Constantia, whose name does not appear in the Roman Kalendar, but which has found its way into several unauthorised lists of the Saints, is chiefly known through the Acts of S. Agnes. Little or nothing reliable is recorded concerning her, and her story would not have been included in this collection, were it not for two circumstances—one, that two of the most interesting monuments of Old Rome are associated with her name, one directly, the other indirectly; and next, that a caution, very desirable of being exercised, may be learned from a consideration of her story—not to cast over as utterly fabulous and worthless the legends that come down to us of the Saints of early times, because they are stuffed with unhistorical and ridiculous incidents and marvels. 78Let us now see very briefly what the legend is concerning Constantia.
She was the daughter of Constantine the Great, and was afflicted with a distressing disease, supposed at the time to be leprosy, but which was in all probability scrofula.
The Roman general, Gallicanus, having been in favour with the Emperor, and having lost his wife, was offered Constantia in marriage by his master—not a particularly inviting proposal, and Gallicanus did not, possibly, regret that he was called away by an inroad of the barbarians into Thrace, to defend the Roman frontiers against them. Before engaging in battle he made a vow, in the event of success, that he would believe in Christ and be baptised. He succeeded in repulsing the enemy, and returned to Rome to find that Constantia had been healed of her disorder at the tomb of S. Agnes, and that she had persuaded his three daughters, Augusta, Attica, and Artemia, to live with her, as consecrated virgins, near the shrine of the Virgin Martyr, to whose intercession she attributed her cure.
Constantia had two chamberlains, John and 79Paul, to whom, at her death, she bequeathed much of her possessions.
When Julian the Apostate assumed the purple, in 361, he did not openly persecute the Church, but he turned out of their situations such officers of the court and army as refused to renounce Christ. John and Paul he particularly disliked, partly because they were zealous Christians, and had had much to do with the conversion of Gallicanus, but also because they had obtained by bequest so much of Constantia’s estate, which he desired to draw into the imperial treasury. He sent word that they were to be deprived of their offices, and were to be privately put to death in their own house.
Accordingly, when they had retired to their residence on the Cœlian Hill, the ministers of Julian pursued them, dismissed the servants, and secretly conveyed them down into the cellar of their palace, and there killed and buried them.
Three persons, however, knew of what was going on—Crispinus, Crispinianus, and Benedicta—and, to prevent the matter getting 80bruited about, these the soldiers also put to death.
Gallicanus was living at Ostia, and he was ordered into exile. He withdrew to Alexandria, where the chief magistrate, Baucianus, summoned him before his tribunal, required him to do sacrifice to idols, and, because he refused, had him decapitated. He has found a place in the Roman Martyrology on June 25th.
Now the whole series of incidents is full of difficulties. The name of Gallicanus was not uncommon. Vulcatius Gallicanus was prefect of Rome in 317, and Ovius Gallicanus was Consul in 330, but of either of them being engaged against the barbarians in Thrace there is no historical evidence.
It is also incredible that the Gallicanus of the legend should have been publicly tried as a Christian and condemned as such under Julian.
The Emperor Constantine had a daughter, Constantia, we know from profane history, who was married to Hannibalianus—a thoroughly unprincipled woman, in fact, if we may trust the highly coloured picture drawn of her by Ammianus Marcellinus. She was a demon in 81human form, a female fury ever thirsting for blood. But though generally called Constantia, her correct name was Flavia Julia Constantina.
Of the Constantia of the legend there is no mention by the historical writers of the time; but this is not remarkable if she were, as is represented in the story, a woman who took no part in public life, but lived in retirement, partly because of her disorder, and then because she had embraced the religious life.
A further difficulty arises in the account of the martyrdom of SS. John and Paul, her chamberlains. The Acts represent them as subjected to interrogation by Julian himself in Rome, whereas it is quite certain that after he became Emperor he did not set foot in Italy.
It will be seen, therefore, that there is here every reason for repudiating the whole story as fabulous, and some would go so far as to say that Constantia, the virgin daughter of Constantine, Gallicanus, John and Paul were all of them mythical characters, creatures of the imagination. But there are certain very good and weighty reasons on the other side for inducing an arrest of judgment.
82In the first place, close to the basilica and catacomb of S. Agnese is a very interesting and precious circular church, erected by Constantine the Great, at the request of his daughter Constantia, as a thankoffering for her recovery from the distressing disease which had disfigured her and made life a burden to her. This church is, perhaps, the most remarkable specimen we have existing of ecclesiastical architecture of the age of Constantine. It is quite untouched, and is rich with frescoes of the period.
But a still more remarkable monument is one quite recently disinterred. It is the house of the martyrs John and Paul, which has existed for centuries buried under the foundations of the great church that bears their names on the Cœlian Hill, a church erected by the one English Pope, Nicolas Breakespeare, in 1158. The discovery of the house is itself a romance. What is known of its early history is this: Julian the Apostate died in 363. The death of John and Paul had taken place in 362. Julian was followed by Jovian, who died in 364, and was succeeded by Valentinian.
83Now, directly Julian was no more, Byzantius, a senator and a Christian, interested himself in the matter. The recent martyrdom was in all mouths, and it was known that the bodies lay in the cellar of the house. Byzantius had the bodies lifted and placed in a white alabaster or marble box, and converted the upper storey of the house into an oratory.
The son of Byzantius was Pammachius, the friend and correspondent of S. Jerome. He did something also. He erected a handsome church over the tomb of the saints, and this was completed in 410, forty-eight years after their martyrdom.
There had, however, been no break in the tradition, for Byzantius had made his oratory only two or three years later than their martyrdom.
The basilica erected by Pammachius consisted of an oblong nave, with side aisles and an apse to the west. To the east end was a quadrangle, surrounded by a cloister, and with a water-tank in the middle. By means of a flight of steps visitors were enabled to descend to the “Confession,” or place whence they 84could look down on the alabaster box containing the relics of the martyrs in the cellar; and in the angles of the wall below, a triangular white marble table was placed, hollowed out in the middle for oil, in which a wick burned to throw light on the tomb.
Hard by, in later years, was the family mansion of S. Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine and his little band, in 597, to convert the Anglo-Saxons of Kent. Now, Gregory knew well this church of SS. John and Paul, and often prayed there. Somewhere about 603 he sent a present to Queen Theodelinda, the Bavarian Princess, who had married Agilulph, the Lombard, and among other things some of the oil from this very lamp. This identical vial of oil is preserved among the treasures of Monza, along with some little gold hens and chickens presented by Theodelinda.
Now, a few years ago, Padre Germano, a Passionist father of the monastery attached to the church, in studying the blank south wall of the church that rises out of the little lane, the Clivus Scauri, by which one mounts to reach the entrance of the church, observed that 85it consisted of a whole series of blocked-up arches and windows above them. In a word, it looked like a three-storey shop-front, or factory of brick, with the openings filled in. What could be the meaning of this? Such an arrangement was not suitable to the basilica of Pammachius, and had certainly no significance for the Church of Adrian I.
Then, all at once, it flashed on him what it really was: it was nothing more nor less than the street-front of the palace of John and Paul, which had been solidly built, and consequently had been utilised first by Pammachius and then by Adrian I. Now the church is built at the top of a steep slope, and the level of the floor of the church is far above the arches. It next occurred to the Padre: Is it not possible that the old house of the martyrs may be beneath the floor of this church?
He obtained leave to search. He went round to persons interested in Christian antiquities, and begged a little money, and so was enabled to begin his excavations; and, lo! he discovered that when in 410 Pammachius had built his basilica he had filled in the lower 86portion of the house, all the most important rooms and the cellars, with earth and rubbish, and had raised his church above it all, knocking away the floors of the upper storeys and blocking up what had been the bedroom windows. The writer of this account was in Rome during two winters when the Padre was engaged on the excavations, and was frequently there, and saw the results as they were reached. And these results were: first, that a Christian mansion of the fourth century was disinterred, the only one of the kind known to exist; and more, the tomb of the saints into which Byzantius had put the bodies was found; also the very lamp-table from which S. Gregory took the oil for sending to Theodelinda, and the early altar set up by Byzantius in one of the halls of the house which he had converted into an oratory. Nay, more,—paintings were found, whether of the date of Byzantius or of his son Pammachius is uncertain—one representing the soldiers killing Crispinus, Crispinianus, and Benedicta, and another showing Constantia, with her two chamberlains and other attendants. There were also figures which may be Byzantius 87and his wife, or Pammachius and his, bringing gifts to the tomb of the martyrs. The cellar was discovered with the old wine-bottles, some marked with the sacred sign; and the frescoes in the reception-room were Christian: a woman lifting up holy hands in prayer; Moses, with the roll of the Law; the good sheep and the bad one, with the Milk of the Word, and so on.
Now, all this shows conclusively that there really were such martyrs as John and Paul, and that although their story has been embroidered, there is a substratum of truth in it.
What is probably the basis of the whole story is this: that Constantia, an infirm, scrofulous daughter of Constantine, residing in Rome, believing herself to have received some alleviation in her condition by praying at the tomb of S. Agnes, not only induced her father to build a basilica above that tomb, but also the remarkable Church of St. Constanza, which is hard by. That she had chamberlains named John and Paul, devout Christians, is also more than probable, as also that she bequeathed to them a large portion of her fortune. The 88fact of their being zealous Christians, and exerting themselves vigorously to advance the Faith, that among other converts they made was Ovius Gallicanus, who had been Consul in 330, is also probable. That they were secretly put to death in their own mansion on the Cœlian Hill, by the orders of Julian, and buried in their cellar, is quite certain. The chain of evidence is unbroken.
That Constantia had as her friends and fellows in her retired devout life three of the daughters of the ex-Consul, is not at all unlikely. That he was banished to Alexandria by Julian may be admitted. But this is the utmost. The recomposer of the Acts tried to spice the story to suit the taste of his times, and in doing so fell into extravagances, anachronisms, and absurdities.
Constantia may have felt grateful for the disorder that kept her out of the current of public life, and from the intrigues of the palace.
Her father, with all his good qualities, was a violent man; and his adoption of Christianity was due to political shrewdness rather than to conviction.
89In 324 Crispus, her accomplished brother, whose virtues and glory had made him a favourite with the people, was accused of conspiring against his father by his stepmother Fausta, who desired to clear him out of the way to make room for her own son Constantius. Another involved in the same charge was Licinius, a son of the sister of Constantine, and who was also a young man of good qualities.
Constantine was at Rome at the time. He went into a fit of blind fury, and had his son put to death, and ordered the execution of Licinius. Then, coming to his senses, and finding that he had acted without having any evidence of the truth of the charges, he turned round on his wife Fausta, and ordered her to be suffocated in a vapour bath.
Constantine died in 337.
“One dark shadow from the great tragedy of his life reached to his last end, and beyond it,” says Dean Stanley. “It is said that the Bishop of Nicomedia, to whom the Emperor’s will had been confided, alarmed at its contents, immediately placed it for security in the dead man’s hand, wrapped in the vestments of death. 90There it lay till Constantius arrived, and read his father’s dying bequest. It was believed to express the Emperor’s conviction that he had been poisoned by his brothers and their children, and to call on Constantius to avenge his death. That bequest was obeyed by the massacre of six out of the surviving princes of the imperial family. Two alone escaped. With such a mingling of light and darkness did Constantine close his career.”[2]
One of Constantia’s sisters, Constantina, has been already mentioned. Her second husband was Gallus. “She was an incarnate fury,” says Ammianus Marcellinus; “never weary of inflaming the savage temper of her husband. The pair, in process of time, becoming skilful in inflicting suffering, hired a gang of crafty talebearers, who loaded the innocent with false charges, accusing them of aiming at the royal power or of practising magic.” Those accused were all put to death and their goods confiscated. She died of fever in 353.
Another sister, Helena, was married to the Apostate Julian. Her brother, Constantius, 91although a Christian, was as ensanguined with murders as one of the old Cæsars. Her brothers Constans and Constantine II. fought each other, and Constantine was slain. Violence, bloodshed, stained the whole family, except perhaps Helena and certainly the blameless Constantia. In the midst of such violence and crime, it was indeed something to disappear from the pages of the profane historian and to be remembered only as a builder of churches.
The rotunda near S. Agnese, that bears Constantia’s name, was erected during her life, to serve as her mausoleum, and in it she and her sister Helena were laid. She was laid in the beautiful sarcophagus of red porphyry that was in the church. This was carried off by Pope Paul II., who intended to convert it to his own use, and it is now preserved in the Vatican.
The vaulting of the church is covered with mosaic arabesques of flowers and birds referring to a vintage.