Looking for Medieval Rome

By Chris Petitt

On my way to Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, a chance conversation with an acquaintance brought back to life a perennial problem that confronts devotees of medieval Rome. The visit was part of my work that examines how the cult of saints generated the sacred topography of the medieval city. Mention of this research errand was met with a bemused stare.  Then, “The medieval city? Ha! Bulldozed—it doesn’t exist.” After a minute more of distracted small talk, she wandered away along the Via dei Coronari, watching her own reflection in shop windows, her thoughts far from our conversation.

She was right, in a way. Generations of popes, cardinals, kings, mayors, dictators, speculators and their archeological flunkies had done a job on Rome with their shovels and their pickaxes, some in search of the classical city and others in the quest to create a model of urban planning. For a medievalist, a walk around town can be a bummer. What’s left to see?  Many medieval buildings that survived to modern times now are known only from the early years of photography, others have been restored beyond recognition, and some even have been uprooted and reassembled in new locations, cut away from their native context.


Yet, the medieval city is still here to be found. The antidote to heartbreak is to know how to look for it. The Middle Ages in Rome—if one equates the period with the ascendancy of Christian cultural and political influence—began in the cemeteries on the suburban fringe of the city. Why there and not in the monumental center of the city? One persistent view holds that this was because the emperor Constantine, patron of the Roman Church, wanted to appease the still pagan aristocrats by leaving the center untouched by a cult that not long before had been persecuted as a subversive presence in the city.

Maybe, but that’s not the best explanation. Constantine understood that the heart of Christian culture was located there at the martyrs’ tombs that filled the cemeteries flanking the roads outside the third-century urban walls. So it was there that he built the great basilicae and other foundations to honor those Christian heroes. These included both universal figures like Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome, and the local blessed, like St. Lawrence (225 – 258) on the Via Tiburtina and St. Agnes (c. 291 – c. 304), whose tomb on the Via Nomentana was my destination that day.


The catacombs in Rome – photo by Chris Petitt

The Notitia Ecclesiarum urbis Romae is an early catalogue of the devotional practices of the faithful in these peripheral areas. This work provides detailed information on the churches, catacombs and other sites to which pilgrims were drawn, including the church and catacomb sites associated with St. Agnes. The dynasty of Constantine took a special interest in Agnes. A large basilica was erected on the site and now lies in ruins. Then Constantia, the daughter of the emperor, constructed a mausoleum for herself and perhaps her sister adjacent to the basilica to demonstrate her devotion to the saint resting in the nearby catacomb.

The papacy soon followed the imperial lead. Pope Damasus I (366–384) erected one of his famed metric epigraphs to honor St. Agnes not long after the basilica was constructed. The original inscription is preserved in the present church. The Liber Pontificalis, the collection of serial biographies of Roman bishops, documents how the papacy acted as patron to the cult of St. Agnes throughout the early Middle Ages. The frequency and high quality of the gifts given to St. Agnes by successive popes demonstrate the exalted position of her cult among Romans. The most lasting of these gifts was a new church constructed by Pope Honorius (625–638). This is the church one visits today. The intimacy between the popes and the cult is clear here. The altar stands between reliquary of St. Agnes in the catacomb below and the apse mosaic above, which depicts Honorius offering the church to the saint.  This church remains one of the most beautiful in Rome.

Saint Agnes of Rome – Apse mosaic – Sant’Agnese fuori le mura – photo © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / Wikimedia Commons

St. Agnes in Rome

To find the medieval city, I follow the trail of the cult of saints as it moved from these peripheral sites to inhabit the monumental heart of the city. The development of the cult of St. Agnes provides insight into this phenomenon. The Passio Sanctae Agnetis, the narrative of Agnes’ martyrdom, is one of about 150 hagiographic texts related to Roman martyrs known collectively as the Gesta Martyrum.  The events narrated by these texts are said to have occurred before the reign of Constantine, but identifiable  temporal contexts are scare among them. The title Gesta Martyrum is taken from the Liber Pontificalis, which states that Pope Fabian (236-250) assigned scribes to record the acts of martyrs in Rome.  No trace of this supposed work has been found to exist, so a relationship to these hagiographic writings cannot be established.

Scholars approach these texts from three critical perspectives. One is to accept the texts as transmitting a historical account with some embellishment of the events they depict. A second perspective perceives them as pious fictions meant to edify and entertain members of an increasingly Christianized society. The third approach goes a step further. It focuses on the date of composition of these narratives, thought to be the fourth and fifth centuries. To these scholars, each gesta provides insight into the ideas and attitudes of contemporary writers and audiences. These hagiographic writings align the legends of the saints with the religious and political realities of an increasingly Christianized society, one in which pagan opposition to Christian predominance has almost entirely disappeared. Read together with other evidence, it’s clear that the sacred topography of the city within the walls had by then reflected this reality.


Papal patronage and perhaps elite Roman families directed how St. Agnes and other saints’ cults migrated into the city in both texts and in buildings. In addition to the complex on the Via Nomentana, two other foundations are known to have been dedicated to St. Agnes. The earliest known references to them are in the eighth and ninth centuries, but there is reason to believe that cult of St. Agnes was present in the city long before. For instance, Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) demonstrated his devotion to St. Agnes by distributing her relics to foundations outside of Rome. Also, churches in other parts of Rome were dedicated to St. Cecilia and St. Susanna, who share similar attributes of sanctity as Agnes: local, female, martyr. And, all three of these saints were included the sixth-century Roman canon of prayer. Clearly, these cults had a presence in the life of the city.

Sant’Agnese in Agone – Rome, Piazza Navona – photo by Roma Opera Omnia / Flickr

The monastery dedicated to Agnes Ad Duo Furna is the first mention, in the life of Pope Gregory II (715-731), of a foundation within the walls associated with her cult.  This monastery later was combined with nearby Santa Prassede. It continues to host a chapel dedicated to her, an arrangement made by Pope Paschal (817–824). Sant’Agnese in Agone is the most famous of the churches dedicated to her. The first mention of it dates from the first half of the eighth century, but the date of its foundation is not known and was likely much earlier. The name of this piazza is a later rendering of “in agone,” which demonstrates the influence of cult as a shaper of the topography of the city.

The peculiar relationship of theses suburban and urban foundations to Agnes’ Passio intimate how the sacred topography of Rome changed between the fourth and subsequent centuries. The storyline of the Passio focuses on Agnes’s commitment to maintain her virginity by resisting the demands that she marry the son of one of most powerful pagan families of Rome. Her resistance to the family causes her to be condemned to life in a brothel, where still she maintains her virginity and where the miraculous power associated with her first appears. Indeed, the miracles that preserve her occur  in this place of intended torment finally cause the pagan witnesses to make her a martyr.

Mosaic in Sant’agnese. Photo by Chris Petitt

Sant’Agnese fuori le mura appears at the conclusion of the Passio as the site of her interment and  the post mortem miracles which attracted a crowd of devotees to her tomb. Perhaps surprisingly, Sant’Agnese in Agone is not mentioned in the Passio, though nearly all of the action later was said to have occurred in what would be the neighborhood of this church.  The drama of the story takes in the vaguely named theatrum, which later was associated with the stadium of the emperor Domitian, site of the Piazza Navona. The arched structures of the stadium can still be visited below ground level today. One conclusion to draw is that the Passio was written before this church was founded, the implication being that the narrative inspired the identification of this location as the scene of events in the Passio. The use of the stadium location was opportunistic. And it was persuasive. In Rome, places of this kind were associated with prostitution. Indeed, the word fornix, which means an arch or vault, was also used as a word for brothel. Here text and the physical city work together to reframe the spiritual topography of the city.  The anonymous ruin became the site of spiritual power that has persisted for until the present day. This is just one of many instances where the inherited remains of the classical city were adapted to create its medieval successor.

A ninth-century pilgrimage catalogue, the Einsiedeln Itinerary, demonstrates how the sacred topography of Rome had changed and would continue to function like the nervous system of the medieval for hundreds of years. It is here that Sant’Agnese in Agone is first documented, though the church certainly had been in place for some time.   This work is a collection of itineraries of pilgrims moving from sacred site to sacred site through the city, each beginning at one gate in the city wall and terminating at another. Contrast it with the Notitia Ecclesiarum urbis Romae, which names just one church within the walls, leaving a large white area on its mental map of Rome. Conversely, the Einsiedeln Itinerary pays scant attention to the area outside the walls, noticing sites there only in relation to those inside the city.  There inside the walls Sant’Agnese in Agone is not isolated but is one of many churches, the saints and their patrons together creating the medieval city.

Moving towards home again later that night I found myself there with Agnes in her city place.  I remembered the earlier conversation with the friend who was content not to know any of the things that sent me out across the city and back. Leaving Piazza Navona I was on  Via dei Coronari again, where the awkward goodbye occurred that morning, Chances are she’s never wondered how Agnes got there.

Chris Petitt (M.Phil.—Medieval History) is a communications professional in New York. He is currently preparing an anthology of eyewitness writing about Rome from antiquity to the present day. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @petittcsr.


Top Image: Rome’s skyline – photo by Bert Kaufmann / Flickr