03 February 2007

All Roads Lead To ... Emesa

An odd coincidence

I was wondering what had happened on the site of Sun-god's temple before the Church of San Silvestro in Capite was built in 761 AD. Such an important pagan temple would hardly have been left alone, untransformed and unChristianized, for almost 450 years. Many hours of fruitless searching later, I still have no answer ... but there are some curious points in the history so far.

The St Silvestro honoured by this church was Bishop of Rome from 314 - 335 AD. An auspicious time, for, in 312, the Emperor Constantine had beaten his co-emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, an epochal victory won under the vision of the flaming cross. Constantine liked to spread such stories: earlier, Apollo-Sol Invictus had appeared to him in battle with omens of success and, accordingly, his coins boasted that the Emperor's companion was the Unconquered Sun. He now switched sides and signs and, the following year, the Christians were granted toleration and favour. Silvester thus was the first Pope to reign without fear of persecution. A good time to be Pope, made better still by legend and "the most famous forgery in history", the Donation of Constantine. He died on 31 December 335. Christ's birthday is first known to have been celebrated on December 25 in 336, so it seems likely that Silvester had fixed the date of the Christian event. In other words, Silvester usurped the Sun-god's birthday. And would eventually be rewarded with his church on the spot. QE(possibly)D.

Which came first?

When you enter the church of San Silvestro in Capite, the first side chapel on the left contains the relic of a fragment of the head of St John the Baptist. That is the head that presumably gives the church its designation in Capite. By a strange coincidence, however, the area around the church was known in the Middle Ages as in capite domorum (the head of the houses). Did the church take its name from the locality, and the head (so to speak) followed later? It is said that Pope Innocent II (1130-1143) gave this relic to the church. Yet, when Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, wrote his Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints in 1275, he knew nothing about this venerable gift nor any part of the head's presence in Rome. On the contrary, he tells a long-winded story of how the Baptist's head was taken from Jerusalem in 353 and reburied secretly in Emesa. There it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453, after which it was carried to Constantinople and, as the Catholic Encyclopaedia says, "long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure." The tradition that the head spent 100 years in Emesa is an old one, and certainly the tale told by the Eastern Orthodox churches. How or why it ended up in the successor to the Sun-god's temple is a mystery, or miracle (if you prefer).

With the next post, I'll get back on-topic and try to answer Frank's challenging comment on Cleopatra Thea.


  1. If I recall correctly, Constantine hedged his celestial bets for quite some time, minting coins with Sol Invictus well into the 320s. We know that Constantine knew his end was near in early 337; perhaps dedicating the building to the recently-departed Sylvester was a gesture that went part-and-parcel with Constantine's so-called "deathbed conversion" a few months before his own death. In addition to helping the tally on his Christian ledger, it would have had the aesthetic virtue of echoing the honors previously afforded to deified emperors/pontifices.

  2. This is an intriguing idea.

    And it fits very well with the lesser-known western version of the story of Constantine's baptism: while it is generally accepted that he was baptised on his deathbed (as described by Eusebius: that is, the eastern version), there is a different western account (included in the Actus Sylvestri) which claims that he was baptised by none other than Pope Silvester.

    Silvester had been elected pope in 314, so this could only have happened -- if it ever did -- when Constantine visited Rome in 315, at the time he began construction of the Arch of Constantine.

    For a thorough discussion of this question: M. Amerise, Il battesimo di Costantino il Grande. Storia di una scomoda eredità. (Franz Steiner, 2005). With a very good review in English at by Jan Willem Drijvers

    I am still wondering what was going on between Constantine's death and the known inauguration of the church of San Silvestro in 761 AD. I'll try to learn more when I'm in Rome, perhaps later this year.


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