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The Monuments of the Velabrum

Gregory DiPippo

Today we tie together a couple of our recent posts, yesterday’s about the Roman custom of the Lenten station churches, and one from last month about the damnatio memoriae of the Emperor Geta. The Lenten station today is held at a church dedicated to the martyred soldier St George, which stands in a low-lying region called the Velabrum, close to both the Tiber and the Palatine hill. The meaning of this name is unknown; medieval writers fancifully derived it from “velum aureum – golden sail.” This was a place of tremendous historical importance to the Romans. It is very close to a bend in the river which was said to be where the basket carrying the infant Romulus and his brother Remus came to rest, and where they were discovered and nursed by a she-wolf before being taken in by a shepherd and his wife. When standing in front of the church, one can look up and see the site on the Palatine of an ancient settlement said to be the place where Romulus himself lived; a wooden hut believed to be his very house was still to be seen there in the early decades of the 4th century AD.

The church was originally also dedicated to another soldier and martyr, one associated directly with Rome in a way that George is not; namely, Sebastian, who is traditionally said to have been the captain of the imperial bodyguards at the time of the last and worst of the ancient persecutions of the Church, that of the Emperor Diocletian. It seems very likely that this dedication was determined by the church’s proximity to the Palatine, most of which was occupied by the official imperial residence, (and from which the word “palace” is derived). The victors of the Roman persecution, Sebastian and George, are celebrated with proper Christian humility in a low place, while the monument of the persecuting power, the very place from which the edict of persecution was issued and enforced, stands in ruins on a high place.

(The church of St George in the Velabrum, with the arch described below to the left of its porch. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Zello, CC BY-SA 3.0

Next to the church, and partially incorporated into one of its walls, stands the Arch of the Money-changers (“argentarii”), erected in the year 204 by the money-changers and cattle merchants who practiced their trade in the area. Per the inscription on the architrave, it was dedicated to the then-reigning Emperor Septimius Severus, with his sons and co-emperors Caracalla and Geta, but its specific function, if indeed it had one, is unknown. After the assassination of Geta in 212, and the “condemnation of his memory”, his name was erased from the inscription, and his image chiseled off one of the panels on the inside of the arch.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Diletta Menghinello, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Just a few steps away from them both stands a large structure of the early to mid-4th century AD known as the Arch of Janus, the purpose of which is also unknown. Like several other constructions of its era, such as the Ponte Cestio, the bridge on the south side of the Tiber Island, it was made mostly out of material despoiled from older buildings. In the 12th or 13th century, a powerful family called the Frangipane turned it into a fortress. In 1827, the arch fell victim to one of the more famous mistakes of modern archeology. The upper story was demolished in the belief that it was added by the Frangipane, but better research on the structure has revealed that this was an original part of it; this mistake is what accounts for the oddly squat feel that it now has.

(Image left: the arch of Janus in an engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78). Image right: the arch as its stands today. Photo by LivioAndronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0)  

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