Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Roman Slavery and the Rate of Manumission

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015 and 2017

A Roman slave medallion at the
Baths of Diocletian venue of the
National Museum of Rome.  Photographed
by Mary Harrsch © 2005
It seems that every time the Roman Empire is discussed someone always points out the number of slaves that were exploited by Roman citizens as if the Romans invented slavery. One thing that was unique about Roman slavery compared to slavery in other parts of the ancient world is the Romans had a structured process of social advancement that provided a means for slaves to become freedmen through the procedure called manumission. Scholars have debated just how often manumission was used in Roman Society and how many slaves were freed as a result.

"The institution of slavery has served to perform different functions in different societies. The distinction between 'closed' and 'open' slavery can be a useful one: in some societies, slavery is a mechanism for the permanent exclusion of certain individuals from political and economic privileges, while in others it has served precisely to facilitate the integration of outsiders into the community...The model of an 'open' slavery implies that service as a slave is not a state to which a person is permanently, let alone 'naturally', assigned but more akin to an age-grade." - Thomas, E. J. Wiedemann, "The Regularity of Manumission at Rome"

A Roman slave, on formal manumission, was granted Roman citizenship and thereby formally integrated into Roman society. So how does this contrast with other ancient slave-owning societies like the Greeks?

"Greek commentators on Roman customs thought that the extent to which the Romans practised manumission was highly peculiar; but although they refer to the number of slaves the Romans freed, what really surprised them was that such great numbers of persons of servile origin should be integrated into the Roman state as citizens." Thomas, E. J. Wiedemann, "The Regularity of Manumission at Rome"

This 2nd century BCE relief depicting a Greek banquet includes an attending slave.  His lower social status is indicated by his difference in scale.  Photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, CA by Mary Harrsch © 2014

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a 1st century CE Greek historian, was so appalled by what he considered unjustified testamentary manumission on a large scale that he actually recommended legislation restricting the practice. Dionysius had so much influence with Augustus that the Romans enacted such restrictions with the Lex Fufia Caninia in 2 B.C. which regulated the proportion of one's slaves that one might free at death.

This paper will examine the types of manumission then explore studies that have been conducted to determine how often manumission was granted in a Roman context.
Theoretically, both Greeks and Romans used the prospect of manumission to encourage loyal service from their slaves but only Roman law granted citizenship (albeit with some restrictions) for manumitted slaves.
Gravestone of a high status woman with her slave attendant Greek 1st century BCE Marble.  Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014
The most common form of manumission was termed the Manumissio vindicta.

"In this, the most commonly practiced form of manumission, the master, the slave, a third party, and a praetor gather to manumit the slave. The third party member lays a freedom rod, called a vindicta , on the slave pronouncing the slave free. The master then follows suit by placing his or her vindicta on the slave while the praetor witnesses both performing this action to the slave." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Another common method of manumission was called the Manumissio testamento.

 "In this form one of two things can happen: In the first condition, a slave is set free by a proclamation to do so in the master's will. In the second condition, the master entrusts his slave to another freeperson on the grounds that upon doing so, the slave be set free by the new master. In the second condition, the slave may not be immediately set free because the slave will only be freed when the new master frees him or her, and, until the slave is freed, the slave is classified as a statuliber." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

The third method of manumission was known as Manumissio censu.  

"In this form, the slave goes before the censor and proclaims to be a freedperson  [with witnesses and/or evidence], at which time, if the censor agrees, the censor will record the slave's name down as a freedperson, and thus the slave will be manumitted." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Roman slaves were allowed to manage some personal property, often a small wage called a peculium.

Roman coin bank depicting a beggar girl 25-50 CE.
Photographed at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014

"This peculium could consist of a myriad of things including money and a slave's slave called a vicarius.  The peculium could be used by the slave in many ways, but the slave was restricted in that all contracts entered by the slave involved the master, and the slave could not give his peculium to someone else so that the other person might use it to buy the slave's freedom. The slave could save peculium and buy its freedom, but this usually only happened when the peculium outweighed the slave's value." - Brendan Patrick Sheridan, Miami University, Roman Slavery

Although manumission was treated as a sought after privilege, it was not always altruistically granted.  Elderly slaves were sometimes manumitted because they were no longer productive and their masters no longer wished to provide for them.  If a slave was privy to incriminating information, a master might manumit them to avoid the slave providing incriminating information under torture. Slaves were also sometimes promised manumission if they served as soldiers in civil insurrections.

So, how often did manumission occur? That question has consumed scholars for decades!

"In 357 BCE Rome passed a law called the Lex Manlia imposing a manumission tax. Freeing slaves from then on would incur a 5% fee. Because 5% is one-twentieth, the tax was referred to as a Vicesima. (Livy VII.16)

This legislation was initially proposed by the consul Gnaeus Manlius Capitolinus while encamped with his army so it is said to have been passed "in castris."  The purpose of the law was to reduce the number of manumissions, both the freeing of slaves and the manumission of children since it was feared some families would use manumission of their minor children to gain access to more land since there was also a 500-acre limit per male head of household specified in another law included in the Leges Liciniae Sextiae passed at that time.

H.H. Scullard, in A History of the Roman World 753-146 BC (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1980) says that based on records of these taxes, by 209 B.C.E., an estimated 1350 slaves may have been manumitted each year."

But that was more than 100 years before the widespread conquests of the Late Republic.

Apparently, the Lex Manlius had little effect on the rate of manumission even as numbers of slaves dramatically increased. Freeing slaves in an individual's will had become so widespread in the late Republic that in 2 BCE the Lex Fufio-Caninia was passed limiting the number of slaves a citizen could free in their wills.

"The Fufia Caninia made the number of testamentary grants of freedom permitted to cives Romani dependant upon the total number of slaves owned by any one Roman citizen master.  One who owned from three to ten slaves was permitted to manumit one-half of them in his will;  one who owned eleven to thirty, one-third of the total.  If the slaves of the Roman citizen numbered from thirty-one to one hundred, he might free one fourth of them; if their numbers ran one hundred to five hundred only one in five or twenty percent, might be freed by testamentary manumission.  The law further provided that no Roman citizen could free by testament more than one hundred, however many slaves he might have." - William Linn Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity

Six years later this law was further amended by the Lex Aelia-Sentia that restricted the rights of Roman youths under the age of 20 to free their slaves and specified that only slaves over 30 years of age could be freed although there was a mitigating provision that an exception could be granted of approved by a committee of ten persons made up of five senators and five equites. Modern scholars think Augustus promulgated these laws due to the influence of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.  The esteemed historian Dionysius had pointed out that many freedmen were enriching themselves from sordid occupations such as robbery and prostitution and emphasized the danger of allowing their proliferation in the city of Rome.  Being a Greek, Dionysius probably ascribed to the Athenian perspective on slave manumission.  In Athens, slaves could be manumitted but were not granted citizenship as under Roman law.  Athenian freedmen could not partake in government or bear free children.

Bust of a Roman slave boy from the Trajanic Period 98-117 CE
Photographed at The Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Under Roman law, although freedmen were barred from the cursus honorum, they could vote in city assemblies and their children would be considered free citizens with full rights of Roman citizenship. The isus sacrum which allowed slaves to practice certain aspects of religion, to be properly buried and to join certain religious associations was further amended in the 1st century CE to allow freedmen to become priests in the emperor cult.  These religious magistrates became known as the Augustales.

Like most things in life, there was a major exception to the granting of these rights, however.

"The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe of gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii)... "

Gladiator helmet depicting scenes from the Trojan War recovered from Herculaneum 1st century CE
Photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington
by Mary Harrsch © 2015

"...'Subject foreigners' is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up...."

"...We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure of manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters' full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects." - Selections from the Lex Aelia Sentia

But what does the archaeological record tell us about actual numbers of freedmen in relationship to other social groups?

G. Afoldi, citing a 1972 study of Roman-era inscriptions found in Italy in his paper Die Freilassung von Sklaven und die Struktur der Sklaverei in der romischen Kaiserzeit (The release of slaves and the structure of slavery in the Roman Empire), discovered that of 1,126 persons of servile origin who died before the age of 30, 59.3 percent were freed, 40.7 percent were still slaves. Of 740 persons who died over the age of 30, 89.3 percent were freed, and only 10.7 per cent had remained slaves. He concluded that, in view of these statistics, a slave could probably count on being freed as a matter of course.

However, Thomas E. J. Wiedemann, in his 1985 article "The Regularity of Manumission at Rome" expressed his opinion that Afoldi's inscriptions represented a highly atypical sample.

"Slaves who did not have the qualities to attain manumission were clearly less likely to be commemorated by means of a (relatively detailed, therefore costly) inscription; slaves who were considered fideles, but died young, might be so commemorated. More particularly, a freed slave's heirs would be keen to preserve a public record of his manumission in the form of a funerary inscription. Futhermore, these inscriptions give undue emphasis to those slaves and freedmen who had easy access to their dominus. As Alfoldi noted (p. 116) 98 percent of the surviving inscriptions are from the context of the familia urbana. The obvious explanation for why so few freedmen are attested from the familia rustica is that very few agricultural slaves were actually freed."

A partially restored Villa Rustica at Boscoreale near Naples, Italy.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2007
Any analysis of extant funerary inscriptions may, by its very nature, carry a bias due to the cost of an inscription, especially considering the fact that we are attempting to draw conclusions about a community's lowest social tier from them. Agricultural slaves had far fewer opportunities to amass savings than slaves in an urban setting. Perhaps inscriptions for them are missing from the archaeological record because they simply couldn't afford such expensive monuments. Other unknown contributing factors could be deaths from pestilence where victims, from necessity, were disposed of in communal pyres or pits and whose relatives did not survive either and reuse as building material in later centuries.

Weidemann also dismisses an analysis of epitaphs from imperial slaves indicating that manumission was regularly achieved between the ages of 30 and 35.

"The imperial household was not just different in scale from others; it also followed different procedures of manumission. The legal restrictions did not apply to the emperor; his slaves were not manumitted vindicta or testamento, but simply declared to be free," Wiedemann observes.

A study of the Osyrhynchus Papyrir (up to vol. XLII) from Roman Egypt revealed of 46 slaves or freedpersons ranging from 3 to 65 years, 8.3 percent of those under 30 had been freed but of those over 30, fully half had been freed. Wiedmann points to the small sample size, though, as insufficient to provide meaningful statistical evidence.

Wiedemann then turns to the literary record to examine Roman society's acceptable norms for manumission. Citing two examples in Martial's epigrams, Wiedemann concludes, "A Roman wanted to believe that if a slave served him faithfully, he would be rewarded with the freedom he deserved."

He goes on to point out though, "If manumission was the due reward of the servus fidelis, then it followed that a slave-owner did not have any obligation to free a slave who had demonstrated that he was not fidelis. There is plenty of evidence that masters who were displeased with their slaves would include in their wills a clause prohibiting slaves in question from ever being freed...Thus the ideal that loyal service deserved manumission also implied that a master might be acting justly if he refused to free his slaves: he need have no moral compunction so long as he persuaded himself that his slaves had failed to show him the loyalty a master deserved (cf. 'nullo merito meo'). One suspects that the formula 'nulla fides > nulla manumissio' may have been adduced very much more frequently in real life than the formula 'fides > manumissio'."

I think this viewpoint that Rome's wealthy slave owners were probably too greedy to reward faithful slaves with manumission does not take into account the fact that freed slaves were not simply allowed to go their separate ways when manumitted. The prevailing practice was for freed slaves to become clients of their former master.

"Roman societal patronage was highly based around the Roman ideals of fides or loyalty.  Clients were loyal supporters of high standing families and at the head of those families were the patronus, or their patron. For this loyalty, the patron rewarded their loyal clients with gifts of food and land. If a client needed any sort of legal representation or aid they called upon their patron for support. Patrons often handed out sportulas, which were monetary handouts for their support and loyalty. The patron received not just loyalty from their clients but they also had the respect, men for guarded escorts, and their political support."  - Roman Patronage in Society, Politics, and Military, a collaborative website of Pennsylvania State University

Another issue not mentioned in the above quote is the operation of businesses that produced income for the patrician class. Patricians were not supposed to engage openly in business activities so these revenue-generating activities had to have the appearance that they were being operated by others. These positions could be held by freedmen. Patrons not only provided monetary handouts for a client's support but also provided loans for businesses operated by their freedmen-clients.

 Add to this the problem of a slave-owner appearing to be greedy if slaves were not freed while reasonably young.

Wiedemann states, "In his invective against Piso, one of the grounds on which Cicero attacks him is his parsimoniousness. He argues that, while a luxurious lifestyle is, in principle, immoral, there is a particular kind of luxuria (conspicuous consumption) which is expected of a public figure. But this was not to be found in Piso's household; Piso was so unwilling to put his wealth to public use that he was not even prepared to spend money to acquire any new slaves, so that (In Pisonem 67):

servi sordidi ministrant, nonnulli etiam senes; idem coquus, idem atriensis (the servants who minister to the mean station positions, some even old men; the cook is the same thing, the same as the doorkeeper)

Although Wiedemann thinks Cicero is referring to the generally recognized custom that slaves who serve at a banquet ought to be young and handsome, I must point out his quote also refers to the cook and the doorkeeper, not usually present in the banquet setting.

 "For the Roman upper aristocratic ruling class public appearance was extremely important. When traveling through the city and the forum the Roman elite desired to be recognized or recognized for their status and rank. To accomplish this they wore distinctive clothing and jewelry to help signify their status. Equestrians wore specifically colored cloth stripes on their togas or tunics to signify their statuses. The senators and patricians also wore wider specifically colored cloth stripes to signify their rank. The upper-class patrons wanted to show they had power and made certain to remind their clients of this by their mannerisms and dress." -  Roman Patronage in Society, Politics, and Military, a collaborative website of Pennsylvania State University

 So, if slaves were regularly manumitted after a period of service, what was the socially acceptable length of time a slave could expect to serve? Wiedemann examines a number of legal cases and finds several references to periods of five years although that may be an average as a number of cases cite longer periods and some even shorter periods.

Perhaps more telling is a quote from Cicero's Eighth Philippic in which Cicero exhorts the Senate to resist Antonius' dictatorship.

Etenim, Patres conscripti, cum in spem libertatis sexennio post sumus ingressi diutiusque servitutem perpessi quam captivi servi frugi et diligentes solent  (In fact, Conscript Fathers of the Senate, I have the hope of freedom, that after six years, we are good and diligent slaves taken in war and have endured slavery longer than the customary [period].

Cicero is referring to the six years since Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon but uses its length of time as a metaphor for a slave's length of servitude.

Wiedemann points out, "Clearly Cicero could not use this analogy between slavery and submission to the rule of Caesar and Anthony if his senatorial audience did not believe that it was reasonable for a slave-owner to grant freedom after he had had possession of a slave for six years of adult labour — assuming of course that the slave was frugi et diligens."

So it appears slavery in Rome was not a lifelong sentence as in other ancient cultures and manumissions occurred regularly.


Thomas E. J. Wiedemann. (1985). The Regularity of Manumission at Rome. The Classical Quarterly, 35(1), 162-175. Retrieved from

Patrick, B. (n.d.). Roman Slavery. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from

Aföldi, G. (1972). Die Freilassung von Sklaven und die Struktur der Sklaverei in der romischen Kaiserzeit (The release of slaves and the structure of slavery in the Roman Empire). Rivista Storica dell' Antichitá , 2, 97-129.

Roman Patronage in Society, Politics, and Military. (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2017, from

Collaborative website of the Classics Department of Pennsylvania State University

Cicero, In Pisonem, 67.

A Kindle preview of a bit of a tongue-in-cheek guide to Roman slavery:

Additiional suggested reading:

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review: The Last Roman: Honour by Jack Ludlow

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

When we left a young Flavius Belasarius in  the first book of Ludlow's "The Last Roman" series "Vengeance", Flavius had successfully avenged the death of his father and brothers at the hands of a treacherous Roman senator and had been accepted into the household of his father's old comrade Justinus, commander of the excubitors, the emperor's imperial guard in Constantinople.  Book 2, "Honour", picks up three years later in which Flavius, now a young excubitor officer, has been sent to the eastern Persian frontier by Justinus to hone his military skills.

There, Flavius discovers Persian raiders frequently cross into Byzantine territory to plunder Roman settlements then flee back across the border, usually without consequence because Emperor Anastasius has standing orders for the Roman army not to cross the Sassanid border.

Anastasius, flush with gold, has traditionally paid tribute to the Persian King Kavadh to prevent clashes along the Byzantine frontier.  But Kavadh's nobles are a fractious bunch and when they start getting restless and threaten rebellion, Kavadh must initiate raids into Byzantine territory to extort more Roman gold and resupply the Persian coffers from which Kavadh will essentially buy his continued rule.  This cycle of extortion has apparently gone on for some years.

 One day in 518 CE he receives a message from Justinus' nephew recalling him to Constantinople where the Emperor Anastasius lies dying.  Upon arrival, the nephew, Petrus Sabbatius (the future Emperor Justinian), quickly entangles Flavius in a conspiracy to spirit away a cache of gold from a powerful courtier planning to use it to support a new candidate for the imperial throne.  Petrus subsequently uses the gold to buy support for his uncle and when Anastasius finally expires, the excubitors, like the praetorians of old Rome, proclaim Justinus Emperor Justin I.

Flavius convinces Justin and Petrus to let him raise and train a special unit of armored cavalry that are mounted on faster horses, wear lighter armor than the Persian cataphracts and are proficient with a Hunnic compound bow.  This unit will become known as his bucellarii and will be an important component in Belisarius' future victories.

Relief Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah Province in Iran) from the era of Sassanid Empire: One of the oldest depictions of a Persian cataphract.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Flavius is given his own command at the tender age of only 25 and ordered back to the Persian frontier and assigned a secretary/legal advisor named Procopius.  The rest of the novel closely follows the events described in Procopius' "Wars of Justinian".

Procopius of Caesarea turns out to be the most eminent of sixth century historians although many modern scholars have a tendency to doubt much of what he wrote in his most famous work "Wars of Justinian" because he is also attributed as the author of what has become known as "The Secret History" also known as the Anekdota, a virtual diatribe against Justinian and Theodora with even unflattering criticism of Belisarius, mostly surrounding his relationship with his wife, Antonina, a close friend of Theodora.

Mosaic depicting the Empress Theodora flanked by a chaplain on her right and a court lady believed to be Belisarius' wife Antonina on her left.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Scholar Charles F. Pazdernik thinks Procopius, though, was a classically trained historian who may have  attended the school of Thucydidean studies in sixth-century Gaza.

"...Procopius is our key witness to a period of great transition and upheaval, for which he supplies a continuous historical narrative conditioned by his own distinctive point of view.  Consideration of his allusions to Thucydides leads one to examine Procopius' broader political and cultural allegiances and the lively engagement he demostrates in all of his works with questions about the legitimate uses of power and their role in influencing historical change.  By calling attention to the position of lesser parties implicated in conflict and drawing striking parallels between their plight and comparable situation in Thucydides, Procopius presents himself as a powerful and nuanced critic of Justinian's expansionist policies." - Charles F. Pazdernik, Procopius and Thucydides on the Labors of War: Belisarius and Brasidas in the Field

A bust of Thucydides at the Pushkin Museum.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
He points out how Procopius astutely compared the campaigns of Belisarius with those of Brasidas, a classical Spartan general of the 5th century BCE Peloponnesian War.

"Both Brasidas and Belisarius proclaim a campaign of liberation, undertaken on behalf of the populations whose cooperation they hope to secure, against their opponents, whose rule they characterize as illegitimate and despotic."

He goes on to draw comparisons between the tactics of Belisarius in North Africa against the Vandals and at the siege of Naples during the Ostrogothic War with those employed by Brasida to sway Greek city-states away from Athenian influence.

"In depicting these battles for hearts and minds, however, both Thucydides and Procopius expose the cold calculations of Machtpolitik that lie at the heart of such appeals.  The inhabitants of the invaded territories are persuaded to be liberated, yet their welfare is not the foremost concern of the invader.  The respective fates of the Thracian cities of Mende and Skione at the close of the first phase of the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 4.120-24, 129-33, 5.18,32) and Naples at the outset of the Ostrogothic War (Wars 5.8-10) demonstrate the ambivalence of both figures.  Nor are the would-be liberators themselves free from entanglements with their respective governments.  In the end the priorities of the rulers at home, and not those of the crusading generals themselves, determine the objectives of the conflict."

We follow Flavius, with Procopius at his side, from his famous victory against the Persians at Dara to North Africa and the conquest of the Vandals then on to Italy.  But with Flavius' victories comes heightened suspicions back in Constantinople. Ludlow does appear to base much of the characters of Justinian, Theodora and Belisarius' wife Antonina on the information included in Procopius' Secret History.

Fragment of a North African mosaic depicting a vandal.  Public domain image.

Although I personally don't doubt the degree of corruption in Justinian's court, I have a problem with the thinly veiled propaganda in The Secret History.  It just sounds too much like the defamatory pieces I have read about Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Nero and Domitian.  The Roman Empire has a long history of patronized historians issuing "biographies" of unpopular emperors rife with sexual innuendos and vile behaviors.  Added to this the fact that this work attributed to Procopius was "discovered" in the Vatican Library almost a thousand years after it was written but not published.  Added to that, this discovery occured some time after the "Great Schism" between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Although The Secret History was not officially published by Niccolò Alamanni until 1623, those who support its authenticity point to its reference in the Suda, a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia.  But I think we cannot dismiss the fact that the Great Schism of 1054 also falls within this time frame.  Both Justinian and Theodora were sainted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It just seems too coincidental to me that a document villifying them is documented at this critical time in church history.

Anyway, at least for fictional purposes, the antics described in The Secret History certainly liven up a narrative.  It also made Belisarius even more admirable reading how honorable he tried to be in his dealings with the enemy and even his emperor only to be rewarded with suspicion and betrayal.

Again, Ludlow has produced a fascinating narrative filled with vibrant characters drawn from meticulous research and real historical events.  I was appalled by a review posted on Amazon by another reviewer accusing Ludlow of sloppy research.  In fact the incidents claimed to be erroneous in the review were incorrect on the part of the reviewer.  The John Vitalian referred to as a subordinate general to Belisarius during the effort to capture Ravenna was the nephew of the Vitalian the reviewer was thinking about who was murdered on the orders of Justinian near the beginning of his reign.  In the Audible version I listened to the Empress Euphemia was clearly the wife of Justin not Justinian.  Who knows, maybe that reviewer based his review on an unpublished rough draft or something.  Also, to criticize Ludlow for similarities to Robert Graves novel, Count Belisarius does not take into account that both authors used Procopius as their definitive ancient source.

I think you will find this series really brings the sixth century and the famous general Belisarius to life and I recommend it highly! 


Procopius and Thucydides on the Labors of War: Belisarius and Brasidas in the Field by
Charles F. Pazdernik, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 130 (2000), pp. 149-187

A Kindle Preview:

More suggested reading:

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Visiting the Via Appia Antica and Catacombs of San Sebastiano

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2015

Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, near Quarto Miglio
Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, near Quarto Miglio
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Back in 2007 I saw this nice travel piece about the Via Appia. I had hoped to see the sights listed when I visited Rome in October 2007. I planned to take the relatively new hop-on-hop-off Archaeobus to the park and spend the day exploring the catacombs, the baths of Caracalla, the tomb of Cecilia Metella, and a couple of the churches and museums (if my feet didn't give out!). I also wanted to try the spit-roasted goat they mentioned was a local specialty!

The original travel article:

"A modern-day tour of the Via Appia Antica might start at the end of the Forum, just beyond the Circus Maxentius where charioteers raced seven times around an obelisk cheered by spectators in 10 tiers of stone bleachers. Near here, weary travelers beheld Rome's golden milepost - where all roads led. Soon the pleasant road, shaded with cypresses and umbrella pines, passes scattered piles of eroded bricks that once were grand mausoleums.

A short distance brings the traveler to the dome-shaped ruins of the ornate tomb of the noblewoman Cecilia Metella. She was the daughter-in-law of Marcus Crassus, who shared the triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Lord Byron muses whether she died young and fair or old and wise:

The remains of the tomb of Cecilia Metella along the Appian Way near Rome, Italy.
The remains of the tomb of Cecilia Metella along the Appian Way near Rome, Italy.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
"This much alone we know: Metella died, the richest Roman's wife. Behold his love or pride."

Pope Urban VIII ripped up the marble floor of her tomb to build the Trevi Fountain.

At Porta San Sebastiano is the landmark Church of Domine Quo Vadis. Here legend says St. Peter, fleeing Nero's persecutions after the great fire, saw a vision of Christ heading toward the city. "Lord, where goest Thou?" he asked, and the vision replied, "To Rome to be crucified again."

Also at Porta San Sebastiano stands the largest and best preserved of the fortified gates in the Aurelian Wall that embraced the seven hills of Rome for more than a thousand years. The twin gate towers house a small museum of wall artifacts. Here you can walk along the top of the wall for postcard views of the Appian Way and the distant Alban Hills. All about are vineyards producing Rome's refreshing Frascati wine.

The Porta San Sebastiano, the best preserved of the fortified gates iin the Aurelian Wall that encompassed ancient Rome.
The Porta San Sebastiano, the best preserved of the fortified gates iin the Aurelian Wall that encompassed ancient Rome.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the narrow ancient gate, the road dips slightly into a valley covering a maze of catacombs where thousands of bodies were buried along five levels of tunnels. Rome has more than 60 catacombs, some not yet fully explored.

The two most important catacombs open to the public along the Appian Way are St. Sebastian and St. Callixtus, where most of the early popes and many martyrs were buried. Walls and ceilings have paintings and frescoes of early Christian symbols like the fish, the dove and the anchor, and scenes from Scripture such as Jonah swallowed by the whale, Daniel in the lions' den, the raising of Lazarus and, most often, the Good Shepherd.

Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.
 Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
APPIAN WAY REGIONAL PARK: Web site offers information on tours of the Appian Way; how to get there by public transportation, bike or on foot; opening times for monuments and museums, and other information. Visitor center is located at Via Appia Antica 42 (open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 2:30 p.m.-5 p.m.).

Update 3/9/2015: As it turns out, I was injured in Naples in 2007 and had to fly home for surgery rather than travel on to Rome on that trip.  However, I did manage to visit the Via Appia on another trip to Rome in March 2009.  My companion and I chose to try the hop-on hop-off Archaeobus with audio tour as I had originally planned.  However, I'm afraid, after experiencing that jarring, noisy ride, I do not recommend that mode of transportation.  The bus driver drove so fast you couldn't possibly get any good pictures of any of the sites along the way and there was so much noise that you couldn't hear what was being said using the earphones either. After lurching past the Aurelian Walls and flying past the tomb of Cecilia Metella, we decided to get off at the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.

My companion had seen catacombs before so she decided to enjoy the spring sunshine and parked herself on a bench to wait for me to go on the tour.  These catacombs were once an area of pazzolan mines.  Pozzolan is a mixture of minerals used in the production of concrete.  Then, in the 2nd century CE, the mines were abandoned and the caverns converted into a pagan burial ground.  By the late 3rd century CE, Christians began burying their dead in these chambers as well and continued to do so until the mid-4th century CE.

The 7th-century catalogue, Notula oleorum listed three martyrs buried in the San Sebastian catacombs including SebastianQuirinus and Eutychius. 

A fifth century source states Sebastian was a soldier from Narbonne, in Gaul (modern-day France), born of a family from Milan who died in Rome under the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian. His relics were kept in the catacombs until the 9th century when they were moved within the town walls. They are now back in the Basilica standing above the catacombs.

Quirinus was a bishop of Sescia, in Pannonia, whose relics were moved to Rome by pilgrims from that region between 4th and 5th century CE.

Nothing is known about Eutychius but his grave was discovered during excavations carried out in the 20th century in a deteriorated area of the catacombs.   A poem dedicated to him, by Pope Damasus I, is now displayed at the entry of the basilica.

In 258 CE, during the Valerian persecutions, the catacombs were temporarily used as a burial site for the apostles Peter and Paul and the basilica was dubbed the Basilica Apostolorum.  But their remains were later removed to their own respective basilicas in Rome.

I was really disappointed that they would not permit even non-flash photography within the catacombs. But I found the tour very interesting, nonetheless. (The photography ban may have been lifted as I found the image below of the interior of the San Sebastiano catacombs up on Wikimedia Commons).

Floral stucco reliefs on the ceilings of the catacombs of San Sebastiano outside  of Rome, Italy.
Floral stucco reliefs on the ceilings of the catacombs of San Sebastiano outside
 of Rome, Italy.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I saw the symbolic fish etched into the walls as we wound our way down through stuccoed and frescoed chambers until we were three levels below the entrance.  (Originally there were four levels but one level was destroyed during subsequent rebuilding efforts). We finally came upon some of the earliest Roman tombs clustered together in a round chamber known as the piazzola (initially pagan these tombs were later reused by the Christians).  These mausolea had architectural elements on their facades that, together, made them look like a small ancient city to me.

2nd century CE Mausolea in the heart of the catacombs of San Sebastiano.
2nd century CE Mausolea in the heart of the catacombs of
San Sebastiano.  Image courtesy of then
digitally enhanced by Mary Harrsch.
"The first one on the right is externally decorated with paintings (funeral banquets and the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac) and still bears an inscription with the name of the owner, Marcus Clodius Hermes; the interior houses graves and pictures and shows a vault decorated with the head of a gorgon. 
The second one, called Mausoleum of Innocentiores referring to the funeral college to which it belonged, has a vault decorated with refined stuccoes; some recesses show inscriptions with Greek characters but written in Latin, as well as a graffito with the initials of the Greek words meaning "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior" (Ichtys). 
On the left there is the Mausoleum of the Adze, from the tool depicted on the exterior, whose decoration consists of shoots of vine sprouting from kantharoi placed on false pillars." - Wikipedia
We continued our tour and emerged into a feasting chamber called the "Triclia" where funerary feasts were celebrated, not only immediately after an interment but periodically thereafter by family members.  Here, the plastered walls were covered with over 600 pieces of graffito left by visitors across the centuries and we were left to examine them before heading to the passageway that connected the catacombs to the basilica above.

etching of a Christ figure, Chi-Roh symbol and dove that was recovered from the catacombs
Even though I couldn't take pictures inside the catacombs at San Sebastiano, I photographed this etching of a Christ figure, Chi-Roh symbol and dove that was recovered from the catacombs that I found at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
The Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le mura (San Sebastiano outside the walls) was originally built by Constantine in the 4th century.  Many of the catacomb passageways and even the piazzola were filled into to form a base for this structure. (These areas were re-excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) In 826 CE, the remains of Saint Sebastian were moved to St. Peter's for safekeeping when the Saracens threatened Rome.  The basilica was subsequently destroyed by the Saracens but rebuilt by Pope Nicholas I (858-867).  Then the martyr's altar was reconsecrated by Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) in the 13th century.  The current edifice was commissioned in 1609 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese who selected first Flaminio Ponzio to reconstruct it and, after Ponzio's death in 1613, entrusted its completion to Giovanni Vasanzio.  

I found some marvelous sculptures in the Basilica including this wonderful putto that looks very much like the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini who sculpted similar figures I have seen at the Basilica of Saint Peter's in Vatican City:

Putto in the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano
Putto in the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano
Photo by Mary Harrsch 
© 2009

sculpture of Saint Sebastian
Somehow I missed this moving sculpture of Saint Sebastian also said to be in one of the naves of the basilica.

I found this video on YouTube about the catacombs of San Sebastiano.  It doesn't have many images of the catacombs either but does have some marvelous views of the basilica and its ornate ceiling.

A Kindle preview of a 2015 book on the catacombs:

Other suggested reading:

If you enjoyed this post, never miss out on future posts by following me by email!