025 Barbarian Invasions

Last month we were on an organized tour of Santi Quattro Coronati, an old church about a half kilometer north of the Coliseum. Our tour was in English, but the nun from the Augustinian Monastery at the church spoke only Italian. The nun was describing one of the rooms to our tour guide (in Italian) and mentioned that there used to be a beautiful tile floor in this room. We were standing on a floor made of unfinished wooden boards. She said that the floor had been destroyed by Robert Guiscard in 1084. She seemed very disappointed that she could not show us her tile floor.


Robert Guiscard was the leader of the Normans who invaded Rome in 1084. After they conquered the city, they made it their task to wantonly destroy the city.

Prior to this, there had been many other invasions of Rome by barbarians. Visigoths, under the command of Alaric, fell on and sacked Rome in 410. The city was devastated once again in 455 by Genseric and the Vandals. Odoacer deposed the Roman King in 476. Theodoric and his Ostrogoths conquered Rome in 493. Saracen Arabs sacked Rome in 846. Mutinous troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. For four months, they pillaged, raped, stole chalices and reliquaries, and hung people by their ankles from the bridge threatening to cut the rope if they didn’t deliver their family treasures. Two thirds of the buildings in Rome were destroyed. Barbarian armies were more compassionate.

After the first few waves of barbarian invasions, the population of Rome was no longer Romans and Etruscans. Many other peoples populated Rome and had assimilated into the society. In 546 AD, some Goth soldiers serving in the Roman Army opened Porta Asinaria to the army of Totila, the King of the Goths. Totila had captured most of present day Italy and only Rome was not under his control. Totila had Rome surrounded and under a starvation siege for about a year. He threatened to leave Rome like a pasture. Then some of his supporters opened Porta Asinaria. The Goth army proceeded to mercilessly loot the city.


Why did they do that? Why did barbarian armies destroy art treasures and historic monuments? There was no military advantage in such destruction. When we search for information on the barbarian invasions, we find descriptions of military campaigns on the Italian peninsula, but we don’t find information from the point of view of the Romans. From the point of view of the student or tourist today, we wish that more would have survived.

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024 Gailieo Galilei

Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642) is recognized as the father of science. He discovered the pendulum as a means to accurately measure time. He discovered a thermoscope (forerunner of the thermometer) and a hydrostatic balance. He reasoned that the speed with which a body falls due to the acceleration of gravity does not depend on the mass of the body. He also worked with an inclined plane – regardless of the weight of the ball (soft wood, hard wood, or stone), the balls rolled down the inclined plane at the same rate of acceleration. He discovered that the density of lead was twelve times the density of water (it is actually 11.3 times as dense). Galileo made more and more powerful telescopes after they were invented in The Netherlands. He sold telescopes as a side business, since he needed money to avoid debtors prison (his father died and his sister’s dowry had to be paid). Eventually, he made a telescope with 30X magnification and quality lenses. With this, he discovered the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn (the “planet with ears”), and that the moon was not a perfect sphere but had mountains and valleys.

There is a special exhibit on Galileo Galilei in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martyri in Rome. This church was built from the ruins of Diocletian’s Baths in 1566 under the direction of Michelangelo. This church also contains the Meridiana which was used to accurately tell time between 1702 and 1870 (see “007 Meridiana”, below). The exhibit in the church describes some of Galilei’s discoveries, how he viewed the Holy Bible and the Book of Nature as two complimentary narratives, his belief that God could have created any world but always chose simplicity, and some of his controversies. Controversies filled his life, probably because he had a forceful character (he got in peoples’ faces). With his telescope, he could see that the Copernican movement of the planets was more correct than sun and stars rotating about the earth. Galileo wanted the church to stay out of the scientific debate. There were officials who supported his views and advice. There were other officials who Galileo had previously alienated.

David Scott, Commander of the Apollo 15 Mission, while he was standing on the surface of the moon, dropped a feather and a hammer at the same time. They fell to the surface at the same rate. “Galilei was right!” he exclaimed. With no atmosphere, there was no friction to slow the feather. Commander Scott conducted this experiment on his third Extra Vehicular Activity period on August 2, 1971. In the hallway leading to the Sacristy in Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martyri, there are some additional Galileo exhibits. A television monitor continuously replays the footage of Commander Scott’s experiment.

Galilei taught us that the Book of Nature is available to everyone. However, in order to decipher it, we need to pose precise questions to its Author. The questions must be rigorously formulated and the answers linked to reproducible experimental results. No one should presume to know more than He who made the world.

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023 Timgad

We visited the Museum of Roman Civilization last week with our visitor, Sister Mary Rita. We have been there three or four times. The museum contains mostly plaster casts of historically important sculptures and plaster models of historic monuments from the Roman kingdom, republic, and empire (8th century BC to 6th century AD). The museum tells the story of Roman civilization vividly with the chronological sequence of displays.

One of the items displayed was Trajan’s Arch in Timgad. The Roman ruins of Timgad are located in the mountains of northeastern Algeria. Timgad was built from scratch as a military colony by the Emperor Trajan around AD 100. The ruins are well preserved since they were covered by a meter of sand from the encroaching Sahara Desert. As a result, there was no activity in the city after the 7th century sacking up until the excavation in 1881. The ruins are noteworthy for representing one of the best surviving examples of the grid plan as used in Roman city planning. Below is a picture of us in front of the plaster model of Trajan’s Arch in Timgad.

We visited Timgad in the middle of December 1975. Below are two photos from that visit.

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022 Historic Marker

Our neighborhood has a historic marker that is not listed in any of the guide books. We hadn’t noticed it until recently, and it is not far from a grocery store where we frequently shop. It is a boundary marker for the city of Rome that Emperor Claudius established in 49 AD.

The inscription on the stone has been translated into several languages and is posted above the marker. In English, it says:

Boundary mark Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (the Emperor Claudius) son of Drusus, High Priest, acclaimed emperor in the 9th tribunate, for the 16th time Consul, for the 4th time Censor, Father of the Fatherland, after having increased the territory of the people of Rome, he extended their city’s confines, here marked by the 14th boundary stone. A.D. XLIX A.C.

We’ve learned a lot about Rome that the normal visitor would not have the opportunity to learn.

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021 Peter and Paul

Peter and Paul are two pillars of Christianity. Both were martyred in Rome. There are major basilicas over each of their graves. There are small churches over the locations where each was martyred.

The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, is one of the four major pilgrimage churches in Rome. The others are San Pietro (Saint Peter’s), Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), and San Giovanni in Laterano (Saint John Lateran). Saint Paul Outside the Walls is fairly new since the previous building was completely destroyed by a fire on the night of July 15-16, 1823. Reconstruction started immediately with contributions of money and materials from all over the world.

We had not been to this church for many years and wanted to see it. Saints Peter and Paul are the patron saints of Rome. Their feast day is June 29th. There were some grand celebrations in Rome on that night, including a large fireworks display based at Castel San Angelo, not far from our apartment. Paul is frequently depicted with a sword, though he never carried one. He advises us to “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). And from Hebrews 4:12, once thought to have been written by Paul, “Indeed, God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.”

A church was first built here over the grave of Saint Paul by Emperor Constantine and consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 324. It was expanded and modified several times. In 440-461, a significant expansion of the original church was undertaken. The orientation of the Basilica was reversed so that the main altar would remain positioned immediately over the sarcophagus of Saint Paul. There have been monasteries around the Basilica through most of its history. The adjacent cloister was not damaged by the fire and dates from the 13th century.

In two rows going completely around the church, there are medallions showing the bust of each of the 266 popes from Peter to Benedict XVI. Some lists do not include Pope-elect Stephen. He died three days after being elected in March 752. Since he was never consecrated, some lists of popes have only 265 names. There is a medallion for Pope-elect Stephen in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. He was removed from the “official” list of popes in 1961. We did not count the medallions. There may be other discrepancies between the medallions and the 1961 list of popes. Below are photos of the first three popes and the current and former pope.

Medallions for Peter, Linus, and Cletus

Medallions for Benedict XVI and John Paul II

Also in the courtyard is an olive tree. A plaque states: “Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, planted this olive tree on 23 January 2011. Linked to the tree placed in Lutherstadt Wittenberg (Germany), it is a sign of the growth in communion between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church”.  I hope the growth continues.

Paul was beheaded on June 29, 67. He was sent to Rome because he had appealed to the emperor. After a lengthy wait in quarters that he himself rented (visible beneath the church of Santa Maria in Via Lata), he was acquitted. He was martyred during the persecutions during Nero’s reign as emperor. The Church of Saint Paul of the Three Fountains (Chiesa di San Paolo alle Tre Fontane) stands at the spot where he was martyred. Legend has it that his head bounced three times and water spouted from the earth at those three spots. The church also contains a granite pillar that was used in his beheading. Paul was buried nearby on Via Ostiense, which was lined with tombs as were all major roads leading out of Rome.

Two legends relate Peter’s martyrdom on October 13, 64. One legend says Peter was martyred by crucifixion along with hundreds of other Christians in Nero’s Circus and was buried on Vatican Hill. A circus in ancient Rome was a horse race track. Nero’s Circus was located just below the Vatican Hill which was a cemetery at that time. Nero’s Circus was entirely within today’s Vatican State. Peter’s grave was marked with a stone and a few years later by a small monument. Finally, in 324 Constantine approved construction of the first Basilica of Saint Peter. It was consecrated in 326 and completed in 351. It was pillaged by barbarians in 410, 546, and 846. After 1100 years, it was in danger of falling down. In 1503, Pope Julius II contracted Bramante and others to build the replacement church that we see today, though it was not completed until 1626. The grave of Saint Peter is immediately below the main altar of the Basilica.

The other legend says Peter was martyred by crucifixion on the southern end of the Janiculum Hill and buried on Vatican Hill. Today, there is the church of San Pietro in Montorio and in its courtyard the Tempietto. The church was built in the 15th century with funds from Ferdinand II of Spain. Bramante designed and built the small temple in the courtyard. It was his first project in Rome and was completed in 1499. Below is a photo of this little masterpiece. In a small chapel beneath this small temple, there is an inscription in marble describing this as the location of Peter’s crucifixion. See photo, below.

Are these sites the real martyrdom and burial locations? They probably are the correct locations. But they are not documented. At that time, there were very serious persecutions. For about 250 years, it was illegal to be a Christian. For several years at the time of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, the persecutions were particularly violent and extensive. Of course, no one wrote news articles, books, or blogs about the martyrdom and burial of Peter and Paul. Doing so would result in an immediate trip to the chopping block. However these sites were pilgrimage sites for Christians from all over the world. Witnesses told other faithful, who told pilgrims, who told other pilgrims. A lot of things we believe are based on tradition such as this.

Is it important that these sites are the correct locations and that the graves actually contain the remains of Peter and Paul? No. These locations are only “sacramentals”. They remind us of the saint and invite us to reflect on the life of the saint and to imitate the saint in some way so that our lives might become more holy. The Catholic Church has a rich heritage of sacramentals – things that help us grow closer to God.

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020 Via Giulia Churches

We are impressed by the number of churches in our neighborhood.

There are eighteen churches on the map. They are all within 815 meters from our apartment. They are all south of the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. I have listed the times of services posted at the entrance. There are eight large churches north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II but less than 800 meters from our apartment. Several of these churches hold art treasures by Caravaggio, Raphael, Sansovino, and others. Below is a collage of the eighteen churches in our neighborhood. The order of photos (left to right, then top to bottom) is the same as the map, above, going around counterclockwise from the top left.

Saint Peters Basilica, the largest church in the world, is 1,200 meters from our apartment.

Some churches are modern faith communities within ancient stone buildings. God showers his love on us through their presence and the sound of their bells. Several of the churches in the Via Giulia neighborhood have websites for their communities. Many of them have entries in Wikipedia. Most of them can also be viewed on Google Maps StreetView.








Many of the churches were built in the 16th and 17th centuries after Pope Julius II laid out the plan for Via Giulia in 1508. Some churches are much older. San Lorenzo in Damaso (row 3 column 5 in the collage) was originally the home of Pope Damasus, who converted one of the rooms of his home to a church in the 380s. The current church building was built in the 15th century by Bramante and restored after a fire in 1944.

Why are there so many churches?

Some churches are national churches. San Biagio (row 1 column 1 in the collage) is the National Church of Armenia. Santa Maria in Monserato (row 1 column 5 in the collage) is the National Church of Spain. Even though there are five churches within 250 meters of our apartment, on Sunday we usually attend Santa Susanna, the American Church, which is a bus ride across town. There, we attend the same Roman Catholic service as in hundreds of other churches in Rome, but the presider is an American and all services are in English. Santa Susanna is staffed by Paulist Fathers. The closest church, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini (row 3 column 6 in the collage), was the national church of Florence (Italy was not unified until 1870). Since it is so convenient, we have attended services there many times. The church took more than 100 years to complete (1508 to 1656) and contains relics, crypts of famous 17th century architects, and an outstanding sculptural group in marble: The Baptism of Christ sculpted by Antonio Raggi in 1686.

Some churches are a part of a convent or monastery. Santa Brigida di Svezia (Saint Bridget of Sweden) (row 3 column 3 in the collage) is the church of the Brigidines in Rome. The order of Saint Bridget balances active and contemplative life. There are between 20 and 30 nuns in the convent near our apartment where they operate a bed and breakfast. We have attended weekday services in that church.

Some churches are centers for people who wish to pray for a certain cause. Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e Morte (row 2 column 4 in the collage) is a sizeable church built in the 16th century by a confraternity who collected the bodies of the unknown dead and gave them a proper Christian burial. The baroque façade is decorated with winged skulls and a clepsydra (a winged hourglass, symbolic of death).

Some churches were funded by wealthy families. San Girolamo della Carita (row 2 column 2 in the collage) was built by the Spada family who has their palace in the next block.

Some churches were built by wealthy Cardinals or Popes. For more than 1100 years, some areas of central Italy were Papal States, governed by the Pope as head of state. Due to diverse objectives and priorities it is probably better that church and state are now separate in the western world. Some churches were built because some Popes were vain and wanted to erect monuments to themselves. Since living in Rome, we have discovered some “dirty laundry” in our church history. Perhaps it is unfortunate. To be clear, dirty laundry comes from humans, each of whom has shortcomings. Dirty laundry does not come from God, who has no laundry.

Some churches were built to serve a certain group of people. Sant’Eligio degli Orefici (row 1 column 6 in the collage) was built by the Guild of Goldsmiths in 1509, when they split off from the Guild of Ironworkers.

Is there greater devotion?

If the number of churches is a criterion, central Rome leads the world. We have not done a scientific per capita study of church attendance. Such a study may not answer the question, either. The church is visible in Rome, since Rome is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church and since there is so much history visible in the city. When we were living in Oman, Islamic faith was visible. There were mosques in every neighborhood and a majority of people said their daily prayers, sometimes in the mosque. Muslims worship the same God as Christians – they just have a different perspective. I believe God is big enough to accommodate that. We were at a mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica on a Tuesday in August at 11:00 and there were more than 150 people in attendance. There was nothing special about the mass – it was one of six of the daily scheduled weekday masses plus tens of unscheduled masses (said by priests visiting Saint Peter’s with a group from their home congregation).

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019 Trastevere

Trastevere means “over the Tiber”. In the early days, across the river was the beginning of Etruscan country. The Etruscans taught the Romans construction methods, which the Romans perfected with engineering. Trastevere has always taken pride in being different from Rome. It has been artistic, avant-garde, and devout. Throughout Rome, we see shrines, frescoes, bas-relief sculptures, plaques, and paintings usually of the Blessed Virgin Mary and child Jesus and frequently with a light or lantern so that they can be seen at night as well as during the day. They are on private buildings, most often at a street corner. It seems that there is a higher concentration of these shrines in Trastevere than in other parts of Rome.

Our tour started with a tower erected by one of the powerful families in the 13th century. In the same block, we saw the Church of Saint Chrysogonus. It contained an underground church – ruins of the original 5th century church and 8th century additions. As in many other places in Rome, new construction is frequently built on top of older structures without completely destroying or removing the older building. The present building at ground level was built in the 12th century and modified in the 16th and 17th centuries. The underground church was about as large as the present church. Below are photos of one of the passage ways and a long side aisle from the original church (a supporting wall has been added).

The next stop on our Trastevere tour was Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. We first heard of Saint Cecilia when we visited the Catacombs of San Callisto, since she had been buried there. She was born and lived in Rome and was martyred in about 230 AD. Her home had been a church and is the site of the present church. Cecilia converted her husband and brother-in-law to Christianity. They were martyred. Officials then attempted to smother Cecilia in a steam room, but cool dew miraculously appeared. They attempted to chop her head off, but three blows by the executioner did not remove her head. Cecilia survived another three days. Her remains had been transferred to this church from the catacombs during the first barbarian invasions. The sculpture by Stefano Maderno (1599) shows the agony of her final days. On one hand, she is holding three fingers extended for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and on the other hand she is holding one finger extended because we believe in one God. Also visible is Cecilia’s wounded neck.

The present Church of Saint Cecilia was built in 822 (Pope Paschal I appears in the mosaic in the apse) over the home church that existed in the 3rd century. In the crypt beneath the church there were excavations of the original home church (Titulus Santa Cecilia), several ancient Roman houses, and a sarcophagus with inscriptions from the 2nd century BC. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Cecilia_in_Trastevere.

We also visited the Chiesa San Francesco a Ripa. This church held one of Bernini’s masterpieces, the Ecstacy of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, done in 1674. Ludovica Albertoni was a Franciscan Tertiary and is buried beneath the altar. Later, we saw the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The present church was built in 1140, but previous churches on this location were built during the time of Pope Julius I (337-352) and Pope Calixtus (217-222). Mosaics date from the 12th century.

To return home, we walked across Ponte Sisto, a bridge built at the urging of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484). This bridge was modernized in the 19th century. This bridge and two others in our neighborhood are for pedestrians, only.

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