Is St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City really built over the tomb of the Apostle Peter who was crucified nearly 2000 years ago? That’s the mystery the Vatican set out to quietly solve many years ago. Here is that story…
Clammy humidity hit me in the face as we entered the mausoleum under St. Peter’s Basilica. We descended 2 stories under the huge church overhead and back in time to the 1st century AD.
To the ancient Romans, Peter was a criminal and was crucified at Nero’s Circus. The bodies of criminals were usually tossed into the Tiber or burned – not given a burial. For the right price the body may have been given to friends to be buried in the red soil and covered by a few slabs – just a pauper’s grave in a nearby necropolis. It was imperative that the location be kept secret, since the followers of Christ didn’t want the same fate as Peter, so it certainly was venerated, although secretly.
Ancient Romans cremated their dead, deposited the ashes into urns which were placed in niches of “houses” complete with frescoed walls, windows, doors, and courtyards. The necropolis or city of the dead is a neighborhood with winding lanes lined with the houses. Roman families would visit these “houses” in their veneration of the dead.
Late in the 2nd century, Christianity was more tolerated and Christians placed a marble trophy monument, or Tropaion, over the tomb of St. Peter within the pagan necropolis. It was a simple monument with a gable roof, a back wall and 2 marble columns. Because his remains would not have been welcome in the pagan necropolis there wasn’t any Christian symbolism on it. It was still important that the location be kept private as tolerance of the followers of the Jesus could change with each emperor.
When Constantine wanted to build a church over the place where the Apostle Peter was buried he had the wooden roofs removed from the “houses” in the necropolis which were then backfilled. Around the Tropaion, a marble and porphyry box was built with a buttress wall holding it together. And this was all buried in the foundation of the first St. Peter’s Church.
As archeologists dug under the foundations of both the present-day St. Peter’s and the earlier St. Peter’s they discovered the ancient buried necropolis and carefully removed the backfill to discover wonderfully preserved frescoes. The marble and porphyry box and marble columns were unearthed directly below the main altar of the Basilica. We peered through windows into these “houses” and could see the frescoes and the marble Tropaion.
Peter’s bones were not found in that vault, but instead hidden within the plastered and graffiti-marked buttress wall a small marble repository was discovered. The wall was covered with cryptograms – secret Christian symbols – and the words “Peter is within.” The bone fragments removed were caked in the red soil indicating that they had previously lain directly in the same earth of that necropolis. The bones were determined to have belonged to a strong, 60-70 year-old man, dating back to the 1st century.
We continued up to a small chapel with an altar that had a grated opening through which the Tropaion was visible and one level above the chapel was the main golden altar of the largest church on Earth – 33 feet above the grave of the Apostle Peter. The existing Basilica, new St. Peter’s, is built over old St. Peter’s, which was built over the Tropaion – or trophy monument, which was built over the pauper’s grave near Nero’s Circus where the Apostle Peter was crucified!
What a story! It was impressive! All of it! The Scavi Tour, the endeavors of the Vatican, the mystery! It was a highlight of our trip.
The Vatican schedules ten 90 minute Scavi tours daily. Only 120 people per day get to take the Scavi Tour! If you wish to make a reservation, email firstname.lastname@example.org the following information: names and ages of each person, the language in which you wish the tour to be conducted, the date or range of dates and preferred time frame. No tours are given on Sundays or church holidays. It takes about a month to receive a reply, to which you can confirm and prepay by credit card. This was the very FIRST reservation I made for our trip – a whole year or more in advance – which set the entire itinerary in motion!