The Vatican Necropolis

Written by Fr Joshua Moir

Priest of the Archdiocese of St. Andrews & Edinburgh

November 14, 2022

Thirty feet beneath St Peter’s Basilica, and largely unknown to the pilgrims and tourists above, exist the remains of an ancient Roman graveyard. The ‘Vatican Necropolis’ is now a rather gloomy, humid space, but at one time enjoyed the sunlight and fresh air of the countryside surrounding the city, while Rome prevailed as the superpower of ancient European history. The vineyards of this area were said to produce the worst wine in the region, and the problems of snake infestation and the marshland meant that this area, Vaticanum, remained unoccupied by the citizens of the imperial capital on the other side of the Tiber, and was instead a place to bury one’s dead.

The Emperor Caligula determined to make use of this land, beginning the construction of a Circus to host chariot races. His assassination at the hands of the Praetorian Guard determined that he would not live to see the Circus completed, and that the work would be completed by his successor. 

During the reign of the Emperor Nero, in the year 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome ravaged the city. Refugees from the blaze found relief and safety on the banks of the far side of the Tiber River in the shadow of the Circus. Nero immediately and infamously began to persecute the small, upstart Christian community in Rome, blaming their refusal to honour the pagan gods for the destruction of the city. Sentenced to death, the Christians would be brought to the Circus for execution and martyrdom.

Among the Christians caught during this first wave of persecution was the Apostle Peter. Peter, the founder of the Roman Church, was taken to the Circus for crucifixion. As he was led to his place of martyrdom, it cannot have been possible for him to miss the tall, Egyptian obelisk at the centre of the Circus. That same obelisk still stands today, in the very centre of St. Peter’s Square. The remaining Christians in the city of Rome took the body of the Apostle to the closest possible graveyard, just over the Via Cornelia, and buried him in a shallow, pauper’s grave in the Vatican Necropolis.

With the passage of time, the tomb of St Peter remained a place of discreet pilgrimage by the persecuted Christians. It would not be until the year 313 that the persecution of Christians would formally end. Once concluded however, the Christians of the Roman Empire were finally allowed to worship publicly. Discovering that many Christians persisted in travelling to the tomb of St Peter, Constantine resolved to build the first basilica over this site, levelling the Vatican hill and filling in the Necropolis with earth to provide the foundations for the structure. The monument over the tomb of the Apostle was encased in marble, and became the focal point of the first Basilica of St Peter.

This first basilica endured until the late 15th century, when it was determined that a new Church would have to be built over the same site to replace the now dilapidated Constantinian Church. Building over the foundations of the first basilica, the Necropolis beneath became ever more distant in the depths of the earth, and largely forgotten.

Only in recent years has the Necropolis been rediscovered, entirely by chance. In 1939, while attempting to dig a tomb for Pope Pius XI, the workmen struck the top of a pagan tomb, and the excavations commenced shortly thereafter. Excavation of the area was conducted in secret and lasted a decade, during which time the archaeologists rediscovered the so-called ‘Street of the Dead’, lined with tombs, extending towards the High Altar of Saint Peter’s. Beneath that High Altar, they discovered Altars from the 12th Century and the 6th Century, constructed over the marble that encased the monument above the tomb of St Peter itself.

The history of these excavations is expansive. It is a history that commences in ancient Rome, endures through the building of two different monumental structures built over this site, and concludes in the 20th century, with the rediscovery of the Necropolis. It is a history that seminarians and tour guides today relate to the pilgrims who know to book a visit. It is a privilege for all involved to visit the very tomb of the Apostle and first Pope, and a special privilege for the guides, who have the opportunity to enliven the visits of pilgrims to the city of Rome with such a unique and holy experience.

Any who wish to visit the Excavations of St Peters Basilica should book well in advance by contacting the Ufficio Scavi online, detailing your personal availability during your stay in Rome.