The prehistory and early history of the city of Rome do not intersect in any significant way with ideas and events of the Bible. But by the mid-first century C.E., as Paul’s apostolic mission was reaching its apogee, the medieval maxim “a thousand roads lead to Rome” was already undeniably true, if not so vividly expressed. The city’s unchallenged status as the center of Mediterranean power underlay Paul’s appeal to his right as a Roman citizen, while jailed in Caesarea, to have his case properly heard before a court in Rome (Acts 23:11, 25:10–12); and it certainly informed the early Christian belief that Paul and Peter founded the apostolic church at Rome and were martyred there, thus establishing the city’s primacy in the history of Christianity.

For a city that rose to control a massive empire, Rome’s geographic setting seems ordinary. Situated on the left bank of the navigable Tiber River, roughly 20 miles (32 km) from its mouth and probably controlling an important road crossing, it was advantageously but not extraordinarily situated. Small but prominent hills—the Aventine, Palatine, and Capitoline near the river and the Esquiline to the northeast, with its four westward-pointing fingers, the Quirinal, Viminal, Cispian, and Oppian—offered defensibility. Excavations on the Esquiline and Palatine hills, as well as the Forum valley between them, have revealed traces of small settlements and cemeteries of the Latial culture from the late eleventh century B.C.E. Little evidence of a civic identity is visible until the eighth century B.C.E., at which time a defensive wall seems to have been built around the Palatine and monumental buildings began to appear in the Forum valley below. Remains of a large “House of Romulus” excavated at the Palatine’s foot can be variously interpreted, but the structure’s ambitious size and design bespeak the beginnings of Rome’s self-definition as a center of power. In the following century, a large reclamation project raised the floor of the Forum valley; only then did it become a reliable public gathering place.

Rome (Ostia-Portus)

Detail of the Peutinger table showing city of Rome, copy of the Roman original, 1265 (vellum). Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Austria/The Bridgeman Art Library

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Like many other towns in Italy, Rome must have supported local cults; but these have been hard to identify for the early centuries of habitation. Only in the sixth century B.C.E., with the advent of religious architecture in stone and terra-cotta, were cult sites monumentalized. A sanctuary under the church of Sant’Omobono near the early river port called Forum Boarium (Cattle Forum) has yielded architectural and votive remains suggesting the presence of a mother-goddess cult imported from the east, perhaps via the Etruscans. Under the Niger Lapis, a mysterious rectangle of black paving stones set into the Augustan pavement on the north end of the Forum, an altar was discovered beside a stone marker inscribed in archaic Latin that defies full understanding. Many other tiny sacred places, particularly around the Forum, were identified in antiquity with events in Rome’s mythic past; and these can occasionally be identified archaeologically. Toward the end of the sixth century B.C.E. the mighty Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the triad of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno, and Minerva, was constructed on an enormous platform of local tufa. Already, Rome saw itself as a rival of the greatest sanctuaries of the Mediterranean world.

For uncertain reasons, the succeeding centuries of the republic are poorly represented archaeologically, at least until the second century B.C.E. The clearest trend in the urban landscape was the accumulation of temples, many of them built as votives after military triumphs, in clusters around the Forum Romanum, parts of the Campus Martius (the floodplain in a loop of the river west of the hills), and later the Forum Boarium and the neighboring Forum Holitorium. Also, a gradual democratizing tendency favored Rome’s civic spaces: in conjunction with the Curia, or senate house, the countervailing power of the public assemblies was made manifest in the Comitium, an open space with a prominent speakers’ platform. In the Campus Martius, the power of the largest assembly, the Comitia Centuriata, was visible in the spacious voting precinct known as the Ovile (“Sheepfold”) or Saepta. A third trend, beginning later than the others, was the development of streets of aristocratic tombs along the highways leading from the city. This tendency greatly accelerated in the final decades of the republic during a phase of feverish political competition.

Rome of the Early Julio-Claudian Era.

The Rome of the New Testament is that of the Julio-Claudian era, extending from Augustus to Nero. This was a period of significant social and political change, much of which was reflected in the physical fabric of the city. Ancient Rome was never a planned city, but under Augustus (r. 29 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) it enjoyed a degree of systematization well beyond his predecessors’ reach. His program focused on renewing and augmenting all things sacred and, thus, emphasized demarcations of space as a means to shape religious behavior, often by a kind of benign coercion. Augustus famously refused to be proclaimed a god at Rome, but he achieved the virtual equivalent by allowing veneration of his genius, or spirit. From early times, the city had comprised four regiones, each divided into neighborhoods (vici) with public shrines honoring their tutelary gods (lares compitales). Augustus reorganized the city into 14 regions, redistributing and redefining many of the old vici in the process. To each compitum he distributed new statues, now styled the lares Augusti; and in many of these neighborhoods, it seems, the newly established priesthood, the magistri and ministri vici, were encouraged to establish cults of the genius Augusti, thereby cementing each neighborhood’s religious identity to that of the emperor. Numerous statue bases and inscriptions commissioned by magistri attest to the success of this symbiosis.

Another famous subterfuge by which Augustus achieved the worship he purported to despise emerged during excavations of the imperial fora in the 1920s. Situated north of the Forum Romanum, the Forum Augusti was the second of what eventually would be five interlocking peristyle plazas north of the Forum Romanum, known collectively as the Imperial Fora. Augustus built his at right angles to the first, the Forum Iulium, which communicated with the Forum Romanum by means of the Curia Iulia, or senate house, at its south corner. Both new fora were anchored axially at one end by a large temple—Caesar’s, dedicated to Venus Genetrix, and Augustus’s, to Mars Ultor. One of many features that distinguished the second forum from its prototype was the presence of an opulent hall immediately to the left of the temple. When excavated, it revealed fragments of a colossal marble or acrolithic statue standing roughly 36 ft (11 m) high on its pedestal. It could only have represented Augustus himself, probably in priestly guise. This unique space, then, competed aggressively for attention with the temple next door housing the cult statues, Venus and the deified Julius Caesar flanking Mars.

Augustus’s most visible form of munificence to the city was through urban renewal and monumentalization. Three new aqueducts were introduced to Rome during his principate; his adjutant Agrippa established a network of public fountain basins and a permanent staff of watermen to maintain the system. A professional fire brigade was established, stationed in each of the 14 regions; an excubitorium (nightwatcher’s post) of the fourteenth region’s brigade has been excavated in Trastevere. Around the Forum Romanum, temples and basilicas were refurbished in marble. In the Campus Martius, these two men oversaw the development of a vast new neighborhood: to the north, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the emperor’s dynastic tumulus mausoleum facing south toward the city center; a plaza inscribed with a large meridian or sundial with an Egyptian obelisk to serve as its pointer; the Ara Pacis Augustae, a marble-clad altar precinct celebrating a universal but short-lived declaration of peace in 9 B.C.E.; to the south, two new theaters, an amphitheater, and numerous temple and portico restorations; in the center, Agrippa’s baths and a vast open pool, both supplied by his own aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo; a basilica; and the Pantheon. Excavations in the nineteenth century and again in the 1990s revealed that an early version of the Pantheon—probably Agrippa’s original, with a rusticated stone podium—had a broader facade than its successor, a full 10 columns wide, with modest stairways on either side. The facade was in perfect alignment with the mausoleum far to the north, and this visual axis cannot have been accidental. The “temple of all the gods” would stand in perpetual dialogue with the tomb of newly minted gods, those of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Public spectacle had long been a staple of life in Rome. Two kinds of games developed there during the republic: private munera, associated with funerals and triumphs, and public ludi, attached to state-sponsored religious festivals. Blood sport, introduced to Rome in the third century B.C.E., was confined to munera; the only exceptions were staged hunts. Being privately funded and mounted only irregularly, gladiatorial combat had no dedicated venue at Rome until Augustus’s time. Yet by the late republic it had become enormously popular. Aristocratic funerals and military triumphs were accompanied by games held in the Forum Romanum, where some spectators watched from the balconies of surrounding buildings and others, from temporary grandstands. Only for the triumphal games of Caesar in 46 B.C.E., however, is there archaeological testimony to mesh with the literary. To accommodate the unprecedented number of gladiatorial fights staged during this event and to enhance their drama, a series of parallel galleries with trapdoors was dug directly under the central forum from which waiting combatants could emerge on cue. In the Campus Martius, a colossal artificial lake was excavated (Agrippa’s had not yet been built) to accommodate a novel new spectacle, staged naval combat (naumachia). This facility has eluded discovery; probably it was a temporary feature, watered by the river itself and backfilled afterward.

Under Augustus, the venues of blood spectacle took a more permanent form. Immediately after the Battle of Actium, Octavian’s commander of land forces, T. Statilius Taurus, undertook to build a masonry amphitheater in the extreme south of the Campus Martius. To celebrate the inauguration of the Temple of Mars Ultor in 2 B.C.E., Augustus took inspiration from Caesar’s naval battle venue. West of the Tiber, this naumachia was supplied by its own aqueduct to accommodate its unprecedented scale: 1,200 by 1,600 Roman feet (1,164 by 1,552 ft [354.8 by 473 m]), according to the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (list of the deeds of Augusts, inscribed on his mausoleum in Rome). Little positive evidence of this pool has been found since it was abandoned and gradually overbuilt later in the imperial period, but its position can be established along a north–south axis in the floodplain of Trastevere.

Rome had always been a city of religious festivals and attendant processions, often taking the form of ritual circuits or prescribed routes connecting sites of significance. Augustus’s efforts at rehabilitating Rome’s religious vigor relied heavily on the power of public ritual staged on the fasti, days of the calendar set aside for prescribed religious festivals. He was driven by conservatism dominated by reverence for traditional local cults—or if not local, at least “romanized” by authority of the Sibylline Books, like the Phrygian cult of Cybele. The emperor’s own patron god, Apollo, was a surprisingly Hellenic choice however. If not exactly alien to Rome—a venerable temple of Apollo Medicus was splendidly restored by C. Sosius in 34 B.C.E.—this god was of little account to the city’s non-Greek residents. Thus, Augustus’s early move to construct an entirely new precinct of Apollo on the Palatine near the temple of Cybele was a bold stroke. Equally imaginative was the decision to feature the temple prominently in an “irregular” festival, not tied to the calendar cycle: the Secular Games of 17 B.C.E., in which the emperor had greater control over the event than the established cyclical festivals would have allowed. To set the stage, he had appeared to the public at the newly resplendent temple of Apollo Medicus during his triple triumph in 29 B.C.E. Exquisite archaizing terra-cotta plaques excavated at the Palatine temple further suggest that Augustus was trying to ease his new cult of Apollo Palatinus into his compatriots’ comfort zone by lending it an old-fashioned, Italic look.

Of foreign cults Romans remained broadly distrustful. No Roman citizen was permitted to be a priest of Cybele at that time, though the cult’s festival had an established place in the calendar. Augustus himself placed severe restrictions on the worship of Isis. Yet he encouraged oblique reference to Egyptian cult imagery around the city, particularly if it related to the sun god; that cult, at least, could be coordinated to some degree with Apollo’s. Several pharaonic red-granite obelisks transported from Egypt were positioned prominently around the city. One, from Heliopolis, was set in the center of the Circus Maximus and dedicated to Sol, the charioteer god; another became the pointer of Augustus’s great sundial. Two more flanked the entrance of the mausoleum.

Until the late republic, Rome’s public places, both in the city and in the necropoleis lining its consular highways, emphasized the sponsoring aristocrats’ noblesse oblige, alongside their ties to their ancestors and their gods. With the Augustan period, a new phenomenon arose in parallel: abundant commemoration of the freed class. Most magistri vici were freedmen, and with their rise in society, echoed by Augustales in other Roman towns and cities and the merchant and civil service classes they represented, a new patronage structure was born with powerful allegiances to the emperor and his family cult. The city experienced an explosion of inscribed dedications by freedmen, many of them former slaves of the emperor, of his family, or of other senatorial families. A new kind of tomb appeared in the extramural necropoleis: the monumental columbarium. One tomb alone on the Via Appia contained serried rows of niches for hundreds of Livia’s freedmen and -women; others on a similar scale continued to be built and occupied until the mid-first century C.E.

Under Tiberius (r. 14–37 C.E.), Caligula (r. 37–41 C.E.), and Claudius (r. 41–54 C.E.), the pace of change in Rome slowed. Though he had sponsored opulent temple projects under Augustus, as emperor the self-exiled Tiberius showed little interest in the city except to expand the Palatine properties of Augustus into a true palace on the western side of the hill and consolidate the Praetorian Guard in a new military camp outside the walls. Caligula was extravagantly ambitious, but his brief and unstable rule allowed for few completed projects, though he began many. His signal mark on the cityscape was the renewal of the cults of Isis and Serapis, which he situated east of the Saepta in the Campus Martius. On the Severan marble plan, the joint cult site takes the form of a D-shaped precinct. Between 1374 and 1883, this area yielded a prodigious bounty of Egyptian and Egyptianizing artifacts; clearly, the cult prospered into late antiquity, and its empire-wide popularity made it a strong rival of Christianity in the first and second centuries C.E. Claudius sponsored no great building program in Rome, choosing to focus instead on improving infrastructure. Two aqueducts begun under Caligula were completed and dedicated as the Anio Novus and Aqua Claudia, requiring expanding the staff of Agrippa’s old water authority.

Nero, the Fire, and the Domus Aurea.

The last Julio-Claudian emperor, Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.), presented a striking contrast to his predecessors. Through confiscations and inheritance, he managed to accumulate a broad swath of land connecting the Palatine to imperial holdings on the Esquiline, for which he envisioned a sprawling villa-palace complex known as the Domus Transitoria (“Connecting House”). Work was under way when, in June 64, a calamitous fire broke out and burned for six days. According to Tacitus, three of Rome’s 14 districts were completely leveled, with seven others badly damaged. Nero famously found a scapegoat for the disaster:

"But neither human expedient, nor the emperor’s largesse, nor appeasement of the gods could eradicate the conviction that the fire had been started on command. As a pretext to suppress the rumor, Nero produced as culprits—and visited with the most exotic punishments—those whom, because of their scandalous behavior, the crowd called Christians. The founder of that name, Christus, had been given the death penalty during Tiberius’ principate by the procurator, Pontius Pilatus. That deadly superstition, checked temporarily, had broken out again—not only throughout Judaea, the birthplace of that evil, but also in the city of Rome, where all shameful monstrosities from everywhere converge and gain popularity. (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44)"

However distorted by transmission, this episode had a profound impact on later Christians. By the late second century, a tradition was well established that the apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome during this persecution. The emperor’s relief efforts, however, seem to have been exemplary: he opened his properties to shelter and feed those displaced by the fire. The Domus Transitoria having itself been ravaged, the expansive suburban imperial gardens took the brunt of refugees. To boost morale, Nero held circus games on his properties in the Vatican plain; and it was here, Tacitus relates, that many Christians incurred hideous punishments to entertain the crowds, including serving as human torches to illuminate the festivities. The circus in question was in this district; Caligula, who began work on it, had transported an obelisk from Egypt to adorn its spina. In parallel to its north, probably some decades later, a necropolis developed within which a small, shrinelike tomb would become the object of fervid reverence as the resting place of St. Peter. When the necropolis was investigated in the 1940s and 1950s, the simple plastered walls around the tomb were found to be covered with graffiti, presumably from pilgrims. Under Constantine (r. 306–337 C.E.) the cemetery was overbuilt by St. Peter’s Basilica, with the tomb centered directly under the sanctuary. The church and its dependencies overran the old circus, but the obelisk survives, standing in the plaza before St. Peter’s. In fact, there is nothing to date “Peter’s tomb,” or its necropolis, before the Hadrianic age.

After the fire, Nero instituted strict new building codes. As Tacitus describes it, the measures seem to have approached the level of genuine city planning:

"Those other parts of the city spared by the palace were not…built without discrimination or randomly, but in measured ranks of streets and broad avenues, with height restrictions on buildings, open areas, and the attachment of porticos to protect the facades of apartment blocks.…The buildings themselves, in certain parts, were made solidly of Gabine or Alban stone without timbers, since that stone is fireproof…and party-walls were eliminated, each property standing clear on its own perimeter walls. (Ann. 15.43)"

Physical evidence of these measures in Rome is utterly lacking. This surprising lacuna may stem from the fact that ancient residential neighborhoods in Rome are neither well preserved (as they are in Ostia) nor adequately excavated. It is entirely possible, though, that Nero’s new building code was applied most stringently not in the city’s core but in the Vatican plain, where some evidence of an ancient orthogonal grid is visible. Perhaps he sponsored an entirely new neighborhood on imperial land he had donated for the cause.

Nero immediately resumed his aborted palace project but with significant changes. In places on the Palatine, for example, it is possible to identify parts of the abandoned Domus Transitoria underlying a completely new design for the postconflagration project, which came to be known as the Domus Aurea (“Golden House”). The renewed complex crossed a valley to the Oppian Hill and beyond to the Esquiline. Various attempts have been made to match the fragmentary architectural remains of this palace to a short description of it by Suetonius. Such exercises are not edifying; the only matching feature on which everyone can agree is an artificial rectangular pond in the valley. A curious discovery in the Vigna Barberini has been identified as a dining hall of the Domus Aurea with a revolving vault described by Suetonius, but the claim has been challenged. The best-preserved part of the palace is embedded in the Oppian Hill overlooking the valley to its south. This subterranean complex of vaulted rooms and corridors, many of them ornamented with fourth-style frescoes and stuccoed vaults, created an international sensation when it was inadvertently rediscovered at the end of the fifteenth century. Subsequently, it has been appreciated for its novel architectural forms. In particular, the famous Octagon Room on the complex’s central axis has drawn praise for its umbrella dome, suite of satellite rooms, and elaborate skylighting system. This secondary wing of the Domus Aurea, surviving by accident more than design, is held up as an early exemplar of the Roman architectural revolution.

Ever attentive to popular opinion, Nero opened parts of his complex to the public. Some areas served as sculpture galleries, others probably as venues for lavish entertainments. It may be no accident that the pond was one of the first parts of the Domus Aurea targeted for obliteration after Nero’s death; since his praetorian prefect Tigellinus had hosted a notorious nocturnal debauch at Agrippa’s pond in the Campus Martius, this venue may have been similarly tainted.

Jews and Christians in Julio-Claudian Rome.

Apart from Tacitus’s lurid account of the fire of 64, little is known about the Jewish and Christian communities at Rome in the Julio-Claudian period. It is presumed that Rome had harbored Jews from the second century B.C.E., and there is even evidence of their temporary expulsion in 139; as a community, they are not heard from again until their demonstrations against Valerius Flaccus, who had outlawed Asian Jews’ customary monetary contributions to Jerusalem shortly after Pompey’s seizure of that city in 63 B.C.E. In the late republic they were gradually granted privileges such as military exemptions, rights of assembly, and rights to observe Shabbat and Jewish festivals. Augustus was an ally and Agrippa a close friend of Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.E.), a powerful advocate for the Diaspora; and Jews were well treated in Rome at his time. Inscriptions from the six known Jewish catacombs of Rome (second and third centuries C.E.) include the names of several synagogues, including the Augustenses and Agrippenses. The names suggest a bond of patronage to these personages, probably that of freedmen—a bond that is implicit in Philo’s observation that Augustus respected the Jews of Rome, “most of whom were freedmen” (Legat. 155). “He knew that they had houses of prayer and gatherings within them” in their suburban enclave across the Tiber, and in every way he treated them with honor and respect for their customs (156–157). The community’s size and status at Rome may be evident in Josephus’s report that some 8,000 Jews supported a delegation arguing a case brought before Augustus regarding the division of control of Judea and Syria. And although the case went against the demonstrators, “they clearly feared no reprisals—and they got none” (Gruen, 2002, p. 27).

Yet, like other foreign groups in Rome, Jews were vulnerable to prejudice and political opprobrium. Judging from the hundreds of later inscriptions from the catacombs, most of Rome’s Jews continued speaking Greek into the third century. Probably many were of peregrine or Junian Latin status and, thus, subject to expulsion without legal recourse. For uncertain reasons, Tiberius expelled thousands of Jews in 19 C.E. but without long-term consequence. Claudius again punished the Jews of Rome for some disturbance in 49, “Chrestus being the instigator” (Suetonius, Claud. 25.4). Whether or not Chrestus was Christ (i.e., the influence of Christianity) or simply a freedman bearing that admittedly common name remains a matter of perpetual, and perpetually sterile, debate.

The history of earliest Christianity in Rome is almost completely obscure. From Paul’s letter to the Romans, written around 56 C.E., it seems that the city’s nascent church consisted of both Gentiles and observant Jews who had accepted Jesus as Messiah. However, the letter must be understood in light of Claudius’s expulsion order, which may have been recently reversed by Nero. The return of Jews to the church may have exacerbated their differences with the Gentile congregation. Whatever the nature of this conflict, Claudius’s directive (ca. 49), Paul’s arrival in Rome (ca. 60), and Nero’s condemnation of Christians (64) may all have had their root causes in it.

The Flavians.

Only two years later, the Jews of Roman Judea would rise up in a bloody provincial war (66–73 C.E.). If Nero’s relationship with Rome’s Christians was hostile, the attitude of the succeeding Flavian emperors toward the local Jewish community was hardly better. Vespasian (r. 69–79 C.E.) and his son Titus (r. 79–81 C.E.) jointly commanded the revolt’s savage suppression. Its culmination was the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and the ransacking of its treasuries. Throughout the empire, Rome included, Jews were subjected to the fiscus Iudaicus, a reparations tax. Equal to the half-shekel they had traditionally contributed to the Temple in Jerusalem, this tax was punitively channeled to the Capitolium at Rome, which had been destroyed in the civil war following Nero’s death. Egyptian papyri indicate that it was still being collected in the second century.

Vespasian and Titus celebrated a joint triumph in Rome after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. Josephus’s description of their triumphal procession is the most detailed account we have of this ancient and venerable ritual (B.J. 7.123–157). It began in the Campus Martius outside the pomerium, proceeded through the Porta Triumphalis into the city, followed the traditional lustral circuit around the Palatine Hill, and concluded with a great sacrifice to Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the Capitolium. Jewish captives were paraded on display, along with the great menorah and other furnishings of the Temple. Victory over the Jews became the central event around which the Flavians built their imperial identities.

Concurrently, Vespasian and Titus began to dismantle and overbuild parts of the Domus Aurea. The pond in the valley gave way to the Colosseum, and large public baths—following, ironically, a template invented by Nero’s architects for another complex in the Campus Martius—rose over part of the Oppian sector. Martial wrote, “Here, where the hulk of an awesome amphitheater rises, lay Nero’s pond. Here, where we marvel at new baths (swift dispensation!) one garden, in its arrogance, had swindled wretches of their homes” (Spect. 2.5–8).

These projects are often regarded as a widely popular reversal of Nero’s tyrannical impulses. Certainly, new public amenities, particularly a permanent amphitheater, which Rome had lacked since the fire, met a demand. But the Flavians were equally intent on reining in the permissive, Saturnalian spirit of Nero. The Colosseum presented an architecture of rigid social control, channeling various social classes to their proper seating areas. Even its statuary, severely framed in two circumferential tiers of 80 arches each, served as an oblique rebuke, perhaps, of Nero’s open sculpture garden, much of it seized from Greek cities and sanctuaries. Public baths, however, had a far more democratic spatial organization, and the Baths of Titus were no exception; they were given a particularly “civic,” monumental character by the presence of a gargantuan entrance vestibule and stairway encasing the slope facing the Colosseum’s north side.

Vespasian commissioned the third of the Imperial Fora, called the Templum Pacis: a peristyle sanctuary of peace in which the greatest war spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem were kept on display. Excavations of the 1990s and early 2000s uncovered large parts of this forum along with the porch of its focal temple. The robust planting pits in parallel rows down the central plaza, punctuated by inscribed bases that once supported statuary by famous Greek artists, confirm that this place was meant as a public sculpture garden—perhaps not so different in substance from Nero’s art park in the Domus Aurea but couched in a more severe and martial ideology. Greek and Latin libraries probably flanked the temple on either side; and in a large hall at the southern corner an extraordinary map was displayed, representing the entire city of Rome. An updated marble replacement was installed sometime shortly after 202 C.E.; hundreds of fragments of it survive, along with the wall that supported it. They remain among the most important primary documents of the ancient city.

Titus and Domitian (r. 81–96 C.E.) continued their father’s ideological program centered on the Jewish triumph. The former installed a commemorative arch at the southeastern end of the Circus Maximus, through which the triumphal route traditionally progressed on its way around the Palatine Hill. After his untimely death, Domitian erected a freestanding arch on the northeastern side of the Palatine, probably straddling the triumphal route itself. This, the Arch of Titus, depicted at the crown of its vault the now deceased emperor being borne by an eagle to his apotheosis. On the arch’s two interior walls, scenes of the triumphal procession itself were represented: Titus in the triumphal chariot, escorted by his lictors and several gods, and the great menorah and other sacral implements of the Temple of Jerusalem being carried in the procession.

A conflagration in 80 C.E., almost as destructive as that of 64 C.E., gave Domitian the opportunity to reshape the city on a Neronian scale. Two enormous cult centers dedicated to his deified father and brother arose, one in the Campus Martius (the Divorum) and one on the Quirinal (the Templum Gentis Flaviae). Many damaged buildings, such as the Pantheon and parts of the Imperial Fora, were rebuilt. Yet another massive palace project transpired, this time confined to the Palatine Hill. Domitian probably continued to reduce the Domus Aurea, starting work on an enormous public bath building adjoining the Baths of Titus that entombed much of the remaining Oppian Hill complex in its massive platform. These baths would later be completed under Trajan. Almost in a Neronian spirit, he instituted Greek-style games in Rome, constructing a stadium for the purpose in the Campus Martius, the site of the current Piazza Navona. This stadium would later become the reputed site of the martyrdom of St. Agnes, whose church was founded on its remains after the manner of St. Peter’s Basilica, which Constantine built over part of the Circus of Gaius and Nero as a symbolic reappropriation of place.

In the course of the first century, the burial customs at Rome continued to evolve. Fewer aristocrats were building new tombs, but the rise of the freed classes in this category of self-representation continued unabated. From mid-century onward, the popularity of the columbarium form declined. A great variety of tombs can be found from this period at Rome, just as at Pompeii. Toward the end of the century “house tombs,” orthogonal structures arranged in rows along streets or parallel lanes, came into fashion. The facades vary greatly, but they tend to feature “public” architectural elements such as pilasters, cornices, half-columns, and pediments. Inside, one encounters the familiar urn niches, often accompanied by “domestic” decorative amenities such as mosaics, frescoes, and aedicular shrines. Later, niches would be supplemented by larger spaces for inhumations. Necropoleis of this kind clustered around major highways outside Rome, sometimes in multiple rows separated by irregular alleys, as on the Via Salaria. Similar zones have been excavated outside other Roman towns such as Ostia, Portus, and Puteolis. The famous necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica is a meandering chain of house tombs dating from the Hadrianic through the Constantinian periods. The recently discovered necropolis of Santa Rosa nearby, which seems to have been in use from Augustan to Constantinian times, displays a larger variety of burials, more or less randomly placed, from simple earth inhumations to full-scale house tombs.

Rome after the Flavians.

Rome’s physical transformation continued under successive emperors, particularly Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.), Hadrian (r. 117–138 C.E.), Septimius Severus (r. 193–211 C.E.), Diocletian (r. 284–305 C.E.), Maxentius (r. 306–312 C.E.), and Constantine. As the generation of the apostles faded into the past, the urban Christian community expanded, gradually reaching a point where it would leave a significant mark in the archaeological record. This did not happen until the third century C.E., with the development of tituli (prominent house-churches) and catacombs. Evidence of the early church in Rome before that time relies almost entirely on hints from texts intended for very different purposes, such as Paul’s epistles and Acts. The poverty of material evidence may have been a necessity. Whether through ideology or discretion, Christians initially assembled and worshiped in neutral, nonsacralized environments, private houses designated for the purpose around the city; many of these eventually acquired the status of tituli and after Constantine were overbuilt by genuine churches. At least three of the later churches preserve evidence of second- and third-century houses in their fabric, most famously SS. Giovanni e Paolo on the Caelian Hill and nearby S. Clemente.

The catacombs emerged as a response to crowded conditions in the aboveground suburban necropoleis and to a second-century C.E. shift of burial customs from cremation to inhumation, requiring long horizontal wall recesses (loculi, arcosolia) to accommodate the deceased. Many of the larger Christian catacombs developed around the tombs of purported martyrs from various phases of persecution at Rome. Occasionally, the imagery preserved in Christian tombs of the third century C.E. reveals strange syncretisms and heterodoxies: for example, Christ represented as Orpheus in the Catacomb of Domitilla or as the sun god in the necropolis under St. Peter’s. Perhaps the Mithraeum found in the house-church of S. Clemente also betrays a symbiosis of creeds that would have horrified St. Paul.

Ostia and Portus.

When Paul arrived in Italy on an Alexandrian ship, the destination was Puteolis on the Bay of Naples, which had served as Rome’s principal port from at least the second century B.C.E. until the final years of Claudius’s reign. Around this very time, however, Claudius’s greatest public works project—the artificial harbor known simply as Portus (Augusti), 2 miles (3.2 km) northwest of Ostia—was nearing completion under his successor Nero. Directly downriver from Rome, the vast new facility brought relief to the overburdened ports on the bay. Fieldwork at Portus has clarified a number of questions about this complex. Even before the harbor’s completion, two canals were cut from the river to the coast—one directly north of the port, the other to its south—to provide flood relief. The southern canal (in the twenty-first century maintained and lengthened to form the “Fiumicino”) also gave laden barges direct access to the Tiber well upstream from its mouth, shortening their route to Rome. The harbor was partly excavated into the coastal alluvium and partly projected into the sea by an enormous curved mole with an artificial island and lighthouse at its entrance. A crippling storm soon demonstrated the harbor’s vulnerability, and under Trajan a hexagonal inner harbor, in direct communication with the outer harbor, was dug. Mighty warehouses, a huge vaulted shipshed, and even an elite residence complete with a miniature amphitheater developed around the hexagon in ensuing decades.

Concurrently, Ostia began its transformation into a boomtown centered on maritime services and trade. With its own small harbor and strategic location at the river crossing of the coastal highway, it had always controlled Rome’s seaborne commerce. But in the second century C.E., it was transformed from a utilitarian entrepôt into a model city of handsome, multistory brick-and-concrete apartment blocks, opulent guildhalls, and abundant public amenities. A geophysical survey of unexcavated parts of Ostia and its vicinity revealed neighborhoods extending far beyond the late-republican city walls, even a suburban district across the Tiber.

Like port cities around the Mediterranean, Ostia and Portus hosted a cosmopolitan array of religious communities, organizations, and sanctuaries. Local cults dominated in the early empire, but by the second century C.E., as Ostia opened up to the East, a broader religious palette was evident, including cults of Cybele, Isis, Serapis, Mithras, and others. Nothing is known of the Christian and Jewish communities of Ostia in the apostolic age, but by Severan times a synagogue was situated in the southern suburbs. As in Rome at this time, Christians left few distinctive marks in the built environment. Despite a late-antique tradition attesting to local martyrdoms during the persecutions of the third century, no churches can be identified at Ostia before Constantine. He established there a bishopric and a basilica dedicated, significantly, not to local martyrs, who would have to wait decades before receiving their own churches, but to the great triad of Constantinian saints, each with his own basilica at Rome: Peter, Paul, and John the Baptist. In effect, Constantine was reinventing Ostia as a kind of staging ground to heighten the spiritual anticipation of international pilgrims on the final leg of their journey to the great churches of Rome.



  • Boatwright, Mary T. Hadrian and the City of Rome. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. A thoughtful survey of Hadrian’s many urban and architectural projects in Rome.
  • Claridge, Amanda. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. The definitive English-language field guide to the archaeological remains of Rome.
  • Coulston, Jon, and Hazel Dodge, eds. Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City. Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology, 2000. This collection of articles approaches the city thematically. Individual articles discuss the city as it related to such matters as the military, construction, food supply, water supply, spectacle, and death and burial.
  • Darwall-Smith, Robin. Emperors and Architecture: A Study of Flavian Rome. Brussels, Belgium: Latomus, 1996. A traditional historical and topographical study of the city’s development under the emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.
  • Davies, Penelope. Death and the Emperor: Roman Imperial Funerary Monuments from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Davies focuses on the patterns of meaning and ritual that underlie the great funerary monuments of emperors in Rome.
  • Favro, Diane. The Urban Image of Augustan Rome. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A comprehensive study of the Augustan city from the perspective of urban theory and design.
  • Finney, Paul Corby. “Early Christian Architecture: The Beginnings (A Review Article).” Harvard Theological Review 81, no. 3 (1988): 319–339. Reviews several important books that deal with early Christian architecture in Rome and other cities.
  • Gallina Zevi, Anna, and Amanda Claridge, eds. Roman Ostia” Revisited: Archaeological and Historical Papers in Memory of Russell Meiggs. London: British School at Rome, 1996.
  • Gruen, Erich. Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Chapter 1, “The Jews in Rome,” examines all the evidence pertaining to the city of Rome’s early Jewish community.
  • Heinzelmann, Michael. “Bauboom und urbanistische Defizite—zur städtebaulichen Entwicklung Ostias im 2. Jh.” In Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma, edited by Christer Bruun and Anna Galina Zevi, pp. 103–122. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 27. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2002. A synthetic interpretation of the author’s geophysical survey of Greater Ostia as it relates to the growth of Ostia in the second century C.E.
  • Holloway, R. Ross. The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium. London: Routledge, 1994. Part narrative and part synthesis, this book tells the story of the early scientific excavations in the Forum, the Palatine, and the Forum Boarium. It includes a useful chapter on the dating of artifacts from early Rome.
  • Keay, Simon. Portus: An Archaeological Survey of the Port of Imperial Rome. London: British School at Rome, 2005. Reports on the geophysical survey and excavations at Portus.
  • Keay, Simon, and Lidia Paroli, eds. Portus and Its Hinterland: Recent Archaeological Research. London: British School at Rome, 2011. Reports on various aspects of the investigations at Portus, including a geophysical survey of the Isola Sacra and excavations at the so-called Palazzo Imperiale.
  • Liverani, Paolo. The Vatican Necropoles: Rome’s City of the Dead. Translated by Saskia Stevens and Victoria Noel-Johnson. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols; Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticani, 2010.
  • Lott, John Bert. The Neighborhoods of Augustan Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Examines Augustus’s redistricting of Rome in terms of both its topographical implications and the newly organized neighborhood cults.
  • Meiggs, Russell. Roman Ostia. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Still the most comprehensive study of Roman Ostia, although some aspects of it are now out of date.
  • Meneghini, Roberto, and Riccardo Santangeli Valenziani. I fori imperiali: gli scavi del commune di Roma (1991–2007). Rome: Viviani, 2007. An indispensable report on the large-scale excavations of the imperial fora in antiquity and the middle ages.
  • Ostia—Harbour City of Ancient Rome.” Jan Theo Bakker, director. A superbly maintained Web site on every archaeological aspect of ancient Ostia and Portus, with comprehensive bibliographies, clickable maps, computer reconstructions, and hundreds of photographs.
  • Rehak, Paul. Imperium and Cosmos: Augustus and the Northern Campus Martius. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. An interpretation of the ideology and symbolism of the “Augustan theme park,” as the author terms it, that the emperor developed in the northwestern sector of Rome, by which he justified his rule in terms of elaborate cosmic symbolism.
  • Richardson, L., Jr. A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A good resource of first resort, this dictionary provides concise articles on the monuments and topographical features of the ancient city.
  • Rutgers, Leonard V. “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.” Classical Antiquity 13, no. 1 (1994): 56–74.
  • Stambaugh, John. The Ancient Roman City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. The several chapters focusing on Rome are still the best short historical narrative of the development of ancient Rome from its beginnings to late antiquity.
  • Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project.” Marc Levoy and Jennifer Trimble, directors. Presents every known fragment of the Severan marble plan of Rome in three-dimensional, digitized form along with detailed discussion and comprehensive bibliography.
  • Steinby, Eva Margareta, ed. Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae. 6 vols. Rome: Quasar, 1993–2000. Following an approach similar to that of Richardson but on a level of considerably greater detail, the Lexicon contains articles written in Italian, French, German, and English by experts on the topic at hand.

Rabun M. Taylor