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E00093: The Piacenza Pilgrim tells how he saw the head of *John the Baptist (S00020), displayed in Emesa (north-west Phoenicia) in a glass jar and adored by pilgrims. Account of an anonymous pilgrim, written in Latin, in Piacenza (northern Italy), 556/570.

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posted on 2014-10-23, 00:00 authored by robert
Pilgrim of Piacenza, Itinerarium 46

First recension
Deinde venimus Heliopoli, et exinde venimus Emiza, ubi est caput sancti Iohannis Baptistae, qui est missus in doleo vitreo, quem etiam infra doleum oculis nostris vidimus et adoravimus.

'From there we came to Heliopolis, and then on to Emesa, where they have the head of saint John the Baptist, which has been put in a glass vase. We looked at it in the vase with our own eyes and venerated it.'

The second recension follows the text of the first without important modifications .

Text: Geyer 1898, 190 and 217. Translation: Wilkinson 2002, 150, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

John the Baptist : S00020

Saint Name in Source

Iohannes Baptista

Type of Evidence

Literary - Pilgrim accounts and itineraries


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Palestine with Sinai Syria with Phoenicia Italy north of Rome with Corsica and Sardinia

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Caesarea Maritima Καισάρεια Kaisareia Caesarea Kayseri Turris Stratonis Thabbora Thabbora Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Pilgrim of Piacenza

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - head Reliquary – institutionally owned Division of relics Public display of relics Other activities with relics


This Itinerary was written by an anonymous pilgrim to Palestine whose home town was Piacenza (ancient Placentia) in northern Italy: he explicitly states in the first sentence of his text that he set out from Piacenza, under the protection of the local martyr Antoninus (see $E00578), and references later in the text make it clear that he successfully made it home (e.g. $E00455). Otherwise we know nothing about him, except that he was male (since he occasionally refers to himself using the masculine gender: e.g. 'ego indignus' in 1.4). Unlike the earlier pilgrim Egeria, who wrote the account of her travels while still abroad (see $E05245), our pilgrim wrote up, or at least edited, his account once he was home (see again $E00455). His visit to the East can be dated with reasonable confidence to some point within the years 556-570, because he tells us (in chap. 1) that the terrible earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal Phoenicia in 551 had occurred 'recently' (nuper), but also states that it happened 'in the time of the emperor Justinian' (tempore Iustiniani imperatoris), a phrasing that tells us he was writing after Justinian's death in 556. The Itinerary opens with the pilgrim travelling (evidently by sea) to Cyprus and then on to Tripolis (modern Tripoli in northern Lebanon), and from there by land to Palestine and the holy sites of the Old and New Testaments. Within the Holy Land he travelled extensively, and his individual itineraries can be reconstructed with some precision (Wilkinson 2002 has excellent maps showing these). After this (he gives no indication of the passage of time) he travelled to Lower Egypt by way of Mount Sinai, ending up in Alexandria. The Itinerary then jumps back to Jerusalem (suggesting a leg by sea), where the pilgrim was delayed by illness. He then sets off northwards for home, but from Antioch takes a long detour eastwards into Mesopotamia. The text ends abruptly, and without comment, on the Euphrates close to Rusafa/Sergiopolis, suggesting that the final pages of the account are lost. For the most part it is evident from our pilgrim's phrasing that he saw the places he lists in person - 'then we came', 'we saw', etc. - but on occasion he introduces the impersonal third person singular - 'two miles from the city is the shrine of', etc. - and he also mentions places that were not on his direct route; so he may have derived some of his information at second hand (Wilkinson 2002, 13). The Itinerary is extant in two recensions. The first recension is accepted to be essentially what our pilgrim wrote. The second recension, which cannot be dated, is not massively different but makes some small alterations to the text: some deletions, some explanatory additions (e.g. $E00513), and some 'corrections'. It is evident that the author of the second recension had not visited the Holy Land, and some of his supposed corrections in fact introduce obvious errors (e.g. $E00413, and, most egregiously, $E00571). We have ignored the second recension wherever changes from the first are not substantive; but quoted its text where there are significant differences, for two reasons: because some of these differences are interesting in themselves, even though they are undatable (e.g. $E00457), and because sometimes., for instance with a name, the manuscripts of the second recension may actually preserve the pilgrim's text better than do those of the first recension (see, for instance, $E00456 and $E00513). The Itinerary can be readily compared with an earlier pilgrim's diary written in the 380s by another western pilgrim, Egeria. The Piacenza pilgrim's text is less detailed than her account, but shows the development of cultic practices and infrastructure which had taken place in the course of two hundred years: there are more places to visit, more objects to see, and more saints to venerate. As with all the pilgrim texts from the Holy Land, it has been difficult to decide what to include, and what to exclude from our database, focused as it is on the 'cult of saints'. We have necessarily excluded the vast number of sites associated exclusively with the life and miracles of Jesus, and have, of course, included all obvious references to cult sites of Christian saints: their graves, churches, and references to important places in their lives, such as their place of martyrdom. A problem, however, arises when our pilgrims write about sites associated with figures from the Old Testament, since in time many of these certainly acquired Christian cult, but it is generally impossible to tell whether our pilgrims regarded these figures as saints in the Christian tradition, whose power and aid they might invoke, or whether they record the holy sites associated with them through a broader and looser biblical curiosity and veneration. The compromise position we have taken with regard to these Old Testament figures is to include all references to places associated with them where our Christian writers record miraculous occurrences or where there was a church or oratory, and also all references to their graves (though with these latter there is often no explicit reference to Christian cult).


This is one of few late-antique testimonies of relics being deposited in transparent recipients and displayed publicly. Small glass vessels were sometimes used as recipients for blood relics, but they probably remained hidden, at least those which have survived to the present day have been found buried in churches under the pavement (see Wiśniewski 2019, 148-149). Our relic of John was discovered in Emesa in 452/453 (see E07072), and was actually the second head of John the Baptist venerated in the East. The first was brought to Constantinople by Theodosius I in c. 390 (see E04052). It is possible that placing the head in a transparent reliquary was intended to demonstrate that Emesa really had the precious head, the possession of which could be contested.


Edition: Geyer, P. (ed.), Antonini Placentini Itinerarium, in Itineraria et alia geographica (Corpus Chistianorum, series Latina 175; Turnholti: Typographi Brepols editores pontificii, 1965), 129-174. [Essentially a reprinting of Geyer's edition for the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 39, Wien 1898.] English translations: Stewart, A., Of the Holy Places Visited by Antoninus Martyr (London: Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1887). Wilkinson, J., Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (2nd ed.; Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 2002). Further reading: Maraval, P., Lieux saints et Pèlerinages d'Orient: Histoire et géographie, des origines à la conquête arabe (Paris: Cerf, 1985), 335-336. Wiśniewski, R., The Beginnings of the Cult of Relics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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