As you may recall, my latest post was about Hercules and his temple in Piazza Bocca della Verità. Anyway in this place there is so much history than we need much more than just a post to discover all the marvelous stories! So today I want to tell you about another corner of this square, nearer to the banks of the river Tiber where, still nowadays, there is a Roman temple perfectly preserved, the Temple of Portunus.
The Temple of Portunus and the Ancient Harbour of Rome
Portunus, as the name says was the Roman god of harbors and doors (portus and porta in Latin): this was indeed the place of the first river port of the city. To be honest the very reason for the existence of Rome itself has to be search in this place: here is the Tiber Island, the most suitable spot to cross the river and natural confluence point of all the most ancient and important roads connecting the mountain region of central Italy with the coast.
The temple was built for the first time at the end of the fourth century B.C. but during the centuries was rebuilt many times…as you can imagine flooding were quite frequent here
As all the pagan temple it was abandoned when the Roman empire became Christian. Anyway in 872 pope John VIII transformed the temple in a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. Why a female Saint in a port? Well, you’ll see soon that the story of this woman is connected in many different ways to ports and sea…
Why Saint Mary of Egypt?
According to tradition she was born in Alexandria in 344 – that is a port city, by the way; when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents house and began a completely dissolute life, earning by begging or whoring.
After 17 years of this lively life she met a group of pilgrims who were going to ship for Jerusalem and thought: “Jerusalem, why not?…Oh no! I’ve no money to pay the trip… Oh yes, I’m a prostitute so …!”. Ok, maybe not exactly with this words and this thoughts but fonts much more religious than me say that she seduced the men.
Anyway when she arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre she couldn’t enter, stopped by an unseen force. And here begins her conversion: she prayed and finally decided to abandon the dissolute life and live as penitent. Well you should have already understood at this point that she was a girl of extreme decisions: not a simple conversion, may be not a life of prayers, no, she started a walk of penitence in the desert, and not for a month, no, FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, eating only grass. 47 years – and many kilos lost – later she met Zosimo, a monk of a Palestinian monastery, who described her as a thin (really?) woman and almost naked, covered only by her long white, woolly hair. What did she ask to Zosimo? Food? No way! She asked his cloak to cover her nudity so that she could tell him the whole story. A year later Zosimo came back to the desert and found her death and still cover with his cloak. According to tradition, a lion dug her tomb with its claws.
The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt
This is the story of Saint Mary and maybe now you are more aware about why the church, near the river and in a place frequented mostly by sailors and foreign people (do you remember the presence of Greeks?) was dedicated to a former prostitute.
This was much more than just a symbolic dedication. Here was probably the most important brothel of Rome, whose origins seems to begin in the ancient Rome. There are no certain proofs about it, anyway the presence of the port is a significant indication. But there is more: nearby is also set the myth of Acca Larentia.
We already met Acca Larentia as the wife of the shepherd Faustulus who found and raised the twins Romulus and Remus. In another version of the myth, she was a prostitute in Rome who (was she tired of her old job? Who knows) went to temple of Hercules and spent there the night praying the god to help her. The next morning when she came out of the temple met the man who later became her husband, an Etruscan rich man named Tarrutius … much more better than The Dating Game!
When the husband died she inherited all his properties that left to the people of Rome at the end of her life. To thank her, Ancus, the third king of Rome, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum and instituted the annual feast of the Accalia or Larentaria in her honor. Well, the Velabrum was exactly here, the valley between the Palatine hill and the river.
Prostitutes all-over the centuries
If the tradition about Larentia as a prostitute is true, looks like this tradition dates back to the Roman time, up to the Middle Age and, as shown by the presence of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt, until the modern era.
In fact since at least the 15th century, in the intent to restore the morality of the city of the Pope, the prostitutes of Rome were all relegated in a kind of ghetto, known as the “burdelletto“, the small brothel. Guess what? The chosen place was exactly this one, with the hope that the example of Saint Mary would help the lost women in their redemption!
Once again we have seen as things don’t change so much during the centuries
- Temple of Portunus – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
- Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt – Russia, late 19th cent.
- Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt – France, 15th cent.
- Acca Larentia by Jacopo della Quercia (Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, Siena)- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Combusken
- The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt – Giuseppe Vasi, 18th cent.