The Two Apostles of the Day After

Paul in Rome: In Chains for Him

Called three years after the Resurrection to convert the Gentiles, until that moment he had been the most zealous of persecutors. The Apostle of the Gentiles in the capital of the Empire


“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, my greetings to Prisca and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus, and my greetings to the church at their house. Greetings to my dear friend Epaenetus, Mary, Andronicus and Junias, Ampliatus, Urban, Stachys, Apelles, Aristobulus, Herodion, Narcissus, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus and his mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hewrmes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. Greetings to Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all God’s holy people who are with them.” Thus Paul wrote in 57-58 from Corinth to the Christians in Rome. “For I am longing to see you so that I can convey to you some spiritual gift that will be a lasting strength, or rather that we may be strengthened together through our mutual faith, yours and mine.” (Rom 1:11-12) He had never been to the capital of the Empire, thus he did not know all these people in person. He may have met many of them in other places, and others he knew only by fame (Rom 1:8), maybe through Prisca and Aquila, the couple with whom he had stayed at length in Corinth and had remained in contact. Maybe some of these people were among those who set out along the Appian Way to meet him when he arrived in Rome in chains, presumably one day in the year 60. Some three years earlier he had been accused in Jerusalem by a group of Jews of having spoken in public against the Law of Moses. But Paul had appealed to his right as a Roman citizen to be judged by Caesar. Thus he had to be transferred to Rome after two years of imprisonment in Caesarea. From there he set sail for Italy, along with Luke (who describes these movements in Acts 27-28) and other prisoners, accompanied by the centurion Julius, of the Augusta cohort. The sea voyage was a decidedly adventurous one, if we think that they touched on Sidon, Cyprus, Myra in Lycia, Cnidus, and Crete, where they were forced to stop because of the onset of the unpropitious season for sailing. Then they set sail again, but wrecked at Malta, where they stayed for four months. Then Syracuse, Rhegium, and finally Puteoli, the port of arrival for Rome. Their trip continued overland, and on the Appian Way (the consular road, still partially paved with basalt volcanic rock, which connected southern Italy with Rome). At the Forum of Appius (about 50 km from Rome), a group of Christians who had been told he was coming met them. Still farther along, in the area called Three Taverns, others joined the group. (Acts 28:15) The Apostle of the Gentiles, this great sailor whose fame had gone round the Empire, thus reached imperial, pagan Rome in chains.
Walking through the city, the signs of Paul’s passage are often evident, but in this Jubilee Year, understanding things is made even easier by the exhibition, “Peter and Paul. History, Cult, Memory in the Early Centuries,” now at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome until December 10, 2000.

Under house arrest
Even though a prisoner, Paul obtained permission “to stay in lodgings of his own with the soldier who guarded him” (Acts 28:16); he was under custodia militaris
(house arrest). He thus went to look for a “house to rent,” finding a large room in a grain storehouse in the area of Rome called Regola today, east of the Tiber, where the river curves, forming Tiber Island (where his friend the physician Luke probably worked). That area of Rome was inhabited mainly by Jews at the time, and between it and Trastevere there was the greatest concentration of leather workers. This was Paul’s occupation too, which he had learned in the school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem. He made leather tents even when he was in Corinth, staying with Prisca and Aquila who were also leather workers.
As soon as he settled in, he asked to see the Jews of the city, to explain the reasons for the accusations made against him in Palestine: “Brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. I was forced to appeal to Caesar, but not because I had any accusation to make against my own nation.” The Jews received his words with good will, and for some days “a large number of them visited him at his lodgings. He put his case to them, testifying to the Kingdom of God and trying to persuade them about Jesus, arguing from the Law of Moses and the prophets, from early morning until evening; and some were convinced by what he said, while the rest were skeptical. So they disagreed among themselves and went away.” (Acts 28:23-25) Paul soon became an important point of reference for the small Roman community; he must have enjoyed some freedom of action if, as Luke says, “He spent the whole of the two years in his own rented lodging. He welcomed all who came to visit him, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts
Perhaps it was right in this house in Regola that he met Onesimus (the slave who Paul sent back to his friend Philemon along with a letter), and wrote his letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Today the Church of San Paolo alla Regola (behind the Ministry of Grace and Justice) commemorates the place of the apostle’s first home in Rome, where he lived and above all taught, as indicated by an inscription over the entrance to the adjoining oratory: DIVI PAULI APOSTOLI HOSPITIUM ET SCHOLA.

The second house
As soon as the two years of custody were over (his trial, in fact, never took place–it is plausible that his accusers were reluctant to make the trip from Jerusalem to Rome), Paul changed his residence. He was given hospitality on the Aventine Hill, once again in the house of his friends Aquila and Prisca. As Jews, they had been expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in 49-50, had spent some time in Corinth, had followed Paul in his travels as far as Ephesus, and then had come back to Rome around 58. Their house soon became a domus ecclesia, a place of gathering and prayer for the entire Christian community in Rome. Peter had also stayed with them, and according to sacred iconography, he was the one who baptized the Roman noblewoman Prisca (or Priscilla), while Aquila converted later. Today on that site on the Aventine, where already in the fifth century there was documented a titulus Priscae
(an inscription concerning Prisca), rises the Church of Santa Prisca.
Paul did not stay very long with his two friends. He started traveling again. Did he go to Spain, as he wished? We cannot be certain. (Rom
His second letter to Timothy, however, leads us to conclude that he ended up in prison a second time because of the faith, once again in Rome. It was the year 64. Nero was in power. The Domus Aurea, the immense residence on the Oppian Hill, was taking shape right on top of the ruins of the disaster–the burning of Rome–that offered the ideal pretext for unjustly accusing the little group of Christians (and their leaders in particular). Nothing simpler than to throw Paul and Peter into the Mamertine Prison, into the cistern underneath it called the Tullianum, for conspiracy against the state.
“I am imprisoned for His sake. It is on account of this that I have to put up with suffering, even to being chained like a criminal,” he wrote to Timothy. (2 Tim 1:8, 2:9) He understood that he had come to the evening of his life: “As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to depart. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith.” In this difficult moment, he was seized by the pain of loneliness: “Demas has deserted me for the love of this life and gone to Thessalonica, Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Erastus stayed behind in Corinth.” (2 Tim 4:10,20) Some had tried to harm him, such as “Alexander the coppersmith the Lord will repay him as his deeds deserve. Be on your guard against him yourself, because he has been bitterly contesting everything that we say.” (2 Tim 4:14-15) He badly missed his friends: “Make every effort to come and see me as soon as you can. Make every effort to come before the winter. Only Luke is with me,” he told his friend Timothy.

The sentence
This time the trial did take place. Paul was sentenced to death for having offended the Emperor. The punishment was beheading, to be carried out at a place on the road to Ostia called Ad aquas salvias. Some ancient sources have handed on the tradition that Paul was beheaded on the same day as Peter’s martyrdom, the thirty-seventh year after the Lord’s Passion (Jerome, De viris illustribus
), which would be in 67, the last year of Nero’s reign. An aedicule, since destroyed, on a section of the Via Ostiense was a memorial to the spot where Peter and Paul bade each other farewell, embracing for the last time before being executed. Today, only a stone marker remains.
Tradition says that in the moment when his head was detached from his body, it bounced three times and caused three springs of water to miraculously gush forth. This is the source of the place name Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). In the fourth or fifth century the Church of San Paolo ad Tres Fontes was built on the site, and inside it the three fountains were clearly indicated, on different levels of the ground.
Immediately after his execution, Paul’s body was taken to a cemetery area for persons of middle rank (from slaves to soldiers), along the Via Ostiense, and buried there. It is probable that a small monument was immediately built over his tomb–Eusebius of Caesarea speaks of it in his Ecclesiastical History, where he tells that the presbyter Gaius, in response to a heretic who boasted of illustrious tombs in Asia Minor, declared, “I can show you the trophies of the apostles. If you want to go to the Vatican or along the road to Ostia, you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church.” By “trophies” he meant “glorious tombs as a sign of victory,” borrowing the term from military language.

Christians began to ask to be buried near Paul’s tomb, and the same happened with Peter’s tomb.
Later, Emperor Constantine ordered that the apostle’s bones be enclosed in a bronze casket. On top of it he built a basilica that underwent numerous modifications over the centuries. The current Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura [St. Paul Outside the Wall] still preserves the apostle’s tomb, beneath the altar designed by Arnolfo di Cambio. It is curious that until today the box has never been opened (as instead was the case with St. Peter’s remains under the Vatican). We know, however, from excavations that have been made, that there is a marble slab above the casket (some say it dates to the time of Constantine, some to the fifth century), which bears the epigraph PAULO APOSTOLO MART (to Paul, apostle and martyr). Three holes in the slab allowed the faithful to place personal objects directly in contact with Paul’s tomb.
Some ancient sources attest that Paul’s bones, along with Peter’s, were “transferred” for about forty years because of the persecutions (258) under Emperor Valentinian. To defend these sacred relics, it seems, Christians took them to another cemetery area along the Appian Way, called ad catacumbas (hence, the name “catacombs”). For this reason, Emperor Maxenius and his successor Constantine raised a basilica (the Memoria Apostolorum, today San Sebastiano, in honor of a martyred Roman officer). Entering on the right, there is a plaque placed there by Pope Damasus (366-384), which says that “the saints [Peter and Paul] dwelled here in the past.” In the area under the altar, recently brought to light, ritual meals were held in honor of the dead, according to a pagan custom. Numerous inscriptions, still visible today, testify to the devotion of the early Christians to the two apostles: “Peter and Paul, pray for Victor;” “Peter and Paul, protect your servants.” In the fifth century, Pope Sixtus III founded a monastic community here, to establish a place of prayer in one of the most beloved spots in Christian memory.