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Archaeologists May Have Discovered a Church Built on the Site of Constantine the Great’s Conversion to Christianity

During work along the right bank of the Tiber this summer, the archaeological group Cooperativa Archeologia uncovered what was first thought to be a villa, but later considered to be a church.

Rome’s Milvian Bridge as it looks today. It is the site where Constantine triumphed over rival emperor Maxentius in 312 CE and converted to Christianity (image by Anthony Majanlahti via Flickr)

Archaeologists working along the banks of the Tiber river in Rome last week discovered what may be the remnants of an early Christian church likely dating to the fourth century CE. The site of the church is only about 150 to 200 meters from where the emperor Constantine fought his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312 CE — and in close proximity to the place where historical accounts indicate that Constantine saw a cross emblazoned in the sky, a cross that convinced him to convert to Christianity. The late antique building has the potential to provide new insights into Christian congregations in Rome during Late Antiquity, and may also demonstrate the visceral connections between memory, space, and worship within early Christianity.

During work on the via Capoprati along the right bank of the Tiber this summer, the archaeological group Cooperativa Archeologia uncovered what was first thought to be a villa but was then reinterpreted to be a church. This new hypothesis surfaced after the discovery of human remains within what is now thought to be a small cemetery. In comments to Hyperallergic, Stephen Kay, an archaeology officer at the British School at Rome, noted that the excavations were rather narrow and done as a rescue operation on the small road next to the river.

A narrow trench that is 20 meters deep was dug into what was originally interpreted as the foundation of a villa, but which has now been revised to suggest it was a church (image by Stephen Kay for Hyperallergic)

Unlike many news outlets focusing on the possibility of the site being a church, he approaches the reinterpretation with cautious reserve and focuses on the economic function of many buildings built along the Tiber:

The trench is about 20 meters in length but only two to three meters wide, so [it is] difficult to interpret much, especially as there are later medieval drains cutting through the trench. I think the report of a medieval church or basilica is still very much a hypothesis. The initial interpretation was a villa but has been revised. My feeling is that the site is closely associated with the river, perhaps with commerce. That said, I would have expected it in the opposite bank of the Tiber. The apsidal structure in terms of construction technique looks late antique, plus [there is] reuse of [earlier] material. And from what has been said, the burials are four- to fifth-century AD.

Map of the Milvian Bridge and the Via Capoprati, where the excavations took place last week (image via Open Street Map)

The emergency excavation also uncovered polychromatic opus sectile mosaics formed with yellow marble, porphyry, and serpentine in various geometric patterns. It is a distinctive mosaic style that inlays larger pieces of marble into various patterns and images, rather than using only small tesserae. This type of mosaic was popular in the late Roman period, both within aristocratic villas and within ecclesiastical architecture. Late antique churches such as Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill had opus sectile mosaics inlaid within it, but then again, so did many rich villas. The existence of the mosaics does not prove the structure was a church, but such evidence does help archaeologists to date the space, along with the use of spolia — that is the reuse of older building materials in a new structure. This too was a hallmark of late Roman buildings.

One thing supporting the reinterpretation of the site may be its close proximity the famed Ponte Milvio, known in antiquity as the Pons Mulvius. Although repaired numerous times thereafter, the structure was originally built in 109 BCE. When the emperor Constantine’s rivalry with Maxentius, who had been occupying Rome, came to a head in 312 CE, it was here that they fought a notorious battle. Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, who wrote a contemporary biography of the emperor in the early fourth century CE remarked that Constantine saw a cruciform in the sky before the encounter. This vision inspired him to redo the military standards under which his soldiers fought — and then won the contest.

The location of the alleged church was an important one to Christians who wished to mark a locus for the triumph of Christianity over a “pagan” persecutor. Maxentius would drown in the Tiber river during the course of the battle, leaving Constantine and his troops victorious and free to enter the city of Rome. Constantine would then proceed into Rome along the via Flaminia and become the empire’s first Christian emperor — though many of his actions and iconography remained in line with traditional Roman religious practice. He did make Christianity licit within the empire by proclaiming the Edict of Milan with his co-emperor Licinius in 313 CE. In 315 CE, the Senate of Rome erected the Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum, in commemoration of his victory at the bridge and subsequent rule of the western Roman empire.

Tondi Adrianei on the Arch of Constantine: southern side, left lateral; left: bear hunt; right: sacrifice to Diana; below: the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (image by Carole Raddato, used with permission)

The ties between historical memory and the site of a basilica or church were deep rooted in the ancient world. The naves of numerous early churches were built directly above relics, demonstrating that the site of a church was meant to tap into the power of the space. As Candida Moss, a professor of theology at the University of Birmingham and an expert on early Christianity explained in remarks to Hyperallergic, the site of a church can carry major significance to pilgrims and congregants alike:

Many Christian Churches are built with direct reference to Biblical characters, gospel events, and doctrinal mechanics. The construction of a Church near a site of historical importance — the vision of Constantine — brings ecclesial landmarks into the earthly present. It demonstrates a shift in Christian interests and self-perception: from a marginalized group focused on cosmic and scriptural affairs to the dominant majority that could see the political victories of their day as heavenly interventions.

The Arch of Constantine may have been a victory monument, but for Christians, the building of a church could often serve the same purpose.

The narrow site has been cordoned off, but the Milvian bridge is still visible in the background (image by Stephen Kay for Hyperallergic)

It is notable that while it will take many years to process the data and the human remains discovered during the excavations, the site itself will not be open to the public. It is already in the process of being covered up to protect it from regular flooding along the river and also from looters. While interpretations of the apsidal structure may change in the coming months, the possibility of an unknown early Christian church near the Milvian Bridge is enticing to both archaeologists and historians. Although the church will be covered back up with sand, academics will continue to date, analyze, and perhaps revise our understanding of the buildings that populated the banks of the Tiber in the decades after Constantine’s pivotal victory and the landscape viewed by early Christian pilgrims as they entered Rome.

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