When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. (Acts chapter 28, verse 16)
I have long been fascinated with the historical context in which the New Testament stories take place, that is the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day. Whether it’s St Paul’s eventful final journey to Rome, where it is assumed that he met his death by execution during the reign of Nero or the familiar words of Luke’s gospel, In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree with which the narrative of Jesus’ birth begins, we can’t get away from the all-powerful nature of Roman rule. Indeed, having some understanding of the pervasiveness of imperial government such as it was experienced by subject peoples is essential in any reading of these extraordinary texts. After all, how can we appreciate the significance of going the extra mile if we don’t know that Roman soldiers were only permitted to order a passer by to carry their pack for a single mile and what impact would many of the gospel stories have without the despised tax-collectors, working on behalf of the occupying power?
However, the Roman Empire also provided the means by which the Christian faith first reached the British Isles, with artefacts connected with the new religion found in what was then the province of Britannia from the third century. There may be about 200 years between the death of St Paul in Rome and any reliable archaeology that indicates the presence of Christians in our north-westerly extremity of imperial rule, but there is still a remarkable connection to explore between the experiences of modern- day people of faith and what can seem the distant world of ancient Rome.
On my recent pilgrimage to St Albans, I saw for myself some of this legacy of the Christian faith in the age of the Roman Empire. On my outward journey, having made my way to the colonia of Glevum, now the city of Gloucester, I then visited the site of the Roman villa at Chedworth in the Cotswolds. In what is now a National Trust property with a small museum, I was able to see a stone inscribed with a small mark known as the Chi Rho, this being an ancient religious symbol derived from the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. Originally part of the surround to a natural spring feeding the site, the Christian imagery had then been hidden away when the stone was re-used in later building work.
The cathedral at St Albans is also a notable testimony to the arrival of the new religion in Britain, brought here by soldiers, merchants and officials as the number of those identifying as Christians grew in the post- Biblical period. With the story of Alban’s martyrdom dated to about 300, his death probably belongs to the decades not long before the legalisation of Christianity within the empire in 313. And although what we know of Alban is difficult to verify, I was intrigued to visit an ancient parish church which, it was claimed, had been built on the site of Alban’s trial whereas the nearby cathedral dedicated to him may have been founded where Alban met his death, probably by beheading.
On my return journey, I saw further reminders of the Roman Empire. Having walked along a length of the Fosse Way when I was in Wiltshire, once back in Wales I visited the former Roman town at Caerwent. Here another Chi Rho artefact, now in the city museum at Newport, was discovered by archaeologists in the early twentieth century. I then went on to visit the legionary fortress at Caerleon, associated with two other Christian martyrs, Julius and Aaron, who were probably executed at about the same period as Alban.
But what can contemporary Christians learn from places, stories and artefacts such as these?
Firstly, I would suggest that the great antiquity of the Christian faith in Britain can humble and quietly challenge us but also be a source of encouragement . After all, are the issues in our own lives, churches or wider society really so different or so serious compared with those of the past? We all have to work out our faith in the context of our own times whether in Roman Britannia or twenty-first century Britain but we do so in prayerful trust in a loving and faithful God.
Secondly, things can and do change. The earliest Christians lived and worked in a still-pagan Empire and faced intermittent yet serious persecution similar to that endured by religious minorities in some countries today. However, by the Edict of Milan of 313, they were allowed to practise their faith which, by the late fourth century, became the official religion of the Empire. Would St Paul the prisoner ever have predicted such a course of events as he made his last journey?
When we got to Rome…