Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University
After Christmas and Easter, what’s the most important Christian holiday? It’s not really a very Protestant question—since you need saints and Mary, and the whole ritual calendar they entail, to pose it—and even in the Catholic or Orthodox Christian world it depends very much on where you put the question.
In Greece the question has a pretty clear answer: it’s August 15, the feast day of the “All-Holy” (Panagia) Virgin Mary. And in Rome it’s equally clear: it was June 29, the Feast of Peter and Paul.
A couple of things strike you about this last feast, right away. First of all, it’s a strictly Roman holiday, unlike the Panagia for which most of Greece shuts down, even at the height of the tourist season. By contrast, no other Italian city celebrates this festival as Rome does. It’s actually a religious festival designed to celebrate the city of Rome, in its way. Think of it in this sense as a subtle Roman combination of Thanksgiving with the Fourth of July.
Still more unusually, the festival celebrates two saints together, Peter and Paul, men who were, according to the biblical record at least, sometime antagonists and never really co-workers. So why celebrate these two saints together?
The answer has a lot to do with the pre-Christian history of Rome, and the pagan residue that so often exists just beneath the surface of a great many Christian churches, Christian practices, and Christian holidays (think of the Druid trees at Christmas, the Dionysian rending and rejoining at Easter, and so on).
In this particular case, Peter and Paul look a lot like Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of the city of Rome. Peter and Paul are deliberately juxtaposed to Rome’s primordial founders, almost as if to celebrate this, the second founding of the city… as a Christian city, in its new Christian guise. Both Peter and Paul were believed to have made their way from Jerusalem to Rome, and both men were believed to have been martyred here, in the imperial capital. This linkage of foundational violence, of the founder’s death and the founding of the city, is also very mythic and very old.
There is abundant literary evidence for the connection of these two pairs of founding figures, the pagan pair and the Christian pair, in Roman mythology. Ovid informs us (in Fasti VI, 795-796) that on the 29th of June (“when as many days of the month remain/ as the Fates have names,” he quips), a temple was dedicated to Quirinus, “the god with the striped gown.” Livy confirms this (in his History X, 46), adding that this Temple of Quirinus was dedicated with the rich spoils brought to Rome at the conclusion of the Samnite wars.
But who was this Quirinus? Ovid gives us the surprising answer (at Fasti II, 475-512): he was none other than Romulus himself, deified after his death, and commemorated as the primordial founder of Rome’s unswerving path to world conquest.
You can see some remarkably suggestive iconographic parallels here.
Romulus and Remus, rival brothers, only one of whom survives to establish Rome’s imperial destiny and to give the city its name. So too with Peter and Paul, rival apostles, only one of whom was named by Christ himself as the Rock on which his church would be built, and who would lend his name to the most famous edifice in western Christendom.
Peter is almost always depicted holding the keys to the Church Christ commissioned him to build. Paul, by contrast, is almost always depicted holding the sword with which he was beheaded (as a Roman citizen, he had the ironic right not be crucified). Peter was believed to have survived Paul, since he (and not Paul) is remembered as the first bishop of Rome, and thus the initiator of an unbroken chain of apostolic command. Not enjoying Roman citizenship, he died by crucifixion (but upside down, so as not to claim any equality with his Lord).
The stories regarding Peter’s martyrdom were more confused than Paul’s. And it took a long time for Christians to settle on the precise date. Peter’s martyrdom was commemorated on December 28th in the oriental Christian calendar, and on February 22nd in Gaul. Elsewhere, it was celebrated on the second Friday after Epiphany. But not long after Christianity was established as the state religion of the empire with its “capital” in Rome, the date of Peter’s martyrdom was established as well: on none other than June 29th (this was settled in the western, Latin-speaking churches by the late fourth century, and in the eastern churches by the mid-fifth).
As so often in early Christian history, the emergence of Christianity as the defining cultural force of the empire, when viewed from one perspective, changed everything; viewed another way, it changed nothing, or put another way, the new faith was absorbed into the ritual life of the very world that it had come to conquer.
Romulus was deified, renamed as Quirinus, and given a temple of his own on June the 29th. Then the Founder was to be reconceived in a Christian idiom, as a man named Simon who was renamed as Peter. And after Peter was sanctified, the Founder received yet another temple in Rome, San Pietro, destined to be the premier religious edifice in all of western Christendom.
But Rome remained Rome, always. Peter’s successors were to live in a palace whose named (Quirinale) recalled Quirinus’s original temple, and bore the old Roman title of pontifex maximus when officiating at the Basilica of Saint Peter. And this resplendent new temple dedicated to Peter was to celebrate his feast day on the selfsame date that the very first temple to Romulus was founded: on June the 29th.
Recalling the palimpsestic mish-mash that constitutes most religious traditions is to recall a central part of their allure, and offers a suggestive reminder of their fundamental humanity, a humanity that no divinization can quite erase.