Newly Unearthed Pagan Temple May Offer Fresh Insight into Roman Empire’s Transition to Christianity

Newly Unearthed Pagan Temple May Offer Fresh Insight into Roman Empire’s Transition to Christianity

The ruins of an ancient Roman pagan temple have been uncovered by a team of archaeologists in Spello, a hilltop town in northern Italy.

At the site, which is located near a religious sanctuary, researchers identified three walls that are part of a massive structure with four-foot wide foundations. These foundations suggest evidence of a Roman temple dating to the 330s, during reign of Constantine (306–337 CE), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.

These finds further illuminate the transition from pagan to Christian worship within the Roman Empire. The results of excavations conducted this summer were presented by Saint Louis University researcher Douglas Boin at the annual meeting of the Archeological Institute of America, Newsweek reported.

The team chose this area based on a 4th century inscription attributed to Constantine, which was found in the early 1700s and has remained on display in the town hall.

The text addressing the local community, which became a Roman colony in the 1st century BCE, indicated that the temple was a massive project constructed at the emperor’s behest for the townspeople to be able to celebrate religious festivals there, rather than having to travel.

In order for it to be built, however, the temple (and the community) had to honor the emperor’s divine ancestors. This request was not uncommon as part of the Roman imperial cult, in which emperors and their notable family members were worshiped as divine.

“There was no separation between religion and state in the Roman world, and Romans’ proud sense of patriotism informed all of their public activities, including their worship,” Boin told Newsweek. “In an empire where people spoke multiple languages, lived across three continents, and held on to their own local traditions, the imperial cult brought people together around common ideals.”

The team believes the temple was used by Spello’s pagan inhabitants and was dedicated to the Flavian family as a way to honor the emperor’s ancestral line. It would have been used for the next two generations until pagan religion was outlawed.

While scholars believed the temple existed, it was unclear where it was located until now. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates a more than 70-year shift in Roman society as a pagan to a Christian empire, as well as Christian support of an imperial cult.

“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. We are on the cusp of giving people a very visible piece of evidence that really upends the neat and tidy ways people think about big moments of cultural change,” Boin said.

The article “Newly Unearthed Pagan Temple May Offer Fresh Insight into Roman Empire’s Transition to Christianity” by Francesca Aton was published on 01/08/2024 by