AUR Adjunct Professor Marco Conti was interviewed as an expert in early Christian history for the Smithsonian Channel series “Sacred Sites” and is expected to appear in the episode on the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
The six-part documentary series which “spans the globe to visit some of the world's most remarkable ancient religious structures” is scheduled to premiere on August 13, according to The Smithsonian Channel.

Conti, who teaches Latin and the history of Rome in AUR’s department of Archeology and Classics, was interviewed as an expert on a “forgotten heretic” buried in the Cathedral. The heretic in question, Priscillian of Avila, was a 4th-century nobleman from Spain, and the subject of a book written by Conti, “Priscillian: Complete Works,” translated and edited from Latin to English (Oxford University Press, 2009).

For his part in the episode, the professor was filmed in Trier, Germany, at its UNESCO World Heritage Sites The Constantine Basilica, commissioned by Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century, and the Porta Nigra, the best-preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps.

The film poses the question: “Are the hallowed relics of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela really the bones of a forgotten heretic?” Since the Middle Ages, The Way of St. James -- or Camino de Santiago -- has been one of the most important Christian pilgrimages, along with Rome and Jerusalem. Many pilgrims make the journey on foot, using a network of historic routes throughout Europe. St. James the Great was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus and is the patron saint of Spain. Legend holds that St. James preached in Spain and that -- after his martyrdom in Jerusalem in 44 AD -- his remains were brought back to the peninsula by boat and buried in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.

The location of his tomb, however, remained unknown until 814 AD when it was rediscovered by a hermit. This miraculous event prompted the building of a chapel on the site, followed by a church and then the present cathedral in 1075. “But actually, the 9th-century church was built on top of a holy graveyard, which contained the remains of Priscillian,” said Conti.

Priscillian was a well-educated layman who was appointed the bishop of Avila, a town in north-central Spain. He opposed the political structure of the church and founded a strict form of Christianity called Priscillianism. His aesthetic practices, such as fasting on Sundays, gained followers and supporters, including leading Christian figures like Ambrose, Bishop (and later saint) of Milan. But other church authorities saw him as a threat and convinced Roman Emperor Maximus Magnus to put him on trial as a sorcerer. “He’s a very mysterious character and we don’t know exactly why he was condemned to death, because from his works there is nothing so heretical,” said Conti. “He was accused of being a witch. That was a way to execute him, otherwise, there was no way because the church couldn't execute anyone at that time, only the Roman secular powers could. In fact, Priscillian’s execution in 385 AD may be the first example in history of secular justice intervening in a church matter." 

Conti was filmed inside the Constantine Basilica (now a Protestant church) because a Roman “basilica” at that time was a place for tribunals and public functions. “We imagine that is where he was put on trial,” said Conti. “The Roman Empire at the time of Priscillian was still well organized and stable.” Indeed, Trier was the home of emperors and a capital city (along with Milan, and York in Britain) that governed a large part of the Western Roman Empire -- the segment today that is Britain, France, Spain and a tip of northern Africa. "Rome was not that important," added Conti. "Some emperors never saw the city of Rome at all."

The church was also different. "The pope was not the most important figure at that time, not like now," he said. "They didn't have cardinals until the Middle Ages. They had bishops, some more important than others, like the bishops of Rome, Constantinople (Istanbul) and Alexandria. There were also ranks of priests, elders, deacons, and monks." But a lot of Christians, Priscillian included, resented the institutional organization of the church and tried to bring it back to its roots. “He was a threat to the church, but he was not the only one,” said Conti. “I wouldn’t call them anarchists, but they didn’t accept the authority in that way. Authority could only be spiritual, not political. In fact, the monks didn’t accept living in the institutional church, which is why they ran away to form monasteries.”

Priscillian was beheaded and five of his supporters were killed with him (including a rich widow he allegedly bewitched for her money). Their bodies were brought back to Spain, where Priscillian was considered a martyr, and the holy graveyard was made around his tomb. Eventually, the graveyard was abandoned in the early Middle Ages – making it prime real estate for the new church -- and Priscillianism faded into history, said Conti.

(For more on Sacred Sites or to watch Season 1 from 2016 visit:  https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/sacred-sites/1003827
(For more on the documentary film producers, Ireland-based Tile Films visit: http://iftn.ie/post-production/VFX_news/?act1=record&only=1&aid=73&rid=4291056&tpl=archnews&force=1)