Pastor Ethan's Blog
Friday, March 09 2018
This past Sunday I put on my ‘amateur history nerd’ hat and told a story from the earlier days of the Roman Republic. It was a compelling story to me when I first heard it, and in the past few days it has come back up in several conversations. So in case you missed it…
The year is 2016 BCE. For over a year, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal has been rampaging over Italy, after his famous crossing of the Alps (elephants and all). Finally, after almost two years of desperately trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Hannibal, the Romans have had enough, and field what was almost certainly the largest single army they had ever assembled. In what would come to be known as the battle of Cannae, on August the 2nd 216 BCE, the Romans were about to have their revenge. Significantly outnumbering the Carthaginians, and confident that they finally had Hannibal where they wanted him, the battle was joined. For generations historians have studied this decisive day, trying to understand what happened, for it seems like an impossibility. Rather than succumbing to the apparent odds that were stacked against him, Hannibal led his forces to absolutely shatter the Roman army. Of the ninety thousand Romans that took the field that morning, less than twenty thousand survived. It was quite possibly the single most deadly and bloody day in the history of humanity prior to the advent of gunpowder. Add to this the fact that Hannibal had already won two other decisive victories over the Romans in the previous two years, and the evidence was clear. Rome was finished. Anyone alive with any ability to understand what had happened would have instantly come to that conclusion. There was absolutely no reason for hope. The Roman experiment was done, laid waste of the fields of Cannae. No one would have held out any hope for Rome to survive. No one, that is, except the Romans.
In the aftermath of what would come to be known as the second Punic war, a famous historical saying arose about what happened after Cannae. It is credited to Quintus Ennius, the Roman poet who himself served in the second Punic war. In the midst of what should have been the inevitable doom of the Roman Republic, Ennius is to have famously said “The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider himself so.” In other words, you haven’t won the war unless your enemy admits- to himself - that he is defeated. To put this from the perspective of the supposedly vanquished, “we are never truly defeated until we believe that we are defeated.” And, it turns out, the Romans refused to believed that they were defeated. In the face immense fear and a tidal wave of evidence about their impending doom, the Romans refused to admit defeat. They had no army. No allies. No wealth. Few surviving leaders. They Romans had only one asset, but it was the only asset that ultimately mattered. Hope. One day at a time, the Romans simply never gave up. Within a generation, at the end of the third Punic war, Rome would not only have prevailed, but the Carthaginian empire would itself be totally destroyed, and Rome had emerged as the dominant military, financial, and cultural super power of its day.
When Paul wrote his famous “Love is” paragraph in 1 Corinthians 13, his last three attributes of love all point to the same powerful reality. Love always hopes, it always perseveres, and it never fails. Even in the face of overwhelming odds. The most common English translation of the end of verse seven puts it succinctly: Love endures. Always. Always always. All the time, in every circumstance, in every way, Agape panta hypomenei. Love always endures. As an educated man and Roman citizen, it is very possible that Paul was familiar with the story of Cannae. After all, it wasn’t much further back for him than the American Revolution is for us. Now, I doubt Paul would have ever used the Roman empire in an analogy about love. But I wonder, as Paul listened to the Holy Spirit direct his words, if this story might have come to mind. A story where absolute defeat gave way to victory, essentially because a generation of people refused to give up hope.
Growing with you in the Love of Christ,
Love… endures all things
1 Corinthians 13:7 (NASB)