The Basilica of St. Paul's Outside The Walls

A description of the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

Written 1892.

(A Victorian traveler and archaeology enthusiast surveys the pagan temples, monuments, Christian memorials, catacombs, and churches as they existed in the late 1800s in Rome.  He spends a lot of time exploring St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.}


“Christian Churches;”

being Chapter III of

Pagan and Christian Rome

by Rodolfo Lanciani

published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company

Boston and New York, 1892

and transcribed onto the web by Bill Thayer as part of his LacusCurtius project:*.html#sec24

(Transcribers footnotes removed for clarity.)

Wonder has been manifested at the behavior of Constantine towards S. Paul, whose basilica at the second milestone of the Via Ostiensis appears like a pigmy structure in comparison to that of S. Peter. Constantine had no intention of placing S. Paul in an inferior rank, or of showing less honor to his memory. He was compelled by local circumstances to raise a much smaller building to this apostle. As before stated, there were three rules which builders of sacred memorial edifices had to observe: first, that the tomb-altar of the saint in whose honor the building was to be erected should not be molested or moved from its original place either vertically or horizontally; second, that the edifice should be adapted to the tomb so as to give it a place of honor in the centre of the apse; third, that the apse and the front of the edifice should look towards the east. The position of S. Peter's tomb in relation to the circus of Nero and the cliffs of the Vatican was such as to give the builders of the basilica perfect freedom to extend it in all directions, especially lengthwise. This was not the case with that of S. Paul, which was only •a hundred feet distant from an obstacle which could not be overcome, — the high-road to Ostia, the channel by which the city of Rome was fed. The road to Ostia ran east of the grave; hence the necessity of limiting the size of the church within these two points. Discoveries made in 1834, when the foundations of the present apse were strengthened, and again in 1850, when the foundations of the baldacchino of Pius IX. were laid have enabled Signor Paolo Belloni, the architect, to reconstruct the plan of the original building of Constantine. His memoir is full of useful information well illustrated. One of his illustrations, representing the comparative plans of the original and modern churches, is here reproduced.


The plan needs no comment, but one particular cannot be omitted. In the course of the excavations for the baldacchino, the remains of classical columbaria were found a few feet from the grave of the apostle, with their inscriptions still in place. He must, therefore, have been buried, like S. Peter, in a private area, surrounded by pagan tombs.

In 386 Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius asked Flavius Sallustius, prefect of the city, to submit to the Senate and the people a scheme for the reconstruction a fundamentis of the basilica, so as to make it equal in size and beauty to that of the Vatican. To fulfill this project, without disturbing either the grave of the apostle or the road to Ostia, there was but one thing to do; this was to change the orientation of the church from east to west, and extend it at pleasure towards the bank of the Tiber. The consent of the S. P. Q. R. was easily obtained, and the magnificent temple, which lasted until the fire of July 15, 1823, was thus raised so as to face in a direction opposite to the usual one.


The Burning of S. Paul's, July 15, 1823. (From an old print.)º

The name of Pope Siricius, who was then governing the church, can still be seen engraved on one of the columns, formerly in the left aisle, now in the north vestibule: —


Another rare monument of historical value, in spite of its humble origin, came to light at the beginning of the last century, and was published by Bianchini and Muratori, who failed, however, to explain its meaning. It is a brass label once tied to a dog's collar, with the inscription "[I belong] to the basilica of Paul the apostle, rebuilt by our three sovereigns [Valentinianus, Theodosius, and Arcadius]. I am in charge of Felicissimus the shepherd." Such inscriptions were engraved on the collars of dogs and slaves, so that in case they ran away from their masters, their legal ownership would be known at once by the police, or whoever chanced to catch them.

In course of time the basilica became the centre of a considerable group of buildings, especially of monasteries and convents.  There were also chapels, baths, fountains, hostelries, porticoes, cemeteries, orchards, farmhouses, stables, and mills. This small suburban city was exposed to a constant danger of pillage, on account of its location on the high-road from the coast.  In 846 it was ransacked by the Saracens, before the Romans could come to the rescue.  For these considerations, Pope John VIII (872-882) determined to put the church of S. Paul and its surroundings under shelter, and to raise a fort that could also command the approach to Rome from this most dangerous side.

The construction of Johannipolis, by which the history of the classical and early mediaeval fortifications of Rome is brought to a close, is described by one document only: an inscription above the gate of the castle, which was copied first by Cola di Rienzo, and later by Pietro Sabino, professor of rhetoric in the Roman archigymnasium (Sapienza), towards the end of the fifteenth century. A few fragments of this remarkable document are still preserved in the cloister of the monastery. It states that Pope John VIII. raised a wall for the defence of the basilica of S. Paul's and the surrounding churches, convents, and hospices, in imitation of that built by •Leo IV. for the protection of the Vatican suburb. The determination to fortify the sacred buildings at the second milestone of the Via Ostiensis was taken, as I have just said, in consequence of the inroads of the Saracens, which, under the pontificate of John, had become so frequent. The atrocities which marked their second landing on the Roman coast were so appalling that the whole of Europe was shaken with terror. Having failed in his attempt to secure help from Charles the Bald, John placed himself at the head of such scanty forces as he could gather from land and sea, under the pressure of events. Ships from several harbors in the Mediterranean met in the roads of Ostia; and on hearing that the hostile fleet had sailed from the bay of Naples, the Pope set sail at once. The gallant little squadron confronted the infidels under the cliffs of Cape Circeo, and inflicted upon them such a bloody defeat that the danger was averted, at least for a time. The church galleys came back to the mouth of the Tiber, laden with a considerable booty.

It seems that the advance fort of Johannipolis was finished and consecrated by Pope John soon after the naval battle of Cape Circeo (A.D. 877), because the inscription above referred to speaks of him as a triumphant leader, — SEDIS APOSTOLICAE PAPA JOHANNES OVANS.

The location of this fortified outpost could not have been more judiciously selected. It commanded the roads from Ostia, Laurentum, and Ardea, those, namely, from which the pirates could most easily approach the city. It commanded also the water-way by the Tiber, and the tow-paths on each of its banks. It is a great pity that no stone of this historical wall should be left standing. It saved the city from further invasions of the African pirates, as the agger of Servius Tullius had saved it, centuries before, from the attacks of the Carthaginians. I have examined the ground between S. Paul's, the Fosso di Grotta Perfetta, the Vigna de Merode, at the back of the apse, and the banks of the river, without finding a trace of the fortifications. I believe, however, that the wall which encloses the garden of the monastery on the south side runs on the same line with John's defences, and rests on their foundations. We must not wonder at the disappearance of Johannipolis, when we have proofs that even the quadri-portico, by which the basilica was entered from the river-side, has been allowed to disappear through the negligence and slovenliness of the monks. •Pope Leo I. erected in the centre of the quadri-portico a fountain crowned by a Bacchic Kantharos, and wrote on its epistyle a brilliant epigram, inviting the faithful to purify themselves bodily and spiritually, before presenting themselves to the apostle within. When Cola di Rienzo visited the spot, towards the middle of the fourteenth century, the monument was still in good condition. He calls it "the vase of waters (cantharus aquarum), before the main entrance (of the church) of the blessed Paul." One century later the whole structure had become a heap of ruins. Fra Giocondo da Verona looked in vain for the inscription of Leo I.; he could only find a fragment "lying among the nettles and thorns" (inter orticas et spineta). The same indifference was shown towards the edifices by which the basilica was surrounded. They fell, or were overthrown, one by one.

In 1633, when Giovanni Severano wrote his book on the Seven Churches, only one bit of ruins could be identified, the door and apse of the church of S. Stephen, to which a powerful convent had once been attached. Stranger still is the total destruction of the portico, two thousand yards long, which connected the city gate — the Porta Ostiensis — with the basilica. This portico was supported by marble columns, one thousand at least, and its roof was covered with sheets of lead. Halfway between the gate and S. Paul's, it was intersected by a church, dedicated to an Egyptian martyr, S. Menna. The church of S. Menna, the portico, its thousand columns, even its foundation walls, have been totally destroyed. A document discovered by Armellini in the archives of the Vatican says that some faint traces of the building (vestigia et parietes) could be still recognized in the time of Urban VI. This is the last mention made by an eye-witness.

Here, also, we find the evidence of the gigantic work of destruction pursued for centuries by the Romans themselves, which we have been in the habit of attributing to the barbarians alone. The barbarians have their share of responsibility in causing the abandonment and the desolation of the Campagna; they may have looted and damaged some edifices, from which there was hope of a booty; they may have profaned churches and oratories erected over the tombs of martyrs; but the wholesale destruction, the obliteration of classical and mediaeval monuments, is the work of the Romans and of their successive rulers. To them, more than to the barbarians, we owe the present condition of the Campagna, in the midst of which Rome remains like an oasis in a barren solitude.

S. Paul was executed on the Via Laurentina, near some springs called Aquae Salviae, where a memorial chapel was raised in the fifth century. Its foundations were discovered in 1867, under the present church of S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane (erected in the seventeenth century by Cardinal Aldobrandini) together with historical inscriptions written in Latin and Armenian. I have also to mention another curious discovery. The apocryphal Greek Acts of S. Paul, edited by Tischendorff assert that the apostle was beheaded near these springs under a stone pine. In 1875, while the Trappists, who are now intrusted with the care of the Abbey of the Tre Fontane, were excavating for the foundations of a water-tank behind the chapel, they found a mass of coins of Nero, together with several pine-cones fossilized by age, and by the pressure of the earth.


Tombstone of S. Paul.

The "Liber Pontificalis," i. 178, asserts that Constantine placed the body of S. Paul in a coffin of solid bronze; but no visible trace of it is left. I had the privilege of examining the actual grave December 1, 1891, lowering myself from the fenestella {n.b. fenestella – an oval or circular opening to allow light into a dome or vault} under the altar. I found myself on a flat surface, paved with slabs of marble, on one of which (placed negligently in a slanting direction) are engraved the words: PAVLO APOSTOLO MART. . .

The inscription belongs to the fourth century. It has been illustrated since by my kind and learned friend, Prof. H. Grisar, to whom I am indebted for much valuable information on subjects which do not come exactly within my line of studies.

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Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray