Helena Augusta

Basilica Santes Marcellino et Pietro / Mausoleum of Constantine   Rome


Cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus, known also as ad duas lauros, ad Helenam from the neighbouring (ruined) mausoleum of St. Helena (Tor Pignattara), and sub Augusta, in comitatu, from a neighbouring villa of Emperor Constantine. St. Peter and St. Marcellinus suffered under Diocletian. They were honoured with a fine Damasan epitaph known to us from the early medieval epigraphic collections. Here also were buried St. Tiburtius, son of the city prefect, Chromatius, and the obscurely known group called the "Quattuor Coronati", four marble-cutters from the Danubian region. The splendid porphyry sarcophagus at the Vatican came from the mausoleum of St. Helena. In 826 the bodies of Peter and Marcellinus were stolen from the crypt and taken to Germany, where they now rest at Seligenstadt; the story is graphically told by Einhard (Mon. Germ. Hist., Script., XV, 39). Since 1896 excavations have been resumed here, and have yielded important results, among them the historic crypt of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus and a small chapel of St. Tiburtius. Wilpert discovered here and illustrated a number of important frescoes: Our Lord amid four saints, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Good Shepherd, Oranti, and some miracles of Christ (Wilpert, Di un ciclo di rappresentanze cristologiche nel cimitero dei SS. Pietro e Marcellino, Rome, 1892). Elsewhere are scenes that represent the agape, or love-feast, of the primitive Christians, symbolic of paradise or of the Eucharist. There is also a noteworthy fresco of the Blessed Virgin with the Infant Jesus between two adoring Magi. This cemetery is said to have been more richly decorated with frescoes than any other except that of Domitilla.

Tor Pignattara, see Grundmann, The Architecture of Rome.

chronology of Santes Marcellino et Pietro


Martyrdom of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome during the persecution under Diocletian, and burial of their remains through Lucilla, as reported to Damasus in his boyhood by the executioner himself.


Brickstamps O F S R found in masonry of Mausoleum of Helena.


Coin of Constantine, minted during these years, found embedded in mortar of Mausoleum of Helena.


During the pontificate of Sylvester, Constantine is reported to have built "inter duas lauros" a basilica in honor of two martyrs, the presbyter Marcellinus and the exorcist Peter, and a mausoleum for his mother, Helena. "For the love of his mother and the veneration of the Saints", Constantine endowed these foundations with two sets of gifts. Firstly, a gold paten, a huge golden chandelier, four gold-plated candlesticks each 12 feet high, and a silver alter weighing 200 pounds, were placed in front of the porphyry sarcophagus of the empress. Secondly, the basilica of the martyrs was endowed with another altar weighing 200 pounds and numerous altar vessels, among them a goblet of gold, inscribed with the name of the dowager empress. The list of the endowment of the basilica continues with the enumeration of many other gifts, such as 900 pounds of nard oil and 100 pounds of balsam annually, for incense for the holy martyrs, and huge landed properties, including the fundus Laurentium which had been the property of the dowager-empress Helena, extending from Porta Maggiore to Centocelle, between Via Prenestina and the Via Latina; also other holdings in Italy and Sardinia. The whole endowment, with an income of 3750 solidi, is the largest of the donations attributed by the Liber Pontificalis to Constantine, except for those assigned to the Lateran, the Lateran baptistery and, supposedly, St. Paul's.

Richard Krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae: Le basiliche cristiane antichi di Roma (sec. IV-IX) (Cittá del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1937-).

Visual Comparison, Imperial Baths, Trier, c. 310, Torre Pignattara, Rome, c. 320-26

Mausoleo di Santa Elene

The first Christian members of the imperial family, Helena, mother of Constantine, and Constantia, his daughter, were buried in separate tombs, one on the Via Labicana, at the place formerly called ad duas Lauros and now Torre Pignattara, the other near the church of S. Agnese, on the Via Nomentana.

Helena's mausoleum at Torre Pignattara (so called from the pignatte, or earthen vases built into the vault to lighten its weight) is round in shape, and contains seven niches or recesses for sarcophagi. One of these sarcophagi, famous in the history of art, was removed from its position as early as the middle of the twelfth century by Pope Anastasius IV, who selected it for his own resting-place. It was taken to the Lateran basilica, where it appears to have been much injured by the hands of indiscreet pilgrims. In 1600 it was carried from the vestibule to the tribune, and thence to the cloister-court. When Pius VI added it to the wonders of the Vatican Museum, it was subjected to a thorough process of restoration which employed twenty-five stone-cutters for a period of nine years.

The reliefs upon it are tolerably well executed, but lack invention and novelty. They are partly borrowed from an older work, partly combined with various sources in an extraordinary manner; horsemen hovering in the air, and below them, prisoners and corpses scattered around. They are intended to represent a triumphal procession, or possibly a military decursio, to which allusion has been made above.

It may appear indiscreet and even insulting on the part of Anastasius IV to have removed the remains of a canonized empress from this noble sarcophagus in order to have his own placed in it; but we must bear in mind that although the Torre Pignattara has all the appearance of a royal mausoleum, and although the ground on which it stands is known to have belonged to the crown, Eusebius and Socrates deny the Helena was buried in Rome. Their assertion is contradicted by the "Liber Pontificalis" and by Bede, and above all by the similarity between this porphyry coffin and the one discovered in the second mausoleum of which I have spoken,--that of S. Constantia, on the Via Nomentana.
Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893), 196-8.

At the same time Constantine Augustus built a basilica to the blessed martyrs Marcellinus, the priest, and Peter, the exorcist, at Inter duas Lauros; also a mausoleum where his mother, Helena Augusta, was buried1 on the Via Lavicana, at the 3rd milestone. And in this place, both for love of his mother and for veneration of the saints, he offered votive gifts: [or: At the same time Constantine Augustus built a basilica on the Via Lavicana at Inter duas Lauros to blessed Peter and Marcellinus, the martyrs; also a mausoleum where the most blessed Augusta, his mother, was buried in a sarcophagus of porphyry, and he offered there:]

a paten of purest gold, weighing 35 lbs.
4 silver candlesticks overlaid with gold, 12 feet in height, weighing each 200 lbs.;
a golden crown, that is a chandelier, with 120 dolphins, weighing 30 lbs.;
3 golden chalices, weighing each 10 lbs., set with prases and jacinths;
2 golden pitchers, weighing each 40 lbs.; an altar of purest silver, weighing 200 lbs.
before the tomb of the blessed Helena Augusta2, which is of porphyry carved with images,
20 silver chandeliers, weighing each 20 lbs.

Likewise for the aforesaid holy martyrs he gave to the basilica as a gift:

an altar of purest silver, weighing 200 lbs.;
2 patens of purest gold, weighing each 15 lbs.;
2 silver patens, weighing each 15 lbs.;
a large goblet of the purest gold, whereon the name of Augustus was engraved, weighing 20 lbs.;
a smaller goblet of gold, weighing 10 lbs.;
5 silver goblets, weighing each 12 lbs.;
20 silver chalices for service, weighing each 3 lbs.;
4 silver pitchers, weighing each 15 lbs.;
every year 900 lbs. of pure oil of nard,
100 lbs. of balsam,
100 lbs. of spices for incense for the aforesaid holy martyrs, blessed Marcellinus and Peter;
the estate of Laurentum near the aqueduct, with a bath, and all the land from the Porta Sessoriana as far as the Via Penestrina, and from the Via Itineris Latinae as far as Mount Gabus3; [or: the travellers' road as far as the Via Latina near Mount Gabus, Mount Gabus itself; or: and the travellers' road as far as the Via Latina near Mount Albius, Mount Albius itself;]
the property of Helena Augusta, yielding 1220 sol.;
the island of Sardinia4 with all the property belonging to that island, yielding 1024 sol.;
the island of Mesenum5 with the property belonging to that island, [or: belonging to it, all of it.] yielding 810 sol.;
the island of Matidia, which is Mount Argentarius6, yielding 600 sol.;
the property in the Sabine region, which is called Duae Casae, at the foot of Mount Lucretius7, yielding 200 sol.
The Life of Pope Sylvester

1. The remains of the mausoleum of the empress Helena and the catacomb of Santi Pietro e Marcllino may be seen about two miles from the Porta Maggiore at a place now called Tor Pignattara on the Via Casilina, which was formerly the Via Labicana. The basilica has completely disappeared. An imperial palace stood near by, "ad Duas Lauros," near the two laurels, in the time of Septimus Severus and was the scene of the assassination of Valentinian III in 455. The mausoleum is octagonal in shape and surmounted with a dome. In the sixteenth century Bosio saw the ruins of a great courtyard and portico about it, all of which have now vanished. Eusebius says that the body of the empress was transported in state to Rome for burial. Life of Constantine, Richardson, Nicine and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, vol. I, P. 532.
2. The huge porphyry sarcophagus which was found in the mausoleum of Helena was removed in the twelfth century to the Lateran by Pope Anastasius IV, who destined it for his own sepulchre. Pius VI transferred it to the Vatican, where it now stands near the sarcophagus from the mausoleum of Constantina. It is adorned with figures in relief, chiefly battle scenes.
3. It is impossible to form an exact idea of the area meant by this obscure description, though the general location is clear enough. The "aqueduct" may be either the Alexandrine or the Claudian, both of which pass near the Via Praenestina and the Via Latina. Mount Gabus or Monte Cavo may be any one of the hollow hillocks or craters which dot the Campagna. Duchesne, op. cit., p. 199, n. 91.
4. The whole island cannot have been conveyed to the basilica. Our author has in all likelihood omitted a list of the particular properties on the island.
5. Duchesne suggests that the peninsular of Misenum is intended. That is so nearly an island that it might well pass for one in common speech. Op. cit., p. 199, n. 93.
6. Monte Argentaro on the coast of Tuscany, also a peninsular almost cut off from the mainland.
7. Mount Lucretilis, now known as Monte Genaro, made famous by Horace.




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