Roman Imperial Cult Temple Unearthed Beneath a Parking Lot in Italy

The pagan temple sheds new light on the empire’s gradual embrace of Christianity

Aerial View
An aerial view of the temple walls unearthed north of Rome Luca Primavesi / Spello Project

In a small town north of Rome, researchers have unearthed a 1,600-year-old temple dedicated to a Roman emperor’s ancestors. Built during the reign of Constantine in the fourth century C.E., the structure sheds light on the empire’s transition from pagan worship to Christianity.

As Saint Louis University historian Douglas Boin recently announced at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, he and his team discovered three walls of the “monumental structure” in Spello, Italy, during excavations last summer.

“It will significantly aid in the understanding of the ancient town, the ancient townscape and city society in the later Roman Empire,” says Boin in a statement. “It shows the continuities between the classical pagan world and early Christian Roman world that often get blurred out or written out of the sweeping historical narratives.”

Temple Walls With Tent
The temple was discovered in Spello, Italy. Douglas Boin / Spello Project

Boin first came to Spello because of a letter Constantine wrote to the townspeople during his reign. The rescript—an authoritative message from an emperor—was rediscovered in the 1700s and is now on display in Spello’s town hall, reports Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. In it, Constantine granted Spello’s people permission to celebrate a religious festival in their own town, rather than making the long journey to another, under one condition: They must build a temple dedicated to worshipping Constantine’s imperial ancestors.

At the time, the Roman Empire was in the midst of a dramatic cultural shift. After worshiping pagan gods like Jupiter, Juno and Minerva for centuries, its people were increasingly accepting Christianity. Constantine helped lead this transition, issuing a decree permitting Christian worship in 313 C.E.

The fourth-century rescript indicates, though, that the emperor entertained different religious values simultaneously: In addition to Christianity, he appears to have supported “imperial cult” traditions, which were based on the old Roman belief that emperors were divine figures.

Team Working
Boin thought the temple might be in Spello based on a letter written by Constantine. Douglas Boin / Spello Project

“The idea that Constantine is just as involved in promoting a pagan cult of the emperors as he is [in] embracing his own newfound Christianity is just one of these weird chapters in history I personally love,” Boin tells St. Louis Public Radio’s Elaine Cha. “It shows us that our neat and tidy way of understanding the past zigzags a lot more than we might be comfortable admitting.”

In Spello, Boin’s team performed underground imaging to scan for potential archaeological sites. Based on their findings, they decided to excavate the ground beneath a parking lot, where they unearthed what Boin thinks are the temple’s internal walls. He calls the find the most significant evidence of imperial cult practices in the late Roman Empire.

“There’s evidence from other places throughout the Roman world that Christian rulers supported imperial cult practices,” says Boin. “We’ve known that pagans worshiped at their temples in the fourth century, but those findings have all been small and inconsequential. And we’ve known that Christians supported the imperial cult, and we’ve known that without any sense of where it would have happened.”

Boin and Team
Historian Douglas Boin, of Saint Louis University, pictured with his team at the archaeological site Douglas Boin / Spello Project

The newly discovered structure bridges these gaps in the historical record, he adds. “Any study of the imperial cult in the fourth-century Roman Empire is now going to have to take account of this temple.”

As Boin tells Newsweek, the temple was likely used for at least two generations, until officials prohibited pagan practices near the end of the fourth century. The temple’s continuous use through a period of cultural change illustrates its role as a unifying force.

“This building, in a very radical way on its own, shows us the staying power of the pagan traditions that had been on the ground for centuries prior to the rise of Christianity,” says Boin in the statement. “It shows us how the Roman emperors continued to negotiate their own values, their own hopes and dreams for the future of the emperor and the empire without knocking down or burying the past.”

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