Expert: 1st Christmas marked at pagan shrine

A recently discovered pagan shrine dedicated to Rome's legendary founder Romulus and his brother Remus is being linked by some experts to the first celebration of Christmas held on the date that still marks the festivity today.

Last month Italian archaeologists unveiled an underground grotto, which they believe ancient Romans worshipped as the place where a wolf nursed the legendary twins.

Now, a top Italian scholar thinks a church built on the site of the shrine was where Christmas was first marked on Dec. 25 — making it a symbolic place in efforts to link pagan practices and Christian celebrations.

"This is very probably the church where the first Christmas was celebrated," Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome's La Sapienza University, told reporters Friday. "Now we know why."

He said the site of the "Lupercale" shrine was chosen by the 4th century Emperor Constantine to build the Basilica of St. Anastasia — the first church to rise not on the ancient city's outskirts, but on the Palatine Hill, the palatial center of power and religion in imperial Rome.

The church is little known today, but at the time it was one of the most important basilicas for Christians in Rome, Carandini said. Placing the church just a few steps from an important pagan shrine was part of Constantine's strategy of promoting Christianity while linking it to the practices of the more ancient religion.

"The church was built to christianize these pagan places of worship," Carandini said. "It was normal to put a church near these places to try to 'save' them."

Angelo Bottini, a scholar who did not take part in the research and Rome's archaeological superintendent, said Carandini's hypothesis was "evocative and coherent" and "helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage from paganism to Christianity."

Constantine ended the frequent waves of anti-Christian persecutions in the Roman empire by making Christianity a lawful religion in 313, and he played a key role in unifying the beliefs and practices of the early followers of Jesus.

In one defining moment, he presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325, which among other things homogenized the dates of important Christian festivals. The council opted to mark Christmas, at that point celebrated at different dates throughout Christianity, on Dec. 25 to coincide with the Roman festival celebrating the birth of the sun god, Carandini said.

Sometime after the council, St. Anastasia was built on the Palatine, possibly as early as 326, Carandini said.

While it was already believed among scholars that the first Christmas service was held at St. Anastasia church, it was not known that the grotto of Romulus and Remus was possibly so close.

The "Lupercale" shrine was named after the "lupa" — Latin for she-wolf — who according to legend saved Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god of war Mars abandoned in a basket and left adrift on the River Tiber.

So far archaeologists have only been able to see the structure buried 16 meters (52 feet) underground by inserting probes and cameras that have revealed a vaulted ceiling decorated with colored marble and a white imperial eagle.

Though some experts have expressed doubts on the identification of the "Lupercale," most archaeologists believe the shrine fits the descriptions found in ancient texts, and plans are being drawn up to excavate the structure further.

Bottini and Carandini both said future digs would also be able to prove the link between the shrine and the church if structures belonging to the "Lupercale" were found directly below the basilica.