All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page revised in January 2023.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in January 2023.
Links to this page can be found in Book 3.
The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Tor Pignattara - Mausoleo di Elena
Catacombe dei SS. Pietro e Marcellino
Necropoli degli Equites Singulares
Mosaico del Gladiatore
Giuseppe Vasi included a small etching showing a chapel built in 1638 by Pope Urban VIII in his 1753 book of views of the main basilicas of Rome; the chapel was built on the site where Sts. Peter and Marcellinus, two martyrs of the early IVth century, were beheaded and it was
located three miles off Porta Maggiore along ancient Via Labicana
(now Casilina), while a large church (shown by Vasi in the previous plate) was dedicated to them in Rome.
The chapel was surrounded by the imposing ruin of the Mausoleum of St. Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) which was known as Tor Pignattara.
Map of the Environs of Rome (ca 1870): red dot: SS. Pietro e Marcellino; blue dot: Torrenova (where Mosaico del Gladiatore was found). The map shows locations along Via Prenestina to the north and along Via Appia Nuova to the south
The view in September 2008
Today the area is densely populated; in 1922 a large parish church was built next to the old chapel. The small portal depicted by Vasi has been modified; it most likely housed a fresco.
To the left of the second milestone of the Via Labicana there was an imperial villa, named ad Duas Lauros (the two laurels), where the empress Helena was buried by Constantine. (..) Adjoining the tomb of the empress, were two cemeteries, - one above ground, belonging to the "Equites Singulares," or body guards; the other, below. The latter was the largest Christian catacomb of the Via Labicana, and was known in early Church annals under the same name as the imperial villa.
Rodolfo Lanciani - Pagan and Christian Rome - 1892
Similar to other ancient mausoleums (e.g. Cecilia Metella and Sepolcro dei Plauti) during the Middle Ages it was turned into a fortification; this explains why it was called Tor (tower).
The method utilized to lighten the dome (see a page on Roman Construction Techniques)
Helena's mausoleum at Torre Pignattara (so called from the pignatte, or earthen vases built into the vault to lighten its weight) is round in shape. Lanciani
During the Late Empire Roman engineers lightened the weight of domes and vaults by placing empty cooking terracotta pots inside their walls (this can be observed also at Circo di Massenzio). The pots came to light when parts of the dome collapsed; because they were called pignatte in Italian the tower became known as Pignattara (see a coat of arms of Pope Innocent XII Pignatelli). The image used as background for this page shows a technical drawing by Giovanni Battista Piranesi depicting one of the vases. You may wish to see a view of the mausoleum by Piranesi (it opens in another window).
Views from the southern side
The Labicane way leads to the Tomb of the Empress Helen. The Place is now call'd Torre Pignatara and is two Miles from Porta Major. Here are still standing the Remains of a large round Structure, which has been long said to be the Mausoleum of the Empress Helen; for it has been so reported for a thousand Years, and a Chappel newly built joyns to it. Here is also the Buryal - place of the Saints Peter and Marcellinus, very spacious, formerly call'd Inter duas Lauros, that is, between the two Lawrel Trees.
The Travels Of the Learned Father Montfaucon from Paris thro' Italy in 1702 - Made English from the Paris edition in 1712
The lower ring of the mausoleum was wide enough to provide sufficient space for some medieval rooms which could be reached via internal stairs. The structure of the building was so sound that even some small windows could be opened without damaging it.
(left) Niches inside the mausoleum; (right) passage giving access to the interior of the structure
Helena's mausoleum contains seven niches or recesses for sarcophagi. One of these sarcophagi, famous in the history of art, was removed from its position as early as the middle of the twelfth century by Pope Anastasius IV, who selected it for his own resting-place. It was taken to the Lateran basilica, where it appears to have been much injured by the hands of indiscreet pilgrims. Lanciani
The structure of the mausoleum is very similar to that of Tempio di Minerva Medica, an early IVth century building near S. Bibiana and it calls to mind also the octagonal hall of Villa dei Gordiani (Tor de' Schavi).
Porphyry sarcophagus at Museo Pio-Clementino
When Pius VI added the sarcophagus to the wonders of the Vatican Museum, it was subjected to a thorough process of restoration which employed twenty-five stone-cutters for a period of nine years.
The reliefs upon it are tolerably well executed, but lack invention and novelty. They are partly borrowed from an older work, partly combined from various sources in an extraordinary manner; horsemen hovering in the air, and below them, prisoners and corpses scattered around. They are intended to represent a triumphal procession, or possibly a military decursio.
It may appear indiscreet and even insulting on the part of Anastasius IV to have removed the remains of a canonized empress from this noble sarcophagus in order to have his own placed in it; but we must bear in mind that although the Torre Pignattara has all the appearance of a royal mausoleum, and although the ground on which it stands is known to have belonged to the crown, Eusebius and Socrates deny that Helena was buried in Rome. Their assertion is contradicted by "Liber Pontificalis" and by Bede, and above all by the similarity between this porphyry coffin and the one discovered in the mausoleum of S. Constantia, on the Via Nomentana. Lanciani
According to tradition the remains of St. Helena were brought to Constantinople two years after her death in 328. The porphyry sarcophagus which was found in the mausoleum was moved to the Lateran in the XIIth century and the assumed remains of St. Helena were placed in a reliquary at S. Maria in Aracoeli. The sarcophagus does not have inscriptions and it is decorated with horsemen, prisoners and fallen soldiers; in order to explain this iconography which is unrelated to St. Helena, Christian writers have assumed that the sarcophagus was initially meant for Emperor Constantine himself. Porphyry was regarded as a symbol of imperial power (see some ancient porphyry sarcophagi at Constantinople and medieval ones at Palermo).
Museum of Tor Pignattara (inside the deconsecrated church): (left) assumed portrait of Empress Helena; (right) fragment of a Christian sarcophagus portraying Jesus and some of his Apostles
In 1976 during excavations of tunnels for an underground line not very far from the mausoleum the marble head of a woman was discovered. No inscriptions or other elements suggesting who she was were found, but the shape of the eyes and the hairstyle indicate that she was an important woman of the early IVth century, maybe Helena. The museum houses some fragments of Christian sarcophagi; the most interesting one portrays Jesus between a palm tree, a symbol of victory and martyrdom, and a container of scrolls (a reference to the Scriptures).
Frontispice of Roma Sotterranea - Opera Postuma di Antonio Bosio - 1632
Known as "The Columbus of the Catacombs", b. in the island of Malta about the year 1576; d. 1629. While still a boy he was sent to Rome and placed in charge of an uncle who represented the Knights of Malta in the Eternal City. In the Roman schools he studied literature, philosophy, and jurisprudence, but at the age of eighteen he gave up his legal studies and for the remaining thirty-six years of his life all his time was devoted to archaeological work in the Roman catacombs. (..) It was reserved for Bosio to begin the systematic exploration of subterranean Rome and thus to become the founder of the science of Christian archaeology. The young explorer from the beginning realized that in early Christian literature he would find an indispensable ally, and accordingly he began to study the Acts of the Martyrs and of the Councils, the writings of the Greek and the Latin Fathers, and in fact every species of document that might help to throw light on the obscurities of his subject. (..)
The literary labours of Bosio account for only half of his time; the other half was consumed in systematic efforts to utilize the information derived from his reading for his particular object. Thus, for example, after he had collected all the data possible relative to the location of a catacomb on one of the great roads leading from Rome, Bosio would betake himself to the place indicated, and go over every inch of ground carefully in the hope of discovering a forgotten stairway, or luminarium, of a cemetery. If fortune crowned his investigations with success, he would then descend to the subterranean abode of the long-forgotten dead, and, sometimes at the imminent danger of being lost in the labyrinth of galleries, commence his explorations. The great work achieved by Bosio was almost unknown till the publication three years after his death of his "Roma Sotterranea". The folio volume was brought out under the patronage of the Knights of Malta (..) and of Cardinal Francesco Barberini.
Maurice M. Hassett - Catholic Encyclopedia - 1913
Bosio - Roma Sotterranea: plan of the third cubicule of the catacombs of SS. Pietro e Marcellino with twelve resting places (another plate shows its paintings in detail)
I went thither several times, but view'd it more exactly on the 13th of January, 1708, with the Abbots de Louvois and Renaudot, besides much other Company, on which Day, having an unskilful Guide we had Trouble enough to find the Way out. The Avenues to, and Ways in it are more lofty then in other Burying Places. Going further on, we lighted on square Buildings, which are reported to have been formerly put to religious Uses by the Christians. Montfaucon
The great merit of the new publication was at once recognized. (..) Bosio's method is acknowledged by all to have been scientific; his shortcomings were those of the age in which he lived. In view of the fact that numerous frescoes which existed in the early seventeenth century have since been destroyed, it is unfortunate that the copyists employed by Bosio were not equal to the task assigned to them. Hasset
An unfortunate result of the publication of Roma Sotterranea was that with the locations known, the catacombs were scoured for anything that might prove of value on the market; though much information on the condition of the catacombs and their inscriptions and frescoes in the early XVIIth century was preserved in Bosio's volume, much also was lost.
Bosio - Roma Sotterranea: paintings on the ceiling and the entrance of the third cubicule: I) The Good Shepherd; II) Noah; III) Jesus; IV) Daniel; V) Abraham; VI/VII) "fossores" who managed the catacombs
The "fossores" were those who dug the catacombs. (..) The catacombs are unfit for men to live in, or to stay in even for a few days. The tradition that Antonio Bosio spent seventy or eighty consecutive hours in their depths is unfounded. When we hear of Popes, priests, or their followers seeking refuge in catacombs, we must understand that they repaired to the buildings connected with them, such as the lodgings of the keepers, undertakers, and local clergymen. (..) By the end of the fourth century burials in catacombs became rare, and still more between 400 and 410. They were apparently given up altogether after 410 when Rome was stormed by Alaric, and the suburbs devastated. This fatal year marks the end of a great and glorious era in Christian epigraphy, and in the history of catacombs the end of the work of the "fossores". (..) The catacombs owe their sad fate to the riches which they contained. In times of persecution, when the "fossores" were pressed by too much work and memorial tablets could not be secured in time, it was customary for the survivors to mark the graves of the dear ones either with a symbol, a word, or a date scratched in the fresh cement. (..) The subjects of the frescoes were so varied as to contain almost the whole cycle of early Christian symbolism. There were the Good Shepherd and the Praying Soul, Noah and the ark, Daniel and the lions, Moses striking the rock, the story of Jonah, the sacrifice of Isaac, the three men in the fiery furnace, the resurrection of Lazarus, etc. Lanciani
Museum of Tor Pignattara: (left) detached fresco portraying a "fossor" with an oil lamp; (right) reconstruction of the side of a cubiculum with three marble slabs
The role of the fossores, although apparently a humble one, required engineering skills. They became vendors of tombs, formed a guild and had them portrayed in the catacombs. Their activity calls to mind that of the muqannis, the diggers who were in charge of the qanats, the Persian underground water channels.
The museum houses some interesting marble slabs from the catacombs. The lowest one is carefully carved and is written in Greek; it is among the oldest ones when the Christian community of Rome was mainly composed of Greek-speaking members: a tau at the centre of the name of the dead (Dionysios) symbolizes the cross. The central inscription says Aqueso in pace, a simple dedication which is dated IIIrd century. The one at the top Martine in pace sorores bene merenti fecerunt is poorly carved and it contains a spelling mistake; it testifies to the overall decline of Roman epigraphy and it is dated mid-IVth century.
Bosio - Roma Sotterranea: depiction of an arcosolium, an arched recess used as a place of entombment (see a pagan one at Porto): in addition to a symbolic supper it depicts the Good Shepherd and scenes from the life of Jonah; (inset) detail from "Pagan and Christian Rome" showing the symbolic supper with some graffiti
In some of them are still the Remains of Pictures formerly drawn by the Christians, of that sort which are in the Subterraneous Parts of Rome, some of them decay'd by Age and the Dampness of the Place; others have been purposely eras'd and defac'd by I know not whom. Montfaucon
Many cubiculi were painted by one artist, whose power of invention was rather restricted. He has but two subjects: the story of Jonah, and the Symbolic Supper. Of this last there are four representations, all reproduced from the same pattern, of which I give an example. A family consisting of father, mother, and children, are sitting around a table, upon which the "Ichthys" (fish representing Jesus) is served; the banquet is presided over by two mystic figures, Irene or Peace on the left, Agape or Love on the right. The head of the family addresses Peace with these words: "Irene, da calda!" and Love, "Agape, misce mi!" The last words are easily understood: "Give me to drink," the verb mescere being still used in the same sense in Tuscany, where a wine-shop is sometimes called a mescita di vino. The meaning of the word calda is not certain. There is no doubt, that the ancients had something to correspond to our tea: but the calda seems to have been more than an infusion; apparently it was a mixture of hot water, wine, and drugs, that is, a sort of punch, which was drunk mostly in winter. The names written in charcoal above the principal inscriptions in this illustration are those of Pomponio Leto and his academicians. (..) The catacombs of SS. Peter and Marcellinus have another attraction for students. Poor as they are in epitaphs and works of art, they contain hundreds of names of celebrated humanists, archaeologists, and artists who explored these depths in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and made record of their visits. When one walks between two lines of graves, in the almost oppressive stillness of the cemetery, with no other company than one's thoughts, the names of Pomponius Letus and his academicians, of Bosio, Panvinio, Avanzini, Severano, Marangoni, Marchi, and d'Agincourt, written in bold letters, give the lonely wanderer the impression of meeting living and dear friends; and one wonders at the great love which these pioneers of "humanism" must have had for antiquities, to have spent days and days, and to have held their conferences and banquets, in places like these. Lanciani
Museum of Tor Pignattara: Christian marble slabs: (above) Iulius Marius Sylvanus, a fishmonger (reliefs depicting the job of the dead were typical of the pagan tradition - see those of Porto); (below) Gregorius (in Greek) and two doves holding a garland, a common Christian symbol
In 1880-82 a third and deeper network of galleries was excavated for the sake of extracting the pozzolana, the beds of which support the tufa and the catacombs excavated in it. (..) The discoveries made on this occasion, added to the descriptions and drawings left by former explorers, give us a thorough knowledge of these labyrinths. Lanciani
You may wish to see some images of the catacombs along Via Appia.
Museum of Tor Pignattara - tombstones of "Equites singulares": (left) M. Ulpius Verecundus from Lugdunum (Lyon); (centre) C. Iulius Victor from Ara Claudia Agrippinensium (Cologne); (right) M. Ulpius Quartio from Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne)
The only bodies of troops tolerated in Rome were those attached to the person and to the special service of the emperor: the praetorian guard, corresponding to our European gardes impériales et royales, and a few select horsemen, called in ancient times equites singulares; in modern, cent-gardes, or horse-guards, or cuirassiers du roi. These men, however, praetorians as well as equites singulares, had nothing to do with the maintenance of public order; in fact, they were decidedly against it, and their barracks were nothing but hot-beds of disturbance and riot. Rodolfo Lanciani - Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries - 1888
The barracks were situated near the Lateran and they included a small amphitheatre. The tombstones shown above are all dated IInd century AD and they indicate that at the time the imperial guards came from Roman towns near the Rhine border and that they were recruited at age 18.
Museum of Tor Pignattara - tombstones of "Equites singulares": (left) Marius Alexander, a "duplicarius", an officer with double pay and two horses, from Syria; (centre) Julius Lucius, from Thrace; (right) T. Aurelius Valens, "duplicarius", from Savaria (Szombathely in Hungary)
In the same Place, upon digging there are sometimes Inscriptions found. The Equites Singulares, or choice Horseman, were those who stood on the Left of the Emperor in Battle, the Pretorians being on the Right, and therefore those were next to the Pretorians in Rank and Dignity. Raphael Fabretus (Raffaello Fabretti, an Italian antiquarian) very well guesses, that their Burial place was here, because of the many Sepulchral Inscriptions belonging to those Equites Singulares dug up in this place. Montfaucon
Emperor Septimius Severus reorganized the defence of Rome and he stationed a legion he trusted at Albano. He and his successors tended to recruit the imperial horse-guards among the troops who protected the Danube and the eastern border of the Empire. You may wish to see similar tombstones of Roman cavalrymen attending their funerary banquet at Bonna (Bonn along the River Rhine).
Museo Nazionale Romano: sarcophagus found along Via Labicana near Tor Pignattara (IInd century AD): it depicts two small scenes of countryside sacrifices inside a fine decoration of genii and festoons
Museo Nazionale Romano: sarcophagus found along Via Labicana (IIIrd century AD): it depicts the wedding of Dionysus/Bacchus and Ariadne and some of the Olympian gods, e.g. Mercury with the caduceus, a symbol of peace and wealth
Two fights ending with the death of a gladiator
In 1807 Prince Camillo Borghese sold the collection of ancient statues and other antiquities which decorated his villa outside Porta Pinciana to Napoleon Bonaparte, his brother-in-law. In the following years he and his heirs tried hard to embellish again the building with ancient works of art which they found in their many fiefdoms. In 1834 the ruins of a Roman villa were found at Torrenova, a Borghese estate along Via Casilina. They housed a large mosaic depicting gladiatorial fights which was removed and reassembled in the entrance hall of the villa.
(left) Protective equipment; (right) fight with a tiger
The mosaic is dated early IVth century AD. The deaths of a number of gladiators are depicted in a series of dramatic scenes with blood spilling from wounds and theta, a Greek letter standing for dead, being written next to a fallen gladiator. Another detail of this mosaic can be seen in the page covering Colosseo. Although gladiatorial fights were a common subject of reliefs and mosaics, that at Torrenova stands out for its explicit depiction of deaths of both human beings and animals. The villa where it was found might have belonged to a very rich man who offered these fights to the public. Based on this assumption the mosaic was meant to show the achievements and generosity of the landlord, rather than his having pleasure from images which are disturbing to our modern eye.
Fights with animals, some of which are more exotic than ferocious (see how they were captured and then shipped to Rome)
Next plate in Book 3: S. Clemente.