After the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939, Vatican workmen digging a crypt for his internment made a remarkable discovery: a 2,000-year-old necropolis lay directly under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. This mausoleum-filled city of the dead contained both pagan and Christian burials—including, many believe, the grave of the apostle Peter.
Just how St. Peter, born near the Sea of Galilee, came to Rome remains shrouded in mystery. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciple, “Thou art Peter [from petra, meaning rock], and on this rock will I build my church” (16:18). After the crucifixion, Peter became an important leader of the Jesus movement. Little is known about his travels outside Palestine, although Paul says that Peter visited Antioch (Galatians 2:11–21). Several centuries later, the church father St. Jerome (c. 342–420 A.D.) recounted that Peter arrived in Rome in approximately 42 A.D. to preach the Christian message.
Some 20 years later, in the tenth year of Nero’s reign (63–64 A.D.), a great fire destroyed much of Rome. Nero blamed the Christian community for the tragedy and embarked on a campaign of anti-Christian persecution. (Some scholars believe, however, that Nero set the fire himself in order to have an excuse to attack Christians.) Many Christians were martyred, including the apostle Peter, according to Sulpicius Severus (363–420 A.D.) in his Sacred History or Chronicle of the World.
Peter was likely crucified in the circus, an enclosure built for chariot-racing and other spectacles by the emperor Caligula (37–41 A.D.). His body was almost certainly claimed for burial, since no law precluded it, and entombed in the nearby Vatican cemetery.
In Roman times, the term “Vatican” (possibly the name of an early Etruscan settlement) referred to a large tract of land that stretched westward from the banks of the Tiber, beyond the 062boundaries of the ancient city. The north side of a narrow lane that climbed away from the Tiber towards the heights of the Mons Vaticanus (Vatican Hill) was lined with burial vaults, and funerary monuments were later installed on the southern side. From 130 to 300 A.D., a double row of magnificent mausoleums was built over the cemetery. The tombs resembled miniature versions of the houses of the living, with brick facades, frescoed walls, mosaic floors and portals bearing inscriptions. Some even had staircases and small porches.
Toward the end of the second century A.D., a church official named Gaius had a funerary monument erected over what was believed to be the site of Peter’s tomb. It was deemed a “trophy,” or triumphant memorial, since it celebrated the ultimate success of the apostle Peter’s ministry and martyrdom. In the early fourth century A.D., the emperor Constantine (who embraced Christianity in 313 A.D.) erected a basilica above the apostle’s tomb on the same elevation as the Trophy of Gaius. He constructed sturdy retaining walls and dumped thousands of tons of earth and rubble on top of the necropolis to create a level foundation for his new five-aisled basilica.
Twelve hundred years later, the basilica was demolished because of its dilapidated condition. In 1506, Pope Julius II began construction of another, grander basilica—the famous St. Peter’s—on top of Constantine’s. By that time, memory of the ancient necropolis had long faded away.
Shortly after the rediscovery of the 210-foot-long segment of the necropolis in 1939, the outbreak of the Second World War slowed down further excavation. It wasn’t until the post-war years that archaeologists discovered a plastered, red-colored wall 063along the northern end of the excavated area. Early Christians had inscribed messages on the wall, including the name of Peter and a word possibly meaning “is within,” indicating just how widespread the veneration of Peter had become within a century or so of his death.
Modern visitors can visit this very spot underneath the present day basilica, making their way down past grottoes where recent popes have been interred. They can follow the narrow roadway that passes between two rows of pagan and Christian tombs dating from the first to the fifth centuries A.D. and glimpse the portion of the second-century Trophy of Gaius that is enclosed within a fourth-century Constantinian memorial.
They can also explore a number of the ancient tombs that line the street. Many of the mausoleums there were originally built for pagans but in later times were taken over by Christians, who embellished them with such symbols as doves and olive branches.
Pagan symbolism is obvious in a mausoleum known as the Egyptian Tomb. The image of Horus, the hawk-headed Egyptian sky god, is painted on one wall. Six sarcophagi are also visible; the front panel of one intricately depicts Dionysus in a chariot drawn by a centaur, surrounded by cupids and revelers. Another mausoleum, the Tomb of the Teacher, is distinguished by its ceiling fresco, which contains a portrait of a student with his teacher and is adorned with finely-drawn gazelles, ribbons and abstract designs.
Christian symbols predominate in the tomb of Cristo-Sole (Christ as the Sun). In a mosaic that has given rise to the tomb’s name, Christ is depicted as a kind of sun god in a horse-drawn chariot, with sunbeams radiating from his head. Other Christian imagery present in the tomb include images of a fisherman and Jonah and the whale.
The largest tomb in the necropolis belonged to the wealthy relatives of a freedman, Gaius Valerius Herma, and is embellished with both pagan and Christian symbols. Such pagan figures as Apollo and Diana are found in the tomb, but a Christian Chi-Rho symbol (Chi and Rho are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ) appears on a tablet that bears the name Flavius Statilius Olimpius.
Why this conflation of pagan and Christian symbols? Perhaps by Flavius’s time, the family had converted to Christianity. One thing we know for sure, Flavius was well liked: His inscription reads: “He had a joke for everyone and he never quarreled.”
After the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939, Vatican workmen digging a crypt for his internment made a remarkable discovery: a 2,000-year-old necropolis lay directly under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. This mausoleum-filled city of the dead contained both pagan and Christian burials—including, many believe, the grave of the apostle Peter. Just how St. Peter, born near the Sea of Galilee, came to Rome remains shrouded in mystery. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciple, “Thou art Peter [from petra, meaning rock], and on this rock will I build my church” (16:18). After the […]