In the beginning, there was only one Christian church which in many ways was an offshoot of the Jewish religion. In fact the reconciliation of Christian teaching with the Jewish teachings of Moses created a number of difficulties, for example in the need to be circumcised (or not) as a prerogative to be accepted into the Christian community.
After the death of Jesus Christ the disciples split up and went off in different directions to spread the word of Christ. It seems evident that they had different ideas as to what strategy should best be followed and indeed some of them were keen to keep Christ as a king of the Jews come to free them of Roman dominion and repression. Others believed that the Christian faith should be universal. Good decision.
Further impetus to Christianity’s universality was provided by the fact that Rome, as cosmopolitan centre of the Empire was the best place from which one might aspire to spread the Word and win new converts. Last but not least there was the unexpected entry onto the scene of Paul who during Jesus’ life had been a Jew of Roman citizenship who actively participated in Christian persecution. It was after Christ’s death, whilst persecuting the followers who had dispersed that Paul happened to be on the road to Damascus and was blinded by a vision.
Now, trying to keep the page short and sticking to the bare essentials: Paul went to Rome first but this by no means meant that he was the first Christian in Rome. Interestingly Paul had been convicted for impiety by the Jewish authorities and so he took advantage of his citizenship to appeal to the Emperor’s judgement: Nero absolved him and even whilst on house arrests allowed him to continue his preaching. Clearly things later took a turn for the worse and Paul was decapitated which was supposedly a better end that Peter’s who was crucified (upside down).
Christianity wasn’t really considered as a problem by the Roman authorities, at least until there were too many of them (Christians) and they began to exercise a political force worthy of attention and persecution.
The Apostle Peter arrived to Rome a little after Paul, when there was already a fledgling Christian community of a few hundred, perhaps a thousand. Peter and Paul didn’t necessarily see eye to eye on how to advance but each brought his own contribution. The really good move was the organisation of the Christians around local communities which clearly made it very difficult to “behead” the cult later on.
This is vaguely reminiscent of Caligula’s quote “Utinam populus Romanus unam cervicem haberet”
Oh how I wish the Roman people had one head only (so I could decapitate it with a single stroke). The Christian’s thought of it first evidently.
The next interesting episode to bear in mind (apart from the persecutions of course) is Emperor Constantine‘s edict of Milan (4th Century) which essentially said that the Christians were free to practice their religion just like the pagans. The Christians gradually gained privileges above other religions and eventually became the recognised state religion – they rampaged and destroyed or at least shut all other pagan temples. The main competition was from the Mithraic religion – not surprisingly all the Mithraic altars and cults were destroyed and shut down. In fact churches were built over them. This clearly meant easy spread of the Christian religion across the Empire.
It is important to note that at no point did the Roman Emperors relinquish their role of Pontifex Maximus – chief priest. The Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was just that: the Bishop of Rome. There were other Bishops too, right across the Empire. For instance, when Constantine called the council of Nicea he chaired it himself and made sure it got to the results he was after.
At this time the empire was too big for its own good and so Emperors Diocletian and then Constantine decided to split it into two halves. Constantine placed a second capital at Constantinople (Istanbul) which in many ways became the new capital, closer to commerce and wars. Rome fell, the Emperors of the Western half of the empire moved out or gave up whilst the Emperors of the Eastern half went on in glory. By 500AD Rome had fallen and around 650AD the Emperor at Constantinople still had jurisdiction and power over Rome and over the Bishop of Rome.
Read more about Early Roman Christianity
Politics clearly comes into play as by the early Middle Ages the Bishop of Rome is the only bureaucratic authority still running the city although nominally power resides in teh Eastern capital of Constantinople. The Pope tries to show up his authority and the Emperor (Basileus) counterattacks by decreeing that other Bishops, namely Ravenna, Milan and Aquileia are of equal importance.
Cutting a long story short the Romans, in Rome stuck with the Pope. The Papacy reminded Christendom of Christ’s words to the effect that the (Christian) church will be founded on the rock (of Peter – the name Peter was synonymous with Rock). Constantinople rejects the interpretation but from then on the Eastern Orthodox (who profess to practice the original religion of Christ) and Roman Catholic church (Who profess to be the direct inheritors of the Apostle Peter) were divided – Voila “The Great Schism”. They still argue over it now.
During the Middle Ages the Papacy controlled Rome and fended for itself. Its ability to do so was largely thanks to Charlemagne to handed various territories over. Justification for this material wealth was partly gained from a supposed will left by Emperor Constantine who had in truth left a number of possessions to the church, such as the Lateran in Rome but not quite as extensive as some documents seemed to suggest. Those documents have since been proved ancient fakes. Nonetheless the Papacy controlled vast areas of territory and used its religious position in a clever balance of political power across European states. The ability to do this was largely thanks to Pope Leo who on Christmas day of the year 800 was smart enough to crown Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and in so doing established a precedent for everyone to see of who had the right and power to crown earthly kings.
Then, much later, came the Protestants who did just that – protest. During the late Medieval and Early Renaissance times the Catholic Church had become the centre of all learning. Pilgrims were coming to the city with their money and the many churches were competing for business with a fervent trade in Saint’s relics – the better your relics the more pilgrims you were likely to get visiting. You could say there was an abundance of Saints and everyone might have their favourite – in clear contradiction to the Bible which admonishes praying to any but God and only God.
At the same time the church was beginning to lose the monopoly on learning as speculative, scientific investigation moved northwards. Couple this with nepotism, lavish spending on buildings such as St. Peter’s and famine in forgotten Northern Europe and you have a wonderful recipe for revolt.
The revolt was called the Reformist Movement or “Protestantism”. The reaction was called the Counter Reformation with its ugly sister the Holy Inquisition…. It has to be said that in spite of a number of cases in Rome the Papacy was generally wary of the Spanish hard line approach. Nonetheless the likes of the Philosopher Giordano Bruno (burned on the stake) and Galileo will always be remembered.
Things went sort of downhill from there on as the “Age of Reason” peopled with the likes of Descartes and Newton moved attention northwards and Rome was increasingly seen as a tourist stop for the English, French and Germans of the “Grand Tour”. Great writers, poets and painters visited the Eternal City more for its “Romantic” appeal than for the Catholic religion which was in some ways alien to them.
And so on to Modern Rome: Napoleon provided what was possibly the coup de grace: He made sure he avoided Charlemagne’s error and placed the crown on his own head. He then proceeded to take the Pope captive: The French had done so once before around the 14th century and established a Papacy at Avignon for a while so presumably Napoleon felt there was little wrong in trying it again. Eventually the Pope was released and they teamed up against the Austrians but then the French had to leave to fight the Franco-Prussian war. The Pope was left alone and so Garibaldi and King Victor Emanuel took a pot shot. The Pope pronounced the edict of Papal infallibility but it wasn’t enough. Rome was taken and the Pope retired to the Vatican.
At the beginning of the century, Mussolini came to power and saw the political benefit in righting the wrongs (ie of all the material wealth which had been taken away) and arranged for compensation to be paid to the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church.
Jumping to something a little more actual – reconciliation is the common word across Christendom and in its name the road leading straight into St.Peter’s is called “Via della Conciliazione”.