Saturday, March 09, 2019

The Oratory of the Forty Martyrs in the Roman Forum

March 9th is the original day for the feast of the Forty Martyrs, who were killed at Sebaste in Armenia under the Roman Emperor Licinius, around 320 AD. They were a group of soldiers of the Twelfth Legion who refused to renounce the Faith, and after various tortures, were condemned to die a particularly horrible death, stripped naked and left to freeze on the ice of a frozen lake. Their feast is still kept on this day, and with great solemnity, in the East, but in the West, they were moved forward to the 10th after the canonization of St Frances of Rome, who died on the same day in 1440.

A 10-century ivory relief icon of the Forty Martyrs, made in Constantinople, now in the Bodemuseum in Berlin. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the sixth century, Italy was wracked by a series of devastating wars fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogothic kings for control of the peninsula. A series of new churches dedicated to Greek soldier Saints was then constructed in Rome, which was the focus of much of the fighting, on sites associated with the city’s political history, a way of presenting the Byzantine Emperor and his armies as both the liberators of the city and the preservers of its history and tradition. St George in Velabro, from which one could see the site on the Palatine Hill where Romulus founded Rome, is followed by St Theodore, barely an eighth of a mile away. An oratory dedicated to the Forty Martyrs was then made out of a building of the early 2nd century, less than a tenth of a mile from St Theodore. From there, it was a short walk across the Forum to the ancient senate house known as the Curia Julia (originally built by Julius Caesar, but reconstructed after a fire by Diocletian in the 280s), transformed into a church dedicated to St Adrian. Right next to it was built another small oratory, now demolished, dedicated to Ss Sergius and Bacchus; its bell-tower was perched on top of one of the Forum’s most prominent landmarks, the Arch of Septimius Severus.

In 847, a massive landslide off the Palatine, caused by an earthquake, buried the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, along with the nearby church of Santa Maria Antiqua, and both structures were abandoned and forgotten about. The Oratory was not rediscovered until 1901 during an excavation campaign in the Forum, which lies well within the Tiber’s flood plain, and was deeply buried. A fair amount of fresco work remains within the building; although none of it is in particularly good condition, there is enough to get a sense of what it originally would have looked like.

The martyrdom of the Forty, depicted in the apse, which was added to the original structure to transform it into an oratory. On the right is seen a defector leaving their company, whose place was taken by one of their guards.
The Forty Martyrs glorified in heaven.
The remains of a band of decoration to the left of the apse.
Remains of the decorations to the right of the apse.
On the south wall, six stories of monastic lives were depicted, but they are too badly deteriorated to identify clearly.
 A funerary inscription dedicated to “Amantius”.
Remains of the decorative pavement; the fragments of green and purple material were certainly recovered from the ruins of the great imperial structures in the Forum.
The oratory is seen from above, from the Palatine hill, in the middle of this photograph; the roof is of course a modern reconstruction.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: