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The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity


from its origins to circa AD 700, across the entire Christian world


Theodosius, in his On the Topography of the Holy Land, describes the failed attempt by Urbicius (imperial praepositus sacri cubiculi) to remove to Constantinople the rock of the Kathisma (near Jerusalem), where *Mary (Mother of Christ, S00033) had rested on the road to Bethlehem. Written in Latin, perhaps in Africa, 518/540.

Evidence ID

E07934

Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries

Theodosius, On the Topography of the Holy Land/'De situ terrae sanctae', 28

Vrbicius dicebatur praepositus imperii, qui ad septem imperatores praepositus fuit et coronas ipsis imperatoribus in capite ponebat et ipse eas de eorum capite deponebat et ipse eos castigabat. Est locus tertio miliario de Hierusalem ciuitate. Dum domna Maria mater Domni iret in Bethleem, descendit de asina et sedit super petram et benedixit eam. Ipse uero praepositus Vrbicius ipsum lapidem incidit et fecit eum quadrum in modum altaris uolens eum Constantinopolim dirigere, et dum ad portam sancti Stephani ueniret, iam amplius eum mouere non potuit; quem lapidem unus iugus bouum ducebat, et dum uiderent, quia nullatenus potuerunt eum in antea mouere, reuocatus est ad sepulchrum Domini et ibi altaris de ipsa petra factus est et de ipso altare communicatur. Tamen post sepulchrum Domni est. Ipse uero Vrbicius praepositus sub Anastasio imperatore Constantinopolim moritur et obrierunt [the text is here corrupt and obscure]. Quem Vrbicium terra non recepit, tertio sepulchrum foris iactauit.

'Urbicius bore the title of
praepositus, who was praepositus to seven emperors and placed crowns on the heads of these same emperors, and himself removed the crowns from their heads and himself chastised them. There is a place at the third milestone from Jerusalem. When Lady Mary, mother of the Lord, was going to Bethlehem, she got down from the donkey, sat on a rock and blessed it. This same praepositus Urbicius cut the stone and squared it up like an altar, wanting to take it to Constantinople. When they reached the gate of saint Stephen [in Jerusalem] they could move it no further. It was being pulled by a yoke of oxen. And when they saw that there was no way they could take it further, it was taken back to the Lord's Sepulchre and there an altar was made of that rock and communion given from that altar. It is behind the Lord's Sepulchre. The same paepositus Urbicius died in Constantinople under the emperor Anastasius and ... [the text is here corrupt and obscure]. The earth did not want to receive this Urbicius, three times it threw out his tomb.'

Text: Geyer 1965, 123-124. Translation: Bryan Ward-Perkins.

Cult Places

Place associated with saint's life
Other (mountain, wood, tree, pillar)

Miracles

Miracle after death
Punishing miracle
Saint aiding or preventing the translation of relics

Relics

Transfer, translation and deposition of relics
Contact relic - other object closely associated with saint

Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Officials

Source

Nothing certain is known about Theodosius beyond his name, which is preserved with the title of his work in some of its manuscripts; in its present form the work lacks any kind of introduction or postscript that might shed light on him and his purpose in writing. However, as he wrote in Latin, we can safely assume that he came from the West. The only possible clue to a more precise geographical location comes in §14 (E07925), where he refers to Arianism as religio Wandalorum, 'the religion of the Vandals', which might point to his being from Africa.

The date of his text can be placed with some confidence between the years 518 and 540. This is because Theodosius mentions two completed major building projects by the emperor Anastasius (r. 491-518) - a church at the site on the Jordan where John baptised Jesus (§20, see E07914), and military works at Dara (§29) - and tells us in §28 (E07934) that the
praepositus Urbicius died sub Anastasio imperatore, 'under the emperor Anastasius', a phrasing that would be very strange if Anasatasius were still alive; but, at the same time, Theodosius does not mention any of the building-projects of the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565), such as his great church, the Nea, in Jerusalem, dedicated in 543. The reference to 'the religion of the Vandals' might point to a date before 534 (the fall of their kingdom in Africa).

The work is held together by its interest in sites that would interest a pious Christian; but is otherwise chaotic. It opens with a number of itineraries in the Holy Land, all starting out from Jerusalem, listing the distances between places, noting why they would be of interest, and all involving several days travel (§1-5); it then moves to a listing of sites in and around Jerusalem itself (§6-11). Thereafter, and for the rest of the book (§12-32), any semblance of structure disappears: in §12-16 we are transported without warning to a seemingly random collection of distant holy places (such as the Crimea, and Memphis in Egypt); in §17-22 some sense of order briefly returns, with chapters about sites in and around Jerusalem and eastwards to the Jordan valley; but from §22 onwards it is hard to see any logic in the ordering of the chapters. Sometimes we are back in Jerusalem, but most of the time we are flitting across the east Christian world, as far afield as Ephesus and Persia.

In some passages, particularly those that describe sites in Jerusalem and down into the Jordan valley, there is enough detail to show that Theodosius had almost certainly himself visited the places he describes, but this is certainly not the case in his literary forays to distant places, and much less clear in the itineraries that open the work (§1-5), which are little more than lists of places, with the distances between them and a brief reference to the biblical events that took place there. These itineraries have been studied in detail by Tsafrir (1986), who suggests that they were constructed with the help of a map specifically created for Christian pilgrims. [Tsafrir's article, though focused on the itineraries, offers an excellent introduction to Theodosius' overall text, and has very helpful maps to illustrate the itineraries.]

As with all the pilgrim texts from the Holy Land, it has been difficult to decide what to include, and what to exclude from our database, focused as it is on the 'cult of saints'. We have necessarily excluded the vast number of sites associated exclusively with the life and miracles of Jesus, and have, of course, included all obvious references to cult sites of Christian saints: their graves, churches, and references to important places in their lives, such as their place of martyrdom. A problem, however, arises when our pilgrims write about sites associated with figures from the Old Testament, since in time many of these certainly acquired Christian cult, but it is generally impossible to tell whether our pilgrims regarded these figures as saints in the Christian tradition, whose power and aid they might invoke, or whether they record the holy sites associated with them through a broader and looser biblical curiosity and veneration. The compromise position we have taken with regard to these Old Testament figures is to include all references to places associated with them where our Christian writers record miraculous occurrences or where there was a church or oratory, and also all references to their graves (though with these latter there is often no explicit reference to Christian cult).



Discussion

This discursive story is exceptional in Theodosius' generally laconic text.

Urbicius was, as Theodosius states, an exceptionally important figure in the late fifth century (PLRE II, Vrbicus 1, pp. 1188-1190). Unfortunately no other source tells of this attempt to take the rock of the Kathisma to Constantinople, so we have no idea whether there is any truth behind it. (The story is somewhat implausible, since the wonder of the Kathisma rock was the flow of water from it, which the prayers of Mary had induced - see for instance E00482 - and this was unlikely to survive cutting into the shape of an altar and transportation to Constantinople.)

Theodosius evidently did not like Urbicius, and there is an implication that the earth rejected his corpse at least in part because of his attempt to remove this sacred relic from the Holy Land.


Bibliography

Edition:
Geyer, P. (ed.), Theodosii De situ terrae sanctae, in Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Chistianorum, series Latina 175; Turnhout: Brepols, 1965), 113-125. [A reprint of Geyer's edition for Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Wien 1898.]

Translation:
Wilkinson, J., Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, 2nd ed. (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 2002), 103-116.

Further reading:
Tsafrir, Y., "The Maps Used by Theodosius: On the Pilgrim Maps of the Holy Land and Jerusalem in the Sixth Century C. E.",Dumbarton Oaks Papers 40 (1986), 129-145.


Record Created By

Date Last Modified

03/07/2020

Related Saint Records
IDNameName in SourceIdentity
S00033Mary, Mother of ChristMariaCertain


Please quote this record referring to its author, database name, number, and, if possible, stable URL:
, Cult of Saints, E07934 - http://csla.history.ox.ac.uk/record.php?recid=E07934