Dec 25, 2014

Bridging Pagan and Christian Rome

 Thanks to my breakfast conversation with Pere Roger on Saturday, I learned about the Russian Orthodox Church just down the street from the guesthouse of the Religieux de St-Vincent de Paul. Sunday morning I arrived a few minutes before they began reading the Hours, had a chance to go to confession, and received Holy Communion. Then it was back to my room for a quick breakfast and off for what proved to be a very full day. 

My first stop was the Colosseum. I'd purchased a three day Roma Pass, which included unlimited public transit and free admission to two museums. Many of these museums have a dedicated lane for Roma Pass holders, which allowed me to skip the line. 

To be quite honest, the Colosseum looks better from the outside. The degradation to the structure (from the elements and from people simply taking it apart for building material) made it very difficult to visualise it filled to the estimated 75,000 person capacity. There were some info boards situated throughout the areas open to the public, and it was interesting to read about the system of lifts which were used to make scenery changes and bring animals in to the arena. There were two layers of passages beneath the floor of the arena, and much of the top layer is currently visible. Still, my visit to the intact Roman amphitheatre in Bosra, Syria was much more satisfying. (The Arabic word for amphitheatre literally translates as "place of stairs.") 

From the Colosseum, I walked past the Arch of Constantine and into the Forum. (A funny thing happened on the way... "I told him, Julie, don't go. Julie, don't go!" [And if that didn't jog any memories, search YouTube for Wayne and Schuster Wash the Blood off my Toga.]) It was neat to be able to walk around the site and see where the commercial wheeling and dealing took place. There were also some areas which had homes above the shops which opened on to the street from the ground floor. Some urban design ideas just never get old. 

 I also saw the Arch of Titus, built to commemorate his victory over the Jewish rebellion in 70 AD, when he levelled the city of Jerusalem and brought the seven branched candelabra from the Temple back to Rome as a trophy of war. (Also thousands of prisoners, but that's what happens, right?) He used the financial gains from the war to fund the construction of the Colosseum, which was built of the former site of the artificial lake Nero had built for his own personal use. Titus was a pretty shrewd politician, in addition to being a good general. 

 The Palatine Hill was next. (All three of these areas counted as a single museum visit.) Ancient Roman tradition held that the hut of Romulus was located on this hill, and the specific structure had been preserved for several centuries before being lost to history. According to the exhibit at the Palatine Museum, this was the first area of Rome to be inhabited. The most obvious feature on the hill is the collection of ruins of various imperial palaces, dating from the late 1st century BC to the early 3rd century AD. In fact, the word "palace" (in English, French, German, Italian, and probably many other languages as well) is derived from the name of this hill. That's how impressive these structures were. (For more on the Palatine Hill, please see the Wikipedia article: ) There's a great view of the Circus Maximus from the palace walls on one side, and the Forum from the other. 

 After this, I headed down one hill and up another. The church of Santa Sabina is located on the Aventine Hill, and it's one of the oldest in the city. It was built in the 5th century on the site of a house used for Christian worship. It had originally belonged to St Sabina, who was martyred around the year 114. It has been remodelled over the years, but some frescos from the first millennium still survive. There are several other churches on the hill, but I had to be selective. If I had tried to visit every church in Rome, I'd still be there come Pascha! 

 My next stop was Santa Maria in Cosmedin. If that reminds you of the word "cosmetics," it's no coincidence. The interior of this Greek Catholic church is stunningly beautiful. Each of the three apses (apsi?) is adorned with traditional Byzantine mosaic iconography, and the floor is a marvel of patterned mosaic work. When I say "traditional Byzantine," that is a factual description. Although the church dates to the 6th century, it was renovated in 782, and much of the work was done by Greek monks who had come to Rome to escape the iconoclastic persecutions in the Roman (often anachronistically called Byzantine) Empire. 

 There have only been a few occasions I've regretted sending my wide angle, large aperture camera home to save weight. This was one of them. I've uploaded two photos from the church to Flickr, neither of which I'm really happy with. I arrived as a wedding was ending, and snapped a shot of the bride and groom as they walked towards the exit. (No "aisle," so it makes no sense to say they were walking down the aisle.) What struck me as odd is that there were far more people lined up outside in the church portico than there were inside the church. The attraction was the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth). If you've seen Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, you'll remember the scene where Peck's character pretends his hand has been bitten off by the carved face because he told a lie. It was cool to see the carving in real life, especially since I hadn't known that's where it is. 

 I headed back along the Circus Maximus, pausing to eat. The previous three days I had simply forgotten about eating until well after sunset, so I had used my little pack to haul sustenance so as to avoid that (not entirely unpleasant) lightheadedness and exhaustion that comes after a long day of walking with no food since breakfast. 

Refreshed, I hopped on the Metro and made my way to the Cathedral of St John Lateran. According to my Via Francigena guidebook, this was "the first building for public Christian worship erected in Rome -- and in the entire world..." In 312, the emperor St Constantine had issued an "Edict of Toleration" in Milan, which stated that Christianity was no longer illegal. It was the following year that he gave the property and buildings of the Lateran complex to the church. It's worth noting that all of the churches I visited have been renovated many times over the centuries, and much of what people see today is from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Some of the more ancient features which remain are frescos, mosaics, and flooring. Those were the features which most appealed to me in the Lateran. The ornate ceiling was impressive, but my preference for Baroque is limited to music rather than architecture. Still, it was very easy to pray inside this church, which is not always the case in Rome. 

 I crossed the square and entered the part of the Lateran complex which contains the Scala Sancta and the Sancta Sanctorum. The former is a set of 28 broad marble steps, said to have been the stairs from the palace of Pontius Pilate which Christ climbed on Good Friday. They were brought to Rome by St Helen in 326, following her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (She was the mother of the emperor, so clearly she did "pilgrimage" on a much grander scale than most.) The steps are currently protected by an overlay of hardwood, and it's upon this wooden carapace that devout Catholics may ascend on their knees. (I walked up one of the four other staircases flanking this one.) At the top, visitors are able to peer through small windows at the private papal chapel known as the Sancta Sanctorum. This small chapel is richly decorated and apparently houses an extensive collection of relics. At one point in time, it was claimed (by the Catholic Church) to be the holiest place in the world. I had a look, and then moved on. 

 My final church visit of the day was to the Basilica of San Clemente. ( There are three levels in this complex, the uppermost of which is itself a few metres below the modern street. This ground floor basilica dates to the 12th century, and has some amazing mosaic iconography. (The photos on their website are well worth looking at!) Access to the lower levels requires an admission fee, but I don't regret the few Euros I spent on that. 

 This level, and the one below it, had lain untouched and forgotten until the 19th century, when Fr. Joseph Mullooly began his archaeological excavations. (Read more about him on the basilica website.) In 1863, he discovered the tomb of St. Cyril (one of the two Apostles to the Slavs, and for whom the Cyrillic alphabet is named) located near the left apse of the 4th century basilica which lies directly below the "modern" church. I had vaguely remembered from seminary that St. Cyril was laid to rest in Rome, but it was quite something to actually be there. His relics are now in a side chapel in the basilica upstairs -- unfortunately fenced off, but I venerated from a distance. The lowest level of excavations contained a Mithraim (temple for the mystery cult of Mithras) and an associated school. There was also a narrow alley, and a few homes. There was an American tour guide leading a group through the site while I was down there, and I successfully resisted the temptation to interrupt and tell the group that many of her "facts" were both erroneous and biased against the intelligence of the ancient pagans and against (small "o") orthodox Christianity. (sigh) 

 During the weekends leading up to Christmas, several major thoroughfares in central Rome are pedestrian-only in the evening, so I spent a few pleasant hours wandering. The lights and the crowds created a wonderful atmosphere, and even the street vendors added a certain charm. I passed by the Trevi Fountain, thinking it would be nicely illuminated, but the fountain was dry and the facade covered with scaffolding for restoration work. 

Next I headed to the Piazza Navona, on the advice of Fr. David Hester. This is an elongated oval the length of two city blocks, originally built as a stadium for footraces by Domitian. It's also the site of St. Agnes' martyrdom, and there is a large church (Sant' Agnese in Agone) dominating one side of the open area. Three fountains, lots of people and Christmas lights, cafés, and even a carousel! 

 Since I was planning to leave the next day and it was such a beautiful evening for roaming, I decided to take a tram up to the Milvian Bridge. I could have used this bridge to cross the Tiber when I entered Rome, but I'd decided to take the most direct route instead. The Milvian Bridge is where two major Roman roads converged and entered the city. I'd become very familiar with the Via Cassia, while the few hundred metres from the tram stop to the bridge were on the Via Flaminia. Crossing the bridge, I emerged on to a very large square filled with traffic, but on October 28 in the year 312 it was the site of a major battle which had enduring consequences. Historians disagree on what the nature of Constantine's vision was, and what symbol he had his soldiers adorn their shields with (even his biographer recorded slightly different versions), but his victory over Maxentius led to the Edict of Toleration the following year, and the eventual adoption of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine is venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church, but some believers have a certain ambivalence about the changes that came about when Christianity adopted the privileges of power. (For more background about the battle: ) 

 Now thoroughly exhausted, I started making my way back home. I stopped off at the central train station to buy my ticket to Bari, and discovered that the noon train was completely sold out, leaving me with the options of an 8:15 AM departure or a 10:00 PM arrival. Neither of these really suited me, but since my Roma Pass was good all day Monday, I decided to take full advantage of it and spend most of another day in Rome. But that will have to wait for my next update, since this is already far too long and the city of Durrës is waiting to be explored. 

 It's December 25 as I prepare to hit send. Christ is Born! Glorify Him! 


  1. Merry Christmas Peter. May this next stage of your pilgrimage be blessed.

  2. Thanks, Kym! I celebrated Christmas with the Orthodox faithful in Durrës.

    So far, my experience in Albania has been of extreme hospitality. So yes, blessed. :)