Building a Roman Church: Domus Ecclesiae

P1010945In my last post on Building a Roman Church, I outlined the development of the Roman basilica to the Christian church structure. However, even the earliest existing churches, built in or more likely over a basilica were started in the 4th to 6th centuries. Peter could not exactly write to Emperor Nero to be granted permission for his Jewish cult to use empty basilicas on Sabbath. Rather, congregations in the 1st and 2nd centuries usually met in someone’s home. Peter did write in Romans 16: 3-5 “Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, to my fellow workers in Christ,… and to the church that meets in their house…”  Domus Ecclesiae. 

The majority of people living in Roman (freemen and slaves) lived in tenement housing. These were more or less similar to modern apartment buildings, just without plumbing. These were not practical for churches because a couple of rooms could not hold many people. However, as Roman patricians (ruling class) converted to Christianity, their homes became the places where Christians would met. Thus, we must take a step back to look at the Roman house to understand some of the structures of the Roman church.

I will use two churches, which are both within walking distance of the Colosseum: St. Clement and St. Peter in Chains (the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli). Both use the basilica structure (central nave with two side aisles) and were build over the homes of patricians. Excavations during periods of structural renovations of St. Peter in Chains uncovered multiple levels of prior buildings below the present church. This schematic image shows these different levels, each in a different color.


If you visit, St. Clement, spend the extra few Euros to descend the stairs where you can see the older church a level below, then two lower levels of villas below that. In the lowest structural level (an extra donation before slipping down the narrow, steep steps), includes the remains of a courtyard with an altar to Mithra. Below that are the ruins of another house which burnt in the fires of 64AD, thus bringing us to the ground level at the time of Emperor Nero, who rebuilt the city on those ruins.

Though Roman homes did not have as consistently laid out floor plan as the basilica, several of the features became incorporated into the form and function of the Roman church. Roman houses had an entrance to the street. Usually within view of this entrance would be an atrium and tablinum, where the owner of the house would greet guests and conduct business. People waiting for their meeting would sit on benches outside the entrance, often in a shaded portico. Columns lined the porticos, delineating the public and the private spaces, as well as supporting upper rooms or a loggia (balcony). Often near the tablinum the home would have an open garden space enclosed with covered walkways around each side, the peristyle garden. These spaces became the facade of the church, the portico, the narthex, and cloister.

IMG_4024Evidence of these ancient structures remain of excavated ruins, and more interestingly, incorporated into buildings with are still used as shops and homes. In this image, column from an entry way was been built into a contemporary building (if you consider 17th century renovations “contemporary”)

The entrance to St. Peter in Chains hardly looks like our image of a Baroque church, with soaring pediment and religious sculptures. Rather, we see the line of columns and arches, with a line of windows above. It is more similar to a patrician’s home, inviting business men to come by, and supporting offices above the entrance.


In this photo from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, the tablinum leads directly to the courtyard garden behind it.


IMG_4228The formal entrance to St. Clemente is through a cloister garden (though tourist enter the side of the church around the corner). St. Clement is considered to be the freedman, or possibly Jewish freed-slave of Titus Flavius Clement, from whom he would have acquired his name. Paul refers to him in Phillipians 4:3. He became the 4th Pope. His legend places him during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), then banished to the Crimea by Emperor Trajan (96-117). While his martyrdom occurred in the Black Sea, his possible origin in the household of Clements places his church over that home.

It may seem odd to us where churches were placed in Roman (or that so many exist within such a relatively close space of the ancient city walls). We strategically purchase properties because of proximity to an existing group of people, or because the street corners make for good traffic. Churches in Rome were built on locations that the congregations considered sacred. A saint may have been martyred on that sight or performed a miracle there. St. Peter in Chains and St. Clements were build over homes of patricians who supported the new religion.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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2 Responses to Building a Roman Church: Domus Ecclesiae

  1. Very interesting post. thank you. Seems both Peter and Paul were greatly helped by the women leaders of the early church. Pity their roles have been so minimized in more recent times.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Yes, women were involved in the early church. The Gospel accounts include numerous references to women, from Mary and Martha to the Samaritan women at the well, et all. Many of the relics in Roman (and scattered about to other Italian churches) are attributed to St. Helen, Emperor Contantine’s mother. Hippy-dippy, New Age book stores are likely to carry this history.

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