Institutional hospitality and occasional hosting in Christian society between the fourth and sixth centuries: From individual initiative to assistance as mission

Cristina Corsi (Università degli Studi di Cassino e del Lazio meridionale)

Table de Peutinger (c)Mestni muzej Ljubljana - City museum of Ljubljane
Table de Peutinger (c)Mestni muzej Ljubljana – City museum of Ljubljane

Mainly thanks to the testimony of the so-called ‘Pilgrim of Bordeaux’, we know that in the mid-fourth century the Imperial communication network that spread from Western Europe to the Near East was perfectly efficient, and that Roman citizens relied upon this amazing infrastructure even when they travelled for private purposes or undertook a pilgrimage journey.

This information is confirmed by archaeological research: some road stations might have been deserted but in many other cases we can detect traces of activities, of renovation and restauration works (Corsi, 2005a; Corsi, forthcoming). At the same time, the state office that was supervising the traffic along the roads of the Empire and that was in charge of managing the travel expenses of “people that were displacing for the interest of the State” and that was budgeting the costs for transferring “the goods that belonged to it” (following the definition of the Cursus Publicus given by S. Bellino, 1919, p. 1404) appears to be acquiring a more defined status, and a more complex hierarchical and bureaucratic organization. However, notwithstanding the fact that many clergymen (bishops in particular) were awarded the right to make use of the travel facilities provided by the Cursus Publicus and were granted the opportunity to charge the costs of their journey on the State treasury (Corsi, 2016, p. 104), many Christians chose to be hosted in private houses or to lodge in small guesthouses.

The first option followed the ancient tradition of mutual hospitality offered and received by friends and acquaintances, usually belonging to the same social class. It suffices to mention the many passages in which Cicero tells us about his guests and his trips to his estates, stopping over at his own properties or at the mansions of friends (Casson, 1974, p. 197 ff., 352-353). Throughout the Imperial age, and at least until the fifth century, it is evident that wealthy people, Christian leaders, intellectuals and ecclesiastics setting off for a journey, continued to rely on a system of mutual hospitality practiced among rich landowners and coreligionists, who still considered hospitality a ‘social concern’ (e.g. Simmacus, Ausonius, Jerome, and so on).

Examples are innumerable: for instance, St. Ambrose didn’t disdain the hospitality offered him by viri clarissimi such as Leander (Vita S. Ambr., 9). The correspondence of Sidonius Apollinaris contains numerous references to this habit of being hosted at the houses of friends and acquaintances. For example, we are informed that, during his trip from Lyon to Rome in 467 (Sid., Epist., I, 5), and notwithstanding the fact that he was provided with the diploma, the pass which ensures the provision of services (vehicles and pack animals) by the Cursus Publicus, he preferred to stay over at friends (Morvillez, 2002). However, at the end of his long journey, Sidonius settled in a diversorium (Cantino Wataghin, 2007, p. 278-279).

The alternative possibility such travellers had was to lodge in inns and hostels, densely distributed along the roads and in towns, villages and hamlets. Such is the case of Paola: in AD 404 the noblewoman chose to lodge in a humble cellula in a hospitium of Bethlehem rather than to be hosted in the praetorium of Jerusalem where she had been invited by the proconsul of Palestine (Hier, Epist., CVIII, 9; see Gorce, 1925, p. 140-141). Such are also the cases of St. Jerome, who lodged in a hospitiolum once arrived in Rome in 384 (Hier., Epist. XLII, 3), and of Paulinus of Nola, who preferred to overnight in a Roman hospitium rather than to accept the many invitations he received (Paulin., Epist. XVII, 2; see Gorce, 1925, p. 142-143).

Yet, whether this need of lodging is framed in the context of a journey, a pilgrimage, a ‘diplomatic’ mission or simply for a long stay in another town, we perceive a different attitude towards the concept of ‘hospitality’ among the followers of the new faith. Different are the reasons pushing the faithful to be harboured in private houses rather than in inns, and different are the motivations driving individuals to offer hospitality, even if in contemporary sources it is often stated that to enjoy lavish reception and luxurious lodging is improper for Christian morality and is alienating the status of peregrinus. Therefore, hospitality at private mansions is accepted only when it ensures greater sobriety and spiritual meditation, and is offered not by virtue of a social privilege, let alone a legal obligation, but as an act of charity. In this way, the traditional pattern of mutuality and interaction among individuals of pair level is broken. The Late Roman pagan society is equally involved: to open the door of your house to those in need of assistance is now considered as an act of philanthropy (Corsi, 2005b, p. 260-261).

Therefore, there is a transformation in the modalities of travel, which from the second half of the fourth century, generally involved different types of structures for lodging and overnight stays, ranging from road-stations to the houses of private hosts (Corsi, 2005a).

Notwithstanding the fact that she is awarded the right to use the facilities of the Cursus Publicus for free, Melania the Younger, in the course of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in several occasions preferred to be hosted in private dwellings (e.g. at the bishop’s residence in Alexandria: Vita Mel., 34), even if a few times Melania favoured humble commercial hostels (e.g. the pilgrim’s house at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the ‘Anastasis’ – in Jerusalem: Vita Mel., 35).

Portrait of Melania the Younger, Jovem

After all, the pious woman and her husband Pinianus, offered hospitality in their suburban domus in Rome to anyone in need (Vita Mel., 7 e 9). Similar is the case of the lawyer Basil, father of the homonymous bishop of Caesarea, who devoted part of his substance to hospitality, thus paving the way for the work of his son (Gorce, 1925, p. 154; Corsi, 2005b, p. 260-261).

It is evident, however, that neither of these options – to accept the offers of hosting at private mansions or to lodge in commercial structures, whether managed by private entrepreneurs or inserted in the imperial mobility system – met the prescriptions of the clergy, that indeed begun to advance deep concerns about the opportunity of stays at public reception structures that did not guarantee the moderation required of Christians in every situation.

Therefore, the Church moved on in two directions: on the one hand, it undertook dissuasive action to discourage or prohibit the attendance of such public infrastructure for hospitality to Christians (Corsi, 2016, p. 106); on the other hand it started rationalising the already existing infrastructures promoted by private initiatives, with the aim of establishing a network of hostels that would accommodate pilgrims and any other sort of travellers. About this proactive attitude, ancient authors and modern criticism in unison acknowledge Basil of Caesarea as the first and most active building promotor of structures for hospitality (Greg.Naz., Orat., XLIII, 63; see Gorce 1925, p. 146 s.). Yet, these initiatives seem to be subsequent to the provisions taken in the context of councils such as that of Nicaea in 325 (Cap. LXX, can. LXXV; see Mansi, 1759, col. 1006; Corsi, 2005, p. 175, note 17; Cantino Wataghin, 2007, p. 153). Even earlier, dispositions such as those of the canons of the Didascalia Apostolorum (XXIX, 15 – XXX, 13), drafted in the mid-third century, and the monastic Regulae, such as the one by St. Pachomius of the beginning of the fourth century (S. Pachomii Reg., 50-51, ed. Brockie 1957, p. 28), endorsed the duty of hospitality for Christian communities.

The reasons behind this enthusiastic acceptance of the duty of hospitality are twofold: on the one hand, hospitality is considered the essence of Christian spirituality and is promoted in the Gospels with the same words of Jesus (Matt., 25, 31, see, e.g., Cantino Wataghin, 2007, p. 284); on the other hand, the Church appears already fully aware of the political and administrative role which it will gradually take over as consequence of the loss of efficiency by civil authorities, especially after the fall of the Western Empire in AD 476.

Many sources inform us on the hectic activity of ecclesiastics, mainly bishops, in fundraising to build new hostels and ensure the functioning of the existing ones, even making use of their personal financial means and properties (Gorce, 1925, p. 147-150). In some cases the bishop’s foundation was kept active thanks to private bequests, as happened on several occasions in the time of Gregory the Great, e.g. with the xenodochium of St. Theodore, founded by bishop Peter in Palermo, to the maintenance of which the inheritance of Isidorus is allocated (Stasolla, 2006, p. 873 with ancient sources. See also p. 874 f. on the case of the xenodochium of Cagliari). Gregory the Great is a central figure in the history of Christian welfarism. His profile is characterised by ‘caritas’: enduring hardships for most of his life, he cared about bestowing a subsidy to the poor and the expatriates (Act.Sanct., 2, 22-23. See Rapisarda, 2012, p. 271). As we observe in his pastoral, hospitality was constantly touted as a Christian feature (Epist. 9,37 (AD 598): Rapisarda, 2012, p. 281-282).Gregory is the political figure who transformed hospitality from a private initiative to an institutionalised and regulated activity. Cura pauperum and cura hospitalitatis featured very often among the pastoral concerns of the Pope, as is evident in several passages of the letters 1 and 2 (e.g. 1,1, AD 590; 2,50, AD 592), where the defensor Romanus is accused of having cared more for the incomes deriving from the properties than for the alms to the poor during his regency of the hospice in the neighbourhood of St. Peter (Rapisarda, 2012, p. 283-284).

Other bishops were very active in the establishment of institutions for hospitality. A special mention is due to the sanctuary of St. Felix in Cimitile, in the neighbourhood of Nola. Here, many bishops were involved in building shelters for the countless pilgrims who visited the shrine.

Linz, Neuer Dom, Glasfenster "Glockenweihe" (Böhm-Führer Nr. 9), Detail: St. Paulin de Nole (c)Tiroler Glasmalerei
Linz, Neuer Dom, Glasfenster « Glockenweihe » (Böhm-Führer Nr. 9), Detail: St. Paulin de Nole (c)Tiroler Glasmalerei

In the course of the fifth century most of this building activity is undertaken by bishop Paulinus. At his arrival, there were already five churches in the sanctuary, therefore he devoted most of the resources to the construction of buildings for reception, a monastery, a hospice, and some infrastructures, among which are an aqueduct, fountains, and vegetable and fruit gardens. From the sources we are informed that the hospitium is so close to the venerated tomb of the martyr, that the latter can be seen from the windows of the hostel. Indeed, at the time of Paulinus’ bishopric, the sanctuary was so popular that many taverns had sprung up around the sacred complex, so much that even Paulinus complained about the fact that swarms of loud drunks crowded around the basilica of St. Felix, offering little respectful veneration to the martyr’s tomb (Paulin., Carm., XXVII, 571-579; Corsi, 2005b, p. 261). In AD 407 Melania the Younger and her husband Pinianus arrived in Cimitile with a group of illustrious pilgrims: they lodged in the hospitium humilitatis nostrae, but it is not clear if theirs was a short or long stay (Paul., Carm., XXI, vv. 80-84, 204-224, 281-334. See Cantino Wataghin & Pani Ermini, 1995, p. 142-145).

At the same time, the monks took action. Following the precocious example of St. Pachomius (see above), most monasteries started to be equipped for hosting travellers. Monastic regulations started to give prescriptions to detail the modalities of the hosting activity (Corsi 2005a, p. 176). The earliest examples are widely known: e.g. in 398 Jerome told his friend Pammachius about the deversorium peregrinorum which he intended to build aside his monastery (Hier., Epist. LXVI, 14; CVIIII, 14; see XLVI, 11 and LXXVII, 6; Hier., Onomast., sv Bethlehem). In another letter, Jerome referred to a similar initiative taken by Paola in Bethlehem.

Yet the Church cannot boast the primacy in taking initiative in supporting and assisting travellers: since the time of the emperor Constantine, civil authorities were involved in the foundation of xenodochia. Such is the case of the senator Eubulus (Gorce, 1925, p. 154), of the Byzantine emperors and empresses Theodosius II, his sister Elia Pulcheria, Justin, Justinian and Theodora (Gorce, 1925, p. 153). In Gaul, kings and their spouses started their euergetism action much later, not earlier than the mid-sixth century, probably just emulating the Byzantine emperors (Corsi, 2016, p. 107). Moreover, as shown by the examples listed above, it is likely that most of the foundations have to be attributed to private initiative, both in the form of a charitable act by wealthy converts, as well as in the form of entrepreneurial initiatives at small and medium scale.

In the first group we surely have to list the examples mentioned above (Paola in Bethlehem, Pammachius in Portus, Eubulus on the Bosporus, and so on), adding the foundations sponsored by Melania the Elder (Pall., Hist.Laus., XLVI, LIV), Magna of Ancira (Pall., Hist.Laus., LXVII), and the deaconess Olimpia in Constantinople (Pall., Dial, XVII; John.Chrysos., Epist. ad Olym, II, 10); for the fifth century, the xenodochia funded by the aristocrat Roman gentes of Anicii and Valerii (Santangeli Valenzani, 1996-1997, p. 205-210). Other interesting documents come from Hispaniae; they show how the setting up of xenodochia was a main preoccupation of the churchmen. For instance, the Etymologiarum (XV, III, 13) by Isidore of Seville (560-636), bishop and leading intellectual in Visigoth Spain, contains references to the presence of hosting infrastructures in several towns, such as Gironda and Tutanesio, now-a-days Totanés in the vicinity of Toledo. These buildings are almost always related to episcopal or martyrial complexes, or to monasteries (Amich & Nolla, 2011, p. 95-98).

Summing up, then, with a few exceptions of the foundations sponsored by the Byzantine emperors, and with the exclusion of the institution promoted by the Merovingian kings in Lyon, all examples presented here are due to the initiative of Church leaders, monks or important exponents of the Christian elites.


We can underline how, in spite of a certain persistence in the efficiency of the road infrastructures in the course of the fourth century, we progressively notice a growing involvement of the Church in the assistance to travellers.

Since the fifth century, the Church in its whole was in the position of replacing the public infrastructures, supporting traffic in a more systematic and capillary way. As anticipated, this process is gradual and touches all aspects of the system, including the hospitality offered by individuals: with time, the hosts changed from wealthy members of the same social class to generous co-religionists or Church leaders. The transformation of the modalities of travel and the taking of control of the system by the Church will thereby be accomplished only in the second half of the fifth century. Yet, for a long time to come, the extraordinary road infrastructure deployed by the Empire will constitute the indispensable scaffolding on which this new construction will rest. The role played by the bishops in this framework will be of primary importance, probably in relation with the fact that they will be more and more in charge of managing and controlling large territorial districts (Le Maho, 1999, p. 57 s.). In Rome the foundation of xenodochia will, from then onwards, be the exclusive care of the popes (Santangeli Valenzani, 1996-1997, p. 215).

In conclusion, we can state that, since the Late Roman period, the role played by the Church in the sector of hospitality changed permanently the system of mobility and introduced a new concept of ‘welfarism’. The initiatives taken by the many actors of the uprising Christian society, composed by clergymen, monks and lay benefactors, changed radically the topographical asset of the centres that are crossed by important roads or that become pilgrimage destinations. At the same time, roads, paths and pathways adapted to the availability of infrastructures, and modalities of travel evolved accordingly.The progressive building up of this network of small and large institutions devoted to the assistance to the poor and the hospitality of the needy, triggered the rise of a new socio-political scenario (Brown, 1995, p. X, 7, 47), pursued with determination and lucidity by the Church.

The outcome was the construction of a social leadership in which the care for the needy unites the religious and civil elites of post-Constantinian society, disclosing a new historical reality, which is indeed the one that we call ‘Late Antiquity’.


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Cristina Corsi

- la formation et la transformation de l'espace dans les civilisations anciennes: les dynamiques du peuplement, la formation et la transformation des villes, la continuité et la discontinuité entre les sociétés classiques et les structures de l'espace ancien de l’antiquité tardive et de l’époque médiévale; - Le processus de romanisation dans différents contextes méditerranéens; - Les routes, les réseaux de communication et les modalités de voyage dans les périodes romaines, de l’antiquité tardive et médiévales; - Les méthodologies et les bonnes pratiques dans les diagnostics archéologiques; -Fouilles et prospections réalisées dans la ville romaine d’Ammaia en Lusitanie.

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Auteur : Cristina Corsi

- la formation et la transformation de l'espace dans les civilisations anciennes: les dynamiques du peuplement, la formation et la transformation des villes, la continuité et la discontinuité entre les sociétés classiques et les structures de l'espace ancien de l’antiquité tardive et de l’époque médiévale; - Le processus de romanisation dans différents contextes méditerranéens; - Les routes, les réseaux de communication et les modalités de voyage dans les périodes romaines, de l’antiquité tardive et médiévales; - Les méthodologies et les bonnes pratiques dans les diagnostics archéologiques; -Fouilles et prospections réalisées dans la ville romaine d’Ammaia en Lusitanie.

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