SANTA BALBINA ALL’AVENTINO – The church on the little Aventine


Rome, as you know it, is full of important historical memories. Indeed there are certain areas that overflow with archeological remains. In one of these areas is the Caracalla Baths, where the memories of the past are really everywhere. And there also many churches, all of them worthy of being paid a visit. One of these churches is the minor basilica of Santa Balbina, that is called “All’Aventino” (in the Aventine hill) because it is situated in an area called “little Aventine.”

The church was built on the place where there once stood the house of a Roman senator and we have the first mention of the same church from the time of Gregory the Great, in the 5th century.  It might be possible that a place of worship already existed there before. The church was under the care of several Popes in medieval times but by the 12th century it was almost in ruins.

In the 13th century, the area was under the care of Greek monks who started a restoration of the complex that would go on for two centuries.  At a certain point the church was given to the Vatican clergy, and during the following centuries was still in times of ruin and successive restoration.

There is a story narrated in the Mirabilia, a medieval manuscript that was a sort of travel guide at that time, and that makes reference to this church: “In ancient times, before the church stood a prodigious asbestos candelabra, of a burning and inextinguishable stone. The whole candelabra burned without being consumed by the arcane fire: the air fed its vigor and nearby stood a statue of an archer proudly reaching out to shoot a dart. But a threatening inscription in Etruscan letters said: “if someone touches me I will hurt.” How many centuries passed in this way while the candlestick burned is unknown but one day a fool touched the fatal arrow, the arrow shot and the fire was no longer rekindled” (in

Saint Balbina is remembered in a text by Filippo Caraffa ( “She is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology on March 31st. The first part of the eulogy, which deals with his baptism in Rome, was taken from the legendary acts of the SS. Alexander, Evenzio, Theodulus, Ermete and Quirino. The author makes Balbina the daughter of the martyr Quirinus, creating an arbitrary kinship, according to the custom of the Roman hagiographers of the 5th century. The second part of the same eulogy, concerning the burial in the Appian Way, was invented by Adonis, since there is no information about it in the aforementioned documents. In antiquity, Balbina did not have a cult nor is it commemorated in the Geronymian Martyrology. Floro, in his Martyrology, remembers it on January 18, misunderstood by a wrong commemoration of the Geronymian Martyrology. Adonis remembers her on March 31, arbitrarily adding that she was buried in the cemetery of Pretestato on the Via Appia, because, being the daughter of the martyr Quirinus, she had to be buried near him. The legendary Life of Balbina has come down to us through two passiones: the first is a passio Alexandri, perhaps from the sixth century, which confuses Pope Alexander with the namesake martyr of nomentano; the second is a passio ss. Balbinae et Hermetis, a kind of appendix to the Alexandri passio. According to these two legends, Balbina was the daughter of the martyr Quirino, who, having converted to the Christian faith, was baptized together with her by Pope Alexander. Balbina, having become seriously ill, was taken by her father to the pope, who was then imprisoned, and was healed. Because of her wealth and her nobility she was asked in marriage by many young people, but she wanted to remain faithful to her vow. Arrested together with her father by order of the emperor Hadrian (117-35), after not a few torments she was beheaded.”

When visiting the little Aventine area, this church will be worthy of your attention. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)