Letter from Roman emperor leads to discovery of cult temple hidden beneath parking lot

Some 1,600 years ago, a group of Roman empire citizens in Italy received a letter from Emperor Constantine, allowing them to celebrate a religious holiday in their hometown rather than traveling to a faraway festival.

Experts discovered Constantine’s response, known as a rescript, in the 18th century — and archaeologists have just used it to make a “monumental discovery.”

A team of researchers from Saint Louis University unearthed “three walls of a monumental structure that evidence suggests belonged to a Roman temple that dates to Constantine’s period,” Douglas Boin, a history professor at Saint Louis University, said in a Jan. 5 university news release.

The ruins were found in Spello, a “famous medieval hilltop city,” the university said. They date to Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire, which was between 324 A.D. and 337 A.D.

Boin began searching in Spello after reviewing Constantine’s rescript, according to the university. In his letter, Constantine granted the townspeople permission to celebrate at home on the condition that they erected a temple honoring his ancestors and worship them.

Constantine was famously the first Roman emperor to practice Christianity. But his request to the Spello people reflects “Imperial Cult” beliefs, indicating that the transition from paganism to Christianity was not a quick one, experts said.

The “Imperial Cult” is also known as the “Cult of Emperor,” according to the Harvard Divinity School. It involves “the worship of Emperors and their families as divine” which began with Julius Caesar’s death in 44 B.C.

“(The temple) would be a remarkable addition to the landscape of this corner of Italy. It will significantly aid in the understanding of the ancient town, the ancient townscape and city society in the later Roman Empire,” Boin said in the release. “It shows the continuities between the classical pagan world and early Christian Roman world that often get blurred out or written out of the sweeping historical narratives.”

Boin and his team conducted “underground imaging” in hopes of finding evidence of the temples ruins, the university said. After several weeks, they finally caught a glimpse of something “promising” — beneath a parking lot.

Archaeologists carefully dug up the parking lot and discovered “two adjoining walls,” according to the university. Further digging revealed what experts believe is an inside wall of the temple.

“There’s evidence from other places throughout the Roman world that Christian rulers supported imperial cult practices,” Boin said. “It is unlike any temple that I know about from the Mediterranean world of the fourth century Roman Empire...This changes everything about how we perceive the pace of social change and our impression of the impact of social and cultural change.”

The team of experts will return to the site next summer to completely excavate the site and examine the ruins in their entirety, the university said.

Spello is about 100 miles north of Rome.

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