Early Church: Day 2 in Rome

On our second day in Rome, we wanted to get a sense of what Paul and Peter and other early Christians saw and experienced as they entered the heart of the Roman Empire. Here are the sites we visited:

  • Appian Way: In the late spring of 58 CE, Paul was at the end of his third missionary journey when he was arrested in Jerusalem’s temple. The governor put him in prison for more than two years. When a new governor was in place, Paul made an appeal, arguing that because he was a Roman citizen, he wanted his case to be heard by Caesar himself. The request was granted, and a centurion boarded him on a ship for Rome. After a shipwreck on the Mediterranean Sea, Paul was brought to Puteoli, a town near Naples about 125 miles from Rome. From there Paul took a road the rest of the way. That road was called the Appian Way.

The Appian Way was about 400 years old by that point, and it had become part of a much larger network of roads that helped create the economic and military might of the empire. It’s hard to believe now (especially after having just taken a one-hour train from Naples to Rome), but it was an engineering marvel. Well over 100 miles long and paved with huge stones made of basalt and a standard width of 14 Roman feet, it was wide enough to allow two carriages to pass each other in opposite directions. There were rest stations every ten miles. Impressive for its time.

For our family, it was a beautiful walk and fun to imagine Paul on the same stretch. Although I’m sure he had less fun than we did with a centurion by his side and probably anxious about his reception in Rome. But as he approached, probably near the same stretch we walked, he was cheered by Roman Christians who heard he was coming. They accompanied him all the way to Rome (Acts 28:11-16).

A pilgrim stopping for refreshment
  • Carcere Mamertino (Mamertine Prison): Where Peter and Paul were imprisoned. In an attempt to shift the blame from himself for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, Emperor Nero began executing Christians. Paul himself became one of the targets of persecution. He was arrested and placed in Mamertine Prison. According to legend, he was joined there by Peter, who miraculously made water appear and converted many prisoners in the dungeon. After two years, Paul was released and traveled to Spain, where he wrote two more epistles. But then he was imprisoned again in the Mamertine, this time for the last time. Before he died, he wrote to Timothy: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:6–7).”

As we descended to the dungeon, I was most struck by the depressing conditions. It was deep below ground and dark and dank and damp. I was also struck by the location, just meters away from the Roman Forum, the center of imperial politics. Paul and Peter were incredibly bold, proclaiming the Jesus was lord, not Nero.

  • Tomb of St. Paul: Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit Acquae Salviae, where St. Paul was beheaded upon orders of Emperor Nero. Legend says that his head bounced to the ground three times, miraculously causing three streams of water to spring up. In premodern times Christian pilgrims collected water from these three springs believing that they held miraculous qualities.

At any rate, Paul was buried in a Roman necropolis on Ostiense Way inside the family tomb of a devotee named Lucilla. This was unusual for a Christian, but it was probably possible because he was a Roman citizen. Eventually, the magnificent Saint Paul Outside the Walls Basilica was built on the location to honor Paul.

The magnificent Saint Paul Outside the Walls Basilica was built on this location to celebrate the Saint. In 2016 the sarcophagus that may be holding his remains was uncovered below the main altar. Vatican archeologist Giorgio Filippi found a marble tombstone dating back to 390 CE bearing the inscription “Paulo Apostolo Mart.” (“Apostle Paul, Martyr.”)

To see it, we descended a spiral staircase at the altar. Displayed above were chains that allegedly had bound Paul in the Mamertine Prison. The space and moment really moved me.

  • Catacombs of St. Callixtus: Finally, we visited some catacombs located on the Appian Way. Like the many others scattered outside the Roman walls, followers of Jesus prayed and worshipped here during periods of persecution. But mostly they buried their dead. A guide with a flashlight led us through the tunnels, pointing out inscriptions left nearly 2,000 years ago. We got to see the burial niches of several popes.

Our itinerary on this day took us to sites less often visited by tourists. It showed us how this small cult of Christians, who bridged the Ancient Near East context of Judaism with the Western world, objected to the emperor worship we learned about the day before. Caesar Augustus, the emperor when Jesus was born, was hailed as divine by nearly the entire Mediterranean world—except for Jews and Christians. That Christians continued to deny imperial divinity made Nero—and then Domitian—angry, and he blamed the terrible Roman fire of 64 CE on the Christians. It’s likely, says Nelson Kraybill, that Peter and Paul both died in Nero’s bloodbath.

Just a couple of years later, the Apostle John fought back with visions and words. In the Book of Revelation, he lampooned the emperor. Stranded on the tiny island of Patmos, John dismissed Rome as a harlot and its empire as a beast. It was the opposite of what true worship should look like. John wrote, “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’”

Anyone familiar with court ceremonies of the Roman emperors would recognize the subversive subtext here. John is calling Jesus “Lord,” using the exact title that emperors claimed. He’s using political language to call for an alternative allegiance.

In Revelation 13, John is not just for Jesus, he’s against empire. He sees beasts, seven of them. The first beast represents empire, says Kraybill, and the second embodies the institutions of emperor worship. John contemptuously refers to Rome as Babylon. In Revelation 18, John blasts the waste and debauchery of Babylon/Rome. He is likely thinking of Rome’s massive, debaucherous building projects.

For his sedition, scholars think that John was probably imprisoned in 95 CE on the island of Patmos. He is there, he wrote in the first verses of the Book of Revelation, “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

The Roman Empire, of course, ended up falling. But there are strongmen always trying to build empire. In 1938, many years after the so-called Altar of Peace had been constructed by the Roman Senate in 9 BCE to celebrate the return of Caesar Augustus to Rome after successful military campaigns in Gaul and Spain, Benito Mussolini used the ancient monument to garnish his own imperial pretense. The Altar of Peace had fallen apart, but the fascist dictator hired archaeologists put the pieces back together so that it could once again exude the propaganda of empire. There are scenes from founding of Rome that are pastoral and peaceable, but on the same side is the goddess Roma, who embodies the military power of the Roman Empire.

With sword in hand, she proudly sits on a pile of armaments. In some other representations, Roma’s breast is exposed. This, says Kraybill, exposes a truth about empire: the Pax Romana (Roman peace) is seductive, but it was really was pacification, compliance enforced by threat of arms. The many provinces that experienced Pax Romana would have testified to Rome’s brutality. Tellingly, the original location of the Altar of Peace was at the Field of Mars, where the army conducted exercises at the edge of Rome.

At this point in Christian history, the Church and empire are diametrically opposed. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll explore how that changed.

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