By Patrick Callahan

Today the Piazza d’Aracoeli is a small row of umbrella pines and a bus station tucked below the Victor Emmanuel II Monument. Compared to the imposing white façade of this tomb of the unknown soldier, there is little to capture the imagination of tourists on their way north to the Piazza Venezia or up the broad steps of the Campidoglio to the Capitoline Museums and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

But for centuries it was the link between the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline and the flood plains of the Campus Flaminius. In 390 B.C., when Brennus and his Gauls had already sacked the rest of Rome, it was here that Marcus Manlius made his stand and tossed the assailants down the hill after being warned in the night by the honking of the sacred geese of Juno. Here Roman generals would have caught their first glimpse of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus atop the Capitoline Hill, the final destination of their triumphal parade. Here the Byzantines in their struggles with the Lombards established an abbey of the Greek rite in the sixth century. The pope replaced the Greeks with Benedictines in the ninth century. The Benedictines, in turn, were replaced by Franciscans in 1250. Later, during the time of the Black Death, the stairs connecting the piazza to the Franciscan basilica were constructed. Shortly thereafter, the foot of these stairs became the official spot for state executions under the rule of Cola di Rienzo, whose grim and hooded statue still looms over the spot. On these same stairs, on October 15, 1764, Edward Gibbon conceived of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

And here in 1551, along a row of cramped Roman hovels instead of pine trees and buses, André des Freux, SJ (1515–1556) gathered his pupils for a series of public lectures and the recital of his own original poetry to inaugurate the Collegium Romanum, today’s Pontifical Gregorian University. And he likely used those famous stairs to accommodate the vast crowds that flocked to the college. The college grew so quickly that by September of that same year Ignatius and Fr. Freux had to rent quarters for the Society and its college at what would become the Chiesa del Gesù, the mother church both of the Society of Jesus and of baroque architecture.

In those opening ceremonies of 1551, Fr. Freux, or Andreas Frusius as we find him called in his Latin works, had the difficult task of proving the philosophical and theological credentials of the Society during the heyday of the Council of Trent. He also had to prove that the new order could teach boys all the rudiments of grammar and learning that lead to these advanced studies and were the sine qua non of those who would distinguish themselves in the various courts and factions of that turbulent time. The Roman College was a completely integrated project from the grammar stage to advanced degrees. For Frusius—who was rector of the first three Jesuit universities in Messina (1548), Venice (1550), and Rome (1551)—the glue that bound all these disciplines was the study and practice of Latin.

It was Frusius who had translated Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises from Spanish into the standard Latin text that is the basis for all modern translations, making many emendations to the text to bring it up to the standards of Renaissance humanism. And it was Frusius who completed a Latin textbook, in four books of Latin verse. Students thus equipped could move on to his advanced work on Latin rhetorical style and diction composed in Latin elegiac couplets so that the students, as his title page promised, might more easily and joyfully be taught and the matter would more firmly be planted in the memory—ut facilius & iucundius edisci, ac memoriae quoque firmius inhærere. And it was Frusius who, upon completing his expurgated edition of the Roman wit Martial, produced his own set of over 200 epigrams against Protestants, the Epigrammata ad Haereticos. These Latin epigrams of Frusius remained popular among Catholics for nearly a century after their first recital in 1551. Later editions gravitated from Rome to university towns caught up in the Reformation struggles of the Low Lands: Cologne, Pont-à-Mousson, Douay, Antwerp.

By the time of Frusius’s death in 1556 there were already over seventy Jesuit colleges across the globe. And as the number of these colleges grew over the next century and a half to almost 750, it became necessary to set a fixed path of study in order to maintain consistency across this vast educational network. In 1599, the fusion of Thomistic scholasticism and Renaissance Latinity practiced by Frusius and the early Jesuits was codified across these colleges as the Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societas Jesu. Until the revision of the Ratio Studiorum in 1832, Latin remained the primary languages of both the texts studied and instruction.

Latin was not only the language of Jesuit studies but was the common tongue of correspondence and research from Japan to New France. Early Jesuits produced an astonishing number of original works in Latin. Many of these works were at the forefront of the humanistic and scientific endeavors of their day.

In theology, the early Jesuits boast two doctors of the Church: Peter Canisius (1521–1597) and Robert Bellarmine, SJ (1542–1621). Nor should we forget the name of Francisco Suárez, SJ (1548–1617) among the Counter-Reformation scholastics. In the study of Scripture, there are the New Testament commentaries of Alfonso Salmeron, SJ (1515–1585) and the magnum opus of Cornelius à Lapide, SJ (1567–1637), whose commentaries on the entirety of Sacred Scripture summarize the known commentary tradition from the Fathers through the seventeenth century. The Latin text of his commentaries remained in print and a standard in Catholic advanced studies through the first half of the twentieth century.

From the mission fields came detailed descriptions of foreign lands and peoples as well as dictionaries of many languages. Jesuit provincials faithfully lodged their Litterae Annuae with Rome on a quarterly basis so that the edifying work of the missions could be shared as widely as possible. Preeminent still is the work of Nicolas Trigault, SJ (1577–1628), who produced the Latin text of De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, “On the Christian expedition among the Chinese,” detailing Matteo Ricci’s missionary work and cultural observations.

But perhaps the most well-known representative of Jesuit learning and Latinity is Athanasius Kircher, SJ (1602–1680), known to his contemporaries and posterity as the Doctor Centum Artium, that is, the Master of a Hundred Arts or He Who Holds a Hundred PhDs. He wrote treatises on magnetism, Scripture, cartography, optics, geology, music, mathematics, history, astronomy, hydrology, and even the construction of advanced calculating machines.

By far the largest field of study still woefully neglected outside academia is the enormous corpus of Jesuit Latin poetry. It encompasses all genres: epic, plays, lyric, epigram, and many, many didactic pieces. If you would like to get some sense of the number and variety of authors, find a copy of the Parnassus Societas Jesu, a 1415-page anthology of some of these poets.

By far the greatest of these was Jakob Balde, SJ (1604–1668), the Horace of Germany. Unlike many neo-Latin poets, his Classicism and diction never grate. There is nothing contrived or stilted about him. He writes in the style of the antique Roman because it is the way he thought, at once both pithy and beautiful. His poetic imagination as seen in his four books of lyrics is astounding in terms of its range of topics and profundity. To give just a taste, here is his short lyric on a Sicilian Silkworm:

Fatis aguntur Terrigenae suis,
formose Bombyx. ortus, ut occidas
      Cum sole, cur primis repugnes
            Auspiciis, dubiamque reddas
Necessitatem? quae tamen omnibus
Corona rebus ponitur ultima.
      quod stas, quod is, quod vivis? hinc est:
            quodque itidem morieris; hinc est.

Children of Earth are driven by their Fates,
beautiful Silkworm. Born to die with the sun,
      why do you fight back against your first
      command? Why call into doubt
Necessity? She is the final crown
Laid on all things. How do you stand, how march,
      Or live? It comes from her.
      From her as well, how you must die.

The culture that produced the genius of a Balde began with the smallest of seeds. Today, the academic excellence and missionary drive of the Jesuits have planted universities and preparatory schools in their honor throughout the world. And it’s hard not to view the early beginnings of that educational dream through the lens of its later success.

But in the rented rooms on the Piazza d’Aracoeli, as he balanced duties as secretary of the Society, rector of the college, translator of the founder’s works, author and teacher, I wonder how Frusius might have received the words of his Master:

It is one man soweth, and it is another that reapeth.

alius est qui seminat, et alius est qui metit. (John 4:37)

Patrick Callahan is director of the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture and Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at St. Gregory the Great Seminary.

Five recommendations for further reading à la the late Fr. Schall.

  • The Jesuit Code of Liberal Education: Development and Scope of the Ratio Studiorum by Allan Farrell, SJ
  • Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France by Bronwen McShea
  • Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. by Paula Findlen
  • Jesuit Latin Poets of the 17th and 18th Centuries by James J. Mertz, SJ
  • Loyola’s Bees: Ideology and Industry in Jesuit Latin Didactic Poetry by Yasmin Haskell
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