PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN ROME by Rodolfo Lanciani (1893)





The Riverside Press, Cambridge



The early adoption of Christianity not confined to the poorer classes. Instances of Roman nobles who were Christians: The family of the Acilii Glabriones. Manius Acilius the consul—Put to death because of his religion. Description of his tomb, recently discovered. Other Christian patricians. How was it possible for men in public office to serve both Christ and Cæsar? The usual liberality of the emperors towards the new religion. Nevertheless, an open profession of faith hazardous and frequently avoided. Marriages between Christians and pagans. Apostasy resulting from these. Curious discovery illustrating the attitude of Seneca’s family towards Christianity. Christians in the army. The gradual nature of the transformation of Rome. The significance of the inscription on the Arch of Constantine. The readiness of the early Church to adopt pagan customs and even myths. The curious mixture of pagan and Christian conceptions which grew out of this. Churches became repositories for classical works of art, for which new interpretations were invented. The desire of the early Christians to make their churches as beautiful as possible. The substitution of Christian shrines for the old pagan altars at street corners. The bathing accommodations of the pagan temples adopted by the Church. Also, the custom of providing public standards of weights and measures. These set up in the basilicas. How their significance became perverted in the Dark Ages. The adoption of funerary banquets and their degeneration. The public store-houses of the emperors and those of the popes. Pagan rose-festivals and their conversion into a Christian institution.

It has been contended, and many still believe, that in ancient Rome the doctrines of Christ found no proselytes, except among the lower and poorer classes of citizens. That is certainly a noble picture which represents the new faith as searching among the haunts of poverty and slavery, seeking to inspire faith, hope, and charity in their occupants; to transform them from things into human beings; to make them believe in the happiness of a future life; to alleviate their present sufferings; to redeem their children from shame and servitude; to proclaim them equal to their masters. But the gospel found its way also to the mansions of the masters, nay, even to the palace of the Cæsars. The discoveries lately made on this subject are startling, and constitute a new chapter in the history of imperial Rome. We have been used to consider early Christian history and primitive Christian art as matters of secondary importance, and hardly worthy the attention of the classical student. Thus, none of the four or five hundred volumes on the topography of ancient Rome speaks of the3 basilicas raised by Constantine; of the church of S. Maria Antiqua, built side by side with the Temple of Vesta, the two worships dwelling together as it were, for nearly a century; of the Christian burial-grounds; of the imperial mausoleum near S. Peter’s; of the porticoes, several miles in length, which led from the center of the city to the churches of S. Peter, S. Paul, and S. Lorenzo; of the palace of the Cæsars transformed into the residence of the Popes. Why should these constructions of monumental and historical character be expelled from the list of classical buildings? and why should we overlook the fact that many great names in the annals of the empire are those of members of the Church, especially when the knowledge of their conversion enables us to explain events that had been, up to the latest discoveries, shrouded in mystery?

It is a remarkable fact that the record of some of these events should be found, not in church annals, calendars, or itineraries, but in passages in the writings of pagan annalists and historians. Thus, in ecclesiastical documents no mention is made of the conversion of the two Domitillæ, or Flavius Clemens, or Petronilla, all of whom were relatives of the Flavian emperors; and of the Acilii Glabriones, the noblest among the noble, as Herodianus calls them (2, 3). Their fortunes and death are described only by the Roman historians and biographers of the time of Domitian. It seems that when the official feriale, or calendar, was resumed, after the end of the persecutions, preference was given to names of those confessors and martyrs whose deeds were still fresh in the memory of the living, and of necessity little attention was paid to those of the first and second centuries, whose acts either had not been written down, or had been lost during the persecutions.

As the crypt of the Acilii Glabriones on the Via Salaria4 has become one of the chief places of attraction, since its re-discovery in 1888, I cannot begin this volume under better auspices than by giving an account of this important event.

In exploring that portion of the Catacombs of Priscilla which lies under the Monte delle Gioie, near the entrance from the Via Salaria, de Rossi observed that the labyrinth of the galleries converged towards an original crypt, shaped like a Greek Γ (Gamma), and decorated with frescoes. The desire of finding the name and the history of the first occupants of this noble tomb, whose memory seems to have been so dear to the faithful, led the explorers to carefully sift the earth which filled the place; and their pains were rewarded by the discovery of a fragment of a marble coffin, inscribed with the letters: ACILIO GLABRIONI FILIO.

Did this fragment really belong to the Γ crypt, or had it been thrown there by mere chance? And in case of its belonging to the crypt, was it an isolated record, or did it belong to a group of graves of the Acilii Glabriones? The queries were fully answered by later discoveries; four inscriptions, naming Manius Acilius … and his wife Priscilla, Acilius Rufinus, Acilius Quintianus, and Claudius Acilius Valerius were found among the débris, so that there is no doubt as to the ownership of the crypt, and of the chapel which opens at the end of the longer arm of the Γ.

The Manii Acilii Glabriones attained celebrity in the sixth century of Rome, when Acilius Glabrio, consul in 563 (b. c. 191), conquered the Macedonians at the battle of Thermopylai. We have in Rome two records of his career: Temple of Piety, erected by him on the west side of the Forum Olitorium, now transformed into the church of S. Nicola in Carcere; and the pedestal of the equestrian statue, of gilt bronze, offered to him by his son, the first of its kind ever seen in Italy, which was discovered by Valadier in 1808, at the foot of the steps of the temple, and buried again. Towards the end of the republic we find them established on the Pincian Hill, where they had built a palace and laid out gardens which extended at least from the convent of the Trinità dei Monti to the Villa Borghese. The family had grown so rapidly to honor, splendor, and wealth, that Pertinax, in the memorable sitting of the Senate in which he was elected emperor, proclaimed them the noblest race in the world.

The Glabrio best known in the history of the first century is Manius Acilius, who was consul with Trajan, a. d. 91. He was put to death by Domitian in the year 95, as related by Suetonius (Domit. 10): “He caused several senators and ex-consuls to be executed on the charge of their conspiring against the empire—quasi molitores rerum novarum—among them Civica Cerealis, governor of Asia, Salvidienus Orfitus, and Acilius Glabrio, who had previously been banished from Rome.”

The expression molitores rerum novarum has a political meaning in the case of Cerealis and Orfitus, both staunch pagans, and a religious and political one in the case of6 Glabrio, a convert to the Christian faith, called nova superstitio by Suetonius and Tacitus. Other details of Glabrio’s fate are given by Dion Cassius, Juvenal, and Fronto. We are told by these authors that during his consulship, a. d. 91, and before his banishment, he was compelled by Domitian to fight against a lion and two bears in the amphitheatre adjoining the emperor’s villa at Albanum. The event created such an impression in Rome, and its memory lasted so long that, half a century later, we find it given by Fronto as a subject for a rhetorical composition to his pupil Marcus Aurelius. The amphitheatre is still in existence, and was excavated in 1887. Like the one at Tusculum, it is partly hollowed out of the rocky side of the mountain, partly built of stone and rubble work. It well deserves a visit from the student and the tourist, on account of its historical associations, and of the admirable view which its ruins command of the vine-clad slopes of Albano and Castel Savello, the wooded plains of Ardea and Lavinium, the coast of the Tyrrhenian, and the islands of Pontia and Pandataria.

Xiphilinus states that, in the year 95, some members of the imperial family were condemned by Domitian on the charge of atheism, together with other leading personages who had embraced “the customs and persuasion of the Jews,” that is, the Christian faith. Manius Acilius Glabrio, the ex-consul, was implicated in the same trial, and condemned on the same indictment with the others. Among these the historian mentions Clemens and Domitilla, who were manifestly Christians. One particular of the case, related by Juvenal, confirms the account of Xiphilinus. He says that in order to mitigate the wrath of the emperor and avoid a catastrophe, Acilius Glabrio, after fighting the wild beasts at Albanum, assumed an air of stupidity. In7 this alleged stupidity it is easy to recognize the prejudice so common among the pagans, to whom the Christians’ retirement from the joys of the world, their contempt of public honors, and their modest behavior appeared as contemptissima inertia, most despicable laziness. This is the very phrase used by Suetonius in speaking of Flavius Clemens, who was murdered by Domitian ex tenuissima suspicione, on a very slight suspicion of his faith.


Original article: Pagan and Christian Rome


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s