City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint

Natasha sheldon - February 27, 2018

The death of Pope Pius XI in February 1939 marked the beginning of an unprecedented archaeological treasure hunt. The deceased pontiff wished to be buried next to the tomb of Pope Pius X, the mentor who had appointed him head of the Vatican library and close to the Tomb of St Peter. As Pius XI was the first Pope to head the newly formed Vatican City state, his tomb needed to be unique. So, on the orders of the new pope, Pius XII, work began to clear space beneath the floor of St Peter’s Basilica to make way for the new tomb.

As they began to clear the ground, the workman discovered that there was more to the foundations of St Peter’s than expected. For just five meters beneath the Basilica floor, past the remains of the Emperor Constantine’s original Church, they found an ancient Roman city of the dead; a necropolis that housed the remains of both pagans and Christians. Vatican officials quickly realized that somewhere in that necropolis, was the last resting place of the First Pope. So, Pius XII authorized unprecedented excavations beneath the Basilica. Over the next ten years, the necropolis gradually revealed itself and its secrets to the world. But was it the last resting place of the first Pope?

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint
Painting of the Vatican Hill, ca 1519. Wikimedia Commons

The History of Mons Vaticanus

The Vatican Hill was not one of the Seven Hills of Rome. The Mons Vaticanus as it was known, lay outside the ancient city limits, facing Rome from across the River Tiber. The hill’s name was Etruscan in origin. Some attributed it to the Vates, the Etruscan tribe who formerly lived there and built a settlement, Vaticum. Others believe the name derived from the Etruscan god of prophecy, Vaticanus whose temple was also on the hill. Here, observing the flights of birds and lightning strikes helped gauge divine will.

For the Romans, however, the hill was the perfect place for other activities not appropriate in the city. It was the site of the temple of Cybele and Attis, the gods of a Greek mystery cult brought to Rome in the late republic. One of the rites of the religion was the taurobolium, which bathed cult adherents in the blood of a bull. The Roman elite initially suspected the cult. However, it was still in use during the fourth century, after Christianity became a legal religion.

By this time, the Vatican Hill had another significance. It was now a place of martyrdom. The Circus of Caligula/Nero occupied Gardens of Agrippina on the Vatican hill, and it was here in 65AD, that the Emperor Nero the notorious executions of suspected Christians. One of those Christians was St Peter, Christ’s apostle and the first Pope of the Church in Rome. Peter was killed sometime between 64-67AD after he “came to Rome and was crucified with his head downwards,” according to Eusebius, a historian from Constantine’s era, who was drawing on earlier references from the third-century theologian Origen and a letter written by Clement, Bishop of Rome in 96AD.

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint
Artists impression of the Circus of Caligula/Nero on the Vatican Hill. Google Images.

An Egyptian obelisk, which marked the spina of the circus, is all that survives of it today. This relic now adorns St Peter’s square- the original site of the Circus. However, the Circus was long gone by the Christian era. It had been demolished to allow for the expansion of the cemetery that ran along the Via Cornelia at the base of the hill. Roman law forbade the burial of the dead within the city limits. So it was customary for citizens to bury their departed relatives in tombs that lined the roads leading out of Rome.

The cemetery of the via Cornelia gradually began to spread away from the road and by the time of the Christian era covered the whole of its southern slope. It was still in use by pagans and Christians alike by the time Emperor Constantine decided to build his Basilica to commemorate St Peter in 330AD.

However, the necropolis was in the way. Aside from the fact that all graves were protected by Roman law and could not be destroyed, Constantine faced the additional problem that somewhere amongst them was the tomb of St Peter. It would not do to obliterate the last resting place of one of the founders of his newly adopted religion. So the emperor came up with an ingenious solution.

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint
A path through tombs in the Vatican Necropolis. Image credit Blue 439, Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons Licence.

The City of the Dead

Instead of leveling the necropolis, Constantine decreed that the tombs should become part of the foundations of the new basilica. Engineers ordered workmen to fill the interiors of the mausoleums with earth behind a retaining wall. They then built the first basilica of St Peter above the cemetery- leaving pagan and Christian graves alike desecrated. The location of the supposed tomb of St Peter was noted and used as the site for the original church’s altar. Other than that, apart from a brief glimpsed during alterations in the sixteenth century, the rest of the cemetery was forgotten.

Constantine’s measures, however, had allowed for the preservation of a remarkably complete City of the Roman Dead spanning several centuries- as the twentieth-century excavators soon discovered. Excavators uncovered twenty-two family tombs beneath the basilica’s central nave. Based on dating of the graves, it seems by the second century AD, expansion over the former area of the Circus had already begun. The structures of the tombs, as well as their decorative facades and the burials within, survived mostly intact. These tombs did not just house one or two individuals but whole generations- some housing as many as 170 individuals.

The richly decorated tomb of the Caeterrii was the first to be found. The Caeterrii had risen from humble origins as bricklayers to count several senators amongst their ranks. Their monument reflected this status. The tomb was 5.18 meters wide, 5.48 meters deep and at 4.5 meters high and was so tall that the builders of the original basilica had to slice off its roof to accommodate it beneath the nave. Inside, instead of being interred in plain terracotta funeral urns, the deceased Caeterrii were found in vessels of carved alabaster.

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint
Christ as Sol Invictus from the Tomb of the Julii, Vatican Necropolis. Wikimedia Commons

Inscriptions above the doorway identified the Caeterri tomb. These notices were a feature common to all the mausoleums. However, not every crypt was for the exclusive use of one family. Half of Mausoleum N was stated to be the tomb of Marcus Aebutius Charito, but a Lucius Volusius Successus and Volusia Megiste used the other half. Nor were all the burials cremations. As time progressed, it became more common to find embalmed bodies in sarcophagi.

By the Christian era, space in the cemetery was at a premium and pagan, and Christian were buried close together. Just behind the grand Caeterrii tomb was the humbler grave of an early Christian, Emilia Gorgonia. Only a stone that read Dormit in Pace– ‘sleep in peace’ marked this burial. However, not all Christian graves were this basic. The religion of the owners of the late third/early fourth-century Tomb of the Julii was apparent from the mosaic décor inside. Images of the pagan Sol Invictus as Christ the Sun appear alongside depictions of Jonah and the whale and the good shepherd carrying a lamb.

But did the excavators find any earlier burials that could be the tomb of St. Peter?

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint
The graffitied niche that is supposedly St Peter’s tomb. Google Images

St Peters Tomb

Tradition states that after his execution in the Circus of Caligula, a Christian supporter who owned a burial plot along the Via Cornelia claimed Peter’s body. He laid the first pope’s corpse to rest in a sarcophagus, which he placed in an underground tomb. The tomb, which was reached by a staircase, was probably reasonably inconspicuous. However, not long afterward, the third Pope, Anacletus is said to have built a tomb with a small oratory where people could kneel and pray.

This tomb must have been relatively anonymous, for Christianity would maintain its outlaw status for over another 200 years. Emperor Julian, in his work Three Books against the Galileans written in 363AD notes that the site of the tomb of St Peter was not general knowledge. And although archaeologists have uncovered mausoleums that fit the vague descriptions of St Peter’s tomb, none can be identified for sure as the resting place of the first pope. The most likely candidate that matches Anacletus’s supposed structure lies at the west end of the row of tombs. Dated to around 130AD, the grave had space where pilgrims could poke their heads to view the tomb’s sarcophagus.

However, the tomb did not have any bones within it. However, close by this grave, a niche was found labeled with graffiti that read ” Petros Eni” or “Peter is here.” Margherita Guarducci, the scholar who deciphered the graffiti then discovered it had contained bones, which had been removed from the grave by a basilica worker and interred in a shoebox. The remains were examined and found to be those of a 60-70-year-old man from the first century AD, leading Guarducci and in 1968, Pope Paul VI to declare them the bones of St Peter.

City of the Dead Unexpectedly Discovered in Search for this Saint
The Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

However, there is no certainty that these indeed are the bones of the apostle. For there is at least one other contender for the last resting place of the bones. In 2017, it was reported that a worker had discovered a series of Roman-era clay pots in the 1000-year-old church of Santa Maria in the Trastevere district of Rome. Each urn was found to contain ancient bones, which were identified by inscriptions on their lids to hold the bones of three early Popes, four early Christian martyrs- and St Peter himself.

The bones are believed to have been moved to Santa Maria at a time of religious schism by Pope Urban II in attempt to hide them from the ‘anti-pope Clement III sometime in the eleventh century. But if they genuinely are the remains of St. Peter, then- unless the Santa Maria bones represent just part of his skeleton- the remains from the niche under the Vatican cannot be the remains of the first pope.


Where Did We Find this Stuff? Here are our Sources:

Eusebius of Caesaria, Ecclesiastical History

“Vatican Trumpets Restoration of Underground Roman Necropolis”,, 2008.

Rome Environs,

“Vatican Scavi -Tomb Discovered in Necropolis”, Carole Bos,, July 9, 2013.

“Bones attributed to St Peter found by Chance in 1000-year-old Church”, Nick Squires, The Telegraph, September 11, 2017

The Vatican Hill,, June 26, 2016

“Old St Peters, The Circus of Caligula and The Phrygianum”, Roger Pearse, Roger, May 16, 2014.