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On St. Cecilia’s Day, remembrance of harmonious times past

Legend says Santa Cecilia was built on the site of Cecilia’s house.
Legend says Santa Cecilia was built on the site of Cecilia’s house.

Sunday is St. Cecilia’s Day, honoring the patron saint of musicians.
A late-second-century Roman noble, Cecilia (according to legend) was forced to marry; at the wedding, in the words of William Caxton, “hearing the organs making melody, [Cecilia] sang in her heart, only to God.” Her husband soon converted, as did Cecilia’s brother — as did a Roman soldier ordered to execute the two men. All three were martyred; Cecilia followed soon after.

Cecilia probably died in Sicily, but her remains ended up back in her hometown: Trastevere, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. (Her tomb is still there, in the church built — again, according to legend — on the site of her house.) Located across the Tiber River, Trastevere was not even officially part of Rome until the emperor Augustus annexed it in the first decade AD. Its curious status — in the city, but not entirely of it — made it a locus of immigrants. For centuries, Jews and, especially, Syrians had settled in Trastevere. Their culture came to shape the place’s life and even geography.

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Syrian influence was particularly strong. Working-class Syrians (who took jobs more well-off Romans disdained) sustained their religion — centered on a goddess often known as Atargatis — in private shrines. But Atargatis also publicly permeated Roman religious life. Trastevere’s most prominent natural feature, the large hill called the Janiculum, had for centuries been home to a grove sacred to the Etruscan goddess Furrina; in the first century AD, the grove also became a place to worship Atargatis, whom the Romans simply named Dea Syriae, the Syrian goddess. (The recognition may have come with the emperor Nero, whose whims included a brief enthusiasm for the Syrian cult.) Later, Marcus Antonius Gaionas, a Syrian émigré who parlayed business success into political influence,
financed a new temple in what came to be called the Syrian Sanctuary. Monuments erected in Trastevere often bore dual inscriptions, dedications to Roman gods on one side, Syrian gods on another.

It didn’t last. The Roman Empire’s official adoption of Christianity brought an end to many such pagan religions. Despite a short, fourth-century resurgence under Julian the Apostate, the old Roman and Eastern cults (and their syncretic combinations) soon faded. (Jews maintained a presence in Trastevere through the Middle Ages, though Christians burned down their synagogue in the sixth century.) The empire turned fractured, decadent, fearful. For a while, though, Cecilia’s hometown embodied something of her patronized musical virtues: locals and immigrants — and their gods and goddesses — coexisting, in intriguing counterpoint.

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Matthew Guerrieri


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.