For information about the present-day titular churches of Cardinals, see titular church.

A titulus (pl. tituli) is one of the early places of worship for Christians in Rome, as they are referred to in the surviving documentary evidence. The term excludes the great papal basilicas.

It should be emphasized that the status of the tituli is entirely documentary. The scholarly temptation in the past was to assume that they equated to individual "house churches" (domus ecclesiae), which comprised someone's private residence in which a Christian congregation met. However, the historical analysis of these is a separate issue.

The problem with house churches Edit

The problem with early house churches in Rome is the lack of evidence for them.

At the start of the 20th century, the scholarly consensus on the origins of Roman churches was quite neat. According to it in the first three centuries, Christians worshipped in so-called "house churches", that is a congregation assembled in the private home of a wealthy member. These houses became the tituli, named after the patrons concerned (some of whom were martyred, and so had shrines set up to them in their tituli). Then, from the early 4th century these houses were rebuilt as proper churches, and so we have them.

St Paul the Apostle mentioned such a house church in 1 Corinthians 16:19, where he greeted Priscilla and Aquila and "the church which is in their house" at Ephesus. St Paul himself met with believers at his residence at Rome, according to Acts 28: 30. St Justin (100-165) mentioned that Christians met in their homes to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

However, the documentary evidence for the celebration of liturgical events in a private house in the city of Rome seems to be limited to a remark by St Athanasius that a Roman synod of 340 was held in the house of a priest called Vitus, "where he was in the habit of celebrating the sacred mysteries (synaxis)".

The archaeological evidence is even worse. Serious archaeological investigations at Rome began at the end of the 18th century, and within the Christian sub-discipline from the mid 19th century. Since then, activity has been intense. What has been discovered as regards house churches is -nothing. Not a single example of a place of communal Christian worship can be adduced within the city walls before the 4th century -even the tomb of St Peter was an outside monument, not in a roofed space. This accumulation of negative evidence is now regarded as significant. Either the early Roman Christians did not decorate their private places of worship in any way so as to leave evidence, or they did not worship in places which leant themselves to such decoration. A plausible argument now is that they actually rented premises for the purpose of liturgical assembly, such as shops or small warehouses (compare the modern storefront churches).

The sources Edit

The earliest reference to a titulus is an epitaph to a lector tituli Fasciole, dated 377 (this titulus is linked with the later church of Santi Nereo e Achilleo).

The major source is the Liber Pontificalis, a collection of biographies of the popes which, in its developed form, runs from St Peter to the 15th century. The core of the document is thought to have been written in the 5th or 6th century, with entries for the first three centuries hence considered unreliable. Further the material has been subject to further tendentious editing over time, and so modern scholars rightly warn against treating it uncritically as was the habit in the past.

The other notable source are the acta of synods, notably those of 499 and 595 which have lists of signatures of titular priests attached.

The evidence Edit

The most significant entry in the Liber Pontificalis is that of Pope Marcellus I (308-309) which reads: Hic fecit cymiterium Novellae via Salaria et XXV titulos in urbe Roma constituit quasi diœcesis propter baptismum et pœnitentiam multorum qui convertebantur ex paganis et propter sepulturas martyrum. This used to be taken to prove that the pope had set up twenty-five parishes (quasi diœcesis) in Rome, and so there must have been that number of churches.

It is now thought that the number given was what pertained when this entry in the Liber was first written, perhaps in the late 6th century. However, it is accepted that the pope put the affairs of the Church in Rome on a more systematic administrative footing, with the city's priests having their responsibilities more clearly defined and perhaps made territorial to avoid quarrels. That is, it might have been at this point that the tituli became religious community centres and seats of Church administration.

The Liber also claims that Pope Cletus (76-88) ordained twenty-five priests for Rome, and that Pope Evaristus (97-105) assigned them to twenty-five tituli. These two statements are now regarded as fiction.

The surviving acta of the Roman church synod in 499 under Pope Symmachus has attached to them a list of twenty-nine tituli. The synod of 595 under Pope Gregory the Great has a list of twenty-four, not all of which occur in the older list. So, the scholars have tried to guess which tituli might have changed their names in the meantime.

What was a titulus? Edit

It is noticeable that almost all the tituli are named after individual people (the exception being Sancti Apostoli), and none after geographic locations. The question to ask is, as regards tituli in the 4th century and after: Were they geographic entities primarily, or legal ones? That is, did a titulus attach to a location, so it became equivalent to an address, or did it attach primarily to the worshipping community and its priest?

The actual Latin word titulus is of little help here. It means literally "inscription", "label" or "notice" giving information, but in Classical Latin could also mean "title" in the modern English sense of something held by a person. It used to be imagined that the original titulus was a stone plaque affixed to the entrance of a private house bearing the name of the inhabitant, thus fitting in with the story of house churches, but this is fanciful.

The modern consensus is that the tituli were named after benefactors or patrons, or people who were both together. The first would have provided an endowment for the salary of the priest and the necessary items for liturgical events, and perhaps the premises as well (not necessarily a private house). The second would have been a patronus in the ancient Roman sense, with the priest and congregation his or her clientes.

So, the former insistence that the tituli must have been in fixed locations, and that these locations evolved into existing churches, is losing favour. The congregation of a titulus might have moved between premises within its neighbourhood, as convenient. It is known for certain that some churches replaced tituli in other locations (see Santa Prassede), and it is thought that this probably happened quite regularly in order to preserve continuity in worship for the congregation.

Parish churchesEdit

How did the tituli evolve into the parish churches of Rome in the Middle Ages? We don't know the details. By the 12th century, Rome had a large number of small parish churches in its then built-up area, each perhaps serving about two or three hundred families (some less). This was too many churches even for Rome, and over the next half-millennium the story was one of gradual loss to closure and other uses (such as convents or confraternities).

So, some time in the 10th century the Diocese indulged in a massive building programme of small churches, or authorised the building of such by those with funds. Unfortunately, the process is completely undocumented.

Titular churches of cardinalsEdit

The priests of the tituli, together with the deacons of the diaconiae (charitable outreach centres) and suburbicarian bishops, formed the first administrative and advisory body of the Diocese, answerable to the Holy Father. They became known as cardinals (from Latin cardo, "hinge"). The number of cardinals grew over the centuries, but the practise of assigning them to titular churches has been retained, although it is now a more symbolical act.

List of the ancient tituliEdit

(This is a conflation of the various sources.)

Titulus Present name
Titulus Aemilianae Uncertain, probably Santi Quattro Coronati
Titulus Anastasiae Sant'Anastasia
Titulus SS Apostolorum Santi Apostoli
Titulus Bizantis / Titulus Pammachi Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Titulus Callisti / Titulus Julii Santa Maria in Trastevere
Titulus S Ceciliae Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Titulus Clementis San Clemente
Titulus Crescentianiae Uncertain, probably San Sisto Vecchio
Titulus Crysogoni San Crisogono
Titulus Cyriaci Uncertain; theories include Santa Maria Antiqua, Santa Maria in Domnica or San Ciriaco (last is the present consensus)
Titulus Damasi San Lorenzo in Damaso
Titulus Equitii San Martino ai Monti
Titulus Eudoxiae San Pietro in Vincoli
Titulus Eusebi Sant'Eusebio all'Esquilino
Titulus Fasciolae Uncertain, probably Santi Nereo e Achilleo
Titulus Gaii / Titulus Susannae Santa Susanna, or San Caio in Via Porta Pia (or even two different tituli).
Titulus Iulii See Titulus Callisti
Titulus Lucinae San Lorenzo in Lucina
Titulus Marcelli San Marcello al Corso
Titulus Marci San Marco
Titulus Matthaei San Matteo in Merulana, destroyed in 1810
Titulus Nicomedis Uncertain; possibly Santi Marcellino e Pietro, or over the catacomb of St Nicomede on the Via Nomentana outside the Porta Pia (no trace of any church here, however).
Titulus Pammachi See Titulus Bizantis
Titulus Praxedis Santa Prassede
Titulus Priscae Santa Prisca
Titulus Pudentiana Santa Pudenziana
Titulus Romani Very uncertain; perhaps the same as Titulus Cyriaci, or Santa Maria Antiqua
Titulus S Sabinae Santa Sabina
Titulus S Susannae See Titulus Gaii
Titulus Tigridis Uncertain, perhaps Santa Balbina.
Titulus Vestinae San Vitale
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