City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages

City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages

City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages

City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages

Synopsis

It was far from inevitable that Rome would emerge as the spiritual center of Western Christianity in the early Middle Ages. After the move of the Empire's capital to Constantinople in the fourth century and the Gothic Wars in the sixth century, Rome was gradually depleted physically, economically, and politically. How then, asks Maya Maskarinec, did this exhausted city, with limited Christian presence, transform over the course of the sixth through ninth centuries into a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of sanctity?

Conventional narratives explain the rise of Christian Rome as resulting from an increasingly powerful papacy. In City of Saints, Maskarinec looks outward, to examine how Rome interacted with the wider Mediterranean world in the Byzantine period. During the early Middle Ages, the city imported dozens of saints and their legends, naturalized them, and physically layered their cults onto the city's imperial and sacred topography. Maskarinec documents Rome's spectacular physical transformation, drawing on church architecture, frescoes, mosaics, inscriptions, Greek and Latin hagiographical texts, and less-studied documents that attest to the commemoration of these foreign saints. These sources reveal a vibrant plurality of voices--Byzantine administrators, refugees, aristocrats, monks, pilgrims, and others--who shaped a distinctly Roman version of Christianity. City of Saints extends its analysis to the end of the ninth century, when the city's ties to the Byzantine world weakened. Rome's political and economic orbits moved toward the Carolingian world, where the saints' cults circulated, valorizing Rome's burgeoning claims as a microcosm of the "universal" Christian church.

Excerpt

In the mid-eighth century, Fulrad, abbot of the monastery of St. Denis, north of Paris, was “burning with great enthusiasm” to serve God by rendering due honor to the most blessed Christian martyrs. The theological basis for Fulrad’s enthusiasm, as our source (probably a ninth-century monk in the monastery of Corvey in Saxony) explains, is that God placed “Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and the other patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, widows and praiseworthy monks” like “stars” to guide humankind through darkness. Accordingly, Fulrad, together with an equally devout lay relative, begged the Frankish king Pippin (the first king of the Carolingian dynasty), that they—like other contemporaries—might go to Rome to obtain relics, that is, the bodily remains of saints. Saints, individuals whose life or death had earned them a place in heaven, were theoretically no longer constrained by earthly boundaries. In practice, however, they tended to be most present, especially when performing miracles, in their relics. King Pippin assented, and the abbot and his relative set off on a long journey to Rome. They returned having succeeded in their mission: Fulrad, with the bodies of the saints Alexander and Hippolytus, martyred in Rome; his relative, with that of St. Vitus, martyred, according to legend, in southern Italy, in Lucania, under the Roman emperor Diocletian.

It is easy to take for granted Fulrad’s enthusiasm for Rome. The Carolingian fascination with Rome, ancient and Christian, is well documented. Today, Rome, “the eternal city,” continues to enchant us, drawing countless visitors from afar. This was the city that had given birth to the Roman Empire, whose wealth flowed back into the city, transforming it from brick into marble. This was the city where the apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred and that boasted grand basilicas dedicated by the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Not without reason, then, has the city often seemed—to scholars, inhabitants, and visitors alike—predestined for greatness. But it was not: Rome’s ability to reinvent itself in countless guises over the centuries was neither predictable nor inevitable.

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