From where I was staying near to St Peter’s, the best route is to take the 271 bus from outside the Ospedale di Sancti Spiritu, or the 23 bus. Both pass by the same ancient Roman Gate (St Paul’s Gate – Porta S. Paolo) on the Via Ostiense, the road to the ancient Port of Ostia.
The key difference is that the 271 bus crosses the Ponte Garibaldi bridge just above Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina, largely devoted to a hospital) and continues into the heart of Rome to the Victor Emmanuel Monument, circles round this into the Forum Romanum area, past the Colosseum, then plunges down the Coelian Hill, with St Gregory’s Monastery on the left, the Palatine palaces on the left, as well as the Circus Maximus, and continues straight down to St Paul’s Gate.
Bus 23 continues past Tiber Island to cross further downstream at Ponte Sublicio, offering a longer view of the Tiber River before also arriving at Porta S. Paolo. Both bus routes terminate outside St Paul’s Basilica, making St Paul’s an easy destination to reach from Rome.
The Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls is the second largest in Rome after the Vatican Basilica of St Peter. It stands on the Via Ostiense about two kilometres from the Aurelian Walls, not far from the area known today as the “Three Fountains” and the traditional site of St Paul’s execution by beheading in 67 AD. The first church built there by Emperor Constantine over Paul’s burial place was modest in size. Work began between AD 384-386. It was finished by Emperor Honorius, but as a much more impressive building, very much like the reconstruction that exists today.
Both the Tiber as a means for river transport and the Via Ostiense as a land connection between Ostia and Rome played an important role in the life and significance of St Paul’s. Only three kilometres from St Andrew’s Abbey, it was also an obvious place to bury the dead from Gregory’s monastic community within the city (where such burial was illegal under Justinian Law), so that connections with St Andrew’s (later St Gregory”s) would probably have been close. Gregory is also believed to have carried out work on the presbytery area and raising the floor of the transept area, connecting the nave by means of five steps.
The St Paul’s monastic community may also have been a significant first destination for Augustine and his companions as they left Rome in AD 597, and for Augustine particularly on his urgent return to Rome a few months later. St Paul’s was also a major destination for the growing pilgrimage movement that gathered pace during this period, particularly as it contained the bones of one of Christendom’s most revered saints, the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Archaeological investigations carried out in 2002-3 to determine the exact location of St Paul’s sarcophagus and relics within the basilica, also unearthed the original Constantinian and Theodosian basilica. Both are now partially visible in front of the altar canopy. St Paul’s relics also include the chains reputed to have kept St Paul prisoner while he awaited trial in Rome.
By the late C6th, when Augustine left for England, St Paul’s was not only deep in rural countryside, it was also at times cut off from Rome by the Lombard invaders, whom Gregory the Great kept out of the city by massive annual bribes. A city of 30,000 people could not easily defend itself against a large invading force that also chose to make itself at home in the countryside around the Holy City.