10th August is the Feast Day of St Laurence, saint and martyr, best known for being put to death in AD 258 under the Roman Emperor Valerian by being roasted alive on a gridiron. Laurence was an interesting saint, very much a man of our times. The great problem in mid-third century AD was poverty, especially in the big cities like Rome. Agriculture was very inefficient and old-fashioned because it was the official policy of the Roman government to resist innovation. The authorities did nothing about poverty, except to put on free gladiatorial shows and similar brutal amusements. The only large organisation which tried to distribute cheap or free food among the poor was the Christian church. Thanks to its origins in Judaism, it had inherited the old Jewish prototype of the welfare state which embodied all the corporal virtues - caring for widows, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead, but above all feeding the poor. The ability of the Christian clergy to organise these charitable activities on a large scale and to raise the money to pay for them, was one reason why it spread rapidly in the third century, and at the end of it was poised to convert the Roman state.
Laurence was a clever, energetic young man, spotted by Pope Sixtus II who made him a deacon and put him in charge of the deaconate which ran the welfare activities. He was highly efficient in running soup kitchens and bread-distribution centres, in the poorer districts of Rome, especially in the insulae or skyscraper slums, where hundreds of poor families were crowded together in multi-storey hovels in some ways reminiscent of the high rise flats of the 1960s and 1970s. He was also ingenious in raising the cash, and it would be interesting to know how he did it – Prudentius, the principal authority for his life, does not say how. Possibly much of it came from rich widows, and young women who sacrificed their dowries. Thus did Christianity advance through its appeal to affluent women.
Laurence’s activities as both a friend of the poor and a fundraiser, were noted by the Roman authorities, the first attracting their suspicions, and the second their cupidity. Valerian needed cash urgently to pay for his troops, and he instructed the Prefect of Rome to get it. He began a money-raising persecution of the Church which began with the execution by beheading of Sixtus II. Then he arrested Laurence and demanded the treasures of the Church. According to Prudentius, Laurence replied: ‘I will produce our treasures, but you must give me a little time to get them together.’ He was granted three days, and during this time he assembled all the poor of Rome. Many of course were sick, on stretchers and crutches, and the sight of this immense assemblage of the destitute, desperate and diseased infuriated the Prefect when he came to collect the money. ‘These are the treasures of the Church’, said Laurence, who appears to have specialised in a kind of saturnine humour most uncommon in those times.
The Prefect swore by the Nine Gods that Laurence would suffer for his insult to the Emperor. He said: ’I will give you a soup kitchen fire all to yourself. I will protract your tortures, that your death will be the more bitter as it shall be slower. You shall die by degrees.’ So Laurence was stripped, and bound with chains to a huge gridiron with red hot coal underneath it. The Christians, dragged to watch his agony, said that he appeared to be illuminated by an extraordinary light, and that his body broiled slowly to omit a sweet and agreeable smell. St Ambrose in his account of the martyrdom, said he was protected from the intense pain by the fire of divine love which burned more fiercely within his breast than the embers which roasted his flesh. And his saturnine sense of humour burst out again: ‘ Let my body now be turned’ he said to the executives-in-chief with a smile, ‘One side is broiled enough. And when the other is done too, you may eat'. Several senators who had come to watch him die were converted to Christianity on the spot. Prudentius says that this spectacular martyrdom was the death of idolatry in Rome, which now moved inexorably forward to Christianity. The senators themselves carried the scorched body for burial to the spot outside the walls on the road to Tivoli on which the great basilica of St Laurence now stands. St Laurence was a godsend to the painters of the Renaissance and the Baroque. Alas, there is no such saint around these days to speak up for the poor and undernourished, and give up life for their cause.Home