Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a sacred site. The word ‘pilgrim’ is from Latin – peregrines, ( per= through + ager =field, land), meaning a stranger or foreigner on a journey.
“Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing through territories not their own – seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way” – Reinhold Niebuhr
” The centre of me is always searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision – God … It fills every passion that I have- it is the actual spring of life within me.” – Bertrand Russell
“Who to Rome goes, Much labour, little profit knows.
For God, on earth though long you sought him. You’ll miss in Rome unless you brought him.”
“The practice of soulful travel is to discover the overlapping point between history and everyday life, the way to find the essence of every place every day: in markets, small chapels, out-of-the-way parks, craft shops. Curiosity about the extraordinary in the ordinary moves the heart of the traveller intent on seeing behind the veil of tourism.” – Phil Coussineau (The Art of Pilgrimage)
“Did not our hearts burn as he talked to us on the road?” St Luke 24:32
“We come to God not by navigation but by love” – Augustine of Hippo
Prayer and Meditation on the Way
“Prayer is when we talk to God; meditation is when we listen to God.” – Anon
“The sense of treading ground made holy by past events is crucial. The experience of the pilgrim in actually walking in the way of others enables them to become a participant in all that has happened. The pilgrim becomes one with all who have gone before” – Martin Robinson
“Place works on the pilgrim … that’s what pilgrimage is for.”
Pilgrimages and Miracles of Healing
“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” – St Augustine of Hippo
“Keep the pilgrim spirit always. Now go, and live your lives without fear.”
– Santiago cathedral, bishop’s blessing and dismissal.
“You arrive where you started and know the place for the first time.” – TS Eliot
“One cannot always be a stranger. I want to return to my homeland , and make all my loved ones happy. I see no further than this. ” – Albert Camus
THERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY PEOPLE UNDERTAKE A PILGRIMAGE
A quest of some kind often underlies most our motivations. These could be religious or secular, and our destinations as diverse as the tomb of the Prophet or Elvis Presley’s Graceland. The earliest Christian pilgrimages were undertaken to the places, or last resting place, of extraordinary individuals, merely to be in the presence of their bones and relics. A piece of a garment, a cross, a bone somehow brought the seeker into contact with the holy, the numinous. Or a pilgrimage may be in memory of someone, or to sort out one’s life, or simply for the pleasure of the journey itself.
There are no bone relics in France associated with Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury, but there are many places – stretching from Rome to Canterbury – that have associations with his missionary journey to the Anglo-Saxon peoples of England.
That is the main purpose for this pilgrimage guide – to help us follow in his footsteps, to stand where he stood, perhaps to see what he saw, to think his thoughts after him, and discover what may be helpful for our own journey today. Our main aim of this particular quest was to follow St. Augustine s as he journeyed through ancient Francia (now present-day France) on his way to England, and to learn what we can about the journey undertaken in AD 596-7.
It seemed that this would not only bring to life our own understanding of events that took place over 1,400 years ago, but also that this exploration might be helpful to others who follow some or all of Augustine’s journey through sixth-century France. We divided the journey into a number of smaller, more manageable stages to describe what Augustine and his companions from Rome might have seen as he and they journeyed from the south to the north of ancient Francia. On the way, historical details of the period helped to enrich our understanding of events.
Another aim was to assess the possibiity of mapping a new pilgrimage route through France, based on Augustine’s journey, and also assess the potential for a group of pilgrims following this route, perhaps starting from Rome. Lastly, we aimed to explore more about pilgrimage by following this route and reflecting on it as the journey unfolded. This is what we discovered.
Before Gregory the Great acceded to the throne of St Peter as Bishop of Rome in 590, the Italian Peninsula had already been in the hands of Germanic Lombard invaders for three decades. Italy had become severely depopulated by the end of the Gothic War (535-554) when Albion, king of the Lombards, led his people unopposed into the Peninsula. By late 569 they occupied almost all of the northern, central and southern areas of Italy, establishing a Lombard Kingdom later named Regnum Italicum (Kingdom of Italy) that lasted until Charlemagne’s conquest in 774. Their assimilation into the Peninsula took four generations, but in these first years, Rome was driven to the brink of extinction.
During most of this period spanning two centuries, Italy was unequally divided between the kingdom of the Lombards and the exarchate of Ravenna (the military footprint of the Byzantine Empire on Italian soil). On the map of Italy the exarchate occupied very little territory, but it included a significant proportion of wealth, industry, and population, including the most faithful and valuable subjects of Verona, Milan and Padua who had escaped the Barbarian yoke. In theory, a narrow corridor existed between Ravenna and Rome, but in reality, the Lombards were in control, and the Duchy of Rome was compelled to negotiate with neighbouring Lombard dukes for their very survival.
The Duchy of Rome consisted of an area stretching along the coast from Civita Vecchia to Terracina, and down the River Tiber from Ameria and Narni to the port of Ostia on the coast. Within this territory lay the Roman Compagna, a low-lying area surrounding Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy with an area of approximately 2,100 square kilometres (810 sq mi) supplied produce for Rome. During the Ancient Roman period, the Compagna was an important agricultural and residential area, but was abandoned during the Middle Ages owing to a combination of malaria and insufficient water for farming needs.
The remainder of Italy was under the heel of the Lombards; and from the royal seat at Pavia, their kingdom was extended to the east, the north, and the west, as far as the confines of the Avars, the Bavarians, and the Franks of Austrasia and Burgundy. The Duchy of Rome became a small bubble surrounded by hostile invaders.
The rural population under the Lombards
During King Alboin’s invasion of Italy, many of the wealthiest Italians were slain or banished, their lands divided among the strangers, and a tributary obligation imposed under the name of ‘hospitality’, to sustain the Lombard army, amounting to a third part of the fruits of the earth. What seems clear is that under these foreign masters the cultivation of corn, wine and olives degenerated owing to poorer skills and industry of both farmers and slaves.
Appeals to the Emperor
It soon became clear in Rome that the exarch of Ravenna had no intention of providing military or any other means of support for the stricken city. A delegation from Rome made an appeal to Emperor Tiberius (574-582) in Constantinople. “If you are incapable of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.” A supply of corn was shipped from Egypt to the Tiber, and the Roman people, calling on the name of the Chief Apostle St. Peter, drove the Lombard barbarians from the city walls. But the relief was short lived and the danger pressing.
In 579, for a second delegation, the bishops and senate collected what remained of their wealth – three thousand pounds of gold – and sent the patrician Pamphronius to lay their gifts, and their dire straits before the Byzantine throne. Gregory, the future Bishop of Rome, was also a member of this party, called away from his life as a monk to serve as the pope’s reluctant nuncio (ambassador) to the Imperial Court.
Pelagius II (579-590), a native of Rome, had ascended the throne of St Peter only a decade after the launch of the Lombard invasion. The Emperor’s attention, however, was already diverted by the Persian war; he gave the gold for the defence of Rome and dismissed the patrician with his best advice: bribe the Lombard chiefs, or buy the support of the kings of Francia. (Canterbury would find itself in much the same position by 11th century in regard to buying-off the Danes).
Tiberius’ successor, the Emperor Maurice (582-602), gave audience to a third deputation of priests and senators. Pelagius II wrote to Gregory, still attending the Byzantine Court, detailing the hardships that Rome was experiencing, and beseeching Maurice to send a relief force. However neither the delegation from Rome, nor Gregory, was able to secure the support they desperately needed. Maurice had already determined to limit his efforts in dealing with the Lombards to intrigue and diplomacy.
Gregory, his own relations with Maurice deteriorating, and his ability to make a difference in Constantinople diminishing, returned to Rome. (Gibbon: Fall, Chapter XLV: State Of Italy Under The Lombards —Part II)
Pope Gregory and the struggle for Rome
The Bishop of Rome was by now one of the leading religious figures in the entire Byzantine Empire, and effectively more powerful locally than either the remaining senators or local Byzantine officials such as the exarchs. In practice, local power in the city devolved to the Pope and, over the next few decades, both much of the remaining possessions of the senatorial aristocracy and the local Byzantine administration in Rome were absorbed by the Church.
The challenges, however, were enormous. By 590, when Gregory was elected Bishop of Rome, the sources of public and private wealth were exhausted; fear and insecurity were rife in Rome’s narrow streets, choked as they were with rubbish and humanity. And the city was only thirty years into a two-hundred-year -long stranglehold.
In describing the distress of Roman aristocrats and farmers alike, who had fled their outlying villas and farms for the safety of the city, historian Edward Gibbon envisaged that:
“they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs, and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. Such incessant alarms must annihilate the pleasures and interrupt the labours of a rural life; and the Campagna of Rome was speedily reduced to the state of a dreary wilderness, in which the land is barren, the waters are impure, and the air is infectious. Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations.” (Gibbon: Fall, Chapter XLV: State Of Italy Under The Lombards.—Part II)
The aqueducts of Rome
The continual war that raged around Rome in the 530s and 540s had left the city in a state of total disrepair. Aqueducts damaged in conflict with the Ostrogoth warloard Vitiges in the fifth century AD were never repaired. Only the Aqua Virgo aqueduct continued to flow, ending at the Septa Julia in the Campus of Mars. The Tiber remained the principal source of water. However, as the Cloaca Maxima, the city sewer, emptied into the Tiber below the Palatine Bridge, clean water needed to be drawn further upstream.
Districts within Rome without a water supply, particularly on the hilltops, were abandoned, and the city’s shrinking population mostly concentrated, unsurprisingly, around the busiest quarter, the Campus Martius, and Trastevere across the Tiber. The whole inhabited area of the city was now contained between the Forum Boarium to the south (near the Palatine bridge), the present day Corso to the east, and to the north, the Via Recta ((Via Dei Coronari).
The Boarium was Rome’s oldest forum, located on level ground near the Tiber, between the Capitoline, Palatine and Aventine hills. Rome’s first bridges were built here, and the Boarium was known as the gateway to Rome (Port Tibernius). In earlier times the forum was the centre of intense commercial activity, and by the end of the Roman Empire, the Boarium was still crowded with shops.
To add to the misery of those who sought shelter within the walls of Rome, flooding wreaked terrible havoc, pouring mud and debris into the valleys between the hills of Rome. The inundations of 570 and 589 would come within yards of Gregory’s own monastery, swamping the ruins of the abandoned Circus Maximus below the Palatine, driving out the poor and destitute sheltering near the Palatine Bridge.
Pestilence-driven disease broke out from stagnation after each deluge, the contagion so rapid that during one procession, forty people died in an hour. A legend tells of an angel seen, while the newly elected Pope Gregory was passing in procession by Hadrian’s Tomb, to hover over the building and to sheathe his flaming sword as a sign that the pestilence was about to cease.
The frequent occurrence of famine in Rome points to the inattention of the emperor to a distant province, and the city became viewed from the distant imperial terraces of Constantinople as expendable as the lost cities of ancient Thebes, Babylon and Carthage.
Governing Rome in Late Antiquity
While the pope was the most significant figure in Rome by Late Antiquity, his was not the only key role. Emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BC – 14 AD) reformed the office of Urban Prefect (Praefectus Urbi) for more effective government of Rome to counterbalance the enormous power of the Praetorian Guard in the city of Rome, and also to create a city police force.
Augustus granted his Praefectus Urbi all the powers needed to maintain order within the city. This extended beyond Rome itself to the ports of Ostia and the Portus Romanus, and to a zone of one hundred Roman miles (c. 140 km) around the city. The Prefect was in effect the mayor of Rome and held full responsibility for the city’s supply of grain from North Africa and Sicily. The grain dole was particularly important, and when grain supplies failed to materialise, riots often broke out. The role of Prefect also included the oversight of the drainage of the Tiber and the maintenance of the city’s sewers and water supply system, as well as superintending all guilds and corporations.
By the sixth century the office of Prefect had grown in power as the imperial court left the city for Constantinople, so that the prefects were no longer under the emperor’s direct supervision. The role survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire and continued under the Ostrogothic Kingdom and well after the Byzantine reconquest. The last mention of the Roman Urban Prefect occurs as late as 879.
This office was traditionally held by a leading member of the Italian senatorial aristocracy. Gregory was appointed as Prefect of Rome before his selection as papal nuncio to the Byzantine court. While Gregory lamented the demise of the senate, and with it a patrician class of leadership, he nevertheless became the driving force, and during his papacy Gregory alone could be said to speak for Rome.
The survival of Rome depended on the closest cooperation between church, state, and military. In taking control of food supplies to the city and organising the distribution of alms, Gregory would have worked closely with his successor in the post of Prefect of Rome. The Vatican, located in this period within the Lateran Palace, could provide an efficient administration for this civil office (the former reception hall of the Prefect in the Forum had been turned into the church of SS. Cosma e Daminao by 550).
Maintaining law and order was central to governing Rome. The major anxieties of her citizens did not revolve primarily around employment and income – the demand for goods, trades and urban services would continue – but rather around the issues of chronic food scarcity and safety. A large proportion of refugees with no obvious means of support lived cheek by jowl in insula (blocks of flats) alongside local residents, both slave and free, as well as growing numbers of pilgrims to and through the city, foreign traders from around the Mediterranean.
Mobs and gangs roaming the streets searching for food and valuables could threaten public order and undermine the fair distribution of alms. To maintain law and order in such a volatile context, there was a need for policing Rome by day, and for watchmen by night. Their duties included apprehending thieves and robbers and capturing runaway slaves. Both groups, police and Vigiles, had responsibility for controlling the outbreak of fires, and were placed under the single command of the Prefect. The police and night watchmen also had another function, to provide an auxiliary force for the garrison in times of siege.
In the midst of all this, the Church in Rome played a vital part in sustaining the morale of the people. While pilgrims from far countries trod rural pathways to sacred sites beyond the city walls, within Rome religious processions regularly
took to the streets between the ancient churches of S. John in Lateran, S. Maria Maggiore, SS Cosma and Damiano, S. Croce in Gerusalemme, S. Clemente, S. Maria in Trestavere, and S. Maria in Aracoeli. These offered both a public spectacle as well as a means to enter into a regular pattern of urban life and worship for refugees and citizens alike. These processions filled a significant gap after the collapse of civic and imperial events that previously had taken place in the Forum and streets, the Colosseum, theatres, and the Circus Maximus.
Pilgrims to Rome
The Holy City might have been erased from the memory of history except for the skill and energy of Gregory as pope, and the widely-held belief that Rome was, by divine providence, the last resting place of the two great apostles of the Christian faith, St Peter and St Paul.
Gregory made special provision for pilgrims to Rome who came despite the difficulties, and in ever-growing numbers. The churches of the saints and martyres, particularly Peter, Paul, Agnese, Laurentius, and Sebastianus (iwhich included catacombs associated with St Peter and St Paul) ringed the walls of the city. A guide for pilgrims and a circuit began to take shape, drawing Franks, Lombards, Bavarians and ascetic Irish peregrini to the Holy City. Pathways and roads interconnecting all these sites made it unnecessary to return to the city after each visit. A lucrative trade in relics also sprang up, providing income for shrine custodians, monks and clergy at each holy place, but also providing income for food-sellers, guides, tradesmen, sellers of bogus relics and cures, hoteliers and the like.
The central focus, however, was always St Peters basilica outside the city and beyond the Tiber, erected by Constantine beside a large Egyptian obelisk that once stood at the centre of the Nero’s Circus, and in front of which the Apostle was crucified. To accommodate the growing number of pilgrims, Pope Gregory provided access to St Peter’s tomb by means of a sunken, ring-shaped crypt circling the rear of the shrine. The first popes were also buried near the body of St. Peter. Two grottos, the Grotte Vecchie and the Grotte Nuove, containing subterranean chapels and galleries, cover the site of this ancient Christian cemetery. In 604 Gregory the Great was also buried there.
Gregory and the poor
The city’s depopulation was constant and noticeable, reducing to perhaps 30,000 people or less during the last decade of the sixth century. Even so, the number of citizens, refugees and pilgrims to the holy places still exceeded the ability to provide a subsistence level of support. Despite much vacant land both inside and
outside the city walls, most of their precarious food was supplied from the harvests of Sicily or Egypt, landed at the port at Ostia, and transported on the Tiber to warehouses that once served Rome’s huge mercantile hub. Here floating mills in the Tiber ground what little grain there was for residents of the city.
The Church of Rome held many possessions in Italy, Sicily, and also in more distant provinces. The Church’s agents, who were commonly sub-deacons, had also acquired a civil, and sometimes criminal, jurisdiction over their tenants and husbandmen, as in the Roman Campagna. Gregory, as the successor of St. Peter, administered his patrimony like a watchful and moderate landlord. In his use of wealth, Gregory acted as a faithful steward of both the Church and the poor. His correspondence is filled with instructions and practical advice: to abstain from time wasting lawsuits; to use just and true weights and measures; to be merciful to those unable to pay on due date. The rent and the produce of these estates were shipped to Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, at Gregory’s own expense.
In 552, the Byzantine general, Narses, had conquered Rome for the Emperor and became the first of the exarchs who ruled Italy from Ravenna. However, under Byzantine rule commerce declined, and the Roman senate and consuls ceased to function. As a worthless gesture to Rome, the exarch of Ravenna installed corrupt officials to administer Ravenna’s affairs in the empty halls of the Palatine, and billeted a garrison of troops on the Quirinal Hill, until the Lombard invasion in 569 led to their withdrawal.
The lack of response from Ravenna continued under succeeding exarchates, so that with no hope of relief or support from the Eastern Empire, Gregory began to emancipate Rome from the control of the exarchs. Soon he exercised greater power in Rome than the imperial governors.
Gregory made the relief of the poor one of his highest priorities. Almsgiving was hugely important in Rome at the end of the sixth century, not least for the monks at Gregory’s own monastery of St Andrew. Almsgiving was an expression of personal belief and commitment for monks as part of giving everything to God, holding no possessions as their own, and sharing a common life together – money, goods, work, food, prayer, and good works. But also, in the last decades of the sixth century, Rome was inundated with refugees desperately seeking safety and material support.
Gregory, as Bishop of Rome, used the church’s still considerable if shrinking resources to set up food distribution stations and other essential services. In response to the overwhelming needs of the people, he developed a highly effective system of almsgiving for supplying food and goods to the poor. Each parish (a district in the city) had a diaconium, or office of deacon, who had the use of a building to which the poor could come for support. Gregory requiring his clergy to actively seek out and provide practical relief for needy persons, and he reprimanded them if they failed to do so.
Gregory also ensured that large quantities of supplies were shipped from papal estates to Rome for distribution by the diaconia, so that wine, oil, meat, fish and cheese were regularly given away as alms for the poor. These estates probably included papal lands in Roman Compagna, where a third of the produce went to the Lombards as a compulsory ‘hospitality’ tax.
Gregory, while still a member of his St Andrew’s community until 590, daily hosted a dozen people for lunch from amongst those poorest and in greatest need, taking their meal at a dining table that once belonged to his family. On a much larger scale, a small army of charitable volunteers and monks set out every morning with food that the monasteries had prepared. As Gregory’s own monastic foundation was closest to the Palatine Bridge, the monks of St Andrew’s would have been active in this area of the city at the very least.
Almsgiving and preparation for the mission to England
Almsgiving may very likely have played a role in preparing Augustine and his monks for the arduous challenges that lay ahead for their mission to Canterbury. It is widely held that Augustine was the Prior of St Andrew’s monastery – the next most responsible person in a monastic community after the Abbot – when Gregory placed the mission to England in his hands. Augustine would at the least be involved in the daily food distributions, but even more likely, be directly involved in the organisation of charitable giving across Rome. His effectiveness in marshalling an army of food distributors across the city may well have led Pope Gregory to select Augustine to lead his mission to Anglo-Saxon England in the summer of 596.
The essence of the ‘Rule of the Church’ through the ages has been to help Christians grow as disciples of Christ, through four spiritual disciplines exercised in daily, corporate prayer. Together, these are food for the journey of life, and like all food, there needs to be some variety in the diet. The Rule includes:
Daily Prayers, as food for bringing the community together in thanking and praising God – particularly the Psalms, sung together in the Oratory (chapel or small church) of the monastery. During Augustine’s journey to England, these prayers were said and sung while they travelled, when they rested for the night, and when they rose again in the morning. In effect, Augustine and his companions formed a travelling monastery.
Holy Communion – bread and wine that is blessed and received as the spiritual body and blood of Christ, and food for the soul, probably before they set out at the start of a new day.
Private Prayer and Study of the Scriptures (intercession, confession, praise, meditation, petition, thanksgiving, regular reading and study of Scripture) as food for heart and mind.
Monks learned the Scriptures by heart, so that they did not have to carry either a prayer book or a bible for their journey.
Almsgiving to the poor, as a sharing of God’s generosity to us as individuals, and as a community. The monks shared what they had with needy people they came across on their journey. Almsgiving is a very practical service offered to those who are not members of the monastic community.
Almsgiving is also a spiritual service, because almsgiving is where the community’s spiritual life takes practical form, by giving aid to those who are not its members. This is what the Gospel or Good News is about, because it also reveals the nature of God as both generous and sacrificially self-giving.
Contemplative Space Day
A resource day for contemplating Augustine’s life, from Calling to Legacy, in four reflections with text and images.
Did English slave boys for sale in Rome play a part in the launch of Augustine’s mission to Canterbury? This is what St Bede, a monk and C8th author of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, records.
Rome formerly had two places for the auction of slaves.
The Slave Market for some slaves was held in the portico of Septa Julia. This occupied the whole block of the present day buildings to the left of the Pantheon, when viewed from the colonnaded front entrance. The C13th basilica, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, now occupies the west end of the former Septa Julia complex, below the bottom left end (south-west corner) of the Pantheon (again viewed from the front).
Slaves arriving from abroad in the late sixth century were carried to Rome by river from Ostia and disembarked on the docks beneath the Aventine Hill. From here they would be led up the winding street today known as Via Teatro Marcello, and on through the streets of the Campus of Mars area to Septa Julia.
Other slaves would not have quite so far to walk; their journey progressed from the Tiber to the Piazza Bocca D. Verita, then perhaps along the present Via della Consolazione to the rear of the Basilica Julia in the Forum Romanum.
An alternative would have been through the Piazza Bocca also, but passing on through the fourth century Arco di Giano (Arch of Janus) and left into the Via di San Teodoro, named after this sixth century saint and church, and finally to a courtyard behind the Basilica Julia.
The Arch of Janus was not an entry to the city, as the city wall extends across the Tiber into the Trastevere district. However, it’s location may have served as a pointer to the Forum Romanum. Today, a fence prevents both vehicles and pedestrian traffic from passing beneath its crumbling stonework. By the sixth century, the Forum Romanum had largely reverted to its original function as a marketplace, and that included the sale of slaves.
The Venerable Bede
The Northumbrian monk, St. Bede, records a tale of two Anglo-Saxon slave boys for sale in Rome seen by Gregory before he was elected as Bishop of Rome, and on this basis some years later, launched a mission to England. He writes, “One day, soon after some merchants had arrived in Rome, a quantity of merchandise was exposed for sale in the market place. Crowds came to buy, and Gregory too was among them. As well as other merchandise he saw some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair”. From them he learns that they come from a heathen land and that
they were called ‘Angli’, to which Gregory famously responded, “Not Angles, but angels!” Bede’s account, however, does not claim that Gregory bought their freedom, only that their story served to inspire the idea of a mission to Kent some years later.
There was no significant movement within Church or Society before the nineteenth century to abolish slavery. Gregory’s own practice, when he founded St Andrew’s Monastery on his family estate in Rome, was to give freedom to slaves within his own household. However he did not actively seek to purchase slaves on the open market as a way to undermine the deeply-embedded social and commercial practice of slavery.
St Paul and Slavery
St Paul, in the first century AD, was the first Christian to write anything theological about slaves. There was no abstract concept of ‘inalienable human rights’. Slavery was just part of the way things were, and seen as an essential element in the global economy. Paul’s way into the issue was not through ‘human rights’, but through the Roman understanding of the rights that were conferred by ‘citizenship’ which was denied to slaves and most foreigners.
St Paul took this Roman concept (he was born a Roman citizen, unlike most outsiders who had to buy this right at great price) and stood it on its head. All Christians were, by God’s free gift, full citizens of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, their task is to work out the implications of their new citizenship in the world, so that ‘citizenship rights’ would eventually become the norm for everyone.
St Paul wrote “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) How can a Christian treat another person as a slave if he or she is a fellow-Christian, someone whom Christ has set free in his own Kingdom?
This was not a theological idea that attracted much support, either in the first century, or in the eighteen hundred centuries that followed. Slavery was far too convenient and trade in human flesh too profitable to lay down without a fight. In Britain, it took until the early C19th to achieve this. (And work is still in hand on ethnic and gender differences).
Returning to Gregory in the slave market, Bede himself seems uncertain about the veracity of the story of slave boys in the market place as a reason for launching the mission to England. He places his tale as a slightly apologetic ‘appendix’ to his account of the mission to England, rather than as his prologue for Gregory sending Augustine in 596. What Gregory himself actually writes is that he launched the mission in direct response to an appeal from the Kentish royal household, the rulers of ‘the English people’.
Does this account of English slave boys then have no substance? Not entirely. We do know, from Gregory’s own Papal Registry, that as the Bishop of Rome he authorised payment for two young Saxon boys to be educated in a monastery in France, and paid for this out of funds from papal estates there. Presumably because the Frankish tongue was close enough to Old English. This may perhaps explain the confusion surrounding these Anglo-Saxon boys in Bede’s record of Augustine’s mission to England.
I retraced the steps that Augustine and his monks might have taken as they departed on the first leg of the long journey to England. This would take the monks along the road below the Palatine towards the Tiber River. (The only alternative would have been to travel by road west to to the Port of Ostia, calling at St Paul’s monastery which is on the Via Ostiense some 3 km away, but given the unstable relationship with the Lombard invaders, the River Tiber may have been the better route.)
It is not as much as a fifteen minute stroll on the Via del Cerchi to the bend in the Tiber just below Tiber Island. The west end is currently under excavation, and the boarding along the pavement shows how a redeveloped park will probably look.
The sight of the former Circus Maximus is stunning, even in its present state, making this a walk to savour and explore.
Augustine and his companions would also be accompanied by the monastic community as well as Pope Gregory to pray a blessing. A turning left and west towards the Imperial Wharfs would bring them to their ship setting sail for Ostia.
Rome’s population had shrunk to around 30,000 people clustered around three bridges: Ponte San Angelo, Ponte Fabricio, to the old Jewish Quarter, and Ponte Palatino, leading to the Forum, Palatine, and Circus Maximus.
Of the twenty monks and lay brothers who left for England, only three are known to have returned again to Rome – Augustine, Laurentius, and Abbot Peter. All of them, at the end of life’s journey were buried at the abbey outside Canterbury.
After an absence of nearly nine years, I once again made my way carefully across several traffic intersections, navigating the zebra crossings requiring iron nerve in the face of oncoming Roman traffic.
San Gregorio Magno is the epicentre of any pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. From here Augustine departed with twenty companions for the Kentish Coast via Francia, and to here he returned briefly a few months later to seek additional support from the Pope. He died at Canterbury seven years later, buried in his new monastery of St Peter & St Paul outside the city walls.
San Gregorio Magno Monastery looked much the same as I remembered it. Ascending the long flight of stairs from the road, I made my way around the arcade to a monastery door on the right. I rang the porter’s bell but with no success. Another priest appeared on the patio, and another, with a nun in tow. They also tried the bell, with no success either. Clearly, no one was home.
I wandered away, took some photographs, descended the stairs, and made my way around to the narrow alley, the Clivo di Scauri, running between the monastery and the home of two martyred Roman officers whose house stood on this site. A bit further on it became clear why no one was home to answer our call. A string of cars were parked on either side of a gateway to some big function taking place to the rear of the monastery, a reminder that ever was hospitality a critical function of Benedictine monasteries.
Gregory had entertained guests at an outside table almost every day, until his selection as Bishop of Rome in 590. Rome was awash with refugees from the Lombard conflict, including monks and nuns from the Community of St Benedict of and his sister Scholastica.
I called in at Gregory’s Monastery again two days later, around 11am. The porter buzzed me into the corridor and I gave her my card, explaining that I had come as a pilgrim to pray in the chapel of St Gregory.
Gregory’s papal chair (there is another like it in the cloister attached to St John in Lateran) stands in a side chapel. Leading off the chapel is his small cell and stone bed, behind a grate in the wall.
In the chapel there was a photograph of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ last visit here in October 2012, and the words of welcome given by the new Prior, Fr. Peter Hughes, recently returned from Justin Welby’s enthronement as Archbishop in Canterbury.
I read the Prior’s words of greeting, first given here by Pope Paul VI to Michael Ramsey, in 1966:
“You come to a house where you are not a stranger and that you have the right to think of as also your own. It is a joy for us to open the doors, and with the doors our hearts … Certainly St Gregory and St Augustine look down on us from heaven, and give us their benediction.”
Here we come to our roots. It is a spirit of welcome and generosity that makes pilgrimage to San Gregorio Magno not only worthwhile, but a necessity.
As I was leaving, the porter signalled me to wait a moment as she picked up the house phone, and a few minutes later the Prior, Fr Peter Hughes from England, came down the stairs. We greeted each other, spoke of plans to bring pilgrims from Canterbury on a more regular basis, and to strengthen ties between San Gregorio Masso Monastery and Canterbury. I left with a gift of a history of the monastery and also of the Camaldolese Benedictines who renewed the life of the community.
From where I was staying near to St Peter’s, the best route is to take the 271 bus from outside the Ospedale di Sancti Spiritu, or the 23 bus. Both pass by the same ancient Roman Gate (St Paul’s Gate – Porta S. Paolo) on the Via Ostiense, the road to the ancient Port of Ostia.
The key difference is that the 271 bus crosses the Ponte Garibaldi bridge just above Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina, largely devoted to a hospital) and continues into the heart of Rome to the Victor Emmanuel Monument, circles round this into the Forum Romanum area, past the Colosseum, then plunges down the Coelian Hill, with St Gregory’s Monastery on the left, the Palatine palaces on the left, as well as the Circus Maximus, and continues straight down to St Paul’s Gate.
Bus 23 continues past Tiber Island to cross further downstream at Ponte Sublicio, offering a longer view of the Tiber River before also arriving at Porta S. Paolo. Both bus routes terminate outside St Paul’s Basilica, making St Paul’s an easy destination to reach from Rome.
The Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls is the second largest in Rome after the Vatican Basilica of St Peter. It stands on the Via Ostiense about two kilometres from the Aurelian Walls, not far from the area known today as the “Three Fountains” and the traditional site of St Paul’s execution by beheading in 67 AD. The first church built there by Emperor Constantine over Paul’s burial place was modest in size. Work began between AD 384-386. It was finished by Emperor Honorius, but as a much more impressive building, very much like the reconstruction that exists today.
Both the Tiber as a means for river transport and the Via Ostiense as a land connection between Ostia and Rome played an important role in the life and significance of St Paul’s. Only three kilometres from St Andrew’s Abbey, it was also an obvious place to bury the dead from Gregory’s monastic community within the city (where such burial was illegal under Justinian Law), so that connections with St Andrew’s (later St Gregory”s) would probably have been close. Gregory is also believed to have carried out work on the presbytery area and raising the floor of the transept area, connecting the nave by means of five steps.
The St Paul’s monastic community may also have been a significant first destination for Augustine and his companions as they left Rome in AD 597, and for Augustine particularly on his urgent return to Rome a few months later. St Paul’s was also a major destination for the growing pilgrimage movement that gathered pace during this period, particularly as it contained the bones of one of Christendom’s most revered saints, the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Archaeological investigations carried out in 2002-3 to determine the exact location of St Paul’s sarcophagus and relics within the basilica, also unearthed the original Constantinian and Theodosian basilica. Both are now partially visible in front of the altar canopy. St Paul’s relics also include the chains reputed to have kept St Paul prisoner while he awaited trial in Rome.
By the late C6th, when Augustine left for England, St Paul’s was not only deep in rural countryside, it was also at times cut off from Rome by the Lombard invaders, whom Gregory the Great kept out of the city by massive annual bribes. A city of 30,000 people could not easily defend itself against a large invading force that also chose to make itself at home in the countryside around the Holy City.
In AD 596, Augustine, a monk in Rome, was summoned to the Lateran Palace by Pope Gregory the Great to receive his commission – to launch a mission to far-off England on the edge of the known world.
One can imagine Augustine hurrying from St Andrew’s Monastery (its original name) along a narrow street, the Clivo di Scauri, passing under the Arch of Dolabella into the equally narrow Via Santo Stefano Rotondo, and finally entering the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. This is a journey of about twenty minutes at a brisk pace on foot.
What one sees on arriving at the Lateran complex of buildings today is significantly changed compared to the sight that greeted Augustine. The ancient Baptistry is still there, but the monastic buildings and compound are all gone or significantly rebuilt. The Lateran Palace, where Augustine met with Pope Gregory, was rebuilt in 1586 after the palace was destroyed in a fire nearly three centuries earlier, in 1308.
Although there were priests hurrying in and out, the palace is not longer Vatican property, as the two policemen in the entrance office were at pains to inform me. Photographs were completely out of the question. The official position concerning photographing government buildings was, to say the least, disappointing.
It had, by late morning, already begun to drip from a leaden and threatening sky. I hastened down to the Roman Wall a few hundred yards to the west of the Lateran Basilica, to the Gate of the Donkeys ( Porta Asinaria)a minor gateway in the Aurelian Wall. Fifty years before Augustine arrived to meet with the Pope, in AD 546 to be precise, treacherous barbarian soldiers guarding the gate had opened it to the hordes of Totila the Goth. Today, nothing more serious than a flea market selling leather bags at the Gate threatens the peace of the city.
As I returned to the Lateran Basilica from the Gate the rain started in earnest, heavy soaking drops that needed the umbrella I’d bought at Gatwick Airport on my way out to Rome.
I crossed over to a building that houses the Scala Sancta, a flight of stairs brought from Jerusalem by Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother. The stairs were originally located in the Lateran Palace, and no doubt Gregory was constantly reminded of Christ’s trial and sacrifice. Augustine would have passed them, if not ascended them on his knees, as he came to meet with the Pope.
Since 1278, these steps have been housed in a purpose-built building so that others could ascend the 28 holy stairs, said to have been those ascended by Jesus for his trial at Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. What stunned me wasn’t so much that pilgrims still slowly climbed these wooden covered stairs on their knees, but that so many of those who did were young people.
This isn’t supposed to happen in a secular, savvy, skeptical society. But it does.
At the curve of the Tiber, a kilometre or so below St Peter’s Basilica and the Varican is Tiber Island, a miniature of Paris’ Ile de la Cite. A bridge on both sides connects this little gem with the city. From the area of the ancient Jewish Ghetto, the Ponte Fabricio footbridge, Rome’s oldest original bridge still in use since 62 BC, crosses to the island. the Isola has long been associated with healing, and there is a hospital on the island. In 293 BC the Temple of Aesculapius was dedicated here to the god of healing and protector against the plague.
The River divides around the Isola, forming a shallow cataract on the left bank. A Roman arch bizarrely stands in the River, nesting seagulls at home on the grassy top. The island has a few restaurants and pharmacy, and other buildings not accessible from the main street. Tourists eat their sandwiches at the milky-green water’s edge.
The church of St Bartholomew was raised over the ruins of the former temple in the tenth century. In a side-chapel, Archbishop Rowan and Pope Benedict XVI knelt in St Bartolomeo all’ Isola and prayed for the new martyrs of the Anglican Communion.
The Isola is a lovely place of calm and healing, well worth the visit, and a must for any pilgrim from Canterbury.
For 12 euros admission to the Forum, Palatine and Colosseum, valid over two days, this is Rome’s best value-for-money ticket. (The next is Ostia Antica, a short rail trip out of town.) The same cannot be said for Trajan’s Markets across the street for nine euros, and a frankly disappointing array of displays.
My first time on the Palatine, and it did not disappoint. Here we see how the other less than one percent lived in unimaginable splendour. The Palatine has a 360 view of the hills of Rome and the Tiber. Imperial balconies are situated well above the heat and humidity of the city, catching the cooling breezes in high porticos. But where did domestic slaves live in a complex as grand as this?
Well before the late sixth century, the Palatine was effectively deserted as the aristocratic class fled to Constantinople and other, safer venues around the Mediterranean. The Palatine became the biblical ‘haunt of jackals’ – and forlorn domestic cats.
The public buildings of the ancient city, once so familiar to Gregory and Augustine, were much like the ancient city we see today, and in largely the same state of repair. Before the 18th century there had been little or no interest in recovering the Roman past. Columns and arches were almost completely buried beneath layers of soil and rubble. This also reflects the attitude of the Church from the sixth century onwards; pilgrims came to Rome not for its magnificent imperial past (rather, the collapse of Rome was seen as a divine punishment), but for the relics of saints who had died at the hands of pagan Rome.
Such was the contempt for the old that when the roof of old St Peter’s basilica needed repair, the Church stripped the gilded tiles from the roof of the Basilica of Maximus and Constantine, a magnificent building in the Forum where legal cases were once heard. Both Gregory I and Augustine would have seen this building in its original state – the roof was only stripped of its tiles in the early seventh century.
But attitudes have changed. Archaeological explorations are now extensive. The past is seen as having value in itself, able to tell us something about our selves, where we’ve come from, and possibly where we might be going, if we wisely choose.
I left the Palatine through the exit into the Via di S. Gregorio, just yards across the road from St Gregory’s Monastery. After meeting the new Prior, I retraced the steps that Augustine and his monks may have taken as they departed on the first leg of their long journey to England, past the Circus Maximus to a waiting ship moored along the Tiber. The only alternative would have been to travel by road west to Ostia, calling at St Paul’s monastery which is on the Via Ostiense some 3 km away.