Imperial Rome's Regionary Catalogs: Memory, Mystery, and Melancholy
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by John T. Cullen
Description: One of the most valuable historical records left to modern topologists of Rome are the so-called Regionary Catalogs. What we have are barbarized copies of a mysterious ancient document called the Notitiae (also, in slightly different versions, the Curiosum). These documents are loaded with vital statistics and lists of important monuments regarding the Imperial capital in the late empire period. While they are a fountain of information about lost monuments, and streets that people once walked and laughed on, they present a wealth of mysteries of their own. The author conjectures a conspiracy in the 350s to restore Rome to her traditional religion, and to overthrow Nicean Christianity fostered by the Constantinian dynasty. The enemy of Constantine's new Rome is not a stranger, but an insider, in fact a leading member of his own family. What are the secrets buried in this enigmatic document that survives from ages ago?
eBook Publisher: Clocktower Books and Far Sector SFFH (magazine), 2005
Filament eBookStore Release Date: March 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [114 KB]
Reading time: 35-49 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
Imagine the following inconceivable scenario.
An important document, listing vital contemporary statistics and monuments of ancient Rome, is sealed into a manila envelope, and dropped by unknown hand into a mail slot in the Roman Forum. It is lunch time on a sunny day around 534 CE. It's rush hour at the law courts and business suites of the basilicas and fora, and the air is filled with babbling voices and the many aromas of fresh baked bread, roasting meat, and politely watered wine. Fade to...
Switching points of view...we see a darkish office in the Departments of Classics, Archeology, and History at a university in one of the capitals of Victorian Europe. It could be Rome, Paris, London, or a similar modern city full of belching smokestacks, chuffing trains, clattering carriages, and heavily dressed pedestrians. In that darkish office, with its white-tiled walls and wrought-iron scrollwork above cubicle dividers, we see the daily messenger arrive from the Postal Office, with his pouch. A young man in a dark uniform with matching pillbox cap, he empties the pouch across a table in a corner, and sorts the items into the mail slots of various professors. One of them is a very ancient envelope, covered with dust and softened into a mosaic of wrinkles by centuries of movement through the tunnels of time. This one he leaves on the table. It is enigmatically stamped, in large red but faded capital letters: SPECIAL. The stamp is unclear, and might say SPACIAL or SPATIAL, but we'll never know.
A bored, preoccupied looking man with furrowed brow, rumpled suit, and heavy gray beard arrives during the lunch hour and tears the envelope open. Tossing the envelope carelessly away, he glances through the contents with a mind to throwing them away. Then his fingers begin to tremble, and his eyes grow wide. His lips part, as if he is about to whisper something awesome and wonderful. He realizes immediately that he is reading a manuscript written ages ago, for person or persons unknown. Now it is addressed to the wide-open future. The message, the Regionary Catalog, arrives many centuries after physical Rome is little more than fragments and dust, but spiritual Rome grips the modern world in a spiderweb of passed-down accomplishments.
The message is a list, in considerable detail, of the monuments and public works of Rome in the age of the Constantinians. It provides modern scholars with one of their major tools for reconstructing the vanished capital of the Roman Empire.
This scenario, however imaginative, is essentially true when we strip away the postal dramatization. We have a meticulously annotated document, dating to the late Empire, whose purpose has confounded scholars for generations--but we can read urgency and state-level importance between its lines.
The Regionary Catalog actually, literally, came down to us in slightly less dramatic form, though no less miraculous in its content. It was copied and re-copied by Late Roman and early, middle, and late Medieval scribes, and then Renaissance and Modern savants, until the modern sciences of archeology and topology were born in the 19th Century. Like the fabulous imagination of Piranesi (cover), the documents provides wonderful insight, while simultaneously raising major questions that have tormented scholars for generations.
Why was the Regionary Catalog (in two copyist trails, one the Notitia, the other the Curiosum) compiled at all? Why, given that Constantine had begun the enormous basilica and complex of Old St. Peter's, not to mention many other churches and religious basilicas, is there not a single Christian monument of any sort listed? Why did barbarian scribes continue making copies long after the last emperor was deposed in the West in 476 CE?
There are some tantalizing hints in the texts themselves, intertwined with events of true history, and these we'll examine in this article to come up with a startling theory about the meaning of the Regionary Catalogs. They are, and will always remain, a freshly composed message from the distant past, conveying mute messages beyond their terse and enigmatic contents.