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19.02.02 Moralee, Rome's Holy Mountain

19.02.02 Moralee, Rome's Holy Mountain

This is a book that, in part, assembles what is known about the Capitoline Hill between the high empire and the early Middle Ages but that in larger part presents and explains how people talked about, argued about, and imagined Rome's "Holy Mountain." Because the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was constructed on the hill in, probably, the sixth century BCE, the Capitoline assumed a significance unrivalled by Rome's other hills. But that significance was susceptible to multiple understandings and re-understandings. That is where Moralee's fine book comes into play.

Here is the thesis of Moralee's book, in his own words: Everything about the Capitoline was "potentially exemplary" (206).

Although it treats effectively the archaeological literature on the hill, the book aims to focus on the people who used, lived on, or imagined the hill. The first section of the book discusses the Roman ceremonies and rituals that centered on the hill and then how and why they ceased by the beginning of the fourth century. Suffice it to say that key Roman figures considered it essential to climb the hill, and then they did not. Many sites in Rome could be centers of celebration, the empire was becoming poly-centered, and emperors were less often in Rome. All that said, Moralee shows that the region around the Capitoline was a dense and vigorous human community--something that modern visitors would not realize. This begs the--to my mind unanswerable--question of whether gradual abandonment of the site by ordinary people changed overall perceptions of the site.

While it appears that the Byzantine general Narses tried to Christianize the capitol by erecting a Christian church on its height, it is hard to know how effective his efforts were or what they meant in the long term. To be sure, as Moralee mentions, various Roman temples were turned into churches, but it is not clear that the Capitoline shifted from a pagan sanctuary to a Christian one.

What is clear, and this is the most interesting and original aspect of Moralee's book, is that in both late antiquity and the early Middle Ages the Capitoline remained a frame of reference, a touchstone, something to "think with." In particular, Christian writers talked about how God--their God--had again and again displayed his wrath by destroying the temples of the gods who may have been absent but who were in any case incapable of protecting their dwelling places.

Other Christian writers could, in such texts as the "Deed of the Martyrs"--a conglomeration of material begun in late antiquity but not concluded until at least the ninth century--show how the hill could be a site of Christian heroism and how its priests could be seen as corrupt bureaucrats.

The historical and archaeological dimensions of this book seem sound to me but I am especially impressed by the author's reading of a wide array of both familiar and obscure texts. Before reading this book I simply had no idea that the Capitoline figured so prominently in the late antique and early medieval history of Rome and of Rome's place in the European imagination.