Peter in Rome
In one famous passage of his early second century Annales, the historian Tacitus testifies to the presence and martyrdom of Christians in Nero's Rome. The Apostle Peter was among those who met their deaths. Tacitus' attitude was the attitude of the senatorial class, inclined to scorn all that contrived to contaminate the purity of the tradition that Rome represented in his view. But his testimony - for the very reason that it rests on a position ideologically hostile towards the new thing that Christianity represented - is all the more precious and authoritative in substantiating the facts.
Rome, then, burned in July 64, Tacitus notes, "and it is unclear whether it was because of an accident or by some perverse will of the emperor". At that time, Nero was living in his Antium villa. He heard that the masses were murmuring his name, blaming him for the disaster and he decided to give them a scapegoat on which to vent their wrath: the Christians. For the first time in history, this small community made up of Jewish and pagan converts dramatically emerged from their anonymity. "Thus, to silence the rumors", writes the historian, "Nero himself suggested whom the culprits might be and he inflicted some highly refined punishments on the people who were already hated for their infamy and whom the masses called Christians.
First those who confessed were brought before the tribunal and then, on the basis of their indications, a great number of people were arrested, not so much on charges of causing the fire but accused of hating the human race" (Annales XV, 44).
The Galilean fisherman is believed to have been arrested in this second roundup. Christian tradition remembers the places and episodes of the dramatic days of his imprisonment and martyrdom, some details of which were embroidered with the stuff of legends through time. But there is no doubt that ancient history and the substance of traditions accumulated over the centuries already form a factual nucleus both consistent and undeniable.
No one today can question that Peter came to Rome and that here he went to his martyrdom on the Vatican Hill where his body now reposes. Archeological and literary evidence of this basic element coincide. But while information about Paul is more precise, most of it drawn from his own letters, there remain few contemporary reports of Peter's presence and preaching. It is only at the end of his first letter, to the Asia Minor community, that Peter mentions the greetings of the community "in Babylon who is with you among the chosen" (I Peter 5, 12). According to the traditional reading of this Petrine passage, "Babylon" was used for the Empire's corrupt and chaotic capital. Recent studies, however, tend to offer a literal interpretation, identifying Babylon with the real city of Babylon near Alexandria in Egypt and which was home to one of the very first Christian communities, founded perhaps by Mark the Evangelist (see interview with Giorgio Fedalto "Rome is not Babylon", 30DAYS, No. 61992.
The oldest written testimony of Peter's presence in Rome is undoubtedly that of his disciple, Clement, who was made a bishop by Peter himself and who became his third successor. In a letter written at about the year 96 to the Christians of Corinth, Clement says of Peter and Paul that "out of envy and jealousy the greatest and most just pillars were persecuted and they struggled to the point of death ... Peter, because of unjust envy endured not one or two but many fatigues and thus, with martyrdom, he arrived at the place of glory. In the face of envy and discord Paul showed the prize of patience ... A great multitude of chosen people were gathered to these men, whose lives were saintly and, in the midst of numerous sufferings endured because of their zeal, they provided a magnificent example among us". Clement's letter was written from his personal and direct experience of the facts he narrates and it coincides totally with the observations of Tacitus, who was using official State records as his source.
But exactly when Peter arrived in Rome is difficult to say. Some ancient sources (such as the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea) set his arrival at the year 42 (sources highlighted by Marta Sordi, cf 30DAYS No. 5, 1994) and calculate that the Apostle lived in Rome for 25 years from that date. But Peter is known not to have lived in Rome continually. For example, in the year 49 we find him in Jerusalem, according to the Acts of the Apostles, where he encounters Paul. His first departure from Rome could be linked though it might have been at some time previously - to the Emperor Claudius' decree that same year, 49, as Svetonius recounts, expelling Jews from the city having been held responsible for causing serious unrest, "impulsore Chresto" - on the instigation of someone called "Chrestus". Evidently, then, the spread of Christ's Gospel had already forged a profound fracture in the Roman Jewish community that was grave enough to have degenerated into clashes of opinion such as to concern the civilian authorities. In his failure to grasp the reason for the dispute, Svetonius mixes up Christ's name with a much more familiar and common Greek name, in the conviction that this man was an agitator within the local Jewish community. There is no doubt that when, in the year 57 Paul writes his letter to the Romans, he is well aware that he is addressing a large and lively community, whose "faith is talked of all over the world" (Romans 1, 8). It is difficult to believe that such an important Church was not born and developed on the strength of the direct testimony of an apostle. If we exclude Paul, who explicitly declares at the time he wrote his letter that he has never been in Rome then that leaves the preaching of Peter. And it must have born much fruit if Tacitus refers to the Christians killed by Nero in 64 as a multitudo ingens, a great number of people probably totalling several hundreds.
But where exactly did Peter preach? Where did the first Christians meet to listen to Peter's words at that time?
A House on the Esquiline Hill
The modern day via Urbana, in the Monti quarter was built over a road that was already ancient in Nero's time. The road, almost on one of the three peaks of the Esquiline Hill -called the Greater Cispius where the Basilica of Saint Mary Major stands now, was said to date as far back as the reign of King Servius Tullius. Its name, the vicus Patricius, is an indication that it must always have been a road where the high-ranking nobility lived. From such a family had come the Senator Pudens. According to ancient tradition concerning the first Christian community, it was in this senator's home (and in the homes of Marcellus and Nicostratus) that the early Christians met to listen to Peter preaching. The apostle is also said to have been given lodgings and hospitality in this house and to have baptised Pudens and his children. This is born out by traditional hagiographical sources which, moreover, do not contrast with historical and archeological research of the past and present.
As we know, the first Christians met in private homes to hear the apostles preach, to pray and to celebrate the Eucharist. These houses were the domus ecclesiae of which Paul speaks, such as that of Narcissus (cf Romans 16, 11) or the house of Aquila and Prisca on the Aventine Hill (Romans 16, 5;1 Corinthians 16, 19) where the Church of Santa Prisca stands today and where Peter baptised Prisca and many other Christians, according to tradition. It is Paul again who, in his second letter to Timothy, mentions the name of Pudens among the friends of the Rome community: "Greetings to you from Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers" (II Timothy 4, 21). It is obvious that, as they grew in number through time, the spacious homes of the nobility who converted to the faith were more adapted as meeting places for the Christians. Even after Senator Pudens' death, his home continued to be a meeting place for the Christians of the highly populated area of the Suburra. Thus this private villa became one of the oldest tituli, as the first Roman parishes were called. The nave of the paleo-Christian church built on the site halfway through the fourth century was adapted from a baths (the Baths of Novatianus) to be found there in the second century. An ancient inscription, dating back to 384, mentions a reader of the ecclesia Pudentiana, the "church of Pudens", known today as the Church of Santa Pudenziana. This is either named for one of the daughters of the senator who hosted Peter or, as some sustain, it is merely a distortion of the ancient name for the place, the titulus Pudentis or ecclesia Pudentiana.
Recent excavations 27 feet under the baths' floor level brought to light a private house of the first century before Christ. Archeologists even came across terracotta stamps on which the name of Pudens was inscribed.
Other places where Peter preached are not as easy to identify. Fourth century sources speak, for example, of a place where he baptised people (ad nymphas sancti Petri, ubi Petrus baptizabat), believed to be on the modern-day via Nomentana near the Ostriano Cemetery. However, there is no precise evidence for this.
Tradition, in contrast, associates many places with Peter's arrest and with the days immediately prior to his martyrdom.
In Chains for Christ
At the summit of the Fagutales, one of the Esquiline Hill's three peaks, stands the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains today. It was built between 430 and 442 to house one of the Apostle Peter's most precious relics, the chain that bound him during his imprisonment. The Byzantine Empress Eudoxia helped with the church's construction, which is also known as the Eudoxian Basilica. Already in the year 431 an apse mosaic inscription, lost to us today, was a reminder of the treasure this building was designed to conserve: Inlesas olim servant haec tecta catenas vincla sacrata Petri ferrum pretiosius auro, "this place conserves intact the sacred chains of Peter, iron more precious than gold". The chain is in two parts: the first has 23 rectangular links attached to a larger link for the neck; the second features 11 links plus four smaller links for the wrists. Here, too, archeological excavations beneath the current floor level turned up two previous constructions, one of the third century and perhaps a domus ecclesiae, and a fourth century basilica demolished to make way for the church.
This is the place, according to the oldest tradition, where Peter was imprisoned. And it is highly likely that he was imprisoned here. At the time of the apostle's martyrdom in this area, stood the Regio III Augustea - the Praefectura Urbis, or palace of justice. This was the venue for preliminary court hearings and it also had cells for remand prisoners. Many Christians were tried here. Nearby stood the Templum Telluris, which is mentioned in numerous Acts of the Martyrs as the place where Christians were sentenced to death.
So it is not without foundation to hypothesize that this place of ancient worship could well have been the apostle's prison.
This is not the case of the Mamertine Prison, overlooking the valley of the Forum. It was only from the sixth century on that this ancient cistern, later turned into a damp, dark prison cell still used as such until the fourth century, according to Ammianus Marcellinus' (330-400ca) Histories (XXVIII, 1, 57), was venerated as the place of the imprisonment of Peter and Paul. Water soaked up through the lower, unhealthy level of the building at a spot still visible today. This was the terrible Tullianum, which many ancient writers remember with horror and it was constructed with the building in that the prison had been originally designed as a cistern. Medieval Christians probably linked this water source with the story of the miracle worked by Peter, who made water spring in his prison cell so that he could baptise the two guards he converted and whom the Church venerates as the martyrs Processus and Martinianus. This episode must have made a great impression on Rome's Christian community since the scene is illustrated on numerous paleo-Christian sarcophagi uncovered in the city, some dating as far back as the third century.
"Domine, quo vadis?"
The conversions of Processus and Martinianus meant that Peter was given temporary release from jail. The Acts of Peter, an apocryphal text dated at the end of the second century, relates that it was the prison guards themselves who urged Peter to run to safety from the emperor and the city's prefect, Agrippa: "The prison guards, Processus and Martinianus, together with other magistrates and official colleagues, also urged him, saying: 'Lord, go where you wish for we think the emperor has forgotten about you'."
And so, according to this account, Peter's momentary flight from Rome began along the Appian Way. The Acts tell us that on the road the apostle lost the bandages covering his calves, swollen by the chains. A matron was said to have gathered them up and conserved them in her house and that this episode gave the name to the ancient titulus frequented by Christians who lived in the Appian area: the titulus Fasciolae. Then, in the sixth century, the church was dedicated to the martyr Saints Nereo and Achilleo, whose remains repose under the altar and it is still known as such today.
But the most famous and moving incident, according to tradition, is commemorated in Rome where the ancient Appian Way and the via Ardeatina form a junction. A small church known as the Quo vadis stands at this crossroads at the place where Peter on his flight from the city met with the Lord. This tradition dates back to the second century and is also featured in the last part of the apocryphal Acts of Peter, which have come down to us in their original Greek. In the fourth century edition we read: "He was about to go out through the city's gates when he saw Christ come towards him. He worshipped him and said: 'Lord, where are you going?' Christ answered: 'I come to Rome to be crucified again'. And Peter said: 'Lord, you are to be crucified again?' And the Lord said: 'Yes, I will be crucified again'. Peter then said: 'Lord, I will go back, following you'. At that point, the Lord ascended to heaven. Peter's gaze followed him. He was staring transfixed and weeping with the comfort of it. When he became aware of his surroundings again, he understood that those words signified his own martyrdom, how, that is, the Lord would suffer in him, as he always suffers in his chosen people through pitiful compassion and their glorious celebration".
Thus Peter headed back to Rome again, to receive the crown of glory that October 64 in the midst of circus spectacles and a cruel, festive crowd. Nero was mingling with the people disguised as a chariot driver and he was racing in his "private stadium" on the Vatican Hill, opened to the Roman public for the occasion. It is Tacitus again who relates bitterly: "And those who died were also scorned: they were covered with animal skins and they died torn apart by dogs, or they were hanged on crosses or else, when the sun set, they were burned alive to light up the dark of the night" (Annales, XV, 44).
Who can tell if, as Peter walked back along the Appian Way to join his brothers and face martyrdom, the words Jesus had spoken to him 30 years before after His resurrection came back to him, their meaning finally clear: "In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go" (John 21,18).
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