• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Byzantine Rome Part II: Rome Under the Labarum


St. Maria Maggiore


In the late fourth and early fifth century, inconspicuous house churches began to morph into large basilicas. Towards AD 410, for example, the senator Pammachius (a friend of St Jerome and Paulinus of Nola) provided funds for replacing an old titulus with a large basilica: SS. Giovanni e Paolo.

Elsewhere, the widow Vestina left a bequest to build the church of S. Vitale (on the vicus longus) and Pope Mark (336) built the first church of S. Marco (a stone’s throw from the western slope of the Capitoline Hill, its remains survive below the pavement of today’s basilica), incorporating parts of a mansion that belonged to his family. His successor, Julius I, laid out a church on the site of S. Maria in Trastevere. Pope Damasus turned his family mansion (on the site of the Palazzo della Cancelleria) into a church, as well as a shop at the bottom of the Palatine Hill. Between 420-430 a priest from Dalmatia named Peter provided the funds for building S. Sabina on the Aventine. Finally, S. Pietro in Vincoli, first built c. 400, took the place of a lavish mansion on the western spur of the Equiline.

Santa Sabina Portal


By the end of the fifth century, responsibility for church-building had shifted slowly from congregations and/or rich donors to the exclusive prerogative and responsibility of the papacy. Before this period, mosaics and murals often displayed the real donor alongside the fictional sponsorship of the ruling pontiff (though it is also possible that the pope exercised some supervision through committees).

Not that Christians had a monopoly on the building trade. On the Esquiline, the macellum Liviae (a first-century market enclosed by porticoes) was restored in the late fourth century. And the arcaded and colonnaded loggia (famous, now, for the Bocca della Verita) that’s since been incorporated by S. Maria in Cosmedin was originally built c. 400 as a statio annonae, where the official in charge of provisioning sat in state. Statues, too – including pagan divinities – were restored along the Via Sacra. And below the cliff of the Capitoline the porticus deorum consentium was rebuilt by the city prefect in 367. The latest major pagan restoration work seems to have been the temple of Vesta, which was last reworked in 394.

Santa Pudenziana's Apse Mosaic


Signs that even the most monumental buildings were not necessarily safe from Christian attention came fifty years later when a large hall with a single nave on the Esquiline was converted by Pope Simplicius into the basilica of Junius Bassus (which survived until the seventeenth century) – father of the Bassus commemorated by the famous sarcophagus.

The city’s pagan element enjoyed a long Indian summer, however. Prokopios, for instance, admired the shrine of Janus and his seven and a half feet high statue on the Forum Romanum; a fountain and bronze bull on the Forum of Vespasian; nearby, a bronze calf wrought by Myron, as well as “many statues attributed to Phidias or Lysippus.” Wonders the Eastern Roman noted had probably been looted from Greece i.e. the eastern half of the empire. Though he also begrudgingly conceded there were unique (and homegrown) tourist attractions such as the “boat of Aeneas” – really a canoe – kept in a museum on the bank of the Tiber.

Santa Stefano Rotondo


Perhaps the most impressive church of the period still stands. Around 390 a large thermae hall was turned into the church of S. Pudenziana (Rome has risen so far since that you have to descend stairs to get to its courtyard). Its apse vault, rather than being sheathed in an unadorned gold ground (as at the Lateran Basilica), now associated with Byzantium, was filled with the earliest figural representation to survive. Christ sits enthroned flanked by the apostles wearing the toga of Roman senators; two female figures stand for the Church of the Jews and the Gentiles (the former behind Peter, latter behind Paul) against a palatial backdrop in which the symbols of the evangelists (man, lion, ox and eagle) float either side of a jewelled cross.

During the construction of S. Pudenziana the papacy had the grand idea of trying to distance itself from its own “foreign” i.e. Eastern roots. As late as the late third century, the papacy’s official language and her leadership had been Greek rather than Latin. In the eyes of some this past needed to be cancelled. Pope Damasus, for instance, was fond of writing poems that appropriated Eastern saints and yoked them to Rome’s purposes. Sts Hermes, Saturninus, Peter and Paul were all annexed. The last two replaced Romulus and Remus as the city’s patrons.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin


Only S. Paolo fuori le mura, on the road to Ostia (about a twenty-minute walk from the city’s walls), could outdo Pudenziana. At first St Paul’s tomb risked being totally outshone by St Peter. The latter had a huge basilica dedicated by Constantine, while only a small structure sheltered the former. Part of this was natural: Peter was the first bishop of Rome and the fountainhead of the (Catholic Church’s) apostolic succession. But as the concept of the concord of the apostles became popular so it became less tenable to demote Paul to such an extent. In grandeur, plan and size Paul’s basilica competed with St Peter’s – though today, we see only a meagre replacement of the church that stood until 1823. If we want an idea of what it was like, S. Sabina (built c. 425) still survives giving an echo of the ideals, dimensions and styles at play.

Another church that survives from the period is S. Maria Maggiore. Rising on the crest of the Esquiline, it was completed by Sixtus III (432-440) and is unusual mainly for its Ionic capitals (rarely used since the second century) and antique entablature (which was still au courant in the imperial capital, Constantinople). Its mosaics, both in the nave and apse, are stunning achievements: Christ’s first coming and his youth cover the triumphal arch (the apse vault probably displayed a mosaic of the Virgin accompanied by five martyrs); the nave shows Moses strikes the waters of the Red Sea in a heroic gesture; the apse arch has Christ enthroned, a young emperor attended by four chamberlain-cum-angels; the Virgin, to the right of the apse, is an empress attended by a suite of angels.

Entrance to the Lateran Baptistry


The Lateran Baptistery was another of Sixtus III’s jobs. Remodelled within Constantine’s octagon, its interior in large part survives (though overlaid by seventeenth century decoration) and mirrors other late antique buildings such as S. Constanza.

An important mid-fifth century building that didn’t survive, however, is Pope Hilarus’ Chapel of the Holy Cross (S. Croce). Demolished in 1588, the cross-shaped shrine (with domed octagonal corner rooms) for a relic of the True Cross had a marvellous mosaic in its centre vault that featured four “angels” (probably more accurately pagan genii) that carried a roundel enclosing a cross. In front of the chapel, a courtyard contained three fountains of strigilated sarcophagi surrounded a porphyry water feature decorated with mosaics and columns of coloured marble.

St Paul Outside the Walls


The last exertion of the period was Sto. Stefano Rotondo (though the Arians also built their first church, S. Agata dei Goti, on the west slope of the Viminal where it still stands in 470). Built by Pope Simplicius (468-483) on the Celian Hill, the structure survives – a circle of Ionic columns carrying an entablature; a dome above eleven clerestory windows – a complex plan linked to Byzantine (Eastern) models. Indeed, while Pope Damasus had tried to erase traces of a Byzantine/Eastern genesis to the Roman Church, Pope Hilarus was a more relaxed, urbane creature, happy to install a Greek library alongside a Latin one at S. Lorenzo fuori le mura (alongside a bath, outside swimming pool and country house).

The upshot was that 330-530 the map of Rome changed irrevocably. Quarters, formerly well settled, were gradually abandoned by the inhabitants. While parts of the “show zone,” the monumental Rome, were turned into populous areas. In the Città Bassa, the population began to move westward into the Campus Martius and the Tiber bend.

Furthermore, the areas surrounding the Celian Hill were abandoned. Much of these movements favoured the Lateran in terms of the space and luxury of the countryside (as an empty crescent formed around the papal palace and the cathedral of Rome). On the flipside, it could look isolated from the “real” Rome, while transferring rule to St Peter’s – a basilica technically outside the city – could never be an option. Perhaps this was the junction at which the Lateran surrendered its monopoly on baptism and allowed baptisteries to be built at the shrines that lay outside of town (previously an aberrance), and granted permission for the rite to be performed outside of the traditional Easter period.

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