The location of the catacombs and the identity of the saint whom they commemorate are two intractable problems. The confusions over the latter are especially serious, and unfortunately extend to the revised Roman martyrology (2001).
The Mélanges de l'École Française de Rome has made available online a 1988 article by Giovanni Nino Verrando entitled Il Santuario di S. Felice sulla via Portuense -see here. This assiduously picks at both problems, and demonstrates their intractability.
The revised Roman martyrology has the following entry for 29 July: "Rome, at the third milestone of the Via Portuense, in the cemetery dedicated to his name, St Felix the martyr". Both the location as given and the existence of the martyr are dubious.
The location of the shrine is probably a problem with only an approximate answer ever to be available.
The Liber Pontificalis notes that Pope Julius I (337-52) founded a cymiterium (catacomb) on the Via Portuense. The Catalogus Liberianus expatiates by stating that he built a church: Basilica in via Portese milario III. This is the source of the Roman martyrology's location of the shrine of St Felix at the third milestone on the Via Portuense, but note that the name of Felix does not occur in these two sources.
The question of where the third milestone might have been is a fraught one. There is no agreement among scholars about the route of the ancient road between Rome and Porto. One view is that there were two roads- a hilly direct one called Via Portuense, and a damp meandering one following the river called Via Campana. The competing opinion is that the latter was the ancient way, and the former only emerged in late antiquity -in other words, around the time when the shrine was founded and when the provision of milestones was ceasing to be a public concern.
The pilgrimage itineraries and other sources of the early Middle Ages make it clear that there was a shrine to a St Felix on the Via Portuense:
- The Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister, 7th century, mentions that the Porta Portuense and the line of road beyond the city gate was named after St Felix in that century.
- The Index coemeteriorum of the same century has coemeterium ad insalatos ad Sanctum Felicem via Portuense. The odd word insalatos is also rendered insalsatos, and seems to have something to do with salt.
- The "Salzburg Itinerary" has: In occidentali parte Tiberis ecclesia est beati Felicis martyris in qua corpus eius quiescit. This entry occurs after San Paolo fuori le Mura, indicating that the pilgrims could cross the river from the one to the other.
- The "Malmsbury Itinerary" seems to place the shrine further from the city than the Catacomba di Ponziano, a major pilgrimage destination at the second milestone. It has: Tertiadecima porta portuensis dicitur et via ubi prope in ecclesia sunt martyres Felix, Alexander. (The martyr St Alexander is not otherwise known.)
- The Liber Pontificalis mentions that Pope Adrian I (772-95) restored the church: Ecclesiam sancti Felicis positam foris portam portuensem a novo restauravit.
Weighing the hints in the sources, Varrano (in his article mentioned above) focuses on the southern outlier of the Monteverde hill, just to the north-west of the Trastevere train station and at a locality formerly called Pozzo Pantaleo. There are several records of burials and cemeteries being found around this place, beginning in the 17th century when some catacomb passages were exposed and destroyed in quarrying for tufo stone. Subsequent discoveries, up to and including one in 1967 at Via Ambrogio Traversari 60, were not investigated archaeologically or properly written up.
If the foundations of the lost basilica were ever found the problem of the location of the shrine would be solved, but the target area has been fully built up for over a century and the archaeological evidence, if any, is likely to have been destroyed.
Various Felixes Edit
The identity of the St Felix who was venerated at this shrine is an even worse problem. There is no legendary story attached to him as such, which is unexpected to begin with (but see Antipope Felix II). Further, there was a second set of catacombs on the Via Aurelia dedicated to another two Felixes -Catacomba dei Due Felici.
Felix ("Happy") was obviously one of the most popular names for Christians in the late antique period, and there is massive confusion between various saints, popes and martyrs with this name. This issue has been tackled by scholars since the 16th century.
The relevant martyrology data for the Felix concerned are:
- The revised Roman martyrology (2001) entry for 29 July: "Rome, at the third milestone of the Via Portuense, in the cemetery dedicated to his name, St Felix the martyr". 3rd to 4th century.
- Ditto for 30 December: "At the cemetery of Callixtus on the Via Appia, the burial of Pope St Felix I, who ruled the Roman Church under Emperor Aurelian".
- The old Roman martyrology (pre-2001) entry for 30 May: "Felix I, Pope and Martyr, whose dies natalis (day of death) is commemorated on 30 December".
- Ditto for 30 December: "The dies natalis of St Felix I, Pope and Martyr, who ruled the Church in the reign of the emperor Aurelian. His festival is, however observed on 30 May."
- Ditto for 29 July: "At Rome, on the Via Aurelia, St Felix II, Pope and Martyr, who was removed from his see by the Arian emperor Constantius for his defence of the Catholic faith, and secretly slain with the sword at Cera in Tuscany, meeting with a glorious death. His body was from there by the clergy and buried on the Via Aurelia."
- Ditto for 22 August: "At Porto, the holy martyrs Martial, Saturninus, Epictetus, Maprilis, Felix with their companions".
The competing scholarly conclusions are:
- The Felix on the Via Portuense was a completely unknown martyr (this is now the official position of the Church).
- This Felix was the one martyred with St Martial at Porto (a 16th century face-saving guess).
- This Felix was actually Antipope Felix II, neither a saint nor a martyr.
Antipope Felix II Edit
The posthumous career of Antipope Felix was weird.
His context was the Arian Controversy during the reigns of Pope Liberius and Emperor Constantius II. Pope Liberius was exiled for two years from 355, and replaced by Felix. The true pope was recalled by popular demand, and the antipope then retired to a residence on the Via Portuense until he died in 365. Meanwhile, he had founded a church on the Via Aurelia which later became the site of the Catacomba dei Due Felici.
His residing on the Via Portuense is mentioned in the Passio Felicis, and this might be a factual statement in a document that is otherwise romantic fiction. From it derives the myth that Felix fell out with the emperor, refused to subscribe to Arianism and was hence martyred. This mythologising had a very long pedigree, as the liturgical veneration of the antipope in the Roman calendar only ceased in 1962. This was despite scholars pointing out the problem from the 16th century.
The source of the Passio, and the motivation for writing it, are both unknown although a scholarly guess is that it derived from a monastery on the Via Portuense attached to the shrine.
It seems that the Felix being venerated here in the early Middle Ages was the antipope, but it seems more likely that he supplanted an earlier unknown martyr than that his veneration was created completely from scratch.