Erich Lessing

Thousands of Catholics gather to hear Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the heart of western Christendom. The tremendous 16th-century domed basilica that dominates the square was erected to replace a fourth-century church built by the emperor Constantine. Both churches were built on what was believed to be the burial place of Peter.

Various early church histories record that Peter, the “rock” on which Jesus built his church, was martyred in Rome along with Paul during anti-Christian persecutions instigated by the emperor Nero in the years 64-68 C.E. The stories all date from the second century or later—Paul himself never mentions that Peter was in Rome, for example—so there is no way of knowing for sure that Peter came (and died) here. But 20th-century archaeologists did find an ancient pagan necropolis (literally, “city of the dead”) underneath the basilica as well as a funerary monument dedicated to Peter that was formerly known only from second-century literary sources.