Another image of the Vatican rotunda

In the modern basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, the high altar is at the west end. The same was true of the basilica built in the 4th century by Constantine.

By the south door of the basilica stood two large round buildings, which ran in a line west-east.  The western-most of these was demolished as part of the construction of the new basilica, but the other stood until the 18th century, when it too was demolished. It is sometimes known as the Vatican rotunda.

To the east of them both, on the same line, stood the Vatican obelisk.   This item from ancient Egypt now stands in the piazza before St Peter’s.

The following 19th century reconstruction, depicting a magnificence that the old basilica probably never possessed, indicates what was where:


Another image of the Vatican rotunda has reached me.  This time it appears in a painting by Giorgio Vasari (d. 1574), “Pope Paul III Farnese directing the continuance of St Peter’s”, available here.  A detail of this shows the new basilica under construction, the Vatican rotunda to the right, and the obelisk (surely in the wrong place?) beyond it.

The rotunda was clearly not a particularly attractive building.  It looks as if it was a vast circular building, on top of which a structure with windows had been constructed.

One reason why the rotunda was so simple is that it was probably, originally, a massive, circular 3rd century Roman tomb.  The land around it was raised by Constantine’s architects, in order to provide a platform for the basilica; and the obelisk ended up with its lower section underground.

The archaeology clearly indicates that a circular building was constructed on this site in the early 3rd century, in the Severan period.  It is not quite clear whether the rotunda is the same building, or a replacement on the same site at a somewhat higher level.

The obelisk stood on the spina of the Circus of Gaius and Nero.  The presence of tombs on the same site indicates that the circus had gone out of use in the same period, as the Vatican cemetery spread down the hill towards it.

The archaeology is not as clear as might be desired, because the site can only be excavated with small pit trenches.  So there is much uncertainty in all this.

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.

Ancient sources on the Gaianum / Circus of Nero

It might be useful to gather all the ancient testimonies on the Circus of Nero / Circus of Gaius, on the Vatican, and see what they do, and do not, tell us.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, NH book 36, chapter 14 / section 70 (Loeb, vol. 10, p.54-5):

Divus Claudius aliquot per annos adservatam, qua C. Caesar inportaverat…

The ship used by the emperor Gaius for bringing a third [obelisk] was carefully preserved by Claudius of Revered Memory, …

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, NH 36, chapter 15 / section 74(Loeb, vol. 10, p.58-9.)

Tertius [obeliscus] est Romae in Vaticano Gai et Neronis principum circo — ex omnibus unus omnino fractus est in molitione …

The third obelisk in Rome stands in the Vatican circus that was built by the emperors Gaius and Nero.  It was the only one of the three that was broken during removal.

This is rather loosely translated.  Literally: “In the Vatican circus of the emperors Gaius and Nero”.

Pliny the Elder, NH, book 16, ch. 76, 201-2 (Loeb, vol. 4, p.518-9.):

abies admirationis praecipuae visa est in nave quae ex Aegypto Gai principis iussu obeliscum in Vaticano circo statutum quattuorque truncos lapidis eiusdem ad sustinendum eum adduxit ;

An especially wonderful fir [tree] was seen in the ship which brought from Egypt at the order of the emperor Gaius the obelisk erected in the Vatican Circus and four shafts of the same stone to serve as its base.

Suetonius, Caligula, 54. 1-2 (Loeb, vol. 1, p.486-7).

LIV. Sed et aliorum generum artes studiosissime et diversissimas exercuit. Thraex et auriga, idem cantor atque saltator, battuebat pugnatoriis armis, aurigabat exstructo plurifariam circo ;

LIV. Moreover he devoted himself with much enthusiasm to arts of other kinds and of great variety, appearing as a Thracian gladiator, as a charioteer, and even as a singer and dancer, fighting with the weapons of actual warfare, and driving in circuses built in various places;

Here there is an error in the Loeb translation: it ought to read in a circus built in various fashions.

Suetonius, Claudius, 21. (Loeb, vol. 2, p.40-41):

Circenses frequenter etiam in Vaticano commisit, nonnumquam interiecta per quinos missus venatione.  Circo vera Maxima marmoreis carceribus auratisque metis, quae utraque et tofina ac lignea antea fuerant, exculto propria senatoribus constituit loca promiscue spectare solitis;

He often gave games in the Vatican Circus also, at times with a beast-baiting between every five races. But the Great Circus he adorned with barriers of marble and gilded goals, whereas before they had been of tufa and wood, and assigned special seats to the senators, who had been in the habit of viewing the games with the rest of the people.

Tacitus, Annals, book 14, 14 (Loeb, vol. 4, p.130-131):

XIV. Vetus illi cupido erat curriculo quadrigarum insistere, …. Concertare [e]quis regium et antiquis ducibus factitatum memora[ba]t, idque vatum laudibus celebre et deorum honori datum. … Nec iam sisti poterat, cum Senecae ac Burro visum, ne utraque pervinceret, alterum concedere, clausumque valle Vaticana spatium, in quo equos regeret, haud promisco spectaculo. Mox ultro vocari populus Romanus laudibusque extollere, ut est vulgus cupiens voluptatum et, se eodem princeps trahat, laetum.

14. It was an old desire of his [Nero’s] to drive a chariot and team of four, …. “Racing with horses,” he used to observe, “was a royal accomplishment, and had been practised by the commanders of antiquity: the sport had been celebrated in the praises of poets and devoted to the worship of Heaven. … He could no longer be checked, when Seneca and Burrus decided to concede one of his points rather than allow him to carry both; and an enclosure was made in the Vatican valley, where he could manoeuvre his horses without the spectacle being public. Before long, the Roman people received an invitation in form, and began to hymn his praises, as is the way of the crowd, hungry for amusements, and delighted if the sovereign draws in the same direction.

Cassius Dio, 59, 14:

[Caligula poisoned] … the horses and charioteers of the rival factions; for he was strongly attached to the party that wore the frog-green, which from this colour was called also the Party of the Leek. Hence even to‑day the place where he used to practise driving the chariots is called the Gaianum after him.

Chronography of 354, section XIV (CVRIOSVM VRBIS REGIONVM XIV CVM BREVIARIVS SVIS; and NOTITIA REGIONVM VRBIS XIV – both have same text here).

REGIO XIIII TRANSTIBERIM continet Gaianum et Frigianum

REGION 14, TRANS-TIBER  contains: The Gaianum and the Phrygianum

The Platner and Ashby entry is worth including, for inscription material which I am  unable to access:

Gaianum: an open space in Region XIV (Reg. Cat.; Hemerol. Filoc. ad V Kal. April., CIL I2 p314), south of the naumachia Vaticana and east of the via Triumphalis, where Caligula was fond of having horse races (Cass. Dio LIX.14). From inscriptions found in the vicinity (CIL VI.10052‑4, 10057‑8, 10067, 33937, 33953; BC 1902, 177‑185) it appears to have been surrounded by statues of successful charioteers (HJ 662; DAP 2.viii.355‑60; BC 1896, 248‑9).

What do we learn from this?  I think we may reasonably state the following:

  1. Gaius – Caligula – practised chariot-racing, in an area known as the Gaianum, after his name.
  2. He had a circus which was constructed “plurifariam” – out of odds and ends.
  3. He also erected an obelisk in it.
  4. Claudius used the “Vatican circus” for shows, but, unlike the Circus Maximus, nothing says that he rebuilt it in marble.
  5. Nero used a chariot-racing area on the Vatican, initially as a private location, but then invited spectators, as Claudius had done.
  6. The circus was known as the Vatican circus of the emperors Gaius and Nero.
  7. Since it was named after Nero as well, at least in the time of Pliny, presumably Nero did substantial construction work there.
  8. An area on the Vatican was known as the Gaianum in the late 2nd century, and the name was still in use for the area in the 4th century.

Since we know that there was a circus, of “Gaius and Nero”, all these events most naturally relate to a single place, on the Vatican.   The location of that place is defined into modern times by the position of the obelisk, which stood on the south side of Old St. Peter’s basilica and is now in the St Peter’s square of the new basilica.

The regionary catalogues also tell us that the circus was close to the Vatican temple of Cybele, the Vatican Phrygianum.

Old St Peters, the Circus of Caligula and the Phrygianum

The Vatican hill is famous today for the great basilica of St Peters, constructed in the third decade of the fourth century by Constantine, and demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century.  A collection of essays on this building appeared in 2013, edited by R. McKitterick,[1] which contains various interesting snippets.

St Peters basilica in Rome in the early sixth century
St Peter’s basilica in Rome in the early sixth century

Few today are familiar with the layout of the church, so the diagram at the side is useful.  A flight of steps led up to a gatehouse, behind which was a courtyard.  This later contained the immense bronze pine-cone now in the Vatican museum.  Behind this was the church proper, with a nave and two aisles.  The transept gave access to two circular structures, the mausoleum of Honorius (which was turned into the chapel of St Petronilla during the early Dark Ages) and the chapel of St Andrew.

Around the church were all sorts of structures, not depicted on this diagram.  The church was the constant resort of beggars, seeking alms, and doubtless many of the dwellings were hovels.  Theodoric ordered the distribution of grain to them in the late 5th century; Pope Symmachus had shelters constructed for them near the church, and the Dialogues of Gregory the Great record a crippled girl who more or lived in the church until she was healed by a miracle.[2]

A plan of the church by Alfarano, who had been associated with the church since the 1540’s, was published as an etching by Natale Bonifacio in 1590, when construction on the western end of the new basilica was well advanced.  It shows the new construction as a ghost under the old.

Tiberio Alfarano drew the plan in 1571, and the hand-drawn original, known as the Ichnographia, is extant in the archive of the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro.   Comparison shows that the printed version tinkered with the original in various ways, and that not every architectural feature on the drawing appears in the etching.[3]

1590 plan by Alfarano of Old St Peters
1590 plan by Alfarano of Old St Peters

On the south side of the basilica were two circular structures, the chapel of St. Petronilla, actually the Mausoleum of the emperor Honorius; and the chapel of St. Andrew.  Beyond these was the obelisk which now dominates St Peter’s square.

The function of the structure as a mausoleum was remembered as late as the 8th century, but thereafter forgotten until 1458 when a splendid late Roman burial was discovered under the floor, possibly of Galla Placidia and her child.  Another was found in 1519, and finally in 1544 the intact sarcophagus of the empress Maria, wife of Honorius, complete with 180 precious objects in two silver chests, all of which were dispersed or melted down.  The depiction of the basilica in the Nuremberg chronicle of 1493 depicts a round, squat building, which was doubtless the mausoleum.

The structure to the east of it, labelled “Vatican rotunda” in the plan, must predate the basilica as it appears in a gem of the 3rd century.  It was converted by Pope Symmachus in the 5th century into a chapel of St Andrew.[4]

Plan of the mausoleum of Honorius.
Plan of the mausoleum of Honorius.

I have also seen a paper suggesting that the “mausoleum of Honorius” was itself a 3rd century tomb, as was the Rotunda di Sant’Andrea.  The mausoleum was demolished during the building of New St Peter’s, but the Rotunda remained until the 18th century, becoming the church of Santa Maria della Febbre.  A 1629 painting of it, still behind the obelisk (which was surely moved by then?) and with New St Peter’s half-built behind it is available online:

Rotondo di Sant'Andrea, Vatican, Rome.  1629
Rotondo di Sant’Andrea, Vatican, Rome. 1629

And another 18th century drawing by Piranesi[5] shows it nestling next to the basilica, when it was used as a sacristy[6]:

18th century Piranesi drawing.
18th century Piranesi drawing.

The obelisk is an interesting feature, since it is quite unlikely that it was placed there by Constantine.  We learn from Pliny’s Natural History that Caligula erected an obelisk from Heliopolis on the spina of his Circus, in the Horti Agrippinae on the Vatican.[7]  There is apparently consensus, among interested scholars, that the only certain fact about the location and orientation of the circus is that this obelisk was in the centre of it.[8].

Two different circus plans appear online.  I don’t know the source of the second one.[9]


old-st-peters-circus-planWhat can be said with certainty is that material from the circus was found during excavations in St Peter’s square, some 5 metres down.[10]

Somewhere nearby, in all this, is the temple of Cybele and Attis, the Vatican Phrygianum.  That such a temple existed in 160 A.D. is recorded by an inscription from Lyons which reads:

Taurobolio Matris d(eum) m(agnae) I(daeae) / quod factum est ex imperio ma tris deum /pro salute imperatoris Caes(aris) T(iti) Aeli Hadriani Antonini Aug(usti) Pii p(atris) p(atriae) / liberorum eius /et status coloniae Lugdun(ensium) / L(ucius) Aemilius Carpus IIIIIIvr Aug(ustalis) item / dendrophorus / uires excepit et a Vaticano trans/tulit ara(m) et bucranium /suo inpendio consacrauit / sacerdote / Q(uinto) Samnio Secondo ab XVuiris /occabo et corona exornato / cui sanctissimus ordo Lugdunens(ium) perpetuitatem sacerdoti(i) decreuit / App(io) Annio Atilio Bradua T(ito) Clod(io) Vibo / Varo co(n)s(ulibus). [11]

Various inscriptions from the end of the 4th century consist of dedications to Cybele by the last holdouts of the pagan aristocracy, suggesting that perhaps the temple was still in use in this period, and recording that the ritual of the taurobolium – being bathed in bulls’ blood – was taking place here.

Pensabene states that the 1959-60 excavations by Castagnoli – I don’t have a reference for these – revealed that there were major works in this area during the Severan period.  The ground level was artificially raised by several metres and a large circular building was constructed whose foundations were contiguous with the obelisk.  The foundations  of this building contained Severan stamps from the first quarter of the 3rd century A.D. The suggestion is that this was to allow the building of a new Phrygianum, and that this was done under Elagabalus, who was enthusiastic for the cult.

The text is accompanied with a very poor quality image which appears to suggest that the Rotonda di Sant’Andrea stands on the site of the Phrygianum, and that the building was originally circular, with a south-facing portico:


My Italian is not good enough to work out whether Pensabene is suggesting that the Rotondo was, in fact, the carcase of the Phrygianum, stripped of its portico and reused for something else.   But if so, this would certainly be very cramped, next to the basilica, and the presence of the vile eunuch priests and their revolting sacrifices right by the south door sounds rather unlikely to me.  Even if it was a state cult, which Constantine might have been unwilling to interfere with, this seems improbable.

So where was the Phrygianum, if not here?

  1. [1] R. McKitterick, Old Saint Peters, (British School at Rome Studies), 2013.  “Look Inside” on Amazon here.
  2. [2] For these details I am indebted to Paulo Liverani’s paper “St Peter’s and the City of Rome” in the McKitterick volume, of which I was able to read parts via the Amazon “Look Inside”.  The material may be found on p.26; Gregory, Dialogues I, 3.25.1, 108; Life of Symmachus, 53, c. 7, in the Liber Pontificalis I 262; Theodoric in Procopius, Anecdota 26.29.
  3. [3] These details appear in the front matter of the McKitterick book, whose footnotes were sadly inaccessible to me.
  4. [4] Meaghan McEvoy, “Chapter 6: The mausoleum of Honorius” in: R. McKitterick &c., p.119 f.  Accessible via Google Books preview here.
  5. [5] Via Wikimedia Commons
  6. [6] See Italian Wikipedia article here.
  7. [7] Plin. NH XVI.201; XXXVI.74; CIL VI.882 = 31191.  All these references I owe to a remarkable discussion in the Ancient Coins forum here.
  8. [8] Patrizio Pensabene, “Culto di Cibele e Attis tra Palatino e Vaticano”, Bollettino di Archeologia 2010, Online at; except that, at the time of writing, this is offline and I was only able to access the article via the Google cache.  UPDATE: Later I found it at here.
  9. [9] The first is from R. Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, 1892,  and appears on Wikimedia Commons here.  Both have been copied from here.
  10. [10] Or so it claims on this website; it would be interesting to have proper details of these excavations.
  11. [11] CIL XIII, 1751. 

How to find the digital manuscripts at the Bodleian-Vatican project

Lots of ballyhoo in the press, but it is remarkably difficult to find any actual manuscripts digitised by this project, paid for by Leonard Polonsky (to whom all kudos), between the Vatican and the Bodleian libraries.

Anyway, the Greek manuscripts to be digitised are listed here:

The tiny number that have been done so far are linkable.  Here are the mss that have been done:

The Vatican mss have a table of contents of what is in the manuscript, which is helpful.

The Bodleian seem to intend to do their Barocci manuscripts – mostly miscellaneous stuff, probably containing goodies since accessing them was always a pain.  That is rather a good idea.

Soberingly the Bodleian library is still ripping off scholars for reproductions.  They charged one poor scholar £200 (300 USD) for images of one Arabic manuscript recently, and bound him by fearsome threats to share the output – delivered as digital images – with nobody.

Vatican manuscripts online!

Mike Aquilina of Way of the Fathers has drawn my attention to a Vatican Radio announcement: 256 Vatican manuscripts have gone online.  A list by shelfmark is here.  They are mostly from the Palatine collection, which in turn contains a lot of the loot from the ancient monastery of Lorsch, destroyed during the 30 years war.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Pal. lat. 2 – Old Testament, Lorsch, 9th c.  (followed by a considerable number of biblical mss.; as far as Pal. lat. 68)
  • Pal. lat. 57 – The catalogue of the library at Lorsch.  Yay!  I have so wanted to see this.
  • Pal. lat. 150 – Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas; plus letters and life of Anthony, and the sayings of Sextus.
  • Pal. lat. 153 – Chrysostom on Hebrews.
  • Pal. lat. 162 – Lactantius; and Claudian.
  • Pal. lat. 170 – ps.Hegesippus.

There’s then a lot of Jerome and Augustine.  Then:

All this on a fairly quick glance plus some random clicking.  It is an excellent selection.

The index pages for some of the manuscripts need more information.  But this is a minor point.  A PDF download would also be nice to have.

I hope that someone will do a proper list of all the mss. and their contents.  I would do it, but I am still somewhat unwell.

Digitising the manuscripts of Lorsch

After my last post, I started looking for evidence of the work of Heidelberg university in digitising Vatican manuscripts.  To my astonishment, I found a website for the now vanished library of the abbey of Lorsch!  It seems that a team from Heidelberg have been attempting to recreate this Dark Ages library, full of very interesting manuscripts, and destroyed and scattered during the Thirty Years War.  Here they discuss their work.

133 manuscripts, which once formed part of the Carolingian monastic library Lorsch, are integrated nowadays into the valuable and large collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. In 1622/23 the manuscripts were brought to Rome as part of Heidelberg’s Bibliotheca Palatina. For its digitization project “Bibliotheca Laureshamensis – digital” Heidelberg University Library was permitted to digitize the Lorsch manuscripts on the premises of the Vatican Library in Rome. Thus, in November 2010 a digitization centre was set up in Rome in cooperation with the Vatican Library for the digitization of the manuscripts. The digitization of the entire Lorsch manuscripts in Rome was completed within eight months by a team of six.

The list of all the manuscripts once part of Lorsch is here

The Vatican library manuscripts online are listed here.  Many are biblical manuscripts, most are 9th century.  There are gems for us, tho: Arnobius the Younger, Hilary of Poitiers, Ps.Hegesippus, Ambrosiaster, Jerome, Augustine, Marius Mercator, Paulinus of Nola, Orosius, Cassiodorus, Bede, Isidore, Jordanes … the list goes on.  Just look for yourself at the list!

I can’t resist noting Pal. lat. 822, a copy of Rufinus’ translation of Eusebius’ Church History.  Or the presence of Macrobius and the Historia Augusta in Pal. lat. 886, foll. 125-189.  Or two works by Sallust, the conspiracy of Cataline, and the Jugurthine War, in Pal. lat. 887 and Pal. lat. 889.  Cicero, Seneca, Fulgentius Mythographicus, Vergil … yes, and a Servius’ Commentary on Vergil… And whoa!  There’s a 10th century manuscript of Juvenal, Pal. lat. 1701!

Then there are three medieval catalogues of the library at Lorsch, as it was, in Pal. lat. 1877.  These have been published, and are found in G. Becker’s Catalogi Bibliothecarum Antiqui, in doubtless not very reliable form.  But here are the originals!

Finally, fancy a look at Cyprian?  Try Reg. lat. 118.

OK, there’s not a lot there that causes me, this instant, to click on it.  But then only a manuscript of Pliny the Elder would do that, just at the moment!

Why have I never heard of this?

UPDATE: But … oh good grief, what is this??!?!  I tried clicking on one of the mss, and got the following: 

No wonder I have never heard of all this.  Who, one wonders, was so STUPID as to do this?  To do all that work, and then, greedily, HIDE the images!!!

Sometimes I despair, I really do.

Vatican (and Bodleian?) Greek manuscripts to go online?

Mike Aquilina writes to tell me about a new manuscript digitisation initiative.  The BBC has an article on the story:

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and the Vatican’s Biblioteca Apostolica plan to digitise 1.5 million ancient texts to make them available online.

The two libraries announced the four-year project after receiving a £2m award from the Polonsky Foundation.

Dr Leonard Polonsky said his aim was to ensure researchers and the public have free access to historic and rare texts.

Greek manuscripts, 15th Century printed books and Hebrew early printed books and manuscripts will be digitised.  …

Two thirds of the material will come from the Vatican Library and the rest from the Bodleian.

Well done, Dr Polonsky!!

The Catholic News Service adds:

The Bodleian-Vatican Library digitized collections will be in three subject areas: Greek manuscripts, incunabula and Hebrew manuscripts.

According to the Bodleian, the subject areas were chosen because both libraries have strong collections in those areas and because of the collections’ importance to scholars. The project will bring together online “materials that have been dispersed between the two collections over the centuries,” the Bodleian press release said.

Some 800 Vatican incunabula will be digitised, they say.

The Vatican Radio site indicates (in French only!) that 1.5 million pages from manuscripts and incunables will be digitised.  Scanning of manuscripts is already underway.  The Vatican has 80,000 manuscripts and 8,900 incunables, and has been experimenting with digitisation since 2010.  And the Prefect of the Vatican Library, Mgr Pasini, adds:

«La quantité des manuscrits numérisés grandit grâce aussi au travail du Laboratoire de reproduction et aussi aux projets visés, en collaboration avec les institutions culturelles : ainsi est en cours de réalisation la numérisation des manuscrits Palatins latins, en collaboration avec l’Université de Heidelbert. »

“The quantity of digitised manuscripts is increasing thanks also to the work of the Laboratory of reproduction, and also to existing projects, in collaboration with cultural institutions: in this way the digitisation of the ‘Palatine’ Latin manuscripts is in progress, in collaboration with the University of Heidelbert.

I presume that should read “Heidelberg”, capital of the Rheinland Palatinate. The “Palatine” collection came from there to the Vatican, as part of the settlement of the Thirty Years War.  Now that by itself is quite exciting news, for the Codici Latini Palatini are some of the most important Vatican Latin manuscripts. 

There are some Hebrew texts of no special interest here.  But there is more:

En ce qui concerne les manuscrits grecs, seront enfin numérisés d’importants témoins des œuvres d’Homère, de Sophocle, de Platon, d’Hippocrate, ainsi que des codex du Nouveau Testament et des Pères de l’Eglise, dont un grand nombre sont richement décorés de miniatures byzantines.

As for the Greek manuscripts, finally some important witnesses will be digitised of the works of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Hippocrates, as well as some codices of the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church, of which a great number are richly decorated with Byzantine miniatures.

Hum.  Well, “pretty-pretty” books are of no real interest other than to a tiny number of art historians, but at least we see recognition of “important witnesses” to the text of various authors.  And it will include patristic authors.

The story appears elsewhere, but there seem to be no additional details.

It’s very good news!  And all thanks to Dr Leonard Polonsky, and his Polonsky Foundation.  Apparently the man has form, working with the Bodleian to digitise material and paying for the work.  A man after my own heart, this.

It is good to see that Dr. Polonsky makes clear his motivation: to make stuff accessible to us all.  If I might suggest something, Dr. P?  Make sure the libraries make the books downloadable as PDF’s, whatever other way they make the stuff accessible.  Given half a chance they will lock the images away.