January at old San Clemente 533 Rome

Today Rome’s a little bit like it was when the priest Mercurius at San Clemente became Pope John II on 2 January 533. This man was the first pope to be called something else after his election since it seemed less than good that the head of the church should carry the name of a pagan god. His move didn’t inititate the tradition of newly elected poples adopting a pontifical name. That began in the tenth century.

John II, also called Mercurius, the son of Proiectus, Roman born from the Caelian hill, was pontiff for two years, four months and six days. He was bishop in the time of Gothic king Athalaric and the emperor Justinian.

Liber Pontificalis – Life of John II
Remains of fifth-century church in later church building

Iohannes, qui et Mercurius, natione Romanus, ex patre Proiecto, de Caeliomonte, sedit ann. II mens. IIII d. VI. Fuit autem temporibus Athalarici regis et Iustiniani Augusti.

He was pope at the end of the Gothic interlude in Italy, on the eve of the Roman reconquest. In the years before imperial armies entered Italy in 535, Justinian performed cultural diplomacy by and making a statement of faith in line with papal doctrine (“written in his own hand” scripto cyrographo proprio) and making gifts of liturgical objects made of gold, silver, silk, and ivory and jewels crafted in Constantinople.

Remains from early church building including fragment of the fourth-century dedicatory inscription

Justinian’s gift giving might have included some objects in San Clemente that date from the career of John. Before you head down to the scavi, look for his name in the new (twelfth-century) church. Some of the liturgical furniture there was first used in the ruined church below. The sculpted marble panels and columns were made in Constantinople and were set in place with he was priest at San Clemente still with the name Mercurius.

Panel of the chancel screen with monogram of John II

Find his papal monogram on the schola cantorum, then read his name Mercurius on the columns that were the balustrade of the altar then to frame the tomb of the Venetian Giovanni Venier 900 years in the future.

Note screen with monogram on the right between the altar and the schola cantorum

Titus Flavius Vespasianus—the delight and darling of the human race—born in Rome 30 December 39 CE

Have you see today’s obituary of the great humanist and master of literature (and my teacher and friend) Reggie Foster in the NYT? It’s a little bit of fact, more exaggeration, and the repetition of stories that began as sarcastic jokes and later presented as confession in various sources. The obit in Reggie’s hometown Milwaukee paper was warmer, but the best account of the man’s personality is the recent article, The Vatican’s Latinist.

Suetonius was frequent visitor to Reggie’s classroom. The life of Titus is not my favorite, but since it’s his birthday here are a few highlights to savor anglice et latine.


Titus, who bore his father’s cognomen Vespasianus, was the delight and darling of the human race. Whether through innate disposition, policy, or fortune, such was his success that he secured the good will of all, and that too—a most difficult task—while he was emperor. For while he was a private citizen and even during the reign of his father, he did not evade hatred, let alone criticism by the public. He was born three days before the kalends of January in the memorable year that Caligula was murdered, in a modest house near the septizonium. The room itself was dark and dingy, and today it still exists and is on display.

Titus cognomine paterno, amor ac deliciae generis humani, (tantum illi ad promerendam omnium voluntatem vel ingenii vel artis vel fortunae superfuit, et, quod difficillimum est, in imperio: quando privatus atque etiam sub patre principe ne odio quidem, nedum vituperatione publica caruit), natus est III. Kal. Ian. insigni anno Gaiana nece, prope Septizonium, sordidis aedibus, cubiculo vero perparvo et obscuro (nam manet adhuc et ostenditur)

Denarius of Titus

A man of quality

His qualities of mind and body were conspicuous even when he was a boy but still more when he came of age. His appearance was striking, conveying both authority and charm; he was unusually strong though not tall, and his stomach protruded a little. He had an exceptional memory and the ability to grasp almost all the arts of both war and peace.

In puero statim corporis animique dotes exsplenduerunt, magisque ac magis deinceps per aetatis gradus; forma egregia et cui non minus auctoritatis inesset quam gratiae, praecipuum robur, quamquam neque procera statura et ventre paulo proiectiore; memoria singularis, docilitas ad omnis fere tum belli tum pacis artes

Arch of Titus

Randy Romanus

He was suspected of self-indulgence on the grounds that he would engage in drinking bouts that lasted  with the most dissolute companions that lasted past midnight, he was also accused of lustfulness because of his troupes of catamites and eunuchs, and because of his passion for Queen Berenice, to whom he is even said to have promised marriage.

Praeter saevitiam suspecta in eo etiam luxuria erat, quod ad mediam noctem comissationem cum profusissimo quoque familiarum extenderet; nec minus libido, propter exoletorum et spadonum greges propterque insignem reginae Berenices amorem, cum etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur

Warren Cup – British Museum


He was as generous as any of his imperial predecessors. At the dedication of the Colosseum and of the nearby baths that hear his name, he put on the most splendid gladiatorial games. He also staged a mock battle at the old Naumachia, and in the same place a gladiatorial show; on a single day 5,000 of a great variety of animals were killed in a single day.

Et tamen nemine ante se munificentia minor, amphitheatro dedicato thermisque iuxta celeriter exstructis, munus edidit apparatissimum largissimusque; dedit et navale proelium in veteri naumachia, ibidem et gladiatores atque uno die quinque milia omne genus ferarum.

Piranesi – Ruins of the Baths of Titus


During his reign a number of disasters occurred, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania and an enormous fire Rome that lasted three days and nights; and a plague that had unprecedented severity. In the face of calamites of such magnitude, Titus expressed not just the concern of an emperor, but the love which only a parent can provide, giving consolation in his edicts and as much practical help that his resources could provide.

Quaedam sub eo fortuita ac tristia acciderunt, ut conflagratio Vesevi montis in Campania, et incendium Romae per triduum totidemque noctes, item pestilentia quanta non temere alias. In iis tot adversis ac talibus non modo principis sollicitudinem sed et parentis affectum unicum praestitit, nunc consolando per edicta, nunc opitulando quatenus suppeteret facultas.

Vesuvius and Pompeii

Postcard from Rome—27 December 1954

Literary superstar Katherine Anne Porter sends New Year’s wishes to her friend Glenway Westcott from the cloister of San Paolo fuori le mura, Rome:

Glenway my dear, I’m glad I never saw Rome until now, for how could I dream anything so new and fresh and gay could happen just by finding another city? I am now making plans to live here for at least a year … With my love–Katherine Anne

In passegiata per Roma Henry James—27 December 1869

I never manage to write but a small fraction of what has originally occurred to me. What you call the ‘animal heat’ of contemplation is sure to evaporate within half an hour. I went this morning to bid farewell to M. Angelo’s Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli, and was so tremendously impressed with its sublimity that on the spot my intellect gushed forth a torrent of wisdom and eloquence; but where is that torrent now?

Letter to his brother William James, philosopher, psychologist, ruminator of cats

Burchard’s Roman diary—26 December 1502

Iohannes Burchard, the papal master of ceremonies, wrote like a censorious, disapproving butler in a sitcom, as an old friend once said to me.

On the first day of Christmas 1502, 30 masked men with long, thick noses in the form of enormous phalli proceeded after dinner to the palace of St. Peter. Before them a cardinal’s chest was borne, to which was affixed a shield with three dice. Then came the masked fellows and behind them someone rode in a long coat and an old cardinal’s hat. The fellows rode on donkeys, some of them on such small ones that their feet touched the ground and that they walked thus astride together with the donkeys. They went up to the little place between the portal of the palace and the hall of audience, where they showed themselves to the Pope who stood at the window above the portal in the Loggia Paulina. Then they made a procession through the whole city.

Death of a B-movie masterpiece novel writer

Script writer and novelist Nathanael West died December 22. 1940, one day after his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Like the people he depicted in The Day of the Locust, West moved to Hollywood seeking fulfillment but instead observed and joined in a way of life more like a treatment for a lurid B-movie than the lush fantasy of a carefully weeded major motion picture.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The Day of the Locust was West’s final novel, and he wrote it at the same time Fitzgerald was writing The Love of the Last Tycoon.

Both Fitzgerald and West were always looking for something more somewhere else. Restless minds. Fun fact: West was a Jew who married an Irish Catholic. Scott was an Irish Catholic whose last paramour was a Jew.

It’s no wonder that these revelatory behind-the-scene stories of Golden Age Hollywood were produced in the New Hollywood of the 1970s.

The Day of the Locust came out in 1975 (director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Waldo Salt, starring Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes!).

The Last Tycoon appeared in 1976 (director Elia Kazan, screenwriter Harold Pinter, starring Robert Deniro (and a great cast).

The Death of Vitellius—20 December 69—“Whatever you may say, I was your emperor.”

Tactitus observed that the death of Nero made plain the new reality of power in Rome: “A well-hidden secret of the principate had been revealed: it was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be made outside of Rome.”

Aulus Vitellius was the last princeps to die in the year of four emperors, Galba and Otho having gone before him. It was said of Galba, Vitellius’ late predecessor, “In everyone’s opinion, he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled.” Nobody would tag that judgement to Vitellius.

Vitellius’ family was obscure to Roman writers. Some posited an illustrious past. Others believed the founder of the family to have been a former slave whose success in business permitted his opportunistic descendants to enter the circle of movers-and-shakers in Rome.

Suetonius suggests that Vitellius found his place (and advanced the fortunes of his family) among the smart set on Capri, where he earned his first ribbon, “His boyhood and early youth he spent on Capri among the companions of Tiberius—ever after he was known by the nickname ‘TightBum,’ and it was thought that his physical charms were the basis of his father’s political success”.

Pueritiam primamque adulescentiam Capreis egit inter Tiberiana scorta et ipse perpetuo spintriae cognomine notatus existimatusque corporis gratia initium et causa incrementorum patri fuisse.

Suetonius Vita Vitellii

Like other men of the ruling class, the younger Vitellius, “corrupted by every kind of disgrace,”was adept more currying favor with successive emperors and their advisors than establishing his own gravitas and auctoritas.

Lucius Vitellius, father to the future emperor, was the most successful politician of this generation. He earned a reputation as a skilled soldier and administrator in the provinces, but acted as synchophatic leader of the Senate while in Rome. He was consul three times, censor with the emperor Claudius as his colleague in 47, a dedicatee of a statue in the Forum, and he received a public funeral at his death in 51—all exceptional honors.

The son had a different story. To use a baseball analogy, Vitellius was born on third base but thought he’d hit a triple. He was the privileged boy born to the trappings of power (“he won the consulship, various priesthoods, and a name and place among the leading figures of Rome all due to his father’s eminence and without the slightest effort on his own part”) but with little awareness of how power should be used.

In this private life, Vitellius had a reputation as self-indulgent and deviant.I’ll stick to one of his appetites. He was a big eater, “having at least three feasts, and sometimes four, in a day—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a drinking party—always making room in his gullet by regular vomiting.”

Sed vel praecipue luxuriae saevitiaeque deditus, epulas trifariam semper, interdum quadrifariam dispertiebat, in ientacula et prandia et cenas comissationesque, facile omnibus sufficiens vomitandi consuetudine.

Vita Vitellii

He favored costly extravagant meals with exotic dishes brought from around the empire, “He blended the livers of scar fish, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos, and innards of lampreys which had been sought out by ships’ captains and galleys from Parthia to the the pillars of Hercules.”

In hac scarorum iocinera, phasianarum et pavonum cerebella, linguas phoenicopterum, murenarum lactes a Parthia usque fretoque Hispanico per navarchos ac triremes petitarum, commiscuit.

Vita Vitellii

And still, he was always ready for a snack. Vitellius’ insatiable appetite didn’t respect times and places, “He could not resist, when making a sacrifice, snatching bits of meat and sacrificial cake from the altars, almost from the fire.”

Ut autem homo non profundae modo sed intempestivae quoque ac sordidae gulae, ne in sacrificio quidem umquam aut itinere ullo temperavit, quin inter altaria ibidem statim viscus et farra paene rapta e foco manderet, circaque viarum popinas fumantia obsonia, vel pridiana atque semesa.

Vita Vitellii

Later, the empire unsettled by the death of Nero and the extinction of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Galba believed his lassitude and limited competence made Vitellius a safe pick for the restive legions there, “To general surprise, he was sent by Galba to take command in lower Germany… But in Galba’s judgement, no man was less t be feared than one who thought only about his stomach.”

But there Vitellius found himself in a pickle. As Tacitus observed, “In Vitellius’ case his father’s record as consul on three separate occasions, as censor and as colleague with Claudius had long since imposed upon the son the qualifications to be emperor and robbed him of the feeling that he was safe as a subject.” His inheritance had become a trap. Lacking enterprise to further any ambition of his own, he became the tool of men who used Vitellius’ status to further their own interests. Once he was acclaimed emperor by the troops, his position prevented any return to life as it was just a day before.

After the claim to the purple, Vitellius trailed his victorius army to Rome by a few months. In nothern Italy, he based by the field still scattered with corpses from the battle of Bedriacum, where his crown was won. “The smell of a dead enemy is succulent—and even better in civil war.” And so Vitellius was not the hero of his own victory. From Germany to Gaul to Italy, other men opened the way to Rome for him and as long as his luck lasted were rewarded for their work.

Vitellius was slow to arrive in the capital. Acclaimed emperor in January; his rival Otho was dead in April; in July the new princeps arrived in Rome. Pretty quickly time ran out on Vitellius. Vespasian’s soldiers were in the city, but Vitellius had no handle on events in the city.  Vitellius went to ground, “And so at once he hid himself in a closed sedan and with just two servants, a baker and a cook, secretly made his way to the Aventine and his father’s house, so that from there he might escape to Campania.”

Suetonius’ depicts Vitellius in his final hours alone on the Palatine able neither to rally Romans to his defense as emperor nor to seek refuge with his brother and other supporters outside the city. Bereft, he returned to the palace and found it deserted. When his killers tracked Vitellius to the, he was hiding beneath a mattress in the gatehouse, hoping to go unnoticed like a nowhere-left-to-run fugitive on Cops.

“But shortly afterwards, when there was slight and vague rumor of peace, he allowed himself to be taken back to the palace. When he found that it was quite deserted and those who were with him were slipping away, he put on belt full of gold coins and took refuge in the porter’s lodge, having chained a dog at the entrance and blocked the door with a bed and a mattress.”

Postridie responsa opperienti nuntiatum est per exploratorem hostes appropinquare. Continuo igitur abstrusus gestatoria sella, duobus solis comitibus, pistore et coco, Aventinum et paternam domum clam petit, ut inde in Campaniam fugeret; mox levi rumore et incerto, tamquam pax impetrata esset, referri se in Palatium passus est. Vbi cum deserta omnia repperisset, dilabentibus et qui simul erant, zona se aureorum plena circumdedit confugitque in cellulam ianitoris, religato pro foribus cane lectoque et culcita obiectis.

Vita Vitellii

Vitellius died 20 December during Saturnalia, the merry Roman festival that was a time of license and inverted social norms. With Vitellius, the mighty had indeed fallen, and torment of the doomed emperor was fuel to the festa.

“Finally with his hands tied behind his back, a noose around his neck, and his clothes torn, he was dragged half-naked into the Forum and, amid gross abuse, physical and verbal, along the whole length of the Sacred Way, his head pulled back by the hair, in the way of condemned criminals, and even his chin was held up with the point a sword, so that he should be made to show his face.  Some threw dung and filth, others hurled mockery and other abuse, calling him an arsonist and a glutton, and deriding his physical oddities, his unusual height, the bulging bulk, the face reddened by love of drink, and the crippled leg, caused years back in circus by Caligula playing charioteer. Then the exemplary punishment. Vitellius was butchered on the Gemonian steps—the place where the corpses of the condemned were exposed— and his rent flesh was dragged by a hook and tossed into the Tiber.”

Irruperant iam agminis antecessores ac nemine obvio rimabantur, ut fit, singula. Ab is extractus e latebra, sciscitantes quis esset (nam ignorabatur) et ubi esse Vitellium sciret, mendacio elusit; deinde agnitus rogare non destitit, quasi quaedam de salute Vespasiani dicturus, ut custodiretur interim vel in carcere, donec religatis post terga manibus, iniecto cervicibus laqueo, veste discissa seminudus in forum tractus est inter magna rerum verborumque ludibria per totum viae Sacrae spatium, reducto coma capite, ceu noxii solent, atque etiam mento mucrone gladii subrecto, ut visendam praeberet faciem neve summitteret; quibusdam stercore et caeno incessentibus, aliis incendiarium et patinarium vociferantibus, parte vulgi etiam corporis vitia exprobrante; erat enim in eo enormis proceritas, facies rubida plerumque ex vinulentia, venter obesus, alterum femur subdebile impulsu olim quadrigae, cum auriganti Gaio ministratorem exhiberet. Tandem apud Gemonias minutissimis ictibus excarnificatus atque confectus et inde unco tractus in Tiberim.

Vita Vitellii

Tacitus’ account follows the same outline but colors with new detail of Vitellius’ final stroll through the Forum, the seething heart of empire.

“At the point of the sword, Vitellius was at one moment forced to look up and face the jeering, at the next not only to fix his eyes on the statues of himself as they were pulled down but above all on the rostra and the place where Galba was murdered. Finally, the soldiers and the crowd drove him to the Gemonian steps, where the body of Flavius Sabinus had lain. One remark of his, and one only, was overheard which showed a not wholly degenerate spirit. When a tribune mocked him, he retorted, ‘Whatever you may say, I was your emperor.’”

Vitellium infestis mucronibus coactum modo erigere os et offerre contumeliis, nunc cadentis statuas suas, plerumque rostra aut Galbae occisi locum contueri, postremo ad Gemonias, ubi corpus Flavii Sabini iacuerat, propulere. una vox non degeneris animi excepta, cum tribuno insultanti se tamen imperatorem eius fuisse respondit; ac deinde ingestis vulneribus concidit. et vulgus eadem pravitate insectabatur interfectum qua foverat viventem.

Tacitus Historiae

Cicero and Caesar’s post bellum beach party—21 December 45 BCE

I first read this letter in a paperback with a cracked spine found in a second-hand shop in Cold Spring, a little town on the river in the Hudson Valley, 25 years ago. Not much more than gossip, today it directs the mind toward many fun and edifying pursuits.

Cicero was in Puteoli about to set off for his hillside retreat outside Rome and wrote to his pal Atticus a few words (in letter 13.52) about time spent with Caesar during Saturnalia, the frolicsome festival that Catullus called “the best of days.”

People used to know that Pozzuoli (olim Puteoli) is an important place. That’s where St. Paul hit the docks on the way to plead his case in Rome after his boat got splintered off Malta.

I was there too. One winter day I went to Cumae but stayed too long with the Sibyl and after dark had no way back. A farmer told me I wouldn’t make the last train from Baiae on foot so I jumped into his truck and the guy drove me to the station.

Most people remember this little town from the Satyricon, especially the scene where someone brought out the leather dildoes too soon after a big dinner.

Anyway, Cicero and Caesar beat all of us there. This stretch on the Bay of Naples was a Roman glamour spot like Portofino, or the Riveria, or the Hamptons.

Caesar (along with his enormous entourage) was staying at the villa of Lucius Marcius Philippus, but which one father or son I’m not sure. This venerable family had been prominent in Rome for generations and recently had established a family connection with Caesar. The elder Philippus was the husband to Atia and the step-father to Octavian, aka Augustus. He was also the father-in-law of Cato, Caesar’s most bitter enemy. Later, he would recommend that the young man renounce his legacy after the death of Caesar.

The younger Philippus was a partisan of Caesar during the civil war. As a tribune, he was present during the failed deliberations meant to keep peace. At some point he married another Atia, the younger sister of his father’s wife. Consul in 38, he was the last of his line to hold that office.

But on his arrival at the villa of Philippus on the evening of the second day of the Saturnalia, the villa was so choke-full of soldiers that there was scarcely a dining-room left for Caesar himself to dine in. Two thousand men, if you please!

On the third day of Saturnalia, Caesar, Cicero tells Atticus, mixed business and relaxation early in the day.

He stayed with Philippus on the third day of the Saturnalia till one o’clock, without admitting anyone. He was engaged on his accounts, I think, with Balbus. Then he took a walk on the beach. After two he went to the bath.

Lucius Cornelis Balbus had been a close advisor to Caesar and a correspondent of Cicero for years. Originally a client of Pompey, who arranged for him to become a Roman citizen, Balbus had moved on to Caesar by the time of the civil war. In 40, he became the first foreign-born consul.

Cicero’s informant is not known. He was, however, an intimate since he related this observation, Then he heard about Mamurra without changing countenance. What was said about him is not known, though it was possibly news of his death.

Mamurra was a close friend of Caesar, whom he served as an engineer and got rich doing it. He lived big and was said to be the first Roman to clad his house entirely in marble. Like Caesar, he was known as a ladies’ man. Catullus lampooned him, gave him the nickname mentula—Dick—and described a sexual relationship between the two.

Cicero always tried his best to elude the charm of Caesar but it never happened until the Ides of March.

He was anointed: took his place at the table. He was under a course of emetics, and so ate and drank without scruple and as suited his taste. It was a very good dinner, and well served, and not only so, but ‘Well-cooked, well-seasoned food, with rare discourse: A banquet in a word to cheer the heart‘.

Cicero’s quote of the Roman satirist Lucilius showed the spirit of the gathering. This poet was the inventor of satire and was so admired for his literary ability was given a state funeral. And, Cicero wasn’t reluctant to credit himself as a host, which would have been fodder for the dead poet’s pen.

Besides this, the staff were entertained in three rooms in a very liberal style. The freedmen of lower rank and the slaves had everything they could want. But the upper sort had a really recherche dinner. In fact, I shewed that I was somebody

At the end of the fiesta, there was no sad good-bye.

However, he is not a guest to whom one would say, ‘Pray look me up again on your way back.’ Once is enough. We didn’t say a word about politics. There was plenty of literary talk. In short, he was pleased and enjoyed himself. That’s the story of the entertainment, or I might call it the billeting on me—trying to the temper, but not seriously inconvenient.


Goethe in Rome—13 December 1786

Rome is a world and one needs years just to find one’s place in it. How fortunate those travelers are who merely look and leave. I certainly expected to learn something worthwhile here; but I did not imagine that I would have to go so far back in school and unlearn, indeed relearn, so much in a thoroughly different way. Now, however, I am truly convinced and have submitted totally, and the more of myself I must renounce, the happier I am.

Finding Otto in the Vatican Grottoes

In Rome nothing is more absurd than the presence in the Pantheon (also known as Santa Maria ad Martyres since 608 AD) of the worm-ridden corpses of the first kings of the modern Kingdom of Italy, who made the Eternal City their capital in 1871. They’re gone but not all the way forgotten. The ridiculous, black-shirted guard that stands vigil over the graves is eager to restore to power this line of monarchs, who managed their government with the élan of mentally-challenged pimps.

Portrait of Otto II in an illuminated manuscript

Fortunately, the monuments to kings entombed in other parts of the city continue to exude a more romantic aura, the greater the further back in time they go.

Current tomb of Otto II in the Vatican grottoes

Holy Roman Emperor Otto II—Imperator Romanorum Augustus—died of malaria in a palace near St. Peter’s basilica 7 December 983. Like other popes, kings and anonymous faithful, he was entombed ad sanctos, i.e., close to the tombs of saints, in this case near the relics of St. Peter. Initially, Otto’s tomb was located in the atrium of St. Peter’s basilica, a highly visible location. Later, when the basilica was rebuilt in the sixteenth century his remains were transferred to a different sarcophagus, which one can visit within the grottoes of today’s St. Peter’s.

Otto was 28 years old when he died. Though he was not born in the purple, he was a child when made king of the Germans in August 961 and emperor in December 967, ruling in both positions as partner to his father Otto I (later called Otto the Great). At the death of his father in 973, Otto continued to rule as sole king and emperor, aged 18 years old.

Engraving on ivory to celebrate the wedding of Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophanu

Otto II was a pivotal figure in the project of renovatio imperii, the renewal of empire. In Europe, Otto the Great had established his position as the highest authority in Latin Christendom, the papacy having been subordinated by the imperial manipulation of Roman elections. Thinking globally, Otto the Great married his son to the Byzantine princess Theophanu, a union intended by the Germans to claim equality of Latin and Greek (Christian) Romans and imperial power.

Things began to go badly for Otto II and the whole project of reviving the Roman empire in the last years of his life. First, in July 982, he sought to complete the annexation of the entire Italian peninsula to the empire. This required the conquest of southern Italian territories controlled by the Byzantine emperor and Muslim emir of Sicily. After early success against Greek and infidel, the Germans were defeated by a Muslim army in Calabria. The absence of a dominant power in southern Italy meant that Byzantine and Muslims were able to reclaim territory as Otto retreated to Rome.

Tomb of Otto II and medieval inscriptions and mosaic

Otto continued his father’s policy of controlling the Catholic Church through the nomination of popes. Events demonstrated the fragility of this policy as well. Nearly every Ottonian pope was challenged by a local claimant to the papal throne with the result that the political life of the city was volatile. One contemporary and vituperative historian called this defiance of imperial authority “the malign custom of the Romans.”

Just a few days before Otto’s death on December 7, 983, Pope John XIV was consecrated to continue management of the Church in support of imperial authority. The death of the emperor made this pope’s position shaky, and John XIV soon found himself imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was later murdered.

Floor plan of the Vatican grottoes. The tomb of Otto is located at #59. The tomb of his nephew Pope Gregory V is #58. The full location key is here.

The tomb one sees in the grottoes today is not the original vessel for Otto’s remains. His current sarcophagus is an ancient one put to new use. The only remaining portion of the original tomb was re-used too. The porphyry lid of Otto’s first sarcophagus is now the baptismal font in St. Peter’s. Unconfirmed reports hold that it was created as the tomb for the emperor Hadrian (obit 138 AD) and was discovered in the Castel Sant’Angelo, which Hadrian had built as his own tomb.

Baptismal font in St. Peter’s basilica thought to incorporate the tomb of the emperors Hadrian and Otto II.

Still, the idea of using the papacy lingered. Note that Pope Gregory V (996-999), whose tomb is marked number 58 on the floor plan and adjacent to Otto’s own, was a nephew of the late emperor. Gregory was made pope by this cousin the emperor Otto III, who died at age 21 in 1002, the last of Ottonians to rule in Rome.

Many tenth-century popes, including Otto’s man John XIV, were entombed in the atrium or the adjacent portico of old St. Peter’s basilica. These tombs were destroyed during the demolition of the basilica in the sixteenth century.

Plan of old St. Peter’s basilica made by Tiberio Alfarano in 1590