In the year 357 A.D., twenty-seven years after the empire’s capital had been moved to Constantinople, the emperor Constantius II visited Rome. He was awed by its architectural splendor, which at that time was still substantially preserved. He visited the center of the city and the extensive suburbs; the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove, “transcendent to the same extent as heavenly things rise above those of earth” (quantum terrenis divina praecellunt); the extensive baths; the amphitheatres; the immortal Pantheon, “arched in high grandeur, like a smooth neighborhood” (velut regionem teretem speciosa celsitudine fornicatam), and whose lofty niches were still adorned with the statues of former emperors; the Forum of Peace; the Oleum; and all the other brilliant monuments of this venerable jewel of a city.
Constantius’s visit is described by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI.10.13). Ammianus tells us that a short dialogue took place between the emperor and one of his attendants at the Forum of Trajan. The complex of buildings and monuments at Trajan’s Forum was awe-inspiring: its greatness, says Ammianus, would “never again be gained by mortal man” (nec rursus mortalibus appetendos). The forum was built by Apollodorus of Athens, and contained numerous porticos, statues, a basilica, an arch with four fronts, the Ulpian Library, and a fabulously engraved column. The column is alone preserved today; but much of the forum is probably still buried beneath the churches of Santa Maria and Santa Maria de Loreto.
Constantius, beholding the marvelous scene before him, knew that duplicating it would be beyond his and Constantinople’s capabilities: it was far too technically advanced and burdensome in expenditure. So he resolved to copy only the equestrian statue of Trajan astride his horse, which stood at the center of the vestibule. Constantius turned to his attendant, a keenly perceptive Persian prince named Ormisda, and told him of this intention. The fact that a Persian could be found among the emperor’s inner circle gives us an idea of the surprising degree of upward mobility that the later empire could offer to the peoples with whom it came into contact. Ormisda replied as follows:
Before you construct such a statue of a horse, Your Highness, order a stable of similar dimensions to be built, if you can do this. And let the horse you intend to construct, roam as widely as this area here.
This was what he told the emperor. Then, when the emperor asked Ormisda what his impression were of Rome, the acute Persian answered, “Sire, it gives me satisfaction to know that men are mortal even here.” We can imagine that Constantius would have been unable to respond to this observation. But I think we should spend some words here discussing Ormisda’s comment about first constructing a suitable stable before a grand horse is placed within it. It seems to me that there is a good deal of wisdom expressed metaphorically within this statement: it demands a moral interpretation. Ormisda reminds his benefactor that one cannot care for a magnificent animal—a horse—before one has first constructed the edifice needed to maintain such a thing of beauty; to neglect this would mean that the animal would grow sick, wither, and become ruined.
And if we interpret Ormisda’s comment metaphorically, we can easily see that it refers to the acquisition and maintenance of wisdom, that greatest gift that may be bestowed on a man by Fortune. Its acquisition takes decades of experience and training, and is never fully complete: and we will never possess it, or reap its benefits, unless we have first build wisdom a suitable housing. Wisdom and the other virtues must be housed in adequate stables, where they may be nurtured and maintained. Knowledge and experience wither and die when they are given to minds incapable of using them; unless a man has a proper level of maturity, even wisdom’s gleaming gold and laurel wreaths will be bestowed on him in vain. For the suitable stable has not yet been prepared to house and maintain the gift. Building this stable is our task; and it is a lifelong enterprise. For as Petrarch says in a 1362 letter to Boccaccio of Certaldo,
“To have learned” something previously, is not the same thing as “to learn” it.
What Petrarch was trying to point out with this line is this: knowledge means different things to us at different periods of our lives. When a man has already learned something, and then has added life experience to this knowledge, the end result is a profound cementing and hardening of this knowledge, and the formation of a concrete as durable as that of the Pantheon’s immortal dome. But when someone is “learning” something in the present tense, at the present time, the knowledge will seem only as data to him; it will not yet have sunk into his soul. It has not yet been digested and become a part of him. He cannot be said “to know,” in the most profound sense.
Yet this initial stage of learning must never be neglected, as it is an essential part of the growth of wisdom. Even though the years of experience and maturity are not yet there, a youth must still force himself to be exposed to wisdom in all its forms: wisdom in knowledge, wisdom in beauty, and wisdom in physical health. This is so, because knowledge needs time to sink into the soul; even if it seems to be fall on a youth’s unreceptive ears, he will still retain something of it. And this seed of retention will germinate at some point in his life: all that it requires is the right conditions. Exposure to the right influences, exposure to true wisdom, must therefore be our responsibility and duty to our youth. We must provide them with the information and the tools so that they may be able to build, at the right moments in their lives, their own Stables of Wisdom to house their own Horses—just as Ormisda hinted at when he spoke to the emperor Constantius.
This is why it is vital for the youth to be kept busy, as much as possible, with activities that promote the “three wisdoms,” as I might call them, which are mentioned above (knowledge, beauty, and physical health). As the humanist Paolo Vergerio says in his 1402 treatise The Character and Studies Befitting a Freeborn Youth:
They [the youth] should always be kept busy with honest labors of the mind or body, for leisure makes them subservient to all kinds of lustfulness and intemperance…and therefore they must be forbidden to engage in, and as much as possible protected from, all foulness and nefarious moral corruption.
It is a crime to poison the mind of the youth with such rot; for youth is a precious, innocent thing, and must be allowed to develop without these kinds of pernicious distractions. Once misspent, it cannot be recovered. This is the fertile ground in which the seeds of the “three wisdoms” may be sown. With some minds, the seeds will sprout quickly; with others, there may be long delays; and with still other students, the seeds may seem to lie dormant for many decades. And yet we can never know when that correct combination of circumstances will arrive, and the dormant seeds may burst into life. When this happens, knowledge will combine with experience, and produce a plant of unshakeable durability, a gift of Nature bursting through the soil and rising towards the sun. When this happens, it may be said that the Stable has been constructed, and that the Horse has found a home.
Read more in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: