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Licinian of Cartagena, Letters (2004).  Introduction

Licinian of Cartagena

Licinian was bishop of Cartagena in Spain, during the brief Byzantian restoration. His conversations with Pope Gregory I the Great (590-601) and Eutropius of Valencia (+610) place him in the second half of the sixth century. In this time, emperor Justinian I (527-565) sent his general Belisarius to reconquer the north coast of Africa on the Vandals. He also conquered a large part of coastal Spain (536), including the site of Cartagena, which had been destroyed earlier. The Byzantines rebuilt the city and made it an episcopal see again. Licinian was bishop during this period. The Byzantine rule over Cartagena ended in 674.

Isidore of Sevilla writes of Licinian in his Book on the illustrous writers of the Church (De viris illustribus sive de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis):

He was learned in the scriptures, and we can read a few of his letters. There is one about the sacrament of baptism, and several to Eutropius the abbot and later bishop of Valencia; but of his other writings and works very little has come to our notice.

He was famous in the time of Mauricius Augustus; he is buried in Constantinople, poisoned they say, murdered by a rival. But, as it is written, "He was well prepared for any death, his soul is at ease".

Only three of his letters survived to our times. The first, a letter by Licinian to Gregory the Great, about Gregory's Book of Rules (Regula pastoralis), can be found in the CCEL Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection.  The second letter is a treatise written in collaboration with Bishop Severus in which the spirituality and incorporeality of angels and human souls is defended against an unnamed bishop.  The letter is addressed to Epiphanius, the deacon of the bishop attacked. 

We can theorize that Licinian was sent from Byzantium to the newly reconstructed Cartagena. His eloquent style of writing and his conversations with some great thinkers, as well as the testimony of Isidore, make us suppose that he was a great mind. We can only imagine his exasperation with his less educated colleagues in Spain, as it is evident from his letter to Vincent, bishop of Ibiza.

The letter to Vincent of Ibiza

The letter translated below shows us Licinian struggling against superstition and credulity. Coming from the center of the known world (Byzantium) to its very edge he now lives among half-savages christianised by a clergy of low moral and intellectual standards. The story goes as follows.

A letter has turned up, found on an altar dedicated to Saint Peter, fallen from heaven it is said. The letter apparently claims to be written by Christ himself. The letter talks about honouring the day of the Lord in the Jewish fashion: working and travelling are not allowed. The text of this letter from heaven isn't preserved: Licinian destroyed his copy, and urged Vincent to do the same with his original. What we know of its contents comes from the bishops letter describing it.

It is interesting that this letter has turned up in a church dedicated to Saint Peter. In the early Christian church, Peter stood for a more Jewish interpretation of the New Testament, and this letter concerning Jewish ways of honouring the day of the Lord seems more or less to fit with his ideas. His opponent, Paul, who wanted to open Christianity to the gentiles, confronted him. This is referred to in Paul's letter to the Galatians, the letter quoted by Licinian at the end of our letter. Did Licinian destroy a genuine, important early church document? We shall probably never know.

The letter was probably longer and talked about more rules than just the working and travelling, but at this point Licinian stopped reading, indignified by the obvious heresies.

Vincent, having found or received this letter, and being superstitious and credulous, thought that he had received a real message from heaven, a prophecy, and had the letter read out to the people, thereby proclaiming it de facto as church law. He also sent a copy (or copies?) to his colleague(s?), to spread this new message from heaven. So it came into Licinian's hands.

The wise bishop, either suspecting a forgery or really believing it to be an important document, takes the letter from the messenger who brings it and starts reading it, without even dismissing the messenger. He immediately sees through it, destroys the letter without reading further and gets very angry. Without hesitating he writes to Vincent - perhaps this is why he hasn't dismissed the messenger. The letter is short and to the point, and seems to be written in haste. Licinian also mentions other 'tribulations' in his first sentence.

He scolds Vincent for believing such an obvious forgery, and for proclaiming it from the public rostrum. For by doing that, Vincent has become a false prophet and thus automatically excommunicated. Another reason for haste: an excommunicated bishop, even if he isn't aware of the fact and acts in good faith, cannot perform the proper rituals and is a danger to the entire community.

We also get an indication of Licinian's personality: he doesn't like dancing. It isn't the best of examples to use in such a letter, which strengthens my suspicion that the letter was written in haste. Or perhaps the island of Ibiza had a reputation for dancing long before our own time?

Licinian ends with a guideline to help Vincent in discerning between what is orthodox and what is not: the Old and New testament hold the entire Truth, and anything that goes against them is not to be believed.

Steven Van Impe

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This text was written by Steven Van Impe, 2004.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

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