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The Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, the burial place of the Apostle, is a prime destination for pilgrims to Rome. Another memorial of Peter, not so well known, is the Church of St.Peter in Chains,
Built by the Empress Eudoxia in the 5th century on the western slope of the Esquiline Hill, not far from the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, the church holds the prison chains from Jerusalem and Rome that held Peter, the Apostle. Many modern visitors wonder how authentic the chains are, of course, and turn to admire Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, located in the same church.
Whatever one thinks of the chains, Eudoxia chose a good place to house them. The Roman Prefecture, where justice was still being dispensed even in Eudoxia’s day, once stood just south of the church. Rome’s main prison was nearby, where suspected criminals were tortured, questioned and judged. Not far away from here, the condemned were summarily beheaded or strangled.
Christians were convicted and executed in this area from the second half of the 1st century till the early 4th century, and so this church, now surrounded by modern office buildings and shops, is holy ground. It recalls especially those who died in the first great persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero around 67, which claimed the lives of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Nero’s persecution was occasioned by an early morning fire on July 19, 64, which broke out in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other regions of Rome, raging for nine days and destroying much of the city. This was the worst in a series of fires that beset the crowded city where more than a million people were packed tightly into apartment blocks of wooden construction, among narrow streets and alleyways.
Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, the Transtiberum region, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.
Nero was at his seaside villa in Anzio when the blaze began, but he delayed returning to the city. They say that when he heard the news, he began composing an ode comparing Rome to the burning city of Troy. His absence during the tragedy stirred resentment among the people. Rumors began that he himself set the fire in order to rebuild the city from plans of his own.
To stop the rumors, Nero decided to blame someone else, and he chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, who had caused trouble before, and already had a bad reputation in the city. Earlier, about the year 49, the Emperor Claudius had banished some of them from Rome for starting upheavals in the Jewish synagogues of the city with their disputes about Christ.
“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” wrote the early-Christian writer, Tertullian. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.” Just how long the process went on and how many were killed, the Roman historian does not say.
The early Roman Christians were mostly from the large community of about 60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves with strong ties to Jerusalem. Even before Peter and Paul arrived in Rome, Jewish-Christians, clearly identified as followers of Jesus Christ, were counted among the city’s Jews.
At the time of the fire they had become alienated from the larger Jewish community and were beginning to separate from it. Where they lived and met was well known. The authorities, following the usual procedure, seized some of them, brought them to the Prefecture and forced them by torture to give the names of others.
“First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)
Instead of executing the Christians immediately at the usual place, Nero executed them publicly in his gardens nearby and in the circus. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)
Most thought Nero went too far. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)
Late in the persecution, the apostles Peter and Paul, were martyred. An unquestioned tradition among early Christian communities — affirmed today by many historians and archeologists — says that Peter met his death at Nero’s circus on the Vatican and Paul was beheaded along the Via Ostia near the place where Constantine later built a church in his honor. Details of their martyrdom are unknown, but like others they must have been arrested, put in chains, questioned, and sentenced before being executed.
There are later legends, of course. One says they were imprisoned in the Mamertime Prison, near the Capitoline Hill, where they converted and baptized their jailers. Peter escaped and fled along the Via Appia until he reached the place where the chapel, Domine, Quo Vadis? now stands. There he met Jesus coming into the city. “Where are you going, Lord?” Peter asked. When Jesus told him he was going to join those suffering, the apostle turned to embrace the same fate.
But let’s return to the chains under the main altar of the church. In the 5th century the Empress Eudoxia brought two chains to be enshrined here. (There’s a picture of her presenting them to the pope in the 16th century paintings in the apse of the church) According to some 8th century homelies, one is from a Jerusalem prison, the other from a Roman prison, possibly the one nearby.
Suppose the chains are from those prisons? Prisons weren’t remodeled often then, nor are they now. Indeed, some believe that the majestic columns of this church are from the ancient Roman prefecture that once stood nearby, where Roman justice was meted out–another link to those fearful days.
These ancient chains, then, held countless frightened people awaiting Roman justice. They probably held faithful Christians, maybe even Peter and Paul. Who can say?
We celebrate the memory of those who suffered in Nero’s persecution, our ancestors in faith, on June 30th, following the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This church is a good place to remember them along with the apostle who was their shepherd.
It would be good to have two New Testament writings in mind as you visit this church– the Gospel of Mark and the First Letter of Peter.
Many scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome following Nero’s persecution and before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. What would the city’s Christians, reeling from persecution and fearing troubles ahead, learn from this gospel?
Most belonged to a Jewish community that enjoyed extensive privileges under Rome’s emperors; they felt safe and secure– until Nero’s reign. There were brave martyrs, but there were others who betrayed their fellow Christians.
Mark’s Gospel presents the Passion of Jesus as a stark, brutal martyrdom that can’t be explained. How appropriate for Christians facing absurd, unmerited suffering meted out by a capricious emperor. At the same time, more than other gospels, Mark portrays Peter as a disciple who fails his Master and then receives his mercy. He seems to remind Rome’s Christians that not only the strong, but the weak are part of their church.
Mark’s Gospel is meant for hard times, with its hard, uncompromising message of Jesus Crucified, who calls his disciples to follow him to the Cross.
First Letter of Peter
Another New Testament writing offered a similar message to the Roman community and Christians beyond the city. Like Mark’s Gospel, the First Letter of Peter, written in Rome, calls for courage in suffering, even unjust, absurd suffering.
“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he suffered he did not threaten; instead he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2, 21-23)
Those who follow Jesus should stay the course when suffering comes. No need to flee– always a temptation for those hurt by it. Rather, stay where you are, the letter says, and “maintain good conduct among the Gentiles,” (1 Peter 2:12) “give honor to all, love the community, honor the king.”(1 Peter 2:17)
Following Nero’s persecution, Jewish Christians fled from Jerusalem before advancing Roman legions and other Christians interpreting the persecution as a sign of the last times, prepared for the end.
Rome’s Christians stayed where they were, it seems, and with their neighbors rebuilt their burnt city, toiling there until God’s kingdom would come.
Basilica di s.pietro in vincoli, A.P.Frutaz, Rome
The Roman Catacombs and Their Martyrs, l. Hertling SJ and E.Kirschbaum,SJ, Milwaukee, USA 1956