Category Archives: My Travels

I’ve been doing a lot of travelling, for fun and for work. Here are the related posts.


Last week, my father-in-law and I started the new year right with a New Year’s Day trip to Vindolanda Roman fort and Hadrian’s Wall. Here I am at Vindolanda:

And here I am at Hadrian’s Wall:

Vindolanda excited me because it is a fairly well-preserved Roman fort, and it is the source of some very remarkable archaeological finds. There were Roman forts at Vindolanda from about the year 85 (all these dates are AD), around the time of Agricola (made famous by Tacitus’ work of the same name) until the Romans left 395? 410? Three main forts have been found, but they estimate that as many as nine were built on this spot.

The first thing that should be said of Roman forts in Britain: Most of them are little more than waist-high foundations. They have excavated some parts of Vindolanda more deeply than that, but this is mostly what you will see. This is the case of the other Roman remains I’ve seen here, such as Bearsden, Cramond, Chesters, and Corbridge. I have seen nothing Roman as spectacular as Ostia Antica or Pompeii in Britain.

Here’s a shot of Vindolanda:

Vindolanda is not right on Hadrian’s Wall but about a mile to the south on the Roman military road with the mediaeval name of the Stanegate. I’ve visited another Roman fort on the Stanegate at Corbridge. Like Corbridge, Vindolanda had a civil settlement, or vicus, connected with it as well. When you approach Vindolanda from the West today, you pass through the vicus on your left, and a few military buildings on your right — the military buildings include some of the praetorium from the Severan fort (so, c. 200).

The buildings of the vicus are long and narrow because, apparently, you were taxed based upon the amount of streetfront you took up. One of the last buildings before you reach the walls of the fort is the tavern. Somehow that makes sense — a place for both civilians and soldiers, after all. They suspect that it would have had some upper floors for rooms.

The wall of the fourth-century fort isn’t bad:

They are still excavating inside the walls. Here you’ll find the usual suspects, such as the granary with its raised floors to keep the grain dry:

And the strongroom in the principia (HQ), which is underground in the small temple where the standards of the legion would have been stored along with the image of the emperor.

Of interest is the temple to Jupiter Dolichenus (Dolichenum). Jupiter Dolichenus is a cult popular with soldiers. He is an adaptation of a god from ancient Syria (now southeastern Turkey), and he turns up at a number of places in Britain. This is a reminder of the varied nature of the people living in Britain under Roman rule. The Dolichenum was destroyed in the later fourth century, presumably as a result of Christianisation and the closure of public temples and the rescinding of public funds for non-Christian religions.

Of interest were the foundations of some round houses of the Severan era. At that time, there was a rebellion, and these houses are built in local fashion, so it is supposed that they were built to house Roman sympathisers who were targeted by their neighbours.

And there was a bath house, as always. I like hypocausts:

Eventually the Romans left, but Vindolanda seems to have been inhabited until the ninth century. So I find myself interested in post-Roman Vindolanda: Who lived here? What various changes did they make besides a church in the praetorium? What artefacts did they leave behind?

For it is for its artefacts that Vindolanda is chiefly famous. And, amongst these, the Vindolanda Tablets are the famousest. Vindolanda’s site preserves an extraordinary quantity of organic material — shoes, wooden tablets, animal bones, etc. The shoes took me by surprise:

There was also a room full of cow skulls in the museum, but I didn’t take a photo. All of your expected pottery is there, too — Samian ware and the like.

I was most glad, however, to see the Vindolanda Tablets. These are wooden tablets covered in writing. Some are letters, some are inventories, some are requests for requisitions. There are comments about beer, about roads, about the local populace. There is a birthday invitation. They are wonderful, and they are one of the greatest finds in twentieth-century British archaeology, for texts can add flesh to the bones dug up by archaeology.

After Vindolanda, we walked part of Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads Roman fort. Here’s a photo of the stunning countryside with the Wall running along that crag in the distance:


Venezia: A unique history

IMG_6004My wife and I just spent a lovely weekend in Venice. Venice is a place unlike any other — a carless city full of narrow streets, narrow canals, wide canals, and piazzas. The early medieval history of Venice as (faultily) portrayed by the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus ( sole emperor 913–920 [under regency] and 945–959) demonstrates its uniqueness.

Attila’s destruction of Aquileia is part of the foundation legends of Venice, as we see in this emperor’s De Administrando Imperio 28:

Of old, Venice was a desert place, uninhabited and swampy. Those who are now called Venetians were Franks from Aquileia and from the other places in Francia, and they used to dwell on the mainland opposite Venice. But when Attila, the king of the Avars, came and utterly devastated and depopulated all the parts of Francia, all the Franks from Aquileia and from the other cities of Francia began to take flight, and to go to the uninhabited islands of Venice and to build huts there, out of their dread of king Attila. Now when this king Attila had devastated all the country of the mainland and had advanced as far as Rome and Calabria and had left Venice far behind, those who had fled for refuge to the islands of Venice, having obtained a breathing-space, and, as it were, shaken off their faintness of heart, took counsel jointly to settle there, which they did, and have been settled there till this day. (Trans. R. J. H. Jenkins)

To this day, one can see a large stone chair in front of the cathedral on Torcello that is called the throne of Attila. That a nomadic warlord would have carried with him such an item is unlikely in the extreme.

"Throne of Attila" (seen by me in Venice 2 years ago)

“Throne of Attila” (seen by me 2 years ago)

It is incumbent upon me as a historian of Late Antiquity to tell you that Attila did not get as far south as Rome, let alone Calabria. He was still in northern Italy at the River Mincius when he was met by a delegation from the emperor, the senate, and the people of Rome, consisting of Avienus, who was of consular rank, a former prefect Trygetius, and ‘the most blessed Pope Leo.’ (See Prosper, Chron. 1367)

Anyway, I must say that I am not convinced by the Attila story for the foundation of Venice. For one thing, it does not come up in Paul the Deacon (d. 799), who lived in the region, let alone our much earlier sources such as Prosper and Hydatius (Attila’s contemporaries) or Jordanes’ Getica (c. 551) — and wouldn’t we have expected some mention of this depopulation of Aquileia into the lagoon in Leo’s letter to Nicetas, Bishop of Aquileia, from March of 458, some seven years after the alleged flight to the lagoon?

However it happened, and whenever it happened, people moved from the Italian mainland to the islands in the Venetian lagoon in the Early Middle Ages. By the 900s, the story had spread abroad that they moved there during the invasion of Attila. Whenever it happened, we cannot rule out the desire to escape war and terror as a motive for moving to the islands.

Back to Constantine VII.

He goes on to tell us that King Pippin of the Franks tried to subdue the Venetians, but was unable to defeat them, although in the end they agreed to pay him a tribute which, says Porphyrogenitus, was steadily decreasing over time. When Pippin claimed dominion over them, the Venetians said that they wished to be servants of the emperor of the Romans, not of Pippin. In modern terms, this is the Byzantine Emperor, who was constitutionally a successor of Augustus.

This story about Pippin and the Venetians shows us the state of the Venetians in history, poised between East and West, situated in the Adriatic — speaking a Romance language but having many economic and political ties with the Eastern Roman Empire. This is exemplified in their style of art, called ‘Veneto-Byzantine, on which I blogged after my first trip to Venice. As well, in the 1400s and1500s, Greek and Slavic refugees from the Balkans came to Venice and settled there.

Mosaics from Santa Maria Assunta, island of Torcello, Venice

Mosaics from Santa Maria Assunta, island of Torcello, Venice

IMG_6026The Serenissima Republica had many, many mercantile contacts in the East. This was why they sacked Constantinople in 1204, bringing back the porphyry tetrarchs and bronze horses and a variety of other things — to settle their bill. Medieval Venetians also absconded with the body of St Mark from Alexandria. You will also find relics of St Anthony the Great in Venice (I forget where) — as well as the bodies of St Athanasius and St Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, (in the church of San Zaccaria). The first resident Jews in Venice — home to the original Ghetto — were Levantine merchants. Venice — the West looking East.

Indeed, their eastern empire once included Crete and Cyprus, giving rise to a Byzantine-style icon of the pieta (a Western visual motif) by Theophan the Cretan that I saw in the Benaki Museum in Athens. Their glass production was based on sources materials from their mainland conquests in Italy and their Eastern Mediterranean conquests and contacts — with the best materials, they made the clearest glass throughout the Renaissance and Baroque, producing many exquisite items.

The story of Pippin exemplifies this attitude — for much of the ascendancy of Venice, they were detached from wider western politics but embroiled in those of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus goes on to tell us that the Venetians selected their first doge from the most noble man among them. At first, his residence was at a place called ‘Civitanova’, but

because this island aforesaid is close to the mainland, by common consent they moved the doge’s residence to another island, where it now is at this present, because it is at a distance from the mainland, as far off as one may see a man on horseback. (Trans. R.J.H. Jenkins)

Again, we see tenth-century stories reflecting the future history of Venice as a maritime power, whose Arsenale would produce one sailing ship per day in the 1600s. Furthermore, we see the doge, who was the head of state in Venice, elected for life. Venice was a Republic; towards the end of her independence, the doge would yield little to no power, but he was still the doge, and his palace next to the Basilica San Marco was the centre of secular power (ecclesiastical power was pushed away to San Pietro di Castello, which was the cathedral until 1807).

I am not sure where ‘Civitanova’ was, nor where the doge’s residence was in the 900s. It must have been somewhere further in than it is now. For one thing, there is no way you can see San Marco from the mainland, even without all the buildings in the way. For another, early Venice was further in for the most part. That is why the most spectacular mediaeval mosaics are on Torcello, because Santa Maria Assunta was the original cathedral; that’s also why Attila’s throne is there, no doubt. However, there are apparently ninth-century floors at San Zaccaria, which is not far from San Marco, and a church has stood on the site of San Pietro di Castello since the 600s, apparently. Nonetheless, something tells me that in Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ day the doge’s residence was closer to the mainland.

Venice is a fascinating city with a rich history of mercantile trade, shipbuilding, the arts, culture, religion, theft, war, murder, and more. And so much of it feels like it rings out to us from Constantine Porphyrogenitus, showing us that Venice was already on her trajectory in the 900s.

And even if you didn’t know this stuff, I’d recommend a visit. We had a blast, let me tell you!

(Here’s another post I once wrote about Venice.)

Roman — not Byzantine

Although this title looks the sort of thing you’d expect from continuist Byzantinists, I’m actually arguing about Rome in what follows — that early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine.

Apsis_mosaic_San_ClementeWhen I first visited San Clemente in 2014, there was a group of people looking at the magnificent apsidal mosaic. One of them remarked, ‘This is Byzantine’, in as natural a way as possible. I recommend you click on that image to the left to get a taste of San Clemente’s apsidal mosaic. It is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, and I would never speak ill of it. People in the Middle Ages were great workers of beauty, and Roman mosaics are among those works of beauty.

But I was annoyed at the person saying that San Clemente’s mosaic was Byzantine. For one thing, it was built c. 1099-1125. I don’t think it’s very precise to call Roman art in the twelfth century ‘Byzantine’ — the papacy was already into its schism with the East, and the city was largely a papal city, although the Normans sacked it in 1084 due to papal-imperial politics, including the destruction of the fourth-century San Clemente, leading to the creation of the new one. The emperor in these politics was not in Constantinople but in the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading zeal aside, the outlook of Rome in this period was decidedly western.

Nonetheless, I can imagine someone saying that the current mosaic is a replacement of the fourth- (or ninth-?) century mosaic lost in the fire of 1084. And surely that mosaic would count as Byzantine. Therefore, this mosaic is an imitation Byzantine mosaic.

I guess here’s where I get properly controversial, since there are mediaevalists and art historians who would argue for the use of the word Byzantine in relation to early mediaeval Roman art. Nonetheless, two days ago I visited Santa Prassede with Rosamond McKitterick, and she argues strongly for the Romanness of Santa Prassede’s mosaics. So I’m in good company. Here are a few of my photos of Santa Prassede’s mosaics to give you the flavour:

First of all, I can see immediately why we want to call early mediaeval Roman art Byzantine. Just look at it! And then, just look at Byzantine art, like the famous Christ Pantokrator from Ayia Sophia:

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-SophiaThat one from 1261, of course, is much more naturalistic than these ninth-century mosaics. What people usually have in mind is more the sixth-century apsidal mosaic at St Catherine’s in Sinai:

transfiguration-st-catherines-monasteryOr the sixth-century mosaics at Ravenna:

Pendentive_(San_Vitale_in_Ravenna)There is certainly a visual continuity running across these sixth-century mosaics from the edges of the ‘Byzantine’/Justinianic world into the Roman mosaics of the ninth century sponsored by Pope Paschal I. However, this same visual continuity also strikes the heart of sixth-century Rome, as Santi Cosma e Damiano, at the edge of the Roman Forum and built by Felix IV c. 524, as seen in my photos below:

Rome in 524 is living under the rule of Ostrogothic king Theoderic. They are only newly reunited ecclesially with Constantinople. Is it really accurate to say that this kind of art is ‘Byzantine’ in this case? Indeed, is it not visually united with the fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore?

IMG_1613 IMG_1606Finally, why don’t we step back and see the visual continuity that runs from the Constantinian age and the Mausoleo di ‘Santa’ Costanza? (My photo)

IMG_1569This is Roman-style Late Antique and Early Mediaeval art, and it exists in mosaic and fresco, although mosaics are more durable. I have given examples from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as the ninth (see also the apsidal mosaics at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, also commissioned by Paschal I), but I could have added the late sixth (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, c. 580) and seventh as well (Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and San Teodoro for mosaics and the remnants of the diaconia in the curia, now in Cripta Balbi, for frescoes). I do not know my eight-century Roman churches at all — apologies there.

Christian Roman art and architecture are habitually traditionalist. Their style remains Late Antique and persists with a certain degree of Classicism in architecture combined with a visual abstraction that we consider ‘Byzantine’ while northern Europe and Spain go through Romanesque and Gothic. This ‘Byzantine’ style of Roman art, indeed, continues well beyond definitively traceable Byzantine cultural influence in Rome, such as this 14th-century mosaic at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church (my blurry photo; apologies):


Or what about the Dormition of the Virgin, a thirteenth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore? (My pic.)

IMG_1609None of this is to say that ‘Byzantine’ forces were never at work in Rome during the Middle Ages. Eastern Christian influences were certainly present in Rome after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, such as through ongoing contacts with the Emperor in Constantinople, especially after Justinian’s Reconquest, and then through the arrival of eastern clerics. In the seventh century, many ‘Greek’ (that is, Greek-speaking) clerics came to Rome, such as the circle of St Maximus the Confessor. The Roman liturgy adapted some Greek/Eastern liturgical practices to her own use, and the papacy may even have taken on some Greek bureaucratic ideals. St Gregory the Great, in fact, even spent time in Constantinople before becoming Bishop of Rome! So, yes, there is cultural exchange. But it also goes both ways — Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is very popular in Eastern Christianity, for example.

All this to say — since words matter, we should be precise. Early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine. It stands in its own strong Roman tradition, a tradition that persists in mosaics, at least, up to the High Middle Ages, and also has ties with its sister art in the Easter Mediterranean (‘Byzantine’ art).

A Great Thing About Catholic Europe: Most Churches are Free

The Romanesque church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris (free)

The Romanesque church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre, Paris (free)

If, like me, you have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of art and architecture and find yourself travelling Europe on a budget (as was the case throughout the research trips conducted in the course of my PhD), the freeness of most churches in Catholic Europe (in stark contrast to London, home of the moneychangers) is a tremendous blessing.1

If you like Late Antique art, free entry to Santa Costanza in Rome will get you early mosaics plus a mausoleum. Free entry to Santa Maria Maggiore gets you Late Antique mosaics plus some bonus Classical pillars (so do San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and a host of other Roman churches). Free entry to Sant’Ambrogio in Milan gets you a very fine Late Antique sarcophagus (the Late Antique mosaics in the treasury are worth 2 euros, though). Rome, in fact, has quite a lot of Late Antique art in its churches — chiefly mosaics. Even in San Pietro in Vincoli, where the Late Antique decoration was largely redone by Michelangelo in the Renaissance, there is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian.

Romanesque art and architecture are not to be missed, either. Most Italian churches maintain a very ‘traditional’ style throughout northern Europe’s Romanesque period. That is, while they maintain the round arches, etc, like Romanesque, they aren’t as weighty or massive. I’m a big fan of this bit of doorframe from Verona Cathedral:


The Benedictine Abbey of Sankt Paul im Laventtal, Austria, is a very excellent example of Romanesque architecture:


Another free but highly restored Romanesque church worth visiting is St-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris.

After Romanesque comes Gothic, such as Notre Dame de Paris, la Sainte-Chappelle, a host of Parisian churches, Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, the Duomo of Milan, etc. All free! Less famous but still Gothic, Munich Cathedral:

IMG_9011Anyway, to speed things up …

The Renaissance in Florence? Largely free.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in San Pietro, Rome? Free.

Caravaggio in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome? Free.

Saint Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome? Free.

Free art.

The whole history of Western art from Late Antiquity onwards.



All you have to do is turn up at a church.

1. If, like me, you also have an amateur/non-scholarly interest in the history of music, Spotify or a university subscription to the Naxos Music Library can fulfill the same function as free Catholic churches.

Discovering Late Antique Rome: The Small Stuff

I thought I’d wrap up my intermittent series on the Late Antique city of Rome as visible today with a few thoughts/images of the smaller items (that is, not monuments or basilicas) on display in Rome’s museums.1

Because of their enduring character and continual use, those buildings of Late Antique Rome that are most likely to have survived the Middle Ages and Renaissance are the churches and things turned into churches, like mausolea or the Roman Curia. But the Late Antique world is not all monumental architecture and churches, by any means, just as the ‘Classical’ Roman world wasn’t all monumental architecture and temples. A great many Late Antique items of smaller stature are on display in Rome’s museums, especially if we take our starting date for the period that used elsewhere on this blog, of 235-641.

Third-century stuff

The third century is interesting — great political crises around every corner, a great lacuna in the history of Latin literature, but Romans are still making the same stuff they were making a century before, like sarcophagi:

IMG_1660This is a sarcophagus of ca AD 270 with a bunch of togate fellows who, according to Palazzo Massimo’s display label, are involved in a consular procession. It is of larger scale than most second-century sarcophagi, but that has more to do with the wealth of the owner than the period of production. The figures here are cared in very high relief, almost as statues in the round. I love this sarcophagus because it has such great images of togas, that most Roman of garments.

Right next to that sarcophagus in the museum is this one, ca 280-90:

IMG_1664Here we see the growing trend that had already begun in some of the imperial art of the late second century of more front figures who are divided from each other in their own wee alcoves (on this, see Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph). These are the Muses, those most classical icons of world culture.

In the Baths of Diocletian, you can find a few more third-century artifacts, such as this spectacular relief commemorating a gladiator’s victories:

IMG_1739And this fantastic sarcophagus:


In the Capitoline Museums you’ll find this image of Mars, Jupiter, and Nemesis erected by the Praetorians of Gallia Belgica in AD 246:

IMG_2118And then there’s Constantine…

In the Capitoline Museums (which are not to be missed!), you can also enjoy not one but two of Constantine’s big giant heads, plus a few of his limbs:

Part of the Constantinian revolution was the emergence of Christian art in traditional places. Like sarcophagi (I like sarcophagi). Here’s one from the same room in Palazzo Massimo as the ones above:

IMG_1667Early Christian art is interesting because it can be hard to spot the stories as you know them. Except it seems, the Nativity, as in this detail from the above:

IMG_1666One interesting artistic trend of the fourth century is opus sectile mosaics. Rather than describe them, I’ll show them to you:

1st half of 4th c., Palazzo Massimo

1st half of 4th c., Palazzo Massimo

Second quarter of the fourth century, Capitoline Museums

Second quarter of the fourth century, Capitoline Museums

Opus Sectile has a very simple appearance that is quite disarming. It has its charm, though.

Fifth-century playing ground

Other things you can find in Rome’s museums include coins, such as this of Theodosius II (r. 408-450) in the Capitoline Museums:

IMG_2101 (2)Of major significance is this pair of early fifth-century statue bases:

IMG_2120 IMG_2122They were erected by Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus (ca. 383-after 402), son of the famous Roman statesman and man of letters, Q. Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-402). The top is dedicated to his father, the bottom to his wife’s grandfather, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (334-394).2

I don’t wish to burden you with too much more of this sort of thing, so I will simply close with two images from the Vatican Museum of some Christian items that herald to us the start of a new era, as the Classical recedes and the Mediaeval approaches.

6th-c reliquary from Syria-Palestine, Vatican Museum

6th-c reliquary from Syria-Palestine brought to Rome by a contemporary pilgrim, Vatican Museum

6th-7th-c ivory lid, Vatican Museum

6th-7th-c ivory lid, Vatican Museum

Anyway, as you can imagine, Late Antique Rome is not as hidden as I originally thought. You just have to know what to look for and where. All sorts of Late Antique objects are in Rome’s museums, reminding us of the continuous history of the City as a centre of culture and human experience.

1. In case you missed them, my other posts on Late Antique Rome are (in order): Late Antique Rome? Where?; Mausoleo di Santa Costanza; Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity; the Baths of Diocletian; as well as (although not of this particular series of posts) Thoughts on Rome’s Senate and Senate House in the Seventh Century 
2. The marriage of Memmius Symmachus to Nicomachus Flavianus’ graddaughter is the probable occasion of the production of a diptych of which I have seen both leaves, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the other in the Musée de Cluny; I only have a photo of the second, though, but it seems not to be on Flickr.

Thoughts on Rome’s Senate and Senate House in the 7th Century

This past Thursday, Christopher Smith, Director of the British School at Rome, led a very informative and interesting tour of the imperial fori, the Forum, and the Palatine, with a walk along the Circus Maximus to the Forum Boarium at the end. I now have some idea of the Forum and how it all works together, as well as its history. Given that the Roman Forum is a mish-mash of ruinous stone and brick from various different eras, it is no easy feat to sort this place out. Indeed, I may be kidding myself.


Until it was decided in the 19th century that the Forum would better serve the world uncovered and exposed, it was lined with churches, several of them former ancient Roman buildings converted to new uses in the course of the Middle Ages. Such converted buildings include this temple to Antoninus Pius (d. AD 161) and his wife Faustina; note how high up the Baroque door is — evidence of the changing topography of the City (all photos my own):

IMG_5423Another is this mausoleum from c. AD 307, built by the Emperor Maxentius for his son:

IMG_5428It was converted into the Church of Sts Cosmas and Damian by Pope Felix IV (pope 526-530) and includes these wonderful 6th-century mosaics:

IMG_5407Temples are less frequently converted into churches than non-religious buildings; thus, the Temple to Antoninus Pius was not converted into a church until the 7th century at the earliest; its existence as San Lorenzo in Miranda is not confirmed until the 11th. The Pantheon, for example, was not converted into a church until the late 500s.

One building in the Forum that was not converted into a church until the 600s is the Curia, Rome’s Senate House; it’s the one on the right:

IMG_5421It would have been clad in marble in ancient days, as evidenced by the holes for such activity. The Curia was not converted into a church until the episcopate of Pope Honorius I (pope 625-638). None of its ecclesiastical garb survives due to the archaeological interventions of the early 20th century. These strike me as largely wrongheaded, because the Curia looks neither as it did in antiquity, nor as it did as a mediaeval church.

Thankfully, some of the 8th-century frescoes (painted at order of Pope Hadrian I (pope, 772-95) were preserved and can be seen today in the museum of Cripta Balbi:

13918555508_09bdb66c07_oAnyway, I’m sure you’re finding all of this very fascinating, but are wondering if I have a point amidst it all.

I do. Fear not.

The Curia, you see, could not be converted into a church while it was still in use for its secular purpose. That is, there had to be no more Senate before a pope could turn its meeting house into a diaconia. When does the Senate end, though? That’s the ongoing problem. We have, for example, the famous quotation from Gregory the Great (pope, 590-604):

For where is the senate? where any longer a people? The bones are wasted, the flesh consumed; all pride of secular dignities is perished out of it. The whole composition is sodden. Yet every day the sword, every day innumerable sorrows press upon us, the poor remaining remnant. (Homilies on Ezekiel, 2.6.22),

Years later, however, that same Gregory would join with this non-existent Senate to welcome the adventus of the imperial image. So not quite gone yet! Nevertheless, the Senate of Rome would definitively vanish by the days of Honorius in the second quarter of the 600s. It was an institution that was over 1100 years old, a body of men involved in lawmaking, personal prestige, taxation, and all that is involved in the running of civic affairs, born some time in the Regal Period (before 509ish BC) — an age from which vague tales — myths and legends incontrovertibly mingled with truths — are all that survive.

And it slowly petered out and died. But we don’t know when.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Endnote: I wonder if that final imperial intervention in the Forum, the pillar of Phocas (eastern emperor 602-10) has anything to tell us in this tale of Rome’s movement to the secular periphery?

Many Romes

Successful shopping

Successful shopping

Two days ago (my first day in Rome), I walked from the British School at Rome (BSR) to Sant’Anna Gate of Vatican City. Just to see how long it would take me. 45 minutes. Apparently I’m slow — somewhere out there is a long-legged Catholic who can do it in 22. Nonetheless, having timed the journey, I’ve decided that Tram 19, which passes right in front of the BSR, is more my style. If I catch it before 8:30 AM.

Having arrived in Vatican City, I decided to do some browsing of tourist shops. I wanted a Rome-themed key chain for my Roman keys, a nice Swiss Guard toy soldier (I’d seen one once but failed to locate it when in the mood to buy), and maybe (if they exist) a Leo the Great-themed souvenir (to my knowledge, these seem not to).

I don’t know how many tourist shops I went into. They are legion and all in a row beside the walls of Vatican City on Via di Porta Angelica. You can buy one of a vast array of rosaries — who knew something so simple could come so varied? You can buy one of a smaller selection of saint statues or medals — occasional Italian mediaeval or Byzantine-style icons and prints thereof, maybe a print of a Renaissance saint painting. A vast range of Pope Francis souvenirs is present, with (St) John Paul II ( JP2) coming in second. The odd Pope Benedict XVI souvenir still lingers here and there. Small replicas of St Peter’s also abound. And crucifixes. In the mix are a variety of more generic Rome souvenirs, largely focussed on ancient art, history, and architecture, or the Trevi Fountain.

Just around the corner from these can also be found a whole other variety of Catholic store — liturgical outfitters, for all your ecclesiastical needs! Clerical shirts, chasubles, stoles, chalices, patens, censers, tabernacles (!), monstrances, all displayed proudly in the window. Apparently you can also buy purple bishop socks and red cardinal socks. Because why not?

Furthermore, just off St Peter’s Square is the official book shop of the Vatican Press (not sure what they actually call themselves). Lots of Catholic books in there in Italian, Spanish, Polish, English, German, Japanese, and others. The English books, besides translations of official Vatican and papal documents, looked mostly to be aimed at an American audience.

This is the commercial side of one of the many Romes. This is Catholic Rome. Or, rather, one of the Catholic Romes. This is pilgrim/spiritual tourist Rome. One of the shops I visited was even called Al Pellegrino Cattolico. The other aspect of this Rome is found in basilicas and churches, in religious artwork and papal appearances and papal audiences. It is found in the catacombs.

I was originally going to jokingly call this post ‘Two Romes‘, as a nod to Rome and Constantinople, and then surprise people by discussing two Romes in actual Rome. However, I realised in bed last night that there are more than merely two Romes. Besides the tourist/pilgrim side of Catholic Rome, there is also the functioning world of Roman Catholicism in Rome — this Rome is not about tourist/pilgrim shops or visiting the seven pilgrim churches. This Catholic Rome runs and maintains the pilgrim churches. But it also includes the various persons in the Vatican who run the Roman Catholic Church. It also includes the various religious orders who have an established presence in the City. It also includes the various Roman Catholic research/training institutes. Rome actually is the physical heartland of Roman Catholicism, much more than Canterbury ever could be for Anglicanism.

So there are at least two Catholic Romes

They exist and overlap. They also live cheek by jowl with many other Romes, however. There is ancient Rome, visited by tourists, studied by Classicists, beneath the surface of the City. There is historic Rome beyond the classical, visited and studied by the same people. And in the midst of the scholars, tourists, pilgrims, and prelates, there are the modern Romans and the Italian government. All of these Romes exist and overlap and are all about the city, as when one visits the Pantheon (now a church).

This truly is the Eternal City, and its fascination will never cease to hold me.