Our good friend Don avoided traveling to Rome for most of his life. He was raised a Pentecostal and had, like many in his generation, assumed Rome was hopelessly corrupted by Catholic culture and cultic devotion to the Pope. He had dreamed of traveling to Israel to visit Biblical sites associated with the life of Jesus and to Turkey and Greece to follow in the footsteps of Paul. Even though Rome was the place where Paul and Peter ended their lives and ministry, he assumed there was little of interest for him there. Reluctantly he agreed to join a study tour of Rome led by his friend.
A year later he was enrolled at Harvard Divinity School studying early Christianity with the intent of leading evangelical Christian tours to Rome. “I feel cheated!” he exclaimed after visiting the catacombs filled with early Christian symbols, house churches from the 1st century, and 2nd century Christian sarcophagi decorated with Biblical art. “Rome is full of early Christian artifacts and historical sites. It is my heritage, too, and all these years people have steered me away from this incredible resource for learning about the earliest generation of Christians! Rome belongs to me, too!”[i]
Don is representative of a wave of pastoral leaders who are discovering how transformative travel to Rome can be for Christians. Protestant, evangelical, reform and non-denominational Christians – such as Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Anglicans are finding that Rome is a perfect venue for adult education and faith formation events.
CHRISTIAN HERITAGE IN ROME: CONTEXT AND HISTORY
The two most defining contexts for the development of early Christianity were Judaism and Roman culture.
The life and ministry of Jesus was deeply immersed in the events of 1st century Judaism and its problematic relationship with the Roman Empire. In some instances, Jesus was portrayed as the ideal Jew, as one who came to fulfill the Torah perfectly and who was hailed as the long awaited Messiah. In other instances, Jesus was portrayed as provoking the Jews. He socialized with Roman officials, he broke with Jewish tradition in how the Torah was to be applied and lived out, and he clashed with Jewish authorities.
Jesus organized a group of followers that alarmed the Romans as well. He empowered lower socio-economic classes of people to share material and spiritual resources with each other in ways that circumvented the Roman system of patronage.[ii] They formed a community that was not organized along ethnic lines (as the Jews were) and anticipated a coming Kingdom that would invert the world order of the Roman Empire.
We know from several New Testament texts that Peter, James and Paul disagreed seriously over whether Christian discipleship required a strict adherence to the prescriptions of the Torah or whether one could be a follower of Jesus without becoming a Jew.[iii] This led to serious tensions between Paul and Jewish leaders throughout Asia Minor and Greece. This came to a head when the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in the year 49 because the followers of “Chrestos” were instigating problems.[iv]
Paul is an interesting figure with respect to Judaism and Roman culture. On the one hand, he prides himself on his Jewish credentials and envisions a faith that is thoroughly monotheistic. However, he argues that the salvation offered through Jesus is no longer tied to Jewish sectarian practices. This is quite appealing to the so-called god-fearers, Greco-Romans who were drawn to Jewish monotheism but were unwilling to adopt all of the prescriptions of Torah, particularly circumcision and dietary and purity codes.
Paul is a citizen of the world. He benefited from the cosmopolitan culture of the Roman Empire and was able to travel about easily and freely. He was at home debating with the philosophers in Athens and with local officials in urban centers around the Mediterranean. But he was also critical of the Pax Romana. Many people believed that Rome was in the process of realizing one of the greatest human civilizations ever – with prosperity, technology, trade, learning, and political order uniting disparate lands and peoples into a single worldwide peaceful realm. But as Dominic Crossan notes, Paul challenged imperial propaganda by arguing that true peace does not come through power but through justice.[v] Moreover, he argued that a culture founded on false belief (Roman pagan religion) was doomed to corruption as one’s moral com-pass was disoriented.
Since the defining contexts of early Christianity were Judaism and the Roman Empire, Rome is a perfect venue for understanding Biblical and early Church history. Between 20,000 and 50,000 Jews lived in Rome during the 1st century. It was one of the largest communities of Jews outside Palestine and quickly became the place where different approaches to Christianity were worked out.
Prior to Claudius’ expelling of the Jews in 49, most followers of Christ were probably associated with the large network of Jews in Rome. After the edict, are large number of those that remained would have been non-Jews. When Jews were allowed back in Rome several years later, the relationship between Jewish Christians (returning) and non-Jewish Christians (who had remained and were practicing their faith as non-Jews) was tense. It is no accident that Paul and Peter both come to Rome to play a significant role in shaping the future of Christianity. After their deaths (in the 60s) and after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70, there was a more definitive distancing of Jews and Christians in Rome.[vi]
Rome was, of course, the umbilical cord of the Roman world, where the ideology of Roman civilization was forged and propagated. Despite centuries of neglect and pillage, Rome dazzles visitors with vast archaeological parks that contain intact Roman buildings including the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, ceremonial arches, temples, the Senate building, the Roman archives, the Pantheon, and opulent bath complexes. Roman statues depicting both idealized forms of the emperors and non-idealized images of average citizens fill the museums of Rome. Short day excursions offer even more tangible evidence of Roman life – whether in Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Ostia Antica where vast archae-ological parks make entire Roman cities accessible to modern visitors.
It is easy for contemporary Christians to imagine the beliefs, practices and culture of ancient Rome as they walk along the very streets and in the very buildings that the 1st generations of Christians did. Visiting Roman sites make great learning opportunities for considering how Christians witnessed to a new faith and value system in their cultural milieu. What did ordinary Romans think of Christians? How did Christians participate in everyday Roman life when this often meant engaging in local practices that were either at odds with Gospel values or involved contact with pagan cult? How did Roman culture shape early Christianity in terms of gender roles, family life, and social organization? And, if by the time of Constantine the Christian population was sizeable, what had Romans seen in Christianity that appealed to them and how did this begin to shape Roman culture?
Beyond Jewish and Roman heritage sites, visitors find that Rome has the most extensive collection of archaeological evidence for early Christian life in the world. This includes several excavated sites allowing us to visit 1st and 2nd century buildings used as house churches and meeting places for early Christian worship. These sites tell us a lot about the sociology of early Christianity and the type of worship and organization early Christianity followed. It is a powerfully moving experience to stand in the very rooms that the earliest Christians used for their gatherings! It is even likely that Peter, Paul or other leaders such as Prisca and Aquila may have met with congregations in these sites so that we are literally standing in their footsteps!
Catacombs (underground burial galleries) scattered around the city are quite accessible and tell us a lot about the neighborhoods Christians lived in and their relationship with other ethnic groups – particularly the Jews.[vii] Many of the catacombs include some of the earliest examples of Christian art in the world. Some of this is symbolic and helps us learn more about the expression of Christian belief.[viii] There are interesting places where this art incorporates Jewish and Roman symbols into new Christian themes and form. There are some early frescos that help us learn a lot about the form of early Christian worship and the kind of people who led these gatherings. There is a large collection of pre-Constantinian sarcophagi in Rome, marble tombs that include elaborate carvings of Biblical stories that tell us much about the increased number of wealthy Romans who began to convert to Christianity and who celebrated their faith in ways that were consistent with their status.
Rome also offers sites that confirm Biblical references such as an excavation and church where Prisca and Aquila hosted a congregation in their home and the Three Taverns site on the Via Appia where Paul met believers after landing at Pozzuoli. There are sites that confirm extra-Biblical stories about early Christians such as evidence of the great fire of Nero in 64, a prison where Peter and Paul may have been held, and sites associated with Peter’s martyrdom in the Circus of Nero/Caligula and Paul’s beheading on the Via Ostiense.
Rome offers another compelling reason for protestant, evangelical and reform Christians to visit. For better or worse, Rome was at the center of the events of the 16th century that led to the Reformation. In the 1400s and 1500s, Rome was a spiritual destination for Christians who wanted to explore their heritage but could no longer travel to Jerusalem due to the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of the Holy Land. The great apostles Peter and Paul were buried in Rome and were an important reason for Rome’s popularity as a pilgrimage site. Although Martin Luther came to Rome on business for his Order, he also was excited about the spiritual value of traveling to Rome. But he, like many, was scandalized by the corruption and moral decay he discovered while visiting Rome.
At that time, Rome had more prostitutes per capita than any other European city. Clergy were notorious for patronizing brothels, keeping concubines and sexual misbehavior in general. Church Cardinals lived as Renaissance princes, competing with each other in building and artistic projects. Many were part of family dynasties, giving church properties and benefices to nieces and nephews.
At the end of the 1400s, Rome was a moral embarrassment and a crumbling hovel of deserted buildings and fetid streets. Popes began to envision the rebirth of Rome as part of a project of reasserting the pre-eminence of Rome as the Christian capital. As Renaissance artists uncovered important Roman works of art and studied Roman architecture, many wondered why Christian Rome shouldn’t surpass ancient pagan Rome in both cultural virtues and architectural and urban beauty. The dream of urban renewal was born.
St. Peter’s Basilica, originally built by Constantine in the 4th century, was at risk of collapse. Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante to begin work on constructing a new basilica. The project would eventually take more than 100 years to complete. During its initial stages, Popes raised money by selling indulgences. This and the moral corruption of Rome scandalized Martin Luther (among others) and inspired him to call for a debate about a number of beliefs, practices and institutions that characterized Roman Christianity.
The loss of large numbers of evangelical and reform Christians from the Roman Catholic Church, the Papacy’s diminished prestige among many European leaders, and the discovery of vast new worlds of non-Christians in the Americas and Asia encouraged the Popes to do even more to reclaim Rome as the center of the world. The completion of the new basilica with its massive dome and the edification of other important monuments in and around Rome was done out of response to the Reformation and other cultural shifts of the 1500s and 1600s. Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, visitors to Rome cannot help but be impressed and dazzled by St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and the array of urban projects completed in the late 1500s and early 1600s. However, they are also an important backdrop for dialogue and conversation about the events that led to the Reformation, the similarities and differences between Roman Catholic and Evangelical and Protestant Christianity, and opportunities for greater understanding and cooperation between Christians as we explore our heritage together.
ESSENTIAL SITES FOR A PROTESTANT TOUR OF ROME
There is great diversity in so-called Protestant groups – whether evangelical, mainline Protestant, Anglican or non-denominational. Each brings a unique set of objectives for exploring Rome. Nevertheless, the following sites are an important short-list of must-sees in Rome.
The Roman Forum and Colosseum
The Roman Forum and Colosseum provide an indispensable context for thinking about events in the 1st century and how Christian beliefs and practices compared and contrasted with Roman ones and why the Gospel was so compelling in the end. A thorough visit to the Forum includes visiting sites used as religious propaganda for Romans and some sites that were converted by Christians in the 3rd and 4th centuries. A visit to the Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseum requires at least ½-day with a guide. Many Protestants make a point to visit the Mamertime Prison at the edge of the Forum, a place where legend holds that Peter was held prisoner.
The Basilica of San Clemente
Near the Colosseum is a hidden gem, the Basilica of San Clemente. It is a 12th century church built over a 4th century church built over 1st and 2nd century Roman buildings – some of which were used by early Christian communities. One can visit all three levels of the church. The Basilica of San Clemente is one of the best sites for making sense of the context of early Christianity and the make-up of the first generations of Christians. It offers an uninterrupted chronology of Christianity at Rome since the 1st century. The site allows visitors to identify different socio-economic strata of the first generations of Christians as the title to the site (titular church) was connected with the imperial family. There is a Mithraic temple in the lower level allowing visitors to learn about the other religions that competed with Christianity for serious spiritual seekers and, in some instances, held services right next door. The upper level of the church includes one of the most beautifully decorated mosaic apses filled with religious symbolism. It is a great place to explore what images Christians used to communicate their faith in artistic form. Combine a visit to the Forum and Colosseum with this important nearby gem. (See Illume’s article on the Basilica of San Clemente for more details.)
There is a deep fascination with the catacombs and early Christianity. Rome did not permit burial within the city walls, so on imperial roads and highways in and out of Rome, rich Roman families built mausolea and memorials to the dead. Some of the well-connected Romans donated access to their land so that Christians could dig tunnels in the soft but firm “tufa” for burial galleries. There are miles of tunnels and hundreds of thousands of grave sites, most looted during various invasions of Rome. Nevertheless, an extensive amount of early Christian art and symbolism can be found in the catacombs, making them an excellent place to explore early beliefs and practices. The richest in terms of early Christian frescoes is the Catacomb of S. Priscilla – which includes the famous Greek Chapel where there is an Agape Meal or Eucharist depicted. Other catacombs that include important art are the Catacombs of San Callisto and the Catacombs of Santa Domitilla. Nearby, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano include three Roman mausolea and a graffiti wall with prayers to Peter and Paul. All catacombs include local guides who accompany visitors through the galleries and explain the significance of the frescoes and fragments of grave coverings seen. Many of the catacombs are located near the Via Appia Antica which was one of Rome’s oldest highways and the route Paul took traveling to Rome.
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
One of the great monumental basilicas built in the 4th and 5th centuries was St. Paul, built over the tomb of St. Paul. This was one of the principle pilgrimage destinations in Europe for centuries. In 1823, much of the basilica burned in a terrible fire. The basilica was rebuilt according to the original plans. The result is a pristine example of monumental Roman basilicas. It is one of the largest Christian structures in the world but it has a simplicity that is breathtaking. It is an important place for discussing Paul’s journeys, his relationship with Roman Christians, his companions in ministry, and the role he had in shaping Christianity. Recent archaeological work has confirmed the existence of a tomb under the main altar, underscoring historical claims that this is indeed Paul’s tomb.
The Basilica of St. Peter
Arguably a Roman Catholic site, the Basilica of St. Peter is an important site for Protestants as well. If you can get permission for a visit to the Scavi (excavations under St. Peter’s), the importance of this site becomes more obvious. The site used to be occupied by a Roman amphitheatre or circus (the large obelisk in the square used to sit on the spine of the circus) and was the site of the martyrdom of Peter and the Christians rounded up in the year 64 after the great fire of Nero. Peter and others were buried on the hillside overlooking the circus, and a small memorial was erected over his tomb. After Constantine began to patronize Christianity, he leveled many of the sumptuous Roman mausolea and built a large monumental basilica (much like the one over the tomb of St. Paul) over Peter’s tomb. It was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Christianity for centuries. In the 1500s, the structure was at risk of collapsing, so Pope Julius II made the decision to build a new structure. For over 100 years, the new St. Peter’s was built, and the old St. Peter’s was dismantled. For Protestants, the basilica is a tangible way to connect with St. Peter and his witness to the Gospel. It is also an important place for Protestants to discuss the history of the Roman Catholic claim about Peter’s authority and the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Most Protestant groups actually enjoy seeing the Pope. The Pope appears in one of the windows of the Vatican palace on Sundays for a blessing at noon. He also holds general audiences for pilgrims on Wednesday mornings. Both are free to the public.
St. Peter's Basilica
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are one of the most important art museums of the world, and merit a visit for all who come to Rome. Starting in the 1500s, statues and other artifacts uncovered in archaeological digs were put in the museums resulting in one of the greatest collections of ancient art in the world. The decoration (painting) of the papal apartments by Raphael and his students are some of the most important Renaissance paintings in existence. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the wall of the “Last Judgment,” both painted by Michelangelo, are important testaments to the religious sentiments of the Renaissance and of the period of the Reformation (and Counter Reformation). The Vatican Museums also house a surprise collection that Protestants find utterly fascinating. The Pio-Christian section of the museum includes a large collection of early Christian sarcophagi richly decorated in biblical motifs. These are an unparalleled window into the emerging beliefs and practices of the first generations of Christians as they captured biblical stories in marble. Some are early enough to be “crypto-Christian” – decorated in symbolism that Romans would have recognized as Roman but Christians would have recognized as distinctively Christian. Special permission and guides are required for this section of the museum (at the time of the writing of this article).
The list of early Christian sites in Rome is extensive. Other sites worth considering are Santa Pudenziana (where St. Peter stayed with local hosts), Santa Prisca (built over the house where Prisca and her husband welcomed Christians), S. Giorgio and Santa Maria in Cosmedin (both built as deacon charity distribution centers for Christians), St. John Lateran (one of the first churches built by Constantine and whose baptistry was the location for most early Christian baptisms), and the Basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (where an underground excavation includes an early Christian house church). A favorite for some groups is the Ara Pacis – the Altar of Peace dedicated to the Pax Romana created by Augustus. The temple and memorial are great classical Roman art and help reinforce Roman religious beliefs. The outside wall of the structure includes a copy of the Res Gestae (a so-called “Gospel” of Augustus and the great deeds he accomplished). This is a wonderful site to explore how the Gospels – particularly the Gospel of Luke – compared and contrasted Jesus with Augustus to show how the Peace of Christ was superior. Some Protestant groups find the Ghetto and the Jewish Museum under the main synagogue and important site. The museum celebrates the continuity of the Jewish community from ancient Roman times and the precarious relationship Jews had with Christians in Rome. Many Protestants find a journey to Assisi to be an important part of their visit to Rome. Assisi is a well-reserved medieval village where St. Francis lived and ministered. The city is very evocative of St. Francis’ time and his call for a more simplistic and evangelical living out of Christianity.
Visit Illume’s Bibliography for other articles (current and forthcoming) on Christian Rome or contact our in-house scholar for help in designing a unique Protestant visit to Rome.
[i] This paper is in memory of Don Baker and his passion for early Christian history.
[ii] Dominic Crossan. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.
[iv] Seutonius, Lives of the Caesars, Claudius 25.
[v] Dominic Crossan. In Search of Paul.
[vi] Judaism and Christianity in First Century Rome. Ed. Karl Donfried and Peter Richardson.
[vii] Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries.
[viii] Graydon Synder, Ante Pacem.