Just few days ago we celebrated Rome’s 2767th birthday. During this long, long period many things happened and changed. The city of the pagan gods became the cornerstone of the Christian religion, kings, consuls, emperors, other kings, princes and presidents passed. Monuments were built and destroyed and then rebuilt again. Incredibly enough, some aspects remained pretty much stable over the centuries and, with this post, I would like to tell you a cool story showing exactly one of these things.
Our story starts with a legendary giant named Cacus who, according to the Roman tradition, had his den on the slopes of the Aventine hill, near the river Tiber.
The Giant Cacus
Kakos in Greek means “bad” that’s what the giant was. Virgil described him as a monster that was human and beast at the same time; around his house, the cave, the ground was always a red lake because of the blood of the people that he used to eat. To add some more horror, he used to preserve the head of the eaten ones and nail them to the entrance of his cave. I don’t want to imagine the smell of his breath … horrific! But actually the smell was just a pinprick: he was god Vulcan’s son and the main heritage he had from his father was the ability to breath fire. I hope at least that he used it to cook the human flesh
According to his name Cacus, the bad, used to terrified the people living in the village on the top of the Palatine hill. How and why this village was founded is another long story, enough material for another post, in the meanwhile take a look here. According to the legend, most of the people living in the Palatine village had Greek origins. Remember, we are still talking about a legend, but there are certain proofs that Greeks frequented this place at least since the 8th century B.C., if not before (that means before the foundation of Rome itself).
This was the frightful situation until Hercules, the Greek hero, landed on the banks of the river Tiber. He was coming back to Greece after he had captured Geryon’s oxen (Geryon was another monster, living on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and this was the tenth Labour of Hercules) and decided to stop here in Rome.
After the long trip the hero was tired – yes, also heroes sleep – and decided to take a nap near the place where he landed. Now it happen that this nap place was close enough to the cave of Cacus who, while Hercules was sleeping, stole some of the oxen – sometime human flesh could be stodgy …hence it’s better to have an alternative!
Cacus brought them into his cave by tugging by the tails. Because of this, the tracks were confused and when Hercules woke up and understood what had happened, couldn’t find the oxen. Anyway when the remaining oxen, free to graze, passed by Cacus’ cave, those that were inside started to moo, letting Hercules discover the thing. No need to say: Hercules killed Cacus and freed the oxen.
Despite the fact that he did it only for selfish reasons, people living around hit the jackpot and finally could stop to be afraid to become the dinner of some bad giant folk.
The Ara Maxima Herculis
To thank the hero, they built a sanctuary dedicated to him, the Ara Maxima Herculis. Well, up to here we are still in the mythological story, anyway the sanctuary actually existed. Many inscriptions, dedicated to Hercules, have indeed been found behind the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, proving that the Ara Maxima was exactly here.
The remains (or those believed to be the remains by the archaeologist) are still visible under the main altar, in the crypt of the church. They consist in a massive structure of tuff blocks dating at the 2nd century B.C. (the whole area around the Ara was completely rebuilt in that moment to prevent flooding, but for sure there was an older sanctuary). In the 15th century also the cult statue was found here and it’s now exhibited in the Capitoline Museums.
Because the Ara was built by Greeks, the cult kept Greek features until the imperial era: on the 12th of August, foundation day, an heifer was sacrificed – and then eaten by the faithful – by a priest who used to celebrate with the undressed head, a typical Greek custom. There were also sacred slaves belonging to the sanctuary (another Greek custom).
From Hercules to the Virgin Mary
As it often happened in Rome, after the end of the Roman empire and the arrival of the Christian religion, on the sanctuary a church was built, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Probably already in the 3rd century there was a church here, but the first confirmed tracks date from the 6th century. Around the half of the 8th century pope Hadrian gave custody of the church to a group of Greek monks seeking for refuge from the iconoclastic persecutions. The monks were already settled here because the Greek community in Rome was there already: this bank of the river was called the Greek bank and the church was known as the Schola Graeca.
After the Greek monks, the church took the name of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, from kosmidion, ornament, referring the improvement carried out by pope Hadrian.
Why the Greeks, why here
There aren’t certain proofs that this place remains always the seat of the Greek community in Rome, anyway it’s likely for a very simple reason: here was the first river harbor of Rome and here was the place were the Greek merchants arrived a stayed. This was true for centuries, but also at the very beginning of our story: according to the historians the myth of Cacus recall the problems the first Greek merchants had on their arrival. The story of the oxen itself seems also to foreshadow the trade of cattle held here since prehistorical times and still in the imperial era: indeed this place was known as the Forum Boarium, the “cattle market“. This also due to the fact that here was the junction of all the main roads connecting mountains in the central Italy with the coast, walked by shepherds since almost the 10th century B.C. In a marketplace the presence of a temple was not just a spiritual need: under the god’s protection and guarantee, merchants were free to make business…who could be so brave to cheat someone else under the eyes of Hercules?
So, the Greek presence in Rome, dates back to a long long time ago and was still a fact in the early Christian era and in the Middle Age. And now?
Well, still today the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin follows the Melkite Greek Catholic rite: since the first construction of the Roman sanctuary this place is characterized by the Greek culture and still today, almost 3000 years later, it’s the same!
Last thing: the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is pretty famous because within the porch is the well known Mouth of the Truth…but that’s stuff for another post
- Santa Maria in Cosmedin – by Giuseppe Vasi, 1761
- Hercules killing the fire-breathing Cacus – by Sebald Beham, 1545
- Blocks of the Ara Maxima – CC BY SA 3.0 – Lalupa
- Statue of Hercules in gilded bronze – Capitoline Museums
- Santa Maria in Cosmedin – CC BY 2.0 – Jeremy Thompson