Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths

Visualizing times gone by is difficult, even when surrounded by highly visible ancient remnants.

Baths to accommodate 3,000? That number finally hit me for some reason. Wait, how big was Rome?

The Diocletian Baths, built beginning about the year 290, could accommodate 3,000 people bathing, getting a shave and a haircut, exercising, reading in the library, gathering for gossip and, well okay, visiting the brothel. Not sure in which order these activities were engaged.

But the Diocletian Baths were not the only baths. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in ancient Rome.

Which finally sent me back to try to understand the immense size not of the sprawling Roman Empire, but of Rome itself.

The AlamoDome in San Antonio seems large to this girl; it can accommodate 64,000. The Coliseum in Rome could house somewhere in the range of 75,000 people, who could all exit within a 15-minute period after Emperor Diocletian (244-311) had executed some of the thousands of Christians he made into saints during several prime years of persecution.

But that was still a small house in Rome. Other special events attracted even larger crowds; close to 300,000 could gather to watch chariot races at Circus Maximus.

Wait, where did all those people come from? The majority were just locals. The population of Rome then was well over 1,000,000. So hard to envision an ancient urban environment that dense.

Things would change dramatically in only a view years. The collapse of the empire, invasions by those pesky Goths. The population evacuated for new opportunities or was devastated by pestilence. During the 1300s, with schism in the papacy between Rome and Avignon, Rome had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

But I digress, once again.

The photos below are from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano housed on the grounds of the former baths and portions renovated/remodeled into cloisters for a Carthusian monastery, commissioned in 1561 by Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) of the Medici clan and designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564).

More recent remodeling to house the collection and special exhibits was completed in 2014. Thousands of the museum’s holdings once crammed akimbo into this one location are now spread out for improved viewing around several locations.

And, by the way, sometimes there was a lot of r-rated activity happening on the outside of those sarcophagi.