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Early Christianity through the Life of One Family
By Catherine M. Chin, Caroline T. Schroeder
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
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Apostles and Aristocrats
Catherine M. Chin
Roman tradition holds that two of the earliest representatives of Christianity in the city were the apostles Peter and Paul, executed in Rome during the reign of Nero. Inscriptional evidence for the memorialization of Peter and Paul on the Appian Way dates back to the third century; markers of a possible burial place of Peter at the Vatican date to the second. It is tempting to see the establishment of an apostolic genealogy for Roman Christianity as the natural outgrowth of this early tradition, and perhaps for that reason scholarly debate over the apostolic history of the city has largely focused on whether traditional sites of veneration reveal the actual presence of apostolic remains. The idea of Rome as a city with an apostolic past, however, is not solely dependent on the history of first-century martyrdoms or evangelization. Instead, the idea of Rome's apostolic history was constructed in part literally, through the labor of elite building projects in late antiquity. The most spectacular example is the creation of St. Peter's basilica in the early fourth century, but this is not an isolated case. In this chapter, I consider how such building projects contributed to the apostolic past of the city of Rome. The best place to begin, however, is not with the apostolic monuments themselves but with the broader dynamics of building, property, and memorialization among elite Roman families. These dynamics are clearly depicted in the life of one monument builder who left Rome precisely because of the work that elite buildings could do; this is the woman whom her biographer Gerontius introduces simply as "Melania the Roman."
The Life of Melania the Younger can tell us a great deal about ideologies of building in late ancient Rome and their complex management of human pasts and futures. In fact, the Life of Melania documents an intellectual problem that is clearly observable in late ancient Rome, although not exclusive to it — namely the persistence of large-scale buildings that interact with and make demands on a series of human caretakers over their long life spans. As the art historian Annabel Wharton notes: "Once it is recognized that a building has a life, architectural historians may be less likely to focus their scholarly attention exclusively on a structure's origins and more likely to treat its full biography." Treating the full biography of buildings also entails understanding how these material structures were understood to participate in larger historical narratives, not merely as locations but as actors in their own right. Using this approach, we can try to read at least some late ancient texts as narratives about the demands and agencies of late ancient buildings, and about how those buildings interacted with the desires and agencies of the more fragile human actors to whom they were joined. In this view, the creation of late ancient Christianity becomes a negotiation between human and nonhuman beings that lived on different timescales. From this negotiation were born a variety of human genealogies: in Rome, it produced aristocratic families, past apostles, and future popes. For although Christians in the city venerated Peter and Paul from an early date, the memory of Rome as an apostolic city, with a bishop, emperor, and aristocracy as the caretakers and inheritors of the apostolic presence, is a very striking late antique development. The dynamics of building in the Life of Melania can illuminate this development, in dialogue with other texts that describe the interactions between buildings and human beings in late antique Rome.
We will begin with the Roman property of Melania and her husband, Pinian, especially the house that has traditionally been located on the Caelian Hill, and consider how the Life of Melania depicts such houses as agents that make genealogical demands on their owners. We will then move slightly farther east on the Caelian Hill and discuss a parallel set of genealogical demands made by the Constantinian basilica complex as depicted in the Liber Pontificalis. Finally, we will turn to the Life of Melania's description of Melania's building projects in Jerusalem, to consider briefly how the demands of buildings can also articulate an eschatological future.
THE HOUSE THAT NO ONE COULD AFFORD TO BUY
Early in the Life of Melania, first Melania and then her husband, Pinian, decide to lead ascetic lives. The standard approach to Melania and Pinian's decision assumes that the primary conflict in the narrative is between the young ascetic couple and their parents, who are intent on persuading them to have children. As Gerontius explains: "Melania and Pinian suffered much pain since they were unable to take up the yoke of Christ freely because of their parents' compulsion." Yet the rationale that Melania's parents, and indeed Pinian himself, at first supply for the couple's need to reproduce is firmly rooted in the problem of family property. Gerontius has Pinian originally make this argument: "If and when by the ordinance of God we have two children to inherit our possessions, then both of us together shall renounce the world." Further, even after their parents do agree to their ascetic ambitions, the two are still stalled in their ascetic careers by their property, as Melania tells Pinian: "The burden of life is very heavy for us, and we are not competent in these circumstances to take on the light yoke of Christ. Therefore let us quickly lay aside our goods that we may gain Christ." Gerontius describes a long period of property disputes between the couple and Pinian's brother Severus, along with property "schemes" by "every one of their senatorial relatives." In the narrative, these problems are to some extent resolved through the intervention of the empress Serena, who persuades the emperor Honorius to allow the sale of Melania and Pinian's extensive property.
There remains, however, one stubbornly resistant estate in Rome, whose fate Gerontius describes:
Since none of the senators in Rome had the means to buy the house of the blessed Pinian, they let the empress ... know through the holy bishops that she might buy it. She did not want to do this, however, and said to the intermediaries, "I do not think I have the means to buy the house at its true value." They requested that she at least accept some of the precious statues from the saints as a token of friendship. Serena reluctantly acquiesced, for she did not wish to grieve them any further. The saints were not able to sell the house, and after the barbarian invasion they let it go for less than nothing, since it was burned.
The emphasis on the transfer of property in the Life, and on Melania and Pinian's need to liquidate property in order to begin their ascetic careers, suggests that the primary conflict in this part of the Life is not between two generations of human actors but between human actors and the material structures that surround them. The villain, in other words, is not the older generation, nor even the abstraction wealth or money. Instead, the hindrances to Melania and Pinian's activity are particular pieces of property, most clearly represented by the house in the city of Rome, a house that demands to be inherited and that refuses to be sold.
The fact that houses and other structures make claims on their owners and inhabitants should not be surprising. Such structures possess a basic physical power to constrain human action. They are, moreover, embodiments of combined human and environmental labor. Architecturally products of human design and construction, their material elements are equally manifestations of geologic formation, forest growth, soil deposit, and so on. These nonhuman activities are masked when we consider buildings to be exclusively passive human products rather than composite beings interacting with humans in complex ways. As Kim Bowes has argued in her work on late Roman houses, it is typical for scholars to treat these structures primarily as vehicles for the owners' displays of status, which of course they were to some extent. At the same time, inhabitants and inheritors of these beings would repeatedly be required to reckon with the strength, condition, and internal dynamics between the original materials of the house, and they would necessarily interact with their property in ways that were genuinely constrained by the matter and arrangement of the house itself. A late Roman senatorial house excavated at Butrint, for example, shows several different stages of construction and renovation from the third through the fifth century. On the one hand, these stages clearly show human beings acting on the house in its renovation, expansion, and redesign. On the other hand, the renovations and changes are constrained, although not completely determined, by the footprint of the original complex as well as its natural setting. We should locate some agency in the house as a nonhuman being and see the process of home renovation as one in which human and nonhuman agents are compelled to act together over time, sometimes in conflict, and not necessarily in ways wholly subordinated to human desires. This is the situation we find in the Life of Melania. Even after the human opponents of asceticism are defeated or won over, the physical matter of the house remains unmoved. It can be made to cooperate with Melania and Pinian only after being burned in the Gothic sack of the city.
Up until its damage by fire, however, the power that this property exerts, as with the other properties mentioned in the Life, is understood primarily in terms of inheritance. The house, in other words, makes spatial and material claims, and in doing so it also makes temporal and genealogical claims. In fact, in the Life of Melania, the claims of property are configured as primarily temporal and genealogical. The first claim that property makes in the Life is on Melania's chastity, since her body is intended to produce future caretakers for that property: "children to inherit our possessions." The house in Rome may be an extension of its owners in terms of status display, but in genealogical terms the bodies of human owners act simply as extensions of the matter and life of the house. The presumption in the text is that the human actors will disappear before the property does; the only way for humans to adapt to the property's temporal scale is by producing children. Our sense of the genealogical claims that property could make is further sharpened if we recall that membership in the senatorial class in late antiquity was hereditary, but in a somewhat restricted sense: it was also dependent on property, and was subject to what Samuel Barnish has called the "complementary risks of economic and biological failure." The other side of that failure, landed success, could generate largely fictitious genealogies for late ancient families whose property gave them prominence. Thus, for example, in his epitaph on Paula, Jerome links Paula's "palace glittering with gold" to her putative descent from the Gracchi and the Scipios. How far such fantastical claims were believed is questionable. Still, the highly competitive and sometimes unpredictable process of becoming and remaining a senatorial family in late antiquity meant that the genealogical claims of property extended both backward in time and forward.
We see these claims at work in the Life of Melania. Gerontius introduces the Life as "the story of her senatorial family, and how she entered the angelic life." He then begins the narrative proper with an emphasis on Melania's "senatorial rank" and the statement that "her parents, because they were illustrious members of the Roman Senate and expected that through her they would have a succession of the family line, very forcibly united her in marriage with her blessed husband, Pinian, who was from a consular family." The importance of the property that Melania and Pinian inherit is not restricted to its monetary value but is related specifically to its status as heritable within elite families. The text portrays Melania's parents, and at first Pinian, as motivated by the demands of specific properties to be transferred in inheritance. These demands could be made in two ways. The first is through the force of the materials themselves: although real property could be destroyed or worn down (and some Roman buildings were in desperate need of repair in the fifth century), late ancient builders were also fully aware of the potential longevity of brick, marble, and other materials. They regularly reused these materials as either visible spolia or simply as practical material, acknowledging their basic durability. The potential for duration on a longer-than-human scale invited observers to shift their temporal perspective, from the life span of an individual human being to the lives of both earlier and future humans. Buildings, in other words, had a tendency to press human duration beyond its normal individual boundaries.
The second way that buildings might demand human generation is easier to decipher, in the presence of overt signs of the human past. If we recall that it was common for aristocratic Roman homes to include either genealogical inscriptions or ancestor portraits as part of their physical décor, we can understand the kind of genealogical demand that a house might make, regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants, acting as the embodiment of an ancestral past, while laying claim to a particular kind of future. Other decorative elements within houses might underline these claims. In the Life of Melania, for example, statues intensify the claims of property. The house that could not be sold contained "precious statues," some of which were given to the reluctant empress Serena. Not long after Gerontius refers to the burning of the Roman house, statues reappear as part of a diabolical temptation in which the devil recalls to Melania's mind "the variety of statues ... and the inestimable income" of a different family estate. The temporal claims implied by these materials are, however, rejected in Melania's response, which is framed in explicitly temporal terms: "How can these things that today exist and tomorrow will be destroyed by the barbarians, or by fire, or by time ... be compared to eternal goods that exist forever?" Melania appeals to the sack of Rome in order to deny the relative longevity of statuary in late antiquity, but it is clear from other sources that statues in late antiquity had many ways of surviving the passage of time. The repeated restrictions in the Theodosian Code against repurposing marble artworks from older structures suggest that spoliation and reuse were common. Similarly, portraits and other older figural works might be recut, either to change their subjects entirely or simply to "modernize" or renovate them. These repurposed or reused objects could thus either embody earlier imperial eras or become raw material for different objects that were simultaneously old and new.
The residents of late ancient Rome thus lived within a vast, slow-moving kaleidoscope of ancient, reused materials. The intellectual problems that such surroundings posed are made clear in the Life of Melania: in this text, the obstacle to the ascetic life is the fact that brick, concrete, marble, and metal last longer than people do. Their long lives demand a human response. In the first part of the Life of Melania, this problem is solved by the destruction that accompanied the sack of Rome in 410, and by Melania and Pinian's spectacular ascetic liquidation, in which property becomes simply money. This refusal of the claims of buildings is not, however, the only early Christian response to the long-lived material fabric of the city of Rome. Rome's apostolic genealogy is established through a very similar dynamic; this will become clear if we take a slight temporal and geographical detour into the Constantinian building projects as they are described in the Liber Pontificalis.
THE SAVIOR SEATED ON A CHAIR, FIVE FEET IN SIZE, WEIGHING 120 POUNDS
A few hundred meters away from the site on the Caelian Hill where scholars have traditionally placed Melania and Pinian's recalcitrant house, and where a house belonging to the Valerii once certainly stood, we find the basilica of St. John Lateran, the now mostly seventeenth-century structure that has taken the place of the Basilica Constantiniana. The fourth-century basilica was the first of Constantine's monumental church buildings, probably begun not long after his defeat of Maxentius in 312. Like other Constantinian monuments in Rome, most famously the Arch of Constantine, the Constantinian basilica was constructed and decorated partly with reused and perhaps spoliated earlier materials. For example, the imposing gilt-bronze columns currently in the south transept are from an earlier imperial period and were likely used in the Constantinian building. As Hugo Brandenburg has suggested, given the quantities of gold and silver decoration in the basilica as described in the Liber Pontificalis, and extrapolating from Eusebius's descriptions of other Constantinian churches, it is likely that the aesthetic emphasis in the Basilica Constantiniana was on the richness of the collected materials rather than on their stylistic unity. In other words, the Constantinian basilica on the Caelian Hill would have been an appropriate material neighbor to the house that no one in Rome could afford to buy. It will be useful, then, to consider how this basilica was also understood to make genealogical claims.
Excerpted from Melania by Catherine M. Chin, Caroline T. Schroeder. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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