top of page

The Invention of Roma Christiania: How the Early Papacy Policed Art & Faith

Hi sunt olivae duae coram Domino Et candelabra luce radiantia Praeclara caeli duo luminaria Fortia solvent peccatorum vincula Portas Olympi reserant fidelibus.”[1] “(These [Peter & Paul] are two olive trees in the presence of the Lord, And candelabra radiating light The Two brightest lights in heaven They break the strong chains of sin

And open the gates of Olympus to the faithful.”

Responding to Laeta – who’d asked how she ought to bring up her infant daughter Paula – Jerome (d. 420) described Rome at the turn of the fifth century: Auratum squalet Capitolium, fulgine et aranearum telis omnia Romae temple cooperta sunt, movetur urbs sedibus suis et inundans populus ante delubra semiruta currit ad maryrum tumulos.”[2] “The golden Capitol decays, all Rome’s temples are covered with soot and spiders’ webs; the city is shifting its religious allegiance, and floods of people hurry past half-ruined shrines to the martyrs’ tombs.”

This process is typically seen in the legal cum historical light of the Edict of Milan, the removal of the Altar of Victory, the pro-Christian laws of Theodosius and so on. The visual record meanwhile focuses on mausolea, martyria and basilicas. This is perhaps understandable given the most obvious change was Constantine’s attachment of ginormous churches onto the major Christian cemeteries in a pomerium-defying necklace around the city but it’s also a shame when there is such a wealth of art and objets d’art that track how the Christian world insinuated itself into traditional forms.[3] Among the earliest examples of Christian art to survive are frescoes by members of the Callistus group in their catacomb on the Via Appia, as well as the statue set up by their nemesis, the Hippolytus group, at the Ager Veranus (near the Castro Pretorio).[4] Hippolytus had left the mainstream Church (with his congregation) in 217 when Callistus – whom he loathed – was elected bishop. During the Maximinian persecution (235) Hippolytus was banished to the lead mines of Sardinia with pope Pontianus. The two were reconciled before dying but buried in these two different locations.[5]

Christian objects in this early period include a casket from the Esquiline treasure which depicts a naked Venus among erotes and tritons above an inscription exhorting readers to live in Christ. This neatly mirrors the syncretism of room 79 at the Catacomb of Marcellinus with its arcosolium of Orpheus juxtaposed against images of Daniel in the lions’ den, and a similar fusion in the Codex Calendar of 354 by Furius Dionysius Filocalus for the aristocrat Valentinus which supplemented the traditional festival calendar with Christian additions such as the deaths of bishops and martyrs.[6] Another syncretic object is the Bassus sarcophagus – originally the closest to St Peter’s tomb at the Vatican – which contains an inscription on the upper edge which cites his place on the cursus honorum, the traditional and annalistic method of dating by Consuls, but also his baptism: IVN BASSVS V. C. QVI VIXIT ANNIS XLII MEN. II IN IPSA PRAE FECTVRA VRBI NEOFITVS IIT AD DEVM VIII KAL. SEPT. EVSEBIO ET YPATIO COSS.” Junius Bassus, a man of senatorial rank, who lived forty-two years and two months, went to God newly baptised, while he was Prefect of the City, on the eighth day from the kalends of September, when Eusebius and Hypatius were Consuls.”

Reliefs include the sacrifice of Isaac, the arrest of Peter, Christ enthroned over Caelus between Peter and Paul, the arrest of Christ and the judgment of Pilate. Below stand a distressed Job, Adam and Eve, Christ entering Jerusalem, Daniel in the lion’s den and the arrest of Paul. The Lateran sarcophagi 164 and 174 also contain similar themes.

These multiple assimilations of Semitic history-cum-theology within a Roman framework form precursors to the iconography of Rome’s late antique churches where Christ, Peter and Paul are flanked and appropriated by local saints and popes. This is a Christianity which winks at its masterful inclusion in the traditional register while keeping another eye on supplanting it. A fact that’s most obvious in the development of the stational liturgy in which Rome’s main basilicas stood for the sites of the Passion in Jerusalem.[7] Roughly five hundred glass objects (often labelled “gold-glasses”) have also survived. Some bear joyful inscriptions such as the Latinised Greek “PIE ZESES!” (Drink! May you live). Others feature Christ, the apostles, saints and orants. Many contain portraits of the sort mentioned in Chaereas & Callirhoe in which the novel’s pregnant heroine kisses the portrait of her husband on her ring.[8] Nevertheless, portraiture of the variety made famous by the Brescia medallion seems to have exploded with the advent of hagiographic imagery.

Typical decorative items include leaf scrolls, columns, crowns, the Chi-Rho, winged cupids, Hercules, alpha and omega, pronuba figures, and Christ as a crowning figure. A family gold-glass, for instance, includes the Chi-Rho at the British Museum. And the later concord and peace of the saints can be detected in the pose of couples who are conventionally depicted in the act of dextrarum iunctio (ceremonial handshake/embrace of marriage). Some objects displayed Greek. In fact, many of the papal tombs (Anteros, Fabian, Lucius and Eutychianus for instance) in the Catacomb of Callistus boast Greek epitaphs. Sadly, though popes were sometimes celebrated abroad (Xystus, for instance, who was commemorated in a fourth-century Syriac version of a Greek martyrology) few papal images have survived. A damaged arcosolium fresco might depict Liberius (352-66) and Sixtus II (257-8). The portraits that decorated San Paolo fuori le mura dated to Leo the Great (440-61) – a similar period to the mosaic portraits of Ambrose and Maternus in San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro, Milan, as well as the episcopal medallions in the Catacomb of San Gennaro in Naples. Perhaps aniconistic tendencies played a role in this relative dearth. Paulinus of Nola, for instance, chided his friend Sulpicius for requesting his portrait by contrasting the feebleness of wax tablets with the perfection of the mind images cast in heaven.[9]

Though few popes survived other Christian images flourished. Males were typically shown bearded in the garb of a philosopher (in tunic and pallium) carrying scrolls, while females were invariably cast as orants. Pairs form the most popular type of grouping (the most famous being Peter and Paul though there were many others such as Sergios and Bakkhos). More popular than popes was the virgin martyr Agnes whose complex of buildings on the Via Nomentana included a mausoleum by Constantine’s eldest daughter, Constantina, in the 340s. Lawrence (often carrying a cross over his shoulder) was her male equivalent, Constantine dedicated a basilica at his cult site on the Via Tiburtina. Finally, even legendary figures such as Saint Petronilla were celebrated. She makes an impressive apperance at the Catacomb of Domitilla, for instance, where she escorts a humble client, Veneranda, to heaven.

Criticisms of this image-laden universe abounded. Though Asterius of Amaseus (d. 410) was more concerned with extravagance (and the idea that pious conspicuous consumption might form a perfect substitute for works) than iconodulism, his screeds against expensive images and adornments chimed with many.[10] Augustine, too, grew annoyed that images often ahistorically portrayed Peter, Paul and Christ together.[11] Images were contested on many levels. Perhaps the most foundational was disagreement that centred on how they operated. For one camp, they were mental constructs which intended to evoke the faith; they were meant to be reached through to achieve the faith. For the other, however, images truly represented holy subjects. In the fifth-century Actus Silvestri, for example, Constantine saw Peter and Paul in a dream but was only able to identify them after the pope presented him with images of the pair.[12] This wasn’t a peculiarly Christian phenomenon, however. Aurelian, for example, had supposedly recognised Apollonius of Tyana in a vision because of a temple portrait according to the Historia Augusta.[13] Indeed, the boundary between cult image and deity was meant to be permeable in the extreme and Christianity appears to have inherited this unstable nature.

This new Christian Rome had its teething problems. The emphasis on harmony between Peter and Paul for instance was a rather blatant whitewashing of the New Testament’s intimations of their discord. These growth pains aside, however, by the reign of Gregory the Great Rome had moved from relative irrelevance (in that its sole claim to fame was an emperor who managed to massacre the faith’s foremost apostles) to boasting such a Christian reputation that the only gift worthy of a Lombard queen such as as Theodolinda (d. 628) was twenty-six ampullae containing the manna (oils) of the saints, all of whom came from Rome; a feat that reimagined the city not so much as the locus amoenus of imperial glory[14] but a giant martyrium, an eternal source of undying sanctity. A sentiment later hallowed by Paulinus of Aquileia II (d. 802) in a hymn that’s still sung in the modern Roman liturgy to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter & Paul (29 June):

O Roma felix, quae tantorum principum

Es purpurata pretioso sanguine! Excellis omnem mundi pulchritudinem Non laude tua, sed sanctorum meritis, Quos cruentatis iugulasti gladiis.”[15] “Oh happy Rome, stained purple with the precious blood of so many princes! You excel all the beauty of the world, not by your own glory But by the merits of the saints whose throats you cut with bloody swords.”

In other words, while the imperial house had fled east to Constantinople, it did not matter because the imperial purple paled in significance when compared to the purple of the blood spilt by Peter and Paul, those “caelestis aulae triumphales milites” (triumphant soldiers of heaven’s halls). Somehow Rome’s deplorable Christian-murder rate had been turned on its head – it catapulted it to the top of the Christian premier league, at least in the West. Challenges to this recasting of Rome persisted, however. Some were easy: the fratricidal Romulus & Remus could be replaced with Saints Peter & Paul who gave their lives for the city. Power could also shift smoothly from the ancient Palatine and Capitol Hills to the Caelian (upon which stood the pope’s cathedral, the Basilica Salvatoris).[16] Others, however, were more difficult. While it was excellent that martyrs proliferated for example. They were too often venerated by unruly communities i.e. the “wrong” sort of people, indeed many cults (such as that of Eulalios the presbyter at the Domitilla catacomb) went unsupervised by the bishop. This was the reality behind pope Damasus’ (d. 384) dubious claim that the Romans had not remembered their martyrs properly; that they had let them linger in “oblivion.”[17] Beneath the rhetoric the papal initiative sought to craft an official narrative that might rescue its prestige and create a top-down command of cemeteries, catacombs, funerary banquets, the laetitiae (private dinners) at graves etc. which had lain in the hands of private owners or patrons for too long. Indeed, such was Damasus’ fervour he even “discovered” new martyrs such as Marcellinus and Petrus, as well as Tiburtius and Gorgonius.

This may all seem rather heavy-handed but Damasus operated in the aftermath of a large civil war. In 355 Constantius II had exiled the Nicene bishops who rejected the Arian creed. This effectively deposed the West’s episcopate. While the major players such as Liberius of Rome, Dionysius of Milan, Eusebius of Vercelli, Hilary of Poitiers and Lucifer of Cagliari were recalled to residences in the East (a verdict that amounted on close-proximity house arrest) others were exiled to the porphyry quarries of Egypt: Querella famosa est, iussos a te episcopos non esse, quos condemnare nullus audebat, etiam nunc in ecclesiasticis frontibus scriptos metallicae damnationis titulo recenseri.”[18] “Bishops whom no one dared to condemn have been deposed and now they have been tattooed on their foreheads with the words ‘condemned to the mines.’”

Returning from Thracian (house arrest?) prison in Berea, pope Liberius escaped to the imperial complex of St Agnes’ cemetery in 357, hoping that Constantina Augusta might intervene on his behalf.[19] Yet matters only got worse at Damasus’ own election when he confronted Ursinus and his gang. The spine of the latter was formed from a rigorist laity, the intellectual descendants of those who’d sought to exclude the lapsi (fallen folk, originally guilty of apostasy in the great persecutions but later “fallen” in a more general sense) from the Church. In an electoral fight to the death at the basilica of Sicininus the result was a body-count of one hundred and thirty-seven, and the banishment of Urscinus to Gaul. Even this was only the most famous battle. Later conflicts took place in the catacombs of St Agnes with Ursinians claiming to have suffered martyrdom at the hands of their brethren. Adding spice to the relative chaos, Novatianists also continued to hold meetings at the tomb of their founder in the catacomb of Cyriaca on the Via Tiburtina. In short, given the martyrs legitimised whosoever celebrated them it became necessary for the pope to police access to the art of their tombs and the dedication of objects to their causes. The pope therefore prohibited heretics from approaching cult sites, indeed one was bold enough to remove the gifts of Constantius II from the altar of St Peter’s[20], and in 365 Macrobius – the Donatist bishop of Carthage – was refused permission to visit the tombs of the apostles.[21] Finally, perhaps nothing captures the confusion of the period more than the author with whom this article began, Jerome. In 374 he dismissed Novatian’s views as nonsense.[22] Only a decade later, however, he quoted the same figure as an authority on par with Tertullian.[23]

[1] A. Lentini (ed.) Te Decet Hymnus (1984) 178. The hymn hints at Apocaplyse 11:4 (hii sunt duo olivae et duo candelabra in conspectu Domini terrae stantes) in which two witnesses are killed by the Beast in Sodom. Later the pair are resurrected and taken up to heaven. Their apotheosis is followed by the seventh trumpet sound which announces war with the Beast of seven heads and ten crowns (often considered the seven consecutive world-states e.g. Babylon, Rome etc.) which is destroyed. See J. O’Reilly, “The Book of Kells, folio 114r: A Mystery Revealed yet Concelaed,” eds. R. M. Spearman & J. Higgit (1993) 106–114.

[2] Jerome, Epistulae 107.1

[3] The irony of Constantine’s cemetery building spree (with a basilica type known as “ambulatory” that was rarely attempted afterwards) was that by the mid fourth-century the fashion to brings martyrs into the city to inaugurate intramural churches as cult centres had begun. Perhaps the most famous example of this was bishop Maturnus of Milan’s translation of the body of St Victor from Lodi (Libellus precum [=Coll. Avell. 2] 5-7) at some point between 313–343.

[4] Hippolytus’ tomb stood on the Via Tiburtina in a three-apsed underground basilica lit from above and decorated with mural paintings (G. Bertoniere, The Cult Centre of the Martyr Hippolytus [2008]).

[5] The language of schism is anachronistic as the pope formed a figurehead in a sea of religious entrepreneurs who established their own clubs or schools with their own disciples. None technically broke from the bishop to form a community but many splintered off in the sense of socially shunning popes they disliked.

[6] The manuscripts we possess now are sixteenth and seventeenth century copies of a lost Carolingian copy.

[7] This attitude (replacing Jerusalem with Rome) became so engrained that when it became impossible to travel to Rome, the great ceremonies of its basilicas could be seen in ecstatic visions. See C. Plummer (ed.), Life of St Berach, in Bethada Naem nErenn; Lives of Irish Saints, 2 vols (1922), 2:42-42, Ch. XXX. No doubt much of this familiarity was inculcated in Mass which listed both the early popes and the foremost basilicas.

[8] Chaereas and Callirhoe 1.14

[9] Paulinus of Nola, Epistulae 30.6.

[10] Asterius of Amaseia, Homiliae 1 (PG 82, 1872).

[11] Augustine, De Consensu Evangelistarum 1.10.

[12] T. Canella considers the version we have to contain material datable to the end of the fourth century and first half of fifth but articulated in a more elaborate manner at the beginning of the sixth century, see here. The text contains the legend of the leprosy and baptism of Constantine in Rome. It also describes the visit of the emperor to St Peter’s one week after his baptism had healed him. The emperor joined in the procession to the confessio, removed his crown, prostrated himself completely and soaked his purple robes with tears. If such an event did take place it’s most likely to have occurred in 326 when Constantine was in Rome to celebrate the vicennalia. The basilica was probably completed in the same year. Perhaps the gold cross inscribed with Constantine and Helena mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis was dedicated on the same occasion. See LP 34 c. 18; ICUR 4093.

[13] Historia Augusta, Divus Aurelianus 24.2.9.

[14] An attitude best encapsulated by Rutilius Namatianus: “Fecisti patriam diversis gentibus unam […] Vurbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat.” (You [Rome] made a homeland for many peoples […] You made a city of what once belonged to the world) in De Reditu Suo, 63, 66. A. van Heck (ed.), Breviarium Urbis Romae Antiquae Viatorum in Usum (2002) 50.

[15] Stanza VII of the hymn Felix per omnes. Liber Hymnarius (1983) 390-93. See Lentini (ed). Te Decet Hymnus: L’Annario della Liturgia Horarum (1984), 173-175.

[16] Even the ancient symbol of Rome, her Tyche, would eventually be replaced with the golden rose of the popes, blessed on the fourth Sunday of Lent (a special date that’d later morph into Mother’s Day in England) and then deployed as diplomatic gifts. Adam of Usk commented that the gold and silver rose was “rubbed in fresh myrrh and balsam so that it filled the air with sweetness.” C. Given-Wilson (ed. & trans.), The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421 (1997) 198-9.

[17] Sanctorum… nomina nec numerum potuit retinere uestustas (Damasus, epigram 42 (group of unknown martyrs).

[18] Hilary of Poitiers, Liber in Constantium. 11, ed. A. Rocher (1987) p.188.

[19] Liberius was only released from Thrace after agreeing to the excommunication of the orthodox champion Athanasius and signed a formula that did not repudiate the Nicene creed but did weaken it with the claim that the logos was “like the father in being and in all things.”

[20] Athan. Hist. Ar. 35-37.

[21] Optat de Mileve, 2,4.

[22] Hier. Epist. 10.3.

[23] Hier. Epist. 36.1.

464 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page