Italy is one of the most complex and alluring destinations of the Lands of the Bible. Few countries can compete with the unique combination of its classical origins, its religious heritage, its art, its architecture, its musical and literary traditions, its scenery or its cuisine.
Italy has no single cultural identity. From the snow-capped Alps in the north to the warm southern shores of Sicily lie a number of distinctive regions and people. Italy is a relatively young country politically. It only came about as a unified nation-state in 1861. Its 21 regions still maintain their unique cultural identities.
This historical intra-regional diversity also made it hard to find a common spoken or written language with which to communicate. Italians wrote and spoke in local dialects that were mutually incomprehensible. The Italian Peninsula needed a language that everyone could agree upon. A gathering of Italian intellectuals did something unprecedented in the history of nations. They handpicked the most beautiful of all local dialects and crowned it as the official Italian language. This was the fourteenth-century Florentine dialect first penned by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy, published in 1321.
Already in ancient times the allure of this land was steadily attracting people. Its position in the center of the Mediterranean, its mild climate, the fertility of its soil, the beauty of its alpine passages and its coastline drew ancient populations coming from the sea. Among those were the Etruscans and the Greeks, who left remarkable evidence of their presence, such as the tombs of Etruria from which have been restored the richest funerary items, and the temples of the Greek colonies in Sicily and southern of Italy, formerly called Magna Grecia. These people fused with the populations already living in the land, such as the Latins, the Ligurians, the Umbri, the Sannites, the Sabines, the Volsci and others, giving life in the end to a unique people which radiated out of Rome, giving rise to a grand empire uniting many nations of different languages, customs and ideals.
Already called “Enotria” by the Greeks for the abundance of its vines, and “Esperia” meaning “Land of the Sunset”, it finally took the name of Italy. Italia was initially only attributed to the region of Calabria, where people of a Latin origin ( Viteloi or Itali) had established themselves. These people then gave the name to the southern part of the peninsula. Only in the age of Augustus, when all the inhabitants from the Alps to the Strait of Messina would obtain Roman citizenship, would the name Italy assume the precise geographical significance that it has conserved up to this day.
Rome, the city of Romolo, inheritor of the riches and the work of the three regions of the world, was founded near the Tiber River, one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. Whereas Jerusalem, from which monotheism sprang, became for this reason the universal metropolis of religion; and whereas Athens the polytheistic city became the heart of science, philosophy and aesthetics; Rome arose as the capital of a cosmopolitan state that gave universal social order to much of the ancient world, uniting the peoples under its wing like members of a large family.
The barrier which Hellenistic nationalism and its great thinkers had raised between the Greeks and the Barbarians, and which Israel had erected between itself and the infidels, came down with the Roman Empire. The Empire absorbed all forms of culture, granting Roman citizenship to many of its conquered subjects. By this method the unity of the civil world was realized in the Roman Republic: its supreme head was the Emperor, its capital “Eternal Rome “, miracle of the inhabited world, creation and monument to the story of humanity.
This unity you will find very much in Paul – Saul of Tarsus. He was a Hellenized Jew and a Roman citizen ( Acts 22:24-29). His epistles, written in Greek, were mainly written to address issues and needs of the time. These letters, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, were written in the first century and help shed light on it. To understand Paul best, the development of the early church, and the spread of western Christianity, it is vital to grasp the historical, sociocultural, political and spiritual context of Paul’s Rome.
The inexpressible magnificence of the city of Caesar, its temples covered with gold, its triumphal arches, the columns and statues, the extraordinary construction in which the human engineer conquered nature, fell. Confirming, however, its name “eternal,” it rose again, giving up its role as capital of an empire, and taking on its role as capital of Christianity, seat of the Vicar of Christ.
Since then, the capital of the empire has been drawing people from all areas of the world. Medieval crowds of spirited pilgrims, desirous of visiting the place where Peter founded his church and so many martyrs gave evidence of their faith, as well as today’s innumerable pilgrims and faithful from each part of the world are drawn to the remains and the evidence of the greatness of Rome’s history. From the streets to the amphitheatres, from the baths to the forums, from the bridges to the aqueducts, Rome amazes us not only with this richness of history but also by the evidence of its Christian vocation: principally, the catacombs and the four patriarchal basilicas, among which St. Peter’s emerges a magnificent and befitting monument to Rome’s Christian heritage.