As the ancient world transitioned into the Middle Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the Byzantine Empire) slowly began to be pressed back into a heartland quarantined to Greece and the Middle East. Yet, the Byzantine Empire still had enormous power, and in the 7th century, the emperor still wielded significant authority over the Christian popes in Rome.
At the start of the 7th century, the pope was about to gain access to one of the oldest, best preserved, temples in Rome—the Pantheon. The site of the Panthon had long been home to Roman temples. The first Pantheon temple was built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (approximately between 27-25 BCE), and another was constructed in the reign of Domitian (r. 81-96 CE). The Pantheon that stands, today, is believed to have begun construction under the reign of Trajan (r. 98-117), and was completed by Emperor Hadrian around 125.
The fate, and purpose, of the Pantheon would change with the rise of an interesting emperor in 602—Phocas. From his origin as a simple commoner, Phocas joined the military and led a successful rebellion in Thrace against the reigning Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602). At the end of the rebellion, Phokas was crowned emperor and Maurice, as well as his heirs, faced execution. Read our article about the unique reign of Empeor Phokas, HERE, if you wish to know more about the rise and demise of this peculiar emperor.
In 608 or 609, Emperor Phokas gave Pope Boniface IV (r. 608-615) permission to convert the Roman Pantheon into a Christian church. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Boniface IV had the pagan temple ritualistically purified and, “once its company of devils had been cast out,” it was renamed the church of Saint Mary of the Martyrs (or the St. Maria Rotunda). As a result, the ancient temple of all the Roman gods was repurposed into a Christian church that venerated martyrs and saints (Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, Chapter 4).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (facebook Pope Boniface and Emperor Phocas in front of Roman Pantheon, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Flickr and maxpixel.com)
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.