Rome’s Sixth Century Landmarks





The flight from London to Rome landed at Fiumiceno Leonardo da Vinci Airport. I had booked a room at the Residenza Madri Pie, near the Vatican, a large bed & breakfast establishment run by professional staff on behalf of a community of nuns. It is an ideal location with bus routes into Rome on the doorstep. I was particularly interested to learn what landscape still exits in Rome that Augustine would have known?

Rome is overwhelming; some careful choices have to be made to have any chance of understanding the world that Augustine lived in.  

The Rome of Augustine and Gregory the Great was a city once at the centre of the Roman Empire and boasting a mission people, but now by the last decade of the sixth century, reduced to no more than 30,000 people, clustered mostly near the bridges of Rome. The city was besieged by the Germanic Lombard tribes, and Pope Gregory raised an enormous sum of extortion money each year to pay off the invaders, much as the Danes would do to Canterbury some three centuries later. Augustine’s role, as a monk at St Andrew’s Monastery, was to provide for the needs of the poor in the city. The key sites in Rome that Augustine would have been familiar with are indicated below. Most of these are  relevant to the Augustinian mission to Kent launched by Gregory as Bishop of Rome in AD 596-7. .

Castel Sant’Angelo was initially commissioned as a mausoleum by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The building was completed in AD 139 and later used as a fortress and castle. It is now a museum open to the public; a real gem with stunning views of Rome from the parapets.


 Huge carved angels are everywhere, including one cast in black bronze in a room with grated bars. The footbridge  across the Tiber – Gregory’s bridge – is likewise festooned with angels. Signs and wonders by the Church were still experienced nearly six centuries after the time of Jesus. It is at San Angelo that Gregory is said to have stopped the plague in Rome. This would have taken place while Augustine was still in Rome as a member of the monastic community.  Augustine, like his master,  was to have signs and wonders also attributed to his ministry in England.


The Pantheon, AD 118-125, is still deeply impressive – another of Hadrian’s projects (along with Hadrian’s Wall in northern England), but not consecrated as a church until 609 by Pope Boniface IV.  There were no pagan structures of similar scale standing in England in this period (unless Stonehenge is included), but Augustine was one of the first to take a more lenient view of using former pagan shrines  for Christian worship.



The Caelian Hill (one of the seven hills of Rome) is crested by the ruins of the Colosseum, which, like the Forum stretching away from it to the west, is on lower  ground. The hill falls away sharply from the Colosseum.  About half a mile down the hill lies Gregory’s monastery, on the left of the road, dedicated originally to St Andrew, and built on the site of Gregory’s family villa within the grounds of his family estate.

 St Gregory’s Monastery (San Gregorio Magno al Celio)


The chapel is the centrepiece of the complex, surrounded by monastic buildings. The Sisters of Mercy (Mother Theresa’s order) run the large guest-house to the right. The chapel and central complex was remodelled in the C17th; the original villa lies directly beneath. The monastery probably follows the same ground plan as the villa, including the central atrium and fountain.


 I asked for someone who could speak English, and that turned out to be the Prior. He was willing to speak with me, and in excellent English. The community are Camaldolese, of the reformed Cluny order. The monastery has 10 monks in residence in June 2005. A very insightful and helpful conversation followed with a man whose appearance, manner, garb, erudition and spiritual discipline seemed to step right out of the pages of history.

 The Prior’s comments 

No one knows where Augustine came from, Sicily or elsewhere. He was Prior when the monastery still had an abbot.  Gregory’s ‘conversion’ to monasticism would have carried his whole household with him – as was the case for his mother when she became committed to the celibate life. However, the slaves in the household would have been in a better position for it – at least they would be freemen in Roman society. This may also go some way to explain the variety of words to describe monks who lived together within a single monastery – from anchorites to cenoebites, as each monk was under a different rule, personally formulated by the abbot.

Gregory – like all Roman patricians – was a pragmatist. His mission had  practical outcomes in mind – not romantic ideas of restoring lost colonies. It is taken as a fact at St Gregory’s Monastery that Queen Bertha herself sent to Gregory to ask for a mission, having failed to secure any response from the bishops of Gallia/Francia. It seems clear from this that Gregory was not a grand strategist, but a pragmatist – he responded to Bertha, rather than initiated the mission.

St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People remains important as a source of information concerning the mission for St Gregory’s Monastery (together with Gregory’s own letters.). Gregory wrote his Dialogues at the monastery, so presumably he had gleaned the relevant stories of Benedict’s life and miracles from the monks who fled from Monte Cassino after the arrival of the Lombards.

Augustine was a monk in this monastery until AD 596, and possibly its prior or sub-prior at the time. He was selected by Pope Gregory to lead a mission to the Kentish court, taking with him a few of the monks and probably a larger number of lay brothers to assist with the transport en route. 

Basilica of St. John in Lateran 
(Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano)


From St Gregory’s Monastery to the Lateran is a 20-25 minute brisk walk. The Cathedral of the Roman Diocese and seat of the Bishop of Rome, St. John in Lateran, is the oldest and first among Rome’s major basilicas. The basilica
 is situated on the site of an ancient Imperial Army fort in the Lateran Palace grounds.


 Palace was home to the Lateran family of ancient Rome, administrators for several
 emperors. The Lateran became Imperial property when Constantine I married Fausta (the sister of his
enemy Maxentius), and was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine. The Lateran Palace was occupied as the residence and official seat of the
 Pope until 1309 when the French Pope Clement V transferred the Papacy to Avignon, France.




Pope Gregory I was resident at the Lateran from 590 to 604. This is where Augustine was commissioned by Pope Gregory for the mission to Kent, and here he returned after a few months in Francia, to seek for additional support from the Pope to continue the mission.



 St Agnese Fuori le Mura (“outside the wall”)

I barely made it in time to St Agnese church, which closes 12 noon and kept open by a small volunteer staff. The journey there by bus is miles out of the centre, into the heart of the ancient patrician villa-country (but  mostly inside the wall, although St Agnes itself is outside.) Wealthy aristocracy once lived here, away from the noisome centre of the Empire.


Thirteen year-old Agnes was buried here in AD 304, murdered after refusing to surrender herself to one of Diocletian’s courtiers. The church was possibly built at request of Constantia, Constantine’s daughter, who prayed at Agnes’ tomb for a cure for her illness – long post-AD 312 clearly. Constantia’s grandmother Helena later visited the Holy Land and identified the Tomb of Christ as the Holy Sepulchre. Today the church is a somewhat neglected place.

 Why is this church important for our understanding of Augustine?

  • The C4th basilica existed in Augustine’s time – and its dimensions and ground plan are not dissimilar to the original groundplan of Christ Church cathedral in Canterbury, St Pancras Church (in the grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey), and Reculver church. Was this a typical ground plan adopted by Augustine for his cathedral in Canterbury?
  • St Augustine’s woollen pallium (the traditional scarf given by the pope that recognised a bishop as archbishop) came from the wool of two lambs blessed at this church’s altar on Jan 21, probably AD 601. The connection with St Agnes? Eight days after her death, she appeared apparently as a bejewelled Byzantine empress, holding a white lamb.





San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura

Constantine founded a church over the burial place of St. Laurence. It is one of the seven basilicas traditionally visited by pilgrims, and because outside the city wall, it has a cemetery (as do St Peter’s and also St Paul’s). By the late sixth century, ‘spiritual tourism’ was playing an increasingly important role in the life of Rome. However, pilgrims did not come to view the amazing ruins of a lost Empire, but to venerate the bones of martyrs and make requests of the saints to petition before the throne of heaven on their behalf. All of these sites in the late sixth century were outside the walls of Rome.



Trying to get to San Lorenzo can be something of a nightmare. I found it impossible to locate where the No 71 bus departed from, so a long walk to clear the station and get  to the Via Tiburtina. Although the City University is off this road, the area has an air of neglect and poverty and an odd atmosphere in St Laurence’s itself. A feeling, unique in my experience in a church in Rome, of being watched, regarded with suspicion.  Perhaps they experience many thefts here in a poor neighbourhood. I didn’t stay long as a result, and so missed the cloisters through a door on the south side of the church. I partly wondered whether they running a mafia operation from the church. Or were they suspicious of people coming this far out from Rome? No impression that visitors or pilgrims were welcomed here, though others did arrive in the short while I was there. No literature or postcards were noticeably for sale (also unusual in a Rome church). A strange experience and an uncomfortable place for me.

San Lorenzo was martyred in AD 258.  Although Constantine erected a basilica over his burial place, it was largely rebuilt in AD 576, so St Augustine would have seen this recently-reconstructed basilica. Augustine would also have seen the mosaic of Christ over the apse arch. 

Outside on the west end a huge, very impressive porch behind a colonnade, very much bigger than Augustine’s cathedral in Canterbury. It occurred to me that in Rome nearly everything was made with brick (some overlaid with marble at one time), but not stone, which characterised Anglo-Saxon churches before the Normans. The brickwork fits with St Martin’s church in Canterbury, but  where did they make bricks, and find clay?

Old St Peter’s Basilica, Rome 


 The practice of guide books to holy sites had begun before the end of the sixth century, and the two most significant churches in Rome during Augustine’s and Pope Gregory’s lifetime were dedicated to, and contained the relics of, St Peter and St Paul respectively. Both were martyred in Rome, and both buried outside the walls of Rome according to the burial custom of the time. Only Jerusalem was regarded as a holier place, possessing the tomb of Christ himself.  Pilgrimages to Jerusalem ceased after the rise of Islam led to the capture of the Holy City and Sepulchre in AD 637. 

Both basilicas would be supported by a community of monks, and as the principal organiser of support for the poor, Augustine would have frequent contact with these communities in the course of his duties in Rome.

St Paul’s Basilica, outside the walls of Rome



 Romans inherited the institution of slavery from the Greeks and the Phoenicians. By the late Republican era, slavery had become a vital economic pillar in the wealth of Rome.  St Bede tells one version of how the idea of the mission was formed, in the period before Gregory was made pope in 590. This is the first and oldest source of the tale of two Anglo-Saxon slave boys’ story, narrated in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is essentially a Northumbrian legend that grown in the 130 years after Augustine’s landing in Kent.

“We must not fail to relate the story about St Gregory which has come down to us as a tradition of our forefathers. It explains the reason why he showed such earnest solicitude for the salvation of our race. It is said that 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 among them. As well as other merchandise he saw some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair. On seeing them he asked, so it is said, from what region or land they had been brought. He was told that they came from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were like that in appearance. He asked again whether those islanders were Christians or still entangled in the errors of heathenism. He was told that they were heathen.”

 The Anglo-Saxon boys may have arrived by ship, possibly via Spain, and landed at or the imperial warehouses on the south side of the Tiber, then taken to the auction-place and prepared for sale. 


Where did this take place?



The slave auction in Rome was located near the forum. It was a market situated in the area called the Graecostadium behind the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum. During 354 AD a great famine took place and public buildings burned down: the senate, the forum of Caesar, the basilica Julia, and the Graecostadium. In the 5th century the old edifices within the Forum began to be transformed into Christian churches. Whether the slave market continued on this site into the late sixth century is a moot point. 

The Tiber: Rome to Ostia

The more usual route from Rome to Ostia for a group travelling together with light luggage would be by road. This would be quicker and cheaper than travelling by river barge. However, the extent of Lombard rule by 590 includes much of the territory surrounding Rome, which would make the land option potentially dangerous, strengthening the case for the river option. The Tiber today is of course significantly different from the river that flowed fourteen hundred years ago – much quieter in terms of river traffic, and much cleaner. Today commercial river launches takes two hours from Rome to Ostia, and similarly for the return.


In 596,  the caudicariae naves – towed boats utilised on the Tiber up the city of Rome –  took three days to make this same journey. Towing was from the right bank of the river, parallel to the bank with minimum use of the steering device, and undertaken by animals or slaves. 

There was also a specific category of river vessels, the naves caudicariae,  employed for the river transport of merchandise trans-shipped from large merchant ships. These larger ships exceeded a 3000-amphora capacity (about 150 tonnes).  They could not travel upstream and were obliged to anchor at sea and be unloaded onto smaller vessels, which shuttled between the ships and the river port of Ostia. These operations were very lengthy and dangerous: the coastline, in fact, was inhospitable, low and sandy.

Ships with a capacity of 10,000 modii of grain (that is, about 70 metric tonnes) constituted the lower end of vessels whose tonnage was considered sufficient to be used for Rome’s food supply and thus to benefit from government concessions.


During the first 150 years of its existence, Portus was merely a district of the port of Ostia. From an inscription, Constantine made it an independent city: Civitas Flavia Constantiniana, usually referred to as Portus Romae. Portus already had its own bishop in 314 AD, and who was present at the Council of Arles.

The horrea or grain warehouses at Portus were abandoned in the fifth and sixth century,  so that  storage took place only in horrea in Rome. This meant that Portus was no longer suitable for unloading the large grain and oil ships and transporting their cargo on smaller boats and barges for the last part of the journey to Rome. In any event, Portus was captured by the Goths in 537 AD, and by the eighth century Trajan’s basin became inaccessible due to silt. 

 By this time, Portus had evidently ceased to function as a port for grain distribution to Rome. This meant that all or most ships by-passed Portus and headed straight up the Tiber if they were small enough.

It seems likely that Augustine would have secured a passage on a ship (as opposed to a river barge) that was capable of travelling all the way up the Tevere to Rome, and capable of making the sea-journey to the southern coast of Provence. This would overcome the need to transfer to a larger vessel anchored off Ostia. This meant a boat of less than 150 tons, and therefore definitely not an imperial grain vessel, but rather a private trader. By this time vessels of this kind may have dominated the sea and river traffic, as more and more of Italy fell under the control of the Lombards.

Given the length of the river journey from Rome to Ostia – typically two nights and three days to reach the mouth of the Tevere, overnight lodging houses provided accommodation and the usual services that went with river traffic; the monks probably stayed on board the boat during their two nights on the Tiber.

On Augustine’s return journey, either the same process would have been followed but in reverse, travelling up the Tiber; or if it had been necessary to join a larger ship, it would mean off-loading from sea to shore at Ostia, and waiting for a smaller vessel to continue his journey upstream.  Augustine’s return journey to Provence would probably have followed the same course as his first, but without his nineteen companions.

Ostia Antica


Getting there: a €1 train ticket from Stazione St Petra to Ostiensis – walk across the plaza, taking left road to ‘Pyramide’ – NB the railway station entrance is the second one, beyond the Metro entrance. Train to ‘Porto Roma’. The stops listed above the doorway. Note the Basilica of St Paul on the right after leaving the 1st stop en route. At Antica station, take footbridge over Main road. Entrance ticket to Ostia Antica site €4. Can’t get a better deal in Rome for €4!

 A key resource is the Ostia-Antica website.

And the downloadable Tourist Guide  


(See video lecture: The Roman Way of Life and Death at Ostia, the Port of Rome)

Ostia reached its zenith in the second century AD with a population of fifty thousand, mainly through immigration and the import of slaves, from Egypt, the Middle East, and Turkey. Slaves served households or worked in the harbour and store-buildings as manual labourers, clerks and accountants. Many people worked in Poruts and lived in Ostia, cross the Tevere by ferry. The breeding of slaves was also a profitable business.  By the early fifth century Ostia became an average Italian city, unlike Portus, that remained important as a harbour: from now on the praefectus annonae governed Portus, but not Ostia.

In 410 AD the most traumatic event to date in Roman history took place, one that was felt as far away as Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britannia. Alaric with Goths, Huns and Alans sacked Rome, which by this time was no longer even the Italian centre of Roman Administration. The emperor Honorius had is headquarters in Ravenna, on the north-east Italian coast. Alaric also captured Portus, but ignored Ostia. In 455 AD Gaeseric and the Vandals sacked Portus. An inscription records that they burned the church of S. Hippolytus on the Isola Sacra, and possibly plundered Ostia.


At the end of the fifth century the Ostian aqueduct ceased functioning. Many Ostians now lived and died amidst the ruins. At the same time, Portus remained a thriving harbour. In 537 Vitigis and the Goths laid siege to Portus. Belisarius defended Portus and Ostia. The last inhabitants of Roman Ostia had retreated to the theatre, that was turned into a mini-fortress. From this point the recorded history of Ostia is a blank. The town was apparently abandoned after Lombard activity to control the coast, in other words, post-590. Augustine’s mission was launched in June 596. If Gregory had delayed much longer, it might have been impossible for a party to leave Rome at all on such a venture.  On the other hand, war was very much a seasonal business; there were crops to be harvested, and winter was not usually considered a good time to be at war either, so we need not think in terms of modern-day warfare conducted by professional soldiers and advanced logistical support.  However apart from the Lombards, whether on land or sea, it may be that the greater threat came from pirate ships plying the coast.

Impressions: Well worth a day. Take a hat next time! Town not frozen in time like Pompeii, but the experience of a gradual decline.  Much of Roman Ostia was built in the century after Pompei, by which time the building methods had changed considerably following a disastrous fire in Rome. Concrete, faced with brick, replaced the earlier stone construction (also faced with brick) that burned more easily.

 While the Sailors’ Forum (presumably mostly fishermen) was just outside the western gate facing and close to the sea, the grain and goods traffic landed at wharves on the Tiber, close to the flour mills at the end of the Via Dei Molini (Street of the mills). The principal entrance faced the Tiber, with a broad road leading to the riverbank wharves.

 By 596, the most significant person in Ostia was the Bishop of Ostia, who also had the function of consecrating the Bishop of Rome.  With the fall of the Empire in 475, what happened to the palace, a little out of the town, on the Tiber? Was it sacked and torched (by the invaders), or did it pass into other hands?

 Following Constantine’s conversion, there was clearly no need for an Imperial cult with its own priests (Augustali). Ostia possessed a very fine ‘college’ on the south side of the main E-W road, the Decumanus Maximus. My guess is that the emperor handed this over to the Church for the Bishop of Ostia’s use. This is where Augustine and his monks may have stayed, assuming they did not leave immediately following arrival.

The only purpose-built church in Ostia was evidently provided by the owner of the neighbouring baths, of which this is the end-piece. It is likely that here the monks had their last act of worship on Italian soil; saying prayers and making their intentions for safe passage. My sense is that Augustinus also made a vow – that if the Lord prospered their journey, he would name a new monastery basilica in Anglia/England after the patrons of Ostia – St Peter & St Paul.



Ostia was founded as a military colony in the second half of the C4th BC to defend the mouth of the Tiber. (It shares this initial purpose with Richborough and Reculver in relation to Canterbury, with a similar distance between the port and the capital.) Ostia therefore controlled the movement of traffic up and down the river.

Julius Caesar was the first to argue for an enlarged port sited away from the mouth of the Tiber, but the project had to wait until Claudius (42-54 AD) to be realised. Trajan built an artificial basin and a huge hexagonal dry dock AD 105 to extend the wharves and warehouses of the Claudian port. Ostia was set for rapid expansion of commercial activity and population.

The emperors holidayed there, and took an active interest in the development of the town. Grain from North Africa was milled to flour in Ostia and supplied to Rome. A mercantile class and associated trades, offices and services sprang up in Ostia. Noticeably, Ostians managed to get their hands on an astounding amount of marble – for decoration and for statues.

The large number of public baths attests not only the cleanliness of the local population, but also to Ostia’s reputation as a resort. In this cosmopolitan atmosphere, almost every religious cult in the Empire was represented here : Mithras, Isis, the emperor cult, the classical deities of Antiquity – Diana, Hercules, Ceres, Jupiter – and at least 3 places of Christian worship.


Business was the business of Ostia, and the attitude to religious pluralism was laissez-faire. Did this influence Augustine’s thinking and practice once he had become established in Canterbury?

 It is odd that the city boasted a bishop but no cathedral. It is at least possible that here – unlike Rome – the Christian community was less averse to taking-over and adapting the use of a pagan temple, particularly the Rotunda, which was restored in the reign of Constantine (built mid-C3rd by Alexander Severus AD 222-235.  Pope Gregory’s successor was to do to same with the Pantheon in AD 609. Certainly it is the best candidate: as it was the key place for formal pagan ritual practice of the former imperial cult, the temple and the college of the Augustali priests were both handed over to the local church for the use of the bishop.

 However, the church of SS Peter & Paul was built between the end of the C4th and the beginning of the C6th, constructed inside a building once used for baths. Were any new pagan structures built in Ostia after Constantine’s conversion? The Temple of Hercules in late C4th was probably the last pagan temple to receive a state subsidy for repairs. After this, it seems that the wealthy clung to the old places much as we do to Grade I and II listed church buildings – nice to have, but don’t take their original function seriously. Possibly their descendents continued as cult-priests, but the institutional structures had disappeared (much like the church in England after 410AD).

 Through whom did Christian travellers by sea say their prayers? Both SS Peter and Paul travelled by sea, but St Paul especially suffered and survived an horrendous shipwreck, as did all who travelled with him. Who better to intercede to? One can imagine Augustine being asked by someone on the streets of Ostia, “So where are you going?” and replying, “To convert the English from heathen to Christ.”

Who would have believed him? Who indeed.





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Rob retired in 2014 from his post of Director of Licensed Ministries in Canterbury Diocese. His current interests are: leading programmes in missional leadership, writing, research, painting and travel. He is a founder member of a 'new monastic' community, the Companions of Augustine of Canterbury, drawing on the inspiration of Augustine's mission to England in 597.