Roma fa schifo: “Rome is gross.”1 Disgust seems to be the sentiment voiced by most who live in or visit the Eternal City these days, as Rome endures yet another prolonged garbage crisis. Precisely who to blame for the citywide problem remains the perennial question (the mayor? the private waste facilities? the mob?), but anyone who has been to Rome within the last few years cannot help but notice the mounds of smelly trash piled up on the narrow sidewalks of the even the city's toniest streets. Rome, of course, has never topped any list of cleanest cities (for one, Roman dog owners have always balked at the notion of cleaning up after their pets), but it has certainly never been quite this filthy. During a recent trip, I was shocked to encounter loads of garbage, including discarded clothing and shoes, strewn all around the usually relatively clean Borghese Gardens, and to later find bulging plastic bags containing food waste and water bottles piled up in front of expensive, tourist-oriented leather goods shops along the street at the top of the Spanish Steps. And if the cluttered sights and fetid smells were not shocking enough, flocks of unnaturally large seagulls have moved in, feasting daily on the stray rubbish—as they say, every crisis is also an opportunity. Roma fa schifo, indeed.

Lots of cities, of course, suffer from inadequate trash removal services and the sanitary pressures created by hordes of tourists. But the idea that Rome, a “living museum,” a city renowned for its layers of history and meaning, where one can experience the thrills of gladiatorial combat and the solemnity of St. Peter all on the same day, is now buried beneath heaps of our own rotting trash deeply offends our sensibilities. Rome's historic topography, perhaps more so than any other modern city with a significant pre-modern past, is its identity. Even as new buildings arise on top of old, the city's pre-modern materiality, the stuff built before Mussolini and the metro, is why millions visit each year. The hard-to-read rubble strewn around the Forum Romanum and the easier to perceive lines of the Colosseum; the mithraeum tucked under the medieval church of San Clemente; Bernini's magnificent re-rendering of St. Peter's and the ancient tomb of the apostle still visible beneath the altar; Borromini's façade of Sant' Agnese at the Piazza Navona, whose oblong shape recalls its original function as the Stadium of Domitian. Rome may well be the world's greatest rubbish heap of history, but our trash simply gets in the way of experiencing the real city. In the words of one tourist from Virginia, “I would like to come here to see beautiful things like [the Trevi Fountain]. The garbage on the ground and spilling out just kind of ruins the effect.”2

How one experienced Rome's materiality and its layered past in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is the subject of two exciting and remarkably erudite new books: Jason Moralee, Rome's Holy Mountain: The Capitoline Hill in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Maya Maskarinec, City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Moralee's Rome's Holy Mountain focuses on a single but singularly famous topos: the Capitoline Hill, one of Rome's famed seven heights that defined the ancient city center, situated to the northwest of the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill, and the site of Rome's most important civic cult space, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, also known as the Capitolium. The book is neither a narrow archaeological study of the hill nor a purely literary review of the many references to and descriptions of the Capitoline that appear in our sources. Rather, Rome's Holy Mountain is a long durée cultural analysis of the Capitoline's lived and imaginary history: how it was actually used and for what purposes people found themselves climbing the hill, as well as how it was variously identified, forgotten, and remembered. It is, in other words, a study, of the hill as a topos in both the material and literary sense of the term, and of “the relationship between these lived-in and dreamed-of realities of the hill …” (21). While Moralee's book touches on evidence from the Classical period and takes us well into the early twentieth century, when Mussolini directed major demolition on the Capitoline, Rome's Holy Mountain focuses primarily on the years 300 to 700 CE. It is a choice that allows Moralee, who has published extensively on the history of early Christian materiality, to follow the hill into a phase when its earlier significance as a site of pagan temples and the telos of imperial processions gave way to an equally busy but decidedly different rhythm, one punctuated by the harrying of Byzantine administrators and the cries of Christian authors who insisted (erroneously, but that is beside the point) that the hill had been the city's ground zero for persecution under pagan emperors. As Moralee shows, the Capitoline, despite or rather because of its association with the Capitolium and the legitimation of imperial authority, remained an active “heritage site” even in a decidedly Christian era.

Like Rome's Holy Mountain, Maskarinec's City of Saints is a book about different ways of knowing and experiencing Rome's changing built environment. As the title suggests, City of Saints, which is Maskarinec's first book, focuses on the city's embrace of saints who were not Roman “in origin” if you will, but whose stories, and in some cases whose relics, were brought to Rome, made the focus of new cults and places of worship, and thereby came to shape how residents and visitors perceived the city. For Maskarinec, Rome's willingness to accept these “foreigners” and transform its topography accordingly was a key ingredient in the city's “remarkable metamorphosis, against all odds, from an exhausted city with a limited Christian presence to a city filled with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of sanctity” (3). Working within a slightly later time frame than Moralee's study—City of Saints examines Rome between the sixth and ninth centuries CE—and through a discussion of multiple sites rather than single topos, Maskarinec ably defends her thesis through case studies of non-Roman saints taking hold within their Roman environments. The book culminates in a fascinating discussion of Carolingian contributions to the city's early medieval transformation into a “city of saints” through an analysis of two ninth-century Frankish sources that have profoundly shaped our own understanding of the city in this period: the Einsiedeln compilation (Codex Einsieldelnensis 326, ff 67–97), which includes the famous pilgrim's itinerary to Rome, and Ado of Vienne's Roman Martyrology, a work that became one of the authoritative sources on Roman sanctity in the Middle Ages and beyond.

In reading these books together I was struck by how much they have in common, especially in terms of organization and method. Both, as already noted, are topographically oriented studies, but they are also very much organized in argument around specific spaces. Moralee keeps us on the Capitoline, which we learn actually has two summits, and was once home to a surprisingly wide range of buildings and monuments, many still in use during Late Antiquity: residential and commercial properties, administrative structures like the Tabularium, temples, including the famous and much imitated Capitolium, and perhaps, if we accept Moralee's somewhat strained argument, a sixth-century church dedicated to the Virgin founded by none other than the Roman general Narses. Moreover, topography serves as the book's guiding conceptual frame: while the first part examines the Capitoline as a “lived-in reality” and material space, the second and considerably longer part of the book explores the hill as an imaginary topos that appears exclusively in texts. While Moralee keeps us rooted in a single place, Maskarinec's spatial frame is deliberately ambulatory. Chapter One is quite literally written as an imagined walk around the city ca. 750 CE, which Maskarinec reconstructs through playful but perceptive use of the Einsielden compilation and a body of hagiographical literature sometimes referred to as the gesta martyrum (to which I shall return). Thereafter, we travel to those regions and ecclesiastical buildings that became the sites of Rome's new (or newish) saints: the Syrian healers SS Cosmas and Damian and the Constantinopolitan Virgin Mary at Santa Maria Antiqua in the Forum Romanum (Chapter Two); the Terracinian martyr Caesarius on the Palatine (Chapter Three); the eastern soldier-saint George in an early medieval neighborhood tucked into the southern bend of the Tiber (Chapter Four); the shadowy Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill (Chapter Five); and then to chapels located inside select churches (e.g. St. Peter's, the Lateran, SS Quattro Coronati), which showcased “collectivities of saints” brought from afar (Chapter Six). Finally, Maskarinec takes us outside Rome, and brings us deep into Frankish territory, first to the monastery of Fulda, where the Einsieldn compilation was created, and then to Vienne, where its ninth-century bishop Ado compiled a martyrology that sealed Rome's future as the “city of saints.”

Methodologically, Rome's Holy Mountain and City of Saints are excellent examples of interdisciplinary scholarship in the service of cultural history. While neither book is primarily concerned with assessing the archaeological, art historical, or epigraphic records per se, both draw intelligently and inventively on the material evidence in order to illustrate the possible range of meanings that a particular space may have evoked for a late Roman and/or early medieval audience. Moralee, for instance, draws attention to physical evidence for possible Ostrogothic-era renovations of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Chapter Three) only to then show how the “Capitoline Temple” also lived on in the imagination of Roman hagiographers as the site Christian persecution and graphic martyrdoms (Chapter Five). The two developments, Moralee makes clear, are not causally related; rather, they illustrate two different ways of knowing and experiencing the Capitoline Hill in Late Antiquity, which are both linked to the hill's celebrated past as a place of imperial power. For Maskarinec, material and textual sources interact more directly. Perhaps the best case study she offers of this complex interplay between physical space and literary source appears in Chapter Three, in her discussion of a (no longer extant) chapel on the Palatine dedicated in the later sixth century to St. Caesarius, a martyr from Terracina. She shows how Caesarius' Latin passio presented Rome's early Byzantine leaders, whom she proposes as the likely founders of the chapel, with an appropriate inspiration for an imperial Christian topos, as a martyr whose life and death “revolves around the good health or prosperity (salus) of the Roman Empire” (58). Installed in what had once been the Domus Augustana-Flavia (that is, in the former imperial complex) as a new symbol of imperial presence in Rome, S. Caesarius's chapel would play yet another role in Rome's evolving Christian topography during the eighth century, when it not only generated a new legend about the saint and the translation of his relics that was designed to rebuff theological overreach from Constantinople, but also contributed to a second act for the Palatine Hill as a papal center of power, when John VII (r. 705–707 CE) apparently opted to make it, rather than the Lateran, the site of his episcopium.

Moreover, both authors draw liberally and (for the most part) with learned circumspection on texts that are often excluded from studies of Rome's history because of their complexity: sources such as the Actus Silvestri, which features prominently in Rome's Holy Mountain, and the Latin passio and translatio of S. Caesarius mentioned above. All of these texts circulated in multiple forms and versions during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, and thus can only be approximately dated. They also do not typically have modern scholarly editions. For Maskarinec in particular, the multiple iterations of these Latin and Greek hagiographical texts, often referred to collectively by scholars as the gesta martyrum and perhaps best known to readers through editions published by the Bollandists in the Acta Sanctorum, provide opportunities to trace changing conceptualizations of saints in Rome, though I am admittedly less confident than the author (and others) in our ability to date the various versions of the gesta even within a relative chronology. Nevertheless, both Moralee and Maskarinec offer readers a taste of woefully underused texts for studying late ancient and early medieval Rome as well as a guide for how they might be used judiciously as layered sources of ideas and perceptions about sanctity and space.

What also unites these two books is the authors' refusal to cede Rome either to the Classicists or to the Medievalists. Both are firm in their convictions that a late antique and early medieval Rome existed, and that both iterations of the city must be studied on their own terms, rather than as the end of one epoch or the beginning of another. The near absence of teleological assumptions in these books (not to mention all-powerful machinating popes “making Christian Rome”) allows the authors to present highly nuanced accounts of how Rome's urban spaces, people, and ideas about holiness variously developed. Of the two, Moralee's book is more squarely set within a continuist narrative, as he argues that “the Capitol's most enduring quality—its association with the raw power of empire” was never lost, even when the hill became a touchstone of anti-pagan Christian polemics. Maskarinec, on the other hand, makes the case for a break between postclassical and medieval Rome, and offers the supposedly wide-scale destruction of the city during the Gothic War (ca. 535–554 CE) as a possible cause for the caesura. To what extent the city's experience of the war (it was sieged three times) haunted Romans for the next century remains an open question; but there is little to no archaeological evidence of extensive damage to Rome's infrastructure from warfare that was not quickly repaired. Even more unlikely is the claim by both scholars that Justinian's so-called Pragmatic Sanction of 554 offered the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for post-Gothic War Rome, thereby providing the funds and institutional backing for Rome to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of disaster.3 Nevertheless, both rightly present Rome as a resilient city, and in this manner offer a definitive response to declensionist studies of late Roman cities by scholars such as Wolf Liebescheutz and Bryan Ward-Perkins, whose steadfast adherence to “before and after” narratives about imperial officials, monuments, and marbles occlude the kind of continual cultural and physical reworking of the cityscape that Moralee and Maskarinec so brilliantly illuminate.4

I must note, however, that neither author frames his or her study in these historiographical terms. In fact, both give the impression that Rome's urban history is somehow exceptional and unique, and thus cannot and should not be folded into any larger story about the trajectory of Mediterranean postclassical cities or, more importantly, the irreducibly complex relationship between Christian thought and social practice—what scholars call, for better or for worse, “Christianization.” To a certain extent, their reluctance to enter into these particular debates is understandable. Rome is, in many ways, an outlier. I mean this not only in the obvious sense, that it was the largest and most populous city in the late Roman and early medieval West, which remained economically and symbolically vibrant, at least in a relative sense. I also refer to the peculiar manner in which Rome is still too often studied: as a world onto itself, with vast bodies of sources and scholarship on even the smallest of sites or spaces that can easily overwhelm the scholar, not to mention the scholarly discussion. An attractive feature of both books is that the authors wear their erudition lightly, with most of the inside baseball nature of Roman studies relegated to the footnotes. Yet, both books are the products of a very particular scholarly genealogy, which privileges certain features of Rome's layered topography over others, namely those spaces that have something like “charisma,” a term that Moralee uses frequently to describe the ongoing affective pull of the Capitoline, but which I use here to describe the sort of emotional tug that we attribute to specific sites and monuments in Rome (arches, palaces, churches, chapels, fountains) that have been deemed worthy of our attention by scholars since the Renaissance if not earlier (indeed, the monks at Fulda who drew up the Einsieldn itinerary are certainly contributors to this tradition). We all want Rome to remain a living museum (even of spaces that may actually no longer exist), so we curate our scholarship in a manner that highlights a truly select array of star exhibitions. Unsurprisingly, and with a single limited exception, a comparative history of late antique and early medieval Rome with other urban centers has yet to be written.5

This brings me back to garbage. To be clear, garbage, like everything else in pre-modern Rome, has been extensively studied: from the mountain-high layers of Spanish amphorae placed in a landfill now known as Monte Testaccio to the remains of the monastic and workshop middens from the Crypta Balbi presently on display at the site's museum.6 However, what we have yet to unpack or even really approach is how postclassical Romans and foreign visitors knew and experienced a city that was marked by garbage sites in unused rooms and abandoned buildings, and where, as we move into the sixth century, dead bodies lay beside the living in burials situated inside the city walls.7 How did the presence of the dead and the proximity of decay contribute to Rome's resilience as a holy city? What did this Rome feel like? While perhaps not concerns for the Virginian (or Frankish) tourist, these are nevertheless questions that should shape future studies of the city.



The tagline “Roma fa schifo” is also the name of an online public bulletin board founded by a Roman resident in 2008 for locals to voice complaints about all matters of local government.


As reported by Sylvia Poggioli, “In Rome, Uncollected Trash Festers in Record Heat,” July 18, 2019; [accessed 15 February 2020].


Moralee, Rome's Holy Mountain, 91 and Maskarinec, City of Saints, 37–8.


J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, The Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) and Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


To the best of my knowledge, Richard Krautheimer, Three Christian Capitals: Topography and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) is the only book that compares late ancient Rome with other cities, or at least writes about Rome in relation to other urban centers. However, it focuses largely on ecclesiastical buildings.


For Monte Testaccio, see Emilio Rodríguez Almeida, Il Monte Testaccio: ambiente, storia, materiali (Rome: Quasar, 1984) and for the Crypta Balbi, see Daniele Manacorda, Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi (Electa: Milan, 2000). See also Paul Johnson, Economic Evidence and the Changing Nature of Urban Space in Late Antique Rome (Barcelona: Publicacions i Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona, 2012), which examines possible correlations between new refuse sites within the city in areas such as the Forum Romanum and Palatine Hill, and changing patterns of economic exchange.


The study that gets the closest to what I envision here is a study of Rome's walls: see Hendrik Dey, The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, AD 271–855 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).