THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - Volume 2: by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


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|288 Christian sites in Rome.

Christian sites in Rome.

(1) The Forum Romanum in the centre of the original city lies between
(2) The Capitoline Hill, with its temples of Jupiter and Juno, and
(3) The Palatine Hill, with its imperial palaces.
(4) Some Jews lived in the neighbourhood called the Subura, but the Jewish quarter was on the opposite side of the river near the Island.
(5) The site of the burial of St Peter is on the right hand of the Via Cornelia as one ascends the Vatican Hill. The martyrdoms of 64 took place in the Circus of Nero on the left.
(6) The site of the burial of St Paul is on the Ostian Way, and lies south of the city.
(7) In ancient times all burial places were situated outside the city. A first-century Christian cemetery is that of Priscilla on the Salarian Way leading north.
(8) Another first-century cemetery is that of Domitilla on the Ardeatine Way, leading south.
(9) First-century cemeteries were taken into the Cemetery of Callistus on the Appian Way, leading south. Callistus took charge of this cemetery about 200. It contains the Crypt of the Popes, dating from 235.
(10) Callistus, who died in 222, was buried in the Cemetery of Calepodius in the district called Transtiberim: across the Tiber. (In Italian: Trastevere.)
(11) Hippolytus, his rival as bishop, died 235, and was buried in the Ager Veranus on the Tiburtine Way leading east. St Laurence, who died in 258, was buried nearby.
(12) The Emperor Constantine in 322 gave the bishop of Rome the buildings which became St John Lateran. It became the parish church and cathedral of Rome.
(13, 14, 15) According to fourth- or fifth-century legends, the oldest churches in the City were St Pudentiana (13), St Praxedis (14), and St Prisca (15).
(16, 17) St Clement (16) and St Cecilia (17) are also regarded as old churches.

Note. The expression 'first-century cemeteries' is used to mean a first-century cemetery in continuous use in the family which it is named after, and showing copious signs of Christian use in the second century.

katapi ed: Map orientation. Take a glance at these YOU TUBE videos:
Rome today: Monuments and Museums, Churches etc (Google Earth).
Ancient Rome - virtual tour with commentary: Rome circa A.D.320 (Smart History).
(And search out the Google Earth virtual Rome videos.)

Denarius: Commodus

|286 THE RULE OF COMMODUS, A.D. 180-92

Before surveying the progress of the Christian gospel in western Europe, we must take up again the state of the empire and city under the new emperor, whose reign of thirteen years, 180 to 192, was a time of greater ease for the Christian church. Commodus paid no deference to the senate; he magnified his own divine and imperial office; and he ruled the empire through the army. The troops which were stationed in Rome were known as the praetorian guard, and their relation to the emperor was very close. Their prefect was the real ruler of the empire; for he was the supreme military and legal authority under the emperor. A succession of such officers held sway for a few years each, and succumbed to intrigue or violence. Palace revolutions were sometimes directed against the emperor himself, who became more suspicious and unpredictable as time went on.

Marcus Aurelius had left excellent generals in command of his legions on the frontiers; but the day was fast coming when these legions would appoint their generals as emperors and determine the destiny of the empire. Gaul and Britain formed a powerful block in the northwest. The long line of the Danube provided another, and this was more important since it was closer to Rome. The east with its headquarters at Antioch resembled a separate empire. The line was held; risings in Spain and Africa were put down; Britain was held with a firm hand.

We must note the names of three young men who grew up in Rome, or across the water in Africa, during the reign of Commodus. They were Callistus, Hippolytus and Tertullian. Callistus and Hippolytus were ecclesiastics and theologians who fought one another until they |287 eventually set up as rival bishops. Callistus was a slave; Hippolytus was obviously an aristocrat; we shall depend on his writings for the inner history of the Roman church and for light on its liturgical order. Tertullian, the lawyer-theologian of Africa, was the son of an army officer, and a convert to the faith; he wrote copiously on subjects of all sorts, and his books contain many lively and penetrating comments on his times. He is the first great literary figure in western Christianity, and corresponds in age and in importance to Clement of Alexandria in the east. The two writers were very different in character.


For want of a better place we may take here the famous document known as the Epistle to Diognetus. It was found in a codex of some 260 pages which contained five treatises, which were all attributed (quite wrongly) to Justin Martyr. It has been lost by fire, but a transcription was made and published. The titles of these treatises (which are, on the whole, likely to be third-century rather than second-century productions) show the kind of subjects in which the Christian schools were interested. They are

Concerning the Monarchia.
An Exhortation to the Greeks.
Concerning the Resurrection.
To the Greeks.
To Diognetus.

Pronto and Rusticus, the tutors of Marcus Aurelius, had been strongly opposed to Christianity; but there was another of his academic advisers whose mind may have been more open on the subject; for it has been suggested that he was the person to whom the fifth of these tracts was dedicated. His name was Diognetus. The identification is a modern conjecture but it is not impossible. Some scholars, indeed, regard the Epistle as a third-century production; but it reads more like an early apologetic treatise drawn up under the influence of the Preaching of Peter or the Apology of Aristides. It has no theological or philosophic argumentation. It is content to eulogize, and possibly to idealize, the pure monotheism and blameless life of the Christian people. |290

They dwell in their own countries but only as sojourners. They bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them and every fatherland a foreign country. They marry, like other men and beget children; but they do not cast out their offspring. They have everything in common except their wives. They are found in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh. Their existence is here on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

The description of the Christians as sojourners or aliens is not pure rhetoric. It is based firmly on their unhappy and insecure condition in a state which did not recognize their existence; but it passes in the last sentence from the literal to the mystical – having no citizenship here, they claim one in heaven.

The relation between the heavenly and the earthly is precisely the question which will come into prominence from the reign of Commodus onward. Will the church be able to maintain its other-worldly character, or will it compromise with the empire and with society? The themes of this little document reappear in the Latin apologies of Tertullian and Minucius; and so does the notion of the spiritual kingship which does not exercise force; but it is nowhere expressed with such simplicity and skill as we find here. It contains a veiled protest against persecution, and seems to have Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus in mind.

[He sent us his Son.] Was he sent, do you think, as a man might suppose, to establish an empire or to inspire fear and terror? Not so; but in gentleness and meekness he sent him, as a king might send his son who is also a king. He sent him as God; but he sent him as a man to men. He sent him as a saviour; using persuasion and not force; for force is not an attribute of God. He sent him to invite and not to persecute. He sent him in love and not as a judge; for he will send him in judgement, and then who will endure his presence?



The vision of the spiritual empire appears clearly in the Acts of the Scillitan martyrs; for there were martyrdoms early in the reign of Commodus, only four or five weeks after his accession in 180. They were the work of the African consul Saturninus, who was ' the first to draw the sword against us', Tertullian says.

|291 The first outbreak was at a country town named Madaura, and the first martyr was a native African with the Berber name of Namphamo, or so we judge from the fact that St Augustine calls him the 'archi-martyr'. His companions also bore 'barbarous' names, whose forms are uncertain; Lucitas, Mygdon (Miggin), and Samae or Saname. We have no further information about them; but we have an excellent objective record of a trial of Christians in the court-house at Scilli on 17 July 180. The Christians were ordered to swear by the genius of the emperor and to offer sacrifice, to which their leader Speratus made answer in the name of the rest,

I do not recognize the authority of this age; I am a servant of that God whom no man sees or can see with these eyes. I have not committed theft; and if I have bought anything I have paid the tax; for I recognize my own Lord as king of kings and ruler of all nations.

The suggestion of the proconsul that they should abandon their profession of faith was answered by a chorus of protest from the martyrs, whose names now begin to appear.

Cittinus. There is no one for us to fear except the Lord our God who is in heaven.
Donata. Honour to Caesar as Caesar, but fear belongs to God.
Vesta. I am a Christian.
Secunda. I intend to remain what I am.
Saturninus. You persevere in being a Christian?
Speratus. I am a Christian.
Saturninus. Would you like time to think it over?
Speratus. In so righteous a matter there is no need to think it over.
Saturninus. What have you got in your box?
Speratus. Books; and Epistles of Paul, who was a righteous man.
Saturninus. Why not take a remission of thirty days and think it over?
Speratus. I am a Christian.

There was nothing now for the proconsul to do but to read the sentence of execution, and the martyrs gave thanks to God. 'Today we are martyrs in heaven', said Nartzalus; 'thanks be to God.' Twelve names in all were read out, and there the records come to an end. 'They were all crowned with martyrdom', the document concludes, 'and they reign with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.'

|292 The record reminds us of the Acts of the Martyrdom of Justin and his companions in Rome, so that Speratus with his simple answers and his New Testament books may have been a teacher like Justin, witnessing to his faith with his pupils. The dialogue was taken from the records of the court, or written down at once while the memory was still fresh, repeating simply the more significant sayings on each side; but its liturgical close suggests that it was meant to be read aloud at a service. There is no account of the execution such as we find in the Asian and Gallican Acts. It is not a Passion story.


One of the most important points about this document is that it is composed in Latin, and that the martyrs have Latin or barbarous names. There are no Greeks or Asians or Phrygians. We are witnessing the birth of a Latin Christianity.

One of the strange powers of Christianity has been its ability to enter into union with a new language and national culture, and so create a new species or variety of itself. At the very outset of its history in Palestine itself, it appeared in Greek as well as in Aramaic, and this initial bilingualism enabled it to spread along the main trade-routes of the world and establish itself in the main cities. This wonderful faculty for linguistic adaptation seems to be hinted at in the story of the gift of tongues in the Acts of the Apostles with which the record of the world-wide expansion begins. Language was no obstacle to the gospel. It was not a philosophy. Its parables and words of wisdom and apocalyptic dreams and hymns and creeds and sacraments were equally effective in any language; and the figure of the crucified appeals equally to all nations. It had spread through the medium of the apostolic church-order and had won converts of many kinds; not the top of wealth or power or birth as a rule, though there had been distinguished exceptions; not the highest official class in the state, since its duties were too mixed up with pagan ceremony to be regarded as legitimate; nor the greatest of the intellectuals, though there had been Christian thinkers of repute. Nor, so far as we can see, was it a proletarian movement winning its way principally among slaves, though slaves could find their way into the highest orders of the ministry. It is better described as middle-class or bourgeois. It went where the common |293 Greek of the day took it, among business men, students of literature and philosophy, civil servants perhaps, skilled technicians, and so forth. Celsus makes some interesting remarks about Christian technicians. It ramified at this level, and expanded in a kind of cultured society which was much the same throughout the empire and even beyond it; it was the average enlightened Hellenistic culture of the day.

The case of Rome is an interesting one. The church of Rome wrote and prayed in Greek, so far as we can see; its teachers were almost all foreigners; even its bishops, before Victor, do not appear to have been Romans, though Clement and Pius have Latin names, and possibly also 'Sixtus'. It operated as a part of the international Hellenistic church. But what about the local and popular church life which is not disclosed in the documents – the part of the iceberg, so to speak, which is under the water? It seems quite possible that a Latin Christianity with a vigorous life had been in existence in Rome for a considerable time.

Great progress was being made at this same time in the development of a Syriac-speaking Christianity in the principalities beyond the Euphrates. This development was destined to create a national literature and culture, and a church organization of imposing proportions which would extend as far as Persia, India, and China. Egypt, too, is about to show proof of a vigorous indigenous Christianity.

In Phrygia we have observed the rise of a national form of Christianity which expressed itself in the movement known as the New Prophecy; but here there was a difference. There was no national language or organized culture which was capable of giving permanent expression to this Christian Phrygianism. It was obliged therefore to propagate itself in Greek, and very soon in Latin as well; it had its diaspora in every city of the empire; and it was able to influence the church very widely both east and west.

We must now survey the west. In Gaul we were unable to detect a true national form of Christianity; the martyrs spoke in Latin or in Greek. Attalus and Alexander represented Asia and Phrygia; Sanctus and Blandina had Roman names. The Gallican Epistle was written in Greek and belonged to the literary tradition of Asia Minor. The leading local presbyter was Irenaeus of Asia and Rome. There is no sign of Celtic. When Irenaeus became bishop, he had to speak in Celtic, but he tells us that there were no Christian books in that language; the same observation seems to be true of the Germanics and the Spains, as he calls them. There is no sign of it yet, but Latin was destined very soon to become the language of Christianity in all these regions; and Latin Christianity would become the religion of western Europe. The Acts of the Scillitan martyrs is the first clear glimpse which we get of the earliest stage of this majestic development.


Just as the name Asia was applied in ancient times to a small district at the western extremity of Asia Minor, so the name Africa was applied simply to the promontory of Tunisia which looks towards Sicily. In the Gulf of Tunis Semitic settlers from the Palestinian coast had established a colony in the ninth century before Christ which they called Kiriat Hadeshat (Kart Had'shat), the New Town, a name which has been corrupted into Carthage. Its kings were descended from the royal family of Tyre, which was connected by marriage with the royal family of Israel. The Phoenician settlers intermarried with the native Berbers, and both languages were spoken there. The city flourished and grew strong and became the principal rival of Rome in the western world. There was a long and desperate series of wars, and eventually Rome laid her enemy low and destroyed the old city in 146 B.C. For over a century the site remained desolate and uninhabited; but a colony was settled there by Julius Caesar and had made extraordinary progress. It was within two days' sail of Rome on a fair day, and figs from Carthage had been known to reach Rome in good condition.

Relations between the two cities were now as close and cordial as they had once been hostile and dangerous. Carthage was more Roman than Rome. While Rome was entertaining Greek philosophers and Syrian littérateurs at the court of Pius or Marcus, Carthage was producing a respectable Latin literature which inspired a revival of interest in Latin letters in Rome itself. Aemilius Pronto, the anti-Christian tutor of Marcus Aurelius was an African; Aulus Gellius, the Latin grammarian at Athens, was an African; and so was Apuleius, the writer of that delightful novel called the Golden Ass, which begins as a comic study of witchcraft in Thessaly and ends with a serious confession of faith in the mysteries of Isis. Soldiers and lawyers and theologians came to Rome from Africa: Tertullian the future theologian, Victor the future |295 bishop of Rome, and Septimus Severus the future emperor, who was of Phoenician descent, and spoke the old 'Punic' language. Severus married Julia Domna the daughter of the high priest of the sun at Emesa in Syria; and this marriage was a forecast of the new cosmopolitan empire which was taking shape.

It is natural to assume that Christianity was introduced into Africa from Rome. This must have happened some time before the persecutions in 180, but not too early in the century, if this is really the first persecution, as Tertullian and Augustine seem to say. The first missionaries must have arrived as early as the hundred-and-sixties. They had to make converts and organize churches, though doubtless the way was prepared for them; they had to spread out into the country towns such as Madaura and Scilli; and they had to provide 'books and Epistles of Paul' in the Latin tongue. Fifteen years does not seem too much to allow for all this. It may have begun in the last years of Justin. The years 165 to 175 are the latest possible period for the first evangelistic work; and there must have been Christian groups even earlier, some of them Greek-speaking.


The mention of the books and Epistles of Paul suggests another line of inquiry. What sort of a New Testament was in use in the African church? We can give a good answer to this question, because Tertullian, who began writing about 195, made numbers of quotations in Latin from the African New Testament; and these can be supplemented and checked from the writings of Cyprian a generation later. It was a text of the 'Western' type very like that which was used by Justin or Tatian or Marcion or Irenaeus; it was, in short, the kind of text which was in general use in Rome.

The official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church today is the translation called the Vulgate, which was made by St Jerome at the end of the fourth century from excellent Greek texts; but it is well known that there was an older version or versions which are alluded to by scholars as the Old Latin. Their oldest ancestors must have come into existence in Latin-speaking circles no later than the hundred-and-sixties or -seventies. Judging by the existing remains, there must have been at least three varieties or lines of transmission: the African, which seems to |296 represent the oldest, the Italian or European, « The Italian type can itself be divided into two. and the Marcionite. However this evidence is interpreted, it shows that an immense amount of labour was being expended on the provision of literature for Latin-speaking churches no later than the time of Justin. There were, therefore, Latin churches, Latin schools and Latin liturgical traditions. Nor need we confine this activity to Rome and Carthage. There were churches in the rest of Italy, and in the western provinces where Latin was spoken, such as Gaul, Spain and Britain. Latin was spoken where-ever the army was settled, or the Roman law administered: and this included Syria.

It was a large enterprise, which may have gone on piecemeal at different centres. A wide range of books was translated, including Hermas, Clement, Polycarp, Barnabas, and some form of the Didache. The works of Irenaeus seem to have been translated quite soon after they were written. It seems reasonable to suppose that the mainspring of this work was a strong Latin-speaking organization in Rome itself. It may be older than we think. Were there no Latin-speaking converts in the days of Hermas? His own Greek style is marked by numerous 'Latinisms'.


We have reviewed the evidence about the origins of the church of Rome from time to time, and have remarked that it is not a Latin tradition. Its apostolic inheritance was expressed in the Greek language and in the old Judaeo-Christian liturgical forms. It communicated in Greek with the rest of Christendom. It exercised unbounded hospitality to teachers from other centres of learning. The strongest evidence of a native Roman tradition is to be found in the paradoxical association with the family of the emperor at the close of the first century, and apparently with certain important Roman families with old names. The solidity of this evidence is guaranteed by the existence of old cemeteries like those of Domitilla and Priscilla.

Further evidence of the Roman character of the church is somewhat subjective. Clement, in his Epistle, most decidedly shows a certain pride in the imperial administration and in the discipline of the Roman army, on which he does not hesitate to dilate when addressing a city of lesser rank. But the Roman quality of Clement can be exaggerated; |297 his doctrine of submission to authority is thoroughly Jewish, and owes more to apostolic catechisms than to the edicts of the praetors. A certain tendency to promote discipline runs through Clement and Hermas, but it can be explained by the needs of the times rather than by the influence of antique Roman piety; and it was balanced by a feeling for forgiveness which was quite un-Roman. Under Pius and Anicetus, the Roman church organized a stout resistance to heresy, and well before the end of the century it was a strongly organized body which exercised a widespread influence in the church universal; a paramount influence many scholars think.

We have come across no evidence whatever of anyone in the Roman church using the Latin tongue; but there is an explanation for this; the nature of our evidence is such that it would not appear. The writings of Clement and Hermas as we have them were intended for distribution in the Greek-speaking world: and all our other evidence comes from foreign visitors. The native Roman, Latin-speaking, tradition would leave no marks on any of it. It may illustrate this point if we make another observation. We have not had a single reference to any Italian church outside Rome; yet there must have been many. Hippolytus tells us that a new bishop was consecrated by other bishops, so that other bishops must have existed in the vicinity. There must have been a Latin-speaking Christianity, not only in Rome, but in Italy generally; but it was not the face which Rome turned to the Christian world.


Another avenue of research is the shadowy line of tradition which is associated with the catacombs and the old Roman title-churches, as they are called. One of the points in apostolic Christianity which must have appealed to the Roman mind was its sanctification of the family and its incorporation as a unit into the church. The old Roman feeling about the family (the 'piety' which was so strongly venerated by the Antonine emperors) was supported by a remarkable cult of the dead, which regarded the ancestors as present members of the family circle; indeed, the deification of dead emperors, from one point of view, was an aspect of this family religion. It is not astonishing to find that a pious interest in the dead occurs within the Christian organization.

|298 The oldest churches in Rome, some of which can be proved to have existed in the third century, are what is known as title-churches; they preserve the name of a founder in whose household they originated. Such at any rate is the tradition. The oldest church in Rome according to the fourth-century tradition was that of Pudentiana, on the Viminal Hill, who was said to be the daughter of a Roman senator named Pudens who received St Peter into his house. « It has been suggested that it was originally the ecclesia Pudentiana, the church connected with Pudens. Another ancient title-church is dedicated to her sister Praxedis. This family was said to have been buried in the cemetery of Priscilla, and there is a church by the title of Prisca on the Aventine Hill. This Prisca, or Priscilla, was said to have been the mother of Pudens. The churches and their names are old; the legends about them are very late.

Another church which has a claim to first-century foundation is that of Clement on the Lateran; another is that of St Cecilia across the Tiber. The archaeological evidence is not decisive in any case. All that can safely be said at present is that they are among the most ancient churches in Rome and bear venerable names, which are probably as old as the churches. It is in their favour that they are not named after apostles and martyrs. Future research may discover more reliable evidence about them.


The cemeteries are situated outside the city, and consist of underground tunnels or galleries along the sides of which are the resting-places of the dead; sometimes opening out into a chapel or chamber which contains the bodies of a family or special group. We have already mentioned the Vatican cemetery on the Via Cornelia, where a shrine was erected about the hundred-and-fifties over the supposed resting place of the body of St Peter. No excavation has yet been carried out at the site of the burial of St Paul on the Via Ostiensis, which was also marked by a monument in the second century. Apart from these there are three important cemeteries of first-century origin which were enormously extended, as time went on, for purposes of Christian burial.

The cemetery of Priscilla on the Via Salaria is associated in legend with the family of Pudens. It is one of the largest and one of the first to |299 be used as a common cemetery. Christian inscriptions in Greek and Latin are to be seen there, which date from the middle or latter half of the second century. It included the burial place of the aristocratic Acilian family, among them perhaps the consul Acilius Glabrio who was killed in 9 r, probably as a Christian. Equally old is the cemetery of Domitilla which is situated on the Via Ardeatina, so called because this property belonged to Domitilla, the Christian niece of the emperor Domitian. The third is a group of cemeteries on the Via Appia, including the cemetery of Praetextatus and the crypt of Lucina; here the noble family of the Caecilii were buried, including the legendary virgin and martyr Caecilia who witnessed under Marcus Aurelius, according to one tradition. This group of cemeteries passed into the ownership of the church before the end of the second century, and is known as the cemetery of Callistus after the archdeacon (later bishop) Callistus, who was placed in charge of it.

The most striking point about these traditional names is the predominance of women; and this is worth a moment's thought. The pre-eminence of women as evangelists or prophets or teachers is obviously a characteristic of the heresies, where Jewish social traditions were relaxed. 'How forward their women are!' said Tertullian in his pre-Montanist days. Apostolic writers had insisted that they should be modestly attired, keep silence in the church, and be obedient to their husbands; but this did not mean that they were not given a characteristic position of dignity. There are some interesting points in the Roman Clement on this subject. He suggests at the end of his Epistle that the leaders of the Corinthian schism should make a great act of renunciation and quit the church, and backs this up by referring to examples both in pagan and in biblical history. It is peculiar that he should single out women in this connexion, mentioning particularly Judith and Esther. There were women, therefore, among the leaders of the schismatic group, and he is appealing to them to make the act of sacrifice. This enables us to understand why he emphasizes so strongly the proper position of women in the church, and why he is so careful to mention women among the martyrs who suffered with the noble apostles. They were people of influence in the ecclesia.

Perhaps this explains why he makes so much of the story of Rahab, which he tells at great length; for she is an example of faith and hospitality. He tells in some detail how she received the spies sent by Joshua into her |300 house, and hid them from the king's officers. Is she a 'type' of the wealthy believer who gave shelter in her house to the Christian evangelists and made it a centre for the church? Is she one of the wealthy persons praised by Hermas, who gladly receive the servants of God into their houses? She is contrasted with Lot's wife, who represents the dissentient groups.

In any case there must have been properties in Rome belonging to the church and used for church purposes. How could they be legally held? Only, so far as we can see, by their being vested in some individual, by whose name they would come to be known. The theory of house-churches therefore, is bound to remain the one that holds the field, while it awaits confirmation by the archaeologists. That Christians did own properties is a fact vouched for by Irenaeus.

Whence came the house we live in, the clothes we wear, the vessels we use, and all the other gear of our daily life, if not from the possessions which we acquired by avarice when we were Gentiles, or what has come to us from parents or relations of friends who acquired them by unrighteous means? [He has in mind the gospel phrase 'mammon of unrighteousness'.] Not to mention that we who live by faith are still acquiring them. For whoever sells anything without wishing to make a profit from the buyer.

He then adds, what is most significant for our period,

And those of the faithful who are in the royal palace, do they not get the necessities of life from what belongs to Caesar?
(Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. iv, 46, 1.)

Not even the early Christians could live so completely off the kingdom of heaven as Diognetus was led to believe. It was reasonable to 'spoil the Egyptians' in moderation, Irenaeus thought. Hermas seems to have thought so too.


Historians are bound to turn to the catacombs for further evidence on Christian life in Rome at this period, for the oldest inscriptions and wall-paintings are said by the experts to date from the latter half of the second century. The inscriptions are few, and consist in this early period of little more than a name and such words as 'In peace', or 'Peace be with thee', or 'Rest in peace', or 'Has refreshment'. The old |301 Roman tradition was marked by restraint; there were no elaborate Acts of Martyrs yet; or birthdays of the martyrs, so far as we know, except perhaps in family reunions in small groups. A memorial supper of this kind appears in Tertullian and Hippolytus. It is all the more affecting to find that the deepest feelings of the Christian mind should express itself in simple symbolic drawings.

The legends of the famous martyrs of this period only took form in much later times when pilgrims came to Rome from all over western Europe; but these legends are attached to names which may be historical. One such legend is that of Cecilia, and her husband Valerianus, and her brother Tiburtius, whose martyrdom is placed in the time of Marcus Aurelius in one form of the tradition. Another is that of Petronilla, who achieved fame in the middle ages as the daughter of St Peter; but her name seems to be a Latin formation from Petro or Petronius, which was a common name in the Flavian family, so that she may have been a relative of Domitilla. The church which is named after her seems to be an ancient one.

Another ancient cemetery is that of St Felicitas on the Via Salaria. According to the legend she suffered with her seven sons like St Sym-phorosa; and both stories would seem to be influenced by the story of the martyrdom of the mother with her seven sons in the fourth book of the Maccabees. If there is any truth in the legend, she may have been the leading figure in a mass execution like Blandina at Lyons, or Potamiaena at Alexandria, or Perpetua at Carthage. Could not Felicitas and Symphorosa be Latin and Greek forms of the same name, both of them having the meaning of good luck? The same legend being preserved in two parallel traditions, one Greek and one Latin?

While these legends cannot be admitted into our history, this does not mean that they do not contain authentic names. Meanwhile the catacombs themselves preserve the remains of uncounted actual Christians from our period; and about half the inscriptions are Latin, and half of them Greek. The Roman church was definitely bilingual.


There is nothing peculiar or mysterious about the catacombs, which are simply underground burial chambers, connected by long galleries, in the walls of which lesser burial places were hollowed out and sealed with tiles. There were Jewish catacombs also, and catacombs have been discovered in other parts of Italy and also in Africa. They were rendered necessary by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; Jews and Christians could not adopt the Roman custom of burning the dead.

The decorations on the walls were in line with the decorations which are found in the ordinary pagan buildings of the day; but the artists avoided anything suggestive of the pagan gods, or war, or drink, or sex; the cup is found in connexion with the fish or the loaf of bread, not alone. There are no obviously Christian signs; we do not find a cross, for instance, though the common device of the anchor looks like a disguised form of it. The Christian character of these places had to be concealed.

Many of the designs on the walls are the conventional decorations of the day. Amid a trellis-work of lines and ribbons and branches and wreaths, we see flowers and masks and faces, or dolphins sporting in the sea, or butterflies fluttering among the flowers. The little babies with wings are said to represent the souls of the dead; and so are the birds in the air or the fish in the sea or the lambs with their shepherd. The artists keep fairly close to the restrictions which Clement of Alexandria laid down for signet rings: a dove or fish or ship or anchor, or the fisherman at work; all of which admit of a Christian interpretation.

Old Testament scenes, borrowed from the art of the Jewish synagogue, were also in use at this time; among them Noah in the ark, Daniel among the lions, Susanna with the elders, and the 'three children' in the burning fiery furnace. All these paintings symbolize deliverance from death, or endurance of martyrdom. They are the examples which are found embedded in old Hebrew prayers for deliverance, and in the old Roman litanies for the dead or dying. The book of Daniel was the martyr's handbook, and contained the story of Susanna and the song of the 'three children'. Clement of Rome had brought these ideas together in a majestic passage.

What are we to say, my brethren? Was Daniel thrown into the lions' den by men who feared God? Were Ananias and Azarias and Misael shut up in |303 the furnace of fire by men who worshipped according to the majestic and glorious worship of the Most High? God forbid.

Who was it then who did these things? Hateful men and full of all malice were brought to such a degree of rage as to plunge into torment men who served God with a holy and blameless purpose, not knowing that the Most High is a defender and champion of those who in a pure conscience worship his all-virtuous name: To him be glory for ever.
(1 Clement, xlv, 5 – 7.)

This connexion of thought appears again at the end of the century in the commentary of Hippolytus on the Book of Daniel, which is in the same tradition. The references to worship are suggested by the ' Song of the Three Children' in the Septuagint version of Daniel, which passed into Christian liturgy as the 'Benedicite Omnia Opera'.

A few Gospel scenes were also presented in their relation to the Christian sacraments; the baptism of our Lord, the fisherman drawing the fish out of the water, the banquet on fish and loaves of bread, with a cup of wine added to show more clearly what was intended. Other Gospel scenes are rare in this period; but in an old chamber or chapel in the cemetery of Priscilla there is an impressive scene which has the virgin and child on one side and the three magi coming to adore him on the other; but perhaps the Christians of our period would have classed this as an Old Testament subject, since the figures were predicted by Isaiah. In the centre there is a larger figure of a woman, heavily veiled and lifting her hands in prayer; it is a favourite symbol for the soul of the departed. It was probably coming into favour at the end of the second century, and so was the figure of the good shepherd with the lamb carried on his shoulders; the figure is youthful and beardless, and recalls the shepherd-god of the Phrygians, or the angel who instructed Hermas.

We are brought into touch here with the beginning of Christian art, and see it developing in the most natural way out of the Jewish and pagan art-forms which were current at the time. No doubt more ambitious efforts were to be found in the gnostic chapels. We hear of the chapel of Marcellina with its portrait of Christ; and there is the recently discovered vault of the Aureliani which preserves more elaborate efforts in a pagan setting; but the simple, sincere art of the ordinary catacombs speaks to us more directly of the regular central tradition. The study and analysis of these Christian art-forms, as time goes on, may tell us more about primitive Christianity than the |304 documents written by learned theologians; or rather we may be able to use the one to interpret the other. What they do for us is to pick up the story of ordinary church-life in Rome on which we have had no direct light since Clement and Hermas. They are the connecting link between Clement and Hippolytus.


We are fortunate now in having a good account of the trial of a Roman martyr of high rank. Jerome tells us that Apollonius was a senator, and the fact that his trial took place before the senate corroborates this statement. The praetorian prefect presided as the representative of the emperor. Commodus inherited two praetorian prefects in 180, Paternus Tarrutenius and Tigidius Perennis; in 183 Perennis secured the deposition of his rival and controlled the administration for two years, being deposed and put to death in 185. The Greek Acts of the martyr give the name of Perennis as the prefect who conducted the trial; but the Armenian version has transformed this into Terentius, which is thought by some scholars to be a corruption of the name Tarrutenius. In any case we have a very close date for this important trial. The acts are written in the Roman manner, which simply reports the dialogue at the trial, though there seems to be some literary elaboration in this instance. There is no account of the execution.

Apollonius was asked why he had refused to sacrifice to the gods, and gave the traditional reply, 'Iam a Christian'. He had come quickly to the point, and Perennis remonstrated with him and advised him to consider his case and take thought for his life. Such remonstrances seem by now to have become a regular part of the procedure.

On the following day Apollonius announced his determination to abide by his religious convictions and was reminded by Perennis of a decree of the senate which imposed the death penalty on those who would not sacrifice. This seems to be the law to which Athenagoras referred in the last year of Marcus Aurelius. In reply he delivered a discourse in the manner of the apologists on the follies of idolatry, referring, like Justin, to the example of Socrates.

'You have given us enough of your excellent philosophy', said Perennis, 'but the senate has forbidden Christianity.'

Apollonius continued his apology, however, debating the question |305 with Perennis and with a brother-senator who belonged to the Cynic school. He went on to speak of the Logos, and his appearance on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He quoted the famous passage from the Republic of Plato, which said that if a truly righteous man appeared on earth, he would be scourged, bound, have his eyes put out, and at last be crucified. He touched on the prophets, and concluded with a reference to the resurrection and the judgement of God. He belonged, therefore, to the theological school of Justin.

Perennis was reluctant to sentence him, but had no other course of action. 'I wish I could release you,' he said, 'but I am forbidden by the decree of the Emperor Commodus.'

The law could not be evaded once it had been invoked, and Apollonius was beheaded; but the informer who had brought the accusation against him was sentenced to have his legs broken; an action which would effectually discourage other would-be informers. We may hazard the guess that he was a slave in the household of the martyr.


It is clear from this narrative that Perennis was reluctant to put into force the laws against Christians, at least when they affected men of high social or official standing; and the evidence is increasing which shows that there were many of them among the noble families and in the imperial service. He was the chief administrative authority in the empire, and his example would be widely followed. The law was not changed; indeed, it would seem that it had been strengthened; but its actual operation depended upon the action or non-action of the local official in each instance. Tertullian, in a book addressed to the persecutor Scapula, gives instances of local governors who did manage to evade the law. Arrius Antoninus, a relation of the emperor, who was proconsul in Asia in 184-5, arrived at a village where all the inhabitants came out and offered themselves for martyrdom. Such an action was in the nature of a challenge, since no government was likely to wipe out a whole community. He executed some, and drove the rest away. 'Cowards!' he said; 'If you hate life so much, have you no halters or precipices?'

Cincius Severus, at Thysdrus in Africa, suggested safe answers to the accused. Vespronius Candidus and Pudens dismissed certain cases. |306 It looks as if the tide were turning in favour of the Christians for the moment. The policy of persecution must have been abhorrent to many decent people who were fully informed of the facts of the case; some of them would have friends and relations whom they knew to be Christians; and the policy had not proved effective. As Tertullian said in his Apology, 'The blood of Christians is like seed; the faster you mow us down, the thicker we spring up'; an aphorism which is usually quoted in the form' The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.'
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