Pagan to Christian: The Transformation of Rome

The Battle of Milvian Bridge, by Giulio Romano, 1520-1524 / Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome

By Dr. Rodolfo Lanciani
Professor of Roman Topography (1878-1927)
Università di Roma

It has been contended, and many still believe, that in ancient Rome the doctrines of Christ found no proselytes, except among the lower and poorer classes of citizens. That is certainly a noble picture which represents the new faith as searching among the haunts of poverty and slavery, seeking to inspire faith, hope, and charity in their occupants; to transform them from things into human beings; to make them believe in the happiness of a future life; to alleviate their present sufferings; to redeem their children from shame and servitude; to proclaim them equal to their masters. But the gospel found its way also to the mansions of the masters, nay, even to the palace of the Cæsars. The discoveries lately made on this subject are startling, and constitute a new chapter in the history of imperial Rome. We have been used to consider early Christian history and primitive Christian art as matters of secondary importance, and hardly worthy the attention of the classical student. Thus, none of the four or five hundred volumes on the topography of ancient Rome speaks of the basilicas raised by Constantine; of the church of S. Maria Antiqua, built side by side with the Temple of Vesta, the two worships dwelling together as it were, for nearly a century; of the Christian burial-grounds; of the imperial mausoleum near S. Peter’s; of the porticoes, several miles in length, which led from the centre of the city to the churches of S. Peter, S. Paul, and S. Lorenzo; of the palace of the Cæsars transformed into the residence of the Popes. Why should these constructions of monumental and historical character be expelled from the list of classical buildings? and why should we overlook the fact that many great names in the annals of the empire are those of members of the Church, especially when the knowledge of their conversion enables us to explain events that had been, up to the latest discoveries, shrouded in mystery?

It is a remarkable fact that the record of some of these events should be found, not in church annals, calendars, or itineraries, but in passages in the writings of pagan annalists and historians. Thus, in ecclesiastical documents no mention is made of the conversion of the two Domitillæ, or Flavius Clemens, or Petronilla, all of whom were relatives of the Flavian emperors; and of the Acilii Glabriones, the noblest among the noble, as Herodianus calls them (2, 3). Their fortunes and death are described only by the Roman historians and biographers of the time of Domitian. It seems that when the official feriale, or calendar, was resumed, after the end of the persecutions, preference was given to names of those confessors and martyrs whose deeds were still fresh in the memory of the living, and of necessity little attention was paid to those of the first and second centuries, whose acts either had not been written down, or had been lost during the persecutions.

As the crypt of the Acilii Glabriones on the Via Salaria has become one of the chief places of attraction, since its re-discovery in 1888, I cannot begin this volume under better auspices than by giving an account of this important event.[2]

In exploring that portion of the Catacombs of Priscilla which lies under the Monte delle Gioie, near the entrance from the Via Salaria, de Rossi observed that the labyrinth of the galleries converged towards an original crypt, shaped like a Greek Γ (Gamma), and decorated with frescoes. The desire of finding the name and the history of the first occupants of this noble tomb, whose memory seems to have been so dear to the faithful, led the explorers to carefully sift the earth which filled the place; and their pains were rewarded by the discovery of a fragment of a marble coffin, inscribed with the letters: ACILIO GLABRIONI FILIO

Tablet of Acilius Glabrio

Did this fragment really belong to the Γ crypt, or had it been thrown there by mere chance? And in case of its belonging to the crypt, was it an isolated record, or did it belong to a group of graves of the Acilii Glabriones? The queries were fully answered by later discoveries; four inscriptions, naming Manius Acilius … and his wife Priscilla, Acilius Rufinus, Acilius Quintianus, and Claudius Acilius Valerius were found among the débris, so that there is no doubt as to the ownership of the crypt, and of the chapel which opens at the end of the longer arm of the Γ.

The Manii Acilii Glabriones attained celebrity in the sixth century of Rome, when Acilius Glabrio, consul in 563 (b. c. 191), conquered the Macedonians at the battle of Thermopylai. We have in Rome two records of his career: the Temple of Piety, erected by him on the west side of the Forum Olitorium, now transformed into the church of S. Nicola in Carcere; and the pedestal of the equestrian statue, of gilt bronze, offered to him by his son, the first of its kind ever seen in Italy, which was discovered by Valadier in 1808, at the foot of the steps of the temple, and buried again. Towards the end of the republic we find them established on the Pincian Hill, where they had built a palace and laid out gardens which extended at least from the convent of the Trinità dei Monti to the Villa Borghese.[3] The family had grown so rapidly to honor, splendor, and wealth, that Pertinax, in the memorable sitting of the Senate in which he was elected emperor, proclaimed them the noblest race in the world.

The Glabrio best known in the history of the first century is Manius Acilius, who was consul with Trajan, a. d. 91. He was put to death by Domitian in the year 95, as related by Suetonius (Domit. 10): “He caused several senators and ex-consuls to be executed on the charge of their conspiring against the empire,—quasi molitores rerum novarum,—among them Civica Cerealis, governor of Asia, Salvidienus Orfitus, and Acilius Glabrio, who had previously been banished from Rome.”

The expression molitores rerum novarum has a political meaning in the case of Cerealis and Orfitus, both staunch pagans, and a religious and political one in the case of Glabrio, a convert to the Christian faith, called nova superstitio by Suetonius and Tacitus. Other details of Glabrio’s fate are given by Dion Cassius, Juvenal, and Fronto. We are told by these authors that during his consulship, a. d. 91, and before his banishment, he was compelled by Domitian to fight against a lion and two bears in the amphitheatre adjoining the emperor’s villa at Albanum. The event created such an impression in Rome, and its memory lasted so long that, half a century later, we find it given by Fronto as a subject for a rhetorical composition to his pupil Marcus Aurelius. The amphitheatre is still in existence, and was excavated in 1887. Like the one at Tusculum, it is partly hollowed out of the rocky side of the mountain, partly built of stone and rubble work. It well deserves a visit from the student and the tourist, on account of its historical associations, and of the admirable view which its ruins command of the vine-clad slopes of Albano and Castel Savello, the wooded plains of Ardea and Lavinium, the coast of the Tyrrhenian, and the islands of Pontia and Pandataria.

Xiphilinus states that, in the year 95, some members of the imperial family were condemned by Domitian on the charge of atheism, together with other leading personages who had embraced “the customs and persuasion of the Jews,” that is, the Christian faith. Manius Acilius Glabrio, the ex-consul, was implicated in the same trial, and condemned on the same indictment with the others. Among these the historian mentions Clemens and Domitilla, who were manifestly Christians. One particular of the case, related by Juvenal, confirms the account of Xiphilinus. He says that in order to mitigate the wrath of the emperor and avoid a catastrophe, Acilius Glabrio, after fighting the wild beasts at Albanum, assumed an air of stupidity. In this alleged stupidity it is easy to recognize the prejudice so common among the pagans, to whom the Christians’ retirement from the joys of the world, their contempt of public honors, and their modest behavior appeared as contemptissima inertia, most despicable laziness. This is the very phrase used by Suetonius in speaking of Flavius Clemens, who was murdered by Domitian ex tenuissima suspicione, on a very slight suspicion of his faith.

Map of the Via Salaria

Glabrio was put to death in his place of exile, the name of which is not known. His end helped, no doubt, the propagation of the gospel among his relatives and descendants, as well as among the servants and freedmen of the house, as shown by the noble sarcophagi and the humbler loculi found in such numbers in the crypt of the Catacombs of Priscilla. The small oratory at the southern end of the crypt seems to have been consecrated exclusively to the memory of its first occupant, the ex-consul. The date and the circumstances connected with the translation of his relics from the place of banishment to Rome are not known.

Both the chapel and the crypt were found in a state of devastation hardly credible, as though the plunderers had taken pleasure in satisfying their vandalic instincts to the utmost. Each of the sarcophagi was broken into a hundred pieces; the mosaics of the walls and ceiling had been wrenched from their sockets, cube by cube, the marble incrustations torn off, the altar dismantled, the bones dispersed.

When did this wholesale destruction take place? In times much nearer ours than the reader may imagine. I have been able to ascertain the date, with the help of an anecdote related by Pietro Sante Bartoli in § 144 of his archæological memoirs: “Excavations were made under Innocent X. (1634-1655), and Clement IX. (1667-1670), in the Monte delle Gioie, on the Via Salaria, with the hope of discovering a certain hidden treasure. The hope was frustrated; but, deep in the bowels of the mound, some crypts were found, encrusted with white stucco, and remarkable for their neatness and preservation. I have heard from trustworthy men that the place is haunted by spirits, as is proved by what happened to them not many months ago. While assembled on the Monte delle Gioie for a picnic, the conversation turned upon the ghosts who haunted the crypt below, when suddenly the carriage which had brought them there, pushed by invisible hands, began to roll down the slope of the hill, and was ultimately precipitated into the river Anio at its base. Several oxen had to be used to haul the vehicle out of the stream. This happened to Tabarrino, butcher at S. Eustachio, and to his brothers living in the Via Due Macelli, whose faces still bear marks of the great terror experienced that day.”

There is no doubt that the anecdote refers to the tomb of the Acilii Glabriones, which is cut under the Monte delle Gioie, and is the only one in the Catacombs of Priscilla remarkable for a coating of white stucco. Its destruction, therefore, took place under Clement IX., and was the work of treasure-hunters. And the very nature of clandestine excavations, which are the work of malicious, ignorant, and suspicious persons, explains the reason why no mention of the discovery was made to contemporary archæologists, and the pleasure of re-discovering the secret of the Acilii Glabriones was reserved for us. These are by no means the only patricians of high standing whose names have come to light from the depths of the catacombs. Tacitus (Annal. xiii. 32) tells how Pomponia Græcina, wife of Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, was accused of “foreign superstition,” tried by her husband, and acquitted. These words long since gave rise to a conjecture that Pomponia Græcina was a Christian, and recent discoveries put it beyond doubt. An inscription bearing the name of ΠΟΜΠΟΝΙΟC ΓΡΗΚΕΙΝΟC has been found in the Cemetery of Callixtus, together with other records of the Pomponii Attici and Bassi. Some scholars think that Græcina, the wife of the conqueror of Britain, is no other than Lucina, the Christian matron who interred her brethren in Christ in her own property, at the second milestone of the Appian Way.

Other evidence of the conquests made by the gospel among the patricians is given by an inscription discovered in March, 1866, in the Catacombs of Prætextatus, near the monument of Quirinus the martyr. It is a memorial raised to the memory of his departed wife by Postumius Quietus, consul a. d. 272. Here also was found the name of Urania, daughter of Herodes Atticus, by his second wife, Vibullia Alcia,[4] while on the other side of the road, near S. Sebastiano, a mausoleum has been found, on the architrave of which the name URANIOR[UM] is engraved.

I shall have occasion to refer to many Christian relatives of the emperors Vespasian and Domitian. Eusebius, in speaking of these Flavians, and particularly of Domitilla the younger, niece of Domitian, quotes the authority of the historian Bruttius. He evidently means Bruttius Præsens, the illustrious friend of Pliny the younger, and the grandfather of Crispina, the empress of Commodus. In 1854, near the entrance to the crypt of the Flavians, at Torre Marancia (Via Ardeatina), a fragment of a sarcophagus was found, with the name of Bruttius Crispinus. If, therefore, the history of Domitilla’s martyrdom was written by the grandfather of Bruttia Crispina, the empress, it seems probable that the two families were united not only by the close proximity of their villas and tombs, and by friendship, but especially by community of religion.

I may also cite the names of several Cornelii, Cæcilii, and Æmilii, the flower of Roman nobility, grouped near the graves of S. Cæcilia and Pope Cornelius; of Liberalis, a consul suffectus,[5] and a martyr, whose remains were buried in the Via Salaria; of Jallia Clementina, a relative of Jallius Bassus, consul before a. d. 161; of Catia Clementina, daughter or relative of Catius, consul a. d. 230, not to speak of personages of equestrian rank, whose names have been collected in hundreds.

A difficulty may arise in the mind of the reader: how was it possible for these magistrates, generals, consuls, officers, senators, and governors of provinces, to attend to their duties without performing acts of idolatry? In chapter xxxvii. of the Apology, Tertullian says: “We are but of yesterday, yet we fill every place that belongs to you, cities, islands, outposts; we fill your assemblies, camps, tribes and decuries; the imperial palace, the Senate, the forum; we only leave to you your temples.” But here lies the difficulty; how could they fill these places, and leave the temples?

First of all, the Roman emperors gave plenty of liberty to the new religion from time to time; and some of them, moved by a sort of religious syncretism, even tried to ally it with the official worship of the empire, and to place Christ and Jupiter on the steps of the same lararium. The first attempt of the kind is attributed to Tiberius; he is alleged to have sent a message to the Senate requesting that Christ should be included among the gods, on the strength of the official report written by Pontius Pilatus of the passion and death of our Lord. Malala says that Nero made honest inquiries about the new religion, and that, at first, he showed himself rather favorable towards it; a fact not altogether improbable, if we take into consideration the circumstances of Paul’s appeal, his absolution, and his relations with Seneca, and with the converts de domo Cæsaris, “of the house of Cæsar.” Lampridius, speaking of the religious sentiments of Alexander Severus, says: “He was determined to raise a temple to Christ, and enlisted him among the gods; a project attributed also to Hadrian. There is no doubt that Hadrian ordered temples to be erected in every city to an unknown god; and because they have no statue we still call them temples of Hadrian. He is said to have prepared them for Christ; but to have been deterred from carrying his plan into execution by the consideration that the temples of the old gods would become deserted, and the whole population turn Christian, omnes christianos futuros.”[6]

The freedom enjoyed by the Church under Caracalla is proved by the graffiti of the Domus Gelotiana, described in my “Ancient Rome.”[7] The one caricaturing the crucifixion, which is reproduced on p. 122 of that volume, stands by no means alone in certifying to the spreading of the faith in the imperial palace. The name of Alexamenos, “the faithful,” is repeated thrice. There is also a name, LIBANUS, under which another hand has written EPISCOPUS, and, lower down, LIBANUS EPI[SCOPUS]. It is very likely a joke on Libanus, a Christian page like Alexamenos, whom his fellow-disciples had nicknamed “the bishop.” It is true that the title is not necessarily Christian, having been used sometimes to denote a municipal officer;[8] but this can hardly be the case in an assembly of youths, like the one of the Domus Gelotiana; and the connection between the graffiti of Libanus and those of Alexamenos seems evident. In reading these graffiti, now very much injured by dampness, exposure, and the unscrupulous hands of tourists, we are really witnessing household quarrels between pagan and Christian dwellers in the imperial palace, in one of which Caracalla, when still young, saw one of his playmates struck and punished on account of his Christian origin and persuasion.

Septimius Severus and Caracalla issued a constitution,[9] which opened to the Jews the way to the highest honors, making the performance of such ceremonies as were in opposition to the principles of their faith optional with them. What was granted to the Jews by the law of the empire may have been permitted also to the Christians by the personal benevolence of the emperors.

Portrait bust of Philip the Younger / Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Nuovo, Hall of the Emperors, Rome

When Elagabalus collected, or tried to collect, in his own private chapel the gods and the holiest relics of the universe, he did not forget Christ and his doctrine.[10] Alexander Severus, the best of Roman rulers, gave full freedom to the Church; and once, the Christians having taken possession of a public place on which the popinarii, or tavern-keepers, claimed rights, Alexander gave judgment in favor of the former, saying it was preferable that the place should serve for divine worship, rather than for the sale of drinks.[11]

There can scarcely be any doubt that the emperor Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus, a. d. 244), his wife Otacilia Severa, and his son Philip the younger were Christians, and friends of S. Hippolytus. Still, in spite of these periods of peace and freedom of the Church, we cannot be blind to the fact that for a Christian nobleman wishing to make a career, the position was extremely hazardous. Hence we frequently see baptism deferred until mature or old age, and strange situations and even acts of decided apostasy created by mixed marriages.

The wavering between public honors and Christian retirement is illustrated by some incidents in the life of Licentius, a disciple of S. Augustine. Licentius was the son of Romanianus, a friend and countryman of Augustine; and when the latter retired to the villa of Verecundus, after his conversion, in the year 386, Licentius, who had attended his lectures on eloquence at Milan, followed him to his retreat. He appears as one of the speakers in the academic disputes which took place in the villa.[12] In 396, Licentius, who had followed his master to Africa, seduced by the hopes of a brilliant career, determined to settle in Rome. Augustine, deeply grieved at losing his beloved pupil, wrote to call him back, and entreated him to turn his face from the failing promises of the world. The appeal had no effect, and no more had the epistles, in prose and verse, addressed to him for the same purpose by Paulinus of Nola. Licentius, after finishing the course of philosophy, being scarcely a catechumen, and a very unsteady one at that, entered a career for public honors. Paulinus of Nola describes him as aiming not only at a consulship, but also at a pagan pontificate, and reproaches and pities him for his behavior. After this, we lose sight of Licentius in history, but a discovery made at S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura in December, 1862, tells us the end of the tale. A marble sarcophagus was found, containing his body, and his epitaph. This shows that Licentius died in Rome in 406, after having reached the end of his desires, a place in the Senate; and that he died a Christian, and was buried near the tomb of S. Lorenzo. This sarcophagus, hardly noticed by visitors in spite of its great historical associations, is preserved in the vestibule of the Capitoline Museum.

Inscription found near the Porta del Popolo, 1877

As regards mixed marriages, a discovery made in 1877, near the Porta del Popolo, has revealed a curious state of things. In demolishing one of the towers by which Sixtus IV. had flanked that gate, we found a fragment of an inscription of the second century, containing these strange and enigmatic words: “If any one dare to do injury to this structure, or to otherwise disturb the peace of her who is buried inside, because she, my daughter, has been [or has appeared to be] a pagan among the pagans, and a Christian among the Christians” … Here followed the specification of the penalties which the violator of the tomb would incur. It was thought at first that the phrase quod inter fedeles fidelis fuit, inter alienos pagana fuit had been dictated by the father as a jocose hint of the religious inconsistency of the girl; but such an explanation can hardly be accepted. A passage of Tertullian in connection with mixed marriages leads us to the true understanding of the epitaph. In the second book Ad Uxorem, Tertullian describes the state of habitual apostasy to which Christian girls marrying gentiles willingly exposed or submitted themselves, especially when the husband was kept in ignorance of the religion of the bride. He mentions the risks they would incur of betraying their conscience by accompanying their husbands to state or civil ceremonies, thus sanctioning acts of idolatry by the mere fact of their presence. In the book De Corona, he concludes his argument with the words: “These are the reasons why we do not marry infidels, because such marriages lead us back to idolatry and superstition.” The girl buried on the Via Flaminia, by the modern Porta del Popolo, must have been born of a Christian mother and a good-natured pagan father; still, it seems hardly consistent with the respect which the ancients had for tombs that he should be allowed to write such extraordinary words on that of his own daughter.

We must not believe, however, that gentiles and Christians lived always at swords’ points. Italians in general, and Romans in particular, are noted for their great tolerance in matters of religion, which sometimes degenerates into apathy and indifference. Whether it be a sign of feebleness of character, or of common sense, the fact is, that religious feuds have never been allowed to prevail among us. In no part of the world have the Jews enjoyed more freedom and tolerance than in the Roman Ghetto. The same feelings prevailed in imperial Rome, except for occasional outbursts of passion, fomented by the official persecutors.

Inscription in a tomb of the Via Severiana at Ostia

An inscription was discovered at Ostia, in January, 1867, in a tomb of the Via Severiana, of which I append an accurate copy.

The tomb and the inscription are purely pagan, as shown by the invocation to the infernal gods, Diis Manibus. This being the case, how can we account for the names of Paul and Peter, which, taken separately, give great probability, and taken together give almost absolute certainty, of having been adopted in remembrance of the two apostles? One circumstance may help us to explain the case: the preference shown for the name of Paul over that of Peter; the former was borne by both father and son, the latter appears only as a surname given to the son. This fact is not without importance, if we recollect that the two men who show such partiality for the name of Paul belong to the family of Anneus Seneca, the philosopher, whose friendship with the apostle has been made famous by a tradition dating at least from the beginning of the fourth century. The tradition rests on a foundation of truth. The apostle was tried and judged in Corinth by the proconsul Marcus Anneus Gallio, brother of Seneca; in Rome he was handed over to Afranius Burro, prefect of the prætorium, and an intimate friend of Seneca. We know, also, that the presence of the prisoner, and his wonderful eloquence in preaching the new faith, created a profound sensation among the members of the prætorium and of the imperial household. His case must have been inquired into by the philosopher himself, who happened to be consul suffectus at the time. The modest tombstone, discovered by accident among the ruins of Ostia, gives us the evidence of the bond of sympathy and esteem established, in consequence of these events, between the Annei and the founders of the Church in Rome.

Its resemblance to the name of the Annei reminds me of another remarkable discovery connected with the same city, and with the same question. There lived at Ostia, towards the middle of the second century, a manufacturer of pottery and terracottas, named Annius Ser……, whose lamps were exported to many provinces of the empire. These lamps are generally ornamented with the image of the Good Shepherd; but they show also types which are decidedly pagan, such as the labors of Hercules, Diana the huntress, etc. It has been surmised that Annius Ser…… was converted to the gospel, and that the adoption of the symbolic figure of the Redeemer on his lamps was a result of his change of religion; but to explain the case it is not necessary to accept this theory. I believe he was a pagan, and that the lamps with the Good Shepherd were produced by him to order, and from a design supplied to him by a member of the local congregation.

Lamp of Annius Ser…… with figure of the Good Shepherd

Another question concerning the behavior of early Christians has reference to their military service under the imperial eagles, and to the cases of conscience which may have arisen from it. On this I may refer the reader to the works of Mamachi, Lami, Baumgarten, Le Blant, and de Rossi,[13] who have discussed the subject thoroughly. Speaking from the point of view of material evidence, I have to record several discoveries which prove that officers and men of the cohortes prætoriæ and urbanæ could serve with equal loyalty their God and their sovereign.

In November, 1885, I was present at the discovery of a marble sarcophagus in the military burial-grounds of the Via Salaria, opposite the gate of the Villa Albani. It bore two inscriptions, one on the lid, the other on the body. The first defies interpretation;[14] the second mentions the name of a little girl, Publia Ælia Proba, who was the daughter of a captain of the ninth battalion of the prætorians, and a lady named Clodia Plautia. They were all Christians; but for a reason unknown to us, they avoided making a show of their persuasion, and were buried among the gentiles.

Another stray Christian military tomb, erected by a captain of the sixth battalion, named Claudius Ingenuus, was found, in 1868, in the Vigna Grandi, near S. Sebastiano. Here also we find the intention of avoiding an open profession of faith. A regular cemetery of Christian prætorians was found in the spring of the same year by Marchese Francesco Patrizi, in his villa adjoining the prætorian camp. It is neither large nor interesting, and it seems to prove that the gospel must have made but few proselytes in the imperial barracks.

We must not believe that the transformation of Rome from a pagan into a Christian city was a sudden and unexpected event, which took the world by surprise. It was the natural result of the work of three centuries, brought to maturity under Constantine by an inevitable reaction against the violence of Diocletian’s rule. It was not a revolution or a conversion in the true sense of these words; it was the official recognition of a state of things which had long ceased to be a secret. The moral superiority of the new doctrines over the old religions was so evident, so overpowering, that the result of the struggle had been a foregone conclusion since the age of the first apologists. The revolution was an exceedingly mild one, the transformation almost imperceptible. No violence was resorted to, and the tolerance and mutual benevolence so characteristic of the Italian race was adopted as the fundamental policy of State and Church.

The transformation may be followed stage by stage in both its moral and material aspect. There is not a ruin of ancient Rome that does not bear evidence of the great change. Many institutions and customs still flourishing in our days are of classical origin, and were adopted, or tolerated, because they were not in opposition to Christian principles. Beginning with the material side of the question, the first monument to which I have to refer is the Arch of Constantine, raised in 315 at the foot of the Palatine, where the Via Triumphalis diverges from the Sacra Via.

Arch of Constantine / Photo by Alexander Z., Wikimedia Commons

The importance of this arch, from the point of view of the question treated in this chapter, rests not on its sculptured panels and medallions,—spoils taken at random from older structures, from which the arch has received the nickname of Æsop’s crow (la cornacchia di Esopo),—but on the inscription engraved on each side of the attic. “The S. P. Q. R. have dedicated this triumphal arch to Constantine, because instinctu divinitatis (by the will of God), and by his own virtue, etc., he has liberated the country from the tyrant [Maxentius] and his faction.” The opinion long prevailed among archæologists that the words instinctu divinitatis were not original, but added after Constantine’s conversion. Cardinal Mai thought that the original formula was diis faventibus, “by the help of the gods,” while Henzen suggested nutu Iovis optimi maximi, “by the will of Jupiter.” Cavedoni was the first to declare that the inscription had never been altered, and that the two memorable words—the first proclaiming officially the name of the true God in the face of imperial Rome—belonged to the original text, sanctioned by the Senate. The controversy was settled in 1863, when Napoleon III. obtained from the Pope the permission to make a plaster cast of the arch. With the help of the scaffolding, the scholars of the time examined the inscription, the shape of each letter, the holes of the bolts by which the gilt-bronze letters were fastened, the joints of the marble blocks, the color and quality of the marble, and decided unanimously that the inscription had never been tampered with, and that none of its letters had been changed.

The arch was raised in 315. Was Constantine openly professing his faith at that time? Opinions are divided. Some think he must have waited until the defeat of Licinius in 323; others suggest the year 311 as a more probable date of his profession. The supporters of the first theory quote in its favor the fact that the pagan symbols and images of gods appear on coins struck by Constantine and his sons; but this fact is easily explained, when we consider that the coinage of bronze was a privilege of the Senate, and that the Senate was pagan by a large majority. Many of Constantine’s constitutions and official letters speak in favor of an early declaration of faith. When the Donatists appealed to him from the verdict of the councils of Arles and Rome, he wrote to the bishops: Meum judicium postulant, qui ipse judicium Christi expecto: “They appeal to me, when I myself must be judged by Christ.” The verdict of the council of Rome against the sectarians was rendered on October 2, 313, in the “palace of Fausta in the Lateran;” the imperial palace of the Lateran, therefore, had already been handed over to the bishop of Rome, and a portion of it turned into a place of worship. The basilica of the Lateran still retains its title of “Mother and head of all churches of Rome, and of the world,” ranking above those of S. Peter and S. Paul in respect to age.

Such being the state of affairs when the triumphal arch was erected, nothing prevents us from believing those two words to be original, and to express the relations then existing between the first Christian emperor and the old pagan Senate. At all events, nothing is more uncompromising than these two words, because the titles of Deus summus, Deus altissimus, magnus, æternus, are constantly found on monuments pertaining to the worship of Atys and Mithras. “These words,” concludes de Rossi, “far from being a profession of Christianity engraved on the arch at a later period, are simply a ‘moyen terme,’ a compromise, between the feelings of the Senate and those of the emperor.”[15]

Many facts related by contemporary documents prove that the change of religion was, at the beginning, a personal affair with the emperor, and not a question of state; the emperor was a Christian, but the old rules of the empire were not interfered with. In dealing with his pagan subjects Constantine showed so much tact and impartiality as to cast doubts upon the sincerity of his conversion. He has been accused of having accepted from the people of Hispellum (Spello, in Umbria), the honor of a temple, and from the inhabitants of Roman Africa that of a priesthood for the worship of his own family (sacerdotium Flaviæ gentis). The exculpation is given by Constantine himself in his address of thanks to the Hispellates: “We are pleased and grateful for your determination to raise a temple in honor of our family and of ourselves; and we accept it, provided you do not contaminate it with superstitious practices.” The honor of a temple and of a priesthood, therefore, was offered and accepted as a political demonstration, as an act of loyalty, and as an occasion for public festivities, both inaugural and anniversary.

Picture of Orpheus found in the Catacombs of Priscilla

In accepting rites and customs which were not offensive to her principles and morality, the Church showed equal tact and foresight, and contributed to the peaceful accomplishment of the transformation. These rites and customs, borrowed from classical times, are nowhere so conspicuous as in Rome. Giovanni Marangoni, a scholar of the last century, wrote a book on this subject which is full of valuable information.[16] The subject is so comprehensive, and in a certain sense so well known, that I must satisfy myself by mentioning only a few particulars connected with recent discoveries. First, as to symbolic images allowed in churches and cemeteries. Of Orpheus playing on the lyre, while watching his flock, as a substitute for the Good Shepherd, there have been found in the catacombs four paintings, two reliefs on sarcophagi, one engraving on a gem. Here is the latest representation discovered, from the Catacombs of Priscilla (1888).

The Four Seasons, from the Imperial Palace, Ostia

The belief that the sibyls had prophesied the advent of Christ made their images popular. The church of the Aracœli is particularly associated with them, because tradition refers the origin of its name to an altar—ARA PRIMOGENITI DEI—raised to the son of God by the emperor Augustus, who had been warned of his advent by the sibylline books. For this reason the figures of Augustus and of the Tiburtine sibyl are painted on either side of the arch above the high altar. They have actually been given the place of honor in this church; and formerly, when at Christmas time the Presepio was exhibited in the second chapel on the left, they occupied the front row, the sibyl pointing out to Augustus the Virgin and the Bambino who appeared in the sky in a halo of light. The two figures, carved in wood, have now disappeared; they were given away or sold thirty years ago, when a new set of images was offered to the Presepio by prince Alexander Torlonia. Prophets and sibyls appear also in Renaissance monuments; they were modelled by della Porta in the Santa Casa at Loretto, painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel, by Raphael in S. Maria della Pace, by Pinturicchio in the Borgia apartments, engraved by Baccio Baldini, a contemporary of Sandro Botticelli, and “graffite” by Matteo di Giovanni in the pavement of the Duomo at Siena.

The images of the Four Seasons are not uncommon on Christian sarcophagi. The latest addition to this class of subjects is to be found in the church of S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane. Four medallions of polychrome mosaic, representing the Hiems, Ver, Æstas, and Autumnus, discovered in the so-called imperial palace at Ostia, were inserted in the pavement of this church by order of Pius IX. Galenus and Hippokrates, manipulating medicines and cordials, were painted in the lower basilica at Anagni, Hermes Trismegistos was represented in mosaic in the Duomo of Siena, the labors of Hercules were carved in ivory in the cathedra of S. Peter’s. Montfaucon describes the tomb of the poet Sannazzaro in the church of the Olivetans, Naples, as ornamented with the statues of Apollo and Minerva, and with groups of satyrs. In the eighteenth century the ecclesiastical authorities tried to give a less profane aspect to the composition, by engraving the name of David under the Apollo, and of Judith under the Minerva. Another mixture of sacred and profane conceptions is to be found in the names of some of our Roman churches,—as S. Maria in Minerva, S. Stefano del Cacco (Kynokephalos), S. Lorenzo in Matuta, S. Salvatore in Tellure, all conspicuous landmarks in the history of the transformation of Rome.

I shall mention one more instance. The portrait bust of S. Paul, of silver gilt, from the chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum, was loaded with gems and intaglios of Greek or Græco-Roman workmanship, among which was a magnificent cameo with the portrait-head of Nero, which had been worn, most probably, by the very murderer of the apostle.[17]

Ancient Candelabrum in the church of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo.

I need not describe the acceptance and development of this tradition by the Church. To it we are indebted for the inexhaustible wealth in works of art of every kind, of which Italy is so proud. But in the period which elapsed between the fall of the empire and the foundation of the Cosmati school, the Christians were compelled, by the want of contemporary productions, to borrow works of art and decorative fragments from temples, palaces, and tombs. The gallery of the Candelabra, in the Vatican museum, has been formed mostly of specimens formerly set up in churches. The accompanying cut represents the candelabrum still existing in the church of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, one of the most exquisite and delicate works of the kind. The Biga, or two-horse chariot, in the Vatican, was used for centuries as an episcopal throne in the choir of S. Mark’s. In the church of the Aracœli there was an altar dedicated to Isis by some one who had returned safely from a perilous journey. This bore the conventional emblem of two footprints, which were believed by the Christians to be the footprints of the angel seen by Gregory the Great on the summit of Hadrian’s tomb. Philip de Winghe describes them as those of a puer quinquennis, a boy five years old.[18] This curious relic has been removed to the Capitoline Museum.

The indifference with which these profane and sometimes offensive works were admitted within sacred edifices is astonishing. The high altar in the church of S. Teodoro was supported, until 1703, by a round ara, on the rim of which the following words are now engraved: “On this marble of the gentiles incense was offered to the gods.” Another altar, in the church of S. Michele in Borgo, was covered with bas-reliefs and legends belonging to the superstition of Cybele and Atys; a third, in the church of the Aracœli, had been dedicated to the goddess Annona by an importer of wheat. The pavement of the basilica of S. Paul was patched with nine hundred and thirty-one miscellaneous inscriptions; and so were those of S. Martino ai Monti, S. Maria in Trastevere, SS. Giovanni e Paolo, etc. We have one specimen left of these inscribed pavements in the church of SS. Quattro Coronati on the Cælian, which may be called an epigraphic museum.


The Templum Sacræ Urbis (SS. Cosma e Damiano)

in many instances, the pagan decorations of those buildings were not affected by the change. When Felix IV. took possession of the templum sacræ urbis, and dedicated it to SS. Cosma and Damianus, the walls of the building were covered with incrustations of the time of Septimius Severus representing the wolf and other profane emblems. Pope Felix not only accepted them as an ornament to his church, but tried to copy them in the apse which he rebuilt. The same process was followed by Pope Simplicius (a. d. 468-483), in transforming the basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline into the church of S. Andrea.[19] The faithful, raising their eyes towards the tribune, could see the figures of Christ and his apostles in mosaic; turning to the side walls, they could see Nero, Galba, and six other Roman emperors, Diana hunting the stag, Hylas stolen by the nymphs, Cybele on the chariot drawn by lions, a lion attacking a centaur, the chariot of Apollo, figures performing mysterious Egyptian rites, and other such profanities, represented in opus sectile marmoreum, a sort of Florentine mosaic. This unique set of intarsios was destroyed in the sixteenth century by the French Antonian monks for a reason worth relating. They believed that the glutinous substance by which the layer of marble or mother-of-pearl was kept fast was an excellent remedy against the ague; hence every time one of them was attacked by fever, a portion of those marvellous works was sacrificed. Fever must have raged quite fiercely among the French monks, because when this wanton practice was stopped, only four pictures were left. Two are now preserved in the church of S. Antonio, in the chapel of the saint; two in the Palazzo Albani del Drago alle Quattro Fontane, on the landing of the stairs.[20]


Mosaic (left) from the church of S. Andrea (right)

Intarsios of the same kind have been seen and described in the basilica of S. Croce in Gerusalemme, in the church of S. Stefano Rotondo, in that of S. Adriano, etc. When the offices adjoining the Senate Hall were transformed into the church of S. Martina, the side walls were adorned with the bas-reliefs of the triumphal arch of M. Aurelius, now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (first landing, nos. 42, 43, 44). One of them is representing the emperor sacrificing before the Temple of Jupiter.

The decoration of the churches, like that of the temples, was mostly done by private contributions and gifts of works of art. The laying out of the pavement, for instance, or the painting of the walls was apportioned to voluntary subscribers, each of whom was entitled to inscribe his name on his section of the work. The pavement of the lower basilica of Parenzo, in Dalmatia, is divided into mosaic panels of various sizes, representing vases, wreaths, fish, and animals; and to each panel is appended the name of the contributor:—

“Lupicinus and Pascasia made one hundred [square] feet.

“Clamosus and Successa, one hundred feet.

“Felicissimus and his relatives, one hundred feet.

“Fausta, the patrician, and her relatives, sixty feet.

“Claudia, devout woman, and her niece Honoria, made one hundred and ten feet, in fulfilment of a vow.”[21]

Theseus killing the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete, and labyrinths in general, were favorite subjects for church pavements, especially among the Gauls. The custom is very ancient, a labyrinth having been represented in the church of S. Vitale at Ravenna as early as the sixth century. Those of the cathedral at Lucca, of S. Michele Maggiore at Pavia, of S. Savino at Piacenza, of S. Maria in Trastevere at Rome (destroyed in the restoration of 1867), are of a later date. The image of Theseus is accompanied by a legend in the “leonine” rhythm:—

Theseus intravit, monstrumque biforme necavit.

The symbolism of the subject is explained thus: The labyrinth, so easy of access, but from which no one can escape, is symbolical of human life. At the time of the Crusades, church labyrinths began to be used for a practical purpose. The faithful were wont to go over the meandering paths on their knees, murmuring prayers in memory of the passion of the Lord. Under the influence of this practice the classic and Carolingian name—labyrinth—was forgotten; and the new one of rues de Jerusalem, or leagues, adopted. The rues de Jerusalem in the cathedral at Chartres, designed in blue marble, were 666 feet long; and it took an hour to finish the pilgrimage. Later the labyrinths lost their religious meaning, and became a pastime for idlers and children. The one in the church at Saint-Omer has been destroyed, because the celebration of the office was often disturbed by irreverent visitors trying the sport.[22]

In Rome we have several instances of these private artistic contributions in the service of churches. The pavement of S. Maria in Cosmedin is the joint offering of many parishioners; and so were those of S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura and S. Maria Maggiore before their modern restoration. The names of Beno de Rapiza, his wife Maria Macellaria, and his children Clement and Attilia are attached to the frescoes of the lower church of S. Clemente; and that of Beno alone to the paintings of S. Urbano alla Caffarella. In the apse of S. Sebastiano in Pallara, on the Palatine, and in that of S. Saba on the Aventine, we read the names of a Benedictus and of a Saba, at whose expense the apses were decorated.

We cannot help following with emotion the development of this artistic feeling even among the lowest classes of mediæval Rome.[23] We read of an Ægidius, son of Hippolytus, a shoemaker of the Via Arenula, leaving his substance to the church of S. Maria de Porticù, with the request that it should be devoted to the building of a chapel, “handsome and handsomely painted, so that everybody should take delight in looking at it.” Such feelings, exceptional in many Italian provinces, were common throughout Tuscany. When the triptych of Duccio Buoninsegna, now in the “Casa dell’ opera” at Siena, was carried from his studio to the Duomo, June 9, 1310, the whole population followed in a triumphant procession. Renzo di Maitano, another Sienese artist of fame, had the soul of a poet. He was the first to advocate the erection of a church, “grand, beautiful, magnificent, whose just proportions in height, breadth, and length should so harmonize with the details of the decoration as to make it decorous and solemn, and worthy of the worship of Christ in hymns and canticles, for the protection and glory of the city of Siena.” So spoke the artists of that age, and their language was understood and felt by the multitudes. Their lives were made bright and cheerful in spite of the troubles and misfortunes which weighed upon their countries. Think of such sentiments in our age!

THE TRANSLATION OF S. CYRIL’S REMAINS (Fresco in S. Clemente, done at the order of Maria Macellaria)

But I am digressing from my subject. Another step of the religious and material transformation of the city is marked by the substitution of chapels and shrines for the old aræ compitales, at the crossings of the main thoroughfares. The institution of altars in honor of the Lares, or guardian genii of each ward or quarter, is ancient, and can be traced to prehistoric times. When Servius Tullius enclosed the city with his walls, there were twenty-four such altars, called sacraria Argeorum. Two facts speak in favor of their remote antiquity. The priestess of Jupiter was not allowed to sacrifice on them, unless in a savage attire, with hair unkempt and untrimmed. On the 17th of May, the Vestals used to throw into the Tiber, from the Sublician bridge, manikins of wickerwork, in commemoration of the human sacrifices once performed on the same altars.

When Augustus reorganized the capital and its wards, in the year 7 b. c., the number of street-shrines had grown to more than two hundred. Two hundred and sixty-five were registered, a. d. 73, in the census of Vespasian; three hundred and twenty-four at the time of Constantine. A man of much leisure, and evidently of no occupation, the cavaliere Alessandro Rufini, numbered and described the shrines and images which lined the streets of Rome in the year 1853. As modern civilization and indifference will soon obliterate this historical feature of the city, I quote some results of Rufini’s investigations.[24] There were 1,421 images of the Madonna, 1,318 images of saints, ornamented with 1,928 precious objects, and 110 ex-votos; 1,067 lamps were kept burning day and night before them,—a most useful institution in a city whose streets have not been regularly lighted until recent years.

The Shrine and Altar of Mercurius Sobrius

As prototypes of a classical and Christian street-shrine, respectively, we may take the ædicula compitalis of Mercurius Sobrius, discovered in April, 1888, near S. Martino ai Monti, and the immagine di Ponte, at the corner of the Via dei Coronari and the Vicolo del Micio. The shrine of Mercury near S. Martino was dedicated by Augustus, in the year 10 b. c. The inscription engraved on the front of the altar says: “The emperor Augustus dedicated this shrine to Mercury in the year of the City, 744, from money received as a new-year’s gift, during his absence from Rome.”

Suetonius ays that every year, on January 1, all classes of citizens climbed the Capitol and offered strenæ calendariæ to Augustus, when he was absent; and that the emperor, with his usual generosity, appropriated the money to the purchase of pretiosissima deorum simulacra, “the most valuable statues of gods,” to be set up at the crossings of thoroughfares. Four pedestals of these statues have already been found: one near the Arch of Titus, at the beginning of the sixteenth century; one, in 1548, near the Senate House; one, in the same year, by the Arch of Septimius Severus. The fourth pedestal, that recently discovered near S. Martino ai Monti, was raised at the crossing of two important streets, the clivus suburanus (Via di S. Lucia in Selci), and the vicus sobrius (Via dei Quattro Cantoni), from which the statue was nicknamed Mercurius Sobrius, “Mercury the teetotaller.”

The immagine di Ponte, in the Via dei Coronari, the prototype of modern shrines, contains an image of the Virgin in a graceful niche built, or re-built, in 1523, by Alberto Serra of Monferrato, from designs by Antonio da Sangallo. Its name is derived from that of the lane leading to the Ponte S. Angelo (Canale di Ponte). The house to which it belongs is No. 113 Via dei Coronari, and No. 5 Vicolo del Micio.

Monumental crosses were sometimes erected instead of shrines. Count Giovanni Gozzadini has called the attention of archæologists to this subject in a memoir “Sulle croci monumentali che erano nelle vie di Bologna del secolo XIII.” He proves from the texts of historians, Fathers, and councils that the practice of erecting crosses at the junction of the main streets is very ancient, and belongs to the first century of the freedom of the Church, when the faithful withdrew the emblem of Christ from the catacombs, and raised it in opposition to the street shrines of the gentiles. Bologna has the privilege of possessing the oldest of these crosses. One bears the legend “In the name of God; this cross, erected long since by Barbatus, was renewed under the bishopric of Vitalis (789-814).” This class of monuments abounds in Rome, although it belongs to a comparatively recent age. Such are the crosses before the churches of SS. Sebastiano, Cesareo, Nereo ed Achilleo, Pancrazio, Lorenzo, Francesco a Ripa, and others.

The most curious and interesting is perhaps the column of Henry IV. of France, which was erected under Clement VIII. in front of S. Antonio all’ Esquilino, and which the modern generation has concealed in a recess on the east side of S. Maria Maggiore. It is in the form of a culverin—a long slender cannon of the period—standing upright. From the muzzle rises a marble cross supporting the figure of Christ on one side, and that of the Virgin on the other. It was erected by Charles d’Anisson, prior of the French Antonians, to commemorate the absolution given by Clement VIII. to Henry IV. of France and Navarre, on September 17 of the year 1595. The monument has a remarkable history. Although apparently erected by private enterprise, the kings of France regarded it as an insult of the Curia, an official boast of their submission to the Pope; and they lost no opportunity of showing their dissatisfaction in consequence. Louis XIV. found an occasion for revenge. The gendarmes who had escorted his ambassador, the duc de Crequi, to Rome, had a street brawl with the Pope’s Corsican body-guards; and although it was doubtful which side was to blame, Louis obliged Pope Alexander VII. to raise a pyramid on the spot where the affray had taken place, with the following humiliating inscription:—

“In denunciation of the murderous attack committed by the Corsican soldiers against his Excellency the duc de Crequi, Pope Alexander VII. declares their nation deprived forever of the privilege of serving under the flag of the Church. This monument was erected May 21, 1664, according to the agreement made at Pisa.”

The revenge could not have been more complete; so bitter was it that Alexander VII. drew a violent protest against it, to be read and published only after his death. His successor, Clement IX., a favorite with Louis XIV., obtained leave that the pyramid should be demolished, which was done in June, 1668, with the consent of the French ambassador, the duc de Chaulnes. Whether by stipulation or by the good will of the Pope, the inscription of the column of Henry IV. was made to disappear at the same time. We have found it concealed in a remote corner of the convent of S. Antonio.[25] The column itself, and the canopy which sheltered it, fell to the ground on Thursday, February 15, 1744; and when Benedict XIV. restored the monument in the following year, he severed forever its connection with these remarkable historical events, by dedicating it DEIPARÆ VIRGINI. Having been dismantled in 1875, during the construction of the Esquiline quarter, it was reërected in 1880, not far from its original place, on the east side of S. Maria Maggiore,—not without opposition, because there are always men who think they can obliterate history by suppressing monuments which bear testimony to it.

One of the characteristics of ancient sanctuaries, by which the weary pilgrim was provided with bathing accommodations, is also to be found in the old churches of Rome. We are told in the “Liber Pontificalis” that Pope Symmachus (498-514), while building the basilica of S. Pancrazio, on the Via Aurelia, fecit in eadem balneum, “provided it with a bath.” Another was erected by the same Pope near the apse of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, the supply of water of which was originally derived from a spring; later from wheels, or noriahs, established on the banks of the Tiber. Notices were written on the walls of these bathing apartments, warning laymen and priests to observe the strictest rules of modesty. One of these inscriptions, from the baths annexed to the churches of SS. Sylvester and Martin, is preserved in section II. of the Christian epigraphic museum of the Lateran. It ends with the distich:


“There is no harm in seeking strength and purity of body in baths; it is not water but our own bad actions that make us sin.”

These verses are not so good as their moral; but inscriptions like this prove that the abandonment of such useful institutions must be attributed not to the undue severity of Christian morality, but to the ruin of the aqueducts by which fountains and baths were fed. However, even in the darkest period of the Middle Ages we find the traditional “kantharos,” or basin, in the centre of the quadri-porticoes or courts by which the basilicas were entered. Such is the vase in the court of S. Cæcilia, represented on the next page, and that in front of S. Cosimato in Trastevere; and such is the famous calix marmoreus, which formerly stood near the church of SS. Apostoli, mentioned in the Bull of John III. (a. d. 570), by which the boundary line of that parish was determined. This historical monument, a prominent landmark in the topography of mediæval Rome, was removed to the Baths of Diocletian at the beginning of last year.

In many of our churches visitors may have noticed one or more round black stones, weighing from ten to a hundred pounds, which, according to tradition, were tied to the necks of martyrs when they were thrown into wells, lakes, or rivers. To the student these stones tell a different tale. They prove that the classic institution of the ponderaria (sets of weights and measures) migrated from temples to churches, after the closing of the former, a. d. 393.

Kantharos in the Court of St. Cæcilia

As the amphora was the standard measure of capacity for wine, the metreta for oil, the modius for grain, so the libra was the standard measure of weight.[26] To insure honesty in trade they were examined periodically by order of the ædiles; those found iniquæ (short) were broken, and their owners sentenced to banishment in remote islands. In a. d. 167, Junius Rusticus, prefect of the city, ordered a general inspection to be made in Rome and in the provinces; weights and measures found to be legal were marked or stamped with the legend “[Verified] by the authority of Q. Junius Rusticus, prefect of the city.” These weights of Rusticus are discovered in hundreds in Roman excavations.[27]

The original standards were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and used only on extraordinary occasions. Official duplicates were deposited in other temples, like those of Castor and Pollux, Mars Ultor, Ops, and others, and kept at the disposal of the public, whence their name of pondera publica. Barracks and market-places were also furnished with them. The most important discovery connected with this branch of Roman administration was made at Tivoli in 1883, when three mensæ ponderariæ, almost perfect, were found in the portico or peribolos of the Temple of Hercules, adjoining the cathedral of S. Lorenzo. This wing of the portico is divided into compartments by means of projecting pilasters, and each recess is occupied by a marble table resting on “trapezophoroi” richly ornamented with symbols of Hercules and Bacchus, like the club and the thyrsus. Along the edge of two of the tables runs the inscription, “Made at the expense of Marcus Varenus Diphilus, president of the college of Hercules,” while the third was erected at the expense of his wife Varena. The tables are perforated by holes of conical shape, varying in diameter from 200 to 380 millimetres. Brass measures of capacity were fastened into each hole, for use by buyers and sellers. They were used in a very ingenious way, both as dry and liquid measures. The person who had bought, for instance, half a modius of beans, or twenty-four sextarii of wine, and wanted to ascertain whether he had been cheated in his bargain, would fill the receptacle to the proper line, then open the valve or spicket below, and transfer the tested contents again to his sack or flask.

The institution was accepted by the Church, and ponderaria were set up in the principal basilicas. The best set which has come down to us is that of S. Maria in Trastevere, but there is hardly a church without a “stone” weighing from five or ten to a hundred pounds. The popular superstition by which these practical objects were transformed into relics of martyrdoms is very old. Topographers and pilgrims of the seventh century speak of a stone exhibited in the chapel of SS. Abundius and Irenæus, under the portico of S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura, “which, in their ignorance, pilgrims touch and lift.” They mention also another weight, exhibited in the church of S. Stephen, near S. Paul’s, which they believed to be one of the stones with which the martyr was killed.

In 1864 a schola (a memorial and banqueting hall) was discovered in the burial grounds adjoining the prætorian camp, which had been used by members of a corporation called the sodalium serrensium, that is, of the citizens of Serræ, a city of Samothrake, I believe. Among the objects pertaining to the hall and its customers were two measures for wine, a sextarium, and a hemina, marked with the monogram of Christ and the name of the donor.[28] They are now exhibited in the sala dei bronzi of the Capitoline museum.

The hall of the citizens of Serræ, discovered in 1864, belongs to a class of monuments very common in the suburbs of Rome. They were called cellæ, memoriæ, exedræ, and scholæ, and were used by relatives and friends of the persons buried under or near them, in the performance of expiatory ceremonies or for commemorative banquets, for which purpose all the necessaries, from the table-service to the festal garments, were kept on the spot, in cabinets entrusted to the care of a watchman. This practice—save the expiatory offerings—was adopted by the Christians. The agapai, or love-feasts, before degenerating into those excesses and superstitions so strongly denounced by the Fathers of the Church, were celebrated over or near the tombs of martyrs and confessors, the treasury of the local congregation supplying food and drink, as well as the banqueting robes. In the inventory of the property confiscated during the persecution of Diocletian, in a house at Cirta (Constantine, Algeria), which was used by the faithful as a church, we find registered, chalices of gold and silver, lamps and candelabras, eighty-two female tunics, sixteen male tunics, thirteen pairs of men’s boots, forty-seven pairs of women’s shoes, and so on.[29] A remarkable discovery, illustrating the subject, has been lately made in the Catacombs of Priscilla; that of a graffito containing this sentence: “February 5, 375, we, Florentinus, Fortunatus, and Felix, came here AD CALICE[M] (for the cup).” To understand the meaning of this sentence, we must compare it with others engraved on pagan tombs. In one, No. 25,861 of the “Corpus,” the deceased says to the passer-by: “Come on, bring with you a flask of wine, a glass, and all that is needed for a libation!” In another, No. 19,007, the same invitation is worded: “Oh, friends (convivæ), drink now to my memory, and wish that the earth may be light on me.” We are told by S. Augustine[30] that when his mother, Monica, visited Milan in 384, the practice of eating and drinking in honor of the martyrs had been stopped by S. Ambrose, although it was still flourishing in other regions, where crowds of pilgrims were still going from tomb to tomb with baskets of provisions and flasks of wine, drinking heavily at each station. Paulinus of Nola and Augustine himself strongly stigmatized the abuse. The faithful were advised either to distribute their provisions to the poor, who crowded the entrances to the crypts, or to leave them on the tombs, that the local clergy might give them to the needy. There is no doubt that the record ad calicem venimus, scratched by Florentinus, Fortunatus, and Felix on the walls of the Cemetery of Priscilla, refers to these deplorable libations.

Ancient Roman silver drinking-cup (skyphos) / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Many drinking-cups used on these occasions have been found in Rome, in my time. They are generally works of the fourth century of our era, cut in glass by unskillful hands, and they show the portrait-heads of SS. Peter and Paul, in preference to other subjects of the kind. This fact is due not only to the special veneration which the Romans professed for the founders of their church, but also to the habit of celebrating their anniversary, June 29, with public or domestic agapai. S. Peter’s day was to the Romans of the fourth century what Christmas is to us, as regards joviality and sumptuous banquets. On one of these occasions S. Jerome received from his friend Eustochio fruit and sweets in the shape of doves. In acknowledging the kind remembrance, S. Jerome recommends sobriety on that day more than on any other: “We must celebrate the birthday of Peter rather with exaltation of spirit, than with abundance of food. It is absurd to glorify with the satisfaction of our appetites the memory of men who pleased God by mortifying theirs.” The poorer classes of citizens were fed under the porticoes of the Vatican basilica. The gatherings degenerated into the display of such excesses of drunkenness that Augustine could not resist writing to the Romans:

“First you persecuted the martyrs with stones and other instruments of torture and death; and now you persecute their memory with your intoxicating cups.”

The institution of public granaries (horrea publica) for the maintenance of the lower classes was also accepted and favored by Christian Rome. On page 250 of my “Ancient Rome,” I have spoken of the warehouses for the storage of wheat, built by Sulpicius Galba on the plains of Testaccio, near the Porta S. Paolo, named for him horrea galbana, even after their purchase by the state. These public granaries originated at the time of Caius Gracchus and his grain laws. Their scheme was developed, in course of time, by Clodius, Pompey, Seianus, and the emperors, to such an extent that, in 312 a. d., there were registered in Rome alone two hundred and ninety granaries. They may be divided into three classes: In the first, and by far the most important, a plentiful supply of breadstuffs was kept at the expense of the state, to meet emergencies of scarcity or famine, and the wants of a population one third of which was fed gratuitously by the sovereign. The second was intended especially for the storage of paper (horrea chartaria), candles (horrea candelaria), spices (horrea piperataria), and other such commodities. The third class consisted of buildings in which the citizens might deposit their goods, money, plate, securities, and other valuables for which they had no place of safety in their own houses. There were also private horrea, built on speculation, to be let as strong-rooms like our modern vaults, storage-warehouses, and “pantechnicons.”

The building of the new quarter of the Testaccio, the region of horrea par excellence, has given us the chance of studying the institution in its minutest details. I shall mention only one discovery. We found, in 1885, the official advertisement for leasing a horrea, under the empire of Hadrian. It is thus worded:—

“To be let from to-day, and hereafter annually (beginning on December 13): These warehouses, belonging to the Emperor Hadrian, together with their granaries, wine-cellars, strong-boxes, and repositories.

“The care and protection of the official watchmen is included in the lease.

“Regulations: I. Any one who rents rooms, vaults, or strong-boxes in this establishment is expected to pay the rent and vacate the place before December 13.

“II. Whoever disobeys regulation No. I., and omits to arrange with the horrearius (or keeper-in-chief) for the renewal of his lease, shall be considered as liable for another year, the rent to be determined by the average price paid by others for the same room, vault, or strong-box. This regulation to be enforced in case the horrearius has not had an opportunity to rent the said room, vault, or strong-box to other people.

“III. Sub-letting is not allowed. The administration will withdraw the watch and the guarantee from rooms, vaults, or strong-boxes which have been sub-let in violation of the existing rules.

“IV. Merchandise or valuables stored in these warehouses are held by the administration as security for payment of rental.

“V. The tenant will not be reimbursed by the administration for improvements, additions, and other such work which he has undertaken on his own account.

“VI. The tenant must give an assignment of his goods to the keeper-in-chief, who shall not be held responsible for the safe-keeping of merchandise or valuables which have not been duly declared. The tenant must claim a receipt for the said assignment and for the payment of his rental.”[31]

The granaries of the Church were intended only for the storage of corn. The landed estates which the Church owned in Africa and Sicily were administered by deputies, whose special duty it was to ship the produce of the harvest to Rome. During the first siege of Totila, in 546, Pope Vigilius, then on his way to Constantinople, despatched from the coast of Sicily a fleet of grain-laden vessels, under the care of Valentine, bishop of Silva Candida. The attempt to relieve the city of the famine proved useless, and the vessels were seized by the besiegers on their landing at Porto. In 589 an inundation of the Tiber, described by Gregoire de Tours, carried away several thousand bushels of grain, which had been stored in the horrea ecclesiæ, and the granaries themselves were totally destroyed.

The “Liber Pontificalis,” vol. i. p. 315, describes the calamities which befell the city of Rome in the year 605; King Agilulf trying to enter the city by violence; heavy frosts killing the vines; rats destroying the harvest, etc. However, as soon as the barbarians were induced to retire by an offer of twelve thousand solidi, Pope Sabinianus, who was then the head of the Church, iussit aperiri horrea ecclesiæ (threw open the granaries), and offered their contents at auction, at a valuation of one solidus for thirty modii.


[LEFT]: Illustration of a granary in Ostia
[RIGHT]: The Horrea Epagathiana granary in Ostia

The grain was not intended to be sold, but to be distributed among the needy; the act of Sabinianus was, therefore, strongly censured, as being in strong contrast to the generosity of Gregory the Great. A legend on this subject is related by Paulus Diaconus in chapter xxix. of the Life of Gregory. He says that Gregory appeared thrice to Sabinianus, in a vision, entreating him to be more generous; and having failed to move him by friendly advice, he struck him dead. The price of one solidus for thirty modii is almost exorbitant; grain cost exactly one half this at the time of Theodoric.

The institution has outlived all the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages. Gregory XIII., in 1566, Paul V., in 1609, Clement XI., in 1705, re-opened the horrea ecclesiæ in the ruined halls of the Baths of Diocletian; and Clement XIII. added a wing to them, for the storage of oil. These buildings are still in existence around the Piazza di Termini, although devoted to other purposes.

It would be impossible to follow in all its manifestations the material and moral transformation of Rome from the third to the sixth centuries, without going beyond the limits of a single chapter.

The customs and practices of the classical age were so deeply rooted among the citizens that even now, after a lapse of sixteen centuries, they are noticeable to a great extent. When we read, for instance, of Popes elected by the people assembled at the Rostra,[32] such as Stephen III., in 768, we must regard the circumstance as caused by a remembrance of past ages. Under the pontificate of Innocent II. (1130), of Eugenius III. (1145-1150), and of Lucius III. (1181-1185) the senators, or municipal magistrates, used to sit and administer justice in S. Martina and S. Adriano, that is, in the classic Roman Curia. Many other details will be incidentally described in the following chapters. I close the present one by referring to a graceful custom, borrowed likewise from the classic world,—the use of roses in church or funeral ceremonies and in social life.

The ancients celebrated, in the month of May, a feast called rosaria, in which sepulchres were profusely decorated with the favorite flower of the season. Roses were also used on occasions of public rejoicing. A Greek inscription, discovered by Fränkel at Pergamon, mentions, among the honors shown to the emperor Hadrian, the Rhodismos, which is interpreted as a scattering of roses. Traces of the custom are found in more recent times. In the Illyrian peninsula, and on the banks of the Danube, the country people, still feeling the influence of Roman civilization, celebrated feasts of flowers in spring and summer, under the name of rousalia. In the sixth century, when the Slavs were vacillating between the influence of the past and the present, the celebration of the Pentecost was mixed up with that of the half-pagan, half-barbarous rousalia. Southern Russians believe in supernatural female beings, called Rusalky, who bring prosperity to the fields and forests, which they have inhabited as flowers.

The early Christians decorated the sepulchres of martyrs and confessors, on the anniversary of their interment, with roses, violets, amaranths, and evergreens; and they celebrated the rosationes on the name-days of churches and sanctuaries. Wreaths and crowns of roses are often engraved on tombstones, hanging from the bills of mystic doves. The symbol refers more to the joys of the just in the future life than to the fleeting pleasures of the earth. The Acts of Perpetua relate a legend on this subject; that Saturus had a vision in the dungeon in which he was awaiting his martyrdom, in which he saw himself transported with Perpetua to a heavenly garden, fragrant with roses, and turning to his fair companion, he exclaimed: “Here we are in possession of that which our Lord promised!”

Roses and other flowers are painted on the walls of historical cubiculi. In a fresco of the crypts of Lucina, in the Catacombs of Callixtus, are painted birds, symbolizing souls who have been separated from their bodies, and are playing in fields of roses around the Tree of Life. As the word Paradeisos signifies a garden, so its mystic representation always takes the form of a delightful field of flowers and fruit. Dante gives to the seat of the blessed the shape of a fair rose, inside of which a crowd of angels with golden wings descend and return to the Lord:—

“Nel gran fior discendeva, che s’adorna
Di tante foglie: e quindi risaliva,
Là dove lo suo amor sempre soggiorna.”[33]
Paradiso, xxxi. 10-12.

Possibly it is from this allegory of paradise that the rite of the “golden rose” which the Pope blesses on Quadragesima Sunday is derived. The ceremony is very ancient, although the first mention of it appears only in the life of Leo IX. (1049-1055); and I may mention, as a curious coincidence, that the kings and queens of Navarre, their sons, and the dukes and peers of the realm, were bound to offer roses to the Parliament at the return of spring.

Roses played such an important part in church ceremonies that we find a fundus rosarius given as a present by Constantine to Pope Mark. The rosaria outlived the suppression of pagan superstitions, and by and by assumed its Christian form in the feast of Pentecost, which falls in the month of May. In that day roses were thrown from the roofs of churches on the worshipers below. The Pentecost is still called by the Italians Pasqua rosa.


[1] The relations between the Empire, the Christians, and the Jews have been discussed by really numberless writers, beginning with the Fathers of the Church. I have consulted, among the moderns: Mangold: De ecclesia primæva pro cæsaribus et magistratibus romanis preces fundente. Bonn, 1881.—Bittner: De Græcorum et Romanorum deque Judæorum et christianorum sacris jejuniis. Posen, 1846.—Weiss: Die römischen Kaiser in ihrem Verhältnisse zu Juden und Christen. Wien, 1882.—Mourant Brock: Rome, Pagan and Papal. London, Hodder & Co. 1883.—Backhouse and Taylor: History of the primitive Church. (Italian edition.) Rome, Loescher, 1890.—Greppo: Trois mémoires relatifs à l’histoire ecclésiastique.—Döllinger: Christenthum und Kirche.—Champagny (Comte de): Les Antonins, vol. i.—Gaston Boissier: La fin du paganisme, etc., 2 vols. Paris, Hachette, 1891.—Giovanni Marangoni: Delle cose gentilesche trasportate ad uso delle chiese. Roma, Pagliarini, 1744.—Mosheim: De rebus Christianis ante Constantinum.—Carlo Fea: Dissertazione sulle rovine di Roma, in Winckelmann’s Storia delle arti. Roma, Pagliarini, 1783, vol. iii.—Louis Duchesne: Le liber pontificalis. Paris, Thorin, 1886-1892.—G.B. de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana. Roma, Salviucci, 1863-1891.

[2] See de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1888-1889, p. 15; 1890, p. 97.—Edmond Le Blant: Comptes rendus de l’Acad. des Inscript., 1888, p. 113.—Arthur Frothingham: American Journal of Archæology, June, 1888, p. 214.—R. Lanciani: Gli horti Aciliorum sul Pincio, in the Bullettino della commissione archeologica, 1891, p. 132; Underground Christian Rome, in the Atlantic Monthly, July, 1891.

[3] See Ersilia Lovatelli: Il Monte Pincio, in the Miscellanea archeologica, p. 211.—Rodolfo Lanciani: Su gli orti degli Acili sul Pincio, in the Bullettino di corrispondenza archeologica, 1868, p. 132.

[4] A description of the beautiful villa of Herodes, adjoining the Catacombs of Prætextatus, will be found in chapter vi. pp. 287 sqq.

[5] A consul suffectus was one elected as a substitute in case of the death or retirement of one of the regular consuls.

[6] Lampridius, in Sev. Alex., c. 43.

[7] In chapter v., p. 122, of Ancient Rome, I have attributed these graffiti to the second half of the first century; but after a careful examination of the structure of the wall, on the plaster of which they are scratched, I am convinced that they must have been written towards the end of the second century.

[8] Orelli, 4024, Digest L., iv. 18, 7.

[9] See Ulpian: De officio Procons., i. 3.

[10] Lampridius, Heliog., 3.

[11] See Greppo: Mémoire sur les laraires de l’empereur Alexandre Sevère.

[12] The name of the villa was Cassiacum; its memory has lasted to the present age. See the memoir of Luigi Biraghi, S. Agostino a Cassago di Brianza. Milano, 1854.

[13] See Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1865, p. 50.

[14] It contains the words PETRO LILLVTI PAVLO. They are surely genuine and ancient. I examined them in company with Mommsen, Jordan, and de Rossi, and they attributed them to the beginning of the third century of our era. The best suggestion regarding their origin is that they belong to a person, probably Christian, who used the name Petrus as gentilitium, and Paulus as cognomen, and who was the son of Lillutus, however barbaric this last name may sound.

[15] See de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1863, p. 49.—Rohault de Fleury: L’arc de triomphe de Constantin, in the Révue archéologique, Sept. 1863, p. 250.—W. Henzen: Bullettino dell’ Instituto, 1863, p. 183.

[16] See Bibliography, p. 1. The title of the book may be translated thus: On the pagan and profane objects transferred to churches for their use and adornment.

[17] The two busts of S. Peter and S. Paul, described in Cancellieri’s book, Memorie storiche delle sacre teste dei santi apostoli Pietro e Paolo, Roma, Ferretti, 1852 (second edition), were stolen by the French revolutionists in 1799.

[18] See Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, part VI., No. 351.

[19] In the Byzantine period this church and the adjoining monastery were called casa Barbara patricia. They are now comprised within the cloisters of S. Antonio all’ Esquilino, on the left side of S. Maria Maggiore.

[20] These incrustations, and the basilica to which they belong, have been illustrated by Ciampini: Vetera monumenta, vol. i. plates xxii.-xxiv.—D’Agincourt: Histoire de l’art, Peinture, pl. xiii. 3.—Minutoli: Ueber die Anfertigung und die Nutzanwendung der färbigen Gläser bei den Alten, pl. iv.—De Rossi: La basilica di Giunio Basso, in the Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1871, p. 46.

[21] See Andrea Amoroso: Le basiliche cristiane di Parenzo. Parenzo, Coana, 1891.—Mommsen: Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. v. part i. nos. 365-367.

[22] See Lovatelli: I labirinti e il loro simbolismo nell’ età di mezzo, in the Nuova Antologia, 16 Agosto, 1890.—Arné: Carrelages émaillés du moyen âge.—Eugène Müntz: Etudes iconographiques et archéologiques sur le moyen âge.

[23] See Pietro Pericoli: Lo spedale di S. Maria della Consolazione. Imola Galeati, p. 64.

[24] Published in two volumes with the title: Indicazione delle immagini di Maria, collocate sulle mura esterne di Roma. Ferretti, 1853.

[25] The inscription, after all, was very mild in comparison with the violent formula imposed upon Alexander VII. It read: “In memory of the absolution given by Clement VIII. to Henry IV. of France and Navarre, September 17, 1595.”

[26] The amphora corresponds to 26.26 litres; the metreta to 39.39 litres; the modius to 8.75 litres. The pound, divided into twelve ounces, corresponds to 327.45 grammes, a little more than 11-1/2 English ounces.

[27] See Antichi pesi inscritti del museo capitolino, in the Bullettino della commissione archeologica comunale di Roma, 1884, p. 61, pls. vi., vii.

[28] See de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1864, p. 57.

[29] See Acta purgationis Cæciliani, post Optati opp. ed Dupin, p. 168.

[30] Confess. vi. 2.

[31] See Gaetano Marini: Iscrizioni doliari, p. 114, n. 279.—Giuseppe Gatti: La lex horreorum, in the Bullettino della commissione archeologica comunale di Roma, 1885, p. 110.

[32] The place was called in tribus fatis, from the three statues of sibyls described by Pliny, H.N. xxxiv. See Goth. i. 25.

[33] “Sank into the great flower, that is adorned With leaves so many, and thence reascended To where its love abideth evermore.”

From Pagan and Christian Rome, originally published in 1892, republished under public domain license by Project Gutenberg, July 26, 2007