church.22 Christian sources point both to the unity of the church throughout the empire, and to the continuous tradition from the apostles through the named succession of bishops in Rome.23 From early on, they claimed that the Christian movement was important and had an impact on the political scene. The bare support for this in non-Christian sources, however, makes us ask whether the Christian sources reflect more than wishful thinking or apologetic, missionary aims.
The city of Rome began to decline in the third century as the empire faced economic and military challenges. The persecution by Decius (250-1) probably issued from a sense that the gods who had made Rome great had to be placated if that greatness were to be maintained.24 In the constitutio Antoniniana (212 ce) Roman citizenship had been granted to all within the empire, while Rome itself lost hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, 'probably attributable to the outbreaks of plague', and was immensely reduced in power during the reigns of twenty-two emperors within fifty years (235-85 ce).25 Rome never again became the powerful centre of the empire that bore its name. When Constantine, after his usurpation in west and east, created a 'new Rome' in the fourth century, it was situated nearer to the Greek-, Syrian-, Persian- and Coptic-speaking east. The history of Christianity in Rome is in some ways the counter-history of a city in decline that rose in symbolism and ideology the more it became politically and religiously insignificant. This idealisation was willingly accepted and fostered by the Christians of Rome, who, after the empire broke into west and east in 342/3 ce, established Rome as central to the church. It was not before Gregory the Great in the sixth century that papal power surfaced in a city that for centuries had ceased to be the capital.26
A church of migrants The first Roman Christians we meet in the sources are Aquila and Priscilla, who had to leave Rome because of Claudius' expulsion of the Jews (Acts 18:2). According to the Roman historian, Suetonius,27 this was provoked by 'Chrestus'; so it is widely assumed that preaching about Christ was causing disturbances in the synagogues. Acts (18:2-3,26) associates Aquila and Priscilla with Paul's mission, as is confirmed by greetings from them in his Corinthian correspondence (1 Cor 16:19), and also by their inclusion among the many
22 Lampe, Paul to Valentinus, 397-8.
25 Noy Foreigners, 16.
26 Markus, Gregory the Great.
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