BMCR 2001.07.17

Pagan City and Christian Capital

, Pagan city and Christian capital : Rome in the fourth century. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xx, 389 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9780191541506. $85.00.

The Oxford Classical Monographs series has as its aim to publish books based on the best Oxford doctoral theses on Greek and Latin literature, ancient history, and ancient philosophy. John Curran’s study of the city of Rome during the fourth century is a welcome addition to this distinguished series. In Pagan City and Christian Capital, Curran examines the pivotal century in the life of the Eternal City when it was was transformed from the old urbs Romulus founded, dominated by the lofty temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline hill, into a city of churches where worship of the old gods was officially banned.

The subject Curran tackles is a venerable one and the bibliography is vast, yet the author has new insights to offer in every chapter. His monograph is an impressive achievement, a work of great learning and meticulous documentation yet never dull and always readable. The greatest virtue of the book is Curran’s approach to the issue of ‘Christianization’. Most scholars have tended to describe the Christianization of Rome as a kind of inexorable process. They paint a picture of Christian ‘triumph’ over paganism, as if the city had been besieged and conquered by an invading army. Curran’s central thesis is that the transformation of Rome from a pagan to a Christian city was neither steady nor inevitable. In place of a picture of linear development, Curran gives us a nuanced account of an unfolding phenomenon with stops and starts closely tied to the personalities of the successive fourth-century emperors. His “catalogue of compromise, inconsistency, and contradiction” (p. viii) is, I am convinced, a much more accurate portrayal of the changing nature of Roman society and Roman topography than the notion of Christian victory over paganism. That older historical view is an inheritance from the Church fathers of the fifth century, who wished to present the century from Constantine to Theodosius in just such terms. So rich is Curran’s treatment of fourth-century Rome that nothing less than an extended review article can do it justice. This is not that kind of review and here I seek only to summarize the book’s contents and main conclusions and note some instances in which I either respectfully disagree with the author or have noted important bibliographical omissions.

Pagan City and Christian Capital opens with a discussion of the topography of third-century Rome in which Curran rightly draws attention to the highly unusual building projects that were completed during the turbulent era of the ‘soldier emperors’. Most noteworthy is the massive new defensive wall circuit with which Aurelian enclosed the urbs and its population. The project is the perfect symbol for these unstable times and for the new psychological vulnerability of the city’s residents. The thirteen miles of walls were erected quickly and, I would add, with total disregard for the integrity of earlier structures. At the Porta Ostiensis, for example, the new walls abut each side of the Augustan pyramid tomb of C. Cestius, making it part of Rome’s new shield, doubtless in order to reduce construction costs. The new temples of the third century are also symptomatic of an age of religious flux. All of the most important shrines—those dedicated to Isis and Serapis, Elagabalus, and Sol—were erected for the worship of deities imported from the eastern Mediterranean.

The second chapter—on Maxentius as conservator urbis —is a brilliant account of that emperor’s building activity in Rome, in which Curran convincingly establishes Maxentius as a major patron of architecture in the old pagan capital. Maxentius, whose imprint on the topography of Rome has been consistently underrated, emerges as the most Rome-oriented of all the emperors of the age. Curran effectively contrasts Maxentius, who made Rome his residence in fact as well as name, with Diocletian, who did not even visit Rome until he celebrated his vicennalia there. The catalogue of Maxentius’s works of construction and reconstruction include the Basilica Nova, Temple of Venus and Roma, the imperial palace on the Palatine hill, as well as his own villa-circus-mausoleum complex on the Via Appia. His impact was, in fact, so profound that Constantine had to take great pains to erase Maxentius’s memory from the city center. Indeed, Maxentius’s diminished reputation today stems directly from Constantine’s success in undoing his legacy.

In any discussion of the ‘Christianization’ of Rome, the Constantinian era is obviously of crucial importance, and Curran’s third chapter is devoted to that emperor’s impact on the topography of the Eternal City. The discussion is characteristically thorough, and Curran is at his best when he recounts the steps Constantine took to claim Maxentius’s monuments as his own and cast his defeated foe as the tyrannus and himself as the liberator urbis. This campaign of damnatio memoriae took many forms but is most obvious in the renovation and renaming of the Maxentian Basilica Nova in honor of Constantine, complete with a colossal new seated statue of the emperor in the northwestern apse. According to Eusebius,1 Constantine held a vexillum in the shape of the Cross in his right hand. Curran implausibly reconstructs the statue as a cuirassed portrait, whereas the surviving fragments suggest that Constantine was portrayed as a semi-nude Jupiter-like enthroned ruler.

Not far away, Constantine erected one of the largest triumphal arches in the world and the first to celebrate a victory in a civil war rather than the defeat of a foreign enemy. (When Octavian erected an arch in Rome to commemorate his victory over Mark Antony at Actium, he suppressed all references to his Roman opponent and presented his arch to the people as a monument celebrating the triumph over Cleopatra of Egypt, not his former brother-in-law.) Curran’s discussion of Constantine’s arch is surprisingly out of date. He seems to be unaware of the recent vigorous debate in archaeological circles regarding the date of this key monument, based on the evidence of new soundings around the foundation and a thorough cleaning and autopsy of every block. In 1994, Alessandra Mellucco Vaccaro and Angela Maria Ferroni presented to the Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia a radical new interpretation of the monument, arguing that the arch was built by Hadrian and that Constantine’s masons merely modified the 175-year-old monument, adding freestanding columns and a series of statues and reliefs of varied date.2 This reading of the evidence has since been convincingly rejected by a team of researchers led by Patrizio Pensabene and Clementina Panella.3 They have established not only that Constantine was the first to erect an arch on this spot but that every block of the monument—including even the Constantinian frieze depicting the war against Maxentius and Constantine’s entry into Rome, address from the Rostra, and distribution of largess—was reused from an earlier monument.4

The revelation that the Arch of Constantine is 100% spolia underscores the importance of Constantine’s expenditures on new Christian buildings in Rome. The traditional view is that Constantine did not erect any overtly Christian structures in the city center in order to avoid offending the pagan majority in the capital. Curran argues that this was not Constantine’s motivation and that he had no master plan for the siting of Christian basilicas. While it is true that the site for St. Peter’s was dictated by the location of the saint’s martyrium in what is now Vatican City, the Lateran basilica did not have to be erected where it was. Curran persuasively demonstrates that in choosing a site on the Caelian hill for the episcopal seat in Rome, Constantine also buried the headquarters of Maxentius’s horse guards beneath the Christian basilica, consistent with his goal of erasing his predecessor’s memory. Nonetheless, the decision to keep the city center free of Christian monuments still seems to me to be equally deliberate. Although Curran points out that in the Basilica Nova portrait Constantine held a Christian symbol in his hand and on the Arch of Constantine the emperor’s victory is instinctu divinitatis, the emperor’s Christian sympathies are hardly evident in the city center. In fact, in the second-century reliefs on the Arch of Constantine, all with re-cut portrait heads converting Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius into Constantine, the emperor is repeatedly depicted sacrificing to the traditional state gods. Monotheistic monuments were confined to imperial property and to the outskirts of the city, a pattern continued by Constantine’s successors.

In his concluding chapter on topography, Curran draws our attention to the building activities of Rome’s bishops. While much more modest than the emperors’ projects, the bishops did construct churches within the walls. Their buildings therefore serve to document not only the growth of the Christian community in Rome but the conservatism of the emperors in the siting of Christian monuments. Curran’s excellent catalogue and discussion of the bishops’ buildings is therefore of special value and interest.

Part Two is devoted to Roman society, and the chapters in the second half of the book, like those in Part One, are unfailingly interesting to read and are characterized by the same thoughtful and nuanced approach to the evidence that Curran brought to the study of Roman topography. The opening chapter treats the laws regulating religious practices enacted during the fourth century, beginning with the Edict of Milan, which, as Curran properly emphasizes, guaranteed freedom of religion not only to Christians but to adherents of all religions, including the traditional state religion. The Christianization of Roman society, like that of Rome itself, was slow and unsteady. Constantine’s sons, for example, banned pagan sacrifices in 341, but did not simultaneously close the pagan temples. Although all temples in all cities were ordered shut in 356, there is evidence that traditional sacrifices continued. Under Julian, the temples were reopened and sacrifices legalized. Gratian rejected the position and title of pontifex maximus and effectively brought an end to the state religion, but did not ban pagan worship by individuals. The temples remained open until Theodosius made the ancient cults illegal, bringing the era of toleration firmly to an end.

Mirroring the emperors’ often contradictory and ambivalent approach to non-Christian cults during the fourth century is the continuing prominence of the games in the Circus Maximus in the life of the Roman people. These officially sponsored entertainments were not secular events. As Curran phrases it so well in the conclusion to his excellent chapter on paganism, Christianity, and the Circus Maximus, “functioning temples and altars were [still] to be found located in their ancient positions within the walls of the circus and the gods could be seen crowding, like the spectators, to view the spectacles” (p. 259).

In his final chapter, Curran reviews the phenomenon of asceticism in the fourth century and finds once again that appraising events in terms of pagan-Christian conflict is unsatisfactory, a viewpoint that I applaud. What one misses, however, in Curran’s discussion of Roman society in the fourth century is a fuller use of the material evidence for the survival of pagan beliefs and practices. I am sure it would have been illuminating if Curran had brought his wealth of knowledge and impressive critical acumen to bear on such monuments as the ivory diptych of the Nicomachi and Symmachi, with its representations of pagan sacrifices, inscribed with the names of two of the most prominent aristocratic families of the late fourth century.

Such omissions are disappointing, but they do not diminish the enormous value of Curran’s study. Two features of the book do, however, deserve criticism. The brief index is inadequate for the richness and complexity of the text and it is almost useless. In addition, the thirty-two line drawings that constitute the only illustrations are of the quality of mediocre photocopies. The author has not been well served in either respect by Oxford University Press, whose standards are usually much higher. The index and illustrations, which close the volume, are an unfortunate coda to an otherwise virtuoso performance.


1. HE 9 ,9, 10-11; cf. VC 1, 40.

2. A. Mellucco Vaccaro and A.M. Ferroni, “Chi costruì l’arco di Costantino? Un interrogativo ancora attuale,” RendPontAcc 66 (1993-1994, publ. 1996), 1-60; see also D. Cirone, “I risultati delle indagini stratigrafiche all’arco di Costantino,” (ibid) 61-76.

3. P. Pensabene and C. Panella, “Reimpiego e progettazione architettonica nei monumenti tardo-antichi di Roma,” RendPontAcc 66 (1993-1994, publ. 1996), 111-283, esp. 174-283. P. Pensabene and C. Panella, eds., Arco di Costantino tra archeologia e archeometria, Rome, 1999.

4. The other major bibliographical lacunae in Curran’s monograph are also archaeological. I cite here only a handful of the most important and surprising omissions, in order of publication: S. De Maria, Gli archi onorari di Roma e dell’Italia romana, Rome, 1988; F. Yegül, Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, Mass., 1992; L. Richardson, jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Baltimore, 1992; J. DeLaine, The Baths of Caracalla: A Study in the Design, Construction, and Economics of Large-Scale Building Projects in Imperial Rome ( JRA, Supplement 25), 1998; A. Claridge, Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides), Oxford, 1998.