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History Of The Christian Church Volume I by Philip Schaff

Section 36. Christianity in Rome.

I. On the general, social, and moral condition of Rome under the Emperors:

Ludwig Friedländer: Sittengeschichte Roms. Leipzig, 1862, 5th ed. revised and enlarged, 1881, 3 vols.

Rod. Lanciani: Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries. Boston, 1889 (with 100 illustrations).

II. On the Jews in Rome and the allusions of Roman Writers to Them:

Renan: Les Apôtres, 287-293; Merivale:History of the Romans, VI., 203 sqq.; Friedländer: l.c. III., 505 sqq.; Hausrath: Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte, III., 383-392 (2d ed.); Schürer: Lehrbuch der Neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte, pp.624 sq., and Die Gemeindeverfassung der Juden in Rom in der Kaiserzeit, Leipz., 1879; Huidekoper: Judaism at Rome, 1876. Also John Gill: Notices of the Jews and their Country by the Classic Writers of Antiquity.2d ed. London, 1872. On Jewish Roman inscriptions see Garrucci (several articles in Italian since 1862), von Engeström (in a Swedish work, Upsala, 1876), and Schürer (1879).

III. On the Christian Congregation in Rome:

The Histories of the Apostolic Age (see pp.189 sqq.); the Introductions to the Commentaries on Romans (mentioned p.281), and a number of critical essays on the origin and composition of the Church of Rome and the aim of the Epistle to the Romans, by Baur (Ueber Zweck und Veranlassung des Römerbriefs, 1836; reproduced in his Paul, I., 346 sqq., Engl. transl.), Beyschlag (Das geschichtliche Problem des Römerbriefs in the |Studien und Kritiken| for 1867), Hilgenfeld (Einleitung in das N. T., 1875, pp.302 sqq.), C. Weizsäcker (Ueber die älteste römische Christengemeinde, 1876, and his Apost. Zeitalter, 1886, pp.415-467).

W. Mangold: Der Römerbrief und seine gesch. Voraussetzungen, Marburg, 1884. Defends the Jewish origin and character of the Roman church (against Weizsäcker).

Rud. Seyerlen: Entstehung und erste Schicksale der Christengemeinde in Rom. Tübingen, 1874.

Adolf Harnack: Christianity and Christians at the Court of the Roman Emperors before the Time of Constantine. In the |Princeton Review,| N. York, 1878, pp.239-280.

J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow (R. C.): Roma Sotterranea, new ed., London, 1879, vol. I., pp.78-91. Based upon Caval. de Rossi's large Italian work under the same title (Roma, 1864-1877, in three vols. fol.). Both important for the remains of early Roman Christianity in the Catacombs.

Formby: Ancient Rome and its Connect. with the Chr. Rel. Lond., 1880.

Keim: Rom. u. das Christenthum. Berlin, 1881.

[MAP INSET] From |Roma Sotteranea,| by Northcote and Brownlow.

The City of Rome.

The city of Rome was to the Roman empire what Paris is to France, what London to Great Britain: the ruling head and the beating heart. It had even a more cosmopolitan character than these modern cities. It was the world in miniature, |orbis in urbe.| Rome had conquered nearly all the nationalities of the then civilized world, and drew its population from the East and from the West, from the North and from the South. All languages, religious, and customs of the conquered provinces found a home there. Half the inhabitants spoke Greek, and the natives complained of the preponderance of this foreign tongue, which, since Alexander's conquest, had become the language of the Orient and of the civilized world. The palace of the emperor was the chief centre of Oriental and Greek life. Large numbers of the foreigners were freedmen, who generally took the family name of their masters. Many of them became very wealthy, even millionnaires. The rich freedman was in that age the type of the vulgar, impudent, bragging upstart. According to Tacitus, |all things vile and shameful| were sure to flow from all quarters of the empire into Rome as a common sewer. But the same is true of the best elements: the richest products of nature, the rarest treasures of art, were collected there; the enterprising and ambitious youths, the men of genius, learning, and every useful craft found in Rome the widest field and the richest reward for their talents.

With Augustus began the period of expensive building. In his long reign ofpeace and prosperity he changed the city of bricks into a city of marble. It extended in narrow and irregular streets on both banks of the Tiber, covered the now desolate and feverish Campagna to the base of the Albanian hills, and stretched its arms by land and by sea to the ends of the earth. It was then (as in its ruins it is even now) the most instructive and interesting city in the world. Poets, orators, and historians were lavish in the praises of the urbs aeterna,

|qua nihil posis visere majus.|

The estimates of the population of imperial Rome are guesswork, and vary from one to four millions. But in all probability it amounted under Augustus to more than a million, and increased rapidly under the following emperors till it received a check by the fearful epidemic of 79, which for many days demanded ten thousand victims a day. Afterwards the city grew again and reached the height of its splendor under Hadrian and the Antonines.

The Jews in Rome.

The number of Jews in Rome during the apostolic age is estimated at twenty or thirty thousand souls. They all spoke Hellenistic Greek with a strong Hebrew accent. They had, as far as we know, seven synagogues and three cemeteries, with Greek and a few Latin inscriptions, sometimes with Greek words in Latin letters, or Latin words with Greek letters. They inhabited the fourteenth region, beyond the Tiber (Trastevere), at the base of the Janiculum, probably also the island of the Tiber, and part of the left bank towards the Circus Maximus and the Palatine hill, in the neighborhood of the present Ghetto or Jewry. They were mostly descendants of slaves and captives of Pompey, Cassius, and Antony. They dealt then, as now, in old clothing and broken ware, or rose from poverty to wealth and prominence as bankers, physicians, astrologers, and fortunetellers. Not a few found their way to the court. Alityrus, a Jewish actor, enjoyed the highest favor of Nero. Thallus, a Samaritan and freedman of Tiberius, was able to lend a million denarii to the Jewish king, Herod Agrippa. The relations between the Herods and the Julian and Claudian emperors were very intimate.

The strange manners and institutions of the Jews, as circumcision, Sabbath observance, abstinence from pork and meat sacrificed to the gods whom they abhorred as evil spirits, excited the mingled amazement, contempt, and ridicule of the Roman historians and satirists. Whatever was sacred to the heathen was profane to the Jews. They were regarded as enemies of the human race. But this, after all, was a superficial judgment. The Jews had also their friends. Their indomitable industry and persistency, their sobriety, earnestness, fidelity and benevolence, their strict obedience to law, their disregard of death in war, their unshaken trust in God, their hope of a glorious future of humanity, the simplicity and purity of their worship, the sublimity and majesty of the idea of one omnipotent, holy, and merciful God, made a deep impression upon thoughtful and serious persons, and especially upon females (who escaped the odium of circumcision). Hence the large number of proselytes in Rome and elsewhere. Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, as well as Josephus, testify that many Romans abstained from all business on the Sabbath, fasted and prayed, burned lamps, studied the Mosaic law, and sent tribute to the temple of Jerusalem. Even the Empress Poppaea was inclined to Judaism after her own fashion, and showed great favor to Josephus, who calls her |devout| or |God-fearing| (though she was a cruel and shameless woman). Seneca, who detested the Jews (calling them sceleratissima gens), was constrained to say that this conquered race gave laws to their conquerors.

The Jews were twice expelled from Rome under Tiberius and Claudius, but soon returned to their transtiberine quarter, and continued to enjoy the privileges of a religio licita, which were granted to them by heathen emperors, but were afterwards denied them by Christian popes.

When Paul arrived in Rome he invited the rulers of the synagogues to a conference, that he might show them his good will and give them the first offer of the gospel, but they replied to his explanations with shrewd reservation, and affected to know nothing of Christianity, except that it was a sect everywhere spoken against. Their best policy was evidently to ignore it as much as possible. Yet a large number came to hear the apostle on an appointed day, and some believed, while the majority, as usual, rejected his testimony.

Christianity in Rome.

From this peculiar people came the first converts to a religion which proved more than a match for the power of Rome. The Jews were only an army of defense, the Christians an army of conquest, though under the despised banner of the cross.

The precise origin of the church of Rome is involved in impenetrable mystery. We are informed of the beginnings of the church of Jerusalem and most of the churches of Paul, but we do not know who first preached the gospel at Rome. Christianity with its missionary enthusiasm for the conversion of the world must have found a home in the capital of the world at a very early day, before the apostles left Palestine. The congregation at Antioch grew up from emigrant and fugitive disciples of Jerusalem before it was consolidated and fully organized by Barnabas and Paul.

It is not impossible, though by no means demonstrable, that the first tidings of the gospel were brought to Rome soon after the birthday of the church by witnesses of the pentecostal miracle in Jerusalem, among whom were |sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes.| In this case Peter, the preacher of the pentecostal sermon, may be said to have had an indirect agency in the founding of the church of Rome, which claims him as the rock on which it is built, although the tradition of his early visit (42) and twenty or twenty-five years' residence there is a long exploded fable. Paul greets among the brethren in Rome some kinsmen who had been converted before him, i.e., before 37. Several names in the list of Roman brethren to whom he sends greetings are found in the Jewish cemetery on the Appian Way among the freedmen of the Empress Livia. Christians from Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece must have come to the capital for various reasons, either as visitors or settlers.

The Edict of Claudius.

The first historic trace of Christianity in Rome we have in a notice of the heathen historian Suetonius, confirmed by Luke, that Claudius, about a.d.52, banished the Jews from Rome because of their insurrectionary disposition and commotion under the instigation of |Chrestus| (misspelt for |Christus|).

This commotion in all probability refers to Messianic controversies between Jews and Christians who were not yet clearly distinguished at that time. The preaching, of Christ, the true King of Israel, would naturally produce a great commotion among the Jews, as it did at Antioch, in Pisidia, in Lystra, Thessalonica, and Beraea; and the ignorant heathen magistrates would as naturally infer that Christ was a political pretender and aspirant to an earthly throne. The Jews who rejected the true Messiah looked all the more eagerly for an imaginary Messiah that would break the yoke of Rome and restore the theocracy of David in Jerusalem. Their carnal millennarianism affected even some Christians, and Paul found it necessary to warn them against rebellion and revolution. Among those expelled by the edict of Claudius were Aquila and Priscilla, the hospitable friends of Paul, who were probably converted before they met him in Corinth.

The Jews, however, soon returned, and the Jewish Christians also, but both under a cloud of suspicion. To this fact Tacitus may refer when he says that the Christian superstition which had been suppressed for a time (by the edict of Claudius) broke out again (under Nero, who ascended the throne in 54).

Paul's Epistle.

In the early part of Nero's reign (54-68) the Roman congregation was already well known throughout Christendom, had several meeting places and a considerable number of teachers. It was in view of this fact, and in prophetic anticipation of its future importance, that Paul addressed to it from Corinth his most important doctrinal Epistle (a.d.58), which was to prepare the way for his long desired personal visit. On his journey to Rome three years later he found Christians at Puteoli (the modern Puzzuolo at the bay of Naples), who desired him to tarry with them seven days. Some thirty or forty miles from the city, at Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae (The Three Taverns), he was met by Roman brethren anxious to see the writer of that marvellous letter, and derived much comfort from this token of affectionate regard.

Paul in Rome.

His arrival in Rome, early in the year 61, which two years later was probably followed by that of Peter, naturally gave a great impulse to the growth of the congregation. He brought with him, as he had promised, |the fulness of the blessing of Christ.| His very bonds were overruled for the progress of the gospel, which he was left free to preach under military guard in his own dwelling. He had with him during the whole or a part of the first Roman captivity his faithful pupils and companions: Luke, |the beloved physician| and historian; Timothy, the dearest of his spiritual sons; John Mark, who had deserted him on his first missionary tour, but joined him at Rome and mediated between him and Peter; one Jesus, who is called Justus, a Jewish Christian, who remained faithful to him; Aristarchus, his fellow-prisoner from Thessalonica; Tychicus from Ephesus; Epaphras and Onesimus from Colossae; Epaphroditus from Philippi; Demas, Pudens, Linus, Eubulus, and others who are honorably mentioned in the Epistles of the captivity. They formed a noble band of evangelists and aided the aged apostle in his labors at Rome and abroad. On the other hand his enemies of the Judaizing party were stimulated to counter-activity, and preached Christ from envy and jealousy; but in noble self-denial Paul rose above petty sectarianism, and sincerely rejoiced from his lofty standpoint if only Christ was proclaimed and his kingdom promoted. While he fearlessly vindicated Christian freedom against Christian legalism in the Epistle to the Galatians, he preferred even a poor contracted Christianity to the heathenism which abounded in Rome.

The number which were converted through these various agencies, though disappearing in the heathen masses of the metropolis, and no doubt much smaller than the twenty thousand Jews, must have been considerable, for Tacitus speaks of a |vast multitude| of Christians that perished in the Neronian persecution in 64; and Clement, referring to the same persecution, likewise mentions a |vast multitude of the elect,| who were contemporary with Paul and Peter, and who, |through many indignities and tortures, became a most noble example among ourselves| (that is, the Roman Christians).

Composition and Consolidation of the Roman Church.

The composition of the church of Rome has been a matter of much learned controversy and speculation. It no doubt was, like most congregations outside of Palestine, of a mixed character, with a preponderance of the Gentile over the Jewish element, but it is impossible to estimate the numerical strength and the precise relation which the two elements sustained to each other.

We have no reason to suppose that it was at once fully organized and consolidated into one community. The Christians were scattered all over the immense city, and held their devotional meetings in different localities. The Jewish and the Gentile converts may have formed distinct communities, or rather two sections of one Christian community.

Paul and Peter, if they met together in Rome (after 63), would naturally, in accordance with the Jerusalem compact, divide the field of supervision between them as far as practicable, and at the same time promote union and harmony. This may be the truth which underlies the early and general tradition that they were the joint founders of the Roman church. No doubt their presence and martyrdom cemented the Jewish and Gentile sections. But the final consolidation into one organic corporation was probably not effected till after the destruction of Jerusalem.

This consolidation was chiefly the work of Clement, who appears as the first presiding presbyter of the one Roman church. He was admirably qualified to act as mediator between the disciples of Peter and Paul, being himself influenced by both, though more by Paul. His Epistle to the Corinthians combines the distinctive features of the Epistles of Paul, Peter, and James, and has been called |a typical document, reflecting the comprehensive principles and large sympathies which had been impressed upon the united church of Rome.|

In the second century we see no more traces of a twofold community. But outside of the orthodox church, the heretical schools, both Jewish and Gentile, found likewise au early home in this rendezvous of the world. The fable of Simon Magus in Rome reflects this fact. Valentinus, Marcion, Praxeas, Theodotus, Sabellius, and other arch-heretics taught there. In heathen Rome, Christian heresies and sects enjoyed a toleration which was afterwards denied them by Christian Rome, until, in 1870, it became the capital of united Italy, against the protest of the pope.


The language of the Roman church at that time was the Greek, and continued to be down to the third century. In that language Paul wrote to Rome and from Rome; the names of the converts mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of the Romans, and of the early bishops, are mostly Greek; all the early literature of the Roman church was Greek; even the so-called Apostles' Creed, in the form held by the church of Rome, was originally Greek. The first Latin version of the Bible was not made for Rome, but for the provinces, especially for North Africa. The Greeks and Greek speaking Orientals were at that time the most intelligent, enterprising, and energetic people among the middle classes in Rome. |The successful tradesmen, the skilled artisans, the confidential servants and retainers of noble houses -- almost all the activity and enterprise of the common people, whether for good or for evil, were Greek.|

Social Condition.

The great majority of the Christians in Rome, even down to the close of the second century, belonged to the lower ranks of society. They were artisans, freedmen, slaves. The proud Roman aristocracy of wealth, power, and knowledge despised the gospel as a vulgar superstition. The contemporary writers ignored it, or mentioned it only incidentally and with evident contempt. The Christian spirit and the old Roman spirit were sharply and irreconcilably antagonistic, and sooner or later had to meet in deadly conflict.

But, as in Athens and Corinth, so there were in Rome also a few honorable exceptions.

Paul mentions his success in the praetorian guard and in the imperial household.

It is possible, though not probable, that Paul became passingly acquainted with the Stoic philosopher, Annaeus Seneca, the teacher of Nero and friend of Burrus; for he certainly knew his brother, Annaeus Gallio, proconsul at Corinth, then at Rome, and had probably official relations with Burrus, as prefect of the praetorian guard, to which he was committed as prisoner; but the story of the conversion of Seneca, as well as his correspondence with Paul, are no doubt pious fictions, and, if true, would be no credit to Christianity, since Seneca, like Lord Bacon, denied his high moral principles by his avarice and meanness.

Pomponia Graecina, the wife of Aulus Plautius, the conqueror of Britain, who was arraigned for |foreign superstition| about the year 57 or 58 (though pronounced innocent by her husband), and led a life of continual sorrow till her death in 83, was probably the first Christian lady of the Roman nobility, the predecessor of the ascetic Paula and Eustochium, the companions of Jerome. Claudia and Pudens, from whom Paul sends greetings (2 Tim.4:21), have, by an ingenious conjecture, been identified with the couple of that name, who are respectfully mentioned by Martial in his epigrams; but this is doubtful. A generation later two cousins of the Emperor Domitian (81-96), T. Flavius Clemens, consul (in 95), and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were accused of |atheism, | that is, of Christianity, and condemned, the husband to death, the wife to exile (a.d.96). Recent excavations in the catacomb of Domitilla, near that of Callistus, establish the fact that an entire branch of the Flavian family had embraced the Christian faith. Such a change was wrought within fifty or sixty years after Christianity had entered Rome.

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