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Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

Obviously, the subtitle of this post is not true. Not strictly. How could it be, after all, when Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 CE, and respected chief priest of it too, probably didn’t even know who the bishop of Rome then was, if there even was one, which some have doubted?1

Silver denarius of Emperor Hadrian struck at Rome in 134-138 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R1131

Silver denarius of Emperor Hadrian struck at Rome in 134-138 CE, showing him making a public sacrifice on the reverse, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R1131

And yet history does funny things in a city where as much of it has piled up together as in Rome (because, yes, this is another photo post from my trip to Rome in summer 2017). And a lot of it has piled into this building.

Distant view of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, from a bridge over the Tiber

Distant view of the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, from a bridge over the Tiber

The day after we went to the Pantheon, you see, we did the Museo Vaticano. That is a weird experience; it would reach its full development if they just installed a moving walkway through the palace and put recordings of guards saying “Be quiet!” in the Sistine Chapel instead of the actual guards being there to do it. There is an incredible amount of stuff to see, and not much time per item, so that by the end you are tired, harassed and inattentive, and quite glad to escape, or at least we were.

Encaustic portrait of an Egyptian man in the Museo Vaticano

Of course, they do have a massive amount of stuff, some of which is very famous, like this encaustic portrait from Fayum of c. 250 CE. But photography is also clearly forbidden so obviously I can’t show you any such stuff…

So once we were out and had fortified ourselves, we toddled a very short distance down the Tiber to that building I just showed you, and what this is is the Castel Sant’Angelo. But what it was is Hadrian’s mausoleum.

Exterior view of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Exterior view from the approach to the queue to enter

Obviously it’s changed a bit since he had it done.

Reconstruction maquette of the Mauseoleum of Hadrian in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

They have this handy reconstruction maquette of the possible original configuration near the exit

The exact path of that change is a bit unclear to start with. The last emperor recorded buried in it was Caracalla in 217, apparently, but as with so much in Roman history serious trouble overcame what constraints there might have been on its use and it was converted into a fortress in 401 and incorporated into the city walls, shortly before the very young Emperor Honorius decided to move his whole operation to the rather safer Ravenna. Then the Goths sacked it in 410 and after that it’s quite unclear what happened to the imperial burials.2 Ironically, by 537 the positions were reversed and the place was literally weaponised against the Goths (different Goths, though, the Ostrogoths who had ruled the city since 493 on a suddenly-withdrawn imperial mandate3):

But the Goths kept pressing vigorously upon them… and they were already about to set their ladders against the wall, having practically surrounded those who were fighting from the tomb… and for a short time consternation fell upon the Romans, who knew not what means of defence they should employ to save themselves, but afterwards by common agreement they broke in pieces the most of the statues, which were very large, and taking up great numbers of stones thus secured, threw them with both hands down upon the heads of the enemy, who gave way before this shower of missiles.4

It’s hard to imagine a great deal being left of Hadrian’s plan by this stage, therefore, though Procopius still calls it the Tower of Hadrian, so that much was known. But there’s more. The Goths had, according to Procopius, got so close to the defenders by means of a colonnade that allowed hidden entry into the precinct of the castle (as I think we have by now to call it). And that’s still there, or at least one is.

View from above of the colonnaded passage from the Vatican to the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Here it is, snaking across the ground, with the pope perhaps even then within unbeknownst! Probably not though.

What’s at the other end, you may ask, and the answer is, the Church of Saint Peter. That was even true in Procopius’s day, but of course at that point Saint Peter was, while an important church, not what it would become, which is of course, the Vatican. Up until the, well, the period of the Middle Ages where I stop knowing dates, really, the papal centre of operations was Saint John Lateran, but as soon as the papal operations moved to the Vatican, of course it became quite useful that there was a covered passage between it and this highly defensible structure.

Exterior view of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, from the visitor's entry

It is quite defensible still

You see, largely because of Pope Gregory I, whom we mentioned last post but one, and his battles there described with the Byzantine administration in the face of the Lombard threat, the maintenance of imperial property within the city had more or less become the task of the papacy. So this erstwhile pagan mausoleum, already much looted but also established as a fortress at one of the gates in the city wall, became papal property by this kind of defaulted transfer of empire.5 Pope Leo IV put a small chapel on the very top of it dedicated to the Archangel Michael, because of a legend about Gregory I (again) seeing the angel there, and that’s where its current name comes from. And thus the popes had a castle, of sorts, right in the centre of Rome.

View of the city of Rome from the walls of the Castel Sant'Angelo

A view from the top. Just for context, that huge dome at middle left of this picture is the Pantheon again

Even before the move to the Vatican, therefore, the popes had occasionally taken refuge in it. It helps to understand the way Pope Gregory VII could hold out here against the forces of Emperor Henry IV at the height of their effective dispute over supreme power in 1084, and then again against the people of the city the next year after his Norman mercenaries had enraged everybody in it, and how they could carry him off from here to Salerno in 1085 as a result, when you know that it’s actually at the city wall, and also that by this stage it was probably really quite fortified.6 The visitor to the site first goes round the curtain wall that sits outside the actual mausoleum…

View of the Mauseoleum of Haddian from the curtain wall of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

The central tower seen from the curtain wall

The central tower, curtain wall and inner space of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

The same shot’s context, showing the gap between main tower and wall, one of the towers on the wall and some of the interstices

… which is itself fairly loaded with defences even now, albeit some more modern museum pieces…

A mangonel, cannons and other weapons on a tower of the curtain wall of the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Catapult and cannons on one of the curtain wall’s towers, possibly not all authentic—but this stuff belongs to the papacy, so who knows, maybe it is!

… and then one enters the actual building and climbs the stairway within the wall, as if it were a huge Pictish broch.

Ascent within the Mausoleum of Hadrian, Rome

The stairs go round the square base, admittedly, so it’s not a spiral stair like a broch has, but give me my license, why don’t you

There are occasional signs on display of its Roman origins…

Late Roman amphora on display in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

A Roman amphora on display in a niche that presumably once held someone else

… but rather more of the fact that papal history has been messy and that the Swiss Guards, among others, have had to keep the pope safe here through a variety of eras.

Swords on display in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Display of probably-Renaissance swords

Revolver pistol and tools on display in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

More modern weaponry displayed with similar love and care

Still, just because you’re stuck here doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable, and some popes actually used it as an alternative residence to the Vatican at times, which means it’s been kept quite nice.

One of the papal chambers in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

One of the papal chambers

The papal throne-room in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

The papal throne-room, for those days when you’re working from home. Cutely, Hadrian himself is portrayed between the two doors at the end, looking suitably confused by developments…

And in the very middle of it is the Treasure Room, thought to be where the imperial urns were once stored, and which now holds a load of chests amid decoration proclaiming the role of Pope Paul III in making it just bit less funerary.

The Treasure Room in the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

The plaster and panelling do a pretty neat job of making it impossible to imagine the imperial mausoleum, really. But it’s very smart, isn’t it?

And so it is that what Hadrian thought would be his memorial turned out actually to be a commendably defensible citadel for one of the eventual leaders of a religion he probably considered at best a minor nuisance for his empire. It is now a museum, and has been since 1901, but it is still connected to the Vatican, so in time of need it might still serve… It’s a much more pleasant and manageable visitor experience than the Museo Vaticano, anyway, though I grant you that is not least because there is a fraction as much in it. But as an example of how the medieval era took over and reformatted the ancient city and now hides it from us even as it presents it, it’s hard to beat.


1. I admit to very limited research for Hadrian’s (lack of) knowledge of Christianity: Anthony Birley, Hadrian: the restless emperor (London 2000), suggests that Hadrian mainly renewed his predecessor’s Trajan’s legislation against persecuting Christians and otherwise left them alone (p. 127), though according to Eusebius a couple of Christians explicated the faith to him during his visit to Athens in 124-125, which Birley doubts (p. 183). As for the really early history of the papacy, obviously views vary, but try Markus Vinzent, “Rome”, in Margaret Mary Mitchell & Frances M. Young with K. Scott Bowie (edd.), The Cambridge History of Christianity volume 1: Origins to Constantine (Cambridge 2006), pp. 397–412.

2. The details of the history of the building both here and in what follows, I get from Carolina Vigliarolo, ‘Storia di Castel Sant’Angelo’, Museo Nazionale del Castel Sant’Angelo, downloadable from their website here, unless I cite something else instead.

3. Mark Humphries, “Italy, A.D. 425–605” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins and Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, A.D. 425–600 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 525–551.

4. Procopius, History of the Wars, Books V and VI, ed. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 107 (Cambridge 1919), pp. 214-217.

5. Marios Costambeys, “Property, Ideology and the Territorial Power of the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 9 (Oxford 2000), pp. 367–396.

6. This is touched on in Vigliarolo, ‘Storia’, but for the full messy story see Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church & State 1050-1300, with selected documents (Englewood Cliffs 1964), pp. 36-73.

9 responses to “Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

  1. Cool tour and history. Thanks

  2. Allan McKinley

    Well, if nothing else the use of prehistoric (very-)northern British monumental sites as a comparator for a classical building in Rome is perhaps a unique contribution to scholarship! Definitely something that should be encouraged.

    • I’m glad someone picked up on that! It’s not impossible that the brochs were first designed by someone who’d seen such a structure in the Empire, of course… but I’m not going to insist on it :-)

      • Allan McKinley

        I’m going to follow the faint trail offered by some philologists trying to explain island names in the Hebredies and suggest that both Romans and prehistoric inhabitants of northern Britain picked this style up from the Carthagenians.

        Probably not a thesis to pursue, but (without checking Carthagenian monumental architecture at least) it’s technically possible I suppose. And it gets boring explaining everything as being due to Roman influence…

        • I could almost certainly find geographical literature attempting to establish that the Carthaginians knew Scotland because we’ve all been interpreting the Periplus of Hanno the Carthaginian as if it’s to be read north to south when ACTUALLY IT’S SOUTH TO NORTH MAN. Surely that certainty of mine is all the evidence you need!

  3. A cousin of mine spent six months working in the Vatican Library/Archives several decades ago. He surprised me by saying it was ill-organised in cataloguing and classifying. There were, he suspected, all sorts of historical treasures yet to be rediscovered there. His comparators must have been modern university libraries and British copyright libraries.

    Presumably things have Moved On from his day?

    • I think, are moving; the scale of the endeavour might be too much to have fully moved. I’ve never tried to use the Vatican archives, but from the friends I have who have I understand that access has got much easier and friendlier since John-Paul II (not that I blame him for the previous state of affairs). They have also digitised an absolutely huge amount of their holdings in that time, which must have involved actually going along the shelves. They certainly do find new things reasonably often: even a cursory Google brought me two fairly recent instances, the latter of which involves discovering not manuscripts but a mysterious conservation problem. It would sound weird to some people (including some of our current commentariate, it seems) to say that the Vatican Secret Archive is a scientific research institution, but it is. (It’s not even that ‘Secret’: here’s some video from inside…)

  4. Pingback: Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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