Was Peter Ever in Rome?
Yet Peter himself indicates his presence in Rome in Scripture in the concluding words of his First Letter, saying, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark” (5:13).
“Babylon” was commonly used by the Christians in the first century as a code name for Rome–see, for example, the Book of Revelation, 14:8; 16:19.
The Muratorian Fragment (ca. 170) explains that Peter’s martyrdom was omitted from the Acts of the Apostles because Saint Luke chose only to record events which he had witnessed personally. Luke’s omission of Peter’s activity in Rome, therefore, likely means only that he and Peter happened not to be in the city at the same time.
Peter likely came to Rome around the year 42 A.D. and died there in about 67, but this does not mean he remained there during the intervening 25-year period.
It’s far more likely that, having established Rome as the home base for his missionary journeys, he set out from the capital fairly frequently–even for years at a time.1
While Peter is not mentioned in the epistles from Paul’s Roman imprisonment either, there is an allusion to him in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, composed a few years earlier. In that letter, Paul reveals that he has been hesitant to come to Rome to preach “where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man’s foundation” (15:20).
The “other man,” who preached the Gospel in Rome before Paul, must be Peter. Since Jesus commanded the Apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (see Matthew 28:19). So, it is reasonable to expect that at least one of the Twelve had gone to Rome, the place where all nations met, and it seems only fitting that the first Apostle in Rome was Peter, the vicarious shepherd of Christ’s flock (John 21:15-17).
In fact, Peter had sown the seeds of Roman Christianity during his Pentecost sermon as the universal crowd that he addressed that day contained visitors from Rome (Acts of the Apostles, 2:10).
These first converts would eventually blossom into the Church of Rome, though they would require the Apostle’s guidance in order to be formed into a unified community.2
The historical evidence for Peter’s presence in Rome, contained in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, is unanimous and overwhelming.
Writing from Rome, only a few decades after the fact, Pope Saint Clement, who had known both Peter and Paul, referred to their heroic martyrdoms (see Letter of Clement to the Corinthians 5:1-7). Likewise, Saint Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107 A.D.) said to the Roman faithful, “Not as Peter and Paul did, do I command you. They were Apostles, and I am a convict” (from the Letter of Ignatius to the Romans, 4:3).
Around the year 130, Saint Papias verified that Saint Mark had worked as Peter’s assistant in Rome (see Peter’s First Letter 5:13) and that Mark’s Gospel developed from his records of the Apostle’s preaching there (see Explanation of the Sayings of the Lord; Eusebius, History of the Church 3:39:15 and see also Irenaeus, Heresies 3:1:1).3
Moreover, in about 170, Dionysius, the Bishop of Corinth, wrote to Pope Saint Soter, “You have also, by your very admonition, brought together the planting that was made by Peter and Paul at Rome and at Corinth; for both of them alike planted in our Corinth and taught us; and both alike, teaching similarly in Italy, suffered martyrdom at the same time” (Letter to Soter of Rome 2:25:8).
Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 185) referred to Peter’s activity in Rome with absolute certainty, calling the Church of Rome “the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul” (Against Heresies, 3:3:2).
Towards the end of the second century, Saint Clement of Alexandria confirmed that Mark had served as Peter’s secretary in Rome (see Fragment; Eusebius, History 6:14:6).
At the turn of the century, Tertullian noted that Clement had been ordained in Rome by Peter himself (see The Demurrer Against the Heretics 32:2). A few years later, he wrote, “Let us see what … the nearby Romans sound forth, to whom both Peter and Paul bequeathed the Gospel and even sealed it with their blood” (Against Marcion 4:5:1).
Around the same time, a Roman presbyter named Caius verified that Peter was buried on Vatican hill. “I can point out the trophies of the Apostles,” he said. “For if you are willing to go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way [where Peter and Paul are buried respectively], you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church” (Disputation with Proclus; Eusebius, History 2:25:7). Saint Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) wrote, “Peter preached the Gospel in Pontus, and Galatia, and Cappadocia, and Betania, and Italy, and Asia, and was afterwards crucified by Nero in Rome with his head downwards, as he had himself desired to suffer in that manner” (On the Twelve Apostles 1).
The traditional account of Peter’s crucifixion and burial (and presence in Rome) was confirmed in 1968 when his bones were rediscovered in a first-century grave located directly beneath the main altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Apostle’s bones were found remarkably intact except that the feet were missing, suggesting the soldiers may have removed the corpse from the cross by cutting off the feet, corroborating the ancient tradition that Peter was crucified upside down.4
- cf. Warren H. Carroll, A History of Christendom, vol. 1 (Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press), p. 420. ↩
- In The Tragedy of Calvary, Henry Bolo, cited in The Official Legion of Mary Handbook, goes a step further, observing, “The Church of the future, which must be called the Roman Church, began in a mysterious manner around Calvary the function which she was destined to fulfil in the world. The Romans it was who offered up the Victim and elevated it in the sight of the multitude. These future guardians of the unity of the Church would refuse to tear the tunic of Jesus. These depositories of the faith would be the first to write and to uphold the principal dogma of the new faith—the royalty of the Nazarene. They would smite their heart at the moment when the sacrifice would be consummated saying: ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’ Lastly, with the same spear which would open up to the Gospel all the highways of the universe, they would open the Sacred Heart of the Master, from whence flow streams of benediction and of the supernatural life. Since all humanity is guilty of the of the Redeemer, since all have steeped their hands in his , and since therefore the future Church could not be represented but by culprits, does it not seem as though the Romans, as early as the time of Calvary, were, though unconsciously, inaugurating, substantiating, their immortal destiny? The cross had been fixed in such a position that the back of Jesus was turned upon Jerusalem, while his face was to the west, towards the Eternal City” (Dublin: Concilium Legionis Mariae, 1993, pp. 339-340). ↩
- Tertullian, a century later, would go so far as to say, “(The Gospel) issued by Mark may be affirmed to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was” (Against Marcion 4:5:3). ↩
- Carroll, vol. 1, p. 445, n. 143; the author referenced John E. Walsh, The Bones of St. Peter (Garden City, New York, 1982), pp. 164-165. ↩