City of Saints

Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages

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Maya Maskarinec
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Maya Maskarinec’s City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages investigates a category of saints not typically considered as a group, that is “saints who were venerated but not martyred in Rome” (3). Maskarinec demonstrates that popes, Byzantine administrators, laymen, immigrants, clerics, and a host of others brought these “foreign” saints to the city, and over the course of the early middle ages, turned Rome into a “repository of sanctity.” This process essentially “rebuilt Rome,” a city that had been often overrun. As Maskarinec underscores, this is a hard process to document due to the nature and scarcity of sources, which is why scholars once called these centuries the Dark Ages. But in light of our post-Peter Brown appreciation of late Antiquity as a vibrant period in its own right, Maskarinec’s focus on saints from abroad in the city from the 6th through 9th centuries offers an exciting avenue into understanding how Christian Rome grew out of its late antique foundations. 

Maskarinec’s book builds from the physical to the ideational or spiritual. In chapter 1, she invites readers to imagine themselves as tourists in Rome in the mid-8th century. This approach to the city is inspired by the walks of Diane Favro in Augustan Rome. Chapters 2 through 4 follow in chronological order, focusing first on how Byzantine administrators influenced Rome’s sanctity in the wake of the Gothic Wars, then turning to consider changes across the 7th century Mediterranean that allowed the papacy to expand Rome’s universal political and spiritual authority. Papal efforts to import sanctity to Rome co-existed with the religious work of other Christian groups in the city. So, in chapter 4, Byzantine merchants and private individuals are identified as likely originators of charitable institutions (diaconiae) along the banks of the Tiber, as in S. Giorgio al Velabro. In chapter 5, we can see aristocrats taking a leading role in shaping the Aventine Hill and its saints. The Church of S. Sabina is a particularly informative case of elite patronage, with the gradual reorienting of what was likely the name of the donor of the titulus church into a narrative about a martyred elite female saint. 

These chapters offer an important counter to the idea that the papacy was solely responsible for rebuilding Rome in the early middle ages, one of this book’s most important contributions. Of particular interest are the arguments and evidence that Maskarinec has gathered to argue for the role of Byzantine administrators in rebuilding the city’s sanctity. Maskarinec follows Robert Coates-Stevens’s suggestion (38-46) that, in the absence of foundation notices from our sources for four new saints’s churches in the Roman Forum, we should see the patronage of Rome’s Byzantine administrators in their official capacity after the Gothic Wars. She develops this argument through analysis of the narratives about the cults themselves and the interconnections between legend and place. Some cults in Rome need to be appreciated within the context of ties to the Eastern empire. For example, she argues that one of the earliest church foundations in the Roman Forum, S. Maria Antiqua, is likely tied to Byzantine administrators in the city. The fresco of Mary as a Byzantine empress on her throne dressed in luxurious clothing that had apparently served the imperial complex on the Palatine above was painted over with a new fresco of the Virgin flanked by two angels. Given the emergence of Mary dedications in the later 6th century—especially in Constantinople by the emperor Justin II and his wife Sophia as well others in Ravenna (40)—and the omission of any notice of this church from the Book of the Popes, Maskarinec makes a strong argument that this church, as well as that of S. Teodoro, the so-called Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, and S. Sergio e Bacco, were sponsored by Byzantine administrators. She also suggests, based on associations with the imperial past , that imperial officials also sponsored the development of the cult of St. Caesarius on the Palatine Hill. 

Chapters 6 through 8 examine the processes by which the city’s saints from abroad were sanctified due to the intervention of Carolingian monks, kings, and popes. Maskarinec credits textual creations of Rome’s sanctity, such as the work by Ado of Vienne, for the enduring development of the idea of Rome as a repository of saints and their relics. Yet in the later centuries, this image of Rome did not develop in isolation; on-going political, economic, social, and religious ties with the Byzantine East and Francia were critical to the imagined rebirth of the city. But, so are the ties between Rome and Ravenna, and these could be given more weight.

This book is an eloquent defense of the power of the early medieval imagination to rebuild Rome as a city with universal appeal based on its claim to an inclusive sanctity. Equally important, this work elucidates why the notion of Rome simply as a “papal city” is flawed; this was a collective effort by Carolingian monks such as Aldo, Byzantine administrators, traders, merchants, and rulers who, repeatedly, reinvested in rebuilding the city and its sanctity. Given the broad scope of the study and the concomitant detailed analysis of its saints (Appendix 1), not all will agree with Maskarinec’s analyses or her conclusions on specifics. For example, this reviewer is not at all certain that the Byzantine administrators were “more likely local Romans” (38). No evidence is cited, so we simply do not know.  The dating of the fresco of S. Maria Antiqua is contested. But these are points for further discussion and do not distract from this impressive and important study that will spur future scholars to consider anew the sanctity of early medieval Rome.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michele Renee Salzman is Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maya Maskarinec is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California.


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