• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Byzantine Rome Part V: Rome’s Byzantine Epilogue

Santa Maria in Domnica

When a biographer described Pope Hadrian’s reign (AD 772-795), he didn’t stress the pontiff’s “Romanitas” in the ancient manner (implying a broad and cultivated mindset) but in a concrete local sense which placed an emphasis on being from the city of Rome (rather than its empire). Indeed, civic pride was one of the few variables on which the papacy remained consistent and stubborn, hence the fact Charlemagne (though, dubiously, “patricius Romanus” and protector of Rome) still had to obtain the pope’s permission to cross from St Peter’s (outside the walls) into the city proper.

Perhaps patriotism’s contours simply followed the collapse of Rome’s infrastructure (from medium power to a threadbare city-state). Aqueducts functioned badly or not at all, repeated floods spread diseases, and Langobard raiders were so frequent that herdsmen in the campagna were forced to use underground cemeteries as shelters for their livestock.

Not that the papacy sat on its laurels. One hundred poor were fed daily at the Lateran in the portico next to the stairs where the poor were depicted. Hadrian had three welfare centres built (or rebuilt) at S. Adriano, SS. Sergio e Bacco and SS. Cosma e Damiano to provide food and baths. Adding to this rather drab, sad picture not even the fountain at St Peter’s functioned. So the same Hadrian repaired the Sabbatina aqueduct (cut in the siege of 775), the Aqua Claudia (serving mainly the Lateran), the Aqua Jobia (for S. Maria in Cosmedin) and the Aqua Vergine.

Donation of Constantine

In the fight against dilapidation prestige sites were prioritised. Spanning the naves of huge basilicas, great beams (brought from the forests near Spoleto) were put in place – eighty feet long at St Peter’s. Lead pipes (the originals stolen) were installed too, along with one thousand pounds of lead for the roof. Moreover, approximately twelve thousand tufa blocks were used at the Tiber embankment around Castel S. Angelo.

The real foundation for future greatness, however, lay less in the papacy’s building works than its imagination. Four hundred and twenty-four years after Constantine translated his capital to Constantinople, Pope Stephen II decided to invent his reasoning. In The Donation of Constantine (composed in 754 during the Pope’s stay in Frankia) a preposterous thesis argued that the emperor had granted St Peter and his heirs a status higher than his own “secular throne.” A fact that forced him to cede the West to the pope and move his capital to the East where (just in case there was any confusion) papal supremacy was also a fact.

Despite its improbable nature, the Donation was an intelligent political theory insomuch as it boosted the legitimacy of papal power while never technically denying the reality of (Eastern) Roman sovereignty. It also catapulted the pope from a humble middle-ranking imperial official (senior only in ecclesiastical terms) into a crypto-emperor; a figure to whom western barbarian-kings had to doff the cap.

Trinclinium of Leo III

Yet when Leo III was expelled by a putsch, he was returned to Rome in AD 799 under Charlemagne’s protection. And so it was the latter who was crowned “emperor” on Christmas Day, 800. Scandalously received with the ceremony accorded to the Eastern Roman Emperor rather than a patricius, the choirs of the Romans greeted him after the coronation as “Augustus.” But the character and extent of his position were left purposely unspecified; it left the Germanic loaded with a sense of imperial duty (i.e. defence) but bereft of any ruling rights.

This imaginative new world order was reflected in a mosaic in the triclinium of Leo III (demolished in 1589). A triconch hall in the Lateran, its main mosaic (which survived until 1743 when it was transferred so badly to a little niche behind the Santa Scala that – after being patched up – what remained was mostly a copy) ran over the front arch and the apse’s hemisphere. In the former, the left hand-side had St Peter enthroned handing the pallium to Pope Leo and a banner to Charles (as king, not emperor). On the right, Christ handed the labarum to Constantine and the pallium to St Peter. Correspondingly, in the latter the Mission of the Apostles was shown.

Despite its attempt to gain independence from the Roman Empire (or because of it in competitive terms), Rome often ended up aping its capital, Constantinople. Take, for instance, the tower Pope Zacharias (d. 752) erected at the Lateran with a bronze gate surmounted by a portrait of Christ – an imitation of the Chalke at the imperial palace. Or Leo III’s second triclinium (sixty-eight metres long) on the upper floor of the palace in order to compete with the imperial palace’s nineteen accubita (dining couches). Fitted with marble revetment and paving, a porphyry fountain and mosaics, the long corridor linking it to the balcony even had a Greek name: macrona.

Chapel of Zeno

This sense of competition with Constantinople often manifested itself by refusing to imitate the cutting-edge eastern churches and promoting Constantinian models in their stead. A good example is S. Prassede (though S. Martino ai Montia and S. Francesca Romana also work) as laid out and decorated by Paschal I. Basically a mini St Peter’s, its apse still carries the original mosaic in which Christ at His Second Coming floats in a deep blue, with Peter and Paul introducing the titular saint Praxedis, her sister Pudentiana, brother and the founder-pope. 

Yet no matter how conservative its trends, papal art almost always betrayed the soul of the empire it pretended to have left. The Virgin enthroned at S. Maria in Domnica’s apse, for instance, is almost comically Byzantine. The jewelled cross flanked by lambs (which until 1597 occupied the apse of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo) is likewise a Byzantine motif. Similarly, a Byzantine model was used in the Harrowing of Hell in the left niche of the Zeno Chapel at S. Prassede. In fact, the whole chapel (built 817-24) is an outstanding example of Eastern Roman art (with its scheme of Christ supported by angels; in subordinate places, the Virgin and the Princes of the Apostles, saints and martyrs).

Fortunately, the Eastern Romans always had a sense of humour. They appreciated the irony of a city (whose resolutely pagan nature [330-430] and dislike of Constantine [cf. Libanius] prompted an earth-shattering translatio imperii) pooling its political capital in its Christian faith and legal descent from such an emperor.

Aqua Claudia

Sadly, the Germanics refused to see the funny side. Indeed, Rome’s ideology quickly became entangled in reality as Otto I recognised that the city had duped his predecessors into a raw deal. Viewing himself as Rome’s rightful owner, his reign saw three major rebellions, the most serious in 965 when the city prefect was hung by his hair from the statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran after being seated backwards on an ass and subsequently sent into exile (a very late Roman punishment for rebels that usually ended with the victim’s head impaled on a lance).

Revolts continued under Otto’s son and grandson, mainly under the leadership of the Crescentii. Rome, alienated from its twin on the Bosporus, repeatedly boiled over into outright hatred towards its Germanic overlords. The last great rebel, Ioannes Crescentius, was captured defending Castel S. Angelo against Otto III (a figure in which the horseshoe of Germanic and Byzantine interests met). Executed in 998, his body was exposed on Monte Mario overlooking the city. A monk, Benedict, lamented from a monastery on Mt Soracte:

“Woe to Rome, oppressed and downtrodden by so many. Now the Saxon king has captured thee and turned thy strength to naught.”

Casa dei Crescenzia

Otto was a curious figure (not least because he saw himself as isapostolos, as Constantine arguably had) in that the Germanics hated him for using Roman cum Byzantine models for his rule, while Rome loathed being demoted to being just another city paying tribute to the emperor rather than the globalised Tyche to which international obeisance was paid.

Still, the papacy had its vengeance on the Germanics by placing its ideology on stilts and steroids. Indeed, after Humbert and Cerularios excommunicated one another, it began to claim it was permitted to wear the imperial insignia (implied as within its rights by Donation but not fulfilled). The tall papal crown was interpreted as an imperial crown and was provided with a diadem (with a golden rim) to represent kingship from the hand of God. Occasionally a second was added to symbolise emperorship from the hand of Peter. Later, a red cloak was worn as a sign of imperial status and Innocent II even had the temerity to have himself addressed as “Caesar” and “True Emperor.”

Memories of the real emperor, however, were obstinate. When civic powers clashed with papal opposition in 1145, the former appealed to Conrad III offering to “all hindrance from the clergy to be removed” and to bring back the “times of Constantine and Justinian…” In such an atmosphere, the most faithful ally of the papacy against imperial armies was rarely the populace but the malaria that decimated invaders.

Santa Prassede

Even the city’s organisational framework (twelve rioni plus Trastevere and Tiber Island) harked back to Byzantine hegemony. Since the sixth century, the citizens had been organised militarily – according to the Byzantine military division of the city into defence districts – a similar division of Ravenna into twelve districts dates from roughly the same time. From this century onwards each section had its own banner, militia and leader. Indeed, when Charlemagne first came to Rome in 774, he was met outside the city by the iudices of Rome, each with a flag, as well as the “venerandas cruces, id est signa” (in other words, outrageously, he was greeted with the traditional ceremony to receive the Exarch of Ravenna). Oddly, perhaps, the civitas Leonina AKA the Borgo seems to have remained independent – indeed, it wasn’t until 1586 that it lost this status.

The final flashback to Byzantium occurred in the twelfth century when churches such as S. Clemente, S. Maria in Trastevere and the Quattro Coronati were built/remodelled. These Byzantine beasts (with their pre-cosmatesque pavements) stood miles apart from the little chapels that squatted in the city’s ancient ruins (such as the oratory of S. Agnese in Piazza Navona or S. Barbara dei Librai in a vault of the Theatre of Pompey) or the tiny single-naved chapels built ex novo as parish churches (such as Giovanni a Porta Latina).

The soil for these churches was laid by Monte Cassino c. 1100. No pavement in opus sectile, major bronze, silver work or mosaic had been composed in Rome after the mid-ninth century. Leo the Chronicler expressly stated that such arts had fallen into abeyance; that the magistra latinitas has not practiced such trades for five hundred years, and that it had been necessary to call in the experts from Constantinople. It was this monastery (modelled loosely on S. Paolo fuori la mura) that spurred the construction of the aforementioned Clemente, Maria and Coronati.

Not that the papacy could let this persistent aesthetic ruin their political theory. Repetitions on their Donation were framed in a mosaic on the narthex of the Lateran Basilica (1159-1181) and at the fresco cycle in the Cappella di S. Silvestro in the convent of the Quattro Coronati (1246), which shows Constantine offering to Pope Sylvester the phyrgium (imperial headdress). Indeed, the latter is farcical in many ways. Never has a benefactor (Constantine) been depicted in such a subservient manner vis a vis the recipient (the pope) that he looks more like a suppliant than a patron.

Just in case this (the Donation) genealogy of legitimacy failed, the papacy had recourse to an insurance policy that bypassed the Roman Emperors of the East and harked back to the imperial past of Rome. It involved gathering a number of bronze sculptures under the porticoes of the Lateran. Among the most impressive were the lupa (where the HRE’s permanent resident in Rome, his missus, sat in judgment), the equestrian Marcus Aurelius (popularly associated with penal judgment and often mistaken for Constantine), the lex Vespasiani tablet, the thornpicker (on a column), Constantine’s colossal head and hand on columns (often mistaken for the remains of a giant Samson) and a ram’s head turned into a fountain.

The message was clear: the lupa was the mother of Romans (a totem of their pre-history), Aurelius stood for the legitimacy of Roman rule, the lex Vespasiani bore part of a decree that transferred to Vespasian the potestas previously exercised by Augustus, and the Donation recorded how this power was transferred from the emperors to the papacy. Not that is was just the papacy that toyed with ancient remains. In the secular sphere, the Casa di Crescenzio (between the Theatre of Marcellus and S. Maria in Cosmedin, now: Via Luigi Petroselli) contains parts of an arcaded loggia, as well as seven segmented column shafts (half swallowed by the wall) all built of brick and flanked by brick piers.

Thanks to Constantine’s double-hinged nature (founding Constantinople [bad] as well as donating the West to the papacy [good]), however, the citizens of Rome often felt more comfortable putting him down than building him up. As late the mid twelfth century, for example, Benedict – a canon of St Peter’s – felt the need to write in his Mirabilia that the Aurelius statue was not Constantine (as popular ignorance had it), instead it represented a Roman who freed Rome from an Eastern king besieging the city. A very transparent dig at a Neo-Flavian dynasty that demoted Rome to the status of a relic, a regional player.