Dr. Douglas Boin, a history professor at Saint Louis University, recently announced an important archaeological discovery at the annual meeting of the American Archaeological Institute. Dr. Boin and his team uncovered the remains of an ancient Roman temple in Italy that provides significant new insights into how Roman society transitioned from worshipping pagan gods to adopting Christianity as the empire converted to the new dominant religion.

Located in the modern town of Spello, about 20 minutes from Assisi and 2.5 hours north of Rome, the temple ruins date back to the 4th century AD during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Three standing walls from a large monumental structure were uncovered that Boin believes were part of a Roman temple from this time period. This discovery will greatly aid our understanding of the ancient city, its urban landscape, and the late Roman society it represents, said Boin, as it shows the continuities between the classical pagan world and the early Christian Roman world that histories often overlook.

Boin and his team made the monumental discovery this past summer while excavating in Spello. Boin, an expert in ancient Rome’s religious transitions, chose to excavate here after finding an 18th century inscription referring to a 4th century letter from Constantine to Spello’s residents regarding a religious festival they were allowed to hold locally instead of traveling far to another site.

However, the letter indicated the residents would need to erect and worship a temple dedicated to Constantine’s divine ancestors, the Flavian family, showing how multi-cultural Roman society remained at this time.

According to Boin, There was notable religious continuity between the Roman and early Christian worlds. Things did not change overnight. Prior to the discovery, historians had little physical evidence of late imperial cult worship under Christian emperors. But the Spello inscription mentioning a temple offered promising potential. Boin traveled there and used ground-penetrating radar to search for ruins below the modern city streets. After weeks of scanning, images revealed structures under a parking lot that could be the remnants of the mentioned temple.

Carefully excavating the soil, Boin’s team uncovered two adjoining walls. Continued digging revealed what Boin believes are the temple’s interior walls. This makes it the largest known example of 4th century imperial cult worship not just in Italy but across the entire late Roman Empire according to Boin.

We knew pagans still worshipped in temples in the 4th century, but those finds have all been small and insignificant. And we knew Christians supported the imperial cult, just not where it took place. This temple bridges that gap in a way no other 4th century Mediterranean site does, he explained.

The discovery shows how slowly social changes occurred even after Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 4th century. It would take another 70 years until the Christian religion became officially dominant across the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius I. During this transition period, gradual convincing was still needed for pagans to adopt the new faith as well.

As Boin said, This single building radically changes our perception of the pace of social change and impact of cultural transitions. It shows the resilience of pagan traditions with deep roots for centuries before Christianity, and how Roman emperors continued negotiating values and visions for the empire without rejecting the past.

Boin and his team plan to return to Spello next summer to fully excavate the temple site and uncover more about its construction and use. Cultural changes are never as clear-cut as we imagine with hindsight. There were many gray areas between people’s customs, wider society, and culture in general. And history often misses aspects like this temple’s role representing imperial rule during Rome’s Christianization, said Boin. I’m excited we can now shine a light on it. The temple’s discovery provides valuable new context for understanding Rome’s gradual religious transition from paganism to Christianity.


Sources

Saint Louis University


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