Saint Peter’s tomb
Saint Peter’s tomb is a site under St. Peter’s Basilica that includes several graves and a structure said by Vatican authorities to have been built to memorialize the location of St. Peter’s grave. St. Peter’s tomb is near the west end of a complex of mausoleums that date between about AD 130 and AD 300. The complex was partially torn down and filled with earth to provide a foundation for the building of the first St. Peter’s Basilica during the reign of Constantine I in about AD 330. Though many bones have been found at the site of the 2nd-century shrine, as the result of two campaigns of archaeological excavation, Pope Pius XII stated in December 1950 that none could be confirmed to be Saint Peter’s with absolute certainty. However, following the discovery of further bones and an inscription, on June 26, 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been identified.
The grave claimed by the Church to be that of St. Peter lies at the foot of the aedicula beneath the floor. The remains of four individuals and several farm animals were found in this grave. In 1953, after the initial archeological efforts had been completed, another set of bones were found that were said to have been removed without the archeologists’ knowledge from a niche (loculus) in the north side of a wall (the graffiti wall) that abuts the red wall on the right of the aedicula. Subsequent testing indicated that these were the bones of a 60-70-year-old man. Margherita Guarducci argued that these were the remains of St. Peter and that they had been moved into a niche in the graffiti wall from the grave under the aedicula “at the time of Constantine, after the peace of the church” (313). Antonio Ferrua, the archaeologist who headed the excavation that uncovered what is known as the St. Peter’s Tomb, said that he wasn’t convinced that the bones that were found were those of St. Peter.
The upper image shows the area of the lower floor of St. Peter’s Basilica that lies above the site of St. Peter’s tomb. A portion of the aedicula that was part of St. Peter’s tomb rose above level of this floor and was made into the Niche of the Pallium which can be seen in the center of the image.
Death of Peter at Vatican Hill
The earliest reference to Peter’s death is in a letter of Clement, bishop of Rome, to the Corinthians. (1 Clement, (a.k.a. Letter to the Corinthians), written c. 96 AD. The historian Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine, wrote that St. Peter “came to Rome, and was crucified with his head downwards,” attributing this information to the much earlier theologian Origen, who died c. 254 AD. St. Peter’s martyrdom is traditionally depicted in religious iconography as crucifixion with his head pointed downward.
Peter’s place and manner of death are also mentioned by Tertullian (c. 160-220) in Scorpiace, where the death is said to take place during the Christian persecutions by Nero. Tacitus (56-117) describes the persecution of Christians in his Annals, though he does not specifically mention Peter. “They were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt.” Furthermore, Tertullian says these events took place in the imperial gardens near the Circus of Nero. No other area would have been available for public persecutions after the Great Fire of Rome destroyed the Circus Maximus and most of the rest of the city in the year 64 AD.
This account is supported by other sources. In the The Passion of Peter and Paul, dating to the fifth century, the crucifixion of Peter is recounted. While the stories themselves are apocryphal, they were based on earlier material, helpful for topographical reasons. It reads, “Holy men … took down his body secretly and put it under the terebinth tree near the Naumachia, in the place which is called the Vatican.” The place called Naumachia would be an artificial lake within the Circus of Nero where naval battles were reenacted for an audience. The place called Vatican was at the time a hill next to the complex and also next to the Tiber River, featuring a cemetery of both Christian and pagan tombs.
Tracing the original tombs
Dionysius of Corinth mentions the burial place of Peter as Rome when he wrote to the Church of Rome in the time of the Pope Soter (died 174), thanking the Romans for their financial help. “You have thus by such an admonition bound together the planting of Peter and of Paul at Rome and Corinth. For both of them planted and likewise taught us in our Corinth. And they taught together in like manner in Italy, and suffered martyrdom at the same time.”
Catholic tradition holds that the bereaved Christians followed their usual custom in burying him as near as possible to the scene of his suffering. According to Catholic lore, he was laid in ground that belonged to Christian proprietors, by the side of a well-known road leading out of the city, the Via Cornelia (site of a known pagan and Christian cemetery) on the hill called Vaticanus. The actual tomb was an underground vault, approached from the road by a descending staircase, and the body reposed in a sarcophagus of stone in the center of this vault.
The Book of Popes mentions that Pope Anacletus built a “sepulchral monument” over the underground tomb of St. Peter shortly after his death. This was a small chamber or oratory over the tomb, where three or four persons could kneel and pray over the grave. The pagan Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, mentions in 363 A.D. in his work Three Books Against the Galileans that the tomb of St. Peter was a place of worship, albeit secretly.
There is evidence of the existence of the tomb (trophoea, i.e., trophies, as signs or memorials of victory) at the beginning of the 3rd century, in the words of the presbyter Caius refuting the Montanist traditions of a certain Proclus: “But I can show the trophies of the Apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican, or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.”