Construction projects in Rome often unearth incredible artifacts from the city’s rich history. Work on a new subway line, for instance, has led to the discovery of ancient army barracks, the remains of imperial homes and centuries-old peach pits imported from Persia. So it is not entirely surprising that electrical technicians laying cables near the Tiber River recently found the remains of a luxurious building, which, as the Local Italy reports, may be one of the earliest churches in Rome.
The ruins were discovered close to the Ponte Milvio, a bridge that crosses the Tiber in the northern part of the city. According to La Repubblica, the site consists of four rooms dating from the first and fourth centuries A.D.
Part of the complex seems to have been used as a warehouse. But one of the structures clearly had a more special purpose. As Nick Squires writes in the Telegraph, it was made of “brick walls and exquisitely rendered floors made of red, green and honey-colored marble from Sparta, Egypt and what is now Tunisia.”
The function of this structure is not entirely clear; Rome's Archaeological Superintendency called it "an archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” according to the Local. The building may have been an ornate Roman villa. But experts think it could have also been a church. After excavating the surrounding area, archaeologists discovered a small cemetery and several tombs, including one that still held the remains of a Roman man. The find leads archaeologists to believe that the site may have been a Christian holy place since, as Emily Petsko points out in Mental Floss, churches are often attached to mausoleums.
“It was definitely a building for public use and we think it may have been a place of worship,” Marina Piranomonte, the director of the dig, told the Telegraph.
Intriguingly, the structure was built around the time that Christianity began to gain widespread acceptance in the Roman Empire. In fact, as Squires of the Telegraph notes, the building is located just “100 yards” from the Ponte Milvio, where a defining battle that may have spurred the Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity took place in 312 A.D.
At this time, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Roman Empire was cracking, plagued by civil wars and an uneasy division of power between coalitions of high-ranking men. In 312, Constantine, who had been declared emperor in 306, set out for battle against his rival, Maxentius, who had also claimed the imperial title. Prior to the battle, Constantine is said to have had a vision: the sign of the cross hovering above the sun and bearing the inscription, “By this symbol you will conquer.”
After the battle, from which Constantine emerged victorious, the emperor declared that Christians—once a persecuted minority—should be able to worship freely. Years later, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.
The Roman Empire’s earliest churches were built during Constantine’s reign in the fourth century. The newly discovered structure, according to La Repubblica, dates to some time between the third and fourth centuries. So while its significance is far from certain, the mysterious building may have been one of Rome’s early churches, built during a new era of tolerance for people of the Christian faith.