Key to Umbria: Spoleto

Early Christianity in Spoleto

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Formation of the Diocese

The first bishops of Spoleto of whom we are aware were Bishop Caecilanus (in post in 353) and Bishop Spes, who seems to have been in post later in the 4th century (see below). 

Bishop Caecilianus

The earliest surviving document that mentions a bishop of Spoleto is a letter (353) from Pope Liberius  (352-66) to Bishop Caecilianus of Spoleto ahead of the Council of Milan (355).  The letter warned him not to be corrupted by the example of Bishop Vincent of Capua: the Emperor Constantius II had bullied Vincent of Capua into a condemnation of the anti-Arian  Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria at the slightly earlier Council of Arles.  Caecilianus seems to have attended the Council of Milan and, despite Liberius’ exhortation, to have succumbed, like all but one of the attendees, to imperial pressure and condemned Athanasius.

Gianfranco Binazzi (referenced below, at pp.104-6, entry 63) transcribed a now-lost funerary inscription from this period that probably came from the crypt of San Gregorio Maggiore, Spoleto.  It commemorated the young Picentia, whom Pope Liberius had baptised.

Bishop Spes

Two inscriptions relating to Bishop Spes are known:

  1. One (CIL XI 2 4966), which came from the church of San Lorenzo, Terzo della Pieve, recorded that he had discovered the relics of St Vitalis there and erected an alter in honour of the saint.  (This inscription was subsequently destroyed, but is known from a copy and a surviving fragment).

  2. The second (CIL XI 4967), which was recorded under the floor of the apse in SS Apostoli in the 19th century, records his burial in the church on 21st November of an unknown year, after he had been been bishop for 32 years. 




  6. It is now in Room 2 of the Museo del Ducato di Spoleto.

The monk John of Montecassino, who wrote the legend of St John of Spoleto in the reign of the Emperor Otto II (967-83), noted in it that a sarcophagus in SS Apostoli had been used to house the body of Bishop Spes after its apparently recent re-discovery.  An ivory reliquary (perhaps 9th century) of an unknown St Spes in the Palatine Chapel at Aachen was opened in the late 19th century and found to contain exact transcriptions of this epitaph.  This suggests that the rediscovery of the relics in the 9th or 10th century gave rise to a cult of “St Spes” and that some of the relics subsequently found their way to Aachen. 

The transcription of ‘the epitaph of ‘St Spes’ at Aachen was accompanied by that of another funerary inscription (CIL XI 4968), which commemorated Tullius Anatolius Artemius.  This second inscription has been lost, but it was recorded in situ under the pavement of the apse of SS Apostoli in the 19th century, next to that of Bishop Spes.  It read:

Accipite sancti vobis / [fr]atre[m] dignumq(ue) mi(i)strum  Chr(isti)

Tullium/ Anatolium Artemium c(larissimum) p(uerum)

qui vixit annos sex menses/ octo dies/ XXIII depositus die/ III Idus Oct(o)ber

Ricomere et Clearcho/ vv(iris) cc(larissimis) c(onsulibus)

It commemorated a boy who had died aged only 6 years and 8 months during the consulate of Richomeres and Clearchus (i.e. in 384 AD).  Tullius’ family names suggest that he had been the son of an official of the eastern part of the Empire.  The first line of the inscription could not have described this young boy, and it has been suggested that Bishop Spes had donated an epitaph that he had intended for his own funerary monument.

Since Spes was buried in the suburban church of SS Apostoli, we might reasonably assume that this was the episcopal church until his successor Achilleus (below) built Sant Pietro, closer to Spoleto.

In his promotion of the cult of saints, as evidenced by his discovery of the relics of St Vitalis, Bishop Spes was emulating three men who were almost certainly his contemporaries:

  1. Pope Damasus I (366-84), who adapted the catacombs of Rome as places of pilgrimage, restoring the works of art on the walls and renewing the epitaphs over the graves of the martyrs;

  2. St Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the period 374-97 and who claimed to have discovered the relics at least for saints in his diocese: and

  3. Bishop Eusebius of Bologna (ca. 370-400), a friend of St Ambrose, who discovered the relics of SS Agricola and Vitalis in his diocese.

Bishop Spes appears in the legend of St Fortunatus of Montefalco, in which he is said to have consecrated the church of San Fortunato, Montefalco (according to tradition, on 8th August 422).  It is interesting to note that the places associated with Bishop Spes  (SS Apostoli, San Lorenzo and San Fortunato) all lie in a tract of territory between Spoleto and what is now Montefalco.

Late Roman Empire

Bishop Achilleus 

Bishop Achilleus played an important role in the papal schism of 418, when two men, Boniface and Eulalius, were elected to the papacy by their rival supporters.  The Emperor Honorius summoned both to attend a council in Spoleto to resolve the conflict.  Meanwhile, Bishop Achilleus was sent to Rome to officiate at the Easter celebrations of 419.  In the event Eulalius refused to leave Rome and this prompted the furious Emperor to depose him, leaving his rival as the undisputed Pope Boniface I.  (These events are recorded in eight letters written to Achilleus in March 419 that are preserved at Fonte Avellana).

Three inscriptions from San Pietro relate to Bishop Achilleus.  These no longer exist, but their content is known from copies (9th or 10th century) from the Abbey of Lorsch that are now in the Vatican Archives.  

  1. The first inscription is in the form of a Latin poem of 32 lines on two separate tablets.  It begins: “Achilleus, devoted bishop of Christ built a large edifice in honour of St Peter”.  Carlo Carletti (see below) has summarised the theme of the remainder of the poem as “Magna Roma - Magna Petrus”, and pointed out that it drew heavily upon letters (422) in which Pope Boniface I set out the dogma of the Petrine succession. 

  2. The second, a poem of only four lines, refers to the prerogative of St Peter to melt the chains of evil.  

  3. The third, which seems to have been written after the death of Bishop Achilleus, recorded that he had built the church on the mountain above the road to Rome, that he had dedicated it to St Peter and that it contained a relic from the chains of St Peter.  This is the earliest surviving reference to this relic: it is generally assumed that Bishop Achilleus acquired filings from the chain when he was in Rome in 419. 

The picture that emerges of Bishop Achilleus is of a powerful prelate close to both the papacy and the imperial authorities.  It seems that he had moved the episcopal seat closer to Spoleto: from SS Apostoli (see Bishop Spes, above) to San Pietro.

Bishop Laurence

A version of the legend of St Laurence (BHL 4748d) places him among a large of Syrian immigrants who came to Italy in 283.  One of his colleagues became Bishop of Spoleto and built San Pietro: he was buried there when he died, with an epitaph that identified his tomb.  Pope Caius then appointed St Laurence as his successor.  After precisely 11 years, four months and eight days, while still a young man, St Laurence gave up his office.  He then lived in solitude in a place called ‘Geniolatim’, eight Roman miles outside Spoleto,where he died in peace on 3rd February.

It seems likely that the hagiographer had actually seen the epitaph of the bishop who had built San Pietro, albeit that his name could no longer be read.  He had probably also seen the epitaph of his successor, identified as Bishop Laurence (perhaps in the same church), since this seems to have been the likely source for the precise biographical data that he presents.  Thus it seems reasonable  to assume that the Bishop Laurence, whom the hagiographer placed in the late 3rd century, had actually been the successor to Bishop Achilleus

Bishop Amasius

An inscription found in 1650 under the choir of San Pietro records (CIL XI 4972) reads:

D(e)p(ositio) s(an)c(t)i Amasi ep(iscopi)/ cons(ulatu) Probini v(iri) c(larissimi)

sub d(ie) X Kal(endas) Aug(ustas)/ qui vixit annis LXXXV

ex quib(us) ep(iscopus) annis / XIII mens(ibus) II

This records that Bishop Amasius died on 23rd July 489 (during the consulate of Petronius Probinus) at the grand old age of 85, after 13 years as bishop.

Read more: 
“Umbria Cristiana: Dalla Diffusione del Culto al Culto dei Santi”, Spoleto (2001): 
C. Carletti, “ Magna Roma - Magna Petrus: l’ Inno a Roma di Achileo vescovo di Spoleto”,  pp. 141-156 (for the material relating to Bishops Achilleus and the Petrine succession)
S. Nessi, “La Diocesi di Spoleto tra Tardoantico e Medioevo”, pp. 833-82 (for the material relating to successive Bishops of Spoleto)
G. Binazzi, “Inscriptiones Christianae Italiae: Regio VI; Umbria”, (1989) Bari 

“Martiri ed Evangelizzatori della Chiesa Spoletina: Atti del Primo Convegno di Studi Storici Ecclesiastici: Spoleto, 2-4 gennaio 1976”, (1977) Spoleto 
A.P. Frutaz, “Spes e Achilleo, Vescovi di Spoleto”, in  
“Ricerche sull’ Umbria Tardo-Antica e Preromanica: Atti del II Convegno di Studi Umbri (Gubbio, 1964)”, (1965) Perugia, pp. 351-77

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