The Roman Colosseum is the 39th most visited monument in the world. Four million visitors a year enjoy tales of blood and gore, but this spring the monument has taken on a new guise. A new exhibition, “Constantine,” held at the Colosseum, celebrates the 1,700th anniversary of religious liberty, awarded to Rome by the man held to be the first Christian emperor.
Tucked away on the second floor, under the seating and away from the arena, a surprising array of objects recounts the tale of Rome in the fourth century, on the eve of its complete conversion in 385. The exhibition began in Milan and celebrated the February anniversary a stone’s throw from where Emperors Constantine and Licinius signed the edict that did away with imperial persecutions and put the Christians on equal footing with the other religions of the empire. By the end of the century, Emperor Theodosius would declare the Roman Empire completely Christian.
The exhibition highlights those days of tension and exultation alternating between humble artifacts and luxurious objects, persecution and freedom, illustrating the clash between the ornate tastes of the emperors and the impoverished environment of the Christians bereft of their possessions, spaces and even their lives under a hostile empire.
A gold coin records the reign of Diocletian. Born in Dalmatia, modern-day Croatia, he was elected Emperor in 285. Recognizing the inability of one man to rule the vast domain of Rome, he set up a tetrarchy of four rulers and brought a certain amount of stability to Rome, then in both economic and military crisis. For reasons unknown, (sources suggest it was an unsuccessful divining rite,) by 299 Diocletian developed an active desire to obliterate Christianity from the Empire. In 303, he emitted a series of edicts, burning Christian books and destroying Christian places of worship. Christians were expected to renounce their God and pay open homage to the emperor as their true god. Those who refused were harshly punished with torture and death.
It is very much the mode to downplay the Christian martyrs these days, something done most often by pseudo-scholars who confuse cynicism with wisdom revealing both intellectual and spiritual poverty. But from this age emerged Saints Agnes, Sebastian, Susanna, Marcellinus and Peter as well as many others. These heroic witnesses have been acclaimed in art, literature and song, and will be remembered long after the latest Oscar winner is forgotten (oh by the way, who won best supporting actor this year?)
Ceramic bowls and cameos illustrate the prevalence of pagan divinities in everyday life; accessories, plates, and a few fresco fragments remind the visitor that the indoctrination to the pagan beliefs was a constant presence, much like advertising today, which insistently beats the wrong set of values into our lives.
The Christians who tried to resist the enculturation were mocked, and often killed. Several terracotta reliefs show the entertainment of throwing men and women to wild beasts such as happened with St. Ignatius of Antioch and Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Another faint graffiti shows a coarsely scratched stick figure on a cross with the head of a donkey while another figure stands below. “Alexamenos adores his God” reads the scrawled caption — not so different from late night comedy shows, no?
It must have seemed to the Christians under Diocletian that the end had come, that all their efforts and little concessions gained under more tolerant emperors were for naught, and that the world might be coming to an end. But it was not. Rome was simply proving the old adage that is darkest before dawn.
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The exhibit actually spends less time on the age of martyrs than I did, choosing to join Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea’s joyful cry in his the Ecclesiastical Histories, “After dreadful spectacle (sufferings of martyrs) we have been privileged to see and celebrate such things that many of the martyrs before us craved to see and did not.”
Although Constantine wrote the Edict of Tolerance in Milan, the moment that brought about his eventual conversion took place in Rome. On the eve of the battle to wrest Rome away from his usurper brother-in-law Maxentius, Constantine spoke of receiving a vision of the cross with a message, “in this sign you will conquer.” Painting the cross upon the armor and standards, Constantine won the day at the Milvian Bridge on Oct. 28, 312.
The show opens with the memory of triumph and battle. The scepter of Maxentius, recently excavated on the Palatine Hill, stands next to his army’s eroded lances. A copy of the colossal bronze head of Constantine now in the Capitoline Museums, and faithfully preserved by a grateful papacy, gives the visitor an idea of how daunting the gigantic statues must have seemed in their day. A reconstruction of the Labarum, the Roman standard with the Christological symbol of the Chi Rho emblazoned on it, which Constantine carried into battle, stands in front of the case of the spoils of Maxentius’ army. The monogram of Christ is repeated over and over like a victory chant, on rings, on glass, exquisitely carved in ivory and marble or cast in bronze. A new day had indeed dawned. Looking out over the Colosseum balcony one can see the arch of Constantine constructed to celebrate this great triumph.
Christian sarcophagi liken Constantine’s edict to Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. Numerous sarcophagi boast narrative reliefs of the salvation of the chosen people.
At first, the Christian God would have to take His place alongside the myriad deities of antiquity. The cold stone effigies of Serapis, Hercules, Jupiter and Mithras, offer little welcome as one moves into the next space. The Christians however learned to speak the visual language of Rome and composed a far more enchanting poetry. The statue of the Good Shepherd, youthful and beautiful, bears a sheep over His slim shoulders. He will become the Christian’s representation of God, drawing on the ancient image of philanthropy and care for the dead to proclaim the shepherd who will come from the mountain to offer His life for His sheep. Within a century, Hercules will crumble and Mithras will return to the grottos from whence he sprang, but the Shepherd will continue to lead his flock for the next 1,700 years and beyond.
Constantine soon left Rome for Milan, where he set up his capital before he moved to Constantinople. The glittering Milanese court still sparkles in the two golden ceremonial helmets encrusted with jewels, as well as the fresco fragments and expensive porphyry busts that evoke the economic power of the emperors. Constantine was profoundly generous to the Christians lavishing them with endowments to build churches and offering expensive decorations for their liturgies. Gold reliquaries and elaborate bronze lanterns attest to the newfound wealth of the Christians.
The show showcases a great heroine of the early Christian years, St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. She awaits the visitor, reclining in her Roman throne, the woman who taught Constantine to love Christianity. Coins minted to celebrate the Emperor’s deep respect for his mother and endless portrait busts inform viewers how much she was revered in her own time. Her greatest contribution is recorded in the many beautiful reliquaries that were made to house pieces of the True Cross discovered by St. Helena in 328.
The relics of this great age of conversion bring us into that turbulent but exciting world when Christianity changed forever, but the best lesson of the show is to exit the Colosseum, symbol of Roman persecution and cruelty, turn right and see the Basilica of St. John Lateran looking down at the ruined amphitheater from the crest of the Caelian Hill. The oldest church in the world, dedicated to Christ the Savior, reminds us that the greatest victory had already been won for us, long before Constantine.
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this fall. She can be reached at [email protected].