National Catholic Register


Wohl’s World: Decadent Romans, Philosopher Saints And Brutal Goths

BY H.W. Crocker III

June 1-7, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/1/03 at 1:00 PM


Put yourself in Goth-governed Rome, where you are ruled by the Dark Ages equivalent of professional wrestlers — giant men with shaggy blond hair who value only muscle and loyalty.

They have their good points: They are straightforward, some of them are good men and their women can be attractive and buxom. But of the arts, culture and the intellect, they know but little and care less. They are not Catholics but Arians. And in the end, their answer to any argument is a fist or a sword blow.

Would you, in such circumstances, if you were a Roman, be like the beautiful young noblewoman Rusticiana and stamp your feet in patriotic fury? Or would you, like her philosopher husband Boethius, attempt to act as intermediary between the Romans and the Goths?

Or would you, like Boethius' Senate colleague Albinus, simply say, “Rome is finished,” recognizing that Rome is decadent unto death?

Or would you be like Peter and become an agent of the Byzantines, whose new emperor Justinian and military commander Belisarius are seeking to recreate the Roman Empire (while swayed by women of ill repute and unorthodox religion who send a pope to his death)?

These are the Greeks, the Eastern “Romans,” trusted by neither noble Roman nor simple Goth, given to serpentine diplomacy and given power by mercenary armies whose ranks are filled out by such as the Huns, who murder, rape and pillage their fellow “Romans” while under Byzantine command.

Or would you, like St. Benedict, commit yourself completely to God, a reminder to men of how they should live?

These questions are raised in Louis de Wohl's novel Citadel of God. It is subtitled A Novel about Saint Benedict, but the great saint is absent from most of its pages.

Its sweeping historical drama encompasses personal tragedies such as Boethius' execution; misbegotten espionage, with Peter acting as a Byzantine spy, leaving death and disaster in his wake; and epic struggles, with the Byzantines charging into a more than decade-long war with the Goths. This is the swirling storm of the story. Benedict is the eye of the storm.

Louis de Wohl, the author of this and many other novels about the saints, was the son of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. He was a successful author in Germany — many of his novels became films — until the rise of Hitler. He then emigrated to England, and during the war — in which he served in the British army — his Catholic faith was renewed.

When the war was won, he decided to relaunch his novelistic career in his new language, English, and with a new subject: the lives of the saints. He wanted no mere devotional literature but novels that would put readers to grips with men and women confronting war, vice, desperation, despair and love, global politics, personal sin, wrenching sacrifice and utter devotion. He wanted to present men and women who lived dangerously for God.

Citadel of God is a remarkable, vibrant display of a novelist's historical imagination — so effective that it sent me to pulling Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy off the bookshelf, something I hadn't done since college days.

While the thrust of Citadel of God is its page-turning story, there are asides that ask yet deeper questions. After Boethius' death, his widow, Rusticiana, muses despairingly: “Christ, was it worth saving a world like this? … Barbarians, trampling all that is good and noble underfoot and Romans too cowardly to resist, ready to betray the best and deliver them to brutes. They have learned nothing in five centuries, and they will never learn anything. … Let them go, let us all go to perdition. For that is where we belong.”

To her despair, St. Benedict's work provides the counterpoint. We are reminded that St. Benedict was not merely a strikingly good and wise man who hated sin and whose monks preserved and protected Europe's classical inheritance, but he was a man who continually astonished those who knew him by performing what can only be called miracles.

And most of all, in this self-centered world of schemers and sinners — of “rotten senators, murderous Goths, cheating merchants, whores, scoundrels, adulterers, thieves, cutthroats, barbarian robbers, perverts, pleasure-seekers, charlatans and time-wasters” — it is St. Benedict's monks who answer the question of why God should care for such a world.

St. Benedict, an observer notes, has built “a place where everything is done for the sake of God alone,” where the monks' chanted prayers are “like a living cord, a rope he throws up to heaven and God takes it and holds the earth in balance with it.”

That is what saints do for us, and Citadel of God is a salutary reminder of it.

H. W. Crocker III is author most recently of Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History. His comic novel, The Old Limey, and his book Robert E. Lee on Leadership are available in paperback.

Citadel of God ($14.95, paperback) is available from Ignatius Press.