The 'Passio Sanctorum Quattuor Coronatorum': A Petrological Approach

By Peacock, D. P. S. | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

The 'Passio Sanctorum Quattuor Coronatorum': A Petrological Approach


Peacock, D. P. S., Antiquity


The Passion of the Four Crowned Saints

Until the recent publication of ostraca from Mons Claudianus, the Passio Sanctorum Quattuor Coronatorum was the only document of substance bearing on life in a Roman quarry (Bingen et al. 1992; Delehaye 1910). It was regarded by Behn (1926: 65) as 'Ein Lebensbild' - a picture drawn from life. The story, set in Pannonian porphyry quarries during the reign of Diocletian, concerns four Christian sculptors, Simpronianus, Claudius, Nicostratus and Castorius, ordered to carve various works of art; because they are working for the love of Christ, they carry out all their commissions with great mastery. A gentile, Simplicius, is so amazed that he is baptised and received into the church by Bishop Cyril. This leads to further enquiries, and many other workmen are received into the Christian faith. Under orders from Diocletian they carve columns and other artefacts, but refuse to make a statue of Asclepius. As a result, they are interrogated by Diocletian and dismissed, while other workers complete the statue. The five men, accused of sacrilege for their refusal to worship the Sun god, are thrown into prison. They are brought before the tribune Lampadius, to whom they confess their faith, and on the order of Diocletian are put to death by scorpions. Their bodies are fastened into lead coffins and thrown into a river, but they are later recovered and given a proper burial.

Later, in Rome, four soldiers suffer martyrdom and are thrown to the dogs. Their bodies are recovered and are buried on the Via Labicana, three miles from Rome. On a later anniversary of their deaths, as their names are not known, the celebration is carried out in the names of the four Pannonian saints.

The story is confused and there is a clear conflation of two different groups of martyrs, but there are some intriguing if frustrating references to Roman stone working, with mention of the stone of Thasos and of Proconnesos, of foliate capitals, conches, victories, cupids, lions pouring water, eagles and stags being made of porphyry (which is described as a precious stone). It seems that, with God's help, it was possible to cut a porphyry column in 26 days. The quarries were apparently located in the Mons Porphyreticus.

The location of Mons Porphyreticus

Over the years this account has attracted a good deal of attention, but a main point of contention has been the location of the Mons Porphyreticus. Was it in Pannonia, as the account clearly states (a view supported by mention of Diocletian visiting Sirmium), or has the action been transposed from its original stage, the quarries of Mons Porphyrites (Gebel Dokhan) in the eastern desert of Egypt?

A majority of scholars have located the Possio in Pannonia, the favoured spot being the mountain of Fruska Gora, south of Novi Sad on the western edge of Serbia [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. This theory, propounded by van Karajan (1853), was followed by scholars such as Bendorff (1870), Wattenbach (1896), Bulic (1908b), Kirsch (1917), Vulic (1934; 1935) and Nagy (1939), to cite a few of the many commentators. Van Karajan's arguments were simple but logical. The only places in Pannonia where porphyry occurs are the Poseganer mountain and Fruska Gora. The former, higher and more inaccessible, has produced no evidence of Roman activity, while on the latter there are traces of Roman buildings. Furthermore, it is near Sirmium (today Sremska Mitrovica), which was visited by Diocletian in AD 294. Bulic (1908b), discussing the question in some detail, drew attention to vast Roman quarries on a hill called Kipovno (in Croatian, 'hill of the statues'), on the top of which was a porphyry outcrop. Giving no reason why the quarries should be dated to the Roman period, he simply says they are for stone and marble. Unfortunately, he does not describe the porphyry, nor is there a petrological account of the statues and other decorative pieces from Diocletian's palace that he would ascribe to this source. …

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