In the first century AD, when the apostles Peter and Paul came to Rome, the Christian community in Rome was still small, perhaps as few as some hundreds or a thousand followers at best. Probably the best source of knowledge about that period comes from the Bible itself and in particular “Acts” and Paul’s letter to the Romans (“The Epistles”).
Saint Peter and Saint Paul martyred
It is interesting to remember that both saint Peter and saint Paul were initially Jews but that Paul had the privilege of being a Roman citizen whilst Peter was not.
Paul was in Rome because his own people back in Judaea had condemned him for impiety (against the laws of Moses) and having brought Gentiles (non Jews) into the Temple. At first he defended himself successfully but in the end he was forced to claim his right of appeal to the emperor as a Roman citizen in order to avoid punishment. He was shipped off to Rome to await judgement and first time round he seems to have got away with it, but the second proved to be fatal. His assertion of obeying another king called “Jesus Christ” rather than Nero was considered to be sufficient justification for him to be sentenced to death.
It is said that both Peter and Paul died on the same day of the year 64AD, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians. The two saints are also said to have met on the road to execution and to have embraced in a final farewell. The reality is that Peter was probably executed together with many others whilst Paul, as a Roman citizen, had the privilege of being beheaded more or less in private at a location now known as Tre Fontane (three fountains) on the north side of Rome.
Myth would have it that a water spring appeared on the spot where Paul’s severed head fell to the ground. True or not, a large basilica church was built to mark the location of his burial a couple of centuries later (San Paolo fuori le mura – St Paul’s outside the walls).
Tertullian wrote a century later that Peter was crucified upside down according to his own wishes, on a spot which is unclear but was probably on the Vatican hill where many such crucifixions apparently took place. A small but wonderful chapel known as “Il Tempietto” built on the Giannicolo hill near the Vatican by the Baroque architect Bramante is one possible place. If I remember rightly there’s actually a glass panel on the floor which allows you to see a wooden stubb – presumably the cross itself. It seems Peter also had the displeasure of seeing his own wife’s martyrdom.
Paul is generally regarded as representing the theological side of the new cult whilst Peter was responsible for the cult’s organisation and structure and thanks to these two threads Nero’s persecution actually acted as a catalyst for the cult rather than a deterrent.
The earliest remains to be found of that Christian community date back to the period of emperor Claudius, around 50AD. The earliest Christians would have been Jews with a degree of education. Many may well have been converted through St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s missionary activities.
It is probable that later converts came from other immigrants of eastern/Greek extract. These two roots were at first antagonistic but they finally met around 48AD and agreed to recognise each other in order to create a stronger unified cult. In any case it seems certain that the early Christians came from the lowest social ranks, probably slaves or freed slaves although persons of higher social rank soon came to join.
Being a new religion, with different ideas from the established pagan religions, it was not surprising that the Christians were persecuted on a number of occasions. One obvious problem was that being a monotheist religion (one God and no other) they, like the Jews, were prone to being called traitors. At the time of Claudius the Jewish and Christian cults were regarded as illicit and this meant that it was illegal for them to have public meetings and reunions therefore implying that their most likely meeting places would have been private homes.
The negative view which the state of the time had of these new cults was most evident with those tyrannical emperors who might consider themselves gods on earth and towards whom the Christians were not in a position to display the due religious respects. This same motivation was used to imprison St. Peter at the time of Nero.
Emperor Nero is believed to have used the Christians as a scapegoat when it was rumoured throughout Rome that he was in fact to blame for the great fire which swept the city. The atrocities he inflicted on the poor Christians were so severe that even Roman citizens of pagan beliefs felt sorry for them: many were crucified, a punishment usually reserved for slaves, others were dressed in the skins of wild beasts so as to be attacked to death by dogs. Perhaps most atrociously many were drenched in oil and burned alive. As well as losing their lives many could be sure to suffer loss of their belongings which would be used to fill the state coffers. Emperors Tiberius, Domitian and Diocletian were equally as brutal with the early Christian community.
St. Lawrence was an early father and martyr of the Christian church. He was first chained and then martyred by burning on a grill for having had the audacity to use clever legal methods to prevent the emperor’s confiscation of Christian wealth. Commentaries are contradictory regarding the Christian habit of pooling their belongings and wealth: One commentator suggests that the Christians were “those fools who shared all their belongings”. Another commentator adds that: “They shared all that every body else kept separate and kept separate the one thing which everybody else shared: their wives.”
In spite of the widely held belief that Nero’s persecution of the Christians was a political move to divert attention from his own guilt, modern historians are beginning to look at the possibility that the Christians were indeed involved in the burning of the city. This may have been partly inspired by the uprisings in Palestine and partly by a fervent belief in the imminence of judgement day. Although there doesn’t seem to be proof either way there are certainly accounts of persons preventing others from fighting the fire which was burning Rome. On whose behalf these persons were acting is difficult to tell.
In spite of the alternating periods of tolerance and persecution, the number of Christians in the city grew, particularly as the power and integrity of the empire decayed and the people of Rome lost faith in the old gods. By the middle of the second century the Christians numbered some 15,000 and a century later they were about twice as many.
The great turning point came around the year 310AD when general Constantine was about to wage battle against general Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. He was divinely inspired to take the cross as his standard. Sure enough the following day he won the battle and became sole emperor. He pronounced the religion of state to be Christianity and donated various properties to the Christians so that they might carry on their faith. In particular he bequeathed his palace at the Lateran (an area of Rome) and founded the church of St. John in Laterano (San Giovanni in Laterano) nearby.
Emperor Constantine was succeeded by his sons and then by his nephew, Julian, known as Julian the Apostate. Julian was the last emperor to worship the old pagan gods. Although he didn’t persecute the Christians he did all he could to ensure that schooling and important positions of state lead by persons who worshipped the old pagan creed, in particular that of the god Mithras. The Christians were ordered to restore the ancient temples which had since been left in ruin. Julian’s successor was a Christian however and Christianity remained the religion of Rome thereafter.
From the first to the third centuries AD a competing religion called Mithraism was growing as rapidly as Christianity. Part of the reason for Mithraism’s huge growth was that it had a large number of followers among the soldiers who were creating new places of worship as they travelled around the empire.
Emperor Constantine heralded the victory for Christianity over Mithraism and this meant that Mithraic altars, such as the one which can be seen under the church of San Clemente in Rome, were destroyed by the Christians. If Mithraism had had the better at that time one may stretch the imagination a little and suggest that the culture of the western world of today may well have been Mitrhaic.
The Mithraic cult is steeped in mystery. It is said to have originated from Persia and its doctrine was strongly influenced by astronomy/astrology. More recent studies suggest that it was based on the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes (due to the slow rotation of the earth’s axis) made by the astronomer Ptolemy around the first century BC.
With the destruction of Mithraism the path was clear for the unbridled growth of the Christian cult. During the successive centuries more churches were founded. The evolution of churches in that period is an inexact science as many if not all of the churches which have been handed down to us have undergone extensive and repeated restructuring through the ages. There are however a number of interesting examples where a “newer” church has been built literally on top of the older and where the foundations often reveal the existence of a previous roman villa or dwelling.
A particularly interesting example is the church of San Clemente in Rome. There are two churches one on top of the other, the lower one being of the early medieval period. Excavation into the basement has revealed an underground area of worship, complete with altar to the god Mithras. Deeper excavation has brought to light the foundations of dwellings burned down during the fire of Rome at the time of Nero.
Early Christian Churches
In the earliest days the places of Christian worship in Rome were private homes, much along the same lines of their Jews who lived in Rome at that time. These dwellings were called Tituli and formed the basis of congregations. Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it quite clear that these congregational families were often in competition and disagreement with one another, whether for matters of faith or interpretation of the Bible.
At their meetings of worship the participants would share a dinner during which the life of Jesus Christ would be remembered, they would partake in Eucharist, a sermon would be given and extracts from the Old Testament would be read. The Gospels and New Testament were introduced much later. The early masses were held in Greek and it wasn’t until the middle of the second century that Latin became standard.
Around the second century that the early Christians came to possess public places of worship as they transformed the early private dwellings (Tituli) into dedicated buildings with precious paintings and mosaics. To date some 25-30 Tituli have been identified in Rome. Some of these include the church of Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura (St. Agnes outside the walls) , Santa Maria Maggiore, Santi Cosma e Damiano, San Lorenzo fuori le mura, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Santa Costanza, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Clemente and San Lorenzo in Lucina amongst others.
Many of these churches exhibit the remains of roman every day life as part of their foundations. In architectural terms the early churches took inspiration from imperial buildings and basilicas as may be witnessed in the churches of “Saint Peter outside the walls” and “Saint Paul outside the walls”.
The most prolific growth of the Christian cult accompanied the death throws of the Roman empire, particularly during the fifth century when there were repeated invasions of Italy by the the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals.
The last addition to the forum seems to have been a column dedicated to the emperor Phocas in the year 608AD to celebrate the donation of the Pantheon temple to Pope Boniface III who converted it into the Christian church of Santa Maria ad Martires the following year.
One cannot look at early Christianity in Rome without mentioning the catacombs.
The earliest Christians tended to live around the Aventine and Trastevere areas of Rome and as a consequence the catacombs are situated around there.
The word “Catacomb” actually stems from Greek meaning “near the quarries” ie being more an affirmation of their location rather than a name in itself. It is quite likely that they may have started their existence in old or disused quarries. These long tunnels, full of chambers and niches acted as burial places, much along ancient Sirian and Etruscan traditions. They were, and still are, damp places, deep under ground. Lighting was provided by way of small oil lamps walled into the sides of the tunnels. Ventilation shafts ensured that those working down there could do so for long periods at a time. Decorations, frescos, inscriptions and graffiti are quite frequent and help to evoke a feeling of stepping back in time.
The catacombs had their greatest development around the second century, when the Christian population had a particularly strong growth. A further two centuries went by before they became true places of worship. The oldest catacombs are those of San Sebastiano on the old Appian way (Appia Antica) and I believe that the remains of Saint Peter were hidden down there for a time to protect them during periods of persecution.
Up until the Middle Ages the catacombs were the destination of intense pilgrimages which also meant a degree of affluence to the city itself. This was accompanied by a lively commerce in saintly remains and relics. The catacombs then fell into disuse and it wasn’t until the renaissance that they were rediscovered.