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E05385: Marble statue of a person seated on a throne, reportedly found in 1551 near the cemetery of Hippolytus on the via Tiburtina, Rome, and heavily restored in the 16th c. to represent *Hippolytus (martyr of Rome, S00509), bearing three inscriptions in Greek on the throne: a list of books, including many of Hippolytus’ works; a calendar of the paschal cycle; and a calendar with the dates of Easter. Inscriptions probably 3rd c.

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posted on 2018-04-27, 00:00 authored by Bryan
In 1551 Pirro Ligorio, then a Rome-based antiquarian and painter (but to become the papal architect in 1558), came into possession of a damaged seated statue, made of marble. Based on three Greek inscriptions carved on the seat, read and translated by Martin Smetius (Martin de Smet), he identified the statue as a representation of the 3rd c. Christian writer Hippolytus who died in exile, in the mines of Sardinia, together with Pope Pontianus in c. 235.

According to Ligorio’s notes, the statue was retrieved from a church sited near the Castro Pretorio, in the ager Veranus, on the via Tiburtina, a major cultic site of the martyr *Laurence/Laurentius. We now know that the reported find-spot is also located close to a cemetery where visitor graffiti and epitaphs document a lively cult of a martyr called Hippolytus (see $E05348; E05354; E05357; cf. the account of the Notitia ecclesiarum urbis Romae: E00678 and the Depositio martyrum in the Chronography of 354, E01051). The statue was brieftly stored in the Vatican Loggia (presumably the Loggia di Raffaello), and was meant to decorate the Belvedere Theatre of Pope Pius IV. Eventually, it was housed in the Vatican Library, where it remains today.

The statue, as we see it today, shows a bearded man with a bald top of his head. He has both his hands overlapping in front of his chest. With his right hand he is holding a fold of the left-hand side of his garments, with his left hand he is supporting a book (a codex), standing upright on the right arm of the chair. His right leg is set slightly forward, and he is wearing sandals.

The seat, set on a plinth, is rounded and has a low back. The front face of the arms is decorated with sculpted heads of lions and leonine claws. The sides have volutes and, like the back of the chair, are covered by inscriptions in Greek. The one on the right-hand side of the chair presents a Paschal calendar for the period AD 222–333. The left-hand side shows a table with the date of Easter calculated according to the non-Quartodeciman observance. Both these texts begin with headings with a dating formula ('in the first year of the emperor Alexander'), and an explanation of the computations below. The third inscription, on the back of the sculpture, gives a list of books. Some of the titles match those ascribed to the Roman martyr Hippolytus by Eusebius and Jerome.

Importantly, the statue, as we see it today, was heavily restored by Ligorio in the 16th c. Unfortunately, the sole source for establishing the form of the original find is Ligorio's own manuscripts which, although illustrated, often prove to be unreliable, making it impossible to be certain of the state of preservation of the statue on the day it was retrieved, and of the extent of changes made by the restorers.

There is agreement that, when found, the statue lacked the head and probably large portions of the upper body, but there have also been suggestions that the entire body above the waist was lost (Testini), and that the present figure was assembled of re-carved parts of two other female statues. A more plausible possibility, however, is that, as shown in one of Ligorio's drawings of the pre-restored statue, parts of the upper body were preserved, apparently belonging to a female figure, shown with one breast naked, and wearing feminine garments. If so, this was probably a statue of a Muse, a goddess, or (as tentatively argued by Margherita Guarducci) of Themista of Lampsakos, a female Epicurean philosopher. The presence of leonine heads and claws on the seat also has pagan connotations.

To the restored statue Ligorio added a Latin inscription, now lost, labelling the person shown as Hippolytus: Statua Hippolyti Portuensis episcopi | qui vixit Alexandro Pio im. | ex urbis ruinis effossa | a Pio IV Medice pont. maximo | restituta / 'Statue of Hippolytus, bishop of Portus, who lived under the emperor Alexander the Pius, excavated from the ruins of the city (of Rome) and restored by Pope Pius IV de Medici'.

Ligorio is often accused of extensive unjustified restorations, and of intentionally producing auxiliary 'evidence' to support his conjectural theories about the identity of different ancient objects. Therefore, both his reports on the discovery, and his restoration of the statue, have met with severe criticism from modern scholars, especially by Margherita Guarducci. Her arguments were summarised, and challenged, by Allen Brent (1995).

First of all, based on the evidence of 16th c. records of acquisitions of antiquities by the Vatican Library, Guarducci questioned both the exact date of the discovery, and the find-spot of the statue, as she presumed Ligorio distorted his records to make its identification with Hippolytus more credible through its association with the cemetery of Hippolytus on the via Tiburtina. In the mid-16th c., however, Ligorio would have been unaware of the bulk of the epigraphical and literary evidence for the cultic site of Hippolytus. He and Martin Smetius identified the find-spot primarily as the cultic complex of Laurence. [Although an apparently different Hippolytus, the soldier and martyr converted by Laurence (see E02513) was also ascribed to this site, but he is never mentioned by Ligorio or Smetius]. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that Ligorio forged the records of the discovery to make his identification more credible. Guarducci hypothesised that the statue was in antiquity dedicated to the emperor Alexander Severus (allegedly owning a figure of Christ in his lararium), and that it was exhibited in the Pantheon Library, but this theory lacks any solid ground, and, given the apparently credible account of the finding of the statue on the via Tiburtina, is even less probable.

Guarducci also criticised the style of Ligorio’s restoration as largely imaginary. The figure, she wrote, resembles the St. Peter in the Vatican Grottos (a reused statue) and the bronze statue of Peter in the Vatican basilica. She supposed that Ligorio restored the statue to match in appearance that of Aelius Aristeides in the Belvedere Theatre, next to which our Hippolytus was originally destined to be displayed.

Despite the doubts concerning the form and identity of the figure seated in the chair, the Greek inscriptions are generally considered to be genuine Christian inscriptions of the 3rd c. The calendars offered in the inscriptions were poorly calculated, and the dates presented, over time, get more and more remote from the actual dates of Easter. Hence it is presumed that these chronological tables really were composed in the first half of the 3rd c. by a person with poor knowledge of astronomy. The list of works included in the third inscription, with its inclusion of many works considered (rightly or wrongly) to be by Hippolytus, is sometimes considered to be part of a 3rd c. discussion on the canon of the works ascribed to this author.

The text of all three inscriptions is accessible in the seventh volume of the Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae. The Epigraphic Database Bari gives the text of the list of books, and the headings of the Paschal cycle, but drops the Paschal/Easter tables.

On balance, we think it is very unlikely that this statue, almost certainly originally to a pagan female divinity, was ever adapted into a statue of Hippolytus (before Ligorio did exactly that), but that its throne was used in the 3rd c. to carry Christian inscriptions, including a list of works that laid emphasis on the works of Hippolytus. This listing may very well have been connected with the supposed burial site of the saint nearby, though in itself it does not prove veneration of Hippolytus at the time it was carved.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Hippolytus, martyr of Rome : S00509

Type of Evidence

Inscriptions - Inscribed objects Images and objects - Sculpture/reliefs


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Suburban catacombs and cemeteries

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

Suburban catacombs and cemeteries Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Use of Images

  • Commissioning/producing an image

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects



For a description of the statue and its discovery, see: Brent, A., Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century. Communities in tension before the Emergence of a Monarch-Bishop (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 3-367. For the text of the inscriptions, see: Epigraphic Database Bari, nos. EDB3372, EDB8088, EDB9559. De Rossi, G.B., Ferrua, A. (eds.), Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae Septimo Saeculo Antiquiores, n.s., vol. 7: Coemeteria via Tiburtinae (Vatican: Pont. Institutum Archaeologiae Christianae, 1980), nos. 19933-19935 (with further bibliography on earlier editions). See also: Morin, G., "La liste epigraphique des travaux de Saint Hippolyte au Musee du Lateran", Revue Bénédictine 17 (1900), 246-251.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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