San Ciriaco a Via Ostiense was a 7th century basilica located in a 4th century cemetery complex at Vitinia on the Via Ostiense. This is in the Mezzocammino zone.

The dedication was to SS Cyriac and Companions.

History Edit

Saints Edit

The revised Roman Martyrology (2001) for 8 August has an entry for the martyrs Cyriac, Largus, Crescentian, Memmia, Juliana and Smaragdus, who were buried at the seventh milestone on the ancient Via Ostiensis. They are dated to the early 4th century, dying during the persecution of the emperor Diocletian.

The old Roman Martyrology has two entries, the other being on the 16 March, the duplication being the result of an old confusion:

16 March: "The passion of St Cyriac the deacon who, after being kept for a long time in prison, was covered in molten pitch and put in the stocks. After being beaten with cords and rods he was at last beheaded at the command of the emperor Maximian, together with Largus and Smaragdus and twenty others."

8 August: "Cyriac the deacon, Largus and Smaragdus with twenty others. Their bodies were buried by John the priest on the Via Salaria, and on this day Pope St Marcellinus moved them to the garden of Lucina on the Via Ostiensis. Afterwards they were brought into the city, and buried in the diaconal church of Santa Maria in Via Lata."

The confusion is illustrated by the earliest reference to these martyrs, in the Depositio episcoporum of the Chronography of 354. This has them interred at Ostiense VII ballistaria, which is taken to have been a military fort at the seventh milestone (a ballista was a war catapault). But later editions of the Martyrologium hieronymianum seem to have mutated the unusual ballistaria into via Salaria, and this gave rise to the story of the pointless transfer of relics across the city by Pope Marcellinus. (The catacombs on the Via Salaria alluded to are Catacomba ad clivum Cucumeris.)

There is also very serious extant confusions between the St Cyriac on the Via Ostiense, the one whose shrine-church survives as a ruin in Ostia Antica (cf. Ostia, Oratorio di San Quiriaco) and the one who gave his name to the titulus of San Ciriaco in the city. These are three different people.

Church Edit

The Liber Pontificalis entry for Pope Honorius I (625-38) states that he built a church for St Cyriac "from the foundations" (there is no documentation of any earlier building).

The Mirabilia Urbis Romae, one of the early mediaeval pilgrimage itineraries, lists the church as a pilgrimage destination. It was too far from the city for a round trip within a day, so there must have been some sort of monastic establishment here then in order to provide overnight accommodation for those "ultra" pilgrims making the visit.

The church was embellished by Popes Leo III (795-816) and Benedict III (855-8).

Abandonment was probably 10th century, when the relics of St Cyriac were taken to a monastery dedicated to St Stephen the Protomartyr just off the Corso in the city. This occurred in the reign of Pope Agapetus II (946-55), and the monastery was re-dedicated.

The monastery church of San Ciriaco (not to be confused with the titulus) later became titular. Unfortunately the monastery (lately a nunnery) became seriously degenerate in the early 15th century and was suppressed in 1435. The relics were then moved a short distance to a side chapel in Santa Maria in Via Lata, where they remain. The old Roman martyrology entry slurred over the existence of the monastery.

Rediscovery Edit

Antonio Bosio went looking for the shrine of St Cyriac at the seventh milestone on the Via Ostiense in 1617, and found it on a hill at a location then occupied by a farmstead called Casale di San Ciriaco. He described the ruins of a small church "with four niches for four altars", also a large cistern. These were surveyed in 1715 by Marcantonio Boldetti, who noted that the cistern had plastered surfaces. Both men looked for catacombs or underground tombs, but did not find them although Bosio noted "rustic burials" indicating that the site was still being used as a graveyard by the very few local inhabitants. (The continuity of the use of a sacred space is interesting in itself.)

Antonio Nibby introduced unfortunate confusion in 1848, when he became muddled and described the site as having a mediaeval fortified tower. Other scholars copied him, and this drew attention away from the genuine location.

1916 excavation Edit

In 1915, road works fortuitously revealed a hypogeum burial containing a Christian sarcophagus close to the junction between the Via Ostiense and the Via di Mezzocammino. An archaeological survey and excavation was immediately undertaken, and (remarkably) published in the following year by Francesco Fornari.

The campaign located a cemetery complex with two foci, one by the main road and the other on the crown of the hill. In the former the archaeologists uncovered three buildings which they rather dubiously identified as small churches (they could just as well have been mausolea), and picked on the largest of these as the possible original shrine-church. In the latter they excavated the remains of the 7th century basilica, just as Bosio and Boldetti had described it.

Despite searching, no catacombs were discovered.

Unfortunately, this was the only scientific investigation that the site has received.

Destruction Edit

The electric railway to Lido di Ostia (Ferrovia Roma Lido) was begun in 1918. The route squeezed round the shoulder of the basilica's hill in between it and the Via Ostiense, and this entailed the destruction of most of the recently excavated roadside cemetery. Apparently the destruction was completed by the widening of the road in 1928.

The fate of the hilltop basilica is not so clear, because the site became a military installation in the Second World War and has kept that status ever since. However, the installation of structures visible in aerial photos would have seriously damaged or destroyed the remains.

Appearance Edit

Roadside complex Edit

The archaeologists reported finding three small buildings next the the Via Ostiense, two aligned parallel to the road and one perpendicular to it. Behind this was an ill-defined area of rectangular tomb enclosures. One of the aligned pair was larger than the other two, and the excavators fixed on this as the possible shrine. They called the trio chiesette or "little churches", although it is difficult to distinguish the reported remains from mere mausolea.

The largest chiesetta was about eight metres square, with a semi-circular apse 3.6 metres across and built of brick. The interior was excavated into the bedrock, and what was found comprised a crypt. The actual floor level, together with entrance arrangements, was lost.

The interior space contained four tombs, comprising sarcophagi inserted into massy plinths of brick and rubble occupying the sides and apse of the building. One double strigillate sarcophagus occupied the apse, and another on the right hand side was also double. The former contained a few bones from two indviduals. A third, single-occupancy one on the left showed evidence that these three sarcophagi were originally fitted into chambers which were then vaulted with brick. This particular sarcophagus had a gabled lid, fitted on with iron clamps sealed in using lead. A fourth, much smaller strigillate sarcophagus accompanied the left hand one, nearer the major axis. The archaeologists found the skeleton of a young man in this.

These sarcophagi once contained six bodies, and so the excavators claimed that this edifice might have been the shrine of the six saints. The presence of bones left in situ, even when the building was apparently raided for materials after its abandonment, should cast doubt on this.

Two burials of children were later insertions into this crypt, the sarcophagi having been lowered into pits dug (presumably) through the vanished floor above. One of these was elaborately carved, although the sculpture was of poor quality. The centrepiece was a young woman orans with two angels holding her veil. At one end was the Good Shepherd accompanied by a donkey and dog, and on the lid were eight dolphins. The lid also bore an epitaph, in indifferent Latin:

Hic Optata sita est, quam tirtia rapuit aestas lingua manu numquam dulcior alla fuit. In pace.

("Here Optata is placed, whom the third summer snatched by the hand. No other tongue was sweeter. In peace.")

The other sarcophagus was strigillate, but also had eight dolphins on its lid indicating that the two burials were connected.

Outside the chiesetta was a brick tomb containing another sarcophagus carved in relief with Christian themes.

Basilical complex Edit

The 7th century hilltop basilica was accessed by a roughly paved track running up the hill, which the excavators thought was earlier then the cemeteries and possibly was part of a villa's appurtenances. It passed the large cistern noted by Bosio before reaching the basilica.

The basilica was a single-naved building with an apse as wide as the nave. However, two sub-apses on each side occupied the far sides of the nave, which Bosio noted as chapels. The entrance was not in the frontage, but in the left hand side wall just before the first sub-apse. This wall was built on one side wall of the cistern.

The fabric was poor-quality opus mixtum, with courses of tufo rubble alternating with bands of re-used and broken bricks. The fabric was all of one type, and no trace was found of an earlier building.

The basilica had been built over a sub divo (surface) cemetery, in use until the 4th century. This amounted to a small quarry cut into the living rock, which itself contained several pit-tombs (formae) -some with room for more than one body. There was also an arcosolium in the low side of the quarry under the church frontage, which was plastered in white. Elsewhere, the sides of the cavity contained loculi.

Compared to the lower cemetery, it was notable that this burial ground contained no sarcophagi.

Location Edit

The site of the basilica is occupied by a military base, now derelict and inaccessible. The gateway to this is opposite Via di Mezzocammino 75. If you go north on the same road, you can see on the left the little hill on which the 7th century church stood.

Info.roma has noted what is presumably another ancient cistern, on the south side of the hill. This it calls the Cisterna di Vitinia, and ascribes it to a villa owned by Lucius Nonius Calpurnius Torquatus Asprenas.

There is nothing to see of the lower cemetery on the Via Ostiense, which is marked approximately by a little lay-by where the river, road and railway pinch together under the slope of the basilica's hill.

External links Edit

The site's online presence is extremely poor.

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