In The Early Modern Invention of Late Antique Rome, Nicola Denzey Lewis undertakes a lofty task: reorienting our approach to the cult of the saints—a prominent topic among scholars of late antique Christianity—within the city of Rome, the location these scholars often use to substantiate their claims. More specifically, she challenges the work of Peter Brown, whose 1981 The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (University of Chicago Press) remains the mainstream theorization of late antique saint piety. Brown argued that late antique Christians considered the corporeal remains of martyrs as sacred, powerful objects that organized their sacred landscape. Denzey Lewis argues that this was not the case for the city of Rome: “The creation of Roma Sancta based on its history of martyrs, and the conceptual acts of mapping the city as a network of holy martyr sites . . . was a feature of Counter-Reformation piety” (11-12). That is, it was Counter-Reformation Catholics—not late antique Roman Christians—who considered martyrs’ relics powerful and constructed a sacred topography around them.
The book is divided among an introduction and eight chapters. After the author frames her work as a reevaluation of Brown’s claims and introduces the Roman catacombs as her primary data set, each chapter then reevaluates late antique evidence and demonstrates that early modern Catholic archaeology has shaped analyses of this material. Chapter 1 discusses Jerome’s and Prudentius’ descriptions of the city, arguing that their stylized accounts do not reflect Rome’s native martyr cult; rather, catacomb excavations from the 16th century to the present gave rise to the concept of sacred catacombs and corpses in the Catholic imagination. Chapter 2 proposes that the Depositio Martyrum and Damasus’ elegies are more interested in time and memory than space, whereas Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the famous 19th-century excavator of the catacombs, was interested in topography. Likewise, Chapter 3 demonstrates the widespread “death fetishism” (140) of early modern Rome, concluding that such attention to physical remains or their efficacy is lacking in late antiquity. Chapters 4 and 5 describe excavations of St. Peter’s and the Crypt of the Popes, demonstrating that they were not tomb-shrines as Catholic archaeologists have claimed. In Chapter 6 the author shows that “Jewish” catacombs have been identified largely based on the racist assumptions of early modern archaeologists. Chapter 7 challenges the concept of burial ad sanctos (in proximity to saints’ bodies), arguing that most evidence simply bears witness to privileged burials. Her final chapter proposes that we can find better ways of describing late antique Rome through its continued pagan piety, competing clergy, social programs, or population fluctuations.
The most impressive part of Denzey Lewis’ work is her historiographical analysis of early modern archaeology and spatial “imagineering” (3) in Rome. For example, her claim that De Rossi collected Damasan inscriptions from scattered Vatican manuscripts and attributed to Damasus his own agenda of “mapping” sacred Roman topography points to potential scholarly misinterpretations of the bishop’s efforts. Chapter 5 demonstrates that the Crypt of the Popes is an imagined space reconstructed by De Rossi from widely scattered fragments of funerary monuments to create a site meaningful to the papacy.
Denzey Lewis’ reevaluation of Brown’s work— over forty years old and indebted to now-debunked Eliadean anthropology—also offers significant insight, giving several alternative interpretations of late antique evidence that promote further investigation. She convincingly argues for the “multiplicity and multiformity of Peter’s body” (198) in late antique Rome, namely that Christians located Peter’s presence in the tropaion beneath the Vatican, in various contact relics, and in the Memoria Apostolorum, but never in corporeal remains. One of the author’s most discerning points is that burials often labeled ad sanctos are more likely part of typical Roman burials in which family were entombed around the male head of the household.
In her effort to reject a Roman martyr piety centered around powerful relics, however, Denzey Lewis sometimes overextends her claim. I give one particularly troubling example. When the eastern empress Constantina requested that Gregory the Great send her Saint Paul’s head, the bishop refused, informing her that people have died upon touching or gazing at the martyrs’ bones, and instead offered her contact relics. Denzey Lewis uses this correspondence to support her claim that “a cult of relics that reevaluated the corpse or skeleton as powerful and pure . . . did not happen—ever—in late antique Rome itself” (155). Upon examination of Gregory’s letter, however, it is quite clear that Gregory considers saints’ bodies to be extremely powerful, even dangerous to humans. He explains that the “most sacred bodies” of Peter and Paul “glitter with so great miracles and terrors” and that Romans place near their bodies a box with a cloth in it, which is then used to dedicate a church (Register of Letters 4.30 in J.R.C. Martyn, trans., The Letters of Gregory the Great, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004). While she may be right that corpses were not “the direct and visible object of veneration under Gregory’s watch” (155), this is not because he deemed them impotent, but because they were dangerously efficacious.
Finally, Denzey Lewis’ chapter on sacred corpses offers a tantalizingly brief section on medieval Roman relic piety. She glides quickly over examples from the 7th to 9th centuries for relics in churches, relic trade, and the transfer of bones from catacombs into churches. The author claims, however, that these objects were mostly associated with biblical history, that it is unclear if translations from catacombs involved human bones, and that they may not have been displayed or considered efficacious. Nevertheless, some of the evidence appears to challenge her claims and perhaps merits more than a mere six-page treatment, given that the book argues that intense Roman engagement with catacombs and sacred relics did not occur until much later.
Overall, this illuminating book successfully challenges Brown and promotes the reexamination of much evidence for late antique saint piety, in particular by giving examples in which Christians did not consider corpses sacred. At the same time, it reminds us that we ought to be open to discovering multiple historical perspectives—even within a single city, even at the same time.
Michelle Freeman is a PhD student in religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Michelle C. Freeman
Date Of Review:
July 28, 2022
Nicola Denzey Lewis holds the Margo L. Goldsmith Chair in Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. A recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies, along with additional support from, among other sources, the American Academy of Religion and the International Catacomb Society, she serves on the editorial boards of Gnosis and the Journal of Early Christian Studies.
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