What did the Romans bury with a 5th century empress?

The demolition of the Constantinian basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, in the 16th century, in order to build the present church, also required the demolition of the neighbouring circular chapel of St Petronilla.  This building stood next to the south door, and probably predated the basilica.  Like the chapel of St Andrew nearby, it was probably a Roman tomb of the 2-3rd century, half-buried by the earth platform on which St Peter’s was built.

Inside the chapel, the process of demolition revealed a Roman imperial burial of the 5th century AD.   The owner was the empress Maria, daughter of Stilicho and wife of the emperor Honorius.

The following report appears in Bosio’s Roma Sotteranea (16xx).[1]  It seemed interesting enough to translate it.  I can’t quite understand it all, but I’ll have a go![2]

After listing papal interments, and then mentioning emperors who appear in the literary record as interred here, he continues:

 Of the Augustas we know of one who was buried on the Vatican, Maria, daughter of Stilicho and of  the most noble Lady Serena, and wife of the aforementioned Emperor Honorius.  Her sepulchre was discovered in the year 1544, on the 4th of February, in the pontificate of Paul III; during the demolition of the old round chapel of St. Petronilla, situated on the right-hand side of the basilica.  In excavating the foundations of the new chapel, a great sarcophagus of marble was found, approximately six feet under the floor, covered by a slab also of marble, and surrounded in turn by a very thick wall.  When this was opened, a body was seen in it, dressed in gold clothing.  The head was covered by a veil with many wrappings, but separate; and many ornaments of gold which taken together weighed about 40 pounds.  Nearly all the bones were reduced to dust, and there only remained the shins, teeth and skull; which gave an indication that this was the body of a young girl, and it was easy to work out that it was the aforementioned Maria, wife of Honorius, from the items found inside the sarcophagus.  To one side was a chest of silver, filled with various vases of crystal, of agate, of other stones; and similarly with little animals of various kinds, with some ornaments of gold.  Below this was a box, covered with gilded silver, with some ornaments of heads of chiodetti (?) of silver, inside which were many gold rings, all with precious stones; some necklaces, and other items and toys.  All of them are minutely described by Lucio Fauno, and we found them listed one-by-one in a handwritten book of that time, and they are as follows:

Vases, and various pieces of crystal, large and small, 30 in number; between two ancient cups of medium size, one round and one ovate shape with very beautiful little figures in medium relief.

A piece of crystal shaped like a seashell, fashioned as a lamp with gold fittings; which covered up the mouth of the seashell, leaving only a small hole in the middle through which to put oil; beside which was a moveable fly of gold, which you could move with a nail to cover and uncover the hole. Likewise of gold was the tip con il pippioda porvi lo stopino, tirato in lungo, & acuto, con bellissima gratia (?); and so attached to the crystal that they seemed to have been born together.

Some pieces of agate with some small animals, and some vases in number eight, among which there were two beautiful vases, one looking like a big glass ampoule, of the sort used to keep oil or similar liquid; and so made, and so beautiful, that it was a marvel when first seen; and the other vase was made in the manner of a skimmer with its handle, used in Rome to separate water from vettine.

Four little vases of gold of various sorts, and another very small vessel of gold, of ovate form, with its lid adorned with jewels.

A small  heart of gold in the form of a pendant with six jewels inset.

Two earring pendants of emerald, or plasma (?), with two jacinths.

A pendent in the form of a group of vua(?), made of pavonazze (?) stone.

Eight other small gold pendents of various sorts, set with various stones.

Rings, and verghette, of gold, of various sorts, set with various jewels and precious stones, in total numbering fifty-eight; and among these one of red bone (osso rosso?) with various stones.

Three little animals of red bone.

A clasp or trinket or necklace of gold, with five jewels of various sorts, set inside; and twenty-four other clasps of various sorts with various jewels embedded in them.

A piece of a very small thin necklace, inset with green stones.

Another gold necklace, with twenty-two “pater nostri” of plasma (?).

Another small necklace, with nine “pater nostri” of sapphire set in an oval.

Another small necklace tirato raccolto, broken into four pieces.

Two gold buttons and fourteen golden shirts.

A tondo of gold, with an “Agnus Dei”, with letters around it, reading: MARIA OUR MOST FLOWER-LIKE LADY.  And on the other side LONG LIVE STILICHO.

Two gold handles of gold, with some green stones in them.

Two large hair-pins, or hair-rollers; one of gold, approximately a foot long, with letters, reading on one side: FOR OUR LORD HONORIUS.  And on the other side: FOR OUR LADY MARIA.  The other silver and without letters.

A plate of gold on which were carved in Greek letters Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel.

An emerald bound in gold, on which a head was carved, which was judged to be the aforementioned emperor Honorius, as a seal, estimated to be worth 500 scudi.

There were also fragments of other emeralds, and other stones, and some large pearls, destroyed by the humidity; that the other things had been preserved so well seemed to be by chance.

All the things found were taken to Pope Paul III, who at that time was pontiff; who (as Giulio Herculano and the aforementioned Lucio Fauno note) obtained forty pounds of gold from the sale of these ne cavo (?), and applied it to the construction of the new basilica.

He goes on to add that these were probably wedding gifts, and references Claudian.  Maria was married to Honorius when she was only 12 and he not much older, and she died aged between 18-21, between 404-7.

There are further accounts of the find, and Lanciani gives more here (at Lacus Curtius).  It would be good to have these manuscript accounts online.  It is perhaps not realised just how much there is, unpublished, in Italian archives which might be of tremendous value.  I suspect that the primary accounts might contain drawings of these finds!

  1. [1] Low-quality scan on Google books here; much better scans, but incredibly unusable viewer at Arachne here: look at  p.68-70 in the viewer, get the largest pic you can, and then download it.
  2. [2] I transcribed the Italian which is as follows:

    Delle Auguste sappiamo de certe, che nel Vaticano fu sepellita Maria, figliuola di Stilicone, e di Serena nobilissima Donna, sposa del sudetto Honorio Imperatore.  Il cui sepolcro su scoperto l’anno 1544 a di. 4. di Febraro del Pontificato di Paolo Terzo: poiche rovinandosi il vecchio Tempio rotondo di Santa Petronilla, situato nella destra parte della Basilica; e cavandosi i fondamenti della nuova Cappella, si ritrovo una grand’Arca di marmo, sei piedi incirca sotto il pavimento, coperta d’una pietra parimente di marmo, circondata intorno di grossissimo muro; la quale essendosi aperta, si vide in essa un corpo, vestito di vestimenti d’oro; il cui capo con molti inuolti era circondato di un velo, ma pero disteso; de’quali ornamenti d’oro (essendo stati fusi) se ne cavo di peso circa libre quaranta.  Erano quasi tutte le ossa ridotte in polvere; e vi rimanevano solo i stinchi, i denti, & i capelli; i quali davano inditio, che quello fosse il corpo d’una tenera fanciulla; e si conietturo facilmente esser di detta Maria sposa d’Honorio, dalle cose ritrovate dentro dett’Arca.  Percioche dal lato haveva una scattola d’argento piena di diversi vasi di christallo, di agate, e d’altre pietre; e similmente di diversi animaletti con alcuni ornamenti d’oro; & appresso a questa era una cassetta, coperta d’argento indorato con alcuni ornamenti di teste di chiodetti d’argento; nella quale erano molti anelli d’oro, tutti con pietre pretiose; alcune collane, catenette, & altri lavori con gioie; le quali cose tutte sono minutamente descritte da Lucio Fauno, e noi l’habbiamo ancora ritrovate notate in un libro manoscritto di quel tempo, e sono le seguenti.

    Vasi, e diversi pezzi di christalo, fra grandi, e piccoli, numero trenta; fra’ quali venerando due, come tazze non molto grandi, l’una rotonda, e l’altra di figura ovata con figurette di mezo-rilievo bellissime.

    Una lumaca di christallo in forma d’una conchiglia marina, acconcia in una lucerna con oro sino; del quale n’e prima coperta la bocca della lumaca, restandovi solo un buco in mezo da porvi l’olio; a lato al quale si vedeva con un chiodo consitta una mosca d’oro mobile, che copriva, e discopriva il buco. Era d’oro similmente la punta con il pippio da porvi lo stopino, tirato in lungo, & acuto, con bellissima gratia; & in modo attaccato con il christallo, che pareva esservi nato insieme.

    Alcuni pezzi d’agata con certi animaletti, & alcuni vasi fra tutti numero otto, fra’ quali vi erano due vasi bellissimi, l’uno sembrava una di quelle ampolle di vetro grandi, e piatte da tenervi olio, o altro simile liquore; in modo fatto, e cosi bello, e sottile, ch’era una mariviglia a mirarlo; e l’altro vaso era fatto a guisa d’una di quelle schiumarole con il suo manico, chusano in Roma per cavar l’acqua dalle vettine.

    Quattro vasetti d’oro di diverse sorti, & un’altro vaso picciolo d’oro, di forma ovata, con il suo coperchio con gioie attorno.

    Un cuore d’oro picciolo a guisa d’un pendente con sei gioie incassate.

    Due pendenti da orecchi di smeraldo, o plasma, con due giacinti.

    Un pendente in forma di un grappo d’vua, fatto di pietre pavonazze.

    Otto altri pendenti piccioli d’oro di diverse sorti, con varie pietre incastrate.

    Anelli, e verghette d’oro di diverse sorti, con diverse gioie, e pietre pretiose incastratevi, in tutto numero cinquant’otto; e fra quelli uno di osso rosso con diverse pietre.

    Tre animaletti di osso rosso.

    Un fermaglio o monile, o collana d’oro, con cinque gioie di diverse sorti, legativi dentro; e ventiquattro altri fermagli d’oro di diverse sorti, con varie gioie incastrate in essi.

    Un pezzo di una collana picciola sottile, con certe pietre verdi infilzate.

    Un’altra collanina d’oro, con ventidue pater nostri di plasma.

    Un’altra collanina, con nove pater nostri di Zaffiro intagliati a mandole.

    Un’altra collanina d’oro tirato raccolto, rotta in quatro pezzi.

    Doi bottoncini d’oro, e quattordici magliette d’oro.

    Un tondo d’oro, come una Agnus Dei, con lettere attorno, che dicevano: MARIA DOMINA NOSTRA FLORENTISSIMA. E dall’altra parte: STILICO VIVAT.

    Doi manichi d’oro, con certe pietre verdi.

    Due aggucchie grosse, o stillette per dirizzari crini; l’uno d’oro, lungo un palmo incirca, con lettere, che dicevano da una parte: DOMINO NOSTRO HONORIO.  E dall’altra pare: DOMINA NOSTRA MARIA.  E l’altro d’argento senza lettere.

    Una lamina d’oro, nella quale erano scolpiti con lettere greche Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel.

    Un smeraldo legato in oro, nel qual’era intagliata una testa, che fu giudicata esser de detto Imperatore Honorio, da sigillare, stimata di valore di scudi 500.

    E parechi altri frammenti di smeraldi, e d’altre pietre, e certe perle grosse, ma guaste per l’humidita; se bene l’altre cose sudette erano tanto ben conservate, che parevano fatte all’hora.

    Tutte le sudette cose furano portate a Papa Paulo Terzo, che all’hora era Pontefice; il quale (come ha notato Giulio Herculano, e detto Lucio Fauno) dalla vendita di esse ne cavo quaranta libre d’oro (come si e detto) e gli applico alla nuova fabrica della basilica.

3 Responses to “What did the Romans bury with a 5th century empress?”


  1. John Dillon

    Thanks for this. Herewith a few comments on troublesome bits in the Italian:

    1) “heads of _chiodetti (?)_”: a _chiodo_ is a nail and _chiodetti_ are small nails or tacks.

    2) “Likewise of gold was the tip _con il pippioda [actually, pippio da] porvi lo stopino, tirato in lungo, & acuto, con bellissima gratia (?)_”: A _pippio_ is the neck or spout of a vessel, a _stopino_ is a wick, _porvi_ = _porre_ + _vi_ [in this case the adverb meaning "there"], and _tirare_ in metalworking contexts means “to fashion or shape”. So: “Likewise of gold was the tip with the spout for inserting the wick; long and pointed, it had been formed with very pleasing grace.”

    3) “Two earring pendants of emerald, or _plasma (?)_, with two jacinths.”: _plasma_ is a southernism for (or other variant of) _prasma_, a name for green chalcedony.

    4) “A pendent in the form of a group of _vua(?)_, made of _pavonazze (?)_ stone: _vua_ in the Italian is a typo for, or represents a misreading of, _uva_. A _grappo d’uva_ is a bunch of grapes. The stone is what’s ordinarily called _pavonazzo_, a dark-veined white marble (see ). So: “A pendant in the form of a bunch of grapes, made of Pavonazzo marble.”

  2. John Dillon

    Oops: In 4) I forgot that matter enclosed in angle brackets doesn’t get reproduced by the software here. The “see” reference is to:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavonazzo_marble

  3. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much indeed for these fixes! I know little Italian and just did my best!