• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Byzantine Rome Part III: Rome's Byzantine Adolescence


View of the Ponte Nomentano by Pierre Nicolas Brisset


Gregory the Great was born c. AD 540 into the Anicii family. A great-grandson of Pope Felix III, he grew up on a family estate that adjoined the last great library set up in Rome c. 535 by Pope Agapitus (now the church and monastery of S. Gregorio Magno). Later, a legate to the imperial court at Constantinople, on his return he became secretary to Pope Pelagius II, becoming his successor in 590.

Pope Gregory lived in a Rome – like Ravenna – that was part of the Roman Empire. Both remained loyal subjects in its western extremities. This fidelity was not a vague, woolly notion. To cite a few examples of its cultural manifestations: when Pope Pelagius I (556-561) wished to cleanse himself of any suspicion in the death of his predecessor, he took an oath at the shrine of St Pancras (avenger of perjury) in the presence of the Byzantine viceroy. Furthermore, the Senate and clergy assembled at the Lateran to acclaim the portraits of the Emperor (& Empress) upon their accession to the throne. Moreover, Byzantine officials were often in evidence. Occasionally even the exarch from Ravenna would put an appearance in – if, admittedly, only the loot the papal treasury. If Constantinople didn’t put more effort into the relationship it was only because Rome was relatively impoverished with a population c. 90,000.

San Giovanni a Porta Latina


The war with the Goths (535-554) to retrieve Italy hardly helped the situation but it did mean Byzantium was forced to pay more attention to Rome’s administration. Army engineers repaired the Aurelian Walls. Aqueducts were mended and functioned reasonably well for another two hundred years. Country roads were restored and bridges rebuilt. Two survive: Ponte Salario, rebuilt in 565 (reconstructed again after being blown up in 1867 and stripped of Narses’ dedicatory inscription); and Ponte Nomentano, dated 552 (and until 1829 surmounted by a crenelated fifteenth-century tower).

By Gregory’s pontificate, however, the Longobards had occupied large parts of northern and central Italy. Three thousand nuns alone had to be fed and clad. In the upheaval, the fields were no longer drained and soon turned into swamps. Malaria made the Campagna di Roma into the insalubrious plain it remained until a century ago.


SS Apostoli

Not that it was all doom and gloom. People still visited the Forum to buy merchandise or slaves, the Forum of Trojan was used for literary events and cultured visitors continued to play tourist to its antiquities (not least Constans II whose retinue etched his name on monuments during his imperial visit in 667). The palaces on the Palatine, too, were apparently kept in repair. Officers such as the “Curator of the Palace” were still in charge as late as 687. And public buildings were maintained at imperial expense.

On the church front, several were built 500-600. SS. Quirico e Giulitta (537); SS Apostoli (560), built by the Byzantine viceroy Narses; S. Giovanni a Porta Latina (550); the basilica over the graves of Nereus, Achilleus and Domitilla in the catacomb named after her (600); and the basilica over the tomb of St Lawrence (now its chancel) in 590. Each is marked by a Byzantine/Eastern feature, from trefoil chancels to galleries over the aisles.

Torre delle Milzie


The city, however, undoubtedly shrunk (perhaps as few as 30,000 occupied the city during the Gothic sieges). Concentrated on the banks either side of the Tiber Island: in Trastevere and (on the east bank) between the Theatre of Marcellus and the line of today’s Via Arenula. Many of the most populous areas clustered around the welfare centres (some survive at S. Maria in Cosmedin, S. Giorgio in Velabro, S. Teodoro and S. Maria in Lata) that Pope Gregory established. And in doing so, the contrast between the abitato and disabitato (a sixteenth-century distinction) became clear.

In the long run, Byzantium preferred to outsource its administration to locals. For whatever reason, however, the secular tools of government were useless. The Senate, for instance, reconstituted in 554, preferred to stick to ceremony over governing and after 603 was replaced with a much smaller formal council. This left the Church. Rome’s Church did not replace or displace the Byzantine state, however. It was the Byzantine state. Only later, as interests slowly diverged, did such a judgment appear anachronistic.

St Cyrus Santa Maria Antiqua


Much of Rome’s sacralisation occurred under the watchful eye of its twin on the Bosporus. As early as 526-30, Felix IV converted a giant hall on the Via Sacra and its domed vestibule next to the Basilica Nova into a church dedicated to the Byzantine Sts Cosmas and Damian (it preserved its fourth-century opus sectile in coloured marble until 1632). He only added mosaics covering the arch and vault of the apse to mark its new ecclesiastical function. On the former, angels and symbols of the Evangelists; on the latter, Christ and His Second Coming flanked by Peter, Paul and the two patron saints, accompanied by another eastern saint, Theodore, and the papal donor.

Elsewhere, another public building (at the north-western foot of the Palatine) became a church: S. Maria Antiqua, as it was called as early as 635. Built in the first century as a ceremonial hall, by the mid-sixth century it had become a guard room to protected the ramp ascending to the palaces atop the hill where Byzantine governors resided. Decorated with Christian murals that recalled the Chalke entrance to Constantinople’s Great Palace, it was easily transformed into a church with new murals (later buried in a landslide, 847, discovered in 1702 and excavated in 1900).

Campitelli San Teodoro


Others followed. Pope Honorius (625-38) turned the Senate House into the church of S. Adriano. At the same time, the secretarium senatus (senatorial high court) was converted into an oratory dedicated to S. Martina. All this was presumably done with imperial placet; as late as 630 an imperial decree was necessary to allow the pope to move the bronze tiles from the Temple of Roma to St Peter’s. This trend was less a Christian cannibalisation of pagan remains, however, than a simple acknowledgment of the fact most of the huge halls and mansions were beyond the financial maintenance of any but the Church (one example: the diaconia of SS. Sergius and Bacchus had to be shifted c. 790 from the Temple of Concord because it threatened to collapse).

Indeed, it took the lapse of two centuries (after the closing of the pagan sanctuaries) before the first temple was Christianised in 609, when the Pantheon was handed over by the emperor upon the request of Pope Boniface IV. Consecrated to the Virgin and all the martyrs, it became the church of S. Maria Rotunda. For a long time, it seems to have been the only major church to serve the eastward section of the inner city. Nearly another three hundred years lapsed before another temple (Fortuna Virilis) was turned into a church (872-882).

Santi Cosma e Damiano


Overall, the Byzantines can’t be said to have covered themselves in glory, with Constans II famously pilfering anything remotely valuable (mosty metal) and, less notoriously, Byzantine commanders feeling perfectly within their rights to defeat a coup de main of besieging Goths by catapulting the statues that adorned Hadrian’s tomb at the attackers. But – an impressive church record apart – it is undeniable that the Eastern Romans kept the elder Rome’s public offices in a state of good repair. Moreover, anywhere its military resided was sure to be kept spick and span. The Byzantine commander, for instance, was installed to the north of the Imperial Fora, not far from SS. Apostoli. There, on Piazza Magnanapoli, a thirteenth-century tower (Torre delle Milizie) stands today. Thanks no doubt to this node, a Byzantine quarter sprang up between the Palatine (the emperor’s official residence within the city) and the Torre delle Milizie.

Another Byzantine outcrop formed around the welfare centre of S. Maria in Cosmedin. Its masonry technique was common in Naples but unique in Rome. And the names of the church and its quarter (schola graeca) suggest strong Byzantine influences. Presumably the church was installed by Byzantines – perhaps traders – sometime after the Byzantine reconquest from the Goths (the first of the Northern scholae followed in 726 when the English/Anglo-Saxons established the burgus Saxonum on the site of the present hospital and church, Sto. Spirito in Sassia).

Indeed, if the Byzantines can be said to have had a positive influence, it’s almost solely in their encouragement/command to build these diaconiae (welfare centres), which formed the main conduits of survival and civilisation in the city. Take S. Teodoro, for example, at the west foot of the Palatine. While the present church dates (rather inauspiciously) to 1453, the original contained granary rooms and an oratory (part of its apse survives with a mosaic dating to the late sixth century). Or S. Maria in Via Lata on the Corso, which was decorated with a Byzantine mural representing the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

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