CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Christ as the sun in
a Roman Christian catacomb Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during a period of cultural conflict, economic dislocation, political change and migration from the countryside to the cities. Farming villages were being consolidated into large plantations causing a great deal of social dislocation as previously independent farmers were transformed into serflike tenant farmers.
While Roman authorities were promoting universal allegiance to an imperial power, early Christian missionaries provided al alternative of self-supporting communities whose aim was to create a kingdom of God.
Roman authorities for a time tolerated Christian sects and even protected St. Paul on one occasion when his life was in danger. Christians started to be persecuted when they refused to attend games (because they were held on the Sabbath), serve in the army and worship Roman gods. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.
The ease of travel and the tolerance of new religions in the Roman Empire helped Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, Europe and northern Africa. Christianity end up preserving the legacy of Rome through its language, literature, scientific beliefs, architecture and laws.
According to the BBC: “Paul established Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire, including Europe, and beyond - even into Africa. However, in all cases, the church remained small and was persecuted, particularly under tyrannical Roman emperors like Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), under whom being a Christian was an illegal act, and Diocletian (284-305). Many Christian believers died for their faith and became martyrs for the church (Bishop Polycarp and St Alban amongst others). “When a Roman soldier, Constantine, won victory over his rival in battle to become the Roman emperor, he attributed his success to the Christian God and immediately proclaimed his conversion to Christianity. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine then needed to establish exactly what the Christian faith was and called the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD which formulated and codified the faith. |[Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 ]
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org
Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Jesus and Christianity and Rome
At the time of Christ, Palestine (present-day Israel) was a poorly-run, repressive Greek- and Aramic-speaking Roman colony that had been conquered by Pompey in 63 B.C. After the conquest Palestine was run by a Roman-Jewish government under Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) who enjoyed considerable autonomy and ruled in such a way that both the Romans and local population were reasonably happy despite his sometimes despotic ways.
The rulers after Herod---namely Archelaus, who inherited a third of Herod’s land, including Judea and Jerusalem---were not so good. After 10 years Roman prefects took over Archelaus’s territory. The other portions of Herod’s former lands, including Jesus’s state of Galilee remained under Jewish rule. This arrangement remained until the Roman crackdown after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70.
Herod the Great was a Jewish leader installed by the Romans. Regarded as puppet king of the Roman Senate, he took power in 37 B.C. and ruled until around 4 B.C. and served under Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the Emperor Augustus. He is remembered most for building the Great Temple for the Jews in Jerusalem and ordering the death of male children in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. His son Herod Antipas was involved in Jesus’s trial. He was the ruler of Judea at time of the death of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Arrest of Jesus by the Romans
Jesus was arrested by Roman police who burst in on Jesus and his disciples as they were praying in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. The police were led to the garden by Judas, A violent struggle ensued in which Peter drew his sword and sliced off the ear of one policeman. When Jesus was grabbed, the fighting stopped and the disciples ran away. When the Romans asked Peter if he knew Jesus, Peter denied he did (three times) just as Jesus predicted. Peter “went outside and wept bitterly.” He later repented his denial.
Judas identified Jesus before the Roman authorities by kissing him on the cheek. Judas later tried to give back the 30 pieces of silver but was haughtily refused by the priest who paid him off. He later committed suicide by hanging himself and died just before Jesus. Judas now is a universal symbol of betrayal and was later seized by Christians as a symbol of the archetypal treacherous Jew. In Germany there is law against giving children the name Judas. In the livestock trade a Judas goat is a goat that leads the other to slaughter.
Jesus was brought to trial in Jerusalem in April in A.D. 30 or A.D. 33. He was tried twice in two separate trials. The first one was at a Jewish high court for Sanhedrin (the Jewish tribunal and ruling body). The second trial was before a Roman secular court presided over by a minor prosecutor named Pontius Pilate, who asked Jesus a few cursory questions and ordered his crucifixion. After the sentencing Pilate famously washed his hands to show the fate of Jesus was no longer a matter of which he had any control over. Jesus was then mocked, spat upon and slapped around. He was taken away by Roman guards who harassed and tortured him the night before his execution.
Pilate was the only one with the authority to order a crucifixion. He originally did not see any reason why Jesus should be executed---his crime was never clarified and Pilate said "I find no crime in him?---but he was persuaded to give Jesus a death sentence due to pressure from Jewish authorities, who considered his refusal to submit to the High Priest of the Temple as a an offense punishable by death. Jesus accepted his death and did not deny the charges, despite being tempted to. All that he said was “he known and made known by God.”
The Romans found Jesus guilty of sedition not blasphemy---a civil crime not a religious one. The men that were crucified with him were identified in some translations as “thieves.” The word can also mean “insurgents.” Jesus' condemnation by Pontius Pilate is described Matthew 27:11-24; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; and John 18:28-19:16.
Who was Responsible for Jesus’s Death, the Romans?
Other put the blame on the Romans because the Sanhedrin (Jewish authorities) acted under Roman authority. Pilate was the only one with the authority to order a crucifixion, a public event designed to be a warning to rebels. The Romans were also the ones who tortured Jesus before his death.
The depiction of the Romans is less hostile than it could of been perhaps because the Gospels describing the events were written when Christians were under the Roman rule and they didn’t want to antagonized Roman authorities.
Some have suggested that Jesus’s refusal to defend himself in the trial gave authorities no choice but to crucify him. As time went on, the Romans were absolved of any guilt involving Jesus's death and the blame was placed on the Jews who handed him over to the Romans. Catholics say that everyone is responsible.
Christianity Takes Shape Under the Romans
Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “The triumph of Christianity is actually a very remarkable historical phenomenon. ... We begin with a small group from the backwaters of the Roman Empire and after two, three centuries go by, lo and behold that same group and its descendants have somehow taken over the Roman Empire and have become the official religion, in fact the only tolerated religion, of the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th century. That is a truly remarkable development, and a monumental historical problem, trying to understand how this happened. Of course, pious Christians have no doubt about how or why it happened: "This is the hand of God working in history." And the Christians of antiquity already made this very point; the fact that Christianity triumphed is proof of its truth.
“The second century of our era was the age of definition before Christianity. Now that it realized it no longer was Judaism, or no longer was a form of Judaism, it had to figure out, well then, what is it exactly? What is Christianity? What makes it not Judaism, what makes it not Jewish? How is it able to somehow at one and the same time hold on to the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and still not be Judaism, and still not be Jewish? This was one of the major questions confronting Christian thinkers, writers, church leaders in the second century. This was the great age of Christian diversity, sects, schools, heresies of all kinds, confronting Christian thinkers, and it was only in the second century that we begin to see the emergence of what we might call an orthodoxy, or something that might simply be called "Christianity" in a kind of uniform body of doctrines and text, that is to say, the New Testament. The New Testament as a collection of texts is a product of the second century, as the church figured out which books are sacred, which books are authoritative and which ones are not. ... <>
“By the third century of our era, we have something called Christianity with its own sacred books, its own rituals, its own ideas, but this is the great age of confrontation with the Roman Empire. The third century, of course, the great age of persecutions, where the Roman Empire now wakes up and realizes that there is something new, and from their perspective, sinister, afoot in new groups that are threatening the social order and ultimately the political order of the Empire. And the Roman Empire was correct. The Romans correctly intuited that the victory of Christianity would mean the end of the Roman Empire, the end of the classical world. ... We often think of persecution, of course, in a Christian perspective. We see it as heroic martyrs confronting the might of Rome, which is true. And the martyrs are indeed a wonderful spectacle and do present a wonderful demonstration of Christian faith. That is certainly true. By the same token, we must realize that the Roman Empire was doing what all bureaucracies do. It was trying to protect itself, trying to perpetuate itself.... <>
“The Romans tried to beat down Christianity but failed. By the fourth century Christianity becomes the state religion and by the end of the fourth century it is illegal to do any form of public worship other than Christianity in the entire Roman Empire. There is a great mystery in how this happened -- how such an extraordinary reversal, that begins with Jesus who is executed by the Romans as a public criminal, as a threat to the social order, and somehow we wind up three centuries later with Jesus being hailed as a God, as part of the one, true God who is the God of the new Christian Roman Empire. There is a remarkable progress, a remarkable development in the course of three centuries. ... It's hard to understand exactly how it happened or why it happened, but it is important to realize that we have a progression and a set of developments, and that Christianity by the fourth century is not the same as the Christianity that we see in the first or even the second. <>
Christianity Takes Hold in Rome
Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus Despite the persecutions, Christianity managed to grow. Because Christianity was more open to people from all walks of life, it won more converts than Judaism. It also capitalized on discontent in the Roman Empire. Public distaste of emperor worship led to a deep interest across the Roman Empire in Christianity as well mystical cults from Greece and the Middle East.
Persecution helped strengthen Christianity by encouraging communication between churches to warn them of a common danger, by inspiring members to emulate the courage of the martyrs, and by fostering a bonding within and among Christian communities.
As time went on Rome became the center of the Catholic-Christian church. It was more centrally located and stable than Jerusalem. Christmas was invented in Rome, where celebrations---that grew out feasts for the Persian sun-god Mithras--- honoring Christ's birthday date back to the forth century.
By the beginning of the A.D. 3rd century, there were about 220,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the 4th century it had an estimated 6 million followers. After Diocletian abdicated in A.D. 305, Galerius became the leader in the East. In A.D. 311, he issued an edict permitting Christians to worship as they pleased.
Roman Leadership During the Early Christian Period (A.D. 49 - 305)
About A.D. 49 Claudius expelled Jews from Rime because of a disturbance. Persecution under Nero after the Great Fire in Rome seems to be less than what was long reported. The only martyrs of whom there is some plausibility are Peter and Paul. The persecution was a local police action limited to the city of Rome. It was probably not associated with a fire. Even so Nero's name has ever since been associated with a policy of persecution. The real major empire-wide persecution began around 200 years after Nero’s death under the Roman Emperor Decius, who rule from A.D. 249 to 251. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu /~\]
“Flavians (69-79); At peace under Vespasian. No traces of martyrs. Titus was likewise tolerant, tho these two together destroyed Jerusalem. Domitian alleged to have persecuted (I Cl) Some died, but may have been involved in a plot against Domitian. First explicit reference to a persecution comes 125 years later (Dio Cassius). Traditionally John was exiled to Patmos and Revelation written. Eusebius says "many suffered martyrdom under Domitian," but evidence is scanty. Story of the descendants of Jude. Revelation indicates Christians were certainly being harassed in Asia Minor. /~\
“Antonines (96-98): Trajen's correspondence with Pliny, indicates first authorization of persecution against Christians. Christianity declared to be a "religio illicita." "One who is a Christian must be punished." Martyrdom of Ignatius and of Simeon, 2nd B. of Jerusalem. Hadrian's rescript - "It is unjust to kill Christians without a regular indictment and a trial." Jerome (c. 400) says a "gravissimam persecutionem" but we know of only one martyr, Telesphorus, 7th B. of Rome. More repression under Antoninus Pious. 3 advisors: Fronto, Munatius Felix, Lollius Urbicus. Fronto's oration against the Christians. Internally the Christians in Rome experiencinig discord (Marcion, Gnostics, Valentinus). C. 150 Justin writes I Apology. Sporadic persecution. Polycarp 156. /~\
“Marcus Aurelius (161-180) actively persecuted. Justin martyred. A loyalty oath was introduced. Some Christians to the mines. Story of the Thundering Legion. Melito of Sardes. Athenagoras. Lvons and Vienne in 177. Tatian's 'Address' attacked Rome. Celsus 177-180. Martyrs of Scilli in North Africa 180. Commodus' mistress, Marcia, was a Christian and gained toleration. /~\
“Severi (193-211): Tertullian's Apology c. 197. Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity. Decree 201 against Jews or Xians making converts. Local and sporadic persecution. Origen's father d. Christians in emperor's household. Tutor of Caracalla was a Christian. No persecution under Caracalla or Alexander. Alex put statue of Christ in imperial chapel. Peace for 25 years. Christians have use of burial sites. Origen was invited by Julia Mammae (emperor's mother) to visit. /~\
“Anarchy (235-285) In 50 years there were 26 emperors, all but one dying violent deaths. Maximimus (235) persecuted. Origen writes "To The Martyrs" Philip the Arabian (244-249) was said to be a Christian. He and his wife exchanged letters with Origen. Decius (249-251) 1st universal persecution of all Christians. (Xian sources refer to him as 'damned animal') All inhabitants sacrifice and receive certificate ('libelli'). Schism in church. Cyprian. Origen tortured. Valerian (251-260) two edicts. Last one death to all clergy, loss of property and rights to citizens, women become slaves. Cyprian died. Gallienus (260-268) Edict of Toleration. Xians own property and worship freely. Aurelian (270-275) against Paul of Samosata, only churches in agreement with Rome are orthodox./~\
“Diocletian and Galerius (284-305): Prompted by Galerius, a systematic and thorough persecution. Four edicts, successively more severe. Probably the worst of all ancient persecutions. Diocl own wife and daughter were Christians but forced to recant. In 305 Diocletian abdicated. There follows a struggle for power which does not end until Constantine is successful in 312 (West) and 324 (East). In 311 Galerius issues an edict of toleration. In 313 Constantine's 'Edict of Milan' ends ancient persecutions.. /~\
Christian Participation in Pagan Culture
Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “When we hear of pagans claiming that Christians are kind of antisocial -- "haters of humanity" is the terminology that the pagans themselves would have used -- what they're really referring to is the unwillingness of Christians at various times to participate in some of the most common aspects of the religious life of cities. We have to remember that religion in the ancient world is very much a part of public life. They had no idea of a separation of religion and state. Indeed quite the opposite. Religion was one of the most important features of the maintenance of the state. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“One offered sacrifices on certain days as a part of the celebration of the founding of the state. One offered sacrifices on the birthday of the emperor. Cities very often mounted these enormous celebrations to celebrate the emperors and all the populace would have been expected to come and join in and for most people you wanted to join in. After all, this would have been a public celebration. A great festival.... Better yet, the aristocracy was paying for it. The city magistrates were the ones who were paying for the food and the celebrations and if you were a common member of the city, you could just go and enjoy yourself. For a lot of the lower classes it's probably the case that this was the only time that they got to eat certain kinds of food. The sacrifices that were offered in the temples were often then distributed as picnic baskets for the people. So on these kinds of festival days to go and participate was one of the important things to do. <>
“It's in this context in all probability that some of the antipathy toward Christianity began to develop, precisely because the Christians wouldn't go and participate. They didn't want to go to the temples and celebrate the birthday of the emperor. They didn't want to take the food that had been sacrificed to the pagan Gods home and eat it at their dinner tables because to do so might have put them in the position of participating in the very idolatry that their religion could not condone. <>
Christian Appropriation of Pagan Symbols
Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The integration of Christian intellectual and religious life into the Roman world can be seen in a number of different ways: their participation in social life, their participation increasingly in public activities, but it can also be seen in some of the smaller and more intimate symbols of Christian identity that one begins to find in the Roman world. Two of the most important artistic symbols that we find are the good shepherd and the orans or the standing figure in the position of prayer that we see so prominently in the catacombs. ... [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“[W]hat is very important to recognize is that both of these symbols are actually old pagan symbols that had been around in the Roman world for quite some time, and in fact even within the catacombs it's very difficult to tell sometimes when one of these paintings is Christian or pagan, so that while we have this figure of the shepherd with the sheep draped over his shoulders or standing dutifully at his feet, we now may tend to think of that as reflecting the gospel stories of Jesus of the lost sheep or Jesus as the good shepherd from the Gospel of John. In point of fact, from Roman perspective, this is the virtue of philanthropy, of love of humanity, and it's one of the most important virtues of Roman civic and public life. <>
“The Christians seem to take it over very readily and apply it to the gospel virtues as well. In the case of the orans figure..., this is the old pagan virtue of piety, of loyalty to the state, and so the person standing with eyes up cast toward heaven and hands in a gesture of appeal to the gods could have been seen by a pagan as a sign of loyalty to the state, loyalty to the old gods. To the Christians it becomes loyalty to the God of Jesus Christ.” <>
Loyalty to Christ Versus Loyalty to Caesar
Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “By the second century when Christianity is becoming a recognizable force in the Roman Empire there are some lingering political questions still attached to it. We have to remember that it was known that Jesus was executed as a political criminal and the gospel traditions themselves preserved this tradition of Pilate questioning Jesus. "Are you a king? Are you King of the Jews?" Now whether or not Pilate ever really asked that question of Jesus directly it does appear to be the case ... that Jesus claimed to be a king. A kind of Messianic claimant, "King of the Jews" was attached to his cross. That tradition, that legacy while it was a very important part of Christian confession and tradition also opened up another door of problems with regard to the Roman Empire because if somehow Christ was their king, it called into question their loyalty to the king, that is, the emperor of the Roman state. We have a case of kings and kingdoms in conflict. The old apocalyptic imagery of coming kingdom of God, of a coming Messiah from heaven, could be read as a prominent denunciation of the Roman Empire and of its king, Caesar. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“The Christian tradition seems to be ambivalent toward the Roman state at certain times. We have this apocalyptic tradition that seems to have an implicit criticism of the state and indeed some lingering portions of the apocalyptic tradition within Christianity continued to be very antagonistic toward the Roman Empire and the imperial state structures. The Book of Revelation, or the apocalypse as it's known within the New Testament documents, is a very strong denunciation of the state. Here the emperor and the imperial court are portrayed as a dragon who goes out to devour the Virgin Mother of a heavenly child. There's no way of reading this other than an absolute polemic against the beastly nature of the empire over against the spiritual nature of the Christian church, and in this tradition it is also clear what God has in mind for the future.... In the Book of Revelation the future plan of God has a very clear and definite ending. Rome will be thrown down. The church will survive in triumph. This is the legacy of apocalypse that we still see in certain brands of Christianity. <>
“On the other side we find Christians saying just the opposite, that the emperor and governors and the state as a whole are ordained by God and one should be respectful of the state and its municipal offices. Certain Christians seem to go way out of their way to avoid persecution, and not only avoid persecution but avoid being viewed as disloyal to the state. Paul himself seems to say this in Romans 13 .... By the second and third century, Christians will still be claiming we're loyal to the state. "We're not bad citizens. We're not doing anything wrong. Look at what we do. Look at what we teach. Look at how... what we practice. Look are our ethics and you'll see we're just as good citizen[s] as you." <>
“So what we see at this time is that the Christians really are [in] kind of an ambivalent state within the Roman Empire. They haven't really found their place yet, and occasionally Christians are blamed for catastrophes that obviously were none of their doing at all. ...[T]here's a wonderful quote from the Christian writer, Tertullian. He's a kind of satirical fellow all the way and he says, "Does the Nile River not rise high enough? Are there plagues and floods and famines? All at once the cry goes up from all the neighbors. Christians to the lion! Christians to the lion!" and then he turns with his sharp satirical eye and says, "What, all those Christians to one lion?" <>
Mithraism and Christianity
Mithraism was a forerunner, competitor and contemporary of early Christianity even though the two religions had little to say about each other. Mithraism was described by the Gnostic heretic Origen, and St. Jerome, the church Father, and was noted by many historians as having similarities to Christianity.
Mithraism was one of best known foreign cults in the late Roman Empire. Professor Roger Beck of the University of Toronto Mississauga wrote for the BBC: “The Mithraists were worshippers of the ‘Unconquered Sun God Mithras’, as the inscriptions call him. We know a good deal about them because archaeology has disinterred many meeting places together with numerous artifacts and representations of the cult myth, mostly in the form of relief sculpture. “From this evidence we know that the cult was the last of the important mystery cults to evolve and that it thrived in the second and third centuries A.D. and waned in the fourth as élite patronage was gradually transferred to Christianity. [Source: Professor Roger Beck, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Unlike the public rituals and processions dedicated to Cybele and Isis in Imperial Rome, the worship of Mithras was secret and mysterious. At the end of the first century A.D., the Iranian god Mithras, creator and protector of animal and plant life, began to appear in Italy, becoming especially popular with Roman legionaries, imperial slaves, and ex-slaves. Not limited to the class of soldiers, however, Mithraists could also be found in the circles of the imperial households. In the absence of Mithraic literature, evidence of the cult, its rituals, and customs comes from archaeological finds and depictions of the god.” [Source: Claudia Moser, Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2007, metmuseum.org \^/]
L. Michael White of the University of Texas at Austin told PBS: “Mithraism, like “Christianity, was a rather late arriving religion in the Roman empire. We don't really hear much about the Mithras cult before the second century about the same time that Pliny starts to recognize Christians. But by the end of the second century there are Mithraic chapels. .... Mithraic chapels spread throughout most of the major cities, especially in the Western part of the empire. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
Similarities Between Mithraism and Christianity
L. Michael White of the University of Texas at Austin told PBS: “Mithras is a kind of sun god. He's associated with the unconquerable or invincible sun, and indeed, if you think about it, Jesus too is often attached to a kind of solar deity identity. After all, he's worshipped on the day of the sun, Sunday. Jesus rises from the dead, much like the sun rising in the East, so this solar imagery that we hear of in relation to Mithraism is something that we find very comparable to certain aspects of early Christianity. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
David Fingrut wrote: “ All of the initiates considered themselves sons of the same father owing to one another a brother's affection. Mithras was a chaste god, and his worshippers were taught reverence for celibacy (a convenient trait for soldiers to maintain). The spirit of camaraderie (and celibacy) was to be continued in the Roman Empire by the Christian belief in neighborly love and universal charity. [Source: David Fingrut in conjunction with a high-school course at Toronto's SEED Alternative School, 1993, based largely on the work of Franz Cumont (1868-1947) */*]
Yet,“Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that couldn't be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world. */*
“As the final pagan religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism paved a smooth path for Christianity by transferring the better elements of paganism to this new religion. After Constantine, Emperor from 306 337 A.D., converted on the eve of a battle in 312, Christianity was made the state religion. All emperors following Constantine were openly hostile towards Mithraism. The religion was persecuted on the grounds that it was the religion of Persians, the arch-enemies of the Romans. */*
“The absurdity with which Christianity enveloped Roman paganism was characterized by the early Church writer Tertullian (160 220 A.D.), who noticed that the pagan religion utilized baptism as well as bread and wine consecrated by priests. He wrote that Mithraism was inspired by the devil, who wished to mock the Christian sacraments in order to lead faithful Christians to hell. Nonetheless, Mithraism survived up to the fifth century in remote regions of the Alps amongst tribes such as the Anauni, and has managed to survive in the near-east until this day.” */*
Joseph Renan, French religious historian and critic, wrote in “The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism:“"If Christianity had been checked in its growth by some deadly disease, the world would have become Mithraic."
Mithraic Rituals and Christian Rituals
There are many similarities between the cult of Mithras and Christianity, including the ideas of salvation, virgin birth and 12 followers and worship on Sunday and December 25th. The possibility that some of Christianity’s core beliefs and practices were taken from Mithraism is hotly debated topic among religion scholars.
L. Michael White of the University of Texas at Austin told PBS: “Mithraism seems to practice rituals of initiation. You have to be born into the cult in some way by going through a ritual that makes you a member. They seem to have communal meals in their private little chapels and so from the perspective of a pagan walking down the street of some of these cities, it probably would have been difficult, unless they really knew what was going on in some of these buildings, difficult to distinguish this little house over here where the Mithraists meet and that little house over there where the Christians meet. They're secretive. They're small. They do these unusual things and people whisper about them, worried about what they do. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
On a Mithraic pottery vessel discovered in the 1980s with scenes of ritual moulded on its sides allows another significant comparison, Professor Roger Beck wrote: “One of the seven persons represented is a Mithraic 'father’ aiming an arrow at the initiate - a much smaller, cowering, naked figure. From painted scenes and references elsewhere we know that initiation by terror was normal in Mithraism. [Source:Professor Roger Beck, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“What is exciting about this scene is that the 'father', who is dressed like Mithras himself, initiates by re-enacting one of the god’s feats, the ‘water miracle’, in which Mithras fires an arrow at a rock face and miraculously elicits water. The element of water reminds one of the Christian initiation, the water of baptism. So here we have two striking instances of the analogous development of ritual and sacramental symbolism occurring at approximately the same time in two different religions growing up within imperial Rome. |::|
“There were, however, other features of Mithraism which afford no comparison with Christianity: an exotic structure of grades of initiation within individual communities: Raven' to 'Nymphus' (untranslatable) to 'Soldier' to 'Lion' to 'Persian' to 'Sun-Runner' to 'Father'; the use of astral symbolism as an esoteric language; initiation into what a contemporary source described as a 'mystery of the soul's descent and return' into and out of life on earth; calling their meeting places 'caves' — our term ‘Mithraeum’ is modern — because a cave is an 'image of the universe' and thus an appropriate venue for symbolic soul-travel; the use of interior rooms and actual caves (where available) as Mithraea to reinforce the point that as a symbolic universe a Mithraeum is an inside without an outside; the furnishing of the Mithraic 'cave' with 'symbols of the climes and elements of the universe' to match the microcosm with the macrocosm and so enable the mystery.” |::|
Paul, Mithraism and Christianity
Debra Kelly wrote for Listverse: “There’s an entire school of thought saying it wasn’t Christ who founded Christianity, but Paul. Different authors go about it in different ways. Some suggest that Paul was a highly literate adventurer who jumped at the chance to found a new religion when he saw Christ had no such inclinations, while others say Paul simply built on Christ’s teachings and filled in the blanks with parts of other world mythologies he was already familiar with. Regardless, the basic idea is that it was Paul who created the religion we all know today. And when it came to where he pulled his knowledge from, even Friedrich Nietzsche pointed the finger at the cults of Osiris and Mithras. [Source: Debra Kelly. Listverse, April 30, 2016 <+>]
“Paul was from Tarsus, which was a major center of Mithraic activity during his time. According to the theory, his writing is full of references to Mithras, like his comments in Ephesians 6:10-17 where he talks about putting on the armor of God and picking up the sword of the spirit. It’s an odd image in respect to what should be the following of a man who preached nonviolence, but it’s in line with the warrior cult of Mithras. Some suggest Paul was a priest of Mithras, while others take a huge leap to suggest he was the same person as Simon Magus. Evidence for that is extremely sketchy, but it has a little mainstream backing. <+>
“The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford has a copy of a paper that King wrote, bringing up the idea that Paul’s familiarity with the cult had an impact on Christianity. He writes specifically about the early idea that Christ was born in a cave, and Paul’s comments, “They drank of that spiritual rock . . . and that rock was Christ.” That was lifted straight from Mithraic inscriptions, and so was the idea that Sunday was the Lord’s Day—originally, it was Mithras’s day. One of the likely sources for the inclusion of ideas that would have been familiar to mystery cult adherents was Paul, but it’s likely we’ll never really know how much influence he had in shaping mystery religions into Christianity. <+>
‘Triumph’ of Christianity?
Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe wrote for the BBC: “Contemporary Christians treated Constantine’s conversion as a decisive moment of victory in a cosmic battle between good and evil, even as the end of history, but it was far from that. Christianity did increase in numbers gradually over the next two centuries, and among Constantine’s successors only one,the emperor Julian in the 360s AD, mounted concerted action to re-instate paganism as the dominant religion in the empire. “But there was no ‘triumph’, no one moment where Christians had visibly ‘won’ some battle against pagans. Progress was bitty, hesitant, geographically patchy. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“Christianity offered spiritual comfort and the prospect of salvation on the one hand, and attractive new career paths and even riches as a worldly bishop on the other. But plenty of pagans, both aristocrats based in the large cities of the empire and rural folk, remained staunch in their adherence to an old faith. |Some hundred years after Constantine’s ‘conversion’, Christianity seemed to be entrenched as the established religion, sponsored by emperors and protected in law. But this did not mean that paganism had disappeared. |::|
“Indeed, when pagans blamed Christian impiety (meaning negligence of the old gods) for the barbarian sack of Rome in 410 AD, one of the foremost Christian intellectuals of the time, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, regarded the charge as serious enough to warrant lengthy reply in his mammoth book 'The City of God'. Paganism may have been effectively eclipsed as an imperial religion, but it continued to pose a powerful political and religious challenge to the Christian church. |::|
Christianity and the Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies, and perpetual correspondence, maintained the communion of distant churches: and the benevolent temper of the gospel was strengthened, though confined, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but, if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed, which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the Barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.
“This awful revolution may be usefully applied to the instruction of the present age. It is the duty of a patriot to prefer and promote the exclusive interest and glory of his native country; but a philosopher may be permitted to enlarge his views, and to consider Europe as one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation. The balance of power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or the neighbouring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot essentially injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies. The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilized society; and we may inquire with anxious curiosity, whether Europe is still threatened with a repetition of those calamities which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome. Perhaps the same reflections will illustrate the fall of that mighty empire, and explain the probable causes of our actual security.”
Christian Catacombs in Rome
Catacombs are underground burial chambers, especially associated with Rome. There are tens of thousands of ancient catacombs — where early Christians buried their dead and sustained hope for eternal life — deep below the streets of present-day Rome lie the . According to Associated Press: “Rome has dozens of such catacombs and they are a major tourist attraction, giving visitors a peek into the traditions of the early Church when Christians were often persecuted for their beliefs. Early Christians dug the catacombs outside Rome's walls as underground cemeteries, since burial was forbidden inside the city walls and pagan Romans were usually cremated. The art that decorated Rome's catacombs was often simplistic and symbolic in nature. The Santa Tecla catacombs, however, represent some of the earliest evidence of devotion to the apostles in early Christianity. "The Christian catacombs, while giving us value with a religious and cultural patrimony, represent an eloquent and significant testimony of Christianity at its origin," said Monsignor Giovanni Carru, the No. 2 in the Vatican's Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology, which maintains the catacombs. [Source: Associated Press, June 22, 2010]
Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “About the same time as the persecution of Decius, middle of the third century, is also when we begin to get the Roman catacombs developing. Now, according to tradition, you know, the catacombs are thought of as where all the martyrs are buried, but there's far too many catacomb burials for all of them to have been martyrs; there's over six and a half million burials, it's usually estimated, and they last from the mid third up to the sixth or seventh century. So, clearly all of those aren't martyrs. What are they? We have pagan catacombs, Jewish catacombs, and Christian catacombs. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“But one of the things we do see in the middle of the third century is there's a growing [number] of Christian burial societies run by the church. We even hear of whole groups of diggers, these are the people who literally dig out the catacomb burial places, and the Christians are one of the most important mortuary establishments in the city of Rome. They are responding to basic human needs in a variety of ways, and if you ever go down in the catacombs and look at what it's like, I mean, you have to imagine what this would have been. First of all, catacombs are a peculiar phenomenon in the area around Rome; they're always outside the city, as all burials had to be, but it's a peculiar geologic formation. This is in a very soft volcanic rock, and as long as this volcanic layer is covered by dirt or earth, it stays very soft. As soon as you dig into it and it hits air, it hardens and thus becomes very stable to dig into. <>
Significance of the Catacombs
Professor L. Michael White told PBS: ““And so, these catacombs literally are like colonies of ants going farther and farther down into this soft... rock, and as you go in, what you can do is, you can see up the walls as they dig the burial loculi, or chambers, where they slide the body in place. Those are the cheap burials. And we can't, in some cases, tell whether they're pagan or Jewish or Christian. The more elaborate burials become large rooms carved out in the rock, where they actually look like little chambers or homes, and here we see some elaborate paintings, and the rooms can be entirely decorated in frescos and much more elaborate kind of burial chambers are built within them for the bodies. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>
“In many cases, too, this is where we see some of the most Christian funerary arts starting to develop; whole scenes of the family of Jesus or images from gospel stories or stories from the Hebrew Scriptures or the symbol of the orans and the good shepherd. All of these reflect a burgeoning Christian iconographic tradition just as they're on this cusp of breaking into the mainstream of Roman society. Indeed, the burgeoning Christian art, when it can be seen as distinctively Christian at all, is a sign that they really are making their way into society at large.... <>
“The catacombs hold a very interesting place in the romantic tradition about how early Christianity developed. It's often been suggested that these were great hiding places, and the Christians would go down in the catacombs to worship during periods of persecution. But really there weren't that regular kinds of persecution going on, and even when we find larger rooms or chambers in the catacombs, they weren't used for regular worship. Churches didn't go down in there to hold Eucharist and assembly on a regular basis. So, what were these rooms used for? Why did they have benches lining the walls, what looked like places where you could hold eucharistic assembly? The answer is, they're holding meals for the dead. We know, in fact, from a number of sources, Christian and non-Christian alike, that the funerary meal, a kind of picnic with the dead, was something that most families practiced in the city of Rome. So, we have to imagine as part of their daily life, as part of their regular activity, Christians, just like their pagan neighbors, going down into the catacombs to hold memorial meals with dead members of their families. <>
History of the Catacombs
“In the first century Rome's Christians did not have their own cemeteries.If they owned land, they buried their relatives there, otherwise they resorted to common cemeteries, where pagans too were buried. That is how Saint Peter came to be buried in the great public "necropolis" ("city of the dead") on Vatican Hill, available to everybody. Likewise Saint Paul was buried in a necropolis along the Via Ostiense. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“In the first half of the second century, as a result of various grants and donations, the Christians started burying their dead underground. That is how the catacombs were founded. Many of them began and developed around family tombs, whose owners, newly converted Christians, did not reserve them to the members of the family, but opened them to their brethren in the faith. With the passage of time, these burial areas grew larger by gifts or by the purchase of new properties, sometimes on the initiative of the Church itself. Typical is the case of Saint Callixtus: the Church took up directly the organization and administration of the cemetery, assuming a community character. <>
“With the edict of Milan, promulgated by the emperors Constantine and Licinius in February 313, the Christians were no longer persecuted. They were free to profess their faith, to have places of worship and to build churches both inside and outside the city, and to buy plots of land, without fear of confiscation. Nevertheless, the catacombs continued to function as regular cemeteries until the beginning of the fifth century, when the Church returned to bury exclusively above ground or in the basilicas dedicated to important martyrs. <>
“When the barbarians (Goths and Longobards) invaded Italy and came down to Rome,they systematically destroyed a lot of monuments and sacked many places, including the catacombs. Powerless in the face of such repeated pillages, towards the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth, the Popes ordered to remove the relics of the martyrs and of the saints to the city churches, for security reasons. <>
“When the transfer of the relics was completed, the catacombs were no longer visited; on the contrary, they were totally abandoned, with the exception of Saint Sebastian, Saint Lawrence and of Saint Pancratius. In the course of time, landslides and vegetation obstructed and hide the entrances to the other catacombs, so that the very traces of their existence were lost. During the late Middle Ages they didn't even know where they were. <>
“The exploration and scientific study of the catacombs started, centuries later, with Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), nicknamed the "Columbus of subterranean Rome". In the last century the systematic exploration of the catacombs, and in particular of those of Saint Callixtus, was carried out by Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-1894), who is considered the father and founder of Christian Archaeology. <>
What Exactly Were the Catacombs of Rome
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “The city of Rome was ringed by burial sites. Since you could not be buried in Rome itself within the city boundaries unless you were somebody like the emperor, you had to be buried around the perimeter of Rome. So, if you were a noble family, you'd have tombs aboveground, mausoleum-like tombs. If you were a slightly lower class, you would be buried below ground because the material below the ground outside Rome is called tufa; it's very, very strong, it's very easy to carve and very strong. You could have two, three, four, and even five layers below ground of burial sites. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“This is what they were. They were not hideouts, they were not places where Christians were hiding. They were quite public, where everyone was being buried of this class. So, Christians were being buried in the catacombs. If they were able economically to do more than simply bury their dead, if they could put an image there, for example, a picture, you began to get scenes. First of all, you got symbols like the anchor or the dove; that would be sort of the simplest one. Then you could get scenes like, say, the philosopher or the woman with her hands raised in prayer, the symbol of piety; various scenes, or you could get literally biblical stories. <>
“And what's interesting is what they choose, because what they choose of Jesus is especially the healer. He appears beardless, so he's a new, young god, as it were.... And what's extraordinary, is he'd either have his hand or even a wand on the person he's healing. Now, nothing that I know of in the entire Greek or Roman world ever shows Asclepius with his hand on somebody he's healing.... (Asclepius was the god of healing in the ancient world, one of the great competitors, by the way, of Jesus, as early Christianity began, because he was a beloved God.) <>
“[Jesus] seems to be an ordinary person, therefore a new god -- that's what the beardless means -- who actually comes out and touches the ordinary people. And many of these people that Jesus is healing, by their dress, you can tell are lower class. This is a new healing god, and that's what's on these people's minds. <>
“I think this is one of the great things that helps the spread. Jesus is not shown as a transcendental being, he's down there in the mud of human history with his hand on people's heads and shoulders, and they're not the least bit inhibited of showing him with a wand in his hand in front of the tomb of Lazarus, for example. <>
Catacombs of St. Callixtus
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the greatest and most important of Rome. They originated about the middle of the second century and are part of a cemeterial complex. In it were buried tens of martyrs, 16 popes and very many Christians. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“They are named after the deacon Callixtus who, at the beginning of the third century, was appointed by pope Zephyrinus as the administrator of the cemetery and so the catacombs of St.Callixtus became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome.In the open area are two small basilicas with three apses, known as the "Trichorae". In the Eastern one were perhaps laid to rest pope Zephyrinus and the young martyr of the Eucharist, St.Tarcisius. The underground cemetery includes several areas. The Crypts of Lucina and the area of the Popes and of St.Cecilia are the most ancient areas. <>
“The martyrs' tombs, the cubicles and also the arcosoliums could be at times decorated with pictures painted with the method of the fresco. The frescoes represent biblical scenes of the Old and the New Testament, some of them with a precise symbolic meaning. The symbols and the frescoes form a miniature Gospel, a summary of the Christian faith.” <>
Symbols in Catacombs
A fresco on a ceiling vault in the catacomb of S. Peter and S. Marcellinus, probably dated to the early fourth century AD, around the time Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, shows the Good Shepherd with his sheep. It is generally interpreted as a Christian image, but can also be found in pagan iconography. According to the BBC: “Given past persecution, it is not surprising that much early Christian imagery is ambiguous and has to be interpreted in its context.”
Professor John Dominic Crossan told PBS: “The early Christians lived in a mainly pagan and hostile society. During Nero's persecution (64 A.D.) their religion was considered "a strange and illegal superstition". The Christians were mistrusted and kept aloof, they were suspected and accused of the worst crimes. They were persecuted, imprisoned, sentenced to exile or condemned to death. Unable to profess their faith openly, the Christians made use of symbols, which they depicted on the walls of the catacombs and, more often, carved them on the marble-slabs which sealed the tombs. [Source: John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“Like the ancient, the Christians were very fond of symbolism. The symbols were a visible reminder of their faith. The term "symbol" refers to a concrete sign or figure, which, according to the author's intention, recalls an idea or a spiritual reality. The main symbols are: the Good Shepherd, the "Orante", the monogram of Christ and the fish. <>
“The Good Shepherd with a lamb around his shoulders represents Christ and the soul which He has saved. This symbol is often found in the frescoes, in the reliefs of the sarcophagi, in the statues and is often engraved on the tombs. The "orante", a praying figure with open arms, symbolizes the soul which lives in divine peace. The monogram of Christ is formed by interlacing two letters of the Greek alphabet: X (chi) and P (ro), which are the first two letters of the Greek word "Christòs" or Christ. When this monogram was placed on a tombstone, it meant a Christian was buried there. <>
“The fish. In Greek one says IXTHYS (ichtùs). Placed vertically, the letters of this word form an acrostic: Iesùs Christòs Theòu Uiòs Sotèr = Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. Acrostic is Greek word which means the first letter of every line or paragraph. The fish is a widespread symbol of Christ, a motto and a compendium of the Christian faith. <>
“Some other symbols are the dove, the Alpha and the Omega, the anchor, the phoenix, etc. “The dove holding an olive branch symbolizes the soul that reached divine peace. The Alpha and the Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. They signify that Christ is the beginning and the end of all things. The anchor is the symbol of salvation and of the soul which has peacefully reached the port of eternity. The phoenix, the mythical Arabian bird, which, according to the beliefs of the ancient, after a thousand years arises from its ashes, is the symbol of the resurrection of the bodies. <>
Catacomb Archaeology and Tourism
On one Vatican-sponsored archaeological project in the catacombs, Associated Press reported: “The Vatican's Sacred Archaeology office oversaw and paid for the two-year, euro60,000 restoration effort, which for the first time used lasers to restore frescoes in catacombs. The damp air of underground catacombs makes preservation of paintings particularly difficult and restoration problematic. [Source: Associated Press, June 22, 2010 +++]
“In this case, the small burial chamber at the end of the catacomb was completely encased in centimeters (inches) of white calcium carbonate. Restoring the paintings underneath using previous techniques would have meant scraping away the calcium buildup by hand. That technique, though would have left a filmy calcium layer on top so as to not damage the paintings underneath.
“Using the laser, restorers were able to sear off all the calcium that had been bound onto the painting because the laser beam was concentrated on a chromatic selection: the white of the calcium carbonate deposits. The laser's heat stopped when it reached a different color. That enabled researchers to easily chip off the seared white calcium carbonate, which then revealed the brilliant ochre, black, green and yellow underneath unscathed, she said. +++
“Similar technology has been used for over a decade on statues, particularly metallic ones damaged by years of outdoor pollution, she said. The Santa Tecla restoration, however, marked the first time the lasers had been adapted for use in the dank interiors of catacombs. The protocol used, she said, would now be used as a model for similar underground restorations where the damage was similar to that found at Santa Tecla, which she said was the most common type of damage found in Rome's catacombs. +++
“Many of Rome's more well-known catacombs are open regularly to the public, such as the Santa Priscilla and San Sebastiano catacombs. The Santa Tecla catacombs will be open to the public only on request to limited groups to preserve the paintings, she said.” +++
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018