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Umbilicus Romae

This simple plaque on an otherwise anonymous brick monument identifies the Umbilicus Romae or Naval of Rome. Once faced with marble, it marked the center of the city and empire, and first is mentioned in the Notitia Urbis Regionum XIV, a fourth-century AD catalog of Rome's principal buildings and monument listed by urban region. The Umbilicus, which was constructed sometime earlier in the century, is in Regio VIII (16), after the Temple of Concord and before the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of Vespasian and Titus.

The only other reference to the Umbilicus is the Einsiedeln Itinerary, which is part of a unique manuscript discovered at the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln in the fifteenth century. It is the account of a pilgrim who visited Rome about the time when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans in AD 800 (sometime in the century between AD 757 and AD 855). There are ten sometimes overlapping walks (with an eleventh inserted), starting and ending at one of Rome's city gates and crossing the city by various routes. For the first time, both ancient Roman buildings and Christian churches are mentioned together, those to be seen on the left of the route recorded in a column on the left-hand page (verso) and those on the right, on the right-hand page (recto). Monuments in the middle of the path, such as bridges and arches, are written across the spine of the bound manuscript, between the two columns, something that Blennow comments upon as being utterly unique.

A few individual works of art are named as well, including what probably is the Marforio, the reclining figure of a river god (Einsiedeln Codex, folio 79v, Tiberis) which still is to be seen in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums. Another is the Dioscuri, two colossal statues of Castor and Pollux holding the reins of their horsesand the only monument to have elicited a comment: caval[li] opt[imi], "very good horses" (79v; "marble horses," 81r). They now flank the steps at the top of the wide cordonata leading up to the piazza in front of the museums. Only once are any images mentioned, where those of Paul and Mary are to be found in the church of Saint Agatha (79v).

Some of these monuments are located directly on the route; others are farther away and would have required a detour to visit. It is not clear, therefore, whether they were intended to be sight-seeing goals in themselves or only passing landmarks on the way to an ultimate destination outside the city walls, such as the catacombs, martyrs' tombs, and basilicas (which then had fewer relics but where the devout could hear the pope say mass).

The Itinerary is bound with another manuscript that records 73 Latin inscriptions in Rome, many of which now have been lost, for example, the dedicatory inscription on the architrave of the Temple of Vespasian. Another 11 are from Pavia in northern Italy, which suggests that they were collected by a monk from north of the Alps who perhaps had joined Charlemagne on one of his journeys to Rome (the first in AD 774). For each inscription or group of inscriptions a location is given (whether precise or vague) that relates to the itineraries. This suggests to Blennow that a monument or building might have been listed simply because of its inscription and that the two parts of the codex were to be read together, the inscriptions and where they were to be found. If so, the Einsiedeln Itinerary likely served as an early guide to Rome, both for religious pilgrimage and historical sightseeing. (That having been said, one should not imagine every pilgrim in Rome having a parchment codex in hand while touring the city. Only the learned, wealthy, and devout likely would have the possession and benefit of such a guide.)

The Umbilicus is listed in Itinerary VIII, from the gate of St. Peter's across the city, passing the Forum, to the Porta Asinaria. There, on the right below the Capitoline Hill, is "The church of S. Sergio, where the umbilicus of Rome is" (83r; also I, 80r; VII, 81v, all listing it at the Capitolium). Constructed  in the eighth century AD and later enlarged by Pope Hadrian I (AD 772795) after the collapse of the Temple of Concord, this small church was dedicated to saints Sergius and Bacchus, Christian soldiers in the imperial bodyguard of Galerius who were martyred for their faith. Their passio suggests why the tombs of the saints were visited. "Many miracles and cures were effected wherever his holy relics were, especially in the tomb where he had first lain. For it is a quality of the place of his death that the saint is able to prevail upon God to heal all those who come there with any sort of disease, and to cure those possessed of unclean spirits, and to render savage beasts completely tame" (The Passion of SS. Serge and Bacchus).

On the basis of these few references, that the Umbilicus was below the Capitoline Hill and near the Temple of Concord and the medieval Church of St. Sergio, it has been identified with the three-tiered brick cylinder at the north end of the hemicycle leading up to the Rostra (on the speaker's left) and adjacent to the Arch of Septimius Severus. At the other end of the hemicycle was the Milliarum Aureum or Golden Milestone. Even though the Notitia mentions both it (Regio VIII, 20) and the Umbilicus (16), Richardson questions whether there would have been two separate monuments, both signifying the center of Rome in such close proximity, and suggests that they probably were the same.

  Given the name, the Umbilicus may have been constructed in imitation of the Omphalos ("navel") in Greek cities, especially the one at Delphi, which was considered to be the center of the world (Pausanias, Description of Greece, X.16.3) and in the Archaeological Museum there.

"For it is almost in the centre of Greece taken as a whole, between the country inside the Isthmus and that outside it; and it was also believed to be in the centre of the inhabited world, and people called it the navel of the earth, in addition fabricating a myth, which is told by Pindar [Pythian Ode, IV.7475], that the two eagles (some say crows) which had been set free by Zeus met there, one coming from the west and the other from the east. There is also a kind of navel to be seen in the temple; it is draped with fillets, and on it are the two likenesses of the birds of the myth" (Strabo, Geography, IX.3.6).

Pausanias say much the same thing. "What is called the Omphalus by the Delphians is made of white marble, and is said by the Delphians to be the center of all the earth. Pindar in one of his odes supports their view" (Description of Greece, X.16.3).

References: Topographie der Stadt Rom im Alterthum (1907) by Henri Jordan; Codex Einsidlensis 326,  Stiftsbibliothek, Einsiedeln (Switzerland); "Wanderers and Wonders. The Medieval Guidebooks to Rome " (2019) by Anna Blennow, in Rome and the Guidebook Tradition, From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, edited by Anna Blennow and Stefano Fogelberg Rota, pp. 33-87; A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992) by L. Richardson, Jr.; The Notitia and Curiosum and the Einsiedeln Itinerary: Translation of the Texts, Together with an Analysis and Comparison of Their Form and Content (1949) by Betty Marie Wray (a dissertation from the University of South Dakota, it presumably would be an important resource were it not seemingly unobtainable).