Decrepit Rome, your morals disintegrate, your walls collapse!

Critique of Rome in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Maya Maskarinec

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar


This talk will address the persistent late antique and early medieval hagiographical and historiographical perception of Rome as a city too burdened by its monumental pagan and imperial past and worldly distractions to be a sacred city. The title, “Decrepit Rome, your morals disintegrate, your walls collapse!” is a loose translation of the line “moribus et muris, Roma vetusta, caedes,” from a satirical poem arguably dating to the late 9th century, the so-called Versus Romae. The poem is unusual for its vehemence, but, as this talk will demonstrate, the complaints against the city of Rome it expresses were deep-seated. Constantinople as the “New Rome,” the loss of imperial prestige, the age-old charge of pervasive moral corruption and the paradoxical nature of Rome’s martyrial riches as the fruit of its persecuting past were undercurrents in the city’s late antique identity that were difficult to deflect. Indeed, as Maskarinec will argue, it is precisely the ambivalence Rome provoked that contributed to the city’s surprisingly persistent valence as a point of reference in the post-classical world.

The focus of the talk will be the ‘Romescape’ presented by the late-10th-century monk Benedict, of the monastery of S. Andrea in Flumine, by Monte Soratte, about 45 km north of Rome and visible on a clear day from the city. In his Chronicon, a compilation and reworking of earlier hagiographical and historiographical sources, reaching from the time of Julian the Apostate in the mid 4th century up to his own day, the late 10th century, Benedict engages with polemics against Rome to present Monte Soratte as an idyllic rural monastic retreat—a bastion of cenobitic sanctity unachievable in Rome. His critique of Rome is thus as much a constructive (if at times confused) attempt to forge alternative ideas of community in a ‘post-Roman’ world, as a destructive attempt to denigrate Rome.

Maya Maskarinec is a historian of late antique/early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, with an emphasis on the city of Rome as an interlocutor across geographical, cultural and chronological divides. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Medieval History from the University of California, Los Angeles (2015/2011) and a A.B. in Classics from Princeton University (2007). As a Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW in 2016-17, she will be completing her first book, Building Rome Saint by Saint (6th-9th c.). This study examines how saints’ cults from throughout the Mediterranean transformed early medieval Rome into a city filled with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of sanctity. Concurrently, she is embarking on her next project, which addresses the persistent critique of late antique/early medieval Rome as a city too burdened by its monumental imperial past and worldly distractions to be a sacred city. She is also interested in historiography and Roman identity in the early Middle Ages and the reception history of hagiographical texts.

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