Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.16

Jason Moralee, Rome's Holy Mountain: The Capitoline Hill in Late Antiquity. Oxford studies in late Antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 9780190492274.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Caroline Goodson, University of Cambridge (


The Capitoline was the centre of Roman history in antiquity; its temples and buildings were fundamental to the stories Romans told about their past and the rituals and administration that promoted the empire and its rulers. Political and social changes in late antiquity meant that the hill no longer performed the roles it once had, and yet the Capitoline remained numinous. Moralee’s book expertly and surprisingly charts the history of the hill through transformations of imperial ceremony, state religion, and strategies of social memory between the fourth and seventh centuries to show how the history of a place and the memories of its ancient functions carried forward into the early middle ages. This is an excellent, stimulating read about the history of ideas and how ideas attach to places.

An Introduction locates the hill in modern Rome and historiography, picking out the threads of ancient sources that were woven and rewoven in the post-Classical past. Here we are introduced to Moralee’s methodology and his erudition. His approach is forged through classical literature, and he understands and explains well how ancient texts cite, invert, inform, and allude to each other. He is keen to consider less-canonical texts of late antiquity, not only Augustine but also several anonymous authors with poorer grammar and muddier philosophy. Working beyond texts, Moralee addresses the ways in which physical reality and textual accounts interplay in ‘a “living textuality”’ (p. 21, quoting Umberto Eco).

Chapter One charts the life of the Capitoline in the imperial period. Augustus radically changed the patterns and topography of Rome’s celebrations, not—as many have assumed and claimed—Constantine. Augustus and his successors used multiple sites across Rome for adventus, triumphs, and other celebrations of their rule. When Constantine celebrated a triumph in 312, and in his subsequent procession in Rome, his apparent omission of the Capitol from the event was hardly novel. The multiplication of the stages and frames for imperial ceremony across Rome was a change from the late Republican focus on the uia sacra and the Capitoline, attributed by Moralee to ‘a more decentralized empire, Rome’s evolving symbolic topography, and the increasing significance of Rome’s Christian community’ (p. 50).

Chapter Two examines the social and administrative institutions of the Capitoline and their evolution in the changed world of late antique Rome. On the one hand, nothing much changed: some of the temples seem to have been restored by Theodoric, administrators continued to work on the hill, and there were many high-status residences and a marketplace for luxury items. The fourth-century Regionary catalogues report a concentration of houses, tenement blocks, baths, fountains, et cetera, in addition to the temples and administrative buildings: a bustling neighbourhood. On the other hand, Christianity changed the terms of who went to the Capitoline and what they did there.

Chapter Three makes the case that a church dedicated to the Theotokos was created on the hill in the sixth century by Narses, the exarch of Italy from 552 to c. 573. Moralee proposes this as a possibility that could be accommodated in the gaps in our evidence. If you follow: there is an excerpt of a history, preserved in Walahfrid Strabo’s handbook compiled at Fulda in the ninth century (Cod. Sang. 878), which places Narses on the Capitoline; there are some texts reportedly from sibylline oracles foreseeing the birth of Christ and the virginity of Mary; a late sixth-century permutation of these attests an altar to Christ in Rome on the Capitoline; the seventh-century Latin translation of those oracular texts suggests that this shrine was later made the home of the Virgin Mary. A faded note in a Vetus Latina Gospel of Mark (not John, pace p. 103) was deciphered by Bernhard Bischoff as recording the manuscript’s presence in the eighth century at S. Maria in Camellaria, which might be a monastery on the Capitoline. In the twelfth-century ‘Mirabilia Urbis Romae,’ the Sibyl prophesied Christ and the Virgin to Octavian in a room which came to be known as S. Maria in Ara Caeli, at the ‘Tabularium’ on the Capitoline. This clever piece of research leaves open the possibility that there was a Christian shrine on the Capitoline before the tenth century, when a Latin monastery is surely attested, but there is hardly a smoking gun, and it is not clear why we should want there to be a church on the Capitoline before the tenth century. Moralee turns to consider the Kapetolion in Constantinople in the sixth century, in an effort to explain what Narses might have thought he was doing at Rome’s Capitoline, if he did anything at all. Though the Kapetolion was a Christian monument from its inception and was therefore fixed within different urban processions, it ‘stood for political continuity, dynastic harmony, and a toponomic bridge to Rome’s ancient imperial culture’ (p. 107), that is, exactly what Moralee claims the Roman Capitoline was in late antiquity. Reflection on memory, imperial monuments, and history in the New Rome opens up new ways of considering Old Rome and the construction of its past.

Chapter Four shows the symbolic power of the Capitoline in a literary sense as we catch sight of it in the polemics between late antique intellectuals, Christian and traditionalist. Moralee’s deft hand corralling difficult texts emerges with real strength here. The textual sources with which he is working have challenging transmissions and layers of composition that imposed shifting senses of value on the Capitoline and its historical significance, and this is the point. Thus, in the ‘Acts of Silvester,’ revised in Rome in the mid-fifth century, Constantine had leprosy and to cure it he made his way up the Capitoline to sit in a bath filled with the blood of children. On the way, the sight of the sobbing mothers bringing their babies to the priests to sacrifice provoked the emperor’s reflection on the nature of triumph. He abandoned the cure, converted to Christianity, and erected the Lateran Basilica and St Peter’s. This account of Constantine’s conversion and his relationship to the Capitoline was revised (with added attention to the specifically Roman context) not even 100 years after the senator Vettius Agorius Praetextatus took a public procession up the Capitoline before he died in 384. The meaning of the story in the ‘Acts’ turns on the memory of imperial processions and sacrifices at the Capitoline temples before Constantine’s day, just as the social status achieved by Praetextatus on his procession—if he took it—turned on his fellow Romans knowing the same histories of the place. We know of Praetextatus’s procession through Jerome’s criticism of it, an example of what Moralee elegantly styles the ‘downward pressure of a Christian ideology of power’ (p. 120), which provoked an inversion of the previously understood symbolic power of Roman monuments including the Capitoline.

The focus of Chapter Five shifts to authors in the Christian tradition: Tertullian, Lactantius, Augustine, and others. Though Moralee never names Pierre Nora or his concept of ‘les lieux de mémoire,’ the analysis here of the intersections between events, monuments, place-names, and historical transmissions is clearly indebted to the French historian’s charting how a thing, place, or event slips between the past and present and consolidates multiple, even divergent, memories into community heritage.1 Thus, the Gallic siege of Rome in 390 BCE was replayed and its story retold in antiquity and the early middle ages; histories of the warning by geese, statues and images of geese, celebrations of geese, and then Christian condemnations of sacred geese all memorialised an event, fixing it in a certain place, uniting multiple histories, real and imagined.

Chapter Six concentrates in particular on accounts of the destruction of the Capitoline temples and how a specifically Christian history aligned these with destructions of other famous historic temples, including the temple in Jerusalem and the Temple of Apollo, Delphi. Accounts of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans and the ruin on the Temple Mount served as a reminder of the fallibility of men’s monuments and the legacy of Jews’ sins, according to Jerome, Prudentius, and others, and the Roman Capitol was put to this moralising function as well.

Chapter Seven turns to the literary roles of the Capitoline in the Roman martyr acts of the fifth and sixth centuries. The Roman gesta are difficult as sources for topography and history, as they have unclear authorship and dating, and they are popular, funny, unrelentingly pious tales never intended to serve as maps or histories. Moralee recognises the invention on display in this literature. Several gesta put forward a new layer of meaning of the Capitoline, one of resistance. The Temple of Jupiter served as the stage of nefarious acts, and Capitoline priests play starring roles as persecutors and baby-killers; the Capitoline becomes an evil church and its priesthood. The Capitoline temples of the gesta are not only those of Rome, but also the temples of Capitolia across the empire, making what happened in Rome relevant all over the late Roman world. The pious heroes of the martyr acts defied traditional religion, idolatry, sin, and persecution for an eternal reward. An Epilogue considers the subsequent fortunes of the Capitoline in later narratives down to the twelfth-century Mirabilia urbis Romae.

The book is lucidly written with an engaging voice. Moralee is a master of similes and makes sublime word choices: the imagined Romes of the gesta martyrum are ‘like snow globes sold in tourist shops’ (p. 189), old temples might be ‘like decommissioned nuclear power reactors’ (p. 62). At times he stretches a bit far with the medieval evidence: a diaconia is not really a ‘soup kitchen’ (p. 89) but it was a charitable institution; the twelfth-century charter (p. 116) uses notarial formulae so the list of property types is not an account of what exactly was on the hill then; cryptis means “(ancient) vaulted rooms” in medieval Roman documents, not “crypts”; the scholae of foreigners at the Vatican are not ‘institutes’ (p. 213), whatever that might mean, but hostels and community-centres, they were not only for transalpine visitors, as there was one for Lombards. None of these little issues besmirches his argument. What does detract are the maps. The Capitoline is a well-known and well-studied place with impressive topography both natural and artificial; it changed considerably over time. This book seeks to analyse accounts of that place; it has three-dimensional form on, over, and around which Romans walked up and down each day. Some maps show elevation as indistinguishable blobs of grey—at least I think that’s what the blotches intend to represent. Ancient monuments are often shown in outline, which is fine for general orientation, but makes it nearly impossible to understand what ‘climbing’ or ‘experiencing’ the hill might have been. The maps cut and pasted from archaeological plans are more helpful, but lack scales and North arrows. To read the first chapters of this book it would be helpful to have at hand Filippo Coarelli, Rome and Environs. An Archaeological Guide, trans. J. Clauss and D. Harmon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014) and Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Archaeological Guide, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

This study offers a subtle and attentive analysis of the relationships between word and image, stone and story through a period of pivotal change. The very natures of history, sacrality, and imperial power and its representation transmuted in late antiquity, and these changes become clear and apparent when examined through a spotlight on the Capitoline. Moralee’s book is filled with careful readings of a wide range of sources and attentive consideration of up-to-date archaeological studies, demonstrating the intersections of the ‘lived-in and dreamed-of realities of the hill’ (p. 23). Moralee is to be congratulated on an exciting, insightful, and learned contribution to our understanding of how Rome’s past gave rise to its future.


1.   Such as Les lieux de mémoire, sous la direction de Pierre Nora, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1986-92), translated as Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, under the direction of Pierre Nora, ed., trans. A. Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996-8).

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