Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.):
S. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, Italy.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum):
424 CE to 434 CE
This inscription was set up between 424 and 434 CE, by the emperor Valentinian III, his mother Galla Placidia and sister Honoria in Rome; it celebrated their gift and installation of mosaics in the chapel of St Helena, the mother of Constantine, which was the holiest part of a basilica and titular church consecrated on the Esquiline site in c. 325 CE, designed to hold the relics that she brought of Christ’s crucifixion from Jerusalem. Although the inscription and mosaics have been lost since the sixteenth century, the inscription is an important source for the “Christianisation” of Jerusalem in the 4th century CE, as well as the use of biblical references to make politico-religious statements about imperial power.
Valentinian III (419 – 455 CE) was the son of Galla Placidia and Flavius Constantius; his mother was the half-sister of Honorius, the emperor in the west, while his father was a patrician, often described as the “power behind the throne” (Martindale, PLRE II, p. 323). Valentinian had been recognised as nobilissimus by Honorius at a very young age, but this honour was not acknowledged by Theodosius II, emperor in the east, until the usurper Joannes took the western throne in 423 CE, following the death of Honorius. Valentinian’s father Flavius Constantius (who had died in 421 CE) was posthumously named Augustus in the west by Theodosius, with Valentinian as his Caesar, in a bid to ensure both thrones through an alliance of mutual loyalty. After the defeat of Joannes at Ravenna, Valentinian was installed as the Western emperor in Rome in 425 CE, at the age of six years old (for detailed description of these events, see Blockley, “The Dynasty of Theodosius,” p. 111-138). For the next twelve years, Valentinian ‘ruled’ under the regency of his mother, Galla Placidia (for a history of her reign, see Oost, Galla Placidia Augusta and Sivan, Galla Placidia); having been based in Constantinople since 421 CE, following the death of his father, Valentinian, his mother and sister returned to Italy, and specifically to Rome, in 424 CE, after which this inscription was set up. The text records that they “fulfilled their vow” (votum solverunt) at the “sacred church Jerusalem” (sanctae ecclesiae Hierusalem); this ‘vow’ likely referred to the installation of a series of mosaics in the chapel of Helena, which remained until the sixteenth century, after which they were replaced. By 424 CE, the earliest possible date for Valentinian and Galla Placidia’s visit to the church, it had been one of the most important Christian sites for almost a century; the site of the church had originally held the Sessorian Palace, which had been begun by Septimius Severus and completed by Elagabalus between 190-211 CE (Krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae I.2, p. 165-195). The large complex of structures had remained an imperial residence through to the end of the third century CE, after which it became the traditional Roman residence of the Augusta Imperatrix Helena, the mother of Constantine. Having visited Jerusalem in 326 CE, she had returned to Rome with relics of Christ’s passion, including some fragments of the cross upon which he was crucified, the so-called “True Cross”; these were put on display in the imperial palace, in which a basilica was built around an earlier chapel (for Helena’s discovery of the cross, see Drijvers, Helena Augusta, p. 79-93. No contemporary author discusses the installation of the relic of the cross there, but it is described in the later 6th century CE Liber Pontificalis XXXIV.22). The floor of the basilica was supposedly also covered with soil from Jerusalem, essentially bringing Jerusalem to Rome; the “sacred church Jerusalem” referred, therefore, not to the church in Jerusalem itself, but rather to the sacred presence of Jerusalem in the traditional capital of the Roman empire.
It is worth noting here that Jerusalem’s status as the heart of the Christian faith had only emerged under Constantine and Helena; following Hadrian’s suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the ancient Jewish capital had been rebuilt as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina (see Renaming Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina for detailed discussion of this). The site of the Jewish Temple had been ploughed, numerous temples to Roman gods had been constructed, and a grid system had been implemented with the introduction of a cardo maximus and decumanus maximus which now crossed the city from north to south and east to west, lined with colonnades and bisecting the old Jewish centre. All trace of its Jewish traditions had been eliminated. The Christian community, however, had been permitted to remain, and it grew slowly until the early fourth century, when it started to emerge as a destination of Christian pilgrimage (Join-Lambert, Jerusalem, p. 105-108). Following his defeat of Maxentius in Rome and the death of Licinius, Constantine expressed an interest in Jerusalem that aimed at demonstrating his favour for the Christian communities of the empire; he agreed to the request of Macarius, bishop of Aelia Capitolina, for permission to rediscover the Christian Holy Places of Jerusalem and to ensure their preservation, beginning with excavations beneath the forum of the city and the destruction of the Hadrianic Temple of Venus (Join-Lambert, Jerusalem, p. 107-108). The discovery of the tomb of Christ in these excavations was recorded by Eusebius, who narrated that Constantine subsequently decided to build a sanctuary at that site, which became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre following Helena’s arrival in the city and discovery of the relics of Christ’s passion (Eusebius, Life of Constantine III.24-43; Join-Lambert, Jerusalem, p. 108-111; Walker, Holy City, Holy Place?, p. 235-281). The construction of the Holy Sepulchre complex “restored Jerusalem’s status as a religious centre to an extent that she had not known since the destruction of the Temple,” ensuring the Christian identity not only of the site, but by extension of the whole city (Join-Lambert, Jerusalem, p. 111).
The dedication of the mosaics by Valentian III, Galla Placidia and Honoria in Rome recognises the importance of Jerusalem as the seat of Christianity, as well as the connection between the city and the historic capital of Rome that had been forged by Constantine and his mother. However, the inscription also records a statement of contemporary political and religious ideology that was particular to Valentinian’s rule; the first line of the inscription implores “the kings of the earth and of all people, prince and all judges of the earth” (reges terrae et omnes populi, princeps et omnes iudices terrae) that they might “praise the name of the Lord” (laudent nomen domini). Antonio Felle has noted that this line is in fact a close citation of verses 11-13 of Psalm 148, which proclaims: “kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the Lord.” The first part of verse 12, which appeals to the young men, women, elderly and children, has been omitted here, perhaps in order to emphasise the direct connection between the reges terrae – the “kings of the earth” represented by Valentinian and his household – and the sacred text (Felle, “Loci scritturistici,” p. 72). The use of the psalmic verse in an otherwise ex voto dedication linked the emperor to both political and religious spheres, highlighting his religiosity and devotion whilst also making a connection between heavenly power and its representation in the form of the imperial family.
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