Posts Tagged ‘basilica of MAxentius’

On top of the Esquiline

February 28, 2010

Coming from a culture which has been so steeped in Christianity, it can be easy to over-emphasise the switch from paganism to this new-fangled religion. The schoolboy question and answer would be: Q. When did Rome become Christian? A. Under the rule of Constantine. As ever, of course, things weren’t as simple as that. Ignoring the question of just how Christian was this sainted ruler and looking instead at your average joe worshipper, Christianity’s entry onto the main stage of world religions was more of a seeping cooption of pagan beliefs and values. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been bored by people pointing out that the 25th of December was a pagan festival before the Christians usurped it, but nevertheless, there is quite a lot of truth in the old chestnut. The geography of Rome is shaped by such practices.

In Pre-Christian days, a temple to Juno Lucinda, the goddess who would be invoked in childbirth, stood on the Esquiline Hill. Understandably unwilling to lose any divine assistance during that particular trauma, people m

ade sure that this particular remit was transferred to the obvious other candidate; the woman who had given birth to Jesus himself. As such, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the hill today, and whatever ridiculous stories of miraculous snowfall marking the Church’s outer markings one might come across (, it’s this transferral of pagan values which would really seem to account for the location.

To the front and back of the church stand a column and an obelisk respectively. Both of these are of good sturdy classical stock and both stand where they do (at least partially) because of another common determiner in Roman geography: personal aggrandizement. The first of the two to be erected was the obelisk at the back of the church. The Latin inscriptions on each side of the base explain the provenance. The north east side, for example, reads:

Christi Dei

In Aeturnum Viventis


Laetissime Colo

Qui Mortui

Sepulcro Augusti



which translates as: “I who in sadness, formerly served the tomb of the dead Augustus, with greatest joy revere the cradle of Christ, the everliving God.” Augustus’ mausoleum, then, was the source of this obelisk. In his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome, Tyler Lansford explains its curious location; whilst it stood at the back of the Church it was supposed to serve, it stood at the front of Villa Montalto. Essentially, it would seem that it was an effort by Sixtus V to increase the value of his property.

Moving over to the front of the church now, we reach a site familiar to me from my many journeys into town on the 71, la Colonna della Pace (or the Colum of Peace). This one’s also a testament to the ulterior motives of popes past. The last two lines of the south west inscription shed light on the rationale behind the erection.

te paule nullis

obticebo saeculis

Or translated, “About you, Paul, I will be silent in no age.” Never one to shy away from a bit of self-publicising, this is the same Paul (Paul V) who prompted the graffito “I thought it was supposed to be dedicated to Peter” after he had prominently placed his own name on the facade of the recently completed St Peter’s.

Leaving glory hungry popes behind us, let’s get back to the Column itself. Even in the middle of its large piazza and in front of one of the biggest churches in Rome, its size gives it an imposing presence. Looking at its provenance, it’s obvious why. This column originates from the Basilica of Maxentius, the monumental ruins of which stand next to the Forum just off the Via Sacra. There are better sites to visit if you’re after the feel of a Roman building, but if you want to get a feel for the epic scale of civic Roman architecture designed to impress, this basilica’s well worth a brief stop off.

In a brief digression, the Latin inscriptions underneath once more include mention of the Column’s origins but this time, however, the inscription makers got it wrong. From the south east side:

vasta columnan mole

quae stetit diu

pacis profana in aede

or “the column of vast bulk which long stood in the unholy Temple of Peace”. Centuries of misidentification of the basilica as the Temple of Peace would not be corrected until serious archaeological work began in the nineteenth century.

As you can see from the picture below, sometimes the Latin inscriptions can be difficult to make out. Fortunately, Rose got me The Latin Inscriptions of Rome for Christmas and it’s this that I’ve been copying the Latin from (and indeed, most of the translations). Before I finish with this post, I want to take a second to plug the book. Even for non-Latinists, the English translations make it a really worthwhile purchase for anybody with an interest in Rome’s history.

A little bit of papal propaganda for you