Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

What the Boy Who Sung for His Breakfast
Saw in Rome

There is a dispute between the Augustine monks of Germany and the vicar who superintends them. The monks object to some of his proceedings. It is a dispute which only the Pope—the man who can do no wrong—can settle. The monks choose Friar Martin to go to Rome and lay the matter before the Pope. Friar Martin is able and eloquent. He has read all the works of the fathers, and he, of all others, will best plead their cause. Although the journey is a long one, Friar Martin is pleased to make it, for Rome is the Eternal City, where dwells the head of the Church—the holy man who is God's representative on earth, who cannot possibly do anything that is not right. To visit Rome will be like going to the very gate of heaven.

The monks give Brother Martin their blessing and benediction, and he starts upon his journey. Although there are thousands of monks tramping through Germany—so many that the people compare them to the grass-hoppers that eat up their fields of corn—vet they do not refuse him a bit of bread-and-cheese, and at the convents he finds good cheer among the brothers. He crosses the Rhine; climbs the Alps, where the shepherds are tending their flocks; passes along deep gorges, where the water tumbles and foams to the lakes below, and where the rocks rise so high, so sharp and steep, that at noon it is only twilight. He sees the avalanches roll from the mountains with a roar like thunder. Far above him the icy peaks gleam in the sunshine. He climbs above the clouds, crosses fields of snow, goes over the summit, descends the southern slope, and finds himself, as it were, in another world. How pure the air! How deep and tender the light! A blue haze rests upon the mountains. Fresh and green the fields; wide-spreading the chestnut-trees; fertile the slopes, where the peasants are planting their vineyards. He reaches the plains of Italy, and beholds ruins around him—marble pillars, beautifully sculptured once, but broken now. The Italian brothers of leis order welcome him to their monasteries; but he is surprised to see how luxuriously they live. They make themselves merry with wine, sing songs, tell unseemly stories, and then rattle off Pater-nosters and masses glibly, to get through with them as soon as possible, that they may take another pull at the wine, or indulge in other pleasures.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Italy is an old land, and Friar Martin is well acquainted with its history—how the Empire of Rome rose and fell. He gazes upon the sculptured marbles and broken columns, and recalls the time when Rome was in her glory, with an empire reaching from India to England. He comes to the Campagna—the wide plain through which winds the River Tiber. He sees the Aqueduct, which the old Romans built to bring water into the city from the Albanian hills. And there, in the distance, are the gleaming spires of the city—the one spot of all others on earth that he has longed to see. He falls on his face and gives thanks to God. "Holy Rome! I salute thee!" he cries, inn ecstasy. He passes through the massive gate-way, walks with reverent feet the narrow streets, enters the churches, one after another, to say his prayers and thank God anew that he is in the holy city. He almost wishes that his father and mother were not alive; for if they were dead and in purgatory, what unspeakable pleasure there would be in obtaining their release by his prayers, which he repeats in every church!

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


How inspiring to stand in the old Forum where, a century before Christ was born, Cicero gave utterance to his immortal orations! The past rises before Friar Martin. He sees, in imagination, the audience of old Romans listening to Cicero. One of his auditors is Julius Caesar, six years younger than the orator: he has led the armies of Rome in triumph through Gaul, has crossed the sea to the land of the Angles, where men wear skins of beasts for clothing, and where Druids venerate the stately oaks, and offer human sacrifices to their deity.

Another of Cicero's auditors is a general who has led the armies to victory in the East—Pompey—he who profaned the Temple at Jerusalem by entering into the most holy place.

General Cato is another listener—a man with a soul so calm and serene that nothing disturbs him.

And still another general is there—Mark Antony—a wild, reckless debauchee, who fills Rome with riot and disorder.

Two poets are in the audience listening to Cicero's eloquence—Virgil and Horace, and a historian—Sallust; they are boys. And there is one more—Seneca. Friar Martin has read their works; and there he is upon the spot where the poets, perhaps, have recited their own poems to the people of old Rome.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


He walks along a street, past the Temple of Jupiter, and comes the Temple of Peace, and looks up to its mighty arches, reared by Vespasian to receive the spoils which he brought from Jerusalem; and the poor Jews whom he brought as prisoners were compelled to work in the clay-pits making bricks for the construction of the edifice commemorative of their humiliation.

Near by it is the Arch of Titus. What a story in its time-worn—the history of a perishing, and yet imperishable, people! The Triumphal Arch was erected to glorify the man who thought he had crushed them out forever. In the sculptured stones Friar Martin sees the procession of Roman soldiers bringing the silver trumpets, the golden candle-stick, the table of showbread—the sacred furniture of the Jewish Temple, and escorting the weeping maidens, the stalwart warriors of the conquered race, prisoners of war, doomed to hopeless captivity.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


On the hill overlooking the Forum is the Capitol—the once magnificent marble palace, with its majestic columns, mosaic pavements, courts, and passage-ways, adorned with statues of nymphs, fauns, and satyrs, and before which is the statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. From this palace once was issued a decree that all the world should be taxed; and so it happened that a poor man iii Judea started on a long journey with his wife, to give in his name to the tax-assessor, and could find no room in the tavern at night, and was forced to lie down in a stable with the cattle, where, during the night, a babe was born—babe of all others most wonderful! From this palace was issued the order for the beheading of Peter and Paul; and in yonder prison, in a deep, dark dungeon, Paul was confined.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


It is not the palace of the emperors of Rome, but the places where Christian martyrs have suffered, that most attract the attention of Friar Martin. It was in the Coliseum that they were torn to pieces by the wild beasts, to gratify the heathen populace of Rome. Jewish captives built it, and the mortar of the masonry was mixed with their tears. In the arena those who would not abjure their faith in Christ were eaten by lions. In the great edifice, rising tier above tier, the people looked down upon the spectacle—emperor, patrician, plebeian—and not one heart in all the vast assembly moved to pity at the sight. What joy to behold the hated Christians tossed to the beasts—to see fair maidens torn in pieces and devoured!

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The thought does not come to Friar Martin that the men who ask questions in Spain, at that very moment are roasting men by the thousand; while there were only a score or two thrown to the lions and tigers in the Coliseum.

Friar Martin finds that the Pope, Julius II., is an old man, with a long white beard. He sits in a golden chair, wearing gorgeous robes emblazoned with diamonds and jewels. Palm-Sunday comes, and there is a grand procession. The Pope bears a silver plate on his breast, on which there is a figure of the Almighty. It is of pure gold, surrounded by costly pearls.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The cardinals appear in their red hats, red gown, red stockings, and slippers. One of them is known as the "Boy-cardinal." His name is John de' Medici. His father lived in Florence, and was very rich. When John was only seven years old, his father bought an abbot's office for him. An abbot had charge of a monastery, and the monks called the boy "their father." Quite likely some of them smiled when they thus addressed him.

When he was fourteen, his father bought a cardinal's office for him, and John put on his red hat, slippers, and gown, and became one of the Pope's councillors. He owns a villa, and lives in grand style. He loves music, painting, sculpture, and poetry. He spends all of his income in giving entertainments to his brother-cardinals, and the poets, artists, and musicians. The sets before them the choicest wines, and all the delicious fruits of the season. Sometimes he even pawns his gold and silver dishes to obtain money enough to give a banquet; for he is thinking that the Pope may not live always, and possibly, if he is hospitable to his brother-cardinals and to those who influence public opinion, he may be elected Julius's successor.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


In the procession are a great number of bishops—Armenian, Syrian, Greek, and Roman—wearing magnificent dresses, blazing with jewels. The young friar from Germany never dreamed that there was such wealth in the world as he sees around him.

The Pope's chamberlains walk by his side, carrying fans made of peacocks' tails. The cross-bearers go before, bearing huge silver crosses. One official carries the triple crown, set with costly diamonds and jewels.

The Pope sits in his golden chair, on a litter, which is taken up by stout men, and borne upon their shoulders.

An officer carries a golden mace—the emblem of authority; and there is a great following of princes, counts, abbots, priests, and monks.

On Corpus Christi Day the Pope is carried around St. Peter's Church, seated in his golden chair, with all the prelates of the Church in his train, and his body-guard marching by his side with drawn swords—not that anybody will harm him, but to add to the pomp and grandeur of the occasion. The people kneel, and the Pope throws a blessing to them from the ends of his fingers.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Friar Martin sees wonderful things in the churches. In one he beholds the Holy Baby—a rag doll, which performs more cures than all the physicians in Rome. It is taken to the chambers of the sick, and its presence heals disease. The people worship it, offer costly gifts, which go—they know not to whom. The doll performs miracles. Men falling from the tops of houses have called upon the baby to save them, and have not been harmed. Drowning men have called upon it to rescue them, and they have been saved. A lady fell from the roof of a high building, and prayed to the doll, and the fall was arrested in mid-air. The lady was so grateful for her preservation that she gave an immense sum of money to the doll, and had a picture painted representing the scene.

Every church has its holy relies. In one are the boards of the manger in which Christ was laid at his birth. He sees the Virgin Mary's clothing, one of St. Peter's ribs, a part of John the Baptist's skull, and no end of saintly bones—all very precious and holy.

The people worship the relics, and gaze upon them with reverential awe. In St. Peter's Church they form in a long line to kiss the foot of St. Peter's statue, which has stood there for many centuries: so many have pressed their lips to the great-toe that it is worn to a stub. Some skeptical persons maintain that the statue is not Peter's, but an old heathen statue of Jupiter; that, however, does not diminish the devotion of the multitude.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Julius II., the Pope, is at the head of his army. Ever since his election, in 1506, he has been at war—fighting the Venetians, the Germans, and the French, at times; then, making alliance with the Venetians and Germans, he has waged a vigorous war against Louis XII. of France. He fights not only in the field, but in the cabinet. He has bribed Henry VIII. of England and Ferdinand of Spain to attack France, and has taken the money which the good people have contributed to support the Church to pay an army of Swiss, which he has hired to fight against the French. He has issued a bull releasing the subjects of Louis from their allegiance.

Just before Friar Martin arrives in Rome, the Pope goes out with his troops to attack the town of Mirandola, accompanied by all the cardinals and bishops. His army surrounds the town. The Pope plants the cannon, directs the soldiers where to attack, and issues his orders as commander-in-chief. Day after day the siege goes on. The Pope did not expect such a stubborn resistance, but he is only the more determined to conquer; and when at last the town surrenders, he climbs a scaling-ladder, sword in hand, mounts the wall, followed by his troops, who rush through the streets, enter the houses, plunder the people, and commit terrible outrages upon the men, women, and children.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The Pope sends an army to Ravenna, an allied army, composed of Spanish, Swiss, Germans, and Venetians, all leagued against the French. The armies meet on a plain near the city. The French are commanded by a young general, Gaston de Foix, who, though he is only thirty years old, has won many victories. The commander of the Pope's army is John de' Medici, the Boy-cardinal, who knows nothing about war, but who can give grand entertainments. There are about thirty-five thousand in each army. All day long the battle rages, but when night comes the Pope's army is a routed rabble, and the Boy-cardinal a prisoner. Though the French have won the victory, their brave leader lies beneath a heap of slain. Each army has lost nearly ten thousand men this conflict, which is only one of many fought on the plains of Italy; and for what? That the Pope may drive the French out of the provinces which Roderick Borgia (Alexander VI.) had given to Louis a few years before.

Friar Martin did not expect to hear the beating of drums, nor the blare of trumpets, neither to behold the Pope marching at the head of his troops through the streets of holy Rome. He had thought of the city as being, as it were, a suburb of heaven; but he finds it a military town. The Pope is such a fighter that the people call hint "general." A witty man writes a paper which sets everybody to laughing, representing Julius, after he is dead, as knocking at the gate of heaven for admission.

"Who is there?" Peter asks, looking down from the top of the wall.


"Never heard of you before. What have you done? Give an account of yourself."

"I have been fighting for you. I have marched with my armies, captured cities. I entered one place sword in hand."

"That is not satisfactory. I can't let you in."

"Not let me in, after fighting so bravely?"


"Why not?"

"My soldiers fight only with the sword of the Spirit."

"If you don't let me in, I'll bring up my cannon, and batter down your walls, as I did the walls of Mirandola."

And so, fearing that Julius will be as good as his word, Peter opens the gate and lets him in. People say that the learned man of Holland, Doctor Erasmus, wrote it; but the doctor will not acknowledge that it came from his pen.

Friar Martin visits one of the churches, that he may say his prayers on the marble steps of the holy stairs up which Christ walked when he was brought before Pilate in Jerusalem. He kneels upon the lower step and says a Pater-nester, for which he will obtain fifty years' release from purgatory. He goes up another step, and repeats the prayer. He has gained one hundred years. He moves another step, and repeats it. One hundred and fifty years has been gained.

"The just shall live by faith."

Who spoke? Was it one of the monks at the foot of the stairs who takes money from those who ascend them? Was it one of the swarm of beggars who hold out their hands at the bottom, and also at the top of the stairs? Was it a fellow-pilgrim? None of these. Who then? Friar Martin certainly heard a voice. He stops in the middle of the Pater-noster, looks around, springs to his feet, and goes down the steps.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Many times has he read those words, and now, like a flash of lightning from a cloudless sky, they blaze upon his soul. He leaves the church, greatly wondering, and thinking as he never has thought before.

The longer he stays in Rome, the more is he dissatisfied with what he sees. He discovers that the Pope, the cardinals, bishops, and priests are, for the most part, very far from being the pure men he had supposed them to be. The Pope is a military chieftain. The cardinals are living sensual lives. The money which is contributed by the good people of every land for the Church is squandered in riotous living or for the support of armies. It is no longer holy Rome; the city instead is a sink of iniquity. Crime goes unpunished. Men are robbed and murdered at noonday. The offices of the Church are bought and sold, just as men buy and sell houses or cattle. The nunneries and monasteries, instead of being retreats for prayers, meditation, and holy living, are vile places. Cardinals, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns, all live upon the treasure contributed by the people, or taken from them by tithes, or obtained by the sale of indulgences and pardons. He turns his steps homeward, sick at heart with what he has seen.