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Ancient Roman imperial cult temple unearthed by SLU-led international team

An international team of researchers stand at the site of an ancient Roman temple they discovered in Umbria, Italy in July 2023.
Photo by Douglas Boin / Spello Project
Members of an international team of researchers stand next to the site of an ancient Roman temple they discovered in Umbria, Italy, in July.

On a hot July morning in Italy last year, St. Louis University history professor Douglas Boin and his team stood nervously as an excavator began digging into a parking lot in the romantic, hillside town of Spello. They were looking for ancient Roman ruins.

“What happens [next] is pretty much the most terrifying professional experience I've ever had,” Boin told St. Louis on the Air. “For about two hours that morning, the machinery and my team did not find anything, so things [were] getting a little tense.”

Then, an Italian researcher among them noticed a change in the soil’s color— a sign they were nearing something very, very old.

By midday, they had unearthed three walls of what they believe to be an ancient imperial cult temple that dates back to the fourth century. Boin announced this major discovery at the annual Archeological Institute of America meeting in Chicago on Friday.

The temple was used by townspeople to worship Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Boin said.

“The idea that Constantine is just as involved in promoting a pagan cult of the emperors as he is [in] embracing his own newfound Christianity is just one of these weird chapters in history I personally love,” Boin said. “It shows us that our neat and tidy way of understanding the past zigzags a lot more than we might be comfortable admitting.”

The ancient Roman temple was discovered in Spello, a hillside town in Umbria, Italy.
Photo by Douglas Boin / Spello Project
The ancient Roman temple was discovered in Spello, a hillside town in Umbria, Italy.

This discovery, Boin said, brings nuance to the narrative around the Roman Empire’s social and cultural transition from devotion to pagan gods to Christianity. He added that this era of pluralism in the Roman Empire is a chapter in history worth examination.

“Languages and ethnicities and cultural practices across continents really did, in ancient Rome, find ways to cohabitate with each other in a very successful enterprise,” Boin said.

With a square roughly 5 by 5 meters dug so far, Boin said his team has only scratched the surface of the discovery. Next summer, the team, which is funded by St. Louis University, plans to uncover the rest of the structure to piece together a fuller history of the ancient temple.

For the full conversation with Douglas Boin about the newly discovered temple, how it complicates the history of the Roman Empire and what it can tell us about the role of religion in society today, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Newly discovered temple complicates history of religion in the Roman Empire

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.