Western Christianity in Rome – Origins & History | Church Fathers

In central Italy, one will find the city of Rome about twenty miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea, along the Tiber River. Rome itself has a deep and rich history and played an indispensable role in the formation of Western Christianity. In about 2000 BC, the first settlers of what would become Rome migrated southward across the Alps into northern Italy and then further south in the region of Rome. The Villanovans and then the Etruscans settled the area in 1000 and 800 BC respectively, lending their religious, political, and artistic influences to central Italy. Roman poets and historians trace the city’s official history to 753 BC, when Romulus and Remus were said to have founded it. From that time forward, there were various forms of government including a republic, oligarchy, monarchy, and eventually an empire as Roman armies conquered much of the Mediterranean world. The Western Roman Empire lasted until AD 476 and the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire lasted another millennium until 1453.

Since the city of Rome was the center of trade and politics for the Roman Empire in the mid-first century AD, many Christians poured into and out of the Empire’s capital with news of Jesus and the Gospel. Rome had its own gods for centuries though, and there were plenty of Greek gods and religious influences throughout the city and empire. A large Jewish population already existed in the city, sparked by Pompey’s bringing many Jews to Rome as slaves after he conquered Judea in 63 BC. From Luke’s account in his Acts of the Apostles, one can see a pattern of early Christian missionaries beginning their work in the synagogues before extending on to the Gentiles. Paul had not yet visited Rome when he wrote to the Christians there in the AD mid 50s; However, the Christian population in Rome, who struggled with her identity among her Jewish counterparts, was significant enough to warrant the writing of his Epistle. 

Christians had certainly grown significant enough in number in Rome to receive unwanted attention among the other groups of the city. In AD 64, a terrible fire broke out within the city walls, damaging ten of the city’s fourteen regions. Emperor Nero unjustly accused the Christians of setting the fire, though many contemporaries suspected Nero of setting it himself to clear the way for his own construction plans. According to Clement, the fourth Bishop of Rome, Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome along with many other Christians. From that time forward, in Rome and elsewhere in the Roman Empire, Christians experienced persecution merely for claiming the name of Christ.

The earliest Roman Christians did not have a centralized location where they met, but instead they met in private houses. As a matter of fact, the first building anywhere designated for primary use as a church was in the early third century in Dura Europas, on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. There is no indication that the earliest Roman Christians operated under the authority of a single bishop. A strong version of the monoepiscopacy, that is, singular bishop, would develop later in the second century. These smaller “house churches” were led by their own presbyters (or elders). Within the city of Rome, there were numerous external challenges to the Christian faith from the local Roman, Greek, and Eastern religions. However, there were also theological challenges within the church. It is likely that the practice of the monoepiscopacy in Rome was spurred on by (a) such theological challenges, (b) the desire to coordinate efforts to help the poor, and (c) communication with other bishops around the Christian world. Because Rome’s position in the Western Roman Empire was unparalleled, the Roman Bishop’s position in the Western Church would also become important. The Bishop of the Roman Church took the title of Pope from the Latin word Papa (or Father). 

As the Roman Empire began to split into two halves in the fourth century, Rome became the main focal point of Western Church leadership, while Constantinople became the main focal point of Eastern Church leadership. When Rome fell to the Vandals in the year 455, it was not so much a singular event as it was the final event in a few decades of decline. In the wake of a strong, singular, secular leader in Rome; the Popes of Rome frequently stepped into roles normally reserved for secular governments. Rome would remain the main focal point of what would be known as Roman Catholicism up to the modern era.

  1.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume III—Caesar and Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 3.
  2.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume III—Caesar and Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 5.
  3.  Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 406-408.
  4.  William Tabbernee, editor, Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 390.
  5.  William Tabbernee, editor, Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 390.
  6.  Clement, 1 Clement, 5.
  7.  Justin Martyr, First Apology, 4.
  8.  Ken Cleaver, “Worship in the Early Church: From Private Homes to Public Halls,” Japan Harvest (Spring 2007): 9.
  9.  Williston Walker, et al. A History of the Christian Church, fourth edition (New York: MacMillan, 1985), 76.
  10.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Catholic,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).