In my previous post, I discussed the commemoration of the martyr St. Anastasia at the Mass at dawn on Christmas Day. I focused on St. Anastasia’s name, which recalls the Resurrection of Our Lord. In this post, I will discuss the location of the station church for the Christmas Mass at dawn, namely the Basilica of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino. This basilica is located on the Palatine Hill in Rome. I will argue that this location is especially fitting for a celebration of Christ’s Birth in the Grotto of Bethlehem.
Circumstances of Our Lord’s Birth
To begin with, let’s consider some circumstances of Our Lord’s Birth. Our Lord was born in a cave or grotto in the countryside outside of Bethlehem. Despite the humble trappings of His Birth, Our Lord was the King of Israel and the Son of God. He was miraculously conceived of the Virgin Mary, and was born without damage to Her virginity. Our Lady laid the Infant in a manger; the cave was used as a sheepfold, and shepherds came to pay Him homage. Fearing that Our Lord would seize his throne, Herod the Great sought to kill Him, and did in fact massacre the other male infants of Bethlehem. As a result, the Holy Family fled into exile.
Romulus, Remus, and the Palatine
Many of the circumstances of Our Lord’s Birth find a parallel, or a pointed contrast, in the legend of the birth of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.*
1.) Romulus and Remus were conceived when Mars, the pagan god of war and violence, raped their mother Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. In contrast, Our Lord was conceived of the Blessed Virgin Mary with no violation of her virginal integrity. Our Lord is the Son of the True God, the Lord God of Hosts, yet He is also the Prince of Peace.
2.) Rhea Silvia was the niece of Amulius, who had usurped the throne of the city of Alba Longa from Rhea Silvia’s father Numitor. Like Herod the Great in the Massacre of the Innocents, Amulius wanted to prevent any threat to his rule. He killed Numitor’s sons and, after Rhea Silvia gave birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, ordered them drowned in the Tiber. His servants didn’t quite see the job through to the end, only setting the twins in a cradle by the river side. The Tiber carried the cradle off to a location near the Palatine Hill in what is now the city of Rome. You can see shades of Moses among the bulrushes here, as well as Herod the Great’s desire to kill the Christ Child.
3.) A she-wolf found the twins and brought them to a grotto on the Palatine Hill, which was then a rustic location. There she suckled Romulus and Remus. This grotto became known as the Lupercal. As Providence would have it, scholars believe that the Lupercal was located near the present site of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino. In a parallel to the story of Romulus, Our Lord was born in a grotto in the rustic setting of Bethlehem.
4.) A shepherd discovered Romulus and Remus and raised them as his own. Shepherds paid homage to Our Lord at His Birth.
5.) Romulus and Remus overthrew their usurper great-uncle Amulius and restored their grandfather Numitor to the throne of Alba Longa. Our Lord overthrew the usurper Satan and restored the reign of His Father over mankind.
6.) Romulus and Remus decided to found rival cities, Romulus on the Palatine Hill and Remus on the Aventine. Romulus slew Remus, his own twin brother, when he leapt over the foundation of Romulus’ city wall out of spite. Out of this fratricide rose Rome, which St. Augustine identified with the City of Man. Romulus was this city’s founder and first king. Our Lord willingly suffered His Passion and Death at the hands of His fellow men (His adopted brethren) that He might redeem them from their sins. Thus Our Lord founded the Church, which St. Augustine identified with the City of God. Our Lord is this city’s founder and king.
7.) Romulus dwelt in a simple hut that was preserved on the Palatine. Our Lord was raised in humble circumstances in Nazareth.
8.) At the end of his life, Romulus was miraculously assumed into heaven–or assassinated by a conspiracy of his senators; Livy can’t quite decide. Either way, the Romans deified Romulus after someone claimed to have seen a vision of him after his mysterious disappearance. Our Lord rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven after being crucified by a conspiracy of the high priests and scribes.
To sum up these parallels and contrasts, the Palatine was the birthplace of Rome and home of Romulus, a man falsely proclaimed to be god. It is a fitting location for one of the Masses of Christmas, when we honor the Birth of God truly become Man. Our Lord supplants the imposter Romulus, just as Christian Rome supplants pagan Rome, and the City of God supplants the City of Man.
Later history of the Palatine
Centuries after Rome’s legendary founding by Romulus, the Palatine Hill became the center of Rome’s imperial government when Augustus, the first Roman emperor, built his house there. It was likely from the Palatine that Augustus decreed the census that brought our Lord to Bethlehem for His Nativity. After Augustus, other emperors built larger, more lavish homes on the Palatine, so much so that the English word palace comes from Palatine.
The imperial palace was for centuries a scene of intrigue, conspiracy, assassination, poisoning, etc. As you can read in the historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves, virtually the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty (Rome’s first imperial ruling house) was wiped out through internecine slaughter.
In time, the emperors would transfer the imperial capital to locations closer to the Empire’s frontiers, such as Sirmium in the province of Pannonia (now Serbia). There, the Emperor Diocletian ordered the martyr St. Anastasia put to death on Christmas Day. Eventually, the Romans would dedicate a basilica to her honor at the foot of the Palatine Hill, near the old palatial and administrative complex.**
At dawn on Christmas Day, the Roman Church keeps her station at the Basilica of Sant’Anastasia al Palatino. The basilica still stands, while the imperial palaces are in ruins. Surrounded by the fragments of a bygone empire, the Romans commemorate a martyr sentenced to death by an emperor. Within sight of Tiberius’ crumbling palace, they adore a Jew Who was crucified by a Roman provincial procurator during Tiberius’ reign. And, on the very site of the Lupercal, the people of Romulus now honor the Birth of Christ in the Grotto of Bethlehem.
*I rely on the first book of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita for the story of Romulus’ life.
**The Wikipedia article for St. Anastasia notes that the imperial court met within the territorial jurisdiction of her church. The article’s anonymous author or authors opine that the increase of devotion to St. Anastasia in Constantinople, the primary imperial capital, prompted the imperial administrators in Rome to dedicate a church in her honor near the Palatine. The article also claims that, thanks to the prestige of the imperial court on the Palatine, the church of St. Anastasia ranked immediately after the basilicas of St. John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore in terms of prestige.