An Elderly but Powerful Man
In 1940, Pope Pius XII authorized a thorough reconstruction of the Vatican Grottoes, the undercroft of the Basilica of St. Peter, transforming it from a cramped burial chamber into a series of crypt chapels. To accomplish this, the floor of the Grottoes would be lowered by two-and-a-half feet. Everyone in the Vatican knew that there were Roman remains under the basilica, but no one had any idea what type—no one had seen them in sixteen hundred years. Then, in January 1941, workmen uncovered an elegant mausoleum that, based on inscriptions found in the tomb, had belonged to the Cetenni family. The archaeologists who were called in to examine the find declared that it was a discovery of genuine importance. On their recommendation, Pius XII gave permission for a full-scale excavation of the area beneath the Grottoes.
Pius’s decision was daring. Other popes had expressed an interest in excavating beneath St. Peter’s but had always held back out of reverent awe. Rome’s Christians had buried the earliest popes and countless forgotten martyrs in the vicinity of St. Peter’s tomb; it would be sacrilege to disturb the graves of so many saints. So Pius settled on a compromise. The archaeologists could excavate everywhere beneath the Grottoes with one exception: the area below the high altar and in the immediate surrounding area. The place where St. Peter was presumed to be buried was deemed off-limits.
To supervise and direct the project, the pope created a commission and named to it a group of expert scholars, as well as a team of sampietrini. Traditionally, the sampietrini are an elite corps of men trained in every trade and craft. These electricians, stonemasons, plasterers, and plumbers are responsible for the maintenance of St. Peter’s Basilica, and they take this trust very seriously. The sampietrini are so defensive of the responsibilities placed upon them, that in most cases the job is passed down from father to son for generations.
The scholars included Professor Enrico Josi, a leading expert on the catacombs; Antonio Ferrua, S.J., considered the foremost scholar of epigraphy, the study of ancient Christian inscriptions; Engelbert Kirschbaum, S.J., a professor of Christian archaeology; and three architects, Bruno Maria Apollonj Ghetti, Gustavo Giovannoni, and Giuseppe Nicolosi. The manager of the project was Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, one of Pius XII’s closest advisers, especially on Church-state affairs in Nazi Germany. Msgr. Kaas also was administrator of the Basilica of St. Peter.
This work crew assigned to lower the floor of the Grottoes had been laboring for about three weeks when on January 18, 1941, one of the men digging at a spot in the south aisle uncovered the top of a brick wall. The crew had been turning up sarcophagi almost from their first day on the job—that had been expected, as the Grottoes had been a burial place for sixteen hundred years. But finding evidence of a structure beneath St. Peter’s had not been expected. The foreman sent for one of the Vatican archaeologists.
By carefully clearing away more soil, a portion of the wall was revealed: one side was plain, unadorned brick, and judging from its style, undoubtedly ancient; the other side of the wall had been plastered and painted a vivid shade of greenish blue. Gradually the sampietrini uncovered the top of a rectangular building, measuring twenty-two by twenty feet. Its roof was gone, deliberately removed, and the interior of the building had been filled with soil. But why? At this stage, the Vatican archaeologists could only speculate. In the meantime, they ordered the work crew to remove all the soil from the interior of the little building.
Once the building had been cleared and the soil brushed from the interior walls, the diggers and archaeologists found themselves standing in the middle of a beautifully decorated tomb. One fresco depicted swans bearing garlands in their beaks, another pictured birds amid roses and violets. The most elaborate scene portrayed Venus, the Roman goddess of love, supported by two tritons, or sea gods, as she rose above the waves. Carved into the walls were many niches, some of which held marble cremation urns, still in their original places, untouched since another work crew had packed the tomb with earth centuries earlier.
The floor was paved with a mosaic of black and white tiles. In the center of the chamber stood an altar that revealed the identity of the owners of this tomb: Marcus Caetennius Antigonus and his wife, Tullia Secunda.
In addition to the urns, there were also terra-cotta sar- cophagi sealed with marble slabs. These sarcophagi had been slipped into arched niches in the bottom half of the chamber’s walls. One of these slabs marked the grave of a member of the Caetennius family (or Caetenni, as they would have been known in ancient Rome) who had been a Christian. The inscription reads:
Anima Dulcis Gorgonia
Mir(a)e i(n) Specie Et
Castitati Eivs Ameli(a)e
Gorgoniae Qvi(a)e vixit
Ann(is) XXVIII Mens(ibus) II
Dormit in Pace Co(n)ivgi
Gorgonia, sweet soul.
to the wondrous beauty and chastity of
Aemilia Gorgonia, who lived 28 years, 2
months and 28 days.
sleep in peace. I gave this burial to my darling
Two Christian emblems were incised into the marble: two doves bearing olive branches, the symbol of peace, flanked by the phrase “Sleep in peace.” To the left of the inscription is a woman drawing water from a well, an early Christian sign of eternal life. Vatican archaeologists estimated that the Caetenni had erected their family tomb sometime between AD 130 and 170, and that it had been in use for approximately two hundred years.
The archaeologists ordered the sampietrini to clear away the dirt that sealed the tomb door and to excavate outside the chamber. Soon they uncovered another treasure: an elaborately carved white marble sarcophagus. An inscription identified the deceased as Ostoria Chelidon, the daughter of a senator and the wife of a member of the emperor’s staff. The lid was ajar, so the workmen lifted it. Inside they found the remains of Ostoria Chelidon. On her skull rested a hair net of golden threads. Shreds of purple cloth—a color reserved for members of the highest rank of Roman society—still clung to her bones. On her left wrist, a heavy bracelet of solid gold flashed in the dim light.
Either find, the Caetenni tomb or Ostoria Chelidon’s sarcophagus, would crown the career of any archaeologist. Yet this was only the beginning of the excavation.
Directed by the Vatican archaeologists, the work crew began to scrape and prod the soil on either side of the Caetennius tomb, and very soon they found more mausoleums—each one stripped of its roof and its chamber filled with packed earth. They had stumbled upon a little village of the dead.
On an autumn day in the year AD 64, Roman guards led an elderly prisoner into a long, oval-shaped arena. There, before the eyes of a jeering crowd, the condemned man—a Galilean fisherman-turned-preacher called Simon Peter—was to be crucified. Very likely he entered the arena carrying across his shoulders the crossbeam to which he would be nailed (the upright post of the cross would have been waiting for him on the sand). He would have been naked, or perhaps wearing a loincloth. The crowd would have been able to see on his bare back and broad shoulders the bleeding marks of the flagellum, a multitailed whip embedded with sharp bits of bone or metal to tear open the prisoner’s flesh. A man would have walked before the prisoner carrying the titulus, a wooden board inscribed with his crime: “Incendiary.” Once he was secured to the cross, the titulus would be posted above Peter’s head.
A tradition that dates back to the apocryphal Acts of Peter (written in the second century) tells us that Peter told his executioners he was not worthy to die on a cross as his Master, Jesus Christ, had so the executioners humored him and crucified Peter upside down. That would not have surprised the crowd, who knew there was no fixed method of crucifixion. According to archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis, Roman executioners had developed several methods of crucifixion. The victim’s arms might be nailed to the crossbeam, or they might be tied. His ankles might be bound together and twisted sideways so that a single nail could be driven through both heel bones, or his legs might be pulled apart so that he straddled the upright beam with nails driven through each heel bone into the side of the cross. In such positions, the pressure on the chest muscles and the diaphragm make it difficult for the victim to breath. He must pull himself up by his arms or push his body up with his legs, but as the muscles tire under this exertion, the victim can no longer lift his body weight and dies of asphyxiation.
To prolong a victim’s agony, Roman executioners invented the suppedaneum, or foot support; it supported the weight of the victim’s body, enabling him to breathe, which meant he might survive for two or three days. The Jewish historian Josephus tells of a case when three crucified Jews took three days to die. More cruel was the sedile, a little wooden seat, on which the victim could perch if he was desperate enough—typically a sedile was pointed, so every time the victim tried to find relief, he impaled himself.
Upside down, Peter still would have suffered an excruciating death. Speaking to the BBC in 2008, Paul Ford, senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of East London, explained that the body is not designed to pump blood from the head up. If an individual is suspended upside down for a prolonged period, the blood begins to collect in the lungs and the brain. As the blood fills up the air sacs of the lungs, it becomes harder and harder to breathe, so Peter might have died of asphyxiation. Meanwhile, blood would also have been pooling in his brain, a condition that is also fatal.
How did Peter the fisherman come to deserve such a painful and degrading death? It began with a disastrous fire.
On July 18, AD 64, just after nightfall, a fire broke out in some shops in a neighborhood between the Palatine and Caelian Hills, near where the Colosseum stands today. There was nothing unusual in that—in a city where most of the apartment dwellings and shops were constructed of wood, sparks from an exploding log in an oven or a few spilled coals from a brazier could set off a blaze. This fire was different, however. Fanned by summer breezes and fed by a seemingly endless supply of wooden structures, the fire raged across the city. It burned out of control for six days and seven nights.
The Roman historian Tacitus, who experienced and survived the fire, wrote, “Terrified, shrieking women, helpless old and young, people intent on their own safety, people unselfishly supporting invalids or waiting for them, fugitives and lingerers alike—all heightened the confusion. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed—even districts believed remote proved to be involved.”
By the time the conflagration had burned itself out, ten of the fourteen districts of Rome had been destroyed. Emperor Nero was at Antium when the fire broke out, but as soon as news reached him he hurried back to the city. He directed crews of men to fight the conflagration, and once it had been extinguished he organized housing for the homeless. While the people of Rome were still dazed by the overwhelming loss of human life and property, Nero saw in the ashes of Rome an opportunity: he would build a new, grand, orderly city, with a rectangular grid of streets and well-built insulae, or apartment houses, for the people. He also planned a magnificent new palace for himself, the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, set amidst an immense park in the middle of town, adorned with artificial lakes, and dominated by a 120-foot-tall statue of himself.
The plans for a new palace had been a miscalculation on Nero’s part. The tens of thousands of homeless Romans resented the idea that Nero was designing a house of gold for himself while they were living in misery in jerry-built huts. Rumors began to circulate that Nero had started the fire to clear the way for his palace, that as the city burned he stood atop the Tower of Maecenas singing “The Sack of Troy,” a work of his own composition. The accusations were false, but it was the type of tittle-tattle that could bring down an emperor.
To save his own skin, Nero proclaimed that he had discovered the guilty party: the Christians had burned Rome. The Christians were an obscure group, scarcely any Roman knew what they believed or how they worshipped, but there had been talk. It was said that Christians hated all non-Christians (in other words, everyone else in the Roman Empire), and that they practiced cannibalism (no doubt a misunderstanding of the Eucharist). As a mysterious, apparently nefarious unknown quantity, the Christians made ideal scapegoats.
No one knows how many Christians were rounded up—Tacitus says “an immense multitude.” There is ancient tradition that among the victims were the apostles Peter and Paul. By burning Rome, the Christians had proved themselves to be enemies of the state, and so they forfeited the protections of Roman law and could be put to death in the most gruesome manner Nero and his executioners could devise. Tacitus writes, “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
When it came to public executions, inventive cruelty was commonplace in the ancient world, and it survived in some societies into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. In ancient Rome, slaves, foreigners, and criminals were considered subhuman. They did not possess the dignity accorded to citizens of Rome, therefore they deserved a degrading death. To this was added the humiliation of being executed as part of a series of public entertainments in an arena or amphitheater—this was standard procedure in ancient Rome. The historian Strabo tells us of Selouros, the leader of a rebel army on Sicily, who had been captured and taken to Rome for execution. He was set up on a platform designed to represent the Sicilian landmark Mount Etna. At a prearranged signal, the floor collapsed, and Selouros fell atop lightly built cages that contained wild beasts. The force of his fall did not kill him, but it did break the bars of the enclosures. Out sprang the beasts, which tore him to pieces.
About the year 110, during Emperor Trajan’s persecution of the Church, St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch was arrested. He was considered such a catch that he was taken in chains from Antioch to Rome for execution. Along the way, Ignatius wrote farewell letters to several Christian communities. As he approached Italy, he wrote to the Christians of Rome, assuring them that he had no illusions about what he might suffer: “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”
The site of St. Peter’s martyrdom stood outside Rome proper, across the Tiber River, at a place called Ager Vaticanus, Vatican Hill, the area’s most distinctive landmark. The arena, named the Circus of Gaius and Nero (Gaius is better known to us as Caligula), stood at the base of the hill in Vatican Valley. A short walk away, stretching along the banks of the Tiber, were gardens that belonged to the imperial family—they had been laid out a few decades earlier by Germanicus (his younger brother Claudius would become emperor) and Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina, the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus.
Aside from the garden, the Vatican was not picturesque, nor was it heavily populated—the soil was poor, so there were few farms in the neighborhood. Worse still, the valley was infested with snakes and malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Nonetheless, crowds of Romans risked the snakes and the insects to see two of their favorite entertainments, chariot races and wild animal hunts in the arena.
Nero is best known as a would-be poet and musician, but he also fancied himself a charioteer. He competed often in the Circus of Gaius and Nero, and he always won (his fellow charioteers knew it was wise to let him win). At one end of the arena stood a beautiful obelisk imported from Egypt; it was known as the spina, and it marked the point on the racetrack where the chariots turned. Peter would have seen it when he was led out to execution. The obelisk still stands on the site of the arena, in the center of St. Peter’s Square. Not only is it the only visible relic of the Circus of Gaius and Nero, the obelisk is also a direct link to the martyrdom of the first pope.
Typical of virtually all the outskirts and suburbs of Rome, there was a cemetery in the Vatican district. For sanitary reasons, burials inside the city were forbidden, so grieving families carried their dead outside the walls, laying them in the earth or, if they were well-off, entombing the deceased in a mausoleum. When Peter was dead, some Christians—we do not know who—claimed his body, or perhaps stole his body, and laid it to rest in a grave in the Vatican cemetery. The Liber Pontificalis, a chronicle of the reigns of the popes, records that about ninety years later, Pope St. Anicetus (r. ca. 152–160) “built and set in order a memorial-shrine to the blessed Peter, where the bishops [of Rome] might be buried.” The shrine consisted of a niche flanked by two columns, covered over with a coat of plaster painted red. At the front of the shrine was a stone slab where the faithful left offerings, such as flowers, lamps, or perhaps a few coins. The shrine was known as the tropaion, Greek for “the trophy,” or “victory monument,” signifying St. Peter’s victory over pain and death. Over the years, Christians scratched brief prayers into the plaster, imploring the intercession of St. Peter.
Many of the tombs in Roman cemeteries were built to resemble Roman houses—although on a smaller scale. An example of such a cluster of mausoleums survives at Isola Sacra, Sacred Island, at the mouth of the Tiber River, between Ostia and Porto, the two ancient harbors of Rome. Lined up side by side, the tombs have lintels, doorposts, and little windows—just like an ordinary Roman house. Some families added a terrace or erected a little fence in front of their tomb. Inside and out there were decorative elements such as terra-cotta bas reliefs, frescoes, and mosaics. The Isola Sacra cemetery was the burial place of the area’s middle class—shopkeepers, traders, and craftsmen who had done well and could afford to build a family tomb. Before Constantine began construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cemetery near the old arena would have looked like the one at Isola Sacra, but on a grander scale.