Chapter 5. The Exigencies of Dialogue: Hispellum
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Chapter 5  The Exigencies of Dialogue Hispellum The Limits of the Possible In contrast with Phrygia, where a patchwork of exclusive religious communities— some Christian, others pagan—coexisted alongside, but also in tension with one another, central Italy in the early fourth century was much more religiously homogeneous and much less open to Christian interpenetration. The territories of Umbria and Tuscia, immediately north of Rome and Latium, had long-standing traditions of cultic practice that predated Roman control of the region and that continued to influence Roman cult-ways down into Late Antiquity.1 We have very little testimony of active Christian worship in either region before the fourth century , and even with the rise of Constantine, it was some time before the Christian cult took firm root. This would not, in other words, have been fertile ground for the promotion of Constantine’s new religion, for the wooded hills and rich valleys of Tuscia and Umbria clung quite tenaciously to the gods who had rendered these territories so prosperous for centuries previous. The town of Hispellum (modern Spello) is located in the heart of Umbria. Perched at the foot of the steep southwestern slopes of Monte Subasio, a mass of pink limestone shrouded in forests, it overlooks the rich valley created by the stream called the Tinea (Topino) about thirty kilometers southeast of Perusia (Perugia).2 Archaeological remains confirm that the city had an Umbrian prehistory , and we know from a variety of sources that it enjoyed a period of particular favor under Octavian, who established it as a colony (Colonia Iulia Hispellum) and endowed it with walls and with control of the famous spring of Clitumnus, formerly managed by neighboring Spoletium (Spoleto).3 By the High Empire it had a thriving population in the tens of thousands and was equipped with formidable walls outfitted with six gates, the principal one of which still stands largely intact on the southern edge of the city. Hispellum also boasted baths, a theater and amphitheater , and a massive religious complex just outside its northern walls. There, wor- The Exigencies of Dialogue 115 ship of Venus, Minerva, and Jupiter continued into the fourth century. There are no attestations of Christian cult at Hispellum before the year 487. It was not, in other words, a city that would have accepted a dominant reading of Constantine’s new devotion to the Christian god without question and even resistance.4 The best Constantine could hope for in his relations with this city was thus a negotiated reading of his religious program. Dialogue would be necessary, and with it compromise on both sides was inevitable. To his good fortune, the Hispellates opened the door to just such an exchange when they petitioned Constantine for support in overturning what they regarded as a lopsided arrangement in the celebration of the region’s annual religious festival. In the decades before they lodged their petition, this event had been dominated by the powerful city of Volsinii in the neighboring region of Tuscia. Tuscia and Umbria had been joined into a single province under the tetrarchs, who had given the former the exclusive right to host the annual festival. When the Hispellates begged Constantine for a greater role, he seized on their request as a chance to explore the limits of the possible. As we shall see in what follows, he made no effort to turn traditional religious practice on its head. Instead, he granted the Hispellates’ petition to establish an imperial cult temple to his family, the gens Flavia, and even allowed the colony to rename itself Flavia Constans, after his son. This was, in every way, good politics, for it built allegiance to himself and his family on a symbolic level even while enhancing the strength of a powerful city in the region that had formerly been upstaged by its local rival. In recompense for these privileges, Constantine insisted that Hispellum call a halt to the practice of blood sacrifice at this new cultic center. Through the rescript system, the Hispellates had thus gained their demand, but they had done so only by accepting the emperor’s counterdemand that they curb a revered and sacred pagan rite that was as central to traditional religious practice as it was abhorrent to Constantine.5 The Hispellum Rescript: Questions of Date and Attribution The Constantinian inscription of Hispellum was first found in 1733 and was almost instantly regarded as a forgery. This remained the prevailing opinion until 1850, when Mommsen published a...


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