Even today a visitor to the churches of Rome can step into rooms where, two millennia before our times, the first Christians professed their new faith and often awaited suffering and death.
A sanctuary originally built for Rome’s first Christian community is the first stop on this pilgrimage to some of Rome’s oldest titular churches. Located in the city’s picturesque quarter ‘across the Tiber’ (Trastevere), the basilica of S. Maria in Trastevere had its origin – in the dark days of persecutions and catacombs – as a house church used by the first Roman converts from the Jewish faith.
ROME’S FIRST CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
According to a census taken during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (29 BC – AD 14), the Trastevere district, across the river from the city proper (zone No. XIV, called Trans Tyberim), was the largest and most populous in the imperial capital. The quarter had always been inhabited by a large number of foreigners who came to service the Tiber’s last dock before the busy seaport of Ostia. There were Greek craftsmen, sailors from Ravenna, Syrian and Egyptian traders. But the Jewish community was by far the largest – estimated at about 50,000 in the first century AD.
These humble Jewish families, merchants in wine, oil, grain, and sometimes marble, were in regular contact with their homeland; they certainly heard about Christ’s teachings, and some must have been sympathetic. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles 2:10 reported that ‘visitors from Rome’ were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and could have brought news of the event back to Rome.
Historical records suggest that Christians were a significant presence in the Jewish community at that time and that their beliefs were causing trouble in the synagogues. According to the Roman chronicler Suetonius, the Emperor Claudius (41-54) expelled a large number of Jews in AD49 for ‘disputes concerning Chrestus’, probably a misspelling of ‘Christ’.
The apostles were able to make their first converts among Trastevere’s large Jewish population. According to tradition, St. Peter came to Rome c.AD42, residing first in the home of the Senator Pudens, and then in the villa of Aquila and Prisca on the Aventine Hill. From the Aventine, Peter descended to preach to the numerous and receptive Jewish immigrants in Trastevere; many of these converted and joined together to form Rome’s first Christian community.
St. Paul’s evangelization, c. AD61-5, also found fertile ground among the lower-class, culturally diverse Trasteverini. The Christian cult flourished and expanded here. It was in Trastevere that imperial guards hunted down most of their Christian victims for martyrdom in the Roman arenas. It was from Trastevere that most Christian families travelled secretly to bury their dead in catacombs along the Appian Way.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.