Pula, in Istria, has a splendid collection of Roman remains – the Zlatna Vrata or Golden Gate, the sixth largest amphitheatre in the world, several splendid mosaics and a hill-top crowned with a maze of ruins that include a lovely theatre and various other buildings. At the bottom of the hill, however, is the most interesting relic of Roman times.
You come out of a narrow lane and find yourself in a broad, stone-paved square. Off to your right chairs and tables of an outdoor cafe stand on the pavement with neatly dressed waiters weighing you up as a prospective customer. On your left the blue waters of Pula’s splendid harbour glisten in the sunshine. Directly in front, however, is an Italianate town hall, with a perfectly preserved Roman temple on its left.
You eagerly walk over to the temple and, if you are lucky, find it open. You can climb the steps, walk under the pillars of the portico, and inspect its empty interior. The Italianate building next door you dismiss with a glance. There are many such in Pula and in any case, as the town hall, the building is not open to the public.
That, you might think, is that, but the surprise comes if you happen to glance back as you continue round the hill towards the amphitheatre, for then you discover that in fact the Italianate building hides a second Roman temple – there were a pair of identical temples standing in the forum of Pula. One survives untouched, the other was extended and converted into the town hall.
Pula provides an example of a problem faced by city councils all over the Roman world. Once Christianity had triumphed – and particularly so after an imperial edict ordered all temples closed – the huge buildings that were once the symbol of civic pride as well as urban piety were redundant. In a few cases they were destroyed, torn down to the ground and the stones scattered and reused, but in most cases they were too solidly built to be destroyed.
In the immediate aftermath of of the anti-pagan edict the doors were simply shut and locked, the priesthood dispersed and the rituals suspended. For a time an aura of sanctity, or at least of awe, hung over the deserted buildings and both Christians and pagans held back from interfering with them because of superstitious fears. Indeed, in some cases the pagan rituals continued in secret and the historian Thedoret records a gruesome discovery in one of these locked temples.
When the emperor Julian the Apostate came to Carrhae in Syria on his way to invade Persia he ordered the local temple opened and entered it to worship. When he left, however, the temple was shut, sealed and a couple of soldiers left on guard – the citizens presumed to protect the temple against desecration. After Julian’s death, however, the guards departed and the citizens of Carrhae plucked up the courage to open the doors of their local temple. Inside was the rotting corpse of a naked woman, hanging by her long hair. Her stomach had been slit open, probably indicating that some horrible ritual of divination had been carried out using human entrails instead of animal ones.
Gradually, however, people began to overcome the fear and revulsion with which they regarded the temples and to realise that these huge buildings represented a useful resource. Some became shops.
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