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The Mystery of the Terebinthus Neronis

2013-07-02 20 min read General marco

Terebinth TreeOne of the central parts of In the MIssion deals with the overlapping tradition of betrayal that started the Christian Church. On one side, Judas gave away Jesus to the Temple; this tradition, while historically accurate, has created the false impression that Judas actually betrayed Jesus, where he simply seems to have fulfilled the instructions given to him.

On the other hand, we have absolutely no knowledge of the details of Peter and Paul’s death in Rome. We do not even know for sure when Peter made it to Rome, and we are pretty certain that he was not involved in the creation of the Church there. The sources refute that he was the first bishop there (a position that was filled by Linus, on creation by Paul). The legends are multiple and manifold. But they form no coherent story.

The place of martyrdom of both Peter and Paul is also not known with certainty. As In the MIssion explains, that’s mostly because pretty much everybody that would have cared about those places died in Nero’s persecution. Apparently, knowledge of the burial was more widespread, which indicates that surviving Christians must have fled the city during the persecution and come back soon after, allowing for a burial.

Peter, tradition states, was crucified upside down and buried near his place of martyrdom. Paul, on the other hand, was beheaded and buried on the way to Ostia. Both locations are easy to spot, for they are under the altar of two of the most prestigious churches in Christendom: the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

We’ll leave Saint Paul for another article. His beheading must have been quite the spectacle, considering that the three places where his head hit the ground are now reputed to be three springs (tre fontane) some distance apart.

The martyrdom of Saint Peter is known to us only by vague accounts. The detail that struck the fancy of the ages is that he was martyred upside down. While it is taught as a sign of Peter’s humility (with Jesus having been crucified right side up, and Peter thinking he didn’t deserve such an honor), it must have been a symbol of punishment. Crucifixion was a fairly common method of execution, and upside-down crucifixion was particularly humiliating because you’d have to pee in your mouth.

With this detail the only semi-certain element of the story, the exact location of the crucifixion is somewhat vague. Here are the original references:

  1. ‘Liber Pontificalis’: [Petrus] ‘sepultus est via Aurelia in templum Apollinis, iuxta locum ubi crucifixus est, iuxta palatium Neronianum, in Vaticanum, iuxta territorium Triumphale.
  2. ibid: [Cornelius] ‘posuit iuxta locum ubi crucifixus est, inter corpora sanctorum episcoporum,
  3. Jerome, ‘De Viris Illustribus’: ‘Sepultus est in Vaticano iuxta viam triumphalem totius orbis veneratione celebratur.
  4. ‘Martyrium Beati Petri Apostoli’: ‘Ad locum qui vocatur Naumachiae iuxta obeliscum Neronis in montem.
  5. ‘Acta Petri’: ‘Apud palatium neronianum iuxta obeliscum inter duas metas.

The first references are from the Liber Pontificalis, a messy compilation of biographies of the popes, most likely put together (for the original popes) in the 5th century. Both references indicate that Peter was buried near the place he was martyred (iuxta locum ubi crucifixus est). This indicates both proximity and separation.

The third reference is from Jerome’s biography of Peter, written some time in the late 300s. It says that Peter was buried by the via Triumphalis, which is wrong (but meaningfully so).

The fourth reference is from a martyrology. It states that Peter was brought to the place called Naumachia, by the obelisk of Nero. This is almost certainly a mixup, since the Naumachia was North of the bridge, while the obelisk (which was the decorating element in the Vatican circus) was West of it.

The fifth reference is the most far-reaching one, as it will confuse history for a millennium. It translates as, “near Nero’s palace, by the obelisk, between the two metas.” There was no palace, strictly speaking, in the Vatican; also, the designation neronianum doesn’t need to indicate Nero as a person, but could apply to the whole area reached from the bridge called pons neronianus (Nero’s bridge, most certainly not built by him).

As mentioned, a lot more references (and those above additionally) tell us of the location of the tomb. Aside from Jerome’s reference, all of them mention the via Cornelia.

A quick look at the geography of Rome during the time of Saint Peter tells us that the Vatican was still a fairly empty place. It was a giant swamp by the side of the river, with a big flood plain, just the Campus Martius used to be. While the latter had been drained and become fashionable location for important monuments, the Vatican was still green. Two Roman roads crossed it: the via Triumphalis, which connected to the via Cassia outside Rome; and the via Cornelia, which joined the Aurelia in the West.

These two roads were originally shortcuts. Crossing the Tiber at the Pons Neronianus, you could go North and join the Cassia into inland Etruscan territory, or West and join the Aurelia along the coast. The via Triumphalis (or Triumph Way) got its moment in the limelight when the Romans defeated, conquered, and destroyed the Etruscan super-power of Veii: the army came back, and instead of getting into town along the Cassia, they came back along the Triumphalis, which provided a direct path to the Forum. Ever since, it was the road taken by generals in triumph.

Of the monuments in the Vatican, we know only that there was a circus of Nero, and the gardens of his family. Apparently, the Flavians had bought up the whole place. There was another circus in the North (the naumachia), but it was gone quickly. Possibly, it was made of wood and must have burned down in the great fire.

As with a lot of places just outside of town where nothing grows (it was a swamp, after all), the Vatican became a burial field. Things being as they were, Romans loved burying their people along the main roads (of which the Queen of Roads, the via Appia, is ample testament). I suppose it made it easier for the relatives to visit, and also made for a visible memorial.

The two roads in the Vatican boasted easy access and active development in the Flavian period. The via Cornelia attracted a series of tombs, but the Triumphalis seems to have have had large monuments, as befitting its role as triumphal way.

Three monuments, in particular, stand out. Their fate is entirely different, but linked to the story of Saint Peter in Rome.

The oldest one, possibly (or probably), was a pyramid, which makes it easy to date. Once Augustus destroyed his enemy, Marc Antony, and conquered Egypt, he also terminated the civil war that had been besetting Rome for a century and started a glorious revolution that turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. A golden peace started, and Rome became fabulously wealthy.

Given the news of the day, you would be forgiven for assuming that everything Egyptian became fashionable in Rome. After all, it was a very sneaky way to honor the emperor and his accomplishment, and the send a dig at the crusty old Republican ways.

The Egyptians built tombs shaped as pyramids, so wealthy Romans wanted to have pyramids as tombs. They must have built a great number of them, because the pyramidal shape is not mentioned as a distinguishing mark in contemporary views.

What is special about this pyramid on the via Cornelia is that it survived the Middle Ages, (barely) making into modern times. Apparently it was stripped of its marble exterior, which was reused to decorate the floors of the Paradise in Old Saint Peter (a 6th century addition to Constantine’s Church). The concrete hulk left standing remained there for a long time, until the Renaissance popes decided to first cut it in half to build a road, and then remove the remainder to build a slightly dull church, Santa Maria in Traspontina, around 1499.

This must have been a time of a general sense of “out with the old, in with the new,” since the majestic Constantinian basilica of Old Saint Peter (in essence the building of Constantine the Great) was being demolished to be rebuilt as the new Saint Peter. Admittedly, it is hard to weep for the pyramid disappearing, when the nearby church of Constantine was being demolished like a 1950s apartment building in East Berlin today.

The pyramid, though, remained in people’s mind, particularly because there was a second pyramid still standing in Rome. On the South side, another Augustan era funerary monument in the shape of a pyramid was big and sturdy enough that it was incorporated into the city walls.

As impressive as they are, Rome’s city walls were an emergency solution that needed to be completed as fast as possible. As a result, all buildings near the outskirts of the city that were handy were incorporated. There is an amphitheater, the Pretorian barracks, an aqueduct, etc. Many of these buildings still exist mostly because they were part of the walls, and hence their material was off-limits.

It’s because of this that the other pyramid survived. The pyramid of Caius Cestius remains to this day both in excellent condition, the marble facade largely intact, and a part of the city walls. Given the twin pyramids standing, and for completely unknown reasons, the legend started that the two tombs were the graves of the city founders, Romulus and Remus. Romulus, the actual founder, was associated with the Vatican pyramid, while the smaller Southern pyramid was associated with Remus.

It is slightly amusing to realize that the name of the builder (Caius Cestius) was inscribed in his pyramid twice (once on each side), making it really hard to imagine it was the tomb of Remus. Also, it is slightly odd to think Rome would have built the tomb of its founder outside the city walls in a swamp. But I guess there were a lot of things the Romans of the Middle Ages had forgotten.

Like many tombs with a larger base than top, these two reminded the Romans (of all eras, probably) of the post markers in the circus, called meta. The word seems to be Latin in origin (not Greek as I thought at first), derived from the verb metor, which means “to measure, to mark.” (Incidentally, the word meta is still used in a host of languages to mean, “destination.” This includes Italian.)

Now, if you look at the last source quotation above, it reads: ‘Apud palatium neronianum iuxta obeliscum inter duas metas.‘ or ‘By Nero’s palace, next to the obelisk between the two metas.’ At first glance, this indicates a location within the circus: the area at the center of the circus was raised (so that chariots could not cut short their travel time) and named spina (like English spine). At the far end of the spina were the two metae: the first meta on the far side of the starting gates, and the second one closer to them.

The Vatican circus (as said, Nero’s only in location designation, but actually built by Augustus) had a giant obelisk in the middle of the spina. We know this for sure, because the obelisk is still standing – moved to its present location at the center of Saint Peter’s square when it became clear that the new church would be so big, it would reach the area where the obelisk stood.

So the place of martyrdom could simply be some place on the spina. Indeed, there was a chapel there marking the place of martyrdom of Peter until the construction of New Saint Peter’s shuffled everything around.

On the other hand, and witness the Renaissance, somehow someone decided that inter duas metas referred to the two monuments in Rome still called “meta:” the two pyramids. This someone decided that inter duas metas must have meant some place in the middle between the two pyramids. There was a church dedicated to Saint Peter, there: San Pietro in Montorio, so they decided this was obviously the real place where Saint Peter was martyred.

Whoever thought so was quick in establishing mind share. Soon after, one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings was place right there, in the courtyard of the church, to commemorate the location: the Tempietto by Bramante, who would go on to design New Saint Peter.

Now, a quick survey reveals that San Pietro in Montorio is a very, very old church, but that it had never been associated with Saint Peter’s martyrdom. Indeed, the story went that this was a place where Peter had preached. Given that the church is not near a major road or an inhabited location, it seems much more likely that Peter would have preached to the hiding Christians there than that he would have been crucified, a public spectacle.

If this second meta, the pyramid of Cestius, doesn’t pan out, the derivation of the spina becomes more likely. Unfortunately, there are other problems with that location.

First, the circus was built right next to the via Cornelia, with its North wall abutting the road. On the other hand, we know that the via itself and the circus were largely abandoned soon after. Indeed, tombs started encroaching on the other side of the road, and soon the North bleachers of the circus housed burials.

Finally, when Constantine built the basilica, he had the North walls reused as part of the Southern naves. We know that he painstakingly placed the new church with the altar on top of the grave, since it deviates from other churches sufficiently that we know something must have been the case. For instance, the church was oriented at a 180 degree angle with respect to other churches, that is, its apse was in the West. This is because the hill started right outside the tomb, and there wouldn’t have been enough room for the church if built that way. Additionally, the entrance faced the city of Rome, making it easier for the faithful to enter.

Now, the location of the grave was known fairly well. It was in the burial field just North of the via Cornelia. We have little reason to doubt that, since it was a known burial field, it is attested that a wealthy Roman (a Marcellus) placed Peter’s remains in his own tomb, and veneration of those same remains started almost immediately. Allegedly, the place was marked with a red stone (and hence cannot have been an above-ground site).

If the grave is indeed where the altar of Old Saint Peter’s and New Saint Peter’s are located, it’s just a short distance to the spina. So short, indeed, that it would seem very strange to build a church on top of one site (the grave), but not to include the other. Instead, either memory of the nearby location was already lost by the time of Constantine, or it is incorrect. After all, not one writer mentions a connection between the site or martyrdom and the grave, other than saying that they were near each other in a general sense.

Now, I was talking about three monuments. So far we have only talked about one, the Meta Romuli, the pyramid that disappeared. The second one (possibly first by time of construction) disappeared some time before the Middle Ages. It was the so-called Terebinthus Neronis.

The only description we have of this building is from a Medieval city guide of Rome, the Mirabilia Urbis Romae. Written around 1140, it contains the following description:

In Naumachia est sepulcrum Romuli, quod vocatur Meta, que fuit de miro lapide tabulata, ex quibus factum est pavimentum paradisi et graduum sancti Petri. Habuit circa se plateam tiburtinam XX pedum cum cloaca et florali suo. Circa se habuit tiburtinum Neronis tante altitudinis quantum castellum Adriani, miro lapide tabulatam, ex quibus opus graduum et paradisi peractum fuit. Quod edificium rotundum fuit duobus gironibus sicut castrum, quorum labia erant cooperta tabulis lapideis pro stillicidiis, iuxta quod fuit crucifixus beatus Petrus apostolus.

[Approximately, “In the Naumachia is the tomb of Romulus, which is called the Meta, which was covered in marble, out of which was made the flooring of the Paradise and the steps to Saint Peter. It had around it a marble platform of about 20 feet with a drain and flower beds. Near it was the tiburtinum of Nero, as tall as Hadrian’s fortress, covered in marble, out of which was made the flooring of the Paradise [in Saint Peter]. That building was round, of two circles, like a fortress, and its lips were covered in stone flats for water to drip. and Saint Peter was crucified near it.]

Unfortunately, nothing in the original text says that the description is of the Terebinthus, and not of the other named building (both show up in the accusative, so the description applies to both).

While the Mirabilia uses the present tense for the pyramid, but says it “was covered in marble” (which was gone), it uses the past tense for the Terebinth. That presumably means that monument had gone, and the description is possibly of something long gone.

The third monument is in pretty good condition even nowadays. It wasn’t around as Peter was crucified, but became an instant hit. It is the mausoleum of Hadrian, possibly the grandest of Roman emperors.

Augustus had himself and his family a mausoleum built on the North end of town. It was a giant affair, a round masonry base with a (possibly earthen) mound on top. It was somber, humongous, and a testament to the power of this first emperor: you couldn’t miss it.

When Hadrian came around, he seems to have disliked the old tomb and decided to build his own. It must have looked remarkably similar to the old one, since the floor plans are very similar. But it was on the other side of the Tiber, on a plain near the conjunction of the via Cornelia and the via Triumphalis. He wanted direct access and had a bridge built across the river, the Pons Aelius (now Castel Sant’Angelo).

Hadrian’s tomb was so huge and strategically located, it became a fortress for the people on the other side of the river. In addition, it commanded the only bridge in the unfortified side of town, and as such became a valuable piece of real estate that survived almost two millennia.

Hadrian’s tomb is important to this story, because it wasn’t there when Peter was crucified. Which leaves us with two monuments: the Meta, and the Terebinth. Of the former we know little, only that it was taller than the Pyramid of Cestius, covered in marble, and a pyramid; of the latter we know it was very tall and that it had a marble facade.

The Terebinth does not show in any ancient accounts of Rome, and it doesn’t show in any depictions of Rome of the Middle Ages. Even the description above, “round, with two circles, like a fortress” sounds more like a description of Hadrian’s mausoleum (which was indeed a fortress).

The name, Terebinth, is not much help, either. The terebinth is a shrub in the genus pistachio. It looks like any old tree, and is mostly notable because it was very widespread, and its seeds were used to make turpentine. Neither the shape of the tree nor turpentine are any indication of what the building may have looked like. Interestingly, the Mirabilia calls it “Tiburtinum,” which would mean “from Tivoli,” a city outside Rome famous for its travertine.

Fast forward a few centuries, and before the Old Saint Peter’s was demolished in a tizzy of cray-cray, one last large addition was made: a set of bronze doors. The artist Filarete made them, and they depict various scenes with a focus (no duh) on Saint Peter. Lucky for us, the doors survived and were reused in the new church. The scene that is particularly interesting to us is this one:

Filarete Door with the crucifixion of Saint Peter

The top part of the scene is visibly the crucifixion of Saint Peter, upside down. The person in the loggia to the right is likely to be the emperor (Nero). More interestingly for our purposes, below the stream in the middle, we can see five items:

  1. a pyramid with square tiles
  2. a female figure with a staff and helmet
  3. a strange building with columns on the sides, a door, lots of columns in two rounds on top, and more detail
  4. an ugly, branchless tree
  5. another, but much more richly decorated pyramid, with an inverted pyramid on top

Let’s start with the female figure, since we don’t really care about her. She is wearing a peplos, a Greek dress. She wears a helmet. She has a shield. And she has a little figurine in her right hand. Those are all attributes of the goddess Athena Parthenos, the virgin Athena. Not sure what she has to do with the story, but it was the Renaissance, after all, and an Athena Parthenos is always a good addition. She’s the parsley of adornment. Ask an Italian what that means.

The pyramid on the left is easily identified. It’s the Pyramid of Cestius, or Meta Remi. If you don’t believe me, here is a picture:

Pyramid of Cestius

On the right of Athena and the Pyramid of Cestius is a group of three objects. The largest one, on the left, looks like a weird fortress and is almost certainly Hadrian’s Mausoleum. I don’t have a picture of what it looked like originally, but here is a reconstruction:

Reconstruction of Hadrian’s Mausoleum

(Of course, I have no idea how much the similarity is due to the door being used as a template for reconstruction.)

The strange, adorned pyramid on the far right must then be the other meta, that had already been stripped of its marble and whose exact appearance was unknown to Filarete. It’s unclear whether he made up the fine detail or sourced it from some other material, but the most notable feature is that it’s not taller than the extant pyramid.

Finally, we have an ugly tree. The bark, in particular, looks like scales. Do you know what tree has a scaly-looking bark? You guessed it, the terebinth.

So, we have Hadrian’s mausoleum with certainty, a monument that matches the description of the Meta Romuli, and a tree that looks sufficiently like a terebinth all together.

Also, notice that the river cuts the scene in two, with all monuments on one side, and the crucifixion on the other.

The criticism of the scene is immediate: first, Hadrian’s Mausoleum was built a century after the crucifixion and doesn’t belong into the scene at all. Filarete being an artist, he may simply not have known about the timeline, or that the mole adriana was Hadrian’s, or some other detail.

Second, the two metas are on opposite sides of the river. The placement of the Tiber must then be symbolic, or Filarete a moron.

Third, there is absolutely nothing here that indicates Nero’s obelisk. Filarete must not have known that it was part of the deal, or must have left it out on purpose, or something else.

Finally, the river in-between implies that there was no proximity between the monuments and the crucifixion. Unless Filarete was more of a Medieval artist, in which case everything is to be taken with a grain of salt.

Given that Filarete was embroiled in the fast approaching quarrel between traditionalists (who viewed the Terebinthus and the Meta Romuli as the metas of record) and humanists (who thought of the two pyramids as the metas), it stands to reason that he may have tried to triangulate. Put both versions on the door, and everybody is happy.

Now, it is fairly certain that the humanist location (San Pietro in Montorio) is the wrong one. That’s mostly because you wouldn’t give a description of a location by means of landmarks that are not visible from it. It’s a little like saying that Saint Peter was crucified between the Met and Battery Park: there are so many landmarks between the two, there is little point in using those.

So, I am siding with the traditionalists that read the inter duas metas as nearby monuments. I disagree with the literalists, that think the metas are the actual goal markers at the end of the spina, because the tomb would have been too close to the place of martyrdom for both not to be venerated at the same time.

In addition to this, there is the fact the Terebinth and the Meta Romuli show up in popular memory, at all. Remember, the only reason we know about the Terebinth is as the location of Saint Peter’s martyrdom. Since it is replaced by a tree by the time of Filarete, all memory of its appearance must have long vanished before – to the point the man must have thought it was a tree that was meant, and not a monument.

Finally, and with this I conclude this extremely long and tedious post, it simply makes a lot of sense for Saint Peter to have been crucified along the via Triumphalis. He would have been a visible symbol of the persecution for anyone that walked by, much more obviously so than on the spina of a circus. The location between the Terebinth and the Meta Romuli would have been in plain view of anyone turning from the bridge towards the city.