Christianising Rome

Christinanising Rome

The Feast of SS Peter and Paul will fall this coming Monday. It marks day when, according to tradition, both Peter and Paul died for their faith. Peter was crucified upside-down on Vatican Hill--at the time this was the site of Emperor Nero's private sports complex where he would race chariots against carefully picked opponents in order to prove how great a charioteer he wasn't (cf. Tacitus Annales 14). The one visible remnant of Nero's private circus is the obelisk (now crowned with a cross) at the centre of St Peter's Square--it marked the centre of Emperor's chariot track. Peter's relics lie in the basilica that was built atop of Nero's circus, close to where he died. Paul was beheaded outside the walls of the city of Rome on the Laurentian Way. According to legend, his body was then transferred to a burial site owned by a Christian woman located on the road to Ostia. The location is now the of site of the Papal Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls. 

The Feast of SS Peter and Paul is not necessarily a time to reflect on their individual qualities--indeed, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul and the Feast of the Chair of St Peter give us ample opportunity to do that. Rather, we are moved to think of them as a pair and, more particularly, as the spiritual guardians and patrons of the city of Rome. To explore this further, we have to look at the myths and histories of pre-Christian Rome. 

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded by two brothers: Romulus and Remus. Nursed by a she-wolf on the banks of the Tiber, Romulus and Remus grew strong and built a settlement. After a heated debate on whether or not the Palatine Hill was better than the Aventine, Romulus killed Remus and became Rome's first king. It is from the name 'Romulus' that we get 'Rome'. In Early-Christian Rome, Peter and Paul had come to be seen as a parallel to the city's mythical founding fathers. Pope Leo I subtly contrasted the two apostle's christian brotherhood with the sinful fratricide of Romulus against Remus (Leo I, Serm. 82.1). Prudentius, a Roman statesman and contemporary of Leo I, voices similar contrasts and parallels in a lengthy poetic reflection on Peter and Paul's respective martyrdoms (Peristephanon XII).  

Another interesting way of reading Peter and Paul is as a Christian version of Castor and Pollux--the pagan gods who seen as the guardians of the Roman Republic. According to the Roman historian Livy, following the founding of the Republic, Tarquinius Superbus (Rome's last king) attempted to conquer it and seize back his throne in a pitched battle at Lake Regillus in 495 BCE. The Republic's dictator, Postumius, asked for the intercession of Castor and Pollux (Jupiter's twin sons) and vowed to build a temple if he defeated the King. Postumius prevailed and built a large temple in the centre of the Forum. Over 700 years later the Emperor Constantine, when faced with a similar power struggle, saw a vision of the cross before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 362 CE. Having defeated his imperial rival, Maxentius, in the battle, Constantine preceded to Christianize Rome and its Empire. This involved building a pair of awe-inspiring basilicas: one to house the relics of St Peter on Vatican Hill, and one to house St Paul's on the road to Ostia. 

Most of us do not live in Rome. However, we should be mindful of the fact that a solemn papal blessing is directed urbi et orbi - to the City and the World. Through catholicism and faith in Western Christianity, we are citizens of another sort of Roman Empire and find ourselves under the patronage of its two blessed Apostles. 

St Peter and St Paul, Pray for Us. 

Music: G.P. da Palestrina 
Text: Matthew 16.16-18
Artists: Sistine Chapel Choir & Westminster Cathedral Choir/Martin Baker

One of the finest motets to hail from the sixteenth-century Roman school, Palestrina's setting of Christ's mandate to Peter is scored six voices. The texture switches effortlessly between thick, homophonic chords, antiphony, and free-flowing polyphony before an emphatic conclusion at claves regni caelorum--the keys of the kingdom of heaven. 

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam. Et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum.

You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church: and the gates of hell shall not overcome it. And I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.



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