Something old made something new in Rome: Sant’Angelo in Pescheria – dedicated 1 June 755

The church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria has two beginnings.  One dates to 1 June 755 AD when a diaconia or food relief distribution center was established here and subsequently developed into the present church; the other occurred much earlier, soon after Gaius Octavius—aka Imperator Caesar Divi Filius—became Augustus and dedicated the Porticus of Octavia in honor of his sister around 27 B.C.

The church was founded by a certain Theodotus, a member of one leading families of the military aristocracy that became the ruling class of “Byzantine” Italy and Rome. He built the church from the foundations and from his own resources as a gift for the salvation of his soul and for the care of sinners, meaning those Romans who benefitted from the diaconia’s services.

Dedicatory inscription – image M. Maskarinec

The dedicatory inscription remains in the church. In it, Theodotus tells us that he reached the highest secular and ecclesiastical offices, holim dux hunc primicerius. As a younger man, he was dux, a military commander serving the emperor in Constantinople, and at the time of this dedication primicerius of the Roman Church, which was the most authoritative advisor to the pope. The founding of a diaconia to supply basic needs to Romans was an opportunity to perform and to broadcast his status as a patron of the city.

Incidentally, Theodotus’ nephew later became Pope Hadrian (772-795), a confirmation of the family’s power. Hadrian, like his uncle, founded a diaconia of his own as part of the church Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which is located a few minutes’ walk from Sant’Angelo in Pescheria.


Theodotus broadcast his family’s power in other churches. Here they are in S. Maria Antiqua, located in Roman Forum, which remained a place of great prestige in eighth-century Rome.

The inscription is usually dated to 755, but 770 is cited as an alternative. Disagreement arises from the fact that the inscription refers to Pope Stephen, and two different men named Stephen were pope in those respective years. Interesting, the inscription does not use the anno domini form, but instead counts 6,263 year, to the origin of the world, ad initio mundi 6,263 years past.

The remainder of the inscription is a list of relics of saints that were deposited in the church. The list is mix of local, Roman saints and those found throughout Christendom, including Paul and the Apostles. The primary dedication was to Paul, but the later dedication refers to the angels Michael and Gabriel, who are also mentioned. The sobriquet in Pescheria is taken from the adjacent fish market, which like the church was located within precinct of the Porticus of Octavia.

Rome–until the last syllable of recorded time

About 570 years after Vergil recited passages from The Aeneid—the epic that narrates the foundation of the Eternal City—to Augustus and his entourage, the last public reading of epic verse was performed in ancient Rome on 30 May 544. That day Arator, man of letters and subdeacon of the Roman church, read from De actibus apostolorum in the church of San Pietro ad vincula—St. Peter in Chains—before a boisterous crowd that had gathered there on the Esquiline hill.

Image depicting Arator presenting De Actibus Apostolorum in a tenth-century manuscript produced in Germany and now preserved in the Bavarian State Library. The cover image is from Vergilius Romanus, the fifth-century, illustrated manuscript of Vergil’s works preserved in the Vatican Library. The image depicts the poet at a recitation of his work.

The church of San Pietro ad vincula (famous now as the home Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses) was consecrated by Pope Sixtus III (432–440). The sobriquet ad vincula refers to the chains that bound Peter (and from which he experienced miraculous release) as he awaited trial before Herod. The event is narrated in Acts 12 “Et ecce angelus Domini, astitit, et lumen refulsit in habitaculo; percusso autem latere Petri, suscitavit eum dicens, ‘Surge velociter!’ Et ceciderunt catenae de manibus eius”. Now those chains are said to be exhibited as relics at the altar of this church. August 1 is the feast day that commemorates Peter’s liberation.

The chains of St. Peter are displayed in a reliquary at the altar of San Pietro ad vincula. An inscription recorded by a pilgrim before the eighth-century celebrates the church and the relic:
Inlesas olim servant haec tecta cathenas / Vincula sacrata Petri ferrum pretiosius auro  (These rooves protect for long unharmed / the bonds of Peter, iron more precious than gold ) translation by A. Thacker.

The poet declaimed his metric adaptation of Acts of the Apostles, the Christian scripture that narrates the foundation of the Christian faith and its diffusion throughout the Roman Empire, as the Gothic king Totila menaced the City and the Romans feared the advent of oblivion during the war of imperial reconquest of Italy.

A note found in a medieval manuscript of the poem describes the presentation of De actibus apostolorum in the basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano and the subsequent recitations later that spring ad vincula.

Through the aid of the blessed lord Peter, this book was presented in the following manner by Arator, subdeacon of the Holy Roman Church, to the holy apostolic Pope Vigilius, and received by him on 6 April in the sanctuary before the confession of the blessed lord Peter, in the presence also of many bishops, priests and deacons, and of the greater part of the clergy. There it was recited, and afterwards the Pope ordered it handed over to Surgentius, the venerable primicerius, of the School of Notaries, to be placed in the church’s archives. But all the learned men of letters present at once begged his beatitude to order a public recitation. So he gave instructions for this to be held in the church of St. Peter ad Vincula, and a crowd of religious and noble laity and of all classes of people gathered there. And on separate days they listened to this same Arator reciting all four books; but on one day he recited only half the books because of the insistence with which the crowd begged for repetitions. The recitals were made on these days: the first on the 13 April, then 17 April; the third on 8 May, and the fourth on 30 May.

I’m on the lam from COVID-19, and my copy of Arator is not handy for quotation. My notebook tells me that after the readings done by poet in 544, portions of the poem were set as inscriptions on the walls of the church. A pilgrim recorded these lines in another manuscript that dates from the eighth century.

His solidata fides, his est tibi, Roma, catenis/ Perpetuata salus; harum circumdata nexu/Libera semper eris; quid enim non vincula praestent / Quae tetigit qui cuncta potest absolvere? cuius / Haec invicta manu vel relegiosa triumpho / Moenia non ullo penitus quatientur ab hoste. / Claudit iter bellis qui portam pandit in astris

Arator – De actibus apostolorum

Arator’s poem promoted Peter and Paul as the patron saints of Rome, redirecting the spotlight away from other patrons of the city, including the pair associated with its founding —Romulus and his brother Remus. The focus on the saints was intended to bolster the position of the pope as the bishop of Rome and successor to Peter. June 29 is the feast of Peter and Paul. The gold and glass medallions were well-known devotional objects in late antique Christianity.

Rome: voices, bones, memories

Rome is made of voices, bones and memories. Early photographs and old books like Augustus Hare’s Walks in Rome enable the curious and informed seeker to visit what seems like a different city.

But who can analyze even the simplest Roman impression? It is compounded of so many things, it says so much, it suggests so much, it so quickens the intellect and so flatters the heart, that before we are fairly conscious of it the imagination has marked it for her own and exposed us to a perilous likelihood of talking nonsense about it …

Henry James – May 1873

Via Bonella runs through the invisible city. This street existed in the rione Monti from the sixteenth century until the 1930s. It ran from the Forum Romanum to the fire wall built to shield the Forum of Augustus from the neighborhood beyond. This lost street began at the Arco dei Pantani, which cut through that wall. Via Bonella was a continuation, set at an oblique angle, of via Baccina, with is still there to find and walk upon.

The red line indicates the course of Via Bonella on the map of Rome created by Giovanni Battista Nolli in 1748.

The street and the neighborhood that surrounded it–Quartiere Alessandrino–were erased from the landscape to permit excavation of the imperial fora and to create what today is called the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The displaced inhabitants of the area were settled in the peripheral areas of the city. In Monteverde Nuovo, some of their children became Pasolini’s ragazzi di vita.

These photographs are three views of a secret. This image of street life on the Via Bonella was taken in 1910. The ruins belong to the Forum of Augustus. Above the photo of the Arco dei Pantani and the Via Bonella beyond was taken in 1907. The cover image of Via Bonella was taken through the Arco dei Pantani in 1870. The view is toward the Forum Romanum.

Raphael—Rome 6 April 1520—Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.

Giorgio Vasari and the death of Raphael

The painter meanwhile did not abandon the light attachment by which he was enchained, and one day, on returning to his house from one of these secret visits, he was seized by a violent fever, which being mistaken for a cold, the physicians inconsiderably caused him to be bled, whereby he found himself exhausted, when he had rather required to be strengthened.

Self-Portrait

Thereupon he made his will, and, as a good Christian, he sent the object of his attachment from the house, but left her a sufficient provision wherewith she might live in decency. Having done so much, he divided his property among his disciples: Giulio Romano, that is to say, whom he always loved greatly, and Giovanni Francesco, with whom was joined by a certain priest of Urbino, who was his kinsman, but whose name I do not know. He furthermore commanded that a certain portion of his property should be employed in the restoration of one of the ancient tabernacles in Santa Maria Rotonda, which he had selected as his burial place, and for which he had ordered that an altar with the figure of Our Lady in marble should be prepared.

His tomb in the Pantheon

All that he possessed besides he bequeathed to Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco, naming Messer Baldassare da Pescia, who was then Datary to the Pope, as his executor. He then confessed, and in much contrition completed the course of his life on the day whereon it had commenced, which was Good Friday.The master was then in the thirty-seventh year of his age; and he embellished the world by his talents while on earth, so is to be believed that his soul is now adorning heaven.

Study for The Transfiguration

After his death, the body of Raphael was placed at the upper end of the hall wherein he had last worked, with the picture of the Transfiguration, which he had executed for Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, at the end of the corpse. He who, regarding that living picture, afterwards turned to consider that body felt his heart bursting with grief as he beheld them. The death of Raphael caused the cardinal to command that his work should be place on the high altar of San Pietro in Montorio, where it has ever since been held in the utmost veneration for its own great value, as well as for the excellence of its author. The remains of this divine artist did not receive the honorable sepulture which the noble spirit they had been informed has so well deserved, nor was there any artist in Rome who did not deeply bewail the loss sustained by the departure of the master, or who failed to accompany his remains to their repose.

Study for The Transfiguration

The death of Raphael was in like manner bitterly deplored by all the papal court, not only because he had held the office of chamberlain to the pope but also because Leo X had esteemed him so highly that his loss occasioned that sovereign the bitterest grief. Oh most happy and thrice-blessed spirit, of whom all are proud to speak, whose actions are celebrated with praise by all men, and the least of whose works left behind thee is admired and prized!

Study for The Transfiguration

When this noble artist died, well might Painting have departed also, for when he closed his eyes, she too was left, as it were, blind. But now to us, whose lot is to come after him, there remains to imitate the good, or rather the excellent, of which he has left us the example, and, as our obligations to him and his great merits well deserve, to retain the most grateful remembrance of him in our hearts, while we ever maintain his memory in the highest honor with our lips. To him we owe the possession of invention, coloring, and execution, brought alike and altogether to the point of perfection for which few could have dared to hope; nor has any man ever aspired to pass before him.

Raphael’s The Transfiguration was first kept in San Pietro in Montorio and now is in the Vatican Museum.

To Ovid on his birthday and in his own words “… from the Danube to a place in the midst of Helicon …”

Sulmona, in the mountains about 90 miles east of Rome, is one of my favorite little cities in Italy. Ovid was born there during the five-day festival of Quinquartus, which opened the military campaigning season, (“the first day stained with the blood of combat in armed Minerva’s festival”) in the year “when both consuls died at Mutina.” For us, that’s 20 March 43 BC[E]. Tristia (Sorrows), his first poems from exile, includes a sketch autobiography. In it, Ovid calls out to the reader, “Listen posterity, and find out who this “I” was, this playful poet of tender passions you read.”

Ovid’s life began and ended outside of Rome. He declares Sulmo mihi patria est, (“Sulmona is my fatherland”) The initials of his phrase—SMPE—were made the emblem of the city and it appears around town, in sites refined and commonplace, like Rome’s SPQR. That line was written in Tomis, modern Constanta in Romania located on the Black sea at the margin of Roman civilization, where he died c. 17 AD.

The poet was the son of an established equestrian family and not one whose status was created in the recent civil war (“I was heir to an ancient line, not a knight new-made by fortune’s gift”).

He had a brother, a sort of twin, who had been born on the same day a year before him. Both boys were educated in Rome. The brother embraced oratory and the prospect of a public life (“My brother tended towards oratory from his early years; he was born to the harsh weapons of the noisy forum.”). The young man died just after his twentieth birthday, leaving Ovid bereft, “My brother had just doubled the first ten years of life, when he died, I went on, part of myself lost.”

Sulmona and mountains

Ovid was born to be a poet (“even as a boy the Muse was drawing me secretly to her work”). The father discouraged this propensity, admonishing him, “Why pursue useless studies? Maeonian Homer himself left no wealth behind.” He tried to give up poetry and actually started on a public career by holding minor judicial posts, but young Ovid couldn’t help himself, “I tried to write words that were free of meter. / But verse came, of itself, in the right measures, / and whatever I tried to write was poetry.”

Late in life Ovid expressed relief that his parents had died before the disgrace of his exile occurred. His piety evoked in him fear that this guilt might be known on the other side of the tomb:

I’m fortunate my trouble wasn’t while they lived / and that they never had to grieve for me / Yet if the dead are left something more than a name / if a slender ghost escapes the high pyre / if news of me has reached you, spirits of my parents / and my guilt is proclaimed in the courts of Styx / know, I beg of you, it would be a sin to deceive you / the cause of my exile was an error not a crime.

trans. A.S. Kline
Mount Helicon in Greece, the home of the Muses.

Ovid was the last superstar of the golden age of Latin literature. He is usually as the youngest of the trio of great Roman poets. The other two giants were a generation older. Horace was the role model of poetic versatility, “many-metered Horace captivated us when he sang his polished songs to the Italian lyre.” The master of Roman epic was more remote, having died when Ovid was in his early 20s, “Vergil I only saw.”

His immediate circle of poet peers came of age in the early years of Augustus’ rule, “Often Propertius would tell about his passions, by right of that friendship we were united / Ponticus too famous for epic; Bassus for iambics / were members of that mutual circle dear to me / [ … ]and greedy fate granted / Tibullus no time for my friendship / He came after you, Gallus; Propertius after him / I was the fourth after them in order of time.”

Auditorium of Maecenas in Rome, where the works of Augustan Ages poets were recited

Youthful Ovid expressed what his readers experienced themselves. Thalia, “the joyous one,” was Ovid’s muse. Corinna was his flesh-and-blood inspiration and the star of Amores, his early poems about a young poet pursuing love. Ovid says this woman, the pseudonym was taken from the name of a Greek poetess, “stirred my wit, she who was sung through the City.” He had a habit of falling in love, but maintained this affairs were untainted by lechery.

Soft, and never safe from Cupid’s arrows, / was my heart, that the slightest thing could move. / But though I was such, fired by the smallest spark, / no scandal was associated with my name.

Scandal came later. Augustus sent Ovid away from Rome as an exile in 8 AD, by which time Ovid was known as Rome’s greatest living poet. Ovid is coy about the details, acknowledging a carmen, a poem, and an error, an indiscretion. Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a dissection of the methods of seduction, was the poem. Poems about sexual adventurism didn’t jibe with Augustus’ program of family values. The indiscretion was the more immediate cause; it seems to have involved Ovid’s friendship with members of the imperial family who were attempting to position themselves as successor to Augustus. Here Ovid got off easier than some others who were executed or whose conditions of exile were harsher.

The cause, too well known to all, of my ruin, / is not to be revealed by any testimony of mine. / Why tell of friends’ wickedness and servants’ harm? / I suffered things no less evil than exile itself. / Yet my mind refused to succumbed to misfortune / and proved invincible, relying on its own powers.

Roman ruins in Tomis, Ovid’s place of exile (foto Roxana Postoiu)

Ovid outlived his contemporaries and surpassed them. In exile on the Black Sea, poetry remained a natural consolation.

Here, though the noise of weapons surrounds me / I ease my sad fate with such song as I can / Though there’s no one to listen to me, / still this is the way I pass, and deceive, the days

And, he claims, condemnation didn’t inhibit his readership back home.

My Muse, you grant me solace, you come as a rest from, and a cure for, care / You are both guide and friend, who spirit me / from the Danube to a place in the midst of Helicon / you’ve given me something rare while still alive / the honored name fame only grants us when we’re dead / Nor has envy, that belittles present things, attacked any work of mine with malignant teeth/ Though this age of ours has produced great poets / has not been unkind to my gifts / and though I set many above myself, people say / I’m not inferior, and I’m the most widely read of all.

How far into the future did he assume his readership would persist? He couldn’t have known he’d be almost as famous today as he was on the day he departed from his home, which was close to the Capitoline hill, for the last time, “I went like one carried off before his funeral.” Or could he?

So if there’s truth in the poet’s prophecies / I’ll not be yours, earth, though I die today / Whether I’ve won fame through fashion or through poetry itself / It’s right that I thank you, honest reader.

Statue of Ovid in Constanta, Romania, the current version of Tomis

Charles Dickens—an eyewitness in Rome, 8 March 1845

Who reads the travel writing of Charles Dickens?

On his travels, beyond being feted by local dignitaries, Dickens examined the penal system in the places he visited. In Rome, he witnessed and wrote a vivid account of the execution by beheading of Giovanni Vagnarelli, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a pilgrim on her way to Rome.

He preserved us a moment of Rome that no longer can be experienced. The scene is just outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the beautiful church featured in the film Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visit the Bocca della Veritá.

Dickens’ account was published in the collection Pictures from Italy. Read the entire essay below. It’s really good.

The abolition of capital punishment by civil authorities had its origins in Italy. Tuscany, in the eighteenth century, was the first state to do away with it. The government of the Papal States was the last to impose it. The last execution in Rome took place just a few years before the Eternal City became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

Preparing for an execution in Rome

Charles Dickens: “When Mastro Titta Crossed the Bridge”

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff.

He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

Mastro Titta’s memoir, Mastro Titta: the executioner of Rome: Memoirs of a corpse-maker written by himself, aims for a more bouncy account of his work than the tone found in Dickens. The book is hard to find; anyone else have a copy?

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni Decollato (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them.

Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.


There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.
At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Mastro Titta killed over 500 people by various gruesome means. It was a part-time occupation. He was a souvenir manufactuer and salesman St. Peter’s basilica in the other part of his life. His bloodstained clothes and the tools of the executioner’s trade are on display at the Museum of Criminology in Rome.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers.

Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!


Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney- coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Mastro Titta exhibiting the remains of the departed.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. “Attention!” was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.


After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last.

It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man – six-and-twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

Current image of the site of the execution on 8 March 1845. The church of S. Maria in Cosemedin is just out of the frame to the right; S. Giovanni Decollato is out of frame to the left.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.


The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.


When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.


Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.


The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw EX OFFICIO (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Exterior of the church of S Giovanni Decollato, the church that housed the confraternity that served spiritual needs of the condemned. Michelangelo, who lived in the area, was a member.

Augustus, Cicero, and my favorite nobody Roman

Augustus’ Res Gestae describes the peculiar mixture of public power and private influence that he exercised in Rome as the adoptive son and policial heir of Julius Caesar. Early in this autobiographical statement, the princeps writes,

I drove into exile the murderers of my father, avenging their crime through the tribunals established by law; and afterwards, when they made war on the republic, I twice defeated them in battle.

Qui parentum meum trucidaverint eos in exilium expuli iudiciis legitimis ultus eorum facinus et postea bellum inferentis rei publicae vici bis acie

Res Gestae Divi Augusti

Gaius Trebonius (c. 92 – 43) was the first of Caesar’s killers to fall. I have a soft spot for him. Trebonius is one of those secondary figures of Roman history who always are seen in half shadow yet whose lives illumine their era. His death wasn’t brought about by any tribunal established by law or war undertaken to protect the republic, but by an opportunistic murder that was the first blow in the bloody competition for power that ended with the final victory of Octavian (not yet called Augustus) 13 years later.

Coin minted to celebrate the Ides of March

The Career of Trebonius

Trebonius was a member of the equestrian class, the social class second in prestige in Roman society. He was also a novus homo, a “new man” in the sense he was the first in his own family to take an active part in Roman politics by seeking elected office and finally serving as consul, the summit of Rome’s political structure.

A new man was not a self-made man. Trebonius’ career was promoted by three of the most influential men in the city: Pompey, Crassus and especially Julius Caesar. As he demonstrated both his ability and reliability, Trebonius progressed through the cursus bonorum, the set of elected offices of increasing responsibility, by their patronage. He was elected quaestor in 60 and tribune in 55. In that year he gave his name to the Lex Trebonia, the law that gave Crassus and Pompey extended military appointments. More importantly, passage of the law mended the fraying alliance of Trebonius’ three patrons.

From the year 54, Trebonius was Caesar’s man. He served as one Caesar’s deputy generals in the last years of the conquest of Gaul and later during the civil war. Caesar’s narrative of those conflicts presents Trebonius as a capable lieutenant whose judgement and action at decisive moments can be relied upon. His service to Caesar won for Trebonius the most prestigious offices in Roman political life; he was praetor in 48 and consul in 45.

Despite the wealth and social position achieved by Trebonius through his relationship with Caesar, he was one of the foremost conspirators against the leading man of Rome. How this came about isn’t known, though other of Caesar’s closest aides, Decimus Brutus and Sulpicius Galba among them, joined Trebonius. Perhaps they felt they weren’t given due reward for their service, or that Caesar’s style of political leadership after the civil war diminished their merits, or maybe even they thought Rome would benefit from a return to old-style political life of relative equality among Romans.

Trebonius and Cicero

The letters of Cicero show another side of Trebonius. These men had much in common. Both were “new men” of provincial, equestrian origin, and the first in their families to take part in political life and earn the highest offices of the republic. The families seem to have had a relationship that originated in a previous generation, as Cicero notes his friendship with Trebonius’ father as well. So maybe this family relationship was inherited

In a letter to Cicero written from Athens in May of 44, Trebonius writes with warmth about the studies of Marcus minor, whom he visited in that city. In the same letter, Trebonius suggests that the younger Cicero join his entourage as he serves as governor of Asia as a kind of political internship. The letter closes with a request for reciprocal care for Trebonius’ mother, wife and children in Rome.

Like Cicero, Trebonius took part in the literary culture of the time. As part of this literary friendship, Trebonius published a collection of Cicero’s witticisms. This work was a collection of bon-mots, each presented in its own anecdotal setting. Cicero loved it. Trebonius seems to have been something a wit himself, as Cicero writes in a letter of thanks, “These sayings of mine, whether witty or just so-so, become irresistible when you are the raconteur. In fact, the laughter has almost faded before I even enter the scene!”

Reciprocity had role in this part of life too. Trebonius asked Cicero to return the gift by featuring his role if Cicero planned to write about the death of Caesar, “I am sure that if you write anything on Caesar’s death, you will not let me take the smallest part of the event.”

The end of Trebonius

Gaius Trebonius died in January 43. Publius Cornelius Dolabella, who had been made governor of Syria with the support of Mark Antony, ambushed, tortured and beheaded him, then had his mutilated body dragged around Smyrna, the capital of the province of Asia, where Trebonius was governor.

The murder took place in an environment of increasing recrimination among political leaders. Cicero’s 14 orations called the Philippics were his attempt to rouse defenders of republican institutions after the death of Caesar. The orations were intended to discredit Mark Antony, the most powerful figure in Rome, and the man who Cicero believed posed the greatest threat to the republic. In a number of of these speeches, Cicero contrasts the depraved character of Antony (in one equating him with Dolabella) to the selfless and heroic nature of Trebonius and other of Caeser’s killers.

In February of 43, Cicero wrote to Trebonius to boast about the effect these speeches were having on the opinion of influential Romans and the Roman people. Antony had been forced to leave Rome the previous November and Cicero wrote to Trebonius in an celebratory mood, hopeful that his target would soon be eliminated. It opens, “I wish you’d invited me to that splendid feast on the Ides of March! We should then have had no leftovers!”  Antony being the leftovers. Had he been brought into the conspiracy, Cicero would have insisted that he be killed along with Caesar. Allowing Antony to survive and then to outmaneuver the assassins is one of the great miscalculations of all history.

In any event, Trebonius never read the letter. He was dead by the time it was written.

After receiving news of events in Smyrna, Cicero, in the eleventh Philippic, gives the most vivid account of the murder. Dolabella, passing through Asia to his own governorship of Syria, lured Trebonius into a snare: “Very friendly conversations with Trebonius ensued. There were embraces in feigned affection, lying evidence of the heartiest goodwill. Right hands, the accustomted pledges of good faith, were violated in perfidy and crime. Trebonius was taken by surprise. Dolabella handed him over, a man of consular authority … First he lacerated his noble victim with insults from his unclean mouth, then interrogated him concerning public money under lashes and torments for two days together. After which he broke his neck, cut off his head, and order that it be stuck a pike and carried about. The rest of the body, dragged and torn, was flung into the sea.”

Dolabella was a symptom of Rome’s ills. He had charm and pedigree, but he seemed to have trouble sustaining any kind of productive relationship in public or private life. The superstar historian Ronald Syme described him as “a sinister and disquieting figure.” His family was patrician, and it provided him the means to form political friendships. Cicero once welcomed him as a son in law. He came to regret the decision as the marriage failed. Later, he did, however, consider serving on Dolabella’s staff when he was made governor of Syria for the fatal year of 43. (Imagine if had it come about that Cicero and and his son had each followed through on plans to the join the staffs of Trebonius and Dolabella: awkward!)

Caesar wanted to promote his career, but no other of Caesar’s men trusted him. So Dolabella turned to the republicans. Then when Antony offered a better deal, he threw in his lot with him. The death of Trebonius clarified, to some degree, the political groupings that would continue to take firmer shape in the next couple of years.

Elsewhere in the Phillipics, Cicero makes Trebonius a martyr to liberty, and an example of what men of good will should fear as he makes case against the political power of Antony. “In our great sorrow, fellow senators, our lamentations,rather, at the cruel and pitable death of Gaius Trebonius, a fine citizen, and the gentlest of men, there is nonetheless an element which I believe will prove beneficial to the republic … It looks as if Fortune wished us to take his fate as an example of what the defeated have to fear.” In these words are premonitions regarding the triumvirate of Antony, Octavian and Lepidus, and the proscriptions that consumed a good part of the Roman political class, including Cicero.

Mars Ultor monument to blood debt

Change in the landscape of the city mirrored change in the political life of Rome. The temple Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) was the centerpiece of the Forum of Augustus. Octavian vowed to build it before the battle at Phillipi in 42. In the Res Gestae, Augustus states, “I built the temple of Mars the Avenger and the Forum Augustum on private land from the spoils of war.” It was dedicated in August of the year 2 BC. The temple and the forum of Augustus is as much the legacy of Trebonius and the other conspirators as of the princeps himself.

In privato solo Martis Ultoris templum forumque Augustum ex manibiis feci.

Res Gestae Divi Augusti
Coin featuring temple of Mars Ultor

By the time of its dedication, Trebonius had been dead for 41 years. The final survivor from the conspirators lasted 13 years more. Cassius Parmensis was the last living killer of Caesar. He had become a partisan of Mark Antony, and was a pamphleteer in the propaganda war between the two strongmen of the Roman world. Mocking accusations against Octavian’s sexual proclivities and the humble origins of his family are attributed to his stylus. After Octavian’s defeat of Antony at Actium and the suicide of Cassius’ protector nearly a year later, there was no place for the last assassin to hide. An agent of the princeps found Parmensis in Athens, and the final blood debt was settled.

James Joyce—the exile in Rome

James Joyce lived in Rome for about a year in 1906 and 1907. He didn’t love the place.

52 via Frattina – not far from the Spanish Steps

The plaque, which is on the façade of one of the buildings where he had an apartment, tells us:

James Joyce, a voluntary exile, evoked the story of Ulysses—making his Dublin our universe—in this Roman house, where he lived from August to December 1906.

In Rome, Joyce worked in a bank. On 27 February 1907, he wrote to his brother, describing how his day at the office typically got started:

When I enter the bank in the morning I wait for someone to announce something about either his cazzo, culo, or coglioni. This usually happens before a quarter to nine.

A wandering knight of book collecting in Rome

The Italian Renaissance humanist Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) deserves to be remembered.  He’s most famous as a hunter for manuscripts of ancient writers. He and others like him moved around Europe from one monastic library to another and developed a social network that organized the copying, sharing and preservation of manuscripts containing the literature of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

His most famous find was the only known (at that time) copy of the Roman poet Lucretius’ On the nature of things, a presentation in verse of Epicurean philosophy. In this travels through Europe, he copied and acquired manuscripts of other endangered writing, such as that of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (one of my faves) and Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture. And then there were the many manuscripts of lesser known writers who also fascinated the insatiable culture makers of the time.

Portrait of Poggio Braciolini in an illuminated manuscript

There is more to him than that: he was a member of Roman Curia as a papal secretary; a witness to key events of his times; a source for knowledge of the ancient landscape and artifacts of Rome; and even the person responsible for the creation of Roman type, the font based on his handwriting. Wow!

Script of Poggio Bracciolini

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt is an account Poggio Bracciolini’s career that focuses on the passion for hunting manuscripts and most especially his discovery of Lucretius. The author won National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012 for this work.

I don’t love that book. No, wait, I hate it.  Greenblatt has a superficial understanding of much of the material the book covers, and he presents that material in a way that best support his thesis about the modern world. This work disfigures and dismisses much of the culture that made Poggio Bracciolini the man he was. Here’s a thoughtful review that calls out Greenblatt for his systematic over-simplification and cliché mongering.

I prefer reading Poggio Bracciolini in his own words. I came to know him through his account of the trial and execution by fire of Jerome of Prague. It was assigned reading for a Latin course. Jerome was accused of heresy at the Council of Constance. After his conviction, Poggio Bracciolini watched him burn on 30 May 1416.   He presents a very sympathetic account of the man. Here’s a link to an English translation of the letter describing Jerome’s ordeal, written to Leonardo Bruni, addressed as Leonardo Aretino for Arezzo, the place of his birth.

Manuscript featuring portrait of Poggio Bracciolini

His correspondence with other humanists, in which he describes his work and his private life, is fascinating and fun to read.  Here is part of a letter—dated 12 February 1426 — to Nicolaus de’ Niccolis, inviting his friend visit him in Rome for a little rest and relaxation.

Don’t hesitate; I’ve arranged everything. We’ll be neighbors here, our lodgings side by side, so you can visit me to gossip, and we’ll talk with friends among our manuscripts and then explore the sights of the city. If you’re in a different mood, stay home to be alone for study or to spend time with Benvenuta so that she can rub your feet if you are tired … There is no fear of plague here. The flood of barbarians has disappeared. Almost until yesterday all of Rome was soiled by their presence, filled with shit and vermin, their filth and lice. That disgusting stink filled a few graves here, but now has passed and the air is pure again. So come, the Lenten season, the best time to visit, is upon us, the city is quiet and ready for a different kind of visitor…

San Martino ai Monti—great church of a not so great pope

The brief pontificate of Sergius II (844–847) began in tumult and ended in disaster for Rome. Other than bad memories, the great church of San Martino ai Monti is the only trace this pope left in the city. His story is a nice example of the self-aggrandizement and incompetence of the ruling class.

The tumult

Sergius was a priest of the titulus of San Silvester the Confessor (now San Martino ai Monti), when Gregory IV (827–844) made him archpriest, a high position in the clerical hierarchy of the Roman Church. Sergius’ contemporary biography in the Liber Pontificalis states that the Roman clergy and people elected him (a man “remarkable for his birth, his purity of faith, his liberality in preaching, humility before God, and his distinction before men”) as Gregory’s successor in February 844.

Apse of San Martino ai Monti with 14th century tower of the Capocci

More than anything else, Sergius’ family connections made his selection as pope possible.  He belonged to one of the elite Roman families {“He was sprung from an illustrious mother …”) that controlled the papacy in the ninth century.  One relative served previously as Stephen IV (816–817) and another was among his successors as Hadrian II (867–872).

Not everyone thought Sergius was the man for the job. One group of Romans elected the deacon John, described as “unstable” and “deranged,” to follow Gregory as pope. These men, whom the Liber Pontificalis describes as “naïve and rustic folk,” are said to have taken control of the Lateran palace that day, “smashing the doors with weapons of war and overstepping the tradition of law and order.”

Titulus of Equitius and Sylvester

In response to the election of this obscure man apparently with no connection to the leading families of the city, Sergius and his armed followers soon scattered John and his supporters. The militia then accompanied Sergius from the titulus of San Silvester to the Lateran patriarchate in order to be complete his consecration as bishop of Rome.

After this all the princes of the Roman citizens were indignant, and with a single purpose in mind they all hurried, many of them on horseback, and gathered at St. Martin the confessor, the pontiff’s basilica. From the church they dragged out the archpriest Sergius, a man approved in all virtue. With great honor, amidst a large escorting assemblage of people and the resounding of abundant acclamations of praise, with hymns and spiritual chants he was elected and brought into the Lateran patriarchate. That same day there was such a heavy snowfall over the city that everyone beheld it white; many were saying that was a token of joy and brightness.

Liber Pontificalis – Life of Sergius II
Fragment of ninth-century fresco depicting saints (A. Majanlahti)

The church

Once in office as pope, Sergius, adhering to Roman custom, acted as benefactor to churches in the city with special attention to the site where his career began. His generosity went further than was customary. He rebuilt the church, loaded it with gifts of liturgical utensils and furniture made of precious materials (gold, silver, marble, silk), and gathered the relics of many saints to amplify the sanctity of the place. Later he established a monastery there and presented it with similar gifts. Fragmentary frescoes are the only artifacts that remain today from these ninth-century works.

Ninth-century frescoes of saints

This God-protected and blessed pope, anxious in godly devotion  to gain the desirable love of the most blessed Silvester and Martin, completed from its foundations, God’s clemency willing it, the church which had been consecrated to their holy name, improving its condition and its beauty; from the start of his sacerdotal office he had strenuously governed it until he was brought to the pinnacle of the pontificate; it had from ancient times given way and decayed from age, and damaged a long time ago it stayed broken in ruins. With great love he depicted in its apse in gold colors on the overlaid mosaic.

Liber Pontificalis – Life of Sergius

San Martino ai Monti sits in a neighborhood thick with famous churches. The ancient clivus Suburanus (now called via in Selci) threads among them on its course from the Roman Forum to region of Santa Maria Maggiore. In this period, processions on four Marian feasts traveled from the church of San Adriano in the Forum to Santa Maria Maggiore. This processional route passed the titulus of Equitius and later beneath the apse of San Martino built above it. Santa Prassede and San Pietro ad vincula are among the other churches close to this processional route.

The church site here had a long history before Sergius’ time.

Titulus Equitiiusand Sylvester

The fabric of the earliest building here dates from the third century; it seems to have been constructed for an unknown purpose and later was adapted to provide a Christian worship space.

The life of Silvester, the pope in the time of Constantine, when the power of the Roman Church was ascendant, is the earliest written evidence for a church on the site.

His biography in the Liber Pontificalis states,  “Sylvester built a church in Rome on the estate of one of his priests named Equitius close to Domitian’s baths and established it as a Roman titulus, and even today it is still called the titulus of Equitius.”

Titulus Equitius and Sylvester

It’s possible that a Christian worship space here before Sylvester became associated with the site. Originally, the term titulus was applied to private homes with space dedicated to communal Christian worship. The owner of the property gave his or her name to the titulus. Later, after Christianity became of the predominant religion in the city, these properties were taken over by the Church.

Hic fecit in urbe Roma ecclesiam in praedium cuiusdam presbiteri sui, qui cognominabatur Equitius, quem titulum Romanum constituit, iuxta termas Domitianas, qui usque in hodiernum diem appellatur titulus Equitii.

Liber Pontificalis – Life of Sylvester

The dedication to St. Marin of Tours, one of the most popular saints of the era, first appears around the year 500 when Pope Symachus built a basilica dedicated to Sylvester and Martin on this site. From this time there were two buildings on this site, the original titulus and now this basilica. Today, a staircase leads from the crypt of San Martino ai Monti to titulus Equitii below.

Staircase in Titulus Equitius and Sylvester (A. Majanlahti)

The disaster

The pontificate of Sergius ended in disaster. First, gout and senility incapacitated him. Then Serigus’ entourage, most especially his brother Benedict, a man “very stupid and dull … a boor given to unrefined pursuits … of uncouth morals, lecherous and always chasing strumpets.” (says Sergius’ biographer) used the pope’s illness and to gain riches and power for himself as the cohesiveness of Roman political life was lost.

Greater trouble loomed. In August 846 Muslim freebooters raided the basilicae of St. Peter, St. Paul and other church properties in the Roman suburbs between the city and the coast. Sergius died soon after these events. His successor Leo IV led the Roman recovery, fending off subsequent raids and building the defensive wall to enclose St. Peter’s, still seen today.