This is an unflinching book, determined to set the record straight and overthrow the long-cherished notion that the Romans of late ancient Rome gave any credence whatsoever to the cultural complex that modern scholars commonly shorthand as the Cult of the Saints. Although elsewhere across the empire late ancient folks venerated the bodies of the holy dead, such “strange” practices, Denzey Lewis argues, “never caught on in Rome” (345). Indeed, the much-hullabalooed late antique “corporeal turn” passed through the city on the Tiber with barely a “shudder” (344). In late antique Rome, contrary to scholarly consensus, the corpse “never transcended the torpid world of decay and dissolution” (155). Consequently, observable changes (let alone continuities) in Roman urban topography, burial customs, or social and political manners have nothing whatsoever to do with any sanctity that contemporary Romans granted to the martyrs’ tombs. Why have so many historians thought otherwise? Hoodwinked by Counter-Reformation scholarship and the archaeological agenda of a nineteenth-century papacy committed to the materiality of the sacred, both of which skewed or falsified late antique Rome’s evidential record, they have too sheepishly followed the lead of Peter Brown into a land where late ancient Christianity seems to be little more than a feverish attachment to bones and dust.

To clear space for this conceptual revolution, Denzey Lewis bulldozes familiar landmarks one by one: late ancient Romans may have rewired collective memory to accommodate Christianity’s rising energy, but the new circuits bypassed the corpses of the special dead. The Constantinian suburban basilicas were situated without a thought given to the martyrs’ tombs (315–28). Not even Old St. Peter’s (whose dating problems are largely sidestepped) was in origin a martyrial basilica, if we take that to mean that the building’s fourth-century patrons and public actually cared if “Peter’s bones” were beneath the main altar. In fact, Peter’s “corporeal body” was the “least significant” of the “multiple instantiations” of Peter in Rome (168). Damasus, “one of the darlings of Catholic historiography” (90), fares no better. His widely heralded epigraphic program devoted to aggrandizing the tombs of the martyrs was “unimpressive” (154), and his catacomb interventions “relatively unnoticed” (344). Jerome and Prudentius, also eyewitnesses, were no less “mistaken” if they “thought Rome had shifted its priorities and boundaries to refocus on the martyrs” (81). Nor did the graves of ordinary Romans fall into orbit around the city’s saints; depositio ad sanctos is a chimera. “Money and power,” not an alleged attraction to the “sanctity” of holy relics, determined who got “the best seats in the house” (340). In fact, the very idea of the “Christian catacombs” is a “mirage” (12), an illusion upon which scholars have erected “an imaginary ancient Christianity” (264). That underground fantasy world is, it turns out, almost entirely the product of early modern prestidigitation, fashioned from the smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand of sixteenth- and nineteenth-century Catholic historians and archaeologists. San Callisto’s Crypt of the Popes, for example, is not a third-century papal burial chamber but a late nineteenth-century hall of fame fabricated largely by the eminent papal archaeologist, epigrapher, and historian Giovanni Battista de Rossi; and, although there were clearly Jews in late ancient Rome, they did not form a “community” (Denzey Lewis prefers, I think smartly, to speak of “small group religion” [292]) nor did they fence off their dead in exclusive “Jewish catacombs,” an “invented entity” of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (252). In sum, the “Cult of the Saints in Roman late antiquity” is “an illusion crafted a thousand years later” (12). That the phenomenon continues to beguile scholars is testimony to the clever misrepresentations of generations of early modern Catholic scholars and clerics. Pull back the curtain and the mirage dissolves.

The Early Modern Invention of Late Antique Rome is at once tremendously engaging, provocative, and frustrating. Wistfully drawn portraits of the pioneers of the age of catacomb discovery (Antonio Bosio, de Rossi, and others) sit alongside sketches of the author finding her way through the labyrinths of Rome’s underground scholarship, digging into folio-size volumes, and slyly interrogating catacomb guides who continue to toe the party line (265). The book opens with a disarming vignette of the author as a student chancing upon the glass-encased “shrunken saints” of Monselice’s Oratory of San Giorgio, her “horror and fascination” mounting in a manner evocative of the young Gibbon’s bemusement as he listened to barefooted friars singing vespers in the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter. Perhaps consequently, Denzey Lewis is often most convincing when unmasking early modern agendas. Her lengthy chapter (251–96) deconstructing the “Jewish catacombs” issues a serious challenge by querying both the early modern construction of identity categories and the provenance of the “Jewish” inscriptions and artifacts that eventually found homes in the galleries and cubicula of the Monteverde and Vigna Randanini cemeteries. Here and throughout she offers salient reminders of the obligation to read closely and critically the nineteenth-century corpora and monographs that first collected, arranged, and interpreted so much of the documentary and material evidence that has since then been employed to illuminate religion and society in late ancient Rome. At the same time, however, too many arguments dismissing the witness of that evidence stand shakily on the kinds of “wishful thinking” and “half-truths” that Denzey Lewis herself decries (265). Straw men are toppled: Is scholarship on Rome’s “circiform” basilicas truly “thin and generally ignored” (316)? Who still argues that the leadership claims of Rome’s fourth-century bishops were uncontested (120–23) or doubts that Petrine doctrine continued to evolve well into the fifth century (192–93)? Evidence is shoehorned or shaved to fit. The depositio martyrum, whose catalog of saints notes the cemetery or roadway where each martyr is buried, “is really about the Christianization of time, not of space” (85). Why not the obvious “both”? Prudentius’s poetic accounts of Roman martyr cult are benched as merely “rhetorical posturing and exaggeration” (45), as if only sober documentarians tell truths. Part of the case for demoting “Peter’s bones” draws on a set of inscriptions from a Spoletine basilica dedicated to Peter in the early fifth century. The argument highlights one text that records that church’s eventual acquisition of filings from Peter’s chains while soft-pedaling an earlier companion inscription (Inscriptiones Christianae Italiae Septimo Saeculo Antiquiores 6.45–46) whose very burden had been to counter the Roman claim that papal Petrine authority derived from the city’s possession of Peter’s corpus and venerabile sepulcrum (196–98).

Moreover, even a sympathetic reader will be frustrated by how fast and loose the rules of evidence can be played. Epigraphic material, prominent throughout, offers a case in point. Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae Septimo Saeculo Antiquiores (ICUR) 8.20752, quoted but not identified (323), is inexplicably relocated from the Via Nomentana Basilica of Agnes, where it belongs, to the adjacent mausoleum of Constantina, where it better supports the argument that the Constantinian ambulatory basilicas (such as that dedicated to Agnes by Constantina) initially had no relationship to martyr cult (315–28). ICUR 4.10183, discussed at some length (246–48), is miscited as ICUR 4.10584 and transcribed and translated with errors. Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres (ILCV) 2148 is clumsily cited as ILCV #2,148. More importantly, because this “famous” fragmentary epitaph appears to provide evidence for an interest in depositio ad sanctos at Rome, it is suggestively tarred with the brush of “early modern forgery” (300–301). After all, the stone is missing and the editor of ILCV, Ernest Diehl, was “an armchair epigrapher” who seldom bothered to check “the originals” (301). In fact, it was de Rossi who filled the relevant lacuna ex ingenio and published the text in ICUR 1 (1861) from a copy made by Gaetano Marini (1742–1815). And then simple carelessness or disinterest: Pelagius II, not Honorius I, was pope from 579–90 and the builder of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (324); Eudoxia, not her mother, the empress Eudocia, would have brought the chains of Peter to Rome (196); the plan of the Basilica Apostolorum did not mirror that of Old St. Peter’s (199); a “sermon” preached by Paulinus at Nola in 397 (191) must be a reference to one of his poetic Natalicia, but no citation is given and the allusion is vague; there is, in fact, ample evidence that the body of Agnes was (considered) present “at her site on the Via Nomentana” long before the late eighth century (157); and so on.

In the end, this study’s thesis is strained and many of its claims forced. Yet Denzey Lewis’s panorama, admirable for the variety and vividness of its scenes, does expose a middle ground still insufficiently explored. Here, in the gap between what the ancient evidence can tell us and what early modern observers chose to see, scholars can build on Denzey Lewis’s insights and respond to her challenges, rounding the edges of her absolutes while acknowledging both the early modern “invention” of Christian Rome and the roles the entombed martyrs played in the society, economy, and psychology of the complicated, fractious, late ancient city. Indeed, in her final chapter (especially 346–62), Denzey Lewis herself sketches a more moderate approach to the problem of Rome’s Christianization, one that highlights historiographic adjustments already under way but too often downplayed in earlier chapters. Although she is still intent here on excising the Cult of the Saints from her narrative, in many ways this coda is the perfect beginning.

Dennis Trout
University of Missouri