Law, Religion and Politics in the Fourth Century Rome

The work of Luca Loschiavo takes as its starting point a passage of Ammian – a sincere admirer of Rome – and his timely observation of the activities of urban prefects under the first years of the Valentinian Empire.

The 4th century historian – illustrating the transition from the government of Julian the Apostate – tells of a Rome agitated by the wine crisis and the ongoing construction speculation “which incites the plebs” [Res gestae, XXVII, 3]. In the same months, the Emperor addressed Avianius Symmachus – urban prefect in office for 11 months between 364 and 365 A.D. – 31 Constitutions.

Two of the first Ad Symmachum (de operibus publicis), give a significant picture of the situation. In CTh. 15.1.11, Valentinian prohibits magistrates from building new works without his permission, except for restoration; in Cth. 15.1.12, he commands the prefecture to re-occupy public buildings, illegally occupied, which are destined for the storage and distribution of food supplies, particularly wheat.

According to S. Mazzarino, who also gave his views on Ammian’s passage, the first constitution has to be interpreted as a form of brake from the emperor on the construction speculation which the urban prefect intended to initiate. Mazzarino further argued that, apart from all praise, Amman’s reference “lib enter se vino proprio calcarias extincturum” was a sign of the fact that the two speculative activities were actually among the Prefect’s plans.

However, a second and different interpretation (Lizzi Testa) is possible, according to which it would have been the same Prefect to demand that norm, in the execution of a design shared by the Senate’s traditionalist group: to safeguard the architectural riches of pagan Rome, which were then the object of a spoliation more or less hidden by Christians, who were eager to raise the profile of Christian Rome (Pietri).

In fact, the analysis of imperial intervention and prefecture in the field of public housing seems to confirm the second interpretation. Charles Pietrì’s research shows how in those years ancient pagan temples were often subject to spoliation (both of their artistic treasures and their architectural components) by Christians. Pietrì highlights the idea of a significant aggression towards the city and its pagan architecture, which is entirely contemporary with the conversion of the Senatorial class carried out by Pope Liberio (352-366 AD).

Compared to the phenomenon of building occupation and senatorial conversions, Avianius Symmachus and a large part of the Senate respond with a precise ideological system, voting to reaffirm the Roman pagan tradition, in their view imperishable and undeniably superior.

One might wonder, with Emanuele Conte, how the Senatorial class could ever endure this progressive detachment. The answer is perhaps in the ambivalence of the Senatorial class itself, as well as in the imminent advent of Damasus, the first interpreter of the Christian compromise with the aristocracy.

The restoration of the Pons Agrippae (today Ponte Sisto) belongs to this context; according to Mazzarino, the fundamental idea is to restore the Ancient in the aspect of a very precise political project: to preserve the state as it is and to prevent time from damaging an imperial tradition (which is both religious and legal). On this point, CTh point. 15.1.11 and CTh. 16.1.1. off 364 A.D. testify to a convergence between Simmaco and Valentinian.

A natural question arises: does the measure signal the emergence of a broader policy: to counter the Christian conquest of the city’s architecture?

Emanuele Conte advances a hypothesis for future investigaion: if it is true that in Rome the buildings are the harbingers of many institutional innovations and represent a strong shift of wealth, one wonders whether the sanctification of the temples is or does not have an institutional function, such as to absorb moveable wealth.

In this regard, Sara Menzinger (recalling Wickham) notices that public building is never a neutral field. The Church gradually enters the area of pagan buildings and thereby replaces their function. The temple will soon become a place for tax collection, an eminently public function in saying that the overlapping observed in the urban fabric of Rome of the 4th century will affect all subsequent Christianity.

From Giuliano to Valentiniano: the political transition in Rome

Avianius Symmachus, already a princeps senatus, was not a follower of Valentinian, indeed he was among the first to settle with Giuliano at the time of his ascent. The process of succession between leadership groups and Symmacus’ stay at the imperial centres of the Capitol, is probably due to the imperial councils of Mamertino, and more generally to the fact that the transfer of power was led by the Apostate’s supporters. The early years of the Christian Emperor seem to confirm the political imprint of the predecessor as far as taxation, religion, and personnel selection is concerned.

The clash with the Church of Rome and the use of law

The political picture is complicated by the fact that more and more senators were on the path to conversion: relations between Rome and Christianity in the early Valentinian leadership are not purely oppositionist. On the contrary, they signal some mutual  and reciprocal divisions. While the imperial transition deepens the divisions between the magistrates and the senatorial class, Liberius’ death (366 AD) triggers the armed clash for succession in the Roman Church: on one side, Damasus, a supporter of a compromising line of dialogue with the res publica, and on the other Ursino, who promoted a more rigid  interpretation of Christianity.

Julian’s two-years of empire – Loschiavo emphasized – forced the Church to innovate in its position towards the Roman State, or at least to address the problem of overcoming its initial indifference.

Avianius Symmachus, for his part, appears to be using the legal tools at his disposal to harass Christians both on the administrative and criminal front. Two constitutions addressed to him (CTh.16.1.1, CTh.9.40.8) established respectively:

  • the prohibition of entrusting the surveillance of temples to men of Christian faith: Valentinian seems here to be limiting the liability of those Christians who were named custodians (and therefore responsible for any depredation);
  • the ban on sending accused and condemned Christians to the school of the gladiators (ludus), forcing them to kill; a sign that in Rome the usage had previously been exactly the opposite.
Damasus’s victory and new relationships with Christianity

In 370 AD, the year of CTh. 16.2.20, Damasus won – and Volusianus, Viventius, Praetextatus and Olibrius had already succeeded to the urban prefecture. Valentinian satisfies Damasus first by exiling Ursino, then forbidding churchmen to gain access to matrons or pupils, so as to hinder those in the clergy, who were trying to gather resources and appropriate ecclesiastical patrimony. Shortly thereafter, Damasus’ secretary, Hieronymus, would start his policy of “moralizing” the clergy, with the aim of gathering all assets into the hands of the Bishop of Rome.

The Senatorial class’ conversion was still under way. This implies that the tensions that were already present among the most powerful families in the city overlapped with those of Roman Christianity, and that these same tensions comprised six years of purge promoted by Flavio Massimino, Pannonic and food prefect (praefectus annonae) in the years between 368 and 370.

Provisional conclusions

In the debate after the presentation, some participants wondered whether the traditional reading of the Senate as a center of paganism would not contradict the historical development lines exposed. What is certain – as Loschiavo emphasizes – is that in the decade under examination, the papacy adopted a new posture from which it would not later depart (from struggle to tradition to progressive appropriation).

Valentinian’s eleven years are decisive for the future development of the Church, and then again, the Emperor himself would assume different positions, by overturning many of his initial measures (parallel to Mamertino’s political fall). Crifò – as Victor Crescenzi recalls – pointed out some years ago that, in contrast to the hypothesis of a Christianization of Rome, here is the Church itself “Romanizing”, with the complicity of Roman law.

Bibliographical references

Lizzi Testa, Senatori, popolo, papi: il governo di Roma al tempo dei Valentiniani. Vol. 21. Edipuglia srl, 2004

Pietri, Roma christiana: recherches sur l’Église de Rome, son organisation, sa politique, son idéologie de Miltiade à Sixte III (311-440). Vol. 2. École française de Rome, 1976