A visit to Mediolanum Santonum (Saintes, France)

Having had my trip to ‘Roma Nova’ cancelled in June, I was thirsty for some Roman input. But it’s not easy going on a trip in the middle of a raging world pandemic.

However Saintes, in Charente Maritime, is only two hours by fast autoroute from where I live and still in the green zone with a low infection rate. And it’s been on my bucket list of Roman sites in France. Founded around 20 BC on a settlement already established by the Santones tribe, it became a significant town in Gallia Aquitania.

So, we booked five days in a town centre hotel in the historic quarter of Saintes from which we could explore everything on foot.

The evening we arrived, the Arch of Germanicus by the River Charente greeted us. It was built in AD 18 or 19 by a rich citizen of the town, C. Julius Rufus, and dedicated to the emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus and originally sited over the terminus of the via Agrippa from Lugdunum (Lyon) to Saintes.

In 1843 the author Prosper Mérimée lobbied to save it from destruction during works on quays and it was moved fifteen metres along the river bank to its present site and restored in 1851. As a respected archaeologist and the inspector of French historical monuments, Mérimée was responsible for the protection of many historic sites, including the medieval citadel of Carcassonne and the restoration of the façade of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Roman Saintes
In addition to the Via Agrippa to Lugdunum, Mediolanum Santonum was linked by road to Burdigala (Bordeaux), Limonum (Poitiers) and Vesunna (Périgeux). A large port, Portus Santonum, described by Ptolemy, has disappeared but it’s suggested that it could have been located to the south near the Gallo-Roman site Barzan (Novioregum), also disappeared and described in the Itinerary of Antoninus.

As these things go, Mediolanum Santonum declined fairly rapidly: it lost its status as the capital of Aquitaine in favour of either Poitiers in the second century, and Bordeaux in the third.

In the upheavals of the third century, the city retrenched behind a rampart confined within a loop of the River Charente. When they built these defences, the ever practical inhabitants used materials from the old Roman forum and other ancient buildings, including the amphitheatre. The successive barbarian invasions caused the city to retreat further, but the decline was relative, especially in terms of intellectual life: the Bordeaux poet Ausonius is said to have owned and still occupied a villa near the city in the 390s.

According to tradition, the first Christian community in the city was founded by Eutropius, who was martyred under Emperor Decius in the middle of the third century. However, it seems more likely that the town and area was Christianised over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The next day we were off to the theatre, well, the amphitheatre actually. Although a lot of building material was used for the later town walls, the site is reasonably intact. And it’s big! The arena itself measures 66.50 metres long by 39 metres wide.

Construction started during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37) and finished under Claudius (AD 41-54).

Much of the seating is overgrown and the site was pillaged all through the medieval period for stone, but here and there you can see original brickwork and a glimpse of the balteus (rim) and other details.

Nice balteus

At one end of the amphitheatre is the porta sanavivaria through which gladiators and animals entered ready for battle. If they were lucky enough to survive the content, they exited through the same doorway. However, if they died, they were despatched through the porta libitinensis (named after Libitina, the goddess of death, corpses and funerals). Although now blocked up at the end, I felt compelled to go into the death door… It felt very cold and several somethings flapped wings. I took my photo and marched out pronto.

Still the amphitheatre was very impressive and you did feel ant-like looking down from the top to the arena itself.












Back in the town, a rather contrived but pretty courtyard made up of Roman bits and pieces led to a small archaeology museum. (The floor inside the  modern building at the back did look genuine.)

Of course, it was the glass and pottery that attracted me, but a tiny chest the size of a jewellery case and a collection of intricate keys were impressive. And that bucket!

The baths to the north of the town, les Thermes St-Saloine, are still being investigated as they are a bit of a mystery. Converted into a church in the late Roman/early medieval period, they have caused archeologists to come up with different theories about the different rooms. The jury is still out, but some parts are clear. I had fun try to guess what everything was, but a drain was obvious as was a hypocaust entrance. But whatever anything was, the site was extensive.

We did look at some of the later historic buildings and if any medievalists would like photos, I have them, but of course, it’s the Roman that most appeals. And in Saintes you keep falling over things on on a walk by the river or the way back from the restaurant. We know the Romans were expert and prolific leavers of ‘stuff’ all over Europe and the East, even if it’s now squashed between modern buildings. And you just have to go and look more closely even if it’s just an old bit of wall and a drain…

(Maps as marked from the fabulous Mediolanum-Santonum.fr site by Romain Charrier; photos and video by author)

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

The next full-length Roma Nova story

Now I’m going back in time to AD 370…

The Roma Nova series has two main strands: one with four books set in the 21st century featuring Carina Mitela and the other set between the late 1960s to early 1980s featuring Aurelia Mitela. The short story collection ROMA NOVA EXTRA includes a couple of stories about the foundation of Roma Nova – The Girl from the Market and Victory Speaks – but these were mere dips into the late fourth century.

Readers have been urging me to write about how Roma Nova started. Every country has a history and in the books so far the characters refer back to that history. I wrote The Girl from the Market after a suggestion in the Roma Nova Enthusiasts’ Group. Legend had it (in the earlier Roma Nova novels) that in AD 370 Julia Bacausa, a tough and independently-minded woman and Apulius a strong Roman of the traditional sort met in an encounter full of conflict, but also passion. I loaded in his arrogance and her pigheadedness and independence and The Girl was written.


But he was smarting from arbitrary dismissal from a glittering career path and she was suffering from her uncertain status as a ‘half-divorced’ woman.

It isn’t a 21st century politically correct story; it’s set in the late Roman Empire full of culture clash and religious conflict, but writing the full story now  gives the opportunity to expand and enhance the pared down account in the original short story.

And readers want to know what happened in the succeeding decades… 😉

Oh, but the research! The Roman Empire in the late fourth century is a very different one from the one Augustus created in the first.

We know founders Julia Bacausa and Lucius Apulius will survive – there would be no present day Roma Nova if they hadn’t – but the intrigue, I hope, is how and why they did what they did, whether they acted well or not, and what gains and sacrifices occurred. And what the consequences were for Aurelia’s and Carina’s generations.

As I write, I’m about 11,000 words in and I start with the bones of the story in The Girl from the Market, but from Julia’s point of view rather than Apulius’s. That’s an interesting challenge in itself! The other big challenge is all the research. I have a reasonable grounding in Ancient Roman life, but as we know, Rome in the West lasted 1229 years and by AD 370, it was rather different from the classical period of Augustus. And we’re in Roman Noricum, an important province but very different from the old urbs of Rome and the new capital of Constantinople.

Photo: Road to Toeltschach amidst rye fields at Virunum on Zollfeld,

As for the setting, the story starts in Virunum, real Roman town in Noricum, now in the Zollfeld north east of Klagenfurt, Austria – more here. Then we move to Rome itself and afterwards the area that will become known as Roma Nova. There’s more here and here about what it may look like.

A little more about the characters in a short while…


This is an adaptation of posts I’ve written for the daily, wide-ranging Writing Challenge over on my writing blog.

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Persecuting the Pagans

British Museum display (Author photo)

Probably because of various Hollywood films, it’s “general knowledge” that those nasty Romans spent all their time killing Christians.

Well, no…

Romans, for the most part, were comparatively tolerant in matters of religious belief and allowed countless religious sects, cults, saviours and redeemers to proselytise without restrictions. Most often, the local gods were integrated into the Roman pantheon which gave rise to hybridised names like Sulis Minerva and Mars Toutates. Loyal and submissive members of society could believe in any deity they wanted, including Christ. Belief was a private matter of no interest to the Roman authorities.

But… And it’s a big ‘but’.

Roman cohesion was based on obedience to authority and on public pledges of loyalty to the state; you demonstrated this by symbolical sacrifices to the Roman gods. Romans persecuted whoever refused to pledge loyalty to Roman authority. (Even a pinch of incense at an altar iin the name of any of them would do.) Those Christians (and any other religious adherents e.g. Jews) who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods were deemed to refuse allegiance to the Roman state and that was the crux of the problem.

Persecution of Roman Empire Christians

For most of the first three hundred years, Christians were able to live in peace, practice their professions, and rise to positions of responsibility. However, Christians’ beliefs would not have endeared them to many government officials: their religion was exclusive not accepting the existence of any other deities, they worshipped a convicted criminal, refused to swear by the emperor’s genius, harshly criticised Rome in their holy books and suspiciously conducted their rites in private. Pliny in his letter to Trajan around 112 AD (Letters 10.96-97) found nothing but “depraved, excessive superstition”. Mary Beard (SPQR, Profile Books, 2015) states that Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn fundamental Graeco-Roman values by saying that poverty was good and the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for.

Cue confused Romans.

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire did occur intermittently between the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 under Nero and the Edict of Milan in AD 313, in which the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius legalised the Christian religion. Officially sanctioned Roman persecution was most intense during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), Decius (AD 249-251), Diocletian (AD 281-205) and Galerius (AD 305-312).

Roman governor, Trajan’s column

Provincial governors had a great deal of personal discretion in their jurisdictions and could choose themselves how to deal with local incidents of persecution and mob violence against Christians.

Empire-wide persecution took place as an indirect consequence of an edict in 250 AD emperor Decius. This required everyone in the Empire (except Jews, who were exempted) to perform a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate and obtain a signed and witnessed certificate, called a libellus, to prove they had done this. Decius was determined to restore traditional Roman values. However, there is no evidence that Christians were specifically being targeted. This edict was in force for eighteen months, during which time some Christians were killed while others apostatised to escape execution.

The total number of victims of all these persecutions shows that over the first three centuries AD, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians across their territory. Attempts at estimating the numbers involved are inevitably based on inadequate sources, but one historian of the persecutions estimates the overall numbers as between 5,500 and 6,500, (W. H. C. Frend (1984), The Rise of Christianity, Fortress Press, Philadelphia), a number also adopted by later writers including Yuval Noah Harari (Yuval Noah Harari, (2014) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. United Kingdom: Harvil Secker).

Early persecution of Christians arose essentially from a feeling of “otherness” that Christians aroused in the society of the time, being adverse as they were to participating in the religious life of the Roman Empire at large. Private religion, or the sacra privita, was not regulated by the state until official Christianisation of the empire, when paganism was proscribed even within the home. Private religion had been the business of the family and the individual, and varied between various ethnic groups. As such, many pagans were not opposed to Christian theology per se, but rather to the motivations of early Christians who seemed rather “unpatriotic” in their isolation and aggressiveness towards other faiths.

So what about the persecution of Roman pagans?

Bronze version of Constantine’s head, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Author photo)

The persecution of pagans in the Roman Empire began late in the reign of Constantine the Great, when he ordered the pillaging and the tearing down of some temples. Anti-pagan laws started with Constantine’s son Constantius II; he ordered the closing of all pagan temples, forbade pagan sacrifices under pain of death and removed the traditional Altar of Victory, said to guard the fortune of Rome, from the Senate building in AD 357. Under Constantius II’s reign, ordinary Christians began to vandalise pagan temples, tombs and monuments without legal penalty.

The Altar was later restored by the emperor Julian (reigned AD 361-363), who was the only emperor after the conversion of Constantine I to reject Christianity. From 361 until 375, paganism was relatively tolerated. This ended under the reigns of three emperors – Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I – who were influenced by the austere and ambitious bishop of Milan, Ambrose. At his suggestion, anti-paganism policies of Constantius II were reinstated.

The Momentous Event

Theodosius I became increasingly unsympathetic to any traditional Roman religious practice. While co-emperor in the East, he issued a series of decrees  between AD 389 and 391 including a comprehensive law that prohibited the performance of any type of pagan sacrifice or worship (Theodosian Code 16.10.12).  Paganism was now proscribed, a ‘religio illicita‘.

Gold solidus of Theodosius I

Gold solidus of Theodosius I

By AD 392, he became emperor of both Eastern and Western Empires and in the same year he officially began to proscribe the practice of paganism.The Roman senatorial families, led by Symmachus, the prefect of Rome, pleaded for religious tolerance but Theodosius made any pagan practice, even dropping a pinch of incense on a family altar in a private home, into a capital offence.

In September 394, the Battle of the Frigidus River was lost by the pagan commander Arbogast under the command of Western emperor Eugenius; this defeat was seen as the last military defeat of paganism. And Theodosius’s ‘religious police’ driven by bishop Ambrosius of Milan, became increasingly active in pursuing pagans…

By the mid 390s, Theodosius had closed and destroyed every temple and dismissed all priests. The sacred flame that had burned for over a thousand years in the College of Vestals was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins expelled. The Altar of Victory, removed for a second time by Gratian in AD 382, but restored by the usurper Eugenius during his short-lived rule (392-394), was hauled away from the Senate building for the last time and disappeared from history.

Examples of the destruction of pagan temples in the late fourth century, as recorded in surviving texts, are:

  • Martin of Tours attacks on holy sites in Gaul
  • the destruction of temples in Syria by Marcellus
  • the destruction of temples and images in, and surrounding, Carthage
  • the ruination of the temple at Delphi
  • the desecration of the mystery cult in Eleusis
  • the Patriarch Theophilus who seized and destroyed pagan temples in Alexandria
  • the levelling of all the temples in Gaza
  • the destruction of the gigantic Serapeum of Alexandria in AD 391

But, of course, there were many deaths.

Hypatia – an example

Did Hypatia look like this? Fayum funeral portrait, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg

Born between AD 350-370, Hypatia was a Hellenistic Neoplatonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, then part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was a prominent thinker of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria where she taught philosophy and astronomy. She is the first female mathematician whose life is reasonably well recorded.

Although she herself was a pagan, she was tolerant towards Christians and taught many Christian students, including Synesius, the future bishop of Ptolemais. Ancient sources record that Hypatia was widely beloved by pagans and Christians alike and that she exercised considerable influence within the political elite in Alexandria. Shortly before she was murdered, Hypatia advised Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was in the midst of a political feud with Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Rumours spread accusing her of preventing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril and in March AD 415, she was murdered by a mob of Christians led by a lector named Peter. Hypatia had hoped to establish a precedent that Neoplatonism and Christianity could coexist peacefully and cooperatively. Her death and the subsequent failure by the Christian government to impose justice on her killers destroyed that notion entirely and led future Neoplatonists such as Damascius to consider Christian bishops as “dangerous, jealous figures who were also utterly unphilosophical.”

Did it all end there?

Anti-paganism policies continued from Theodosius’s reign until the formal end of the Roman Empire in the west (AD 476). Given that anti-paganism laws were brought in throughout this period by succeeding emperors – Arcadius, Honorius, Theodosius II, Marcian and Leo I – and penalties increased, we can assume that traditional Roman religion still had many followers. Support for paganism was still present among Roman nobles, senators, magistrates, imperial palace officers, and other officials, who often protested or failed to enforce the edicts (Sources: Zosimus, Sidonius).

Worship of traditional gods would have been to be carried out in secret in order to comply formally with the edicts. Some pagans pretended to convert to Christianity while secretly continuing traditional practices. Some Christians apostatised by converting back to paganism; we can conclude this from the introduction of numerous laws against apostasy and the increase in penalties. Pagans openly voiced their resentment in historical works, such as the writings of Eunapius and Olympiodorus; some writers blamed the Christian hegemony for the Sack of Rome in AD 410. Christians destroyed almost all such political literature and threatened to cut off the hands of any copyist who dared to make new copies of the offending writings.

Laws declared that buildings belonging to known pagans and heretics were to be appropriated by the churches. Augustine of Hippo exhorted his congregation in Carthage to smash all tangible symbols of paganism they could lay their hands on. Persecution was less rigorous  in some periods under the influence of the high-ranking general Stilicho and under the “usurper” Joannes Primicerius. A pagan revival was attempted by Anthemius from AD 467 and intermittently into the beginning of the sixth century. But although people in the countryside or remote locations may have held to the traditional gods, most people living in the lands of the late and then former Western Roman Empire would have been pragmatic; become Christian, or pretend to do so, and thus avoid disadvantage, ostracism and persecution.

This post was written as part of the Historical Writers Forum summer bloghop – more posts across the ages here.
Do go and look!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.