Overview of Early Christianity in Rome (From St Paul to Constantine)

Sts Peter & Paul Early Catacomb Etching

Jews and Christians

Jesus was a Jew.  The Gospel of Luke gives the genealogy of Jesus going all the way back to Adam – our Father in the Flesh.  The Gospel of St Matthew also begins by giving the genealogy of Jesus in the line descended from the Jewish Patriarch – Abraham – our Father in Faith.

The chronology of salvation history is intimately entwined with these two genealogies which show Jesus as the fulfilment of all that had come before.  If you read the Jewish Scriptures contained in the Old Testament of the Bible, the Jewish religion hangs upon the principle of family – that certain people were part of God’s family – and that you were made part of God’s family by a binding Covenant between God and mankind.

There were 5 major covenants in the Jewish development:

  1. The Marriage Covenant made between God, Adam & Eve with the sign of new life – their son Seth
  2. The Family Covenant made between God and Noah & his 3 sons with the sign of a rainbow
  3. The Tribal Covenant made between God and Abraham, Isaac & the 12 tribes with the sign of circumcision
  4. The Nation Covenant made between God and Moses encompassing the whole nation run by the prophets, priests & judges with the sign of the Sabbath & ritual of the Passover Meal
  5. The Kingdom Covenant made between God and David with the sign of the Temple and an Eternal throne with promise of an eternal kingdom in authority over all kingdoms of the world.

It is easy to see that at each Covenant – each binding between God & Mankind by sacred oath – the family of God is widening.  By the coming of Jesus, the Jews were the family of God – the chosen people.  Non-Jews (aka Gentiles) were not part of this family.

However, Jesus instituted a New Covenant at the ritual sacrifice of the Passover Meal at the start of his own Sacrifice – his Passion & Death on the Cross. It was here and at that time that Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

This New Covenant was the 6th Covenant that expanded God’s family yet again to be a Universal Covenant (in Greek – catholikos, or in English – Catholic).  The Catholic Covenant was now also available to both Jews & Gentiles – the water of baptism was the seal and entry into God’s family.  The family was the Universal/Catholic Church founded on the 12 apostles rather than 12 tribes, with St Peter, the first Pope, as the prime bishop – the rock with the authority represented as Keys referring back to King David’s keys.

For this reason, in the immediate years following Christ’s death & resurrection, the followers of Christ were believed to be a Jewish sect because the first members were indeed Jews.

It was not until a little later that the followers of Christ were called Christians in the city of Antioch1.  It was also from Antioch that the term Catholic came to describe Christians first recorded in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans2 addressed Christian Jews in Rome in about 57AD attesting to their presence there by at least that time.  Of course, St Paul himself was kept under house arrest here twice in Rome whilst awaiting his trial, and it is here the first time that he wrote many of his epistles.  You can see where he was under house arrest on our Sts Peter & Paul Tour.

At this time, Christianity was an underground movement attracting persecution from Jews (who said that they were still the only chosen people) and Romans (who have no king but Caesar) alike.

The first Christians therefore met for the Eucharist (what we now call the Mass) in private houses3.  The Basilica of San Clemente (near the Coliseum) was built over the house of Pope St Clement (b.35AD-d.99AD) who was pope from 88AD to 99AD, and where you can still go down into the archaeological excavations to see where some of the first Christians would have met.  You can learn more about this on our Rome Catacombs Tour which visits the underground house of Pope St Clement before moving on to the underground Catacombs.

Sts Prisca & Aquila (who St Paul sent greetings to along with ‘the congregation in their house’4) also hosted the Eucharist in their homes and more can be learned about the Early Christian Women on our tour.

Of course it was not just women who hosted the Eucharist where Christians gathered.  St Peter, when he came to Rome, stayed at the house of the Roman Senator Pudens who allowed St Peter to live in his house for several years.  The house is now the Church of St Pudenziana (perhaps the oldest church in Rome known as Titulus Pudenziana) named after his daughter St Pudenziana who together with her sister, St Praxedes (or in Italian – Santa Prassede), gathered up to 2300 relics of the martyrs and placed them in their well when the persecutions of Emperor Nero were happening after  64AD5 took place.  The Basilica of Santa Prassede is also on our Early Christian Women Tour in addition to our Passion of Christ Tour.  The earliest documentary evidence of a Catholic community worshipping at the house of St Prassede (which the later Basilica of St Prassede is built) dates from 112AD under the pontificate of the fifth pope after St Peter – Pope Alexander I.

It was these large scale persecutions of Nero under which St Paul & St Peter would eventually be martyred.  Both were imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison (part of the Sts Peter & Paul Tour) before St Peter was eventually crucified upside down at the Circus of Nero on the Vatican Hill with his body eventually lying under St Peter’s Basilica, and St Paul, because he was a Roman citizen, was killed6 by beheading7 on the Ostian Way where the Church of the Three Fountains lies, and his body currently resides in the tomb of St Paul at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.  The Basilica of St Peter and the Basilica of St Paul are both included on our Four Papal Basilicas of Rome Tour.

The Persecutions of Christians

Despite the brutal torture and killing of Christians recorded by Tacitus in his Annales, the Catholic Church was spreading quickly and by the end of the 2nd Century, the Church had spread to Greece, Italy, Spain, Gaul, Germany, Africa, Egypt and the countries east of the Euphrates.  The writer Tertullian (c.160-220) wrote

the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church

The 12 Apostles journeyed far and wide and all were eventually martyred except John the Evangelist who lived with Mary the Mother of Jesus in Ephesus before his natural death in around 100AD.

With the rapid growth of the Church so too did the hierarchy grow quickly with new deacons, priests and bishops being ordained to help shepherd these new converts.

This rapid growth also meant that there was a need for codification and uniformity with various writings being distributed for the faithful to read at the Eucharist.  Some of these writings were later recognised to be divinely inspired and included in the New Testament Canon by the Council of Rome in 382.  Others such as the Didache or Epistles of St Clement, although lauded, were not chosen by the bishops at this Council to be included in the Bible.

The liturgical praxis too, although already based on Jewish priestly rituals, and the experience of the apostles with Jesus, was also requiring written comment to cope with the rapid expansion.  The Didache & First Letter of St Clement together with the writing of St John Chrysostom amongst others show glimpses of this.

With this expansion came the need also for more houses (in latin domus) in which the early church could congregate (in latin ecclesia which also means church).   These Domus Ecclesia or Titulus (see oldest church of St Pudenziana above) needed to be architecturally inconspicuous, with an upper room large enough for the new Catholics to come together with the priest for the Eucharist, and which had other features fit for their purpose such as inspiring frescoes and a bathhouse for baptisms (as with the Church/House of St Pudenziana and the House/Church of St Cecilia).

These remodelled houses were rented, purchased by or given to the Church and were the earliest Domus Ecclesia or Titulus Ecclesia which architecturally grew to be churches once the persecutions ended with Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century.  The best known example of a remodelled Roman house is the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

With the growth of the Catholic Church by the blood of the martyrs came also a need by the authorities to intensify the persecutions.  In 250, Emperor Decius (249-251) ordered the systematic persecution of anyone who refused to sacrifice to the Roman Gods, and in 257, Emperor Valerian (253-263) ordered the persecution of bishops and senior clergy.

The most serious & gruesome persecutions under Diocletian (284-305) and Galerius (293-311) then took place at a time when the Church had now pervaded many stratas of society including town councils, the senate and the army.

The Bodies

Catholics believe that martyrs, having been washed clean by the Blood of the Paschal Lamb (Jesus Christ) and their own blood, are now with God in heaven.  Just as Jesus ascended into heaven body & soul, and Mary was assumed body & soul into heaven, so too will the bodies of the saints be resurrected in the new garden of Eden – heaven, at the end.

More fundamentally too though, the Catholic Church is the mystical Body of Christ.  The Church is not just the living (known as the Church Militant), but also the dead, whether they be in a process of purification in purgatory (Church Suffering) or in heaven (the Church Triumphant).  There is a bond that binds us all – a mystical bond, that by our baptism, binds us together into Christ.  We share His flesh just as we partake in the flesh of Adam.

For these reasons and more, the bodies of the early Christians and especially the martyrs were understood to be significant.  They were significant because

  1. it was desirous that they be preserved in readiness for the resurrection of the body (which is why the early Christians were against cremation)
  2. there was a bond of mutual love between the members of the Church and especially in this persecuted small community
  3. there was an appreciation of the Greek philosophical understanding that the soul & body are linked, and so as the soul of the martyrs/saint was in heaven, so too, we who remain here on earth are nevertheless that much closer to heaven, especially in the Eucharist.
  4. miracles occurred as a result of the relics showing glimpses of the power of God and his New Kingdom

The early Christians therefore collected the bodies or pieces of bodies of the first saints and martyrs.  They marked the graves/tombs and returned to them regularly to pray for intercession, to recall their sacrifice – especially on their feast day (usually the anniversary of their death) and to be close to them.

Initially, in the 1st & 2nd centuries, Christians were buried alongside pagans in communal cemeteries (e.g. the Necropolis of St Peter, and St Paul Outside the Walls) and it was dangerous for Christians to visit their graves.  Nevertheless they were marked and visited regularly when they could.

If the Christian family was wealthy enough to do so, they would build new mausolea or adapt existing ones accompanied by small banqueting halls or loggias such as at the Catacombs of San Sebastiano.

Wholly Christian cemeteries above ground, known as areae, were used throughout the Christian world from the 3rd century onwards.  They included graves, freestanding sarcohpagi and small mausolea or cells.

By the early 3rd century, the number of Christian bodies was much larger thanks to the systematic persecutions by the Roman Empire.  The Church also used to help the poor as part of its charitable works and because they needed a place to mark the resting places of saints & martyrs and celebrate their feast days, they built large communal Christian cemeteries underground, named Catacombs, just as the Jews had done.

The Jews had built underground Jewish cemeteries in Rome since 139BC with the oldest known one being beneath Colle Rosato on the slopes of Monteverde along Via Portuense, with others located on Via Appia, Via Labicana and Via Nomentana.

An example of these first Christian underground catacombs is the Catacomb of Priscilla whereas an example of the last is the Catacomb of Domitilla.  The Catacomb was built by digging a stairway into the compressed volcanic ash ground (called tufa) and then shelf like tombs were hollowed out in the walls for individual burials.  The word Catacombs actually means “near the hollows”. These shelves (or loculi) were sealed with slabs and inscriptions were made.

Frescoed cubicula were square or polygonal burial chambers for the more important, examples of which can be found in the Catacombs of St Callixtus.

Our Rome Catacombs Tour explores some of these catacombs underground and it is a poignant adventure not to be missed.

Eventually the persecutions ended with the coming of Emperor Constantine who saw a vision of the Cross in the sky when he was marching across to conquer Rome and as a result when he became the new Emperor, he legalised Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD.  Read about how Rome & the Catholic Church developed then in our next post.


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  1. Acts 11:26
  2. Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius of Antioch, Ch VIII – “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”</note] written by St Ignatius of Antioch in 107 AD.

    First Christians in Rome

    Unsurprisingly, the first Christians in Rome were Jewish in origin – about 8,000 of them who initially settled in the Roman district of Trastevere after the Jewish Diaspora.

    St Paul’s Letter to the Romans[note]Romans 2:17

  3. Acts 2:46
  4. Romans 16:5
  5. See the Roman historian Tacitus in his Annales XV,44
  6. Clement (Ad. Cor. chap. 5); See also Caius, Dionysius of Corinth, Origen (quoted by Eusebius III, 1)
  7. Tertullian in his De præscriptione Hær. chap. 36

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