I’m here in Rome learning about the ancient republic and empire, so we have spent each day reading about, touring, and discussing a whole host of temples, imperial fora, and other monuments. It’s all been really interesting to me, especially since I didn’t have the chance to learn much about ancient history in high school, unlike a lot of y classmates at Georgetown and on this program. It’s also been interesting to learn about since Rome was one of the foundational empires that shaped western civilization for the past two millennia, and since the United States in particular patterned itself as the “new Rome” at the time of its founding. This has all been incredibly fascinating for me as an international politics major.
However, the subject that has truly fascinated me is the empire’s evolution from a society dedicated to the wide-ranging worship of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian gods to the seat of Christianity. As we’ve discussed over the past few days, this transition likely did not take place overnight. Constantine may have been the first Christian emperor of Rome, but his conversion did not immediately make Christianity socially acceptable or dominant within the empire, especially within the city of Rome itself. Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which officially permitted Christians (and others) to practice their religion within the empire, was published in 313 A.D. At this time, Christians typically worshipped in house churches within the city, while holy sites built around the relics and graves of martyrs were outside the city’s Aurelian walls, in accordance with the traditional Roman prohibition on burial within the city limits. Yet the Bishop of Rome did not have a church at which he could perform baptisms or distribute Easter communion to the believers of his diocese.
Constantine’s construction of the Lateran Cathedral (officially the Archbasilica of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran) fulfilled this need and signalled the emperor’s growing embrace of Christianity. He was still careful to keep the new religion at arm’s length through building it on private property away from the center of the city with its monuments and temples to deified emperors and Roman gods.
While the interior of the Lateran has been completely redesigned and refurnished since the time of Constantine, I was amazed at just how “Roman” it felt inside. The basilica-style building with its arched aisles, the baroque interior designed by Borromini, and the sculptures of the apostles with their familiar iconography all reminded me of the origins of the Catholic faith I practice. While Jesus lived and died in the Holy Land, his apostles undertook missions throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Peter, the apostle Christ had entrusted with building the Church, became the Bishop of Rome, which is why the Bishops of Rome (known as Popes), in direct succession from Peter, have been considered the highest authority in the Catholic Church. Even though today most Roman Catholics simply refer to the themselves as “Catholic”, we believe our connection to Rome isn’t simply a historical accident or a mere detail of nomenclature. Rome connects us to Christ through his apostle Peter, and Rome’s theology and art have influenced and continue to connect the Church worldwide.