the Latin alphabet. On the history of the abecedarius, see note [3] in my post on Angelbert’s “Aurora cum primo mane tetra noctis dividet {At the first light, dawn will separate the horrors of night},” also an abecedarius.

[4] Dias (2014), pp. 119-20, urges using Canticum alphabeticum de mala muliere in introductory-level teaching of Latin at secondary schools and universities. But if this poem were properly contextualized as literature of men’s sexed protest, any teacher teaching it surely would be in grave danger.

[5] Prudentius, Book about the Crowns {Liber Peristephanon} 9, The Passion of Saint Cassian of Cornelius’s Forum {Passio Sancti Cassiani Forocorneliensis} vv. 43-64, Latin text from Thomson (1949) vol. 2, p. 224-6, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Subsequent quotes below concerning Cassian are similarly from Prudentius’s account. Cornelius’s Forum is the northern Italian town now called Imola. Prudentius’s account is the earliest surviving record of the martyr-saint Cassian of Imola.

Ancient and medieval teachers seem to have regularly beaten boy students. Laes stated:

A cursory glance at the ancient literary record reveals that teaching at schools went hand in hand with meting out physical punishments. Aristotle’s argument that education and pain are closely connected is embedded in a tradition of education that included violence. Even limiting ourselves to the Latin literary sources, numerous examples come to the mind. Notorious are Horace’s plagosus Orbilius; Ovid’s description of children with hands swollen from the rod; Martial’s annoyance with his neighbour, the verbally abusive schoolmaster who disturbs his sleep; and Juvenal’s biting satire on cruel and recalcitrant teachers. Manum ferulae subducere (“to withdraw one’s hand from the rod”) was a phrase that suggested the end of schooldays, or at least the transition from the grammaticus to the rhetor. In the so-called colloquia or conversation books meant for use in schools, it is stated unabashedly that the pupil who knows his lesson is praised and the one who fails is beaten.

Nothing changed in Late Antique schools. Augustine mentions the blows he got from his teachers and the fact that his parents had a good laugh over it. In his Protrepticus, Ausonius exhorts his grandson not to fear the schoolmaster. The man looks forbidding because of his age, and his hard voice and short-tempered expression seem menacing, but the child is to endure all this with philosophical resignation: it would be a sign of weakness to fear the whip, the screaming, the blows, and the harsh words. The cane (ferula), rod (virga), and whip (scutica) are referred to as tools of the master. Ausonius even offers the boy the cold comfort that both his father and mother had to go through the same — an unmistakable indication of the fact that girls, too, had to put up with physical violence at school.

Laes (2019) pp. 93-4, footnotes omitted. Coming after the lengthy account of evidence about beating boy students, the one reference to beating girl students is noticeable. Boys are subject to violent attacks on their genitals much more frequently than girls are. Men suffer death from physical violence about four times more frequently than women do. Ancient and medieval physical violence surely was predominately directed at boys and men.

According to Prudentius, Cassian’s boy students regarded him as a harsh teacher. The boy students were “bitter {amarus}” towards Cassian. They regarded him with “anger and fear {ira et metus}.” The resented that Cassian didn’t give them a “holiday {feria}.” The local church administrator knowingly told Prudentius, “no discipline is sweet for any children {nec dulcis ulli disciplina infantiae est}.”

Cassian of Tangier, thought to have been beheaded in 298 GC, is another martyr-stenographer. Cassian of Tangier was serving as a court reporter for the trial of the Christian Marcellus the Centurion in Roman north Africa. When Cassian heard the sentence of death for Marcellus, Cassian threw down his pen in disgust, denounced the verdict, and declared that he too was a Christian. Cassian was then arrested and put to death. Prudentius refers to Cassian of Tangier in Peristephanon 4.45-8.

Prudentius in Peristephanon 9 recounts a journey of men’s renewal like that of Aeneas in the Aeneid. However, Prudentius’s journey is primarily personal, yet also witnesses to a universal path. Aeneas, in contrast, works on behalf of the Trojans to refound their society in worldly terms. Cf. O’Hogan (2014).

[6] Prudentius’s account of the teacher-martyr Cassian isn’t merely about the “predicament of a Christian teacher instructing pagan pupils.” Cooper (2019) p. 34. Prudentius’s account of Cassian of Imola fundamentally concerns dissent. In a volume that she edited, Copeland declared:

the explorations of dissenting practices in this volume do not take for granted the polarity of victim and oppressor, or resistance and authority. For this binarism too is the product of normalizing historical narratives that want to assimilate the habit of dissent into knowable and interpretively actionable forms of represention. Such a “normalizing” history might, for example, render Prudentius’ legend as no more than a cautionary tale of student rebellion against pedagogical severity. Indeed, such normalizing historical narratives would reproduce the mechanisms of law iteself (pedagogicval law, the “law” of the Christian imperium) which summons dissent into legally or symbolically actionable forms of representation. But the modulations of resistence in this story, from the violent rebellion in the grammar classroom to the institutional dislocation of grammatica itself, are precisely what resist linear representation through the binarism of “orthodoxy” and “dissent.”

Copeland (1996) p. 14. Cf. Laes (2019). Copeland associates Cassian of Imola with the institutional history of grammar, but she doesn’t acknowledge modern philology’s penis problem. Morever, no voice of meninist literary criticism is heard in the volume that she edited. Graduate students taught without integrity produce tedious, mind-numbing work. See, e.g. Marshall (2015).

[7] Literary history records other teachers whom their students killed. According to writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and Sozomenus, students killed their teacher Bishop Mark in the fourth-century Thracian town Arethusa. According to the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury, ninth-century Germanic students stabbed to death their teacher, the philosopher Johannes Scotus Erigena. Four other medieval teachers apparently died similarly: Artemas of Pozzuoli, Archippus of Colossi, Felix of Pincis, and Cassian of Todi. Laes (2019) pp. 104-5.

[images] (1) Students of Falerii beating their teacher. Illumination (excerpt) from Guerber (1896)’s retelling of Livy’s account of Camillus taking Falerii. (2) Cassian of Imola being killed by his students. Painting made about 1500 by Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola. Via Wikimedia Commons and Regina. (3) Pink Floyd performing “Another Brick in the Wall,” Part II, from that group’s 1979 rock opera The Wall. Concert video from October, 20, 1994 at Earls Court, London, via YouTube. Early in the song are lyrics describing abusive men teachers:

But in the town, it was well known,
when they got home at night,
their fat and psychopathic wives
would thrash them
within inches of their lives.

In a 1980 broadcast interview with Jim Ladd, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd explained:

We actually, at the school I was at, had one guy {teacher} who I would fantasize that his wife beat him. Certainly she treated him like shit and he was a really crushed person and he handed as much of that pain onto us as he could and he did quite a good job of it.

Domestic violence against men should not continue to be denied, ignored or marginalized.


Cooper, Kate. 2019. “The Master’s Voice: Martyrdom and the Late Roman Schoolroom in Prudentius’s Passio Sancti Cassiani.” Pp. 33-50 in Janet E. Spittler, ed. The Narrative Self in Early Christianity: essays in honor of Judith Perkins. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press. (volume review by David Brakke)

Copeland, Rita. 1996. “Introduction: dissenting critical practices.” Pp. 1-23 in Copeland, Rita, ed. Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Dias, Paula Barata. 2014. “La donna è mobile…: Portuguese version and commentary of the alphabetical poem about the wickedness of women (Canticum alphabeticum de Mala Muliere, anonym, XIII C.E.).” Boletim De Estudos Clássicos. 59: 105-121.

Guerber, Helene A. 1896. The Story of the Romans. New York: American Book Co.

Foster, Benjamin O., ed and trans. 1924. Livy. History of Rome. Vol. III: Books 5-7. Loeb Classical Library 172. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laes, Christian. 2019. “Teachers Afraid of Their Pupils: Prudentius’ Peristephanon 9 in a Sociocultural Perspective.” Mouseion. 16 (S1): 91-108.

Marshall, Christabel Nadia. 2015. Rewriting Masculinity with Male Bodies: the sexualization of male martyrs in Prudentius’ Peristephanon. Thesis for Master of Arts in Classics. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

O’Hogan, Cillian. 2014. “An Intertextual Journey in Prudentius, Peristephanon 9.” Mnemosyne. 67 (2): 270-288.

Puig, Mercè Rodríguez-Escalona. 1995. Poesía misógina en la Edad Media latina (s. XI-XIII). Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona.

Puig, Mercè Rodríguez-Escalona. 1998. “Canticum alphabeticum de mala muliere.” Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 33: 119–27.

Thomson, Henry John, ed. and trans. 1949. Prudentius. Loeb Classical Library 387, 398. Vol. 1, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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