“All roads lead to Rome …”
While no one really knows who first coined the statement, there has always been a collective awareness within all European civilizations since the days of the Roman Empire of the universality and omnipresence of the Eternal City. It was no different in the days of the medieval pilgrim and their fighting equivalents, the crusaders. Rome, as the seat of the Catholic pope – the Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ on Earth – was a place of gravest importance to the medieval pilgrim, topped only by Jerusalem herself. As the former capitol of perhaps one of the greatest empires ever seen in the West, Rome also played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity throughout the known world and – after its elevation to state religion under Constantine – became the seat of the first truly global institution in world history. What the Empire had failed to accomplish, the Church in Rome would. As the first principle city of Christianity (all others came after), relics and treasures of the faith would find their way there to be enshrined for the inspiration of generations of faithful. In the medieval era, when the faith and its practice took on an intensely physical nature, these relics were of prime importance to the waves of pilgrims who would arrive there – as was the chance to receive a blessing from the Successor of St. Peter himself.
The thousands of crusaders who passed through Rome on their way to complete their vows in the Holy Land would have been no different – in fact, many deliberately sought out the blessings to be had in Rome to steel themselves for the long journey and hard fighting to come. We know from the accounts of the First Crusade that thousands of fighters came in through Rome on their way to Bari on the south coast of Italy, to include Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois to rendezvous with their kinsman, Bohemond of Taranto. Other greats of subsequent crusades would make a point of stopping in Rome – Philip Augustus during the Third Crusade would be among them as would St. Louis IX on multiple occasions. Not much commemorates the visits of these pilgrims, great or small, but Rome was simply a way-stop (albeit, an important one) on the way towards a far more important destination for them.
|The Via dei Normanni near San Clemente in Rome - allegedly near the route that Robert Guiscard and his Normans "peacefully" passed through the Eternal City in 1084.|
One key exception are the vast amounts of important Christian relics that, without the Crusades, would never have made their way to Europe. In the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, as the name implies, are housed many of the most important relics of Christ’s Passion and Death that originally came from the Levant. Many of these actually came to Rome centuries prior to the Crusades and the medieval period – when the queen-mother of Emperor Constantine, St. Helena, led a royal expedition to the Levant to retrieve the physical remains of the most important event in Christian history. Her efforts yielded fragments of the Cross, the nails, the “titulus Crucis” (the fragment of the sign Pontius Pilate had fixed to the Cross), the beam of St. Dysmas’ (the “good thief”) cross, and many others. Most of these relics she brought back to Rome, installing them in a church built on loads of soil from Jerusalem that would later become the Santa Croce found in Rome today.
|Sadly, this is as far as I was permitted to continue taking pictures - no photography is permitted in the relic chapel.|
However, some found here did come to Rome by way of the Crusades along with a few others. In a small gold reliquary now behind glass in the relatively modern relic chapel in Santa Croce are two thorns from the Crown of Thorns. The entire crown was once enshrined in Constantinople, but after the problematic seizure of the city by crusaders in 1204 and the establishment of the “Latin” Empire in the East, this relic came to France, where it ended up in Notre Dame in Paris. That great crusader king, St. Louis IX, had an intense personal devotion to the relic and sent these two thorns to Rome as a gesture of his piety.
Other relics of Christ’s life that came to Rome by way of crusaders returning from the East are the Manger of Bethlehem (housed today in Santa Maria Maggiore) and the famous Shroud (usually kept in the city of Turin, but is often brought to Rome for special occasions).
|The Manger in Santa Maria Maggiore|
The numbers of other relics brought out of the East into Christendom by the Crusades would probably be too many to list here and, while the authenticity of many Christian relics from the medieval period are still subjects of intense historical and archeological controversy, most of the principal relics have endured considerable scientific research and investigative scrutiny in recent decades and been found to be surprisingly genuine.
Of course, Rome would not have achieved the status it did within Christianity had it not also served as the earthly residence of the popes themselves (except for a brief and troublesome hiatus in Avignon, France). The tombs of popes, both the great and the relatively unknown, litter the Eternal City in nearly every corner. Many are sadly unmarked, especially those of the popes from the earliest days of the Church (with the notable exception of St. Peter himself). Even more were tragically lost in the various renovation and construction projects during the Renaissance – several tombs of early and medieval popes that once were beneath the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peter’s were destroyed and their remains consolidated under other tombs during the construction of the current basilica in the 16th Century. Perhaps the most painful for Crusades enthusiasts is the knowledge that among them were those of Blessed Pope Urban II, architect of the Crusading phenomenon, whose remains were allegedly reinterred within the vicinity of the extant tomb of Adrian I. As disappointing as that seems, one can rest assured that he is still remembered in the eternal manner that truly counts and that is more valuable than any earthly memorial.
|Pope Innocent III's tomb in the Lateran Basilica - right across from that of Leo XIII (1878-1903) who had this tomb commissioned.|
One papal tomb that is still very much with us and certainly pays homage to the Crusades is that of Innocent III in the Lateran Basilica. Reigning at a time when many regard the temporal power of the Papacy to have been at its height, Pope Innocent was perhaps one of the most active crusading popes in Church history – spending his entire tenure (1198-1216) calling for multiple crusades to the Holy Land, Spain, and (for the first time) against heretics within Europe. Many of his crusades were sadly remembered for their problematic outcomes – especially the Fourth Crusade that ended in the unfortunate sacking of Constantinople and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in Southern France. However, it is hard to accuse Innocent of having ignoble intentions – perhaps just a lack of foresight and possibly pure bad luck. In either case, his tomb (commissioned by Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the 20th Century after the original fell into disrepair) pays a touching tribute to his devotion to the ideal of crusading – beneath his tomb, in silent vigilance, stands a knight bearing the Cross. Sometimes, it’s the small things that make for the most touching reminders of the humanity – great and small, evil and virtuous – that lies at the heart of this grand and often overwhelming thing called history.
Stay tuned for my next stop – the Center of the World itself. Deus vult!