Though still significantly Jewish until towards the end of the book of Acts, the church in Rome consisted of people from all walks of life if the catacombs are any indication. Slaves, nobles, soldiers all found a place of repentance through the preaching of Paul and his disciples. Paul in the book of Philippians makes reference to those Christians who lived in Caesars house. At least one high and noble lady , Pompinia Graecinia, wife of the general who conquered Britain under Claudius, was a Christian and met often enough with the assembled believers to merit her a grave in the catacombs under the city.
Most of the early Roman emperors had a hard time distinguishing Christianity from Judaism, and Judaism was protected under Roman law. This all changed with Nero, who took a particular hatred to Christians, but nobody is certain why. The early church never rebelled against the government; in fact the contemporary writers refer to them as the most loyal of Roman citizens, offering up prayers to God for the Emperor. None of the many conspirators or saboteurs captured under the Roman emperors was ever found to be a Christian. But Nero hated them anyway. In AD 64 Rome caught fire , burning for almost a week. Most of the city burned to the ground, and more than one person theorized that Nero had started the fire in his insanity. Nero blamed Christians for the fire to divert attention away from himself and to provide a distraction for the thousands of people made homeless by the fire. He used this as an excuse to have his soldiers round up local assemblies for questioning and torture. The Roman historian Tacitus says that the Christians were “well known and easily sought out”.
In a mass show of power, the rounded-up Christians were taken to the Imperial Garden on Vatican Hill one day in July of 64. The official record says that the assembled Christians were of all ages and both sexes. Wild beasts were turned loose on them. In some cases the Christians were sewed into the skins of dead animals and attacked by Imperial hunting dogs. Cruel games based on old Roman legends were invented as a way to kill main and torture the believers. For example, a Christian was designated as ‘Hercules’ and then burned alive or ‘Icarus and, fitted with wings, thrown from a great height to his death and the roar of an approving crowd. These games lasted well into the night, at which point the falling darkness threatened to end them. Somebody had the idea to dip the Christians in wax and set them on fire , providing light for the further games.
Eyewitnesses record the Christians singing, praying, smiling, and encouraging one another even as their numbers dwindled. The historians say it was a ‘great multitude’ killed during the event, though no one knows how many.
This action by Nero was used as a justification for the rounding up and killing of Christians all over the empire for many years. But it also emboldened the church in Rome. They found that they did not fear death, and proved that they could meet death with victory. They preached publickly, and edified each other in private under the city in chapels carved out of the rock, surrounded by the bodies of their brothers and sisters in the lord who had gone on before and who were buried in makeshift graves in the tunnels. Rich Christians would hollow out caverns beneath their own homes as a resting place for their poorer brethren. Some of these caverns were eventually joined up to become a vast network of Christian graves beneath the feet of Rome.
They had 3 orders of ministers; bishops, presbyters and elders. Linus (mentioned in 2 Tim 4:21) was one of the bishops (or pastors) over Roman assemblies soon after Nero’s death, (the papacy later names Linus as one the first popes, but consider the source) and there is almost no written evidence of what church life was like between Nero and Domitian. We do know that the local assemblies communicated with each other by letter and in person, but almost none of these letters survived. We do know that, according to those trying to build a case against them, the early church would assemble, sing a hymn,have a common meal , a preacher would preach, prayers would be offered up and then they would disperse to their own homes until the next meeting. Oversight of the small body of believers passed unto Anecletus after the death of Linus.
Under Emperor Domitian, there were no large scale massacres of Christians in Rome. Instead there were a network of informers and secret trials. Just as many believers were killed, but there were killed one or two at a time. Flavius Clemens, the Emperor’s cousin, was put to death but the Emperors wife who also converted was banished until his death.
Clement became the pastor of the church in Rome in about 92 AD and died under the reign of Trajan. Clement had known the apostles personally and his opinion was sought out by assemblies all over Asia as the young church began to seek its footing, awaiting the completion of the New Testament. He wrote a lengthy epistle to the church of Corinth. This letter makes it obvious the churches felt that they were all one body. Clement writes “we are struggling in the same arena, the same fate us and you.” He asked for prayers from the church of Corinth saying “Guide our steps to walk in holiness and righteousness and simpleness of heart…” His letter also covers doctrine with references to the atoning blood of Christ, the pre-existence of Christ, and the Trinity. Clement passed away in 100 AD.
Aristedes was a Greek Christian who, when corresponding with the emperor Hadrian (124 AD) gave a great insight into his observance of the day to day life of Christians in his community.
“The Christians, then, reckon the beginning of their religion from Jesus Christ, who is named the Son of God most High; and it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin took and clad Himself with flesh, and in a daughter of man there dwelt the Son of God. This is taught from that Gospel which a little while ago was spoken among them as being preached; wherein if ye also will read, ye will comprehend the power that is upon it. This Jesus, then, was born of the tribe of the Hebrews; and He had twelve disciples, in order that a certain dispensation of His might be fulfilled. He was pierced by the Jews; and He died and was buried; and they say that after three days He rose and ascended to heaven; and then these twelve disciples went forth into the known parts of the world, and taught concerning His greatness with all humility and sobriety; and on this account those also who to-day believe in this preaching are called Christians, who are well known……. Now the Christians, O king, by going about and seeking have found the truth, and as we have comprehended from their writings they are nearer to the truth and to exact knowledge than the rest of the peoples. For they know and believe in God, the Maker of heaven and earth, in whom are all things and from whom are all things: He who has no other god as His fellow: from whom they have received those commandments which they have engraved on their minds, which they keep in the hope and expectation of the world to come; so that on this account they do not commit adultery nor fornication, they do not bear false witness, they do not deny a deposit, nor covet what is not theirs: they honour father and mother; they do good to those who are their neighbours, and when they are judges they judge uprightly; and they do not worship idols in the form of man; and whatever they do not wish that others should do to them, they do not practise towards any one, and they do not eat of the meats of idol sacrifices, for they are undefiled: and those who grieve them they comfort, and make them their friends; and they do good to their enemies: and their wives, O king, are pure as virgins, and their daughters modest: and their men abstain from all unlawful wedlock and from all impurity, in the hope of the recompense that is to come in another world: but as for their servants or handmaids, or their children if any of them have any, they persuade them to become Christians for the love that they have towards them; and when they have become so, they call them without distinction brethren: they do not worship strange gods: and they walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another: and from the widows they do not turn away their countenance: and they rescue the orphan from him who does him violence: and he who has gives to him who has not, without grudging; and when they see the stranger they bring him to their dwellings, and rejoice over him as over a true brother; for they do not call brothers those who are after the flesh, but those who are in the spirit and in God: but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them sees him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him.And if there is among them a man that is poor or needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food. And they observe scrupulously the commandments of their Messiah: they live honestly and soberly, as the Lord their God commanded them: every morning and at all hours on account of the goodnesses of God toward them they praise and laud Him: and over their food and over their drink they render Him thanks. And if any righteous person of their number passes away from the world they rejoice and give thanks to God, and they follow his body, as if he were moving from one place to another: and when a child is born to any one of them, they praise God, and if again it chance to die in its infancy, they praise God mightily, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. And if again they see that one of their number has died in his iniquity or in his sins, over this one they weep bitterly and sigh, as over one who is about to go to punishment: such is the ordinance of the law of the Christians, O king, and such their conduct….. And I have no doubt that the world stands by reason of the intercession of Christians. But the rest of the peoples are deceived and deceivers, rolling themselves before the elements of the world, according as the sight of their understanding is unwilling to pass by them; and they grope as if in the dark, because they are unwilling to know the truth, and like drunken men they stagger and thrust one another and fall down.”- Apology of Aristides
10 years later, Hadrian was forced to deal with the church in Rome again when the priests of the pagan temples along the Tibur River came to him with a message from their idol. The message was that the prayers of the Christians were vexing the Roman gods. Hadrian was just superstitious enough to buy this story, and had the accused, a lady named Sympharosa, brought before him along with her 7 sons. They were offered a chance to recant, which they declined, and they were tortured, then buried alive in a deep pit.
It was the Christians loyalty to each other that deemed them a serious threat to the Roman Empire, and caused such a harsh official backlash. In Rome, the state was god, and the Empire the will of the gods. The emperor was god on earth. The countryside of Rome was dotted with altars and monuments to every god anyone could think of. The Christians however, had no temples, no altars, no priests, no idols. You could burn their buildings down, shred their scriptures, torture them, and it seemed to only encourage them. They would honor the Emperor, and pray for him, but not pray to him. Though officially loyal citizens, the Christians didn’t fit in, and so Rome persecuted the Christians whom they feared, but tolerated the Jews who they despised.
But even under emperors neutral towards the gospel, the church had to contend with the pagan populace that they lived among. It was common practice at pagan celebrations to capture some Christians and make sport of them. Such practices were outlawed, but the laws were practically unenforceable.
The church also faced a problem of divided loyalties. For example, in 198 AD, the Emperor Severus was overseeing a military award ceremony in northern Africa. The custom was for the soldiers to parade past the imperial presence while wearing the traditional laurel wreath on their head. One soldier marched past, with his wreath in his hand. He was quickly isolated and questioned, and his reply was that he could not serve two Masters. He was executed immediately, and Severus took this as proof of his suspicions that Christians were a threat to Rome.
Victor was pastor of the church in Rome from 192-202 AD
At the close of the 2nd century, it has been estimated that there were 50,000 Christians in Rome and the surrounding area.
Zephyllus was the pastor of Roman churches when the catacombs began to be used by believers as not only a burial place, but hiding place. He put his deacon Callistus in charge of the tunnels, and when Castillus became pastor at the very beginning of the 3rd century, , catacombs were joined together for fellowship as well as escape. But he himself was taken in a persecution in 222 A.D. His successor was Pontianus, who along with presbyter Hyppolitus were arrested and transported to the Island of Sardinia in 235. Anteros took over the church, and Pontanius with Hyppolitus were tortured and eventually killed. Anteros died soon thereafter.