By Chris Petitt
“Augustus Constantine built a basilica for the blessed martyrs Marcellino the priest and Peter the exorcist in the territory ‘between the two laurels’ and a mausoleum where Helena Augusta was buried.” ~ Liber Pontificalis
One of the most popular pilgrimage sites in early medieval Rome was the Catacombs of Marcellino and Peter. It has a fascinating history dating back to the fourth century, which includes being robbed by one of the most famous writers of the Carolingian era.
Marcellino, a priest, and Peter, an exorcist, were martyred in Rome during the great persecution of Diocletian in the early fourth century. To commemorate them and others, Emperor Constantine created a memorial complex on the Via Labicana that included a basilica above the catacomb, several ground-level memorials and a mausoleum for his mother Helena.
Constantine’s development of this site was related to the construction of Rome’s cathedral, originally dedicated to the Savior and now known as San Giovanni in Laterano. Both properties had been associated with the equites singulares, the mounted bodyguard of Constantine’s rival Maxentius, from whom he took Rome. The barracks of the equites singulares stood where the Lateran now stands (ruins are visible below the church and in adjacent areas), and the cemetery of the corps was located on the site where Constantine constructed this memorial complex on Via Labicana.
Members of the Constantinian dynasty built eight monumental basilicas adjacent to extramural cemeteries. St Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s on the Via Ostiense are the best known of these. The basilica of Marcellino and Peter was one of six circiform churches built above a catacomb. The others are Sant’Agnese on Via Nomentana, San Lorenzo on Via Tiburtina, the Basilica Apostolorum on the Via Appia (now San Sebastiano), and two with uncertain dedications, one on Via Praenestina and the more recently discovered basilica on Via Ardeatina. These basilicas were essentially covered cemeteries, as the entire surface of the pavement was covered with the tombs of those who wished to be buried ad sanctos – “near the saints”.
Sant’Agnese is the best-preserved specimen of this complex type as one finds there the walls of the circiform basilica, the imperial mausoleum of Constantina, daughter of Constantine, and the exquisite sixth-century church dedicated to Sant’Agnese.
The Cult of Marcellino and Peter
The earliest evidence for this cult is a monumental metric epitaph composed by Pope Damasus (366–384) and posted by the martyrs’ tomb. The epitaph for Marcellino and Peter is unique in that Damasus claims that the story of this martyrdom was told to him while a young man by the executioner of Marcellino and Peter himself.
The plaque on which the epitaph was inscribed was placed above the tomb of Marcellino and Peter. Vandals destroyed the plaque, but scholars have identified several fragments of it. A modern copy is seen there now. This (very lightly edited) translation was published in Dennis Trout, Damasus of Rome: The Epigraphic Poetry:
Marcellino, (the story of) your grave and likewise Peter’s
an executioner told to me, Damasus, when I was a boy:
A savage butcher (he said) had given him these orders—
that he straightaway sever your necks in a wild thicket
so that no one could recognzie your tomb.
You (he said) had cheerfully dug your own graves with your own hands,
which afterwards, had simply lain hidden below a caveran.
Thereafter Lucilla, alerted through your duty and your love,
was pleased to set your most holy limbs in this place.
Similar epitaphs commemorating other martyrs interred in the cemeteries and catacombs on the roads leading out from Rome. St. Jerome, an adherent of Damasus, emphasized the significance of these extramural sites as devotional spaces in late fourth-century Rome, a time when Christians were becoming more numerous. In a letter written to a spiritual protégée in the years between the closing of the pagan temples in 395 and the Visigothic sack of 410, Jerome propounds the theme of ascendant Christian culture:
The gilded Capitol today looks dingy, all the temples in Rome are covered with soot and filled with cobwebs, the city is shaken to its foundations, and the people hurry past the ruined shrines and pour out to visit the martyrs’ graves.
Scholars have perceived political calculation for the placement of these inscriptions. Violent rivalry had marked two consecutive papal elections, and the urban landscape was fractured by schismatic factions. The extramural locations of cemeteries provided the opportunity to create a sense of unity within the Roman Church and recognition of Damasus as the legitimate bishop.
Other sources attest to the vitality of the cult. A passio included among the Gesta Martyrum, the collection of Roman martyr stories produced in the fifth and sixth centuries, fleshes out the bare-bones narrative of Damasus’ epitaph. The passio adheres to the epitaph but is adorned with a specificity of detail, e.g., named characters and locations, to create a more compelling story.
There is another way in which Damasus’ poem is unique. The rest of his oeuvre was preserved by pilgrim copyists who compiled collections of inscriptions; the epitaph for Marcellino and Peter is found only in manuscripts of this passio. This may account for the close similarity of storyline found in the poem and the passio. For other Roman cults, there is a greater divergence between the martyr-story as told by Damasus and how the passio of the martyr is told in various manuscripts. The question of why different versions of some martyr stories exist remains a live issue: Did Damasus create these hagiographies from whole cloth and storytelling mutations created divergent versions, or did he propagate one existing version and exclude others? The debate goes on.
The Pilgrim’s Path to Marcellino and Peter
Seventh-century “pilgrim” itineraries confirm the continuing use of these extramural sites as devotional spaces. Three (quite similar) versions of such itineraries are known. Presumably this type of text was dispersed more widely as pilgrims returned home with their notes. Each itinerary identifies the location of extramural cemeteries by reference to the adjacent road. One of these, De locis sanctis martyrum, tells us:
And next to the Via Labicana is the church of St. Helena, where she herself rests in her body. There sleep these saints: Peter, Marcellino, Tiburtius, the thirty holy soldiers, Gorgonius, Genuinus, Maximus, the four Coronati—that is, Claudius, Nicostratus, Simpronianus, Castorius, Simplius. There also in the crypts under the earth lies buried a countless multitude of martyrs.
The Notitia ecclesiarum urbis Romae and the Itinerarium Malmesburienses provide some unique but much the same information.
The status of the catacombs changed drastically between the mid-seventh century and the arrival of Carolingians one-hundred-some years later. Two factors encouraged a greater focus on pilgrim sites of devotion within the city walls. One was the ongoing conflict with the Lombards that made areas outside the walls less secure and the catacombs vulnerable to looting and vandalism. The previously occasional transfer of relics from the catacombs was accelerated by eighth-century popes, a step that made the catacombs less of a draw to pilgrims.
At different points in time, cults based at churches outside the walls began to have churches dedicated to them within the walls. The cult of Sant’Agnese is the best example of this phenomenon. Both churches dedicated to her, Sant’Agnese fuori le mura on Via Nomentana and Sant’Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona remain the two of the most frequented churches in Rome. An urban church was dedicated to Marcellino and Peter during the sixth century close to the Lateran; it appears infrequently in existing sources.
Increasing estrangement between the papacy and the emperor in Constantinople also reduced the Romans’ financial capacity to maintain these sites. The end of imperial financial support to Italy, imperial confiscation of tax revenue due to Rome, and the constriction of trading networks that isolated Rome from Mediterranean exchange networks – together these phenomena created a sense of impotence and vulnerability for the Romans.
The Carolingian alliance with the papacy ended Rome’s material decline. For a few generations, Charlemagne and his successors restored much of the political standing and prosperity that had been lost.
The period of Carolingian association with Rome was a revival and the included restoration of both urban and extramural sites. The Liber Pontificalis, the serial biography of early medieval popes, contains loads of information concerning patronage of Roman sites and provides lists of immense treasures of property, gifts of liturgical objects made of precious metal, ivory, and silk that were given to numerous churches and monasteries in Rome. Most of this work was done in the name of the pope, but the Franks provided bountiful financial support to these endeavors.
The cult of Marcellino and Peter was one such beneficiary. According to the Liber Pontificalis, Hadrian (772–795), Charlemagne’s first papal partner in power, restored the catacombs of Peter and Marcellino and adjacent above-ground monuments while suggesting that these sites had experienced some period of neglect:
He [Hadrian] also renewed SS Peter and Marcellino’ cemetery on the Via Labicana close to St. Helena’s basilica, he rebuilt its roof, both of St. Tiburtius and of SS Peter and Marcellino, and be rebuilt the steps down to their sacred bodies as there was then no access down to those holy bodies.
Other sources provide different perspectives on Rome in this period. The Einsiedeln Itinerary, which has been dated to the period 775–825, is the most famous source for Rome in this period. It consists of a series of so-called pilgrim routes through the city. Each route is demarked by adjacent sites to the right and to the left of the walker. Together these intersecting routes cover a large area of the city.
As with the earlier itineraries, the city walls are an organizing feature of this text. Nearly all of these routes originate at one gate in the walls and terminate at another. In fact, these urban routes connect to those documented in the extramural itineraries so the traveler moves between devotional sites inside and outside the walls. In effect, the Carolingians had restored the full sacred landscape of Rome. Modern visual representations of the complete Einsiedeln Itinerary resemble public transportation systems.
Around 830 the Carolingian courtier Einhard, best known for his biography of Charlemagne, wrote one of the most beguiling depictions of Rome in the hagiographical Translation of the Relics of Marcellino and Peter. The purpose of Translation is to show how Einhard acquired the relics of Marcellino and Peter in Rome, how they were lost by him, and how they returned to Einhard’s rightful and legitimate possession.
Einhard is a master storyteller in this supernatural, suspense thriller about sanctity and competition among the elites of early medieval society who accumulated wealth, status and influence by controlling trade of a commodity sought by almost everyone: relics and their power as a portal to divine grace.
The bare-bones outline of Einhard’s story is straightforward. He founded churches on property he received as imperial gifts, he needs relics to consecrate the altars of these foundations and is hell-bent on procuring the most prestigious of them available on the (black) market, including the remains of Roman martyrs. After much chicanery, the mission succeeds, all human calculations and actions having been directed by divine agency.
But it’s the bloody meat of the storytelling that has the interest and fun for readers: rivalry among power brokers, opportunistic grifters, naïve and conniving bit players, wild miracle-making and even a demon-possessed child inspired to speak (in Latin) truth to power. All play their parts on an international stage with Rome at the center and Einhard’s churches on the ever-distant periphery of Frankish conquest and monastic mission.
When reading the work, one wonders where Einhard gained his familiarity with the city. He visited Rome in 806 as an envoy from the Frankish court, but it’s not known what he did there or how long he stayed in the city. Twenty-some years later, it’s likely that he used the types of sources available to modern readers in order to depict how his characters navigated the city from their base around the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains to the catacomb of Marcellino and Peter.
After fasting for three days, they went by night, unnoticed by any of the inhabitants of Rome, to the place I have mentioned. Having entered the basilica of St. Tiburtius, they first tried to open the altar below which his body was believed to lie. But they made very little progress in this attempt, for the monument was built of hardest marble and easily repelled the inexperienced hands of its assailants. Therefore, leaving the burial place, they went down to the tomb of the blessed Marcellino and Peter; and there, having invoked our Lord Jesus Christ and having prayed to the holy martyrs for help, they tried to lift the stone that sat on top of the tomb. When they had raised it, they saw the most holy body of St. Marcellino placed in the upper part and close to his head a marble tablet which attested in writing the name of the occupant whose body lay in this grave. So, they raised the martyr’s body with the greatest reverence, as was fitting, wrapped it in a pure muslin cloth, and gave it to the deacon to carry and hold. And replacing the stone so as to leave no sign that the body had been removed, they returned to their quarters in the city.
Einhard makes no reference to these earlier sources. But our informed imagination can follow his men through the city (joining an Einsiedeln route that begins at Porta Aurelia across the river and above Trastevere) from the rear of St. Peter in Chains down the staircase called Via di Monte Polacco, then turning right to climb Via in Selci upon the ancient paving stones through the Augustan-age Arco di San Vito to where the old Via Labicana began and through the Porta Maggiore and along the modern Via Casalina to descend that staircase built by Pope Hadrian to find the tomb—beneath the reproduction of Damasus’ epitaph—that’d been emptied after nightfall by the torch-bearing grave robbers dispatched by their status-seeking boss.
Today, the newly restored Catacombs of Marcellino and Peter can be found in eastern parts of Rome (the modern address is 641 Via Casalina). Visitors to the subterranean tombs will find a veritable gallery of Constantinian art, as it is known for the quality and preservation of the frescoes found there. You can buy tickets to explore the catacombs from Omnia Vatican & Rome.
Chris Petitt (M.Phil.—Medieval History) is preparing an anthology of eyewitness writing about Rome from antiquity to the present day. Contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter, @realchrispetitt.