Theodora, Praxedes, and the Role of Christian Women in Ancient Rome


Yeah, that sounds a lot like a dissertation title, but the images of women in Roman mosaics from the second through ninth centuries in Rome, as well as art on early Christian sarcophagi suggest that the role of women in the early church was not that of second-class citizen.

Paul the Apostle writes to the church in Rome, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require of you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

Not only did some women in the early church have power (like the deacon Phoebe), but they some had wealth as well. What Paul is describing is a patron-client relationship, common throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Paul is the client and…

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Theodora, Praxedes, and the Role of Christian Women in Ancient Rome

Yeah, that sounds a lot like a dissertation title, but the images of women in Roman mosaics from the second through ninth centuries in Rome, as well as art on early Christian sarcophagi suggest that the role of women in the early church was not that of second-class citizen.


Episcopa Theodora, Saint Praxedes, Mary the mother of Jesus, Saint Prudentia from the Chapel of Zeno, Church of Saint Praxedes, Rome

Paul the Apostle writes to the church in Rome, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require of you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

Not only did some women in the early church have power (like the deacon Phoebe), but they some had wealth as well. What Paul is describing is a patron-client relationship, common throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Paul is the client and Phoebe is the patron (prostatis). It is worth noting that the Church of Rome today will not ordain women as priests or as deacons…and they wonder why the few priests willing to serve large parishes are worked to death. On a purely tactical level, if they opened the diaconate and the priesthood to women, they would effectively double their clergy pool! But, I digress.

Paul continues to write to the church in Rome, “Greet Prisca [a woman] and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.” They were likely a married couple who did ministry together with Paul. Married? A woman in ministry?

“Greet Andronicus and Junia,” writes Paul about a man and a woman he describes as “my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles.” Wait a minute…did Paul just call a woman a prominent apostle? Yes, he did.

All of those passages are at the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans in chapter 16. In the “old” Revised Standard Edition, the editors used the masculine form of Junia’s name (Junias), because they found it inconceivable that the text provided the name a prominent female apostle. (Check any Greek New Testament, it says Junia.)


reading along the left margin (top to bottom): Theodora
reading along the top (left to right): Episcopa

The first thing I noticed about the four women depicted in the above mosaic was that one had a square nimbus…which means that she was still living at the time the mosaic was created. And she is the only one of the four identified by name: Theodora. And her title is Episcopa, the fem. version of the male noun Episcopos, which literally means over (epi-) seer (-scopos) and is what we translate into English as bishop. She was the mother of Pope Paschal I, who built the edifice and commissioned the murals in the 9th c. We don’t have records of who consecrated her as bishop…but if she was not a bishop, why label her as such…and with a nimbus to boot? Filial piety only goes so far. Some have written this off as a way to honor Theodora as the wife of a bishop. Huh? Why isn’t her husband depicted with a nimbus, alongside Saints Mary, Praxedes, and Prudentia? He’s not even there.


St. Praxedes and Paul…equals in this image.

Praxedes (Prassede in Italian) was said to have died in 165 as a martyr (about 100 years after Paul was apparently martyred in Rome). She took care of those Christians who had been injured in the persecution and was entombed in the catacombs of St. Priscilla along with her sister, Prudentia. In the ninth century, her remains were removed and placed in the crypt of the church built in devotion to her by Pope Paschal.

In the above mosaic from the chancel of the church, she is shown with St. Paul as an equal. He has his arm around her shoulder in a very collegial manner. She is depicted as being as tall as he is and in a manner that conveys them as being of similar status. Interesting that they could pull this off in the 9th century. Did you see any women at the recent conclave that elected the pope…12 centuries later?

You may have heard a 2006 NPR report on a feminist pilgrimage that included the Church of St. Praxedes, reported by the inimitable Sylvia Poggioli. If you missed it, here is a link. (The one major omission of our pilgrimage was not inviting Sylvia Poggioli to dinner one night!)


From around 350, the inscription on this memorial mosaic reads, “Flavius Julius Julian, husband, to Simplicia Rustica, beloved wife, who lived 18 years, 5 months, and 15 days. She was my spouse for 3 years and and 2 months. May she rest in peace. She was buried January 23.” Her hands are raised in prayer.

And in the Pio Christiano Museum within the Vatican Museums, figures of a woman in prayer kept recurring among sarcophagi and in a stunning mosaic memorializing a young woman. Among the earliest Christian inscriptions is one of a woman named Petronia on the side of her marble sarcophagus. It shows her again in the position of prayer, which in the ancient world was emblematic of piety and faithfulness. And like the image of the man carrying a ram for sacrifice, it was used both in Christian and pagan depictions of piety.


We can’t know everything about the role of women in early Christian communities in Rome, but indications point not simply to their presence, but to their leadership. The church today is losing out on the gifts of women for ministry every time we act or even think that women should play anything but an equal role in clergy leadership. You wouldn’t think this would still be an issue…but it is for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, fundamentalist and some evangelical Christians. All I can say is look to our past and look to your future.

Religion – War – Victory – Peace

Dom and Sarah Crossan in front of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome

Dom and Sarah Crossan in front of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace) in Rome

In a previous post, I wrote about Dom’s matrix for peace in the Roman world:  first religion, then war, then victory, and finally peace. And it is literally displayed on the four  huge panels on the Ara Pacis Augustae, which was reassembled from bits all across Europe (a few are still in the Louvre) and is now housed in a beautiful glass museum structure designed by American architect Richard Meier.
P1000932Religion: The first panel shows a scene from Aeneas, legendary founder of the Julian dynasty, making sacrifice.
War: The next panel shows Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome with the God Mars (Ares).
P1000967 - Version 2
Victory: The goddess Roma sits on the captured battle gear of defeated enemies.
Peace: The goddess Pax, a personification of peace with children, fruits, cattle and abundance; the very picture of fecundity.
The order of this matrix – shown by the four main panels of the Ara Pacis – is critical. If we are devout and make sacrifice to the gods, it will assure that we can accomplish territorial aggrandizement: the very heart of empire, and therefore, imperial theology.  And if we have been true in our sacrifice and brave in war, it will assure our victory. (Think of the image that we call winged victory…looks an awful lot like what the church passes off as an angel….see below.) And After victory in battle, we will be rewarded with peace.
The Ara Pacis was commissioned in 13 BC and completed in 9 BC, as a celebration of Augustus’s victory and “pacifying” Gaul and Spain. Bits of it wound up in museums all over Europe (and some still resides in the Louvre).
Not St. Michael....the Nike from Ostia.

Not St. Michael….the Nike from Ostia.

This matrix is not entirely dissimilar to our own Pax Americana. How many times have we heard, “We are a Christian nation,” and then have those who have spoken those words rattle the sabers and go to war against an enemy like Iraq? (American combat deaths in Iraq totaled 3,542 and Iraqi civilian deaths totaled at least 116,000 according the UK’s Telegraph…all in search of nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction.” Are we more like Rome or more like Jesus?) The death toll in Iraq suggests victory, but the political instability caused by the war makes victory impossible to claim. Though neither was a “good leader,” Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam kept each other in check. We in the U.S. sense relative peace because we do not live in Kabul or Baghdad or Gaza. But we don’t have true peace, just as the Romans in Italy didn’t have true peace while their legions were being slaughtered (and slaughtering) along the Rhine.


Look at the artifact, Benito!

Nike carrying fasces toward Mussolini's name...Fascist architecture near the mausoleum of Augustus.

Nike carrying fasces toward Mussolini’s name…Fascist architecture near the mausoleum of Augustus.

During the Fascist (from the Latin word, fasces, a bundle of bound rods with an ax…see photo: the Nike is carrying them) Era in Italy, Benito Mussolini used the Ara Pacis as an element of propaganda to show his connection with the Roman Empire. It was under his leadership that the Ara Pacis was reassembled. And when Adolf Hitler visited Rome in 1938, Mussolini included the Ara Pacis on the tour for the leader of the Third Reich. (Reich is the German word for empire.)


figurine of Paul, 4th century

So, what’s the alternative?

The matrix suggested by the apostle Paul, based on his own Judaism and on following Jesus is markedly different:

First, religion. Then justice. Then peace. (No war and no victory based on military superiority.) It’s the same matrix that the Hebrew prophets tried to instill in the people, against the will of leaders who wanted to adopt a matrix similar to Rome’s. Micah asks, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The concept of shalom is absolutely central to the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, and it is no accident at all that Paul’s opening to authentic letters uses this phrase, which condenses his theology into three words: Grace and peace.

Grace (charis) is an unearned gift and peace for Paul was not the absence of war, but the condition of right relationship with God and humankind based of just action and the wholeness of creation. When I graduated from divinity school, I had some beach stones I collected in Maine inscribed with the Greek word, charis, and on the reverse side, shalom. I gave one to each of my closest friends. (Amazing what gravestone companies will engrave!)

So, I guess the question left for each of us to grapple with is whose team do we want to play for? Which matrix do we want to adopt: Caesar’s of Jesus and Paul’s? Do we want to work toward war and victory as a means of pacification or do we want to work for justice and the road to true peace?

Seaports and Triumphal Arches

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Dom Crossan examines an altar in Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport of Rome.
We started out the day with a visit to Ostia, the ancient seaport of Rome, which is now several miles inland (due to shift in the Tiber River, which is very muddy and deposit a lot of silt each year). I knew about Ostia, but not that it had been buried in river sediment for a couple of millennia before being excavated. There are also wonderful mosaics, especially from the trading stalls that surrounded the market…imagine the wide array of products from across the empire that were traded at Ostia.

I later split off from the group to spend some extra time examining the Arch of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. The arch commemorated his triumph after the victory over his co-emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. According to legend, at this battle, Constantine had a vision of the letters chi (X) and rho (P), which in Greek are the first two letters of the word christos or Christ. Sometimes you will still see those two Greek letters superimposed in churches (a long P running vertically through the center of the X). And you might also see the letters IHS in churches, which stand for In Hoc Signo vincat or “in this sign, I win,” which according to legend, Constantine had emblazoned on the shields of his troops, along with the chi-rho.
Funnily enough, there was no Christian iconography on column. (He hadn’t come out as a Christian yet…and the worst persecution of Christians in Rome had just ended.)

And because the photos from last night’s post dinner walk to St. Peter’s Square turned out well, I’m including one as well. Loving being in Rome. Enjoying Marcus and Dom’s lectures each evening. Trying to soak up all the knowledge and sites we’re visiting. Tomorrow off to the Colosseum.

Location, Location, Location

Roman emperors didn’t know everything, but good lord, they knew about real estate. Yeah, they acquired everything from the Scottish Borders through North Africa and past Syria and Iraq…but that quantity. Let’s talk quality.

The island of Capri (home of capri pants and insalata di Caprese) is a paradise off the coast of Naples. Volcanic mountains that fall right into the Mediterranean are as dramatic and beautiful as the world gets. Augustus build a palace at the very zenith of the highest mountain (complete with huge cisterns to catch rainwater for the baths). It took a solid 45 minutes of strenuous vertical climbing to get to the place from which both Augustus and Tiberius ruled the Roman Empire.

What struck me, after I caught my breath and stopped sweating, was that this was a great place to see what you, as emperor, commanded…and this was just a tiny peace of the homeland. It was awe-inspiring…which it was meant to be. We’ll see that again and again: awe matters with the emperors.

The opulence of what the emperors experienced came at a tremendous cost of slave labor and lives. Tonight, Dominic was talking about Paul’s declaration of “dying and rising with Christ” meaning that early Christians died to the life of the culture at large, namely that which the Roman Empire valued: the patronage system and patriarchy. Marcus worked with Paul’s concept of there being neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, which totally upsets the applecart of the ancient world order.

The most impressive part of Capri wasn’t the Villa Iovis (Augustus’s palace, named to honor Jove) but rather the natural surroundings created by God and entrusted to us as stewards of the earth (and heirs of God, as Paul says). Tomorrow, we’re off to the catacombs in Rome.

Who the hell was Marcus Holconius Rufus?

He was nobody I had ever heard of or read about until yesterday. He lived about the same time as Jesus, but in Pompeii. And if you really want to you can find out more about him on the internet. But, as I was wondering and sweating through the streets of Pompeii yesterday, I saw and inscription on a large marble pedestal:
M(arcus) Holconius (son of Marcus) Rufus
military tribune of the people and duumvir [one of two elected officials]
quinquennial two times
Priest of Augustus
Patron of the Colony

I actually brought stone-rubbing materials (a big wax crayon that looks like a hockey puck, masking tape, and rag paper) so that I could do stone rubbings, and I got the above one from the base of a statue in Pompeii that originally supported the statue of Marcus Holconius. The statue itself has been moved to the museum in Naples, but I found a painting of it in situ (though it was located at a busy intersection of two streets…not in a field).


It’s pretty cool to rub something that was created more than 2,000 years ago, was buried by volanic ash for 1800 years, and is right out in the open for touching and viewing. I made the mistake of asking at the Naples museum if I could do a rubbing of stones in the courtyard….I decided at Pompeii to forge ahead and ask for forgiveness if necessary. No one seemed bothered by my activity.
So, why is Marcus Haloconius of interest? He was one of the major political players in Pompeii and as such was a priest of Augustus…the same one Luke writes about (Caesar Augustus) and who was described with such titles as:
Son of God
Prince of Peace

Where have you heard those titles before? Probably not in relation to the divine Augustus. He was also conceived of a human mother and a divine father (Apollo), and the good tidings about him were described by the Greek word, euaggelion (eu = good + angelion = news), which of course is the word we use to describe news of Christ (the evangel, good news, gospel).
And if Jesus is Lord, Prince of Peace, Savior, etc. it means that Caesar is not. That is treason. It is the point at which the worldview of Christianity and Rome meet and clash. It happens in front of Pontius Pilate, and it happens again with Paul the Apostle.
We don’t know if Marcus Holconius Rufus ever even heard of Jesus (probably not), but we do know that he was one of the people in Pompeii who helped to worship Augustus. It was the worldview that he helped perpetuate and that Paul would challenge.
Dom Crossan suggests that the matrix for peace in the Augustus view was religion then war then victory then peace. That is the “normal” path for humanity. Jesus and Paul, he says, work from a different matrix: religion, then justice, then peace. It is worth asking in which paradigm our own nation operates.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
I had never seen amphorae before…so here are clay jars…the kind to which Paul refers. May you find light.


A Long Day in Pompeii

We spent a long, really warm (hot?) day in Pompeii and Herculaneum…though it was cool and calm compared to August 24, 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted. You probably know the story, and may even have seen the Pompeii exhibit in Denver last year, but both cities were buried in ash and other pyroclastic material and remain buried until the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. (If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ve seen a photo of Vesuvius from Pompeii at the heading.)
I’m kind of wiped out, but thought I’d post a few photos…explanation and analysis come later. The cool thing was that we saw many of the household items, frescoes, and mosaics yesterday in the National Arch. Museum in Naples.
Continuing to love the espresso, the food, and being with the Borgs and Crossans.

(I love cultures that can spell my name.)

A triumphal arch…brick underneath, originally sheathed in heavy plaster.




Pompeiian arches and capitals.

Emperor and “Divus”

So, here is a real geek moment: Can I tell you how much fun it is to translate Latin and Greek inscriptions on stones with John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg? Really…more fun that humans should be allowed to have. And I can’t believe that I can still remember Latin from college.
The inscription above is on a stone sitting in the courtyard of the National Archeological Museum in Naples where we spent several hours today. And they wouldn’t let me do a rubbing of any of the stones…which other people were sitting on. 😦 What you see here in stone is basically a “Who’s Who” listing of one of the emperors, Hadrian (of wall fame).
One of the points of interest is that he is listed as a “divus,” which mean a divinity who has been raised to that status from human status….unlike, say, Zeus, who was a “deus”… a god from the get-go. Not only does being a “divus” raise your street cred, it puts you in the tradition of Julius Caesar and his adoptive son, Augustus, who both got “promoted.” Julius died first; Augustus didn’t have to wait.
Think of that not so much in terms of pagan theology, but of the beginnings of Christian theology. If Augustus could be raised to the level of a god, why couldn’t Jesus. It wasn’t such a big leap for the ancient mind as it is for the modern way of thinking.
As I continue to read Constantine and the Bishops, I’m stuck by how the concept of “being of one substance with the Father” (homo-ousias) played out for fourth-century bishops. Did that set the divine Christ apart from the Roman emperors who, in centuries past, had been declared divine? Were they trying to say that Jesus was not a “divus,” but rather a “deus?” (Latin authors did use “deus,” by the way.) Just some thoughts for now. Dominic has the first lecture tonight, which I’m looking forward to…but now out for a quick espresso!
Here is a wonderful statue of Augustus now in the National Arch. Museum, but which was buried for over a millennium in the ash of Vesuvius at Pompeii.


Munich was wonderful…really

After rereading my last post, it seems as if I was very hard on Munich…me? judgmental??? I want to say that my overall view of Munich is still wonderful. It’s a vibrant small city with a lot going on. The beer culture there, of course, makes Fort Collins’ claim to be the Napa of Beer seem weak, and the music scene is really amazing. Last night I returned to the Asamkirche (the very Baroque one I talked about last time) for a great organ concert by a young woman, and the place was packed and included many young adults and some teens. You probably wouldn’t see that too often in Fort Collins, except for Joel Bacon’s Halloween Concert at CSU. It also seems like a really livable city with extremely well-designed public transportation. Imagine getting to DIA by rail!
And the reconstruction after the bombing in World War II was phenomenal. (I think that last point might get lost on some younger people…my dad was a bomber pilot, who was scheduled to start flying over Europe in 1945 when the war ended.) It is unbelievable how much has been rebuilt.
It was a really nice way to get caught up from the jet lag. I flew to Naples this morning and met the other pilgrims on the flight. One fellow was on the Ireland Pilgrimage, and another heads outdoor ministries in the Maine Conference. Great to see Marcus, Marianne, Dom, and Sarah, each of whom are doing well. It’s in the 80s here in Naples…sorry about the snow at home!

P.S. The WordPress iPad app is pretty horrible, so between that and the weak WiFi link here in Naples, I may be a little spotty in posting.


God is everywhere…and so is our theology

Yesterday afternoon I launched into a walking tour on my own and saw a bunch of priests coming out of a local church…so I went in and stayed for mass. Typical, right?! I think the priest and I were the only ones signing the hymns. I did go forward for communion, which I received from a woman (!) wearing jeans. Nice. I kept thinking that this is Pope Benedict’s home diocese (no sightings, though).

I noticed a significant number of Muslims in town, including women in full burkas. As I was leaving mass, I ran into a small demonstration by a nationalist group protesting plans for to build a mosque near the Old Town. Fear is everywhere, not just in the U.S. I spoke with one young Muslim woman, who said, "it's simple…they hate Muslims." Germany has long struggled with Turkish "guest workers," but this is a whole new level of immigration and reaction. (Glad our Muslim neighbors in Fort Collins didn't have to contend with this.) Cameron's comment via text was, "silly white folks…"
This morning I wandered into a way-too-Baroque church near where I’m staying…way over the top. It was built by two wealthy brothers, and after seeing a notice about an organ concert tonight, I wandered inside.



Imagine the cost of creating all of this! (And then think of how modern Americans invest in their buildings: the World Trade Center, the Transamerica Building, the Sears Tower…not for public use, but for commerce…that is our cultural legacy every bit as much as this church given by local merchant brothers.) At least they kept artists and builders employed and created a public space that some find transcendent. What are the motivations — soli deo Gloria or to glorify me and my achievements?
And one more image: in the Mariahilf Church (bombed out in WWII), a memorial to soldiers killed in the two world wars was fairly creepy, especially their helmets…and no memorial to the Jews who were killed nearby at the Dachau Concentration Camp.

Where was (and is) God in all this?
Does God need intolerance of people who see her differently than I do? Does Christ need more gold leaf and silver?