Newly discovered cult temple adjusts our understanding of Roman Christianity

An ancient Roman temple has much to teach us about the empire’s transition to Christianity.

According to the researchers who have just discovered it, the temple has been found buried beneath a carpark in Spello, roughly 150km north of Rome.

“We found three walls of a monumental structure that evidence suggests belonged to a Roman temple that dates to Constantine’s period,” says Professor Douglas Boin, a researcher at Saint Louis University, US.

Boin announced the temple’s discovery at a meeting of the Archaeological Society of America.

“It dates to the 4th century AD and it would be a remarkable addition to the landscape of this corner of Italy.

“It will significantly aid in the understanding of the ancient town, the ancient townscape and city society in the later Roman Empire because it shows the continuities between the classical pagan world and early Christian Roman world that often get blurred out or written out of the sweeping historical narratives.”

Boin and collaborators were in Spello based following a clue from Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. A letter written by the emperor, which was discovered in the 18th century, instructed the people of Spello to build a temple to Constantine’s ancestors, and worship them.

“There was a remarkable religious continuity between the Roman world and the early Christian world,” says Boin.

“Things didn’t change overnight. Before our find, we never had a sense that there were actual physical, religious sites associated with this late ‘imperial cult practice.’

“But because of the inscription and its reference to a temple, Spello offered a very tantalising potential for a major discovery of an Imperial cult underneath a Christian ruler.”

Boin believes this is evidence of imperial Rome’s slow transition to Christianity. While Constantine was the first emperor to adopt the religion, the empire didn’t immediately follow suit.

Julian, who came to the throne about a decade after Constantine’s death, explicitly rejected Christianity. It wasn’t made the official religion of Rome until 380CE, more than 40 years after Constantine’s death.

“We are on the cusp of giving people a very visible piece of evidence that really upends the neat and tidy ways people think about big moments of cultural change,” says Boin.

“Cultural changes are never as big as we think they are when living through them, and there’s a lot of grey area in between people’s customs and the broader society and culture.

“So to have this temple potentially be a temple dedicated to Constantine’s divine ancestors as a way to worship the emperor in an increasingly Christian world at the time, it’s so weird and I love that we can bring it to light.” 

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