Pagan and Christian Rome/The Transformation of Rome from a Pagan into a Christian City

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PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN ROME.


CHAPTER I.
The Transformation of Rome from a Pagan into a Christian City.[1]

The early adoption of Christianity not confined to the poorer classes. — Instances of Roman nobles who were Christians. — The family of the Acilii Glabriones. — Manius Acilius the consul. — Put to death because of his religion. — Description of his tomb, recently discovered. — Other Christian patricians. — How was it possible for men in public office to serve both Christ and Caesar?The usual liberality of the emperors towards the new religion. — Nevertheless an open profession of faith hazardous and frequently avoided. — Marriages between Christians and pagans. — Apostasy resulting from these. — Curious discovery illustrating the attitude of Seneca's family towards Christianity. — Christians in the army. — The gradual nature of the transformation of Rome. — The significance of the inscription on the Arch of Constantine. — The readiness of the early Church to adopt pagan customs and even myths. — The curious mixture of pagan and Christian conceptions which grew out of this. — Churches became repositories for classical works of art, for which new interpretations were invented. — The desire of the early Christians to make their churches as beautiful as possible. — The substitution of Christian shrines for the old pagan altars at street corners. — Examples of both. — The bathing accommodations of the pagan temples adopted by the Church. — Also the custom of providing public standards of weights and measures. — These set up in the basilicas. — How their significance became perverted in the Dark Ages. — The adoption of funerary banquets and their degeneration. — The public store-houses of the emperors and those of the popes. — Pagan rose-festivals and their conversion into a Christian institution.

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 Caesars. 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 Caesars 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 Thermopylae. 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 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.

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.

Map of the Via Salaria.

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 the 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 archaeological 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 archaeologists, 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 Graecina, 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 Graecina was a Christian, and recent discoveries put it beyond doubt. An inscription bearing the name of ΠΟΜΠΟΝΙΟϹ ΓΡΗΚΕΙΝΟϹ has been found in the Cemetery of Callixtus, together with other records of the Pomponii Attici and Bassi. Some scholars think that Graecina, 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 Praetextatus, 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.


In chapter vii. I shall have the 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 Praesens, the illustrious friend of Pliny the younger, and the grandfather of Crispina, the empress of Commodus. 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, Caecilii, and Aemilii, the flower of Roman nobility, grouped near the graves of S. Caecilia 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 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 p11their 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 Caesaris, "of the house of Caesar." 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 god 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.

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, p16especially 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 praetorium, 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 praetorium 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.

Lamp of Annius Ser......, with figure of the Good Shepherd.

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.

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 praetoriae and urbanae 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 Aelia Proba, who was the daughter of a captain of the ninth battalion of the praetorians, 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 praetorians was found in the spring of the same year by Marchese Francesco Patrizi, in his villa adjoining the praetorian 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 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.

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 Aesop'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 archaeologists 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 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, aeternus, 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 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 Flaviae 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.

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).

Picture of Orpheus, found in the Catacombs of Priscilla.

The belief that the sibyls had prophesied the advent of Christ made their images popular. The church of the Aracoeli 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 Four Seasons, from the Imperial Palace, Ostia.

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, Aestas, 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 Graeco-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]

Notes[edit]

  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 Praetextatus, 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 Sévère.
  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 Revue 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.