Santa Sinforosa is a palaeochristian complex located on the ancient Via Tiburtina in the suburb of Setteville.

The dedication is to St Symphorosa.

Overview Edit

Setteville lies across the city limits. The part in Rome is in the Settecamini zone, while the part outside is in the township of Guidonia Monticelio.

The complex is now known to have at least two foci:

The western site is just inside the city boundary, actually on the easter edge of the suburb of Settecamini at Via Tiburtina 1457. It consists of a set of catacombs, with a partly underground basilica of the 4th century. This was discovered only in 2003 and excavated by the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Bene archeologici di Roma, but there is nothing to see there now. Owing to its diminutive size, the basilica has been nicknamed the basilichetta.

The eastern site, about a kilometre further from the city and outside its limits at km 17.4 on the modern Via Tiburtina, comprises two conjoined basilicas. The older one, also 4th century, has left no traces above ground but the newer, 5th century one has left substantial remains of great interest.

This second site is actually within the diocese of Tivoli and so does not count as a Roman church, but its status as a destination for early mediaeval Roman pilgrims makes appropriate some comment on it in this Wiki.

History Edit

Saints Edit

The complex is associated with a set of obscure martyrs, St Symphorosa and her companions.

The legend attached to these martyrs is entirely fictional, and is a re-writing of the martyrdom of the mother and seven sons in the Second Book of Maccabees. According to it, the group consisted of Symphorosa and her seven sons, Crescens, Julian, Nemesius, Primitivus, Justin, Stacteus and Eugenius, who were martyred together at Tivoli in the reign of Hadrian and buried at the ninth milestone on the Via Tiburtina. Associated with them were two other earlier martyrs, Zoticus as her husband and Amantius as her brother-in-law.

In history, the last two belonged in the catacombs at San Zotico, and the eight were unrelated martyrs of (it is thought) the persecution of Diocletian who were buried at the locality at different times and (it now seems) different places.

It now seems unnecessary to presume that these martyrs had one single shrine in the locality.

A further twist is that the 7th century Itinerarium Salisburgensis, and the Epitome de locis Sanctorum Martyrum dependent on it, locate the seven sons at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The Epitome (only) also puts St Symphorosa there. So, it seems that the sons were moved to San Lorenzo before the 7th century -but it seems that the mother stayed put, and was venerated on her own in the ruined conjoined basilicas dedicated to her.

The relics of these eight martyrs were apparently finally reunited and taken to Sant'Angelo in Pescheria when the complex at the ninth milestone was abandoned, which was the countryside around Rome was overrun by various marauders especially from the 8th century.  

These relics were rediscovered in a buried casket in 1610, bearing a lead plate with the inscription: Hic requiescunt corpora S[anctorum] Martyrum Simforosae, viri sui Zotici et filiorum ejus a Stephano Papa translata. This was transcribed by Cardinal Baronius before being lost. The problem is obviously that there is no date, nor an indication as to which Pope Stephen was meant. A date of transfer of 757 is often quoted. 

Also, the alleged head of St Symphorosa is venerated in a silver bust reliquary at the church of Santa Sinferosa a Tivoli.

 The localities of Settecamini and Setteville are often claimed as being named after the seven brothers, but this is a possibly a false etymology as the former name simply means "Seven Roads" and the latter name derives from it. However, the derivation of Settecamini from Septem fratres is still being argued for. 

Catacombs Edit

The recently discovered catacombs are thought to have been begun as a Christian cemetery at the end of the 3rd century, and the partly underground basilica or basilichetta to have been dug into them in the mid 4th century. This method of construction is similar to the much better-known complex of Santa Domitilla, and could hint that martyrs were being venerated here.

However, the archaeologists have not reported any positive epigraphic or graffiti evidence in their preliminary write-up enabling them to be identified. Further, the basilichetta seems too small to have been a pilgrimage destination and might instead have been the oratory of an early monastic settlement. If so (and positive proof is lacking), this would be the earliest known monastery in the Roman area.

The terminus a quo date for the construction of the basilica is provided by a coin of Valentinian II (375-92) found in a grave in its floor.

There was evidence of a restoration in the 6th century.

Interments were made here until the 7th century. The archaeologists have not yet provided a firm estimate of the time of abandonment, but the traditional date of 757 for the transfer of the relics of the martyrs to Rome is a good surmise in the context of the wider history of the period. Apparently the stratigraphy indicates that the building might have been burned out at the end.

The site was completely forgotten, and nothing survived above ground to attract curiosity until the remains were discovered during preliminary investigations for a commercial development at the start of the 21st century.

Conjoined basilicas Edit

The pair of conjoined basilicas at km 17.4 had an ancestor in a triconch mausoleum built at the start of the 4th century. This type of plan has the shape of a clover leaf, with three apses -here, the central one pointed away from Rome (west to east).

No other earlier structures are on record here, but the archaeologists in the later 20th century found scanty remains of what looks like boundary walling under the basilicas which pre-dates the mausoleum. This evidence has very tentatively been interpreted as a funerary enclosure.

In the later 4th century the mausoleum was converted into a church by the addition of a nave to the west, the construction being rather shoddy. This is called the basilica minor.

Then, in the latter half of the 5th century a large and well-built basilica church was added to the east. This is called the basilica major, and provides the extant above-ground remains. The orientation was the reverse of that of the basilica minor (east to west). Very interestingly, its apse was conjoined with the central apse of the basilica minor and a small aperture was provided through the party walling between the two apses. This is plausibly identified as a fenestella confessionis to provide a devotional view from the basilica major to the tomb of a martyr or martyrs in the central apse of the basilica minor.

A separate, later remodelling of the basilica major involved the addition of two rooms flanking the sanctuary.

Early Middle Ages Edit

The entries in the Roma pilgrim itineraries which mention Santa Sinforosa are plausibly identified with the conjoined basilicas, as there is no hint of more than one site to visit at the Ninth Milestone. This is good support for the tradition that St Symphorosa was enshrined here -although the question is now open as to whether any of the other seven martyrs (her alleged sons) were originally enshrined with her or elsewhere (such as in the catacomb basilica, which had one tomb apparently the focus of veneration) before being moved to San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.

The relics of the eight were, by tradition, transferred to Sant'Angelo in Pescheria in the mid 8th century but the church might have survived. It is mentioned in papal bulls of Marinus II of 944 and John XV of 991. The last mention by name seems to be when the locality was owned by the Benedictine abbey of San Ciriaco (see Santi Quirico e Giulitta) in 1124.

The question arises as to whether the church was monastic in the 7th and 8th centuries. This is likely in the context of the time, when Rome was colonised by expatriate monks from the East who dominated the monastic life in the city. However, there is no documentary or archaeological evidence of any monastery here. On the other hand, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack because the presence of Byzantine-rite monks was subjected to a malicious damnatio memoriae in the 11th century and the archaeologists did not try to look for monastic remains outside the church.

The obvious point as regards why they had to be some sort of establishment, like a monastery, attached to the church derives from its status as a pilgrimage destination. The distance from the city was too great to manage in a round trip within a day, so there must have been accommodation for overnight stays.

Desecration Edit

Even the century of the desecration of the two basilicas is unclear, and unfortunately the first archaeological investigation in the later 19th century was not concerned much with the stratigraphy that might have offered evidence of this.

Very interestingly, the basilica major was not left a ruin when it was deconsecrated. Rather, only the portico and the near part of the nave were unroofed. The last bay of the nave, the sanctuary and the apse (but not the flanking sacristies or the nave aisles) were kept, a transverse wall built and the surviving arcade arches blocked up to create a domestic farm building. There are hints that people lived here, but when proper notice was first taken in the mid 19th century the structure was a hay-loft.

There was abundant archaeological evidence that the basilica minor was converted into an industrial unit before having its fabric scavenged, so that nothing was left above ground in the 19th century. Two kilns were installed in the north and south apses, one for lime in the north and one for pottery in the south. The installations involved alterations to the fabric, notably to the fenestella. The date of this industrial activity is obscure, but fragments of pottery are thought to be 16th century in style. In the same century the site came back into documentary sources.

Obscurity Edit

After perhaps over half a millennium of being a farm building, the basilica fragment began to receive notice from historians. The first to do so was Marco Antonio Nicodemi, who was interested in the history of Tivoli and referred to the basilica in 1585. Then Antonio Bosio visited in 1632 in his hunt for catacombs, which he didn't find here because there aren't any (or, at least, none have been discovered yet).

The map of 1660 known as the Catasto Alessandrino shows the church with the odd label Anticaglia, which literally means "junk" and seems to indicate the re-used status of the surviving remains.

Epigraph Edit

In 1737, an ancient epigraph was unearthed somewhere near here, which reads:

Dis manibus, Ti[tus] Claud[ius] Alcinus fec[it], se vivo, sibi et Corneliae Sympherusae, contubernali carissimae, et Claudiae primitivae filiae suae et suis posterisque eorum.

("To the shades of the gods, Titus Claudius Alcinus, being still alive, [erected this] for himself and his beloved partner Cornelia Sympherusa and Claudia his first daugher and her family and her descendants.")

It is now in the Museo Maffeiano at Verona, and is dated to the 2nd century on stylistic grounds.

The suggestive similarity of the name Sympherusa to that of St Symphorosa has obviously excited speculation, but nothing firm can be asserted. The epigraph is now thought to be about a century older than the saint, whereas the discredited legend of the latter put her at about the same time. An odd point rests in the word contubernalis which originally meant "tent-companion" (as with soldiers on campaign), and indicates here that the couple were not married.

This is the only even remotely connected epigraphic evidence for the existence of the eight martyrs to be found in the locality.

19th century Edit

In the 19th century the property was owned by the noble Grazioli family. Fortunately they were interested in the ruin, and commissioned the English archaeologist Henry Stevenson to make a survey in 1877. This survey recorded details of the fabric which were vital to a reconstruction of the basilica major.

Stevenson excavated in the following year, and provided a very good write-up. He discovered the basilica minor (the existence of which was unsuspected), and pointed out many details of the surviving fabric giving witness to its original appearance.

The Grazioli family then restored the edifice, making the fabric weathertight with a new tiled roof. There was much devotional interest at the time especially in Tivoli, and one pilgrimage Mass was actually publicly celebrated here in 1902. There was no reconsecration, however.

Appearance in 1902 Edit

At the start of the 20th century, the surviving edifice was intact and in good condition.

As well as the sanctuary and apse it consisted of the last bay of the central nave, with the side arches blocked up and with a window in each of the two blocking walls near the archivolt. The frontage was a simple wall containing a large barn-type door with a large window-aperture above (this wall was obviously not part of the basilica, but was it mediaeval?). The door in each side wall of the sanctuary which led to the (lost) sacristy was also blocked, with a window low down. Another window was in the back of the apse, at the level of the bottom of the conch.

The single tiled roof covered this nave bay as well as the sanctuary and apse. A chimney was attached to the right hand corner between nave and sanctuary.

20th century Edit

The religious interest in the site was not enough to maintain it in the following century.

In 1944, contractors working on the Rome-Tivoli railway line (not actually very near) scavenged fabric from the ruin of the nave, and obliterated the lower left hand corner. Apparently the material went into station platforms.

In 1960, engineering work connected with the improvement of the modern Via Tiburtina just to the north resulted in the destruction of the remains of the left hand side of the nave, and probably of any undiscovered ancillary structures on that side.

A major follow-up archaeological excavation to that of Stevenson was performed by Richard Stapleford from 1967 to 1970. During this the 19th century roof suffered a major collapse over the nave bay in 1969, and was not repaired.

There is local interest in the site, and some campaigning is going on to at least preserve it from future decay (2016). The local Roman parish of Santa Maria a Setteville has shown some interest.

Appearance now Edit

At present (2016) the ruinous edifice is in a poor state, covered in ivy and surrounded by undergrowth. The nave bay roof has mostly collapsed, and the front wall crumbled. Young trees are growing inside, and there is a lot of rubbish and filth about.

Basilichetta Edit

The remains of the catacomb basilica or basilichetta were discovered in 2003, beneath three metres of fill when the plot at Via Tiburtina 1457 was developed.

The basilica was small, having a single nave 10 by 7 metres, followed by a transept 2.5 by 15 metres which gave the main space the plan of a T. There follows a proportionately large semi-circular sanctuary apse, almost 10 metres wide.

The edifice had been excavated into the natural tufo rock.

Traces of a schola cantorum in the centre of the transept, provided with seating, were noted. The transept and nave had been repaved in the 6th century using re-used marble epitaph slabs from the catacombs. Beneath the floor level were eleven interments, one of them containing a coin of emperor Valentinian II (375-92). Another grave held a perfume bottle in violet glass.

The floor of the apse was raised above that of the nave and transept. The paving here was lost, but traces of a small platform were found attached to the back of the apse which the archaeologists interpreted as a cathedra or prelate's seat. The right hand side of the transept has a low column drum inserted into the floor (the base of a font?), and the left hand side has an arcosolium tomb with a floor cavity. This tomb seems to have been a focus of veneration, although the little church was too small to accommodate a steady flow of pilgrims.

The archaeologists did not attempt much exploration of the associated catacombs, but reported two passages with a few loculi beneath the basilica's apse. A total of thirty tombs were reported, including those actually within the basilica, and interments had continued until the end of the 7th century.

Basilica minore Edit

There is no sign above ground of the earlier triapsidal basilica minore. This was discovered by Stevenson and mostly re-excavated by Stapleford who had, however, to avoid digging for the entrance façade so as not to harm three trees.

The plan is irregular, with a slightly trapezoidal single nave and a sanctuary with three apses of slightly differing sizes. The total length of the edifice was 19 metres, with a width across the side apses of 14.7 metres.

Owing to the completeness of the destruction, no information on the basilica's appearance was obtained. Even the floor had been completely robbed. However, a foundation platform attached to the far left hand (north) corner of the nave gave a hint at a triumphal arch between nave and sanctuary.

The basilica ruins were used as a factory a long time after its abandonment, perhaps in the 16th century. A lime kiln was dug into the north (left hand) apse, and a pottery kiln in the south apse. These destroyed any evidence that there might have been of shrines in these side apses. Also, the digging of ventilation channels for the kilns destroyed the putative south pier platform of the triumphal arch so this feature cannot be asserted with complete confidence.

However in the central apse was found a rectangular slot which had been cut a little way into the natural tufo rock beneath, and this has been suggested as part of the shrine of the main martyr venerated here -most likely St Symphorosa.

Basilica maiore Edit

Extant remains Edit

The extant structure which you will find here is surprisingly intact, given the neglect that it is suffering.

What you have here is the single-bay sanctuary, structurally intact with its own barrel vault. This has an integral apse with conch, of the same height and width. The interior of the apse allegedly has some plasterwork surviving from the time when the church was functioning, over a thousand years ago. The small window at the back of the apse is not original, but was knocked through when the church became a farm building.

The single surviving nave bay in front of the sanctuary is a ruin with a collapsed roof, but you can see the last of the original arcade arches on the right hand side, embedded in the wall. The front wall, added when the church was desecrated and the rest of it abandoned, is now crumbling.

Original layout of basilica Edit

The extant fabric has permitted a surprisingly detailed description of the original church to be created.

This was a large building, approximately forty by twenty metres. The plan was basilical, comprising a central nave of seven bays with side aisles. This was preceded by an open loggia of the same width as the nave with aisles, and continued by a sanctuary of a single bay which was the same width as the central nave. The sanctuary terminated in an integral apse of the same width and height, just over six metres wide and just under seven metres high.

Flanking the sanctuary was a pair of sacristies, the total width of sanctuary plus sacristies being slightly less on each side than the nave with aisles. These sacristies were additions to the original fabric.

Stapleford excavated a trench to ascertain whether there was an atrium (courtyard with covered walkways) in front of the church, but found nothing.

The area between the church and the ancient line of road to the south was used as a cemetery.

Original fabric of basilica Edit

The fabric was of brick, and was of good quality. The aisles were separated from the central nave by seven arches on each side, supported by longitudinally rectangular brick piers. Structurally the arches had no capitals or imposts, the brick archivolts springing immediately from the tops of the piers. The beginning and end of each arcade sprang from an engaged pilaster. Above each arch was a fairly large window 2.2 metres wide, and these windows were 2.2 metres apart. It cannot be told now whether these were rectangular or round-headed.

The portico seems to have been open at the front, and if so must have had columns or piers to support it. The nature of the fenestration of the aisle side walls is unknown, as no fabric survived above ground.

The sanctuary originally had no windows. Instead, the sanctuary bay had a round-headed doorway in each side leading into the sacristy there (originally to the outside, before the sacristies were added). These are visible, each blocked up and with a little window. The other little window in the sanctuary, just below the conch, also post-dates the church's abandonment. At ground level below the window is a blocked aperture, the fenestella thought to have given a view of the shrine in the basilica minore behind.

There is evidence in the fabric that the sanctuary had a triumphal arch facing the nave, and that its floor was raised with a low stone screen separating it from the nave.

The nave roof would have been wooden, and open. However, the sanctuary bay has a barrel vault in good condition which melds with the vault of the apse conch.

Original interior decoration Edit

In his survey in 1877, Stevenson noted that traces of the original fresco decoration were discernible on surviving plaster on the sanctuary bay and apse conch vaults. He described this as "ribbons and festoons" (bande e festoni), and it is a pity that he left such a throwaway remark because the plaster has since decayed and the traces have vanished.

Dowel holes in the apse fabric indicate that there was a marble (?) cornice running round the sanctuary and apse at just over three metres up. This continued across the arcade piers, giving them false capitals. It is surmised that the walls of the sanctuary and apse were revetted with marble below this. The nave and aisle walls, together with the nave piers, would have at least been rendered -naked brickwork would not have been showing.

Graves Edit

Twelve graves were found in the basilica, nine in the nave and aisles, two in the sacristies and one in the portico. They were all sealed alla cappuccina, which means that the body was covered in tiles fixed to form a longitudinal ridge-line. Most of them seem to have been dug very soon after the basilica was built, but the one in the portico was very shallow and seems to have post-dated the church's abandonment.

Access Edit

The exact site of the newly discovered catacombs is not at present (2016) being publicised. It's at Via Tiburtina 1457, and there is nothing to see.

The conjoined basilica site is in a small wood on the south side of the main Via Tiburtina road just east of the Via Tenuta del Cavaliere junction. The ruin is just visible from the road where it meets the first farm track east of the junction.

There is no official public access. A casual visit is best made on a scooter that can be hidden in the bushes, very early on a weekend morning in summer. The snakes won't be glad to see you, but the insects will.

Bibliography Edit

On the further site:

Eugenio Moscetti: La Basilica Martiriale di S. Sinforosa al nono miglio di via Tiburtina, 1998. This is available as a download on

Richard Stapleford: The Excavation of the Early Christian Martyrs' Complex of Symphorosa Near Rome, 1974.

On the nearer site, with catacombs:

Paola Quaranta, Paola Filippini, Barbara Chiaretti and Alessandra Tronelli: Un nuovo complesso cimiteriale con baslica ipogea al nono miglio della via Tiburtina. 2012. In Scavi e scoperte recenti nelle chiese di Roma, pp 125-152.

Eugenio Moscetti: Osservazioni sulla "querelle" relativa all'ubicazionedella bsilica martiriale di S. Sinforosa, 2016.This is available as a download on

External links Edit

Info.roma web-page

"Sotto Sopra" blog page

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